Starting with Locke, a film in which only one actor is seen the entire time, and in which the whole action takes place inside a car moving down one of England's major highways. There are several other actors involved, but we only ever hear their voices, over the car phone. The interesting thing is that these 'voice roles' are so well done that we don't need to see the actors. Our imagination does all the work for us.
Tom Hardy is the only visible actor, playing a major concrete contractor, who's about to pour the biggest pour in 'non-military and non-nuclear' history. (According to the goofs section of IMDB, that's probably an exaggeration, given the quantities quoted, but that hardly matters.) The trouble is he's driving away from the pour, which will happen in the morning, leaving in the less than capable hands of his assistant, Donal. He has a very good reason for doing so, and it will cause chaos in his personal life, and in his career. It would spoil the suspense to tell you more, but suffice to say that it's some achievement to set an entire movie inside a car, with one actor, and have you sitting watching it nervously, wondering what will happen next.
Hardy is superb: he's a man fully in control, even when things seem to be spiralling out of control. But it's the control of man with integrity, not some arrogant so-and-so who doesn't give a toss about other people. It's because he does give a toss that he's in the situation he's in. He's a man who will do what he believes is right, no matter the cost. And we're cheering him all the way.
Second in line was Girl, Interrupted, This is a Hollywood-style mental hospital movie, so you can guess there'll be several parts for people to play to the hilt. And there are. Winona Ryder is Susanna, who somewhat unwittingly signs herself into a mental hospital, believing that there must be something wrong with her, because she's different, different especially in terms of her parents' expectations for her. Angelina Jolie, only 24 at the time the movie was made, plays Lisa, the blunt, foul-mouthed, in-your-face psycho, the sort you'd normally avoid, because she's something of a bully. She and Susanna hit it off, nevertheless. The film's main story concerns whether Susanna will allow herself to be healed and stop wasting her life looking for a healing she doesn't really need. (That's Whoopi Goldberg's take on it, anyway; she plays the sympathetic but realistic nurse.)
This is a good solid old-style movie, with some whiz bang performances (Ryder plays a relatively quiet character, yet she shines at the centre of the movie, even outdoing the full-on performance Jolie gives.) It holds your interest throughout, though whether it's true to the reality of a mental hospital isn't always easy to tell. (It's based on a book by Susanna Kaysen, who wrote of her own experience.)
The ending is tacked on, somewhat, spoiling the integrity of Jolie's character, but otherwise this was worth watching.
Not so worth watching was The Butler, an overblown piece that, like some broad spectrum medicine, covers everything possible in its two hours or so. It's a rough take on the true story of a Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, who was a long-time butler in the White House. He works his way through the Presidents from Eisenhower (a subdued Robin Williams) to Reagan (played by Alan Rickman), forever insisting that service without bias is his keynote. Consequently, even though he's in the thick of history, he manages to stand to one side, holding his tray, or cleaning the shoes, or reading a story to Caroline Kennedy. And he also manages to avoid confronting the things his older son confronts, the things that keep black people in the USA under the thumb of white people. This is a constant source of conflict between the two men.
Unfortunately, the scriptwriters decided that every historical moment needed to be included, and the film hops from one issue to another while the characters strive to keep up. Whitaker, a fine actor, gets a one-note role that eventually becomes an irritation at the centre of the movie. Oprah Winfrey plays his long-suffering wife, and is by far the best thing in the film, along with David Banner, who plays Gaines' older son. These two actors have some scenes that they can get their teeth into. Whitaker has almost nothing. By the time he finally makes up with his son, with whom he's been at odds since the man was a teenager, it's become all a bit ho hum. We knew it would happen but it's just another event in the midst of all the stuff. (Incidentally, the make-up of the actors as they age is superbly done: whether there's been CGI added to the literal make-up, or whether make-up has improved phenomenally over the years I don't know. Only Robin Williams looks a bit odd with a partly bald head.)
Why it was thought necessary to cast various top actors in often tiny cameo roles is a mystery. It adds nothing to the film - or rather, it does add something to it: an interruption to the flow of things while you try and work out which famous actor is now playing which famous person. I missed a few, but got most of them right. Casting 'ordinary' actors in these roles would have made a lot more sense; the stars distract from what's going on.
As an example of how to put famous actors in cameo roles and make it work to your advantage, however, check out Oceans Twelve. I first saw this at the cinema, and have seen it in part at least twice more, because one or other TV channel thinks it's worth playing endlessly. It's watchable even if it's self-indulgent nonsense. The best part about it is Julia Roberts playing an imitation of Julia Roberts, which aforesaid imitation catches the attention of the real Bruce Willis playing the real Bruce Willis. These two have a wonderful time hamming it up between them, and even Matt Damon has a job keeping up.
Other than this the movie is full of lots of scenery, a plot that is so impenetrable I doubt if anyone knew what was going on (certainly the audience hasn't a hope), Brad Pitt and George Clooney enjoying themselves and being funny, and Matt Damon playing the extreme opposite of Bourne. A bunch of second-tier actors (the rest of the Twelve) spout lines that sound like they're making them up as they go. Unfortunately the lines are waffle, and the audience knows it, and worst of all they're totally lacking in wit or humour.