Saturday, November 29, 2008

Milk (****)

Directed by Gus Van Sant


The passing of Prop. 8 in California. The loss of Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars to the trivial Crash. All symbols that even in today's seemingly advanced society, there is still severe prejudice against the homosexual community. More than any other movement that has fought for human rights, the homosexuals are the ones that strike the most fear, because their is no skin color for gay. That fear has produced some of the most bigotry this country has ever seen, and it still resides in our country today. Yes, there have been many broken barriers over the last couple of decades, but in Gus Van Sant's new film Milk, he gives a look at the beginning, when there was the most need for a fight.

Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk (played brilliantly by Sean Penn), a gay activist in the 1970's who was elected city supervisor of San Francisco, becoming the first openly gay man ever elected to political office. Living forty years in the closet, Harvey's world is changed when he and his boyfriend Scott (James Franco) move to San Francisco, where homosexuals feel the most free to express their culture. They open a camera store, which is less of a store, and more of a gay congregation where many can come to visit and not feel ashamed of their orientation. Their place becomes the beacon of the homosexual community.

Not everyone is pleased with Harvey and Scott's new standing in the city. Angry religious figures, with the violent support of the police, begin taking the business of brutalizing gays into their own hands. Upset with the blind bigotry, Harvey decides to run for city supervisor. No one should have to live with hatred and dismissal of other cultures, Harvey feels. He runs on the campaign that all men are created equal, no matter what their sexual persuasion may be. He loses three straight years, and his new found political obsession drives a wedge between he and Scott (James Franco), but his forth time is a charm, and now Harvey has worked his way into the machine he'd spent so many years protesting.

Even after gaining his position, Harvey still had many battles to fight. He had to fight the growing influence of Anita Bryant (shown only in creative splicing of news video): a former Orange Juice provocateur, turned battler for Christian values whose campaign across the country enabled anti-gay laws in various cities. There was also the barrage from State Senator John Briggs (Dennis O'Hare), who fought diligently to get all homosexual teachers fired, along with any gay supporters. Harvey's biggest roadblock comes from his own county, in fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose own insecurity and fear produces a hatred for Harvey even he can't understand.

Throughout the film Van Sant strategically places real news video footage into the filmed pieces of the narrative. Not only does this help bring the audience to the time period, which was the 1970's, but it purposely puts us into the media circus created in this battle for human rights. The subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk knew the advantage of the press. His first campaign photographed him with full beard and a ponytail. Knowing how this would handicap his chances at the election the second time around, Harvey cut them both off, and nearly duplicated himself into another political suit. Once again, proving that not all homosexuals possess a hippie style, but can look just like anyone else.

The film's incredible attention to historical detail is impeccable, down to the members of Harvey's political team. He constructs a super team of gay men, including the feisty Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), campaign manager Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella), reliable do-man Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross), and the lesbian political strategist Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill). No person is misrepresented or fabricated, if only because these people were as larger-than-life as they appeared. They were just a handful from the angst-filled gay community, and they were able to funnel that anger through Harvey. The film makes the point to show that Harvey had an effect--sometimes inadvertently--on many lives.

Gus Van Sant himself, is an open homosexual, though his films have never pandered toward homosexual sensibilities. He's an incredibly artistic filmmaker, known for his incredibly cerebral, small pictures, including the Palme D'or-winning Elephant and the painstakingly misguided Gerry. He has made the venture into Hollywood pictures, including the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and the puzzling shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Milk may very well be his greatest achievement. It's personal in more ways than one, but speaks to so many audiences. Out of all of his films, this is certainly his least chilly and distant, and certainly his most triumphant.

But lets not get confused about where the film's main power source comes from, and that is the career-defining work of Sean Penn. A chilly, distant figure in his own right, Penn recreates one of the most heart-warming men of the Twentieth Century to the T. Penn has constantly battled with his own arrogant persona, but it has never stopped his growth as a brilliant actor. Milk is just another cornerstone to an well-established filmography, but it is also the most moving, the most unforgettable, and the most captivating.

