November 24, 2008

Milk, round 2.

Milk "While not up there in the annals of transformation with Robert De Niro's poundage or Daniel Day-Lewis's palsy, Sean Penn's smile lines in Milk are a wonder," writes David Edelstein in New York. "They're not crinkles, they're furrows; they seem to stretch all the way down to his soul. As the gay activist Harvey Milk, who was shot to death in 1978 along with the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, the volatile Penn is unprecedentedly giddy. There's anger in his Milk, but it never festers - it's instantly channeled into political action."

Updated through 11/28.

"In making this movie, [Gus] Van Sant is forced to wrestle with the assorted pieties built into three high-minded genres," writes David Denby in the New Yorker: "not just the bio-pic but also the fallen-martyr saga and the social-protest statement.... Van Sant wants to tell the political story accurately and in detail, but Milk is anything but starchy.... Some sort of sexual mischief is almost always playing out around the edges of the action, and, at the center of the picture, Milk comes across as an idiosyncratic man, a rule-bound New York Jew who finds his calling in the beautiful and sensually relaxed Mediterranean-style city. The gay leader becomes a superb pol with a human-rights agenda, and the movie offers a mildly subversive suggestion: attracting the electorate is not all that different from picking up a young man in the subway. Charm, persistence, and articulate passion are required for both."

For the Los Angeles Times, Rachel Abramowitz talks with Van Sant.

Earlier: Round 1 and a special issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Updates: "We can speculate all we want about the caginess of Milk's promotional campaign, whether the film's clear-headed sense of protest could have been used to fight Proposition 8 in California had Gus Van Sant's biopic about Harvey Milk been released, say, a month or two earlier, but Milk himself wouldn't have wanted us to dwell on what could have been." Ed Gonzalez in Slant: "Instead, he would have urged us to focus on what lies before us, and if Van Sant's film gets anything right, it's the manner in which it acknowledges and celebrates the slain activist's social, spiritual foresight, his fierce desire for change and refusal to be dogged by defeat, his understanding that his day in the sun would eventually come."

Nick Schager: "From its loving portrait of 1970s San Francisco (its outrageous fashions treated nonchalantly and its story free of the usual period-music montages) to its even-handed treatment of Milk's assassin, city government colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin), Milk engenders engagement through unfussy directness, a quality that also allows its piercing present-day parallels - Milk's repeated calls for 'hope,' and his fight against a California proposition aimed at criminalizing homosexuality - to resonate with the force of a ten-ton hammer."

"The movie revisits a pivotal and still-relevant era in Bay Area history and, more so than last year's Zodiac, deserves to be seen and discussed by local filmgoers," writes Michael Fox for SF360. "I interviewed Van Sant and the young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who are collaborating next on an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Haight-Ashbury-fueled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the day after the film's star-studded premiere at the Castro Theatre."

For the Oregonian, Kristi Turnquist talks with James Franco and Gus Van Sant.

IFC's Alison Willmore talks with Rob Epstein about The Times of Harvey Milk.

Update, 11/25: "Some are likely to view Van Sant's movie as a crushing rejoinder to Prop 8, others as an Obama allegory, and then there will be those who see it simply as a flawed but expertly assembled biopic," writes Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE. "Each viewer's reaction to Milk will likely depend on his or her political orientation and investment in its subject; when a film speaks so directly to its culture and its moment - even if its timeliness is coincidental - how could it be otherwise?"

"Penn manages to get some energy going in his public speeches, especially when he's riling up a crowd in the Castro, the gay area of San Francisco where Milk served as unofficial Mayor and then elected official, and he has nice moments of physical schtick that involve subtle, queeny eye flares and dainty hand gestures," writes Dan Callahan. "Penn even reaches for Brando-esque tragedy in the last scenes, but the straightforward corniness of the script foils all his actorly nuances."

Also at the House Next Door, Lauren Wissot: Milk "is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former 'radical' who learned to work within - even to embrace - the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes - no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors."

And via the House, Marshall Fine looks back: "Watching Gus Van Sant's moving new film, Milk, I was shocked to see a tiny piece of my own personal history - the face of a person whose very name had embedded itself in my life more than 30 years ago - appear on the screen, along with Sean Penn and the rest of the terrific cast. There she was: Anita Bryant, speaking out about 'the homosexual agenda.'" Parts 1 and 2.

