Saturday, January 17, 2009

'Milk' it for all it's worth

It's been a while since I last blogged, as the pressure of work, video, and preparations for new Microsoft certification exams seem to have taken over every available minute :(

But a bout of insomnia gives me a chance to blog about the excellent trip to BFI Southbank I made a few hours ago to see
Milk, the oscar-nominated film about the murdered San Francisco gay rights politician Harvey Milk who rose to fame in the 70's.

Milk promotion

Director Gus Van Sant's films can be a bit hit and miss for me, and I frequently seem to take a contrary view to the general critical response, so that for example while I loved Elephant (a sort of retelling of the Columbine massacre in a very smooth, free-form, poetic style) which the critics didn't seem keen on, I really disliked Paranoid Park which the critics loved, but which I thought was badly-shot, self-indulgent, 'arty' tosh.

Then of course there's the oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, which wasn't a bad film, but one that really didn't merit all the hype it received at the time of release.

Thankfully, Milk marks a return to form for the director after a series of independent 'art house' movies, as Van Sant moves back to a more mainstream style of filming, with a biopic that is individual, powerful, moving, incredibly well acted and couldn't have arrived at a more appropriate time given what's happening in California with Proposition 8.

The film opens with titles over archive black and white footage showing the police raiding and arresting gay men in bars for simply being there. This was a time when men could be arrested for the simple act of holding hands, and to a modern audience the footage, showing men in suits sat at tables covering their faces so as not to be caught on camera as the police barge in to arrest everyone, comes across as quite shocking. Manhandled and stuffed into police vans like sardines, it's quite incredible to think this is real-life footage from not that many years ago.

Despite the shocking introduction, the main theme of the movie is a celebration of one man's vision of hope, with Milk fighting for the rights of minorities and against injustice being kick-started by the murder of a gay friend on Castro Street in San Francisco. Perhaps unintentionally (the film was made before Proposition 8 came into being) the film also helps to show how placid and resigned we've become to losing such hard-fought rights in a time when there's far LESS homophobia about.

Proposition 8 shows that history, yet again, is doomed to repeat itself, and as actor James Franco (who plays Milk's lover in the film) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pointed out in the Q & A that followed tonight's screening, few people - even modern gays who live close to where these events happened - seem to know the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician.

Black's screenplay is based on extensive original research by the author, and the film features some of the real life characters in Harvey's life at the time. He has written a wonderfully warm, personal script full of humanity and life that doesn't try to paint Milk as a saint, but as someone of good heart, not moved to politics, who just felt he'd done nothing good in his life by the age of 40 and rose to meet the demands of a situation that was so unfair that it demanded action. Milk has flaws: a sexual attraction to weak, unlikeable, mentally unstable men being perhaps the main one and the flaws are portrayed here in a way that makes the man far more real than the simple 'hero' he's often been painted as.

Director Van Sant has put together a clever collage of real life footage of events at the time, together with original dramatic scenes, but if the film is one man's show (it isn't, as ALL the cast, including Josh Brolin, Emile Hursch and the afore-mentioned James Franco give performances that make the characters seem real flesh and blood, not actors giving 'oscar winning' performances) it's Sean Penn's. Those used to seeing Penn play angry, violent characters are in for a shock, his performance as the amiable Harvey Milk is full of joy, humour and sly asides that make you totally forget Penn the actor, as you watch Milk the politician as if he were still alive today. Where I'd be rooting for an oscar win for the much under-rated (until he died) Heath Ledger, I'm now leaning more towards Penn for what surely counts as a career-best performance. And with a career as impressive as Penn's has been, that's no small compliment.

The screening tonight, at the BFI Southbank in London, advertised a post-screening Q&A session with director Gus Van Sant, covering his entire career, as part of the Guardian Talks series of events. As it turned out, we were treated to two Q&A's - the one advertised, and then an extra one concentrating specifically on Milk with Van Sant being joined by his screenwriter and one of his lead actors.

By all accounts Van Sant is a shy man, and he's certainly a quiet one, not naturally given to giving long answers to quite involved questions, some of which came from the audience, but most of which came from a professional on-stage interviewer. Nevertheless he held the audience for the 30 minutes he had on stage, intercut with excerpts from his earlier work. He was self-deprecating and told some amusing anecdotes, such as how he spent 6 years trying to persuade Universal to support his 'shot by shot' remake of Psycho before Good Will Hunting's awards success suddenly turned a studio's position of 'Not interested' to 'That's a fantastic idea'!

