Tag: emile hirsch

Freaks


Freaks (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, “Freaks” is unable to shake off the feeling of an extended television pilot despite offering mid- to high-level enthusiasm during its creative final third. The story involves a seven-year-old girl named Chloe (Lexy Kolker) who is raised to be fearful of the outside world by her father (Emile Hirsch) due to her unique powers. People like Chloe are referred to as “Abnormals”—hunted and killed by the government (Grace Park) because of their potential as walking weapons of mass destruction. A curious premise does not save the picture’s slow and laborious first half which takes place inside a suffocating house—which is the point—boarded up from top to bottom (even the mail slot is blocked with duct tape eventually) in which ideas are repeated like clockwork. The point, I suppose, is to show Chloe’s budding powers, and her occasional lack of awareness when using her abilities, but after three to four incidences which communicate the same information, one cannot help but to feel as though the material is in desperate need of push and forward momentum. An efficient setup is just as important as the landing.

Never Grow Old


Never Grow Old (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The thing about westerns is that many are revenge stories in their core. And so it is often a challenge to tell a story in a fresh way when ruffians (Josh Cusack, Sam Louwyck, Camille Pistone) arrive in a frontier town and decide to stay indefinitely. It is apparent about a quarter of the way through that “Never Grow Old,” written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, lacks both originality and vision; at one point I wondered why the filmmaker felt this particular story needed to be told. Because if the viewer had seen at least five western pictures, it would be easy to determine its ultimate destination. Does it truly require eighty minutes to get there?

An argument can be made that it is not about the destination but the journey. However, the journey is not interesting either. Emile Hirsch plays Patrick Tate, Garlow’s carpenter and undertaker. He lives just outside of town with his pregnant wife (Déborah François) and two young children (Quinn Topper Marcus, Molly McCann). Soon Patrick meets Dutch (Cusack) in the dead of night, the latter having knocked on the former’s door, asking for directions regarding a man with a bounty on his head. It is made clear that Patrick cannot refuse—not only this favor but also future ones. Hirsch plays Patrick with a constant air of desperation. Despite the inconsistent Irish accent, he is able to meet Cusack’s calm intensity.

But the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with these two forces who must clash—morally and physically. It goes on autopilot as bodies pile up when Dutch decides to open a business—a whorehouse that serves alcohol, considered to be a mighty sin by the devout Christians (led by Preacher Pike portrayed by Danny Webb) of Garlow. Violence is paraded on screen—men being shot, a young girl getting raped by an old man, blood mixing with mud, a hanging, among others—and yet there is only minimal drama. The reason is because we do not care about these disposable characters. Most intrigue is generated when Patrick and Dutch are in a room simply exchanging words.

Patrick’s occupation involves building objects and putting corpses in the ground. There is poetry in lending a hand on creation and destruction yet the writer-director does not take advantage of it. Instead, Patrick is consistently shown reacting to situations—merely a tool in a plot so ridden with clichés—until the protagonist is no longer an enigma. Meanwhile, Dutch disappears for long periods in the middle of the film. He appears from time to time to do or say something would-be philosophical. I grew tired of the charade that the material forces upon us.

I enjoyed the look of the picture, particularly when it employs natural light. Scenes shot at night are appropriately dark and menacing. There is a convincing quiet in the darkness, like anything could step out from it. Not even lamps or torches could allay the danger. When the film is not so plot-driven but rather driven by feeling, one cannot help but wonder whether the work might have been better off as a sensory experience: strip away the heavy-handed plot and let the emotions flow, place us directly in a mindset of having to survive in an 1849 frontier town.

All Nighter


All Nighter (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Despite two charismatic co-leads, the would-be comedy “All Nighter,” written by Seth W. Owen and directed by Gavin Wiesen, disappoints with a deafening thud. Just about every attempt at comedy comes across as sitcom-like, played out, devoid of inspiration. About halfway through, one cannot help but wonder what performers of J.K. Simmons and Emile Hirsch’s calibers saw in the script to sign up for a movie with barely anything going for it.

The plot revolves around a missing woman named Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton), a character whom we barely get to know, let alone care about. Her father (Simmons), a workaholic who is often overseas, contacts her ex-boyfriend, the good-natured, banjo-playing underachiever Martin (Emile Hirsch), for possible information regarding her whereabouts. Mr. Gallo has gotten increasingly worried since it is so unlike Ginnie to not to pick up calls or return them on a timely manner. The title promises misadventures but the events that transpire are neither funny nor fun. The movie exists simply to pass the time.

