From the Archive — Milk

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Don’t forget to leave Milk and cookies out for Santa, because after a long night of delivering presents, he could surely use both a snack and an Oscar-winning biopic of a pioneering politician. I wrote this review upon the release of Gus Van Sant’s film, in the afterglow of the 2008 election. Ten years later — and now forty years since Mile was shot and killed — the continuation of hateful assaults on progress are deeply dismaying. In the face of this, persistence is vital. The life and legacy of Harvey Milk stand as a reminder of this. I opened with a silly joke, but there’s a serious lesson to be drawn from Milk. So, sure, make Santa watch it again. Make everyone watch it again.

Gus Van Sant’s new film, Milk, arrives a very particular point in time, a time that informs, shadows, enhances and, sadly, refutes it. While I contend that the best films have a timeless quality to them — and Milk generally meets that criteria — there’s something to be said for a movie that feels of the moment. Whether it is intended or not, a film can feel like a direct response to the year, month, week, even minute that it was released. That sensation was heavy on me while Milk unspooled, so why ignore it. Instead, let’s take it head on.

On Election Day of this year, the American public made a historic choice for the highest office in the land that stood in direct opposition to a tarnished national legacy of institutionalized prejudice. Suddenly, finally, there was fresh, uplifting evidence that the promise of equality scratched across treatises of freedom at the dawning of the nation held some validity. They weren’t cynical words, after all; not just the posturing of the rebellious wealthy in the face of an empire. The words could be true, and the speculative hopes put forth by a wise preacher decades and decades earlier, hopes about content of character having more value than color of skin, had some small but significant fulfillment checked and punched and tapped on the ballots of an electorate collectively putting aside fear and hatred.

And yet. Yet.

On that same day, many Americans did cast ballots marked by intolerance and hostility. In Florida, in Arizona, and, most famously and infamously, in California, voters backed measures that effectively told a group of people that they deserved fewer rights than their fellow citizens. We could congratulate ourselves, even if only in some small measure, but there remains the fact that, nationally, we’ve transferred that vicious judgment to be leveled against people on the basis of who they love. No matter who will stand in Washington, D.C. next month to swear an oath of office for the Presidency of the United States, we still maintain a social tyranny.

Milk does not take place in this time. It takes place thirty years earlier, when a man named Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and developed the revolutionary notion that being a gay man didn’t automatically disassociate him from the political process. He could, he believed, be openly gay and be elected to public office. He ran and ran and ran again, finally winning a spot on the city’s board of supervisors. With the post, he gained respect, popularity, and influence. He worked to effect positive change for his constituents and discovered firsthand that those who challenge the system, even through working by its rules, can meet tragically untimely ends.

Van Sant’s film tells this story with respect and aplomb. The screenplay by Big Love writer and co-producer Dustin Lance Black focuses on Milk’s ascendancy in the world of politics, not just his runs for office but as a community activist, using the fiscal influence of the burgeoning gay community in San Francisco’s Castro district to change local attitudes and policies. That focus is sometimes too intense, perhaps. Harvey Milk’s personal relationships are notably less well drawn and, therefore, less interesting the further away they are from the center of his political life. That’s arguably appropriate given that the film argues that Milk’s unrelenting drive alienated those who grew weary of the gamesmanship inherent to politics, but it also blunts the impact of many of the heavier emotional scenes.

What does work in those scenes, just as it works throughout, is the astonishing acting alchemy of Sean Penn’s performance in the title role. I never expected Penn to equal his riveting work in 1995’s Dead Man Walking and here he’s bettered it. Penn, usually a tightly-wound actor, is the loosest he’s been onscreen since he debated the merits of punctuality with Mr. Hand. More than Milk’s shrewdness, more than his ambition or ingenuity, Penn taps into the man’s joy and hopefulness and uses that to shape the performance. When an unexpected victory occurs late in the film, one that is something of a photo-negative of more recent outcomes, the emotions that wash over his face lift the film from the familiar terrain of biographical filmmaking, with its predictable course of setbacks and achievements. For a moment, a heart-rending moment, it is beautifully real. The impact of a mass of people stating through their ballot box action that all people matter, all people deserve consideration, becomes more than a movie movement. It becomes a statement of vivid purpose and honorable belief, driven home by the explosive relief and touching rush of validation expressed by Penn.

