Sunday, November 30, 2008


written by Dustin Lance Black
directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, Diego Luna, Allison Pill, Victor Garber, Lucas Grabeel and Joseph Cross

Confession time: I don't like biopics. I actively loathe them sometimes, with a few very select exceptions. Don't they always seem a bit formulaic? I mean, seriously, what did we learn from La Vie en Rose that we couldn't have learned from Walk the Line or Ray or (going back even further) The Rose (if you consider that a biopic, which I do). Isn't the story the same? Singers come from humble beginnings, stumble along the way, get involved in drugs, and either break free or remain ensnared? What about films like A Beautiful Mind or Nixon or (yawn...) More of the same. That is why Milk is such a breath of fresh air. It will make convertees out of the biopic naysayers. It announces itself early on, proudly and unapologetically gay and gay and gay. This is a gay movie about the beginnings of the fight for gay rights, pioneered by one very charismatic, very courageous and very openly gay leader--Harvey Milk. None of this "this is a film about people. This is a film about human rights." Wrong. I mean, yes, I suppose it is, but that's missing the point and only further goes to obscure the issue. Harvey Milk wouldn't have wanted the film classified that way. He would have said, loudly and proudly, "this is a gay film." Those who say yes, welcome. And those who in all of their bigotry and single-mindedness dare to say no can go home and watch the world pass you by. This film is gay and it isn't making any apologies, nor should it. This is the film Gus Van Sant set out to make. The result is his best work in many years (possibly since Drugstore Cowboy) and one of the best (if not the best) performance of Sean Penn's career.

The film begins with Harvey Milk (Penn) meeting cute with Scott Smith (James Franco) in New York City on his birthday. He's about to turn forty, working in the insurance business, and still very much closeted. The two meet, make love and talk about life and making a difference. They run away to San Francisco together, where they try to open a business and are met with opposition and discrimination due to their sexual orientation. This sparks Harvey Milk's decision to go into politics. A decision that changed history. Dustin Lance Black (staff writer for HBO's "Big Love") weaves a taut and concise screenplay, focusing on the important moments in Milk's life. His love affair with Smith, which was strained by his political career. His subsequent tryst with an unstable young man named Jack (Diego Luna) and his recruitment of such young activists like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) Dick Pabitch (Joseph Cross) and Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill). It also chronicles the beginning of his struggle with fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), his would be assassin. Van Sant's handling of the material is restrained and sensical, yet artful at the same time. Despite the gay subject matter, which will admittedly turn some people off, this is probably one of Van Sant's more accessible films, stylistically speaking.

Regarding Sean Penn, his portrayal of Harvey Milk is one of studied perfection. If you've watched archival footage of Milk speaking (watch "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk"), you will notice how close attention Sean Penn paid to the details. But he also goes beyond the Capote and Ray Charles-esque mimicry that so easily impresses and passes for greatness these days. He makes Harvey Milk into his own fully realized creation, completely losing himself in the role, and understading the character inside and out. The film also boasts great supporting performances from Emile Hirsch (probably most surprising. I was very skeptical initially when I heard he was playing Cleve Jones) and James Franco who reduces Scott Smith to alternate moments of empathetic smolder and twinkled-eyed optimism. Franco is actually perfect for the role of Scott Smith, as Penn is for Harvey Milk. They look at one another, from the first meeting in the Manhattan subway tunnel, to every glance shared in the movie, and it is clear why they love one another. Sean Penn as Milk is warm and inviting, loving and accepting. And Franco's Smith is alight with promise and adoration, with one of those smiles that causes his entire face to smile. Initially, many pundits singled out Josh Brolin as a probable contender for a supporting actor Oscar. He is serviceable and impressive, building on his ever more impressive resume, but his work impresses the least here. This is, at last, a biopic that feels relevant. The death of Harvey Milk at the end of the film hangs in the air, the tragedy so thick you can almost taste it, much like Propostion 8's passing. But, it is not an ending. It is beginning. A win is possible.

