Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


"Oh, what joy, what a glorious day! A new entry on Joe's Corner two consecutive days! What could I possibly have done to deserve this? And what can I possibly do to avoid ever doing it again?"
America deservedly celebrated entering a new era on November 4th with the election of our first black president. A lot has, indeed, changed. But on the very same day, constitutional amendments were approved in states across the country banning gay marriage (even in states that ALREADY had laws on the books making it illegal) and even gay adoption. There is still a lot of progress that needs to be made, and the time has probably never been more right for a movie that reminds us of how far we've come, how far we still have to go, and how it IS actually possible to change things if we really dedicate ourselves to that change. "Milk" is such a movie.

Every biopic has certain limitations. To maximize the uplift many of the negative aspects of its subject's life are generally overlooked (and even the most saintly among us have such negative aspects), and we generally see them achieving great things a lot more swiftly and easily than they actually did in life. "Milk" is not without some of those problems, but it's very easy to overlook them in light of what it does right.

We are introduced to Harvey Milk's story right after he arrives in San Francisco in 1970 on the verge of turning 40 (and remarking "I'm not going to make it to 50"), intent on simply being a businessman (operating "Castro Camera") in the increasingly gay-dominated Castro neighborhood. But discriminatory laws and hostility from the police and other authority figures motivates him to run for a post as Castro's member of the Board Of Supervisors, eventually winning in 1977 and becoming the nation's first openly gay man to be elected to public office. You see his fierce dedication to the cause of gay rights (and beyond just that, civil rights in general), often at great personal risk. And you see the gradually increasing animosity between fellow Supervisor Dan White and Milk, which will definitely not end well.

If Milk is depicted as a bit of a saint, it's still awesome and inspiring to witness the dedication to helping people that fueled his work, and the way that dedication inspired the people that came in contact with him... people who, in many cases, had never accomplished anything significant in their lives and didn't think they ever would or could, but wound up doing just that when they connected with Harvey. And the film's obvious focus on Milk does not short the excellent supporting cast of characters, each of whom are fascinating in their own right. And the segment of the film in which our protagonists battle to stop the passage of Proposition 6 (an anti-gay proposition even more sinister than Proposition 8) impresses on us in no uncertain terms to relevance that this so-called period piece has for us today.

Then there's the acting. Sean Penn is, of course, one of our best actors, but his roles in recent years have often tended toward the over-the-top and boisterous. In "Milk", he tackles a character who had to over an very basic shyness and introversion to achieve his life's work, and makes it one of his most powerful characterizations (the very first comment I heard from the audience after the lights went up was one guy a couple rows ahead of me saying "Just give him the Oscar right now!"). Equally impressive work is done by Emile Hirsch ("Into The Wild") and James Franco (the "Spider-Man" movies). But by far the most outstanding supporting work is supplied by Josh Brolin ("No Country For Old Men", "W.") as Dan White. Brolin gives you an almost painfully realistic look at a deeply emotionally troubled man (whom the movie implies might have been a closeted gay man) who is eventually driven to a lethal act as a result of his deep-seated insecurities. If Penn deserves at least a nomination (and he does), so does Brolin. And Danny Elfman, who for decades has been the go-to composer for film makers who want a creepy and spooky supernatural type score, turns in some vastly different, sweeping, almost symphonic type music here that will hopefully lead to directors thinking of him in a different way.

Director Gus Van Sant started out in the movie business doing edgy, experimental indie films, eventually worked his way around to pure, big-studio mainstream Hollywood in movies like "Good Will Hunting", "Finding Forrester" and the remake of "Psycho", and then worked his way back to his experimental roots in films like the recent "Paranoid Park". "Milk" kind of takes the two approaches and makes them meet in the middle: a traditional biopic format with a few genuine Hollywood stars, but with some decidedly indie touches that leave you no doubt that Van Sant has made exactly the movie he intended to make without compromises, and told a story that not nearly enough people remember any more, but one that SHOULD be remembered and celebrated. The end result is a strong, important film that is also exactly the right movie at the right time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


First of all, I want to take the opportunity to publicly (well, if a blog that's read by so few people counts as "public") thank my sister for supplying me with helpful ideas when I was puzzling over the question of just exactly what approach to take when trying to figure out just exactly how to review this movie, without turning it into a discourse on my own personal thoughts about religion. Credit should, after all, be given where credit is due.
SO... how to approach "Religulous"? Well, how about this: every movie you see is trying to persuade you about something: even completely fictional, escapist films (of which this is clearly not one) are doing that. So perhaps we should be asking the question of what Bill Maher is attempting to do in this movie, and how effectively he accomplishes that.

