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It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we though of the Best Supporting Actor category:

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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.

Im thinking of a number.

I'm thinking of a number.

All of us here have derided a film, at some time, for “not having a point.”  But what does that mean, exactly, and how does it relate to the quality of a film?  A film doesn’t need to contain some moral or get to some absolute truth, of course.  I suppose one could claim the incredibly awesome The Rocky Horror Picture Show is making a statement on the corrupting nature of power or how true love is like a good Meat Loaf, but it isn’t meant to teach a lesson.  Similarly, having a clear message does not guarantee a successful movie.  We all dislike Crash, but that surely was driving at something.  I didn’t much care for Babel or Million Dollar Baby, but those had well-defined agendas.

I don’t have a good answer to the question I posed above.  I can say, however, that W. didn’t have a point.  It made virtually no political statement, offered almost no insight into George W. Bush, and pretty clearly was not constructed with a goal of being entertaining.  Which isn’t to say anything about my enjoyment of the movie, just that I’m not entirely sure why the movie was made.

Ostensibly detailing the rise to power of George W., Stanley Weiser’s script is a muddle of moments cherrypicked to note various stages of W’s life.  Instead of a coherent story, the idea seems to have been to start with a checklist of the various phases of W’s life and make sure that a scene from each one was included.  If the movie was called S. and portrayed a fictional president, with fictional supporting players, I’d be fairly surprised to hear it associated with any awards buzz.

Indeed, the story here may be how so many of the actors seem to be impersonating the people they are portraying.  Or, rather, how the film seems so pleased with itself that it has name actors to play these well-known personas, you can almost hear Oliver Stone chuckle as, say, Richard Dreyfus goes through his lines.  Now, I don’t know the line between impersonation and acting.  Frankly, I don’t care.  But Weiser and director Oliver Stone go to great lengths to reenact certain moments of W.’s history, with perhaps a slight emphasis added (if only to reduce what was surely, say, a half hour meeting down to three minutes) and maybe successfully, but to what end?  For example, Stone lingers on Thandie Newton’s (and by the way, her last five screen credits for those keeping track at home?  W., RocknRolla, Run Fatboy Run, Norbit, and The Pursuit of Happyness) exaggerated impersonation of Condolezza Rice.  It doesn’t particularly advance the story, it isn’t comic relief, it doesn’t build tension.  No, it is more, “here’s a slightly ridiculous impersonation of Condi Rice.  Deal with it. <as the camera lingers on her a beat or two past the onset of awkwardness>” At times, it feels the filmmakers tried to paper over the script’s inadequacies by stuffing the film chock full of name actors in name roles.  But to quote the other Twain, that don’t impress me much.

If we are given a cud on which to chew during the movie, it is on W.’s relationship with his father, where the son rides a seesaw of being a screwup and then trying to fit in somewhere to gain respect from his dad (James Cromwell).  It is an interesting strain, sadly not given enough meat to support the rest of the movie.  Still, the scenes with the two are probably the best in the movie.  Not counting, naturally, any scene with Elizabeth Banks (as Laura Bush).

The film’s best chance for an Oscar is probably Josh Brolin, who currently has at least an outside shot at a nomination, it would seem.  An interesting thought is Thandie Newton for Supporting Actress, which Awards Daily sees as a possibility, at least.  Possibly because the category tends to be weakest (or at least that seems to be how it is trending for me, and feel free to insert comment about lack of roles for women here).  Again, is it easier or harder to act when your character is someone you are openly trying to mimic?  I don’t know, but Brolin does give a compelling performance.  In my mind, those on the left will wish he played Bush less sympathetically (and less intelligent) and those on the right won’t be satiated enough to not mock Oliver Stone.  And I think that’s a good balance to strike.  It is always hard to judge these things based only on the early films, but in a vacuum, it wouldn’t be a mistake to give Brolin a nomination.

The title of this post may be confusing.  (Not unlike the post itself.)  You see, W is easily one of the top 26 letters in the alphabet.  Sesame Street recognized this fact, and gave W a song, the video of which is below:

January 2021