The first week of March has not been kind to me at the movies. Let’s start with the best and work back:
The Adjustment Bureau
When a movie’s release date has been moved around so many times we instinctively get nervous. This generally means studio execs aren’t confident about the movie’s chances and are looking for weekend that they will not be completely slaughtered at the box office. Writer and director George Nolfi, however, has delivered a solid, if not spectacular, movie that explores the thorny issue of free will in a world where people believe in some kind of god. The idea that an invisible hand controls everything has always been attractive to man – from the rigid predestination of Calvinism to the loony conspiracy theories of Illuminati believers, there is some comfort in believing this isn’t all random and meaningless. The Adjustment Bureau posits a world in which unseen men in hats with little black books nudge us along on the correct paths, making sure we never deviate too far from the paths that have been pre-written for us. One mistake by adjustor Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) sends Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) on the wrong path. He meets and falls in love with a young dancer named Elise (the always radiant and lovely Emily Blunt), a big no-no that would alter both their fates, presumably for the negative. In a twist that the adjustors don’t foresee, David stumbles upon them and they are forced to try and explain why he can’t be with her. The rest of the movie shapes up as a battle between David and the adjustors, one arguing for free will, the others asserting the primacy of a plan written by an unseen “Chairman.” While the movie plays out nicely, we see where it’s going a mile away.
It would have been nice if Nolfi had really played with the balance between individual free will and the needs of the greater good. The dilemma is never argued in those terms: David is valiantly fighting for love and individual expression while the adjustors simply say he can’t because the book says he can’t. Why not articulate the conflict in terms less certain; they imply he is being groomed for the presidency, but why is that so important? What do they hope he will do as president? And will his choosing Elise and abandoning his political career mean a darker path for more people? By exploring these questions, the choice would have been morally ambiguous. As it is, at one point, it looks as though David abandons Elise for purely selfish reasons: his desire to be president. Why do we care that they are sacrificing their personal careers? Tell me that if David doesn’t become president what the consequences would be for the world, not just David, and I might be more sympathetic to the Terence Stamp’s insensitive and cold adjustor, sent to set things right. But Nolfi doesn’t want that quandary. The movie has to be as morally straightforward as a Victorian novel. So while I would have liked to have seen Nolfi really push the ethical considerations of David’s rather than the assumption of a privileged status he confers to love, it is still a solid and entertaining movie. (Rating ***1/2)
While Gore Verbanski’s Rango looks great and we enjoy Johnny Depp voicing the titular lead lizard, the charm wears off pretty quickly. Rango is a hodgepodge of movie and pop culture references. In fact it bursts forth with so many references that it never finds its footing as a movie in its own right. It takes the story of Chinatown and folds it into the style of Once Upon a Time in the West, even appropriating Enrico Moriccone’s classic score and that creaky windmill. I also counted references to Django, High Noon, The Hills Have Eyes, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and A Fistful of Dollars to name only a few. This is a clever pastiche and occasionally makes us smile in appreciation, but it’s hardly enough to sustain a feature length film because we never care enough about what is going on. We never connect with Rango because we’ve seen his story so many times that we feel like an omniscient being looking down on critters who don’t know their paths are predestined. I think the strategy was something like this: take a thin, one-dimensional script and populate the film with so many movie references that, they hoped, we film geeks will be so distracted trying to identify them that we won’t notice that nothing all that interesting or original is going on. It suffers from another fatal flaw: it just isn’t funny. I saw the film in a fairly full theater and I wasn’t the only one not laughing. Most of the jokes fell flat, so much so that I’ve been wondering about all these people writing on message boards about theaters roaring with laughter. (Are studio execs sending their interns online to hype up their movies?) If you’re content with pretty CGI and listening to Johnny Depp’s voice, then this is for you. If you demand something more, then I would suggest skipping Rango. (Rating **1/2)