Van Sant is largely in the mode of seasoned professional here, which suits the material (indeed, his few flourishes are distracting). If the film is staid, it is also sturdy. The filmmakers make a reasonable choice to let Milk carry the film, both the man and the man who depicts him. That yields a finely passionate work and, unarguably, a story worth telling. Especially now.

From the Archive — Australia

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With the news this week that Moulin Rouge! The Musical is officially coming to Broadway (hardly an unexpected turn after its Boston tryout largely drew raves), I found myself wondering if Baz Luhrmann is done with director feature films, ready to simply shovel dollars into his bank account from the revival of his greatest success. It’s been five years since he made The Great Gatsby, and there have been few signs of a follow-up. Of course, Luhrmann takes his time. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel arrived five years after its predecessor, a bumbled epic depiction of Luhrmann’s homeland. I originally posted this review of Australia at my former online home.

I feel for Baz Luhrmann. Every frame of his new film Australia practically quivers with his desire to see a old school Hollywood epic set in his homeland. He wants to see a classic cattle-drive-fueled western, and a war epic, and a sweeping romance–everything that filled the screens of his youth with Technicolor wonderment–but flavored with his own culture. Kangaroos instead of buffalo, Aborigines instead of Indians. He sets out to make this film, this conglomeration of his loves, with such earnestness that it sometimes feels unkind to callously laugh at the final result. The problem is, no matter how much empathy you dredge up for Luhrmann, he’s made a film that awfully laughable. Laughably awful works, too.

Nicole Kidman plays an upper crust wife who heads down under shortly before World War II to discover she has just become a widow and her husband’s ranch has become a desolate, arid failure. There’s villainous rival ranchers to contend with, and a rugged, handsome drover (conveniently named Drover) to aid her. It proceeds with the breathless, misty-eyed, simplistic conviction of an artless romance novel. There’s a dearth of surprising moments in its two hour and forty-five minute running time, each beat of the plot parceled out with the intent to maximize swooning and sniffling. The story is narrated by an Aboriginal child and the script often seems like something only a unjaded, unskilled youth could create, from the clear cut morality to the awkward insertion of Australian touchstones like kangaroos, boomerangs and oversized bottles of beer. I’d accuse Luhrmann of pandering, but it’s hard to conceive of a constituency so detached from the mechanics of movies that they’d be enthralled by this silliness. The gentleman that Luhrmann recruited to play a mystical figure is apparently so detached from modern media that he was unaware that his old acquaintance Jimi Hendrix died decades ago. Maybe that guy would find this film fresh and inventive.

Given this, there’s little for the actors to do. Indeed, Luhrmann barely seems to ask anything of them. Beyond some early persnickety clowning, he’s seemingly brought in his Moulin Rouge! star Kidman primarily because he likes the way her long slender frame fits into his shot compositions. Hugh Jackman as Drover is even more clearly mere set dressing. He stands shirtless with his implausibly chiseled form (it looks like the product of dedicated time in the gym rather than relentless toil across the outback) to be gaped at like the centerpiece of history’s most masculine Dolce & Gabbanna ad. He’s a bauble, nothing more.

Luhrmann’s love of excess has served him well in prior films, translating into a spirited audaciousness that elevated the material. Here, it’s a distancing factor, plowing under recognizable human emotions to leave the moldy loam of craven cliches. Luhrmann so wanted to craft a modern classic. Instead, he presided over something closer to a disaster.

From the Archive — Rachel Getting Married

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Sometimes I simply get sad that there won’t be any more Jonathan Demme movies. This was written for my former online space.

