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Frank J. Avella’s
October Film Column

Written by Frank J. Avella

Opposite Photo:
James Franco and Sean Penn in Milk

It’s time for Milk

A few days ago I saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and was completely blown away by it. It was a Departed, Brokeback Mountain, Million Dollar Baby kind of blown away. That feeling you get when you experience a film that hits you on all the right levels and you know you’ve just seen not only one of your favorite films of the year, but a film that SHOULD be considered for the Best Picture short list by the Academy.

What seemed like a few milliseconds later, bloggers and “respected” media alike were accusing Focus Features of mounting a too-subdued and careful campaign based on fear of presenting the film’s political content or worse, because the film wasn’t very good. Well, the latter is certainly bullshit.

James Schamus, Milk’s producer and CEO of Focus, responded by accusing the Hollywood Reporter (one of a number of print/online articles that went after them) of not ever bothering to attempt to contact Focus. He went on to defend their marketing plan:

Sean Penn in Milk

If the rumors about Focus deliberately keeping a low profile with Milk are true, can we really blame them? First and foremost, it’s explosive stuff there onscreen: the film, in no-nonsense style, actually takes the gay rights movement seriously. Imagine. And it’s about fucking time. But in these extremely divisive red/blue states times, a boycott by those pesky but wonderfully organized religious fundamentalists could kill the film at the get go (remember what they did to The People vs. Larry Flynt—and that didn’t even dare to have much gay content!)

And as far as Milk’s Oscar chances, just flashback to how Brokeback Mountain’s assured Best Picture trophy was stolen by Crash three years ago? Everyone has their own take on the reasons, whether it was homophobia in the Academy, Brokeback burnout or that AMPAS really did like Crash more. Regardless, the most critically acclaimed film of 2005 did not win the top award. And it just so happened that the film was about homos in love.

Milk makes Brokeback look like a day at the straight beach with Annette and Frankie in so many ways. It isn’t careful. It’s truthful.

Here’s a film written by an openly gay man, directed by an openly gay man, peppered with supporting actors who are openly gay (and/or at least not giving interviews professing their heterosexuality as if their lives depended on it) and starring Hollywood’s #1 liberal.

No offense to the Brokeback team and not diminishing the fact that the film was extraordinary and groundbreaking (especially Ledger’s performance) but I grew a little weary of having to hear, in interview after interview, how everyone was to be commended for taking on such a daring project, blah-blah-blah—like playing gay, like being in a “gay” film was somehow up there with doing charity work in Darfur.

I hope and pray people see Milk and make up their own mind. For me, it’s the most important film about the gay rights movement ever made. Not that it really has much competition since Stonewall is the only narrative feature that comes to mind and that was a good effort with a weak storyline. Many a terrific documentary like: For The Bible Tells Me So; Rights and Reactions; Word is Out; Before Stonewall; After Stonewall and, yes, The Times of Harvey Milk, to name just a few, are potent chronicles of gay history. And there have been a legion of incredible gay-themed films like: Maurice; Bent; Beautiful Thing; Edge of Seventeen; Parting Glances; Torch Song Trilogy; Brokeback Mountain and (add your favorite to the list), but none have the political power of Milk.

But I need to mention that Milk it is also filmmaking at it’s best and boasts an engrossing, intelligent and exciting script as well as an extraordinary ensemble. It also happens to be the best picture of the year, so far.

Maybe, as a gay man, I am biased, but I think the fact that I have breathed film all my life gives me some type of ability to attempt objectivity. I did not like Philadelphia because I felt it was safe and pandering but I also thought the script was cliché’ and the filmmaking was TV-movie-esque. I have never been someone to heap hosannas on a film because it dealt with content I felt strongly about…unless it also happened to be a great film.

Milk is a great film. It is the type of film that can change minds. But it will also stir up quite a bit of trouble among the Sarah Palin-ites.

Sasha Stone over at, the best site for up-to-the-cyber-second Oscar news, commented on how eager bloggers are to be the first to call a film a winner or a loser—and this is VERY true. I also concur with her on not seeing the need in “calling out a loser.” On the other hand, I think it’s important to come to the defense when we see/feel/sense a winner that is being potentially sabotaged because of political agendas—whether personally motivated or otherwise.

