B Movie Glory: Midnight In The Switchgrass

Today on what is Bruce Willis up to in the B-movie lane we have Midnight In The Switchgrass (isn’t that a cool title though?), a moody, subdued southern gothic potboiler by way of a serial killer procedural that I actually really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still DTV, it’s low budget and rough around the edges but a genuine effort was made here by first time director Randall Emmett, a truly impressive cast is assembled, all of whom are clearly having fun and a mood is established through soundtrack, suspense and down to earth writing that cannot be written off as simply B grade trash. Somewhere along the desolate Florida interstate a nasty serial killer is kidnapping women, murdering them and dumping their bodies. Various factions of law enforcement are desperately trying to stop him including two world weary FBI agents (Willis & Megan Fox) and one undeterred state police rogue (Emile Hirsch) who has been looking for this monster for some years. The killer is played by Lukas Haas which isn’t really a spoiler since the trailers reveal that fact, he’s a real formidable, despicable force here, made all the more sickening by the fact that he has a wife and young daughter of his own who, by default, are constantly at risk of him having a full meltdown. Fox is terrific here, the more assertive of the pair, she has great chemistry with Willis and some sharply delivered lines that illustrate her character. She has a few scenes with musical artist Machine Gun Kelly (now her real life boyfriend), playing a violent, trash-bag motel pimp who once saw the killer briefly and is therefore an asset to the case, as hard to control as he is, he crackles with a sleazy, downtrodden volatility. Hirsch is so intense, fired up and doggedly earnest it sometimes feels like he’ll jump out of the screen, run around your living room and knock over the furniture, I miss when he was in the spotlight and he’s very good here. As for the film, it all depends on how you look at it. Yes, Willis has fallen from grace, admittedly he doesn’t get much to do here beyond an extended cameo and naturally this comes nowhere close to his iconic films we’re all used to, but as a brooding, atmospheric, slightly run of the mill yet still distinctive and ever so slightly horror tinged procedural thriller you can certainly do a *lot* worse. There are some mournful, melancholic soundtrack choices with beautifully sung lyrics and titles like “No Time Left”, “Maybe Heaven” and “Are You Washed In The Blood” that are used strategically at key moments and just add so much personality and emotion to the story. So, it ain’t high pedigree cinema, but in my eyes it is a commendable genre effort that held my attention, had some nice cinematic flourishes, a brutally suspenseful final act, a cast worth clapping for and lyrical atmospheric tension that I really connected with.

-Nate Hill

Freaks (2018)

Freaks is… something, to say the least. I don’t think I understood every law of nature, paranormal phenomena or mutant related plot point in this narratively nebulous, kaleidoscopic and brazenly unique indie SciFi effort but I can tell you this might be one of the most ambitious things ever attempted with a lower budget, like if a young Chris Nolan did an X Men film with the first signs of his playing with time, space and physics in full blossom. The story tells of a young girl (Lexy Kolker) who has spent the first seven years or so of her life in a strange, dilapidated Vancouver house with her paranoid, protective father (Emilie Hirsch). He keeps her there and tells her of a dangerous world out there that they must not venture out into, for fear of sinister forces that want to hurt them. As she gets older her curiosity coupled with bizarre dreams prompt her to evade his efforts and leave the house, where she finds a threatening world in which her kind are hunted and prosecuted, while a mysterious, benevolent ice cream truck driver (Bruce Dern) who seems to know she is tries his best to help her. That’s only the first ten minutes or so I’ve described and only the tip of a very complex, indescribably reality bending puzzle box of a story that I feel like I’d have to watch at least a half dozen times to properly work out in my THC scorched brain. It concerns a form of time travel, clandestine government agents, harvesting brain material, brain stimulated altered visual perception, multigenerational family ties and how they affect genetic abilities and a plot line that defies the laws of time, space, nature and the act of screenwriting itself. I can’t help but think what they would have wrought here with a blockbuster level budget but I also ponder if that might gloss over the scrappy, lo-fi, boundless charm and careening creativity to be found here. Kolker is a phenomenal young actress and you feel believably alongside her protagonist every step of the way through danger, confusion and self discovery. Hirsch, relegated to fascinating work since his fall from A-list grace, is wonderfully haggard and intense here while Dern is his usual excellent, scene stealing, salt of the earth old self. They’re supported by a host of others including Amanda Crew and Grace Park as a ruthlessly efficient agent. I can’t say I understood the whole thing or was able to follow the multiple crisscrossing story threads entirely but they weave together a tapestry that has to be seen to be believed, and is one impressive effort overall.

