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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unu-9vM9VZw

Gus Van Sant‘s Milk is an electrifying movie. It tells the story of the right man in the right place, one who rose to the challenges facing him, only to be snuffed out in a senseless act of brutal violence. The movie contains an astonishing amount of information, but never loses sight of its characters. Van Sant seamlessly combines the personal and the political, documenting a struggle that’s (sadly) still relevant today.

Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a gay New Yorker living in San Francisco with his young lover, Scott (James Franco). Seeing the indignities that many gay men in the area face, Milk decides to organize Castro street, and make it a place where he and his community can live comfortably. But gay men still butt heads with police in the area, so Milk decides that they only way gays will be tolerated is if they have one of their own in office. Milk loses a few times before he wins, learning the hard way that he simply cannot be anti-establishment to win an election, and that he must give his constituents a positive message.  Milk ascends to public office, fights for basic civil rights, and forms an unlikely bond with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose unhinged personality eventually proves to be Milk’s undoing.

In the wrong hands, Sean Penn’s acting can be a little over the top, but here he makes a character that’s totally believable. Not only does he bear a strong resemblance to Milk, but YouTube videos reveal that his vocal and physical mannerisms are accurate, too. It’s no small thing for a gay man to be accepted by mainstream society, and Milk does so with his winning personality and unrelenting drive. Penn instantly gains the audience’s sympathy – I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins Best Actor. The supporting actors are also strong. Emile Hirsch is memorable as Cleave, a political organizer whose goofy hair and oversized glasses mask a shrewd personality. As Dan White, Brolin does a good job of creating an unstable man whose self-loathing might be systemic of hidden secrets (Milk confided that White might be gay, but it’s left somewhat ambiguous). At every key plot point, Van Sant hits the right emotional note. Political victories are exhilarating, and personal travesties are devastating. When the end finally arrives, the killing is as stupid and pointless as Van Sant’s other explorations of murder. One memorable final shot clearly was not faked, and is all the more heartbreaking for its verisimilitude.

In the wake of Proposition 8, Milk is an important movie. The movie’s political climax is regarding California’s Proposition 6, which similarly sought to deny homosexual rights. Supporters and detractors use language that would feel at equally at home in both 1978 and 2008. When Milk goes before a large crowd and delivers a thrilling speech, I was saddened that his crusade is still being fought today. At least his message can now be found in this heartfelt, supremely entertaining movie.

Here are other biopics of famous non-heterosexuals that feature last name titles:

Wilde. Stephen Fry is the perfect choice to play Oscar Wilde in this biography of the legendary playwright/novelist/critic/wit. Not only is Fry a fellow renaissance man known for his dry humor, but he bears an uncanny resemblance to Wilde himself (he also directed an adaptation of BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS). With lush direction, the movie chronicles Wilde’s dizzying fall from popularity to disgrace. He was a devoted family man, but Wilde could never escape young men, his sole weakness. Bosely, a obnoxious man-child ably played by Jude Law, proved to be the playwright’s most fateful relationship. The movie argues that Wilde used his charm as a defense mechanism – watch as he uses charm to almost win over Bosely’s pig-headed father. Following his conviction and sentence for sodomy charges, Wilde spends his last years in exile, and it occurrs to me he would have been far more happy in a relatively more progressive time (the movie’s tagline refers to him as the “first modern man”). Much to my chagrin, the writers neglected to include Wilde’s last words, which rank among my favorite.

Kinsey. An antithesis to Oscar Wilde, Alfred Kinsey was completely devoid of charm. He was a driven, brilliant scientist whose studies revolutionized how we perceive sexual behavior. Single-mindedness alienated many of those around him, but Kinsey’s breakthrough cannot be denied. Bill Condon directed this adaptation of the scientist’s life, depicting a time when it was thought that masturbating would make you go blind (perish the thought). Liam Neeson does a great job of capturing Kinsey’s intensity (he also looks like the late scientist). It’s intriguing to watch how Kinsey’s conclusions spilled into his personal life. In one memorable scene, both he and a young man (Peters Sarsgaard) confess that they’re Kinsey 3s, and embark on an awkward sexual encounter. What makes the scene all the more astonishing is that Kinsey confesses the encounter to his wife (Laura Linney), describing it in a manner that completely ignores her feelings. This memorable exchange is one of many that arrive at the same conclusion – Kinsey would never been as successful as he was without his emotionally reckless tunnel vision.

Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s writer in this closely observed biopic. Yes, Capote ended up a sad sack of shit, but before that he was a deeply intelligent man who could charm anyone with scandalous stories of Hollywood elites. The movie focuses on a key passage in Capote’s life, when he meets Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a condemned murderer with whom the writers forms an unusual bond. Lacking an ending to his revolutionary true-crime novel, Capote realize that Perry must die, a fact which takes an unbearable psychic toll. Dropping his baritone voice, it’s jarring to hear Capote’s voice coming out of Hoffman’s mouth. He inhabits the role, and the Oscar is well deserved. Catherine Keener is also memorable as Harper Lee, a decent woman who tolerates Capote up to a point. I was surprised to learn that the movie was written by Dan Futterman, who is perhaps most famous for playing Val in The Birdcage. Coincidentally, another movie called Infamous, about the exact same subject, came out shortly after Capote’s release. I still haven’t seen it – if you have, how would you compare the two?

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I (probably) grill an ex-president.

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