Milk (2008)

"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!" This quote may not mean anything to most of us today, but when spoken by Harvey Milk himself in 1970s San Francisco, this was a battle cry that meant hope for homosexuals everywhere. To this day, the issue of homosexuality has been prevalent in our society. Great strides have been made to settle the dispute, but none have birthed a final conclusion. Intolerance of homosexuals became a past time for some Americans, and Harvey Milk was the man looking to find those people another hobby.

Milk is the true story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to a public office. Forced out of New York because of his inability to live his lifestyle freely, Harvey took to the road with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) in search of a haven for homosexuals. The two arrived in San Francisco only to discover just as much prejudice crawling through the city as anywhere else. Determined to help the world realize that all men are created equal, Harvey runs for office multiple times but comes out on the losing end. Despite losing Scott because of the chaos of politics, he kept pursuing office and eventually won a seat as City Supervisor in 1977. Contending with the views of fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), Harvey now had to face a huge threat that endangered the jobs of millions of homosexuals: Proposition 6. Led by State Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6 called for all homosexual teachers at public schools to be fired in order to prevent them from teaching their students to be gay. This absolutely absurd claim sparked huge uproar in the gay community, specifically from Harvey Milk. Chronicling his life from his move to San Francisco to his murder (not a spoiler, as both his death and murderer are revealed about 4 minutes into the film), Milk is a fantastic film that teaches us about the life and teachings of this pioneer in history.

It is almost impossible to determine where one should begin to discuss Milk. With such flawless execution in every aspect of the film, it seems unfair to start one without talking about the other. Writer Dustin Lance Black, who received an Academy Award for his Best Original Screenplay, did a terrific job of not simply stating facts about Harvey Milk's life but telling a story that dug emotions from the deepest trench of my soul. To admit something about myself for a moment, I am not exactly what you would consider a "sympathizer" of the homosexual lifestyle. However, Black's perfect blend of realistic drama and occasional humor (Dan White: Can two men reproduce? Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying!) made me connect with each and every character and start to think of things in a new light. Director Gus Van Sant complimented Black's writing beautifully with an eloquent style that was not in the least bit showy. Subtle and simple camerawork did not fancify the story but simply enabled it to be told in a direct matter for the purpose of entertainment and enlightenment. Van Sant, whose films have been hit and miss (a shot for shot remake of Psycho counts as not just a miss, but a complete and utter misfire that made Alfred Hitchcock weep in his grave), is at his creative best here by being as least creative as possible.

The piece de resistance of Milk is the one who not only brought the words, but the man, to life. I am referring to Sean Penn, who won his second Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for this role. My initial reaction to Penn winning this award was one of disbelief and anger, because although I had not seen the film yet, I had heavy doubts that he could have been much better than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Having seen Milk, I can say both men were equally worthy of winning the award, and the reason it was granted to Penn was probably due to the fact that Hollywood is a liberal place. This does not take merit away from Penn's performance, which was nothing short of outstanding. His contribution mixed with Van Sant and Black brought the era to life and put me right in the center of the action. What is perhaps most surprising about Milk is that there were a number of supporting performances that were just as praise-worthy as Penn's. Josh Brolin delivered a very powerful performance as Harvey Milk's executioner Dan White, earning him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. White, a man bent on protecting the sancitity of traditional family life, perhaps even confused about his own sexuality according to Milk, feels his world begin to unfurl as he starts losing support and he watches Milk start to gain some. His morals and ethics are shook to the core, and Brolin displays them easily for us to see. But to just give Brolin a nomination for Supporting Actor seems unfair to Emile Hirsch and James Franco, who both gave exceptional performances. As Harvey Milk's close political advisor and fellow gay activist Cleve Jones, Hirsch encapsulates the role and helps keep the movie afloat in scenes that in other hands would have sunk. The most unexpected performance of Milk was that of James Franco, whom I have never seen in a good dramatic role. I was shocked to find that while watching the film I had completely forgotten it was Franco and I just felt like I was watching Harvey Milk and Scott Smith. Perhaps there is a future for him in serious films after all.

Admittedly, my general views on homosexuality have not changed much since watching Milk, but I have gained a better understanding of the situation. The very idea that this film resonated with me at all should give you an idea of how powerful it's message was. One can only wonder that if this film was released a few weeks earlier, would the recent Proposition 8 have passed in California? Something tells me that if everybody watched this film, whether the ideas stuck or not, the immediate reaction would have been to vote "No". This is all a relative thought, however. If you are a strict, God-fearing person, this movie will not affect you at all probably. But if you are like me and your feelings about homosexuality come from your own mind rather than a book, you may be more inclinded to succumb to the bias of Milk.

Clocking in at just over 2 hours, I was never bored with Milk and felt that I could have watched it again immediately afterward. To those of you who are concerned about watching men kissing other men, I assure you that at no point does the film become uncomfortable to watch, as long as you have a mature mind about you. Whether you watch Milk as a historical text or a vessel of entertainment, you are guaranteed a terrific experience from a truly brilliant movie. My rating (10/10)

Adventureland (2009)

In 2007, director Greg Mottola made a huge dent in the world of comedy with the hit Superbad. With the assistance of writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, he delivered one of the funniest films of the year and still kept it sincere underneath the loads of vulgar language. In 2009, Mottola went out on his own and wrote and directed the film Adventureland, a project probably very close to his heart because he worked at the real Adventureland long ago. For his sake, I hope this was not an account of his actual experiences there. Not only was this film about as funny as stubbing your toe on the refridgerator, it was overrun with whiny characters that pulled no sympathy from me.

