Quick notes on some movies that have spun through my DVD player over the last month:
"It's Kind Of A Funny Story." A movie about a suicidal teenager who checks himself into a mental hospital and is assigned to an adult psychiatric ward where he meets Zach Galifinakis. Keir Gilchrist is good as the kid, Galifinakis is good at playing the same character he always plays, and there are other decent supporting players, but no movie on this subject can ever hold a candle to "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."
"Casino Jack." I like Kevin Spacey a lot, which explains why I keep falling for some of his lesser works (I'll never get back the two hours I wasted on "Beyond The Sea"). The problem with this one isn't that Spacey's bad in it -- he isn't -- it's that master lobbyist/con man Jack Abramoff isn't the most compelling subject for a biography. Spacey tries very hard, even overcoming the casting of Jon Lovitz in a large supporting role, but I just didn't care.
"Megamind." Clever writing plus great animation plus good voice acting can equal a terrific movie (see anything Pixar's made). Or it can become this waste of time.
"Secretariat." I'd watch Diane Lane do just about anything, and she's good as Penny Chenery, the woman behind the horse. So is John Malkovich, as the ornery trainer with his own way of doing things. After "Seabiscuit," I was skeptical of watching yet another overcoming-adversity-to-win-the-big-race story, but the footage of Big Red on the track makes it worthwhile. Tangential recommendation: if you want to watch a horse racing movie that's about the other side of the business -- the down-on-their-luck bettors who populate the tracks on a daily basis -- take a look at "Let It Ride," with Richard Dreyfuss, David Johannsen, Jennifer Tilly, Allen Garfield, Teri Garr, and a classic performance by Robbie Coltrane.
"War of the Worlds." As in so many other Spielberg special effects epics, it doesn't matter that a huge number of people have been killed by the alien invasion, because (spoiler alert!) in the end, Tom Cruise is reunited with his family and gets a big hug from Dakota Fanning. Somewhere along the way, Spielberg must have realized he forgot the basics of HG Wells' original plot, so he brought in Morgan Freeman to explain some things in voiceover (and because Freeman has become America's Official Narrator).
"Love and Other Drugs." Anne Hathaway is naked, repeatedly, and that's a good thing. She's also a damned good actress. Oh, yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal's in it, too. But the movie isn't sure whether it's a comedy about sex-with-benefits or a statement on Big Pharma and people with Parkinson's. An odd mix of story lines, but it kinda works -- thanks to Hathaway's talent.
"Fair Game." While Kevin Spacey and colleagues couldn't make the Jack Abramoff story compelling, director Doug Liman takes the Valerie Plame story and revs it into an intense political thriller. Liman (who hasn't made enough movies in 1996 but has "Swingers," "The Bourne Identity," and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" to be proud of) had great source material to work with and outstanding leads -- Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson are riveting as the system they work inside turns against them. I found myself getting seriously pissed off at Bush's operatives again.
"Inside Job." Speaking of getting pissed off, here's a documentary that turned my Ire Meter up to 11. It's Charles Ferguson's look at the greedy weasels who built the financial house of cards that came crashing down and sent us spiraling into this recession. Shame on the regulators, legislators, and others who were supposed to be overseeing a system that was being exploited beyond belief while they looked the other way. Even worse than the meltdown is the lack of accountability since then -- as Ferguson pointed out when he accepted this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, not a single one of these bastards has been prosecuted for what they did. By the way, Matt Damon does a fine job replacing Morgan Freeman as The Narrator.
"The American." Tied with "Men Who Stare At Goats" and "Syriana" for Worst George Clooney Movie Ever. Has been known to cause narcolepsy in speed freaks. I'm talking boring.
"Get Low." Robert Duvall is a crotchety old hermit who wants a funeral party thrown while he's alive so he can hear what people say about him. So Bill Murray arranges it, but by the time the funeral comes around, with hundreds of townspeople in attendance, the movie makers forgot to have them reveal anything interesting about him. A disappointment because Duvall and Murray do their usual solid jobs.
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." That's because money is too busy filing a class-action lawsuit trying to get its money back after watching this ridiculous sequel.
"Salt." Angelina Jolie could kill you with her toenail if she wanted to. She might be an American super-spy or she might be a Russian sleeper agent. Telling it one way is a cliche, telling it the other way is intriguing. They told it the other way, and I was impressed. Nice supporting work by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, too.
"The Tillman Story." A captivating documentary about how the military turned the true circumstances of Pat Tillman's death into a lie they could use for recruitment, and to keep the horrors of war from reaching the eyes and ears of American citizens. Every son should have an advocate mother like Mary Tillman. Director Amir Bar-Lev and his crew deserve major kudos, but were given short shrift by the Oscars, where "The Tillman Story" wasn't even nominated.