Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"You Gotta Give 'Em Hope." REVIEW

Milk-2008-Gus Van Sant

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2008 was not a great year for film. There have been a few gems(WALL-E comes to mind) but overall the films come out seemingly lackluster. I wouldn't say the films out this year have been terrible either though, they just seem to always have something lacking that keeps them from being wonderful. Within all of this, there is an actor, who to me has had a banner year. James Franco has been a supporting actor in both this film and Pineapple Express. Why do I happen to mention this specific actor? Because to me he grounds both films. While in Pineapple Express he plays a drug dealer with a heart. He likes to help out his grandma, and is lonely. He wants a friend to hang with him. That film is about friendship, and he really nails it wonderfully. Now in Milk, he plays Scott Smith, Harvey Milk's lover. The film opens when they meet. He is who Harvey confesses he is "forty years old and (he) hasn't done a thing". His subtlety and total comfort in embodying Smith left me yearning for more screen time with him. But Van Sant only allows him to be there when the story needs him, he doesn't try to force the character on to us simply because he is so magnetizing.

Milk follows Harvey Milk. After meeting Scott Smith, turning forty and moving to San Francisco's Castro district, he becomes interested in homosexual activism. He sees the atrocities at play and wants justice for the gay community. So he enters the political office and on the way creates a movement, a movement that because of him still has activists fighting today.

Harvey Milk had a love for life that was so enriching you can't help but smile when the man is speaking. In the documentary from 1984 The Times Of Harvey Milk, you can see the real man that Sean Penn brilliantly portrays. This movie, Milk, doesn't glamorize Milk to the point of unbelievability. It allows us to see the man for his failures and his victories. This is especially evident when Diego Luna's character enters the film. The audience might ask why Milk would stay with such a person, but he answers that very question when Scott inquires.


Gus Van Sant is a wonderfully gifted filmmaker. His film from earlier this year, Paranoid Park, is among one of my favorites of 2008. His films often have a dreamy, lucid quality to them that truly set them a part from the pack. The problem with this is when Van Sant does step back and allow his style to become a side note, his films seem to come out lacking. This is really only his third attempt at giving Hollywood a film they might like. Generally straight forward and genuinely moving. What sets Milk a part from Van Sant's other, more conventional fare is how we can see Van Sant's passion for the material. This film has a lot of heart, so much so that you can hear it pounding throughout the speakers. The problem is, even with Van Sant's passion seeping through the screen, the film does not overcome general biopic conventions. It falls prey to the who, what and where dilemma that many biopics spend too much time with. Even Van Sant's use of the opera in the third act to represent Milk's life, and politics in general, comes off a little heavy handed.

Despite it's convention the film is very moving. You can't not fall in love with Harvey. Sean Penn's performance is outstanding, and is generating a lot of awards buzz. I won't get into how deserving I think he is of that buzz except as to say I do love him in this despite his flashiness. The thing is, Milk himself was a flashy guy. He had a theatricality about him that really couldn't be denied. Penn does capture this and exudes it throughout the film's duration.


Milk has an ensemble cast of the greatest young crop of actors in Hollywood. From Emile Hirsch to Joseph Cross, all of these guys will be around for a long time. Another great performance, that was truly transcendent, is that of Josh Brolin. His portrayal of Dan White is mysterious. He keeps a rain cloud over much of Milk's achievements throughout. I'm sure everyone knows how this turns out in the end. What Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do with him is wonderful. While, at first, allowing us to despise the man, they then show us his utter confusion and we can sympathize with him. At the moment before he pulls off his last big scene, we see him sitting on his couch in his underwear. He looks frightened as he peaks out the window. By films end we realize what he represents. He isn't set here for us to be disgusted by, or to give Milk a good protagonist(I know this is a true story so obviously he's there because this all really happened but in regards to the way in which he is placed into the film). Dan White allows us to see an individual who is so incredibly in need of Harvey Milk's hope message yet too scared to receive it.

As has been said by many, this film has come out at an opportune time with all that's currently going on in our country and more specifically California. While the film does have it's problems, I believe films like this are important, especially in the times we are currently living. We need films that can show us tragedy yet give us hope without sentimentality or sappiness. Sean Penn's directorial effort from last year, Into The Wild, did this very thing while not allowing the typical biopic conventions to overtake the films themes. Milk is such a film and should be viewed as such. Not because Van Sant has created the film in such a way that it's obvious he wanted the story to take precedent to any kind of cinematic or stylistic device possible, which isn't a bad thing. This is simply why James Franco grounds the film. This film is not an exercise in subtlety, but Franco's performance truly is.

3 comments:

FilmDr said...

Nice review, Shawn. I haven't seen Milk yet, but I hope to if it ever shows around here. Franco was memorable in Pineapple Express, although I have been surprised by how many best film lists that movie has popped up on.

Dead Pan said...

I agree, Pineapple Express, though slightly entertaining, seemed to fall flat in the end to me. I hope you do get to see Milk sometime soon. I'm sure it'll make it around there if it gets nominated for Best Picture.

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