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A man for all seasons: Penn as Milk.

Tragedy and Triumph

By Laura Leon

Milk

Directed by Gus Van Sant

 

During the first few minutes of Milk, one gets an uneasy feeling. Something’s not quite right, but what? No, it’s not that we’re watching a doe-eyed New York exec, one Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) cruising on his birthday in the subway. Or that the guy with whom he hooks up (James Franco) looks about half his age. Then it dawns on you—it’s the fact that Penn is laughing, smiling and playful. It’s the utter antithesis of his usual brooding persona, both on and off screen, that has the power to shock, then draw you in.

When I first heard about Harvey Milk, it was in 1987 and I was on my first trip to San Francisco. My brother-in-law and host regaled me with the tale of the transplanted New Yorker who settled in the Castro section of the city; the Castro was formerly an Irish working-class enclave but, by the ’70s, was fast becoming a mecca for the openly gay. Milk quickly put his engaging ways to political use, running for office and eventually becoming city supervisor. Working under Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), and with other progressives such as Dianne Feinstein, Milk was instrumental in liberalizing many laws, much to the dislike of another supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). After resigning his position and unsuccessfully trying to win it back, White assassinated both Moscone and Milk on Nov. 27, 1978. Later that night, tens of thousands of gays and lesbians participated in a candlelight march to City Hall, where both men had been slain.

It was a haunting story. It still is. Director Gus Van Sant wisely avoids anything approaching reverence, opting instead for a breezy retelling of Milk’s rise to power, but with much emphasis on the freewheeling times. There is an almost nostalgic feeling about this crazy period, the mid-1970s, during which many gays found their voices and established a vibrant community out west. Indeed, one gets the strong sense that such an atmosphere—so different from the corporate New York that Milk had fled—gave flower to Milk’s abilities, nurtured his sense of wit and helped propel his political successes. Of course, it’s also apparent that Milk loved the limelight, particularly the adoration of his close-knit band of followers, which here includes Emile Hirsch and Lucas Grabeel.

Penn is something of a revelation, again, because he seems to have become a completely different person, both in temperament and in body language. He makes you believe that gay Harvey Milk can get the unions to support him. Yet somehow, perhaps because I can’t help but be contrarian, I found the character of Dan White more compelling. The script is somewhat one-dimensional in its characterization of this man; a coda about his defense attorney’s “Twinkie defense,” in which it was argued, successfully, that White’s mass consumption of junk food in the weeks prior to the murders contributed to his mental state, is delivered as the final “aha!” in an analysis that rarely gets above the fact that White is a religious white Catholic. Brolin, however, reaches in and uncovers nuggets of humanity that make us almost feel for the guy.

Now before everybody e-mails me that I am homophobic, read on. Brolin makes us see into the White whose solid working-class voting bloc has eroded, and whose neighborhood has completely changed before his eyes. Here is the young married guy, a new father, living a life probably quite similar to that of his father and his grandfather, and somehow, the script got changed and he didn’t get a copy. Or if he did, it’s in a foreign language. Brolin makes us feel his character’s bafflement and dislocation. Moreover, he evokes a vulnerability, a need to belong, which Milk himself also senses and, at least initially, tries to work with. It’s a triumph of acting, one which makes me less embarrassed about how much I fell for the guy after seeing The Goonies.

This is that time of year when Hollywood uncaps all the good movies it has been hoarding, giving us cinematic water to quench our very, very parched appetites. It’s also the time when Oscar nomination bets are hot and heavy, so by now, you have to have heard that Milk and its leads are almost shoo-ins for recognition. What a refreshing change of pace, the contemplation of performances steeped in sheer humanity and unaided by fake retardation or other handicapping conditions, taking home the prize. Milk, and Penn, and Brolin, and Van Sant, are truly worthy.

The Great Escape

Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle

If you’re an adult drawing breath in this last quarter of 2008, you’re surely aware of the state of the human condition. Optimism is remarkably hard to come by, and for good reason: For every glimmer of hope to grace the front page of the daily news (Godspeed, President Obama!) there are several more signs that we’re pretty well screwed (quickening climate change, global economic collapse, rampant terrorism, and so on). There’s not a lot to look forward to these days.

Well, here’s something: Slumdog Millionaire, the latest film from English director Danny Boyle, presents the kind of hope for the hopeless that the world needs right now. It’s a pure feel-good ride, a color-saturated, Dickensian rags-to-riches story about a kid from the streets of the impoverished slums in Mumbai, India, who finds himself on the verge of fame and fortune—and love—thanks to a stint on a popular game show. Slumdog is a relentless crowd pleaser, a romantic fairy tale that celebrates the golden days of big-screen escapism, even though it bears little resemblance to anything Hollywood has produced in decades.