Milk is galvanizing at a time when people need to get angry, be outraged and stand up for their civil rights. With Proposition 8 on the ballot in California (echoing Prop 6 back in the late 70s), it’s a frightening time for gay citizens—but when has it ever not been—lest we forget Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay just a decade ago and gay-related hate crimes continue to be reported with alarming regularity.

All gays and lesbians and people who believe that God created gays and lesbians as they are should see Milk and bring along one person who does not feel that way, or is uncertain. It will certainly create dialogue, which the best motion pictures have always done.

Sean Penn’s genius embodiment of Harvey Milk is reason enough to recommend the movie but the fact that it’s kick-ass filmmaking that finally has the balls to not play it safe and to boldly stand for gay rights, for human rights, is a pretty damn good reason as well.



Meryl Streep in Doubt

Best Actress Race Heats Up!

The Oscar race usually begins to heat up around the time of the New York Film Festival. This year is no exception with The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke & Marisa Tomei), Changeling (Angelina Jolie) and Che (Benicio Del Toro) yielding performances that seem near-locks for nominations—as well as Michael Fassbender, if IFC is smart enough to release Hunger before year’s end. Of course, momentum and politics come into play—sometimes even merit—if you can imagine. And the progs prog and the bloggers blog and the print media trash the online media and vice versa. The one thing that hasn’t changed in these cyber-infested times is the excitement generated by Oscar season.

Slumdog Millionaire

With the exception of the dazzling and extraordinary Danny Boyle film, Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight (even though the genre rarely gets lauded, this may be the year of exceptions) there do not seem to be many best picture contenders. Yet. That should change in the coming weeks with the release of Milk, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Doubt, Gran Torino, Australia and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum in Stop-Loss

(I’d like to express my indignation at the fact that Stop-Loss, one of 2008’s best films—will probably go completely overlooked…but then it’s in good company with last year’s brilliant Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead receiving zero nominations!)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road

In the Best Actor category, if you add Josh Brolin’s W. turn to the list above (Del Toro, Rourke and Fassbender) that race begins to take some shape. The coming months will bring Sean Penn in Milk, Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon and perennial-nominee Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, to name a few, and we will know so much more.

But the shocker in these early days of Autumn is that the BEST ACTRESS competition seems to be heating up like no other time in recent memory. You heard me right. The category that, of late, has strained to find five worthy nominees, seems to have plenty more than that already—with even more to come in November and December.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

The best of an impressive crop is Kristin Scott Thomas’ devastating performance in the French language film I’ve Loved You So Long. From the first frame, her face says more than any dialogue and the primal ending where she explodes and, seemingly, implodes, should make her a lock for a nomination. Some will argue that there’s no way the Academy will award TWO French language performances in this category two years in a row, especially since Marion Cottillard’s win last year was unprecedented. I will write more about this below.

Happy-Go- Lucky

Another foreigner, Sally Hawkins, is such an infectious delight, it’s hard to believe her winning turn in Happy-Go- Lucky won’t charm Academy members, especially since director Mike Leigh is a favorite among the voting body as well.

Rachel Getting Married

Stateside, Anne Hathaway delivers a breakout performance in Jonathan Demme’s terrific Rachel Getting Married, his best work since his multi-Oscared Silence of the Lambs back in 1991. And if we add her boyfriend issues into the mix, she should easily snag a slot.


Angelina Jolie, mentioned earlier, impresses in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. I found the performance problematic and I do not think she deserves a nomination, but I’m not an Academy member. There are two major factors here that might assure her a nod: the fact that they overlooked her (much better) perf in last year’s A Mighty Heart and the irresistable desitre to nominate both members of Brangelina in one year.

Melissa Leo in Frozen River

Two terrific indie turns have a shot: Melissa Leo’s gritty portrayal of a mother who will do anything to give her kids a better life in Frozen River and Michelle Williams’s intense but subtle performance in Wendy and Lucy. If we take Hollywood sympathy into account, Williams has the better shot.

Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Keira Knightley seems to be losing momentum, but is still a contender for The Duchess. And don’t completely rule out Rebecca Hall’s star-making turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Penelope Cruz, shattering in Elegy. Cruz, though, does seem to have a better chance with Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina. And she may actually, and rightly, win. Imagine all those and there are still half a dozen we have yet to see, two of which have already been called shoe-ins by many an Oscar blogprog.

