27 December 2008


Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Full credits from IMDb

Proposition 8 aside, the 70s were not like these post-Will & Grace days. Milk, a middlebrow, awards-season biopic about one of the country’s first openly gay elected politicians, opens with archival news footage of gays being arrested en masse for patronizing gay bars. Through these clips, Van Sant suggests that anti-homosexual prejudices in America have waned somewhat in the last several decades. But by raising the specter of bias he urges the audience to recognize the prejudice that homosexuals still face today, as perhaps the last sizeable demographic to be denied, on paper, their full civil rights. Milk throbs with gay pain: midnight phone calls from suicidal strangers, fear of every stopping car on the nighttime streets and of violent parents, gruesome threats of death and castration, forced discretion for fear of employment termination. When spontaneous political protest breaks out mid-film, stoked by Anita Bryant’s much-publicized homohating rhetoric, the eponymous Harvey Milk (a flamboyant Sean Penn) addresses a crowd with shrieking fury. “I know you’re angry…I’m angry!” That anger is palpable, stirring and fist-clenchingly infectious.

Elected San Francisco supervisor, akin to a city councilman, Milk served nearly a year before a fellow supervisor, Dan White (a moody Josh Brolin), assassinated him in 1978. The film opens eight years earlier, taking us through Milk’s move to Castro Street, his rise to political figurehead, and his ultimate death. But more than merely profile a person, Milk chronicles an era, a population and a mood; as much as it concerns the many lost elections of Harvey Milk, the film is about fear and despair transformed through the efforts of a political leader into something like optimism. There’s a conspicuous Obama parallel here, particularly as Milk, after several failed campaigns, successfully runs on a platform of “hope”; the film’s penultimate lines are “without hope, life is not worth living.” (Sorry McCain!) The film’s timeliness extends into the recent battle in California over Proposition 8; here, the villainous referendum, which would have fired all gay teachers and their supporters, is Proposition 6. But, more than tease the audience with easy parallels to contemporary headlines, the film aims to educate it about the deplorable discrimination homosexuals faced and continue to face—the arguments about preserving the American family in the film, set 30 years ago, are frighteningly familiar—and to promote Mr. Milk’s idea that gays should come out of the closet because if straights and squares know a gay personally, they’re less likely to support legislation that oppresses them.

As advocacy and history lesson, Milk is surprisingly affecting, brought to life by the actors and period setting’s emotional details; to many, including myself, the abuse of homosexuals throughout the 20th Century is as foreign as the realities of the Jim Crow South. As a film, however, it’s a dully familiar exercise in lifestory. Director Van Sant seems to have reverted to his Good Will Hunting self after nearly an entire decade, and four brilliant films, as an indie darling—the “IFC Bela Tarr”—crafting challenging cinema from the margins of the moviemaking community. Milk, in contrast, is a conventional, Oscar-baiting Prestige Picture, particularly on the page; its story flows too neatly—Milk switches from Republican businessman to radical activist nearly overnight—and follows the tired formulas of the cut-down-hero-on-the-rise storytelling arc, including, shamelessly, a climactic goodbye phone call between torn-asunder lovers. While Van Sant uncharacteristically ties up most of his loose ends here, he neglects the only one he needed to. His last several films have highlighted action over motive, and it’s one of the few motifs to continue into Milk. But because this film’s trappings are so mainstream, the lack of a credible motive for Milk’s assassin comes off not as provocative but as screenwriter oversight. The “he’s a closet case” rationale the filmmakers offer up several times seems nearly as absurd as the killer’s real-life “Twinkie Defense,” in which White claimed that a night of junk food binging had created a chemical imbalance in his brain.

Van Sant is too smart a filmmaker, though, to let his film collapse entirely under the weight of the mass-digestibility that accompanies award-worthiness. From the onset—the introduction of a framing device: Milk dictating his life story—the film seems destined for hagiography; everything I did was done with an eye on the gay movement, Milk says. But the director maintains a mature skepticism, which, in tandem with Harris Savides’ richly lighted compositions, helps elevate the film towards something like Art. The next scene features Milk as an unctuous, on the cusp of 40 insurance salesman in NYC, 1970, picking up a poofy-haired boy (James Franco) in the subterranean corridors of the subway system. There’s nothing quite heroic about a man looking to get laid on his birthday by a pretty young hustler. With such scenes, the filmmakers gently undermine their case for Milk’s apotheosis, accentuating his imperfect humanity—for someone pushing his staff to come out of the closet to their families, Milk himself never revealed his homosexuality to his parents before they died—though this is still a largely celebratory film that, reflecting its hero’s unhip affection for opera, deals in outsized emotions and exaggerated affection. But in a short and haunting scene, in which Van Sant follows White down a hallway between murders, recalling the graceful high-school driftings of Elephant and Paranoid Park, Milk nears poetry in a way to which none of its fellow Oscar contenders come close. This is about as good as this kind of movie gets; it is, after all, a message movie aiming for wide distribution and mass consumption. It might not be lauded in the film history textbooks, but gay-bashing America needs it right now. Grade: B+

