Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beautiful Dreamer: Milk

“Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s labor of love biopic about civil rights leader Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States and later gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, three decades ago this month), is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former “radical” who learned to work within—even to embrace—the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes—no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors.

To read the rest of my glowing review visit The House Next Door.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Interview with The Betrayal's Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath

The day I interviewed famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras (who I’d always envisioned as a wishbone with Scorsese and Spike Lee pulling on either leg) and Thavisouk Phrasavath, co-directors of the 23-years-in-the-making labor of love “The Betrayal,” congratulations were in order. The film, about the fallout from U.S. foreign policy in Laos as told through the personal lens of Thavi and his immigrant family, had just made the doc shortlist for the Academy Awards (along with “Man On Wire.” Attention Werner Herzog, HND interviews are good luck!) But as we spoke about everything from the American government’s refusal to fully own up to historical atrocities committed in its name (thereby repeating them) to the influence “Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind” (on which Kuras was cinematographer) had on “The Betrayal,” I got a strong sense that the filmmakers were aiming higher than even Oscar. Sure, a statue would be nice, but influencing an Iraq pullout would be much more on point and gratifying.

To hear the podcast visit The House Next Door.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

MILK and Irony

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

MILK and Irony

Irony held center stage at the press conference for “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s passionate biopic about the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States, that took place at The Regency Hotel in Manhattan a little more than two weeks after the passing of California’s (heavily financed by the Mormon Church) Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It was Supervisor Harvey Milk himself who had been instrumental in the defeat of California’s Proposition 6 (a battle featured prominently in the film), which had been openly opposed by everyone from Governor Jerry Brown to Carter and Reagan. The victory over the measure that would have effectively banned homosexual teachers and their allies from the public school system occurred in the same (non-election) year Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, exactly three decades ago this month. Since those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, it’s no surprise Harvey Milk is not a household name, not even to the many young actors starring in Milk, who became aware of him only upon receiving the script.

And this is something Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who grew up gay and Mormon in California, and was the sole Mormon writer/producer on the Mormon-themed “Big Love” – yes, as I said, irony ruled the day!) and the panel of actors, including Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), James Franco (Milk’s lover Scott), Josh Brolin (assassin Dan White), Alison Pill (campaign manager Anne Kronenberg) and Emile Hirsch (Milk protégé/activist Cleve Jones) have set out to rectify. Of course, Van Sant only took on this labor of love once he’d gotten word that Oliver Stone was abandoning his own biopic (and yes, I’m going to gloss over the irony of Penn and Brolin both having famously worked with Stone, lest I begin to sound like a Stone conspiracy theorist). For Milk wasn’t just the colorful “Mayor of Castro Street,” who united gays, straights, blacks, whites, seniors and youth, through old-fashioned charm and newfound civic pride, but a civil rights leader in the mold of fellow slain activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

How important was this barely remembered man? When asked how history would have been different had Milk lived, Penn (nursing a cold; at one point an assistant walked up to offer a handkerchief) instantly and adamantly stated, “Less people would have died of AIDS. Reagan would have addressed it.” Not only was this remark incredibly perceptive, but absolutely correct. Ground zero for the AIDS epidemic happened also to be Harvey Milk’s backyard. And Milk (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” his signature line) never tolerated silence in his backyard.

But Van Sant, seeming to shrink seated between Penn and Brolin, preferred, like Milk, to focus on hope not despair. The director drew a connection between the “new energy” of a different time to the latest national activism in response to Prop 8. Screenwriter Black saw parallel strategies, with Proposition 8 a descendant of the pre-Prop 6 initiatives of Dade County and Wichita, where anti-gay measures (neither of which included any mention of homosexuality in their wording) passed thanks to Anita Bryant and her own religious fervor. Yet when one woman tried to define the debate in terms of “religious faith vs. gay rights,” Penn stepped in to immediately correct her. Neither Prop 6 nor Prop 8 have anything to do with religion, he pointed out, but of simple “hatred and intolerance,” the very opposite of faith. And, he added, that issues (words) do indeed kill. People take their own lives when you take away their hope for the future – another “Milk” and Milk theme.

Regardless, it was none other than campy, Katherine Harris-like Anita Bryant who was responsible for the inventive use of archival footage in “Milk,” according to Black. Since the screenwriter was unable to craft the character without falling into caricature he decided to just let the real Anita Bryant speak for herself. Van Sant and his longtime DP Harris Savides then took Black’s idea and ran with it, flowing seamlessly between footage of the original marches, archival stills (often seen from the POV of the character Milk’s camera) and the actual on-location-in-SF shoot (where they went so far as to recreate Milk’s camera shop in the original shop!)

