Sunday, December 7, 2008
Movie Review: Milk: A/A-
“Milk”, directed by Gus Van Sant, is a film that is unarguably important. Few films can reach the level of inspiration and emotion that this one does. It is impossible not to be moved at your core as you watch it, whether it is through the scenes that focus on Harvey’s success as a politician and his drive towards the gay movement or the heartbreaking moments during and following his assassination. This is not a film without flaws but compared to the film’s overall success and its astounding message, relevance and importance, "Milk" is a rare film that is a special contribution to film.
“Milk” follows the last eight years of his life, starting with his meeting Scott Smith who would be his longtime partner and Harvey’s move to San Francisco that would be where his motivation to work in politics emerges. The films framing device consists of Harvey sitting at his kitchen table as he recounts these years with a tape recorder in case he is eventually assassinated. At first this device felt a little too obvious and forced to me but eventually as its use balanced out nicely with the film, I ended up liking it. It did a nice job of compressing information in a concise way. Once things got rolling it did not stick out however it did a bit in the beginning, like a cliché of the biopic. Van Sant manages to operate within the conventions of the biopic and makes the film rise above most in the genre by doing things that I will talk about in a bit.
I need to address the other outstanding elements of the film that qualify as taking the film a step further into greatness. While these are not quite as revelatory as the 2 most important components that are coming up, there are aspects of the film that critically help make this film as good as it is. The first is Gus Van Sant’s directing. The only film that I think will have a shot of impressing me more than this will be David Fincher for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. As of right now I am rooting for Van Sant. It is remarkable how he works within a conventional narrative and adds his own experimental touches to the mix. It makes for a truly enriching experience. Take the scene soon after the start of the film when Scott and Harvey go to his place to have sex. The series of shots are extreme close ups, point of view shots, profile shots all going in and out of focus. It is one of the most interesting scenes I’ve seen in a long time and it is just one example of the magnificently eclectic use of engaging yet just subtle enough techniques that make his directing the best this year that I have seen.
I must point out a few performances that help take the film to the next level. Nearly everyone was fantastic here. James Franco gives a simply wonderful performance as Scott Smith. His smile is infectious; right away it becomes instantaneously understandable why Harvey picks him out. His performance is subtle and effective and his on screen chemistry with Sean Penn is really truly fantastic. It is nice to see him get a chance to finally shine with the films he has had this year. Alison Pil who plays the only girl in the film, aside from the Anita Bryant footage is great here too. She fits right in with everyone, easily holding her own. She is someone who I have liked for a while and she is so young yet comes off as very mature. It is great to see her in such a prominent role in such an important film. Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich needs a shout out as well. He has a small but very effective performance.
I know there is a lot of talk about who from this film will get into the Supporting Actor race. We have two candidates: Josh Brolin and James Franco with Emile Hirsch as an underdog choice. While I think James Franco did a great job and if he gets nominated I will not in any way be upset (even though I think "Pineapple Express" is the better performance) I really want Brolin and Hirsch to be the ones getting nominated. I will get to Brolin in a minute. Here is my case for Emile Hirsch. Yes, he does not have the dramatic privilege of being Milk’s lover or his killer. The contribution of the character of Cleve Jones to the story is less than these other two. But guess what he manages to do? He steals every single fucking scene he is in. I am not joking. He literally commands every second he is on screen. He creates such a memorable and distinct character; one that while he does not contribute as much story wise as these other two, adds such a unique element to the film with his presence. Just keep in mind that when I say that he steals every scene, Sean Penn is in these scenes people. But if there were more than one person in the shot and Hirsch was one of them, I was looking at him probably about 80% of the time, even if Penn was in the shot as well. I do not know how he pulled this off. I just know that I smiled so many times during this movie because of him and the sheer force of his talent continues to amaze me. The way I understand it, even though I have not seen "Into the Wild" is that Hirsch was snubbed. So I implore you, nominate him this year. He fucking rocked this movie.
Josh Brolin and the entire construction of the Dan White character was for me the most fascinating aspect of the film outside of Harvey. I need this man to be nominated. Along with Franco, Brolin is another actor who has had an amazing year and last year for that matter) His work was so fucking subtle and astounding during certain scenes. It is not just him though. I completely commend Dustin Lance Black for how this character is written, how much time he gets, how the film shows little moments that are just with him yet never gives White his own story. It is brilliant and by a considerable amount, the most successful aspect of the screenplay for me. The scene outside of the party when White approaches Milk drunk is a perfect blend of the whole “I want to laugh because some of this is funny but wait a second this is really fucked up” conundrum that sometimes arises in film. How much White says and how much he suppresses is shown so well by Brolin as he portrays a man who’s caught in an uncomfortable situation for him and who tries and fails to function within the circumstances as it clearly brings personal issues to the table for him that he has been trying to suppress. The working relationship between Milk and White was endlessly interesting and "Milk" manages to create a fascinating mini character study of Dan White through its pitch perfect use of screen time, nuanced but unforced moments, and disturbingly subtle work by Josh Brolin. He just won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor. Fuck, he deserves it. This Supporting Actor Race is so absurd I do not even know what to do with it.