One of things I most admire about Jonathan Demme as a director is his ability to take on seemingly any type of film and emerge with something inventive and accomplished. I’m not implying that Demme always achieves greatness; he may be to restlessly risky for that. But his films are always interesting, and, when he’s at his best, they’re intricate, deeply personal masterpieces. Rachel Getting Married is an example of Jonathan Demme at his best.

I’ve seen Demme excel with a rueful slice of life comedy, a raucous concert film, and a tense, ingenious thriller. He can make straight, smart documentaries and lithe larks with equal grace, but I’ve never seen him make anything quite like this. Rachel takes place over a weekend as a young woman, as the title implies, gets married. Rachel is not the lead character, however. That is her sister Kym, who briefly exits rehab to attend the ceremony, coming back to her family home for the first time in several months. Demme’s film depicts the pain and anger, the reopened wounds and tentative familial treaties that follow. It is heartfelt and heart-rending. Most of all, it is mercilessly honest about the ways in which the people who know each other best also know, instinctively, perhaps helplessly, the best ways to hurt one another. From the moment Kym walks back into her sister’s bedrooms, the verbal exchanges are quietly charged with years of resentment and anguished confusion. Every sentence has a steely barb attached to it, and Demme’s unblinking camera catches it all.

I’m sympathetic to those who mights suggest that Demme’s camera could have blinked a little more, not because the emotions it captures are too raw, but because it takes in so much. Scenes and sequences go on at great length, such as the rehearsal dinner in which the director is seemingly committed to capturing each and every toast delivered, including those that come after the dramatic crescendo of Kym’s problematic table-side oration. Similarly, the film gives a hearty taste of the full array of musical performances that reverberate throughout the reception. “Overlong” is the word invoked regularly in the less-enamored assessments of Demme’s film, but these stretches feel simply right to me. Demme’s immersive approach adds resonance to the sharp snap of the family fights. We don’t just feel that we know these people, but feel that we’ve almost co-existed with them in a way that is rare in film. It serves to accentuate the wrenching pain of a living room battle or a old forgotten artifact rediscovered at an especially inopportune time.

Demme gets the best out of his actors, too, and they are generally reaching levels (or taking approaches) previously unseen. It’s not startling to see an excellent Debra Winger performance, but, as I noted with Demme, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do anything quiet like this before. She plays the somewhat estranged mother of Rachel and Kym with a placid antipathy that is ferocious in its understatement. After years of commanding performances, Winger demonstrates the power in drawing in the audience by ceding the screen. While its admittedly a stretch to say so, the performance seemed like a delayed response to the grandly marauding Shirley MacLaine turn she saw first hand–and probably didn’t much like–twenty-five years ago in Terms of Endearment. This, the performance seems to say, this is how you place a fearsome, imperious matriarch.

Besides Winger, there’s marvelous work from Bill Irwin as a man whose walls against his own inner pain are frighteningly fragile, and Rosemarie DeWitt as the bride stubbornly bucking against the tumult chipping away at her day of celebration. And at the center there is Anne Hathaway as Kym, grinding bravely at character’s most unlikable traits and stripping any cliches away with the trembling humanity of her performance. Hathaway avoids actorly signals of her character’s struggles. Instead she drives deep until she emerges with something piercing in its truthfulness. It’s an accomplishment perfectly suited to the movie it resides in.

From the Archive — Pineapple Express

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The arrival of the tenth anniversary of the release of Pineapple Express has led to a small batch of articles reflecting on the comedy-action film as if it’s some significant artifact. I guess. For me, it’s just another entry in the long line of films that demonstrate the dismal effect that Judd Apatow has had on modern film comedy. I actually like Apatow a lot (and owe him eternal gratitude for his central part in making Freaks and Geeks happen), but has he ever brought a proud sloppiness to a genre that benefits from razor-sharp precision. Anyway, this was written for my former online home.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Pineapple Express and, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I keep coming back to Judd Apatow. I’d rather a different angle because I’m not likely to center evaluation of any other film this year around the perceived contribution of the producer. Directors and actors I’ll bring up for certain, and I’ll often consider the screenplay. Cinematography, music scores, editing: these are all fair game. Once I even offered praise for especially interesting and effective sound editing in a film that was not of the sort that usually gets singled out in such a way. But a producer. There are not many instances where I’d be likely to bring up a contributor whose role is nebulous enough that its hard to spot their fingerprints while sitting in the theater.

