Sean Penn is nothing short of extraordinary in Milk, director Gus Van Sant's biopic of slain gay rights pioneer and San Francisco assemblyman Harvey Milk. He loses himself absolutely in the role, becoming this outgoing, physically slight but emotionally volatile character whose energy is only matched by his outrage over the inequities gay men like him have had to endure for too long. Mickey Rourke may have been the sentimental best-actor Oscar favorite for his comeback role in The Wrestler , but Penn's performance was not to be denied.
Van Sant and first-time screenwriter Justin Lance Black deserve a lot of credit for the film's success as well, trusting in their audience to feel Milk's outrage and understand where he's coming from without resorting to maudlin sentimentality or stridency. James Franco won a Spirit Award for his turn as Milk's lover, Scott Smith, who was never comfortable playing second fiddle to his partner's social and political ambitions. But don't overlook Josh Brolin's turn as assassin Dan White. Brolin plays White as neither madman nor coward, which makes what he does to fellow assemblyman Milk even more terrifying.
Milk effectively captures a time and a place (mid-'70s San Francisco) where change really did seem to be in the air - but where the inevitable tragedy was just around the corner. In the end, it's the story of a valiant crusader struck down in his moment of greatest triumph, a staple of tragedy since Shakespeare's time.
Also out this week: : Pinocchio (Walt Disney Home Entertainment, $29.95, Blu-ray, $35.95): The height of Disney-style animation, if not animation overall, this 1940 tale of a wooden puppet whose maker wills him into becoming a real boy is beautiful, frightening, heartening and foreboding, all in equal measure. That whale has been giving both kids and their parents chills for generations.
Other releases: : Robbie Coltrane is a brilliant criminologist in Cracker: The Complete Collection (Acorn Media, $119.99); Anne Hathaway is a recovering addict in Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Classics, $29.95, Blu-ray, $39.95); executive producer George Lucas is still trying to explain his involvement in 1986's Howard the Duck (Universal Studios, $19.95).