It is strange that the picture is at its strongest during the more dramatic scenes, its quieter moments of admission and confession. Whether it be at the dinner table on a mid-level fancy restaurant or in a car in the middle of the night, when the protagonists sit down and simply speak with and look at one another, we recognize the raw potential of the material. This is because Hirsch and Simmons know how to carry a scene. They are not afraid of introducing pauses and silence. They have the ability to extract every little emotion from the words their characters say and feel. These moments of gravitas are never earned, however. We get the feeling that characters are revealing something about themselves simply because the plot requires it in order to create a semblance of character history or development.

Supporting characters are so extreme at times that they are almost cartoonish, caricatures. The couple constantly at each other’s throats (Taran Killam, Kristen Schaal), the barista who couldn’t be bothered (Stephanie Allynne), and the drunk party girl (Xosha Roquemore) quickly come to mind. Sure, eccentric people do live in Los Angeles but is it truly necessary to paint nearly every character encountered as one-dimensional freak show?

A standout is a woman named Lois because she is actually normal. More importantly, however, she is played with winsome energy by Shannon Woodward. As soon as the picture was over, I had to look up her body of work because she knows how to get our attention without leaning on creating an exaggeration. I couldn’t believe I had never seen her before.

“All Nighter” could have used several dosages of fun and authenticity. With a cast of recognizable names and faces, it is unfortunate that the material isn’t willing to take enough risks by trying on different types of comedy to attempt to find which works best for itself. What results, for the most part, is a forgettable and occasionally soporific romp.

The Motel Life


The Motel Life (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) wakes his brother, Frank (Emile Hirsch), in the middle of the night and tells him that something terrible had just happened: He had accidentally struck a kid on a bike with the car. Although he had tried to pick him up and take him to the hospital, it was of no use. The boy was already dead.

Frank and Jerry Lee are inseparable, partly because they wish to honor their dying mother’s wish which was expressed to them back when they were still teenagers. Now in their thirties, the duo choose to remain in Reno with hopes of riding out the investigation. If they were to disappear suddenly, suspicion would surely arise.

“The Motel Life,” directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky, is more a story about the love shared between two brothers than it is about guilt, not having enough money, or the past although these three elements are major driving forces that continue to shape trail of their journey. It is a moving story, heartbreaking in some ways, and yet it is also about hope. No matter what happens, Frank and Jerry Lee are there for each other no matter what the cost.

The lead performances sizzle with stifled emotions. Hirsch gives Frank a level of strength that is almost unexpected because he looks much younger than Dorff, who injects Jerry Lee with so much pathos that we forget sometimes that he has committed a hit-and-run. I would have guessed that Dorff would play the stronger character—the protector—and Hirsch would play the guilt-ridden half.

Nevertheless, what ultimately ends up on screen is the correct decision. Since the casting choice is less obvious, those familiar with the performers’ repertoire will be fascinated because they manage to thrive in a relatively new territory. Meanwhile, those who are less familiar with Hirsch and Dorff can still enjoy the relationship of the two brothers by discovering, slowly, how their dynamics work.

The best scenes involve Frank telling Jerry Lee stories of their imagined great adventures. The wonderful animation employed vary in style and content but not so much that they come across detached from one another. On the contrary, there is fluidity in the drawings and plots and so we learn about what goes on in Frank’s mind: his inspirations, disappointments, his values, his hopes for the future. He is a man who does not speak a lot. It is easier to grab a bottle of alcohol than a shoulder of a friend—especially when he is not very social in the first place.

There are two people in Frank’s life that I wished were fleshed out a bit more. Kris Kristofferson plays a man named Earl who sells cars. In a way, he is a father figure to Frank. They share two scenes: One when Frank is a teenager (Andrew Lee) and the other when older Frank needs a car. Another person of importance in Frank’s life is a former girlfriend named Annie (Dakota Fanning). They have lost touch for years only to cross paths again under very different circumstances.

Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life” shows a portrait that may not be pretty or convenient but one that is worth looking at and thinking about. It made me feel glad that I have a brother who I believe will do anything for me when it really counts. Perhaps that is the reason why I was so moved by the brothers’ bond. Though we come from completely different backgrounds, I still saw a reflection of myself and my sibling in Frank and Jerry Lee.