Then there’s Judd Apatow. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he also directed, there have been a whole group of films — Knocked Up (in the director’s chair again), Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that feel of the same set. David Gordon Green may have directed Pineapple Express and the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bear the predominant screenplay credit (Apatow has a story credit that, according to Rogen, amounted to little more than coming up with the shell of a premise), but its tone, rhythms and shape (or, more accurately, shapelessness) feels scissored out of Apatow’s well-worn cloth. His influence as a producer is evidently strong enough to make all these films feel like they belong to him as much as anyone else. I can’t immediately recall any other producer skewing the authorship of films to such a degree since Steven Spielberg started amassing producing credits in the eighties and every film seemed to represent some variation on his then-twinkly worldview. This is the kind of impact Brian Grazer dreams of every morning as he civil engineers his ridiculous hair into place.

Pineapple Express is about a pot-smoking summons server and his friendly neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently find themselves…well…inside an action movie. I don’t mean that literally — this isn’t some sort of meta romp like The Last Action Hero — but the actual plot is so thin and lacking in any sort of compelling intricacies that it’s simply easier and more accurate to talk about the film in terms of its premise instead of its storyline. Besides, it’s not really about that. Like all of these Apatow films, it’s about that fleeting opportunity when a male can reject his own orchestrated arrested development and decide to grow up and take responsibility. This time it’s just framed around rescuing your cohorts from gun-wielding drug gangs instead of devoting yourself to the unexpected mother of your child or the cute girls you hung out with at last night’s party.

There are laughs to be extracted from the situation, mostly from exploiting the contrasts inherent to slobby, clumsy guys who recoil from the very carnage they’re creating or rapidly fold under pressure when playing the hero role isn’t as effortless at it seems onscreen. James Franco is especially good as the generally amiable drug dealer prone to mental wandering. He’s loose enough in this role that it does feel like a liberation from the sort of dour leading man stuff he’s concentrated on since he was the first Freaks and Geeks cast member to achieve visibility apart from the cult fandom of the show. It’s an agreeably scruffy performance in a sometimes disagreeably scruffy film. Overall, it’s still entertaining and has memorable moments, but Apatow is fast approaching the point where he’ll face a similar decision as those thrown at the characters in his films. Does he want to grow up enough to add some focus and discipline to the films that bear his name, or is he satisfied softly plodding along, making movies that pass like a thin, dissipating haze?

From the Archive — WALL-E

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Although I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2, I long for the days that Pixar evinced nothing but the barest interest in sequels. With rare exceptions, the studio consistently strove for vivid inventiveness with each new effort, as if the especially lengthy and intensive process required to deliver feature-length computer animated films mandated each one have a true sense of purpose. When WALL-E was released, ten years ago, the philosophical shift could be spied on the horizon. Only one of the eight Pixar films that preceded it was a sequel. Three of the next five films revisited previous characters. I remain more lukewarm on WALL-E than most, but I have great nostalgia for it as part of a bygone time for a studio that once admirable approached auteur status.

Those Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth-Class units are certainly durable devices.

The new film WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo, is concerned with the lonely longings of one of those robots some 700 hundred years in the future. Earth is vacant of human life, the population having long since fled when the towering skyscrapers of refuse made the planet inhospitable. WALL-E, it seems, is the last of his kind, a little boxy robot with at least some level of sentience, going about the daily toil of crunching piles of garbage into tidy cubes. The first chunk of the film follows WALL-E as he works his job with dedication and, like so many blue-collar ‘bots, wiles away the evening hours watching old musicals with his cockroach cohort. His routine is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of a hovering robot called EVE. She scans the ravaged cityscapes for an indeterminate prize, and quickly captures our hero’s circuitboard heart.

