Arts & Life

Summary Judgment: 'Running with Scissors,' 'Babel,' 'Death of a President'

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Slate contributor Mark Jordan Legan reviews what critics are saying about this weekend's movie releases — Running with Scissors, Babel and the controversial faux-documentary Death of a President.


This is DAY TO DAY.

There are some serious, even shocking movies opening this week. As always, the online magazine Slate helps you sort the good from the bad with a weekly digest of what the critics are saying.

Here is Mark Jordan Legan with Summary Judgment.

Mr. MARK JORDAN LEGAN (Slate): First up in wide release is Babel, the latest drama from the creative team that brought us Amores perros and 21 Grams. Babel weaves together four gripping stories about fate and circumstance. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett lead an international cast.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babel")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Richard) Why can't you just relax? Why are you so stressed?

Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actress: (As Susan) You're the reason I'm stressed. You're the reason why I can't relax.

Mr. PITT: You could if you tried.

Ms. BLANCHETT: You don't think I tried?

Mr. LEGAN: Overall the critics applaud the film. A few were frustrated with the multiple storylines, like the New Yorker, which growls, Babel is an infuriatingly well made disaster. But Rolling Stone calls Babel the year's richest, most complex and ultimately most heartbreaking film. And the majority agree with USA Today, which says, It may be the most ambitious movie of the year with a structurally complex and fascinating narrative.

Next up in limited release, especially in the red states, is Death of a President. This controversial film uses a fake documentary style to imagine the fictional assassination of George W. Bush.

(Soundbite of movie "Death of a President")

Ms. BECKY ANN BAKER (Actress): (As Eleanor Drake) It was the angriest group of protestors I've ever seen in my entire experience of working with the president. I was terrified. And I looked over and the president was as calm as he could be. And he said, you know, Ellie, I don't mind them having their opinions. I just wish they could demonstrate peacefully.

Mr. LEGAN: The critics are split on this one, with many praising the technical aspects, yet complaining about the narrative. The Los Angeles Times finds it a technically inventive, thoughtful, but otherwise not particularly earth-shattering movie. The Village Voice shrugs, Dramatically inert but a minor techno-miracle. And the New York Post complains that the only thing that's shocking about Death of a President is how boring it is.

And opening wide this weekend is the dark comedy Running with Scissors, based on the best-selling memoir that chronicles Augusten Burroughs's chaotic adolescence. Annette Bening stars as his mentally unbalanced mother, with Brian Cox and Gwyneth Paltrow also starring. The film is written and directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the hot television show Nip Tuck.

(Soundbite of movie "Running with Scissors")

Mr. ALEC BALDWIN (Actor): (As Norman Burroughs) So you're saying we should split up?

Mr. BRIAN COX (Actor): (As Dr. Finch) In order to reach that conclusion, Norman, I need to see both you and Deirdre on a regular and disciplined basis. For five hours a day.

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actress): (As Deirdre Burroughs) I'm available, Dr. Finch.

Mr. BALDWIN: Five hours a day? I can't do that. I have to work.

Ms. BENING: See, Dr. Finch? I told you, I'm married to a narcissist.

Mr. LEGAN: The nation's critics praise the performances. But a few have a problem with the adaptation. The New York Daily News cheers, A reasonable facsimile of a perversely funny book whose odd characters are given life by a terrific cast. Yet the Hollywood Reporter says Running with Scissors is too outlandish to be fully convincing and sacrifices subtlety for broad laughs. And the San Francisco Chronicle snips, A wildly erratic, often annoying, but never boring endeavor.

So if nothing else, the film helps spread the message that many parents were right, it is dangerous to run with scissors. Although it doesn't take a stand on the waiting 20 minutes to swim after you eat thing. Me, as a kid, I used to eat a sandwich while swimming with scissors. Yes, maybe it was a cry for help. A really unsuccessful cry for help.

BRAND: Mark Jordan Legan is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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