Prince Avalanche


Prince Avalanche (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) must paint traffic lines on a long stretch of highway that was once consumed by wildfire. While the former thinks that the job is an excellent opportunity for him to be one with nature and further get to know himself through solitude, the latter finds himself unable to deal with loneliness. With the weekend coming up, Alvin decides that he is going to stay in the woods while Lance plans to go home, attend a party, find a girl, and have his “little man squeezed.”

“Prince Avalance,” a remake of Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s “Á annan veg,” is consistently beautifully photographed, especially for a comedy about two men who are sort of losers in their own way, but I found the languid tone of the picture to be inert and soporific at times. Just when we are about to slip into a coma, it turns up the soundtrack to jolt us into paying attention until once again our eyelids start to get heavy.

The picture is not without core strengths. The script has such a good ear for dialogue, a three- to five-minute scene that mostly consists of the camera staring at a face inspires us to paint an entire story in our minds. Particularly memorable is the conversation between Alvin and an older woman (Joyce Payne) who is going through the rubble of her former home. I wondered if the performer on screen had experienced losing her house in fire because it does not feel like she is acting at all. Instead, she seems to be sorting through the memories of her former home and then telling us what she is feeling through her body language. Unfortunately, the scene that comes right after, in which Rudd is allowed to act silly with his body language, dilutes the power of what we had just seen.

Furthermore, director David Gordon Green makes good use of wide shots as he is able to show nature in its rawest form, from a group of desolate old trees which reflects the physical isolation of the subjects to animals in search of food or shelter. He appears to have an eye for which behavior is worth putting in the final product and against which complementary color or specific texture. I will be very interested to see the result if Green decided to make a nature documentary.

The humor is, for the most part, quite understated. There are times when Lance and Alvin are unaware they are funny. However, I was unable to buy into the chemistry between the two leads completely. Instead of being convinced that Lance is forced to put some effort into liking Lance because one just so happens to be dating the other’s sister, much of my energy was put into trying to convince myself that I was supposed to be observing characters rather than actors playing their respective parts.

There is a difference between minimalism and plain. To its credit, “Prince Avalanche” dares to walk along that line. It is understandable why a select audience will be drawn to some of the poetry of the material, but it lacks a certain energy that allows it to stand above other comedies that share similar bloodlines.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe


The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

André Øvredal’s deliciously creepy horror picture “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” knows how to get under the skin of its audience. Unlike many modern films of the genre, it does not rely solely on jump scares and try to pass such evanescent shocking sensations as a genuine horror experience. Instead, it bears numerous similarities with old-fashioned horror movies in that it is interested in tension-building and then breaking it without warning. What results is a highly watchable and curious project, one best seen in a group with all the lights off.

The picture unfolds in a morgue where father and son, Tommy (Brian Box) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), receive a recently found corpse found in a bizarre crime scene. The woman has neither ID on her nor are her fingerprints on the police database and so, during the coroners’ autopsy, she is named Jane Doe. Immediately, during the first round of examination, the veteran notices something strange: despite Jane Doe’s eyes being cloudy, which is a sign that the body has been dead for a couple of days, the body looks fresh—rigor mortis has not even set in yet. This is but one of the many contradictions the Tildens are going to encounter throughout their increasingly frightening night underground.

The film is at its best when simply observing the characters work. The director is aware that the material is interesting and so he is confident in allowing the camera to capture the action without employing ostentatious tricks or gimmicks. (Like having the camera enter from the nose passages and exploring inside the body or something laughably silly like that.) Øvredal uses closeups at the right time and he knows how long to hold the frame in order to extract the greatest level of fascination. I admired that there is great control from behind the camera even though images involve cutting of the flesh, sawing of the bone, organs being taken out. Its clinal approach is most appropriate.

Notice its use of sound. When a drawer containing a corpse is pulled open, metals rubbing against one another make a flinch-inducing noise. The sound of footsteps are amplified when it is dark. Sudden changes of songs or announcements emanating from the radio grabs one’s attention. And never have I been more disturbed to hear the sound of bell tinkling from a distance. Decide to see the film and you’ll know why. And sometimes it’s extremely unnerving when no sound is heard for a couple of seconds.

Imaginative minds are likely to find “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” to be a fun playground full of possibilities. After each strange detail is presented, my hypothesis about who Jane Doe was or what happened to her changed. It demands that the audience think alongside the characters and to keep up. Fans of well-written, well-acted, old-school horror will walk away satiated.

