As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 


Friday, December 13

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

« Artistic Greetings Friday Flickr Feature »

Column Thu Nov 27 2008

Milk, Australia, Four Christmases, Transporter 3, My Name Is Bruce and Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm

It's almost inconceivable to think that the real Harvey Milk, just weeks before his assassination, provided an account of his life story onto a series of tapes to be played upon his death. Yet those recording session done alone in his home provide the perfect framework for one of the most well-executed biography films in recent memory and one of the year's finest efforts. When I was in college in the late 1980s, I became obsessed with documentaries. I raided the film library of my university seeking out any doc I could get my hands on. And it was during this that I first saw the 1984 Oscar-winning work The Times of Harvey Milk, so Harvey's life, work, and fate were not surprises to me going into Gus Van Sant's Milk. What did surprise me was just how damn perfect Van Sant got this movie, with more than a little help from a top-notch cast led by Sean Penn, who throws himself into the role of America's first openly gay politician to achieve a significant office circa the late 1970s.

With only the slightest nose extension and a whole lot of New York moxie, Penn embodies Milk's energy, unflappable optimism, controlled rage, and remarkable sense of how to attract media attention. Milk is as much about a guy working the political machine as it is about a gay man pushing the nation into a new level of understanding and acceptance. And with all that is going on in the nation with gay marriage and the legal rights of domestic partners (hell, even eHarmony said it would open itself up to gay matchmaking next year), the film could not seem any more relevant.

The film opens at the end of Harvey's closeted existence in New York, where he meets the love of his life, Scott Smith (James Franco in a fascinating role as the man who often played second fiddle to his Milk's political ambitions). Upon moving to San Francisco, Milk is astonished to find a level of bigotry among the police and even some of his neighbors in the Castro section of the city. Milk immediately sets to organizing his own community groups of gay business owners, a move that gains the support of unions and eventually turns the Castro into gay HQ. It's almost impossible to fathom this much gay activism in an era before AIDS, but the 1970s was a time when gay rights was equated with civil rights, and Christian fundamentalists like Anita Bryant (who plays the film's villain through some beautifully incorporated archival footage) were leading a city-by-city charge to revoke equal rights legislation that included gay rights.

Perhaps the most intriguing performance in Milk belongs to Josh Brolin as a fellow city Supervisor Dan White, the man who was something of a friend to Harvey, even though so many of their views were at odds. White represented one of the few conservative sections of the San Francisco, but Milk was convinced he was a closeted homosexual. Van Sant's treatment of White is commendable and sympathetic. In many ways, White was a man who was outnumbered on the Board of Supervisors because of Harvey's popularity in the city and with the media, and although he got along with Milk most of the time, his frustration vented itself in all too destructive ways. Brolin's portrayal is nothing short of brilliant. There's a quiet scene of him sitting on his sofa in his underwear that is about as sad a thing as I've ever seen. And with no words, the scene and the actor convey a lifetime of world weariness.

The film's supporting cast is as good as any you'll see in 2008. Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, the man who went from street hustler to activist to the creator of the AIDS quilt; Diego Luna as Jack Lira, one of Harvey's many unstable boyfriends; Alison Pill as Milk's lesbian campaign leader; Victor Garber as San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, a man whose career and death will be forever linked to Milk; and a nasty turn by Denis O'Hare as State Senator John Briggs, who worked hand in hand with Bryant to overturn gay rights in California.

In so many of his films, director Van Sant has featured violence and death that we know is coming. Works like Elephant, Last Days, To Die For and My Own Private Idaho (hell, we could even throw in his remake of Psycho, but I won't), the fate of some of the characters is known, and clearly Milk is no exception. But Van Sant is talented and smart enough to use that element of the story to tell his story. By showing Harvey as he dictates his biography (or perhaps he saw it as his obituary), Van Sant gives the film a subtle fatalistic atmosphere that transforms Milk's story into one of legend. I'm sure Milk wouldn't have wanted to be thought of as an icon during his lifetime, but I also believe that he's want his death to stand for something, and this film fulfills that. Milk is desperately fine filmmaking, telling a story that is both long overdue and perfectly in synch with the times. You may not consider this to be the ideal Thanksgiving choice, but you'd be wrong. There is nothing that speaks more strongly about this country's potential than Milk.

