“Milk” does a filmgoer good

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Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
Rated R
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Run time: 128 minutes
4.5 out of 5 stars

Harvey Milk started the 1970’s in a crappy New York apartment and ended them in a coffin. In between, he was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, and an enormously influential figure in the gay rights movement.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic, “Milk,” covers Milk’s life from the beginning of the 70’s through the night after his assassination, and presents a portrait of a man whose life was going nowhere, and he decided to not only change his own life, but the lives of those around him.
As the film opens, Harvey Milk (Penn) has just met Scott Smith (Franco), and they move to escape the stagnation of New York and open a camera store in a small neighborhood in San Francisco. Upon arriving, Milk and Smith are immediately chastised and ridiculed by the local business, which inspires Milk to become a political activist, rallying the gay members of the community to boycott homophobic businesses and create a sort of gay gentrification in the neighborhood, now dubbed the Castro. This political fire in Milk’s belly inspires him to run for office, and after two failed bids for city supervisor, he wins a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here, he meets Dan White (Brolin), a conservative who views Milk both as an ally and a threat. The two men begin to grate on each other’s nerves as Proposition 6, which would ban gay teachers from California schools, gains momentum, and the characters slowly move toward destiny.
The film is framed by Milk recording his last will into a tape recorder, which actually occurred nine days before he was assassinated,  but the film’s crucial scene comes toward the end. When White has confronted Milk on why gay rights are so important to him, Milk simply responds, “These are not just issues. These are our lives we are fighting for.” Milk spent the last few years of his life fighting for what he believed in, and Penn portrays him as a good and honest man who saw unrest in the world and wished to change it. This is one of the most effective biopics in many years mainly because of Penn’s performance, but also because Dustin Lance Black’s script and Gus Van Sant’s direction do not turn Milk into a saint or an otherworldly figure, but merely a man, faults and all.
Gus Van Sant, mixing archival footage and new footage seamlessly throughout, manages to not only tell Harvey’s story, but a story that has much prevalence in today’s society. The proposition within the film has horrifying echoes of the recently passed Proposition 8, and many of the slanderous remarks and overall bigotry of the characters can still be seen in today’s society. Sure, we have come a long way, but there is also a long way to go, and Milk helped pave the way for the debate to live on.
The film manages to pay ample attention to its supporting characters, although one wishes that they could have had more screen time. Still, fully fleshed out performances are given by all the actors, especially Franco as Milk’s first boyfriend and Emile Hirsch, almost unrecognizable in glasses and a wig,  as one of Milk’s protégés. The film’s other key performance, Brolin as White, is also superb, and watching Brolin stumble around drunk during one scene is worth seeing the film for all by itself.
Ultimately, in a sea of other Oscar candidates, “Milk” stands out for being perhaps the most politically relevant film of the season, made better with superb filmmaking and great performances. It may not change the world, but it certainly can remind us how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or w4027@siu.edu.


So this is “Christmas” ?

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By: Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

“Four Christmases”

Rated PG-13

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau

Directed by Seth Gordon

Run time: 82 minutes

2.5 out of 5 stars

The only genre more littered with crap titles than horror movies must certainly be Christmas movies. For every “A Christmas Story,” there’s “Deck The Halls,” “Christmas With The Kranks,” and “Fred Claus.” In this decade, 2003 was a good year for Christmas films with the likes of “Elf” and “Bad Santa” but largely, no new Christmas classics have emerged.

“Four Christmases” is no classic, but it certainly isn’t an entirely terrible affair. It’s completely middle of the road Christmas entertainment, and it provides a few decent chuckles, though it certainly could have provided a heck of a lot more.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) are a rather new age couple who don’t want to get married, don’t want kids, and don’t really want anything to do with their divorced parents. Instead of spending Christmas with their families, they spend every year on a tropical vacation, telling their families that they are doing charity work in Africa or something like that. But this year, the San Francisco fog, cancels their flight, and they end up on TV complaining about how much they were inconvenienced. Of course, four different parents in four different houses see them on TV, so Brad and Kate must see all four families over the course of a single day, hence the title. Why these families couldn’t all convene in one place, seeing as they do later on the film, is beyond Brad and Kate’s mental aptitude, but OK.

