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Apologies for the horrible title. If it goes on to win Best Picture God help us that headline will be everywhere.

Milk may be the best biopic I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the review of my memory for a better biopic was hardly scientific and this is an invitation to set me straight in the comments and for me to sheepishly agree, but for now I’ll call it the best in memory. It doesn’t fall into the usual traps even good biopics succumb to and it manages to be a message flick without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

From a plot standpoint I think Milk’s life naturally lends itself to an effective biopic. For one, it was short and the most influential times of his life spanned a remarkable short period. He only lived to 48, didn’t move to San Francisco until the age of 39, didn’t run for San Francisco supervisor until 43, and didn’t win until 47, and only served for 10 months. This all makes it easy to keep the film focused in both plot and theme without skimping on the details. For me it was a refreshing change of pace from films like Ray and Walk the Line which felt sprawling and thematically shallow because they had so much to cover over their subjects’ long lives. For this reason many biopics feel like a series of vignettes: in this scene the hero experiences childhood tragedy, in this one he let’s his demons overcome him, in this one he redeems himself, etc… Milk rarely feels like that, instead composing a continuous story. And of course, Milk’s life was dramatic and heroic and he fought for the tried and true ideals of freedom and equality.

The positives in Milk are not by all means inherent to the subject, however. Director Gus Van Sant imbues his film with a remarkable sense of time and place, putting the viewer not just into the life of Harvey Milk but also into his environment. As much as we’re experiencing a great man’s achievements we’re experiencing a period of upheaval in 1970s San Francisco. Again, this is rare for a biopic, which necessarily tend to focus more on their subjects than their settings. The cars and clothing change over the years in Ray, for example, but there isn’t the same depth in setting as there is in Milk.

Van Sant filmed mostly in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even renting the space Milk’s camera shop used to occupy. It was made up to look like the old shop; security guards stationed there reported older residents walking by and getting moved to tears by the recreation.

Beyond that, the story is well told and the characters well developed. The pacing, the level of drama, and the tone always felt right on. And in a time when the gay civil rights movement is gaining attention and traction and Harvey Milk’s state is once again thrust into the spotlight, the message hits home without getting preachy (save, perhaps, that boy in the wheelchair). I found the interspersal of archive footage to be effective and not gimmicky and I loved the opening montage.

Sean Penn is terrific as the title character. He disappears into the role and I in turn lost myself in his performance. The man is simply one of those movie stars that you forget is a movie star when he is on the screen. I also really liked Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s killer. The character is complex and off-kilter and the performance is skillfully and subtly unsettling. If I can agree with one point in Jared’s (I’m sorry to say) remarkably wrong-headed post is that I wish we saw more of White. He is an intriguing character and the film does a disservice to itself by suggesting White did what he did because he was gay. There is no evidence to suggest he was and Dan White’s warped mind was likely more fascinating than explaining away his motives with a false and simple reason. Thankfully there was no scene of him chowing down on Twinkies. (For extra reading, check out this story on White from earlier this year)

As to the rest of Jared’s argument, I know we saw the same movie because I saw it with him. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen him there with my own eyes. I guess he wants more sense of context, but I’m not sure how that matters. Who cares how many gay people there were in San Francisco or how many supported Milk? How does that help a story about the man? The film does a remarkable job of developing its environment, but it’s still primarily about the man. I found the context provided and a simple knowledge of history to be more than enough context. Also you namechecked the wrong Brolin there, boss.

You’d have to think one of the supporting actors will sneak into a nomination, if not several. Brolin was my favorite, followed by Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Neither character was as fleshed out or challenging as Dan White, however. Diego Luna was the weak link in the cast, I think.

Elsewhere we can probably expect Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations, all well deserved. As far as the technical categories, with those big nominations one would imagine Editing to follow. And, to throw a bone to Jared, art director Charley Beal was also the art director for the pilot episode of “Love Monkey,” so he must have been good.

Finally, does anyone know what the deal is with all the random little barbs directed at Dianne Feinstein? Amusing but strange.


Why are all these posts concentrating on little categories like “Best Actor” and “Best Director” when what we all really care about is Art Direction and Costumes? In the course of seeing all of the films nominated for the big eight I ended up seeing most of the films nominated for all those other categories they hand out awards to in the middle 2 hours of the Oscar telecast. Since you obviously care about my make-up preferences, please, read on!

Best Song
“Falling Slowly” Once, “Raise it Up” August Rush, “Happy Working Song” Enchanted, “So Close” Enchanted, “That’s How You Know” Enchanted

For some reason I feel like I already covered this category. But since the Academy stupidly ignored my recommendations, let’s take a look at these inferior choices.

The clear winner for me is “Falling Slowly.” It’s the central song in the wonderful musical Once that embodies the heartbreak and loneliness of the main characters. “Raise it Up” is actually fairly offbeat and I imagine it works well in the film, schmaltzy as it surely is. Nothing against Enchated, but if one of its triumvirate wins it better be “That’s How You Know,” a clever take on the Disney fairy tale tune set in modern times. “Happy Working Song” is a cute but uninspiring ditty while “So Close” is a toothless and unmemorable love song.

