06 January 2009

Muriels: Milk

starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna
written by: Dustin Lance Black
directed by: Gus Van Sant

Let's be honest, Milk is pretty much your standard, Oscar-bait bio pic. Sure, it's better made than most, but it certainly isn't in the same league as I'm Not There. Gus Van Sant does a good job mixing media in ways that so many of these things ignore, and perhaps in that regard, the film is special, but only marginally so. Milk, like so many bio pics, is an actor's showcase, and the acting here is good across the board. Sean Penn is marvelous as Harvey Milk, with a smile that seems to come from deep in his soul, and James Franco gives probably his best performance as Milk's long-time lover. Emile Hirsch is good, occasionally very good, but there's more than one scene where you can see that he's "Acting" and the effort is distracting.

The Diego Luna sub-plot is annoying and detracts from the film (and I'm a Luna fan). The core relationship of the film is the Penn/Franco one, so to spend so much time on Luna feels excessive. Show us how Luna affects Penn/Franco, how he affects the movement, rather than just letting him derail things. And, of course, that's how it happened, but that doesn't mean the film has to focus on it for a half hour.

One thing the critics have been talking about is how Milk so neatly dovetails with recent history, but I don't know if that's something you can credit the film for, or just some happy accident. The script by Dustin Lance Black is pretty ham-fisted, hitting the symbolism harder than needed, and it doesn't take much for an audience to make the connection between Prop 6 and Prop 8, especially when they essentially cover the same issue. I mean, how could you miss it?


jesús cortés said...

I liked the film very much. I´m afraid that many have been putting down the film even without buying the Theatre ticket... it´s the comeback to golden Hollywood after being a bad and strange boy, you know.
I think Van Sant have done, maybe for the first time a wholly complete movie, with classic narrative and this last decade new impulse in freelance cinema. It´s not his best ("Paranoid Park", "Gerry"... were better) but a very good feature.

jayclops said...

As much as Harvey Milk was a living person like Bob Dylan was, I guess there's really an entirely different thread as to how the biopics were approached because both figures are entirely different. Haynes' approach to I'm Not There I think was more "in tuned" to who Dylan was. And I'm not saying that Milk was more a traditional figure than Dylan, but it is through the movement, through the lives of the people he's touched or inspired or changed, that we see him not just who he was as a public figure but as an emblem of change. I think both relationships with Scottie (Franco) and Luna (I forgot his real name in the film) were essential because it shows different sides to Milk as a lover and more so as a gay man, and of course these are two people who really played a big part in Milk's life. Nice blog here! :-D

lucas mcnelly said...

Naturally, a Dylan film is going to be different than a film about just about anyone, since he plays with his own biography so much. The "auto-biography" he wrote is fascinating in so many ways.

The I'm Not There comparison is really more a statement on how many risks Haynes took in that film and how few Van Sant took in comparison, especially when you consider how willing he usually is to tell convention to go fuck itself. So, for him to play it so safe is a little sad.

Then again, Oscars are shiny. Who doesn't want one?

With Luna, I think there had to be a better way to get that point across without derailing the film. I mean, sure, he's a real person, etc., etc., but my good friend Matt Reed often makes a point about book adaptations that applies here: what do I care if that's what happened in the book? I'm watching the movie.

Historical fidelity is all well and good, but the film has to hold up all by itself, you know?