Movies like “Four Christmases” are completely frustrating because they assemble all the elements for a good comedy and then don’t do anything with them- the film could have been completely fixed with a couple more rewrites. Consider the scene when Brad visits Kate’s mother and they go through a book that showed Kate as a fat girl and a quasi-lesbian when she was younger. We are expected to laugh merely at the fact that she was these things, but it’s not funny to just have personality traits that sit there and do nothing. On the other hand, Kate’s traumatic experience in an inflatable kid’s toy leads to a funny scene where she must confront her fears. The film veers wildly from scenes that are mildly amusing to scenes that just plain don’t work. The four families are all based on stereotypes and only Kate’s mother is really amusing, since her entire family wants to date Brad.

It also doesn’t help that Vaughn and Witherspoon are horribly miscast as a couple. Vaughn’s persona is based on wild improvised tangents, and he needs someone to play off of. Witherspoon is largely cute and funny in movies like this, but she sticks to the script. To watch Vaughn go off on his tangents while Witherspoon stands like a deer caught in the headlights is desperately unfunny, and though both of them get good lines, one or both of them needs a different partner. Vaughn and Elizabeth Banks would have been a home run.

The film takes place at Christmas, but there’s very little Christmas cheer. It’s only about 80 minutes long, so none of the characters are really developed, but aside from the Christmas setting and the family visits, there’s not much that makes this different from every other romantic comedy released in the last few years. Sure, there’s some humor along the way, but none of it has anything to do with the season, and that’s certainly a missed opportunity.

Seth Gordon, the director, previously made the superb documentary “The King of Kong,” and to watch him be saddled with such generic material is upsetting. Ultimately “Four Christmases” is a movie that was designed at a studio meeting where they thought all these elements could be funny, but didn’t bother to read the final product to see if anything actually turned out to provide more than half-hearted chuckles.

What a beautiful “Wedding”

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By: Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

‘Rachel Getting Married’

Rated R

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Run time: 114 minutes

5 out of 5 stars

There are very few movies that provide completely immersible experiences. For a film to be immersible, it has to envelop the audience in the story and make them feel as if they are part of the film itself. You forget you are in a theater and are completely emotionally involved with the film. “Rachel Getting Married” certainly falls into this category.

Essentially the chronicle of a wedding, “Rachel Getting Married” is also an examination of families, how they love each other, and how the wounds of the past influence the actions of the present. It is both heartbreaking and funny, and ultimately, a hopeful portrait of what family really.

Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is indeed getting married, but the real focus of the film is Kym (Hathaway). Kym has been in and out of rehab for about a decade, and she has been granted a pass to go to her sister’s wedding from her current rehab clinic, the first one that appears to be working for Kym. In a massive house somewhere in Connecticut where Kym’s father and stepmother live, Kym descends on the wedding party like a tidal wave. Her various drug problems have made her the center of attention for many years in the family, and Rachel is concerned that she will upstage the wedding. As the family makes preparations and the wedding approaches, the wounds that Kym has caused within the family begin to surface.

That seems like a relatively simple plot description, but this is not really a film about the plot. The key to the film lies in the technique employed by director Jonathan Demme and his cinematographer Declan Quinn. The film is shot largely with handheld cameras that navigate between the various wedding attendants, like a person who would be walking through the party. It lingers on certain dramatic moments, like when Kym and her family discuss the death of Kym and Rache’s brother, but for the most part, the camera is content to be an objective observer to the proceedings. This is what creates the immersive effect. We feel as if we are part of this wedding, as opposed to casual observers to what is happening.

Though it is about a wedding, the film is also about the interactions between the family and the everyday rhythm of life. Dialogue overlaps. A wedding toast sequence unfolds in real time, which becomes painful and sad when Kym stands up to deliver her toast. A sequence involving the loading of a dishwasher provides a beautiful moment of comedy. And when the wedding finally arrives, it is a full blown affair with singing, dancing, and merriment that glows off the screen.

It can be mentioned what a delight it is that the marriage within the film is interracial and it is never made a big deal, which adds another layer of love and affection to the material. These are not people defined by their racial boundaries. These are people who love each other and who don’t care what other people think. Though the movie does not make all the characters happy, and we sense that Kym has a long way to go on the road to recovery, the ending offers a sense of hope, like one day these people could be happy and content with their lives.

