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Too Cool to Notice It Isn't
Can you think of anything more satisfying than pulling a fast one on someone? It's even more delicious when that particular someone is someone you care about or who has gotten you more times than you would like to remember. The look on their faces when they realize they've been had is worth every painstaking effort you had to make to pull it off. You would think then that DUPLICITY, a film in which two very likable and sneaky folks, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, who have proved chemistry together from working previously in Mike Nichols' CLOSER, would be sticking it to each other so bad that you would delight in every jab they made at each other. Well, the ultimate joke would be on you then because, while writer/director, Tony Gilroy, positions DUPLICITY as a feisty heist movie by stepping up the cool factor any way he can, it is actually nothing more than a failed prank fallen flat on its pretty Hollywood face.
When we first meet Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval (Roberts and Owen), they are drinking it up in Dubai at the US consulate. She isn't the least bit interested in him and he is working her as hard as he can. I didn't hear it but he must have said the right thing at some point because they end up in bed together. Of course, she was only sleeping with him so that she could drug him and steal some super secret international spy stuff. And naturally, he put aside all of his super secret spy training and allowed himself to be taken in by her beauty. It is a fleeting moment with very little chemistry or connection but this is supposed to be the instance that binds the two in a lust that is supposed to span years and lead to what we're told is true love. They reconnect years later in some other exotic shooting location and concoct a plan to dupe two high profile rival corporations and make off with millions of dollars that will allow them to bask in exorbitantly rich bliss for the rest of their lives. It's a fine plan but I wasn't buying anything.
Gilroy's last directorial effort was his first. MICHAEL CLAYTON earned him respect from critics and contemporaries alike as the film went on to earn a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Gilroy himself. Gilroy enlisted some of the same players he worked with last time out, including composer, James Newton Howard, cinematographer, Robert Elswit and even cast member, Tom Wilkinson, rejoins the gang as the head of one of these soon-to-be-conned corporations. How is it then that when all these folks got together last time, they achieved such subtle perfection while this time, Howard sounds as though he were ripping off the OCEAN'S 11 through 13 scores and Elswit is practically washed out? (Wilkinson is still great as he can do very little wrong in my book.) Perhaps the blame can be placed on Gilroy's most tired screenplay in years. By keeping corporate espionage grounded in reality last time out, he made it fascinating and relatable. By infusing it with Hollywood convention, the whole game was played out before it even began.
DUPLICITY boils down to very little more than two pretty people running games on each other and anyone else they can. The trouble is that the games they're running are amusing only to them and entirely transparent to the rest of us. The truly duplicitous nature of DUPLICITY it would seem is just that everyone on that side of the screen thinks they are so much funnier, so much sneakier and so much more dubious than what we on this side of the screen actually see. Once again, the cool kids are too ignorant to notice that they are nowhere near as cool as they think they are.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Revolutionary Road hardly revelatory
The drive from the train station is not that far. Once you get past the first stretch, home to local folk like plumbers, seamstresses and the like, you turn on to a quaint, quiet road. The house that will hopefully soon be the home to you and your children, present and future, sits atop its tiny slope, understated but proud. As you drive past the other homes, you see the people that inhabit them. The children run under sprinklers; the parents sit on their porches and enjoy their afternoon cocktails. They all look so happy, so home. This is what you need. This is what will make you happy too. This is Revolutionary Road. Only, it isn't really that. What it is really, is Sam Mendes' REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and just like the pretty picture it paints, it isn't as revelatory as it inherently suggests nor does it bring the happiness you thought it might.
Mendes has been down this particular road before. In the Oscar winning, American BEAUTY, Mendes explored the trappings of suburban life. It was hardly revelatory when he did it then but screenwriter, Alan Ball's unique take on the subject made it feel fresh and relevant. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is based on Richard Yates' 1961 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), the lovely, new couple who have bought the aforementioned house at the end of Revolutionary Road and who bring with them the promise of youth and vitality. You see, the Wheeler's are special. Everyone has always said as much. Then they moved to Revolutionary Road. They made their house into a home and filled that home with two wonderful children. It was at this point that they realized that they may not truly be as special as everyone has always said, that perhaps they are not destined for anything greater than what they already have.