There are numerous reasons why a film like Milk is relevant in today's society; maybe even more relevant today than then. Films like this must be seen, because they create a voice for all of those out there who only see certain cultures as a skin color, or a sexual orientation. Close-mindedness is brought on by those who are uneducated. The less you know about a group of people, the easier it is for some to hate it, to protest against it, to make laws which forbid it. Despite the fact that Americans frequently pat themselves on the back for the progressive-ism, we still have a lot of barriers to overcome. Harvey Milk is a man who fought to break those barriers, and even after his assassination in 1978, his work lives on.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I've Loved You So Long (***1/2)

Ill y a longtemps que je t'aime
Written and Directed by Phillipe Claudel


When we think of the great premiere films from directors, our minds automatically go to Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, Blood Simple for the Coen Brothers, and most recently Michael Clayton for Tony Gilroy. You can add I've Loved You So Long to that list, for the budding new French filmmaker Phillipe Claudel. Not only does the film boast exceptional cinematic skill unseen in most rookies, but it also holds a handful of iconic performances in the most emotionally bare film released so far this year.

We are introduced to Juliette (Kristen Scott-Thomas) as she sits at the airport, a cigarette is glued between her fingers. Her expression is automatically one of a woman who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) races into the terminal, and spots her. They have not seen each other in over fifteen years, but now, Lea is forced to give Juliette a place to stay. Lea is overjoyed to be with her sister after so long, but is still a bit timid, and fears the unknown. The truth is, she barely knows this Juliette; the one that had vanished for so long.

Lea's two adopted daughters are excited to live with their new aunt, ready to indulge Juliette in playing piano and tours of their rooms. But Juliette is reserved, finding life reinstated to the family harder to adjust to, after being away from it for so long. Lea's husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is bothered by Juliette's presence--why should his home have to house this mysterious, and introverted woman? Through various meetings and off-hand comments, we learn where Juliette has been this whole time: in prison--for murder.

Slowly, but surely, Juliette begins to adjust to living with her sister's family. She gets along with her parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), who introduces his own personal problems in their in-depth conversations. She meets Michel (Laurent Grevill), one of Lea's co-workers, and is sucked in by his sense of humor, and romantic intellect. Life is starting to come back to normal, but as more and more details are revealed about her heinous crime, the more and more she is faced with her own life decisions. With Lea trying to help her sister come to grips with her tormented soul, Juliette debates whether or not she is willing to go through the pain true closure can bring.

I absolutely love the way this film unveils its intentions piece by piece. We are never told a piece of information at the wrong time, and there is never a moment when a character reveals something that seems insincere. The film moves at an intentional novel-like pace, which may put some on edge, but is the perfect way to tell this story. Few filmmakers would trust this technique (it's one of the most unpopular among audiences), but what is probably more surprising is that this bold decision was made by a filmmaker on his first film. Few would have been as brave as Claudel, in sacrificing audience convenience for austere narrative structure.

But lets not forget those wonderful performances. Scott-Thomas gives what is probably the greatest performance of her uneven career. Her Juliette is a character filled to the brim with caged demons, its amazing she was able to pull this off with such delicacy. She's a straight powder-keg of emotion, with the pain of the whole world sitting in her strained eyes--even her smiles seem fractured. Scott-Thomas has seemed to me, to always be an actress who depended on her radiance, but that is certainly not the case here, where she wears nothing but muted colors and allows the character to be completely de-glammed.

Popular in French cinema, but nearly unheard of in America, Zylberstein gives a wonderful supporting turn as Lea, the supportive, but persistant sister. She has to hold back a lot of frustration and a lot of dismay in order to retain her status as the cornerstone of that family. Both Pierrot and Grevill are pleasant in their smaller, more light-hearted roles, but most importantly, they add even more depth to Juliette, who uses them both to figure out how she will succeed in her reconstructed life. It's a successful ensemble, which I also credit to Claudel, who in addition to his superior use of visual motif, shows that he has talent handling actors as well.

I've Loved You So Long is a movie that is equally devastating and gratifying. The brilliance of Juliette's character arc is what guides the film, and the combination of Claudel's intelligent, self-disciplined directing, and Scott-Thomas's ethereal, understated portrayal brings it to its full fruition. I know that I'm biased toward small, personal films which depend more on character than plot, so this is the kind of movie that is tailor-made for someone like me. It is not a film that is well-defined by genre, because the power behind storytelling as exceptional as this is universal.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Like You, But Sweeter

The most scathing scene in one of the most scathing films in recent memory. Has Clive Owen ever been better? Has Julia Roberts ever been braver? Closer is an example of how to make an excellent film out of an excellent play. Later this year, I hope Doubt and Frost/Nixon can pull off the same feat.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Emergence of 'The Wrestler'