It helps that the acting is uniformly excellent. The star turn here really belongs to Hathaway, who has finally established herself as an adult actress. Her performance is riveting and truthful, and she has big dramatic scenes that make us forget all about “The Princess diaries.” DeWitt does well as Rachel, and Debra Winger, as Kym and Rachel’s mother, is not in the film much but has a powerful presence when she is on the screen.

“Rachel Getting Married” is the best film so far this year. It is not a film for everyone, because it depicts life as messy, complicated, and tragic as it really is. But viewers who want to challenge themselves and have a unique motion picture experience shouldn’t miss out on it.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or w4027@siu.edu.

“Model” citizens

Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

‘Role Models’

Rated R

Starring: Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Jane Lynch

Directed by David Wain

Run time:

3.5 out of 5 stars

After skewering teen movies and the Bible in two of this decade’s best comedies, “Wet Hot American Summer” and “The Ten,” director David Wain has set his sights on another topic ripe for parody: the inspirational buddy movie.

Though “Role Models” occasionally falls prey to the conventions of the genre where little kids and adults learn from each other, “Role Models” is an incredibly funny film that proves, once and for all, that Paul Rudd is one of the funniest people working in movies today.

Rudd plays Danny and Seann William Scott plays Wheeler, two guys who sell an energy drink called Minotaur as a way to keep kids off drugs. Danny hates his job where he has spent 10 years and his life in general, whereas Wheeler loves every minute of it and spends his days chasing women. After Danny breaks up with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) and blows a Minotaur speech at a school, he manages to get in trouble with the law in a scene that Carbondale residents will love, which involves sticking it to a tow truck driver.

Anyway, the two guys are sentenced to 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, a big brother- type program where older people mentor younger people. Danny’s kid is Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is obsessed with a role playing game called FAIRE, and Wheeler’s kid is Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a foul mouthed troublemaker that has gone through several big brothers.

Needless to say, they all learn from each other and it leads to a super happy ending. But what makes “Role Models” different from other movies of this type is its vulgarity and the fierce edge it brings to the material. It’s not a cutting satire or anything like that, but because Danny, wheeler, and the kids are on the fringe of society, they are far more interesting than simply kids with troubles. They drink, smoke, go on camping trips, and debate the sexual connotations of KISS songs. Danny and Wheeler don’t treat the kids like they are kids, and that makes the film all the more refreshing, because it’s not condescending or dumbed down.

A large bulk of the film is taken up by the FAIRE role playing game, which is essentially “Lord of the Rings” re-enacted in parks with plastic swords. It’s funny to watch because the scenes are played as deadly serious, and director Wain doesn’t make fun of these people who clearly think that this is the most important thing in the world. The final battle, in which Augie and Danny finally take charge, is the film’s funniest scene, especially when several party members are killed off.

The film is filled with wonderful comedic performances, Rudd and Scott among them. Jane Lynch, as the ex-druggie who runs Sturdy Wings, nearly runs away with the movie during her moments. And though Plasse essentially plays McLovin again, he stil gets big laughs, as does Thompson, who will be a big celebrity one day.

The film is perhaps not as funny as it could have been, and it drags a bit in the middle while the characters catch up with the plot. We certainly could have done without the evil parent characters that always pop up in movies like this, although they are funny in and of themselves.

“Role Models” is no masterpiece of comedy the way “Wet Hot” was, but it’s still pretty funny and worthy of a matinee ticket. Just don’t expect to look at buddy movies the same way for a while.

Watching “Porno”

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Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
“Zack and Miri Make A Porno”
Rated R
Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson
Directed by Kevin Smith
Run time:  101 minutes
4.5 out of 5 stars

