Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Nixon (1995), dir. Oliver Stone

Region 2 DVD

"He had greatness within his grasp." So reads the tagline for Oliver Stone’s 1995 bio-pic, Nixon.

In part, a difficult and disturbing film Nixon is not exactly the film one might expect Oliver Stone to make about the life of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. Tempering his occasionally reductive liberal leanings Stone delivers a relatively objective, even handed portrayal of a highly ambiguous, multi-faceted character. A sympathetic depiction of a very flawed man, someone it is easy to relate to, whom may have even had greatness in him.

Like all these kinds of films Nixon raises more questions than it answers, as it should. This is a fictionalised account of one man’s life condensed into a three-hour movie, a dramatic re-enactment. One of the film’s biggest problems, a difficulty faced by all films about the private lives of public figures is the natural questioning, "is this part real?" "What about that?" "Did that actually happened?" This is particularly pertinent when the subject is a man as derisive and controversial as Richard Nixon. But watching the film, all of that fades very quickly. As one is drawn further and further into the story it becomes possible to enjoy the film more for what it is, a very compelling and gripping piece of entertainment with a great story and genuine characters.

Nixon is centred around a remarkable performance from Sir Anthony Hopkins who is entirely invisible inside the role. Stone never shies away from the darker side of his character but there are also large portions of the film given over to humanising Nixon, downplaying the idea that he was simply ‘a crook’. Stone’s vision paints him as a brilliantly tragic figure: a largely noble man, in politics for the right reasons, fuelled by a genuine desire to change things for the better from within the system. A man who like any other made mistakes, only he was doing the job of President of the United States when he made them.

Hopkin’s Nixon sees everyone as his enemy, only there to be fought against, united by their shared hatred of him. He talks about himself in the third person: "It was always about Nixon…" "No, Nixon can’t do that…" Forever in the shadow of JFK, he confides in his painting on the White House wall, "When people look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are." His strict, poor upbringing is constant in flashbacks, ghosts, repressed memories and references back, a sea of turmoil he spent his life trying to get away from. Incapable of enjoying his achievements he is a deeply melancholic figure, one to be pitied, not hated.

The film also raises questions about his potentially self-destructive tendencies. Why did he have all those recordings made in the Oval Office? Why didn’t he burn the tapes when he had the chance? His wife suggests that he made the tapes because he wanted to be caught, because he likes to feel put upon, to have everyone against him. True or not, it’s an interesting point.
Even though Hopkins appears in practically every frame of the movie Nixon remains an enigma. Quite an achievement. Despite being told a hefty chunk, one is left wanting more, always a good sign. The fact the film is based on real events gives it an extra edge no doubt.

I had very few preconceptions about Richard Nixon before watching this film, which meant I was able to enjoy the film as a film, without prejudice. In my desire to find out more, having seen the film, I ventured onto the Internet where I found an obituary written by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. I think it would be fair to say that Thompson hated Nixon, and that might even be a bit mild. His article is titled, "Notes on the passing of an American monster…"

Then I read some reviews of Nixon the film. The reviewers seemed to believe that Stone was in agreement with Thompson as concerns his appraisal of the man, claiming his despicable nature was one of the film’s central conceits. I find that shocking and disheartening if it’s true. That is exactly the kind of judgmental, overtly subjective nonsense I thought the film was clever to avoid. Maybe I missed it because of my own prejudices, or a political naivety. For me, the film was not about that at all, it was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions about a man destined for greatness who’s own nature was his undoing. The life and times of Richard Nixon are used as the vehicle for telling that particular story, which adds a greater depth and poignancy. Much like Peter Shaffer’s play, Amedeus, which may be historically inaccurate but that from a dramatic standpoint makes perfect sense.

It might be naïve, or even ignorant but I liked the film I saw a whole lot better than the one so many other reviewers seemed to.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Warrior King, dir. Prachya Pinkaew

Warrior King is a Taiwanese martial arts film about a guy who's elephant is stolen. In pursuit he embarks on what Quentin Tarantino might refer to as "a roaring rampage of revenge!"

From the same people who brought us Ong-Bak, star Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew, this is a worthy Western-crossover that deserves to make bucket loads of cash. If the idea does not immediately appeal, then you and I have less in common than I thought. As far as B movie baiting ideas go: snakes + plane = good, stolen elephant + martial arts = better!

Total Film claims, "Jaa’s feral feline charisma and his wild and wireless approach to stunt work have been sidelined by soppy CGI, Westernised baddies, needless chopper’s-eye view sweeps of Sydney and formulaic action-movie bluster". Wrong on several counts. I am a student of film and I didn’t spot a single piece of CGI, and as for the stunt work, there was nothing to hint at the fact that any of it was achieved using wires. As for the film being ‘Westernised’ – Asian cinema has been doing this for years (see many a Hong Kong film) – take a recognisable Hollywood genre and copy it, while still doing it their own way (other countries do it too – its how the French New Wave started!). Besides, criticising the plot of Warrior King is like… its missing the point.

This is a genre film, and a very well made one. I don’t know what Ong-Bak was like, I have yet to see it – an oversight I will rectify as soon as possible. But Warrior King is a B-movie, and it knows it. It has no pretensions to be anything other than great fun and it delivers too, offering all manner or high-kicking thrills!

This film is the antidote for anyone bored by Hollywood's overabundant use of CGI in recent summers - execs. take note, this is how you do action without the pixels. Tony Jaa is undoubtedly the genuine article – the fights are brilliantly visceral and bone-crunchingly painful. No Crouching Tiger/Hero styled dancing here - two yawn-fests defined by slow pacing which critics misunderstood/mistook for depth of story. No, these fights are of a different order, they display acrobatics and athleticism worthy of Jackie Chan, (who has a very brief cameo) alongside the quick-fire brutality of Bruce Lee.

There is a marvellous sense of playfulness and imagination on display, Pinkaew keeping things fresh through a seemingly endless variety, Jaa, demonstrating more ways to kick and punch a man than you would think possible. One outstanding moment involves Jaa running up a wide spiral staircase, thumping people as he goes, then upon reaching the top shouting, "Where’s my elephant?" A classic line if ever I heard one!