-Nate Hill

Sean Penn’s Into The Wild

Sean Penn’s Into The Wild is ostensibly about a young college grad who abandons societal norms, traditional Western aspirations and archetypal beats to live first on the road and eventually in the wilderness, but that’s really only the framework for something more elemental and profound. What I got out of it, thanks to meditative filmmaking and an ensemble cast for the ages, was a quiet, studious anthropologist’s discourse on how many different human beings conform to, tear free from or abide just outside what society deems ‘normal’ or ‘allowed.’ Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless is perhaps the most extreme and outright noticeable example within the cast of characters, a young boy just starting out in life who has decided to flip the proverbial table and rewrite the collective standards of living in our world to suit his strikingly literate, ambitiously philosophical nature. This is one of those films where the main character is on a journey and meets/interacts with many varied, interesting folk along the way. Penn loves to use this motif (check out his masterpiece The Pledge for quite a different version of the idea), is terrific with ensemble casts and many actors of considerable talent thankfully flock to work in his pictures. Christopher’s parents are played by Marcia Gay Harden and a heartbreaking William Hurt, two actors who have never been pinned down into playing one role or typecast, both very clearly the materialistic, compassionate yet volcanically dysfunctional proud suburban parents. Jena Malone is Christopher’s supportive, loving sister and from these relatives he sets out on a cross country journey with Alaska as his endgame, and meets a host of people who could be a collective time capsule of late 80’s/early 90’s Americana. Vince Vaughn is a rowdy farming magnate who takes Christopher in, gives him work and a boisterous big brother presence, for awhile. Kristen Stewart is the teenaged hippie girl he finds romance with in a wistful trailer commune… for awhile. Signe Egholm Olsen and Thure Lindhart are two effervescent European backpackers he shares a watering hole with.. for like ten minutes. Hal Holbrook will break your heart into pieces as a fatherly widower with a tragic past who gives him shelter and paternal companionship.. for a brief time. The running theme here is that Christopher never stays anywhere for long and it soon becomes clear that some human beings, himself included, were simply meant to roam restlessly until their soul finds a place it can be at peace. My favourite among his interactions is that with an ageing hippie couple played by the wonderful Catherine Keener and someone called Brian Dierker, who I’ve never heard of before but makes a striking impression. They’re a loving pair with tragedy in their past who find kinship and parental caring for Christopher, and I felt like if there was one place or group of people on his journey he may have ended up staying with permanently, it would have been them. We all know how this film turns out and what the story tells us, but for me it was a beautifully episodic, sweepingly melodious exploration of human beings and how they interact, migrate about the landscape and find their own customs, relationships and purposes with the lives given to them. There’s a montage right near the end where as we witness Christopher arrive at the final beat of his arc, we also see everyone he met and cared about in life at the exact same moment in time elsewhere, each in various snapshots of joy, anguish, libation or introspection. It’s a brilliantly edited sequence because it sews the final stitches together in a thread of human experiences the film gifts us, and I’ve seldom felt more connected to the “connectedness” of human beings overall than I did in this beautiful sequence. This is a masterpiece, and I won’t even go into the brilliant album composed by Eddie Vedder because we’d be here all day.

-Nate Hill

Mel Gibson in Force Of Nature

As we sat down to watch Mel Gibson’s latest direct to video flick Force Of Nature, we barely got halfway in before my roommate commented “whoever wrote this movie has serious cognitive issues.” I agree. This is a hurtin’ ass excuse for entertainment. It’s like one of those text posts where someone forces an algorithm bot to watch over fifty hours of any given genre or existing property and have it write its own skewed, bizarre version of said material. Well a bot would have done a better job writing a ‘hurricane heist cop thriller thing’ than whoever penned this. As a category 5 storm descends on Puerto Rico, various random characters with no sense of direction or personality converge around a waterlogged apartment complex, unable to leave, coexist or tell a story that makes sense. The world’s most sarcastic cop (Emile Hirsch) and his partner (Stephanie Cayo) are tasked with evacuating stragglers, including some dude caught trying to buy one hundred pounds of beef from a supermarket to feed a literal jaguar that lives in his closet. Meanwhile a gang of psychotic thieves led by a weirdo who calls himself John The Baptist (David Zayas from Dexter) prowl the building shooting anything that moves and looking for stolen Picasso paintings passed down through a family of nazis. Mel Gibson himself plays a super grumpy, terminally ill ex cop with an exaggerated Chicago accent who refuses to leave his apartment with his nurse daughter (Kate Bosworth). Everyone runs around chaotically from apartment to apartment doing nothing in particular, the rain pours outside but never really escalates beyond intense downpour into legit hurricane weather, and… fuck I dunno man, I don’t even feel like this deserves proper punctuation or attention in a review because it obviously doesn’t give two shits about it’s audience enough to even try. Nothing makes sense, it’s impossible to care about anything going on, all the plot points and characters beats are so off the wall and I found myself just really wondering why this thing was even made at all, much less why respectable folks like Hirsch, Zayas or Mel friggin Gibson would be attached. Bosworth at least has a sheepish excuse because she’s married to the director, but even then she’s pushing her luck. A solid contender for the worst film of the year and not something I recommend you waste ninety minutes of your precious life on. The only Force Of Nature to be found here is this thing’s compelling ability to make the viewer get up off the couch and leave the room.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

