Thursday, January 29, 2009


Sean Penn is an amazing actor, there’s no doubt about that. He is a chameleon and can do practically any role and I am sure he will be awarded a lifetime achievement award before his career is over, unless he already has one, I don’t know. By being such a superb actor everyone expects him to perform that way and so it’s often easy to miss just how outstanding it is. I think this is the case with Milk. Penn has been recognized, being nominated for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy Awards, losing the Globe to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler but taking the SAG. The big question is will he win the Oscar? I think so, but Mickey Rourke will be his biggest competitor.

The only downfall I see with Penn’s performance is that at the beginning of the film I was reminded of his performance in I Am Sam where he plays a mentally challenged father trying to keep custody of his daughter. This is obviously a VERY different roll from that of Harvey Milk but there were some uncanny similarities. He still deserves the Oscar nod and probably the win, but it reminds me that while Penn is great, he’s not perfect.

The second best performance in Milk is that of Emile Hirsch who plays Cleve Jones, a member of Milk’s political team. You may remember Hirsch from Into the Wild and Speed Racer. He does a great job in this film and to be honest, I almost didn’t recognize him at first – thanks to hair and make-up. I was a little disappointed that he did not get an Oscar nomination (even though Robert Downey Jr. did for Tropic Thunder), but politics being what they are in the film industry I’ll have to let it go especially when I already have decided that Michael Shannon should win for his role in Revolutionary Road.

Overall Milk is a hard film for me to rate. I think it was well made and the emphasis was placed in the right areas. It’s a biopic about Harvey Milk and from what I’ve read it’s fairly accurate, so in that sense it’s a good movie. My only qualm about the storyline is in the following Milk builds throughout the film. I do not doubt that he was a good person in real life and maybe in real life there was more discussion, but in the movie they only allude to his faults and hypocrisies briefly before moving on.

When Milk demands that his following come out of the closet to everyone they know, his ex-boyfriend Scott Smith (played by James Franco) calls him out saying that he (Milk) was in the closet most of his life and shouldn’t expect people to do what he couldn’t. Their conversation is quickly ended when their new respective partners appear and are anxious to leave for the night, and that’s the end of it. It’s not mentioned again but it’s a question that the film needs to answer. There are a few other instances where the viewer gets a glimpse at the Harvey Milk behind the public figure but the door is shut so quickly that you have to wonder why?

This film could use a little more depth and allow us to see the true character of Harvey Milk. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know the history behind the movie well enough to state if it’s a true depiction or not, but in my humble opinion, it’s not true to life. Milk is portrayed too perfectly in this film and no human is that selfless and pristine. There has to be more underlying baggage that they didn’t show. While it may have been done intentionally to keep the focus on the grandeur of the legislature that Milk passed, it also detracts from the reality of this film. It sets Milk up as an idol instead of a man who had faults but still did great things – and that is something worth being proud of.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

I didn’t want to like Vicky Christina Barcelona. The plot synopsis that I had heard was that it included a three-some and was basically a love story about these three people. Not really my kind of movie BUT Javier Bardem is in it and he did such a good job in No Country for Old Men I thought I should give it a chance. That and Penelope Cruz was nominated for a Golden Globe, Oscar and Screen Actors Guild Award and the film itself won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy film. I had to at least attempt to watch it.

In all honesty I didn’t pay attention to the film completely. I made my dinner and was working on a project on my computer while it played, but I was still able to follow the story and appreciate what it had to offer.

The first thing to catch my attention was the opening credits. The music that played set the tone for the music perfectly. It was simple, yet “arty” and it fit with the rudimentary credits. There was nothing special or unique about them. Just a black screen with white lettering and a font that held a small embellishment but not like it was trying too hard. It was what it was, nothing more, and nothing less.

The second thing that struck me was the use of a narrator, an omniscient, omnipresent voice that introduces us to the characters. The voice is matter of fact, decisive, and alert, but it offers no feeling or sympathy. We’re informed of events as they happen, like watching a sporting event but without the feeling or passion that is often in the announcer’s voice. This narrator gives us the character’s thoughts as if we were reading a book and imagining the story for ourselves.

I like this approach. The way the camera cuts up the scenes and the narrator provides insight perfectly allows the viewer to make Vicky and Christina’s story one’s own. As the movie progressed I found myself frustrated with the characters for making decisions I would not have made in their positions, but I cared for them and wanted them to find what they were looking for.

Ultimately Vicky Christina Barcelona is a story about finding oneself. All the relationship stuff that’s thrown into the plot is there for scandal to make the movie seem artistic and help promote it, but the root of it all comes down to self discovery. Both Vicky and Christina are in Barcelona to escape from their everyday lives. They need a break, a change of scenery, and Spain offers these two New Yorkers that possibility.

