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Film Review: Milk

August 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Milk (2008; Directed by Gus Van Sant)

I will break with the arthouse orthodoxy on this one and declare my opinion on Gus Van Sant’s widely-praised and award-showered Milk to be decidedly mixed. And more than anything, the single element that pushed me to a middling review is the one that was most widely praised: Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk.

I’ll give the film credit where it’s due. Van Sant’s painstaking re-creation of the gay hub of Castro Street in 1970s San Francisco is magnificent, mixing archival footage with period dressings and cinematographer Harris Savides’ vibrant but gritty colour palette. The combination of passion and desperation that drove the gay political movement in the ’70s is given a full and powerful voice throughout as well.

There are many good supporting performances, from Emile Hirsch’s whip-smart Cleve Jones to James Franco’s laid-back dreamer Scott Smith. Josh Brolin’s Dan White steals his allotted slice of the film, even though he must contend with a flippant and simplistic suggestion that his character was a closeted homosexual and committed the assassinations of Milk and Mayor Moscone out of some transmuted sense of sexual rejection. Despite this conceit, Brolin layers in a complex portrayal of a traditional American man who feels the earth shifting beneath his feet and can find no one to throw him a life-preserver. It’s a further step forward from his brash George W. Bush, and marks him as an actor doing some of the best work out there right now.

But I just can’t quite get behind Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk or the corny feel-good progressivism the film sees him as representing. Penn is what he is and makes no compromises: he’s the bete-noire of the anti-Hollywood right-wing and will not shift his feet from where he stands, no matter how much the wingnuts grind their gears. But he’s still overrated as an actor, his most-praised performances coming off as invariably self-serious propaganda for inclusiveness swathed in distracting mannerisms and affectations. I have no doubt that, on the surface, Milk came off very much as Penn portrays him here, but the depths go unsounded.

Part of that is the doing of Dustin Lance Black’s script (also an Oscar-winner), which turns Harvey Milk into a pure embodiment of the gay rights movement. Though Van Sant shows us upheavals in his personal life, he barely flinches in the face of them: the cause is all. His martyrdom becomes all that much more Christ-like as Harvey Milk embodies the movement, and his murder becomes a synecdoche for all of the myriad malevolent forces that sought to repress gays. It’s all too tidy and hardly challenging. Shrewd political gamesmanship was a key part of Milk’s impact on the gay rights initiative, and his sharp eye for media spectacle is elided here. There’s inherent conventional-biopic drama in the narrative arc of Milk’s political journey, but the technical elements and spirited portrayals distract from how plodding and telegraphed Van Sant’s deployment of this drama is. Milk‘s content – gay life and its social challenges – and its rich vein of current-affairs applicability lends the film a masque of risque iconoclasm and edgy cultural chic that Van Sant’s unimaginative aesthetic approach doesn’t fully earn on its own.

With all of this seeking to hold him back, it’s perhaps laudable that Penn finds the strength to soldier on and make his Harvey Milk into a human being at all. But in the same year as an iconic comedic film (Ben Stiller’s keen satire Tropic Thunder) honed in mercilessly on Penn’s smug liberal appropriation of a minority identity in I Am Sam, it seems cognitively-dissonant to invest such immense merit in a performance of his that operates on the same basic methodology that was being viciously (and accurately) satirized. Cultural circumstances conspired to make Milk (and Milk) into the first spear of today’s gay rights struggles, and its profile became inflated as a result. But it behooves me to state that one can be a full supporter of gay rights (of human rights, ultimately) without likewise being of the opinion that Milk is a great film. And, to my mind, the way Van Sant’s film so thoroughly melds both its subject and ultimately itself with the gay rights movement is a big reason why it fails to be great.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Hobbit Trilogy, Peter Jackson and the Artistry of Excess

August 1, 2012 4 comments

The big Hollywood movie-development news of the week came courtesy of Peter Jackson’s Facebook page. There, the Oscar-winning director announced that the two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit that he and his crew of thousands just recently finished shooting in New Zealand would now be stretched to three movies. From the fleshed-out details mentioned by Jackson, the additional running time would be spent filling in details from the Middle-Earth of the Hobbit era, such as the exploits of Gandalf, Radagast, and the White Council in their assault on the mysterious Necromancer (an early moniker for the Dark Lord Sauron) and his stronghold in Mirkwood Forest. More than anything, it gives the impression that Jackson will be seriously fleshing out a fairly brief narrative with as much supplementary appendix material and whole-cloth invention as he can muster (and has the rights to).

Do good things come in threes?

Diligent Tolkien film nut Andrew O’Hehir explores whether this expansion of The Hobbit into a catch-all prequel trilogy is a good idea or not in an article at Salon. He nicely covers the underappreciated manner in which Tolkien himself tweaked his lighter initial children’s book to accord with the more serious tone of his Lord of the Rings trilogy (such as a 1950s edit that has Gollum curse all Bagginses when Bilbo bilks his Precious, for example, rather than slough it off and return to his dinner of blind cave fish or what have you, as in the original text).

The piece does include some factual hiccups, mind you. O’Hehir refers to unsubstantiated rumours about new characters being added by Jackson, when a brief perusal of the IMDB page for the films or a scan of LOTR fan news site TheOneRing.net would show for a fact that Evangeline Lilly has been cast as a female warrior elf and both Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom are reprising their roles from the Rings films, though none of these characters appear in the book itself. Still, his conclusions are mostly hard to quibble with: it could work, and it could not, but the fact that it’s happening shows how thoroughly the mild professor’s creation has passed out of the hands and of him and his heirs and into those of the passionate Kiwi filmmaker backed by Hollywood financing.

More than that, though, the choice to expand of these films to trilogy form is vintage Peter Jackson. As I noted in my PopMatters feature piece on his 2005 version of King Kong, Jackson is a filmmaker defined by his taste for cinematic excess, as well as his ability to marshal it with skill and artistry while also being occasionally overwhelmed by its scope of possibilities. Just as The Return of the King ventured into over-indulgence by its closing throes (though I’m not sure he could have cut much and done the 9+ hour narrative proper justice) and Kong was harried by Jackson’s boundless ambitions for the great cinematic myth from the very start, The Hobbit film project has fallen headlong into its maker’s deep-seated desire for more, for bigger, for better. As filmgoers, we’ll now have to wait until the summer of 2014 (the planned release date of the new third film) to see if he’s succeeded in making it work and, if so, how excessively.

Categories: Film, Literature