This portion of the film is presented with minimal dialogue, Stanton making every effort to let the visuals handle the duties of the storytelling. Great care has gone into all of these scenes leading to a clarity entirely unharmed by the bold choice. I thoroughly admire Stanton’s approach even if I have to concede that I wasn’t completely caught up in it.

Similarly, when the action shifts to the distant spacecraft holding the human race — now grown bloated and slow-witted by centuries of pampered lassitude — I appreciate Stanton’s decision to inject some satirical social commentary even if I still feel distant from the product. He’s engaged in the same sort of frustrated futurecasting that Mike Judge offered in Idiocracy, examining American society’s current indulgence in unhealthy lifestyle choices and taking it the the logical, if extreme, conclusion. Throughout the cold war, the bleakest future we could imagine involved a scorched landscape populated by mutated marauders fortified with nuclear nourishment. Now our worst nightmare seems to be more of ourselves, our faultiest societal tendencies enhanced to the most unattractive degree. Today’s morning show segment laced with clucking condemnation will be our undoing tomorrow. Our new post-apocalyptic landscape has Twinkies in it.

I do like WALL-E, but I find my opinion far enough removed from the critical consensus ready to anoint this a new pinnacle for Pixar that I wind up dwelling on why it doesn’t quite work. Why, despite its evident artistry, did it leave me entertained but unmoved? Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. (My partner-in-all-things made a strong case about how the science of groundwater completely undercuts the ending.) The clearest, most concise point I can make is that WALL-E himself doesn’t really come together as a character. He’s perhaps too central to the film to be largely defined by the things he wants. We know WALL-E by what he’s not, what he doesn’t have, which makes his aspirations more dull than sweet. The surrounding, supporting robots may be more narrowly conceived in some ways, but they’re also more compelling. I was far more interested in EVE and her programmed protectiveness and lightning-quick temper (manifested as laser blasts) or even little M-O and his compulsive adherence to his one purpose in electrical life.

Again, these reservations are finally more slight than they probably seem here. It remains a Pixar offering and comes bearing all of the characteristic strengths. The directing is sleek and inviting, the plotting is tight and smart, and the countless hours spent on those humming banks of computers have yielded a lustrous look that remains light-years ahead of what’s programmed together by the other studios cranking out computer animated features. Even if the digitized dreams aren’t quite as moving as I’d like, I’m still grateful I got to share in them.

From the Archive — Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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As means of congratulating the highly deserving winner of this year’s Best Directing Academy Award, I will excavate one this review of an old Guillermo del Toro film, which I believe stands as the final such writerly relic that can be transferred over to this digital space.

It would be misguided and hypocritical of me to issue a blanket statement about the benefit of letting directors follow their creative instincts without reservations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that I watched a full day of work from a director who is routinely allowed such unchecked leeway and the phrase “subjected myself to” is central to any description of that experience. So allow me to be more precise. Letting Guillermo del Toro fully loose on a film, his imagination untethered, his vision washing across the screen like spilled juices or flung blood…this is a good thing.

In between helming the first film depiction of Mike Mignola‘s cult favorite comic book character and this sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro ushered the splendid Pan’s Labyrinth into the world, and the dark artistry of that grim fairy tale informs this new work. Del Toro is still delivering a story that feels like it comes from a corner of the superhero-jammed film-verse that increasingly anchors national multiplexes. The difference is the readily apparent glee taken in filling the screen with wonderful warped monsters and all manner of tactile gruesomeness. There is still action, there are still set pieces that feel well-constructed enough to please those who insist summer movie fare quickens their pulse with rigid regularity. The flavor of them, however, is unmistakably shaped by del Toro’s bump-in-the-night sensibilities more thoroughly than any of his previous outings that involved hefty studio budgets and commensurate box office expectations. After the surprising (and gratifying) success of Labyrinth, there’s a welcome willingness to let del Toro take this franchise material wherever he pleases.