Their summer unfolds and we’re taken on a series of adventures that are cautious and guarded as well as careless and dangerous. The good and the bad, the wise and the ill-advised moments are viewed through a lens of self-discovery. We’re all looking for something more and what the “more” is I don’t know if we’ll ever know or even find, and that’s what this movie is about; Vicky and Christina searching for more and wondering where it will all lead them, living with their choices each day, and hoping for the best.

I won’t tell you how the movie ends in case you want to see it yourself. I will say that I like the ending. It isn’t pretending to be something else. It is honest and real and true to life. And as someone who is going to begin an adventure overseas in the next year I appreciated the value in its message – at least the message I took away from it – that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t what you’re looking for at all.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gran Torino

I enjoy Clint Eastwood films. I’ll admit it, I like watching westerns and Eastwood has been a part of some truly great ones. He has also gone on to do some wonderful pieces, such as Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino is another quality film he can add to that list. It’s not a great film and it isn’t going to win any awards, but Eastwood tells a wonderful story about a complicated man in an honest way. It may not be 100% believable and its a little corny at the end, but it has a message that we all need to hear.

For those of you who don’t know, Gran Torino is the story of an elderly man, Walt Kowalski, whose wife has just died. He is a grumpy racist whose old neighborhood has slowly turned into a Hmong neighborhood. While everyone around him has let their houses deteriorate, he has kept his in pristine condition, as well as his 1972 Gran Torino that he built himself while working for Ford in his earlier life. He has a past, he was in the military and it seems he has participated in some questionable activity. It is obvious that he loved his wife dearly but doesn’t seem to care much for anyone else, even his sons and grandchildren.

Kowalski becomes involved with his Hmong neighbors when he inadvertently saves Thao Lor (Bee Vang), the teenage boy who lives next door, from a Hmong gang. What follows is an awkward relationship between this coarse, sailor-mouthed old man, a shy teenage boy, and his outspoken headstrong older sister, Sue Lor (Ahney Her). Sue’s persistence to befriend Kowalski turns successful as he realizes that he has more in common with his Hmong neighbors than his own family. Kowalski’s friendship with the Lor siblings grows and all three learn something about themselves and the others. Old wisdom is passed on and new ideas are embraced.

The performances by Bee Vang and Ahney Her are hit and miss, lacking in some scenes and amazing in others. It’s painful to watch them interact with the local gangs. They are stiff and uncomfortable as actors instead of as characters. Eastwood spends the first half of the film grunting and the second half he manages a few lines. It’s his typical role and he does a good job at it, but it’s nothing new.

Despite the less than Academy quality acting, Gran Torino is a film I think everyone should see. It’s not for the faint of heart – there is blood and a post-rape scene that is particularly hard to watch – but the message of self-sacrifice and the good that is in each of us overpowers all that. This film touched my heart and reminded me why I love talking to the older generations. Their wisdom and experience is not something to be disregarded in the same way that each new generation’s youthful ideas should be embraced. We can learn from each other, help each other, and be there for each other – we just have to get past ourselves first.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Revolutionary Road

I remember when Titanic came out. I was in middle school and I wasn’t allowed to see it. My friends had all gone to the theater multiple times to watch Kate (Kate Winslet) and Leo (Leondardo DiCaprio) express their devotion to one another. I quickly heard the details of key scenes so that I could pretend I knew what everyone was talking about. In middle school image is everything. Once I finally was allowed to watch the movie from the comfort of our living room – so that my parents could sensor two specific scenes – I didn’t really get what the fuss was all about. Kate and Leo, eh.

Half the draw for any movie is the actors who star in the piece, but when you get two actors together who have had onscreen chemistry prior, you’re guaranteed box office gold. Google Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or even Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey – just to name a few – and you’ll understand what I’m getting at. Putting key actors together may draw a big crowd and be a box office success but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie.

If you are a die hard fan of the Kate and Leo concept you will love Revolutionary Road. The Titanic lovebirds are back together in all their glory. Their fantasy sea-legged love story has matured and grown and now they are forced to deal with reality of everyday life, with volatile results for two people who want to be anything but ordinary.

I appreciate what this story is trying to depict. While I did not major in sociology and study the 1960’s and the societal “cookie-cutter” pressures that were forced on the American people, I have heard enough from my family’s personal history, read accounts, and seen enough depictions of the suburban family to know that life wasn’t always as “peachy” as it appeared. The movie resonates with viewers today because those same pressures are still present. The “American Dream” hasn’t died and as American’s we’re taught that we can and should be more than what we are and what our parents were. We are also anything but ordinary.

