Thursday, February 26, 2009


Taken is a wonderfully raw cinematic pleasure, with no time (let alone patience) for the subtleties and self-awareness that have occasionally seeped into the action genre these days; only time to watch Liam Neeson hunt down, interrogate, torture, and kill every thug, pimp, criminal, and shady businessman in Paris to rescue his daughter and protect her virginity, taking a nonstop shit all over the Geneva Convention in the process.

Liam Neeson plays someone whose name is unimportant because he's goddamn Liam Neeson. He's a retired CIA operative with a very particular set of skills that make him a nightmare to people like you. His seventeen-year-old daughter who mysteriously appears to be about thirty (Shannon from Lost playing a goddamn seventeen-year-old, I couldn't fucking believe it) is going on a vacation with her whorish friend to Paris, France. Liam Neeson spends hours freaking out about how she's going to get kidnapped in the dangerous, crime-ridden hellhole that is Paris (?!) but finally, tentatively agrees to let her go.

She and her friend then proceed to get kidnapped by an Albanian sex trafficking ring within five goddamn minutes of landing in the city and I near shit my pants with laughter.

Liam Neeson flies to France and kills goddamn everyone he meets to find her. Yes, he tortures with a smile, yes, he executes unarmed villains with glee, yes, he shoots a corrupt cop's innocent wife in the arm just to get him to talk, yes, he does it all to save the weak, helpless woman who cannot help herself, yes, he does it all in a seedy, crime-ridden Paris of corrupt cops and prissy liberals who can't help him, and no, he faces no legal penalty for his murders in the end. This is right-wing jerk off fodder in its most distilled form. That his daughter's slutty friend pays the ultimate price, thus fulfilling the right wing's secret fantasies of seeing sexually active women die for their promiscuity, should come as no shock to anyone.

Liam Neeson finally uncovers the horrible truth: that his virginal daughter is being auctioned off at a sex trafficking show and is won by none other than what appears to be a goddamned Middle Eastern sheik! No CIA operative will stand by while his white, all-American daughter is defiled by Muslim cock!

Liam performs his own personal jihad, powering through the Muslim lair to reach his daughter, machine guns blazing, sons of Allah dying by the dozens as the white CIA man fills their spines, guts, and skulls with ammunition. If you were to watch this movie with the Republican members of Congress this scene is about where you could expect most of them to reach climax and the lingering, musky scent of semen to fill the theater. Finally, the credits roll, and I sit, slack-jawed and struck dumb by the spectacle I've just seen before me.

Taken should by all accounts be a terrible movie - well, scratch that, Taken is by all accounts a terrible movie that should be starring some no-name B-list muscleman or a geriatric Steven Seagal. Yet there at the center of it all stands Liam Neeson, one of the great living thespians, lending the narrative and mediocre dialogue about a hundred-thousand times the depth and classiness it deserves. He pulls his weight in pure badass in a way that rivals Daniel Craig's 007. He's well in his fifties but if Liam Neeson glared at me and told me he was going to kill me I would run and jump out the nearest window and fall to my death so he couldn't hurt me. Liam Neeson is God.

It's a shame that the movie is PG-13 and has minimal gore because otherwise it has pretty much everything needed for supreme guilty pleasure; it's dumb as a rock and has a gargantuan body count and atrocious politics and no interesting characters, but it stands naked before the viewer without a shred of disguise or pretension and announces exactly what it is: streamlined-as-hell action. God bless it. We should all be so comfortable in our own skins as this fucking movie.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The 2008 Kraemer Movie Awards, Part II - The Best

All in all, 2008 was a great year for cinema - probably a hair short of the top tier of 1999, 2004, & 2007, but arguably fourth best of the last decade. Great action movies, dramas, comedies, thrillers, sci-fi / fantasy; every genre had solid representation, and while there was a fair share of letdowns and overrated movies at year's end, the good outweighed the bad, and the following were my favorites:



Guilty pleasure. Fuck you, what do you want me to say?


I'm an unapologetic Paul Rudd enthusiast and it was a minor thrill to see him step up to the leading man plate. The first couple acts of Role Models are funny if a bit generic but it then explodes into one of the most batshit crazy and hilarious comedic climaxes of the year, an extended sequence of fantasy warfare (I shit you not, Role Models virgins) that alone demands its placement on this list.


Abandoning the first film's Lovecraftian horror motif in favor of more of a modern high fantasy with elves, goblins, golems, and forest gods, Hellboy II is a lot of fun. Guillermo del Toro marries innovative prosthetics and makeup with remarkably imaginative art direction, creature design, and epic sets where other filmmakers today might just use lazy CGI to fill in the gaps, along with plenty of well-shot action and fight scenes - the film is a lot stronger than its own screenplay - and it's easy to see why Peter Jackson selected him to carry on his work in The Hobbit.


A taut, gripping thriller with a cold, ethereal, otherwordly setting. Reminded me of Christopher Nolan's "Alaskan noir" from Insomnia, except with a tighter and more exciting screenplay. Corrupt cops, drugs, infidelity, torture, murder, all on a goddamn train; that's what thrillers are all about, baby.


Bond's 22nd adventure is a definite step down from Casino Royale (which I still count as my favorite movie of 2006) with shakeycam action scenes and forgettable villains, but it's still Bond, and Bond is sacred. The introduction of Quantum, a new SPECTRE-style evil organization, hopefully bodes well for future films, we get more screentime from Jeffrey Wright's badass Felix Leiter, a classic scene at the opera where Bond compromises a whole cell of Quantum operatives at once, and of course more of Daniel Craig's hard-edged reinterpretation of Bond. Let's hope Bond 23 can distill the best elements of both Casino and Quantum into something even better.


A rare example of an obvious filmed play actually working as a movie, Frost/Nixon succeeds despite a few unnecessarily expositional cinematic flourishes on the strength of Michael Sheen/Frank Langella as the titular Frost/Nixon, and the rising tension as the interview moves towards Watergate leads to one of the most satisfying cinematic climaxes of the year.


Pure action-comedy is a great, underrated commodity at the multiplex, and when it's done right and perfectly balances the two elements as David Gordon Green, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg managed to do here, it gives such a complete cinematic experience you're still grinning hours after the movie is over. Much of the credit goes to James Franco, who delivers in addle-brained pothead Saul Silver one of the funniest pure and undiluted dumb guys in the last decade of film.