Leo and Kate are perfectly cast as the Wheeler's. More than ten years after TITANIC, the pair are together again and now everyone gets to see exactly what might have happened if the couple had survived the boat going down. (I trust I gave nothing away there.) And while there is nothing romantic about their reunion, they are REVOTIONARY ROAD's one true revelation. Winslet is remarkable. She is subtly but always at odds with herself inside. She wants to love her life, her husband, and on some level, she does. But she is also yearning and desperate to feel alive. DiCaprio is a bit shaky but while April's hand is less than reassuring, Winslet's hand lifts him and elevates his performance to nearly the same level as hers. To watch the two of them go back and forth between being hopeful for their futures and dismally resigned to a lifetime of unhappiness is a ride well worth taking and one that will certainly leave you dizzy by the time it comes to its harrowing close.
The problem with REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is that Mendes seems more concerned in presenting the Wheeler's as a symbol for the greater point instead of allowing them to just be the relatable characters that they are. Frank and April are special. When we begin to buy into the idea that we are just like everyone else is when we become just like everyone else. When a film tries to make a point instead of just allowing the point to make itself is when a film takes on an importance it did not earn to start. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD could have been beautiful if it wasn't trying so hard to be the biggest house on the block.
The Reader (2008)
A Great Read
We don't know. We think we do but we don't. We make decisions or sometimes decisions are made for us but we think we've made them. Then suddenly, there we are. We can't be certain how we got there or where we will be when everything settles but we do know that we are alive. Some experiences are life altering and we can run from them or embrace them. Staying to see them through though can bring incredible bliss but also tormented turmoil. We just never know. One such experience was had by a young Michael Berg (David Kross) and is chronicled in Stephen Daldry's THE READER. How could he know that when he pulled into an alley to be sick that he would meet the woman who would shape his entire life? How could he know that getting close to her would pull him the furthest he's ever been from himself?
Of course, when you're a sixteen-year-old boy and a woman who looks like Kate Winslet disrobes in front of you in the privacy of her bathroom, how much thought really goes into the decision that has presented itself? However little it is, it is certainly less than is warranted. This is especially true in West Germany of 1958. This is a Germany that is uncertain how to proceed, how to be its new self in the eyes of the world and the eyes of its very own future generations. Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a compassionate woman but also abrasive and stern. Winslet strikes the perfect balance between directness and desire in Schmitz, making her complexities part of her appeal. She is a good fifteen years older than the young Berg and she knows much better than he of her country's history. What he knows, he has read in books, been taught in school. What she knows, she lived first hand. So when the two come together, naked in each other's arms, the meeting is as redemptive as it is passionate. Berg is just happy to be in love and having sex but Schmitz is washing herself clean with the youthful vigor of Germany's tomorrow.
The summer ends and so does the affair, as one would expect. Just when it would seem that the two would never meet again, life steps in to ensure that past decisions, perhaps made in haste, can come to see their consequences. Berg has grown some and is a college man, studying to be a lawyer, when he catches sight of Hanna Schmitz again. Their latest chance encounter is far less exciting though as he sees her on a class outing to a courthouse. Schmitz is on trial for crimes against humanity for her time as an officer in the Nazi party during the Second World War. Berg's memory of his first love would now become a question of his own morality. How could he love someone who was now accused of such atrocities? How could he be so intimate with someone he apparently never truly knew? And yet, now that he knows her past, does he really know how her past came to be? After all, what is the face of evil? Is it Hanna Schmitz or is it something incredibly bigger than her?
Ralph Fiennes is the future of Germany. He plays Berg as an adult. His life is orderly, very clean, crisp and cold. He made decisions that made him the man he is and he can never say whether they were the right ones or not. What he can see is that we all make decisions that either hurt or harm other people and that the atrocities committed by his past generations are not as far outside the realm of understanding as he might have originally thought. More importantly, redemption is not that far either.
