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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Movies That Begin With The Letter W. Or Not

What Doesn't Kill You.  Seen Sunday Afternoon December 14, 2008 at the City Cinemas Village East, Auditorium #1.  1.5 Slithy Toads.

Were the World Mine.  Seen Sunday Afternoon December 14, 2008 at Cinema Village, Auditorium #2.  2 Slithy Toads.

Even though my movie-going is down quite a bit from its peak years when I used to do on toward 120 per year (this year will be over 80, I think, but not above 90), I do still try and see the occasional unheralded movie that gets somewhat interesting reviews that suggest it doesn't suck and may actually be an unsung gem.  So this weekend I decided I had some open weekend nights ahead to maybe visit the nearby multiplex and better to go far afield on the weekend, so I headed downtown to dsee these two movies that you've likely never heard of.

There was one pleasant surprise in store.  The City Cinemas Village East is a former playhouse devoted to Yiddush Theatre.  It has four very small theatres with very small screens in its basement.  On the former stage,  it has a relatively small screen on the bottom and then a kind of interesting and larger one directly on top of it, an arrangement which I'm surprised wasn't used in more old movie palace conversions.  The UA Lynbrook and the now-deceased UA Astoria are two other theatres which plexed in the old stage area.  But to my surprise this unheralded indie movie was playing on the big and still very richly ornamented main auditorium, which is a stunningly gorgeous place to see a movie and one of the few really gorgeous places left in Manhattan for viewing a movie.  So if the drama flags, you can look up and down and all around and enjoy the surroundings.  Alas, the drama flags in What Doesn't Kill You.  It has two good lead actors in Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke, both of whom count as points in deciding whether to see a movie, but the true story is just not very interesting.  It's like Goodfellas or The Departed playing at too slow a speed.  The two leads are errand boys for a South Boston hood; doing it since they're kids.  Unfortunately the pay isn't always so good, the job security isn't so good, so they start to do some stuff on the side without cutting in the boss.  They end up being arrested (probably a coincidence?) and after they do their time one of them eventually chooses to go straight and enjoy his family while the other decides to do one last big score that can give him the seed money to maybe do better things.  Even if you haven't seen this movie before, you feel as if you had.  Because the writer/director knows the movie itself is dramatically inert he tries the same trick as many of the writers I've worked with, which is to goose the start with an Exciting Prologue that will be So Exciting it will Carry You Along In Its Wake.  That rarely works in writing a novel, and it doesn't work here.  I read that the Yari Film Group, which is releasing the movie, recently went into bankruptcy court.

I was a tad upset with the Cinema Village, because the ticket seller claimed to have no knowledge of the discount for Museum of the Moving Image members.  I've written to complain.  Also, I am pretty sure that the projector in this theatre is running with a bulb that's weak than it's supposed to be.  The movie I saw there on the little theatre cut into the mezzanine area of the main screen, is called Were the World Mine.  It's a gay Shakespearean take on the High School Musical sub-genre.  It's set in a private school where a gay student suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from his jock classmates.  When he's chosen to play Puck in the senior class play production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he finds a recipe hidden in the play for some kind of potion that turns people gay or lesbian for a bit of time, which becomes a bit of wish fulfillment that turns the town upside down.  The play must go on, the town returns to a kind of heightened normalcy, and boy gets boy at the end.  Alas, it's so 1990s or 1980s.  You have the members of a high school basketball team breaking into song and dance, but we have that now in the High School Musical movies, so we don't need it here.  The cast isn't bad, per se, and the English/drama teacher is played by Wendy Robie channeling Katherine Helmond from Soap and Who's The Boss and I will never complain to be reminded of Soap.  But Robie's biggest role was perhaps a recurring one in Twin Peaks many years ago, and that's the overall level of achievement when you look at the cast credits, so totally cheap kids movies like if you look at the IMDB bios for the cast of Benji.   I was suffering a cold this week and a little drowsier than I'd really like to be when seeing a movie, so both movies have been given an extra 1/2 toad so they don't suffer totally if my own drowsiness was unfair.

& I have to say it again:  what is this movie really adding to the world when we have big Disney movies as gay as...

High School Musical 3: Senior Year.  Seen Sunday morning/afternoon Nov. 9, 2008 at the AMC Hoffman Center 22, Aud. #1.  2.5 slithy toads.