The blend between Milk’s personal and political life is really well done here I think. I would have liked to see a bit more on his personal life, maybe 10 more minutes but for the most part I really appreciated how they address both in most of the scenes in some way. I also enjoy that they do not make Milk into a perfect being. I find him to be quite flawed. I was completely on the side of Scott when he singled out Dick to call his father and tell him he was gay. It was while well meaning it was also naïve and hypocritical. He has considerable flaws, he is not a saint, he was a human which makes the story more relatable to portray him as such and more inspirational because he it is a person who could accomplish this.
Ok so now for my complaints. While I thought Diego Luna did a good job as Jack Lira, this whole story felt out of place and completely underdeveloped. I do not know what could have been done. His character was annoying and I felt it was very unclear as to why he killed himself outside of him being very needy and clearly lonely. I feel like if this character was going to be introduced then at least we should get a better understanding as to what his character’s deal was. I am glad we got the line that Harvey has when he is talking to Scott about why he is with Jack. We needed it. I know he is supposed to be annoying on some level because of Cleve’s and Ann’s reactions to whenever his name is mentioned. However it just felt out of place. However despite all of this I will say that his presence was worth it for three reasons. One was his line about “I am more important than poop” which while it was their last phone conversation and I was the only one who found this funny, the line combined with Luna’s accent made this hilarious to me. More funny than I probably should have found it. Second was for the scene in which Harvey finds Lira and third is for the scene after it when he says “I could come home at 6 instead of 6:15”. These moments made Lira’s presence more than worth it even though I still think it is a messy part of the film.
I also feel that Scott Smith is a smidge underwritten. I would have actually liked to see a bit more with him as I felt that his leaving was pretty anticlimactic considering how long they had been together. The scenes involving the kid in the wheelchair should have come off as moving but for me they came off as forced and sort of hokey not to mention obvious. Of course Penn plays it perfectly, but I felt that the actor in the wheelchair was outright awful and these are the only scenes that actually took me out of the movie despite Penn steering it away from ridiculousness. Danny Elfman’s score at times worked beautifully and stunningly for that matter but there were a few times I felt it was trying to be a little too inspirational.
Now for the two aspects of the film that project "Milk" into that special unique category of films that contain an element or elements so unique that they will stand the test of time. The first it almost goes without saying is Sean Penn’s performance. I do not even know what to say about it except that it moved me to my absolute core. He reached out and grabbed my soul. His transformation into this man has to be seen to be believed. I have never seen anything quite like before. It is as good as Daniel Day Lewis’s performance last year in “There Will Be Blood”; it could be better. I am not sure. He is funny, charming, motivated, stubborn and intensely heartbreaking. There is so much subtlety going on under the very apparent transformation of Penn right from the start that it is not hard to imagine finding a whole new batch of moments each time one watches it. There are moments that destroyed me within a few seconds. His face as he watches Dan White drunkenly rant to him. His reaction to Proposition 6 not passing. Finding Jack and the scene afterwards. His speech after he gets the postcard that threatens a bullet to him the minute he stands on the stage. The scene when he dies. There are so many little moments I cannot even begin to remember them. I would equate his performance to that of a small miracle. I know Mickey Rourke seems to be the front runner right now and his performance looks to be remarkable as well if the trailer and the reviews are any indication and he has real life parallels on his side. I do not want to be against this performance in any way because it looks really moving but fuck… I really want Sean Penn to get it. Although it looks as though if Rourke wins, then Penn won’t be losing out to a performance just a lot of hype. Then there is Clint. Fuck. I wish this was not such a competitive year for Actor. It is the best performance in a film I have seen this year and I will be surprised if anything can top it honestly.
The second aspect of the film that completely elevates it is the genius decision to seamlessly incorporate archival footage of real events within the fiction of the film. This makes everything so much more authentic feeling, infinitely more moving and absolutely awe inspiring in certain moments. The images of the 30,000 people with lit candles walking in tribute to Harvey’s death was an image so moving, an image that fictional film could not produce. It sent me into near hysterics. It took all of my effort to keep from having an explosion of audible sobbing. The archival images open the film and close it, the film uses a lot of it and it could have been bad but it was so incredible. The actual Anita Bryant footage is again infinitely more effective than casting someone to play Anita Bryant. This archival footage is absolutely crucial to this film being successful to the degree it is. I do not know if it was Van Sant or Black who came up with this but it is part of the direction and is another reason why I am advocating for Van Sant for director. Even though I have seen like nothing else. I will not say he deserves it because I have not seen so much but I want it for him and its one of the best directorial efforts I’ve seen. I think it is his best directed film but I do believe "Elephant" works more completely as a film so I’d say that is still his best. Although it is close between that and "My Own Private Idaho".
In conclusion to this long winded and extreme interview, go see "Milk". It is one that will stay with you, one of the most completely fulfilling, inspirational, moving and satisfying experiences I’ve had at the movies. It has its flaws but what this film accomplishes is something remarkable, something that few can. With brilliant direction and a slew of incredible performances most notably by Josh Brolin, scene stealing Emile Hirsch and obviously Sean Penn in a performance that hits you in the gut and takes you for a ride you are not even close to ready for. "Milk" is in ways, astonishing. The rest of the audience, my boyfriend and myself united and experienced something profound together and when something like that happens it stays with you. "Milk" will stay with me.