Monday, December 8, 2008


Politician Harvey Milk ran several rigorous campaigns in San Francisco before he became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States. He preached peace through practice and understanding. He was frank and precise with his politics, namely the fail to pass Proposition 6, which would’ve fired all openly gay teachers from public schools. He was ultimately killed by fellow city supervisor Dan White, who got off on a light jail sentence for killing Milk and San Francisco mayor, George Moscone.

That’s what you can get from The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s remarkable, Oscar-winning documentary. But in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s bold, incredible new film, you get a whole lot more.

In Milk we get a more personal view of a motivated man with many faults. Milk (Sean Penn) was a failed Wall Street banker who immigrated to a free-spirited California in search of meaning. He quickly made a name for himself on San Francisco’s Castro Street, becoming known to gays and straights alike. Soon enough a business in the Castro couldn’t function successfully without Harvey’s say-so. The film continues to follow Milk through his political career, battling Prop 6 and the conservative White, while also paralleling Milk’s personal life and his inability to hold a relationship.

The film, with a tight script by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love) is executed with subtle power by Van Sant. Milk has its big, climatic moments, sure, but they aren’t presented with a blazing musical score or fancy cinematography. Instead, it’s as if you are in the crowd, as another spectator. Milk plays out so accurate to real life that it’s startling.

As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives the best performance of his career. Penn, often known for the ferioucious intensity he brings to films like Dead Man Walking, Mystic River and 21 Grams, is so remarkably subtle in Milk that we hardly know it’s him. He embodies Milk to the fullest extent. Wearing the three-piece suits, flawlessly recreating Milk’s accent and mannerisms; it is a triumphant performance, one of the best in recent memory.

Penn is backed by the year’s best cast, a multitude of young actors who all deliver career bests. James Franco, as Milk’s longtime partner, and Josh Brolin as Dan White, are namely profound. They should compete against each other come Oscar time.

Maybe I haven’t talked about the plot as much as I should. But plot isn’t necessary in describing this film. Milk has all the elements of classic filmmaking, those elements may not be executed in a way that’s familiar, but the film is a daring feat by any estimation.

Van Sant, who was nominated for Good Will Hunting has made his best film yet. In lesser hands, we would’ve had a conventional bio-pic. Milk is an outstanding work of art that touches a broad range of emotions. With the recent headlines concerning Prop 8, the film makes you question how much we’ve accomplished. It stands timeless and unique, and my God if it doesn’t give you hope. A+

Slumdog Millionaire

Hold your breath, folks, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire breathes life into the film medium. It’s multi-genre’d, original as hell and all together remarkable.

Dev (Jamal Malik) is an impoverished Indian teen who has wound up on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. Dev may not be the smartest kid around, but somehow he’s one question away from being as rich as the host. How did he get here?

Slumdog Millionaire’s unique narrative (which is a character itself) answers that question by cutting from the questions Dev is asked in the game show, to past experiences in his life that somehow reveal the answer. So essentially, every question is a story. Some of the stories are hilarious, others heartbreaking, several cringe-worthy, but they are all poignant and fierce.

Over the film, Dev, his wily older brother, and Dev’s love interest, Latika (Freida Pinto) are each played by three different actors. Each actor blends perfectly with the other ones. At times, it’s hard to even notice that they’ve grown up. That’s a very good thing. We’re so engrossed with the story, that we never see the switch, not too many films can pull that off.

The authenticity of the film helps with its overall brilliance. Filmed in the streets of Mumbai, we get a front row seat to musty brutality. You’ll feel cramped in the streets as Dev runs from the police, bustling his way through thousands of people. You’ll feel the wind in your hair as Dev catches a free ride on top of a train. You can smell the grime and taste the shit.

I’m not going to talk about any of Dev’s stories or the outcome of the game. But know that this is a brutally honest often frank portrayal of life in the hard knocks.

Visionary director Boyle, who never makes the same film twice, has grabbed us again. He defined drug addiction with Trainspotting, made zombies scary again with 28 Days Later…, even cooked up a thoughtful family film with Millions. Now, giving us his best film yet, he’ll shoot right to the top of the list for best director.

Slumdog Millionaire is rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. The violence is sparse, yes, but when it comes, it comes fast and furious. Give Boyle credit for doing it tastefully. I only mention the rating because I think this is a film that every single person needs to see. I’ll even call it a family film given the values that are presented.

It makes it all the more prevalent that several of the filming locations were recently struck with unspeakable tragedy. Seeing the film now is like watching a whimsical love story that takes place in the twin towers. But get ready, Slumdog Millionaire is a big Oscar contender. It’s the most original film of the year. Should you go see it? You don’t need any lifelines to figure that one out. A+