Tag: James Franco

Milk (2008)

Milk (2008)

A political pioneer is lovingly paid tribute to in van Sant’s heartfelt biopic

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), James Franco (Scott Smith), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Major George Mascone), Denis O’Hare (State Senator John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta)

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Milk is a passionate, accessible and lovingly crafted biopic from Gus van Sant, which aims to restore this crucial figure back to the heart of public consciousness. van Sant covers a lot, but he crafts a film that hums with respect and a great deal of life. It also gains a huge amount from Sean Penn’s extraordinary and compassionate Oscar-winning performance, which embodies the spirit of this political pioneer.

Milk, in many ways, takes a traditional biopic approach, attempting to capture all the major events of Milk’s life in just over two hours. We follow Milk (Sean Penn) from closeted office worker, starting a relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) to San Francisco and becoming part of a vibrant gay community – although one still facing an onslaught of discrimination and persecution from the authorities. Milk determines to change things, eventually elected as City Supervisor in 1977. From there he fights against the anti-gay Proposition 6 and pushes for change, until his murder by fellow City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) in November 1978.

Milk makes a strong statement about the dangers faced by the gay community in this period of American history. It opens with a montage of newsreel footage showing the impact of raids and the reaction to Milk’s murder. It explores in detail the vicious backlash against gay rights across America, with Florida among several states passing legislation to repeal rights. There is a creeping sense of danger throughout, from Milk walking down a dark street looking over his shoulder, to the everyday prejudice characters encounter on the streets. Above all perhaps, it strongly demonstrates the powerful sense of shame people were driven into about their sexuality, most powerfully in a young man who cold-calls Milk begging for help. Milk fascinatingly explores the tensions within the gay community and its representatives – split between radicals, like Milk and his friends, and the more traditional elite worried someone “too gay” will alienate people.

It’s a beautifully shot, loving recreation of 1970s San Francisco, fast-paced, insightful and informative. As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives an extraordinary, transformative performance. Penn’s careful study has beautifully reproduced Milk’s mannerisms and vocal tics, but above all he has captured a sense of the man’s soul. Penn presents Milk as fiery but caring, loving but sometimes selfish, passionate but reasoned, both an activist and a politician. He’s a man determined to make life better, so young men don’t feel the shame he felt growing up – not a hero or a superman, just someone who feels he can (and should) make a difference. Penn’s energetic performance mixes gentleness with a justified vein of anger at injustice.

And he has a lot to be angry about. The film’s finest sequence is Milk’s duel with Senator John Briggs (waspishly played by Denis O’Hare) over Proposition 6. van Sant skilfully re-constructs the debate, but also carefully elucidates the high stakes and the impact its passing would have had. van Sant’s film is frequently strong not only at reconstruction but also in using drama to inform and, above all, to bring to life the sense of hope people had that the struggle could lead to change.

The film grounds Milk firmly within his relationships and friendships, while exploring clearly the issues that motivated him so strongly. To do this, the film shies away from Milk’s polyamorous relationships, grounding him in a series of long-term relationships, some functional and some not. It presents Scott Smith (sensitively played by James Franco) as Milk’s lost “soul-mate” (the couple split over Milk’s all-consuming focus on campaigning) – perhaps van Sant’s attempt to keep the film as accessible as possible by introducing a more traditional element. Smith is contrasted with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a sulky and immature man equally alienated by Milk’s focus.

Those personal relationships are extended to explore the tensions and fractured friendship between Milk and his eventual murderer Dan White. You’d expect the film to recraft White as a homophobic killer. Instead, it acknowledges White’s crime was largely motivated by factors other than gay rights, primarily his mental collapse and his sense of aggrievement over a workplace dispute. Sensitively played by Josh Brolin, White is presented as a man’s man suffering from a deep sense of inadequacy and insecurity (the film openly suggests he may have been closeted himself). Milk’s mistake is misunderstanding the depths of this man’s insecurities and never imagining the lengths they might drive him to. Brolin is very good as this troubled, if finally unsympathetic, man.

