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Non-Review Review: Milk

Finally got to sit down and watch Milk, despite it being on my DVD shelf for just over a month now. Tonnes of Oscar nominations and two wins, so it’s got a lot of hype to live up to. Was I satisfied with the latest effort from director Gus Van Sant? Was I ever.

Got Milk?

Got Milk?

Everyone probably knows that it’s a movie following the first openly gay person to hold major elected office in the USA, Harvey Milk. Most people also know that he gets shot at the end. It’s revealed thirty seconds into the movie, so I’m not spoiling it. The identity of the shooter is revealed from the boxart – I’m not sure if it’s because the movie isn’t particularly concerned with making a mystery of the matter or just that those marketing the movie wanted a gun on the cover, because guns sell DVD’s. Still, Van Sant is wise not to focus on the murder per se. Harvey’s life was far more important.

And what a life it was. The movie captures a life fully lived spectacularly fully. Helped by a solid script and a mesmorising performance by Sean Penn, Harvey seems incredibly alive. The character exists. He isn’t a bland stereotype or a man carrying a cause like a cross on his shoulders. He’s a man. It is one of the more lively biographies that I can recall Hollywood producing, simply because the movie does not dwell on the pathos. At the start, Harvey decries the fact that – at forty – he has not lived a day in his life. Van Sant manages to show us that he managed to cram more life into his last eight years than people do in a whole lifetime.

Penn is mesmorising and I do think he deserved the Oscar. Mickey Rourke was fantastic in The Wrestler, but Penn gives us a really great performance where he seems unlike any other role we’ve seen him in. And I’m not talking about the character’s sexuality – I’m talking about the emotion, the optimism and the hope. Penn is ably supported by a fantastic cast, but the standout is really Josh Brolin, who has been absolutely astounding in everything he’s done in the past year. He never fully explains his Dan White, but he doesn’t have to. White is much more interesting as a complex enigma, and Brolin gives us the portrait of a functioning human being with a serious flaw at their heart. I’m not sure I buy the ‘closeted’ explanation the movie seems to push, but it’s a particularly interesting character in a movie populated by interesting characters.

The film’s political… well, I can’t really call it subtext, as it is fairly prominent. I wish I say that the whole ‘tolerance is good’ message is overdone, but – at least in this case – it seems to be a message that bears repeating. In fairness, the message is never overbearing or particularly heavy. As mentioned above, the film is too focused on the joi de vivre that defined the movement to get bogged down with more the civil rights questions. And, as dramas about prejudice go, this is a prejudice that is still on-going (and seemed particularly relevant last year in California).

All in all, a great film.  Well worth a look and one of the stronger films of the past year.

Milk is the biography of Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) and starring Sean Penn (Mystic River, What Just Happened?), James Franco (Spiderman, Pineapple Express), Emile Hersch (Speed Racer), Josh Brolin (W., No Country for Old Men) and Victor Garber (Alias). In a rare move, it was released first in th UK and Ireland on 23rd January 2009, and a week later in the USA on 30th January 2009. It ienjoyed an earlier limited run in order to to be elligible for the Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.

4 Responses

  1. […] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and seeing younger members voting for Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. In fairness, there are three very good films included in the selection – Milk, Slumdog […]

  2. […] its message. The Dark Knight was an equally ambitious tale about morality in the modern world and Milk was obviously (albeit subtly) political. And there are dramas that deal explicitly with the days […]

  3. […] entertainment properties that it has historically disliked. There’s the on-going mess over Milk in Simoa, where the traditionally Catholic country has banned the film as subversive and the […]

  4. […] is directed by Oliver Stone (Wall Street, Platoon) and stars Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Milk), Elizabeth banks (Scrubs, Zack and Miri Make a Porno), James Cromwell (Deep Impact, Star Trek: […]

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