Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wake Wood

It was just last year that Hammer Film Productions was revived from its three-decade-long slumber, its last feature before the extended hibernation being 1979's "The Lady Vanishes." The iconic UK film company, which specialises in movies of the horrifying persuasion, hit it big with the tremendously chilling American remake "Let Me In" in late 2010 before stubbing its toe with dud "The Resident" earlier this year. Their newest flick is, of course, another creepy spook-em-up leaking with excessive guts and gruesome gore, and it's pure Hammer through and through, in a generally positive way.

"Wake Wood" tells a tale of the reawakened dead and of discomforting townsfolk. Patrick (Aidan Gillen, "12 Rounds") is a vet, while his wife Louise (Eva Birthistle, "The Children") is a pharmacist. They live happily with their sweet nine-year-old daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) in Dublin, Ireland. I'd just like to add that I am sad to say there are no evil leprechauns stalking any characters throughout this film.


The idyllic homelife they all share is gravely disturbed when a wandering Alice is mauled to death by a vicious German Shepherd when going off her usual school route. Understandably mortified by their loss, the husband and wife relocate to the sleepy town of Wake Wood roughly a year later to spend their days gazing out of windows and lying on the floor while loudly weeping.

It is here that they meet Arthur (Timothy Spall, "The King's Speech"), the town's lovely-on-the-outside ringleader of sorts. He offers the couple a proposal: he will bring back their deceased daughter for three days for a final farewell if they stay in the village until the day they die. Patrick and Louise are quick to accept. Oh, I'm sure everything will turn out perfectly fine. Right?


So, a kooky ritual is performed (which includes burning a dead body and cutting open Louise's palm), resulting in the resurrection of the young Alice. Patrick and Louise are overwhelmed with delight, planning to spend every waking second of the next three days with their bundle of undead joy. However, things soon take a rather violent and nasty turn. As the late Fred Gwynne once said, "Sometimes dead is better."

"Wake Wood" could best be described as a mishmash of dark contemporary chills and '70s Hammer goofiness. For the most part, this tonal collaboration works wonders, creating a film that's both camp and bloodcurdling in equal measure. With these two intact, it remains a gritty and serious chiller. However, David Keating's occult horror is not without its overly corny moments.


A scene in which a man is crushed to death under the arse of a cow may be harrowing in idea, but is difficult to take seriously given the visual. The spooky reanimated girl occasionally comes across as cheesy in her ploys of intimidation. And the shock ending (which I won't give away) is borderline ridiculous, albeit unexpected and quite the scandal. These scenes are not necessarily laughable, just classic Hammer that feels odd when placed in the 21st Century.

Images from Robin Hardy's "The Wicker Man" and Mary Lambert's "Pet Sematary" inevitably seep into one's memory throughout the film, from the pagan locals to the general storyline. Genre familiarities such as flickering lights, creepy villagers and broken-down cars also trickle into the proceedings, but something about them tears them away from the abyss of cliché.


Timothy Spall is entrancing as the all-knowing landowner, keeping one guessing as to whether or not he should be considered a conniving villain. The excellent English character actor has an extraordinary on-screen presence, playing the town's leader with both a cheerful charm and sinister menace. Spall is certainly a man of much underrated talent.

The rejuvenated little girl at the centre of the plot is played impressively by Connolly, this being the young actress' first acting role. At times a regular, bright ray of sunshine, she suddenly turns into an evil-minded devil akin to the glowy-eyed psychic tots in Wolf Rilla's "Village of the Damned." Convincing in both these roles, she's an eerie figure in an eerie film.


And the two leading parents are thankfully relatable, the script by Brendan McCarthy and director Keating allowing us to sympathise with their unfortunate circumstances. They are shown to just be two grieving individuals who yearn to see their daughter once more, no matter what the consequences may be. We go through this with them, feeling much sorrow when their reunion goes horribly awry, which is inevitable given the genre at hand.

"Wake Wood" is an effectively creepy and grisly chiller that's just slightly bruised by its own silliness. It supplies scares (through both atmosphere and sudden contrasts in decibel levels), is host to fine performances all round and is fitted with a script that is occasionally rather clever. I'm just going to assume the two protagonists never watched "Pet Sematary."

7/10

Friday, 25 March 2011

Mars Needs Moms

What message are beady-eyed little girls supposed to take home from Disney's "Mars Needs Moms"? In the film, they are shown that when they are all grown up it is their duty to obsessively clean after their messy offspring, their daily activities consisting of washing the dishes, hoovering the carpet and mopping up the kitty vomit all on their own. They are shown that they will be nothing but nagging carers for their devilish spawn, that it is their one and only objective to cook and clean. You're not going to become a sparkly, independent princess, no no; you're going to become a stereotypical 1950s housewife -- feminists should have a field day with this.

The mother in question here is a nameless stay-at-home parent played by Joan Cusack ("School of Rock"). Her son, Milo (Seth Green, "Sex Drive," voiced by Seth Robert Dusky), is nine-years-old and is a vegetable-hating, zombie movie-loving, whiny little brat who feeds the cat unwanted broccoli and bounces up and down on his mattress when told to go to bed.


