Maggie Smith gives an inspired turn as the ax-wielding live-in help in a tale that bristles with morbid, macabre possibilities. But after a prolonged build-up, director Niall Johnson squanders all of the possibilities for bloody good fun on a tepid, ho-hum conclusion. Smith plays Grace Hawkins, live-in help hired by the unhinged Goodfellow clan to cook, clean and look after their promiscuous 17-year-old daughter and bullied 13-year-old son. Dad Walter (Rowan Atkinson) is the meek vicar in their small, quaint country village; Mom Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a frazzled wreck contemplating an affair with her sleazy, American golf instructor (Patrick Swayze, in full-on horn-dog mode). For a movie that skewers provincial British politeness, Mum has a peculiar aversion to blood and gore. Seeing the regal, stately Smith wield an axe like a lumberjack is funny the first time, but after that, you want to see it actually connect with some flesh.
Compared to the previous year’s much-honored Capote film and this take on the same subject matter — otherwise known as “the other Capote movie” — one thing is certain: Infamous is way, way gayer. Other than that, there honestly isn’t much that writer-director Douglas McGrath adds to this already canonized tale of writing, murder and manipulation that makes it worth recommending over the movie that finally earned Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar. In the same role, British stage actor Toby Jones is certainly a find, and his uncanny, bitchy-yet-soulful impersonation is the best reason to see the same story a second time. But there’s a fatal difference in tone that sinks this picture. Star-studded, sumptuous and way too fidgety to sustain a mood, Infamous is inessential.
Imagine a world where a highly influential TV host a la Jon Stewart calls the bluff of the political machine, runs for president to prove a point, and then ends up winning the White House? It sounds like a smashing idea for a sophisticated satire, if only director Barry Levinson had risen to the occasion. Instead he’s taken the amusing story of pundit Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) and his joke candidacy, and bogs it down with the cliché trappings of a mystery thriller: there’s an ominous subplot about the installation of flawed electronic voting machines by a ruthless corporation (which is too similar to real life to be funny). Then there’s whistleblower Eleanor (Laura Linney), who discovers a major glitch in the system, and spends all her screen time fretting, worrying, crying and getting chased by company goons as if she were a fugitive from some Ashley Judd potboiler. Add to this a somewhat inapt romance between the leads and the result is an ambitious film that gets in its own way.
Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (the code name for the invasion of Normandy) is the tale of a young WWII recruit who barely makes the grade and never gets much better. This 1975 forgotten classic uses archival footage from London’s Imperial War Museum — cities on fire, spectacular aerial combat photography — to fuel a low-budget portrait of a doomed private, delivering a fatalistic view of war that almost overcomes its artistic pretensions. Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) is an unassuming and well-scrubbed lad eager to serve his country. But after joining the British Army, he struggles to accept the dehumanizing codes and conduct of the military. His painful stumble through basic training only leads to disillusionment and self-doubt. But with just a few short weeks until the invasion, Tom has no choice but to accept his fate: line up behind an endless stream of soldiers like himself and march into the meat grinder of Normandy Beach.