Meryl Streep is on the verge of her fifteenth career nomination for Doubt, and if she is as good as the role (and how could she not be) she could finally win her third Oscar.

Loved by the Academy, Kate Winslet holds the record for being the youngest actress to receive five nominations. She has two films being released in December (Revolutionary Road and The Reader) that should bring her a sixth, and, maybe the award outright—although there has been a lot of messiness going on regarding the release of The Reader. In addition, she may have a hard time competing with herself.

Also a five time nominee, Cate Blanchett should have won her second Oscar last year for I’m Not There. If Benjamin Button is as good as so many of us are hoping, she should easily find herself recognized and that would be her fourth straight nomination (two alone, last year!)

Nicole Kidman in Australia

Baz Luhrmann was responsible for Nicole Kidman’s first nomination for Moulin Rouge, so it’s quite possible she’ll receive her third for Australia.

And two dark horse possibilities are: Kate Beckinsale in Nothing But the Truth and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale.

Crowded? Definitely. And that makes for a most exciting and intense Best Actress derby.

So my EARLY predictions are: (and to make predictions this early is ridiculous and silly, but—fun!)

Hathaway, Hawkins, Streep, Winslet & Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

Now, getting back to the possibility of Kristin Scott Thomas actually winning. Let’s not forget that last year the most deserving performance (Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose) won over an acting legend who actually campaigned for herself for the very first time ever (Julie Christie for Away from Her). It is my opinion that Thomas is the most deserving, so far. Streep or Winslet could change that.

But I predict that unless Winslet blows everyone away in Revolutionary Road or Streep tears the screen apart in Doubt, Thomas will become the second consecutive French language Best Actress winner. I had to add the two caveats before going out on my limb!

And In The Land of Television

The Emmy’s were announced last month and two of the three best new television dramas received major love from the Academy. The third got bupkis! All three received recent Season One DVD releases.

Mad Men

Mad Men, is slick, intelligently written and phenomenally acted by a stellar cast led by the charismatic and dashing Jon Hamm. Series creator and former Soprano’s writer, Matt Weiner, has fashioned an evocative study of the advertising industry in the early 60’s but the show is also a penetrating and keen commentary on life in America at that time. The DVD set features a slew of neat extras including a meaty featurette called “Establishing Mad Men” as well as commentaries on every episode. This is simply the best TV has to offer and the Outstanding Drama Emmy it won was seriously deserved.


Damages, had me in its spell from the first episode and would not let go. I actually watched the entire 13-episode season in less than a week. The show is set in one of the most prestigious law films in NYC as savvy and relentless attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) goes after billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and many lives are destroyed in the process. Best Actress winner Close has never been this good in anything ever! She gets great support from the perfectly slimy Zeljko Ivanek (an Emmy winner as well), Tate Donovan and Danson, who seems to relish playing evil. The DVD set boasts deleted scenes, featurettes and an occasional commentary. Damages is smart, edge of your seat television.

Gossip Girl

The overlooked series, Gossip Girl, is far better than any other show of it’s kind and should have definitely gotten some Emmy love. The good news is that more people are actually watching the engrossing show in its second season. OC creator Josh Schwartz has masterminded a delectable soap about the teens that inhabit Manhattan’s Upper East Side and cast it to perfection. First and foremost is the deliciously devious Leighton Meester as spoiled rich gal Blair Waldorf who’s BFF is Blake Lively’s sexy and mysterious Serena Van Der Woodsen. Serena hooks up with poor-writer boy Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgely) after sleeping with Blair’s beau, Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford). The most fascinating male character however is cad, Chuck Bass, played with wicked glee by Ed Westwick. Also of note are Kelly Rutherford and Matthew Settle who play former lovers, now parents of Serena and Dan. They rep the heart and soul of the show.

Gossip Girl is so more than just a guilty pleasure. It’s well-written, wonderfully acted and just plain fun. The twists and teen turns truly take you by surprise and, here’s a shocker, you get the feeling these are real teens on the small screen—rich and ruthless teens but teens nonetheless. The DVD set includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, a fashion featurette as well as a docu about the making of the show. Give this series a chance. You won’t be disappointed! XOXO





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