Maher may take a snarky, sarcastic approach to his concerns about what he sees as the dangers of organized religion, but remember, folks, he is after all a comedian and satirist. It's obvious, though, that his concerns are genuine and he seriously wants to get his message to the public and hopefully persuade some of them to "see the light". It might be questionable how effectively he accomplishes the latter. First of all, we have to admit that about 99 plus percent of the people who will be going to see this movie will be people who already agree with what Maher is saying, and it isn't very likely that conservative evangelical types will be persuaded by his arguments. But then again, how often have ANY issue-oriented documentaries done that? Have political conservatives and Fox News fans been persuaded to change their minds by Michael Moore's films? Have liberals and folks on the left been persuaded to become changed persons after seeing that Ben Stein documentary (soory, the titles escapes me right now)? Not likely. But how well does Maher put forth his arguments? Very well, and very effectively, indeed. You'll leave this movie having absolutely no doubt or questions about Maher's honest fears about the power of religion to make the world a more dangerous place. At first I thought the film's VERY sharp turn in the last ten minutes into super-serious territory was a bit jarring after the light and funny approach of the first 90 minutes, but then I realized the purpose of that tactic: it gets the message across even more effectively. The sharp turn is much more effective coming where it does than the film would have been taking that approach throughout: he wants that to be what you take out of the movie, and the jarring nature of the transition makes absolutely certain that it will be.

The film is also quite impressive in the "technical" approach it takes: Maher's interviews with religious figures around the world (not just Christian, folks... Jewish, Muslim and other religious types all take their turns) feature such items as "pop-up video" type commentary, highly appropriate (and sarcastic) film clips to accompany the statements of the interviewees, clever use of pop songs (like the Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere") at just the right moments, and so on. Maher even gives us the religious voice of calm and reason in some of the most unlikely places (Vatican City, anyone?). It's almost a bit surprising to see such technical expertise in a film from the director of "Borat"... possibly it's a result of Maher's involvement as producer?

But enough of this "technical" stuff, you're saying (well, maybe you're putting it a little more explicitly... and I hope you don't talk like that at family gatherings!). Is the movie any actual GOOD? Yes, absolutely. It's far from perfect: Maher sometimes dwells too long on certain questions and not long enough on others, and skips completely by a number of questions you might logically want to ask. But it's also one of the funniest movies I've seen this year (up until the last ten minutes, of course): I laughed hard, long and often. More conventional comedies (especially the tame, toothless and formulaic films that Hollywood generally turns out as satire) should be this funny. In those first 90 minutes, Maher never lets his desire to communicate his message get in the way of the humor. So it does exactly what it sets out to do, is put together in impressive fashion, and performed well (by both Maher and many of his "targets").

Is this a movie for you? Well, obviously, to appreciate this film you will need to be a concerned, intelligent viewer with a sufficiently open mind to listen to and give full consideration to thoughts and beliefs that you may or may not share, but that could have literal earth-shaking consequences. It also wouldn't hurt to, even if you do "believe", to be willing to entertain a degree of doubt. Because ultimately that's what Maher's message finally is: about the importance of doubt, and how doubt can be what prevents us from going over the edge into the kind of fanaticism that could potentially end the world as we know it. Complete and absolute certainty that "we" have all of the answers and it's our duty to remake the rest of the world in our image? Not so much. If this sounds like you, then absolutely this film is for you. If it doesn't, then be forewarned.

