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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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We're reviewing 'Milk' whether Focus wants us to or not

November 3, 2008 | 12:58 pm

Milkposter Normally it wouldn't be such a big deal to see an early review of "Milk" posted today on Variety's website, since the trade paper often weighs in early with reviews of big movies. But it's another nail in the coffin for the old-fashioned, top-down studio practice of trying to enforce embargo dates for reviews of movies. In this case, Focus Features had told anyone coming to an early press screening of the film that it had an embargo for "all" reviews: Nov. 19 for weeklies, Nov. 25 for online publications and Nov. 26 for print dailies (and their dwindling band of critics).

Needless to say, in today's Web-centric world, embargoes are a joke, since as soon as anyone appears to break the embargo, the competitive juices start overflowing for every other journalist or critic, who immediately feels the burning desire to post a review of their own. Focus' PR reps say that the trades are allowed to run reviews earlier because their review dates are triggered by a public screening of the film, like the one Focus had last week in San Francisco. The Focus reps say the embargo still holds for everyone else, even though several online writers have posted opinionated reactions to the movie that sure look to me like, well, reviews.

How else to describe MovieCityNews' David Poland's post, which called the film "a brilliant, powerfully humane piece of work," adding that "Sean Penn gives an Oscar lock performance of power and subtlety that ranks with the best of his career." Looks like a review, smells like a review. So why didn't Focus come down on Poland like a house of bricks? Duh! Because it was a glowingly positive, blurb-ready review. If it had been negative, the reaction would have been very different indeed.

So why shouldn't newspapers like my own L.A. Times, which are suffering huge losses in staff and circulation because, in part, we lack the freewheeling immediacy of Web-based publications, run our reviews earlier instead of waiting until the day a film is released in theaters? Trust me, if I were king, we'd be jumping into the conversation a lot sooner. I think it would be healthy, not to mention tantalizing, to read a first glimpse of our critic's reaction to a movie right after a screening--still allowing for a lengthier, more considered reaction when the film actually arrives in the marketplace. But more often than not, my editors prefer to wait.

But since everyone else in Web-land has weighed in on "Milk," I think it's time to have my say too. Want to know what I think? Keep reading:

My first reaction is that it came as a surprise to see Gus Van Sant telling the Harvey Milk story in such a familiar biopic format. Compared to most of Van Sant's work, the film is very conventional, offering a largely public-oriented view of Milk's political career, with his private loves reduced to subplots, which largely exist to show how much the demands of an all-consuming political career derail a politician's personal relationships. The film sticks closely to the historical record, which allows it to portray Milk as a passionate but pragmatic politician, even forging an alliance with the Teamsters along the way as he slowly builds a new kind of San Francisco political machine.

To me, the movie isn't just a portrait of the early days of the gay rights movement, but an intriguing glimpse of the strange contradictions of California politics that still exist today. As has been much remarked on, Milk's big victory--the 1978 defeat of a proposition that would have banned gay men and women from teaching in the public schools--is all too unsettlingly timely, since we're going to the polls Tuesday to vote on a proposition that would ban gay marriage. But the tragic conflict between Milk and fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White is a reflection of the ever-present tension in California between liberals and conservatives, between the state's regard for individual rights vs. conformity, between an embrace of the new and a nostalgia for the past. In California, we ping back and forth, producing prickly visionaries like Jerry Brown as well as genial throwbacks like Ronald Reagan.

I thought the movie fell a little flat when it tried to reproduce the public demonstrations and surging energy of the gay rights movement, but it came alive whenever we saw Sean Penn as Milk, Penn understanding that it's often the little moments that define a character. He doesn't really look like Milk on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts, he captures the soul of a brash young activist, part zealot, part pragmatist, trying to transform a new cultural awakening into a politically viable mass movement. Like Martin Luther King Jr., who was Milk's almost exact contemporary--born barely a year earlier--Milk was killed before he got to the mountain top. But this movie, with all its flaws, is a great slice of history, a history that really has never been told until now.

RELATED:

'Milk' and California politics: It's deja vu all over again

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