The release of Milk has been raising questions about whether it could have affected the outcome of the Proposition 8 referendum in California had it been released earlier. Obviously it's a question that can't be answered, but I offer a stern "no" as a short reply. A film like Milk has a built-in audience. The type of person who needs to be swayed into voting no on Prop 8 will not see, nor will they be persuaded by a film like Milk. As pessimistic as it sounds, I do not think there is any help for a person that thinks that homosexuals aren't entitled to the same civil rights as other Americans. I'm sick of this whole, "we want to marry, we want to love" crap. That's so not the point. How about this? Homosexuals deserve the right to marry, for WHATEVER reason they choose, the same way that straight people can and do get married for any number of reasons, some beautiful and flowery, some bullshit. The arguments against always start the same. "I have no problem with homosexuals." Bull. Shit. It's a qualifier. I noticed a number of fanboys who enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies. I've heard way too many times than I care to admit, some variation on the sentiment "Neil Patrick Harris is awesome, even if he is gay." As if gay is some kind of malignancy that underwrites all other good qualities. As if gay itself is a possible deal-breaker weighing down an otherwise good person. It's offensive. There is no separate but equal and Milk, both the film and the man make that powerfully clear. This is one of the best films of the year, and is certain to be a best picture nominee and it could bring home the win (knock on wood.) But make no mistake Tony Curtises and Ernest Borgnines of the increasingly irrelevant, dying off old generation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This is a gay film. If you don't like it, then fuck off and go home. I hear Birth of a Nation is on Turner Classic Movies.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If My Top Ten of '08 List Came out Today...

It'd probably look something like this:

1. Rachel Getting Married
(followed by a big jump)
2. Synechdoche, New York (though I still need to see it again. It's incredibly heartwrenching, I'll say that.)
3. Happy-Go-Lucky
4. The Dark Knight
5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
A Girl Cut in Two
7. Burn After Reading
Stop Loss
Frozen River
10. Quantum of Solace

My Acting Awards would go to:

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. Period. The End.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Hmm...I guess, it would go to Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Synechdoche, New York. But, honestly, there hasn't been a leading male performance I've seen this year that's made me go "Wow" yet. Isn't that sad? I still need to watch The Visitor and Elegy. And of course, there's Milk on Sunday, which (I'm not getting my hopes up too much...okay, maybe I am) may change things...

Best Supporting Actress
I'm really REALLY tempted to say Dianne Wiest in Synechdoche, New different from anything she's ever done before. But I suppose, when the freshness wears down, my heart will still settle on Rosemarie Dewitt for Rachel Getting Married. I also want to acknowledge Misty Upham in Frozen River and Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, both of whom are sure to make my shortlist come year's end.

Best Supporting Actor:
Believe it or not, it's a tight contest between Benoît Magimel for A Girl Cut in Two and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. But I think I'm going with Heath.

This is of course without the benefit of having seen Australia, which I'm seeing tomorrow, Milk, which I'm seeing Sunday. Plus, I plan on watching Elegy, The Visitor, The Duchess, Wall-E plus a few others I have missed. It seems very unlikely at this point that there's a film that could come out this year that could possibly knock Rachel Getting Married or Hathaway out of their respective top spots. But we shall see...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

State of the Race and Random Thoughts

There hasn't been much to report. I'll be adding a new top ten pretty much right after this post. Regarding the Oscar race, there are a few developments in my thoughts/predictions. Firstly, after seeing Rachel Getting Married three times now (yes, three times. Yes I'm obsessed) my love for the film remains at a fevered pitch. However, my confidence is dwindling that it will be enough of a crowd pleaser/sleeper hit that small films like this one often need to be in order to garner a Best Picture nomination. The hand-held style, the subject matter, the abrasiveness of the main all makes for a very polarizing movie-going experience. I will defend Rachel Getting Married to the bitter end, but I saw it with different people each time. The responses were mixed, as well as the responses (I gathered) from people leaving the theater. I still think that Hathaway will ultimately get a nomination as a final coronation and recognition of her gradual ascent into full-on movie stardom, with the acting chops and the pedigree to back it up. But this year's Juno or Little Miss Sunshine it will not be. That distinction will probably belong to Slumdog Millionaire, which I took off of my best picture predictions a few weeks ago. Now that it's gone semi-wide, and the reviews are rolling in (including a four-star kiss from Roger Ebert), the buzz officially gone from whispery festival kudos to deafening shouts. I may be wrong, but Danny Boyle's offering seems too big too ignore. They have nothing to do with each other, but for some reason, I just don't see a best picture field that includes both Slumdog Millionaire and Rachel Getting Married. And it looks like Slumdog is probably in... Of course, I can't judge for myself because Atlanta, insisting on always being two steps behind the rest of the world, won't be getting Slumdog Millionaire until December, unless I'm mistaken. Sucks. I am seeing Synechdoche, New York tomorrow and will post a review later this week.