As for myself: did I "enjoy" the movie? Yes, definitely, my thumbs are definitely up. Do I agree with everything Maher says in it? No, not hardly. But I don't think that Maher wants that, anyhow: that would be against the grain of his concern with independent thinking. Am I offended by the movie when it makes statements or takes positions that I don't agree with? Certainly not. And am I in sync with the message about doubt? Yes, for sure: I believe certain things, but I would never in my wildest dreams say that I "know" any of it with such certainty that I want to force everyone else to think exactly the same. "Religulous" is a movie that entertains and educates: it makes you both laugh and think. Not enough movies do either of those things. When you find one that does both as well as this one, you want to recommend it to people who are broad-minded enough to appreciate it. I hope there are a lot of people like that out there.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Let The Right One In

Oscar is a 12-year-old boy growing up in Sweden. His life isn't easy: no father, a distant, somewhat cold relationship with his mother. He's constantly being picked on by the school bullies and in spite of a growing desire to strike back at them, is never able to do so. He has essentially no friends among his classmates. Then one night while playing in the courtyard of his apartment building, he meets a neighbor... a 12-year-old girl named Eli. As their relationship grows, he finds his life changing in many surprising ways. Sound like a typical coming-of-age story to you? That's probably because there's one major thing I still haven't mentioned: Eli is a vampire.

Yes, I said vampire. And not a cute, sweet little cuddly "Sesame Street" version of a vampire, either... a vampire who you see during the course of the film draining the blood of a number of prominent Swedish citizens. She lives with an adult caretaker who occasionally provides her victims for her, so that not too much attention is drawn, and Eli can remain inconspicuous. But Eli, who has never had an actual friend before, comes to realize that her relationship with Oscar is filling needs in her that she never knew she had. She can't afford to develop a friendship with a human... and yet she has to. And she also has to keep the truth about her hidden from her new friend.

Make no mistake: this is definitely a vampire film. It is, in fact, a vampire film of unusual subtlety (yes, there is blood, but not to the gross degree most Hollywood movies feature) and a genuinely eerie atmosphere of fear... in many ways the movie feels like an eerie dream, in the way that some early silent horror films like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" did, but that very few movies since then have managed to achieve. But not only does it give you a highly unusual approach to those traditional blood-suckers, it is also a good deal more than just a horror movie. It actually IS (among other things) the coming-of-age story I hinted at in the first paragraph, with a good many lessons about the difficulties of growing up and maturing. (The author of the novel on which the film is based has said the story is largely autobiographical, though one would like to ASSUME he didn't befriend a vampire at any point). And in addition it manages to be an effective character study of a bunch of fascinating... and extremely unusual... people (well, most of them are people, anyhow).

You might wonder what you're supposed to feel about a 12-year-old girl who befriends the movie's "Hero" and provides him with the (pardon the expression) human connection he's been needing, and at the same time is responsible for the deaths of people who never did anything to harm her. Should you be hating and fearing her and wishing the authorities would track her down and "deal with her"? Or should you be sympathizing with her plite (she is not unlike a drug addict unable to resist doing a very wrong thing that she needs to do to keep living) and hoping that something can happen to change the course of her "life"? The answer is yes: that is, both. Eli is a complicated character, but then so is Oscar, his mother, Eli's caretaker, Oscar's teachers... there is nothing simple about the characterizations of any of the cast of this movie, or any simple answers to any of the questions it raises.

These are among a number of reasons why this film could never possibly be remade as an American release in a form that even begins to approximate all of the qualities that make it so memorable. Hollywood (with only a few notable exceptions) like simple solutions and easy to understand characters. It also VERY much dislikes the notion of putting children in the central role of movies in which they are not only in peril, but cause peril (and more) for the adult characters who are supposed to be in charge. Except possibly for the "Omen" movies, which are nowhere near the level of "Let The Right One In" (the title comes from the bit of vampire lore that says a vampire can't enter a dwelling unless invited in by someone who lives there), and of course those pictures still stuck to the Hollywood formula of simplistic story and cardboard characters. That's what makes the news of this picture's pending Hollywood remake (due in 2010) so horrendous. In its original form, "Let The Right One In" is an amazing, subtle, and surprisingly realistic (and unsentimental) story about growing up, AND a terrifying vampire tale. Hollywood could only screw it up and churn out a Disneyfied teen comedy that will probably be called something like "My Friend The Vampire". So if this movie sounds at all like something you might be interested in (and it is definitely not for everyone, so I can certainly understand why it might not be), then don't wait. Even if you're alergic to subtitles, seeing this version is the only way you're ever going to see this story as the people who created it meant it to be seen. Just overcomeyour fear of "reading" a movie, forget about the OTHER vampire movie opening this Friday the 21st ("Twilight") and take a chance on something unusual. You won't be sorry.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Who Wants To Be A Slumdog Millionaire?

