‘Milk’: Giving competition to ‘Slumdog…’ at Oscars (IANS Film Review; Rating: ****)

February 21st, 2009 - 7:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Sean PennFilm: “Milk”; Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna; Director: Gus Van Sant; Rating: ****

Movies like “Milk” can’t seem to get out of the huge shadow being cast by Oscar front-runner “Slumdog Millionaire” this year. “Milk” is clearly one of the best films of the past year, with a great cast and features quite possibly the performance of the year - from Sean Penn.

Biopics of late have not had a good run in Hollywood. Film makers struggle between staying true to the story while making it creatively interesting. It is easy to fail, and the fact that “Milk” gets it right explains why it got eight Oscar nominations.

Sean Penn plays the activist Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the US. He fails in his first two attempts but finally succeeds and thus makes huge strides for gay rights. Milk is tragically killed by a mentally disturbed colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin) who is actually as intriguing as Milk.

The strong point is clearly the cast. James Franco plays the long suffering lover and the chemistry between him and Penn is charged and believable. Emile Hirsch undergoes an astonishing transformation to play Cleve Jones. There are other bit players like Diego Luna playing Milk’s other tragic lover Jack Lira.

But the best of the supporting cast has to be Josh Brolin. Brolin is impressive as the troubled Dan White and is slowly showcasing his range. In the past two years he has played a man on the run in “No County for Old Men”, a slimy cop in “American Gangster” and the US President George W. Bush in “W”.

Here he impresses, and if not for the stellar performance by Heath Ledger, would have been a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor award. Penn also gives one of his best performances and brings more warmth and a touch of playful lightness that strays from the more intense work he put in the likes of “Mystic River”.

Director Gus Van Sant is also establishing himself as a more mainstream director after having started off making small and more quirky films. He does a fine job of bringing out the volatile love story. It unfolds to show how love, of any kind, is so similar in its ecstatic highs and its devastating lows.

Milk was not a perfect man, and this movie does not shy away from showing those faults. Milk could at times be ruthless and under that veneer of charm lay a streak of determination and ambition. He was willing to sacrifice and was not very wise in his choice of lovers.

It does not veer off into hagiography. “Milk” weaves wonderfully the politics, personal life and even the context. We get to see the main players of both sides of this issue and can see clearly just how much gay rights have progressed.

“Milk” is an entertaining film and well worth the time. This is the second most deserving film to win Best Picture Oscar after “Slumdog Millionaire”.

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