Saturday, January 31, 2009

In Theaters: The Wrestler

Wrestler poster from
Darren Aronofsky has yet to produce a film that’s not worth watching on some level, and THE WRESTLER is one of his better ones. Though I’m one of those who liked his exercise in contemplative sci-fi existentialism known as THE FOUNTAIN, it’s good to see him back to Earth and focusing on something rawer. THE WRESTLER, written by Robert D. Siegel, is in some ways a conventional story, but its attention to detail and relentless tight focus on its protagonist keeps it feeling real and vital. Of course it’s got an amazing performance by Mickey Rourke in the lead, and Marisa Tomei does some great work as well, and the film owes a great deal of its success to them. Whoever was responsible, though, it’s a fine work.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a veteran pro wrestler still pumping along at middle age. Not quite in the big leagues anymore, Randy tends to do smaller arena gigs for various wrestling federations. He takes a lot of painkillers and struggles to pay the rent on his trailer, but seems comfortable in his routine. But it all changes when he suffers a heart attack shortly after a particularly brutal prop-laden fight against (real-life wrestler) Necrobutcher (aka Dylan Summers.) He’s given an emergency bypass, and after that even a brief jog brings him to a stop. He has to retire, even canceling a reunion rematch with famed archnemesis The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller, also a wrestler IRL), and take a demeaning job at a grocery store deli counter. Without his career he doesn’t have much, except a friendly relationship with Cassidy, a local stripper (Tomei.) She advises him to get back in touch with his family, but his only family is his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s cold to his offers of friendship after years of abandonment.

Aronofsky tones down his usually high level of visual experimentation for this story, but he’s not any less attentive to how it works. The focus, of course, is on Randy, and frequently, for long stretches, the camera is set right behind him, seeing what he sees but keeping him a presence in the picture. He’s almost never off-screen, and the time we spend with him allows us to see him from many angles. To the children he’s a lovable giant, to his daughter he’s a deadbeat, to Cassidy he’s a nice guy to be kept at a slight distance. Mickey Rourke captures all these facets while still showing a coherent and consistent character. Tomei gives a similarly deep performance- her character is, on one level, the clichéd “stripper with a heart of gold”, but she shows her character’s uncertainty about how she wants to deal with Randy and what she wants to do with her own life in general. She, like him, is getting too old for what she does, but has few other options. Needless to say, both of these actors have gotten Oscar nods for a very good reason.

The filmmakers have obviously done their homework as regards pro wrestling, as you might gather from the number of actual pro wrestlers in the cast. The matches we see are never fully rehearsed- instead the fighters discuss what stunts they’ll pull and, in one particularly amusing scene, go through a general store finding various trays and chairs to use on each other. Obviously nothing they do is as damaging as it looks (we even see Randy’s use of “blading”, as it’s known, to make the hits look bloodier than they are), but it’s still punishing, and the prop-heavy match between Randy and the Necrobutcher is especially brutal. The film obliquely criticizes the more unforgiving aspects of the pro-wrestling business- Randy’s retirement doesn’t come with any workman’s comp or Social Security, and he’s clearly aged well beyond his years- but it also has a great respect for the spectacle itself, and the sacrifices wrestlers make to accomplish it. One of the better details is a nicely authentic 8-bit Nintendo game replaying Randy and the Ayatollah’s match, and the protagonist’s love of 80s hard rock makes for a suitably intense soundtrack.

On occasion the conventional nature of the story becomes a potential liability. Tomei’s stripper (whose real name is Pam) is, of course, a single mother, and she even does the bored premature stage exit that seems common for movie characters in this profession. A few plot turns are similarly familiar for whatever genre this is, and though conventionality is not really a flaw, its seems out of place in a film this naturalistic. Of course, it never goes exactly the way you expect, and I was particularly impressed by the ending, which goes in a somewhat risky direction.

This is a film with many splendid moments- the scenes of Randy at the deli counter are strangely entertaining, as is his encounter with a young barfly with an... unusual fetish. The full effect is more of a slow burn, but it stays with the viewer. A superb picture on a number of levels, and I'm still wondering whether someone in AMPAS has a grudge against Aronofsky.