One time Robert Rodriguez asked pal Quentin Tarantino for advice on his Mariachi films and Quentin told him that if he was going to go for a third one it should be big, loud and be called Once Upon A Time In Mexico. This to me represents a certain decision in the career of any filmmaker to make a ‘Once Upon A Time’ in the sense that it is to be big, loud, lengthy, personal and something of a milestone, and I always wondered what Quentin’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ might, if ever, manifest as. Well it’s here, and let me tell you that Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the real fucking deal. It’s Tarantino’s best film since Kill Bill (in my humble but stubborn opinion) and a magnum opus of poetic justice, cartoonish buffoonery, horrific suspense, painstakingly beautiful production design, dirty fuckin’ hippies, pitchers full of margarita mix, a pit bull you’ll fall in love with instantly and enough meta moviemaking fanfare to send one into a coma of cinematic bliss.

It’s a western, a period piece, a borderline documentary at times, a buddy comedy, a horror film and more but at the centre of it Tarantino stashes a deep love and reverence for an era long past. I didn’t grow up in the 60’s, I wasn’t born yet but watching these old cars careen through the Hollywood hills at dusk, hearing the the gorgeous soundtrack, various meticulously chosen commercials and radio plays gently warble out from stereos and televisions and seeing neon billboards flare up all over town somehow just put me right there as if I’d lived through those decades. There’s a sense of idyllic innocence in Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, a hopeful force of good as we see a woman in the first lap of both life and her career, the world open in front of her like a red carpet. There’s also menace in the land as the evil, twisted Manson cult hovers over the fringes of town like a flock of banshees. Tarantino clearly has no love for these people, portraying them as trashy dumpster diving lunatics who live in putrefied squalor and come across as inbred jackals waiting to pounce. There’s a clear cut hatred for the acts perpetrated in our timeline by Manson’s followers, and a deliciously cathartic sense of righteous retribution in how the filmmaker acts out his own version of an event that for him changed the face of the city.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo Dicaprio are two mega movie stars who share the screen for the first time here, and they also get to share a bromance thats poignant and perfectly pitched in terms of comedy and tragedy. Dicaprio is Rick Dalton, a once dapper TV star whose jump into film has faltered, or at least it has in his own perception of himself. Pitt is Cliff Booth, his trusty stuntman, confidante and drinking buddy, an ice cool cowboy with a dangerous edge and uncanny way of getting in more sensational real life shenanigans than Rick does behind a camera. Their relationship is the core of the film and while we get to spend quite a bit of time with both together, much of the film we see them off doing their own thing. Rick has landed the bad guy of the week guest spot in a western called Lancer, struggling to keep his cool, remember his lines and stay on top. Cliff picks up a spooky hitchhiking chick (Margaret Qualley makes a stark impression) and makes a visit to the sinister Spahn movie ranch where the Manson brood have taken up roost like vultures. They make a trip to Rome so Rick can do a few spaghetti westerns that his agent (Al Pacino) keeps talking up. It’s a hangout film for much of the languid two hour and forty five minute runtime, and despite the lulls and chill time not a moment feels wasted. Pitt may well have whipped Tarantino’s best character, a kooky badass who is clearly dysfunctional on film sets but has his own hard edged set of morals that cause him to dish out western style justice at the drop of a hat, when he isn’t eating kraft dinner, hamming beers or feeding his adorable dog Brandy. Leo is insecure, melodramatic and neurotic no end, there’s a frustration and hilariously relatable self loathing that’s tamed in a touching encounter with a child actress (Julia Butters- a breakout star here) who befriends him and puts things into perspective.

