Sean Penn offers an awesome performance of humanity and sheer acting craft in depicting a character who is only off-screen for seconds, while contemporary newsreels intersperse the dramatic action to provide the historical narrative context. Milk is engaging, lovable but flawed and self-absorbed.
More detail of his complex character is related in Randy Shilt's book 'Mayor of Castro Street' which is an essential companion if you are drawn into the story of the man and the issues. I cannot see why you wouldn't be, as it's a fascinating story of time and place.
The Castro itself is the other star not on the bill. This compact district of Eureka Valley west San Francisco effectively became the world's first gay ghetto back in the early to mid-1970s, in an episode that made it a haven for unhappy,alienated and horny(!) homosexuals from across the USA whilst at the same place dispossessing its traditional Irish-American population. The film tries, in the brief space it has, to document this social upheaval as it plays out.
Anyone that knows the Castro (as a visitor - guilty!) can see quite a few scenes were filmed on it, adding a piquancy to the story and another example of the love lavished on the film by its cast, crew and its director Gus Van Sant. Personally, I dislike many of his films finding them elliptical and pretentious, but 'Milk' is pretty straightforward and has a mainstream feel. Maybe a little too much like a 'studio' movie, but at least the stylistics don't get in the way of the story telling.
Probably most astonishing is how recent these events actually though some of the sentiments expressed feel they come from another time completely. But then, as it was still technically illegal in the early 1970s to serve alcohol to a homosexual in a San Francisco bar, should we be surprised.
Those decrying it for its 'cheesy' dialog and 'lack of plot' absurdly miss the point. Many of the lines of dialog are lifted directly from Herodotus and Plutarch - blame ancient literature not Hollywood.
300 is hewn in the epic tradition, not so much the 1950s Charlton Heston kind, but in the original Greek poetic tradition, where the actions are heroic, the odds multiplied, the lessons stark and the characters dazzling. 300 faithfully follows the tradition on all of these counts. In addition, the cultural observations on Spartan life are in many cases supported by contemporary accounts, mostly external as Sparta had a strict non-literary tradition.
In historical reality, it was clear the Leonidas last stand was as much a tool of Greek national propaganda, in order to rouse the fragmented states to defy Xerxes' divide and conquer strategy.
It's ironic, perhaps intentional that a Scots actor, Gerard Butler is chosen to play the heroic role very similar to that of William Wallace in Braveheart, though Leonidas is much less the reluctant hero.
There has been considerable complaint about the lack of accuracy in the depiction of battle - a criticism also laid at Braveheart, which took massive license in that department. True, the stylised slo-mo orgy of violent action bears little relation to historical Spartan battle tactics, but uses no less hyperbole than the historian Herodotus himself (the 'Father of Lies') would have approved, had he the budget. History back then was a form of political art, not the preserve of accountants.
Viewing 300 through the prism of our current age does make it seem risible and clichéd, but remove that layer of judgement and understand the integrity behind it and its a remarkable artefact.
The premise is the 'last day in the life of' Bobby Kennedy as he campaigns in the California Primary of 1968. Except, it's the goings on in the Ambassador Hotel, where he will be shot that evening, that feature rather than the character itself. It's a structural device, perhaps even influenced by the obvious and somewhat alienating reverence that Estevez has for Kennedy.
Excerpts of speeches and public reactions to his visit are inter-cut into the movie, that almost portray him as this Ghandi-like presence, on the cusp of commencing a national transformation that will not only end the war in Vietnam but apparently bring an end to 'hatred and violence' and a new sense of community. What is overlaid across the film with the intent of being inspirational, often comes across as simplistic. Estevez simply does not have a sufficiently detached critical sense to connect to more sceptical viewers. L.A liberals and ageing hippies will of course by weeping into their popcorn buckets.
However, there are a couple of nice turns, which you inevitably get in a film with such a cast. Mentionably, Sharon Stone, whose jaded beautician provides a relatable, pathetic character amongst a range of cyphers who are basically inserted to represent the body politic - old and young, black, white and Hispanic, druggie and idealist.
The final portion is compelling and well shot but the rest of the movie, despite it's attempt to portray America poised on a knifedge, as Kennedy would have it, lacks zest.
