(Un)Happy Cows: Milk, Australia, Quantum of Solace, Twilight
By Fernando F. Croce

Milk is dramatically anemic but inescapably poignant. How much of that impact derives from the film as opposed to the zeitgeist is another matter, as Gus Van Sant's biopic about brave gay-rights activist Harvey Milk arrives in theaters with the passing of California's vile anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 still fresh in audiences' minds. (You have to go back to Casablanca for a Hollywood film with more built-in relevance.) Sean Penn plays Milk, the opening briefly contrasts the New York salesman he was in 1970 with the San Francisco politician he would be in 1978, the year of his murder. An entirely conventional bit of introduction and foreshadowing, but there's something refreshing about the way Van Sant skips over any laborious, coming-out sequences to just present Milk as a galvanic, unapologetic presence, spending his 40th birthday with the hippie-cutie (James Franco) he grabbed outside the subway. The two move to San Francisco and set shop at the burgeoning queer enclave of Castro Street, a place equal parts freedom and danger -- a long, blood-spattered conversation is played reflected in one of the whistles gays carried to alert each other of homophobic thugs. Milk understood that recognition and liberation were impossible without political mobilization, so he mounts a literal soapbox and addresses the community: "Fellow degenerates!" Penn is very good at getting to the man's shrewd, humane combination of humor, drive and the resilience needed to confront such Culture Wars adversaries as sulfuric Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) and assassin-to-be Dan White (Josh Brolin, providing W. residue almost as disturbing as his immovable hair).

Here's a topic for somebody's thesis: While Pier Paolo Pasolini followed his "Trilogy of Life" (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) with SalÚ, Van Sant's followed his "Death Trilogy" (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) with Paranoid Park and Milk, works of growing hope. When Penn recites the "Mayor of Castro Street's" stirring lines ("If a bullet should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door"), there's a heartfelt ardor that lends emotive curves to Dustin Lance Black's schematic screenplay. Still, noble intentions should never be confused with artistic achievement, and the film is more Academy Award doormat than politicized portrait. Franco, Emile Hirsch (as hustler-cum-activist Cleve Jones) and Diego Luna (as Milk's unstable lover Jack Lira) look cuddly in their That-'70s-Porn 'fros and 'staches, but nobody is allowed to establish an autonomous character (Franco is pretty much stuck in the disapproving-wife role that's been a biopic staple since the Paul Muni days). There are sides to the protagonist that could have been explored (Victor Garger's Mayor George Moscone jokingly compares Milk to Boss Tweed at one point) but are instead left behind as Van Sant & Co. move through their index cards; love scenes are kept behind too-tasteful shadows, cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac) again shows his talent for draining and flattening the '70s, those Henry IV clunkers from My Own Private Idaho reappear here in Tosca drag. Milk ultimately resembles less the man than the white liquid -- warm, nourishing, somewhat sleep-inducing. I can imagine Milk instead preferring a strong cup of coffee, and then leading on with the revolution. The struggle, after all, goes on.

*

"Each man kills the thing he loves," so saith another sage gay. Milk has long been Van Sant's pet project, just as Baz Luhrmann has labored for years to bring Australia to screens, and indeed both auteurs just about smother their respective projects with affection. Both films also include renditions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," in Milk to score vintage views of Castro protests (with the foul Anita Bryant as the film's stock-footage Wicked Witch) and in Luhrmann's cloddish outback epic as a sort of national metaphor, and also to evoke memories of plus-sized Golden Age bull-elephants (Gone With the Wind, Saratoga Trunk, Giant). Oz here is the land of a thousand CGI-adorned vistas, introduced to the Ken Russell-on-blow tempo of Moulin Rouge!: There's Nicole Kidman as a British lady traveling Down Under as WWII simmers in the horizon, Hugh Jackman as the studly trover who agrees to drive her cattle across the flatlands, and a half-caste aboriginal orphan (Brandon Walters) who becomes their surrogate exotic. The pace slackens for stampedes, betrayals and Snidely Whiplashes before Miss Priss and Faux-Gable realize they are meant for each other. Whoa, still got a lot left. There's the obligatory ball where the scruffy hero dons a white tux ("I mix with dingoes, not duchesses"), the boy's grandfather (David Gulpilil, from Walkabout) watching from the mountains, familial revelations, a half-assed critique of Australia's old racist laws and a sprawling Japanese blitzkrieg. You'd need Spielberg working in Indiana Jones mode to pull this off, and Luhrmann just piles quotation mark on top of quotation mark. All that's missing is an epilogue with a powder-dusted Kidman looking back at how horribly-scripted her life was, although Edna Ferber herself would probably look at the film's leaden romanticism and plead, "Less. Less."

*

I arrived late at Quantum of Solace, but with high hopes. Casino Royale wiped the James Bond slate clean for new possibilities, with its thrilling final image locating (and entrapping) the psychopath deep within secret-agent iconography. Instead of developing this (or any) idea, however, the latest installment pillages the past two years for facile tropes and shoved-in "timeliness." Emo-hero from the Spider-Man and Batman snoozers? Check. What-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-be-seeing editing from the Paul Greengrass school? Check. MacGuffins somehow meant to show "the times we live in"? Oy, check. Consumed by vengeance, Bond (Daniel Craig, again grimly superb but without much surprise) tracks down the man behind Quantum, the conspiracy responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper; the plot encompasses a mysterious fellow avenger (Olga Kurylenko), the installment of a C.I.A.-blessed South American dictatorship and, as befitting "the times," a villain (Mathieu Amalric) who's less Dr. Mabuse than a cog in global power games. Marc Forster, maker of middlebrow pudding like Monster's Ball and The Kite Runner, is the director: he does okay with the actors, but the action sequences -- the second-unit director's art in Bond movies -- are inexcusably muddled, with incoherence awards going to a boat chase and a scuffle at the opera house (Tosca again, a bad week for Puccini). Dismal and unexciting, Quantum of Solace self-consciously transmutes Goldfinger's glitter into an oil slick -- a metaphor, all right, but surely not the one the makers had in mind.

*

Just asking, but do 17-year-old girls today really fantasize about playing corpse brides to Egon Schiele mannequins? Apparently so, judging from the gazillion dollars made by Stephenie Meyer's bestseller Twilight and now its faithfully lame movie adaptation. Kristen Stewart, still busy being Mary-Louise Parker's Mini-Me, plays a moody teen whose overcast new high school turns out to be more interesting than she first thought, thanks to the chalky hunk (Robert Pattinson) who turns out to be a vampire. His family is trying to avoid killing people for food, but the sight of Stewart's neck tests his sanguine celibacy: "I've never wanted a human's blood so much in my life," he murmurs, which here is supposed to be a declaration of love. Do I have to say that there's a gang of evil bloodsuckers around, too? Much unintentional hilarity ensues. The most asinine version yet of director Catherine Hardwicke's recurring motifs of teen angst (Thirteen, The Nativity Story), Twilight suggests Anne Rice slumming for a WB special. I'd recommend Ginger Snaps as a corrective, but that's werewolves, not vampires. Different menstrual allegory, I know.


Reviewed December 4, 2008.

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