The Wrestler (2008)
I was never a professional wrestling fan as a child. My brother was and so I occasionally caught the weekly shows because I was too lazy to get off the couch when he would watch them. I never understood the appeal. How could grown men rolling around on the floor together in an obviously choreographed battle appeal to the straight male? Is wrestling the straight man's ballet? And though I never understood why, my brother and legions of other men (and women) would watch religiously to see who would be smashed with a chair while the referee was lying unconscious on the floor. Amidst all of the spectacle though, it is easy to forget that the men in tights put on pants just like the rest of us when the show is done and go home to their lives. Darren Aronofsky is here to remind us of this and to show us the softer or more human side of THE WRESTLER.
From the moment is begins, with an opening credit montage highlighting the career accomplishments of former wrestling superstar, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) over a throwback hair-metal song, you know that you are in for a dirty ride. The Ram has got to be in his sixties at this point. It has been twenty years since he played Madison Square Garden and now he is the main attraction at local wrestling matches that are put up in high school gymnasiums and workout centers. He has no one of significance in his life; he can barely afford his trailer park home; and the steroids and numerous other drugs he has consumed and is still currently consuming have taken their toll on his weathered body. Yet still, he soldiers on. As long as he has his wrestling, he has purpose. Then one day, even that is taken away. Who does a man become when he can no longer be who he has always known himself to be?
THE WRESTLER is Aronofsky's finest work. It marks the first time in his major film-making career where he did not direct a script that he himself wrote. That credit goes to novice writer, Robert D. Siegel. Siegel's script is bare, honest and frank. It follows The Ram during this hard transitional period of his life and Aronofsky follows behind as though he were filming some trashy reality TV show. After all, this is a dirty story that goes back and forth between wrestling rings, strip clubs and trailer parks. Aronofsky does not sensationalize though. Instead, his newfound simplicity allows the humanity of all on screen to flow freely and freely is exactly how it flows from this immensely talented cast. Marisa Tomei plays The Ram's love interest, a stripper named Cassidy. Not only does she look incredible working the stage but her off stage persona is a great mix of tender and tired. It is a welcome reminder that Tomei is one of today's most underrated actresses. And then of course there is the wrestler himself. Rourke is revelatory. He is lonely and broken but still picking himself up and doing whatever needs doing. To watch a man of his age endure what he does in the ring makes you root hard for him but the horrifying violence also inspires intense sympathy.
THE WRESTLER is about purpose. After Aronofsky's last film, THE FOUNTAIN, failed and fell apart quite publicly, it would stand to reason that he may have been questioning his own purpose. Just like The Ram knows only how to be a wrestler though, Aronofsky has to be a filmmaker. Whatever confidence he may have lost has been forgotten as THE WRESTLER is a brave move away from the visual trickery and style he had become accustomed to. It is the natural simplicity of his new direction that makes THE WRESTLER so relatable, inspires great caring for its characters and solidifies it as Aronofsky's best work.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON certainly has no trouble living up to its name. It is very curious indeed, for instance, how a man can be born to this world the size of an infant but with the physical affliction of a man at death's door. It is remarkable that a two and a half hour epic can be so consistently beautiful to behold and breathtaking until its final moments. While it isn't the least bit unusual to catch Cate Blanchett on top of her game, it is certainly impressive to see Brad Pitt exhibit such restraint and internalized inquisitiveness. It is definitely intriguing to witness a director as dark as David Fincher (ZODIAC, SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB) abandon the genre that made him who he is and side step into such a grand, romantic piece with such apparent ease and enthusiasm. But it is perhaps most curious how this film, where every element is so delicately placed and nurtured to a point where it borders on technical perfection, can be so cold and empty an experience despite itself.
Of course, within the context of the film, the curious thing about Benjamin Button is that he is aging backwards while all of humanity is progressing naturally. Benjamin must suffer through his childhood in the body of an old man who has already lived his life when he is really just discovering it. Too frail to participate, he must watch life happen from the front porch of the old age home that has taken him in. Here, he bears witness to life in its final stages and grows accustomed to the constant presence of death. His perspective is undeniably unique as he is always moving forward despite the reversed nature of his physical growth. Yet, this view and the wisdom it could bring are not shared with Benjamin's most ardent observers, the audience. We are here for his story and the meaning it could bring to our relatively uncomplicated existences but instead, all we are given is the story itself. This amounts to little more than the long life of Benjamin Button, which would not be particularly different if it weren't for the whole aging backwards thing.
