Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday Movie PSA

No opera opportunities over the holiday, but I did manage to hit up some of the holiday season/Oscar bait offerings. Be advised:

1. Milk - OK. This is just so clearly the only legitimate contender for Best Picture. No, I haven't seen the old baby man Brad Pitt picture yet, but I kind of feel like I can still claim preemptive outrage that it is going to be considered serious competition. I read the Randy Shilts book in high school I think, and couldn't stop thinking about what an amazing big time movie biopic Harvey Milk would make if done properly, and lo these many years later, it has arrived. Milk is a deeply affecting and serious movie about history and politics and ideas and questions directly relevant to the moment, both Prop 8 and the prospects for a broader re-invigoration of a national politics about equality and civil rights (Rick Warren speed bump aside. WTF Obama???).

The depth of Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk is shocking. He does something infinitely harder than playing a hero or martyr: he demonstrates how people actually make politics out of relationships. How do you even start to figure out how to play that? His death at the end is devastating, not because you're mourning for the movement, but because you've grown so attached to his character.

Moreover, it is just an incredibly well made movie. Gus van Sant is able to totally avoid the usual pitfalls of the biopic that can make such movies feel like plodding chores. Nor does it have that annoying historical sheen. In the phrase of the Variety review, Milk fills "lived in". Also, the documentary footage is impeccably interspersed, used sparingly enough to avoid undermining the new footage.

Reading about it since seeing it, I feel like maybe there is some weird backlash against it (a suspicion compounded by the Golden Globes snubbing). Like it would be too perfect for Hollywood to give a movie about a gay political hero best picture given Prop 8 and Obama triumphalism. If so, that is some BULLSHIT. I have not had strong Best Picture preferences for a few years, but this year it will be a total travesty if the gimmicky Brad Pitt thing or Batman or Nazi Kate Winslet wins instead. Bah.

2. The Wrestler - This is a movie that keeps it real, folks, I mean--for reals real. But, it is important to note that it is not quite a "downer" movie in the way "Dancer in the Dark" was a downer movie. For one, it spends a lot of time creating this truly fascinating (and gross) backstage world of low rent professional wrestling, but not for cheap laughs. Rather it plays like one of those documentaries at once disturbed and intrigued by its subjects but firmly operating under the conceit that theirs is a deep world worth engaging. Second, Mickey Rourke's performance doesn't really allow it to become a downer, because his character is fundamentally good-natured and can take care of himself and never feels like a pawn of some sadistic omnipotent filmmaker, which is quite an achievement considering the scene with the staples. You don't pity him, per se, but sort of join him as he resigns himself to the fact that his luck has run out. So, still a downer, clearly, but as someone who doesn't have a lot of patience for the genre at large, I think this is different and better. He still shouldn't beat out Sean Penn, but I wouldn't be irate if it went down like that.

3. Slumdog Millionaire - As advertised, very satisfying and then some. It ends more neatly and fairytale-ish than it begins, which could be bothersome, but whatever. While the story and assemblage of actors playing the main roles at different ages are enchanting (except for the adult version of the girl, who was bland and too pretty), the Indian setting is the real entertainment, with nicely observed glimpses into slums as well as call centers. Clearly not Milk competition for Best Picture, but I hope it doesn't end up as a sort of Indian "Little Miss Sunshine" for 2008. This is much worthier.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I went into Milk hoping to love it, and I left feeling less enthralled than you. I came away knowing as much as I did about Harvey Milk accomplished but I wound up knowing even less about who he was as a person. And I don't think he was un-understandable personality. But aside from a rescue fantasy and Diego's essential hotness, I missed what drew him to the Diego Luna character. This felt like a huge gap in the development of the story and of Milk's character. What I did like was that Milk was not portrayed as a naive idealist. He had no qualms using a suicide phone call in a speech or staging a protest so he could be the rescue man. He was as practical and realistic as Bill Clinton or, as I suspect, Barack Obama will turn out to be.

On the other hand, I went into Slumdog Millionaire expecting it to be "overrated", and I found myself more moved in a movie than I had ever been. And the Bollywood dance sequence at the end reminded me of the ancient Greek tradition of concluding the presentation of three tragedies with a comedy. It was exhilirating. I also think, technically, it was a much better film.

Compare the stereotypical framing device techniques. MILK used the main character telling his own story into a tape in the event of assasination - we all know he dies, Diane Feinstein announces it at the beginning of the film. Rather conventional. Slumdog uses the videotapes of Millionare, but we have no idea until the film progresses what will happen or why they are even watching the videotapes. Much more subtle and sophisticated.