Tarantino amasses a monumental cast here from cameos to clever impersonations and more, watch for Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Lena Dunham, Damon Herriman, Emile Hirsch, Damien Lewis, Austin Butler, Mike Moh, Maya Hawke, Victoria Pedretti, Danielle Harris, Scoot Mcnairy, Clifton Collins Jr, Marco Rodriguez, Dreama Walker, Rumer Willis, Spencer Garrett, Clu Galagar, Rebecca Gayheart, Martin Kove, Perla Haney Jardine (The Bride’s daughter in Kill Bill, no less), Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell. One standout is Dakota Fanning as a terrifyingly dead eyed Manson chick who tries admirably but unsuccessfully to intimidate Cliff. This could well be Tarantino’s best film, but really it’s hard to pick and why argue. It’s certainly his most eclectic, most personal and most human. Rick and Cliff seem born out of LA, out of Hollywood and out of the dreams of a man who grew up in cinema and went on to craft some of the most treasured films of the last thirty years. I feel like it’s my new favourite, and it’s tough for me to say why. I suppose it hauntingly captures a portrait of a different era almost in a fashion akin to time travel. He uses the ‘if we could only go back on time’ sentiment on the infamous Sharon Tate event and refashions it to something that although is no less violent, is not the tragedy everyone remembers. It’s a brilliant narrative, anchored and spurred by the chemistry that Rick and Cliff have together, the humour and humanity that each bring and sense of time and place like no other. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood… Quentin Tarantino made a film about an actor, his stunt double and the girl who lived next door, and it was something a masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

It’s always a good barometer to use Stephen King’s praise when it comes to horror films, and he had nothing but great things to say about André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, a gruesome and very scary little chamber piece with quite the unnerving story to tell. Set in a spooky underground morgue, a father son duo of coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) get one last corpse sent their way by the county sheriff (Roose Bolton from Game Of Thrones) just as they’re about to shut down for the night. Labelled a Jane Doe due to lack of any identification, she’s one in a series of bodies found at a boarded up house, but cause of death is eerily unclear. These two toil away looking for clues as the night wears on and her corpse gets steadily weirder with every layer of skin, bone and tendon peeled back, but something isn’t right with her and soon our heroes hear creepy sounds, see bizarre things in the hallways and realize that the last place they want to be is stuck down there with her, especially while a raging storm prevents them from leaving. It’s a terrific setup for a nightmarish horror story, and all the elements make it work quite well. Cox and Hirsch are two great actors who sell both the father son drama and the burgeoning fear as each moment gets scarier than the last. Jane Doe isn’t a dummy or CGI but played by real actress Olwen Catherine Kelly mostly the whole time, adding an uncomfortable depth and realism to their predicament as we search her body for signs of movement or remaining sentience and squirm in our seats. The photography here is crisp and concise, the scenes lit to effect and the score drives them neatly too. There’s plenty of gore and look-away moments involving the autopsy (unless that’s your thing, ya sick fuck) but the real fear lies in story and suspense as we gradually learn who Jane Doe was and what is now happening around her, while poor Brian and Emile are stalked by all kinds of freaky shit and their apparently haunted radio starts to spaz out on them. I can see why King liked this so much as it greatly reminded me of his work, it’s smart and not too predictable with perverse attention to detail in the body horror and a slick, immersive premise. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

“What happened to you?”A review of The Autopsy of Jane Doe by Josh Hains

The R rating description for the Autopsy of Jane Doe reads “bloody horror violence, unsettling grisly images, graphic nudity, and language”, a misleading description that may give future viewers the impression they’re in for a hearty gore fest. I thought I might be in for a suspenseful slasher, something akin to a cross between Don’t Breathe (another great horror entry from 2016) and The Ring, but with a greater focus on gory splatter. I wasn’t disappointed per se, but the graphic qualities of this movie don’t unfold the way you might expect them to, which admittedly caught me off guard yet pleasantly surprised me.

Without giving anything away (as this is a spoiler free review), I can tell you that this particular horror movie actually shows barely any on-screen violence. In fact, the bulk of the “bloody horror violence” actually comes in the form of the autopsy itself, which doesn’t shy away from giving viewers prolonged sequences of dissection, which plays directly into the “unsettling grisly images” of the rating description. Think of any CSI: Crime Scene Investigation autopsy scene, but make it run for an hour and twenty six minutes. The graphic nudity doesn’t come from an impromptu sex sequence, but from Jane Doe’s seemingly lifeless corpse laying nude on the cold steel table. It’s nothing exploitive or fetishized, just protocol when examining a dead person for cause of death. And as far as the language portion of the description is concerned, you might find more profanity in one scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles than in the entirety of this film, not that it’s a bad thing.