It is one thing certainly to have all of the characters who encounter Benjamin accept him for who he is but that expectation is mildly unrealistic to ask of an audience. Still, this film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years for a number of reasons, not the least of which was figuring out how to make it look realistic. Fincher finally settled on having graphs of Pitt's face drafted onto actors of different sizes and stature playing him at various stages of his aged infancy. The results are entirely believable and the makeup work, which so often detracts in such extreme cases such as these, is quite complimentary. And so visually, we buy into it. The performances also guide us to do the same as they are natural and heartfelt. And as if this weren't enough to transport us to this historic, fantasyland, Claudio Miranda's rich, contrasting cinematography does everything needed to fill in whatever gaps were left. With all this effort spent to make sure we believe what we are seeing, it is an awful shame that equal time wasn't spent on giving us something to believe in.
I blame Eric Roth. With so many things going for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, I have to lay the blame somewhere and Roth is the easiest person to point at. Roth's script is epic in proportion but minute in terms of purpose and meaning. Having proved his ability to carry people on long life journeys, such as that of FORREST GUMP, it is clear why he would be chosen to expand F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story into such a long film. In the process though, he took an unconventional concept and told it as conventionally as he could (did I mention that Benjamin's entire story is read from a diary at Blanchett's hospital deathbed). He created a character that is not so unlike the naïve Forrest. Benjamin is an observer of life; he watches it move forward from a perspective that none of us can truly comprehend and one that sadly, Roth and Fincher never allow us to see.
Seven Pounds (2008)
As a film critic, writer, enthusiast, what have you, I always find it somewhat tricky to write about a film that goes through such painstaking measures in its marketing campaign to keep its plot ambiguous. I can never figure out how to talk about the film while somehow not really talking about the film at all. This is because I hate giving things away and apparently, so does director, Gabriele Muccino. For the first half of the Italian director's latest Hollywood offering, SEVEN POUNDS, he drags his heels in the dirt, desperately concealing the plot in some failed attempt at being unconventional. For audiences who have been teased long enough with the trailer, being taunted once they've already paid for the answers will not go over well. There is a difference between natural intrigue and playing dramatic mind games with the viewer, intentional or not. When it comes to secrets, the important ones are kept without anyone knowing they even exist. Muccino almost seems to be having too much twisted fun dangling this seven pound carrot in my face. And by the time he gives you a bite, you're not hungry anymore.
After successfully pairing with star, Will Smith, two years ago with THE PURSUIT OF Happiness, Muccino goes for a second round. Muccino works very well with Smith, pulling hard, internal emotions out of one of the most accessible stars in Hollywood history. Smith knows this and it was no surprise to hear they were reteaming. It would seem that Smith makes most of his film decisions these days by choosing characters that are challenging and complicated. I commend him for this and think that, for the most part, he is successful in his evndeavors. However, Smith cannot completely control how his performance ends up shaping the films he is in. In SEVEN POUNDS, Smith gives a range of emotions from angry and bitter to gracious and generous. He is always convincing but Muccino takes Smith's performance and breaks it into so many non-sequential pieces that the energy needed to piece them all together leaves no energy left over to appreciate the whole.
SEVEN POUNDS does have one saving grace though and her name is Rosario Dawson. Dawson plays Emily Posa, a young woman with a heart condition and very little time left to live. She also owes an obscene amount of money to the American government. In steps Smith as Ben Thomas, an I.R.S. representative who seems more concerned with Emily's health issues than her back taxes. Inexplicably, they begin to spend significant time with each other. By the time this happens in the film, you can pretty much figure out what all the fuss is about but their interaction is so intriguing that it becomes a very welcome distraction. Their time together is oddly intriguing. They are drawn to each other and have a surprisingly simple ability to make each other laugh but you can tell that they are both dealing with very heavy struggles that limit their possibilities, both individually and together. It is a testament to healing capacity of the ever elusive emotion known as love.
The fragile love shared between Smith and Dawson proves ultimately to be another disappointing element of SEVEN POUNDS. It is so endearing that you wish the film had spent more of its focus there. Instead, it tries to play with you right up until the very end. If I am to be toyed with for such an extended period of time, I expect a pretty big payoff when I get what I'm due. Only the big reveal in SEVEN POUNDS serves solely to expose how conventional it truly is and how it wants to be heavy but is essentially as light as its namesake.
