BOBBY For all its fast and loose playing with the facts, JFK was a remarkable movie that, except for some tepid domestic scenes between the Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek characters, exclusively focused on the Kennedy legacy and how his death impacted a nation. Bobby, on the other hand, is as much about Robert Kennedy as Stone’s World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product. Set in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel in the hours leading up to Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, Bobby is inspired by the 1932 Oscar winner Grand Hotel (referenced in the film) as well as by the sort of multistory TV shows director Emilio Estevez grew up with (Hotel, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Supertrain, etc.). So while Democratic staffers are busy prepping for Bobby’s visit, other soggy dramas are being played out in the site’s corridors and rooms. The hotel manager (William H. Macy) passes the time by cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone) with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham) and by handing walking papers to the bigoted employee (Christian Slater) in charge of kitchen operations. A Mexican busboy (Freddy Rodriguez), upset that he has to miss an important Dodgers game because he’s being forced to work two consecutive shifts, finds a sympathetic ear in the philosophical cook (Laurence Fishburne). A boozy nightclub singer (Demi Moore) picks fights with her manager-husband (Estevez). A former Ambassador doorman (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on all the great leaders he greeted over the years at the front of the posh establishment. A hippie (Kutcher) sells drugs from the comfort of his hotel room. And so it goes. The film flickers to life whenever it gets around to focusing on its title character. There are a few nice speeches about the American future that Bobby represents if he can get elected president (folks often reflect on how this country might have turned out had JFK lived, but the same can obviously be said regarding his brother), and the final portion of the picture, with Kennedy’s own words being heard over the aftermath of his fateful encounter with Sirhan Sirhan, exhibits a power and poignancy missing from the rest of the movie.
THE FOUNTAIN The word from the Venice Film Festival, where The Fountain first saw the light of day, was that the latest work from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) is a dull and pretentious slice of sci-fi silliness, at once too cerebral and too slow-moving. Funny, a lot of folks once said the same thing about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and now it’s routinely considered one of the two or three greatest science fiction films ever made. Mind you, I’m not placing The Fountain on that esteemed level, but to dismiss this out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watchable epic. Perhaps inspired by his muse, real-life fiancee (and mother of his child) Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky has penned a love story that spans the centuries -- yet that’s only part of the tale. Jumping back and forth between past, present and future, the film stars Hugh Jackman as Tomas, a Spanish conquistador sent by Queen Isabel (Weisz) to locate the Tree of Life. It also casts the actor as Tommy Creo (the surname meaning “I create” in Latin and “I believe” in Spanish), a scientist working 24/7 to find a cure for his wife Izzy (Weisz again), who’s dying of a brain tumor; his only hope seems to be the recuperative powers found in a piece of tree in his possession. Finally, Jackman appears as a Tom of the future (Tom Tomorrow?), a bald, 26th-century loner who travels in an orb through space with a tree that contains the spirit of his deceased beloved.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Christopher Guest’s so-called “mockumentaries” have been blessed with a generosity of spirit, a willingness on the part of their creator to allow a different member of the tight-knit ensemble to break out in each production. In 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, it was Guest himself who shined brightest, as the sweet-natured theatrical director Corky St. Clair. In 2000’s Best In Show, Fred Willard was a comic marvel as the lewd play-by-play announcer Buck Laughlin. And Eugene Levy’s work in 2003’s A Mighty Wind, as the fragile folk singer Mitch, was so memorable that he deservedly earned the Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle. In For Your Consideration, the spotlight belongs to Catherine O’Hara, though it must be noted that Parker Posey trails by only a couple of steps. The film is Guest and company’s swipe at all the hoopla surrounding Oscar season, with O’Hara, Posey, Harry Shearer and Christopher Moynihan cast as actors whose latest film, an indie project called Home For Purim, is being touted as a possible Academy Award nominee. As Marilyn Hack, the cast member deemed most likely to earn an Oscar nod, O’Hara delivers a tour de force performance, channeling all the hopefulness, rage and despair that will doubtless strike a chord with aging, frequently unemployed and quickly forgotten thespians all across Los Angeles. Posey also benefits from landing one of her best screen roles to date, as the eccentric young actress whose defenses against future career disillusionment slide as she similarly gets caught up in the prospect of landing a coveted nomination.
TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny gets off to a fast and furious start. We see the portly kid JB (Troy Gentile) enduring a verbal trashing from his uptight father (Meat Loaf) before receiving words of encouragement and advice from the Ronnie James Dio poster hanging on his bedroom door. Dio’s advice: Get thee to Hollywood. And so it’s off to La La Land, and by the time he arrives, JB is now a grown man played by Jack Black. He hooks up with a struggling musician called KG (Kyle Gass), and after a smidgen of soul-searching and a lot of bong hits, the two elect to become the band known as Tenacious D. And there we have the origin story of Tenacious D, already a cult band thanks to their music videos and brief TV series. The rest of the story concerns the duo’s efforts to obtain a magical guitar pick made from the tooth of Satan, but continuity isn’t this meandering movie’s strong suit. Maybe it’s my age, but I laughed harder when Cheech and Chong went this route with the cult hit Up In Smoke. The key difference is that a viewer could enjoy C&C’s film alone and without the aid of a joint.
THE QUEEN Whether or not one agrees with a character’s declaration that the royal family is comprised of “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters,” it’s fascinating to watch these upper-crust Brits play out their own sordid soap opera in The Queen, a wicked -- and wickedly good -- show that takes a highly dubious premise and somehow turns it into one of the year’s best films. Director Stephen Frears, whose last picture, the shameless Mrs. Henderson Presents, is the sort of claptrap that he’s far too talented to be handling, and writer Peter Morgan, who co-scripted The Last King of Scotland, have performed cinematic alchemy with this sharp and swift yarn. Set mostly in the days following the death of Diana back in 1997, it focuses on the royal family’s reaction to the tragedy as well as the efforts of a newly elected prime minister to take control of the situation. The film begins with the landslide victory of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new prime minister and his initial meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), who clearly has little regard for this populist politician. It picks up again a few months later, when the residents of Buckingham Palace are awoken out of their royal slumber by the news that the former princess was killed in an automobile accident in Paris while fleeing from pesky paparazzi. Because Diana is no longer officially part of the royal family -- she and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) had already divorced -- Elizabeth, the ogreish Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the clueless Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) see no reason why they should get involved in the tragedy beyond grieving for the young woman in private. Blair figures that a public statement by the royal family (at least) and a public funeral (at most) would help the nation heal, but Elizabeth and her clan refuse, little aware that their decision will stir genuine contempt among the commoners on the streets.
BABEL An award winner at Cannes and an early favorite for Oscar enshrinement, Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that previously gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo’s most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it’s also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Their main topic here is the lack of communication that exists between people. In one plot strand, a Moroccan goat herder (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a used rifle and gives it to his two sons with the order to shoot any jackals that threaten the herd. In a second storyline, an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) on vacation are plunged into a nightmare when the wife is accidentally shot by one of the aforementioned young boys, who was merely trying to gauge the distance a bullet can travel. In another, the American couple’s two children are hauled over the U.S.-Mexico border by their nanny (Adriana Barraza), whose decision to attend her son’s wedding looks ill-informed once she experiences difficulty crossing back to our side. And in the final story, a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo grows increasingly frustrated as she’s unable to find any male who’s willing to provide her with love and compassion.