The films of Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge) continue to get bigger and grander in both scale and visionary prowess. I think it's fair to say that no other director working today mounts the kind of massive exercises in Big Film-making that Luhrmann does. His latest, Australia, feels like three movies packed into one enormous undertaking, and somehow he manages to do justice by all of its many plots and subplots, primary and supporting characters, large and small emotional moments. In an unfortunate turn resulting from a collective attention deficit disorder, many of today's movie-going audiences have become resistant to epic films, but Luhrmann reminds us how to piece one together and make the experience not just enjoyable but damn near transcendent (most of the time). In the end, it doesn't really matter if Luhrmann is making the Australian equivalent to Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia or Red River or even Pearl Harbor, Australia fills every inch of the screen with something magnificent, and while the story isn't always compelling 100 percent of the time, it's still nothing short of a treat to watch such an excellent filmmaker get a chance to stretch his visionary wings and really tell a story with no restrictions of size or scope. There are few directors I'd want to see do something that expansive, but Luhrmann is definitely one of them.

I wasn't kidding when I said there are three films packed into this one. The film has fairly clear break points in its two-hour 45-minute running time. The first story is a plain and simple Western, set during Australia's early involvement in World War II, featuring Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a fish-out-of-water English aristocrat, who arrives in the outback to meet her cattle-driving husband only to find he's been killed just before she arrives. The locals all believe that the native Aborigines have slaughtered him, but most suspect this might not be the case. The Ashley cattle must be driven from their land to the docks at Darwin, where army ships await them for wartime meal rations. Lord Ashley had a contract with the army, but rival cattle rancher King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his devious right-hand man Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir from Lord of the Rings and the one-eyed Dilios from 300) have been systematically stealing unbranded cattle from Ashley and making it generally impossible for them to drive the cattle the long route to the seaside. Hugh Jackman plays Drover, a sweaty cowboy who earns a living driving cattle and spent many of his earlier years living among the Aborigine. Lady Ashley hires him to pull together just enough people to move the cattle, and thus our story begins.

But Australia is also the story of a young mixed-race boy named Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), who lives on the Ashley's ranch and whose mother works as a housekeeper for the family. In fact, Nullah is our narrator and the movie is as much his story of growing up amidst these extraordinary events, attempting to stay true to his roots while still living in the world of the whites. His grandfather is a magic-man called King George (David Gulpilil, from Walkabout, Rabbit Proof Fence and the recent Ten Canoes), who is suspected by some of killing Lord Ashley. Luhrmann lives as much in George's mystical world filled with incantations and walkabouts as he does in the very real world of the whites that inhabit this land. One of the film's many subplot involves the nation's practice of removing half-caste children from their homes and putting them in missions where they can learn Western ways and eventually, as one character puts it, "have the black bred out of them." It's a deplorable practice, to be sure, but this particular story point seems a bit forcibly wedged into the movie.

After the cattle drive, Luhrmann concerns himself with a love story between Drover and Lady Ashley. When the rain comes and the land turns green, Drover runs the place like the man of the house, but when the seasons change, he leaves for six-month stretches to do what he was raised to do — drive cattle and break horses. But with war coming, Australia is destined to get pulled into the conflict due to its proximity to Japan and its allegiance to Great Britain. The sequence in which Japan does invade is merciless and phenomenal to watch unfold, especially when you realize that the first target of the Japanese planes is the small island where the mixed-race children are being housed.

Because of the film's emphasis on race relations and the shameless treatment of these children, the comparisons between Australia and Gone with the Wind make the most sense. Luhrmann goes almost too far out of his way to comment on the unenviable position the Aborigine people were in at the time (not that their world got much better any time soon after WWII), but if that nation's preeminent filmmaker doesn't address the issue in a film of this scale, it's unlikely anyone else will. The problems I had with Australia were fairly minor. When we first meet Lady Ashley, Kidman plays here a bit too prim and proper, almost to the point of being unbearable to watch. But once she gets into the swing of things on the ranch and begins the cattle drive, she's much more fun to watch dive into this character. Along those same, over-the-top lines, Wenham's evil Fletcher portrayal is far too mustache-twisting-bad-guy obvious. And even when we get a limp attempt at a psychological explanation for Fletcher's deep-seeded resentment of those better off than himself, it doesn't ring true and eats up unnecessary time in an already lengthy endeavor.

