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Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #1 – In Old Arizona (1929)

InoldarizonaIn Old Arizona (1929)
Directed by: Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh
Written by: Tom Barry
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess

In Old Arizona was the very first western film to feature full sound, helped establish a long-lasting trope in the “singing cowboy”, and was one of the earliest movies to be nominated for the now prestigious Best Picture prize at the annual Academy Awards. With all those credits under its belt, it’s important to note that In Old Arizona is not in any way a good film. In all honesty, it might be the worst we’ve taken a look at since the blog’s inception – but that’s always part of the fun when venturing into completely unknown territory. While it certainly isn’t a perfect film, there’s no denying the film’s groundbreaking nature and its influence on one of my favorite genre – for those things alone, it’s worthy of discussion.

In Old Arizona tells the story of a charming and eccentric, but feared, cowboy named the Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) as he tangles with a local cavalry sergeant named Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) who wants his blood. The Cisco Kid is so revered by the locals that he can rob a wagon without so much as a single gunshot – these feats do nothing but further the legend of the Cisco Kid, and enrage Sgt. Mickey Dunn. Luckily for the sergeant, he finds alliances in unexpected places and is able to convince The Cisco Kid’s love interest Tonia (Dorothy Burgess) to help him capture the cowboy. Even with an unexpected betrayal working against him, the Cisco Kid is able to match the sergeant’s efforts with sheer wit and quick thinking. Warner Baxter won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Cisco Kid, and In Old Arizona was nominated for a further four awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography.
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Being nearly ninety years old, it’s no wonder that In Old Arizona feels dated in its filmmaking techniques, plot structure, and performances. If it weren’t for the countless incredible films that came before it, I’d simply chock up the movie’s faults as failure to withstand the test of time and nothing else. Truthfully, there’s not much about In Old Arizona that works all these years later – the acting is awful, especially the overacted and phony performance of Dorothy Burgess, the writing feels overly simplified and far too convenient, and the film’s structure simply doesn’t warrant a full ninety minute runtime. If any project could benefit from being a short film, it’s In Old Arizona – doing away with the drawn out middle act that leads to the unsurprising betrayal of the Cisco Kid by his girl would make this a far more memorable film. Warner Baxter’s “singing cowboy” is easily the most notable thing about the film, and even Baxter’s performance feels exaggerated and far too comedic for a character who is supposedly so revered by the people around him. Edmund Lowe’s Sgt. Mickey Dunn has screen presence and is probably the best actor in the film, but that’s not saying much considering the two actors he shares the screen with. I appreciated some of the more boundary pushing elements of the film, in particular making Dorothy Burgess’ Tonia something of a seductress, using her sexuality to her advantage on multiple occasions. There are a few notable scenes alluding to sex, some gun violence, and a rather humorous use of the word “jackass”, but overall In Old Arizona’s pre-code influence feels rather mild. The most impressive part of In Old Arizona is in its use of sound, which feels much more natural than some of its contemporaries. The sparing use of score is effective in setting a tone and atmosphere, and the use of outdoor sets makes In Old Arizona feel like a full-blown western. The directors behind the camera deserved far greater than the script and cast of actors they were given, because it’s immediately clear that there is passion and inventiveness behind the film’s flaws.

While I can’t claim to have hated the entirety of my time with Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s film In Old Arizona, it certainly won’t go down as one of the best movie experiences I’ll ever have. The exaggerated performances don’t lend themselves to the subject matter found in the film, instead making this something of an annoying experience. The screenplay is clearly stretching the limits of the story at hand, making what should a forty-five minute short in a full-blown feature length disaster. Both Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh would go on to have prolific careers in Hollywood, making films that are probably far more memorable than any one scene in their 1929 Best Picture nominee. In Old Arizona is sadly not recommended, no matter how curious you are about the history of film and its pre-code era.