Rachel Getting Married is unusual and bold as a low-key drama that actually has the balls to make its protagonist Kym rather unlikable - she basically tries to do the right thing, sure, but she's a truly pathetic, burned-out drug addict with zero social skills, volatile, overdramatic, and prone to crashing cars. And Anne Hathaway plays Kym's worst aspects to the hilt, abandoning any trace of Hollywood glamour or dignity and letting the soul-crushing awkwardness spill out across the whole film as she tries (and largely fails) to have a normal weekend away from the rehab facility at her sister's wedding. It's a minor gem, particularly Hathaway's performance.


A muscular, entertaining heist movie that gives way to a crackling thriller, and proof that Jason Statham isn't just the dumb action man and can act in some legitimately great stuff. Also, I'm just gonna say it, Saffron Burrows is retardedly hot, and I enjoyed looking at her for the duration of the film.

#16 - MILK

A political biopic done right, doing justice to Harvey Milk's life and legacy by focusing primarily on his consolidation of political power in San Francisco, his campaigns and election, and his successful fight against California's Proposition 6 that would have allowed firing teachers on the basis of sexual orientation. Sean Penn does a great job as the man himself and as long as you can block out Diego Luna's character it's a wonderful film.

#15 - RAMBO

First, Sylvester Stallone wiped clean the stench of Rocky V with the great Rocky Balboa, and now proceeds to do the same to Rambo III with the first Rambo movie in twenty goddamn years! Stallone understands 80s action - it's in his blood - and he abandons pretension and makes a movie about Rambo fuckin' killing people. A Burmese paramilitary group captures a group of Christian missionaries, so John Rambo does what John Rambo does best and slaughters half the fucking nation of Burma to rescue them. Hundreds dead. Brain matter and skull fragments fly, arrows shot through eyeballs, limbs flayed, people burned to the crisp with flamethrowers, crucifixion, sliced into lunch meat and fed to the pigs, bones shatter into so many white splinters, gore and viscera spewing like grotesque geysers from hell, and the rivers of Burma run red with the blood of a thousand murdered bad guys. I am speechless. I am in awe. I bow to Stallone's magnificence, I am not worthy.


I'm actually surprised myself to be putting Woody Allen's very small and very intimate faux-Spanish melodrama this high on my list; it's intellectual junk food and I initially enjoyed it no more than a number of other summer movies, but it's percolated in my mind since then whereas other films have been forgotten and I must say it's a fine, warm, funny movie for grown-ups. Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem are both wonderful. Scarlett Johansson is consistently unremarkable but as long as being Woody's muse keeps him producing films like this and Match Point in contrast to his mediocre 90s output, I say keep at it.


In 1974, tightrope-walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a dream by illegally setting up and walking across a rope stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center, a quarter-mile in the sky with no safety net and nothing keeping his feet in place amid the beating winds but sheer adrenaline, and Man on Wire chronicles his feat with verve. Assembling vintage film, photographs, and modern interviews with all the people involved, it has all the tension of a fun heist movie and in the end a genuinely moving, inspirational moment as he steps out onto that wire. 2008's finest documentary.


A fully balls-out, epic, big-budget, explosive comedy that calls to mind the spirit of the 80s. It's bloody and profane and relies on some degree of behind-the-scenes Hollywood knowledge to fully enjoy, and I'm almost surprised a studio took a gamble on it, but I'm glad they did because what a funny movie. Particularly Robert Downey Jr. playing an Australian actor playing a black man who in one scene pretends to be an Asian farmer with a faux-Asian via faux-black accent. Robert Downey Jr. is awesome. Even the stuffy-ass Academy nominated him for Best Supporting Actor for it!


This is probably where my own genre biases come starkly into focus, and I'm aware that no one else in the country ranked Sex Drive anywhere near their top ten of 2008, but what do I care? It's no Superbad but excepting that masterpiece it's one of the better "teensploitation" movies of the decade, and I was cheered by every generic, cum-drenched second of it.


Spitting in the face of everything American cinema suggests horror movies should be, the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In is a slow-burning, deliberately-paced, eerie, atmospheric experience. The story of a bullied, lonely youth who befriends a girl who turns out to be a vampire - and a REAL vampire, who has to drink human blood for substinance, can't enter without an invitation, and sunlight immediately burns, nothing like the shitty Twilight non-vampires - is equal parts haunting and moving, punctuating its quiet, snowy atmosphere with effectively rare moments of gore and horror. An intoxicating, otherworldly experience.


I loved Forgetting Sarah Marshall because it was the most I laughed in a theater last year, and I like laughing. That's it.


In a comedy nearly as pitch-black as Fargo, the Coen brothers deliver a delightfully wicked satire of stuffy CIA thrillers, reveling in the absurdity of what it would be like if a MacGuffin (in this case a CD full of what is assumed to be "secret CIA shit") got into the hands of some dumb, ordinary people who didn't know what to do with it and tried to blackmail the CIA in retaliation. Intrigue, spying, deception, theft, and murder all ensue, all played for absurd humor, and it's an awesome and hilarious movie.


Clint Eastwood's most entertaining performance ever? Sure, the first-time newbs surrounding him mostly couldn't act their way out of paper bags, but when I'm too busy roaring with laughter at Clint's latest gravelly-voiced, politically incorrect line to hear what they're saying anyway, who cares? Yes, Gran Torino is stuffed to the absolute brim with cliché and archetype, character arcs we've seen play out a million times before, and if you removed Dirty Harry from the equation it could go fuck a goat for all I care, but taking all this into careful consideration I could care less; I loved this goddamn movie. Go figure that Clint's most purely entertaining movie in years would be the one snubbed by the Academy.


Pure, unleaded, guilt-free entertainment, that's what Iron Man is. Standing only behind Christopher Nolan's Batman duology, Spider-Man 2, and The Incredibles as my fifth favorite superhero movie of all time, Iron Man is not an innovative or thematically ambitious experience in the least, but what it is is junk food at its most evolved level. Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious and awesome as Tony Stark; the most entertaining action movie leading performance since Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jon Favreau shoots the action scenes in a clean, classical, eternally entertaining style free from any trace of the fast-cutting or shakeycam fads. There's as many laughs as most full-blooded comedies. The special effects are Industrial Light & Magic at the height of their powers. Even the romantic interest is peppy and likable! I haven't had so much pure fun at the theater in years.