"My life would be so much better if I didn't have a mom at all," says the spoiled bugger right in his mother's face when ordered to go to sleep. Wow, I wonder how this boy will develop as a character; what wondrous life lessons will he learn on his upcoming space-trekking adventures, hmm?

One night, dear old mummy is snatched away from the family home by a missile-shaped spacecraft, onto which Milo manages to climb aboard. The ship blasts off into the air and lands on the planet Mars, where Martians of course take residency.


It turns out the Martians need mothers, specifically Milo's mother, who the aliens have spotted can discipline her son. You see, every 25 years there are Martian babies that are born, but none of the population is capable of caring for the cute little space tots, so they want Milo's mum's brain inserted into an army of cosseting robots called nanny-bots. Makes sense.

So, it's up to Milo to rescue his mama from the clutches of the alien kidnappers before they can suck out the contents of her motherly brain. Joining him on his quest is fellow human Gribble (Dan Fogler, "Fanboys") and rebellious extraterrestrial Ki (Elisabeth Harnois, "Solstice"), who has been inspired by the ways of our Earthly society.


I can't shake the feeling that "Mars Needs Moms" would have been much more interesting if it were filmed in live-action instead of the motion-captured animation it incorporates. I mean, what with all the planetary exploration, ET-shaped Martians and ray gun-zapping action, this film may have genuinely worked and felt more ambitious than it currently is.

Instead, we are handed producer Robert Zemeckis' brand of so-called realistic animation, the kind he used in 2004's "The Polar Express" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol." With this, we get waxwork models strolling about like dead-eyed zombies, looking like they're going to nibble on other characters' noggins for precious brains or melt if they stand in the sunlight for too long. The uncanny valley (google it) is pretty present here.


The animation works perfectly fine on the aliens for the most part; their designs are simple but effective. The Martian setting looks a tad like the grid from Steven Lisberger's "TRON," all dim and dark, run by the merciless, wrinkle-faced Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, more commonly known as Frau Farbissina from the "Austin Powers" trilogy), who despises happiness and joy and colour. She's like Charlie Brooker, basically.

The two central humans, Milo and Gribble (the mother is unconscious for the running time's majority), are a nice team, but it's difficult to relate to them when they look like walking corpses. Gribble is at first an obnoxious, overweight slacker (the kind that calls everyone "man" and thinks everything is "awesome"), but I managed to warm to him after a while. Milo's just a typical little boy searching for his mummy, whom he inevitably learns actually loves him. So cute. So predictable.


You can tell there's some heart been placed into this and there's effort been put into the production, but it's ultimately all in vain. The film struggles to be a truly fun sci-fi adventure, bordering upon tedium on several occasions, which is sad given the decent concept and what looks to be good intentions from the filmmakers.

"Mars Needs Moms" is perfectly serviceable kiddie fair, but it can't escape how generally underwhelming it is as a movie-going experience. The film is no doubt perfectly harmless (possible sexism aside), spreading a good message of how mothers should be loved and appreciated, but it's just not exciting enough. Like its setting, it's a bit dim.

4/10

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Red Riding Hood

Catherine Hardwicke is a director who has callously ripped herself off. The Texas-born filmmaker, who shot to fame with the indie hit "Thirteen" in 2003, has cashed in on the franchise she herself sparked back in 2008 -- namely, "Twilight." In her first feature since then, "Red Riding Hood," she has made a film that is so distractingly identical in look and tone to her previous vampirific fantasy that one cannot brush away the feeling that Miss Hardwicke has stolen from her own property for purposes of financial gain.

The "Twilight" saga is, of course, a gigantic money-maker (the series has thus far received over $1.7 billion worldwide with just three instalments), and is a notable appeal to the teenage girl crowd. Given this, I can understand Hardwicke's decision to stick with the supernatural love story genre, but the baffling similarities between the continuing epic bloodsucker blockbusters and "Red Riding Hood" render her newest project frankly pathetic.


As you would assume, this is based on the age-old fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood," albeit very loosely. It is set in Daggerhorn, a secluded Medieval village positioned inside a snowy forest, in which a bloodthirsty werewolf dangerously lurks. The villagers leave out fresh animal meat every night for ol' wolfie to devour, but this is apparently no longer enough.

After over 20 years of not harming a human, The Big Bad Wolf attacks and kills Lucie (Alexandria Maillot), the sister of Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, "Letters to Juliet"), who is our Little Red Riding Hood of sorts. The villagers ask for some assistance, their call answered by Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, "The Dark Knight"), a dedicated werewolf hunter with brutish bodyguards.


He comes to the conclusion that the wolf is one of the villagers, and is absolutely flamin' determined to find out who the lycanthrope is. Hey, I have an idea: how about you throw a stick in the air and see which one of the villagers fetches it for you and then humps your ankle? Just a suggestion.

Meanwhile, Valerie is besotted with the dreamy Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, "Deadgirl"), a woodcutter who, for some reason, has hair gel in the middle ages. Witchcraft, I tell thee! However, her parents have set her to marry Henry (Max Irons, "Dorian Gray"), who has much more promise and is apparently her "only hope for a better life." But what will Valerie do? Will she run away with the man she loves or respect her parents' wishes and wed a guy she barely knows? Tune into next week's "One Tree Hill" to find out.


