Monday, November 24, 2008


Rob Epstein’s 1984 “The Times of Harvey Milk” is one of the most compelling, powerful documentaries ever, and while I’ve been eagerly anticipating Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” the narrative film re-telling the same story, this time cast with movie stars, it was more due to the power of the material than Van Sant’s involvement. No one questions Van Sant’s place in cinema history,but – like Spike Lee and Brian De Palma – his creative success rate is far outpaced by his reputation and name recognition. But with “Milk,” he more than simply delivers a standard presentation of unquestionably great material, his construction and delivery enhance what could have been. While the new film may not reach the heights of the doc, it’s one worthy of Harvey Milk’s story and, perhaps due to circumstances beyond its control, may resonate emotionally with audiences stronger than any other release this year. Ed Gonzalez’s comparison of “Milk” to “Kinsey,” in his review on Slant Magazine, is right on the money; both films refuse to hand-hold or wallow in easy emotion, while choosing to focus almost entirely on their subject’s careers and illuminating their revelatory reallignments of societal norms and hard-battled fights for understanding.

For those who don’t know, the film tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to major political office, dubbed “the Mayor of Castro Street,” largely responsible for turning San Francisco into the gay mecca it is, and the first (at least most vocal) public proponent of gay rights, pride and sense of community. The film is narrow in scope, offering not a portrait of Harvey Milk the man (nor a “balanced” depiction, including his faults), but rather his deeds – the historic breadth of his political career – or rather, what he should be/is remembered for. Along the way, we share in Harvey’s relationships with boyfriends Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna), allies CleveJones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), and political nemesiis Dan White (Josh Brolin), John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) and Anita Bryant (herself in archival footage). Those who know the story (for those who don’t, I won’t “spoil”), the “epilogue” of Harvey Milk’s life story isn’t included here, and while I initially questioned the decision, it allows the film to close on a note of hope and empowerment rather than despair, without feeling unearned or painting over tragedy (we do get a closing crawl telling us what happened).

I can’t put my finger on why, but something irks me about A-list stars being “daring” by strapping on their gay hat to win awards, and more often than not, I don’t really buy them as the genuine article. So, like me, you may bristle a bit when Hirsch or Penn first prance across the screen, but soon enough, I bought everyone (with one notable exception I’ll get into in a bit) as members of the community, and performances seem to have been given with utmost respect and lack of showiness of creative vanity. Like most of you, I’m bored by the (admittedly deserved) constant praise for Sean Penn; like Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s always stellar, so the acclaim quickly becomes redundant or tiring. With his portrayal of Harvey Milk, though, Penn’s performance is predictably great, yes, but staggering nonetheless, showing no signs of Penn himself, nor the dramatic intensity of any of his other performances in recent years. Whether or not this earns him a 2nd Oscar, this is one of his best performances and certainly his most appealing and tender.

As councilman Dan White, Brolin continues his amazing 13-month hot streak, imbuing a character who could have been played in a reductive manner or as a “villain” by a lesser actor with depth and complexity. He plays White as the deeply conflicted, ambiguous man he seemingly was, and doesn’t allow us to either laugh at him or simply hate him (sequences of White inviting Milk to his son’s christening and drunkenly rambling to Harvey at a party are masterstrokes). Franco is quite good and subtle as Smith, though I don’t quite understand the Oscar buzz. The character serves a purpose, but it’s just not much of a role; Franco’s Saul in “Pineapple Express” was a significantly more interesting character and performance. While the generally overvalued Hirsch gives one of his better performances (despite playing it up a bit too much in his first scene), Luna, regrettably, is to “Milk” what Thandie Newton was to “W.”: an out-of-place embarrassment. As a drunk, lispy, latin queen, Luna’s character is increasingly irritating, jarring, and whenever he’s on screen, you wish he wasn’t.

It’s perhaps unfair the significant credence Prop 8 passing has lent this movie, and it’s almost impossible to view it in an objective light; if nothing else, the discriminatory measure going through has significantly improved “Milk’s” Best Picture chances. Everytime Proposition 6 is discussed or whispers of foreboding “anti-gay laws,” one can’t help but note the relevance; some have cited Prop 8 passing as making this movie more timely than ever, but it would’ve been timely either way, just it could’ve been relevent in showing how far we’ve come in 30 years, rather than how little. But either way, relevance wouldn’t matter if the film didn’t work on its own merits, and whether in 2008 or ten years down the line, the poetic filmmaking, entertainment factor and emotional power will resonate loudly. The inevitable moden comparison will be how it stacks up to the merits and gayness of the last big gay movie, “Brokeback Mountain.” While I don’t think this quite earns that film’s ‘masterpiece’ status, in terms of content I think it tells its story in a more accessible and more overtly emotional manner (you won’t hear cries of ‘boring’ from the plebes this time), though it’s also more overtly GAY. Those who tried to make bullshit claims that “Brokeback’s” meditation on the stigma of the closet was somehow a “universal love story” will have no such grounds here.

Almost certainly going to be taken as an issue movie due to the timing of its release, “Milk” is a film that doesn’t use its subject matter as a crutc, but uses it as an impetus for all involved to bring their A-game, and delivering the movie it deserves, easily one of the best of 2008. All things considered, it’s probably Gus Van Sant’s best film, and for those worried there’s little of his tough evident for this straightforward Oscar bait (a la “Finding Forrester”), it falls stylistically between “Good Will Hunting” and his protracted artiness in films like “Paranoid Park.” Not much pretentious here to alienate, but we got the odd insightful, beautiful shot (a murdered gay man’s body reflected in an alert whistle lying in the street), seemingly patchwork insertion of archival footage, and an appealingly murky, ‘70s documentary-style aesthetic that I really loved. With a tremendous performance from Sean Penn, and a time theme that works in tandem with its cumatively stand-alone poower, “Milk” is every bit the “important” work it’ll be praised as, but also tremendously satisfying as a moviegoing experience of any stripe.


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