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Top 100 Films #41 – The African Queen (1951)

 

large_african_queen_blu-ray6#41. The African Queen (1951)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, John Collier (based on The African Queen by C.S. Forester)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

John Huston’s grand adventure film The African Queen was a movie I never knew I needed in my life until I saw it, and it has since become very dear to me.  The film, based on the novel of the same name by C.S. Forester, lays the exciting groundwork for modern action-adventure films we know today.  The African Queen follows the rowdy, gin-swilling Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the titular African Queen riverboat at the outset of the first World War. Charlie is persuaded by a missionary named Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to convert the riverboat into a torpedo boat in order to surprise attack a German gunboat patrolling the river.  Along the way, Charlie and Rose traverse dangerous rapids, sneak past a German fort, encounter leeches and mosquitoes, and slowly begin to fall in love.  The African Queen is a thrill ride from start to finish, featuring well-paced action set-pieces interspersed throughout.  John Huston treats relatively minor elements like rapids as major obstacles that our heroes have to overcome, and each victory for Charlie and Rose feels like a triumph.  The use of location shooting is another major element that leads to The African Queen standing out among the crowd, with Huston and company travelling to Uganda and the Congo in order to shoot the picture.  The visuals are lush and beautiful, with every frame filled to the brim with gorgeous river and jungle scenery.  Cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff certainly doesn’t hurt either, with the great motion photographer using Technicolor to great effect.  It’s incredibly resourceful and intelligent writing and construction, and really adds to the pacing and overall enjoyment of The African Queen.  The chemistry between stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn is tremendous, with both playing characters with polar opposite personalities.  Bogart’s Charlie Allnut is loud, slightly obnoxious, and simple, but very resourceful and brave, and Hepburn’s Rose Sayer is prudish and well-mannered, but also has a bold personality and a knack for strategic thinking.  The interactions between the two feel natural and classic in their contrasting nature, with the audience constantly rooting for the two to finally get along and fall in love.  Humphrey Bogart is clearly well out of his comfort zone in film, and it obviously paid off – the actor took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for the performance.  The African Queen helped to redefine the careers of director John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn, all of whom would go on to see a fairly major career resurgence after the film’s release.  The entertainment value found in Huston’s film is undeniable, fans of classic and modern cinema will find something in The African Queen to love – it’s a trailblazing triumph of the adventure genre.

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Top 100 Films #63 – Raging Bull (1980)

 

image-w1280-2#63. Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul Schrader, Mardrik Martin (based on Raging Bull: My Story by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto

From a classic masterpiece to a slightly more modern one, Raging Bull is almost undeniably Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s shining achievement.  The bleak and often tough to watch look at the life of boxer Jake La Motta pulls no punches, but instead acts as an honest critique of the man’s life.  Raging Bull sees the aforementioned Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) as he rises through the ranks boxing in the middleweight division, his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) serving as his manager and assistant.  Jake falls in love with a teenage girl named Vikki (Cathy Moriarty), defeats the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, being taken seriously as a legitimate fighter.  The film sees Jake La Motta’s intense jealousy over his wife Vikki, his tumultuous relationship with his brother Jake, his rise to title contention, and his very sudden and very sharp fall from grace.  The best part of Raging Bull is just how searing a look at its central figure it is – the man is rarely painted in an overly positive light.  The audience instead has to sit through difficult scenes of the La Motta family embroiled in domestic abuse, familial infighting, corruption, and serious embarrassment by the hands of fate.  Martin Scorsese’s graceful direction of the film is what makes Raging Bull special – he and cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot the movie in beautiful, but grainy, black and white.  The film’s boxing scenes are shot almost like professional ballet by Scorsese and Chapman, with each blow feeling like a true work of art.  It is Scorsese’s direction that gives Raging Bull its immense power over viewers, becoming a beautiful but disturbing look at a man who was no stranger to controversy.  The three lead performances by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty are incredible, with each actor bringing their own take on the roles.  De Niro’s method acting techniques saw the actor gain a great deal of weight for scenes in Raging Bull’s last act, making it much more powerful and believable than prosthetics ever could.  His intense, angry performance as the jealous and violent La Motta is legendary, and earned De Niro an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Both Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty deliver more down-to-earth and level-headed performances as the two reasonable voices in the ears of Jake La Motta – Pesci being torn between feelings of loyalty and shame for his brother, and Moriarty the unsatisfied, unhappy wife of La Motta.  Worth mentioning also is the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, which also earned her an Academy Award.  Schoonmaker experiments with slow motion and manipulation of sound during boxing scenes, making them all far more memorable and noteworthy.  Raging Bull is legendary from top to bottom, featuring the greatest modern American director in his prime, three extraordinary performances, and a hell of a script to deliver one of the most honest and painful character studies ever made.  