Milk of course fully anticipated being murdered – it was just he expected a homophobic slaying at a rally, rather than an office shooting by an aggrieved co-worker. One of the clumsier devices used in the film is its framing device of Milk recording his will a few days before his unexpected murder, a device that seems to exist solely to allow Penn to pop up and explain things more fully at points the film can’t find another way to expand. But again, it might be another deliberate attempt by van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black to make a film as accessible as possible, by falling back on traditional biopic devices (including its semi-cradle-to-grave structure), just as he aims to shoot the film in a vibrant but linear and visually clear style, avoiding overt flash and snappy camera and editing tricks.

Perhaps that’s because the film generally knows it doesn’t need to overplay its hand to capture emotion (when it does, it’s less effective: you could argue its slow-mo murder of Milk to the sound of Tosca is far less affecting than the look of shock and horror that crosses Penn’s face a moment earlier when he realises what is about to happen – a cut to black might have worked more effectively here). Actual footage of the candlelit vigil after his murder, mixed with reconstruction, is simple but carries real impact. Throughout the film, real-life stories pop-up time and again of prejudice and pain, which move with their honesty. Above all, it becomes a beautiful tribute to a passionate, brave and extraordinary man who left the world a better place than he found it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

127 Hours (2010)

James Franco is literally stuck between a rock and a hard place in this mesmeric film from Danny Boyle
Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: James Franco (Aron Ralston), Kate Mara (Kristi Moore), Amber Tamblyn (Megan McBride), Clémence Poésy (Rana), Lizzy Caplan (Sonja Rolston), Kate Burton (Donna Ralston), Treat Williams (Larry Ralston)

Even people who’ve never heard of Aron Ralston, surely know this as “that film where James Franco cuts his arm off” (as my wife called it when I said I’d watched it). But, with the inspired direction of Danny Boyle and brilliant performance from James Franco, this is so much more than just a film about cutting an arm off.

Aron Ralston (James Franco) is an adventurous free-spirit, who loves nothing better than solitary journeys in isolated places. He’s asking for trouble – and ‘Ooops!’ (as he puts) one day he gets it, falling into a crevice where his arm is crushed in place by a boulder. Ralston is trapped for 127 hours, with limited food and water and only the contents of his rucksack to help. There is no chance of anyone finding him for weeks. Eventually the only option left for Ralston is the unthinkable: to disconnect his body from his trapped (and already dead) arm.

Possibly only Danny Boyle could make a film as dynamic, visually exciting and fun as this, about a man who spends the entire time stuck behind a rock. Ralston is such a vibrant personality that Boyle’s visual inventiveness works perfectly for the material. Boyle finds a host of brilliant angles and editing tricks to film, not only Ralston’s trapped positon, but also the host of day dreams and (increasingly) hallucinations Ralston experiences.

The film doesn’t rush us into Ralston’s trap either. The first 20 minutes show Ralston’s life as he lives it – independent, friendly, adventurous and essentially focused on himself. It also shows us how exciting and fun exploring can be – something we really need to know, so as not to think “Why are you even doing this, you idiot!” later.

When the event happens (and the film mines a lot of good-natured tension as we constantly wait for it to happen) it’s both sudden and low-key. Ralston’s first reaction (and yes it’s partly shock) is surprised irritation. Then the film swiftly tightens in on the small world this adventurer is now restricted to. The crevice, the boulder, a strip of sky, the contents of his rucksack – all of which (despite his best efforts) are inadequate for getting him free. Boyle’s immersive skill in staging Ralston’s claustrophobic position is so great that you feel the same unnerved surprise as Ralston does when he is finally free, after watching him fixed in place for over an hour.

The film gets a certain dark humour from the foreknowledge almost anyone watching has. Some of the very first shots, show Ralston’s hand reaching into a cupboard looking for his pen knife (the want of which he later heavily regrets), the knife close to the camera, just out of Ralston’s casual reach. Later, there is an extra agony watching him chip away uselessly at the rock (with a utility knife he establishes is not sharp enough to cut his thumb), knowing every blow is making this knife blunter and blunter –making what we know he will have to use it for later harder and harder to do.

