Milk (Focus Features, R)

film_milk_sm.jpgFollowing four successive films in experimental mode, Gus Van Sant is back in Oscar mode, and pretty full-throttle.

 

 

 

 

 

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Over the past decade or so, Gus Van Sant seems to have worked in one of two modes: experimental mode, as in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, and Oscar mode, as in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Van Sant is a talented enough filmmaker that movies in either category are almost always worth seeing…although it can safely be said that any self-respecting Van Sant fan prefers experimental mode over Oscar mode.

Following four successive films in experimental mode (the aforementioned death trilogy plus last year’s Paranoid Park), Van Sant is back in Oscar mode, and pretty full-throttle this time, with Milk, a docudrama about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office. Sean Penn plays the titular character (and Penn’s always in Oscar mode). Surrounding Penn is quite an impressive list of supporting actors: James Franco (Pineapple Express) as his lover Scott Smith, Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) as another lover Jack Lira, Alison Pill (Dear Wendy) as his campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as his supporter Cleve Jones, and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) as his assassin Dan White, to name but a few.

The majority of Milk follows Harvey’s struggles to get into office in the first place (he ran many times before winning) and only a little time with him while he’s in office, but that’s probably because the real Harvey Milk spent an unfortunately short amount of time in office. A recurring problem with Milk as a character (in this film, at least) is his tendency to support himself with crappy people—Jack is one of the more annoying characters of the year, and Harvey unsuccessfully tries to make a friend out of Dan White before getting shot by him. Harvey’s relationship with Scott is portrayed very tenderly and Franco is quite good, but even his character gets a little too bitchy and unpleasant by the end. Ultimately, as a lot of the film seems to be a loving tribute to those who supported Milk on the campaign trail (as evidence, see the long, nice actor-to-living-person comparisons that run just before the credits).

Luckily, Milk retains enough of a smattering of Van Sant’s experimental tendencies to make it more entertaining and better than your typical end-of-the-year Oscar fodder docudrama bullshit (I’m looking at you, Walk the Line and Ray); he employs a neat technique wherein he mixes real footage with filmed footage, showing a deftness that eventually makes it hard to keep track of what is documentary footage and what Van Sant shot for the film. Sean Penn is great, if a little hammy, as one would expect, and Milk’s story feels more relevant now than ever. (Variety ran a good article a few weeks ago about how this film had a shot at changing history if only it had been released about a month earlier.) Hirsch sucks, as usual, and Brolin is good, but it isn’t much of a stretch to go from playing George W. Bush in W. a few months back to the assassin of a powerful gay man—looks like Josh is the go-to guy to portray some of the most hateful, worthless fuckers of the past half century.

Whether or not Van Sant will actually see any Oscars for this is a hard call; he’s got some pretty serious competition this year. Still, he can comfort himself in the knowledge that this is his best film in quite some time…and this for a man who almost never makes a bad film. | Pete Timmermann

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