Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, a near-religious experience, will have to wait till I can clear the decks and gather my thoughts. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Jackass Number Two, Employee of the Month, The Marine, Fearless, Open Season, School for Scoundrels, among others, will have to wait till pigs fly. And The Grudge 2, Keeping Mum, Jesus Camp, among others, will just have to wait. Meanwhile....
Martin Scorsese has shown himself to be so overrated for so long a time that we can have no excuse anymore to act disappointed in him. And his career-altering turn to the overblown epic, a turn marked by Casino eleven years ago, would seem to be a course difficult to reverse. Kundun... Gangs of New York... The Aviator.... And now even a trashy light diversion on the order of The Departed, adapted from an average-length Hong Kong action film, will get dragged out to two and a half hours -- this despite the delivery of dialogue at the machine-gun tempo of a hopped-up auctioneer (or of Scorsese's own casual conversation), and despite, too, the mere semblance of speed imparted by the free-associative cutting and the incongruous rockabilly beat of the background music, whenever the filmmaker isn't trotting out his collection of rock-and-roll oldies. The convoluted plot verges on farce: an upwardly mobile underworld spy in the Massachusetts State Police (Matt Damon, raising his eyebrows in an ostentatious show of innocence) and a downwardly mobile police spy inside the mob (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving himself away with his meat-cleaver worry line) both become involved, first as clients and then as suitors, with a Harper's Bazaar idea of a psychotherapist (Vera Farmiga, she of the prow-like cheekbones, life-raft lips, blue-lagoon eyes). Not even the take-no-prisoners crescendo of gore toward the end, jolting though some of it is, can pull the movie back from the farcical brink. And Jack Nicholson, as showy an actor as Scorsese is a director (when he's only in it for the money, anyway), plays the mob boss at a pitch barely below his Batman Joker.
Infamous tells substantially the same story as last fall's Capote, an uncomfortable proximity that brings to mind the competing Columbuses of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus (I can't recall which came first) and the competing Earps of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. A second account, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, of the birth pains of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood inevitably shifts our focus to the accuracy of the story and away from, so to speak, the truth of it, the resonance of it. But perhaps that's partly because this second account is simply not as good a story, covering fewer aspects of it in shallower detail. (The artificial device of mock interviews with acquaintances of Capote's -- Harper Lee, Bennett Cerf, Babe Paley, Diana Vreeland, Gore Vidal, Alvin Dewey, et al., in actorish incarnations by Sandra Bullock, Peter Bogdanovich, Sigourney Weaver, Juliet Stevenson, Michael Panes, and Jeff Daniels, respectively -- testify to McGrath's clumsiness in getting his information out.) The main contribution of the latecomer is just to corroborate the accuracy of its more truthful, more resonant predecessor: the writer's love of scarves, his use of Hollywood gossip as entrée to Kansas society, etc. What it contributes of its own boils down to the Kansans' repeated mistaking of the castrato-voiced Capote for a woman -- the one point of originality which the previous version might envy -- and the unsubtle kiss on the lips between him and the murderer Perry Smith in the jail cell. (The producers of the upcoming James Bond film might be squirming a little at seeing their new 007, Daniel Craig, in the latter role.) The diminutive Toby Jones in the lead role is much more of a walking-talking caricature than was Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same role, but it's a perfectly acceptable, perfectly recognizable caricature, possibly more suited to a supporting role than to a lead.
The Prestige is not the year's best film about magic to feature both Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman. That distinction would still belong to Woody Allen's Scoop, which was unchallenged as well (except insofar as the air pressure in Jessica Biel's lips may have challenged Scarlett Johansson's) by that other magic film, The Illusionist. Between the two also-rans, it's pretty near a toss-up, two turn-of-the-century period pieces tangled up in their compulsive twists and turns. Christopher Nolan, the present director, is somewhat less adept at concealing his tricks, despite trying diligently to lose the viewer in a maze of flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Even had he succeeded, his reliance on the plot expedience of dead ringers is taken to lengths of absurdity surpassing even daytime soap operas. Lengths, to be more exact, of the flightiest science fiction. The plot premise of a professional and personal rivalry between a couple of London stage magicians (Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan's Batman, in addition to Jackman) is fractionally more involving than the hanky-panky of the separated lovers in The Illusionist, and Michael Caine adds a touch of class, David Bowie a touch of mustache.
Man of the Year concerns a cable-channel comedian (Robin Williams, given plenty of scope for his penile obsession) who runs for President on a dare, and who thereafter needs to be continually nagged by his aides to be "edgier" and "funnier." These might also be the voices inside the head of writer and director Barry Levinson, who is prone to talk out his editorial points, and who allows the movie to slip back and forth willy-nilly between political satire and paranoia thriller. (Laura Linney, the whistle-blower who discovers a glitch in the voting-booth software, plays it straight.) That the movie mixes tones is only a part of the problem. The other parts of the problem are that both tones individually are flat and fuzzy.
The Queen, a spot of simulated Royals-watching, ably guided by the seasoned Stephen Frears, is a satisfying, if unsurprising, unrevealing, unimaginative re-enactment of what must have gone on behind closed doors in the week after the death of Princess Di, in specific the diplomatic efforts of the newly elected Tony Blair to compel the Royal Family ("a bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters," in the view of Mrs. Blair) to behave like human beings: "Will somebody please save these people from themselves?" Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen embody Her Majesty and the Prime Minister to two T's. In support of them, James Cromwell at least looks the part of Philip, but plays only one note, and Alex Jennings is a bit short in the snout (in complete contrast to Cromwell) but is otherwise credibly dyspeptic as Charles. The plentiful humor, out of deference to history and living persons, is very mild.