Written by Robert D. Siegel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Grade: A

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Comics Page #19: Final Crisis

Final Crisis promo image
Despite the impression given that it would be delayed until the release of CHINESE DEMOCRACY DUKE NUKEM FOREVER, FINAL CRISIS #7 came out this Wednesday to baffle and amuse, piss off and delight comic readers everywhere. As I hinted earlier in Twitter, I was enjoying the series thus far, and I have to say the final issue didn’t change my opinion; it’s a good finish to a good crossover. I may in fact be in a minority on this, though with internet comics fandom it’s hard to tell; consensus is really only possible to derive at the extremes and not so much even then. But whatever the objective reality, the anti-FC voices seem to be shouting the loudest, so I may as well do my part to add to the positives.

(Spoilers follow.)

It must be said that I’m a fan of Grant Morrison’s work, to the extent that I like most of what I’ve read of him. There’s a lot of his stuff I haven’t read to start with- SEAGUY, WE3, most of his JLA run- but I am keen on what he does, which according to the current debate may bias my opinion. The popular theory is that those of us who are fans of Morrison are inclined to overlook flaws in FINAL CRISIS’ execution and pretend he’s just working on a deeper level, and though this may happen in some corners it’s not a fair assessment overall. Yes, a book by Morrison may tend to get more backers than a similarly obtuse and nonlinear title by someone not well known, in the same way that Martin Scorcese or Terrence Malick might get more leeway for their next picture. But I think this is partly because when you’ve followed someone’s work, you tend to know how they work a little better, and you are in fact capable of understanding their work more, and since all art is communication, you receive it better than most. I understand that Morrison is in favor of compressed storytelling and making the reader work a little, so I’m willing to do so.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To put it as simply as possible, the final issue of FINAL CRISIS features a number of big-ass things happening. Darkseid, who has succeeded in turning most of the world into slaves, is killed. Since he’s a god, his death weakens the reality of that universe, thus threatening the encroachment of an evil vampire demon of sorts and a bunch of tentacled abysmal horrors. The gathered superheroes first evacuate the universe, and freeze and miniaturize the civilian population to keep them in storage while the final confrontation happens. Superman, backed by the Green Lanterns, the Supermen of many universes, a bunch of angels, Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, Captain Marvel, the Monitor of this universe, and the Japanese reincarnation of the Forever People all stand against the demon, and Superman uses something called the Miracle Machine that the Legion of Superheroes will have in the 30th century to rebuild the universe after the confrontation finishes.

Makes sense. There’s also some stuff with the Flashes outrunning death and Wonder Woman being snapped out of her control by Frankenstein, which is cool. Like every big crossover event the book features a number of minor points which either set up or wrap up various and sundry other books in the name of housecleaning. Part of the baggage.

Now, the big issue with FINAL CRISIS has not been what happens in it, but how it happens. Morrison’s approach to the book has been kind of a mash-up; instead of a straightforward and clear narrative, we get pieces of the action from various viewpoints all across the universe, sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the present, no one person being able to sum everything up and the narrative captions not doing that much to clarify either. As I said a long time ago in my review of SEVEN SOLDIERS #1, Morrison’s approach to this kind of cosmic storytelling sometimes makes things hard to follow, but there’s a method to it. Individual comic books are very easy to reread; they’re short, don’t have too many words, and do have lots of memorable pictures so you can easily find a specific bit in the story. FINAL CRISIS is not written to be flipped through, but pored over a little bit.

Obviously this approach is not without its flaws. Because there’s no central character arc the overall emotional effect is diffused; there are some very affecting moments, but we don’t quite get in-depth on any of it. Of course, the same can be said for a lot of these events- INFINITE CRISIS started with a scene of Animal Man at home, left him for some considerable time, picked up with Power Girl, put her off screen for a few issues, etc. It’s the nature of the beast to focus on a general event happening to lots of characters and not sticking with any one of them. The fractured narrative also has a slightly distancing effect; we have to expend energy to figure out just what’s going on and so can’t quite get the moment-by-moment how-will-our-heroes-prevail effect of a more straightforward epic hero narrative. Wonder Woman doesn’t get the best story arc compared to Batman and Superman, and Mary Marvel’s arc wraps up with an irritating cliché. There are, to be sure, some bits of the story I’m still not clear on.

But Morrison doesn’t make things so obtuse that we don’t get the general gist of it. I didn’t read SUPERMAN BEYOND #2, a tie-in book that according to everyone was absolutely necessary to get the backstory on Mandrakk, the thing in the void that’s threatening to kill our Earth. But I got that he was an ancient demon living in the blackness and waiting for an opportunity like Darkseid’s death to destroy everything, and that he represents Evil as Oblivion as a contrast to Darkseid’s Evil as Control. And like any good comics writer Morrison does load up the story with moments of awesomeness that, depending on the viewer, practically justify whatever plot goofiness was needed to make them happen.