Jamal is a young man in his mid-to-late twenties who has just won a phenomenal amount of money on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Such a phenomenal amount, in fact, that the host of the show has had him taken at the end of the broadcast to a hidden room and subjected to a series of tortures that would be very familiar to the staff at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, in order to find out how he did it. As he subsequently tells them the story of his poverty and violence-filled life, you begin to get an idea of what an incredible person Jamal must be merely to have survived it all, much less make it to the point he is now at.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is co-directed by Danny Boyle of "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" and Indian director Loveleen Tandan, and it's hard to be sure what aspects of the film to credit to which one, but whoever is responsible, they have created a remarkably complex but always coherent film whose multi-layered structure tells the story of Jamal's life at a number of different points over the years in a way that makes for a much greater impact than if it had simply been told in a straightforward, chronological style. Jamal sits in the office... you flash back to him on the show answering the increasingly complicated questions... as he ponders the latest question, you flash back further to his troubled past and see how it has provided him with the unorthodox education to be able to master all kinds of arcane information. And in the process, you get to know and love three pretty amazing characters.

Jamal's widowed mother is killed when he's still a small child, and he has to survive on his own on the streets, eventually teaming up with two other such youngsters, another boy and a girl named Latika, who dub themselves "The Three Musketeers". But circumstances keep tearing them apart and dragging Latika and the other young boy into the criminal underworld. Jamal's dedication to them, even at his own risk, becomes more and more touching as the film goes on, and it eventually becomes clear that his very appearance on "Millionaire" is part of a last-ditch, virtually life-or-death attempt to contact them again. But will he succeed, and what will happen to Jamal... and to them... if he doesn't?

Boyle and Tandan have managed the nearly impossible feat of assembling a cast of differently-aged actors to play the same characters over a 15-to-20-year span and never leave the audience in doubt that the characters at each stage WOULD age and mature to become those of the next phase. Each set of actors is remarkable, and together they create an intense, unforgettable portrait of a set of troubled friends capable of surviving ALMOST anything the world throws at them, but continuing to wonder at each new level if they've finally met their match. Dickens himself couldn't have done better, and, indeed, they may very well remind you of Oliver Twist and other Dickens classic protagonists.

The film builds to a level of intense suspense as it becomes increasingly obvious what high stakes are at risk in Jamal's appearance on the show. In fact, intense emotions are present in nearly every scene, at a level that some western moviegoers unfamiliar with Indian films in general and "Bollywood" productions in particular might find a little melodramatic. But it's perfectly in keeping with Bollywood style, even if the movie does on the whole resist the typical Bollywood trend toward incongrous song-and-dance musical numbers... with one notable exception, and what a memorable exception it is. I'll admit that the whole concept of the Indian equivalent of Regis Philbin being so dedicated to finding what he suspects are the cheating techniques of a contestant that he would try to literally torture them out of him seemed quite implausible at first, until I remembered that plausibility is not exactly the first order of business in Bollywood movies. The point is that all the various elements add up to a story that totally involves the viewer, and makes you cry for characters who fail and cheer for those who succeed. And that, it most definitely does.

But don't get the idea that you need to be familiar with Indian films to appreciated "Slumdog Millionaire". The absorbing story, fascinating characters and the impressive film-making techniques used to tell their story are universal. And even if you DO know Indian film, you'll be surprised from time to time at how the movie takes standard narrative techniques and twists them into unfamiliar patterns. Whatever kind of movie fandom you may be approaching this film from, it will at times seem familiar but ultimately be unlike anything you've seen before. And if that's not a good enough reason to see a movie, what is?

"Slum Dog Millionaire" opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 12th, and in the Twin Cities area on Friday, November 21st.