Monday, November 24, 2008

Interview - James Franco for MILK

Every now and again, a great film manages to arrive at the perfect time and place, when the political zeitgeist seems to cry out for a brilliant all-encompassing artistic statement. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant’s triumphant new film, Milk, is such a movie. Starring Sean Penn, the film chronicles the life and untimely death of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay man elected to American public office. With the recent passing of California’s Proposition 8 -an act which officially restricting same-sex couples from entering into holy matrimony- Milk has suddenly achieved an unexpected level of relevance in our culture, which may help the emotionally stirring, yet hard-to-market film find its way into the hearts and minds of mainstream viewers.

In a conference call with actor James Franco, who plays Harvey Milk’s one-time lover and staunch supporter Scott Smith, the buzz surrounding California’s controversial decision was lurking behind every question. The talented young actor, previously featured in crowd-pleasers such as Pineapple Express and the Spider-Man series, was initially drawn to the film, not so much its issues, but rather as a chance to work with the esteemed director.

Franco, who proudly labels himself “the biggest Gus Van Sant fan”, fondly remembers repetitively watching the auteur’s indie classics My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy. “This was before I was doing any acting”, he recalls, reminiscing that “I just fell in love with his movies”.

After meeting Van Sant through mutual friends, Franco says “I got to know Gus a little bit and then my agents called me and said [that he would be] doing Milk.” Motivated by the opportunity, he “did a little research on Harvey Milk, found out who he was, and found that Gus had been trying to do this movie for 10-15 years.” The director’s passionate dedication to the project, for the actor, promised “an amazing movie”.

In tackling the role of Scott Smith, the actor felt a deep-rooted responsibility to do his role justice. “It’s telling the life of a figure who meant so much to a lot of people, so I felt, and everybody who worked on the movie, felt a big responsibility to get it right”. In researching the role he began by watching Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, as well as poring over Randy Shilt’s non-fiction work The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Ultimately, however, he found a more obscure source of inspiration in the form of “an old reel of film that had an interview with Scott Smith from thirty years ago that nobody had seen in all that time”. For Franco, this footage “was like a goldmine for seeing what he was like”.

As the film centres mainly on Penn’s Harvey Milk, Franco feels that “the real function of Scott in this movie is to show a real loving relationship”. The actor continues by stressing Scott’s important role as a “political wife”, who was “Harvey Milk’s partner for four years – the longest relationship of Milk’s life”. Similarly, Scott was present for all of the “big moments in [his] life” and ended up being “one of the main people to help carry on the memory of Milk”.

However, his performance aside, he hopes the film will help spread Milk’s message to audiences who yearn to end intolerance within society. Franco says “it’s sad that I didn’t know much about Harvey Milk growing up, and I think a lot of people don’t. They should know about him.” “He was an incredible politician who did some amazing things like helping overturn Proposition 6, which would have kept gay teachers from being able to teach in schools”. And while he admits that such education is unlikely to happen in High Schools anytime soon, he does argue that “it can certainly happen in universities!”

As for California’s Proposition 8, Franco, who voted “No” in an absentee ballot and later accompanied “Gus Van Sant and [Milk writer] Dustin Lance Black to one of the protest marches”, hopes that his film can help “tilt that fight”. However, he notes carefully, “Proposition 8 shows that change doesn’t just roll in and happen miraculously, it takes people to stand up and really make change happen”.

In terms of the Milk’s effect on the actor, he credits his experience in making the movie, along with Harvey Milk’s shining example, for stirring his own inner-activist: “It inspired me to help fight for civil rights for whoever. Obviously Harvey Milk was... a lot of his fight was for gay rights, but I think his example shows that I think you can be inspiring not just for people like you, but civil rights for everyone”. Franco takes a breath and continues: “When one group says “you can’t have the same rights as...”, to me that’s just wrong. I don’t care who the group is!”

Film Review - QUANTUM OF SOLACE: Or Perhaps Better Known as Marc Forster's "Quantum of Follies"...