The Island is not anywhere near as soporific, but is deeply banal. Somewhere deep in its core there is an interesting sci-fi idea and perhaps even an ethical dilemma to be addressed. But its smothered under endless pop-video stylings, an insipid screenplay, interminable and overblown action sequences and actors struggling to offer performances and create characters in the director's entirely two-dimensional universe.
Bay is the apotheosis of the bad director, the prime role in the malign ecosystem of American cinema with bad films being created to feed the appetite of audiences conditioned to bad, but expensive movies. The tradition of the blockbuster began in the 1970s, when the movies retained some measure of substance and the director's were somewhat talented and idealistic. 'Product' like The Island can only be the product of cynical, tired and unchallenged minds. Having said all that, the film had as bad a run at the American box office as everywhere else, so perhaps audiences retain a modicum of good taste.
The product placement begins almost before the initial credits have rolled as Lincoln Six Echo rummages around for his missing Puma tennis shoe. We see he appears to be living in the near future in a post-apocalyptic refuge which appears to be a hybrid of a David Lloyd health Club and a city centre shopping mall.
Inmates are subject to dietary, exercise and strict no touching rules, ostensibly for their own health but, as eventually revealed, because they are nothing more than organ donors to be harvested for rich clients as required.
That's the interesting bit over with. Inevitably, they are able to escape about half way through the movie (the envy) to find they are actually living in a bunker somewhere in the desert and a short maglev train ride to L.A. Why maglev trains stop at one-horse desert towns is not made clear. Whatever the explanation, it's more plausible than the idea that an industrial holocaust on this scale could go undetected whilst apparently staffed casually by locals.
The second half of the movie is a series of very long, headache- inducing action sequences which, predictably, the pair survive. Ewan McGregor also has a narcissistic episode when meeting his clone double - an opportunity the film can't be bothered to make more of. I have no issues with action movies, but can I have a bun with my burger? The ending requires, of course, that the whole dystopian edifice is torn down, providing another FX extravaganza. Personally, I thought the whole model-based sequence for Logan's Run in 1976 was more interesting to look at.
The Island steals heavily from Logan's Run, and THX 1138 and is in many ways as much a pastiche of movie dystopian features as it is a rehash of the style used by Bay in previous movies.
And there is no Island. It's just an illusion.
The reasons or consequences for the sun's failing light is not within the scope of Sunshine. There are no apocalyptic visions of earth and humanity a la Armageddon or Deep Impact. This is not a blockbuster in that vein. However, it is very much a homage to an earlier generation of sci-fi movies, inspired by the literature of Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov and others and in classic movies like 2001, Silent Running and Alien.
Sunshine takes you on a metaphysical journey in the claustrophobic environment of a spacecraft on a rather desperate mission to reignite the sun with a huge atomic bomb, which comprises all the nuclear fissile material left on earth and represents humanity's last throw of the dice for survival. Initially the crew have little to contemplate apart from the final messages they will send home and their chances of success, whilst studying with fascination the disc of the sun itself as the grow closer.
However, the discovery of a signal from the beacon of a previous failed attempt leads them to take choices which have consequences sending their mission spiralling out of control.
Sunshine has much in common with Boyle and Garland's previous sci-fi collaboration of 28 days later: a clever scenario, a plot driven by character exploration rather than pure action, imaginative art design, a strong reference to a previous genre - in that case zombie movies, and a weaker sequence near the end than the film's beginning deserves.
However, I found Sunshine a more enjoyable experience due to some fantastic effects and genuinely tense sequences. Whereas 28 days later's experiment with digital video was interesting but ultimately unattractive in a cinematic context, Sunshine has some beautiful composited shots, neat computer graphics that look like computer graphics and a stream of loving, mesmeric depictions of the Sun itself, which make it quite plausible that certain members of the crew would sit and gaze at it for hours.
Somewhat less plausible is the science - both that the Sun would die in this way, and that a bomb that we could muster, however gigantic, would have any effect.