For IFC, Aaron Hillis talks with Van Sant "about Harvey Milk's philosophy, Proposition 8's bittersweet effect on Milk, and how his film resembles The Godfather."

The Oregonian's Shawn Levy finds "Van Sant's personal stamp all over it. There's Harris Savides's cinematography, which imposes grit and realism on the picture and keeps it from slipping into fantasy or reverie. There's the spectacle of a makeshift community of outsiders banding together as a family (in this case, the friends and activists who bolster Milk's career). And there is extraordinary acting all around, from veterans of proven caliber (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin), to younger players who haven't fully realized their potential (Emile Hirsch, James Franco), to famous amateurs cast with eerie aptness (producer Howard Rosenman, artist Jeff Koons). For a big movie, it's homey: an unmistakable quality of every film Van Sant has ever made."

"I hate, hate, hate bio-pics," begins Drew Morton at Dr Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope, but "I found Milk, like Che, to provide a refreshing take on the genre."

Updates, 11/26: Milk "is the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "This is not faint praise, by the way, even though 2008 has been a middling year for Hollywood. Milk is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Mr Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before."

"Gus Van Sant has never been a risk-averse filmmaker, but he directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "The quintessential 21st-century Gus Van Sant movie has been a boldly experimental death-trip. Elephant and Paranoid Park both fractured chronology, Gerry and Last Days distended duration, but all revolved around young protagonists whose mortality was never less than self-evident. Milk, too, has a doomed protagonist, but what's experimental here is Van Sant's faith in the old-fashioned vérités: Content trumps form as communal solidarity redeems individual sacrifice."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir remembers the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, coming just nine days after the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown "as the second half of a traumatic double whammy - a regionally and culturally specific version of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor":

There are an awful lot of things to say about Milk, and it's a film that, for anyone who knows the history of these events, will bump into a bunch of questions it isn't remotely equipped to answer.

Milk was never going to be just another movie, and in a season marked by the simultaneous election of our first black president and the enactment of a gay-marriage ban in California, it's in danger of becoming primarily a symbol or a statement, and not a movie at all. (For instance, there is an announced boycott of Cinemark theaters showing the film, because of the chain owner's purported anti-gay politics.) But let's say the simplest things first: This is an affectionately crafted, celebratory biopic about a sweet, shrewd, hard-assed, one-of-a-kind historical figure. And they can just FedEx the Oscar to Sean Penn's house right now, so that we don't have to listen to his acceptance speech.

Milk "is an elegantly constructed, emotionally volatile piece of storytelling, which combines agitprop how-to with classic tragedy," writes Amy Taubin for Artforum. "It begins with the death of the hero foretold and ends with a proper mix of pity, terror, and catharsis - the whole schmear, as Harvey might have said. At its center is the most life-embracing performance Sean Penn has given since his irresistible, star-making turn as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).... I can understand how one might see Van Sant's barely carnal representation as a cop-out, but since I'm not keen on seeing people fucking their brains out on screen, I really didn't mind. Rather, I chalked it up both to sensibility (Van Sant's movies are modest even when they're most desirous) and to a political strategy akin to Harvey's, when he cut his hair and donned a suit before beginning his campaign for public office."

"The real Harvey Milk's lanky stance, queeny mannerisms and honking Noo Yawk accent aren't just fodder for a typical Oscar-friendly dead celebrity impression - they're pushing this actor out of his gloomy old comfort zones," writes Sean Burns. "There's such a feeling of playfulness and joy in this performance, I dare say Sean Penn hasn't been this much fun to watch since Fast Times at Ridgemont High or at the very least Carlito's Way.... Milk is nothing if not an impassioned plea for tolerance and acceptance, and as such, logic dictates that the film should play as a conventional crowd-pleaser." Also in the Philadelphia Weekly: Matt Prigge's list of six "mainstream American films with an openly gay lead character."

"[T]he cast of reenactors often look like they've been edited into the liberally used stock footage through the miracle of reverse shots and close-up inserts, like Raymond Burr in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! or something," grumbles Mark Asch in the L Magazine. "This was shot on location?"

"There's nothing terribly wrong with Milk, it's just that its celebration of a culture and a neighborhood, its valentine to the early days of gay rights activism, is mostly more conventional than compelling," finds Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times.

"Look for Penn to scoop up mad awards-season praise, all the more deserved if his inspiring turn fires up a new generation to follow in Milk's footsteps," writes Cheryl Eddy in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

"FilmInFocus looks at the people who dedicated themselves to Milk's cause and find out what happened to them following Milk's tragic death in 1978."

