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Column Fri Mar 04 2011
The Adjustment Bureau
Science fiction and love stories so rarely work well together, but when they do, it can be a beautiful thing. And I think it's safe to say that first-time feature director George Nolfi (who adapted the Philip K. Dick short story "Adjustment Team") has melded these two elements rather perfectly, so that neither one is slighted nor its impact lessened. Now, some may argue that The Adjustment Bureau isn't technically science fiction, and those people would be wrong. No matter what you call the mysterious men in hats who seem to nudge citizens like you and me into following a prescribed and predetermined path so that foreseen events will take place as they should, they are classic science fiction tools that may or may not also represent religious deities of a kind. They're also really cool dressers.
The story follows an up-and-coming politician David Norris (Matt Damon), who is about to win a landslide victory for the U.S. Senate, except he doesn't, and it's somehow tied to a chance meeting with a beautiful woman named Elise (Emily Blunt), who charms him and then vanishes, never to be seen again. At least that's how it's supposed to go. After David loses the race due to a scandal, he makes a passionate speech that practically guarantees that he will win the next election four years later, except that he sees Elise again on a bus he was meant to miss. Somehow this chance second meeting throws off the path of fate both of them were supposed to follow, and it's up to the Adjustment Bureau to set things right and make sure David, in particular, stays on course.
As a result of his running into Elise, David sees something in his office he isn't supposed to: members of the bureau rearranging the offices where he works, preparing for his arrival. As a result, he is told by one of the leaders of the team, Richardson (John Slattery of "Mad Men"), exactly what the Bureau is, why they exist, and most importantly, why he can never see Elise again. David goes along with it for a time, but then he bumps into her again. As a result, he becomes convinced that his "fate" is to be with her, and the film becomes a really energetic and entertaining game of David trying to reconnect with Elise, and the Bureau trying to keep them apart.
Damon and Blunt have wonderful chemistry, and their affectionate banter from the first time they meet is convincing and charming. What I especially liked about David is that he genuinely wants to be cooperative and play his role in history (as hinted to him by the Bureau), but he also refuses to deny himself this woman who continuously is placed in his path. He believes that his fate is written to a degree, but he also feels it can be rewritten. Damon does a fantastic job of showing us the anxiety he feels bucking the system when he wants to play along for the betterment of the years to come. He also plays a very convincing politician on the campaign trail, doing the interview circuit, and making believable speeches that sound quite familiar in this day and age.
Anthony Mackie plays Harry, an Adjustment Bureau case worker whose error allowed for David and Elise to meet the second time. In a way, he's on David's side; he wants to see him happy. He also lets David know about why the Bureau members wear hats and how they get around the city so quickly. When David refuses to play by the rules, the big guns are brought in in the form of Terence Stamp's Thompson, who seems to be the only Bureau worker authorized to make threats. Thompson is a menacing son of a bitch, and Stamp's emotionless delivery is absolutely flawless and wholly appropriate.
Nolfi's screenplay for The Adjustment Bureau is fascinating in a way because we spend a great deal of the movie conflicted. Our natural human response is to want these two beautiful people together, but our survival instinct tells us that letting them fall in love is bad for the future of the world. It's quite the conundrum, and it's handled skillfully. The romance never gets too sappy, and the science fiction never gets too outrageous or heavy-handed. There are a lot of places this story could have gone wrong, but Nolfi keeps everything in order and controls the levels of this story elements. The story kept me guessing and interested, and that's 99 percent of the challenge of any film. There's also a fierce streak of humor running through The Adjustment Bureau that keeps the movie from taking itself too seriously, which is key to its success. In just about every way, it's the perfect geek date movie. (And by the way, in about a month, another film that combines a love story and science fiction comes out: Source Code, also a film about the finality of fate, and it too might make a lovely night out for geeks on a date. More on that later.)
