Everyone likes Diego Luna. As the Cuban boy dancing in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”, as Harvey Milk’s lover in “Milk”, or even as the one that got away from Katy Perry in her music video, the Mexican actor/director with the boyish face and impish smile has managed to be one of the most likable actors around, even when most people have never seen him in much. This week, however, Luna is taking American movie theaters by storm with “Cesar Chávez”, a biopic of the Mexican-American labor leader. But “Cesar Chávez” will see Luna behind the camera rather than in front of it in what is only his second directorial feature—and his first that is primarily in English. Just so you don’t get too disappointed by the prospect of not seeing Diego Luna, here are our picks to get your fix this weekend.
“Y tú mamá también” (2001)
Cast: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna
Available streaming on Netflix Instant and Hulu
I’m not sure why, but in my head I always imagine “Y tú mamá también” as the breakthrough film for all parties involved. There’s a spontaneous energy to this coming-of-age/road-trip flick that defies those easy genre tags, and makes you feel that the filmmakers and actors, like their on-screen counterparts, were striking off into the unknown. That’s not true, of course – director Alfonso Cuarón was on his fourth feature, Verdú was already an established actress in Spain, Bernal had drawn raves for his part in Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” the year before, and Luna had a small role in Julian Schnabel’s acclaimed “Before Night Falls.” But even if it can’t technically be called a debut, it’s a discovery for first-time viewers nonetheless. Chaotic, sexy, poignant, and the start of Emmanuel Lubezki’s lifetime love of beautiful, long tracking shots.
Cast: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino, Diego Luna, Mía Maestro, Ed Norton
Available on disc from Netflix and on Amazon Prime
After a couple of disastrous projects (on both stage and screen), Taymor’s reputation is in need of a bit of a rehaul. Perhaps we can start by going back and revisiting one of her now increasingly under-appreciated works, her visually sumptuous and narratively lively depiction of the life of artist Frida Kahlo. It’s not exactly consistent, nor perfectly constructed, but that’s part of the appeal – Taymor is not the type to make a totally straightforward biopic. I mean, how can you object to a Day of the Dead-inspired animation sequence by the Brothers Quay in the same movie that Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky, complete with terrible accent? You can’t fight that kind of bonkers. Taymor’s careening direction is grounded a bit by the great lead performances from Hayek and Molina – and of course don’t forget young Luna, playing Frida Kahlo’s first lover.
Starring: Sean Penn, Diego Luna, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Victor Garber
Available on Amazon Prime
Luna appeared only briefly in Gus van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), but his turn as the San Francisco supervisor’s troubled lover was tender, vulnerable, and volatile—a perfect foil for Milk’s strength, compassion, and determination. Though “Chávez” has been criticized for glorifying its subject too much—a classic pitfall of biopics—“Milk” provides a fantastic counterexample of what a biopic can and should be, complex, riveting and emotional. Tracing Milk’s ascent to becoming the first openly gay to be elected to public office in America, it is a history lesson, a psychological portrait, and an acting tour de force that earned Penn his second Oscar and a first Oscar for screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. What uplifts “Milk” is that it never tries to make its hero heroic. Instead, the Harvey Milk we see is funny, flirty, kind, flawed, shrewd, and idealistic, an ordinary man in extraordinary times.