"[I]f in the end the film's accidental timing helps to speed along the current fight for equal rights, that's a good thing," writes Karina Longworth at the SpoutBlog. "But if such real-world issues weren't on the table - if the film wasn't being asked to do triple-duty as biopic, Oscar contender and teaching tool - I wonder if the life and death of Harvey Milk is something that should have been tailored for mass consumption if it means tailoring the story to fit the pre-existing biopic mold?"

"[W]hy did the movie leave me so cold?" Christopher Orr asks out loud in the New Republic. "Largely, I suppose, it is a question of belatedness. Milk was murdered 30 years ago. The exceptional The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for Best Documentary 24 years ago. The Dead Kennedys recorded their Dan White-themed 'I Fought the Law (and I Won)' 21 years ago. Yet, all this time later, after the world has shifted under our feet, Hollywood wants us to applaud its courage for finally - finally - telling this story? Really?"

Online viewing tip. At FilmInFocus, Jenni Olsen introduces her new short: "The visuals of 575 Castro St. (the play of light and shadow upon the walls of the Castro Camera set for Gus Van Sant's Milk) hearken back to those gay short films of the 70s: The films that passed through Harvey Milk's hands to be processed and developed."

"Milk, for all its admirable qualities, doesn't transcend the problems inherent to biopics; it loses some of its power to the same lumpy conventionality that scotches most cinematic attempts at portraiture," finds Scott Tobias at the AV Club.

"Milk resonates with uncanny depth, faithfully representing a bygone era while subtly tapping into the current one," writes Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post.

"It's full of inspiration and aspiration, but at the same time, it never kids itself - or us - about the tricky, twisty ways of modern American urban politics," writes James Rocchi at Cinematical. "It's a sincere plea for equality that doesn't ignore the challenges of prejudice and fear. It celebrates past victories and speaks to current struggles; it mourns devastating losses and is still a hymn to hope.... Milk is adult and intelligent in ways many films are not, and it's rousing and enthralling in a way few films are. It's a minor miracle of sheer film making joy and determination, and one of the best American films of 2008."

"Milk's death was not just a tragedy for gays in San Francisco," writes Gary Barlow for In These Times. "In his rise to power, he also became a champion for the city's Chinese-Americans, union workers, the elderly and people being squeezed out of their neighborhoods by developers, speculators and downtown corporate interests. With much to say in a two-hour film, Black's script manages only to hint broadly at these aspects of Milk's career." Still: "'It's not my election I want, it's yours,' Milk once said. 'It will mean that a green light is lit that says to all who feel lost and disenfranchised that you can now go forward. It means hope and we - no - you and you and you and, yes, you, you've got to give them hope.' He did, and the film not only reminds us of that hope, it also rekindles a bit of it for a new generation. There could be no better tribute to Harvey Milk than that."

Jeffrey M Anderson caught the world premiere in San Francisco "and Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and actors Penn, Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill assembled the next day for a group press conference, rather than individual interviews. Greecine sat in on the event and recorded Brolin's typically boisterous comments."

Van Sant and Black "pull off something very close to magic," writes Dana Stevens. "They make a film that's both historically precise (allowing for a few compressions and ellipses, Milk follows the same arc as Randy Shilts's biography The Mayor of Castro Street) and as graceful, unpredictable, and moving as a good fiction film - that is to say, a work of art."

Also in Slate, Dennis Lim: "Amid all the ruminations about Milk's eerie relevance and the talk of life mirroring art mirroring life, two questions have come up repeatedly: How does Proposition 8 change the meaning - the symbolic significance as well as the real-world function - of Milk? And if the film had found an audience early enough, could it have made a difference?"

For Time, Richard Corliss looks back to when the "dominant pop culture certified homophobia":

And when a film did take a compassionate approach to homosexuality, the mainstream press could pounce on it with cavalier ignorance and captious contempt. A review of the British drama Victim, about a barrister fighting the law that made homosexuality a criminal offense, took offense at the movie's "implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice. ... Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself. 'I can't help the way I am,' says one of the sodomites in this movie. 'Nature played me a dirty trick.' And the scriptwriters, whose psychiatric information is clearly coeval with the statute they dispute, accept this sick-silly self-delusion as a medical fact." The review, headlined, "A Plea for Perversion?", appeared in the Feb 23, 1962, issue of Time magazine.