But Jackman and Kidman are pretty damned exciting to watch, and Luhrmann keeps things moving along, as well he should. There are some truly spectacular set pieces, including a bull stampede on a cliff's edge and the aforementioned Japanese attack on Darwin. But where the film really shines is in capturing the pulse of a nation during a time of one of its greatest transformations and transitions. Australia isn't meant to feel completely real and authentic. There's certainly a surreal quality to the work, the way there is in all of Luhrmann's films. The Aborigine spiritualism is the primary source of this other-worldly vibe, but it's not the only source. And Jackman and Kidman have a strong enough collective presence to make it all seem believable and exciting. This film is unabashedly romantic, passionate and spiritual. If you consider these bad words, stay the hell away from Australia. But if you want to be truly swept away by a film, this is the clear choice.

Four Christmases
In a couple of weeks, there is a film called Nothing Like the Holidays coming out about a Chicago-based Puerto Rican family getting together. I'm not here to review that film yet, but just let me say that after that movie comes out, I'm asking — begging! — all studios around the world to stop making holiday movies for a while, at least until you can legitimately come up with some new ideas that aren't dumb as fuck. And let me be doubly clear, I'm not saying Nothing Like the Holidays is dumb; it's not. It's actually a nice twist on the more traditional holiday films of late. No, what I'm saying is that Four Christmases is a dumb, terrible, agonizing, turd-like misery. And the idea that I know so many people who are actually excited to see this movie despite my best efforts to warn them is infuriating beyond words. I want to kill this movie.

Look, I dig Vince Vaughn, but I don't dig this PG-/PG-13-level Vaughn who fast-talks his way into and out of every situation, whether it's appropriate or not. Vince, you are a better actor than that. Let's change it up a bit, buddy. OK? Hey, look. Your old buddy Jon Favreau is in Four Christmases too, and look at what he's doing. He's playing a role totally unlike anything he's played before. What a concept! And here's another ground-breaking concept, Vaughn: Favreau is actually funnier in two scenes than you are in this entire movie.

One more idea for Vaughn: don't worry so much about entertaining the kids. The kids have some great animated things from which to choose. They don't need Fred Claus, and they sure as shit don't need Four Christmases, whose only saving grace is that it's considerably shorter than Fred Claus. The set up is about as contrived as you could possibly imagine; every character is one-dimensional and act/reacts in completely predictable ways. And worst of all, the jokes just aren't that funny (except the baby puke jokes; those are funny). And what is with Vaughn and these Christmas movies? Is it because his face has become so bloated that he actually resembles a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float? Maybe. I seem to recall a time when this guy was edgy, but what passes for edgy in Four Christmases is playing a sassy Joseph in a "Birth of Jesus" play.

Wait, did I even mention Reese Witherspoon was in this movie? I don't think so, because her presence is totally overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by Vaughn. This woman is smart, pretty, and a great actress, so what the hell is she doing in this nothing movie? Then we get the parents — John Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek. There are so many Oscar winners in this movie, I've lost count (actually, including Witherspoon, there are five). Let's throw in a couple of Grammy winners while we're at it, thanks to cameo roles by Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw. Emmy winner, anyone? Kristin Chenoweth plays Witherspoon's sister. With a running time of 82 minutes, Four Christmases features more wasted talent per second than any film you'll see in the 21st century. I'm 99.9 percent sure about that. What kills me most is that the movie is directed by Seth Gordon, who directed the essential documentary of 2007, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Having to write about this movie is actually making me angrier than when I watched it originally.

But the real question is, what are we supposed to learn from Four Christmases? Families should get along? Couples in love should want to get married and have babies? Little kids are assholes? Parents just don't understand? No shit. I learned that last lesson from the Fresh Prince in the late '80s. If after all of my warnings, you're still considering seeing this movie, come to me, let me whisper something in your ear. Come close...a little closer...closer still...that's it...SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP! SLAP!