Another aspect I struggle with is just how homage can stray into pastiche or downright plagiarism. Their is no doubt from where the screenplay derives its inspiration. There are plot sequences lifted almost directly from 2001, Alien, Aliens, Mission to Mars, Solaris and a number of others. The film however manages to blend them into a coherent whole and sustain the tension until the climax, although the final action setpiece is almost a direct rerun of 28 Days Later's mansion sequence.
I went to see it on opening night and I noticed some people leaving the cinema, obviously having go on the slightly misleading all-action thriller premise of the trailer shown on TV. But if you like your science fiction intellectual and beautiful you will want to experience Sunshine.
It's after this heist that the pace takes off. Cage has to stay one step ahead of the British, neatly echoing the root of the story, deliciously played as a bunch of working class English thugs led by Sean Bean, and also the law.
The chase leads the characters through a Da Vinci esquire series of codes, cyphers, secret passages and famous (to Americans at least) locations, with a smattering of real and imagined history. Curious to see the freemasons for once depicted as chivalrous heroes rather than a shifty bunch of overweight glad-handing businessmen.
Of course the delicious irony in this is that the treasure is not hidden on the back of the Declaration, it IS the declaration - the jewel of the 18th century Enlightenment, the spark that ignited the lamps of rationality, democracy, the division of powers and a secular state. The Declaration is America's great gift to humanity, and the story that the country 'without history' could also be hoarding a great stash of antiquity too is a delightful and enjoyable fantasy.
What they did was go back to basics. Take a new Bond back to the start of the story, strip away a large amount of the character's cartoon aspect, strip out the saggy excesses of the plots, characters and set-pieces and big up the rawer, less family-friendly aspects of international espionage.
Daniel Craig's Bond is a cruel man, with cruel eyes and he does nasty things to people on screen. This is not a character to engender familiar affection, but respect. As befits going back to the beginning of the story there is unrealised ambition, but also elements of self-doubt.
The script also allows him to make some big mistakes at several key points, some are based on judgement and experience, others plain naivety. But Bond bounces back here as he's always done, but more often using his fists and his malicious streak rather than some outrageous invention designed to get him out of trouble.
This is a Bond much more of an outsider, still inwardly socially awkward despite the developing veneer - 'there are dinner suits and dinner suits' observes Vesper Lynd sardonically, prodding that sense of residual inferiority absent from all this character's previous incarnations.
All of this is good. Much more of the iron fist than Brosnan's velvet glove, or worse, Dalton's limp civil-service handshake. It chimes in with a new sense of purpose and necessity that accompanies the concept of 'secret service' which has arisen since the growth in global terrorism. Since the return of Bond in the post-communist 1990s, the film's script had previously poked fun at Bond as being a 'relic' of the cold war, a silly establishment anachronism to be indulged. Suicide bombs, clandestine weapons programs and assassinations have turned on its head this view of spies and spying.
As terrorism is the underlying thread of threat in the film it is at once topical and believable. But in that there's a problem, at least from its appreciation on the pure level of popcorn entertainment. Bond villains have really lost their ambition - where once they planned to hold the world to ransom or even start a new Master Race in space, the height of their ambition is to fleece a few poker players in a tacky Yugoslavian resort hotel.
'If you fail, our government will have knowingly financed terrorism', chimes Vesper. Not exactly the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, and the stakes of the game are $150m. About the price of an NHS hospital, and the velodrome for the upcoming Olympics.
The set-pieces have been reigned in too. The opening free-running sequence is inventive and impressive, and the airport runway scene is fun. Unintentional satire too, given the obvious allusion to the prototype and the Airbus A380. Blowing up their new plane could lead the company to bankruptcy! Yes, and delays due to wiring problems can do the same...
After that the film distinctly loses pace which only accentuates its length. There was a palpable sense about 15 minutes from the end that the audience had had enough. It was a bold move to set such a long sequence of the film at a poker table, and it is relevant to the title, but there was just a few too many hands played. And at the end, after all the chips have been played I was expecting an underwater lair to emerge from the Adriatic, full of boiler-suited goons. But no, it was just a poker competition and, well done James, you won.
The ending gives a strong sense of linkage into a future episode, where the organisation for which Le Chiffre is working will reveal itself in more detail. Maybe there's a lair somewhere after all.