A terrific, moving, blackly hilarious, deftly-written, woefully underrated thriller-comedy about the vacation two hitmen take to the "fucking fairy tale town" of Bruges, Belgium. I dare not give away any of the movie's twists or surprises, even the motivation for why they are on the vacation, because this is a film that should be experienced pure from the first frame to the ending, but suffice to say the sensation of laughing out loud one second and being gripped by cold tension the next is a rare treat. If not for Heath Ledger's Joker, Ralph Fiennes' Harry in this movie would be my favorite cinematic villain of '08.


What's this - a critically lauded, much-hyped, poised-for-Oscar-gold-film that's actually a really, really good movie? Yes, it's true, it exists! The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? flashback structure is one of the most clever narrative frameworks I've seen in a movie in ages, and Jamal and Latika are a couple you can genuinely like and root for. It's going to get jerked off plenty tomorrow night on the Oscars, so I'll just leave it at saying that it says a lot that it warrants the jerking off.


Nostalgia has consumed and possibly ruined the life of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, and the once-great wrestler's attempts to reach out to his estranged daughter may not be enough in the face of his inability to let go of the eternal fantasy of the 80s and accept his own age and limitations. It's a simple premise for a film, but it's a moving and great experience thanks to Mickey Rourke's truly stunning performance as Randy; an achingly real, Daniel Day-Lewis caliber performance that should be pictured in the dictionary next to "method acting."

#2 - WALL•E

WALL•E is art. Well, the first half of WALL•E is art (and taken of its own accord would probably rank #2 on this list), the second half of WALL•E is a somewhat more traditional but still way, way above average animated movie, and taken as a whole the movie might just be the greatest combination of hard science fiction and romantic comedy that has ever or will ever be made; Isaac Asimov by way of Charlie Chaplin. Temporarily removing the lukewarm Cars from the equation, Pixar has in The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL•E delivered one of the most incredible one-two-three knockout punches of mind-blowingly great cinema in the long annals of the medium.


You're shocked, I know, you didn't see this one coming. When it comes right down to it, stripping Nolan's second Batman movie of all the hype, all the viral marketing, all the anticipation, Heath Ledger's death, reducing everything to the root experience of sitting there in the theater last July watching the movie, you have the concrete and inescapable fact that no other movie last year had me so awed, overtaken by the epic scope and splendor of the story, utterly riveted and involved for every second, and ready to watch it again the second I stepped out of the theater. Yes, I identified flaws and a few weak points on subsequent viewings, as did we all, and I make no claim that it's perfect, but The Dark Knight is still a momentously ambitious and enthralling crime epic with a truly stellar villain, and anyone who argues that any other movie from 2008 will continue to be as frequently watched in 2058 is empirically wrong. That's all there is to it.


#5 - Chiwetel Ejiofor, REDBELT - You likely haven't heard of this movie, and that's fine (it made like four dollars at the box office), but Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the best semi-underground actors there is and he delivers David Mamet's muscular dialogue like a pro.

#4 - Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED - Utterly unpretentious, utterly unglamorous, intensely naturalistic. It's a shame she doesn't have any chance at the Best Actress Oscar because she deserves it.

#3 - Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO - Clint Eastwood gravels out every politically incorrect, darkly comic line in a sickening rasp, and although it's broad and arguably even overacted, it's outrageously entertaining. To say he outshines the actors surrounding him would be an understatement like saying the Sears Tower would be the tallest building in a small African village; it's an acting slaughter of everyone else onscreen. Rugged, classical Hollywood masculinity that convinces me that a man creeping towards eighty can kick the shit out of men fifty+ years his junior, and if that isn't badass, I don't know what is.

#2 - Robert Downey Jr., IRON MAN - It's difficult to identify exactly what makes Robert Downey Jr. so good; he's not exactly subtle or naturalistic, nor is he broad or theatrical, but his line readings just WORK, always, they're always entertaining. Tony Stark is the best superhero leading performance of all time.

#1 - Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER - Method acting rarely reaches this caliber, and I can honestly say that it's hard for me to determine whether I was more impressed by Mickey Rourke in this movie or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. A character study this raw and intimate lives or dies entirely on the strength of its leading actor, and Rourke makes it one of the finest pictures of the year.


#5 - James Franco, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS - Goddamn hysterical performance as what boils down to just a dumb guy. Made me laugh with damn near every line.

#4 - Brad Pitt, BURN AFTER READING - Goddamn hysterical performance as what boils down to just a dumb guy. Made me laugh with damn near every line.

#3 - Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES - Fiennes is vastly entertaining as Harry, a brutal hitman / crime boss with principles. He only comes in in the last act of the movie but proceeds to own and dominate every frame from there on out, even up against an actor the caliber of Brendan Gleeson. It helps that he has all the best lines in the movie. We should be so lucky for all our crime movie villains to be so badass.

#2 - Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER - "To be a moron. To be moronical. An imbecile. Like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived."

#1 - Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT - Instantaneously rocketing to the shortlist of the best villains in the history of film, Ledger's simultaneously hilarious, wicked, terrifying interpretation of the Joker is unquestionable proof that you don't need any superpowers to be full-blown supervillain. He trumps Batman several times, plunges Gotham into anarchy and chaos, organizes the downfall of Harvey Dent, takes control of the mob, orchestrates simultaneous assassinations of key city leaders, blows up hospitals, and when he says "This is MY city," you believe every word of it, because this guy is a goddamn SUPERVILLAIN, a cackling, evil, flamboyant, gloriously entertaining supervillain.


#5 - FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL - Although critics are loath to admit it, writing good comedy is really, really fucking hard, and when a movie keeps me consistently laughing without a missing a beat for two hours it warrants kudos and applause.

#4 - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - As I said, although the romantic plot may be a classical story, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? framing device is completely new; something I've never seen before, ever.

#3 - BURN AFTER READING - Immensely clever CIA thriller satire, incorporating lots of characters and subplots without ever becoming convoluted, driving each dangling plot thread towards the madcap conclusion where everything collides in a glorious trainwreck. Satire done right.