Let’s face it. We’re talking about the Big Company Wide Crossover Event, which has long been defined by convoluted storytelling, casts of thousands, cosmic wibbliness happening everywhere, and an emphasis on fist-pumping cool moments over plot logic. It’s like one of the season finales of the new DOCTOR WHO, for better and for worse, and Morrison isn’t actually straying too far from the conventions of the form. What he is doing is playing to its strengths and trying to ignore the weaknesses as much as possible.

But what FINAL CRISIS does right that so many of these events don’t is in delivering the payoff. FINAL CRISIS #7 is the issue of triumph and glory, and too often as of late, as a result of trying to raise the stakes as high as possible, superhero victories have been so pyrrhic and brief as to be unsatisfying. Here, we take our time, we see Dr. Sivana and Lex Luthor smiling as they help put together a machine to rewrite the laws of physics, we see Supergirl and Wonder Woman tell the story of how the universe was saved to a room of waiting children before they go to deep-freeze, we get payoffs to arcs that weren’t even technically part of this crossover, we get a sense that the world might actually become more interesting as a consequence of all this.

In the end, the story of the Day Evil Won, the story of Batman’s death (for the moment) and Mary Marvel temporarily losing her grip and Superman crying yet again, ends up being a feel-good event. It’s the brightest and shiniest thing to happen to the mainstream DCU in some time, and thus a great catharsis. It’s not the best comic out there but it was quite a ride indeed.

Grade (tentative): A-

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Theaters: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire poster and IMPA link
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE occupies the enviable and yet difficult position of “heartwarming art house darling”. These movies come out at the end of every year, get showered with awards and good grosses and good reviews, and after a while you’re completely sick of them. The backlash can be severe; just ask Diablo Cody. But SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is not nearly as cloying or precious as the Oscar buzz would make you fear. After the implacably pretentious SUNSHINE, Danny Boyle, working with Loveleen Tandan, has created a project full of energy, infusing a fairytale narrative with gritty realism without drowning out the fantasy altogether. It’s just fun, and avoids a number of pitfalls by moving quickly and never overplaying its hand.

Our hero is Jamal Malik (played in the present by Dev Patel, and in flashbacks by Tana Hemant Chheda (younger) and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar(youngest)), a slum kid turned coffee-server who has become a contestant on India’s version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? He’s one question away from winning the full prize of 60,000,000 rupees, and because he has no educational background he’s suspected of cheating. So, under interrogation, he tells us how he knew the answers to each question, and in so doing tells us the story of his life and how he got to this point. He and his brother Salim (played in chronological order by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madhur Mittal) lost their mother to religious violence and were forced to strike out on their own, begging in the streets and quickly falling into the hands of small-time gangsters. During these travails Jamal met Latika (played chronologically by Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Freida Pinto) and fell in love with her at first sight. They were separated when Jamal and Salim escaped from the gangsters, only to reunite years later, only for Salim to fall in with another group of toughs and take Latika with her. Now, he’s on the cusp of winning more money than he has ever seen, but if anything that’s secondary next to his real goal of rescuing Latika, if that’s even possible. But then, this is the kind of movie where anything’s possible.

The film mixes styles and structures that you wouldn’t expect to go together: a heroic love-conquers-all adventure, nonlinear storytelling, brutal crimes, adorable tykes, hyperrealism, and Bollywood style are all thrown together and somehow mesh. At heart it’s a very Dickensian view of modern India, from its grungiest to its most glamorous with a few stops in between. I’m not entirely sure how it all works together, but it achieves a unique consistency. It helps that we don’t linger on the grittiest aspects of the environment; though the film has an R rating, what violence there is isn’t explicit, and many details are tastefully minimized. One scene that struck me is one shortly after Latika is liberated from a brothel- we can see burns and scars on her arms, but the camera never does a straight angle on them and nobody talks about them. As reckless as the direction sometimes seems, there’s a lot of discipline involved.

The protagonist is an interesting fellow, honest to a fault and a big believer in destiny. He’s not the most detailed character, but that’s partly by design, and all three actors do a good job at creating a consistent personality. The central romance is mostly of the “love at first sight” variety, with little room for what we’d call a modern and mature relationship to develop, but so much of romance only works if you forget about what we consider modern and mature in relationships anyway. Nor is the why of it that important; Latika’s a damsel, Jamal is a hero, his obligations are clear. The story’s not completely conventional or predictable, but the old tropes are there.