In an age of comedy filmmaking that is largely dominated by Judd Apatow and his crew of misfits, it’s interesting to see how the original master of the vulgar, Kevin Smith, fits into the comedic landscape. Ironically, his new film, “Zack and Miri Make A Porno,” feels like a merger between the freewheeling improvisation of an Apatow film and the verbose sexual dialogue that Smith is so well known for.
“Zack and Miri,” his first film in almost two years, is a sweet little comedy that also delivers big laughs, which is not exactly expected from a movie with this title. Smith has long been criticized for making movies that are remarkably similar, but the critics fail to realize that this is his unique voice, and in this film, it comes through loud and clear and produces one of the best romantic comedies in ages.
The film’s plot is pretty much right there in the title. Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks) indeed make a porno. Zack and Miri have been best friends since the first grade and now live together in destitution in the town they grew up in. They decide to make a porno shortly after their 10-year high school reunion, when they are completely broke and lacking heat, water, and basic amenities. OF course, they are completely clueless on how to actually go about making a porno, so they enlist a guy from their high school class who used to shoot basketball games, one of Zack’s coworkers (Robinson) and a variety of amateur talent to craft a film whose title cannot be revealed in the context of a review. And of course, while producing the film, Zack and Miri are forced to acknowledge that they had feelings for each other all along, which is difficult to do when you are getting paid to have sex on camera.
The film has been the subject of controversy for some time now, mainly because of its title, and it even got banned from a theater in Utah for being too sexual. Judging by what is actually in the film, the Utah theater owners never saw the film. Yes, there is full frontal male and female nudity, and there is plenty of on screen sex, but it’s all played for laughs and the sex isn’t much more titillating than what you would see in countless other R-rated films. Most of the horrible sex content is in the dialogue, which Smith is well known for, and even then, it’s not much worse than other films, even though it comes at such an overwhelming clip that it’s hard to keep up in the midst of the laughter and fun.
Even though this is the first film by Smith to not take place in New Jersey, it stil has a distinctly small town feel and an intimacy between the characters that is completely organic and fun to watch. Rogen and Banks have great chemistry together, and the supporting cast gets numerous chances to shine. Props should also go to Smith for utilizing two real porn actors (Traci Lords and Katie Morgan) as actors within the fake porn film, and actually giving them something to do other than have raunchy sex. Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, two Smith regulars, are in the film as an actor and the cinematographer, respectively, although Mewes gets one of the film’s biggest laughs in describing a sex technique that no one in the audience will ever have heard of.
For a film that is so funny and so completely raunchy, it’s also surprisingly sweet. The love story between Zack and Miri is believable, if a bit underdeveloped, and their final scene together is remarkably tender. Really, the film’s only flaw is that this part of the story didn’t get enough time to develop, but it’s a minor quibble in a movie that pretty much does everything right.
Kevin Smith has delivered another winner as a writer/director. “Zack and Miri” is a film that will stand the test of time far better than some of the films Judd Apatow has put out, and in a few years, when the great comedies of this decade are listed, this one will certainly be on it.

Don’t see this “Saw”

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By: Wes Lawson

“Saw 5”
Rated R
Starring: Tobin Bell, Julie Benz, Costas Mandylor, Meagan Good
Directed by David Hackl
Run time: 88 minutes
1.5 out of 5 stars

(Note: This review discusses key plot points from the previous “Saw” films, since it’s difficult to review the fifth without mentioning some of them. It’s doubtful that anyone reading this review won’t have seen them, but in any case, I issue a SPOILER WARNING at the outset. )
Another Halloween, another “Saw” movie. Another series of traps, another ludicrously complicated plot, another patching up of the various plot holes from previous installments, and another twist ending.
But speaking as a die-hard “Saw” fan, I must say that this is the first in the series where I was completely bored and uninterested. After five movies, this franchise is out of gas and out of ideas and it needs to be put out of its misery.
The fourth film hinted that Agent Hoffman (Mandylor), who was in charge of the Jigsaw investigation, has now taken Jigsaw’s place after his death. Officer Strahm, another character who apparently we were supposed to know from the previous films, is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Hoffman has set up another game for five more people, in which they run the risk of getting decapitated, blown up, electrocuted or bled to death.
Really, the plot is of little importance, since there isn’t much of it to speak of.