Ten Thousand Saints


Ten Thousand Saints (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Based on the screenplay and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Ten Thousand Saints” is an ambitious drama about youth, friendship, family, New York City on the verge of change, and sacrifices that adults (and soon-to-be-adults) are willing to make for their children, but it is not a successful film because it fails to focus on and explore any one of the subjects it attempts to tackle. What results is a formless picture, bereft of compelling elements that are specific to the characters involved.

After a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont, Jude (Asa Butterfield) suggests that he and his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), get high on freon—the former unaware that the latter had taken some cocaine at the party just a few minutes prior. They lose consciousness amidst the snow and the next morning, both of the boys’ bodies are found—Jude still alive but unable to move, Teddy dead for several hours. Jude’s father, Les (Ethan Hawke), who grows cannabis in NYC as a source of income, invites his son to live with him in the city for a chance to make a change, if Jude wanted, in his life. Soon enough, the surviving teenager meets up with Johnny (Emile Hirsch), Teddy’s elder brother, who lives his life as a Straight Edge—one who makes an active choice in avoiding all drugs, sex, and eating meat.

The picture is shot quite beautifully, highly convincing in showing us different lifestyles of people who do not have much money but are getting by. The interior of homes are so detailed, it is like visiting a real house with many years of memories. This is especially critical when people get into a disagreement or when secrets are revealed. The walls and decorations exude the feeling of becoming more alive over time—that the more experience family and friends go through together, the picture frames, furnitures, figurines, and other knickknacks become all the more embedded in the place of living’s DNA.

Significantly less convincing is the love shared between Jude and Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the woman (Emily Mortimer) that Les is currently dating. Although the screenplay touches upon the different types of love between them, Jude’s feelings for her are never given a chance to come into focus. As a result, the protagonist is paper thin as a character but has a memorable physicality: bright blue eyes and a lanky frame. He is a quiet young man, but what does he stand for? Why is this specific story worth telling through his eyes? There is a lack of a defined perspective and insight here.

Another lost opportunity comes in the form of failing to delve into teen drug abuse. Although the material addresses the topic quite heavily during the first third, it is almost completely dropped about halfway through. Instead, we get to hear Jude tell another person he longer is into smoking marijuana—and that’s about it. This is inappropriate because he still feels guilty for being an instrument toward his friend’s untimely death. By sweeping the drug angle under the rug as if it were unimportant, the film loses about half of its staying power. The second half drags like nails along a chalkboard.

Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson, “10,000 Saints” is also about rebellion, whether be in a suburb or a city, but there is a lack of convincing passion amongst its main players. What the film needs is rage and a punk-rock attitude to match its soundtrack in order to ignite the fire underneath the more melodramatic elements. Because it is missing this critical ingredient, the characters are unforgivingly dull, one-dimensional, and forgettable.

Killer Joe


Killer Joe (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes six thousand dollars to a local gangster and if he does not pay his loan within a couple of days, goons will be sent to kill him. Chris’ mother has just kicked him out of her house and, out of anger, he tells his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), that her life insurance policy is worth fifty thousand dollars. To get that money into their pockets, all they have to do is find a way to kill her. Rex, the boyfriend of Chris’ mother, tells Chris that he knows a man willing to do the job. For twenty-five thousand dollars, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective, will perform the service. The only problem is that he requires to be paid in advance.

Make no mistake that although its premise has elements of a crime-thriller, “Killer Joe,” based on the play and screenplay by Tracy Letts, is a comedy so grim (but deliciously lurid), each chuckle is almost always accompanied with a feeling of guilt. All of the characters we have the pleasure to observe trade their morals for the possibility of getting a couple thousand bucks richer without a moment’s thought.

The performances are grating during the first twenty minutes. Hirsch as a desperate loser sounds as though he is reading from the script as he attempts to get his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), to unlock the front door of their father’s trailer home so he can get inside. There is a lack of verve to his performance in the opening scenes and I began to question if he was fit to play the role. Hirsch and everyone else’s performances, however, is elevated once McConaughey’s cold and calculating Joe dives into the mix. When Joe speaks and tells a story from his past, the actor that has starred in a handful of flat and uninspired romantic comedies disappears completely. Since McConaughey takes a risk by not holding a level of intensity but actually playing with it, we almost feel his co-stars being challenged and wanting to feed off the unpredictability in front of them.

