Monday, December 08, 2008

Gladys Kravitz - Movie Review - Milk

Although I live in Sacramento, which, as the capital of California, is ostensibly a major city, “Milk” didn’t open in theaters here until this weekend. Sacramento, unlike San Francisco, New York and L.A., is not a select city. Apparently half of Sacramento has been waiting, though, because our Saturday matinee was filled, and the 7:00 showing turned people away. I’ve gone to this local arthouse theater—The Tower Theater, after which the defunct Tower Records was named—since childhood, and I’ve never seen the lobby so full.

Milk draws heavily from Oscar Award winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and gives ample credit for its contributions. I am old enough to remember 1978, and to remember Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations by SF Board of Supervisors member Dan White. Producer Gus Van Sant managed to seamlessly weave historical footage into modern reenactments, and even this native had some trouble distinguishing one from the other. And no, I wasn’t high.

The movie falls down in its attempt to dramatize Milk’s personal life, and Van Sant gives in to his lower side by pandering to a Hollywood desire for melodrama closure in Milk’s love life. But the movie is good enough and moving enough to be forgiven those weaknesses.

I’ve never been a big Sean Penn fan. Sure, marrying Madonna made me feel a little sorry for him, but that whole business with Robin Wright Penn last year didn’t do much for my respect. Yeah, he’s gritty, yeah, he’s an Artiste, but I’ve always thought he revels just a bit too much in playing down-and-out outsiders. He strikes me as a wannabe bohemian. Tough to be down and out when you’re a multi millionaire. Van Sant’s film career began with “My Own Private Idaho” and although he’s become more commercial over the last thirty years, his films still carry the mark of a producer dedicated to difference rather than popularity.

Let me just say that as much as I don’t generally like him, I loved Sean Penn in this. As a former fag hag turned lesbian, I have socialized with an inordinate amount of gay people and was not looking forward to Penn’s portrayal of one more victim of society in his earnest and relentless pursuit for reality. Penn could play Underdog and be happy. Penn’s Harvey, though, is not a victim, and he is not an anti-hero.
Penn does gay with panache—he’s limp-wristed without overdoing it, and ugly without being unattractive. He’s embodied Milk’s smile, his charm, and his willingness to laugh at himself, in the name of a cause. Penn’s Harvey has flaws and he has compassion, and the script and Penn present a hero that is just as human as the next guy. Sean Penn actually seemed soft and fuzzy in this role. Perhaps he watched Spongebob Square Pants for inspiration.

The rest of the cast—Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, Milk’s recruit to the fight for gay rights (and better known for his role in creating the enormity of the AIDS quilt project); Josh Brolin as a quirky and angry Dan White, James Franco as Milk’s longtime lover Scott Smith and Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s lesbian campaign manager—shine and support not only Penn but also the rough and real feel of the time period. The hair is right, the glasses are right, the clothes are right, but most of all, the uneasy alliances and burgeoning battlegrounds are established in the actors’ facial gestures and inflections. Hirsch is a cheeky chicken to Milk’s hawk, and it is 1978, when AIDS was something we gave to charity. Pill is particularly believable as a dyke with attitude, enjoying her cocky walk into the men’s world of politics, and challenging the distrust between lesbians and gay men. Brolin’s uncomfortable White fits the picture, and Van Sant manages to leave us still puzzled about White’s motivation without leaving us unsatisfied. The real Cleve Jones served as both a consultant and appeared in a walk-on role, lending legitimacy to the already authoritative film.
My partner, who didn’t stop at dabbling with heterosexuality on her way to being a lesbian, asked me who James Franco was, and later allowed that she wouldn’t kick him out of bed. There are few men who make that cut, so although he doesn’t do much for me, apparently his reputation for being hot translates even to the heterosexually uninitiated among us.