Ralston finds himself in an impossible situation (from his own hubris and overconfidence), but not only keeps hold of his sense of hope and humanity but also makes profound discoveries about himself and his life. That’s the focus Boyle keeps his story on – and each of the flashbacks and hallucinations focus on Ralston reviewing his past mistakes he’s made and reflecting (without heavy handed dialogue) on how (if he escapes) he could change his life.

A lot of the film’s success is based on James Franco’s exceptional performance. It’s is as alive and throbbing as the movie, and he really understands the charismatic fire in Ralston, the egotism and cockiness matched with resourcefulness and determination. He’s every inch the guy cocky enough to go it alone in the wilderness, and skilled enough to explore every angle for escape. He’s not an idiot, but not a hero – he’s a guy who grows to understand mistakes he has made, while never wallowing in self-pity, who can make the kind of calls most of us would find unthinkable.

As for that scene? Well yes it’s tricky to watch (to say the least), but not because it’s graphic or unpleasant – but because Boyle makes carrying out such an act so logical, so necessary, that you look down at your own arm and wonder if you would have the guts to do the same. The premonition Ralston reported of seeing his own yet-to-be-conceived son, giving him the determination to do the deed, is staged by Boyle with a dreamy lyricism. This is picked up in AR Rahman’s score, which slowly build in intensity to consume the scene. As Ralston cuts each of the nerve endings in his arm, the music jars in a way that tells us more about pain than any level of screaming would do.

So yes the central event is hard to watch – but this is not exploitative or gross-out. Instead it’s a rich, rewarding and engaging film, dynamically filmed – for a film about a guy trapped in one place, it constantly feels like it is on the move. It’s a story about the human spirit, and how we can conquer impossible odds – especially when we feel, as Ralston did, that he wasn’t doing this just for himself but for his family. Far from an endurance trip, this is a heartfelt and moving story that left me feeling uplifted. I think it might be Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

The xenomorph rises again, in prequel Alien: Covenant

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Michael Fassbender (David/Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), Amy Seimetz (Faris), Callie Hernandez (Upworth), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), James Franco (Jacob)

The Alien franchise is a series I’ve always had a lot of time for. Perhaps I just enjoy the carnage and blood letting of these movies, but at their best there is a sinister poetry behind the pure destructiveness of this rampaging beast, with a perfect mix of haunting nihilism and stirring action. In 2012, Scott returned to the franchise to explore its roots. His prequel film, Prometheus, had a mixed reception (and it’s a film I’ve found weaker with repeated viewings) but it still had that mixture of nihilistic poetry and gore. So where does Alien: Covenant fall?

Set 10 years after Prometheus, a solar flare hits the colony ship Covenant. To repair the damage, the ship’s android Walter (Michael Fassbender) wakens the crew, although the captain (an unbilled James Franco) is killed by a malfunction. Command passes to Oram (Billy Crudup), although many of the crew look to the captain’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) as their moral leader. After the damage is repaired, the crew investigate a signal from an abandoned world, where they find the marooned android David (Fassbender again) and a planet with a terrible virus, that infects its hosts to create brutal Xenomorph monsters. But is all as it seems?

Alien: Covenant is a mixed bag. It has a haunting and unsettling tone and gives us plenty of aliens in all their various forms. Many of the sequences of alien attacks are exciting. It’s trying to build a mythology around the creation of the aliens, and tie that in with a thematic exploration of our needs to create and destroy. It wants to explore the potential dangers of artificial life, and how it could judge us and find us wanting. At the same time, it’s a flawed and rather predictable film, which never really surprises you. It might give you some things to think about – but it won’t provoke your interest enough to make you really think about them for long after the credits roll.