Two elements of the story don’t quite work as well as intended. Salim’s fall into gangland corruption is a predictable arc, and it’s not clear why he is tainted by this world while Jamal remains spotless. When we see that Jamal is an innocent being accused of fraud, we assume it’s either class prejudice or network corruption leading to the assumption that he must be cheating. However, it’s later revealed that it’s almost entirely the doing of MILLIONAIRE’s host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) who doesn’t want any contestant’s story eclipsing his own. Kapoor gives a fine performance, one of the best in the film, but making him the heavy seems to leave the network and the rest of society completely blameless. Then again, I wonder if getting the rights to actually use WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE required that any corruption be limited to one bad apple.

So I’ve got minor plot complaints, but when it’s all said and done (and you don’t want to leave when the credits start, trust me) it’s a fun film and the climax genuinely had me in suspense. I’m already seeing some backlash against the film in some corners of the internet, but I think it’ll hold up. It’s crazy and naive and probably not the most accurate portrayal of Indian society you’ll ever see, but it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Sometimes pure entertainment trumps all other concerns; this is one of those times.

Based on the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup
Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Grade: A-

Oscar Nom Nom Noms

Image from WALL-E
The Oscar Nominations are in, and as usual, they’re kind of disappointing. The Academy has long taken the position that it’s better to mildly disappoint everyone instead of really outraging anyone, and while genre fans will most likely be rightfully pissed at THE DARK KNIGHT not getting a nod for Best Picture or Director, that’s actually not the biggest sin. Now, I haven’t seen some of these movies just yet and I have yet to post my finished review of dark horse/favorite SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (short version: It’s really good), but I feel qualified to rant on some of these.

As mentioned above, THE DARK KNIGHT did not get a Best Picture nomination. It was a bit of an outside shot, but definitely worthy, so it’s disappointing but not outrageous. However, the big prize also passed over WALL-E, one of the very best films from the consistently awesome Pixar and so, by definition, better than anything you could possibly have seen last year.

Both snubs have their reasons. THE DARK KNIGHT is a superhero movie, and it made lots of money so it technically doesn’t need Oscar validation. WALL-E also was reasonably popular, but more importantly, it has a nomination and almost certain win in the Best Animated Picture category. I kind of approved of that category back when it meant that SPIRITED AWAY got an Oscar, but now it’s clear that it’s just an excuse for the Academy to avoid the seeming indignity of giving Best Picture to a cartoon. It’s the first step towards a Grammy-style segregation of genres, and further dilutes the chance of animated features actually getting the full recognition they deserve. Imagine if there had been a “Best Comedy Feature” category when ANNIE HALL was up for nominations.

There’s also THE WRESTLER, which I need to see, but given how positive the reviews have been I’m starting to wonder just who Darren Aronofsky has pissed off in the business.

In the outside track, we instead have THE READER, which may well be a fine picture, but with a Metacritic score of 58 (RottenTomatoes lists no score due to some technical error on their part) it’s hardly a critical darling. And, you always hate to bring this up, but it is a Holocaust movie and you wonder if it wasn’t chosen simply because the subject matter was worthy. I’m also not really sure why THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is such a favorite, seeing as its reception has generally been warm rather than superheated.

Also, can I just say how incredibly unbelievably bored I am by the nominations for Best Art Direction? This is a category that’s been a problem for a while, because the people who nominate films for it consistently show a bias towards meticulously researched costume dramas over any other kind of movie. Some of the films that have NOT won Best Art Direction include BLADE RUNNER, THE WIZARD OF OZ, BRAZIL, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, FORBIDDEN PLANET, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, any of the Universal horror films, anything by David Lynch, anything by Terry Gilliam, an entire host of imaginative creative work passed over in favor of recreation. Don’t get me wrong, the challenge of expressing creativity and arranging images within the bounds and conventions of an established period is significant, but surely setting those bounds and conventions yourself is also challenging. WALL-E was a triumph of design and composition, and the same can be said of SPEED RACER, HELLBOY II, and arguably SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE despite the high levels of location work involved.

