“Autralia” and “Milk”
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch
Director: Gus Van Sant
Moulin Rouge was a grand postmodern experiment, the kind of whimsical fantasia that was never boring in its attempt to jump-start the musical genre with attention-deficit editing styles and sets of grandiose sets, each one glitzier than the last. This writer found the film to be little more than a two-hour headache – think “Fighting Seizure Robots” on The Simpsons – but I nevertheless appreciated the fact that director Baz Luhrmann was not content sticking with a status quo filmmaking ethic.
It should come as little surprise that Australia, Luhrmann’s near-three-hour monster tries to do for the epic romance what Moulin Rouge did to the musical, but the results this time prove that Moulin was a bit of a fluke. Australia is one of those bloated, endless exercises in popcorn moviemaking that attempts to construct its own narrative reality by throwing as many cinematic clichés into a blender as possible and hitting ‘puree’ with the lid off: In short, it’s a whole lot of nothing.
There’s a introductory text to the film explaining the historical background of the events in the film, but the outlandish style of Luhrmann’s staccato editing style makes any kind of real-event syntax impossible to keep track of. We know that Nicole Kidman plays a British socialite who comes to Australia to prepare the sale of her husband’s cattle ranch there, only to fall victim to the glory of the country – and to the machismo of one Mr. Drover (Hugh Jackman) – but by the time the film hits its overlong WWII-bombing coda, it becomes apparent that there’s a lot of flash in Australia, but no thinking sensibility.
Not to point fingers, but everything trails back to Luhrmann. Kidman is a more-than-capable performer – her turn in Kubrick almost decade-old Eyes Wide Shut is one of the more underrated showcases of shy passion seen in modern film – yet in Australia, she’s left with a paint-by-number character who neither makes much sense nor fully comes to life. One minute she loves her husband, then a minute after he dies, she’s in Hugh’s arms – it never really comes together. And Luhrmann turns Jackman into little more than a greasy, frequently-shirtless hunka-hunka-burnin’-love, which spirals the movie into a quantum state of silliness right from the get-go.
So, yes, the scenery is pretty, and yes, there are elements of a good old-fashioned cattle drive that even the worst-made movie can capitalize upon, but at the end of the day, Australia is a lumbering misstep, $200 million dollars of not much at all.
There’s a value implicit to Milk, though, that makes it not only one of the best films of the year, but a de facto reason to celebrate. Gus Van Sant’s return to mainframe cinema couldn’t have come at a better time: While his Death Trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) contains some of the most intoxicating cinema of this decade, their super-avant-garde natures marginalized them in terms of marketplace to glorified festival circuits. With Milk, Van Sant takes the lessons he learned from following his muse and turns his interests to telling a very simple, heartbreaking story to a large, potentially heretofore uninformed audience.
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk in the film, San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, and the story of the last couple decades of the politician’s life is a saga of punchy resilience and punishing defeat (sometimes simultaneously). Avoiding a typical biopic storytelling style, Van Sant starts the film as a hyper-emotional impressionistic tale of Milk falling in love with Scott (James Franco), the man who would be his partner for a big chunk of his life. During the first half-hour of the film, one isn’t exactly sure how the film will sustain itself with its fleeting visual beauty trumping any kind of distinct information presentation, but once Harvey and Scott move to Market Street, the film fuses its aesthetic sheen with a steam-train of a narrative with explosive results.
It will be interesting to see how the film connects with mainstream audiences – where Brokeback Mountain was able to pepper its homosexuality with a tried-and-true western-worn genre, Milk is overtly and politically gay: Love and connection among boys and girls of all makeups are manifested with plain, adoring directness. There are no punches pulled, no kisses to cut away from: Milk’s here, Milk’s queer – get used to it.
And its this noble forwardness that gives the movie such an inspiring tone. Sean Penn is nothing short of staggering in his embodiment of Milk – not only does he get the look and sound of the guy just right, but he injects his performance with a marvelously sense of confident wisdom. Supporting performers are just as exceptional: Emile Hirsch shines as activist Cleve Jones, Josh Brolin is devastating in his small role as Dan White, the man who cut Milk’s life tragically short, and Running With Scissors alum Joseph Cross turns his well-dressed Dick Pabich into far more than a background player: He may not have much screen time, but every inch of it is electric.
With the ghosts of both Harvey and Prop. 8 hovering about the bubbling whirlwind of Milk, the film not only dumbfounds with its storytelling prowess and attention to character nuance – it’s enough to completely overwhelm viewers with its panoramic artistic prowess. Its subject matter may prove to be too squishy for square sensibilities to stomach, but for those with hearts ready to experience a story of extraordinary courage and dedication, Milk – like its biographical subject – will no doubt inspire.