Transporter 3
Who out there in this wide world is screaming out for more Transporter movies? Look, I'm a big-time Jason Statham fan (some might even call me an apologist), and while I wish he was a little more selective with the roles that he takes (Why Death Race, dude? Why?), when he puts in the extra effort, he's usually pretty great. Take The Bank Job from earlier this year as proof. But it was the Transporter franchise that gave Statham international acclaim, and so I guess he feels loyal to writer-producer Luc Besson and keeps coming back. But this has got to be the last one, seriously. Statham looks about half awake in the film's best moments. And it doesn't help that he is saddled with one of the worst actresses I've ever seen on screen as his leading lady. Let me give you her name so you never forget it and always avoid it: Natalya Rudakova. This is her first acting gig, and my initial reaction to finding that out was: No kidding! Not that the film had far to go, but she drags this production down into the fifth layer of hell and ruins any potentially entertaining moments that might have been contained within.

Weirdly enough, much like the new James Bond film, Transporter 3 also has an environmentally themed plot involving several ocean tankers filled with hazardous waste looking for a place to dump in the Ukraine. Somehow connected to this, Statham's Frank Martin is hired to drive a couple of duffle bags filled with a mystery product to Budapest, along with the mystery girl played by a horrific actress. I think the biggest problem I had with Transporter 3 is that there's not enough Statham. It seems like nearly half the film deals with the head of the Ukrainian EPA (played by Jeroen Krabbé), who has a connection to the girl and the means to allow the ships to enter his country's port. In charge of making sure Martin stays on course is an American played by "Prison Break's" Robert Knepper, who at least brings a little pervy energy to the proceedings. The film's fight sequences are OK and sometimes clever, and there are maybe two above-average car chases, but it's so clear to me that Statham's passion for this material has died. And with his heart not being in it, it's tough to ask an audience to feel any different. Feel free to drive right past a theater playing this one.

My Name Is Bruce
In a lot of ways, I credit b-movie actor Bruce Campbell for getting me interested in geek cinema specifically and writing about movies in general. Maybe not Bruce, so much as some of the movies he starring in in his early years, specifically the Evil Dead trilogy directed by Sam Raimi. Bruce was also one of the first celebrities I ever met and possibly the first one who ever let me moderate a Q&A for him. He's my hero, in other words, and watching him work a crowd is a thing of beauty, which is exactly what he's going to do this holiday weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, two shows per night) at the Landmark Century Center Cinema after screening of his latest, self-directed work, My Name Is Bruce. I wish I could say the film lives up to the man or some of his better works (his most recent best being Bubba Ho-tep), but it's just another example of some of Campbell's campy, largely unfunny work like his last effort, The Man with the Screaming Brain.

In concept, the film is a slam dunk and follows the same basic idea as Galaxy Quest, where the actor is mistaken for the character he has made so famous. When a giant Chinese war god is released from the mines of a sleepy Oregon town, the community's biggest Bruce Campbell fan believes that Ash, the character he plays in the Evil Dead movies, can dispatch the demon with heroic fervor. But this film's version of Bruce Campbell is a selfish dick living in a trailer. His agent (played by Campbell regular Ted Raimi) can't get the guy work, and so Bruce is ready to give up the Hollywood lifestyle entirely.

What's unfortunate about My Name Is Bruce is that it misses so many opportunities to really stick it to fandom, the same way William Shatner did with his legendary "SNL" Star Trek sketch so many years ago. After more than 15 years of answering "When is Evil Dead 4 getting made?" you figure Campbell might have a little more insight or at least venom build up than is evidenced in this movie. Instead, we get Campbell delivering jokes and inside humor with about as much conviction and passion as a guy in a rubber monster suit. I love that Campbell is getting regular work on the TV show "Burn Notice," where he's actually being elevated from b-movie actor to legitimate character actor. But what I'd really love to see is Bruce try a little harder with his own films, worry more about scares and originality, and less about dumb jokes. I've been waiting for My Name Is Bruce for the better part of two years; I thought it my be the closest thing to seeing another Evil Dead movie. I was wrong. And while I can't say I'm surprised the film isn't that good, that doesn't stop me from being disappointed. All of this being said, I would never in a million years recommend that you miss the chance to see Bruce Campbell do a Q&A. If by some miracle the shows he's appearing after are not sold out, get your tickets early and immediately.

