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Milk is a good film, but not Van Sant’s best

Posted by Greg on Dec 26, 2008 in Uncategorized

Ever since the blockbuster status of “Good Will Hunting,” Gus Van Sant has gone about making film his way and on his terms. Immediately following “Hunting,” was another commercial, big studio effort, the Sean Connery-fueled “Finding Forrester.”  Then came the disastrous remake of the Hitchcock thriller “Psycho,” which tanked at the box office. When that had only mild success, he retreated to making art-house films, devoid of big budgets and major studio backing. The first of these efforts was the incredibly quiet and sparse “Gerry,” about two men named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who wander in the desert and avoid catastrophe. It’s a good film, if not a little overdone. Aside from Damon and Affleck, there aren’t any other actors involved, and the music relies mostly on their chatty dialogue, the use of music, lighting and their physical acting acumen. The movie, however, did little to further Van Sant’s craft at making movies. He followed that up with “Elephant,” which won the Palm D’Or at Cannes and put together a compelling, if not chilling, Columbine-inspired morality play about high school violence and gun control. Utilizing mostly amateur actors and neophytes, the film was lauded and praised by nearly everyone. He followed up the success of “Elephant,” with a fictionalized account of Kurt Cobain’s last hours. This film, “Last Days,” used much of the same formula as the last two films, but with far less dialogue and fewer grand statements. The film was in essence, completely devoid of dialogue, and left the viewer in the dark for much of the film. “Paranoid Park,” followed, a film which was already reviewed on RMP, but did little to bolster Van Sant’s credibilities as a top-notch American director. Many loved it, but there was little that impressed me. His attempt to further his artistic craft is the newly released biopic “Milk” about openly gay San Francisco City Councilman Harvey Milk and his rise to power in the gay rights movement.

More of a character study docudrama then that of a biopic, Milk begins in 1970s New York when the soon-to-be politician (a revolutionary Sean Penn) picks up a young Mississippian (an affective James Franco) named Scott Smith in a Manhattan subway station on the eve of his 40th birthday. Uninspired by his insurance career and upset that he’ll be 40 and has nothing to be proud of, he’s convinced by Smith to go west and reinvent himself. The two settle in the Castro neighborhood and open up a camera store much to the chagrin of the local business owners. Milk takes the rejection skillfully. Rather than retaliate in anger, he begins to gather a support network of pro-gay businesses and forms pro-gay alliances, which blossoms into a political career. Though defeated four consecutive times, Milk slowly begins to pick up steam and finally assembles enough clout to take on the political machines. When his relationship with fellow politician Dan White (a fist-rate Josh Brolin) turns sour, the final result is haunting and sorrowful.

But is the film really worth all the hype it’s getting? Yes, and also, no. Penn is absolutely phenomenal and consumes the role of Milk. He’s sunny and hopeful, defiant and dastardly, shrewed and sensitive, and also inexperienced and undeterred. If the film makes any grand claims, it’s about the power of choice, the triumph of the human spirit and the tireless battle for human rights and equality. More topically relevant than ever, the film does all the right things and presses all the right buttons, but it falls apart in some places. There’s little background detail on Milk prior to his subway meeting with Smith, little light shed on the character of his assasin Dan White, and even less detail into the fears and failings of Milk as a person. Why for example does his relationship with Smith sour, and why does he fall for a loose cannon Mexican (a topsy-turvy Diego Luna) like Jack? Many have hailed the film as revolutionary and speak of it with nothing but superlatives. They may be right, but there’s a few things still to be determined. For all his political savvy (he was able to recruit future president Reagan and then president Carter to back the ban on Prop 6) and the triumphant, inspiring and historical things he did, the film at times serves more as a love letter to the early gay rights movement and that of the Castro neighborhood. That combined with the film’s lack of focus on Milk as a person, and more of him as a politican brings it down to the ground somewhat. The positive comments though are not without merit. Penn is absolutely remarkable and should be a shoe-in for Best Actor. Additionally, the film is heartfelt, humorous, honest and packs a lot of punch. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay has few holes and the intimate approach by photographer Harris Savides is worth commending. But beyond the character of Milk, nobody else is really explored at all. Brolin, Luna and Franco all put in good terms but on limited camera time. Even the always consistent Canadian actress Allison Pill is underwritten and static. One of the film’s highlights is its portrayal of politics and the strength to stand behind conviction. But for all the talent in the cast and director, “Milk” isn’t nearly as transcendent, masterful or career defining as one would have hoped for. It’s a very fine film yes, but it’s nothing compared to the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, “The Life of Harvey Milk.” Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, sums it up best: “It’s not a great movie, but it is an enlivening and unusual one: an effervescent political film that also packs a knockout punch.”