The movie introduces us to a gruesome multiple murder scene where a nameless nude young woman is found buried in the sands of the house’s basement floor and whisked off to the mortuary run by Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch), a father-son coroner duo, given until the early morning hours to find Jane Doe’s cause of death for the sheriff. Austin has plans with his girlfriend for the night, but once Jane Doe shows up, he feels compelled to stick around and assist Tommy, despite his girlfriend’s immediate unhappiness with being ditched yet again. Jane Doe’s is an extremely odd case for the duo, her entire outer body in perfect condition but her insides boasting a series of horrifying injuries including broken ankles and wrists. With how she died becoming a more frightening answer with every new internal injury discovered, the autopsy draws on, and as an unseen storm outside increases in its catastrophic potential (as heard via a radio that provides comfort music) several unexplainable supernatural occurrences begin to manifest, eventually trapping the duo in the mortuary and threatening to terrorize them all through the cliche dark and stormy night.

Early exchanges of dialogue between father and son, both personal and professional, as well as the blatant chemistry between the two actors, illustrate a believable history and relationship between the characters. You could change Hirsch’s last name to Cox and never doubt for a second that he is indeed Cox’s son, and it’s that believability that elevates the material from standard issue to fare to something special and unique. Both actors bring their A-game, and are not just convincing as family but also as coroners, the technical jargon adding another layer of authenticity and believability to the film. Your eyes and ears might be drawn to Cox more than Hirsch, as Cox has so often been a magnetic scene stealer everything from Manhunter to Braveheart to Red, but don’t underestimate Hirsch’s nuanced work here; this is his finest hour since Into The Wild.

For his first foray into American cinema, director André Øvredal (Trollhunters) does a splendid job of crafting a movie that contains characters we believe in and come to care for, all the while gradually among up the suspense as the movie unfolds. It’s always a delight when a movie sets up an intriguing premise while simultaneously providing characters worth watching, and not just the usual dumb victims.

The first hour of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is both interesting and totally suspenseful, but sadly the movie becomes a less interesting (yet still suspenseful) endeavour as more information about the titular Jane Doe is revealed. You’ll stick around to find out the fates of the characters, but after a third act exposition dumping of information about Jane Doe that lacks the subtlety of the scenes that precede it, the plot stops dead in its tracks: there is no plot left to tell. Once that information comes to light, the focus of the movie shifts to the survival of the characters against the overwhelmingly horrifying odds and lacks the surprise and intrigue of earlier scenes. I still found myself deeply involved, but not necessarily surprised or shocked by the revelations. This misstep by no means makes Jane Doe a bad movie, just underwhelming. 

Regardless of how I might feel about the third act reveals, I have to admit I still really enjoyed watching the movie right up until the final frames snapped to black. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Tommy and Austin, and even appreciated the brief but effective appearances of the girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) who thankfully didn’t feel like a cliche and more like a real breathing human. I also appreciated the technical jargon and the extensive look at the practice of being a coroner and conducting an autopsy. It’s grisly stuff, sure to make even some of the most hardcore gore hounds’ stomachs churn, but in the context of the movie and its unique premise, makes complete sense and doesn’t feel like shoehorned gratuitous gore. The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t a perfect horror movie, a tall order these days, but it’s still a great and unique entry into a genre in need of a little spicing up. Somehow, despite the underwhelming feeling I got from the third act, I found the ending oddly satisfactory albeit predictable and not at all surprising. It works, like a knife through butter. If you’re in the mood for a good horror movie, open up your heart to The Autopsy of Jane Doe. You just might thank me after the sun shines in.

