My back, my aching back…thoughts on ‘Milk’ and ‘Frost’

Posted by · 10:07 pm · October 28th, 2008

Sean Penn in MilkThis is why I don’t do the festival thing.  Multiple screenings back-to-back always plagues the faculties.

Anyway, David Poland was eager to iPhone in his “First!” response on “Milk,” and while I agree with his assessment of Sean Penn’s phenomenal portrayal, I can’t share his overall enthusiasm for the film itself.

On the whole, it’s a shame Gus Van Sant was working from such a by-the-book, greatest hits screenplay, but his creativity as a director allows the film to steer clear of some anticipated pitfalls.  I was more impressed by Josh Brolin’s work than I expected, stepping into what could have been a flat villain role and really bringing some subtlety and layers.  However brief the performance, I think it might be his best work to date.

Additionally Emile Hirsch, who generally irritates me to know end, added a spark to the film that was pleasantly surprising.  And Harris Savides’s work on the camera, combined with the expected artistry of the editing, elevates Dustin Lance Black’s work to greater heights than it might have deserved.

More in the way of a review later on.

Following “Milk” up with “Frost/Nixon” was interesting to say the least.  It’s liberal rah-rahing of a different sort, and I confess I liked the film more than our own Guy Lodge did.  It lags in the first two and a half acts, struggling to find an element that could bring something more to Peter Morgan’s stage play.  When it finds the respect for Nixon that it needs, the film finally understands its own potential.

The discovery is a bit too late, however, to connect in any meaningful way, but Frank Langella’s starring turn slowly moves out of caricature as the narrative pushes forward.  The centerpiece of the tale — a telephone conversation that probably won Langella the Tony — lacks the dramatic tension it managed on the stage.  But phone conversations have never been cinematic.  When the confrontation comes, the result is satisfying enough and the camera’s lingering on Langella’s pained, introspective face probably secures him the Oscar nomination in those moments.

Oliver Platt gets the money lines, Sam Rockwell gives a solid if slightly cliched portrayal and Michael Sheen adds more here than he did in the theater.  But on the whole, it’s a Ron Howard straight-forward yarn that isn’t concerned with pushing the envelope.  It works, if only because it never challenges itself.

There’s no need to really dig in with a full review and cover the same ground as Guy did a few weeks back, but two points spring to mind as important.  It’s always fantastic to see Kevin Bacon, probably one of the most underrated actors working today, take on a role with this kind of potential (he plays Nixon’s protective former chief of staff).  But Ron Howard doesn’t give the character the proper space to mean what it could, despite a final private moment with the former President that hints at the depth of his care and admiration.

Similarly, it was a crime to reduce Rebecca Hall to window dressing and arm candy.  An actress as beautiful and talented as she is could have done more with something substantial, and it certainly wasn’t a role that couldn’t have used some injected depth.  She still gave one of the most undervalued performances of the year in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” so perhaps she’ll get her due in some fashion later in the year.

“Doubt” later in the week at AFI and a special “Che” screening at the Chinese over the weekend.  It’s all happening…

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35 responses so far

  • 1 10-28-2008 at 10:15 pm

    McGuff said...

    Well, I’m happy to get a bit more excited for Frost/Nixon, albeit disappointed that you didn’t walk out carrying a Milk-for-the-Oscar torch … okay, maybe I didn’t expect that, but it is my BP pick.

    I’m glad you liked Hirsch this time around, because I’ve always liked him. Surprised you didn’t mention Franco’s performance … might we see him slipping off the sidebar next week?

  • 2 10-28-2008 at 10:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Franco’s was the most muted portrayal, but that doesn’t diminish his work. He’s properly emotional and a nice anchor for Harvey throughout.

  • 3 10-28-2008 at 11:04 pm

    Nick Plowman said...

    God you’re lucky. Milk has to be one of the films I am looking forward to the most this year, I do, after all, worship at the altar of Gus Van Sant.

  • 4 10-28-2008 at 11:15 pm

    Rob Scheer said...

    “…a by-the-book, greatest hits screenplay…”

    So… you’re basically saying it’s a biopic? What else is a profile of a public figure really expected to deliver other than the highlights or “greatest hits” of their life and/or what they accomplished.

    I know what you’re getting at; there are a lot more interesting, subversive ways to tackle such material than the straightforward route. But I think the story of Harvey Milk’s political career and aftermath is compelling and powerful enough on its own that it doesn’t really need to be dressed up to really work.

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll agree with you and find the approach lacking, but it strikes me as the sort of material that does the work for itself.

  • 5 10-29-2008 at 1:40 am

    BurmaShave said...

    Sigh, respect for Nixon. Somehow he even managed to make Tony Hopkins and Oliver Stone empathize. In the future, these films are going to be a huge part of how we define him. Dick Nixon is like Kevin Spacey in the ’90s, he always wins.

  • 6 10-29-2008 at 1:55 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    To avoid is it is a rather myopic crime. It’s too easy to make him into some monster of this drama or that. People are complicated. I applaud the artistic resolve to reflect that.

  • 7 10-29-2008 at 3:33 am

    BurmaShave said...