It's 1987 and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) just graduated from college. Before attending Graduate school at Columbia, James wants to spend some time in Europe in hopes of losing his virginity to an easy foreign girl. But when the cost of his trip increases unexpectedly, James is forced to find himself a summer job to pay for the difference. Enter Adventureland, the local amusement park where James' friend Frigo (Matt Bush, the kid from the AT&T commercials, and the only funny part of this film) works. After a brief interview with park manager Bobby (Bill Hader) and his wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig), James begins his thrilling career as a game shack attendant. Life looks bleak for James until he is spotted by Em (Kristen Stewart), another game attendant. The two spark up a friendship that soon turns into romantic feelings for James. But Em's chaotic home life and an attractive musician mechanic named Connell (Ryan Reynolds) jeopardize James' chance of making this summer one he will remember forever, in a good way at least. Falsely advertised as a comedy, Adventureland is a drama chronicling the life of a post-graduate loser in Reagan era Long Island.

Adventureland did have one aspect going for it in it's favor. It was a realistic film in how people, specifically younger generations, interacted with each other in their awful job environment. The awkward and somewhat gloomy nature of these poor souls was a truthful account, so in that respect Mottola did a great job at writing. However, this brings up a serious problem in the film. Real life is not all that funny. In Superbad, the friendship between the two main characters was real, but events in the film were heavily exaggerated to accommodate the comedy of the film. In Adventureland, everything that happened was practical and thus much less funny. Mottola left little room for comedy and instead put heavy effort into developing his characters. In a dramatic film, character development is key. There needs to be a significant amount of it in order to draw an audience in. However, a comedy does not need nearly as much attention put in to the characters. In a good comedy, such as Superbad, the very beginning of the film introduces us to exactly who our main protagonists are. As the film progresses, subtle actions inside the comedy reveal more and more about the characters, but we are never force fed the material. Mottola takes this short 5 minutes of character introduction and stretches it into a full hour. Because of this, there is no light-hearted interlude between the moments we meet our friend James and the main issue of the film. It is drama through and through, and I was looking for a comedy.

Perhaps the biggest disease that Adventureland suffered from was the fact that it was a character driven film with boring characters and lackadaisical actors. Jesse Eisenberg plays the soft spoken intellectual James in a static way that is reminiscent of Michael Cera. Both emit an air of pathetic awkwardness, and neither ever really raise their voice beyond a certain level. The only difference is that Michael Cera is actually funny. Line after line Eisenberg delivers with the same "enthusiasm", and never once did he bring a smile to my face. Much like Paul Rudd's character in I Love You, Man was embarrassing to watch, Eisenberg overplays the quirkiness of his role and never shows the maturity that his character supposedly gained. The lone bright spot as far as performances go belongs to Kristen Stewart, who may have actually been too good for her role. The confusion and mayhem that was Em's life is brought forth with stunning strength though Stewart's performance. I say she may have been too good for this role because since everybody else was so awful and she was so spot on, the gap between was uncomfortably recognizable. However good of a job Stewart did though can be overlooked by the fact that she too, has not a single comedic line in Adventureland. So far, we have a comedy with two main characters. One is pathetically unfunny despite his best efforts, and the other is straight-laced and meant to amp up the drama. Forget good performances, somebody say something funny! It was here that the supporting cast contributed hugely to the film. Matt Bush as James' pestering friend was by far the funniest aspect of Adventureland, but was unfairly underutilized. I have seen Bush in a few TV commercials and I was glad to see that he transferred well onto a big screen. His future in the film industry will hopefully long, despite his upcoming project, Halloween 2. And of course, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig deliver as always but are, like Bush, rarely on screen. Martin Starr, as James' game shack mentor Joel, provides little to nothing to film, and may as well have been dropped from the script entirely.

It can be argued that Adventureland was not meant to be a comedy in the vein of Superbad but rather a touching coming of age story. This statement I can live with, but respectfully disagree. This film has been marketed vigorously as a hilarious follow-up to Superbad so that is exactly what I expected. Marketing this film as a comedy makes about as much sense as marketing Schindler's List as a great date movie. But judging Adventureland as a coming of age tale does not help it much. Because of the dismal acting and irritating characters, the journey into manhood didn't interest me in the slightest. The final resolution to the film is predictable and conjured not a single emotion from me. The characters themselves showed little emotion to any situation presented to them. They simply looked bored, and that made me bored with them.

Adventureland is a very long 107 minutes that is only good for a few chuckles and one solitary worth while performance. Greg Mottola has fallen victim to the sophomore slump, falling well short of the expectations brought about by Superbad. To those of you who may complain that I am being unfair by comparing this film to Superbad, let me say this. Adventureland as a lone film was boring, not funny, and a waste of $8. My rating (2/10)

Movies given a 10/10

  • Milk
  • In Bruges
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • No Country For Old Men
  • The Shining
  • A Clockwork Orange