12 December 2008

I Drink Your 'MILK'-shake (2008)

Sometimes, it's best to just come out and admit that you can't be 100% objective about a film, and as much as I'd like to be able to analyze Milk on a purely intellectual level, I really can't. Here is a film perfectly suited to its time and place. Here is a film that speaks to the anger, the drive, and the hope for something better. Here's a film that makes you want to act, makes you want to do SOMETHING.

That's not to say their isn't a level of technical achievement present, because there certainly is. Gus Van Sant quite successfully blends news and archived footage into the narrative that grounds the film in its time and place. Aided by a screenplay written by Dustin Lance Black, he does a great job of setting the film amidst the backdrop of the 1970s San Francisco without having to resort to clunky asides or random historical references. Milk is set in the past, but it feels as present as if it were set in 2008.

I haven't always been the biggest fan of Sean Penn, but this is an undoubtedly great performance. Similar to Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, Harvey Milk is a character who could come off overly cheery or mannered in the hands of an actor who isn't completely committed to the humanity at the heart of the person. He spends a great deal of the film surrounded by much younger actors, but the youthful vibrancy and charm he uses in the performance make it easy to believe so many people would be drawn to and inspired by him.

If, perhaps, the film as a whole does not flesh out these surrounding characters as much as the man himself, Van Sant was smart enough to fill Milk with a skilled ensemble that is more than up to the task. Josh Brolin, in a role largely absent from the film's first half that still looms tall over the film's narrative, is given the difficult task of hinting at the psychology behind Dan White's actions without ever being given a scene to verbalize them. And though I'm not quite sure I completely bought his drunken tirade near the film's end, it's great to see him continue to his string of impressive performances. I was similarly impressed with James Franco and Emile Hirsch who never get lost amongst the film's sprawling cast. Diego Luna is, I know, taking some flack for his performance, but I don't think there was anyway to win a character like that. And in a performance that I've heard NO ONE talk about, Alison Pill has a memorable turn as Harvey's campaign manager and delivers a small, poignant moment in her last shot of the film that really struck a chord with me.

And speaking of great ensembles . . .

There was a lot of '70s era hotness going on in this movie. Like, not only did we get lots of James Franco's midriff and a brief look at his ass, but Emile Hirsch was rocking those tight bell bottoms, and whatever costume designer was painting those slacks onto Joseph Cross every morning did a bang up job. A job I'd very much like to have.

Anyway . . . what was I saying? Right.

Milk is up-lifting, funny, tragic, and couldn't have come at a more prescient time. Does it get overly cute and literal in parts? Sure (I'm speaking specifically of a pair of phone calls he receives from a young teen and an opera metaphor). But did those moments get to me? You betcha. As the last scene unrolled and an endless line of candles filled the San Francisco streets, I knew the film had me.

If a film can work (at least for me) on such a visceral level, somebody is doing something right.


Michael Parsons said...

Cannot wait to see this...love a tight jean on a man!

RJ said...

Then you will like this movie.

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