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Top 100 Films #72 – There Will Be Blood (2007)

 

there-will-be-blood-plainview-eli#72. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier

The debate between the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been raging for nearly a decade at this point.  Both incredible films released in 2007 and vying for that year’s Best Picture award, both camps have made some great points over the years about why their film is the superior one.  In my opinion, There Will Be Blood just barely edges out its competition, thanks in part to Paul Thomas Anderson’s meticulous eye for detail, the central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the themes of greed and the deconstruction of American capitalism.  PTA’s film is about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an aspiring oil baron in early 20th century America, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher looking to secure financing for his church.  We see Plainview’s rise to power, his strained relationship with his son HW (Dillon Freasier), their attempted acquisition of Eli Sunday’s land, and his eventual descent into apparent madness.  There Will Be Blood is another film on my list that comes in at well over two hours in length, and yet never meanders or overstays its welcome.  The pacing of PTA’s script (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair) is perfect in every way, building Daniel Plainview as a man to be reckoned with, and establishing the world in which he exists in – where personal greed, religion, and the pursuit of the American dream all seem to clash.  The Academy Award winning cinematography from longtime PTA associate Robert Elswit is gorgeous, featuring sweeping landscapes, and profound visuals that push the film’s themes without having to say a single word. The towering achievement of There Will Be Blood is the Oscar-winning performance by veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose turn as Plainview is chilling.  No actor alive can match the intensity of Day-Lewis’ method acting technique – he embodies the spirit of Daniel Plainview in every frame of this picture.  Another performance that must be mentioned is that of Paul Dano, who plays something of an adversary to Plainview in Eli Sunday.  Dano’s occasional outbursts can be truly frightening, and his conniving nature is truly frustrating. It’s a shame that Dano didn’t get the admiration he truly deserved for the role, as it probably caused him to lose a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (though the deck was very much stacked against him).  There Will Be Blood is as perfect a film as you’ll find, telling an intricate, epic tale of greed in the booming days of the early oil industry.  It should really be considered required viewing at this point, as it’s a perfect example of how to create a compelling modern drama.

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Top 100 Films #73 – Ben-Hur (1959)

 

ben-hur_6783571#73. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg (based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe

William Wyler’s biblical epic Ben-Hur is the movie that served as my introduction to classic films, creating a lifelong obsession with the silver screen in the process. I saw it as part of my grade 7 religion class all the way back in 2003-2004, and was captivated by every minute of the 3 ½ hour film.  Ben-Hur tells the classic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy prince living in Jerusalem with his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell).  His best friend is a man named Messala (Stephen Boyd), who after some time away from Jerusalem, returns to the city as a commander of the Roman garrison.  After an accident nearly costs the life of the governor of Judea, Ben-Hur is sent to the galleys by his once best friend, and his family imprisoned.  What follows is an adventure the scale of which had rarely been seen on screen before 1959.  The film spans several years, and sees the rise and subsequent fall of Jesus Christ, who plays a prominent figure in the film.  Wyler’s Ben-Hur is mostly remembered by the public for its incredible chariot race scene, which is still just as thrilling and visceral today as it was more than fifty years ago.  The film’s few action scenes feature a sense of realism and brutality that is not often seen in film’s of this era, and adds to Ben-Hur’s unique nature.  It’s never exploitative in this way, but instead uses its visceral nature to further the story along, and convey the weight of the situations faced by Judah Ben-Hur and those around him.  Charlton Heston’s performance as the titular character is tremendous, bringing an undeniable charm and charisma to the role that has proven to be unmatched in subsequent retellings of the story.  While Ben-Hur is more than 3 ½ hours long, it never feels slow or bogged down by its run-time, mainly due to its incredible writing and pacing.  Every scene feels meticulously crafted and has a sense of purpose, and major milestone moments are evenly spaced out throughout the film.  An example of the film’s excellent sense of pacing comes in its final act – even after the chariot race is done, the film manages to keep its hold on viewers with a rigorous journey to the leper colony, where we finally get some much needed emotional payoff.  Ben-Hur would go on to win 11 Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), and Best Cinematography – only losing in one category.  Every minute of Ben-Hur is captivating and finely crafted – there’s no wonder why it was so well-received by a 12-year old me.