If “Saw” had stopped at number 3, with the death of Tobin Bell as the original Jigsaw, then the series might have remained an effective little horror trilogy. By continuing on without him, the filmmakers have shot themselves in the foot, having to rely on copious flashbacks to fill in the blanks of the previous films and keep Jigsaw around to keep things interesting. Hoffman is not an interesting character, and about forty percent of the film is flashbacks showing how he became Jigsaw’s right hand man. Apparently Jigsaw was the smartest man who ever lived and could juggle two henchmen without them ever running into each other and plan the most elaborate traps and plots fifty steps ahead of everyone trying to get him.
Worse is the subplot involving the game played by the five connected people, who share a bond over something stupid. Their story is completely pointless and it only serves to alleviate the tedium of the flashback sequences. The traps, which are the only reason to see these films anymore, are getting to be kind of boring, and the twist ending is so nonsensical and unearned that it reminds us of how effective the twists in the previous films were.
Director David Hackl has learned from director Darren Lynn Bousman and pretty much has the same directorial techniques and grungy interiors as the previous films. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t overcome the deficiencies of the screenplay, which humanize Jigsaw to the point where we don’t care anymore, and provides us a new killer who is about as interesting as a piece of paper.
I’m done with “Saw.” I was willing to give it another chance after the disastrous fourth installment, but there’s only so much I can take. Jigsaw needs to go on break for a few years and get some new writers and directors if he ever wants people to be interested in his story again. But as of right now, the makers of “Saw 5” should call it quits.

What’s up with “W.”?

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By: Wes Lawson

Rated Pg-13
Starring: Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell
Directed by Oliver Stone
Run time: 129 minutes
3 out of 5 stars

Why on earth would anyone want to see a biopic about George W. Bush when the man himself isn’t even out of office yet? Director Oliver Stone and writer Stanley Weiser hedge their bets with the new film “W.” in the hopes that maybe Americans will want to see the human side of Bush and understand how he came to be perhaps the worst President in the history of our country.
Unfortunately, by placing the filmed version of his life so close to the real thing, “W.” comes across as a horrifying reminder of the world we live in as opposed to a cautionary tale about how, within the context of history, one man shaped the fate of our nation for years to come. It is not a bad film, but “W.” plays too safe and doesn’t provide enough insight into the man to really succeed as a compelling and worthwhile biopic.
The film’s plot and structure are extremely loose, flashing back, forward, and jumping all around the timeline to present a portrait of Bush (Brolin). The film shows his presidency from 2002-2004, his college days, his array of odd jobs before he became the owner of a baseball team and governor of Texas, his meeting with his wife (Elizabeth Banks) and a whole lot of drunken tirades and AA meetings where we learn that he has serious daddy issues. The thesis of the film is that Bush Jr. was constantly seeking approval from Bush Sr. (Cromwell) who favored Jr.’s brother Jeb. His entire life leading up to becoming President was subtly about this goal, and by the time he learns of how badly he has botched Iraq, he realizes that he will probably never get the approval he wants from his dad.
This is relayed to the audience through increasingly unsubtle scenes in which Cromwell plays a thin version of his own persona and Brolin throws himself heedlessly into the role of Bush. By the time their final confrontation comes around, the audience has gotten the point, and it’s completely redundant to have it hammered home so completely. The rest of the film follows suit, portraying many of the events of Bush’s early years with minimal insight or emotional attachment, save the scenes in which Bush is called by God to become President, which are eerie and frightening.
The film is at its strongest when it is dealing with the exploits o Bush in office, and sadly, these scenes are too few. The movie is pretty much solely about Bush, but not enough insight is given into his cabinet, though Dreyfuss as Cheney and Wright as Powell give great performances. The film’s best scene is a war-room conference in which Cheney presents a frightening and compelling case to go to war with Iraq and Powell tries to undermine him every step of the way. It’s a shame that more of the film couldn’t have offered the insight and fascination of these moments.
An Oscar nomination is pretty much in the bag for Brolin, as he brings a distinctive human touch to this man who has largely been viewed as a monster. Most of the other performers play caricatures of their real life counterparts, especially Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice, who gets laughs whenever she comes on screen, but for the wrong reasons.
Ultimately, “W.” is interesting enough to be worth seeing, but it’s completely dry and relatively inert. There are scenes of interest and the film doesn’t really drag during its 129 minutes, but by the end the audience doesn’t know much more about Bush’s personality and place in history than they did coming into the film. “W.” is a nice effort by Stone and Weiser, but it lacks the gravitas and relevance of Stone’s previous presidential movie, “Nixon.” Hopefully, years from now, someone will take the material of Bush’s life and create a biopic that is far more compelling