And speaking of his noticeably absent cinematographer, Van Sant admitted that while Savides’ talent first caught his eye, it was his reputation for being “the only DP Madonna would work with” that sealed the deal. (“She must be pretty discerning,” Van Sant figured.) Now every time he works with Savides he excitedly thinks, “Oh, I’ve got Madonna’s DP!” To which Penn deadpanned, “DP, ex-husband…” Even the statue of Milk that stands on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall where marriage ceremonies are held would have cracked a smile.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Daniel Craig Must Get Naked In The Next Bond Movie

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Why Daniel Craig Must Get Naked In The Next Bond Movie

When I heard “Quantum of Solace” director Marc Forster say in the promo trailer that he tried to make the Bond film he always wanted to see, I thought “Uh-oh.” But my “Uh-oh” turned to “Oh, shit,” once I got to the screening and saw Paul Haggis listed in the credits as one of the writers, my distaste for “Finding Neverland” Forster trumped only by my loathing of faux-deep Haggis. And yet none of this mattered in the least because I was going to see “Quantum of Solace” for one reason and one reason only: to watch Daniel Craig get naked. (Heck, I’d have happily sat through “Crash” a dozen times if Haggis had tossed in a naked Daniel Craig every once in awhile!)

You see, ever since Craig’s debut in the remake of “Casino Royale,” the dusty old, 007 series was offered a prime opportunity to expand its audience for the first time in decades. Not only would hardcore Fleming franchise fans and massive car explosion enthusiasts be lining up for tickets; there was now a third audience of those like me, indifferent to the Bond legacy and shaky cam chases alike, but hot and bothered by Mr. Craig. And Forster and Haggis, not surprisingly considering their very un-sexy track record, blew it.

It’s not like I was expecting another gay S&M scene smack dab in the middle of the film (I realize a repeat of soft-core porn “Casino Royale” would have been too much to ask), but the makers of “Quantum of Solace” not only ignore Daniel Craig’s raging sexuality, they practically neuter him as well. A full hour goes by before Craig even so much as takes off his shirt – the only flesh he bares in the entire film! Instead he’s shown in a vast array of tuxedoes, suits and some ill-advised, Ralph Lauren-like leisurewear – as if he’s refined Roger Moore and not working class Craig. It’s like Forster has some cookie cutter image of a courtly Moore/Brosnan Bond stuck in his head, completely unaware that he’s dealing with a thug in a tux.

And yet this is precisely why Daniel Craig is the hottest Bond ever, the tension between his blue-collar physicality and the debonair restraints of the role are what makes him sizzle right off the screen. Closer in spirit to the rebellious Connery than to any of the suave and sophisticated Bonds to follow, Craig’s Agent 007 isn’t comfortable pent up in expensive duds. He wants to run wild on a beach half-naked (and I want to see him run wild on a beach half-naked). Sure, I’d be thrilled to attend the opera with Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan on my arm. But I’d much rather skip Tosca and be locked in a hotel room with Daniel Craig.

In essence, “Quantum of Solace” is nothing more than a two-hour tease without the money shot. Even when Bond steals a tux at a luxurious party Forster frustratingly cuts away. In lieu of a hot shot of Bond changing into the suit, we inexplicably get some doughy, topless dude searching around for his pilfered threads! And Haggis’ script fares no better in understanding the allure of this particular Bond. For example, when Agent 007 eschews the down-and-dirty hotel in Bolivia for a five-star resort it makes total sense – for Moore’s proper Bond. But it makes absolutely no sense for the Bond character that Craig is playing! Craig’s Bond is rough-and-tumble like his C.I.A. counterpart Felix Leiter (played by always-at-the-top-of-his-game Jeffrey Wright), a warrior who only goes along with the snooty stuff because it’s part of his job. Watching Craig’s Bond one gets the sense he’d rather be talking football in the pub with the lads. (Besides, Craig’s Bond happens to still be in mourning for his beloved Vesper so he’s not focused on material comforts – only on revenge.)

For the makers of “Casino Royale” implicitly understood Craig, tailored the film around his sex appeal. For better or worse, the Fleming franchise belongs to the actor playing Bond and the filmmakers have to follow that lead. There’s downright arrogance in Forster and Haggis ignoring Craig’s enormous assets – as if they could care less who plays Bond (heck, it wasn’t up to them anyway!) Yes, auteur is king if you’re making a Hollywood boutique film – the actor must accommodate himself into the script. But this is the Bond series – thus the script must be tweaked to fit the actor playing the iconic agent!

