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Gus Van Sant
Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross
Writing Credits:
Dustin Lance Black

His life changed history. His courage changed lives.

Milk is director Gus Van Sant's riveting biopic about slain gay rights activist and San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. Based on the politically resonant and thoroughly timely screenplay of documentarian Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant follows the arc of Milk's political awakening, from closeted Brooklyn insurance executive to doyen of San Francisco's Castro district's burgeoning gay mecca in the 1970s. Sean Penn portrays the film's hero, melting into the role with an affable flamboyance that is both spirited and eminently engaging. James Franco plays opposite Penn as Milk's supportive and easygoing boyfriend, Scott Smith. The couple's cheerful and loving rapport lends buoyancy to the film's overall message of hope as Milk ascends from grassroots community organizer to a galvanizing figurehead in the push for gay civil liberties. When Moral Majority crusader Anita Bryant forms an initiative to root out gay teachers and their supporters from public schools (Proposition 6), Milk is pitted in a bitter battle against fellow City Hall supervisor Dan White, played by Josh Brolin. While Van Sant does not deviate from the expository conventions that have defined other biopics, Milk sticks to biographically pertinent details that serve the film's underlying message of one man's idealism and conviction in the face of repression and bigotry.

Box Office:
$15 million.
Opening Weekend
$1.453 million on 36 screens.
Domestic Gross
$28.120 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

129 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 3/10/2009

• Three Deleted Scenes
• “Remembering Harvey” Featurette
• “Hollywood Comes to San Francisco” Featurette
• “Marching for Equality” Featurette
• Previews


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Milk (2008)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2009)

Most civil rights films focus on the efforts of African-Americans, but 2008’s Milk opens up to the struggles of homosexuals to gain equal standing in society. Told from beyond the grave after his 1978 assassination, the movie focuses on its title character, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). On the eve of his 40th birthday, Harvey picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station. This random encounter eventually changes his life. A closeted insurance company employee, Harvey becomes more open about his sexuality and he eventually decides to open a camera shop in the Castro district of San Francisco.

As this evolves, Harvey becomes involved in local politics. This starts slowly with his attempts to revitalize his portion of San Francisco, but Harvey soon runs for city supervisor. After a few misfires, Harvey eventually wins and becomes the nation’s first-ever openly gay elected official. The movie shows his ups and downs as well as his death and legacy.

To say the least, I regard Milk as a massive disappointment. The good: Sean Penn. I've always thought Penn was a good actor, but I don't think he's ever lost himself in a role like this. He really transformed himself into someone else - it was easy to forget I was watching "Sean Penn" and just believe the character.

The bad: pretty much everything else. Milk doesn't attempt to be a biography - it's a hagiography that exists to tell the tale of St. Harvey. Obviously Milk was a pioneering figure and an important one, but the character depicted in this film isn't a real person. He's an idealized one-dimensional representation of a concept: the great crusader. What do we learn about Milk from this movie? Very little beyond basics you'd get from a competent documentary.

At least he makes out better than most of the supporting characters, all of whom aren't even fleshed out enough to qualify as one-dimensional. You need a scorecard to keep track of them, as they rarely show enough personality to register. Scott comes into the picture, stays in the background other than as the “nagging spouse", then goes away. Jack (Diego Luna) enters and exists mostly as a red herring. We know Milk will die, so if you don't know whodunnit, kooky, unstable Jack becomes a leading candidate. He exists as an equivalent to the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction and nothing more.

The others like Cleve (Emile Hirsch) and his brethren get even less exposition; I learned more about them from the little text blurbs at the end than I did during the movie's two hours. One could argue that it's not their story, and one would be correct. Nonetheless, they come and go with no attempt to make them real; they're there to support Harvey, so they turn into props.

Ironically, the one exception comes from Milk’s fellow councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). Harvey’s rival is actually the only character in the movie who plays like a real person. We see positives and negatives, so he feels like a living, breathing human being. That contrast becomes more notable given the simplistic nature of the others.

I get the sense the filmmakers are afraid to offer anything other than a 100 percent glowing portrayal of gays. Perhaps they feel that gays have been maligned long enough so let's get positive role models out there. They'd be right about the long history of negativity toward gays, but I think it's almost as insulting to insist on turning homosexuals - or blacks, or women, or whatever - into saintly stereotypes.

And this factor also makes the movie feel dated. Back when we saw few gays portrayed prominently in films or TV, I could better accept the argument that they needed to be idealized. However, that day is long gone. Gays are common in various media now, so I think the belief that they can't be shown warts and all is irrelevant. Milk's insistence on doing so gives it a feel like it was made in 1993, not 2008.

