Got Milk. An affirmation, that, not a question. Gus Van Sant’s biopic on Harvey Milk, the gay-rights activist and San Francisco City Supervisor martyred by assassination in 1978, should afford sustenance and fortification for all those staggered by the passage of Proposition 8 earlier this month. Thirty years ago, the equivalent was Proposition 6, a measure aimed not at marital rights but at vocational ones, figureheaded by former Miss Oklahoma, pop singer, and orange-juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant (chillingly represented in archive footage, no villainous impersonation necessary). The struggle, in case you need reminding, is long. The struggle continues. However useful as pep rally or memorial service, though, the film comes up short as drama, relying altogether too much on Position Statements, Slogans, Bromides, primarily through the protagonist’s stump speeches and a serialized in-the-event-of-my-death tape recording that ties the narrative together. (Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.) What nonetheless humanizes all this plain talk is the transformational performance of Sean Penn, a totally new and different Sean Penn, almost birdlike in his lightness and tightness, very vulnerable in his worries and very touching in his joys, unshy about the kissy-face with James Franco and Diego Luna, bravely not avoiding homosexual stereotype yet nicely avoiding caricature. It immediately takes its place alongside the performances of Mystic River, Dead Man Walking, Casualties of War, maybe one or two others, in the actor’s best-of portfolio. During the closing credits, photo documentation of the actual dramatis personae in the story testifies to the fidelity with which the filmmakers adhered to real life, Penn above all, but notably also an unusually extroverted Emile Hirsch (whom Penn himself directed in Into the Wild a year prior) as Milk’s curly-top campaign manager, and Josh Brolin (staying on the same side of the political spectrum as in W.) as the churchy assassin with the steam-ironed hair, Dan White, never shown within arm’s reach of a Twinkie.
Ashes of Time Redux is a spruced-up reissue of the 1994 Wong Kar-wai film of the same name minus the Redux. I first saw it, somewhere near that time, in the late, lamented film festival staged every spring at UCSD. I saw it back then with great anticipation, having previously seen his Days of Being Wild in the same venue. It was too long ago to remember from this perspective much more than my general confusion and disappointment — just enough to scale down my anticipation of the reissue. The changes, I gather, consist principally of a new musical score showcasing the plangent, pensive cello of Yo-Yo Ma. Confusion and disappointment still reign, however, in an arty, abstract, almost actionless martial-arts period piece (even the infrequent action is abstract, hardly more than slo-mo blurs), a nonlinear narrative of assorted swordsmen at a desert way station, engaging in melancholy rumination on past, present, and possible future, preferably with a loose strand of hair dangling over an eye. The stellar cast (Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Young) is glamorously photographed by Christopher Doyle, and some of the visual effects are exciting enough to compensate for any lack of action: the crosshatch shadows thrown by a revolving woven birdcage, for example, or the shimmery reflections from beneath a recumbent horsewoman languorously hugging and stroking her watering steed. After My Blueberry Nights earlier in the year, Wong could have done with some reclamation. He could still do.
No, Twilight is not a tenth-anniversary reissue of the last decent leading role for the late Paul Newman, a Twilight Redux. It is rather a teen vampire romance that heralds a new screen “franchise” based on the popular (so they tell me) series of girls’ books by Stephenie Meyer, a sort of Nancy Drew — Vampire Lover. (A gender reversal of the recent preteen vampire film from Sweden, Let the Right One In.) It merits a modicum of credit for attempting to bring some virgin blood to a tired old genre. The nonnuclear vampire family, having settled in the rural Northwest for maximum privacy and cloud cover, strive to fit in and stay straight, fancying themselves “vegetarian” for dining only on animal blood instead of human. It’s something like, in a further sample of vampire wit, human beings eating tofu: nourishing but not fully satisfying. Because the narrative point of view is that of an ordinary flesh-and-blood high-school girl, we don’t witness the gory details of their daily diet. (Exsanguination of deer and rabbit, to say nothing of pet dog and cat, could tend to alienate the audience.) What we mainly witness is the cultivated aura of mystery and danger around the eternal seventeen-year-old adopted son of the family, who, despite his actual age of over a hundred, dutifully attends school whenever it’s not too sunny. The sun, in deviation from conventional vampire lore, won’t incinerate his flesh, but will cause it to glisten in a socially unacceptable manner. And the only prescribed method of killing a vampire — a handy piece of information when a pack of vagabond vampires invades the territory — is to tear one limb from limb and burn the body. Garlic, crucifixes, stakes in the heart never enter into it. But the business of being a bloodsucker in the 21st Century takes a distant backseat to the business of campus courtship: the classic pattern of Good Girl meets Bad Boy. He flatteringly lusts after her (“You’re like my own personal brand of heroin”), but even more flatteringly he respects her (“I can’t ever lose control with you”): a parent’s least nightmare, and little wonder that the hearts of schoolgirlish readers, and now moviegoers, might go pitty-pat. As for the heroine (or heroin), she’s ready. She figures that every minute of every day brings her closer to death anyway, so why not take the leap with the one she loves?
I see no harm in any of this, and even some possible benefit in it: the boy has on his CD player the edgy music of his 1918 deathday, Debussy. And the exemplary young lady is herself no benighted twit: “Yeah, Clair de Lune is great.” Given the general level of innocuousness and salubriousness, we don’t expect the frustrated teen sweethearts now or in future installments to explore the engorgement option in Theodore Sturgeon’s novella Some of Your Blood, namely menses. (Eeuuww!) But in all honesty, given the fixation on the girl’s “scent” and given the old-fashioned proscription against Going Too Far or indeed Going All the Way, that option kept coming to my mind. Kristen Stewart, a cashew head on a pipe-cleaner body, to all appearances unsullied by vanity, does very well with things like adolescent insecurity, crippling self-consciousness, unvoiced feelings, and the scariness of sex; and on those counts Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, most pertinently, but also The Lords of Dogtown and, honed to its teen-pregnancy angle, The Nativity Story) is a sympathetic director. She is less sympathetic in shooting everyone in the cast, human and vampire alike, with a deathly bluish pallor. Robert Pattinson as the bloodthirsting heartthrob, meanwhile, achieves little more than Cornball Cool and requires a lot of slow-motion and a lot of hair gel to help him with it. His head-ducking gazes — his pupils sliding up into his skull, his brow buckling — no doubt convey inner conflict, rather as if he’d very much like to make an overture were it not for a hellacious head cold. And personally I started to lose interest in these revamped vampires once they were revealed to possess the strength, speed, and aeronautical abilities of Superman. I prefer my vampires to be vulnerable, even frail, and to have to rely on cunning rather than brute force. (The climax of good vampire and bad vampire flinging one another around a ballet studio is a bore.) I couldn’t say exactly when the genre went past the point of no return, though I’m sure that the venerated Christopher Lee has something to answer for. At the time — fifty years ago — his robustness and virility in the Hammer series of Dracula films made a certain sense as part of a strategy of overt sexualization. He himself could not be faulted for, so to speak, Going Too Far. But he pointed the way. The old-fashionedness of Twilight demanded no rollback in vampire potency.