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Wendy and Lucy

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond
Full credits at IMDb

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has the gentlest way of using film to scrutinize the American condition, probing it with people, characters, until she teases out some devastating truths. Her films are political without political utterance, which somehow maintain a modicum of optimism, too. Wendy and Lucy’s bleak but hopeful outlook is serendipitously tailor-fit to these pre-Obama days of both promise and despair, just as her last film, Old Joy (2006) was a perfect product of its time. Centered on two grown-apart friends, that film’s deceptive simplicity left it open to a wide variety of critical readings; I took it as an exploration of the culture wars, then raging under Bush’s stoking. Her latest, Wendy and Lucy, is again about two pals—this time, a girl and her dog—and once again it’s a simplistic and symbolic story, a portrait of this mean old country and its economic disparity.

Michelle Williams, her hair darkened and cropped, stars as a wearied woman, beaten down into equability, crossing the country in a rust-colored car—a tribute to the dying automotive industry?—with her dog in tow. She’s headed for work in the fisheries and canneries of Alaska, America’s final frontier. Stopping in Oregon, and low on cash, she pockets a few cans of Iams at a supermarket without paying, is caught, and spends the day in a holding cell. Returning to the scene of the crime, she finds her dog missing and spends the rest of the film trying to find her: visiting the pound, hanging up fliers, walking around town shouting her name.

As in Red, a dog takes on a hefty metaphorical load here, though with Reichardt at the helm it never feels burdensome. Still, that Wendy has lost her Lucy highlights everything else that she, and the U.S., has lost: honest pay for honest work, decency towards one another, and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. (That she hangs one of her Lost Dog fliers underneath a different Lost Dog poster hints that the problems are systemic, as does the long lateral tracking shot of barking pups behind bars at the local pound.) The brand names that appear—Pedigree, Walgreens—feel less like product placements than mockeries, domineering symbols of undistributed American wealth, far out of the ordinary citizen’s reach. As Williams wanders a supermarket’s aisles, Reichardt, through simply pointing her camera, draws a stinging contrast between a country with such abundance and a people with so little.

She has an eye for authentic images of economic hardship: washing in gas station bathrooms, sleeping in parking lots, collecting roadside bottles and cans for the deposit and the line of crushed men waiting to use the bottle return machines, so vividly represented that they nearly can be smelled. Reichardt, working again with writer Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the story on which the film is based), posits these hardships as new, or at least atavistic. The older folk in the film have a quality of mercy missing from the younger ancillary characters, particularly the callous supermarket employee who turns her in for shoplifting and insists on making an example of her. More than any of the dog troubles, surprisingly, the film’s most moving moment comes when Wally Dalton, an elderly parking lot security guard whom Williams befriends, gives our heroine all the help he can—$7, cash. People want to help when they’re able, but their own economic condition makes it difficult to do so. The whole country is down and out.

Simply observing the hardscrabble life of one off-the-grid yet prototypically luckless American, Reichardt illuminates the national condition—the vulnerability and heartbreaking loneliness necessitated by penury. There might be some sort of illegal immigration parallel to be drawn at the end (in which Oregon is Mexico and Alaska is the continental 48), among others; once again, Reichardt’s spare style lends itself to multiple readings. And once again she clings to hope, too. As depressing as Wendy and Lucy can be, it doesn’t wallow in misery or pity; the director ultimately suggests that we could possibly make this country great again. That is, while we’re losing the battles, the winnable war rages on as long as we keep fighting. Grade: A-

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Revolutionary Road

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Justin Haythe
Full credits from IMDb

Painstakingly, to the point of painfully, faithful to Richard Yates’ source novel, except as far as Frank Wheeler’s ultimate fate, the screenplay streamlines the key scenes into an efficient narrative but sacrifices all insight as a result. The filmmakers’ tightly focused rush leaves no time to establish the suburbs as credibly oppressive (seem fine to me), no time to let the audience wonder whether the Wheelers are truly extraordinary suburbanites (they’re clearly not) or whether their dreams of expatriation are idealist but noble or brash and shallow (they’re the latter). A gorgeous and empty Cliff’s Notes literary adaptation, Revolutionary Road is this year’s Atonement.

