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Milk
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Opens Dec. 5

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

Malcolm: I've always thought Gus Van Sant was a hit-or-miss director, capable of telling a great story but also of getting arty to the point of incoherence. At the risk of mixing metaphors, he takes the life of gay politician Harvey Milk and plays it straight, making a standard biopic that relies on the strength of its source material. "Milk" dives rights in. We first see him in his native New York in 1970, freshly forty and still closeted. His new lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, who reportedly begged Van Sant for the role), convinces Milk he needs a change. The pair move to San Francisco and open a camera store.

Tony: And Milk didn't need directorial bells and whistles to be effective – just some neat blending of styles between current footage and archival material. Franco was great in his role. One of the strengths of the movie is that almost all of the secondary characters seem genuine-based on actual people in Milk's circle of friends-even those that we only see very briefly. Also, in fun film trivia, that was the actual storefront where they had their store.

Malcolm: Milk certainly had a compelling story. His political history is still familiar to a lot of people: his multiple runs for city supervisor, his fights with anti-gay leader Anita Bryant and becoming the public face of the gay political movement, his success turning back the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay teachers from California public schools. This success is quickly followed by his murder, along with that of mayor George Moscone, by troubled supervisor Dan White.

Tony: The Briggs Initiative wouldn't just have banned the teachers, it would have allowed school districts to fire any other members of staff who supported or sympathized with those teachers.

Malcolm: Sean Penn seemed like an odd choice for the lead. He's shorter and far burlier than the slightly-built Milk, and doesn't look much like him. But he manages to inhabit the role in a very convincing way, aided by Van Sant's clever use of shadows and camera angles to maximize any resemblance. It was also interesting to see Josh Brolin as White so soon after his spectacular turn as President George W. Bush in "W."

Tony: Yes, Penn's performance will likely yield multiple award nominations. It's a story that was a long time coming – with a release that marks the 30th anniversary of Milk's death. Both Brolin's White and Bush are depicted as simple, well-meaning men who are caught up in circumstances that they simply aren't well equipped to understand or cope with. The parallels are also profound between the Briggs fight in the film and the recent Proposition 8 that re-banned gay marriage in California. Although the issues being fought are not analogous, it's hard to sit there and not feel to some extent like we, or at least some of us, have been stuck in the same mindset for 30 years. It seems doubtful that the outcome would have been swayed but one has to ponder what reaction the film might have had with a marginally earlier release date.

Malcolm: The film also serves as a reminder of how recent it was that few gay people were out of the closet in this country. While pro-gay marriage activists have been very clumsy in their attempts to appropriate the civil rights mantle once worn by African-American leaders, the actual historical shots of gay people marching-and dying-in the streets might have made this connection seem stronger. This film also seems to reinforce the conventional wisdom among many who watch politics for a living-that while the anti-gay rights forces keep consistently winning battles, they long ago lost the actual war over the hearts and minds of the next generation of voters (see "Expert's Expound," Nov. 20).

Let the Right One In ( Låt den rätte komma in)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Review by Tony Sheppard

In another interesting coincidence, this Swedish take on a familiar vampire tale is in theaters alongside the less engaging "Twilight." And while "Let the Right One In" centers around younger characters, it also has a far less juvenile tone and delivery.

Oskar is a lonely and bullied boy until the mysterious Eli arrives in his snow filled apartment complex. Not only does she represent potential friendship, but she encourages Oskar to stand up for himself. However, she also harbors dark secrets and appetites of her own, with an older companion who caters for her needs, and mementos of an overly long childhood kept in an otherwise minimalist flat.

While the idea of a love story between a vampire and a mortal is hardly original, as evidenced by Twilight's sorry retread, "Let the Right One In" comes at it from a relatively new direction with a distinctly European lack of pandering to an audience that typically expects less bleak outcomes. It also serves up some neat scenes for horror fans, contributing to an end result that is one of the freshest and best of the genre.


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