Finally, though this is another film I have to get around to seeing, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was not nominated for Best Foreign Film despite a swarm of good reviews. The reason, yet again, is that its country of origin, Sweden, didn’t submit it on time, and apparently it didn’t even play theaters there in time to make the cutoff. Between this and the CITY OF GOD fiasco, I think it’s clear that we shouldn’t let the countries decide for us what movies we should look at, and just pick the best from the entire world market.

There were some pleasant surprises- Robert Downey Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor nomination for a great comic performance in TROPIC THUNDER, though the late Heath Ledger is almost certain to win. (It’s always a shame when an acting award is a foregone conclusion, though it’s tragically inevitable here.) Amy Adams also gets another nod, and though I haven’t seen DOUBT I’m sure she deserves it because she is cool. IN BRUGES gets a screenplay nod, and though it deserves more it’s a miracle the Academy even remembers it was released last year. Still, I have a feeling that Hugh Jackman will have to work hard to liven up these proceedings.

But then, it wouldn’t be the Oscars if they didn’t frequently get things horribly wrong, now, would it?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Random Movie Report #59: First Man Into Space

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE poster and Amazon link
Obscure monster movies are always a crap shoot. You’ve got your bad ones, your bad enough to be entertaining ones, but I always stumble across a good one just often enough to keep coming back. FIRST MAN INTO SPACE is perhaps best known for inspiring a musical parody on WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?, but it somehow managed a Criterion release. From 1958, from a particularly cheap wing of MGM's distribution (even the lion-roar logo looks kind of slapdash)*, this space age Hammer-look-a-like is a slow starter, but ultimately not bad. It’s made with just enough smarts to transcend its Z-level origins, and holds up better than most late Fifties creature features.

The titular first man is Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), a cocky test pilot who starts the movie ascending into the stratosphere in a prototype rocket, thus earning the sobriquet “Highest Man on Earth.” (I’ll leave that one for now.) As luck would have it, his brother, level-headed Commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson, the actual lead) is heavily involved in the project, and after Dan nearly loses control and manages to trash the rocket on return, Charles worries about his brother’s stability. But Dan gets the go-ahead, and on the next flight (number 13), he pushes out of the stratosphere and into orbit, flying through a cloud of meteorite dust before crashing down to Earth. The team finds the capsule, encrusted with the strange dust, but Dan is nowhere to be seen. Then people start dying, blood drained, strange particles around their wounds. It turns out the alien substance not only encrusted Dan (making his suit and skin both bulletproof and capable of causing fierce wounds) but changed his body chemistry, giving him an animalistic need for blood.

It’s hard not to see a similarity between the plot of this movie and that of the first QUATERMASS serial, which was turned into Hammer Studios’ THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (sic) in 1956. I don’t know how much of it was a conscious ripoff, but parallels are unavoidable: an astronaut heading into space for the first time picks up an alien element or bug which turns him into a monster. (The even-lower-budgeted NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST used this plot hook as well.) Of course, by this point in history we were getting close to actually putting people in orbit, so the question of what awaited us up there provided plenty of plot hooks. This palpable uncertainty adds to the film’s effectiveness, and to be fair it doesn’t completely ape its British predecessor.

This is a slow-moving picture, taking a long time to turn Dan into a monster and taking longer for the creature to finally be revealed. It doesn’t help that Charles, whom we spend most of our time with, is kind of boring: he’s staid and responsible and doesn’t seem to have anything going on outside the job, and though Marshall Thompson tries hard enough the result is just too flat.

There are some stronger performances (particularly Carl Jaffe as the chief scientist involved), and DOCTOR WHO fans in particular should watch this one. Roger Delgado, who would originate the role of the Master on that show, plays a Mexican consul who’s angry over how the rocket’s crash landing disrupted a local ceremony and wants some financial compensation. The way the scene plays (and I’m not even sure what it has to do with the rest of the movie), it seems to have been intended as a bit of silly “ethnic” humor, but Delgado is so commanding that you end up on his character’s side.

As long as it takes the picture to get moving (relatively speaking- it only runs for 77 minutes), the payoff is worth it. The monster, when we see him, is a grim grey hulk with just the barest remnant of a human face. He does look silly driving a car (possibly the only Fifties movie monster to try this), but the juxtaposition of his brutal acts with the fact that there’s still an innocent human trapped somewhere inside is well-exploited in a powerful climax. The film ends very well, with some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, and that’s enough to make it worth your time.

(As for the “Highest Man” business, later Dan promises to bring back Charles “all the dope”. About space, one assumes.)

