Reviews of Milk
Displaying all 7 reviews
As Milk got going I thought it was moving a bit too fast. The whole of Harvey’s pre-activist life was condensed into about 30 minutes which I felt didn’t give enough context to his transition into such an all-consuming political career. His motives were explained pretty briefly in an unbelievable first encounter with Scott in a train station. The only reason we’re given for his dramatic life-turn is “I need a change”. I was also pretty pissed off that gay women received little, if any, attention and the only lesbian character is largely derided by her male counterparts. These however are pretty much the only gripes I have with the film.
Sean Penn was incredible as Harvey Milk, playing the role with just the right amount of intensity and conviction, never verging on being overblown or grandiose. The supporting cast too were spot on and almost stole the show – Emile Hirsch was great as the disaffected spoilt brat turned master campaigner Cleve and James Franco gave a wonderful performance as Scott, Harvey’s soulmate who, although supportive, ultimately couldn’t handle the strain his new-found career was putting on their relationship. Kudos also to Diego Luna who played the vulnerable and tragic Jack Lira.
Despite initial reservations, Milk has turned out to be literally one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Stellar performances and overall great direction from Gus Van Sant make this a moving homage to an activist who gave thousands of gay Americans hope and opportunity.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Harvey Milk was the first openly homosexual man elected to notable public office in America. Is it any coincidence that he was assassinated after one year? The jury that prosecuted Dan White, Milk’s slayer, certainly thought so, though I would say it’s a rather incredible coincidence. 30 years later and for the second time, we revisit the path that led to Harvey’s death to try and make sense of it. This particular interpretation makes generous use of one of Harvey’s pet theories that City Supervisor Dan White was a closet homosexual. This is perhaps quite a license for the filmmakers to take, but then it is their view of Milk’s world. Starting from the beginning, Sean Penn gives us a very heartfelt and lovable performance as the eponymous Milk, now 40 years old and still unsettled. Relocating with boyfriend Scott Smith (Franco) to San Francisco, Milk, a natural politician and smiley extrovert, immediately became a voice for the underprivileged minorities of the city and turned the now notorious Castro district into a compassionate haven for all gays in America. Facing dissent from all quarters, Milk and his lovable band of misfits (Hirsch, Luna, Pill) began a vigorous campaign to have him elected to public office as City Supervisor for his district and it is clearly a testament to Milk’s positivity that it took him five years and as many campaigns to finally achieve his goal. Milk fought for gay rights, and for the rights of any underprivileged minority, at every opportunity, and, now able to see above the impenetrable haze of the lower classes, set his sights on the most powerful and virulent opponents to his cause: outspoken pop singer Anita Bryant (only seen here in existing media footage) and Orange County legislator John Briggs and his dreaded Briggs Initiative (a.k.a. Prop 6) which would’ve fired all California teachers who were openly gay and all faculty members who supported them. The bill represented an embarrassing level of insecurity and ignorance within our government; to Harvey’s rapture was defeated. And with this goliath slain, who would’ve suspected Milk to be defeated by a desperate and frustrated colleague? Former pugilist and firefighter Dan White, played by consummate and successful Brolin, snuck into City Hall, vengeance in tow, to dispute his own resignation from office with the mayor, and for christ’s sake, killed the mayor and Milk. This baffling act of despair silenced Milk forever and White spent five years in prison, then returned to San Francisco (despite the new mayor’s formal request for him not to return – ouch), and a year later committed suicide. The court case that sentenced White, and the rather ridiculous “diminished capacity” defense, were as historically resonant as the rest of Milk’s career. What an absurd legacy for a man like Milk to have left behind – though we’re told he would’ve found it entertaining.
With an academy-award winning documentary chronicling the times of Harvey Milk already behind us, what is the purpose of a fictionalized version of that account? Twofold: in order for Van Sant and young writer Black to have a forum to create a glowing tribute for Milk (i.e. to get it out of their systems), and concurrently to create a sympathetic portrait of the man. The result is sentimental and a bit forced; Milk’s story is already tragic, poignant and timely – I don’t know if it’s really necessary to indulge in Milk’s cute pillow talk or to see him weeping over Puccini to witness his humanity. The wonderful thing about the real Harvey Milk was his irrepressible joie de vivre (which is a wonderful trait for a politician to have, I’ll add); Harvey’s humanity is already abundant. Van Sant is a delicate and caring director who’d wanted this project to come about for some time now, and got his wish in spades: a highly experienced, sizable crew and a large presence of talent. Unfortunately, when his films become too large The Van Sant Experience does tend to get a bit watered-down, and it is that V.S. Experience that we watch him for. Sorry to report that the film offers nothing new, at all, in its script or aesthetics – Milk represents a group of professionals going through the motions (despite these motions being proven successes). Alas. But hey, Milk is a very nice film and a helpful reminder that there is still a moral battle at our doorstep. Personally, when I viewed the film I was struck at my feelings about this debate: that it is so very old and so very clearly over in the minds of intelligent people, as if the hands of the dead were reaching out of the ground to suffocate man’s progress. And if Milk weren’t so sappy I would feel more confident than any sane viewer would feel the same. When the film ends using the same quote that ends the former Milk documentary, one does feel a tickle that reminds us that what we witnessed was more serious than this indulgent fiction.
by David Ashley
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.