For Craig is rightly reinterpreting the role – and Forster is not picking up on it. Craig’s been a stage and screen actor for decades so there’s a wealth of material Forster and Haggis could have studied to grasp Craig’s sensuous physicality. But I’d be surprised if they’d seen him in anything other than “Casino Royale” or “Munich,” if they’d actually done their homework. Craig was selected to play Bond for a reason – a different reason than Moore or even Connery was. The Bond role is evolving even as Forster and Haggis are stuck trying to repeat the past (evidenced by “Quantum’s” Bond-posing-with-a-gun retro opening).

It’s problematic that Mathieu Amalric as baddie Dominic Greene and Olga Kurylenko as Camille are the only actors who seem to be having a ball (probably because English is not their first language so they don’t realize how bloody awful their dialogue really is), but it’s unforgivable that these two are actually sexier than Bond. Haggis’ script just may be the worst Bond screenplay of all time, drained of all playfulness, the “wink” that is the key to the series’ longevity. Only when Bond responds “I sure hope so,” to the line “I do think she has handcuffs,” and “Not in the least” with a smile full of relish to Camille’s inquiry as to whether her use of sex as an infiltration tool offends him do Craig’s mischievous eyes light up. All other traces of witty, tongue-in-cheek, Bond double entendres are nowhere to be found. Sadly, even with the sexiest man alive in the lead, “Quantum of Solace” is far from titillating, as dry as the desert sand.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Proposition 8 and "Lotte's Death"

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Proposition 8 and “Lotte’s Death”

Even as the champagne was still flowing across the nation in celebration of Barack Obama’s historic victory, protests were raging in California after Proposition 8, defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, passed with nary a hitch. By chance this was also the week I finally got around to watching Fatih Akin’s stunning follow-up to his rightly lauded “Head-On,” “The Edge of Heaven,” recently released on DVD. It’s hard to believe Akin, the biggest talent to come out of German cinema since Fassbinder, is only 35 years old. Indeed, the depth of the script, the subtlety of the Turkish score, the nuanced camerawork and self-assured editing are that of a master director. As is the poignancy with which Akin invests the breathtaking lesbian love story, which both connects the first and last parts of his international trilogy, and is the beating heart of the film. If those same-sex marriage advocates are ever in need of a cautionary tale that could serve as a Prop 8 teaching tool, “Lotte’s Death” (as part two is titled) is it.

As strong and sexy as the star-crossed straight lovers in “Head-On,” blond, pixie hipster Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and Turkish hot tamale Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) meet sweet outside the university where Lotte studies – and to which Ayten covertly has escaped after fleeing her country and inevitable arrest for political terrorist activities. The down on her luck Ayten fidgets as she walks up and asks Lotte for money to buy food. Confident Lotte doesn’t have change yet can’t seem to let Ayten go, offers to get change inside, prompting me to ponder, “Hmm, is she trying to pick her up?” Of course, had this been a boy-meets-girl moment there would have been no doubt in my mind. (This is how ingrained the straight POV is – even within non-hetero audiences!) It’s crystal clear that aggressive Lotte is lusting for Ayten – and yet this instant of uncertainty speaks volumes to an often unacknowledged, subconscious bias.

Yes Lotte, mesmerized by the brunette beauty, buys Ayten lunch, which she wolfs down. Later she takes her to a club where they dance and sweat, steamily share a joint as Akin’s lens respectfully caresses them in slow motion, then make out like it’s their last night on earth. The chemistry between the two is so magnetic that it’s no wonder that Ayten immediately moves in (under the disapproving gaze of Lotte’s mom Susanne played by Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla). Susanne knows by the loving look in her daughter’s eyes that she isn’t just taking pity on a political refugee. She wants this femme fatale from Istanbul for her wife.

Of course this can never be. Separated by nationality, the two find themselves also unable to navigate the government system because of their sexuality once Ayten gets arrested in Germany. As Lotte accompanies Ayten to the room where she’ll be living while awaiting an asylum hearing, the sympathetic official who escorts them tells Lotte she can stay three nights a month. He knows they’re lovers though the truth remains unspoken. After Ayten loses her appeal and is sent back to Turkey Lotte follows and slams head on into the closed doors of bureaucracy. When Lotte learns she can’t see the imprisoned Ayten because they don’t share the same surname she bursts into uncontrollable tears. The Turkish official, feeling sorry for her, offers to try to get special permission. He knows by the intensity of Lotte’s outburst that Ayten is not merely a good friend. And yet, neither woman is allowed to declare her love like heterosexual characters most certainly would have. Lotte and Ayten don’t get lines like, “But this is my wife – I’m entitled to see her!”

