Whitaker and Mirren Shine Like Oscar Winners

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There really are two parallel film industries.

One produces Hollywood studio features -- big-budget, big movies with the broadest possible appeal that depend more and more on foreign markets to make a profit.

Just underneath, are low-budget, independently produced movies aimed at folks like us: intelligent grown-ups, where the only special effect is talent and, if we're lucky, genius.

This week we're lucky with films: One about a queen, the other about a mad despot who makes himself king -- and both stars really could end up winning Oscars.

"The Last King of Scotland": Shot on location in Uganda, one scene takes place in a village so remote, the villagers thought Forest Whitaker was the real Idi Amin. And they kept asking, "Why is he making the same speech all day?"

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About halfway through "The Last King of Scotland," you'll think Whitaker is the real Idi Amin, too.

Made on an $8 million budget, "The Last King of Scotland" is a first feature film from documentary director Kevin Macdonald. One reason the village life never looks staged: It's not.

We see Amin through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who becomes the dictator's private physician, then his adviser -- and then has to run for his life.

Whitaker, in an amazing performance, takes us from charismatic to terrifying. OK, Forest, start writing your Oscar speech. Grade: A-

"The Queen": A second low-budget, high-IQ film with an uncanny performance from a probable Oscar winner, "The Queen" takes a look at the royal family after Princess Diana's death.

Helen Mirren rules as Queen Elizabeth II. It's not just the physical resemblance, which is astonishing.

She somehow makes us feel the command, the confidence, the royal presence we imagine she'd have if we were in the same room with the real Elizabeth.

The queen totally underestimates the outpouring of sympathy after Diana's death.

Prime Minister Tony Blair persuades her to return to London, and she drags her husband -- who's portrayed as a total idiot -- back to Buckingham Palace, to see for herself, and save the crown -- or at least her reputation.

There are intimate, dysfunctional moments that play so real, you don't watch this movie. It's as if you are inside the room.

Mirren is so powerful, the rest of the cast seems weak in comparison, but I'm betting she'll thank them anyway. On Oscar night. Grade: B+

As long as I've been doing this, I can't remember two films with these kinds of performances opening on the same weekend.

"The Guardian": The brash, young rookie, and the cool-under-fire, grizzled old vet. Think "Top Gun" underwater. And guess who saves whom when the Miracle-Gro hits the Cuisinart?

Kevin Costner is perfectly cast, and Ashton Kutcher doesn't get "Punk'd."

The kid can act. "The Guardian" eventually gets dragged under by its own cliches, but I'd never heard of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer before I saw it. Now I'll never forget them. Grade: B

"School for Scoundrels": I was expecting another rated R for raunchy comedy from the guys who did "Old School," but "School for Scoundrels" woulda, coulda, shoulda been the last great date movie of the summer. The strength is the script. The weakness? Jon Heder is a sidekick, not a star. He doesn't have the presence, the "Napoleon" or the "Dynamite" to carry the scenes without Ben Stiller or Billy Bob Thornton. Grade: C+

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