Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.



Review by Matthew Starr

Milk begins with the title character Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) speaking into a tape recorder telling his life story in the event of his assassination.  Which turned out to be prophetic:  on November 10, 1978, Milk was shot and killed by fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White at the age of 48.  His biopic, written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Gus Van Sant, is as effective, informative and real as any biopic I have seen over the years.

Only Martin Scorsese could have directed Mean Streets. Only Steven Spielberg could have helmed Schindler’s List.   And likewise, only Van Sant could have presented the story of Harvey Milk in the manner it needed to be told. He brings a unique passion from behind the camera but at the same time is careful not to once ever get melodramatic or push anything in our face.  In his script, Black includes various anecdotes and provides details that helps not only bring Harvey Milk but the surrounding characters to life.

None of the characters here are caricatures, they are real people. This helps the audience understand the events more personally and feel like they are right there in the Castro when the events of the film are unfolding. Surely it is also pivotal that these characters are played on screen by an astonishingly talented cast. What more is there to say about Sean Penn at this point?

It is almost impossible to believe that the man playing Harvey Milk is the same actor in Mystic River, I am Sam and, yes, Fast Times at Ridgemont  High. There is a scene in this film where his character breaks down emotionally that is entirely different than his breakdown in Mystic River and other films. A lot of actors only know one way to show anger, sadness and despair. Penn literally becomes a new person in every film. He is a legendary actor.

The supporting turns are all outstanding. James Franco (as Milk’s lover Scott Smith) gives the best performance I have ever seen from him. Franco has a lot of potential and will hopefully be getting more in depth roles from now on. Emile Hirsch, another underrated actor, is great as Cleve Jones, and Josh Brolin who has been on an absolute tear for the last two years (No Country For Old Men, American Gangster, W.), is spot-on perfect as the bigoted Dan White.

Van Sant has been very up-and-down over the years (To Die For and Good Will Hunting being the up and the Psycho remake being the down). With Milk he has surpassed anything he has done before. The costume design is highly accurate and Danny Elfman provides a score that, like Van Sant’s directing, is potent but not over-the-top.

Milk is obviously coming out at a politically relevant time for its subject matter. Despite anyone’s thoughts on the topic and what’s going on nowadays, this is a moving and well-told story. It is as important artistically as it is politically.  An absolute must-see.

4 ½ / 5 stars

Review by Paul Edwards

Dustin Lance Black. Dustin Lance Black. I kept seeing that name in big bold faced letters as I sat in awe of the trailer as it rolled before one of my recent trips to the theatre to watch some faire. Why would a screenwriter have his name plastered in bigger letters then an Oscar buzzed lead actor? Well, after seeing Milk, I can tell you that for the first time since Diablo Cody (the stripper-cum-Oscar-winner), do we have a writer who is deserving of the spotlight that usually left for actors and directors. Milk is not only one of the best movies of 2008, but it is also one of the best movies for the struggle of equal rights ever made.

From the beginning, we see a new Sean Penn. Penn portrays Harvey Milk, the title character in this Gus Van Sant masterpiece. This is probably the most clichéd statement around, but Penn becomes the embodiment of Harvey. I could picture no other actor that could pull off this role. Over Penn’s film career, he has taken on many roles involving a lot of brooding, but this time around, Milk has Penn being not only his most amusing and flamboyant but his most likable and affable. Since it is mostly Milk’s story being told, this is very important the film, as it progresses from probably the most graphic homosexual scenes on mainstream Hollywood film to the politics and tragedy that brings about the conclusion of Milk’s life.

Since Penn is most assuredly going to get plenty of buzz for his performance, I feel that there are quite a few other folks that deserve mention as well. The supporting cast is strong, and James Franco busts out in a big way. Unlike the stoner he played in Pineapple Express, Franco’s Scott Smith is a much more tender role than Franco really seems to be able to sink his teeth into. Then there is Emile Hirsch who is completely unrecognizable from his stint in Speed Racer this past summer. What a transformation! To be so young and to be able to handle such a powerful role speaks volumes of his ability.

Then there is Diego Luna, who is at once likeable and at times distressingly annoying, mostly because of the character he is portraying, and it all adds to the mix of love, sex, and political mish-mash that Harvey Milk has to deal with. And last, but certainly far from least, is James Brolin. Coming off his spotlight role as George Bush in W., he plays another nuanced, conflicted, complicated, and borderline psycho politician as Supervisor Dan White. Unlike W. where at times, his portrayal felt like too much like a caricature, Dan White is more of a human being. We see his gradual isolation and desolation and how it comes in contrast with his political persona. This is often painful to watch but that is only because it his presence is both intimidating and vulnerable.

In conclusion, Milk is a must watch film for 2008, not only to learn a little bit about the history of the 1970s, as the film seamlessly cuts historical footage in with live action, but with words that will help in the political turmoil of today. With Proposition 8 passing in California banning gay marriage, there can never be a time such as now to have hope. And that is what Milk gives to us with his final words. “You gotta give ‘em hope!”

5 / 5 stars

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