Jamil Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees (about U.S. $500,000) on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The show’s host (Anil Kapoor) suspects him of cheating—how could this street urchin possibly know all the answers?—and has him interrogated (and tortured, in one of the film’s few remotely graphic scenes) by the police. As Jamal explains to the police the origins of his knowledge, the answers unfold pieces of his narrative. In flashback, we witness the young Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) wallowing in the squalor and filth of the slums; the death of their mother at the hands of a Hindu mob; Jamal’s meeting of, and many separations from, his lifelong love, Latika (Freida Pinto); and a series of skin-of-their-teeth escapes from the gangsters and criminals who rule the streets.

Boyle knows a ripe opportunity when he smells it, and he made the most of this one. It’s an unbelievable but, in the words of the film’s police inspector (Irrfan Khan), bizarrely plausible story, and the film’s success could be called the same. The screenplay, based on the novel Q & A, cleverly clothes a simple tale about love and destiny in a Three Musketeers romp. Shot on location in Mumbai using hi-definition digital video, Slumdog marries the crackling energy and fractured storytelling of Trainspotting with the disorienting blur of 28 Days Later. The dialogue is about one-third subtitled Hindi, but never hard to follow; the music, by famed composer A.R. Rahman, is as lively as the on-screen action.

And the cast of mostly unrecognizable Indian actors makes the picture: Patel, known in England for his role on the serial Skins, has a quiet intensity and the looks of a matinee idol; Bollywood vet Kapoor is perfectly smarmy and patronizing; and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays Jamal as a child (both Jamal and Salim are played by three different actors), is worthy of an Oscar nomination for his irresistible energy—he all but carries half the film. (It should be noted that the contributions of casting director Loveleen Tandan earned her a co-directing credit.)

Mumbai serves as a microcosm of the world at large: It’s the second most populous city in the world, a port city that doubles as its nation’s financial center, home to both unparalleled prosperity and abject poverty, and the site of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent memory. But for the purposes of this tale, it’s a stand-in for any big city—in U.S. terms, it’s New York and Los Angeles rolled into one and cut with post-Katrina New Orleans. And while some will complain that Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t fully delve into the true nature of Mumbai’s seamy underbelly (there’s an India-for- dummies feel to some of it, in favor of a broader optimism) it’s not really about that—it’s a movie about life and liberty, but mostly the pursuit of happiness. And it’s ultimately about the cinematic experience, the power of entertainment to make you forget about life for a few hours at a time. On that last count, Slumdog Millionaire is the best picture of the year.

—John Brodeur


I’m an alien, dumbass: Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Little Green Spacemen

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Directed by Scott Derrickson

A Saturday-afternoon TV staple about aliens who land on Earth to protect the planet from nuclear war, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was emblematic of the Cold War. And now the remake, which replaces the threat of MAD with environmental catastrophe, arrives just in time for the wave of Obama-election sensitivity to the Green Revolution. Some sound bites on sustainability aside, however, this new version is more about special effects than interplanetary intervention. The updating is most enjoyable during the first half, when a meteor-like sphere hurtles toward Manhattan, depositing Klaatu the alien (Keanu Reeves) and his gargantuan robot bodyguard. Though the robot is relatively simple by Transformers standards, its looming size and laser-red eye slot are as menacing as the original’s. But science has come a long way since those pre-CGI days, and so a panel of specialists, including astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), accompanies the military force sent to intercept the sphere. One nifty factoid is the placental space suit that incubates Klaatu until he is shot by a nervous soldier. In a government laboratory, a surgeon discovers that the membranous humanoid has a human-like entity inside. Reeves doesn’t seem to be inspired by Michael Rennie’s beloved alien, or anything else (except maybe his own private nebula), but his pallid complexion and out-of-body detachment work for the early scenes.

Helen helps Klaatu escape from the clutches of the president’s representative (Kathy Bates), who assumes that an alien invasion is imminent and denies the alien’s request to be taken to the world’s leaders. En route to civilian life, Klaatu has an amusing encounter with a lie detector, but his advanced-intelligence weaponry is less successful in neutralizing the hostility of Helen’s mixed-race stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), whose father died in combat. While Helen and Jacob try to come to terms with their loss, Klaatu gives them the message he was sent to deliver: That the Earth, one of only a few planets in the cosmos capable of sustaining complex life, is at a tipping point because of the damage done to it by humans. And since the Earth can survive without humans but humans can’t survive without . . . the human race will just have to go. Speaking for the world’s population, Helen tries to assure Klaatu, with all her dewey-eyed maternal sincerity (and Connelly is considerably dewy-eyed), that “we can change.” Whether she convinces him or not doesn’t matter, since the robot is morphing into a planetary pestilence that bogs the film down in underwhelming metallurgical effects. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is better at atmosphere than action, and the screenplay gets lazy (McDonald’s is a poor substitute for the Lincoln Memorial). Even so, the film’s modicum of social awareness fits right in with the new optimism.

—Ann Morrow


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