#2 - THE DARK KNIGHT - It's dense, it's thematically ambitious, it's dark and brutal, it has a dozen endlessly quotable lines (most from the Joker, not surprisingly), it's even laugh-out-loud funny at points. The best crime epic screenplay since Heat.

#1 - IN BRUGES - The combination of crime thriller and comedy reminds me of vintage Tarantino, but without ever seeming like a knock-off. Centering the drama around a small handful of characters while keeping it brisk, quotable, funny, and completely unpredictable, this is a real masterpiece of a screenplay, one worthy of reading in text format just to study the structure of. I love it.


#5 - Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO - Eastwood's performance and lean, easygoing directorial style salvage the creaky Frankenstein of cliché and melodrama that is Gran Torino's script, and when a director can mine gold from a chunk of lead, well, that's a good goddamn director.

#4 - Sylvester Stallone, RAMBO - As far as I can tell, Rambo has no screenplay, nor does it need one; it's a blood-and-viscera soaked festival of screams and grunts and guttural monosyllabic noises, Rambo killing everyone in sight, pure testosterone pleasure. Stallone gets it. He doesn't hold back and soaks the fucking thing in gore like I haven't seen in an action movie since, well, ever. Even as he ages out of starring, may he continue directing action films for two decades to come.

#3 - Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - Exotic, energetic, emotional. Danny Boyle's incredibly lively, vibrant directorial style in this film warrants the Best Director Oscar he's going to win tomorrow.

#2 - Andrew Stanton, WALL•E - The first forty or so minutes of WALL•E are told almost entirely free from dialogue or voice actors; it's all in Stanton's hands. He delivers truly and completely with a haunting, desolate world given life by a remarkably charming main character, some of the best pure visual filmmaking in years regardless of whether in live film or animation. It's a stunning artistic achievement.

#1 - Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT - You know what I like? That Nolan proved that you can pony up the dough to rent buildings and streets in a real live city, film real stuntmen doing stunts and riding Batpods, flip real trucks and throw real SWAT vans into the river, actually film in Hong Kong for your scene set in Hong Kong, actually blow up a hospital-sized building for your hospital explosion, and do it all without resorting to nothing but CGI and bluescreens, and people will be there to watch your movie in droves. I love to see real stuff happening onscreen in an action movie in this day and age.

TOP 10 BEST MOVIE MOMENTS OF 2008 - Spoilers!

#10 - Randy gets stitched up, THE WRESTLER - Not only are the emotions raw in The Wrestler, so is the wrestling, and the scene where Randy gets cleaned and stitched up after a match while flashbacks show the fight's use of chairs, ladders, barbed wire, and a staple gun is equal parts cringe-inducing and fascinating, what these men go through in staged exhibitions for the sake of entertainment.

#9 - Jason Segel shows the full monty, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL - The eternal nudity rule of thumb: Female nudity is erotic. Male nudity is funny. The penis is the funniest thing of all.

#8 - Jamal kisses Latika, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - I'm not normally a sucker for cinematic romance - someone ask me what I think about The Notebook sometime if you'd like an earful - but when you've been following a pair for over a decade of their lives, constantly gravitating around and just missing each other, what could be a better ending?

#7 - Tony Stark reveals Iron Man's identity, IRON MAN - Struggling to get through the military's phony briefing in front of a room full of press, Tony Stark gives up and announces to the world that "I am Iron Man," smiles, and we cut to credits. I'm so used to secret identities I didn't see that one coming AT ALL, I was floored. What an awesome ending!

#6 - "Never go full retard," TROPIC THUNDER - Robert Downey Jr. says everything I've always thought about actors playing retarded characters in movies with a straightforward eloquence I could never dream of. Pure brilliance.

#5 - Crossing the wire, MAN ON WIRE - We spend ninety minutes with Philippe Petit as he practices his tightrope walking, outlines his dream of crossing the ultimate gap, plans the best way to sneak into the World Trade Center and get the rope between the two towers, his numerous close calls with security and nearly failing to get the rope up on time, the setting of the wire, and when he finally takes those initial steps over the void, sure, it's illegal, but what could be a more perfect climactic moment?

#4 - Brad Pitt gets his brains blown out, BURN AFTER READING - Howls of laughter in the audience instantaneously turned into gasps of horror! Completely unexpected plot twist, fucking brilliant!

#3 - Nixon tacitly admits guilt, FROST/NIXON - They sort of give it away at the end of the trailer (okay, completely give it away, what the fuck trailer?), but that doesn't make it any less a perfect moment.

#2 - "Define dancing," WALL•E - Although I've said that the first half of WALL•E is the superior act, the film's best scene - a scene that like the spaghetti kiss between the dogs in Lady and the Tramp will endure through cinematic history - occurs in the latter half when WALL•E and EVE find themselves floating in deep space. Wielding a fire extinguisher, WALL•E propels himself around the lights and engines of the space ship while EVE follows him in a dance as a rather stellar song plays; sublime, beautiful, artistic filmmaking, profoundly moving and elegant. And this is coming from someone who hates dancing!

#1 - FIVE WAY TIE! The Joker's pencil trick; The Joker's bank heist; Batman flips Joker's truck; The Joker blows up a hospital; "Why so serious?," THE DARK KNIGHT - This is the Joker's world, we're all just living in it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The 2008 Kraemer Movie Awards, Part I - The Worst

With the Academy Awards right around the corner, the time has come for me to unveil my own personal worsts and bests of 2008 in cinema. Naturally, we'll start with the bad and work our way towards a brighter tomorrow. I haven't seen The Hottie & the Nottie, so you'll excuse its exclusion, but I have endured following timeless works of art:



American Teen, the beloved documentary hit of the Sundance Film Festival, was a critical darling for probing deep into the lives of high school teens, revealing stunning, lurid, intimate information such as that teens sit around having stilted conversations about nothing interesting, stir up insipid drama and idle gossip, go to lame parties, go to the prom, get into college, and graduate. Holy shit, thanks American Teen, how fucking fascinating! I didn't know any of that! I needed to spend 95 minutes watching a fucking documentary about it!

