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Milk was not one of those enormously well-reviewed pictures I assumed I’d like. My hesitation came from three factors: one, director Gus Van Sant, two, actor Sean Penn, and three, my weariness towards biographical features. These three factors often make even the most even tempered film critic go mad with encomium. Based on a small series of documentaries on gay culture I knew enough about the real life Harvey Milk to know he was worthy of a feature length biopic, but I wasn’t about to assume the best, I was going to see it myself.

Milk
Possible issue number one is Van Sant. Van Sant has, from the beginning, been an art film director trapped in a Hollywood machine. As a director he is equally capable of greatness and awfulness. Since the success of Drugstore Cowboy Van Sant has mixed feel good Hollywood, with dark character pieces. Following his biggest monetary success, Good Will Hunting, he made two major release failures, Psycho and Finding Forester. Following this Van Sant seems to have retreated back into true independence, making a trilogy of visually interesting, but thematically thin, and painfully deliberate films. The latter two films, Elephant and Last Days (the other film is Gerry), were pseudo docu-dramas, recounting the final days surrounding two seminal ‘90s tragedies—the Columbine massacre, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide—without naming names, or following any real facts.

Early reports attached openly gay director Bryan Singer to a Harvey Milk biopic, which seemed like a good fit, and a good return to reality based storytelling for the director following three comic book properties, the last of which, Superman Returns, was a critical and box office disappointment. Singer’s The Mayor of Castro Street was stopped thanks to the writer’s strike, leaving room for Van Sant’s adaptation. For me this was bad news. The minor brouhaha surrounding the pre-production led to some made-for-TV documentaries, which drummed up my interest in the subject. I’m a pretty big fan of Singer’s slick direction, and following three interesting, but ultimately numbing films I wasn’t too trusting of Van Sant’s abilities.

Milk
One didn’t have to use too much imagination to picture a depressing march towards assassination when considering Van Sant’s run-up filmography. Elephant and Last Days were both built on foregone conclusions, and more than nominally depressing. Fortunately, he’s got a few surprises in him, and makes almost exclusively perfect choices in crafting this real life story of a larger than life character. Milk is equally raw to the director’s later films, not the slick and sleek like Good Will Hunting (or what Singer would’ve likely created). Van Sant embraces the period look, almost matching the look of the archive footage spliced into the mix (it’s interesting to note that no actress was hired to play the villainous Anita Bryant, she’s presented entirely in archive form). Milk’s production is so significantly ‘70s that only contemporary performers, and a few sappy musical cues gives away the film’s actual age. There are a few cases of Van Sant overindulging in the warmth of his subject, but overall the tempo and tone to which he presents the story is pitch perfect, and a surprising mix of varying elements of his varied career. When the film works, it’s positively euphoric.

I do wish I’d gotten myself together and to a theatre to watch Darren Arronofky’s The Wrestler before I sat down to write this review, so that I’d be able to fairly compare Mickey Rourke’s Oscar losing performance and Sean Penn’s Oscar winning performance, but I didn’t, so I can’t. Though I know it may constitute the censure of my movie lover’s card, I’m stating plainly that I’m not a very big fan of Penn, and after his much undeserved Oscar win for his excruciatingly overstated Mystic River performance I’ve more or less avoided watching him act at all. I’m very excited to announce that the Milk performance is not Penn’s usually miserable schmuck take on a character. The gruff little embellishment machine virtually disappears into an honest portrayal of an almost exceedingly pleasant man. Even more impressively, Penn avoids boring impersonation, which so often plagues Hollywood performances based on flamboyant real people.

Milk
The only problem with Penn’s performance is that it has overshadowed the film’s three other mammoth performances. Among these three I can all but guarantee that every single one will have an Oscar of their own within the next decade or so. James Franco is quickly overcoming his Spider-Man series persona (and his character is dead now, so he’s done with that for good). The actor’s understated work here is probably the film’s most consistent. Franco brings honesty and a solid foundation to the entire film, as I’m sure the real Scott Smith did for the people around him. Josh Brolin, who’s been having a bang-up last couple of years, makes the story’s villain into a multi-dimensional human being, who garners genuine sympathy. More importantly I see almost none of Dr. William Block, Llewelyn Moss, or George W. Bush personality in Dan White. Perhaps the most sensational member of the cast is Emile Hirsch, who like Penn almost entirely disappears into the real Cleve Jones, without becoming a caricature. I hate to devolve into the usual film critic hyperbole, but following Into the Wild and, yes, even Speed Racer, Hirsch may be the talent to watch in the next decade.