Un biopic appliqué mais profond – 19/08/2009
Oui Plume, ce biopic est relevé par la mise en scène de Gus Van Sant (aérienne, mais moins formelle et déconcertante que d’habitude) et l’interprétation saisissante de Sean Penn qui campe un Harvey Milk complexe et subtil. Une réflexion passionnante sur la naissance d’une communauté et l’affirmation de ses droits. Harvey Milk montre sans rien asséner, explique sans rien résoudre…
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.
A couple of years ago I stumbled across Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk while browsing DVD titles at the 96th St. New York Public Library. I had only the vaguest recollection that Harvey had something to do with gay rights, but I checked it out anyways (the “Best Documentary Academy Award” bump may have influenced my decision).
The Times of Harvey Milk charted Harvey’s path from a small business owner on the Castro to San Francisco city supervisor (and, of course, the first openly-gay elected official). It examined his unlikely relationship with local Teamsters forged during the Coors beer boycott, his modest achievements as city supervisor, and his efforts against California’s infamous anti-gay “Prop 6.” It also illustrated his relationship with supervisor Dan White, his assassination, and the aftermath. With honesty and frankness, Times transcended the nauseatingly formulaic “voice-of-god” documentaries of its time to weave an engrossing yarn that never exaggerated Harvey’s modest (if historic) achievements for cheap dramatics. The truth, as far as Epstein was concerned, was remarkable enough.
Apparently Van Sant disagrees. His 2008 feature film Milk transforms Harvey Milk into a MLK-esque mass leader, constantly battling establishment straights and gays alike in a cheaply poetic (and embellished) tearjerker. Not only is this one of Van Sant’s most straightforward films from a narrative point of view, it’s also his most cinematically conventional in a decade. Though lamentably littered with an array of undeveloped supporting characters, Penn’s spot-on characterization of Harvey at least helps us forget the mediocrity of his peers (I’m looking at you, James Franco).
I was most annoyed by Van Sant’s “opera” gimmick. After introducing Milk’s love for opera early on, Gus finds ways throughout the film to randomly remind us of this seemingly innocuous character trait. I kept wondering at these occasional distractions. They rarely integrated with the story and were too undeveloped to actually add any depth to Harvey. Was this simply a casualty of the cutting room? Or was Van Sant just padding the film?
We discover the answer (and Van Sant’s penchant for poor poetry) in the film’s finale: Milk’s assassination. As Milk teeters on his knees after embracing several bullets, we see his final glimpse of this world reflected in the office window: the opera house, conveniently placed across the street.
Milk kept my attention, but gimmicks like this make me wonder what the hell has gotten into the Academy. Decent film? Sure. Best picture worthy? Give me a break.
- Currently 2.0/5 Stars.
I have to admit that I forgot Gus Van Sant knew how to make films with a linear storyline. The man is a visionary with My Own Private Idaho standing as one of my personal favorites and, a little more recently, Elephant being a testament to craft succeeding beyond a need for dialogue. But of course, the film everyone loves is that Damon/Affleck darling Good Will Hunting, and I do too. Mix them all together, add some non-fiction, and you’ll come close to Milk, the real life tale of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. Here is a man that stood up for civil rights; stood up for humanity itself. A mountain of a man inside of a slight frame and genial disposition, Milk never forgot his roots or put himself ahead of the movement. The “Mayor of Castro Street” didn’t fight for issues—he fought for lives. It’s a story people need to hear; a story, not about gay rights, but about what it means to be alive, to live and breathe freely, without fear of always looking behind you. It’s about being accepted for you.
Van Sant is still not one to do things the easy way, even when his material deals with a set time period such as the final eight or nine years of someone’s life. Instead he allows our hero to be the narrator, orating a goodbye letter via cassette tape just in case one of the multiple death threats he receives happens to come true. Milk sits at his kitchen table remembering the good times and the bad, the fights won and lost, on his journey that changed history as we know it. This man single-handedly stood against the system for the gay community to finally shed their insecurities, to believe that someone was on their side. A New Yorker stuck in a dead-end job, hiding his real identity to keep work while cruising the streets and subways for sexual encounters, wakes up on his fortieth birthday to move cross-country and start it all over; this time making his life one of meaning and hopefully something to be proud of. That prophetic night in bed, with his new love and muse Scott, began a revolution that no one saw coming—not America, not the gay community of San Francisco, and definitely not Milk himself. Modest, friendly, and always willing to give his heart to those around him, there truly wasn’t anyone else quite like him.
