In 1977 Harvey Milk (Penn) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While this would not normally be an earth-shattering phenomenon in this case Milk became the first out-of-the-closet gay person to win a major public office in the United States -- and was assassinated in 1978 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Based in part on the Academy Award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk the film focuses on the last decade of his life as he moves from New York at age 40 to San Francisco with lover Scott Smith (James Franco). Using his experience as an entrepreneur as a catalyst he suddenly becomes more politically involved making a couple of runs for office and finally getting elected. With a new lover (Diego Luna) and agenda Milk takes on some major issues -- including lobbying against California’s controversial Prop 6 an initiative to fire gay schoolteachers. But his activities anger another supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) and soon their destinies will collide. It’s not an overstatement to say that Sean Penn’s performance here is a revelation. As Harvey Milk he not only perfectly embodies the late politician but exudes a certain kind of warmness and humor we rarely see from the star. His immersion into the persona of Milk is truly remarkable and winning. A large supporting cast includes: standout performances from Franco as Milk’s true love and friend Scott who eventually can’t compete with Harvey’s increasing ambition; Diego Luna hilarious and annoying as Milk’s lover later; and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones a young activist and Milk protégé. Brolin as the unlikeable White perfectly captures the frustration and simmering jealousy the man he feels steals his job. It’s a risky role and there is little room for audience empathy but Brolin makes this loser understandable if not acceptable. As the lone woman among the principal players Alison Pill is bright and appealing as Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg. Gus Van Sant’s odd directorial career encompasses a series of ups and downs with the highlights being Drugstore Cowboy and his Oscar-nominated work on Good Will Hunting. The absolute nadir of Van Sant’s resume is undoubtedly his ill-advised shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s untouchable Psycho. It’s nice to report he’s back in form now with the warm funny and moving Milk a film that doesn’t quite escape the clichés of the biopic genre but still finds its own beats thanks in large part to the piercing performances. Getting such mature and joyful work from Penn a brilliant but distant actor is impressive indeed. He also imbues the movie with a documentary feel appropriate since much of the source material comes from the Oscar-winning docu. Milk paints us a triumphant and inspiring life one that won’t soon be forgotten especially with its parallels to current California circumstances. The state’s recent anti-gay marriage initiative Prop 8 could not have come at a more significant time in making Harvey Milk’s crusade seem more relevant than ever.
In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Like the many standard teacher-mentor stories before it Lead follows the same basic principals. It focuses on Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) a Manhattan dance teacher and competitor who volunteers his time to teach ballroom dancing to New York inner-city high school students serving detention. It’s never really explained why he wants to do this--maybe he’s just crazy that way. But through his determination the reluctant teenagers are soon waltzing and doing the tango all over the room. They even take it one step further and combine Dulaine's classical dance with their unique hip-hop style and music to create a high-energy unique fusion honing their craft for a prestigious city ballroom competition (and some of them win too!) And through it all Dulaine inspires these street kids to learn about pride respect and honor. Pardon me while I gag for a moment. Banderas does what he can with the syrupy role but tends to look uncomfortable with some of the line readings. Thankfully he’s got the moves. One of the better scenes is Dulaine dancing the tango with a hot blonde--to prove to the unbelieving teens how hip classical dancing can be. And after watching them slide all over the floor they get the picture. The urban kids are all pretty standard with Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) leading the pack as a troubled youth trying not to get involved with drug dealing but heading that way anyway. His love interest played by Yaya DaCosta also has her share of family strife. But as far as the best dancing is concerned hats off goes to Jenna Dewan Dante Basco and Marcus T. Paulk who all perform one heck of a steamy tango number. Alfre Woodard even makes an appearance as the school’s hardened principal who’s softened by Dulaine’s earnestness. How typical. Who would have thought ballroom dancing would be so popular these days? For awhile there was just one movie about it: the wonderfully quirky Strictly Ballroom. But then came the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez starrer Shall We Dance? (Americanized from a Japanese original) and last year’s stellar documentary Mad Hot Ballroom about street kids learning to dance. Now we’ve got Take the Lead which is also based on a true story about Dulaine and his efforts to introduce culture to inner-city kids. Sure ballroom dancing is fun to watch especially mixed with cool hip-hop moves. And in the hands of veteran music video and commercial director Liz Friedlander those dance scenes clearly stand out. Yet the fact Lead is Friedlanderr feature film debut it’s also clear she doesn’t have the skills to go beyond the cliché. They probably think they can away with a done-to-death story if the dancing pops. They’re mistaken.