STRANGER THAN FICTION Stranger Than Fiction has been promoted as offering a different kind of Will Ferrell just as The Truman Show was pushed as offering a different kind of Jim Carrey and Punch-Drunk Love was sold as offering a different kind of Adam Sandler. What this means in all instances, of course, is that the comedian is toning down the patented schtick a bit -- not exactly the same as tackling a role that’s equal parts Hamlet, Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski. Still, Carrey and Sandler both passed the test, and so does Ferrell. The actor’s obnoxious characters have always distracted us from the fact that he’s blessed with deep, soulful eyes, and this physical attribute here lends the proper degree of puppy dog demeanor to his role as Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose dull life is marked by rigid routine. The twist follows that Harold, in addition to living his own life, also inadvertently becomes the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, doing distracted well), and soon Harold begins to hear Kay’s voice in his head as she uncannily narrates all the minute details of his life. For help, Harold turns to a literature professor (a very funny Dustin Hoffman) who might be able to help him track down the source of the voice and ascertain whether he’s trapped in a comedy, in which case a happy ending is just around the corner, or a tragedy, in which case death will come knocking.
BORAT Originally conceived as a character on HBO’s Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary. There’s your plot. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they’re being questioned by a foreign reporter for a nonfiction piece that would presumably remain confined to the backwaters of a country on the other side of the globe. This naiveté and belief in anonymity allow the participants to open up more freely to Borat, often garnering controversial results. And therein lies the dilemma. If Borat is staged in any way, then it’s a hot-and-cold “mockumentary” that pales next to the Christopher Guest titles (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind); despite many uproarious moments, it stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point, and after about an hour, you’ll be satisfied. And indeed, there are a handful of sequences that feel staged: the Pamela Anderson interlude, for example, or a bit involving a flailing horse. Yet the filmmakers have loudly and repeatedly insisted that everything outside of Borat and his manager (played by Ken Davitian) is authentic in the picture. If that’s the case, then Borat is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerrilla filmmaking that’s able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths.
A GOOD YEAR Set (and shot) in the south of France, it’s unabashed erotica for wanna-be world travelers, offering one orgasmic vision after another of the provincial countryside and its attendant vineyards, chateaus and lusty locals. Based on Peter Mayle’s novel, A Good Year marks a reunion between the Gladiator team of director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe. Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless London trader who lives only to make money -- lots of money. But when Max learns that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has passed away at his chateau in Provence, he’s forced to take a short leave of absence in order to handle the paperwork. Matters become even more complicated with the sudden presence of two women: a young American (Abbie Cornish) who might be Uncle Henry’s illegitimate daughter and thus entitled to the estate, and a local restaurant owner (Marion Cotillard) who catches Max’s eye.
FLUSHED AWAY The story of a pet mouse who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in an underground city populated by rats, frogs, slugs and other critters, the film exhibits the frenzied pace and overbearing characterizations that have become standard in U.S.-born-and-bred animated features. The voice casting (Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, for starters) rests somewhere between Pixar inspiration and everybody else’s laziness, but the story is strictly perfunctory -- and further hampered by the sort of puerile gags that have come to define Yankee toon flicks (lots of blows to the crotch in this one).
THE PRESTIGE The Prestige, co-written and directed by the immensely talented Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento), is the third of this year’s releases centering around magicians (following Woody Allen’s Scoop and the Edward Norton sleeper hit The Illusionist), and it’s far and away the best. Set in turn-of-the-century London, The Prestige casts Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier and Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, two aspiring magicians working under the tutelage of master showman Cutter (Michael Caine). The movie isn’t simplistic enough to pit a “good” magician (Angier) against an “evil” one (Borden); instead, it recognizes the duality of each man’s nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree.
MARIE ANTOINETTE The fall season’s premiere love-it-or-leave-it title, Marie Antoinette was booed by French scribes at the Cannes Film Festival before being rescued by American critics, the slight majority of whom have graced it with positive reviews. Yet despite its divisive nature, I’ve managed to come down in the middle: The movie, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s first since her magnificent Lost In Translation, is better than I had expected but not as good as I had hoped.
THE DEPARTED At this point in his illustrious career, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker’s hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that’s what’s taking place with The Departed, which isn’t an original screen story but rather a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film titled Infernal Affairs. Working from a script by William Monahan, Scorsese has made a picture that’s more in line with such past mob morality tales as GoodFellas and Mean Streets than with his recent spate of ambitious (and Oscar-lunging) period epics like The Aviator and Gangs of New York.