Revolutionary Road fails when it assumes every viewer has a love affair with Kate and Leo. It relies on hype and the previews (literally) to establish the wonderfully ideal love that Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) Wheeler are supposed to share. Scenes from the preview are missing from the film itself and had I not seen the clip prior to the film I would be left wondering even more about this couple’s relationship. Sam Mendes (the director) doesn’t give us enough information about the happy days of Frank and April before their relationship goes south. The audience isn’t given enough time to become invested in the positives of the Wheeler’s relationship to care about their difficulties.

DiCaprio’s performance also leaves me wanting more and questioning the choice of actor for this complex role. I applaud DiCaprio’s efforts, but he gets in his own way. His natural “baby face” will allow him many years of future work in the film industry, but it hinders his task to play a 40 year old husband and father. It’s like watching a child dress up in his father’s clothing and play house. He tries so hard and the more effort put into it the more it’s obvious. Half of the time he comes across as fake – which I think may be deliberate in order to show the superficial role he is supposed to play in this 1960’s perfect world – and the other half of the time he is yelling so hard that veins are about to explode from his face. He’s hot and cold in seconds flat.

The best performance in Revolutionary Road is by Michael Shannon who plays John Givings, the committed son of a neighborhood woman who has two scenes in the entire film. He is the voice of reason and truth. In some ways he is the comic relief, but he inserts himself so honestly and awkwardly into the lives of Frank and April that his appearance represents the best and worst of their relationship. Shannon earned a Supporting Actor Academy nomination for this role that he deserves to win – although Heath Ledger will probably take it for his role in The Dark Knight.

Revolutionary Road is worth seeing. It’s not an easy movie to watch. There is yelling and screaming, passionate lovemaking, blood and violence, rage and bitterness, love and devotion, betrayal and deceit, morality and immorality, selfishness and self-sacrifice, and somewhere there is a story that resonates on some level with each and every viewer. Could it have been told better? Yes, but for the sake of seeing the forest instead of the trees, watch this film, but just be forewarned.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Beginning of a Beautiful Blog

I can’t say that I remember watching my first film. I could make something up and you wouldn’t know the difference, but I don’t know what purpose that would serve. I do know that I’ve always loved watching movies. They were fun and entertaining to watch but even more than that certain films hold a place in my memory for many significant events in my life.

Sometime in the mid to late 80’s my grandma (on my dad’s side) taped the movie Annie when it was on TV. My brother, our two cousins, and I used to watch that tape over and over and over again. We loved to pretend we were the orphans and that grandma was Miss Hanagan and she would always play along. Watching that tape was one of our favorite activities when visiting grandma and it never got old. It wasn’t until I was in college that I watched the full version that hadn’t been edited for TV and realized that there was a lot more to this story that had created so many memorable nights at grandma’s house.

Knowing that Annie was one of my favorite movies as a kid, you might assume that I was sheltered. I don’t know if I would say that even though there were strict rules about which movies I was allowed and not allowed to see. I remember being at my grandparent’s house (on my mom’s side) with all my cousins and they wanted to watch The Mask. I was probably in 5th grade at the time and watching a PG-13 movie was not allowed. When my parents discovered what we were planning to watch they put their foot down and all the cousins were in an uproar that we had to watch something else.

At the time I felt it was unfair to forbid me to watch a PG-13 rated film when I was probably only a year or two shy of being 13, but now I understand what my parents were trying to do. Did they want to protect me? Yes. What’s wrong with trying to protect your young children? Nothing. I plan to do the same with my future kids.

My parents weren’t anti-movie either though. They enjoyed films and liked to share with us, their children. I was exposed to scenes from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail while in elementary school. I was not allowed to watch the entire film, but the classic, “bring out your dead,” and “what are you going to do, bleed on me?” lines were common in our home. Going out to movies was a privilege and often became a father-daughter outing.

Until college I considered movies to be a fun diversion from reality. Even though I had watched movies in high school to search for metaphors and discuss the deeper meaning or various aspects of the cinematography, I thought a career in film was below me. I was better than that. I had a brain and was going to use it.

My freshman year I took a class that changed my life: Introduction to Communication with one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Rendleman. The films we watched in class were used as tools to teach us about the theories and basic communication concepts but I quickly discovered that film could be more than just entertainment. My sophomore year I took a class devoted entirely to film; from that point on I was hooked.

Movies are a glimpse into another world, another lifestyle, and another perspective. There are movies created for pure entertainment value, but there are also good films that say something about the world we live in. They teach us to appreciate the mundane in the world as well as long for the grander things in life. All at once films are an escape and a jolt back to reality.

My hope for this blog is that I will at long last be able to articulate my thoughts on the films I see and be able to share them with you, my devoted readers. I hope you enjoy my perspective and leave your own thoughts as well.