The veins of "Red Riding Hood" are throbbing with teenage angst, the kind you'll find heavily sprinkled throughout the "Twilight" chronicles. Mopey adolescent mumblecore is mashed up with laughable supernaturalism, making for a film that is extraordinarily difficult to take seriously. What mostly worked for Hardwicke's vampire romance has failed miserably in this case.

The film is utterly clueless about its own ridiculousness, with all actors po-faced and the sombre tone never breaking for some tongue-in-cheek relief. Cheese carries a pungent stench in every single scene, the film's absurdness stinking up the flick. The line "Lock him up in the elephant" sounds preposterous even when given the context.


The clumsy script attempts to juggle romantic sentimentality and SFX monster horror, but writer David Johnson ("Orphan") keeps dropping them on the floor. The romance is remarkably unconvincing, and the supposedly scary moments fail to excite. This results in a faceless flick that's just a dribbling, lumpy mess of two opposing genres, neither of which carry any weight whatsoever.

Dishing out more red herrings than an entire series of "Midsomer Murders," "Red Riding Hood" also tries to be a tense whodunit. These mystery moments are equally corny, the script manipulating key characters to make it seem like they're the snarling werewolf. Either the actors have been told to sound incredibly suspicious in particular scenes, or they're just horrible performers -- I think I'll go with both.


The only one really earning their pay check here is Gary Oldman, though this should come as no surprise. He's an all-knowing wolf-gutter obsessed with hunting down the furry creatures, and he delivers lines with what occasionally seems to be a knowing camp. Becoming the evil and merciless villain of the piece, he brings a sense of class to the proceedings. I'm assuming the British actor is just using the film to help pay off a mortgage, though.

For all its atmospheric cinematography, for all its lovely set designs, for all its pitch-perfect costume stitching, "Red Riding Hood" has all the heart and soul of a yellow rubber duck. Feeling far too much like a "Twilight" instalment, it's more than a bit of a mess, with characters conversing in clunky dialogue and the film completely unaware of how silly it all is. My, what an awful film you have, Miss Hardwicke. All the better to bore me with, I guess.

1/10

Monday, 21 March 2011

Limitless

"Limitless" is a film in which visual swagger is a must for the story to work. Much of its plot is centred on the mind of a man who can see everything, whose brainpower is running on full-speed, whose cranium is given a sudden jolt; but how can the inner workings of a person's head supply 90-plus minutes of solid entertainment? Thus, this kind of premise needs a hefty amount of visual flair to keep its ticker ticking and its legs pumping. Luckily, director Neil Burger ("The Lucky Ones") has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Based on the 2001 novel "The Dark Fields" by Alan Glynn, this is a story of a socially awkward slob who becomes a charismatic intellect through the power of a magical tablet -- one is instantly reminded of Jerry Lewis' "The Nutty Professor" of 1963. The slob is Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper, "The A-Team"), a New York writer with a questionable hairstyle and a novel of which a single word is yet to be formulated.


Not only does he have writer's block, he has just been dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish, "Somersault") for being a bit of a slouch. I'm assuming his hairstyle was a part of this too. On the same morning, he bumps into his drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth, "Gamer"), who offers Eddie a sample of a new drug called NZT. FDA-approved, he says.

Eddie pops the clear pill in his mouth, swings it down the hatch, and his full brain capacity is suddenly unleashed. Memories flourish back to him a mile a second, he can think his way out of tight situations, he is more eloquently spoken, he can predict things that are going to happen through effortless surveillance, and he has the ability to go to a salon and give his greasy mop a snip and a chop.


With his mind clear as crystal, he finishes his novel in four days, plays the stock market to much success, and becomes involved in the financial market, making a big name for himself, as well as a few million in the bank. All looks good and splendid for the New York druggie -- only problem is, the pills start to have some rather unwanted side-effects.

Eddie begins to completely lose track of time, his mind skipping several hours of the day. He has to keep moving or he becomes restless. He garners some unwanted attention from a madman stalker. When he stops using the drug he becomes nauseous and exhausted. Upon phoning his ex-brother-in-law's other clients, he discovers all of them are either dead or sick.


The premise of "Limitless" is incredibly promising, albeit not particularly ground-breaking, and I must say that it's a relief for a film to utilise its potential so effectively. Director Neil Burger and writer Leslie Dixon ("Hairspray") keep the audience on their toes with this real-world techno-thriller without resorting to constant chase scenes -- they've gone down the route of only needing a compelling protagonist.

Pretty boy Cooper is in his first leading role here, having his work cut out for him as both a deadbeat loser and a suave genius hunk. He tackles both with a keen glamour, maintaining control of the dreary, real-life Eddie and the other Eddie, the result of obsessive recreation. It's with much grace that the "The Hangover" actor proves he's much more than just an eye-tease, leading the film with very little fault.


