The filmmakers’ vantage has its pluses and minuses. The Nanny Diaries opens in the Museum of Natural History, where Annie, a student of anthropology, places Upper East Side child-rearing rituals in a world-historical context and apologizes to the audience in advance for the odd stereotype. Derivative of Mean Girls but very good: Most American movies downplay issues of class and privilege; this one creates museum tableaux to illustrate them. But what follows is nothing but stereotypes—and an argument for why anthropology should inform drama rather than shape it. Your first look at a character tells you everything you need to know. As you watch the nannies mistreated and the children left to cry themselves to sleep, the only surprise is that there are no surprises. It’s zombie-land.
Linney looks sleek and pretty. She’s the best thing in the film, although she has given this performance before, her face a tight mask under which you catch glimpses of a frightened human being. In some ways, she kills the comedy—poor Mrs. X is so obviously suffering. (In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep didn’t let the flickers of humanity upstage the mythic bitchery.) But Johansson is even less of a comedian. She’s funny when she uses her drugged sexiness to convey lazy entitlement, as in Ghost World. But peppy and eager to please is a stretch. She’s uncommitted from the outset. As Mr. X, the myopic horndog mergers-and-acquisitions tycoon, Paul Giamatti seems just as checked-out as his character. Alicia Keys plays the free-spirited black friend and Chris Evans the rich guy upstairs—the “Harvard hottie” whose ardor allows Annie to reject the Upper East Side but potentially marry into it. The movie shouldn’t open in the Museum of Natural History but the Museum of the Moving Image—with a display of chick-flick clichés through the ages.
The documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters sounds like a grups’ dream—it centers on men who have never stopped trying to set records in classic arcade games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Q*bert, etc. I sympathize: In my twenties, I hung out at a Boston dive bar with another young film critic (let’s call him, oh, Onan Gliberperson) drinking pint after pint of Bass Ale and playing Donkey Kong well into the night. Then the game began to play me. Half asleep on my bed, I’d swear I’d just reached level seven. Anyway, Seth Gordon’s movie doesn’t get into the addiction part. The main characters are the legendary “gamer of the century” demigod Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, a family man who, in 2003, loses his job at Boeing and retreats to play the Kong in his garage—where he videotapes himself blasting Mitchell’s old record to smithereens.
There’s no doubt which side director Gordon is on. Mitchell is a dark, bearded glowerer who dispatches goons to take apart Wiebe’s machine to check for improprieties. He also declares that a record isn’t valid unless the game is played in public. After Wiebe jets to New Hampshire to play the game in public—and again bests Mitchell’s record—Mitchell sends a tape of himself scoring higher. In private! It’s not just Mitchell who makes you furious; it’s also his acolytes, who are like shifty Republican operatives decrying voter fraud while fiddling with Diebold machines. You want to drop barrels on them.
The King of Kong is very entertaining (and doesn’t overstay its welcome) but it’s a little depressing to contemplate. Are there any arenas in which Americans don’t want to compete and conquer? Wiebe seems too nice a guy (with too nice a wife and kids) to waste any more time on that bloody game. He could do so many other things with his spare time—even film criticism.
If you’ve never seen a Johnnie To crime picture, Exiled (opening August 31) is a simple, stylish, and utterly delightful introduction. It doesn’t have the sociological sweep of To’s Triad Election double bill or the cheeky media satire of his Breaking News. It’s in the Sam Peckinpah/Walter Hill archetypal mode. Six gangsters—the most charismatic is Anthony Wong, who played the doomed police chief in Infernal Affairs—can’t bring themselves to execute in cold blood a childhood friend who betrayed the boss and has just turned up in Macao with his wife and a baby. They give him a chance to make some money for his family—but more and more, they become his family. Unlike the jittery, handheld documentary look of new-style American thrillers, Exiled recalls the smooth, gliding, arcing camera of Sergio Leone, the antagonists facing one another impassively in sunglasses and long coats while the camera confidently takes the measure of the space. The ensemble shoot-outs are a bit of a muddle, but they’re certainly colorful—the puffs of smoke around the falling bodies are crimson. By the time Exiled comes to its bloody, heartbreaking finale, you’ll wish you could see these actors’ faces in every crime thriller.