*Edited (5/31/10) to remove an inaccurate assumption I made about MGM's performance- they were still doing pretty good at the time.

Story by Wyatt Ordung
Screenplay by John C. Cooper and Lance Z. Hargreaves
Directed by Robert Day

Grade: B-

Thursday, January 08, 2009

In Theaters: Milk

Milk poster from
Reviewing the movie MILK without looking at its relevance to the modern gay rights movement is nearly impossible, which makes reviewing it tricky. I don’t want to give the film credit just for being pro-gay-rights, since making a film with a good message does not necessarily mean you’ve actually made a good movie. But at the same time you can’t divorce this from a modern context; over in California there’s just been a very ugly law passed repealing gay marriage rights in that state, and Rick Warren, a pastor who helped get the law passed, is giving a prayer at President-elect Obama’s inauguration, which is insult-to-injury defined. In such times, the inspiring yet tragic story of Harvey Milk, one of the most important figures in the American gay rights movement, seems like a cry for action, an exhortation, something to remind all of us that the fight can be won and needs to be won. This in turn makes the movie seem more effective. So I have to make sure I’m not overselling the film just because it’s coming along at an opportune time.

Fortunately, MILK happens to be a very good movie, probably a great one. Gus Van Sant delivers a lively picture, one brimming with energy and intensity. It’s just plain entertaining in a way you don’t expect a political biopic to be; without cheapening or sensationalizing its subject, MILK steers away from the forced solemnity or overdelicate handling that sometimes ruins sensitive material. Van Sant and writer Dustin Vance Black have done their homework, and that they found the right actor for the part doesn’t hurt either.

The film is framed, briefly, by scenes of a 48-year-old Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) dictating memories and thoughts into a tape recorder, the tapes to be played in the event that he is assassinated. The real action, however, begins at the start of the decade, when Harvey meets young hippie Scott Smith, they fall in love, and move to San Francisco’s Castro district, home of a growing gay community. Harvey starts out opening a camera shop, but is caught up in the influx of young gay men from all over the country moving to one place they’ve heard is safe for people like them. The store becomes a meeting place for gay activists, and Harvey helps them get organized, even working to gain favor with other factions in San Francisco (helping the Teamsters boycott Coors by getting it removed from local gay bars, in one notable example.) Soon after the murder of a gay man walking with his partner, Harvey decides to start running for San Francisco’s board of supervisors. He loses, and loses, and loses a primary for the California State Assembly, but keeps doing a little better each time. Finally, in a race that proves the last straw for his and Scott’s relationship, he wins a seat.

And it’s just at the right time. As Anita Bryant and other anti-gay activists start leading drives to repeal anti-discrimination ordinances in various cities and counties across America, Harvey is trying to get one passed in San Francisco. To make things more complicated, State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) teams up with Bryant to introduce Proposition 6, a state law that would call for the firing of gay teachers and their supporters. It enjoys a lot of support at first, but Milk feels like a fight, and uses his unique mix of political acumen and brash soapboxing to rally as many people as possible against the discriminatory law. In so doing, he manages to alienate fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a conservative family man who never really got along with him in the first place but is starting to take his political setbacks personally.

We all know how this ended. Proposition 6 was defeated, and Milk’s gay-rights ordnance passed. But Dan White, growing increasingly unstable, resigned his post only to ask for it back. When Mayor George Moscone (here played by Victor Garber) rejected his re-application, White broke into City Hall, and killed both Moscone and Milk (whom he no doubt blamed for not getting his job back.) It is, sadly, a bit too common for films about gay men to end in death, and here it was unavoidable, and the filmmakers try to avoid overemphasizing Milk’s murder while not dragging it offscreen. White’s trial, the “Twinkie Defense”, the post-verdict riots, and his eventual suicide are all dealt with in the traditional end-of-film captions, but we are shown (mostly through real footage) the candlelight vigil that took place the night of the tragedy. It’s arguably the best way they could have treated the material, and the splendid documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK covers that in more detail if you’re interested.

Sean Penn has to walk a line here, doing justice to Harvey’s awkward and sometimes effeminate mannerisms without going into full-blown caricature. Milk in the film, as he was in life, is gangly, a bit ungraceful, but constantly animated and powerful; humble but commanding. If you’ve ever seen any news or interview footage of Milk himself (and again, the aforementioned doc is a great place to start), you probably couldn’t help but notice that he was both a nebbish and a firebrand, and the unique charisma that made him a successful politician is well in evidence in Penn’s portrayal. You cannot help but like the man, and even Dan White is shown as being somewhat receptive to his overtures of friendship; their rivalry tends to stem from White’s own naiveté about how the political game works. Josh Brolin also avoids caricaturing the troubled conservative too much.