    Well said, and fair enough. I’m just a little bitter these days that the party that has now given us our two most crooked and damaging Presidents of the modern era even still exists. Hopefully 11/4 will change my mood.

  • 8 10-29-2008 at 4:03 am

    Steven Hughes said...

    I know this is completely off subject but I was wondering if you’ve read the script for Defiance? I just finished it and I was astounded. If Daniel Craig can pull off this perfomance then I believe he deserves a best actor nomination, along with Liev Schreiber for supporting. This is now the movie I can’t wait to see at this year’s AFI fest.

  • 9 10-29-2008 at 4:36 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Heh, we seem to agree on many parts with Frost/Nixon. I was a bit underwhelmed with Bacon’s character too but I understood his function. And those Langella eyes at the end were priceless.

  • 10 10-29-2008 at 5:38 am

    Joel said...

    I’ll see both when they’re released, but now I’m a BIT skeptical of “Milk.”

  • 11 10-29-2008 at 7:23 am

    Sam said...

    I also think “Defiance” might get a best pic nom (and others), if it proves to be amazing. Of course the subject matter is very Oscar-baity, and this time, the Jews are fighting back! Wouldn’t Hollywood want to see that? I personally think the last Samurai is a bit flat, but this could be good.

  • 12 10-29-2008 at 7:50 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I’m beginning to believe too that Defiance should be concidered a dark horse for the BP race at least.

  • 13 10-29-2008 at 8:32 am

    Luke Gorham said...

    I agree that “Defiance” LOOKS good, but the Academy has never been much a fan of Zwick (“Glory,” aside), especially in recent years. Admittedly, the slate is dwindling, particularly if these two films underwhelm as Kris seems to be indicating they may, so we’ll see.

  • 14 10-29-2008 at 9:03 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Steven: I haven’t read the script…but I have seen the film.

  • 15 10-29-2008 at 11:09 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    And? I’ll only need to know if it’s as good or less or even better than Frost and Milk.

  • 16 10-29-2008 at 11:18 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Can’t really get into it yet.

  • 17 10-29-2008 at 12:16 pm

    Chad said...

    Very disapppointed to hear the bad news about Milk. I love Van Sant and the trailer was great, but I generally despise biopics because they usually feel like filmed wikipedia articles. Hearing that it follows that same formula breaks my heart.

  • 18 10-29-2008 at 2:20 pm

    Linda said...

    Everyone has an opinion. Other critics have praised this film, so I’m going to wait for more.
    No film has ever been released without a couple of bad reviews. At least, it’s not an outright slam.
    My impression of your view is that, in general, you liked it but there were some aspects that you found troublesome. Or am I wrong ?

  • 19 10-29-2008 at 4:47 pm

    Kid said...

    Are you gonna write full reviews on these two films cause I would find that a lot more helpful to fully understand your thoughts on the film?

    And when will you be able to talk about Defiance?

  • 20 10-29-2008 at 6:57 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 21 10-29-2008 at 9:29 pm

    Glenn said...

    People… people… it’s one person’s opinion. Just because Kris doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just like because Guy thought Frost/Nixon wasn’t good doesn’t mean nobody else will like it either.

  • 22 10-30-2008 at 9:16 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Plus, I would never say either movie is “bad.”

  • 23 10-30-2008 at 9:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, same goes for me on “Frost/Nixon,” which I thought unsuccessful, not simply “bad” — there’s a world of difference between the two.

    Unfortunately, particularly in reviews which have those tricky star ratings to quantify one’s feelings, many readers isolate the adjectives and shed the nuance.

  • 24 10-31-2008 at 1:32 am

    Caligula said...

    Well, last year he wasn’t enthusiastic about No Country for Old Men and, well, we all know that was a masterpiece…So, now I’m more than excited to see the film.

  • 25 12-13-2008 at 10:30 pm

    G said...

    Milk is phenomenal. I also watched both back to back, and thought Frost was a worthy boxing match, but Milk delivers the knockout. The editing and fascinating cinematography elevate the biopic from the usual. But it was the directing that blew me away: The awkward framing every time Josh Brolin was onscreen, reflecting his conflicting discomfort, brilliantly brought in the tension Van Sant has so successfully explored in his recent indie efforts like Elephant and Paranoid Park; the soulful performances from the supporting cast; the shocking immersion of Sean Penn in the role of Milk. For a movie about political ideals, there was a great heart behind it. Most biopics leave me cold, even though I admire the performances of the leads (Ray, La Vie en Rose, Capote), but this one carries so much real emotion. It is a surprise for both Penn and Van Sant (recently exploring the homicidal and the detached) to make a film that is so lively and incendiary. There’s a magic to it. Brolin is, I suspect, a year or two from a Best Actor statue himself. A small role that speaks volumes with every single second he’s onscreen. And Penn gives the performance of his life and joins Meryl Streep as one of the greatest chameleon actors of all time.

  • 26 12-13-2008 at 11:00 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Kris, I cannot agree with your lukewarm assessment of Milk. In fact, I can’t believe anyone can see such a heart-wrenching ending and NOT love this film.