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What went wrong with MILK?… February 13, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Movies.
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With the Academy Awards fast approaching, this blog post takes a look at our Best Picture candidates…It was actually a strong year for movies, and except for the (bizarre) number of nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, pretty accurate, at least in reflecting quality, as far as I’m concerned…

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First, let’s discuss SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE….my choice for Best Picture of 2008. This is far and away the first feel-bad-feel-good-can’t take your eyes off of it-unique-unBollywood slice of life picture ever made. Without giving away too much, lets just say the basic premise of rags to riches is turned on its head when our adorable lead actor (Skin’s Dev Patel) goes on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire not to win money, but to find his lost love. I adored this movie, despite it’s extremely violent first act. Everything was done right to catapult this film into the public limelight and it’s won every single major award for Best Picture this year. I don’t think I have liked a British film for frontrunner to get an Oscar since Chariots of Fire won in the 70’s. If you haven’t seen this film – for God’s sake, get off of the internet right now and go see it. It’s showing everywhere in Ann Arbor.

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So, for most of the fall and early winter, MILK looked like a shoo-in to win Best Picture. So what went wrong? First, this is a fine film and beautifully acted throughout. It’s filled with continuity and historical inaccuracies, and the Castro has never really looked the way it is pictured in studio sets in the film, but overall the film is a very well filmed and finely acted showpiece. And therein lies the problem. The Academy already awarded a Best Documentary Oscar to The Times of Harvey Milk, and MILK is very much a live-action remake of that documentary. Second, Focus Features absolutely botched the release of this film, Instead of going wide right after the Prop 8 debacle in California, when the country was heated-up about similar issues, Focus chose to roll the film out in small art houses in selected markets. “Going wide” at the end of January involved the addition of only a few thousand more theatres, and it never went the cineplex route. In Ann Arbor, it has shown only at the huge vaudeville house Michigan Theatre and has never opened at the cineplexes. Meanwhile Slumdog is going strong on almost 4000 screens nationwide. You do the math. Fine picture, but it’s not going anywhere anymore for best picture.

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Miramax’s dark horse this year is THE READER. I saw this in San Francisco, because frankly, it had such limited release in Michigan it was too much of an effort to find it in the local theaters. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie from a literate, well-told, well-acted point of view. And that was about it. I’m not sure how this snuck into the Best Picture category, and it’s not going to win. But I’m glad it did, so that more people will see what might otherwise have quickly disappeared into the literate-movie ether…I really liked Kate Winslet here. You can see the ending coming from a mile away, but it the film is still deeply moving and has impact long after seeing it. But it’s minor impact. Seeing the film made me want to read the novel, because it felt like a lot of story was missing. Guess what, it’s not!!

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Sheen and Langella both deserve Oscar’s for their performances in FROST/NIXON…but in reality, have probably gotten all of the true accolades they are going to get while performing these exact same roles in the stage version of the movie. The same can be said of the film as a whole. Note to Ron Howard: I really missed the multiple-angle live television shots of the penultimate scene’s “big reveal” that so beautifully captured both Frost as well as Nixon’s faces at the same time on stage. I loved the film, don’t get me wrong. It just doesn’t stand a chance against Slumdog (or for that matter, Milk). 

Which brings us to a movie I despised:

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I am completely at a loss as to how THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON got so many Oscar nominations. It’s not going home with any of them, with the possible exception of Best Makeup. But even there, The Reader’s makeup for Kate Winslet is actually similar and has more nuance. While I enjoyed the technical marvel of this film’s CGI work, I basically lose all interest when you invent something like the “living backwards” McGuffin and expect an audience to care after three hours. The film did contain my favorite cinema image of 2008: the final tableau of the clock (still running backwards) in storage while the waters of Hurricane Katrina sweep into the room. Brilliant. That, and editing at least an hour out of this brutally long movie would have made it more accessible. I detested this film, and wouldn’t be surprised if it won nothing.

BIGGEST OMISSIONS?

Sticking with Best Picture, I’m not convinced that THE DARK KNIGHT shouldn’t have been nominated instead of CURIOUS CASE. It took a formulaic Batman movie, and superimposed a fine moral story along the lines of Silence of the Lambs. And I am not sure that DOUBT shouldn’t have taken the place of THE READER. Reader’s tale of holocaust remorse is touching but dated, and Doubt’s storyline of possible child abuse is historically dated but emotionally relevant as if ripped right out of today’s headlines (which it was — the play was written at the height of the US priest-abuse hysteria a few years back).

Good luck to all of the films.

Here in Ann Arbor, you can see the nominees at:

MICHIGAN THEATRE: Milk

STATE THEATRE: Slumdog Millionaire

GOODRICH QUALITY 16: Frost/Nixon; The Reader; Slumdog Millionaire

SHOWCASE CINEMAS: Slumdog Millionaire; Benjamin Button

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor…

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Comments

1. Keith Orr - February 14, 2009

I agree with you (completely) about Slumdog. Incredible movie from top to bottom….casting, music, sound design, screenplay, etc. It’s my Best Picture pick as well.

I’m not sure I can completely fault Focus for the way they rolled out MILK. They were trying to replicate the success of Borokeback Mountain (or many non-gay independent films). And while $25 million does not constitute a blockbuster, (it rates only #104 in 2008 gross revenue), it seems to me that it is fairly successful for a queer biopic (even with Sean Penn starring). By the time worldwide revenue and DVD sales come in this will be a successful film for Focus.

Your experience at the Michigan Theater was an anomaly.

This was actually a blockbuster for the Michigan Theater. They kept extending it because it was one of their most successful films of 2008. The staff at the Michigan credits the combo of Slumdog and Milk at the end of the year as the shows that saved their budget.

2. ronannarbor - February 14, 2009

I’m glad to hear that MILK is doing better than I thought at the Michigan Theatre. We all know that is a theatre that is near and dear to our Ann Arbor hearts. I saw it on a Saturday evening in January, with no more than 50 other people in the theatre. I still fault Focus for not delivering it to the Cineplexes as well…my greatest sadness about MILK — Sean Penn turns in such a wonderful performance…and then along came Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler…


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