While dismissing critics opinions, particularly with regard to the highly controversial Psycho, he seemed to admit that in this particular case they might have been right, saying that the film made him realise that simply copying shots isn't enough to recreate something, and that Hitchcock himself was the main ingredient that made the original film work, an ingredient that was clearly missing from his own remake despite featuring an 'exact' copy of each original scene.

I was surprised, watching the Good Will Hunting film, to see Ben Affleck's brother Casey Affleck in the film, thinking him a very recent recruit to the world of film acting (he is sensational in Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James and Lonely Jim), but Van Sant revealed that actually the much-publicised relationship between himself and 'new to film' Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, came about through him knowing Casey.

I'm a big fan of James Franco's work (and NOT just because he's so pretty, although I'm sure that probably helps!) Perhaps best known as Peter Parker's best friend Harry (aka the son of The Green Goblin) in the Spider-Man movies, or as the front-man for the current Gucci "men's fragrence" magazine campaign, his best performances have been in movies like In the Valley of Elah, Pineapple Express or even the critically mauled Flyboys. He's an incredibly versatile actor, and gives another excellent performance in Milk.

So it's disappointing to report that in person he comes across as a bit of an inarticulate, rambling, empty head - at least if his long-winded, content-free replies to the couple of questions directed his way at tonight's Q & A are anything to go by. It seems to be the pattern with really good actors - I remember feeling the same way about a similar Q&A at the same venue with Cillian Murphy around the time Sunshine came out. It's best, I guess, to just judge actors on their work and perhaps only allow them the limelight when they're doing that work, to avoid the shattering of illusions!

So far as the film itself is concerned, it seems unlikely that Milk will win the BAFTA or oscar for 'Best Film', even though it's been nominated. Not because it's not worthy (I really believe it is), but because Slumdog Millionaire seems to be winning all the marketing campaigns, after a slow start where it looked like The Dark Knight (probably my favourite film of last year) was going to be a shoo-in.

Tomorrow (erm, later today), I shall be seeing Slumdog Millionaire, hoping that it's significantly better than director Danny Boyle's last film Sunshine, which proved to be a huge disappointment (by all accounts 'Slumdog' is a significant return to form, so fingers crossed), and on Monday I shall be seeing The Wrestler, if only to see if Sean Penn's most fierce competitor for the upcoming 'Best Actor' oscar Mickey Rourke (I'm not a fan based on his personality and previous work) really does deliver the performance all the critics are saying he does.

Expect my thoughts on these other oscar contenders to follow later this week. In the meantime I highly recommend Milk despite the subject matter perhaps appearing a bit too minority-oriented to be of interest. The film goes on general release in the UK next Friday: 23rd January 2009.


Anonymous said...

Danny Boyle doesn't really have a "form." He just rides roughshod over genres, hoping to hit on something that works. While "Sunshine," given its dreadful Alex Garland script (it was as though he opened up "2010," the forgotten sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey," scooped out its brain, and repopulated the story with idiot slackers), was abnormally bad, don't be fooled: Boyle simply throws things at the screen in the hopes that something will stick. He's an Ed Wood for our short-attention-span times. "Slumdog Millionaire" may be riding a feel-good global-cinema wave, but don't worry: Danny'll be back to his no-form form any day now.

Ian said...

I think that's a little harsh (even for this blog ;-))

Having now seen "Slumdog Millionaire" I thought it was excellent, although the young actors (or non-actors as it turns out) were far more impressive than the leads in my view.

"Milk" moved me a lot more, but I suspect "Slumdog Millionaire" with its fable/fantasy/feel good theme will do better with the general populace.

Steve Langton said...

Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Milk screening. Good to read considered accounts of these events. Milk is certainly on my list of things to rent as it's doubtful I'll see it at the cinema. Currently deciding whether to see Slumdog or The Wrestler on Monday, but probably plump for the latter as I'm a big admirer of Rourke and would love to see him back in the saddle with regard to a great performance. Here's hoping.
Not one of Boyle's biggest fans. He's had a few misfires along the way, but Shallow Grave remains a great debut and Trainspotting improves with age.
Look forward to your thoughts on Slumdog.

Ian said...

Thanks Steve. "Slumdog Millionaire" is very much Boyle back on track, I just didn't really believe the central love story and found the way the film was constructed too unrealistic (flashbacks conveniently driven by the specific questions the Millionaire contestant was asked which just happened to follow a linear timeline). The scenes of the contestant as a young child were brilliantly acted though and I loved the cinematography and overall direction of the film. Need to write a proper blog entry reviewing it but work is a bit hectic at the moment.