Monday, 22 December 2008

Oscar Season = XXXtreme Biopic Frenzy

Never did I think that I would ever prefer a film by Ron Howard over one by Gus Van Sant, but that may have happened this week. We were lucky enough to see both Frost/Nixon and Milk, and while both movies were excellent, they paled into insignificance next to the goosebump-inducing magnificence of John Woo's Red Cliff, or Matteo Girrone's stunning Gomorra, both of which thrilled me recently.

Frost/Nixon was, as is well known, originally a play by Peter Morgan which, through bad luck and torpor on my part, we missed when it played at the Donmar Warehouse (best theatre in London, for realsies). Seeing the movie made me regret that even more, as I have no idea what Morgan added to his screenplay in order to flesh out the story, which, as a two-header, could have been utterly uncinematic in the hands of Howard. Throughout the film I fretted about the potential differences, unsure whether every clumsy bit of exposition (such as the commentary provided by the chorus of Oliver Platt, Hott Sam Rockwell, and Matthew MacFadyen) was added by Morgan at the behest of Howard, which complicated my assessment of it. Did the play feature such anvillicious statements? Theatre, certainly highly-regarded theatre, is usually more elegant than that (we caught the Pulitzer-Prize-winning August: Osage County at the National recently, and there is zero slack in that. But I digress...).

Nevertheless, we were hugely impressed by it, and especially the outrageously good cast. I could watch Oliver Platt and Hott Sam Rockwell all day long already, and putting them together just multiplied their awesomeness, even if they were just stating the obvious for a long time. Matthew MacFadyen is an unknown quantity to me, but he was fine. Regrettably, he was playing John Birt, of "Croak-voiced Dalek" fame, the anti-creative engineer who created the BBC's impenetrably complicated internal market, an act of baffling stupidity that very nearly wrecked the greatest public service broadcaster in the world. Seeing the man being portrayed as a heroic and amusing guy hanging out with Rockwell and Platt over booze was utterly confounding. In the finale he strips naked and runs into the ocean due to a euphoria overload. Really? John Birt? Minister for "Blue Skies Thinking", experiencing an outpouring of emotion? Really? No matter how good MacFadyen was, I just couldn't reconcile the current John Birt with the version portrayed here.

Best of all were the two leads, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, transferring their acclaimed performances from the original production. Sheen starts out like a mere impressionist, mimicking Sir David Frost's voice and mannerisms so perfectly I almost lost track of whether he was actually any good. Of course he was, playing up Frost's shallowness, desperation, doubt, and eventual conversion to journalist of integrity. The lack of an Oscar nomination for his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen was a disgrace, so hopefully he'll get some recognition here.

Langella was even better. I've not seen Altman's Secret Honor yet, so I can't say whether Philip Baker Hall's performance is really the best screen Nixon (tasteful people maintain it is), but I do think Sir Anthony Hopkins' Nixon is one of my favourite performances of all time. Langella's didn't excite me as much, partially because less time is spent showing Nixon's vulnerable side (prior to his emotional slip-up at the end of his final interview), but it's still phenomenal work. Surely he's odds-on favourite for the Best Actor Oscar.

Which is bad news for Sean Penn, who is also excellent as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's biopic, which has topped as many end of year polls as WALL*E and Slumdog Millionaire. The difference between my reaction to Milk and Frost/Nixon is similar to the way I felt about WALL*E and Kung Fu Panda; the former is more ambitious but has more problems, while the latter is more focused and has a higher success rate (though I don't think Kung Fu Panda really does anything wrong). While Frost/Nixon packs a lot of story into its depiction of a small slice of American history, by making what should be little more than a long TV interview become a momentous event that redeems the protagonists and saves the American soul, Milk sprawls across a longer period, i.e. the last eight years of Harvey Milk's life, showing the effect he had on the gay "ghetto" of Castro Street, his efforts to become a city official, and his battle against homophobic legislation backed by the Christian Right.

With so much ground to cover the film skimps on a lot of detail, opening in 1970, with Milk moving to San Francisco with his lover Scott, and then skipping through the years as he becomes more politicised, despite (or because of) his failure to be elected to office. Though the movie is sprawling, and covers so much ground, I couldn't help but be frustrated by how little we find out about who Milk is, where he comes from, why he is so militant. At times he merely seems to be motivated by frustration at how gays are mistreated. Perhaps that really all there was to it (it’s understandable, after all), but I’d like to know if there was more there. Penn does an excellent job of bringing Milk to life and showing why people were drawn to him and his enthusiasm, but without Penn there Dustin Lance Black's script tends to leave Milk as little more than a raging ball of fury, albeit a very charming one.