I always say that the best bio-pics are those that deal with a specific portion of the topical person’s life. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black does this in spades. It all begins in a NYC subway, the day before he goes over the hill, continuing on into San Francisco—Milk now shrouded in long hair and beard—from a guy trying to start a camera business on a not so welcoming street to a man known across the country, inspiring lives and also saving them. All we need of his past is shown with Sean Penn’s Oscar-worthy performance and the transformation he takes as the story trucks along. You see the nervousness and fear to be himself in that subway tunnel and then also the uninhibited fervor for life as he and Scott, (a more nuanced than usual turn from James Franco), make-out on the ledge of their newly rented storefront. He arrived unwelcomed and threatened by business owners he would soon turn to his side with the amount of money thrown their way by the migrating community of homosexuals moving into the neighborhood. The unofficial leader of these young men and women, Milk breaks barriers right from the start, helping in a boycott of Coors beer and giving gays some much deserved respect. A self-proclaimed businessman, a Republican as stated by Scott, fights for the customer to receive a quality product. That mentality just continues to blossom into the political fight for rights and freedom, using that same formula to give homosexuals, the customers, a product worth their trouble, America.
Milk truly fires on all cylinders. The story is dynamite, one that I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about … besides a cursory knowledge of who Milk was and an off-handed idea of “the Twinkie defense” without actually knowing any details of it. I’ve heard a lot about the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and after checking out this film, I really want to see it to get more of the facts and see the actual people involved, moreso than the quick photos shown before the ending credits here. And the acting cannot be faulted at all … well maybe it can where Diego Luna is concerned, however, his role is meant to be over-the-top and not well liked, so in fact he might have done it perfectly. I’ve already mentioned Sean Penn, embodying this man completely, who will most definitely get a nomination, and, a nostalgic bid to give Mickey Rourke gold withstanding, probably a victory. The thing I love about Penn is that no matter how big he is in his celebrity or how recognizable his face is, when he portrays a role, it is always just the character on screen.
A large cast of faces you know and love, mixed with some up-and-comers that may trigger a memory of seeing them before, fill out the film nicely. Guys like Joseph Cross and Denis O’Hare add some authenticity and Alison Pill holds her own as really the only front and center female role. Besides Franco, though, two more men demand special mention, and they are Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin. Hirsch shines as Cleve Jones, a charismatic kid from Phoenix that, like the others around Harvey, takes to the political activism and begins to enjoy fighting for change. And then there is Brolin, continuing again in his career renaissance as the troubled Supervisor Dan White. Battling his own demons and his own identity in a community that expects certain things from him, White’s story is just as heartbreaking as Milk’s, even if he is the cause of everything tragic that occurs. It is a subtle performance that shines bright as a result.
But it isn’t all about the people, it is also very much about Van Sant’s unique visual eye. He utilizes many tricks from his repertoire: the final walk by Brolin in City Hall calling to memory Elephant’s long takes of character movement and the title cards for Milk’s campaign bearing a resemblance to Idaho’s similarly colored locale headings. However, it is the precise handling of the subject matter that shines. From the cut scenes of archival footage, real newsreels and interviews with people such as Anita Bryant, to the graphic stylings of voter punches falling through the air, to a magnificent shot mirrored off of the side of a whistle—beautiful to behold and meaningful due to the reason they were assembled for that scene to begin with—it’s all memorable. Even his use of static close-ups help tell the emotive workings of all that is going on. Whether it a moving phone call from Paul in Minnesota or an exchange with Scott during a sunrise at the end, Van Sant is at the top of his game and Milk will definitely stand as one of his finest works.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
Wonderful performances by all! Seeing the pictures of the real people surrounding Milk during his political career right after the faces of the actors in character on the closing credits was very interesting. The casting director and makeup artists did an extremely good job. Inspirational and timely with the proposition about allowing or outlawing gay marriage being in the news recently. I also thought the real news footage and photographs of the time period were well incorporated into the story. Even more powerful the second time. I’m glad Penn won the Oscar for Best Actor over all of Rourke’s success for his wrestler character because this performance was so much more meaningful.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Solid political biopic well-crafted by director Gus Van Sant, with superb performances, particularly by Sean Penn at his absolute best. It’s a good film, but not really anything exceptional – for all of its political edginess, it somewhat conventional, preachy at times, and given to moments of melodramatic schmaltz – but it’s a well-paced, character driven drama that effectively recreates its time and place. But the cinematography was surprisingly weak for such a high-profile film, with some of the interior scenes in particular looking strangely flat and underlit. Strong, if a bit conventional, score by Danny Elfman.
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.