"Limitless" plays host to a character who intrigues. We empathise with this everyday citizen who becomes a king, this underdog who becomes a god. The film could have easily faltered with an unlikable man who is undeservedly bestowed the mental abilities of Albert Einstein, spending his millions and overall being a greedy sod -- instead, the combination of Cooper's performance and Dixon's script makes for an enchanting protagonist.

Burger's visual direction illustrates Eddie's rapidly increasing mentality. When the character first takes his new medication we watch his mind recollect seemingly insignificant memories from years ago mid-conversation. We watch as his vision becomes stretched out, as his surroundings become surreal. We speed down streets in extended tracking shots as Eddie loses his sense of time and finds himself in another part of NYC. We watch as his mind alters and the world around him becomes a feast of scrumptious information.


We are given the sense that we are experiencing this movie with him, seeing it through his eyes; and not just because he is the narrator. As he toys with his advanced intellectual capabilities, we are toying along with him. As he loses his cool due to a lack of his secretive special stuff, we sympathise. And when his high-security condo is broken into with a chainsaw, we soil our pants.

"Limitless" is not necessarily limitless itself -- its premise does feel stretched out as a feature-length storyline. And while the ending is lacklustre, it is nonetheless a thrilling 105 minutes of escapist entertainment. Cooper is dashing, Burger is creative, Dixon is smart, and "Limitless" is refreshing. Just say yes.

8/10

Monday, 14 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Well, it's been four months since the unintentional horrors of the Strause Brothers' "Skyline," and we've got our first proper alien invasion picture of 2011 in the shape of "Battle: Los Angeles." Set in the same city (Los Angeles, in case you didn't catch that) as the November-released "Skyline," this new UFO sci-fi is a vastly superior film in almost every way -- however, that does not strictly mean it is any good.

While "Skyline" centred around a group of confused and terrified civilians in an apartment block, Jonathan Liebesman's "Battle: Los Angeles" places its attention on the shooting and shouting military as they fight not only for their country, but for the entire world. Not much pressure, then.


On what looks like a regular sunny day, it is discovered that a shower of asteroids is about to collide with Earth -- for some strange reason they went undetected until entering our atmosphere. They are also slowing down. News reporters go mental, get their cameramen in position, and go even more mental when the meteors land in the oceans and gangs of metallic soldiers clamber out of the water -- these space-dwellers do not come in peace.

As explosive chaos brews in several major cities around the globe, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, "Rabbit Hole") rounds up his new platoon to get into alien-slaughtering action in the City of Angels. He and his crew are told to "kill anything that is not human." I guess that means they're supposed to go around throwing grenades at family pets.


Travelling on foot, they wander through half-deserted neighbourhoods, rifles cocked, looking out for the hostile extraterrestrials in the dusty air. Inevitably losing some marines and civilians along the way, they find out they have to get out of the area before a big military bomb blows them all to kingdom come.

"Battle: Los Angeles" can best be described as one overly drawn-out action sequence. Lasting nearly two hours, it's only on an especially rare occasion that the kabooms, whizzes, bangs, trigger-pulling noises and rocket launcher-blasting mayhem takes a break. And I have to say the film is exhausting.


It would be fair to state that the movie is like a video game, a first-person shooter if you will. All main characters are army marines, always with their firearms clenched between their mits as they carefully inspect buildings and pump slugs into otherworldly beings. It's also akin to a video game in that it's like watching one of your mates controlling the brand-spanking new "Call of Duty," and they won't let you have a go. Frustrating, isn't it?

The script lumbers the film with cliches straight out of the war movie textbook. Characters recite heart-wrenching speeches while orchestral music plays in the background, intended to move one's heart -- I dunno about you, but my heart remained cold and bitter as usual. The injured bravely suicide bomb areas to protect the others and let them escape. "Marines never quit," says an emotional Eckhart to a fellow soldier. I was half-expecting to hear "Goonies never say die" at some point.


Each and every character is as wooden as a park bench, barely even worth an attempt at sympathising with -- it would be like feeling sorry for a bookcase facing a wood chipper. While Eckhart puts in a good performance, there's nothing for him to grasp onto other than an unexplained past incident in which his character accidentally got an entire platoon killed. The dimple on the actor's humongous chin is more interesting.

All of the other marines can be summed up with brief phrases, given nothing else for us to care about or remember them by. One is married with a pregnant wife, another has a fiancé at home, there's one suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there's a hard-ass Mexican lady (of course played by Michelle Rodriguez). We don't care about them, not even wincing when they're crushed under cars or blown to smithereens. They're just crash test dummies ready to be destroyed.


The aliens themselves are quite threatening without saying a word, only having to fire their out-of-this-world artillery and trash up the city of Los Angeles. They're humanoid figures, covered in polished armour, requiring a hell of a lot of gunfire to finally be taken down. They also have advanced technology (what film aliens don't?), from carnage-inducing weaponry to sky-zooming space crafts. They're mute, yet their dialogue is better than that of the humans.

The film is basically a combination of Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" and Michael Bay's "Transformers." I'm actually rather shocked that Mr. Bay's name is not included in the opening titles or end credits; I’m maybe too familiar with projects like this having his name gloriously splattered all over it in silver, glistening font. Still, I'm sure he was anonymously lurking through the set somewhere, sneakily tweaking the film to fit his vision. Heh, vision.


