Capsules by Michael Sragow. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.
Frost/Nixon: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS) Ron Howard has made his best movie, an electric political drama with a skin-prickling immediacy. Howard and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan (who also wrote the original play), have the wit to portray British TV interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) as David and Goliath. Frost's slingshot is a weapon that proved deadly to Nixon once before, during the Nixon/Kennedy TV debates: the all-seeing eye of the close-up lens. The film whizzes by with shrewd vignettes of showbiz and political negotiations, leading to their intersection in the interviews, the apex of media-political events. Langella superbly invests Nixon with Shakespearean dimension. Sheen is nonpareil at playing verbally glib characters who articulate deep feelings in subtle or fleeting expressions. His Frost is always ready for his close-ups. R 122 minutes
Milk: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS) It rests so exclusively and solidly on its performances, especially Sean Penn's marvelous characterization of Harvey Milk, that audiences won't realize how strong its mojo is until an assassin's bullets break the spell. It's not a great movie, but it is an enlivening and unusual one: an effervescent political film that also packs a knockout punch. As Milk, Penn creates a character whose passion is extroverted and infectious: Even his guile conveys a sense of play. Penn convinces you that Milk was both a self-made politician and, by the end, a natural politician. Milk's assassin, Dan White, doesn't even know himself. In Josh Brolin's instinctively brilliant interpretation, White, the spokesman for traditional values who becomes Milk's prime antagonist on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, gives off the free-floating panic and dangerous vibes of an inchoate adolescent who feels his world falling down around him. R 128 minutes
A Secret : *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS) This tense, unsettling, sensual French import skillfully portrays a boy who senses all the unspoken tension in his family and, with the help of a family friend, traces it back to the Holocaust. The director, Claude Miller, evokes the pain of youthful sensitivity as well as its special potency - the way it can make intuition almost turn psychic. The film's sensuousness contrasts profoundly with the obscene dislocations of the Final Solution.
Slumdog Millionaire: **** ( 4 STARS) This tinderbox of comedy and drama centers on the unlikeliest epic hero: a ragamuffin in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) who, at age 18, becomes a contender on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Gradually, the scrappy underclass hero comes to stand in for all of us. He teaches, by example, that if you sift through traumas and disappointments and get to the bottom of your own life, you can mine something of value; surrender with humility to destiny; and you may just discover that you've written your destiny yourself. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) outdoes himself with a blend of hair-raising social melodrama, earthy humor and mystic adventure. The result is a movie of kaleidoscopic contradictions and dazzling clarity: a Dickensian extravaganza. R 120 minutes