#9 - YES MAN



It's a nebulous line between what makes a good brainless action movie ala Transporter 2 or Rambo and what makes a bad one ala Transporter 3 or Punisher: War Zone - I've seen 'em all, I'm as close to a scholar on the subject as anyone I know, and even I struggle to identify what the magic touch is - but a solid rule of thumb is that if I feel a stark relief when the credits roll that I no longer have to watch the movie, then what I've just watched was not good. Punisher: War Zone isn't offensively awful, exactly, it didn't make me angry, but outside of a few moments of gore it's remarkably sedate in the face of its own nonstop loudness, failing to present a single remotely interesting character, fight scene, or action scenario.


The Spirit is Frank Miller making a movie ripping off the style of Robert Rodriguez adapting Miller's graphic novel in Sin City (which is kind of weird if you think about it, like if Tolkein was still alive and made a bad fantasy movie ripping off Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings). But what Miller doesn't have is an eye for filmmaking, and he delivers in The Spirit the limpest and blandest cops 'n' robbers superhero tale of the decade; what it might look like if you accidentally smeared feces all over Sin City then made a Xerox of the Xerox of the Xerox of the Xerox of that original shit-smeared film - and this is coming from someone who didn't even love Sin City.


The latest, laziest, and most offensively brazen hitchhiker on the Holocaust chic bandwagon, The Reader is the most sickeningly mawkish melodrama I've seen in years, making Crash's Oscar-baiting look understated and subtle in comparison. About half of all critics proceeded to fawn over it nonetheless; burn these critics' estates to the ground and salt the earth.


Here's how you make a College: take equal parts Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Superbad. Mix all three together thoroughly. Now completely miss the point and remove every single element that made any of these films likable and funny in the first place. Congratulations, you made one College.


Yes, M. Night Shyamalan's latest disaster is a step upward from Lady in the Water, but much in the same way as drinking a bucket of piss would be a step upward from drinking a bathtub of diarrhea and vomit. The story of earth's plants revolting against humankind could be a lot of fun, the stuff of B-movie legend, but M. Night just couldn't resist and had to try to make it a straight-faced, deadly-serious parable about the environment, resulting in the worst horror film and (largely thanks to Mark Wahlberg's hideous, wide-eyed overacting) best unintentional comedy of 2008.


More like, The X-Files: I Want to Borelieve. Or, The X-Files: I Want to Leave the Theater. Or, The X-Files: I Can't Believe I Paid Money For This. Or, most straight-to-the-point: The X-Files: Proof that Sometimes a Dead Series Should Stay Dead and No One Needs to See Its Decomposed Corpse Humiliatingly Shambling About, although I admit that last one's a little big for a marquee.


I already typed my 1,000 words on Disaster Movie, I decline to type any more, except to reiterate that, yes, Aaron & Jason truly are the worst.


Discounting the eldritch abomination that is Manderlay, not since Dreamcatcher and Van Helsing have I hated a cinematic experience with such ferocity; truly, thoroughly, and unequivocally detested every second of a film with the ire that I would normally reserve for someone who ass-raped my cat. Yes, Disaster Movie presents less competence in the basic fundamentals of using cinematic language such as sets, continuity, and acting to construct a film, but it's Babylon A.D. that is horror packaged in a celluloid reel, such a mind-numbingly deafening, stupid, contemptible, nonsensical experience that I can't imagine how a studio actually had the courage to release it.

If I was a studio head and someone presented Babylon A.D. to me and said "Here's my film!", I would douse the master reel in kerosine, light the flame, run electromagnets over all the hard drives with the footage on them, burn the sets to the ground, track and destroy every script, and hire professionals to erase the paper trail showing I was ever associated with the film's production. Showing Babylon A.D. to enemy combatants could classify as a war crime under the Geneva Convention. If Barack Obama said he liked Babylon A.D. I would have voted for John McCain. Babylon A.D. couldn't be any worse if it was a flaming harpoon carrying the AIDS virus shot from a cannon through your heart. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that it's not a well-made film.


#5 - Diego Luna, MILK - I'm as pro-gay as can be; I support the complete, unconditional, and unequivocal legalization of gay marriage and gay adoption and gay anything else in every city and county in the country, and I not only voted against California's Proposition 8, I actively campaigned against it. I say this to make the significance of it clear when I say that Diego Luna's whiny, prissy, screeching, crying, pissy, giggling little queen in the otherwise solid political biopic Milk made me feel virulently homophobic.

#4 - Renée Zellweger, APPALOOSA - Little did I know that Renée Zellweger has super powers! The power to immediately snip the balls off of what up until her stepping onscreen had been a solid Western and turn it into a weepy fucking chick flick!

#3 - Thandie Newton, W. - Thandie Newton's bizarre, grotesquely over-the-top portrayal of Condoleezza Rice would be perfectly at home in Saturday Night Live. But it's not in Saturday Night Live, it's in a dramatic biopic of George W. Bush where everyone else is playing their roles straight as an arrow, and it couldn't be any more out of place if it was Ace Ventura spouting his catchphrases at the ghetto in Schindler's List.

#2 - Natalya Rudakova, TRANSPORTER 3 - Sorry, no, I prefer it when my action movie romantic interests with all-English dialogue can speak English.

#1 - Mark Wahlberg, THE HAPPENING - Legendary bad acting. Wahlberg vacantly delivers all his dialogue like he's literally in a green screen void with no clue what the movie is about, no context for any of the lines he's saying, no idea who or where the other characters will be, and has been the given the lines for the first time ten seconds earlier, and the plot, settings, and other actors were all added around him in post-production. Should be shown in acting classes as a cautionary tale. Makes Hayden Christensen in Episode II look like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.


# 5 - "I HAVE DOOOUUUUUUUBBTTTT!!!!!", DOUBT - I didn't like Doubt's blunted Oscar-baiting even before the final thirty seconds, but when the film has the chance to go out with a modicum of dignity after a conversation between Meryl Streep and Amy Adams quietly underscoring Streep's doubt about her campaign against a suspected pedophile priest, Meryl Streep literally looks up while bawling and cries to the heavens that "I HAAAVE DOOOOOUUUUUUUBTTT!!!!!" while the camera cranes out until we fade to credits in a way that finally gives Episode III's legendary Darth Vader "NOOOOOO!!!" a twin sister. A genuine cringe-inducing moment.

#4 - Samuel L. Jackson gives a booming villainous world domination speech while wearing a Nazi uniform and torturing a kitten, THE SPIRIT - Frank Miller, uh, isn't fond of subtle villains.