I wasn't too excited about this film until I saw this trailer. Mickey Rourke seems to be on a streamline toward his first Oscar nomination, if this is any indication. This is probably the last trailer of any of the major fall films, so I guess we are finally at the point where intangible buzz gives way to actual opinions of the films as they're seen. Part of me still feels that this small gem will sneak into the Best Picture shortlist, but as all of the films are being dumped into theaters in December, we (well, I) have a lot of watching to do.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman


Everything that I've admired about films penned by Charlie Kaufman is the limitless creativity and fearlessness in which the strangeness is unleashed. After Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I figured that there wasn't really any way Kaufman could surprise me with anything on the screen. That is, until Synecdoche, New York, in which not only does he write the screenplay, but is also given the reigns as director. The result is a film which purposely goes out of its way to make sure that its audience is off-balance.

The entire film is essentially one, huge ambitious metaphor for life. The phrase "synecdoche" means "a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent a whole, or vice versa", and essentially the story of Caden Cotard (played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman), is something that stands in place for everybody's lives. Obsession with death, romantic anxiety, eccentric characters (all Kaufman specialties), are displayed ad nauseum throughout this picture, but its supposed to stand for the pain and romance we all experience.

There's no way to truly explain the plot competently, because the plot is not necessarily adequately told. Essentially, we follow Caden throughout his life. It begins with Caden directing a re-enactment of Death of a Salesman, in which Claire (Michelle Williams) is his sexy lead actress, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) is his sincere, sweet box office attendant. His marriage to an artist named Adele (Catherine Keener), is on incredibly shaky ground, and she swiftly decides to take their young daughter, Olive, to Belgium with her lover Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Depressed without his wife and daughter, and disappointed with his lack of romantic success with Hazel, Caden uses a "genius grant" he receives, and decides to begin working on his own play. This is not just another run-of-the-mill play, he wants it to be large, and personal. He wants it to thematically scorch the Earth, and change theater, representing life as it is. Becoming more and more ambitious, and wanting to display realism, his own life spills into the play. His impulsive marriage to Claire is even sabotaged by Caden's inability to separate the play and reality.

As Caden's life becomes more and more convoluted between reality and fantasy, so does his play--and so does, quite frankly, the film itself. Minor characters, such as Caden's stand-in Sammy (Tom Noonan), and Caden's narcissistic therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis) weave themselves in and out of the movie, with little to no purpose. We are previewed to truly unpleasant images, such as poop on numerous occasions. As soon as you think, as the viewer, you have any kind of grasp on this film, it wrangles its way out of your hands violently and disappears.

Every character, even the reasonably normal ones, have eccentricities. Adele is a famous artist, but paints portraits so small that people have to wear binoculars to the exhibitions. Hazel lives in a house which is constantly on fire, though never burns down. Maria switches on and off between having a German accent and not having one. The biggest quirk in character, though, has to be in the daughter Olive, who starts off as a sweet, precocious young girl, and in no time is transformed in to a German stripper with a pretty exotic body tattoo. I don't doubt that these quirks have meaning and sub-text, but why make it so frustrating on the audience that has paid good money?

Truth be told, the film is a giant mess throughout, though it may be the most breathtaking giant mess in cinematic history. Kaufman, though taking his oddness and nearly spilling into pretension, does still keep his knack for creating compelling characters. The performances from Hoffman and Morton (the two most centralized characters) are very strong here, and small, supporting turns from Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest (as actresses in the play, respectively) are strong, sometimes funny highlights. No other screenwriter today is better at expressing emotional degradation.

The movie does take advantage of its 124-minute running time, and stretch it out as far as it can go. For a film that purposely makes no sense 75% of the time, this makes it feel particularly longer. Not that there is ever a boring moment, because there is always something alarming or bizarre awaiting in the next scene. You do find yourself curiously connected to Caden throughout his journey, and perhaps you can even buy into Kaufman's metaphor of Caden's life being everybody's life. But it's obvious that in his directorial debut, Kaufman has no idea how to use restraint. This is the type of film that would make David Lynch fans scratch their heads, and though I feel it is a film that should be watched by everyone, its almost certain that it will not be enjoyed by everyone.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


Certain actors would have to spend years to pull off the balancing act that Sally Hawkins performs in Mike Leigh's new film, Happy-Go-Lucky. It is a work of delight, charisma, and poignancy all wrapped up into a pleasant little film. Leigh, whose films Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake are usually gloomy and emotionally heavy, goes into unfamiliar territory here, with a film so upbeat, that it's to the point of unnerving. Of coarse, I mean that in the very best way possible.

