Thursday, January 22, 2009


In Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”, Sean Penn seems to have been possessed by the ghost of Harvey Milk. Early on I lost the sense of an actor playing an historical figure and just watched scenes from the life of that character. This is an amazing performance. An insightful friend pointed out that Penn seems like another person because he is being charming (Milk was famously charming). This is the first time Penn has given a charming performance since playing Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982.

“Milk” is a good movie but it is impossible to say just how good at this time since it has political reverberations way beyond its worth as a work of art. This is the film biography of the first openly Gay politician in California. Harvey Milk’s central message was that the way to achieve Gay civil rights was by Gay people coming out so that straight people would see them not as “the other”, but as their child, their neighbor, their coworker, etc. He campaigned for various offices for years before finally becoming a San Francisco Supervisor. He was assassinated less then a year later along with Mayor George Moscone.

His message has particular resonance now since the voters of California recently passed a ballot initiative, Prop 8, which robs Gay people of the right to marry, a civil right only recently given them by the State Supreme Court. We can assume that the yes votes for the initiative were from people who continue to see Gay people as “the other”.

I believe that Prop 8 will be overturned either in the courts or in the voting booth and I suspect that 10 years from now, “Milk” will be seen as a skillfully done biography of a fascinating historical figure, in a very interesting time and place, but I don’t think it will be seen as a great film.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Wrestler

This is the least of the three films I mentioned in my post. The director,
Darren Aronofsky, mostly abandons the astonishing visual apocalypses he created in “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” to tell the story of an aging wrestler at the end of his career. The one apocalyptic eruption is the bout that sends our hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, into a major health crisis. Since I hate spoilers I’ll merely say it’s how I imagine “The Passion of the Christ” (didn’t actually see that film) but with a staple gun added.

Many critics have pointed out the Mickey Rourke is physically perfect for the part of Randy since his face is bloated and distorted from decades of excess, from being broken in the boxing ring and from being badly reconstructed by plastic surgeons. However his body is still buff so you believe him as an athlete.

Rourke plays Randy as a nice guy who is also an enormous screwup and it is a wonderful performance. I have to give a nod to Mick LaSalle, the often insightful, sometimes annoying film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who points out that if that’s who Mickey Rourke really is (nice guy/ screwup) then he does a great job of allowing us see that and if in reality he’s a monster then he does a great job of making us think he’s a nice guy.

Randy has destroyed his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) whom he loves and he is having a hard time establishing a relationship with a lap dancer (Marisa Tomei) whom he also loves. His only moments of transcendence are in the staged mayhem of the wrestling ring, even though this is very bad for his aging body. It’s finally a simple tale. There’s a scene with Tomei and Rourke right before the climax of the movie that seems tacked on and inauthentic. That’s unfortunate but does not keep this from being a good movie, worth seeing.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I’ve Loved You So Long

This is a French film by Philipe Claudel who also wrote it. Kristin Scott Thomas (who has lived in that country for a couple of decades and is bilingual) stars in it and she is astounding. She plays a woman who has just gotten out of prison after serving 15 years for murder. When we first see her she is sitting in a waiting room. She is a person from whom everything has been taken. She is still except for the act of smoking. She’s there but she’s been turned into a wraith.

Her younger sister is coming to take her into her home. The story of the film is the story of the older sister starting to get things back---coming back to life.

Fairly early in the film she allows a café Lothario to pick her up for an afternoon quickie. This is presumably the first heterosexual sex she’s had in 15 years. The director cuts straight from the café to the hotel room where they are already finished and the man is dressed. He comes out of the bathroom. She is sitting up in bed, staring into space. Bozo that he is, he smiles and says, “So, it was good?” She comes out of her reverie and replies, “No, not at all. But it doesn’t matter.” He’s crushed and slinks out. She gives the slightest hint of a smile. There’s still someone inside.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. The film is both moving and funny. The only thing that keeps it from being great is that when all the details of the killing that sent her to prison are finally revealed, it comes perilously close to Douglas Sirk territory. Having said that, I already want to see the film over again, which is not how I feel about most things I see.

The Jewel and the Setting

19th Century writers were wonderfully unembarrassed to elaborate a metaphor. They could go on for pages. Here at the beginning of the 21st Century I’m hesitant to use one at all, but here goes.

I’ve recently seen three good films with great performances, real jewels, shining at their centers. They are “Milk”, “The Wrestler” and “I’ve Loved You So Long”. I’m going to make each review into its own post.