Regarding Revolutionary Road, The Reader and the double-dipping for Ms. Winslet (trying to get her that double-nomination that she was on the cusp of in 2004), I will say this. Everyone seems to be predicting Revolutionary Road as the better contender for Best Picture, inlcuding myself (until now). The Reader had release date troubles, issues with producers and the re-casting of Winslet in a part that was meant for Nicole Kidman. But both films have ridiculously late release dates (when will studios learn that the late December rollouts aren't working the Oscar magic they used to?) and their are detractors from both. More from Revolutionary Road, if you really think about it. I've always said that the Titanic reunion is the biggest thing going for RR's Oscar chances and its chances to enchant the public. Do films about marital woes really have mass public appeal? And Sam Mendes has made some nice films since American Beauty, but neither has translated to real Oscar buzz, at least not in the category Best Picture. What about Stephen Daldry? He's been nom'd for director twice, and The Hours was a serious threat to unseat Chicago from its 2002 best picture win. Plus, there is the awards-magnet subject that is the Holocaust. It doesn't always work, but when it rains it pours, n'est pas? This has little to do with Winslet. Even if Revolutionary Road's chances fizzle and dissipate, she can still get a nomination. She still got a nomination in 2006 for Little Children and who besides me was even thinking of that movie come January? This may seem rambly, but my point is that Revolutionary Road has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Less than The Reader, which also has its share. On paper, I think The Reader has a better chance of getting a nomination and at this point I don't think either of them will, so that tells you what I think of Revolutionary Road's chances.

As for Milk, it's really been under the radar. Early buzz is positive, but incredibly hushed. It hasn't been released wide and you can't really expect an objective take on the film based on those who saw it at the screening in San Fran a few weeks ago. But I still have faith that Milk is going to be that film. My faith in Australia fluctuates daily. I hope. I will always hope. But only time will tell...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Haiku Review - Quantum of Solace

Never liked James Bond
Went under some mild duress.
Lo, it's not so bad.
(edited to add: Daniel Craig awesome)

Grade: B-

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoughts on the Election

I was at a bar on Tuesday night when the news poured in that Barack Obama had won Virginia, pushing him over the threshold of 270 electoral votes to become President Elect of the United States of America. The election of Barack Obama will definitely fight it out for moments that defined this generation. I'm glad he got elected, obviously. I don't think I could have stomached a McCain-Palin administration (then a Palin-Lieberman administration) for the next four or eight years. No thank you. It has taken me a few days to gather my thoughts. It still hasn't sunken in yet that the country in which I live elected this guy who nobody thought had a chance when he announced his candidacy in 2007. It excites me. It renews my faith in the American political process that all of the "scandals" (Williams Ayers, Reverend Wright, ACORN) proved to be non-starters. Whether Barack Obama is the best president we ever had, the worst president we ever had, or completely forgettable, America finally stopped being influenced by fear and bullying. It will be interesting to see an America led by an open intellectual again. Not to say that Bush was stupid. I have said many times that I think the whole Texas Cowboy image is largely self-constructed. I think Bush reads Dostoevsky at 4AM on the toilet so no one can catch him. He had to pretend that he was stupid because stupid equals down-to-earth. It ingratiated him with his constituency and that's sad. Obama did a lot of things during this election, but pretending he was stupid was not one of them. Let's hope he leads us into a better age. Congratulations President Elect Barack Obama.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Top Ten--Random Thoughts from this Past Week

Not the most creative of post topics, I know, but it's just some stuff, both good and bad that I need to get off my chest.

10. Is John McCain trying to save face for the sake of his party with all of this "We're going to win" talk or is he delusional or does he know something we don't know, or some combination of the above? With almost every poll imaginable slating Obama to garner over 300 electoral votes on Tuesday (more than the 270 needed to clinch the election), does John McCain really believe that he can win? I ask because I'm scared and I have a really bad feeling that some corruption is afoot. I'm working Tuesday night and if Obama loses, I will be afraid to walk to my car. People will go insane. And if McCain does win, he'd better pray it's by more than a couple of electoral votes. Americans are not going to stand for what happened in 2000. Not again.