I couldn't sit still, let alone stand.
I don't know about the earth standing still but I certainly had a hard time moving after this one finished. I think I may have been in shock. I didn't know they still made movies as bad as this. That's me, I guess; the eternal optimist, thinking one day Hollywood will see the error of their ways. I'm starting to think there's a greater chance of aliens landing in Manhattan though. You don't take a highly regarded classic like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and update it for no reason other than to make a few bucks. Sure, you can pretend there is purpose; you can cash in on the current environmental crisis fears by insinuating that aliens have come to earth to save the planet from the horrifically unappreciative human race. When you make a film with such disregard for quality though, you can't do anything to convince me that you actually care about what you're trying to say.
I will give Hollywood this though; they have finally found the perfect vehicle for the now- veteran Hollywood actor, Keanu Reeves. Reeves plays Klaatu, an alien in human form who has no capacity of expressing human emotion or understanding the intricacies of human nature and interaction. It might as well say that at the top of Reeves's resume so this is Reeves in his element. Honestly though, this is the first time I can say that Reeves's presence in a film has absolutely nothing to do with why it is unwatchable. You know you have a problem when dialogue is so bad that it even drags Reeves's acting down. In fact, having the familiar Reeves on board for this uneventful journey, alongside the strikingly beautiful, Jennifer Connelly, at least gives us something pretty to distract us from the banality of the entire affair. Klaatu certainly rocks that three-piece suit though.
The earth is supposed to stand still on this particular day because aliens have descended upon Central Park in a giant weather sphere of sorts. It is a momentous occasion, one that could be the sign of the end of days. Yet, in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, panic hardly seems to be in the air. Panic comes from a fear of the unknown and an inability to see a solution to your problems but David Scarpa's script is so painstakingly obvious and formulaic that you can see right through to the end at all times. I hope I'm not giving anything away here but as if this film would finish with humanity's extinction. And when the devices used to create the melodrama are so laughably contrived (who knew that a white step mom and a black step son could have such hard times getting along?), at least you have the special effects to revel in. Mind you, when the special effects are even more ridiculous than the ensuing melodrama in a big sci-fi pic like this, what is there to keep you sitting still, let along standing?
You'll never believe this but humanity, or at least the American government run portion of humanity, take immediate military action against the alien invaders before giving them the chance to make their case. This next bit is even more shocking. Apparently, violence is not the answer to solving our problems. I swear, I learned so many hard life lessons watching this movie. Perhaps the most important lesson though is that humanity will never learn. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL represents the same disposable and commercial interests that are the root of our environmental problems. Yet, here is it preaching against the very values that justify its existence. For that reason alone, I would consider this film to be one of the most hopeless (and hapless) films of the year. We're essentially doomed so I say you can take it, Klaatu. Earth is all yours. We clearly don't deserve it.
The world does not always see the American people is a flattering light. They may be too distracted at times, allowing for their governments to do whatever they want while they aren't looking but one thing is for certain, they don't like being lied to. Be forewarned all future American presidents, if you're going to lie, don't get caught doing so. Former President, Richard Nixon, will forever be remembered for his lies but will always be despised for his inability to admit his guilt in the Watergate scandals or apologize for his betrayal of the people's trust. Ron Howard's film adaptation of the Tony winning stage play, FROST/NIXON does nothing to exonerate Nixon but rather puts forth the importance and necessity for remorse and forgiveness. In doing so, he has crafted his most cerebral film without overcomplicating the issues and more importantly, his film will serve as a challenge to the American people to demand the respect they deserve from their elected officials.
FROST/NIXON is not just about the bigger issues but also the people directly involved. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a struggling, British television personality. He has tried his hand at American success and failed but sees securing the first television interview with Richard Nixon after he shamefully left office as his ticket. Anyone, of course, would but Nixon (Frank Langella) wasn't making anything easy. He wanted an exorbitant amount of money for the interview and Frost was having extreme difficulty finding financing backers and advertisers because people did not believe he could pull off what was necessary in order for the interview to be considered a success. Nixon, on the other hand, needed Frost to serve as a bridge to the people, to remind them of his humanity and regain their trust through simply being himself. They each had much at stake and they each had teams of people in their corners making sure their best interest were being served at all times. Somewhere beneath all smoke and mirrors was the truth of it all, just hoping to make itself known.
