Milk — movie review — early!
Posted on December 4, 2008 by Kris Nelson
We missed the special screening for Milk in October because of my retardedness, but we knew we had to see it in the Castro theatre, newly refurbished for the filming in Spring, and where Milk has been playing early before it’s nationwide release on Friday December 5th. See it there if you can! —Kris
If you know me, you probably know of my love for Gus van Sant. He can take unconventional matter, a half-baked story, sometimes even non-actors, and, with a generous dollop of DP Harris Savides’ ethereal magic, usually creates unassuming depth and warmth. Usually. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Milk wasn’t a good movie, it’s just that it wasn’t a great movie.
First of all, the aforementioned brilliant cinematography was well, dull; emphasizing that everything is extremely straightforward. Milk also merges archival footage with fake-fade washed-out personal shots, which was well-done, albeit sans pomp or pop. Apart from the clever usage of reflections (metal, television screens, windows) and a harkening to My Own Private Idaho shots of frolic and flat split-screen grids, the gift of subtle was far too overwhelming, or underwhelming in this case. Some of the shots and edits were downright awkward. Even Danny Elfman was not his “signature” self, proving his composition prowess with swooning strings and grandiose orchestral overtures, akin to Harvey’s adoration of opera (Tosca is popular this season; also featured in Quantum of Solace).
Milk is a linear timeline of charismatic businessman turned political activist/politician Harvey Milk, a man spilling jovial, bordering goofy, with a surplus of obstinate determination — enough so to alienate the people who love him the most. Set in the Castro district of San Francisco in the late 70s, a time when being openly gay meant persecution by law, family, proletariat, a time when religious fervor fueled irrational political proceedings, where states voted to revoke the rights of homosexuals, or even friends of homosexuals. Harvey Milk was intelligent and outspoken, and if it’s one thing our country hates, it’s someone who makes sense and isn’t afraid to tell others that they aren’t. But it wasn’t a crazed Christian who assassinated Harvey Milk, it was someone who was a fast friend at first, a political comrade, a confused and desperate man who, from what you can gather from the film, could not handle peer pressure and Twinkies, apparently.
With such a talented cast and such a passionate main character, I’m amazed that van Sant didn’t display a single drop of his charm for Milk. Of course Sean Penn did a lot of the grunt work (you can take that literally due to Harvey’s playfully raunchy nature), but his relationships waned without warmth. Perhaps there was just too much to say in such a short time (although I felt the campaigning scenes needed a trim), but it felt very “made for TV movie” near the end, where you know it’s supposed to be sad, yet it’s a very superficial woe, meaning I welled up, but didn’t bawl. And perhaps that was the intention all along; to reveal honest slices of an incredible leader’s journey against injustice efficiently and chronologically rather than rosy and romanticized. In fact, it was reminiscent of Gandhi in that sense, where it’s mostly an informative biopic rather than a beautiful epic.
Call me crazy, but when it’s coming from the person that supplied a Waiting for Godot-esque quality tug-o-war between capricious and cautious in the amazingly surreal yet realistic Gerry, I expected more.
Kudos for including ever social-sardonic artist Jeff Koons as side character/Milk’s political opponent Art Agnos (my head spins with the irony – especially with ex-wife Cicciolina’s past foray into Italian politics as well), but James Franco only got stoned once? Get outta here.
It pains me to write a far from glowing review for one of my favorite directors, but even though I would recommend at least renting this film due to the content and performances, and I’m sure Gus van Sant will receive acclaim as a reward for his “polite” authorship, I have to say that I am immensely surprised that Milk could be quite dry.
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