The Devil Wears Prada will sit alongside 'All About Eve', 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' and, of course, 'Mommie Dearest' on the DVD shelves of gay men everywhere, to be quoted reverently and brought out for themed parties and such like.
Also, relief for Meryl Streep. After years of trying to shake her somewhat dowdy and severe image as an actress through various comedy misfires, she proves she can truly nail a comic lead by turning in a performance at once so effortless and so refined as Anna Wintour's wardrobe. Streep, as Priestley, incidentally is turned out like Cruella De Ville at a Versace fire sale.
It is in achieving this flawless level of studied hauteur and languid disdain as Miranda Priestley in delivering every sentence and every withering look as 'Runway''s iconic Editor-in-Chief, that will see Streep take her place on a pedestal along Bette, Liza, Barbara and Faye, and see Miranda Priestley ascend to the pantheon of great camp characters.
Everything else pales. The other leads are there to accessorize, which they do dutifully and with the minimum of distraction. Hathaway's character wrestles with her work ethic, her sanity, her common decency and the desire to 'get on' and at its most serious level 'The Devil..' is a study on how psychological and emotional manipulation can be so skilfully brought to bear to make someone surrender their free will : Andrea initially believes her bid to conform and impress Miranda, in some way, a challenge to her boss, likely to 'prove' herself, whereas it is very much just part of the process of moral capitulation that begins 'when you put on that first pair of Jimmy Choos'.
Part of the delight is that Singer deploys his train set in many ways which fans would do themselves, many of whom have nostalgic childhood memories of being taken to Richard Donner's 1978 original version. From the blood-quickening homage to its comet-like opening credits roll, to the posthumous reprisal of Brando as Jor-el it's an affectionate and deferential reworking of Donner's original gilded with spectacular and extend cgi sequences which envision those superhuman qualities in a way wires and blue-screen filming never could.
There is some long-delayed directorial truth and justice in this, as Donner was unfairly sacked from the helm of Superman II because the producing Salkinds wished to take the franchise down a 'campier'; route that led to the critical and financial debacle of Superman III and the absolute farce that was Superman IV, which was the artistic equivalent of kryptonite to the franchise in Hollywood.
But Warners and Singer combined realise just what a fantastic creative source the Superman myth is, and all that it needs is lots of money and healthy dose of respect, Warners supplied around $200m of the former and Singer does the latter by not attempting to undermine or update the character's core values.
Apart from the much discussed religious allegory/symbolism, there are other interesting themes. Singer takes delight in representing applied physics, which is at the heart of how the superhuman fantasy first engages the young: As they become fully aware of their own human limitations of strength, speed and agility, imagining what it would be like to be completely unrestricted by those laws and expanding on that, what that would make them in a society of normal men. The sense of space, time mass, velocity and vibration is conducted brilliantly throughout the film, not just via special effects but also by the imagination of screenplay and cinematography.
Brandon Routh matches the youthful Christopher Reeve curl for curl, but it is Kevin Spacey who offers a truly great performance as Lex Luthor. The buffoon crook portrayed by Gene Hackman, entertaining for all that, is replaced by a complex, psychopathic personality, given the space to expand on his own delusional self-vision as a modern day Prometheus 'bringing fire to the people'.
Superman and Luthor represent the spectrum of alienation from humanity; one distanced by all aspects of his identity and physiology, the other by his complete absence of empathy. Spacey plays it straight throughout and succeeds in recreating Luthor with a new sense of menace, even as he reprises the same basic plot ideal of the original movie.
A huge amount of thought has gone into the art direction and dialogue which are peppered with references to Superman plots and images harking back to the earliest comic book days. The movie is also more beautiful than a superhero action flick desires to be, as beautifully composed as it is dynamically stirring.
The overall length, periods of character exposition and old-fashioned feel (Space Shuttles in peril?) may have contributed to Superman Returns under-performing, just a little, its backers expectations. The sequel hangs in the balance by just a few million box office, but it is likely to be green-lighted given Singer's obvious enthusiasm (he promises a sequel as spectacular as Star Trek II was to the original movie) and the fact its mediocre performance was due to unhappy release timing in competition with the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut and Pixar's Cars.
If that prediction is borne out, good news, as Superman very much deserves to return again.