In 2006, long-time Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson made an uncharacteristically daring move: they decided to rejigger their forty-plus year-old franchise from the ground up. Gone were the invisible cars, jet-packs and alligator-modelled submarines of yesteryear, along with the legions of villains packing steel dentures, decapitating bowlers and feline fetishes. In addition, nubile, starry-eyed babes with come-hither monikers like Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole and Jenny Flex found themselves unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Say nothing of Bond himself, who suddenly seemed a lot more serious... and more inclined to knock a baddie’s teeth through the back of his skull than engage in encyclopaedic discourse regarding the merits of vintage cognac.

Amazingly, the gamble paid off, and the resulting film, Casino Royale, was the kick in the ass that the spy series needed, instantly making Grandpa Bond once again relevant, and dare I say sexy, for the young and old alike. In casting rough-edged, no-nonsense Daniel Craig –Britain’s delayed answer to Steve McQueen- and stressing sophisticated story-telling and naturalistic characterization, audiences suddenly became a lot more invested in when James Bond would return again. Too bad that Bond’s 22nd film, the pompously titled Quantum of Solace, ignores Royale’s strengths and seems destined to moderately dampen the paying crowd’s goodwill for the next instalment.

Once again starring magnetic blonde bruiser Craig, Quantum of Solace picks up about, oh, 007 seconds after the end of Royale, with Bond making a mad dash to safety with the disagreeable Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), a criminal of questionable ranking in a super-secret criminal group called QUANTUM, who possesses valuable information relating to the death of James’ true love. However, after Mr. White proves more eel-like than expected, and makes a violent getaway, Bond, against the orders of boss-figure M (Dame Judi Dench), embarks on a globe-hopping journey to get to the bottom of QUANTUM’s sinister machinations.

His search leads him to Haiti where, through Bond-ian circumstances, he meets up with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful mystery woman with secret ties to creepy-eyed environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Through a scatter-shot series of chase sequences and labyrinthine plot developments, Bond discovers that Greene is secretly planning to use his monopoly over one of Earth’s most precious resources to upset the government of Bolivia, and help the loathsome General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) achieve dictatorship. As this is a Bond film, subtlety is out of the question, and 007, aided by Camille and CIA man Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), is soon shooting, stabbing and strangling his way through an endless assortment of low-level goons, on a feverish quest to cut Greene off at the knees... permanently.

Dominic Greene and General Medrano aside, Bond’s greatest adversaries in Quantum of Solace are director Marc Forster and editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, who have taken enjoyable material and crafted it into a cinematic Rorschach test. While the series has never been known for having comprehensible storylines, Bond 22 is an often a slightly exasperating experience. In their quest for a faster, sleeker Bond (Quantum packs the shortest running time in the series’ history), the filmmakers chop out all the necessary character beats and exposition and simply attempt to convey information through endless locale changes and about a dozen disgracefully edited action sequences.

And oh, those action scenes are a big problem... From a head-scratching car chase featuring three nearly identical cars, to the film’s (anti)climax in a absurdly flammable hotel, Forster presents endless mish-mashed montages of blurry one-second edits, convulsive camera-work and a cacophonic soundtrack. Only one set-piece, featuring 007 and a nemesis hanging from ropes attached to construction scaffoldings, manages to overcome the director’s ham-fisted style and rouse some genuine excitement. Strangely, the only time the camera actually holds still during an action sequence is in a lingering close up of a would-be rape victim’s crotch. Really, Mr. Forster!

What prevents the film from toppling into the dregs of mediocrity is its brilliantly committed cast. Craig is fully-charged and commanding, and continues to remind the world why he was the man for the job, and Dench is his perfect foil. As Greene, French actor Amalric works wonders with an underwritten character, while Kurylenko follows Royale’s Eva Green in creating a charismatic, three-dimensional Bond-girl. Also, Giancarlo Giannini, as world-weary former-agent Mathis lends unexpected gravitas to an obviously light-headed film.

If only Forster and company had taken a lesson from Royale helmer Martin Campbell and allowed the action and story to speak through the characters. For sure, Quantum of Solace is a causally engaging, if disappointing, vehicle, but it lacks the light touch which confidently eased along the best of Bond's 21 previous adventures. In moulding Bond into a Bourne-again action hero, they’ve lost the joyous exhilaration and witty humour which has kept 007 vibrant since 1962. Hopefully Quantum’s faults will remind producers once again that Bond-fans generally prefer being stirred to shaken.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 24th, 2008.