"As a history lesson, Gus Van Sant's bio pic does a fine job," writes Marcy Dermansky. "As an engaging narrative, despite Penn's appealing performance, Milk is less successful."

Milk is "a dispassionate piece of work that I suspect will have the firebrand emotion it so sorely lacks foisted upon it by preached-to choirs and blubbering bleeding hearts stoked by the passage of Proposition 8 and its ilk," writes Keith Uhlich for UGO. "Bad art serves no one, but the reach for significance is often enough to proffer a pat-on-the-back and an affirmative nod, as if 'attempt' and 'achievement' were suddenly synonymous terms of action."

"If you live in a city or town with a gay neighborhood large enough for its own theater, see it there," suggests Sheerly Avni at Truthdig. "After the credits roll - and yes, you'll stay through the credits, weeping and clapping - take advantage of the fact that for a minute Milk will have done for that crowd what Harvey Milk did for the Castro district: help transform a group of isolated individuals into a community. Scan that community for cute strangers. Smile, strike up a conversation, and then invite them back to your place to share some cheap merlot and watch the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, by Robert Epstein... because these two films belong together."

And for indieWIRE, Peter Knegt talks with Epstein.

Updates, 11/28: "[T]he lion's share of credit for Milk's success belongs to star Sean Penn, whose devotion to the film helped secure its production, and whose performance in the title role is a major accomplishment: quietly amazing, simultaneously lived-in and spontaneous, his best ever." On the same page with David Schmader's review for the Stranger is a piece from Eli Sanders: "The cold fact is that gay-rights advocates, for all their outrage and action after Prop 8 passed, were not able to successfully implement the simple lessons of the Milk-led victory over Prop 6: Talk to your opponents, win over as many of them as you can on the merits of your argument, and, because you'll never win them all over, do everything in your power to expand your urban base and drive your core supporters to the polls."

JR Jones in the Chicago Reader: "By capturing Milk as a person, the movie helps all viewers empathize and find common cause with him; by observing Milk as a politician, it offers activists a practical lesson in the use of power 30 years after his death."

David Ehrenstein talks with Van Sant for the LA Weekly.

"[T]his movie was really about two gay men and the journey between them," writes Andrew Sullivan. "The two gay men are Harvey Milk and Dan White. The two gay men are Barney Frank and Ted Haggard. The two gay men are Tony Kushner and Larry Craig. The two gay men are Frank Kameny and Roy Cohn. And as the years have passed by and HIV churned the gay world as powerfully as plagues and wars often do, these polarities were complemented by any number of variations in between. What I've tried to express in my life is that there is a part of both these traditions within me and within most gay people."

"Let's pace Milk with each stage of Van Sant's career." Armond White in the New York Press.

"The struggle, in case you need reminding, is long," writes Duncan Shepherd in the San Diego Reader. "The struggle continues. However useful as pep rally or memorial service, though, the film comes up short as drama, relying altogether too much on Position Statements, Slogans, Bromides, primarily through the protagonist's stump speeches and a serialized in-the-event-of-my-death tape recording that ties the narrative together."

Milk "serves both the man and the mythology dutifully," writes Gabriel Shanks, "but more importantly, it tells its tale artfully, finding operatic resonance in Milk's populist crusades and exploring sexuality with sensitivity (while not, it should be noted, leaving out the actual sex)."

"The movie represents a giant stride back [for Van Sant] in the direction of conventional filmmaking, both in terms of cinematic style and its approach to historical truth," writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at November 24, 2008 1:42 AM


I really enjoyed Penn's performance in MILK, he certainly showed a different side, i watched this last week, my fab friend seems to get copies of all sorts of films and brings them round, great! She turned up with this and LIFELINES by Rob Margolies, was quite an emotional evening with a strong, coincidental theme of sexuality. Lifelines is all about the repercussions following a father confessing to his family that he is gay and is leaving...
Heart wrenching stuff, but amusing at the same time, due to the unique black comedy undertone

Posted by: Jesse at November 26, 2008 10:20 AM

I read the reviews. I am going to see the movie soon. I must say some of the negative ones were funny. There is this crowd who never seem to like anything others like. What is that? I suppose its a way to be noticed. Hate what others like as you aren't in the crowd. I certainly noticed them. I find them boring and annoying at the same time so that's good I guess. Boring because they are predictable like rain. Annoying for the same metaphor.

Posted by: Craig at November 28, 2008 10:51 PM