And here through the illuminating lens of fiction we get a glimpse into the darkest fears of homosexual couples. Lotte and Ayten, though the exact opposite of poster children for the same-sex marriage movement – a young, hot-blooded couple in trouble with the law who don’t always play it safe – aren’t allowed even the basic rights afforded a badass heterosexual couple in their shoes. For Lotte and Ayten, sharing a surname isn’t an ideological exercise. It’s the difference between life and death.

Red, White & Bling! Election Night 2008 with The Billionaire Follies

Last week while the masses were breathing a collective sigh of relief at the symbolic end to the most disastrous presidency in U.S. history, I was pondering the one downside of the conclusion to W’s reign. No more Billionaires for Bush, the hilariously high-living, street theater troupe (with 90 national chapters) who “armed with tuxedos, evening gowns, hard facts and a humorous spin” have been putting a satirical shiner on corporate interests at political rallies throughout the country for years. No more tiara-wearing women dripping in jewels and top hat clad men (not to mention the nattily attired kids) bearing “Free The Enron 7” and “We’re All In This Together (sort of)” signs outside the conventions. (Though one member did lament to me that it’s impossible to get arrested in a tuxedo.) The Bills, rightly fearing that Obama would not be good for this minority’s rights, had decided to call it quits.

But of course, if the Billionaires had to bail out it would be with a bang, thus “Red, White & Bling! Election Night 2008 with The Billionaire Follies” was a nouveau riche cabaret extravaganza emceed by Dave Bennett as George W. Bush (“Gonna find that Dow Jones, follow him to his Wall Street cave – and smoke ‘em out!”), performing everything from his “just released” hip-hop number (“Don’t vote” urged whispering backup voices) to a blues tune with Dave Case’s Karl Rove (sample lyric, “Hope Cheney doesn’t shoot me ‘cause I’m a lame duck”). Then there was the terrific Tina Fey-inspired Yvonne Willrich-Teague as Sarah Palin singing “Suddenly Sarah” and standing behind Robbie Edmondson’s Levi Johnson – rifle in her hand – as he tremblingly disavowed his MySpace page and declared his love for her daughter Bristol played by Amanda Kay Schill. (The pregnant Palin teen later got into a wrestling match with Melody Bates’ equally pregnant Jenna Bush.) Toss in the 2008 U.S. National Tango Champions Gayle Madeira and Lexa Rosean doing an Obama-Palin slapstick dance worthy of Mack Sennett, the Lobbyists for McCain harmonizing an ode to banking (“No credit? No money? How ‘bout a mortgage? Sure!”), and the Raging Grannies (who’ve been holding a vigil every Wednesday in Times Square since the Iraq war began) singing “Grandmama for Obama,” and you’ve got yourself the best election party stock options can buy.

Yet the highlight for me wasn’t Constance Swindling’s laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (with the lyrics “Just a Navy boy/Married money post-Hanoi/Has eight mansions he just don’t know where”) nor the “big oil,” grand finale Fosse number “All That Gas” (“Drill baby drill!”), which concluded with the MILF governor stripping down to a bathing suit and Miss Alaska sash while the Billionaire chorus mimed wildlife and Ivy League-Legacy called, “Oh, look, it’s moose!” to the rifle-toting Palin. No, what thrilled me most was when Bennett’s Bush directed the performers into the audience at the very end (“Billionaires, take a seat in the house – or the Senate!”) for a video juxtaposing stills of the troupe with their dubious inspiration’s strangest moments, concluding with a picture of W and “Dope” changing to one of Obama’s face and “Hope.” As “This land is my land/ This land is my land/ From Catalina to the Cayman Islands” became the real thing it became equally apparent that the Bills’ constant refusal to ever stop laughing in the face of despair is the very definition of hope. And exactly the change we need.

Click here to see the Bills in action. Review also available at Theater Online. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Presidential Appeal: Bill Clinton By John Travolta

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Presidential Appeal: Bill Clinton By John Travolta

My mom has the hots for President Clinton as badly as I swoon for Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of us turning into goofy schoolgirls at the mere mention of our respective crushes. While the Governator’s arrogant, aggressive virility drives me wild, personally I’ve never fantasized about Arkansas charmer Slick Willy.