So, where does this put Van Sant? While not nearly as engaging or as enthralling as “Good Will Hunting,” the film certainly triumphs everything else he’s done since then. Is it a return to form? Absolutely. Career defining? Probably not. It is however an improvement. Maybe his next one will really blow the roof off.

 
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Snow Angels is David Gordon Green’s Best Yet

Posted by Greg on Dec 20, 2008 in Uncategorized

With the exception of the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express,” every film directed by David Gordon Green has been nothing short of stunning, so it came as no surprise that the recent viewing of his film “Snow Angels,” left me speechless.

Adapted for the screen by Green from the Stewart O’Nan film, the plot centers around Arthur Parkinson (Michael Anganaro), a teenager grappling with his parent’s recent seperation (Jeanette Arnette and Griffin Dunne respectively) and the prospect of new love (Olivia Thirlby). He works at a Chinese restaurant with Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale), his one-time babysitter, who is struggling to raise her daughter on her own, while her estranged husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) does everything he can to stay firmly in the picture.  Convinced that she’s sleeping with someone new (Nicky Katt),  Glenn starts spying on her and begins to unravel. A former alcholic who was has sought to reinvent his life after a suicidal experience, Glenn is once again letting go and begins to resort to drinking. When their daughter, goes missing, things really begin to spiral out of control.

But just as the Marchands life is falling apart, Arthur’s newfound romance is just starting to take shape. It is this juxtaposition that serves the film so well. Green masterfully balances the highs and lows of adolescene, married life and seperation.  It’s best assets are its depictions of small-town life.  Shot on location in Newfoundland (though the setting is supposed to be Pennsylvania) the wintry landscapes paint a bleak and morbid picture, without tacking on any cliches.  Every scene in the film is perfectly crafted and lacks any sense of embellishment. The ensemble cast (Beckinsale, Rockwell, Thirlby, Anganaro, Arnette,  Dunne, Katt and Tom Noonan, ) do an incredible job, and none of them are miscast or offbase here. It’s an incredible work, in which skilled actors and a rugged script come together to make a near-masterpiece. Though ignored by the major awards last year, “Snow Angels” was lauded by critics and is truly worth the lofty praise. This is a haunting and poignant film, whose chilling conclusion and heartfelt performances stick long after the final credits.

 
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The Demise of Dating….Really? Say it Ain’t So, Charles Blow!

Posted by Greg on Dec 16, 2008 in Op-Ed

A writer named Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that’s really resonated with me. I’m currently in a relationship and have been since August of 2007. Prior to that, I was in one for 15 months, and prior to that “played the field,” so to speak, as this article alludes to. The entire time I played the field, I felt sleazy and inadequate. It didn’t feel right. I craved something with longevity and substance. Before this dark period, I was involved in another string of rather steady and serious relationships. I can’t really fathom the behaviors that Blow writes about. I tried it once and it just didn’t work for me. It just seems too unsafe to me. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, I don’t know, I just really think the article is so on-the-point and such a wake-up call. Though I know little of Charles M. Blow, I’ve definitely added him as a writer to watch.

The Christian Science Monitor had this article in 2004, so maybe Blow’s article is a bit late. Either way, it’s pretty disheartening, isn’t it? Why have American youths ditched the prospect of dating? Are we that afraid of being binded to someone? Whatever happened to traditional values?

 
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Hello world!

Posted by Greg on Dec 15, 2008 in Uncategorized

Welcome to my little home on the Web. The blog’s title draws its name from the song “Step Inside This House,” which appeared on the two-disc album of the same name by Lyle Lovett. Though it was originally a Guy Clark song, it never went recorded until Lovett picked it up. I think it’s probably one of the warmest, most intimate and most comfortable songs ever written. Everything about it is so inviting. It is in this spirit of invitation that I have named this blog. For those of you interested in listening to the song, I’ll work on getting a clip up, but for now ,this is the best place to find it! Enjoy!

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