"Dick" (1999)
Essentially “Romy & Michele Uncover A Vast Government Conspiracy,” “Dick” asks us to consider what might have happened had Watergate whistleblower ‘Deep Throat’ not been former FBI agent W. Mark Felt, but a couple of dunderheaded schoolgirls who inadvertently happened across the break-in whilst staying overnight at the notorious hotel. A long way from “Melancholia” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams give game performances as the two ditsy leads, and though he doesn’t physically resemble Tricky Dickie in any way, Dan Hedaya gives one of the best performances of his career imitating the President Nixon’s paranoiac ramblings. The film, though, only hits upon a consistent sweet spot when Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch show up as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, bickering like an old married couple, throwing the rest of this unambitious comedy into sharp relief. There are funny moments in and of themselves – Williams’ masturbatory beach fantasy with Nixon is something to behold - but “Dick” dilutes the rest of the crisis down to a series of interminable phallic punchlines and ignores any real attempt at cutting satire. Far too knowing to be dismissed as the backward cousin of “All the President’s Men” – Nixon’s dead dog Checkers is anachronistically wheeled out so the girls can extend their remit as the White House’s “secret youth advisors” – it’s still not smart enough to commit to anything beyond a light ribbing. Given that the rest of director Andrew Fleming’s career has been sketchy at best (the ill-advised remake of “The In Laws;” “Nancy Drew”) we should probably all be thankful he never followed it up with something like “Woody” - a dramedy about the 28th President’s attempts to reconcile the America’s burgeoning post-WWI isolationism with some erection jokes thrown in for good measure. And even though it features a scene of Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev brokering a peace deal whilst tripping on space brownies and singing the opening bars of “Hello, Dolly!,” this “Dick” is still overwhelmingly half-cocked. [C+]

"Erin Brockovich" (2000)
Nobody can accuse Steven Soderbergh of being a one-note director. In 2000, he came out with “Traffic,” a gritty expose on the war on drugs, and “Erin Brockovich,” the true story of a working mother who stumbles on one of the biggest class-action suits ever. The film took Julia Roberts all the way to her first (and most likely last) Oscar win, but it also proved that Soderbergh could turn a pretty profit for the studios. And as a film it has a lot going for it, especially Roberts, who is great as the brassy, argumentative, passionately strong-willed Brockovich, an immensely likable character, who never devolves into self pity over her own difficult circumstances, and whose simple, common-sense morality and quick wit proves more than a match for her adversaries. The character goes through ups and downs, but she’s a fighter, and it would take a hard heart to not be rooting, not just for her clients, but for her personally, by the end. The film also packs one hell of a supporting cast including Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart (in his first major studio role) and Marg Helgenberger, but it's Roberts' film and, like the character she portrays, she dominates it, this time with more than just her thousand-watt smile. Its success was influential too, setting an example for others to come about women taking on corporations, most of which were not as expertly done. [A]

"Michael Clayton" (2007)
Writer/director Tony Gilroy’s first feature, “Michael Clayton,” was one of the best reviewed films of 2007 and for good reason. Gilroy’s script and adept work behind the camera threw a wrench in the whistleblower genre by focusing on authentic characters facing real moral conundrums, each of whom makes questionable choices. George Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” at a huge law firm who is called in when the shit hits the fan. And hit the fan it does when his colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) discovers that one of their biggest clients, U-North, knew that one of their chemicals was carcinogenic. Facing a crippling class-action lawsuit, U-North’s in-house counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), must decide how to handle Arthur and the information he has threatened to expose. Swinton’s performance (which earned her a long-overdue Oscar) was just one of the many stellar turns that pack the film -- Clooney’s work is solid and intelligent, as is that of the late Sydney Pollack as Michael’s boss. However, Wilkinson is quite brilliant as the manic-depressive Arthur who has an almost-complete break with reality, but not with his morals. The film was nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Director, Original Screenplay and Picture), but Swinton’s was the only win. Accolades aside, “Michael Clayton” is a fantastic examination of shady corporate dealings and the courage necessary to take them down. In 'Clayton,' Gilroy, who went on to direct the less-impressive “Duplicity,” shows off his talent as a director and his confidence in the intelligence of his audience. [A]

"The Nasty Girl" (1990)
Though its English-language title and cover art might suggest otherwise, this West German film isn’t nasty or naughty at all, a particular feat when considering it’s directed by someone named Verhoeven. But rather than arriving from “Showgirls” helmer Paul Verhoeven, “The Nasty Girl” is directed by the unrelated Michael Verhoeven (“The White Rose”). It follows Sonja (Lena Stolze), first appearing as a high schooler who is writing about her town’s involvement in the Third Reich for an essay. Despite the insistence of those around her that they didn’t aid in the atrocities, Sonja discovers the sins of the the town’s history, causing her to be an outcast among those she’d considered her neighbors. Sonja becomes obsessed with her investigation over the course of a decade, much to the distress of those in the town who wish she’d just stay quiet and stay out of the past. Though it sounds like standard, depressing Holocaust fare, “The Nasty Girl” is surprisingly lighthearted and even fun at times, thanks largely to the postmodern style of Verhoeven, who lets his heroine speak directly to the audience and constantly, almost playfully, breaks the wall between reality and cinema. Unfortunately, (likely as a casualty of the sale of Miramax) “The Nasty Girl” isn’t available on Region 1 DVD, despite receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. [B+]

"North Country" (2005)
Niki Caro’s “North Country” is the type of movie that gets positive attention for all the wrong reasons. It features Charlize Theron with a bad haircut (again “uglying down” for a role like she did in “Monster”, though here she stops short of 'hideous' and goes merely for 'dowdy'), and fictionalizes the first sexual harassment lawsuit won by a female miner who had endured the abuses of the male-dominated mining company. The performances in the film are solid enough with Theron doing a competent job (though not one necessarily worthy of the Oscar nomination she got) and a particularly strong supporting cast of Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean and Jeremy Renner, providing excellent back up. It's a shame then that the film just doesn’t come together and here the sensationalist topic only serves to draw attention to bad filmmaking, which is guilty of a sort of prurience: the court aspect of the film is rushed in favor of showing the female miners suffering abuse over and over. And while we empathize with the difficulties these women faced in reality, in the film, the dialogue is too on the nose, and the metaphoric imagery of drilling into the earth just too overt to do the subject matter justice. [C-]