Good Will Hunting (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” was about a twenty-year-old janitor with a gift of photographic memory who spent his days hanging out and drinking with his friends (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) instead of actually using his gift to the fullest. But when he anonymously left a solution to a challenging math problem given by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård), the professor tried looking for Will to push him to reach his potential. I loved this picture because it felt more personal than other movies about people with a certain kind of genius. The script was impressive because it was insightful but at the same time wasn’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the characters, especially the relationship between Damon, Skarsgård and Robin Williams, as Will’s counselor who actually wanted to solve Will’s personal problems first before persuading Will to use his gift to help society. I found it fascinating how Will was so smart but he found it difficult to relate with others (except for his core group of friends) because most people were more drawn to his gift than what he had to offer personally. It made him bitter and trusting others became an issue for him, especially with what he had to go through in his childhood. Another source of tension, which I found was one of the weaker links in the film, was the relationship between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver). Even though they spent a lot of scenes together, I didn’t feel as though they loved one another as the film had suggested. However, I found Skylar interesting as a stand-alone character because she was carefree and independent. Perhaps it was just the lack of chemistry between the actors but I would rather watch the scenes when Damon and Williams helped to explore reach other’s inner demons and grow from their experiences. What impressed me most about “Good Will Hunting,” directed by Gus Van Sant, was how real the characters were. Van Sant’s direction was to be applauded because he wasn’t afraid to let his characters act stupid while adding many layers of dimension to them just like people in real life. For instance, the bar scenes with the friends seemed ordinary but they were actually standout scenes because listening in to their conversations made me feel like it was something I could hear in real life. Even though the topics of conversations seemed dull on the surface, the way the characters interacted and the intonations in their voices suggested how close they were as friends and what it meant for them to have someone have their backs no matter what happened. It’s difficult to sum up the story of “Good Will Hunting” in a couple of words because it was more about a crucial span of time in a character’s life. It was an intimate and powerful experience and it made me feel good because it inspired me to have more control to where I want to go in life.
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
I like Larry Clark’s movies (“Kids,” “Bully,” “Wassup Rockers”) because each one has some sort of lesson in them. But the characters learn (or don’t learn) such lessons in many gritty and very realistic, if not all too painful, ways. I had a difficult time watching “Another Day in Paradise” because it did not start off well. The story was about how two criminals (James Woods and Melanie Griffith)–kind of like Bonnie and Clyde–took two juvenile delinquents (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) under their wing. One could tell that despite how they seemed to mesh well on the outside, something was about to go wrong because each character was driven by his or her own end game or naïveté. I kept waiting for the point of the story where everything suddenly changed but it didn’t quite deliver until the last twenty to twenty-five minutes. The last section of this movie was so powerful, I considered giving this film three stars. There was something about it was so sad and so haunting to the point where it really made me think about the characters and the choices they’ve made that got them into such an irrevocable mess. Such scenes reminded me why I loved Clark’s pictures in the first place because the message had a voice but it was still able to be quite poetic, which reminded me of some of Gus Van Sant’s strongest movies. Even though the movie did look small and was quite rough around the edges, the acting is top-notch especially from the young Vincent Kartheiser. I’ve seen him on the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spin-off called “Angel” and thought he was just fine there, but I didn’t think he would be able to deliver such gravity and emotional power as he did here. If the first hour of the film only focused on the more human and sensitive aspect of the story instead of showing the characters stealing, doing drugs, and risking the lives they obviously don’t value, maybe “Another Day in Paradise” would have been much stronger. In my opinion, there were way too many scenes that featured self-descructive behavior to the point where I got sick of it and just wanted to pay attention to something else. With a little bit more work in the editing room and reshooting some scenes, this would have been a hit for me.
Speedway Junky (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll come right out and admit that this movie is far from perfect. In fact, I think its very flawed regarding its direction, editing, how the story unfolded, and syrupy melodrama. Still, I couldn’t help but get very into it because of the dynamics of the characters played by Jesse Bradford, Jordan Brower, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Daryl Hannah. I keep forgetting that Bradford can be a good actor because the first film I saw him in was the barely mediocre “Swimfan.” Watching this film reminded me of how great he can be like he was in “Heights” and “Happy Endings.” I really cared for him here as a would-be male hustler with dreams of one day becoming a racecar driver. His character reeks with naiveté but that’s one of the best things about the film because something comedic always happens to him. I’ve never seen Thomas in an edgier role because I’m so used to seeing him in harmless films and television shows like “Tom and Huck” and “8 Simple Rules,” respectively. It was nice to see that he’s capable of playing a not-so-friendly and a little dangerous character. Another person that surprised me was Hannah. I have to admit that the only movie that I can remember seeing her in was “Kill Bill” (which I’ve seen about ten times), despite her long repertoire, so it was kind of weird seeing her here as a broken down, somewhat helpless ex-prostitute (in addition to not having an eyepatch over one of her eyes). She shines in her scenes because she provided warmth and compassion (her mother-nurturing side) in contrast to the streets of Las Vegas (her ex-prostitute side). My eyes were glued to the screen when she was telling Bradford one of her stories with a customer. But most of all, it was Brower who really got to me. I’m surprised he doesn’t appear in more movies because I see a lot of potential in him. His struggle about finally finding someone he can love but that of which he cannot have is so sad but it’s easy to relate to. Out of the four characters, I wanted to know about him the most. “Speedway Junky” is written and directed Nickolas Perry, but I think it would’ve been much stronger if Gus Van Sant had taken over (he was the executive producer). I saw a lot of similarities with “My Own Private Idaho” not just in relation to the characters but the themes that it tried to tackle. Again, this movie is very flawed but I saw greatness in it–which could’ve been highlighted by a more capable director.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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