Langella and Sheen are the perfect team. They play off each other with great respect, both in their character and as actors who originated these roles on Broadway when the play first began. In fact, Howard refused to adapt the film if it meant doing it with other actors in the parts. Langella won the Tony for his stage performance and his Nixon is bold, determined, naïve while still commanding and at the most vulnerable of moments, he is frightened that he can never go back. His part is naturally more showy but that does not mean there is nothing left for Sheen to work with. His Frost is nervous, ambitious and also just as naïve and frightened as his counterpart. Watching the two of them face off in interview is engaging and suspenseful as you wait impatiently for one to make a mistake. Documenting an interview runs the risk of being fairly static but Howard's direction ensures that there is movement and momentum even when the two are just sitting across from each other. In fact, despite the palpable tension he creates on screen, Howard seems more relaxed than I'm accustomed to him being.
While Howard helms with a comfortable control, it is Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play that serves as the film's true substance. He succeeds again, as he did with THE QUEEN, in bridging the gap between the public and the intensely private, only this time the castle gates that separated the people from their Queen have been replaced by another barrier, television. FROST/NIXON takes the notion of spin and slows it down until it becomes perspective, allowing for the distance between a president and the people to be narrowed as much as is possible.. And while the close-up can be terribly unforgiving, it is also the one shot we're all waiting for in order to attain the understanding needed in order to heal.
Milk is a masterpiece!
It was difficult for me to stand up after seeing Gus Van Sant's masterful MILK. The lights had already come on so my puffy eyes could be hid no longer but I had forgotten how to move. I was too engulfed with sadness and dismay. All I could think about was how far we think we've come as a supposed progressive people. Harvey Milk, the man whose story Van Sant is telling, was elected into public office in the late '70's in San Francisco. He was the first openly gay man to be elected to any significant level of government in American history. He was also shot and killed after being in office for less than a year. His last major political accomplishment was successfully campaigning to defeat a bill called Proposition 6. This bill would call for the dismissal of all openly gay school teachers and any persons who supported them. The bill had already passed in a number of other states and fear was mounting that even the country's most gay-friendly city might follow suit. Harvey wouldn't have it and ultimately, neither would San Francisco, or all of California for that matter. Why then are gay men and women still struggling to be treated like human beings to this day?
MILK picks up Harvey Milk's life in the eight years preceeding his assassination. In that time, he meets a man who would become his lover for many years; he moves from New York to San Francisco to find new challenges; and he runs a number of times for public office as an out and proud gay man. He also loses a number of times but Milk was not a man who could easily be deterred from his very important goal. It was Milk's mission to represent his people; to show the city he loved that the gay population was one of the reasons that the city itself was so well loved by all who visited and that they too had a powerful and reasonable voice. Milk was committed to making sure that voice was heard. Van Sant, an openly gay man himself, is just as committed to the cause but his part is very different. Even today, the image of the gay man is still being sold to mainstream, or straight if you will, audiences in a delicate way. Van Sant's Milk is an ambitious entrepreneur. He has a strong character, funny and flighty one moment, romantic and intimate the next and always dedicated to the bigger picture outside of himself. Apparently, painting the gay man as human is still necessary because many still haven't figured it out for themselves.
Of course, Van Sant can't get all the credit as he is only as strong as his parts. In this case, his parts are all perfect. "Big Love" staff writer, Dustin Lance Black's sensitive screenplay is heartbreaking and genuine. Director of photography, Harris Savides, who has brought a dreamlike lucidity to Van Sant twice before on GERRY and ELEPHANT, goes back and forth between archival and new footage seamlessly planting the viewer in both the historical context and the surrounding human drama. Danny Elfman fills the soft space with a score so layered, it can easily be described as his most original work in recent memory. And then of course, there are the men. I will never describe a straight man playing a gay role as an act of bravery. I will, however, always applaud an actor's ability to shed their entire ego and transform into another being so fearlessly. The caliber of the mostly male ensemble cast of MILK seems raised by a desire to do justice to this important man and the difference he made. James Franco as Milk's longtime lover continues to show versatility that I never expected by embodying support and strength. Josh Brolin, as the fellow city supervisor who ultimately kills Milk, gives a ferociously internal performance that is in constant turmoil. And though I have never been as huge a Sean Penn fan as most would appear to be, I am a devout admirer now. Penn's performance is a rarely achieved transformation one so believable and so gripping that it lifts the entire film to new levels of excellence and inspiration.