William Friedkin’s Killer Joe: A Review by Nate Hill


William Friedkin’s Killer Joe. What, oh what can I say. Upon finishing it, my friend and I shared a single silent moment of heightened horror, looked at each other and chimed “What the fuck?!” in unison. Now, I don’t want our aghast reaction to deter you from seeing this wickedly funny black comedy, because it’s really something you’ve never seen before. Just bring a stomach strong enough to handle dark, depraved scenes and a whole lot of greasy fried chicken that’s put places where it definitely doesn’t belong. Matthew McConaughey is unhinged and off the hook as ‘Killer Joe’ Cooper, one of his best characters in years up until that point. Joe is a very, very bad dude, a Texas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer and is just a lunatic whenever he’s on either shift. Emile Hirsch plays an irresponsible young lad (a character trait that’s commonplace with the folks in this film, and something of an understatement) who is several thousand dollars in debt to a charmer of a loan shark (Marc Macauley). Joe offers to help when Hirsch comes up with the brilliant plan of murdering his skank of a mom (Gina Gershon in full on sleazy slut mode). The ‘plan’ backfires in so many different ways that it stalls what you think is the plot, becoming an increasingly perverted series of events that culminate in the single weirdest blow job I’ve ever seen put to film. Joe has eyes for Hirsch’s underage sister (Juno Temple, excellent as always), and worms his way into her life, as well as her bed. He claims her as collateral, and hovers over the family like some diseased arm of the law. Thomas Haden Church is hilarious as Hirsch’s ne’er do well country bumpkin of a father. Poor Gershon gets it the worst from Joe, in scenes that wander off the edges of the WTF map into John Waters territory. I was surprised to learn that this was a Friedkin film, but the man seems to be the king of genre hopping these days, and it’s always key to be adaptable in your work. A deep fried, thoroughly disgusting twilight zone episode of a flick that’ll give the gag reflex a good workout and keep your jaw rooted to the floor during its final sequence.



In 2008, eclectic filmmaker Gus Van Sant released two films: Paranoid Park, a challenging and formally adventurous indie, and the more classically structured but no less emotionally stirring biopic Milk. I’ve long been fascinated by Van Sant’s interesting and unpredictable career, and his film about San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician in the U.S., remains as powerful now as it did when I first viewed it almost 10 years ago. Sean Penn delivered a splendid performance as Milk, and everyone around him, including James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna all offered fantastic supporting turns. Dustin Lance Black’s sharp screenplay was heavily researched, the dialogue intelligently written, and the film carried a sense of the tragic almost from the beginning. Shot by the incomparable cinematographer Harris Savides, the film had a vibrant and period-authentic aesthetic, which helped to solidify the time and place of the socially combustible narrative. Harvey Milk stood up for the entire gay community in the United States when nobody else dared to speak up for what they knew was right. This made him both loved and hated; wherever he went and whatever he did, his actions provoked passionate responses from everyone who crossed paths with him. The level of conviction that Penn brought to the role of Milk was remarkable, as he fully jettisoned any lingering elements from previous performances, totally embodying the man in both body and spirit. Here was a man who decided that enough was enough – it was time to set things right for himself and everyone like him. Penn breezed through the film with likable ease, and because death hangs over the proceedings so ominously, there was genuine sadness when he met his ultimate fate.

The other actors were all up to the task as well. Franco, playing Milk’s lover and first campaign strategist Scott Smith, gave one of the best performances of his career; combined with his hilarious turn in Pineapple Express, 2008 was a banner year for Franco. Penn and Franco, from the first scene, generated real on-screen chemistry, making their relationship all the more special and affecting. Brolin was absolutely gripping as the confused and desperate Dan White, a man who may or may not have been gay himself, giving a chilling performance as a person unable to understand the potential differences in other people; it’s a role that could have been oppressively one-note, but Brolin brought layers of emotion and mental complexity to the role. Hirsch registered strongly as Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s political strategists, and Luna, playing Milk’s emotionally troubled boyfriend Jack Lira, brought skittish, nervous energy to every scene he appeared in; you never quite know what will happen when he appears on screen. Van Sant has led an extremely idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker, and after embarking on some seriously avant-garde works (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, and the previously mentioned Paranoid Park unofficially form a rather brilliant quartet of minimalistic storytelling), it appeared as if he wanted to prove that he could still deliver a more traditional and commercially friendly piece of filmmaking, and that he did with this engaging, wholly engrossing time capsule. And in working with Savides for the fifth time on Milk, Van Sant seamlessly blended archival footage with vivid re-creations of San Francisco in the late 1970’s; the atmosphere that this film possesses feels tangible. It’s sort of like a visually thematic cousin to the work that Savides did on David Fincher’s masterful serial killer/journalism thriller Zodiac. Danny Elfman’s score was never intrusive yet offered wonderful moments of musical inspiration while Elliot Graham’s fluid editing kept the two-hour run time moving along at a swift but unhurried pace. As far as biopics go, this one is at the top of the pile.