Christopher Moynihan, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey in For Your ConsiderationFOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

I love Christopher Guest's improvisational comedies with a passion bordering on mania, and he and co-scenarist Eugene Levy have been wonderfully consistent about treating fans to a new one every three years; 1997's Waiting for Guffman led to 2000's Best in Show and 2003's peerless A Mighty Wind. Now we have For Your Consideration, a skewering of the annual Oscar-derby madness, and I couldn't have been more excited about seeing it. So why, despite its many, many great moments, does reflecting on the director's latest leave me feeling disappointed, and a little depressed?

One of the reasons is obvious. For the first time since before Guffman, Guest and Levy have abandoned their mock-documentary format, opting for a stricter (albeit mostly improvised) narrative structure. Yet this style actually works against what the director and his team are best at - revealing character through comedic behavior rather than comedic situations. Guest's and Levy's faux-doc presentation allowed us to both giggle at and empathize with their satiric figures; unaware of their own ridiculousness, the amateur thesps and dog-show trainers and folk artists gave themselves away every time they spoke - the dichotomy between their public humility and private (ill-masked) thirst for the limelight wasn't just funny but touching. However, given For Your Consideration's more conventional storyline, the actors - the divine Catherine O'Hara excepted - don't get to reveal hidden facets to their characters this time around; what you see is what you get. The film features a series of highly amusing, even hilarious, moments, but there's a hole where its heart should be.

Which leads to the film's bigger disappointment: its unremitting sourness. In the past, Guest poked fun at struggling fame-seekers but didn't judge them; the laughs never felt mean-spirited. Yet here, there's a (comic) hatefulness that extends to everyone and everything in sight - even O'Hara, the film's one truly sympathetic character, gets treated like a punching bag (and gets the swollen lips to prove it). In a movie populated with egomaniacal movie stars and show-biz sycophants, this is a perfectly understandable tactic, but at this stage in the director's career, such satiric targets are too simple for Guest and company. For Your Consideration tells us that everyone in Hollywood is vacuous and phony. Thanks for the tip.

Make no mistake: The parody is oftentimes razor-sharp, and the sketch-comedy portrayals are always sharp. I loved Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock as a pair of squabbling television movie critics, and Bob Balaban and Michael McKean as ineffectual screenwriters, and Fred Willard and Jane Lynch as Entertainment Tonight-esque co-hosts. (Somehow, Willard tops his Best in Show turn for sheer, hysterical inappropriateness.) But though the laughs are plentiful and Guest's ragtag, spontaneous style remains intact, I left the movie clamoring for more: more insight, more detail, and above all, more soul - everything his previous mock-doc works provided in spades. Hopefully Guest's next offering will be a return to greatness for the most original comic sensibility in American movies. I'll be crossing my fingers ... for the next 1,095 days.


Helen Mirren in The QueenTHE QUEEN

Amidst the more-than-deserved kudos that has been lavished upon The Queen - a hypothetical imagining of the political and emotional complexities behind Queen Elizabeth II's public silence in the week following Princess Diana's 1997 death - there seems to be a crucial bit of information audiences aren't being given: The movie is enormous fun. I'll surely be extolling its merits further during my year-end recap (not to mention eventual Academy Awards coverage), but for now, just know that director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan have fashioned a sensationally trenchant, moving, clever, and wondrously argumentative entertainment; there isn't one dull or unnecessary sequence in the film's compact 95 minutes. And Helen Mirren is nothing short of astonishing. Whether engaging in a battle of wills with Tony Blair (an absolutely first-rate Michael Sheen), desperately trying to maintain dignity in the face of overwhelming worldwide disapproval, or merely staring down the camera during the opening credits (her expression could read, "I dare you to make me crack"), the actress gives a sublimely witty performance that manages to be both majestic and all-too-human. She may be a Dame, but The Queen suggests that Mirren deserves a title bump - in acting terms, she's more like a goddess.


Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleCASINO ROYALE

Following a vicious pre-credits prelude that effectively reboots the James Bond franchise - with an icily intimidating Daniel Craig assuming 007 duties - director Martin Campbell's Casino Royale unveils the first of its action set pieces: a joyously kinetic foot race within an urban construction site, with the pursued effortlessly leaping over walls while the newly buff Bond plows right through them. That sequence pretty much encapsulates the movie as a whole. Casino Royale is a terrific blend of the nimble and the brutish; the expected, "stylish" Bond tropes are accounted for - the women, the clothes, the martinis - but they're complemented by an enjoyably tough-minded sensibility that gives the thrills unexpected gravitas, and even the film's exquisitely tense poker scenes are filled with ugly menace.

There are so many spectacular scenes here that you wish the movie itself were more tightly structured; it's at least a half-hour too long, and the pacing becomes particularly pokey during a late-film romantic interlude. (It's all too obvious that a Big Switcheroo is in the offing.) But it's hard to gripe when the object of Bond's affections is the enticing Eva Green, who's something rare in the Bond canon: a woman who's drop-dead gorgeous, smart, and funny, and who's a formidable - even memorable - match for our tuxedo-clad super-agent. If Tracy and Hepburn ever found themselves infiltrating a drug cartel while dispatching hired goons with machine guns, the results would look a lot like Casino Royale.



And speaking of tuxedos ... .

The critical praise for George Miller's Happy Feet baffles me, but then again, very little about this animated adventure doesn't. For the first hour, there's literally nothing going on but musical-comedy filler, as our heroic penguin Mumble - a tap dancer among Antarctic vocalists - is ostracized by his fellow waterfowl; I'm afraid we're meant to find Mumble's shufflings and the film's overworked pop songs delightful solely because penguins are doing the dancing and singing. (At its worst, the movie resembles a computer-animated Nunsense.) But by the climax, Miller has completely switched tacks, turning Happy Feet into a rather pushy ecological lesson, and the change doesn't jibe with the pop-culture blitheness that preceded it; the movie - if you can imagine - is two parts Shrek and one part An Inconvenient Truth. To be fair, the animation is often stunning, and Miller does come through with a wickedly inspired Twilight Zone twist that almost single-handedly saves the film. But by then, it's a lost cause; we've already endured too many musical interludes, too many plot strands that lead nowhere, and far too much of Robin Williams, whose channeling of Cheech Marin and Barry White makes his "wacky" contributions doubly offensive. My own feet have rarely been happier than when, after 105 interminable minutes, they finally walked me out of the theatre.

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