Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reel Thoughts: The Mayor of Castro Street

Harvey Milk was known as “the Mayor of Castro Street” long before he rose to prominence as the first openly gay politician in the US. Seeing Sean Penn’s amazing performance in Gus Van Sant’s incredibly moving new film Milk, we can only imagine what mincemeat Milk would have made of the Proposition 8 people.

Sadly, he was brutally gunned down, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a paranoid psycho named Dan White (he of the infamous “Twinkie Defense”), just as his great work was finally paying off. Of course, what ultimately makes Milk such an unbearably sad film to watch is that the same intolerance temporarily vanquished in the film is still on full display by the heartless supporters of Prop 102, Prop 8 and just about any place where “social conservatives” gather. I just hope that Milk will be a catalyst for positive change in driving anti-gay zealots back under their rocks.

Penn plays the 40-year-old Milk, who travels to San Francisco with his lover Scott Smith (the delicious James Franco), intent on doing something important with his life. In the late 70's, the Prop 8 of its time was the Briggs Initiative, a vile piece of legislative crap that prohibited gay people from teaching in California schools. Laws like it were being pushed across the country by the orange juice-shilling hag, Anita Bryant, shown in actual footage that confirms that she’s a Disney-esque evil fairy-tale witch.

Because we know what is to befall Milk, I almost wish that Van Sant had managed to inject more joy and humor into his film. It felt bogged down at times by the fighting and break-ups he endured, and the viciousness, both casual and violent, shown by Milk’s opponents. One great missed opportunity would have been to show Anita Bryant getting a pie in the face, and then hissing out, “At least it was a fruit pie!” — especially since pies in the face are a motif in the film.

Emile Hirsch is unrecognizable as Cleve Jones (who also appears in the film), as is Diego Luna as Milk’s crazed lover Jack Lira. Josh Brolin does a great job as Milk’s assassin, White, showing us the perfect example of the kind of person that hate speech (like that shown in the recent election) inflames.

Milk should net Penn an Oscar nomination, and the film is almost as important as Brokeback Mountain. It isn’t as well made, mostly because the story doesn’t allow for as much depth of characters, but Van Sant has truly captured the era, the attitude and the hope for change in Milk.

UPDATE: Milk is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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