Read the full review at The L Magazine's blog.

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25 December 2008

The Best Films of 2008

Read my full list at The L Magazine, with brief write-ups for each.

1. Synecdoche, New York

2. Wall-E

3. Be Kind Rewind

4. Paranoid Park

5. Mad Detective

6. The Fall

7. In the City of Sylvia

8. Rachel Getting Married

9. Reprise

10. Nights and Weekends

Runners-up: Wendy and Lucy; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; Let the Right One In; A Girl Cut in Two; Cloverfield

The Spirit

Written & Directed by: Frank Miller
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Early in The Spirit, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) bashes a toilet over the head of his archnemesis, the title hero (Gabriel Macht). The Octopus gets a good laugh out of it, but the Spirit, a rapid-healing, mysteriously back-from-the-dead policeman turned caped fighter, stands there dazed and straight-faced. Offended, the Octopus defensively declares, “Toilets are always funny!” Such is the ethos of Frank Miller’s goofy comic book movie, based on the series by Will Eisner. Hitherto best known to moviegoers as Robert Rodriguez’s co-director on Sin City, Miller here abandons the gritty for the puerile.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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Cargo 200

Written & Directed by: Aleksei Balabanov
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 4/5

When the audience meets Cargo 200’s Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova), a Chernenko-era CCCP hipster and Party official’s daughter, she’s wearing shin-high white socks and ruby red heels. She’s a virginal Dorothy, later taken hostage by an Ed Gein-ish policeman (Aleksei Poluyan) and tornadoed through a Soviet anti-Oz, during which she’s raped with a vodka bottle, handcuffed naked to a bed thick with putrefying corpses and raped again, this time by a man. We have no choice, then, but to call Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) a horror movie...Like the best horror movies, though, it's no mere revulser but a violent political parable.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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16 December 2008


Written & Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Full credits from IMDb

I predicted: "It’s been ages since a recent Broadway show successfully crossed over into pictures. The Producers, Proof, Rent — each fizzled quickly, marking the West Coast as the place art from the east goes to die. Doubt should disappear like the others. Writer-director turned playwright turned writer-director Shanley, last seen in Hollywood penning Congo (for cash!), pits Meryl Streep against Philip Seymour Hoffman for the first time, but Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne did it better — without mugging for Oscar nods."

In fact...
It’s not the art that went west to die but the artist. Streep and Hoffman aren’t really to blame for Doubt, though they’re conspicuously pushing for the accolades of their Tinseltown peers. Both tease out the play’s comedy (there are quite a few zingers) and nail the characters’ moral complexity, in which the movie’s central molestation mystery is rooted. But when the curtain fell after Jones delivered Doubt’s final lines on Broadway, the punctuating darkness delivered a devastating punch to the theatergoers left to slog into the streets. When Streep, in the same role, delivers those lines in the movie, they’re followed by a swooping camera and an angelic choral hymn that continues into the end credits, leaving the audience to drift into the streets atop an ethereal polyphonic current. Such is the problem with Doubt: The Movie.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: David Scarpa
Full credits from IMDb

The Day the Earth Stood Still does more than simply look like The War of the Worlds: it adopts that Spielbergian conceit about destroying the world in order to reunite an estranged family, too. Could anything be more selfish and, well, American? Metal-munching space flies (really) are reducing the earth to wasteland and all the filmmakers care about is: will Will Smith’s son stop worrying about his (movie) father’s death and learn to love his step-mother, Jennifer Connelly? To be fair, the filmmakers also care about how cool it looks to see shit get blown up! To the detriment of boring old things like pacing and storytelling, both as “last century” as the original’s A-bomb anxiety, director Scott Derrickson ensures that every cent of the film’s $100 million budget turns up on the screen — even though the CGI, like that used to create the Doctor Manhattan-sized Gort, looks like it’s out of the late 80s (or an Xbox). But the SFX, the techware, the weaponry, the copious extras, the intricately dressed sets and all the other expenses are, without a compelling context, a bore.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.

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12 December 2008


Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Written by: Melissa Rosenberg
Full credits from IMDb

I went into Twilight, the CW-style vampire drama that has Hot Topic patrons swooning, already smiling, in anticipation of the hilarity bound to follow: not only the sure-to-be corny dialogue and mushy plotting, but the witty things I would write about it later. Alackaday, the movie is so inoffensively adequate that there was little to laugh about—though still plenty to knock.

