The year-end demolition derby that is Oscar season is ramping up, and among the next big films to face the gauntlet is Gus Van Sant's Harvey Milk biopic, Milk. Already the recipient of oodles of pre-release buzz (so there, says Focus Features), its release Wednesday will cap a period of real-world gay activism that has unmistakable parallels to the events in the film. Senior editor S.T. VanAirsdale and associate editor Kyle Buchanan have already seen the movie and are ready to share their thoughts; so which editor wanted to see more James Franco, and which wanted to see more of James Franco's stunt phallus? Read on to find out!KB: So, Stu, you and I have both seen one of the year's most anticipated movies, Milk. I'm curious about our reactions, because we both came to from a different place. I saw it before the election, and you saw it after. Also, I'm a gay man, and you're not (aside from that one time at summer camp). STV: True, true. KB: So what did you think of it? STV: I liked it! Well-made prestige Oscar bait. KB: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate its Van Santyness? Or perhaps, on a scale of Finding Forrester to Gerry? STV: 1 being Finding Forrester, Milk is right around a 3. KB: It's pretty straightforward, except for the occasional fun pop touch. I liked the film too, although I felt it ends better than it begins. The beginning is verrry biopic-y, every introduction is portentous and expositional. STV: It's a problem throughout, though. KB: People say things like, "Let me tell you something, CLEVE JONES..." I am pretty sure I never use people's last names when talking to them. Though maybe I would if I knew they'd be famous one day! STV: Try it with me some time, let's see what happens. KB: Do you think we'll see a single review of this film that won't mention Milk's parallel to Obama, or Prop 8? STV: This one won't be it, I guess. I hope so, though. KB: The Prop 8 stuff is pretty hard to ignore, considering Milk is trying to overturn the anti-gay Prop 6 in the movie. He even makes some remarks, like that the anti-Prop 6 ad campaign was "closeted," that I heard about the "No on 8" campaign. STV: So we need 100 critics saying it's relevant?
KB: Well, this is a case where I think its relevance will help. Unlike Obama's election lifting The Dark Knight, lazy Academy voters may look at Milk and say, "I will check this box off for activism!" I can see the cocktail party chatter: "Isn't that Prop 8 terrible?" "It sure is. I voted for Sean Penn, by the way." STV: That doesn't make it a better film, though, is what I'm saying. Which critics will confuse it with. KB: Sean Penn is great, but what did we think of everyone else? STV: Waitaminute. Sean Penn is the movie. KB: I love that the Variety review basically boiled down to, "Sean Penn deserves credit for appearing likable on screen!" STV: It's a role where so, so much could go wrong, and he hurdles over all of it. The period trappings, the physicality, the presence, the godawful hair... KB: It's hard to imagine how Robin Williams or Steve Carell could have done it better. What did you think of Josh Brolin? That role could have been even trickier. STV: I think he's great, but the part of Dan White is underwritten. The guy has no real inner life.
KB: I think all the supporting roles have a lot less to them than you would think going in. Emile Hirsch didn't have much to do besides a dorky dance in group party scenes. STV: James Franco's character is bizarre. Now you see him, now you don't. KB: Also, where were these stunt cocks Franco had promised us while doing talk shows? I felt gypped. STV: Saving it for the DVD, I guess. Is Diego Luna annoying? KB: Yes, but intentionally? My friend couldn't stand him. I thought that was kind of the point, he's like that guy your friend dates who you can't stand. STV: It was like with Brolin's character, where he didn't earn the attention our hero devoted to him. KB: I appreciate all the internecine politics we saw with Dan White and Milk, though. That was, I think, its most notable expansion over The Times of Harvey Milk. STV: Gosh, now that you say it, I have all kinds of quibbles with this movie. I've already vented some of them, but the politics...I mean we KNOW they fought. So maybe part of my disappointment with Brolin's character is the surface-level whininess that never ever ends. He plays a great drunk, though. Imagine! KB: He was high on twinkies, Stu. Clearly.
STV: It's true. Forgive me. Give readers one reason to see Milk unrelated to Sean Penn or the political relevance. KB: [Director of photography] Harris Savides. STV: DITTO! KB: It's a very pretty, warm movie. It makes you want to be there, suffering prejudice and getting assassinated. STV: He's a brilliant cinematographer. Will straights in the red states buy tickets to this? Gays! Sean Penn! San Francisco! KB: The ones who want to meet their "one daring thing a year" quota might. With the Oscar help, I could see it hitting $40 million. I don't think it's a Brokeback, though. So have you soured on Milk since we began this discussion? "Sour milk." I didn't even intend that. STV: Honk. I don't think so, I never thought it was extraordinary. But I guess the thing that really is most striking is that for the first time in 25 years, Sean Penn is a revelation. KB: True, and he deserves everything he gets for it, STU VANAIRSDALE. STV: I feel famous already.