Playing more like a recruitment video for the Marine Corps than anything else, "Battle: Los Angeles" is a huge letdown. The film seems to be trying too hard to get audience members to stand up from their seats, swing their fists in the air and passionately belt out the American national anthem. Its soundtrack consists purely of erratic gunfire, missile sound effects and the ricocheting of ammunition. While it is definitely host to some entertaining action, it ultimately is just an exasperating montage of banging, shooting and relentless clanging. Lord only knows where all the bullets come from.

5/10

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Hall Pass

It's a sad sight when one watches a film that has to resort to showing a full-on view of a dude's exposed junk in a desperate ploy to get a laugh. I don't mind nudity, be it male or female, but should comedy really have to wander into these private parts (sorry) and call its blatant uncovering a joke? In fact, "Hall Pass" shows two penises in the same scene -- one big, one small -- and lingers on them in a sequence that serves little to no purpose. I guess the comparison of gigantic and miniscule genitals is considered funny by certain groups. But why?

It will be a surprise to very few that this new raunchy comedy is from the Farrelly Brothers, the two siblings who shot to fame with their genius brain-child "Dumb and Dumber" in 1994. Since then, Bobby and Peter's success has been mostly middling to monstrous, and "Hall Pass" sadly fits in the latter of those two categories.


It stars Owen Wilson ("How Do You Know") as Rick, a man whose marriage is nearing the rocks. His wife Maggie (Jenna Fischer, "Blades of Glory") is unsatisfied with their sex life, which is difficult what with their two kids always roaming around like all youngsters do. It also doesn't help that Rick can't stop gawking at other women every chance he gets, to which Maggie reacts with much displeasure. Bitch, let a man look!

As a result of his perverse drooling, Rick is given a hall pass, i.e. a week free from the chains of marriage. Maggie is told that hall passes are a sure-fire method of recuperating relationships, with the men allowed to do whatever they want for seven days without interference from their wives, reliving the times in which they were single men, essentially getting their desires out of their system.


His best bud, Fred (Jason Sudeikis, "Going the Distance"), manages to convince his wife, Grace (Christina Applegate, "Anchorman"), to grant him a hall pass too. And so, the wives go on a seven day vacation while the two pals get the week to themselves, given the opportunity to do whatever the heck they like.

What follows is a series of increasingly silly shenanigans involving hash brownies, smashed-up cars and explosive diarrhoea. When the cats are away, these dry-humping mice will play, and play hard; though, as is in all comedies, things don't go quite according to plan.


"Hall Pass" submits nothing of any comedic value aside from situations in which much humour could be effectively developed; it just doesn't have a clue as to how this could be achieved. The comic delivery is less than amateur, a fact which is made all the more sickening when taking into account the writers of this hollow monstrosity.

They may have crafted the brilliant "There's Something About Mary" back in 1998, but the Farrelly Brothers appear to have lost both their talents and their minds. This is a film so agonisingly unfunny that one questions whether or not these two siblings even remembered to insert jokes into the script.


Their brand of shock-humour is visible here (just barely), from Fred passionately masturbating in a car on the street to him fingering an older lady while pretending to be performing cunnilingus, but these moments feel freakishly out-of-place amongst everything else. There's a hint of sentimental sweetness that's completely covered in the excrement of the Farrellys' desperate desire to set their phasers to "disgust." Disgust, they have.

Wilson and Sudeikis portray characters who can only be described as sex-starved doofuses -- it feels practically sexist, with all the male characters pigeonholed into the category of leg-humping goofs who spontaneously start fondling the air at the sight of a woman's cleavage. As if we do that. We respect women. The ones with big boobs. Hee hee, boobs...


The women of the piece are, of course, sensitive and smart, using their brains instead of their crotches to ponder important matters. Fischer and Applegate take a few back steps from the leading men, rolling their eyes at their husbands as all females must do. They're also very physically attractive, which baffles one as to how Wilson and Sudeikis could go anywhere near them without getting a can-full of mace sprayed in their eyes.

"Hall Pass" marks another failure for the brotherly writers and directors, who are now approaching sixty years of age -- it's showing. An utter stinker of a bad-taste comedy, its one and only laugh is during a segment in the end credits involving Stephen Merchant (who is stereotyped as a poncy Englishman). It looks like the Farrelly Brothers got a hall pass that set them free from giving a rat's ass.

2/10

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The marketing campaign for "The Adjustment Bureau" calls the film "Bourne meets Inception." This is false. It's a good financial move (both being generally beloved and easily recognisable pieces of modern cinema), but it's still false. Why is it false? Well, I don't remember the film having an amnesiac assassin breaking into people's dreams and planting ideas in their heads. Now, that may sound pretty awesome, but it's nothing like what "The Adjustment Bureau" really is.

The "Inception" comparison assumedly stems from the contemporary sci-fi feel the film has to it, and it seems a smart idea to promote the film with a name-drop of Christopher Nolan's epic mind-boggler -- it was one of the mega-hits of last year, after all. And the origin of the "Bourne" mention, well, one only has to look at the poster and see Matt Damon's baby face to understand where that came from.


