Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The HomoWorld, Reality and Fantasy: MILK (the "movement" but not the "man") and WERE THE WORLD MINE

Levi's presented the "people's premiere" of MILK (dir. Gus Van Sant, US, 2008, 128 mins.) at the Castro Theatre on Monday, November 10, to a HIGHLY anticipatory audience! After a series of somewhat lengthy introductions, which included a Levi Strauss executive (whose name I can not remember and told the audience that we would be in tears for the final twenty minutes), Supervisor Bevan Dufty, and the screenwriter and co-executive producer Dustin Lance Black, the locally shot bio-pic began. Well, I think it would be best to approach MILK with the idea that you are seeing not so much a bio-pic, as much as a history of Harvey Milk's political movement. We do not learn much about Harvey "the person" but it is fairly complete as far as revealing Harvey "the politician". The actual humanity of the events take a back seat to the political chain of events that would lead to the assassinations of him and Mayor Mascone. Of course, the material about Milk is available out there (i.e. THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK), so the focus that this film has is not unjustified and moves forward from just being the narrative presentation of an earlier documentary.

However, in dramatizing the political movement, the script does not pull punches from it's subjective view. Harvey Milk is nearly the SuperGay, whose string of Lois Lanes are left in the dust of his humanitarian efforts. While his nemeses, Anita Bryant and Dan White, are characterized nearly as superficially. It is worth noting that Anita Bryant appears in the film via actual news reports from that time and is not played by an actress. Dan White is portrayed by Josh Brolin, who brings a lot more meat to the role than the script might allow. Though he has to work to bring to surface the possible motive of his killings, at least it is not as purely sociopathic as the script might have allowed. Sean Penn does a terrific characterization of Harvey Milk. Though he is basically given two hours of Milk's platitudes to recite, Penn fills the silences with a delightful physicalization of the renowned wit and joi d'vive of the man. Emile Hirsch also fills his role as Cleve Jones with a life beyond the two dimensions the script provides him, as does James Franco and Diego Luna as Milk's ignored lovers. The rest of the cast are pretty well left with looking on in admiration as Penn moves through the film as Milk.

Gus Van Sant's direction seems to be "preaching to the choir" as the parade of historical figures are always formally introduced, with just a moment of pause allowing for gasps of recognition, or as was the case with this evening's audience, applause. It could be argued that Van Sant meant this as a "gay rights primer" for the uninitiated. However, enough detail is spent on the political machinizations surrounding Milk's rise to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and passage of a gay rights ordinance in San Francisco as to actually be more of a map to how to be politically successful. (In fact, during an exchange between Milk and his State Assembly competitor, Art Agnos, there was a nugget of a lesson to be learned even today, as it pertains to the latest passage of Proposition 8, in California.)

In the end, the film may prove to be "award worthy" for Penn, Brolin and (hopefully) Hirsch. However, as has been noted by for more thorough critics than I, this is not going to be Van Sant's "Brokeback Mountain", however professionally executed.

On the other end of the execution scale, there is WERE THE WORLD MINE (dir. Tom Gustafson, US, 2008, 96 mins.), a musical fantasy of a young gay man's magical ability to bring lovers together, as Puck does in A Misummer Night's Dream, which he is performing in a high school play. The film is based on a short film FAIRIES, which is itself based upon a play. The script has some potential, as does the score. However, the cast just seems... OVER EAGER to play their roles! There are a number of stage performers cast and director Tom Gustafson has not reigned in their performances. In fact, it feels as if he has encouraged some of the over-the-top reactions to what could be as effectively played with sincerity. The editing and pacing is a bit sluggish and the choreography is simply not camera friendly. It is simply a bit klutzy, overall, though if you're in the mood for something CUTE and are NOT a Shakespearean traditionalist, perhaps you'll find something to your liking here.

Maxxxxx says
re MILK: "Such a good bird!"
re WERE THE WORLD MINE: "Dooby dooby dooo-oo!"


JimmyD said...

Did you, or anyone you know, cry at all during 'MILK'?
(Levi's discriminates against tall people. They don't carry tall sizes in their stores. They want tall people to still spend $$ for their sizes on-line.)

Xanna Don't said...

Wonderful, insightful review. I'll think of it and you on Tuesday when Ann & I go to see an advance screening at The Tara--Image/ATLFF365 has invited the Out On Film board to attend. Should be interesting!

jjcee said...

Your "review" of Were the World Mine couldn't be more off mark. I saw it at Frameline where it received a 5 minute standing ovation and have been obsessed since. Not sure where you got that there are a "number" of stage performers - I think there is one... And I'm frankly not sure what movie you saw as most of the other "reviews" and awards have agreed with my obsession: that it's a joy in every way possible. Can't wait for it to return to SF in a few weeks.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...


I'm glad you liked WERE THE WORLD MINE.

However, I don't find where it is being as universally lauded as you suggest. I would guess that a lot of negative "reviews" are just not being filed/posted, since the film is not going to be a big player, even on the indie scene.

I was going to pass posting myself, however, out of respect to the pr agency that allowed me a preview, I posted as positive of a blurb as I could.

If you would like me to quote the press packet I received with the performers bios, I will, as, yes, the majority were stage performers.

In the end, we all have our guilty pleasures, which I feel that this may become for most of it's "obsessors".

Cabsau said...

Interesting review of Milk. I read in an interview that Van Sant's initial plan was a period docu-style biopic filmed on 16mm. The execs had him abandon the 16mm idea. He said they dropped the documentary styled biopic approach shortly after they began filming but used some of the captured footage anyway. I wonder if the remaining film was the by product of the original intent, or if Van Sant thought that giving too personal an insight of the man might have tainted the intentions of the piece (especially for the general public at large in the rest of the country). Did the film bear any emotional impact for you? Sounds like it didn't.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

Actually, I think Van Sant tried TOO hard to MAKE us love him, and sort of lost Milk's humanity in the process, and thus it became a series of "superhuman events", than personal struggles. He left the lovers sort of hanging there, looking like sad puppies...

There were snippets of "newsreels" which I would now assume were parts of his early footage. I think abandoning THAT was a good thing, since 16mm doesn't project well these days, even if it's faked.

Cabsau said...

Having just seen Milk, I'm sad to say I agree with you. Well crafted film, interesting story, compelling performances (James Franco was outstanding as well) but lacking in spirit. Aside from a few scenes, the film felt very paint by numbers with smart but obvious dialogue and story telling.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

Thanks, Cabsou.

I've taken some heat about being "cold and cynical" to the spirit of the film. However, I think what was missing for me, was any kind of emotional struggle from the character of Harvey Milk, between his personal and political lives. I think I wanted to see WHY the guys were in love with him beyond his activism, and/or see a dark side to Milk in which that activism consumed him. He was a political animal, and we did get a hint of that (the staging of stopping the protest on City Hall), but there weren't any real character flaws to flesh him out. IMHO...