Kristen Stewart plays a no-moodier-than-average teen forced to leave sunny Pheonix for the perpetually gray, snow-capped misery of the Pacific Northwest to live with her father. Director Hardwicke has previously set up young characters in a histrionic after-school special milieu (Thirteen), but here she tacks to the opposite extreme. Stewart’s new high school is teeming with plenty of attractive, panracial honors students—who use hip, anodyne slang like “chillax” and “homegirl”—to befriend. But this benign coterie of pre-college time-killers is contrasted with the brooding Tiger Beat pin-up Robert Pattison, her lab partner in, ahem, biology class, who leers at her like she’s a putrefying steak: simultaneously rotten and delicious.

Pale as exhumed corpses, Pattison and his stepbrothers and -sisters are rapidly pegged as…different. So even if you came into Twilight knowing nothing about it—if so, won’t you tell me how?—it’s quickly clear that it’s about vampires living among us. But the maddeningly slow-going script keeps its heroine oblivious to this fact for far too long; it clears its throat, beats around the bush, and pretends that there’s a big mystery to be unraveled. Stewart doesn’t figure out until the middle of the movie what we knew before the credits rolled. The sequel, I hope, won’t be able to be anything but superior, as it won’t have to deal with all this pseudo-suspenseful dawdling.

And a sequel there will be, not only because Twilight made a gazillion dollars on a meager budget but because these are Vampire Times. Zombies and vampires seem to take turns, for a few years at a time, occupying the public imagination. The aughties zombie craze, from new Romero to Romero remakes and Romero homage, seems to have exhausted itself, and so vampires have slowly been returning to the cultural forefront: from Stephanie Meyers’ neo-Anne Rice Twilight books, on which this film is based, to HBO’s sweltering, soft-core romance True Blood, not to mention Sweden’s sweet Let the Right One In, set for a likely not-sweet American remake next year. Zombies are usually used to examine mass cultural trends, since they act dumbly, in groups. So it’s perhaps fitting that they dominated the Bush years, when pack mentality and mass hysteria dominated the cultural discussion: us vs. them culture war nonsense, color-coded terror level vicissitudes, all of it soooo 2004. The Bush-crest is crashing. Times of poverty and Democrats are hotter than times of war and Republicans, and vampire stories are all about sex.

Twilight is as sex-crazed as any of its forebears: Stewart has such an appetizing scent that it sends Pattison into a tizzy; all he wants to do is “bite her neck” and “suck her blood”—wink wink, nudge nudge. But, like an evangelical with an abstinence ring, he has sworn off human blood; he only kills animals, these days anyway. (“I’m designed to kill…I’ve killed before,” he admits, turning on the wives of military men.) The movie serves as celibacy allegory, appropriate for its abstinence-only-education era, in which Stewart, twitchy and frowny, declares she doesn’t like things that are “cold” and “wet”; when a friend holds out a worm on a stick, she cringes. A terrified deer, running through the woods for its life, becomes a visual motif—and guess what it represents. A sloppily, tardily introduced super villain, who wants nothing more than to defile Stewart’s pure…humanity, lures her to her former ballet studio, a crypt for her feminine innocence, and kinkily turns on a camcorder so he can show his enemies later how he “sucked her blood” real good. Maybe he’ll even upload it to the Internet? Rawrr!

All of this sexually symbolic action is relatively innocuous (at least compared to True Blood), but Twilight does turn out to be awfully distasteful—in its view of appropriate relationship behavior. Stewart is 17 and so is Pattison, except that he’s been 17 for 100 years, making her 1/7th his age. And if that alone weren’t bad enough, he follows her around—stalker!—and sneaks into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep. Somehow, the movie passes this off as romantic; maybe it’s every young girl’s dream to have a sexless relationship with an obsessed, much-older man who boasts an unerring fealty to his distressed damsel. Taking a step back, as an adult male, it’s creepy to imagine that this is what (some) women crave. Grade: C+

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Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Full credits from IMDb

Leatherheads opens with a sepia-tinted, old-timey Universal logo that heralds the film’s anachronistic style, though director Clooney gets a bit too carried away with the subsequent signifiers: Cheers-style fonts, players boozing on the football field, kids smoking cigarettes, Randy Newman-written ragtime. All that’s missing is a mousy girl in a flapper hat. Enter Renée Zellweger in her Chicago costumes. Set in the mid to late ‘20s, Leatherheads is Clooney’s tribute to the screwball comedy. Zellweger plays a caustic newspaperwoman, but she lacks the sparkling timing of Rosalind Russell; and though I’ve long argued that Clooney is his generation’s Cary Grant, I meant of the North by Northwest era. Not Bringing Up Baby.