Before I even sat down to watch Rango for the first time, I looked through the slate of animated films set to come out in 2011, and I was wildly disappointed. With the exception of Rio, nearly all of the big-ticket animated titles are sequels or retreads of familiar characters (Puss In Boots, Winnie the Pooh). I have no idea if any of them them will be any good, but they won't be particularly original. And then I saw Rango, a film that is clearly the first Oscar-worthy movie of the year and a front-runner to win the Best Animated Film award if only for its perfect blend of creativity and wonderful surrealism.
Just hearing the story doesn't quite do the movie justice (when does it ever?). A strange chameleon (Johnny Depp) comes to the dried up, dying town of Dirt, a place in dire need of water. The town is populated by varmints of all shapes, sizes and sullied reputations — lizards, amphibians, rodents, etc. Among the voice talents are Isla Fisher as Beans, Abigail Breslin as the deadpan child Priscilla, Alfred Molina, Stephen Root as several characters, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, and Bill Nighy as a giant rattlesnake. The core story is about where all the water has gone and who has been taking it. But screenwriter John Logan and director Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Weather Man and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films) are working on a level well beyond the plot. To them, the weirder and less appropriate, the better.
And this is great news for adults who have a tendency to get dragged to every animated feature by their kids. With references and outright lifts from Chinatown (Ned Beatty voices The Mayor, who is clearly aping John Huston, complete with wheelchair), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Sergio Leone Westerns (including the film's most genius moment that I will not ruin, unlike some other asshole critics of late), Rango is going to go over a whole lot better with grown folks than kids, but I still think the under-13 set will enjoy the hell out of the film's manic pacing and visually stunning look (courtesy of "cinematic consultant" Roger Deakins).
I'm not sure exactly what Depp was going for here. Rango (not his real name) is a bit of a fast-talking con-artist/actor/professional-liar type, but somehow Depp finds a way to create yet another timeless character capable of entertaining all ages. His off-the-cuff, under-his-breath jokes are almost always great, and he always seems to be thinking a few steps ahead of everybody else.
But what's most impressive about Rango is the look. It's part photorealistic, part absurdism, part I don't know what. But I could watch this movie a thousand times and never get sick of taking in the visuals. And what's even better: it's not in 3D and it doesn't need to be. It's a rich, living, breathing work that ropes you in and refuses to release you. And you won't mind being held prisoner. The story is also surprisingly sophisticated for a PG-rated movie allegedly aimed at young ones. There's real danger, scares and gross creatures around every corner, but the kids in the screening I attended were giddy with excitement about each new scene and character. And I was right there with them.
Ranking right up there with the best of Pixar (this film comes from Industrial Light & Magic and Nickelodeon Movies, for the record), Rango is the kind of film that isn't really fun to talk about with people who haven't seen it, so why don't you go check it out immediately and get back to me. This might be my favorite film of the year so far.
Oh, Christ on a cracker with Cheez Whiz, is this movie dreadful. Seemingly created by people who have never written a movie, and perhaps never actually seen a movie, the teen romantic-drama Beastly is a barely recognizable telling of the Beauty and the Beast story, filtered through the shallow Alex Flinn novel and adapted by director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe In Wonderland). Accepting that the filmmakers think this movie qualifies as fantasy on some level, there still isn't a spark of genuine human emotion or depth to Beastly at all.
It's a weightless story of the conceited asshole known as Kyle (Alex Pettyfer, who can also be seen stinking up I Am Number Four), who is apparently running for president of his school's "Green Party" because it will look good on his transcripts for college. He's a classically good-looking guy, who openly acknowledges that good things happen to pretty people, therefore, he should win the election. He openly mocks those less fortunate than him (ugly people), and even gets bold enough to pretend to hit on the school witch — what, your school didn't have one? — Kendra, played by Mary-Kate Olsen, trying very hard to look wiccan chic. (A colleague called her "runway Goth"; I like that too.) When Kendra gets her heart broken, she puts a curse on Kyle that makes his face appear that it had an accident at a combination auto plant/glass-blowing factory/tattoo parlor. Scars, slivers of metal, and face painting litter his pretty self, and he goes into hiding with the help of his equally beauty-obsessed news anchor father (Peter Krause). The only way to break the curse is if someone says they love Kyle in a year's time.