The film is one of many that are based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the original having been titled "Adjustment Team." I guess the word "bureau" is more promotable, no? Dick's wild imagination, I might add, has inspired such visionary slices of cinema as Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall," Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" and Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly." And now "The Adjustment Bureau" takes a comfortable place amongst these classics -- it ain't no "Blade Runner," though.

Damon ("True Grit") is in the role of David Norris, a politician running for the United States Senate. He is the youngest congressman in America, a fact of which he is regularly reminded. Having grown up in a not-so-upper-class neighbourhood, he is considered a success story and the sure lead in the current election.


However, a picture of his bare ass at a college reunion prank gets splattered all over the papers, and his stance as the front-runner dims ever so slightly. While preparing his speech about getting back up from his election loss in a public bathroom, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt, "Gulliver's Travels"), a dancer who has apparently just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. It's an instant spark between them, as if they're meant to be together. Only, they're not.

They part ways after their kiss is interrupted and soon meet each other once again, this time on a bus. Problem is, they were never meant to set eyes on each other after that night in the hotel. According to whom? The Adjustment Bureau, a team of well-suited men in fedora hats.


It's their job to adjust things, to influence people's actions when they go off course from their fate, which is entirely planned out. They may make people misplace keys, spill coffee on themselves or alter their decision making. After a mistake by one member of the bureau, David has gone rapidly off course, and, upon learning of what the bureau does, the politician becomes determined to make sure he stays this way.

The core of "The Adjustment Bureau" is the romance between David and Elise, which is thankfully the film's strongest suit. Damon and Blunt have a passionate on-screen chemistry, which is accomplished without contrived sentimentality -- we feel for them and their longing to be together despite a higher power's attempts to keep them apart.


This higher power doesn't necessarily establish itself as a grinning, vicious overlord. Instead, most members of the team are somewhat understanding of David's desires, yet they still have to do their jobs to keep things in order. On the other hand, superior Thompson (Terence Stamp, "Yes Man") is more forceful in his actions, damn near breaking Elise's leg with his mind to show that he can hurt her without moving a muscle. What a mean old bastard.

The film is not necessarily action-packed, surprisingly concentrating a lot of attention on its central characters, though the odd chase scene and sci-fi element (freezing time, teleportation through doors, etc.) sneaks in to much effect. Still, the film thrills, if only for an intriguing premise that surprisingly manages to be stretched to over 90 minutes of gripping fun. And it's all from 8138 words scribed by Philip K. Dick.


There's talk of fate, of destiny, of soul-searching and free will -- it's all very thought-provoking. Writer/director George Nolfi (who's had writing stints on "Ocean's Twelve" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") has crafted a romantic sci-fi thriller that's smarter than most of its kind, a March-released summer blockbuster with a brain and a heart. It's a relief, to say the least.

It may not be "Blade Runner" or "Minority Report," but "The Adjustment Bureau" is still a solid piece of clever entertainment inspired by the mind of Philip K. Dick. Its premise is enticing, its cast is fabulous, and its level of captivation never yields. This is a film that doesn't need much adjusting. Now, about that "Bourne meets Inception" concept I proposed...

8/10

Monday, 7 March 2011

Drive Angry

It's easy to forget that Nicolas Cage won an Academy Award for his acting abilities once upon a time. The American actor has been appearing in questionable flicks with questionable performances for the past decade or so, becoming practically notorious for his near-laughable roles. From the 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man" to this year's "Season of the Witch," the guy seems to just accept any high-paying offer he gets. Then again, his Oscar was handed to him 16 years ago, and it was for playing a crazy-eyed alcoholic.

His new cash-grab is a grindhouse actioner straight out of the '70s. "Drive Angry" is a grungy, R-rated, vengeful shoot-'em-up that just so happens to have some supernatural business tied to the plot. Its intention is purely to entertain a Friday night audience, which it surely does using the power of gratuitous explosions and erratic gunfire. This may not be a U-turn in Cage's shaky career, but it's something.


Here, he's donning a golden wig, a black denim jacket and a pair of groovy sunglasses as John Milton, an escapee from the fiery pits of Hell. Yes, the Hell in which Satan prods the condemned with his sharpened pitchfork and shows them "Ghost Rider" over and over again. John is bloodthirsty, he's serious, and he's pretty darn angry.

He's hunting down Jonah King (Billy Burke, "Twilight"), the man who killed his daughter and took her newborn baby. Jonah is the leader of a cult, and intends to sacrifice the infant during a satanic ritual under the next full moon. John understandably wants to stop this by any means necessary.


On his tail is The Accountant (William Fichtner, "Prison Break"), an associate of The Devil who has arrived on Earth to drag John's ass back to Hell -- but John will not go without a fight. Tagging along with the undead runaway is Piper (Amber Heard, "The Ward"), a recently fired waitress who, well, has nothing better to do.

Armed with the God-Killer Gun (it kills gods, apparently) and a 1969 Dodge Charger, John speeds down highways, evading the cops and his fearless demonic follower as he chases after the people who have taken his beloved granddaughter.


