It was easy to laugh at the Oscars recently, when, after a montage of heart-swelling moments from earnest, socially conscious, liberal-minded pictures about the ills of our society, host Jon Stewart cracked wise, something to the effect of “And America never had those problems again.” Still, I felt a little bad as the balloon of self-importance deflated. Hollywood cranks out so much cholesterol-jammed junk food that the good-for-your-health films that play to our better instincts deserve more than a punchline, even if Stewart’s barb was aimed at the Academy Awards showboating rather than the well-meaning movies.

Milk, which stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, meets the high-fiber requirement for its genre. The poisonous Proposition 6 of the era in which it is set has given way to Proposition 8, and the combination biopic/issues picture has been positioned as a talking point. But Gus Van Sant, who spent much of the decade on a “death trilogy,” and Sean Penn, not noted for his farcical touch, have approached the picture with as much lightness as possible, and it goes down easily. Harvey Milk was a paranoiac, and the movie is framed by his tape-recorded final musings in case of assassination. But Van Sant resists the temptation toward a quartet, just as Milk held his darker impulses at bay.

The film’s success is largely a matter of Penn giving himself over to his subject’s natural ebullience, which carried him to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. Being the first openly gay man voted into major public office in America was no easy climb, and by sticking to the last eight years of Milk’s life Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black show just what it is those much-derided “community activists” do. I’m drawn to movies that illustrate a process, that trust in us enough to tell us something that we don’t know or haven’t seen a hundred times before, and Milk does a good job with the step-by-step accretion of allies and causes, and the sidesteps into failed relationships when the campaigning goes into overdrive and the unlikely coalitions between rival factions that need to form. (The stuffy establishment gays, the ones who ran The Advocate, distrusted Milk, a camera store owner from New York.) The fortification is necessary, as the forces unleashed by the juice-sipping bigot Anita Bryant seep into politics and reach across America. But the danger is also from within, as fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), an uptight Catholic distrusted by his peers, comes apart at the seams. To play our lame duck president and Dan White in a single year and be absolutely convincing as both is an unusual and probably grueling accomplishment, and if Brolin’s next picture is a romantic comedy with Kate Hudson I won’t begrudge him.

Van Sant brings his indie smarts to the picture; cinematographer Harris Savides has given the film a looser feel than most films in its stiff-backed genre, with different styles and looks that blend together (this and Zodiac form a definitive chronicle of a decade in the life of the city). Though a troubled teen who calls Milk for guidance is in the ballpark of one of those hoary scenarios where a sports legend just has to hit a home run to save a sick kid from dying, the movie isn’t shameless, and it doesn’t put Milk on a pedestal. (He obliges his embattled staff to come out to their parents, a risky, and hypocritical, move.) There is some sex in the movie, with Penn and James Franco, and later Diego Luna, at ease with the particulars, but it, too, is part of the fabric, a fact of life. The substance is getting things done and, little by little, moving mountains, in the face of opposition. Milk is a hopeful tragedy.

Cadillac Records has probably killed the chance of individual biopics for outsized personalities like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Etta James, but it’s a good enough showcase to make that forgivable. Cherry-picking the juiciest bits from various biographies and autobiographies, writer-director Darnell Martin has assembled a scrapbook of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, with a new soon-to-be-famous act entering the recording studio every 15 minutes. The compression is a problem, so that Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and the film’s narrator, Big Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), meet the Rolling Stones before Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who’s introduced later, can seethe over Elvis. Phil Chess, who apparently plays a larger role in another, as yet unreleased movie about the label, Who Do You Love, is next-to-invisible here, and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is only a little better defined, part-altruist, music lover, and tastemaker, and part prick, in an era where the music came at gunpoint, the payola flowed freely, and the artists, fobbed off with fancy cars, got screwed. The survivors are pretty much all smiles at the end, and I suspect the musicologists around here will have a field day picking the movie apart for inaccuracies and evasions.

For the rest of us, what lingers is a fistful of mostly terrific performances. The cast handled their own singing, and while the originals are secure in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the facsimiles don’t smudge the movie. By necessity, given the film’s occasionally messy structure, Cadillac Records relies on the intersection of its cast to hold it all together, and they have merged in a riveting jam session. The fearsomely proud Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and the hair-trigger Little Walter (Columbus Short) are particularly electrifying. Mos Def isn’t how I pictured Berry but he doesn’t lack for humor and hubris. Etta James is a bit beyond Beyonce; still, she relishes her chance for a Diana Ross/Lady Sings the Blues opportunity and throws herself into the smack-scarred part, complete with a fervent “At Last.” Best of all is Wright, whose Muddy Waters knows he’s being exploited yet pockets Chess’ money as his currency in the changing organization ebbs. It’s a complex, uncomfortable portrait of a world-class performer and a fallible man—he and Howlin’ Wolf, who maintains his independence through thick and thin, rub each other the wrong way—and his moment of deliverance is sweet.

Australia aspires to be Titanic, but ends up closer to Pearl Harbor. Literally: The film ends amidst the Japanese bombing of the city of Darwin in 1942, though for some in our audience it concluded about an hour earlier, when the fire alarm went off and the theater was briefly evacuated. Not everyone returned, and while I can’t say they made the right decision I understood the impulse. The Western half of the picture ends satisfyingly, even thrillingly, with a cattle drive that threatens to topple off the side of a cliff, a forbidding natural formation that gives the Grand Canyon a run for its gorges. The director, Baz Luhrmann, aims to do for epics what his Moulin Rouge! did for musicals, and up to a point he succeeds—but there is another, draggier, portion of the film still to come, one that takes its time to tie up the not-so-interesting loose ends of the storyline. Once the cows come home Australia has pretty much given you everything you might have wanted from it, and it’s shrimp on the barbie time for the less than fully committed.

My wife and I stuck it out. It was her call, though even she had her fill of Sexiest Man Alive Hugh Jackman posed against sunrises and sunsets, getting more beauty shots than Nicole Kidman. The two gamely go through their old-movie routines as the enigmatic cattle drover (simply called The Drover) and the prissy English landowner who is even flintier than that cliff face, but the heart of the movie beats elsewhere, and the two were more fun as musical penguins in Happy Feet. The movie co-stars as many of the actors as Luhrmann could dig up from the flowering of Australian cinema on the international scene in the late 70s and early 80s (watching them was like flipping through old HBO guides, when Breaker Morant and Mad Max were prominent on the schedule), chiefly David Gulpilil, the Aboriginal star of Walkabout and The Last Wave. Watching his grandfather character pass the mantle onto 12-year-old Brandon Walters, a natural charmer as an authorities-evading urchin whose scrapes are the soul of the picture, is a bit of movie magic for the buffs. So is Kidman singing a faltering, but lilting, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to soothe little Nullah, who she takes in as her own.

The Wizard of Oz—Luhrmann—hasn’t given himself enough curtains to hide in, however. He thinks in archetypes and grand gestures, and doesn’t trust us with anything more dimensional than Jackman’s torso. The movie’s portrait of his homeland is at Harlequin level; a little intellectual rigor wouldn’t have hurt. And it’s schizophrenic: Every mystical Aboriginal cliché is invoked as the movie attempts to demystify the country’s native people, and the fascinating lunar-like landscapes of the desert cattle drive have been futzed over with obvious CGI, so Australia is constantly “Australia,” a glammed-up version of itself. When the countryman doesn’t trust his country to perform, something is out of whack in the outback.

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