October Film Column
Written by Frank J. Avella
James Franco and Sean Penn in Milk
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: http://blogs.indiewire.com/eug/archives/018957.html
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.
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 AwardsDaily.com,
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
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
Best Actress Race
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
So my EARLY predictions are: (and
to make predictions this early is ridiculous and
Hathaway, Hawkins, Streep, Winslet
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
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, 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.
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!