Although the picture does not shy away from putting the violence front and center, it excels in creating intimate scenes, most often between two people, under the guidance of director William Friedkin. It feels wrong to watch Joe and Dottie, who we can assume to be underaged, first converse about mundane topics, work up to flirtation over a meal, and eventually get intimate physically, but it is impossible not to want their scenes to continue because the script and the acting have formed a synergistic magnetism. Joe’s need to take the girl’s virginity and the girl’s unsure sexuality is such an interesting combination that it undermines the circumstances involving the possible murder.

And that, ultimately, is the main problem. The central crime in “Killer Joe” neither has the strength nor the off-kilter palate to complement the good, sometimes great, performances. If the individual scenes between Dottie and Joe; Joe and Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel’s new wife and Chris’ stepmother; and Chris and Dottie were taken out, what remains fit the description of a hundred bland crime pictures.

Lone Survivor


Lone Survivor (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A four-man reconnaissance team (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster) is assigned capture and kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader known to have murdered U.S. Marines. Though the four manage to reach an area in the mountains where they are able to track the person of interest, they learn that comms are down and are eventually discovered by goat herders—an old man, a teenager, and a little boy. The group is divided when it comes to what to do with them, but Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Kitsch) decides to let them go as he and his brothers in action race to the peak of the mountain to establish communication and request rescue.

Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” is a success in that it highlights rather than glorifies what soldiers do by showing the ugly, the messy, and the painful. In this case, first impression proves misleading. I found the expository scenes to be too shiny and beautiful with typical exchanges of tough males bonding and men racing to the finish line as the sun rises. It all feels too much like a commercial or a recruitment video and I was expecting the worst. But once it reaches somewhere near the twenty-minute mark, it gets the tone just right. Finally, it is on the right track with what it wants to show.

The picture is at its peak during the action sequences. When it is silent in the woods and the crosshairs of a weapon search for a kill shot, sans distracting score meant to amplify already tense moments, it is most magnetic because only one of two things can happen: the shot is either going to hit the target or it is going to miss. Either way, his friends are going to know that their enemy is near so that bullet better make contact because it would mean one less person shooting back. Odds do not look good when it comes to four against twenty or more—even if the former are highly trained.

The environment is alive. Yes, the Taliban is the enemy but so are sharp rocks, great heights, and slippery gravel. In one of the most harrowing sequences, Murphy and his men decide to jump off a cliff. It is impressive because the terrifying sounds are able to match the intense images. Bodies rolling down a slope as limbs and faces hit tree trunks, branches, smaller boulders, and their own weapons invoke horror—not horror in terms but fear but horror in terms of shock. To escape from their enemies, these men are willing to jump off a cliff without even thinking twice about it. Because so many hazards are on the way, they could have died even before hitting the bottom.

The title reveals the inevitable and so each of the three deaths must count. And they do. Despite the screenplay not offering much in terms of subtle characterization, the men that will fall are easy to distinguish physically and in general personality. Since Murphy is the leader, I expected him to get most of the attention. On the contrary, his men—Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Foster), arguably, get a bit more opportunities to shine. That is a small but nice surprise.

“Lone Survivor” does not set a standard by any means but it is engaging, entertaining, and sad once one is reminded that it is based on a true story. Though liberties are likely to have been taken in order to dramatize certain accounts, I could not help but think of real sacrifices that real soldiers make out there.