To be sure, Milk is a well-meaning film, and it tells an important story. Unfortunately, it does so in a problematic manner. The cast all do well in their roles, and Sean Penn turns in possibly the best performance of his life. Too bad it's all in service of a one-dimensional TV movie.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C/ Bonus C+

Milk appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie featured a generally good transfer with a few issues along the way.

Sharpness usually satisfied. I noticed some mild edge enhancement, and that led to some softness in wider shots. Much of the flick looked fine, though, as the majority of the film provided acceptable delineation. I noticed no concerns with jagged edges or shimmering, and source flaws remained absent. Some shots tended to be a bit grainy, though I felt many of those went that direction to better fit in with archival footage.

Colors appeared up and down. The movie went with a fairly subdued but natural palette. Some shots exhibited vivid tones, while others came across as somewhat flat. Most of the elements demonstrated acceptable clarity, though. Blacks were dark and tight, but shadows seemed mildly erratic. Some low-light shots appeared less open than I’d expect. In the end, this was an acceptable transfer but one with enough variation to end up as a “B-“.

As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Milk, it exhibited its own concerns. My main complaint came from the localization of speech. Quite a few lines bled to the side speakers in a distracting way. The delineation was imprecise and became a nuisance.

Otherwise I had no problems with the soundscape. The movie’s score featured showed good stereo presence, and the effects provided nice spatiality. This wasn’t a movie with a lot of involving sequences, but it offered solid environmental material and opened up when necessary. That occurred most obviously during political rallies, as those were the only scenes that used the surrounds in any meaningful way. Overall, this was a mediocre soundfield.

I noticed no concerns with audio quality. Despite the distractions of the bleeding speech, the lines seemed reasonably natural and concise. A few came across as somewhat thick – likely due to recording methods – but I thought the dialogue usually appeared positive. Music was full and warm, while effects showed good clarity and accuracy. Again, they failed to boast much punch, but they fit the track. While I didn’t think this was a bad mix, the concerns left it as a “C”.

Only a minor collection of extras pops up here. Three Deleted Scenes run a total of three minutes, 46 seconds. These include “Recurring Dream”, “Jack Throws Pottery” and “Harvey the Clown”. “Dream” reinforces Harvey’s conviction that he’d die before he turned 50, while “Pottery” reminds us again that Jack’s unstable and a loose cannon. Neither offers anything necessary for the story.

And then there’s “Clown”. In this one, Harvey dresses up like a clown to pose for the local paper and campaign. It’s one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen and was a very good cut.

We also find three featurettes. Remembering Harvey goes for 13 minutes, 21 seconds and provides notes from former San Francisco city supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, campaign writer Frank Robinson, campaign photographer Daniel Nicoletta, campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, Coors boycott organizer Allan Baird, and historical consultant Cleve Jones. We learn a little about the facts behind the movie’s story as well as Milk’s legacy.

The most pleasing aspect of “Remembering” comes from the presence of some of the real people depicted in the movie. It’s good to hear their memories first-hand after seeing them portrayed on screen. The information doesn’t throw out much we don’t learn in the flick, but it’s still nice to get a better feel for the real-life participants.

Hollywood Comes to San Francisco lasts 14 minutes, 32 seconds and includes Jones, Kronenberg, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, and actors Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, Lucas Grabeel, Alison Pill, Stephen Spinella, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross, Kelvin Yu and Brandon Boyce. We learn a bit about the script and development, how Gus Van Sant came on board as director and his work on the film, cast and performances, and sets and locations.

“Hollywood” provides a decent overview of the production. On the negative side, it’s too bad Van Sant and Penn don’t show up here; they’re the two most prominent names attached to the film, so their absence disappoints. Nonetheless, the others pick up the slack and make this a reasonably informative program.

Finally, Marching for Equality occupies seven minutes, 58 seconds and presents notes from Jones, Nicoletta, historical consultant Gilbert Baker, and extras Mick Pitash and Charles Leavitt. The show looks at the shooting of one of the film’s march scenes as well as the history behind it. The latter element dominates, and the program tends to favor the laudatory side of things more than it offers distinct details. Still, it remains nice to hear from those involved with Milk and his movement, so those components give the piece some oomph.

A few ads open the DVD. We get promos for Changeling, Role Models, Brokeback Mountain and Focus Features. No trailer for Milk appears here.

Well-intentioned but one-dimensional and stale, Milk does a disservice to its subject matter. Rather than give us a three-dimensional view of pioneering politician Harvey Milk, we find a portrait without nuance or depth. Only Sean Penn’s stellar lead performance makes the film watchable. The DVD provides acceptable picture, mediocre audio, and a few interesting supplements. If you want to know more about Harvey Milk, skip this flawed movie and rent a documentary instead.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.5714 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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