#3 - I'm Fucking Matt Damon "parody," DISASTER MOVIE - Just... just fucking watch.

#2 - Vampire baseball, TWILIGHT - About ninety minutes into Twilight, the Cullen vampire clan realizes that their movie is merely kitschy and hasn't yet achieved true awfulness, so they drag Bella out to a baseball field during a thunderstorm where they show her "vampire baseball." Vampire baseball. VAMPIRE BASEBALL. What's worse is that the movie explains that they can only play during thunderstorms because the vampires are so strong that otherwise the sound of them hitting the baseballs would be too loud and reveal their identities to the town, and actually treats this as a serious revelation without a hint of humor or irony. What's worse is the following three-minute music video-styled vampire baseball montage. What's even worse is that the Twilight novels have been at the very top of Amazon's best-selling books list for like four months now. If there is a god may he douse America with nuclear fire and hurl the charred remains into the depths of space, never to be heard from again.

#1 - The credits roll, BABYLON A.D. - Listen, I know it's hypocritical for me to ask for more of a movie I hated, but as much as I hated it, I expected it to have the fucking decency to CONCLUDE somehow, rather than just panning up to the sky and rolling the credits at a moment so arbitrary it made No Country for Old Men's ending look like Return of the King in comparison. The difference is that No Country's ending had a point, Babylon A.D.'s has no point. And when the credits rolled, the horror of what I saw overtook me, my head swam with the awfulness of this ungodly hate crime against cinema, my heart grew heavy, and I wept.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Reader

AROOOOOOGGA my bad movie alarm just went off! It was The Reader that set it off!! If I were to tell you that there was a movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes that was an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, you would be forgiven for your ignorance in assuming that maybe it would be a good or at least watchable film. Don't feel shamed, we all make mistakes. Let's start at the beginning.

Act one: Hanna, a.k.a. Kate Winslet, is an illiterate former Nazi prison guard living in West Germany in 1958 (now, I make no claims to be a literacy scholar, but I doubt many WWII officers were fucking illiterate), where she encounters a strapping teenage lad called Michael. She devirginizes the droopy-eyed youth and proceeds to fuck him a whole lot in exchange for him reading to her. Huh. Okay, sure, whatever. This part of the movie will probably at least keep you awake because Kate Winslet doesn't really wear any clothes for the first twenty minutes or so.

Act two: Five years later, Michael is a law student and accompanies his class to observe a trial, which, wouldn't you goddamn know it, turns out to be that of Kate Winslet, whose war crimes have finally caught up to her. This act is sort of like the first act except instead of being thirty minutes it's over an hour, and instead of sex there's a trial, and instead of reading to her Michael watches the trial, and instead of being awake the audience is asleep. This act is where the movie makes crystal clear to the Academy us that it's about the Holocaust - HEAR THAT, ACADEMY AUDIENCE? THE HOLOCAUST.

Act three: Over the next thirty or so years, Michael (now an adult played by Ralph Fiennes) communes with Hanna (now serving a life sentence in prison) by recording books on tape and mailing them to her so she can listen to him read like they did in 1958. Shoot me in the head now, please. This act contains the single densest collection of touching piano strings swelling up during emotional conversations that I've ever seen in one film. I couldn't fucking believe it.

The Reader is mawkish, cloying melodrama it its absolute nadir, manipulatively trying to pummel tears out any unwitting audience member while simultaneously debasing itself for the Academy's pleasure. It's so sappy you could pour it on your pancakes, it's so soapy you could bathe with it, and it's just about the closest I've ever come to inadvertently suiciding by rolling my eyes so hard they explode out the top of my skull.

But someone at the Academy must have gotten wind that this movie is about the Holocaust, so of course, it must be a Masterpiece. Best Picture and Best Director nominations, here we come! The Academy, reliable as the rotation of the earth, as the sun setting in the west. Even the fucking critical response was tepid, and when the critics can see through hamfisted melodrama, you know it's no good. But no, nominate The Wrestler? Why, that's too indie! Nominate The Dark Knight? Why, that's too mainstream! The Holocaust drama it is.

Here's my new dream: I want to make a dumb-as-nails action movie, think Transporter 2 or Death Race. A badass hero beats up generic Eurotrash villains in a series of kung fu battles and car chases with no plot or decent dialogue. Then, right at the end of the movie, the hero turns to the camera and clearly says, "the Holocaust." BOOM, smash cut to end credits. I'm 98.5% sure that this movie would get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that The Reader can gargle my spunk.

1 Star out of 5

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A melancholy but intermittently enchanting fairy tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certainly a flawed work that struggles to coalesce around a central theme, but nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its mood, performances, and the clever idea at the center.

For those who live beneath rocks, the titular character in Benjamin Button literally lives his life backwards, being born a shriveled geriatric and then growing younger by the day, into middle age, then a young man, then finally into a child and a baby. We follow his entire life through most of the 1900s, particularly when he crosses paths with his true love / soul mate Daisy (whose name I'll assume is a Great Gatsby reference). That Benjamin Button smells a lot like Forrest Gump is no surprise seeing as the two films share a screenwriter, and it's similarly engaging as a kind of whirlwind tour through American history, albeit with a more interesting gimmick for our protagonist.

The movie wouldn't work if the central romance between Benjamin and Daisy didn't enchant, but it does thanks to the talent and ethereal beauty of Cate Blanchett. She brings class and elegance to everything she touches. Brad Pitt does fairly good work too, although everyone knows Pitt is at his best when he plays crazy; Button is more of a blank slate. The third star of the film is the makeup and special effects work that's used to range both Blanchett and Pitt's ages from teens / early twenties to elderly, and some of it is pretty stunning, particularly the de-aging effects. Pitt looks like he did in Thelma & Louise again near the end of the film, and the "teen" Blanchett is uncanny.

Where the film struggles is in trying to impart deeper ideas beyond its plot. It seems to be trying to make powerful statements about death, love, and the randomness of life, but no idea ever really takes shape beyond the ephemeral. The only theme the movie imparts in the end seems to be "live life to its fullest!", which, while perfectly good advice, didn't really need to be told via the story of a backwards-aging man. The enjoyable aspect of the film is what's plain on the surface; the love story and the backwards-aging scenario.