This film is unadulterated absurdity, the kind of schlocky madness that has just recently become fashionable again. The influence that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's "Grindhouse" double feature has had on this is undeniable, with the audience-winking tone pretty much exactly the same.

"Drive Angry" is not a comedy, it just approaches everything with its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. It's definitely not serious, rightfully so, with all character actions and physics just a couple hundred miles away from reality. It's difficult not to raise a smile when a KC and the Sunshine Band song plays over footage of a hydrogen truck smashing through a barrage of police cars. That's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh uh-huh.


It's also tough to take seriously when John is blasting away bad guys in his hotel room without a second's thought while swigging whiskey and giving a butt-naked girl a good rogering. Talk about multitasking. Oh, and if you've seen 2007's "Shoot 'Em Up," this scene should sound familiar to you -- "Drive Angry" doesn't get many points for originality.

Cage's performance is a bit phoned in, though his character is not called upon to do much except pull triggers and drive muscle cars. He's convincing as a rough-tough bad boy who'd kill you in less than a heartbeat, but one can't help but feel that he could have put a little more effort into it. He needs a bit more petrol in his fuel tank, so to speak.


Director Patrick Lussier ("My Bloody Valentine") points the camera at Amber Heard like a late-night dogger, making sure to catch the way she fondles the gear shift with her feminine fingers. The blonde bombshell kicks some ass as John's feisty companion, who beats her fiancé's bare-assed mistress unconscious just minutes after we meet her. You go, girl!

And then there's the brilliant William Fichtner as one of the two villains, he being the more devilish and otherworldly antagonist. His performance is a perfect example of deadpan delivery, walking with a cool and confident swagger in his sharp suit and tie -- don't touch his outfit, or he'll throw you against a wall.


Well, what do you expect from a film called "Drive Angry"? With a soundtrack of electric guitar riffs, grisly violence, cool-as-ice cars and the emotional depth of a teaspoon, it's everything it needs to be and nothing more. Like a car, it does its job of smoothly getting you from A to B -- just with some teeth-inflicted castrations and beer chugging from human skulls along the way.

7/10

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Rango

It will be assumed by many that "Rango" is just another simple kids' movie; one of those run-of-the-mill animated romps that are released every Friday stuffed with Lindsay Lohan jokes and nods at the new celebrity-of-the-month. Parents will quiet down their noisy spawn, peer up at the screen, ready to switch off for the next 90 minutes of farting and burping, and will find themselves shocked. For, gasp, this kiddie flick is actually rather clever.

"Rango" is the kind of family film that caters to both kids and adults alike, remembering that families also contain adults, who, I might add, are handing their hard-earned cash over for their children's entertainment. This is the kind of family film that a parent could go see without the need to bring youngsters with them. This is the kind of family film that needs to be encouraged. This is the kind of family film we really need a lot more of.


It stars Johnny Depp ("Public Enemies") as the voice of a crooked-necked, bug-eyed pet chameleon who thinks of himself as something of an actor. While performing a stage play of sorts by himself in the back of his owners' car, he is accidentally thrown out into a highway in the Mojave Desert. He's on his own in an empty landscape of sand and death, his loudly patterned Hawaiian shirt the only friend he has.

As he searches through the scorching desert (following his shadow as an armadillo has advised him), the green reptile stumbles into Dirt, a rootin' tootin' town straight out of a John Wayne movie. The town is filled to the brim with a plethora of desert critters, from adorable little possums to villainous rattlesnakes, and all of them pay tribute to well-known Western personalities.


As a stranger in the area, our quirky chameleon decides to blend in -- he tells tall tales of killing seven brothers with only one bullet, acting like a suave, no-nonsense tough-guy and assuming the name of Rango. After taking out the hawk the Wild West citizens have forever cowered in terror from, Rango immediately becomes the town's unlikely sheriff.

Meanwhile, all the townsfolk are suffering from a drought that has unfortunately plagued Dirt. In a town where water is practically currency, this is a disaster, and the bank's supply is quickly running out. With Rango in the sheriff's office, he's called upon to help them with the lack of H20 -- they've had enough of the wretched cactus juice.


There's something about "Rango" that takes it away from the feeling of a Hollywood product -- maybe because it's genuinely well-made and hasn't been released in friggin' 3D. This is a film with imagination, with a vision that is executed boldly, refusing to stick to commercial formula as lesser films would. It is different, it is peculiar, and it is inspired.

The film is a little too bizarre to be a kids' movie, and not quite "mature" enough to be considered fully adult. It's a children's movie in the same way that Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is one -- it's a film that finds just the right balance between elements of enjoyment for both the young and the not-so-young.


On the adult's side, we have a joke about a prostate exam (gloves and all) and an appearance from The Man With No Name, the Clint Eastwood gunslinger who shoots and snarls in Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy. The tone overall is a mishmash of offbeat farce and trippy idiosyncrasy, the kind that would appeal to the older crowd. I also don't know many toddlers who'd recognise the cameo from Raoul and Dr. Gonzo of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" fame.

