All reviews by Loey Lockerby
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was a legendary figure from the moment he seized power in 1971. This film adaptation of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel blends history and drama to tell the story of Amin’s early rule.
Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy) is the fictional lead character, a Scottish doctor who becomes Amin’s personal physician. He is a composite of several real Europeans who knew Amin, and he provides an outsider’s view of a man who became a potent symbol of Africa’s post-colonial struggles.
At first, Nicholas is as charmed by Amin as everyone else seems to be, but his admiration doesn’t last long. As he sees his new boss sink into madness, Nicholas faces a crisis of conscience, especially since he has fallen in love with one of Amin’s neglected wives (Kerry Washington).
Nicholas is not what you’d call a quick thinker, and it's frustrating to have him as the "hero.” McAvoy gives a subtle (and unjustly overlooked) performance, which helps make up for how poorly his character is written. Even director Kevin MacDonald, on his otherwise insightful commentary track, feels the need to justify Nicholas’ stupid behavior. If there were real people like this in Amin’s inner circle, it’s no wonder he got so paranoid.
Naturally, The Last King of Scotland belongs to Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as Amin, whose towering presence overwhelms everything around him. Whitaker’s instincts as an actor are superb, as he makes Amin fascinating, likable, pathetic and terrifying — often in the same scene.
His dedication is justly celebrated in every one of the DVD’s extras, but he doesn’t get all the attention. MacDonald’s devotion to authenticity is explained in detail, as is the unique experience of filming in Uganda, often at the locations of the original events. The respect the filmmakers show to the country and its people makes it easy to accept the dramatic license required for the story. It’s a case of fiction complementing — rather than competing with — fact. (R) Rating 4
Milan Trenc’s 32-page children’s book has been turned into a typically overblown Hollywood production, with rampaging CGI and padded-out subplots. Miraculously, it still manages to be entertaining, thanks to a great cast and smarter-than-average script.
Ben Stiller plays Larry, a divorced dad who takes a job working night security at New York’s Museum of Natural History. After meeting with the three mysterious old-timers he’s replacing (Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney), Larry embarks on his first shift.
It’s pretty boring, at least until the dinosaur skeleton comes to life and starts chasing him. Before long, Larry is also running from rampaging Huns, matching wits with a diabolical monkey and mediating a conflict between miniature cowboys and Romans in the diorama room.
This being a family film, it’s no surprise that everything works out all right in the end — the trick is getting to that point. Much of the dialogue is improvised, most successfully by co-stars Owen Wilson and Ricky Gervais. But the screenplay by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant is still intact, and they contribute plenty of clever ideas (on their commentary track they constantly marvel at how much of their original material made it to the screen). Director Shawn Levy is used to helming bland fluff like The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen so he’s not exactly in his element, and he ends up depending on the cast and special effects wizards to keep it all from being a chaotic mess.
The Lennon/Garant commentary is the one to listen to, as they riff hilariously on everything from whether Van Dyke could play a serial killer to why authority figures in movies always have English accents. Levy also contributes a track, but its humor is unintentional. He marvels at Stiller's ability to act to a green screen, something most actors now do on a regular basis, and he actually uses the word “gravitas” — twice and without irony. That may describe Levy’s self-importance, but it certainly does not describe this film. (PG) Rating 3
In the week after Princess Diana’s fatal 1997 car accident, Britain’s royal family behaved as it always did — with quiet, tradition-bound dignity. That’s not what the grieving public wanted, though, and director Stephen Frears uses that turbulent week to examine nothing less than the role of the monarchy in a modern, democratic world.
Early on, it doesn’t seem to have one, and Queen Elizabeth, played stunningly by Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, is entirely ill equipped to deal with her subjects’ demands for public shows of emotion. In intimate moments with her family, the queen reveals not only her bewilderment at the world’s changing expectations, but her own mixed feelings at the death of a woman she disliked, but who was a loving mother to her grandsons.
These scenes are invented, of course, and no one may ever reveal what really goes on behind closed doors at Buckingham and Balmoral. Nearly everything in Peter Morgan's script is based on extensive research, and even the obviously fictional material makes sense, deftly humanizing figures who have spent their entire lives trying to seem more than human.
Although Mirren's performance is the film's centerpiece, there is terrific work from the entire cast, which includes James Cromwell as Prince Phillip and Michael Sheen as a newly elected Tony Blair. Sheen's role is almost as tricky as Mirren's, as he has to play an energetic idealist who gets a brutal crash course in royal politics. Morgan and Frears go overboard portraying Blair as the brilliant man who saved the monarchy, but Sheen is so likable, you almost buy it anyway.
Frears and Morgan provide a dryly amusing commentary track, and it is much more entertaining than the flat making-of documentary also included on the disc. Historian Robert Lacey, who consulted on the film, has a commentary as well, and he provides a wealth of information, especially for those unfamiliar with the rules of royal life. Since those the rules were shattered in the service of a greater good, it's helpful to understand just how unprecedented the events of that week truly were. (PG-13) Rating 4
Whoever decided to cast Hugh Grant as a washed-up '80s pop star should get some kind of medal. Could there be a more perfect role to showcase his slightly smarmy, self-deprecating humor? As Alex Fletcher, the has-been half of a Wham!-style musical duo (called, appropriately, PoP!), Grant coasts on charisma. And that's all he needs to do.
Alex lives well off royalties and gigs playing state fairs and class reunions, but when a vapid young superstar (Haley Bennett) asks him to write a song for her, he jumps at the chance to make a comeback. Trouble is, he can't write lyrics — that was his old partner's job.
Enter Sophie (Drew Barrymore), who comes over to water the plants and shows a knack for bubble-gum poetry. She and Alex team up to write the song, and fall in love along the way.
They're an odd couple, but her flighty neurosis somehow tempers his tendency toward world-weary sarcasm, and vice versa. Writer-director Marc Lawrence hits all the predictable romantic comedy beats, and veers off on time wasting side trips through Sophie's relationship history and family life. But when he lets his stars just be themselves (or the popular image of themselves), Music and Lyrics is more fun than a Duran Duran concert.
Appropriately, one of the DVD's extras is the full music video for PoP!’ s biggest hit, and it is worth watching at least once to see how uncannily accurate its depiction of '80s Britpop is. All the movie's songs are such perfect imitations of actual hits from the era, you could make a game out of figuring out which artists inspired songwriter Adam Schlesinger in each case.
The disc contains very little beyond a cursory making-of doc, some deleted scenes and one of those gag reels that consists of the actors forgetting their lines, cracking up and saying things that have to be bleeped out. The producers should have just skipped all that and filmed some more music videos with Grant. He was made for this. (PG-13) Rating 3.
Loey Lockerby can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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