For reasons I was never quite clear on, Kyle falls for "plain" classmate Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens). He stalks her from underneath his hooded sweatshirt for a while, finds out her dad is a junkie, and somehow convinces himself it's OK to keep her locked away in his hideaway condo to protect her from her dad's dangerous, drug-dealer friends. Lindy doesn't like feeling like a prisoner, but eventually she gets used to it so the plot can move forward. What follows is the most awkward, unconvincing courtship you will ever see. First off, we're supposed to believe Lindy doesn't recognize Kyle, who she also had a crush on in school. Apparently, a few cosmetic scars completely obscure his face in her eyes. Second, Kyle discovers poetry, thus making him deep and able to really get the love juices flowing. Third, I hate this fucking movie.
Instead of candlestick and clock sidekicks, like in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, Kyle gets a Jamaican maid with a terrible fake accent (LisaGay Hamilton) and a blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris), who never seems to teach. But even the occasional zinger from NPH can't breath any life into the stale, flaccid Beastly, and he spends most of the movie looking out of place and slightly constipated. I'd love to tell you that the problems with this film are limited to its terrible acting, miserable writing, and gaping plot holes. But the truth is, the entire film is a gaping hole that needs to be surgically sewn shut for good.
Beastly doesn't even elevate itself to "so bad, it's good" status (a category I don't really subscribe to) because it doesn't even work as camp or satire or entertainment or anything. I found myself craving Burlesque. Each new scene brings a new set of lows, each performer is worse than the one who appeared on screen immediately before, each plot development is dumber than...anything, ever. Did somebody lose a bet to get this movie released? To hell with this movie; I'm done talking about it. Now go see it, and tell me I'm wrong.
Ip Man 2
First off, if you don't now who Donnie Yen is, then stop reading and go educate yourself in some of the best kung fu movies ever made. His titles aren't as well known as Jackie Chan or Jet Li, but his kung fu is strong, and he's probably a better actor than either of those superstars. If I remember correctly, three of his films (14 Blades, Legend of the Fist and Ip Man 2) played at Fantastic Fest, if that tells you anything, and I went to all three because Yen's movies so rarely play on U.S. screens (Western audiences might know him from appearances in Zhang Yimou's Hero and Blade II). But that all changes with Ip Man 2, chronicling the years in Master Ip's life when he opened up his frist martial arts school in 1950s Hong Kong. I don't know how true to life this movie or the first Ip Man are, but Ip Man was a real person who became one of the most highly regarded grandmasters of all time, popularizing his brand of Wing Chun kung fu and going on to become Bruce Lee's teacher.
The first half of the film deals with Master Ip attempting to get his school off the ground with much resistance from established schools in Hong Kong. The nasty leader of the association of martial arts schools is the great Sammo Hung (Never heard of him? Stop and educate yourself again), who also is the film's action director. But once Ip Man gains acceptance in the community, he takes on the greater enemy — the occupying British colonists, who arrange a boxing match in Hong Kong. In a showcase event leading up to the real fight, a British boxer decides to pit his style of fighting against kung fu, and he wipes the floor with many Chinese fighters. The leaders of the martial arts schools turn to Ip Man to save them from the ultimate humiliation.
Donnie Yen is so inherently likable as Master Ip that you can't help but support him when he's fighting the great round-eyed oppressor. Plus, the British dude is just so mean. If you're not a big fan of having the white man look like a villain, you may want to avoid this movie. Otherwise, you'd be a fool to miss the incredible feats of skill and athleticism that Yen is capable of. His speed and precision abilities are like nothing I've seen. On top of the more grand-scale action sequences, Ip Man 2 does a great job explaining and illustrating the minimalist nature of the Wing Chun style. Odds are, if you're an martial arts enthusiast, you've found a way — legal or otherwise — to see Ip Man 2 already. But nothing beats watching it on the big screen with an audience that loves their action. Catch this one in a theater; it's a must see in every sense for kung fu lovers. The movie opens today at the Music Box Theatre.