It's also a little overlong, marching towards three hours. David Fincher is a GREAT director, make no mistake, but in a career where all of the highlights are dark, twisted, intense crime stories with plot twists and pitch-black humor (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc.), maudlin fairy tale is something entirely outside of his comfort zone and perhaps specific skill set, and he occasionally overcompensates by mistaking slowness for emotional resonance. Slightly more judicious editing probably could have harmlessly sliced twenty minutes from the final cut.

So ultimately, I admit that I would have rather seen The Wrestler, The Dark Knight, or even Gran Torino taking Benjamin Button's place as Best Picture nominee (not that it matters, since it obviously won't win, but as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated). I do however see it as a fine fairy tale; overrated, much as Forrest Gump was back in 1994, but like Gump a likable movie nonetheless.

3 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Spirit

We all have a filter somewhere between our brains and mouths, hopefully catching the better part of our thoughts before they escape in words and reveal our insane and perverted sides to the outside world; to protect us from shame and embarrassment. For once-great graphic novelist Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder served this purpose in distilling his comic books to the screen with Sin City and 300. But in Frank Miller's The Spirit, written AND directed by Frank Miller, there exists no such buffer, no one to save him from his worst impulses, leaving Miller's artistic soul to sit grotesquely naked onscreen. It ain't pretty.

The plot is simple: there's a superhero named The Spirit and a supervillain named The Octopus, both have super healing ala Wolverine or Claire Bennett, and they fight a bunch in a city. That's all. It doesn't take a detective to discern from the trailer that Miller is ripping off the visual style of Rodriguez adapting his work in Sin City (albeit with no talent for staging or photographing action, resulting in some of the worst fight scenes of the decade), but it goes way beyond that; in fact, the whole movie is essentially the PG-13 CliffsNotes of Sin City, with all moral grey helpfully removed and all characters streamlined into pure and undiluted Frank Miller clichés:

The women on both sides are all cock-hungry whores ready to spread their legs for the impossibly smooth hero at his word (in one case he literally seduces a female assassin sent to kill him with one sentence spoken in French). Samuel L. Jackson's villain grandstands and gives booming "we're not so different, you and I" speeches to the captured hero while wearing a Nazi uniform and torturing a kitten (this literally happens, I'm not exaggerating). The Spirit considers his city to be a cesspool, the dregs of humanity, yet they all worship him. The police are useless. The dialogue is pure Dick Tracy 1940s pulp noir cops 'n' robbers cliché.

Essentially, it's Frank Miller lost his fucking mind at the expense of making an even remotely watchable film - whether or not 1986's The Dark Knight Returns was a fluke great graphic novel from a crazy person or Frank Miller is a fallen genius, a grotesque parody of what he once was like the obese, bloated Marlon Brando at the end of his life, is the only thing that remains up for debate.

But what isn't up for debate is that The Spirit is an awful movie. Not a cash-in, mind you, because it smells almost nothing of studio intervention; it seems to be a truly pure vision of its writer-director. A shockingly dull and bad and utterly pure work, one man vomiting forth his juvenile cops 'n' robbers soul for everyone to point and laugh at. An ill fate for an artist who was once considered to be among the geniuses of his medium.

1 Star out of 5

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Like Doubt, Frost/Nixon is a filmed play, and outside of a few minor cinematic flourishes and fleshed-out edges it's obvious from the word go. But in contrast to Doubt's clumsy, blunted attempts at thematic depth, Frost/Nixon is a completely straightforward (arguably too much so at points) chronicling of a real event; everything is right up there on the screen. And it's successful not so much because of the story surrounding the Frost/Nixon interviews as because the two leading actors lend the interview itself the depth and weight to turn it into a riveting intellectual duel, a classic David & Goliath story.

As the film depicts it, when David Frost suggests the possibility of an interview with Nixon, the shamed ex-president sees it as chance to deftly juggle and parry softball questions, a chance to vindicate himself in the eyes of history using a lightweight talk show host as a stepping stone. From the get-go the momentum is on Nixon's side of the interview and Frost's plans seem to be failing. But (real-life spoiler?) in the final stage of the interview Frost comes at him with unexpected questions and evidence, and Nixon's defenses crumble for a brief but essential moment.

Now, I'm nowhere near as familiar with Richard Nixon, his presidency, Watergate, or the aftermath as the generations before me, nor would I ever pretend to be (I was a little kid when he died after all), so I can't comment from any experience on the anger at Nixon after Ford's pardoning or the degree to which the Frost interviews actually gave any closure to the American people, but the movie gives it the weight of an unofficial trial, a moment of truth for Richard Nixon wherein he blinked and tacitly admitted guilt. However much fidelity it may have to real events, it makes for one of the finest cinematic climaxes of 2008, a real breath-holding moment of peaking tension and relief.

All credit goes to Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. It's a two-man show - yeah, there's Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, and others in supporting roles, but it really comes down to Frost and Nixon alone in the interview. Sheen does a good job playing the lovable underdog but it's Langella who has the bigger challenge and brings out the big guns, embodying Tricky Dick with screen-filling electricity. It's incredibly broad and theatrical and exact the opposite of, say, Mickey Rourke's subtle method acting in The Wrestler, but he plays the gradually crumbling Goliath with fire that warranted his Best Actor nomination.

All is not well, however. As I said, this is a blunt, straightforward movie, too much so at points. Rather than leaving certain (however obvious) things unsaid, Ron Howard gives the actors documentary-style talking heads intercut through the film, giving sometimes exhausting and unnecessary exposition on the Frost/Nixon interview.

Beyond that, the screenwriter (and original playwright) Peter Morgan has inserted a completely fictional drunken, rambling, confessional phone call from Nixon to Frost before the final portion of the interview, which is not only silly and superfluous extrapolation, but which, worse, implies that the interview's shifting momentum was due not to Frost and his team's own skill and preparation but due to a drunken mistake from Nixon that never happened. These flaws (which could honestly just be cleanly edited out of the movie without a trace, and would still leave a 105-minute movie) unfortunately hold Frost/Nixon back from potential greatness to the level of goodness.

Also, pardon my bluntness: I'll love Ron Howard forever for his role in Arrested Development's inception (and Willow, of course), but his nomination for Best Director for this movie is a fucking joke. I'm not saying it's badly directed at all, but the centerpiece of the movie is two guys sitting across from each other in chairs in a suburban house, talking. Saving Private Ryan this is not.