I hadn't seen the first two movies in the series on TV because, um, I've aged some past the target audience and totally don't get why anyone would groove to Zac Efron and in fact didn't see Hairspray in part because I didn't want to see him doing Link Larkin.  But I am more inclined in general to see movies in theatres than on TV, the coming attraction for this made it seem kind of fun, I have a warm spot for the director Kenny Ortega on account of his choreography for the wonderful I'm-Having-the-Time-of-My-Life-Whenever-I-See-It Dirty Dancing (and I really should see Newsies again some day), and I do occasionally see things in order to be part of the public dialogue.

& I'd have to say that the movie wasn't as bad as I feared it could be but nor was it quite as good as I'd hoped it might be.  The plot wasn't very interesting to anyone who hadn't gotten caught up in the trials and tribulations of Troy Bolton's life from the earlier two movies, and then those uninteresting plots had to be grafted uneasily with other story-lines to help introduce new younger characters for future HSM movies.  The music wasn't all that good.  It does end up achieving a certain emotional power through sheer repetition, kind of like the way Andrew Lloyd Weber beats you into submission in The Phantom of the Opera, and there isn't anything in the movie musically that still sticks around five weeks later.  But it is full of good spirits.  There was some nice choreography as I'd hoped; I was particularly impressed with a kind of "dance worm" that was a particularly cinematic piece of choreography that took advantage of being a film musical over a stage one to provide an effect that you wouldn't get on stage.  

But can we talk about the character of Ryan Evans, played by Lucas Grabeel.  Just as a matter of talent and ability, many of the reviews I'd read for this movie singled out Grabeel's performance as being of particular note, and I do think he has more stage presence and more inate talent than Zac Efron, though my own dislike of Efron aside I do think there's a little more "It" (see my recent post on The Reader) to Efron.  But going beyond that, there's nothing gay at all about HSM 3 because God Forbid and all that, but here's a character who wears very interesting outfits and leads the cast of the high school musical in what one character terms a "yoga Fosse" thing, which is a joke that nobody in the film's target audience will remotely understand but which some of the accompanying adults might.  And to all of the characters in HSM 3, Ryan Evans isn't even worth commenting upon.  He's a part of the scenery.  

& that creates a problem for a Were the World Mine.  In the world outside of East High, I'm still not sure how receptive the senior class would be to a Ryan Evans lookalike leading the ensemble in a Yoga Fosse thing, so insofar as the real world is concerned the issues that confront the lead in that movie are legitimately real world.  This is one reason why I give a little bit more toad to that movie over What Doesn't Kill You, which is superfluous in 68 different ways so many years after Goodfellas.  But culturally, when Disney is giving us HSM 3, and HSM 3 is giving us Ryan Evans, it becomes a lot harder to justify putting a Were the World Mine before the cameras.

A few weeks later I saw a good chunk of HSM 2 on Disney in an annotated pop-up version, and I think it may be a better movie than HSM 3, or it might just be that law of diminished expectations in watching something on TV where it doesn't have to be such an exclusive focus of attention.  But it seemed to me that the plot-line of HSM 2 was a little more universal in its appeal or use of archetype (rich v poor, etc.) than HSM 3.  HSM 2 has a little less music in it, perhaps because the made-for-TV sequel had a little less of a budget.  But I thought the baseball diamond dance in #2 was head and shoulders above anything in #3 in its creativity and verve and joy, and I'd say the same for the finale as well.

Lucas Grabeel in turn has as small role in...

Milk.  Seen Thursday Evening, November 20, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine, Aud. #1, part of the Variety Screening Series.  3 Slithy Toads.

This is a film that's been getting some rave reviews from far and wide, and which along with Slumdog Millionaire has been leading an end-of-year box office resurgence in specialty films.  I like it perhaps a little less than a lot of the critics.

The story of Harvey Milk is a very powerful one, and this is at least the third time it's being put before us, following on the book The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts and the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.  An emigre to San Francisco from New York City, Harvey Milk organized the gay community in the Castro District of San Francisco, won a spot on SF's city council (well, they don't call it that, but...), and was then martyred along with Mayor George Moscone by a former member of the Council who subsequently helped bring national attention to the Twinkie Defense.  Moscone has a convention center named after him, but Milk's mark on US politics will likely endure longer.

