Milk (USA; 128 min.)

directed by: Gus Van Sant
starring: Sean Penn; Emile Hirsch; Josh Brolin; James Franco; Alison Pill; Diego Luna; Denis O’Hare

Bruce says: "Many might call MILK Gus Van Sant’s return to content from his concentration on form in recent films such as GERRY, ELEPHANT, LAST DAYS and PARANOID PARK.   The one thing that MILK does have in common with the aforementioned films is simplicity.  Certainly some sacrifice was made in telling the story of an average man whose accomplishments were what one might think were beyond his reach.  Van Sant has learned to present the commonplace with extraordinary accuracy in ways that hold the viewer’s attention.  That is a considerable achievement considering - in real life - commonplace rarely holds one's interest for long, with the exception of pillow talk or inane flattery both of which can be divine when one is a participant, primarily the listener.  I think that is mostly the point with Harvey Milk, there was very little about the man that was deeply intellectual or profound.  He was a not-so-attractive, silly opera queen with a fondness for young men with firm asses and a talent for getting their attention through ridiculous small talk.  That knack for pushing the right buttons - for grabbing attention - is the same strength that guided him through his political career.    It is a simple story – right man, right place, right time.

"In retrospect, life in San Francisco in the 70’s was nothing short of outrageous.  What Van Sant has left out of MILK is the predominance of drugs and promiscuity that helped explained the irrationality of Dan White, a quasi-fundamentalist who shot his fellow supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their offices in city hall.   No doubt that was a conscious decision, one made to avoid embodying MILK with a mixed message.  MILK is not an indictment of a culture but an insight into a man whose efforts made a huge difference for a significant segment of the population, a group of people who had never before had representation.  Harvey Milk was the first elected openly gay official in this country.  Because he was somewhat of a lost soul, he felt the need to make something of his life.  Had he been more fulfilled professionally or emotionally that might never have happened. 

"Sean Penn gets another chance to reinforce the notion that he is one of the finest actors of his generation.  He captures the essence of Harvey Milk.  But the film does not rely on a single performance – MILK’s ensemble acting is uniformly strong.   Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Alison Pill, Diego Luna, and Denis O’Hare are testimony to the fact that there is a wealth of talent available if only more opportunities would present themselves.   Van Sant has borrowed liberally from the Rob Epstein’s excellent Oscar-winning 1984 documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK.  Additional archival footage is seamlessly interspersed with the fictionalized story.   Many of the people in the film are still alive and were consulted before and during the filming.    5 cats"

Michael says: "I’m pretty tough on biopics.  I’m also pretty tough on Gus Van Sant.  Surprisingly… or perhaps not, I found MILK, Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk, to be pretty enjoyable.  It’s a little deceiving though, because MILK isn’t really a biopic about Harvey Milk… we learn next to nothing about Harvey’s life before coming to San Francisco, it’s a biopic about a movement; the gay right’s movement, which for obvious reasons resonates with me.  Harvey Milk cam to San Francisco from New York City in the early 1970s, settling down and opening a camera shop with his lover in the Castro.  Soon Harvey was organizing other homosexuals around him to keep their businesses thriving and eventually to keep the streets safe for gay men.  This lead him to run for political office, losing repeatedly until finally, after building a devoted following, Milk found himself one of the City Supervisors of San Francisco.  It was a tricky time in America for openly gay men and women.  Anita Bryant and the conservative Christian church had started a crusade to take away the rights of homosexuals.  Harvey worked tirelessly to combat initiatives that would take away rights from gays, and while he was well-liked by most, he also crossed a few influential people.  In 1978, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with the Mayor of San Francisco, in City Hall, by a fellow City Supervisor, the Catholic ex-cop, Dan White. 

"The strongest thing about MILK is without question the outstanding cast.  Led by the phenomenal Sean Penn, who is just a wired bundle of joy as Harvey Milk, the men and women around Harvey Milk were brought exquisitely to life by Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, James Franco, Diego Luna, Victor Garber, Dennis O’Hare, and Stephen Spinella to name just a few.  Van Sant for the most part curbs his more experimental yearnings, but includes enough creativity to keep from becoming as conventional as his past mainstream efforts like GOOD WILL HUNTING and FINDING FORRESTER.  He does make a few missteps here and there.  Milk’s narration is a little awkward, there is precious little on screen about the actual people involved… they are more emblematic of the movement, and the use of the opera Tosca was a bit much, but he really captured the energy of the near rioting crowds in a couple of scenes.  And when Milk spoke to his supporters about gay rights with such passion that he convinced almost everyone who listened, I’ve gotta say I got pretty choked up.  It was a powerful moment in history, and Van Sant does a pretty good job creating a powerful two hours on film.  4 cats."

Marilyn responds: "I really liked this too.  I think Sean Penn is brilliant and he nails Harvey Milk perfectly.  If anyone has seen actual footage of Milk, you know what I mean,  Penn uses his body, arms, hands and face to deliver a person who wants to live in this world, not outside of it and he refuses to be marginalized.  His actions are revolutionary without any violence on his part.  His ability to enjoy the casualness of living and to see the whole picture using common sense to draw people to his point of view was a gift he was compelled to share.  The movie is a little like Capote in that it isn't a bio but a slice of Milk's life, that part that was pivotal in bringing about something important and creating change. The supporting cast was excellent and I liked Brolin a lot because he did less than he usually does. (W.  was not my favorite.)  I agree the movie over-all was not perfect but  the story needed to be told and it was well done.  Someone in my Monday Movie group asked why a gay actor didn't play Milk and I answered with a question--who?  Any thoughts on that?  As it is, Penn should get the oscar for it but I haven't seen THE WRESTLER yet."

Scot responds: "Yeah, I thought Penn was quite extraordinary also. I'm normally not too thrilled with him, especially after seeing him in that Mamet documentary a few years ago. He seems a little closed-off and defensive as an actor normally. But in MILK, Harvey's joy, excitement, and distress were palpable. I really get Milk's charisma now, thanks to Penn.

"I do think the narration was a little unnecessary, as was his overly stagey and ambiguous last scene with Brolin. But maybe that's because I think Tosca is a rather silly opera anyway. I could never take the climax of that opera seriously, mainly because diva's don't ever seem to accomplish a realistic-looking leap off the roof. But that's neither here nor there. Overall, I give MILK 4.5 cats"

Carolyn says: "As a snapshot of Milk's life during the 1970s it is successful, but we don't learn anything about his life prior to living in San Francisco. 3.5 cats"