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Dustin Lance Black (#110 of 8)

Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar

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Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar
Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar

It’s extremely fitting that Clint Eastwood uses film in J. Edgar to illustrate changing public opinion, charting the evolution of America’s view of law enforcement as it was reflected by Hollywood, with screenings of James Cagney’s crime-denouncing G Men replacing those of its pro-gangster predecessor The Public Enemy. Such cinematic shifts in perspective are directly applicable to Eastwood’s work, as the 81-year-old has had one of the more erratic late careers of any active filmmaker. The Oscar-favored Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby marked a marvelous artistic peak, and led to a wave of grand ambition and varying success. Good and bad were neatly juxtaposed with Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, while the appealingly self-reflective Gran Torino was followed by the insufferable Invictus and the listless Hereafter. Though already panned by some, J. Edgar is likely to readjust viewers’ mindsets yet again, as it’s Eastwood’s most accomplished movie since 2004. All but gone is the palpable detriment of his hasty shooting style, which in recent years has yielded a great many subpar takes. And while there will be those who’ll dismiss J. Edgar as textbook-ish, its adamant leafing through history proves increasingly fascinating, and for Eastwood, the film represents not a return to form, but a new horizon.

AFI Fest 2011: Introduction and J. Edgar

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AFI Fest 2011: Introduction and <em>J. Edgar</em>
AFI Fest 2011: Introduction and <em>J. Edgar</em>

Isn’t it positively joyous to get excited about something on the horizon? The feeling of honest and pure anticipation is truly infectious, and for me there’s nothing like an upcoming film festival to get the heart pounding. Film festivals are a special kind of wonderland for cinephiles, a place where rare and unreachable experiences suddenly becomes personal. AFI Fest 2011 represents this kind of opportunity for many Southern California filmgoers, screening pertinent works previously unveiled at Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. This year’s edition feels extra special, as if the programming hive mind heard the screams of cinephiles everywhere yearning for more challenging films by underrepresented directors as opposed to simply promoting the traditional Oscar bait.

Bookened by Clint Eastwood’s long awaited J. Edgar (more on that below) and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, this year’s AFI Fest showcases a number of West Coast premieres throughout its week-long run from November 3—10. A few big screen experiences to target: Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse, Oren Moverman’s Rampart, and Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala. For more adventurous cinephiles, the International and New Auteurs/Young American sections will be a prime hunting ground for new talent, including challenging work from Julia Lokkev, Nuri-Bilge Ceylan, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Yorgos Lanthimos. Also of interest is a special sidebar on indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who has three films (Silver Bullets, The Zone, Art History) premiering at the festival. Most important of all, though, may be the Friday-night screening of This Is Not a Film, by imprisoned filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It’s sure to be an unforgettable experience for those who care about the future of cinema.

It Does No-Body Good: Milk, Take 2

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It Does No-Body Good: <em>Milk</em>, Take 2
It Does No-Body Good: <em>Milk</em>, Take 2

Slain politician Harvey Milk was a gay pioneer and by all accounts a real mensch and role model, and his story was told in full for the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Now Gus Van Sant is trolling for awards with Milk, a paint-by numbers biopic of the tireless activist that wastes the efforts of some fine actors, most notably Sean Penn, who strives to play Milk as a three-dimensional person with idiosyncrasies and failings even as the “let’s get from A to B” script by Dustin Lance Black boxes him into textbook sainthood. Penn manages to get some energy going in his public speeches, especially when he’s riling up a crowd in the Castro, the gay area of San Francisco where Milk served as unofficial Mayor and then elected official, and he has nice moments of physical schtick that involve subtle, queeny eye flares and dainty hand gestures. Penn even reaches for Brando-esque tragedy in the last scenes, but the straightforward corniness of the script foils all his actorly nuances.

Beautiful Dreamer: Milk, Take 1

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Beautiful Dreamer: <em>Milk</em>, Take 1
Beautiful Dreamer: <em>Milk</em>, Take 1

Milk, Gus Van Sant’s labor of love biopic about civil rights leader Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States and later gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, three decades ago this month), is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former “radical” who learned to work within—even to embrace—the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes—no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors.

Even comparing Van Sant to Haynes is like weighing apples against oranges: Van Sant is as much of a sly showman as his subject, who grasped the power of rallying crowds with catchy lines (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” a play on Anita Bryant’s scare tactic of gays “recruiting our children”) and staged events (stepping on dog poop to promote a pooper-scooper law)—an insider working covertly within the system. Indeed, Van Sant understands the power of schmaltz above nuance. Whatever you need to do to make your message accessible and heard loud and clear—evidenced in the director’s casting of straight marquee names (like Sean Penn as Milk, in an Oscar-worthy performance) in the lead roles at the expense of actual gay actors—is worth the creative price.

Big Love Recap Season 2, Episode 8, “Kingdom Come”

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Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 8, “Kingdom Come”

HBO

Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 8, “Kingdom Come”

Growing up fundamentalist is a tricky balancing act, as the fundamentalist teenager constantly dances between new and potent urges (to have sex or to rebel against parents) and the way of life he or she has been taught, since childhood, is the one true way to eternal life. Try though the teen might, the dance can only end in one of the two camps. It’s hard to stand in both. Either you give in to temptation and find yourself realizing there’s more in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of, or you give in to temptation and find yourself crippled with guilt, racing back to the comfort of what you have known your whole life.

In one of this season of Big Love’s longest-simmering plotlines, Ben Henrickson (Douglas Smith, turning in his finest performance yet) is finally forced to choose between his way of life and his sexual relationship with his girlfriend, Brynn (Sarah Jones). This season of Big Love has been particularly skillful at illuminating the conflicts between creed and self (especially in the case of the Henrickson wives and teens), and the season’s eighth episode, “Kingdom Come,” written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Daniel Attias, turns this overriding theme into a character-specific plotline as Ben struggles to find a way to reconcile both sides of his life.