Goofy comedy (in contrast to the suave deadpan of the Oceans series) has never been Clooney’s strength, which is why his Coen Brothers collaborations usually disappoint, though not always. Leatherheads’ script is stuffed with sharp sarcasm and wit a la His Girl Friday, which it conspicuously emulates. But that’s film virtues were rooted in its actors’ rapid-fire delivery; Clooney’s actors, inclulding John Krasinski, a mere baby-faced schlub when he isn’t breaking a fourth wall, deliver their lines as though their tongues were packed with lead weights.

Set around the advent of professional football, when a group of businessmen turned a gang of mangy miners, ploughmen, factory workers and their scrappy hobby into a national pastime, the film features Krasinski as a war hero and college football star that helps legitimize the game by playing for one of the fledgling professional teams. (Like Pele on the New York Cosmos or David Beckham on the Los Angeles Galaxy—oh wait, wrong kind of football.) Zellweger is the reporter trying to get his story so she can “cook his goose” later; Clooney is a football enthusiast who wants to make the game professional; both need Krasinski, though they conspire to destroy him as well.

As a director, Clooney parses American dark sides: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind exposed a symbiosis between CIA assassinations and pop culture; Good Night and Good Luck addressed McCarthyism and a craven press corps. Leatherheads aims to tackle the same sort of cultural corruption, but only as an afterthought. As the tone slips from a sharp-tongued comedy of words into Buster Keatonish slapstick comedy (again, without the timing), the unfocused movie runs a reel too long while Clooney scrambles to hit several pet political points.

Like, Krasinski’s heroic war story isn’t 100 percent true, and it’s Zellweger’s assignment to get at the truth. At first, she’s pitched as duplicitous for tying to tear him down. “Sometimes this job stinks,” she tells her editor. “A lot of times, kid,” he answers. But unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Leatherheads ultimately doesn’t argue printing the legend as a noble necessity. Exposing the fraud—and being a card-carrying member of the righteous press—is the true act of heroism because it’s Krasinki’s kind of mendacious mythmaking that leads to George W. Bush re-elections.

And Clooney’s dyed-in-the-wool Democratic partisanship turns up elsewhere in the film—like in its advocacy of regulatory agencies—but Leatherheads isn’t ragingly progressive; Clooney retains a measure of nostalgic and reactionary reverence for the romance of the old ways. Rules tend to make the things they’re regulating boring, and football is no exception. Moving to the left might be necessary, but even Clooney knows it can be kind of a drag. Had I reviewed this film when it was released back in April, I might have laughed that its solidly liberal politics are as old-fashioned as its screwball pastiche. But Obama just won the presidency so, really, it’s prescient. If Leatherheads tells us anything, then, it’s that history repeats itself: as the Roaring Twenties ultimately imploded, paving the way for the New Deal, so too must the Raging Aughties end in Obamanomics. Grade: B

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10 December 2008

In the City of Sylvia

Written & Directed by: José Luis Guerín
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 4/5

Bound for a slot in countless cinema studies curricula because it puts film theory into practice, the near-plotless and dialogueless In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia) alternates endlessly between views of subject and object, the gazer and the gazee. Xavier Lafitte plays the unnamed protagonist, who spends his days at a café, passionately ogling and sketching ladies of all races and ages. It’s like cinema as people-watching on a lazy summer afternoon. With its copious point-of-view shots, the movie revels in the vicarious thrill of seeing through the eyes of another and in the sensation of moving while remaining stationary in the plush theater-seat — that old bit about cinema as a dream. Or, it’s Being Xavier Lafitte. That the actor resembles a young Christ, in his Euro-heartthrob shagginess, seems to be no accident — it lends his gaze-fixing the gravity of theological observation and turns the camera into a domineering godhead.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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Written & Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Time travel and headaches are like Chaplin and chuckles: in the movie theater, one necessarily induces the other. But Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) — easily digested, temporal-tripping Spanish sci-fi — is a far cry from Primer, 2004’s lauded headscratcher. It’s built upon a Tylenol-demanding, sleep-depriving paradox — how can problems borne of time traveling cause our hero to time travel in the first place? — but it’s so Hollywood-ready that a remake is already in pre-pre-production. The movie is ultimately about more than chrono-hopping, though; for writer-director Vigalondo, that’s just a means to explore a horror movie trope while fashioning a parable about middle-aged marriage.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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