Snap Judgment: Movies

All the King's Men

Directed by Steven Zaillian

Despite Sean Penn's meaty, lip-smacking performance as the populist demagogue Willie Stark--novelist Robert Penn Warren's fictional version of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long--this tale of corruption, compromise and betrayal never gets under the skin of its subject. How does Stark turn from idealist to thug? That's the question you want answered, and Zaillian doesn't tell you. His focus, true to the novel, is on Jude Law's journalist Jack Burden, who gets sucked into Stark's orbit and loses his moral bearings. But we don't care about Burden or his mopey pursuit of his childhood sweetheart (Kate Winslet). This stiff-in-the-joints movie has little feel for its setting or period, and crucial chunks seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Robert Rossen's Oscar-winning 1949 version has nothing to fear. --David Ansen

The Last King of Scotland

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Forest Whitaker, uncorking the power that he usually holds in check, gives a chilling, bravura performance as Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, whose bloody regime slaughtered more than 300,000 people. This intelligent, sometimes gruesome thriller, based on a novel by Giles Foden, pairs this real-life dictator with the fictional Nick Garrigan (James McAvoy), a boyish, idealistic but deluded Scottish doctor who serves Amin as personal physician and close adviser, realizing too late how much blood stains his own hands. Macdonald ("Touching the Void") has no trouble keeping the audience on the edge of its seat, but the merger of fact with sexed-up fiction can be too Hollywood for its own good: Garrigan's affair with one of Amin's wives (Kerry Washington) is a dubious contrivance, as is the insertion of the famous Entebbe hijacking (which is not in Foden's book). Still, there's not a dull moment in it.