MILK is not only a Gus Van Sant career high but also an instant American film classic and a contemporary gay film masterpiece that, like the revelatory BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, transcends the gay experience and steps firmly into the human experience. If only for that reason alone, MILK has the potential to be more than a film and be part of a movement. After all, if there is one thing that Harvey Milk fought so hard for for so long, it was to be seen as a man who deserves the same human rights as his neighbours. Thirty years after his death, the fight he fought is still ongoing and thanks to Van Sant, Harvey Milk is back to help make sure it finally gets won.
As vague as the land is vast
Australia, the land down under. A land grand in size and rich in scenery. A land where kangaroos jump spryly alongside cars and aboriginal children go on walkabout without warning. Yes, this is Australia or at the very least, this is the clichéd representation of the country as per Baz Luhrmann's Australia, a film that is part epic romance and part homage to the country he calls home. Luhrmann shot to fame in the early 90's with his first feature, STRICTLY BALLROOM, a film that took place down under and for a tiny fraction of what Australia cost, was a more genuine insight into the people who reside there. Nearly twenty years later, his magic seems to have turned into madness as I can think of no other justification for Luhrmann reducing his home and its history into stereotypical schlock ready to serve to unintentionally naïve American audiences.
Australia takes place in 1939, just before the Japanese attacked the country during the Second World War. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a British aristocrat, has traveled far from home to find her husband, who is in the country on business, and bring him back. Her husband's business got the best of him though and he has passed away. It is now up to this displaced diva to finish the job. She must put aside her dainty nature to rough it in the outback, herding cattle with a group of misfits, in order to take down corruption and monopolistic authorities running the cattle show. Throw in a steamy romance between Ashley and her main cattle handler (Hugh Jackman, easily earning his recent "Sexiest Man Alive" title), and you got yourself a movie. Well, you would have yourself a regular sized movie but this is Luhrmann's opus, one which he seems conscious of the entire time. To fill the 2 hour and 45 minute run time, Luhrmann definitely throws in the romance but also adds racial issues, family drama, gender prejudice and a great war. It is boiling over with potential but missing the great deal of passion necessary to sustain itself.
After completing his Red Curtain Trilogy (including his first feature as well as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!), Luhrmann wanted to tackle historical accounts in his next films. The first was to be a biography of Alexander the Great but Oliver Stone beat him to that a few years back. Luhrmann then turned to his origins for inspiration instead and Australia was born. The Red Curtain Trilogy was defined by style and theme. While Luhrmann hasn't abandoned his dedication to love in Australia, Luhrmann did set aside the signature schizophrenic style that made distinct lovers and haters of all who watched his works. Baz Luhrmann without everything that made him who he was is almost unrecognizable or unidentifiable even. You can almost feel him fighting with himself to tone down the extremities of the scenarios or slowing the speed of the story. The camera will move quickly all of a sudden but is reeled back in just as quickly. Australia becomes a lesson in shame, one that I never expected from a man who so vehemently campaigned for truth and self in the past. By trying to be something he isn't, Luhrmann only succeeded in losing his voice.
Australia is a solid effort, sturdy on its feet but a slow and steady stride instead of the adventure it so clearly wants to be. It can be touching; it can be somewhat moving even; but it feels mostly as vague and meandering as the outback is vast. It is too theatrical and forced to be firmly historical and too unsure of itself to be genuinely effective. It is the most misguided mediocrity I've even seen go on for nearly three hours. I felt very little, learned even less; It was like being on an adventure where barely anything seemed to happen but you still appreciate the potential afforded by being there.. I just wish that the Baz I grew to know and love felt like he had come along for the ride because I feel like we didn't spend any time together at all.