And why not? After all, this devil-hued do-gooder is enough of a known commodity by now that purchasing a ticket is tantamount to a unwavering commitment to suspending disbelief. If you can accept a big, thick, demonic crusader with forehead horns tamed and flattened by a belt sander and a conveniently misproportioned right hand made of punch-friendly stone, then a plant creature several stories tall or a battalion of Barbie doll sized nasty beasties with a taste for human bicuspids should be equally easy to swallow. It’s hard to fathom what would finally cause a Hellboy II attendee to lean back, cross their arms and say, “Oh, now, that’s too much.”

The plot feels extremely familiar, the characters are put through flatly delineated paces rather then given the chance to develop (to such a point that a move of personal defiance at the close of the film has only the most tangential connection to anything that’s come before), and the thudding wit tends towards the unnecessarily juvenile. But none of that prevents the film from being very fun. The director is clearly having the time of his life, finally able to play with every toy he con conjure up in his slightly skewed noggin, and that rumbling joy is mighty hard to resist. In many ways, del Toro has crafted a movie that properly captures what traditional comic books are supposed to be: audaciously inventive with a soaring, intoxicating disregard for the physical constraints that make our normal earthbound adventures look less colorful in comparison.

From the Archive — Happy-Go-Lucky

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As this slightly worrisome Oscar season continues to shower precursor awards on the problematic film about mass advertising on the outskirts of a small community, spare a thought for the fleeting front-runners from earlier in the cycle. Barring a major surprise in my continuing catch-up on 2017 releases, I remain firmly on Team Saoirse for any and all Best Actress in a Leading Role trophies. Even so, I have tremendous affection for the work Sally Hawkins delivers in The Shape of Water. Of course, I also thought she should have been a contender about a decade ago.

In his best films, Mike Leigh’s unique approach to crafting characters and a story is surprisingly invisible. Leigh famously builds his art by bringing actors together, giving them softly defined roles and working through improvisations until he finds his way to what he wants. He embraces the collective to reach the personal. This isn’t apparent in the meticulous poignancy of Secrets and Lies or the tightly plotting of Vera Drake. In lesser hands, these films would be as freewheeling as a half-baked Judd Apatow comedy. Leigh makes them focused and pointed.

His new film Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems like a product of an extended exercise in playfulness. It’s loose and shambling, prone to anecdotal meanderings and just scattered enough that it sometimes feels more like the first episode of a loopy television series, introducing the characters that will each get their turn in coming weeks. It plainly doesn’t hold together, and that absence of cohesion makes it slight. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing, too.

Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy, a British schoolteacher whose relentless cheerfulness is perfect for guiding young children in constructing bird masks out of paper bags, and equally effective for ribald nightclubbing, contentious driving lessons and the general murky travails of life. There are friendships to value, potential romances to cultivate and the cheery busywork of afternoon dance classes or trampoline exercise sessions to beam through. Challenges arise to be met, but not necessarily resolved. Leigh’s narrative is relaxed in its open-ended quality, as if Leigh is asking his audience to adopt Poppy’s conviction that everything will turn out all right. The proof of that doesn’t exist in tidy culminating scenes, but in our own optimism.

This film may also contain one of the purer manifestations of Leigh’s methodology in a performance. Sally Hawkins’ zippily wondrous turn as Poppy could easily be one sharp note, a comic conceit with no soul. Instead, Poppy is fully developed with layers that belie simplistic impressions of how this character should operate. Poppy’s character is built from the inside out with reserves of compassion, insight and intelligence that can get obscured by her regular bursts of cheeky laughter. Hawkins could have easily coasted on a spirited twinkle to play her. Instead, she has thought through every bit of her and the thoroughness makes everything richer.

I’ve seen the seams in Leigh’s work before, in the charmless maneuvering of Career Girls or the buckshot quirk of the acclaimed Life is Sweet. This time, it’s not a problem. Indeed, the metaphor needs revamping. Instead of seams, it’s the framework that Leigh has willingly put on display. This is one of the instances in which seeing the framework is just a reminder that the structure is sturdy.