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By Michael Calleri

Harvey Milk was a New York financial services worker and Goldwater Republican, who fell in love with Scott Smith, a carefree hippie whom he met during a chance encounter. The two moved to San Francisco just as that city become the primary American mecca for gay sexuality. Surely Milk knew the enjoyment of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, but the movie drawn from his life, simply titled "Milk," acts as if he merrily dropped from a cloud into the sweet, angelic arms of the soft-spoken Smith and discovered romantic nirvana.

Soon Milk is running his own camera store in San Francisco on Castro Street, the main drag of the gayest part of the city, its residential heart of homosexuality. Polk Street was for hustlers and south of Market was for the leather crowd.

Over time, Milk would become a business leader and then a civil rights beacon for gay men and lesbian women. He even joined forces with the Teamsters to boycott Coors Brewery in gay bars. Its beer was not union-made.

In turn, the Teamsters worked with Milk to help him become a city supervisor, the first publicly gay person to hold an elected government position in the United States.

Barely a year after taking office, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a disgruntled politician, married-with-children Dan White, another city supervisor who had quit his job and then wanted it back.

White's acquittal on more serious murder charges -- he was convicted of manslaughter -- resulted in rioting by gays in San Francisco. After serving a short term in prison, White was let out, lived a couple of years and then committed suicide.

The stories here are Shakespearean, but the movie, while brilliantly acted and mostly compelling, lacks true bravura.

Director Gus Van Sant dances near the edge, but seems afraid of sex and anger. Kissing is not sex. The riots are not shown.

Dustin Lance Black's straightforward screenplay lacks complexity. It moves from point A to point B without finesse. Why make this kind of safe film when Rob Epstein's powerful Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" already exists?

In Van Sant's "Milk," there is no sense of the man before San Francisco. What kind of a person was he? How did he feel about the arrests of gay people in bars? What were his social, published and visual influences? Suddenly he's a photographer owning a camera shop. How'd that happen?

Sean Penn vibrantly immerses himself as Milk. His acting is Oscar-worthy, as is the work of Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, the activist who would go on to create the AIDS Quilt Project. Equally good, but not quite at their level are James Franco as Smith, Victor Garber as Moscone, and Josh Brolin as White.

The period look of 1970s San Francisco is professional, and the use of actual footage enhances the events depicted.

Where "Milk" is most vibrant is in its depiction of politics in America. It's exceptional in its revelations about grassroots organizing. Milk was a master at co-opting his opponents.

One of the myths about gay men and lesbian women is that they are out to recruit heterosexuals. Milk would turn the notion on its head by opening his speeches with this introduction: "I'm Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you."

The film takes a telling look at the battle over California's losing Proposition 6, a proposal that would have banned homosexuals from teaching in the state. Milk fought hard against it.

It's assured that, had he lived, he would have been at the forefront of the fight against California's Proposition 8, which declared marriage solely an act between a man and a woman.

The movie unreels under a cloud of sadness. Only a cold-hearted moviegoer would not be caught up in the tragic drama. There's a palpable aura of "What if?"

I suppose there are incurious people who wouldn't be fascinated by political machines waging turf wars at every turn. That would be too bad, because it's in the depiction of that blood sport that "Milk" really enlightens.

Here's a switch: In the unnecessary remake of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the often-wooden Keanu Reeves plays a visitor from another planet, and he actually seems less robotic than one might have expected. This is because he's acting against one of the most boring actresses on this planet, Jennifer Connelly. The movie is really less a contest about who will survive impending doom, and more a race between somnambulant acting techniques guaranteed to make you look at your watch during the film.

Reeves is Klaatu, who arrives in New York's Central Park in what looks like a giant globe. As in the original version, he exits the spacecraft and is shot by a soldier with an itchy trigger finger. Soon his buddy GORT The Robot is on the scene, making worthless all weaponry held by Earthlings.

Connelly is a scientist who has to nurse the wounded Klaatu back to health. As in the original feature, Klaatu has a message of warning for Planet Earth. No, it's not the old chestnut about abandoning nuclear weapons, but something more ecological.

Yep, the new "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a lean, green marketing machine. It's also a shill for a certain fast-food chain and a certain foreign automobile.

Eventually, Reeves and Connelly will be on the run with her son, a kid who has a hissy-fit that actually threatens humankind. That's a lot to lay on such a whimpering, spoiled brat, but unfortunately the movie's mostly about his needs. Once you have a kid get so much dialogue, you know you're watching a watered-down effort aimed at the family-entertainment market.

The young boy is played by Jaden Smith, who is the precocious 10-year-old son of actor Will Smith and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

Not to be unkind, but little Mr. Smith is the slickest child actor I've seen in quite a while. Not a thing he says is believable. If Ma and Pa Smith want their son to have a serious career, they need to take him to acting school and help him unlearn every phony move he uses. He also needs to shave off the curls, because your eye is drawn to his mop of hair at every turn.

As for why Connelly's character, who is white, would have a non-white child, you have to pay attention to the malarkey spouted in explanation. Why not just have her be white and married to a black man, who is dead before the movie even begins?

Usually, the African-American is the first victim of the monster in a Sci-Fi movie. This time around, he didn't even have a chance. Oh, right, he was killed in Iraq. This is a strange bit of character background.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is represented on screen by the secretary of Defense, because the president and vice president are in an undisclosed location. That's a feeble attempt at humor.

Fortunately, the Defense chief is played by Kathy Bates, who's the best thing about the movie. You can really tell she knows what kind of hokum she's in. And you enjoy watching her act circles around everyone else.

If you're looking for some eye-popping special effects, forget it. The little metal flies that buzz around are the best the production team can conjure up. The flies create a menacing dark cloud that has the power to destroy buildings, but when it happens, you wonder, Is this all there is?

Meanwhile, Klaatu has to decide between his mission and playing coy with Connelly. Who will he chose? Can he chose both?

John Cleese pops in as an eccentric -- not quite mad -- scientist, but he can't save the movie from its own lightweight insipidness.

"Anita O'Day: The Life and Times of a Jazz Singer" hits the gold standard for documentaries and is one of the best I've seen in years.

O'Day, a legendary American song stylist, recorded songs for her final album when she was 84.

Co-directed by O'Day's own manager, Robbie Cavolina, with Ian McCrudden, the film reaches deep into the O'Day archives with passages from more than 30 of her songs, including the classic "Sweet Georgia Brown," as well as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Let's Fall in Love," "Blue Skies" and "The Nearness of You."

The richness of her voice and the beauty of the songs is glorious, but the fearless documentary also takes the measure of a woman who lived life by her own tough rules, and includes dark revelations of her addictions to heroin and alcohol.

Footage from television interviews with Dick Cavett, David Frost and Bryant Gumble are featured, along with performances from Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong.

O'Day is a legend wrapped in an enticing, vigorous personality, and this is a must-see movie.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com December 16 2008