And yet I’d be thrilled to bed John Travolta, who embodied Bill Clinton via the character of Jack Stanton in Mike Nichols’ 1998 “Primary Colors,” a thinly veiled account of the would-be president’s rise to stardom during the 1992 primaries, with a swift-moving screenplay by Elaine May based on political reporter Joe Klein’s originally “Anonymous” novel. Travolta as Stanton perfectly captured the sexy essence of Clinton then topped it with his well-honed movie star touch.

The similarities between the two aging icons are striking. “Primary Colors” begins and ends with the famous “Stanton handshake,” shots of the many ways the southern governor greets his supporters, the positioning of his free hand on an arm sending a subliminal signal, from sparkling playfulness to grave empathy, to the adoring fan. He connects with people through pressing the flesh, literally through touch. Stanton, like Clinton, is a visceral character, full of warmth and life. Which also perfectly describes Travolta, who has always cultivated the same image of accessibility, the Jersey boy from the hardworking Irish-Italian-American family who never forgot his roots. Neither Stanton/Clinton nor Travolta were silver spoon fed; both earned fame and fortune through sheer sweat and tenacity.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to imagine either Clinton or Travolta being spoon-fed at all. Even as Stanton shoves a donut in his mouth as if he’s popping a peanut, Travolta’s own hearty appetite shines right through. These are men of insatiable hunger who attack life with gusto. They’re also not afraid to play by their own rules. Who would have thought a small-time southern politician with a campaign run by passionate novices would become leader of the free world? Who could have imagined the dude who played Vinnie Barbarino would become an international sex symbol? I’m sure Travolta, like Clinton, never thought it farfetched for a second.

And this especially is the root of their steamy appeal: a combination of knowing self-confidence, charm and good looks coupled with a downright honest vulnerability. There’s a lost little boy innocence locked inside their big men’s bodies. Stanton weeps openly as a man in an adult literacy program describes the shame he felt upon graduating with an honor in “attendance” – Clinton’s “I feel your pain” core personified. Likewise, Travolta as sweet Vincent Vega dancing and whacking his way through “Pulp Fiction,” and especially turning in an astonishingly mature, heartrending performance as Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever,” garnered Academy Award nominations – and these things just don’t go to guys who fear wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Which doesn’t mean that they’re not also shrewd and calculating. In “Primary Colors” Stanton has the foresight to have his arrest at the DNC convention in ‘68 expunged from the record, lest it return to haunt him. I don’t think it’s an accident that before the flops following “Urban Cowboy,” Travolta was untouchable, box office gold. Though both men are gamblers never shying from heart-pounding risk (Stanton/Clinton with his serial infidelities, Travolta starring as Edna Turnblad in the remake of “Hairspray”), they’re also experts at planning the next move while making it look like it was all divine provenance.

In “Primary Colors” Stanton refers to Lincoln being a whore before he was a president. There’s something sexy about a man who doesn’t mind getting his working hands dirty – who revels in the mud. And yet sly Stanton/Clinton won the presidency by wooing voters like a patient respectful lover. “Now don’t break our hearts,” a campaign staffer says to Stanton at his inauguration. No coincidence it’s a specialty that’s always been Travolta’s own stock in trade.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Declan Recks's “Eden,” with a script adapted by Eugene O'Brien from his own play, is the latest from the producers of the exhilarating “Once,” and that, along with a couple commendable acting turns from Aidan Kelly and Eileen Walsh as Billy and Breda Farrell, an Irish couple with two kids who find their marriage stagnating after a decade, is pretty much all it's got going for it. Simply put, “Eden” is like knockoff Leigh or Loach, unfocused kitchen-sink realism.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Road to The White House: Jesus Politics

The idea for “Jesus Politics,” a road trip documentary spanning 4000 miles and 17 states in which director Ilan Ziv interviews the religious activist supporters of both Democratic and Republican candidates during the presidential primaries, came when Ziv noticed the prominent role religion was playing in the most recent campaigns. As a veteran of the 1973 war in Israel, Ziv fled his homeland 35 years ago specifically to live in a society in which the separation of church and state was an inalienable right. Stunned and dismayed by the sudden rise in post-9/11 Bible thumping, he decided to investigate. Ironically, what Ziv found reveals more about this immigrant filmmaker’s romantic notion of America than it does about the country itself.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.