Its main weakness is in its large cast. Most of the characters are referred to throughout by non-descript surnames, hammering home their lack of individuality. The film is so resolutely invested in the establishment of its mythology, it has no time to build characters or a story around the crew. They are little more than ciphers, plot tools to deliver specific points rather than for us to relate to them, or feel concern for their fate. Even Waterston’s Daniels, nominally our surrogate character, feels distanced and undefined. Like the rest of the cast, she suppresses the loss of a loved one (there are at least three bereaved partners in this film) with a suddenness that speaks less of her professionalism and more of the film’s shark-like need to always moving forward.

The one exception to the blandness is Fassbender’s dual role as androids David and Walter. It’s an actor’s bread and butter to play different roles, so we shouldn’t be surprised that a great actor like Fassbender executes it here with such skill. But he clearly distinguishes both the loyal, straightforward Walter and the darkly oblique David, and manages to craft the two most impressive performances in the film. This also gives Fassbender several chances to act oddly with himself, including a scene where David (rather suggestively) teaches Walter to play a pipe (it’s all about the fingering) and even a creepily possessive kiss scene between the two androids.

It helps that the film positions David as a protagonist-antagonist, and spends time exploring his fractured psyche (because it is central to the creation of the aliens, the film’s main interest). From its dark prologue, which shows David awkwardly questioning his nature with his creator (a swaggering cameo from Guy Pearce), David carries much of the film thematic interest. He is a creation of mankind, who believes he has surpassed his creators. Learning that Walter, a second generation, has been programmed to be less ‘human’ in his emotional capability as David, only confirms his belief that he is perfect. David is fuelled by a homicidal rage towards his creators, matched with an insane fixation on his own perfection.

The film wheels out a host of literary big guns to suggest a richness and depth to its exploration of these themes, from Milton to both Shelleys, but these points are really window dressing, as David is really closer in spirit to a Mengele crossed with a mad scientist from an old Hollywood B-movie. Despite this though, Fassbender’s David feels like a fully-rounded, absorbing character. His ‘Walter’ performance is equally good – gentler, compassionate, less grandstanding but quietly engaging.

Alien: Covenant is a film that aims high and wants to add some intellectual heft to its “slasher” roots. I think it’s probably a film that “hangs out” with ideas rather than enters into a proper conversation with them, but at least it’s aiming for thematic depth and richness, even if it often misses. I’m not sure it carries the sense of wonder and awe, and near-religious parallels, Prometheus (a deeply flawed, but more haunting film than this) managed. But it wants to make us question our place in the universe, and how our blind overconfidence could one day doom us. These ideas may just be window dressing to the blood and guts that the film delights in, but it at least shows that Scott is trying to make something a little deeper, and trying to make points about human nature.

It may be this focus on philosophical musing and the mythology of the alien’s development, distracted the film-makers from creating a plot to wrap around all this. The characters actions are too are often determined by the requirements of the plot, rather than logic or characterisation. So many dumb decisions are made, it stretches credibility: deflecting on a whim to a strange planet, charging around this alien world with careless abandon, following a clearly demented android you don’t trust into a room full of alien eggs – the plot requires each of the characters to perform various acts of stupidity in order for it to get anywhere.

The plot is also a hybrid that remixes beats from the previous films. No death (and there are loads of them) carries any surprise or shock value, and the alien itself (impressively filmed as the action is) behaves pretty much as you would expect. The familiarity of the events also makes the characters feel (to the audience) even more stupid and careless. There is excitement, but the film never really gets you to the edge of your seat – with its familiar action, and bland characters most of whom are little more than alien-fodder, you just never feel a tension or investment in their fates.

I wanted to like Alien: Covenant more than I actually did – but the truth is that it’s a film that lets itself down. There are moments of awe and wonder in there. It has a very good villain, whose motives and reasoning are interesting and thought-provoking. It has a terrific pair of performances by Michael Fassbender. But it’s also got too much flatness – plot and characters seem rushed and thinly sketched out. It’s clear where Scott’s and the writers’ focus was – and it means chunks of this movie just glide past the eyes and ears. Not the worst Alien film by a longshot – but still someway off the greatness of the first two films.