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Doctober II #4 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

the_times_of_harvey_milk_posterThe Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by: Rob Epstein
Written by: Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn
Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narration)

Harvey Milk was an American hero who broke down barriers and paved the way for change in US politics – the effects of which are still being felt to this day.  The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the political career of the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco.  From his humble beginnings in neighborhood politics and activism, to his final days with an office in San Francisco’s city hall, Rob Epstein’s film covers only the most important details of Milk’s incredible career. Milk’s open homosexuality at a time when such a thing was shamed in much of the Western world was cause for controversy, much of which is discussed in the film.  In the final act of the film, the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White is painfully detailed by director Rob Epstein, who gives his subjects all the respect in the world.

Actor Harvey Fierstein expertly narrates the documentary with his famous and unique gravelly-voice to great effect, never distracting from the incredible use of archival footage, nor overshadowing the talking head interviews with friends, family, and fellow politicians.  It’s perhaps my favorite example of narration in documentary, largely because I couldn’t imagine the film being nearly as effective without it.  While the film is absolutely a celebration of the life and accomplishments of Harvey Milk, it never loses sight of some of its bigger picture ideas – the opening up of American politics (and American people in general) to homosexuals, and the changing of the guard in the Western world.  We see what a confused and hateful America looked like before people like Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart lobbied for change, and then talk to people whose lives were transformed by their actions and activism.  The effect is even greater in hindsight, comparing our tolerant and accepting society today to that of 1978, which was anything but.  It took the death of a courageous leader (and many more like him) to inspire thousands to take action and stand up for what they believe. The Times of Harvey Milk paints a powerful and comprehensive picture of a massive political movement, even though it only captures the fight in a single American city – it feels epic in scale despite its admittedly small scope.

Many of Milk’s triumphs were captured on film through amateur videographers and journalists, which director Rob Epstein expertly edits into a concise chronological look at his journey through city politics.  These moments are beautiful in their humanism, and makes the film’s tragic third act that much more unbearable.  We see touching and humorous interviews with Anne Kronenberg (Milk’s campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (LGBT activist), and Sally Gearhart (activist) among others, all of whom paint a vivid portrait of who Harvey Milk was, and how tragic the loss of his life was.  While we watch Milk’s meteoric rise, Epstein simultaneously covers the election and political career of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s eventual assassin.  The Times of Harvey Milk is incredibly well-crafted, giving the audience all of the information necessary to piece together the story without bloating or boring viewers.  This was recognized by critics and audiences worldwide in the form of an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.  The life of Harvey Milk was given a big screen adaptation in 2008’s Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, for which Sean Penn won Best Actor for portraying the titular activist and politician.
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What I Liked:

  • The talking head interviews are incredible, both the archival interviews and those captured specifically for the film.  They’re touching, funny, and revealing, with nobody afraid to talk about who Milk really is.  They embrace him for all his flaws, because at the end of the day he genuinely had good intentions.
  • The use of archival footage, especially in the film’s last act, is breathtaking.  We get a near real-time look at the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, which has become one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  Even though we all know what is coming after Dan White’s dismissal from the board of supervisors, we can’t help but hope that things turn out differently this time around.
  • Dan White is given the proper amount of time in the film, which I felt was very important seeing as he played a major part in the story of Harvey Milk.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk is as concise a documentary as I can imagine, which is an enormous feat when tackling the entire career of such an important figure.  It never overstays its welcome, which is rare for biographical films such as these.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the greatest biographical documentaries ever made, and I’m glad that it has been recognized as so over the years.  It’s at first glance a small scale look at the career of one brave politician and activist, but deep down it’s much more.  It’s a powerful look at a movement against hatred and bias that had tremendously far-reaching influence and importance on the lives of everyday Americans.  People like Harvey Milk made the world an infinitely better place, and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a beautiful tribute to the man and the movement.  It’s relevant, important, revealing, and heartbreaking – which is everything a documentary should aspire to be.  The Oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk gets my highest recommendation.

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