To read my exclusive interview with My Name Is Bruce star Bruce Campbell, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm
Ah, vibrators. I think vibrators that don't come with batteries are part of an organized male conspiracy to deny women their essential orgasmic rights. Passion & Power is a fantastic little documentary about the weird and wonderful history of the vibrator, which I certainly knew nothing about prior to watching this movie. Did you know there was one model that doubled as a food mixer? Did you know that many of the major appliance manufacturers made and marketed vibrators? True stories all. From its early use as a "cure" for female hysteria (and a way for doctors not to spend so much time dispensing the cure by hand, if you know what I mean) to its closeted existence during the '40s, '50s and early '60s after vibrators started appearing in adult films to its being a key component in the sexual revolution of the 1970s, the vibrator is as much a part of our culture as the sewing machine and vacuum cleaner.

Directors Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori interview some of the most interesting experts on the topic of female sexuality, the sociology of sex roles, and the women's movement as you are likely to see collected. I was particularly impressed with writer Rachel Maines' big picture analysis of the history of the vibrator and sex expert Betty Dodson, whose courses on the female orgasm in the '70s were the stuff of legend. Her tales are some of the most graphic and frank you'll ever here, and every one of them is worth hearing twice. The film also goes into detail about many of the male misconceptions about the vibrators place in the bedroom, whether they are in it or not. I think most men will find this section of the movie quite reassuring. But ultimately the film serves the primary purpose of all good documentaries, which is to teach us about someone or something that we know nothing about and educate us on it in its short running time. In many ways, the film is a revelation, especially when it gets into the legal ramifications of owning too many vibrators in the state of Texas. Forget Sex in the City, this is the movie that women around the nation should flocking to in massive group outings. The films opened yesterday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

GB store
GB store

Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


An Angry White Guy
AREA Chicago
ArchitectureChicago Plus
Arts Engagement Exchange
The Art Letter
Art or Idiocy?
Art Slant Chicago
Art Talk Chicago
Bad at Sports
Bite and Smile
Brian Dickie of COT
Bridgeport International
Carrie Secrist Gallery
Chainsaw Calligraphy
Chicago Art Blog
Chicago Art Department
Chicago Art Examiner
Chicago Art Journal
Chicago Artists Resource
Chicago Art Map
Chicago Art Review
Chicago Classical Music
Chicago Comedy Examiner
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Daily Views
Chicago Film Examiner
Chicago Film Archives
Chicago Gallery News
Chicago Uncommon
Contemporary Art Space
Co-op Image Group
Co-Prosperity Sphere
Chicago Urban Art Society
Creative Control
Devening Projects
DIY Film
The Exhibition Agency
The Flatiron Project
F newsmagazine
The Gallery Crawl...
Galerie F
The Gaudy God
Happy Dog Gallery
Homeroom Chicago
I, Homunculus
Hyde Park Artcenter Blog
Joyce Owens: Artist on Art
Julius Caesar
Kasia Kay Gallery
Kavi Gupta Gallery
Rob Kozlowski
Lookingglass Theatre Blog
Lumpen Blog
Mess Hall
Neoteric Art
Not If But When
Noun and Verb
On Film
On the Make
Peanut Gallery
Peregrine Program
The Poor Choices Show
Pop Up Art Loop
The Post Family
The Recycled Film
Reversible Eye
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Roots & Culture Gallery
The Seen
Sisterman Vintage
Site of Big Shoulders
Sixty Inches From Center
Soleil's To-Do's
Sometimes Store
Stop Go Stop
Storefront Rebellion
TOC Blog
Theater for the Future
Theatre in Chicago
The Franklin
The Mission
The Theater Loop
Thomas Robertello Gallery
Time Tells Tony Wight Gallery
Uncommon Photographers
The Unscene Chicago
The Visualist
Western Exhibitions
What's Going On?
What to Wear During an Orange Alert?
You, Me, Them, Everybody
Zg Gallery

GB store



A/C on Flickr

Join the A/C Flickr Pool.

About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Nancy Bishop,
A/C staff inbox:



A/C Flickr Pool
 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15