Snubs: See my breakdown of the eligible songs to find about a dozen songs I liked better than all the non-Once songs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of those films whose technical mastery I can admire but failed to really grab me.

Julian Schnabel has created and interesting, unique, and innovative film exploring the experience of a man locked into his own mind, able to communicate with only an eyelid. For roughly the first half of the film, we see only what Jean-Dominique Bauby, the unfortunate cripple, sees. This means a limited, often unfocused and confusing view from one eye. It’s a very neat concept and we can really feel Bauby’s initial bewilderment. These are paired with some beautifully-shot fantasy sequences. Janusz Kaminski scored a well-deserved Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for his work. The view from the one eye was probably my favorite part of the movie and I think it lost some punch when eventually the view pulls away and we see Bauby as an outside observer. Read the rest of this entry »

I like characters.  I like characters more when they actually do something.  I like nuance.  I like nuance more when it isn’t just for the sake of nuance.  I actually think John just about nailed it with his original thoughts – a review I believe he’d now like to recant.  Adam must have gotten to him or something.

I’m just struggling to understand why a drama with little to no discernible drama, thrills, or suspense has garnered so much acclaim.   Sure, it is an exaggeration to say the plot was entirely linear, there were maybe three kinks in there.  Of course, if one of those Kinks isn’t Ray Davies, what’s the point?  Ah, British Invasion humor! Read the rest of this entry »

So it took me a long while to figure out first, if I liked the movie, second, how much I liked it, and third, why I liked it. End conclusion: I liked it a lot, but I’m still not even sure why, so please excuse the stream of consciousness nature of this post.

As you can tell from some of my other reviews, I kind of like comparing movies to other movies. Except There Will Be Blood is the most original movie I’ve seen in a long while, and the closest comparison I can make is Citizen Kane, which is unfair to both Paul Thomas Anderson and Orson Welles.

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After throwing John a bone with Talk to Me, I can now criticize his opinions to my heart’s content (that’s how it works, right?). I really liked this movie. In fact, if you have been reading religiously to all the posts (so, really I’m talking to the three other guys who right for this), you’ll notice that it was in my original top 5 movies of the year. I thought it was a great character study with some very memorable performances. And, this is where John and my opinions diverge.
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Ah, finally. I’ve been waiting oh so long to take Brian to task. He writes in his No Country post how “endings aren’t that big a deal to [him].” He then goes on to some tortured math, equating the final Sopranos scene and the closing shots of The Departed to 10% of a movie. Dear oh dear. I think even the argument that each X percent of a movie should be weighted equally is flawed, though I’m not fervently opposed to it.

A somewhat appropriate analogy might be a gymnastics routine. Like the floor exercise, a movie can be filled with Celine Dion songs and flips and never ever leaving the mat (oh, and if you are Brian, 15 year old girls), but if you don’t stick the landing, the judges are going to dock you like crazy. Oh, um, I might be a bit of an Olympics junkie. Read the rest of this entry »

I can understand why someone wouldn’t like Into the Wild but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes it’s long and yes it’s slow-paced and yes it’s at times full of itself. But I was pulled into it and didn’t feel its long runtime until the very end.

The film walks a thin line between glamorizing McCandless and disapproving of his attitude and journey. He’s romanticized prominently but the negative aspects are more subtle until the end. Occasionally you think throughout the film, “man this guy’s kind of a dick” but by the end there’s no doubt. “Yes,” you say, “he’s definitely a dick.” I still felt for the guy at the end, but he is exposed as a naive, stubborn kid whose flaws did him in. The glamor is completely gone at the end as he realizes he’s eschewed a major part of the human experience – social interaction – in his deluded search for truth.

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I’ll probably be repeating some of the themes we discussed at Dremo’s, so bear with me, but my main problem with Into the Wild was that Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless was so obnoxious and irredeemable that I was rooting for his inevitable death throughout. Maybe its because I have an anti-hippie streak in me, but I had no empathy for his character’s “F— the World” mentality.

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Had I been completely ignorant of Oscar hype going into this movie, I’m not sure i would have pegged anything about it as Oscar material. Nothing about the movie struck me as particularly ambitious. The subplots (e.g. all the family issues) onto which I would have imagined Oscar latching weren’t particularly developed or stark. As much as I loved The Girl Next Door, Emile Hirsch didn’t seem all that special in the movie. The directing and cinematography seemed subpar to me, especially considering the material. And while I liked the supporting crew, I personally didn’t see anything memorable. That’s not to say I didn’t like the movie. I just found it, like American Gangster or Eastern Promises (generally speaking, at least), a movie enjoyable enough, but I’ll likely mostly forget it in a few months, and not really miss much.

The Eddie Vedder songs were pleasant enough, though I couldn’t remember them by the end of the night. And I don’t think the Abita Purple Haze had anything to do with that. In a vacuum, I’m not opposed to one getting a nomination, I can’t say for sure yet whether I think it would be in my top five.

June 2019
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