Much has been said about Leigh's "method", where he essentially goes without a script, and allows the actors to create scene by scene with improvisation. I don't know what it is about his system which brings about the best in actors, but it always prevails. His "slice-of-life" filmmaking technique creates such a permeating atmospheric tone that we are sucked into the lives of the eccentric characters that pass across the screen. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film taylor-made for this production theory, because the ad-libbing adds to the film's comedic flow.

The film is solely about Poppy (Hawkins). She is a thirty-year-old elementary school teacher who sees her life through rose-colored glasses. She lives in bohemian England in a flat with her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Her spontaneity leads her into things such as flamenco dancing lessons, and wearing clothes that look like they were made by her young students. Her happiness is infectious to most, but pestering to some, as her glowing world view is mistaken for immaturity and indifference by some of the people who love her most.

There is no particular focus to the plot, other than to follow the days of Poppy. She decides to take driving lessons with an instructor that has an incendiary attitude, named Stan (a hilarious Eddie Marsan), where they constantly bicker. She has to deal with one student in her class that has violent tendencies. She has to juggle the insecurities of two younger sisters on opposite sides of the social line. Finally, she is able to meet Tim (Samuel Roukin), a social worker who helps children, and may be the one person who can handle her constant bubbly-ness.

No other film this year embodies it's central character the way Happy-Go-Lucky does. This story's structure does not move scene to scene, because Poppy is not the kind of character that moves from scene to scene. She takes time to notice certain books within a bookstore, and we stop to notice them with her. She wanders off into a back alley to spend quality time with a lonely homeless man, and we sit there with them, and we feel their closeness. It takes the time to see the world through Poppy's eyes, and though we may not agree with her purposeful lifestyle, we never doubt that she has the right state of mind.

The film is primed with a wondrous supporting cast, including an over-enthusiastic flamenco dance instructor (Karina Fernandez), who is haunted by the infidelity of her ex-lover from years ago. Also, Roukin's Tim is a fresh slice of warmth in the film. Eddie Marsden, as the manic Stan, is hysterical and haunting. Stan is the complete antithesis of what Poppy is and stands for. He approaches every scene foaming at the mouth, ready to catch Poppy by surprise, but the fact that she's always two steps ahead of him makes him that much more furious. His surprising disclosure toward the end is one of the film's high points.

Of coarse, though, the biggest star of this film is Hawkins. She is an actress of little popularity, but she has made her way in and out of various films since 2000. Much like Melissa Leo in Frozen River, this brilliant performance is an example of what can happen when a certain actor is simply given an oppurtunity. On paper, Poppy is nothing more than a stock character; the giggling, incompetent friend whose naievity is at some times endearing, but at most times annoying. Through Hawkins, she is a woman of immense depth, charm, and captivating personality. If she is not considered for an Oscar nomination in the coming months, there is no justice.

It only took 35 days for me to be able to see this film after its original Oct. 10th release, and under such long-waiting anticipation, a film can wither within my own overinflated expectation. Luckily for me, there was nothing disappointing within this darling picture. Hawkins holds the entire movie together with her enchanting performance, but is perfectly buoyed by Marsan's supporting turn. Though unlike most of Leigh's films in tone, it is not lacking in quality, as it is one of the best films so far this year.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


What is backlogging? Well, if being used in the literary form, it's a term that refers to a work that is unfinished and has no relevant plans to be finished. But for the purposes of this article, we'll talk about what "backlogging" means in terms of the movie release schedule. Backlogging is a strategy used by movie executives, in which highly anticipated and prestigious films are held until December or later in hopes of winning Academy Awards. This system, occupied by most if not all film studios gives off the impression that there is no sense in going to the theaters in January through November, because nothing of quality comes out until Christmas.


"Official" Release Date:
Oct. 10th

# of theaters:

Actual nat'l release:

This theory, though successful, truly stretches the boundaries of what it means to be a great film of a particular year. If a film is "released" in 2008, but a majority of people don't see the film until 2009, where's the merit? Why not just release it in 2009? Because in the hopes of slipping into the Oscar race, more and more times we are seeing films being released on December 31st, in a coup to be relevant by the time Oscar season is in full swing.

This has completely affected the way we watch movies. Despite the fact that In Bruges and WALL-E are two of the most brilliant, imaginative, and wonderfully-made films of 2008, neither film is receiving award traction, because both were thrown into theaters way before fall season, where films like Doubt or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seem to be in a battle royale over which can meet the hype.