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), Americans in their mid-twenties, took a trip to Moscow excited that their computer program connecting tourism and social networking would be picked up for millions of dollars. But when a Swedish competitor, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), presented their idea as his own to the Russians, Sean and Ben decided to go to a club and drink their disappointment away. While in the club, they met fellow young Americans, Anne (Rachael Taylor) and Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), wanting to have a good time. Their four-way flirtation, however, was interrupted by yellow-orange lights capable of turning humans and animals into ashes. “The Darkest Hour,” based on the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, lacked the menacing atmosphere and dark energy in order to be a successful alien invasion film. Since it didn’t aim for campiness either, I wasn’t sure what it was attempting to be. In any case, the action sequences it offered felt uninspired. Consider the club scene when the invisible alien went on a killing spree. A lot of people screamed and ran around like panicked sheep yet there I was wondering why the alien wouldn’t just keep eradicating whatever got in its way. The scene was supposed to convince us that the alien was seemingly indestructible. It was almost a requirement so that the later scenes in which the characters discovered its weaknesses would have an impact. Instead, I got the impression that the alien was slow and as confused as the humans it had to destroy. The forthcoming scene was just as egregious. Sean, Ben, Anne, Natalie, and Skyler spent several days hiding in the club’s storeroom. If it weren’t for the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I could swear we wouldn’t have any idea that they spent days in there. They didn’t look like they haven’t showered for days, the girls’ make-up remained perfect, and not a smudge of dirt could be found on their clothes. And there I was wondering how they used the toilet. One of the characters said something about urinating in a can. If none of them had to go number two for days, I’d say they had a bigger problem at hand. Forget looking for U.S. Embassy for extraction, go see a doctor as soon as possible. Fortunately, when they did decide to finally explore outside, there were some effective shots. Daytime was creepy because of the empty metropolitan. Nighttime was dangerous because whenever an alien was near, disabled lights would suddenly turn on. I liked the irony involving characters running away from the light. In horror movies or sci-fi pictures with horror elements in them, characters tend to run away from darkness, usually while in a tunnel, as it tried to engulf them. However, good, isolated shots do not make an entertaining movie. If “The Darkest Hour,” directed by Chris Gorak, had more fun with the material, it would have been a more bearable experience. Sean and his friends eventually made it to the mall. He suggested that they needed new clothes considering they hadn’t changed for days. I was so excited for them to go shopping since everything was for free. Instead, they glumly walked to different stores and tried on whatever looked the plainest. If I were in their shoes knowing that there was a big possibility that I might die, I would live to the fullest. If that meant taking my time to go shopping and leaving everyone annoyed, then so be it.

Taking Woodstock


Taking Woodstock (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”), “Taking Woodstock” was about the summer of 1969 and the flourishing counterculture that culminated in the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Caught among the powerful movement was a family and their debt concerning a motel that no one ever visits. Demetri Martin tried to help out his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman) with money and moral support as best he could to the point where he had to sacrifice his career as an interior designer. Stuck in the ennui of rural town, the arrival of his childhood friend (Jonathan Groff) and concert organizers gave Martin and his family a chance to finally get out of debt. The only catch was that they had to somehow take in hundreds and thousands of people (which eventually grew to about a million or so) and deal with the frustrations of the citizens of their own town, the neighboring cities and the media coverage. They also had to find a land owner (Eugene Levy) who was willing to take in all sorts of people and be able to deal with the mess afterwards.

I’ll admit right away that “Taking Woodstock” could have been so much bigger and more interesting. However, I do admire Lee’s choice of telling a story from a struggling family’s perspective, especially from a son who was more than ready to leave the nest but was chained at home because of his own guilt of abandoning his parents when they needed him most. Making that decision gave the film a much-needed heart. I was amused when I saw the family dynamics because Staunton was so intense, Goodman was so passive and Martin was inbetween. But then there were truly touching moments, especially a scene toward the end between Martin and his father when the son finally summoned the courage to do whatever it was that he wanted to do in the first place.

The storytelling was light (even for a comedy-drama) and all over the place which worked at some parts because it reflected that era. With a little bit more focus on the event at hand, stronger script and storytelling, this could have been an Oscar contender. I also would have liked to see more of Jonathan Groff. He had a certain spark about him that intrigued me. It might have been his extremely laidback nature or the way he looked into the main character’s eyes, I’m not exactly sure, but what I’m sure of is that the film would have benefited if it had fully explored characters. On the other hand, as much as I love Emile Hirsch, I felt like his character was simpy a distraction. His scenes could have been cut off from the picture and the final product would pretty much have been the same. But then Liev Schreiber as a cross-dresser and having great comedic timing really had me engaged. With this picture, one thing that didn’t work was almost always coupled with two or three things that worked.

I cannot say that “Taking Woodstock” was a disappointment because it managed to entertain and it had a fresh perspective on the monumental event. But it definitely would have won extra brownie points if it had actual footages of several artists’ performance such as Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, or at least a restaging of some sort.

Beautiful Ohio


Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★

Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.

Milk


Milk (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This film made me so proud to be a part of the LGBT community. Sean Penn. Emile Hirsch. Josh Brolin. Diego Luna. James Franco. Alison Pill. Victor Garber. Joseph Cross. Lucas Grabeel. When I saw the aforementioned names a few months ago on IMDB when they were still filming in San Francisco, I knew I had to watch “Milk” and that I would love it unconditionally. Thankfully, it managed to surpass even my highest expectations. Gus Van Sant have directed impressive films in the past (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Elephant,” “Paranoid Park”) but I thought he would tell the story of Milk with a more commercial style. I was elated when I saw his signature awkward camera angles, forcing the audiences to watch crucial scenes via a reflection on a whistle or mirror and everything inbetween. Having seen the brilliant 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” I knew of the events that are about to transpire in Van Sant’s film, but that never stopped me from hoping that somehow reality and fantasy will trade places and give me a happy, satisfying ending.