James Franco is the real counterpoint to Penn, though; one is cold when the other’s hot, and often vice versa. The relationship between Harvey and Scott is charmingly presented, and missed when it goes away, but it seems strong even then- though they weren’t together at the end you get the sense that they never stopped being in love. Some great casting was done for the other members of Milk’s Castro Camera entourage (including an invisible Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, who actually also appears in the movie and worked as a historical consultant), and it’s often a joy just to watch them all at work. The excitement and fear of being at the dead center of a major civil rights movement comes across so strongly as to be invigorating. There are a few missteps (I’m not sure how the opera imagery fits anything), but they’re minor.

There’s a disheartening irony in seeing MILK after a major setback for gay rights, but it’s also a nice prod against complacency. Great things don’t get done without great effort, and this movie gives a sense of just how much effort was involved in giving gay people the most rudimentary rights and protections. On top of it all, it’s just a really great movie, paying tribute to a remarkable man.

Written by Dustin Vance Black
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Grade: A

Monday, January 05, 2009

2009: Jupiter and Beyond!

It’s been 2009 for some time now, but I think now’s as good a time as any to post some resolutions. Some of these are personal, though not too much so. Others are more relevant to youse guys. So, without further ado.

1. Get to Britain by any means necessary. In 2001-2002 I spent a Junior Year Abroad in Cambridge and it was a life-changing experience. I felt more at home there than anywhere else, for some reason- getting to know people at the pub, biking anywhere I could, being a train ride away from London, it just clicked.

I’ve been planning to emigrate for some time, and though it is not easy to land a job in another country, I honestly don’t think I’ve been trying hard enough often enough. I need to get in a habit of sending applications so frequently that by the time one is rejected I’ve already got others pending. I’ll be 28 on the 13th, and I understand it gets much much harder to get in legally when you hit 30.

It’s not that I dislike living in America, it’s just that this is a dream of mine and over the past year I’ve started to gain a certain amount of dread that it would go unfulfilled, which shouldn’t happen for something as elemental as changing physical location.

So, any British employers looking to hire someone with a Library Science degree from overseas, or for that matter anyone who can provide any advice or assistance, if you’re reading this, my e-mail’s in the profile.

2. More comic posts. I’ve drifted away from comics blogging as of late, and though I still buy a lot of monthlies I’ve never found a good context to start writing. (The last trade I bought came square in the middle of a series so that would have been weird.) However, I am still listed in many places as a comics blog and shouldn’t completely disappoint everyone on that front. I’ll look for opportunities to write about this, and maybe dig out collections and graphic novels that I haven’t reviewed yet.

3. More of my favorites. You know what? PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was on TV Friday night, and I love that movie. I wrote a review once but it was for a site that’s not there anymore. I’d like to write on it again. But most of the time when I do a Random Movie Report, it’s a film I’m just now seeing, and I try to work films I’ve already seen into Academy of the Underrated or a series (like the Matrix or Star Wars posts). But I want to write about my favorite movies, and maybe go over a few favorite books and TV shows as well. There’ll probably be a new category.

4. More gaming! I was last in an RPG group in 2007, just before I moved to KC, and amidst the business of doing nothing I’ve yet to find anyone around here. Not sure what, but I want to play/run something, dammit. I’m feeling like a collector.

5. This is a subset of the “favorite” thing, but- FRASIER. I goddamn love this show, as much as MST3K and WHO, but I’ve yet to find the right context to post about it. I don’t wanna steal Mightygodking’s thing of just posting clips, so I dunno. I’m thinking.

6. Get readership up. Posting more frequently would help, I know, but I’m still getting the hang of the “short post” thingy. It’s not really important to me that the site become popular, but readership seems to have eroded slightly over the past several months and I’d like to reverse that if at all possible.

7. Film & Discussion. It still exists and my crossposting to it is piss-easy. Why am I not doing it? I don’t even know. So there you go.

8. More THE MOVIES movies released. Ironically the closure of the official online site has gotten me interested in really diving in again.

9. I have owned METROID PRIME for over 4 years now. That final boss fight ain’t gonna finish itself.