Great films need weeks, sometimes months to process properly. If a film wins Best Picture at the Oscars and it was released just a month prior to it, then where is the true worth of the award? All it shows is that people have liked your film for a month, but there is absolutely no way to see how this film's staying power will be years from now.

I speak about backlogging, because this year, essentially every hyped film has come off disappointing. In a set-up to collect gold statues, studios feel like they can wait longer and longer as if the wait will make the experience that much more delectable. Same goes for films with an expanding schedule as forth-moving as the DMV. The truth is, every month of the year deserves its own great movie. We should not have to wait till the holiday season to watch anything of quality. That way, we have more time to savor it before we hand out the awards.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Role Models (***)

Directed by David Wain


Role Models is a nifty little comedy. It holds a formulaic plot, but not the kind that makes you gag, but the kind that draws attention to the plot and not the formula. Despite popular belief, this is not one of the many films micromanaged by the sleepless Judd Apatow, but a film done by Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain. Like American Summer, Role Models has a hilarious side and a sweet side, and neither side ever has to be sacrificed for the other.

The plot focuses on Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Sean William Scott), a pair of underachieving young men who work for a company that processes the powerful energy drink Minotaur. Their job entitles them to travel from school to school, and while Danny preaches to the students how drinking a Minotaur can help them stay off drugs, Wheeler participates by dressing in a minotaur costume and prancing around, shouting "Minotaur! Taste the beast!". Wheeler is perfectly fine with his station in life, but Danny is essentially depressed with his job and life.

To make matters worse for Danny, he is dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks--holy christ, this girl is in everything lately), because she no longer wants to deal with his constant crankiness (a conversation about the dubious size names at Starbucks is particularly hilarious). Danny's anger boils over when he and Wheeler drive their Minotaur truck onto a statue, and they are both arrested. Since Beth is a lawyer, she is able to negotiate with the judge so they don't have to serve jail time, but commit to community service at Sturdy Wings, where they have to look after lonely, troubled young boys.

Sturdy Wings is run by the startling open Gayle (the hilarious Jane Lynch), who works there after recovering from a nasty drug addiction. Gayle assigns Danny to Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse aka "McLovin"), a teenage nerd who lives only to play LAIRE, a sort of live-action cross of World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons. Wheeler is assigned to Ronnie (Bobb'E J. Thompson), a prebuscent boy with a flair for four-letter words, and a constant thirst for mischief. The two debate about what is more torturous, dealing with these two phishers or going to jail, but over time, they find their times with the boys to be a virtuous one.

The reason why this movie is such a pleasure, is because (unlike say, Zack and Miri) it presents its comedy on a visceral level. There are no sight gags, and it felt so good to watch a modern comedy that didn't have a major character get kicked in the nuts. Instead, the comedy comes out of the depths of characters' psyche, and with two comedic actors the likes of Rudd and Scott, the story is allowed to run wild, while all the time running right on time. There is never a debate about where the story is going, or who will get the girl, because it takes solace in its comedic givings, not in its plot contrivances.

Not that there aren't contrivances, but it's something we're able to get over pretty quickly. This is a super-light film, and though its profanity and minor sexual content may state otherwise, it's just as cuddly as any Sandra Bullock romantic comedy. The best, most funny, moments within the film come from scenes involving Augie and Danny's involvement in LAIRE, where all the participants partake in medieval warfare, and play it with the utmost seriousness. When you're stabbed with the rubber sword, you're dead, and no one dare break that rule.

This is probably the first film that I've ever seen in which I saw Sean William Scott in a major role that was actually funny (though his minor cameo within Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is still one of the funniest things I've ever seen). Watching him school the foul-mouthed Ronnie in the arts of watching female breasts and listening to KISS is hilarious. Rudd also does a good job playing the kind of character that has become his bread-and-butter over the last few years. His career has always been based on the contrast between his boyish good lucks, and the words that fall out of his mouth.

Role Models is an adult film striving to be children's comedy. To be sure, with a few edits here and there, I don't think this film would be so off limits for young children to see. Part of its charm lies within its precociousness. Steady performances by Rudd and Scott, enhanced by brilliant comedic turns by Lynch and Thompson is a perfect equation for a successful comedy. You leave the theater with nothing, really, but satisfaction.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

...but you didn't say 'God bless you' when I sneezed.

Yeah, Zack and Miri Make a Porno was a serious dud, but let's not forget the charming pieces within Kevin Smith's filmography, like this wonderful sequence within his religious satire Dogma.