The performances are nothing short of electric. Sean Penn deserves an Oscar nomination because he fully embodied Harvey Milk. From the clips the documentary showed, Penn had the mannerisms of Milk to a tee to the point of disbelief. From the majestic speeches he delivered to the more intimate moments with his lovers, I found myself thinking that I’m not watching Penn act like Milk, he IS Milk. He delivered his lines with such quiet power and wit, sometimes it’s difficult to tell if he’s simply joking or poking fun of someone (or both). It was also refreshing to see him smile so much because I’m used to seeing his more serious side (“21 Grams,” “The Interpreter,” and particularly in “Mystic River”). As for Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, I’ve seen every movie he’s in and loved all of them (“Imaginary Heroes,” “The Emperor’s Club,” and “Into the Wild” stood out to me), but this is the film that he shines in every single frame when he’s not the main actor. He has this rare talent of mixing energy with quirkiness to make an extremely charismatic character, despite his (sometimes horrendous) hairdos. Last but certainly not least, James Franco, who plays Scott Smith, made me feel safe every time he speaks. He understands his character’s complexity so whenever he and Penn would kiss or hug or converse at the dinner table or the bedroom, you get this feeling that they’re made for each other.

Despite all of the actors’ positive qualities, their characters are far from perfect. Milk is especially flawed because he has the tendency to put his goals in front of his friends and even his own well-being. He cares so much for the advacement of everyone else’s rights that he forgets that he’s not invincible, that it’s alright to take a break once in a while and get away from all the political madness. As for Brolin’s Dan White, he’s not portrayed as a complete monster. He is portrayed as a man who cares and desperately wants to provide for his family; a man who stands up for his beliefs but at the same time suffocated by such beliefs; a man who sees so much changes before his eyes, that he’ll do anything in his power to stop such a powerful force. If we can learn anything from both Harvey Milk and Dan White, it’s the fact that one person can make all the difference.

My friend who I went to see “Milk” with said that he wishes that this film came out before people got to vote on Proposition 8 in California, which aims to “restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry” (Wikipedia). I was amazed with the many parallels that this film had with today’s issues (Milk and his army battles Proposition 6–which would have called for the state to bar gays and lesbians from being teachers). On one hand, it makes me feel like we’ve come so far from the 70’s when it comes to accepting, not just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders, but all types of minorities. On the other hand, it makes me feel like we haven’t progressed much at all because society is still stuck in this false idea of heteronormativity.

Putting my political views aside, “Milk” is definitely one of the most important films of 2008 because discrimination is still a monster we have not defeated. We might have scratched it a bit or even cut off its arm, but it recovers every time the envelope is not pushed. People have the tendency to forget something when that something is not in front of them. Even if one does not approve of homosexuality, the film’s craft should be appreciated; Van Sant’s decision to sew in actual footages from the ’70s worked wonders because I felt like I was living in that time period. Astute implications regarding politics and the fusion of public and private spheres are enough to qualify this for a Best Picture nomination. Not to mention Danny Elfman’s majestic score really makes the audiences feel how much is at stake. At some points during the film, I literally wanted to get up from my seat and rally on the streets of San Francisco with them. Definitely see this one with friends or just random people in the cinema (just make sure you’re not alone) because there are a lot of jokes and laughter that are worth sharing. By the end, of course it’s a tearjerker because we get to witness losing the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the gay rights movement. The ending of the picture really put tears in my eyes because the story of the great Harvey Milk is finally put on the spotlight (there were a plethora of behind-the-scenes drama since the 1980’s on how the story should be told, who will direct, et cetera). Maybe this film will even inspire those who are sick of hiding from true selves to come out. I cannot help but smile a little more, stand up a little straighter, put my head a little higher, every time I imagine Harvey Milk declaring, “I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!”

“You’re going to meet the most extraordinary men, the sexiest, brightest, funniest men, and you’re going to fall in love with so many of them, and you won’t know until the end of your life who your greatest friends were or your greatest love was.” — Harvey Milk to Cleve Jones