9. So, the child abuse charges against all those Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints followers (polygamists) are dropping like flies. Here's my thoughts on the matter. Of course forcing young girls to marry old men is wrong. Of course sexual abuse of children is wrong. But that's not what the raid was about. It's about polygamy. Now, I wouldn't say I'm a Libertarian since I'm neither an idiot, nor a college freshman trying to impress someone I'm on a date with, but I just don't care about polygamy. I know there are people out there who like to get their panties in a wad about things that don't have any affect on them whatsoever, but I'm not one of them. I don't care about polygamy. I don't care if you're a polygamist. Pardon my French, but I think this would be a better place if people just minded their own shit and stayed out of everyone else's until prompted or asked to do otherwise. This goes for gay marriage, abortion, and every other one of these hot-button issues. Get over yourself, live your life and mind your own shit.

8. Okay. Anne Hathaway, Kristin Scott Thomas, Melissa Leo. Sony Pictures Classics has three possible best actress campaigns to mount, but who are they going to rally around as their MVP? I haven't seen I've Loved You For So Long, so I can't comment on Thomas's performance one way or the other. But my guess is she's going to be their go-to girl. Despite my strong predilection for both Anne Hathaway's performance and Rachel Getting Married in general, and despite the fact that Thomas's performance happens to be in a foreign-language film, she feels like the safer bet for me. She's a previous nominee and the fact that French is not her native language will definitely garner attention. Anyway, stranger things have happened than two actresses getting nominated from films with the same distributor. I just hope that SPC mounts a serious, aggressive, yet tasteful campaign for Rachel Getting Married.

7. I caught snippets of a TV One interview with Don Cheadle that my dad was watching. Isn't it amazing how some actors go from being underrated to overrated almost overnight? He is so becoming the black Philip Seymour Hoffman in that he can do no wrong. I hate how ubiquity can leave a bad taste in my mouth, even for good actors like Don Cheadle. Oh, and Don Cheadle as War Machine? Ridiculous. I'd have more to say about that if I actually cared about Iron Man (which I don't).

6. I still can't bring myself to watch the television series version of Crash. It would drum up too many bad memories of that night in 2006 when the film raped Brokeback at the Oscars. It's being almost universally panned by critics. One such critic said "There's not a whit of originality to it..." and "The show possesses less substance than a brisk Santa Ana wind." Now find me a person who makes these statement, and ends it with the words "just like the movie" and you've got an insightful critic.

5. How ridiculous/creepy are those PSAs praising High Fructose Corn Syrup? I guess I'm not opposed to them simply because I'm not an idiot who believes everything I'm told, so I don't care. But, man, I feel sorry for the poor sap who watches those ads and believes them.

4. To all those who think that Sarah Palin will become a distant memory when she and John McCain lose the election on Tuesday (knock on wood), don't be so sure. At this point, Republicans are not coming to the rallies to see him anymore. It's all about her. She's like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. In 2012, Palin's going to appear in front of Obama as his opponent and declare "Now shall you deal with me Obama. And all the powers of Hell!" right before she turns herself into a dragon or something. I dunno. Like Maleficent, she'll still lose, but it'll be scary nonetheless.

3. I'm glad that Obama is probably going to trounce McCain on election day (again, knock on wood) and that it may be due in large to blacks voting for him just because he's black. I don't have as much problem with that as you may think. I think that if there were nothing but blacks or other candidates of colors, there'd be a few white people voting for the one white candidate just because he's white. Hell, a lot of white Democrats are voting for John McCain just because he's white. But I've always found it peculiar that African-American, who according to most surveys, have largely socially-conservative views (at least on paper) vote Democrat to nearly the ninetieth percentile. Does that make us sheep or merely disingenuous? And what's with the recently polled 55 percent or something like that of African Americans in California who want to Vote YES on Proposition 8? Wise up, people. Don't fall into the stereotype that blacks are more homophobic and please Californians vote NO on Prop Hate.

2. Wasn't Rachel Getting Married awesome? Well, it was...

1. Let's all hope (or pray to whatever deity you choose) that Barack Obama wins this election and let's hope that John McCain's concession speech reeks of the petulance and smallness that has marked his campaign. May McCain be remembered for what he is. A war-veteran, yes, but still a slimy, dishonest (yes, more dishonest than Barack Obama), desperate sad man who always cared more about being President than he ever did about the American people.

Peace, Love and Pretension