Which brings us to the third possibly fatal factor— Milk is yet another Hollywood biography. Am I the only one tired of biographies? I’m not talking about movies based on true stories, but power-point presentations of a person’s life. All one has to do is check the best picture nominations since 2000, which include Erin Brockovich, A Beautiful Mind, Ray, The Aviator, Capote, and The Queen. A look at the major actor nominations of 2007 alone adds Into the Wild, La Vie en Rose, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Charlie Wilson’s War, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the mix. The lesson to be learned is that biopics pay off in Oscar noms, and I’m just cynical enough to assume that’s the only motivation behind their production.

Milk
Milk fits into the average biopic mould, and is set to the traditional bullet point structure. The film bounces casually from one important microcosm to another, ignoring the other thousands of events that occurred over Harvey Milk’s forty-eight years. This is obviously the best way to tell such a story, but it’s still kind of cookie cutter in its approach. Van Sant handles the large expanses of time in a similarly nonchalant fashion to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (though in this case there are on-screen time markers), and the film’s pacing is graceful, like a miniature version of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. More importantly, however, is the timing of the film. Milk isn’t just some randomly released biopic, it was released weeks after Californians voted yes on Proposition 8, which mirrored Proposition 6, the motion Harvey Milk and his friends helped defeat in 1978. True story filmmaking makes the most sense when it can make a statement about current events.

Video


Like I talked about in the feature section, Milk is an old looking movie on purpose. Gus Van Sant mixes his new footage convincingly with news reels and stock footage from the era, so the print is very grainy, the colours are a bit washed out, and the details are often obscured by slighted and natural lighting. If you’re buying this particular Blu-ray to impress your friends, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Of course, that’s not the point. Among all the grit and grain is a generally clean print, free of damage and major artefacts. The tangible film look leads to some minor noise in the warmer colours, but nothing too associated with compression artefacts, it’s just a lack of theatrical lighting. The details are a little fuzzy and inconsistent, which is just another symptom of the Cinema Verite style.

Milk

Audio


The lo-fi filming style leads to a very simple sound design. There is quite a bit of surround elements during outdoor street scenes, especially during the big rally and march sequences, but the application is rather low-key. The majority of the sound is dialogue based, and effectively centred on the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Occasionally the sound of the dialogue does bleed a bit into the stereo channels. The rear channels are more or less devoted to the occasional crowd and car effects, and extra bits of musical score. The big protest march scene is the most aggressive piece of the entire track, filled with chanting voices, revving motorcycle engines, roaring bullhorns, and more score. The music, written by Danny Elfman, is good and interesting music on its own, but it often doesn’t quite fit the scene, and is generally too present. The one aspect of ‘70s independent film that Van Sant and company simply didn’t get was the use of music. In the era music was often reserved for very select scenes, and was pretty minimalist otherwise.

Extras


Extras begin with ‘Remembering Harvey’, a featurette concerning the real story, which compares the real people (via interviews) to their on-screen counterparts. It’s a little too short, only thirteen and a half minutes, but it’s a nice overview of the situation, and a nice forum for his friends to talk frankly about how he changed their lives and the gay movement.

Milk
‘Hollywood Comes to San Francisco’ is a semi-making of featurette/EPK, but also acts as an additional forum for speaking about Harvey Milk’s accomplishments. The major players (minus Penn and Van Sant, of course) are interviewed about the subject and the behind the scenes process, which is then intercut with scenes from the film, and raw behind the scenes footage. There’s the usually amount of back-patting that usually shows up in EPKs, but there’s also some information to be gleaned. The featurette runs fourteen and a half minutes.

‘Marching for Equality’ closes out the disc with an eight minute look at the filming of the film’s major marching re-enactment. Some of the people involved were at the actual event, and are interviewed about the experience. The detail that went into the recreation of the march, and the re-dressing of the Castro Street is pretty cool, and the short glimpses into random people’s lives are touching.

Milk

Overall


Milk is a very good film, and one that is very easy to recommend. My early expectations based on director Gus Van Sant, and actor Sean Penn’s recent careers were largely proven wrong, much to my delight. The video and audio quality is a little blunted by the film’s induced documentary style, and the extras selection is much more heartfelt than informative. In a perfect world the disc would include a feature length historical documentary like The Times of Harvey Milk, but the movie itself will have to do us this time around.

Many critics say the Academy’s selection of Penn as the year’s best actor is a belated protest against Prop. 8. I’m curious as to the point of that action, if that reasoning is sound, this far after the fact, but do hope the film itself will find its audience on home video.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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