It is impossible to watch this film, especially in California, without reflecting on the politics of today. The passage of Proposition 8 last month stunned, devastated and angered most of the California—and national—gay community. Milk’s fight against Proposition 6 in 1978, which would have banned gay teachers and their supporters from classrooms, mirrors the political jungle that strangled the fight against Proposition 8 this last year. History does indeed repeat itself, except that Proposition 6 in 1978 was defeated. Anita Bryant, looking as pretty as Sarah Palin, figures prominently in the film, as a cloaked naif who is actually a harbinger of evil—and if there is a villain in this movie, it is not Brolin’s Dan White, who simply appears lost, but Bryant, deliberate and determined to deny gays basic civil rights. The historical footage of her smiling as she condemns gays is as chilling as Denis O’Hare’s portrayal of State Senator John Briggs producing what Milk called a “shopping list” of civil rights targets. The movie reminds us of how vulnerable all minority groups are to attacks on civil rights, and how powerful we are when we fight back.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected political figure in the U.S. He was elected in 1978, and died in the same year—only 30 years ago. The film shows the police violence and indifference to hate crimes that marked the era before Milk’s election; without Milk’s insistence that we stand together, with self-acceptance, it seems impossible that Proposition 6 would have been defeated. Watching the film, I wonder what would have happened if Milk were alive during the fight against Proposition 8. This movie may well leave gays and their supporters asking each other, “Got Milk?”

What it’s worth on the DN scale: $10, popcorn and sodas, plus a donation to a gay rights group.


Molly said...

great review, gladys. i really appreciate the detail - it was as good as any professional review i've read.

sean penn may be (and probably is) a dick in real life but he's one of the most underrated actors of our time, in my opinion. i was looking forward to seeing the movie, now that i've read your review, i can't wait. thanks for writing it.

Kristen S. said...

Excellent review! Anita Bryant gives me the heebie jeebies.

ms_wonderland said...

Thanks for this detailed review. It's weird when times you lived through get re-created in film, and any mistakes really jar.

Harvey Milk was an important figure world-wide. I'm in the UK, and of course this was when we had only newspapers for information, but news of his election and assassination certainly reached here. I remember the poisonous Anita Bryant, and the boycott of Florida oranges, which she advertised. I think she lost that job.

bmini said...

Great review, very well written. Thanks for the great read!

lutefisk said...

Thank you Gladys--that was quite informative.
You should review more often. It is always nice to have multiple opinions on films.

merrick said...

Thank you Gladys ..and I must tell you that sean penn is one of my favorite actors, not people, actors .. I think he is enormously talented .. and has come a long way from playing jeff picoli

merrick said...

Thank you Gladys ..and I must tell you that sean penn is one of my favorite actors, not people, actors .. I think he is enormously talented .. and has come a long way from playing jeff picoli

jax said...

nice job Gladys.

i had the pleasure of having dinner with Spanish Gay Rights Activist Jordi Petit in Barcelona and his excitement over this future film and what it means was inspiring. i can't wait to see this.

Nosey Parker said...

Thanks for the great review! My gay friend Aaron was our local union president. He told me about Milk and the twinkie defense, and it really upset me. Aaron passed away in 2005, and I plan to see this movie in honor our friendship.
You are beautiful no matter what they say
Words can't bring you down
You are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can't bring you down
Don't you bring me down today...

I Miss You Aaron!

Unknown said...

Yay Tower Theater. Man, I don't think I've had to stand in a big line for a movie since the 80s.

Anonymous said...

Great review, Gladys! I can't wait to see it when I get back home over Christmas.

Maja With a J said...

Excellent review! I can't wait to see this movie.

bionic bunny! said...

amazing review and history lesson!
anita bryant was one of the most evil people i've ever seen.
y'all DO know she was kathie lee gifford's mentor, right?

Kristen Lopez said...

I too saw this in Sacramento, although I live in the suburbs near Roseville! Loved this movie, easily best movie of the year!

mooshki said...

Thanks, Gladys, that was really interesting to read!

Dead Angel said...

Worse movie review on this site EVER! Who would bring up an actors personal life and rumors in a review? Jesus. WTF? Who cares about your sexual preference?

It's a great movie, and Penn is going to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You will be sorry to miss it in the theater. JESUS!

BlackseatDriver said...

the movie review was written by a regular reader or the this blog or CDANR and not by Gene F%cking Shalit of the Today Show..Btw Gladys, I actually like the format that you used to write the review ie personal experiences, story telling, back story telling short ..CDANESE ..

Murphy Brown 2020 said...

Yay! The glitch is actually gone!

Gladys (*wink, wink*), I don't know if you'll come back to read these comments, but this review was awesome -- New Yorker-worthy, in my opinion. Thanks for obviously putting so much thought into this film and your summary of it.

"It's a great movie, and Penn is going to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You will be sorry to miss it in the theater. JESUS!"


Sexecution, do you REALLY think YOUR little blurb is gonna coax us into theaters? Stick to lurking, honey, and if you can't say something nice...

shakey said...

You're a born writer, Gladys.

I had completely forgotten about Anita Bryant. Completely. Now I remember she got an orange in the face.


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