12 December 2008

At the movies: Milk.

Dealing with the life and death of one of America's first openly gay public officials, Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, who helped to organize San Francisco's gay and lesbian community politically in the mid-seventies in a protracted battle against a Proposition which would make gays and lesbians into second class citizens (sound familiar?). Until his death at the hands of a former co-worker, he was the face of gay visibility and power in the country.

Gus Van Sant, fresh from his quirky quartet of moody and expressionist art films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park), makes a triumphant return to mainstream film with this effective and inspiring biopic of one of America's unsung heroes. A bawdy, outspoken charmer with a complicated love life and a gift for organizing, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) doesn't seem like the kind of personality that would fit with Van Sant's current aesthetics. But in getting in touch with his narrative storytelling abilities, Van Sant has tapped into something palpable and electric, with audiences responding in kind.

Penn simply hasn't been this fun in decades; but in this funny, fierce performance, he really taps in to an essential humanity that too often he seems to shunt in delving into characters. The supporting cast (particularly James Franco, whose performance here complements his druggy/sexy Pineapple Express turn nicely, and Josh Brolin, who proves there's simply no one he can't play effectively) helps sustain the film's 'you are there' attitude toward 70s San Francisco, and the film's lessons are good ones, with a tone that manages to be both inspiring and mournful. But this is Penn's show, and he delivers.

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