Then again, Van Sant and Black, by beginning the story so late in his life, are far more interested in his struggle against the vile Prop 6, which was an attempt to overturn the civil rights of gays in employment. How could I begrudge Van Sant that, when this year a similar and equally evil proposition to remove the hard-won rights of gays won depressingly large support in California? That Milk was less concerned with who Milk was rather than what he stood for is not actually a fault with the movie, rather it was my subjective problem with the film, as I was eager to know even more about the man. Canyon and I both felt that the movie could have run for another couple of hours filling in those blanks, which, I guess, is a kind of praise; we certainly weren’t bored, after all. Perhaps it will spur me into finally reading that copy of The Mayor of Castro Street I have lying around somewhere.

Sadly it has its own intrinsic faults that we can't attribute to our own thwarted curiosity in the subject matter. Though beautifully performed and shot, scored with emotive brilliance than Danny Elfman at the height of his powers, and never less than fascinating, it has the same problems that many biopics have, that of condensing too much information into scenes with obvious dialogue and occasionally sentimental emoting. Far too often pivotal scenes will feature Milk facing a big emotional and political breakthrough or setback at the same time: deciding to fight Prop 6 as an explicitly homophobic piece of legislation rather than as a civil rights issue while his insecure and unhinged boyfriend throws a tantrum in a closet upstairs; facing yet more defeats while Scott sulks elsewhere; opening a shop and immediately meeting a homophobic representative of the local shopowners association, etc.

I get that biopics have to do that as there is so much information to get through, but those contrasts of highs and lows run like clockwork throughout almost all of them. Those contrasts are hard to swallow after seeing them satirised so deftly in Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard. It's possibly the most conventional genre, and I had hoped that a filmmaker as imaginative and daring as Van Sant would figure out a way to transcend those conventions, but sadly he plays by the biopic rulebook. Compare this film to Todd Haynes' love letter to Dylan, I'm Not There, surely the most perplexing and challenging biopic of recent years. Milk is pure vanilla compared to that, though it makes sense for Milk to be linear, dealing as it does with an interesting but unambiguous life. Haynes' masterstroke was to make a biopic whose structure mimics the playfulness and complexity of its subject, more a tone poem that resembles and reflects the man rather than a straight rendition of his life. Van Sant, on the other hand, is working from a pretty straight narrative from Lance Black (who, as one of the main writers on HBO’s best current show Big Love, is absolutely goddamn alright by us), and he tells it as it is. Was it respect for the subject matter that stayed Van Sant’s hand, or was it caution?

Funnily enough, my frustration over the conventionality of the movie was flipped when watching Van Sant's Paranoid Park a couple of days later. Coming at the tail-end of his minimalist arthouse period, his adaptation of Blake Nelson's YA novel is as unconventional as it gets, with a similarly fractured narrative to Elephant, and featuring intentional super-longeurs, amateur performances of varying quality, and a baffling soundtrack of inappropriate Nina Rota tunes played over yet another incredible sound collage by super-genius Leslie Shatz. And yet AV Club considered it the most accessible of his experimental series. Damn, it nearly alienated me, and I usually eat this shit up. Surely Elephant is way more accessible, despite the morbid subject matter.

Their point did give me a perspective on Milk's conservative storytelling. It's a great way to make the subject matter accessible to a wider audience, and is partially attributable to some difficulties in making the movie the way he originally intended (an interview with AICN’s Mr. Beaks went into detail about how plans to shoot Milk in 16mm went awry. I would link to it but the site is being an asshole). However, no matter why it happened, it's disappointing to fans of his quirkier movies, especially when he lets characters make repeated references to Milk living to a ripe old age, and worst of all, cutting from Milk's tragic death to an early scene with Milk stating he didn't think he would reach his fiftieth birthday. That's not poignant, it's crashingly obvious and distracting. What had been an emotional moment becomes patronising (the final scenes of a candlelit march redeem it, however).

I suspect I'm being harsher on Van Sant for the flaws in Milk than on Howard for Frost/Nixon's missteps not only because I expect more from Van Sant but because I expected it feel more personal, more closely allied with this other movies. After making a series of films that feel like variations on a theme, this step back towards straightforward storytelling irked me. It's perhaps even less adventurous than Good Will Hunting (a personal favourite, and I'm not ashamed to admit it), which could well be intentional, as I said, but thus doesn't feel like it came from Van Sant's filmography. It's charming, funny, heart-wrenching, righteously rage-inducing, and touching, but it doesn't feel like a Van Sant movie, and for a huge Van Sant fan, that's a problem.

All of this is to say that my assessment of Milk is utterly subjective, and should not be taken as a warning against seeing it. On the contrary, I thoroughly recommend it, and Frost/Nixon as well. Both are total Oscar-bait, with the added benefit of having a hefty political point to make (Milk's call for a united and committed struggle against establishment-endorsed bigotry, Frost/Nixon for a journalistic focus on matters of substance and not frivolity), but they're both highly entertaining and beautifully performed (Milk features superb work from Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch).

But, for all their considerable excellence, neither film features a guy on horseback catching a spear in mid-flight.

Red Cliff FTW.

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