All that said, it's still an often engaging, occasionally riveting, and exceptionally well-acted work. I'd definitely give it a recommendation, particularly to political buffs or anyone who, like me, didn't live any of this and for whom it's pure and fascinating history.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler abandons the experimental visuals and editing that previously characterized Darren Aronofsky's filmography in Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, and instead delivers in a stark, lean vérité style one of the greatest character studies to grace screens this decade. It's not a work entirely free from cliché, but Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, the titular wrestler, is depicted in such a raw, sad, and cinematically elegant way that his plight becomes one of the finest cinematic stories of 2008, the underdog story of an aging athlete free from swelling melodrama; the cold mirror of Rocky Balboa.

Randy is a living fossil. Not because he's particularly old in the grand scheme of things, hovering somewhere in his late fifties, but because he steadfastly refuses to evolve, clinging desperately and defiantly to the specter of the 80s, which he speaks of with awed reverence usually reserved for myth. That was a decade when he was a master showman, the hero of his fake sport, the idol of thousands of wrestling fans, and even a playable character in an NES wrestling game (which he still owns and plays, a last, tenuous link to his glory days).

But times have not been kind to The Ram, and the once-great entertainer now makes ends meet via a grocery store job he loathes. He can't make rent, sleeps in his van, and his only daughter won't speak to him. Refusing to acknowledge present circumstances, he continues sculpting and injecting steroids, working increasingly dire off-circuit wrestling shows to smaller and smaller crowds, pursuing the dream of getting back on top of a game that's long since left him behind. To watch Randy try to sell VHS tapes of old fights to a handful of aged fans at a depressing, sparsely-attended wrestling convention is to see how far behind the world has left the wrestler, how nostalgia can consume a man from the inside until nothing remains but a husk.

Lest I make The Wrestler sound too dry and dreary for its own good, I'll emphasize that there's plenty of laughter here, both with The Ram and at his expense, or, in the case of one scene where he brings his own touch of showmanship to his detested deli counter job, possibly both. He's a dumb old slab of beef and the movie never takes pains to make him more likable than such a creature would be in real life, but the juxtaposition of Randy and the exotic modern world often generates a warmly humorous friction, as seen when a neighborhood boy tries to explain to Randy the existence of post-NES video games, or when he clumsily theorizes that his daughter might be a lesbian due to her female roommate.

The wrestling matches are merely a framing device, not the point of the movie, and it's made perfectly clear that they're carefully rigged and scripted down to the weapons the wrestlers will use on each other. But the backstage view of the "sport" is fascinating and the fights are brutal despite their rigged nature, with the chairs, tables, ladders, barbed wire, and in one case staple gun that the wrestlers use on each other as real as the blood they beget. These wrestlers are showmen of a selfless order who sacrifice their bodies at the expense of much pain to entertain, and this element of the movie is engrossing, particularly watching Randy get sewn and stitched up after one particularly bloody match while exchanging pleasantries with the man who just brutalized him onstage.

But why The Wrestler truly works so well comes down to one element: Mickey Rourke. He's in every scene, damn near every frame of the movie and carries the entire thing on his shoulders, and I don't for one moment hesitate to say that it stands right up with Daniel Day-Lewis's performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood as one of the absolute best of the decade; method acting at its evolved, jaw-dropping peak. To say he deserves the Oscar is a hilarious understatement. He brings unparalleled depth and emotion to the character and, while the movie isn't quite a one-man show (Marisa Tomei is also very good as the stripper Randy befriends, who, as a stripper in her forties, is quickly becoming as antiquated as the wrestler in his fifties), it's as close as anything I've seen all year.

The Wrestler is a fine addition to Aronofsky's already-impressive filmography, and stands with the best raw and undiluted character studies in the annals of film and literature too. It's a great movie.

5 Stars out of 5

Friday, February 13, 2009


Milk succeeds as a political biopic because it is first and foremost a political biopic, declining to follow Harvey Milk from the cradle to the grave (it does follow him to the grave, obviously - it would be difficult not to seeing as his assassination occurred right after his greatest political victory) but instead keeping the focus squarely on his runs for office and his fight against California's eerily familiar Proposition 6. I've seen one too many biopics that hamfistedly psychoanalyze and exhaustingly depict the lead character's childhood and adolescent woes, but Milk instead uses one man's journey to show that social change via politics is, however rare and unlikely, possible.

Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk with his usual tightly controlled line readings that occasionally flirt with overacting and risk making him seem like some kind of uncanny valley acting automaton, and yes, his highly affected gay lisp often sounds cringe-inducingly close to his I Am Sam retard lisp, but it's mostly in his big speech scenes; in one-on-one dialogue he mellows out and does a good job, shaping a clear and distinct character. None of the other characters particularly stand out, which is fair seeing as the film is Milk's story, with Josh Brolin's portrayal of political colleague-turned-assassin Dan White being the most interesting and Diego Luna as Milk's whiny, histrionic boyfriend being the film's low point without question.

But for however lukewarm I may feel about certain characters and performances, where Milk thrives is in its portrayal of San Francisco on the edge of a minor social revolution and showing the growth of a grassroots political network; the often unpleasant grittiness of putting together a campaign, consolidating political power in a neighborhood, and the struggle against vile social conservatism. Milk's campaigns are engaging but the fight against Proposition 6 that takes up the back half of the film is some of the best political cinema I've seen in years (okay, if you ignore Diego Luna, anyway), even giving us a contemptible real-life villain in the subhuman shitstain Anita Bryant, seen solely via real archived footage much as Joe McCarthy was in Good Night, and Good Luck.

There's a part of me that wants to dislike Milk on the basis of it being another Sean Penn prestige picture - I admit an inherent bias against anything that smells like Oscar bait, just as surely as most film critics have an inherent bias against action movies - but although the movie may be Oscar-friendly it's impossible to deny for a moment that in this post-Proposition 8 world it's depressingly, achingly relevant. As relevant as ever, if not more so, by showing us how little public views on something as innocuous as homosexuality have changed in thirty years. We hardly need reminding in the age of President Obama that grassroots political activism can have great impact, but Milk does serve as a well-made cinematic reminder that when social prejudice comes along, no one has to roll over and take it.

3 Stars out of 5