This movie is directed by Gus Van Sant, who's been kind of all over the place in his career.  I'm very fond of  his Good Will Hunting (and in my usual way I could bore you with my "the night I saw..." story but won't right now), I regret not seeing his Columbine-inspired Elephant in addition to the interesting Zero Day, Drugstore Cowboy was a pioneering indie flick, but other movies of his like Paranoid Park and Last Days are elegiac odes to elegism that are acquired tastes at best.  

While Milk benefits from an amazing performance in the title role by Sean Penn and other excellent performances by Vincent Garber at Mayor Moscone and Josh Brolin as Supervisor Dan White, it suffers because it has in miniature some of the same tensions in intent that have kind of bedeviled Van Sant's career as a whole.  There's a little hint of this in the opening minutes of the movie, where you've got some very Van-Sant-y shots of gays in the Castro that are there for atmosphere but which have a little too much of the artsy-fartsy skateboarding scenes from Paranoid Park in them.  And then as the movie progresses, Van Sant can't decide whether to cater to or ignore the most conventional cliches of the biopic.

So Lucas Grabeel from HSM 3 is playing the role of Danny Nicoletta, who in real life was an important associate of Harvey Milk's but in terms of this movie (at least as it survived the editing process; I don't know what we have in the script) has hardly any role at all.  There's so little of this performance in the movie that I'd have to say it should have been deleted entirely, consolidated with some other character, something or anything other than what happened to it.  That's the kind of consolidation that happens a lot in biopics or sports movies because you want to make them dramatic and therefore do in your "based on a true story" movie the same kinds of things I might ask authors to do in tightening their novels.  Take two secondary characters that are weak, make a strong one out of them.  Van Sant doesn't want to do that here because he and the screenwriter are trying to be very true to the historic record.  Alas, just as in a novel the time and space and lines and itty bitty pieces of screen time devoted to this character with little import to the story of this movie end up taking time and space and lines and pieces of screen time away from other characters who are more important to the movie's story, and so to me the movie is weakened.  Goodness knows we could have wished for more of an effort to define Milk's relationship with Jack Lira.

And yet at other times Van Sant can't avoid some biopic cliches.  Is it really the case that there was a memorial service for Milk in city hall with all of three people attending at the exact same time that 30,000 people were marching from the Castro to city hall?  That's the way it's portrayed in this movie, where we see a couple of Milk's colleagues saying "oh, look, nobody cares," only to add dramatic heightening to them walking outside and seeing the candle-lit marchers spreading miles down Market Street, with of course some of the other major characters hand-in-hand in the front row.  Cue tears now.  In other places in the movie, Van Sant uses actual historical footage, including a scene of Diane Feinstein, now a Senator from California, announcing the news of the deaths of the Mayor and of Milk.  Here, I would have found archival footage of the memorial march to be more moving than the Hollywood recreation of it.

People should see Milk.  Many more people will find out about Milk's story courtesy of this movie than ever would by reading Randy Shilts or seeing the documentary, and that's a fact.  Sean Penn's performance is very good.  Josh Brolin's is very good, and that's a fact.  But I did see the Times of Harvey Milk, over 20 years ago in MLB 3 at the University of Michigan when the campus rep circuit hadn't yet lost out to the VCR, and in my memory that was a 4 toad movie that got me a lot more teary-eyed than today's Milk does, and even though I recommend Milk, I can't help but think you'd all be better  off finding your way to the documentary.


Anonymous said...

"Is it really the case that there was a memorial service for Milk in city hall with all of three people attending at the exact same time that 30,000 people were marching from the Castro to city hall?"

Er, yes, that is exactly what happened. They started marching from the camera store down to city hall and by the time they got there, people had spilled out of their homes all along the way, gay and straight, until over 30,000 got to city hall. This is a matter of historical record, and easily Google-able.

The Brillig Blogger said...

I know there was a march; as I said I would have preferred seeing footage of the actual march as in Times of Harvey Milk. I am asking if the movie's depiction of the march happening in counterpoint to a memorial service in city hall with 3 people in attendance is accurate, and I'm not sure that's the question you're answering.