And on the kid's side, we have the animation, the wacky characters and the slapstick comedy, each of which should charm and enchant curious little tots. With a PG rating, the film obviously contains nothing too risqué, so no need to smother your child's eyes or ears in your screening. I know that the rug rats in my audience were giggling away and were certainly enjoying themselves -- when they weren't wandering off to use the loo, of course.


The film is directed by Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Ring"), working with famed cinematographer Roger Deakins ("True Grit," "No Country for Old Men") to make for a tremendously beautiful experience. A luxurious buffet for delighted eyes, "Rango" makes fantastic use of its sandy wilderness of a setting, directed with a keen sense of visual imagination. Mr. Verbinski and Mr. Deakins make for a splendid team.

The voice-work is all top-notch, from Depp's eponymous eccentric lizard to Isla Fisher ("Confessions of a Shopaholic")'s wilful desert iguana. Creature designs are approaching the grotesque, depicted as caricatures that aren't particularly huggable or dimple-covered -- there ain't no fluffy bunnies in these here parts.


"Rango" is an exquisite animated family comedy that's irregular and kooky, self-referential and jubilantly bright in its writing (I expect nothing less from the Oscar-nominated writer of "Gladiator" and "The Aviator"). Amusing for both children and parents, it's a triumph for Nickelodeon Movies and Industrial Light & Magic (this being the company's first jab at rendering an entire film). Even if you don't have young offspring, "Rango" is well worth a watch, maybe even multiple watches. And you don't have to pay extra for pointless 3D! Woo!

9/10

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I Am Number Four

"I Am Number Four" just barely manages to be taken seriously as a story. With straight-faced talk of silly-named villainous aliens, jockish bullies marching their way down school corridors, and a badass gal unflinchingly walking away from a gigantic explosion in super-awesome slow-motion, this sci-fi actioner is difficult to not groan at.

It's another film for the teen crowd, edging toward the "Twilight" realm of fantasy mixed in with some brooding adolescent romance. Kids these days with their vampires, their werewolves and their hunky blonde extraterrestrials. I'm pretty sure Elliott never tried to cop a feel of E.T.

The Human Torch

Our main character is called John Smith (Alex Pettyfer, "Stormbreaker"), which is about as bland a name as his personality. This name is fake (again, like his personality). He is Number Four of nine gifted aliens from the planet Loreign, which was invaded by the evil Mogadorians years ago. Now hiding on Earth, John lives with Henri (Timothy Olyphant, "The Crazies"), a warrior assigned to keep him alive.

John, now 17 or 18, tries to live a normal life, with Henri claiming to be the boy's father. They've been going from town to town, trying to stay invisible in case there are Mogadorians lurking nearby. Killing the runaway aliens in numerical order (for an unexplained reason), the snarling ogres have just slaughtered Number Three (Greg Townley), and are after John next.

This is a Villain, Right?

Meanwhile, John seems to do everything in his power to hide in plain sight while developing his powers (alien puberty). He decides to attend school (yes, a teenager actually decides to go to school) against Henri's wishes, and becomes infatuated with what looks to be a page three model (Dianna Agron, "Glee"), befriends a UFO conspiracy theorist (Callan McAuliffe, "Flipped"), and is the new victim of a gang of chortling bullies.

Inevitably, the Mogadorians end up hot on John's trail, kicking in Henri's understandable paranoia (I like to call it common sense). Henri tries to take John away from his one true love and move to another location, but John wants to stay and be torn to shreds by rejected Star Trek villains.

Dramatic Turn

With a $50 million budget and Michael Bay on the production team, "I Am Number Four" is pure escapist blockbuster, exploding at the seams with eruptive action and hi-tech special effects. I apologise if I'm making this sound like a light ton of thrilling fun -- it sort of isn't.

All the ingredients for captivating, Friday night entertainment are there, yet the film falls short of its potential. Yes, there are fireballs skimming through the air, CGI monsters tearing a high school to pieces, and an admittedly stirring 20 minute climax of non-stop action, but the film remains flat and, at points, quite boring.

"Pfft, I eat explosions for breakfast."

Pettyfer has some decent turns in his performance here, but he can't do much with a script containing a character who's as interesting as a Monday morning physics lesson. He's playing a teenager who discovers he can do something extra-special with his hands; he can cause white explosions to spontaneously burst out from between his clenched fingers when he concentrates hard enough, sweat dripping down his temple. If only you could hear how much I'm sniggering right now.

Teen girls will no doubt be flocking to the local theatre to get a glimpse of Mr. Pettyfer's bare chest and attractive physique. The entire film feels like nothing more than this; it's just a weekend wallet-opener trying to appeal to adolescents who will connect with this film like a Coca Cola can to a high-powered magnet. The more cautionary of us will not be particularly magnetic to its marketing, and will hopefully vote against it in the MTV Movie Awards. Go, erm, "Twilight"!

BOOM, MOTHERFUCKER!

I understand that "I Am Number Four" is not an ambitious film (it exists only to rake in the cash), but it still feels slack and occasionally comatose. I felt similarly throughout. If you're making a blockbuster, Hollywood, remember to concentrate on holding the viewer's attention. "I Am Number Four"? I am really bored.

4/10