I recently dismissed the Australian crime family movie Animal Kingdom for not having an intelligent person in it. Well, it appears I owe the makers of that film an apology because the jackasses in Brotherhood makes the dumbest character in Animal Kingdom look like a Nobel Laureate. Fraternity hazing goes wrong and what better way to cover things up than to kidnap a witness and withhold medical attention to a pledge shot in the shoulder? What could go wrong? This independent groaner out of Texas is furiously driven by brainless plot, but not much else that any thinking person can accept. Director Will Canon needs these frat brothers to refuse to call an ambulance, to refuse to let a kidnapped man go (who is certain to tell the police what he knows now, idiots), refuse to even walk away, all so Canon can warn us of the dangers of pack mentality. I wish Canon had found a way to make this admittedly important point with some compelling, fully fleshed characters, but then he wouldn’t have been able to play out his beloved plot, which is really the point. That logic and common sense have to be contorted beyond credulity: a police officer looks the other way after finding the shot pledge, a character suddenly makes a ridiculous confession when he knows the others have been trying to tape record him all night, a medical student is talked out of calling an ambulance as the pledge bleeds all over the floor. The eye-rolling dialogue only serves to push the action along without consideration to character development, though some the performances are generally good, especially from Trevor Morgan as the pledge who kinda has a conscience, Arlen Escarpeta as the hapless witness/kidnap victim, and Jon Foster would have been really good had he toned down the almost constant yelling. Yes, the end is satisfying, but when aren’t we satisfied to see the police slap handcuffs on bullies? This movie would have been much more compelling if we liked the guys and the idea of being in the fraternity was actually attractive. But they are the kinds of guys who make us feel dirty just being in the same room with them. (Rating **)
It’s the Beauty and the Beast story set in modern day New York with teen heartthrobs Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens in the lead roles, and Mary-Kate Olsen as the witch who casts the spell on Pettyfer to teach him a lesson about beauty being skin deep (while everyone is pretty much beautiful). Pettyfer, though gorgeous, has the acting range of a lima bean, and Hudgens is, as always, as dynamic as a dictionary. I was pleased to see the focus of the story shift from the woman to the man, thereby easing the toxic message young girls traditionally get from this story: stick with him no matter how mean, nasty, or dismissive he is, because if you love him, you can change him! That always gives me shivers. Otherwise the movie is sloppily constructed (the hoops they have to jump through to get Hudgens in Pettyfer’s house are elaborate, but then finally explained away with a convenient text) punctuated by flat dialogue, listless acting, and point-and-shoot direction. I saw the film in a theater filled with giddy teenage girls who screamed, giggled, and hollered every time Pettyfer did pull ups in his underwear or peeled off his shirt. That is what they bought tickets to see. Unfortunately there wasn’t much more to interest anyone else. (Rating **)
Take Me Home Tonight:
Ah, 1988. This is a year that fills me with nostalgia. I began high school in the fall of 1988 and, though it was a painful and awkward time, it was also the era that shaped by cultural interests. It was a time when everyone paused for thirty minutes every Thursday night for The Cosby Show. We’d trek to the video store to look for new rentals. Our refrigerator was filled with Bartles and James wine coolers. (“We thank you for your support.”) Everyone was making fun of an old woman who had fallen and couldn’t get up. Those Bugle Boy jeans were everywhere, including my closet. (“Excuse me, are those Bugle Boy jeans you’re wearing?”) And those damn California Raisins ruined “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Dan Jansen made me cry in Calgary and Greg Louganis made me cheer in Seoul. And I didn’t cringe when white supremacists broke Geraldo Rivera’s nose on TV. Robert Stack scared the bejeezus out of us on Unsolved Mysteries, and I also watched The Golden Girls, A Different World, Growing Pains, Roseanne, Empty Nest, 227, Murphy Brown, Mr. Belvedere, Designing Women, Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, MacGyver, Newhart, The Tracey Ullman Show, Webster, and, for some reason, Kate and Allie. And every Sunday afternoon I settled in to watch Siskel and Ebert spar over the latest new releases. Looking back, I really watched a lot of television, but I was also getting involved in my first presidential election and voted for, in a school mock election, Michael Dukakis and though I had no illusions about his chances, I still found it incongruous that Sonny Bono was elected the mayor of Palm Springs.
This is all prime stuff to lampoon in the alleged retro-1980s comedy Take Me Home Tonight. But with the exception of the heavily synthesized music, Miami Vice and Madonna influenced clothes, and making Topher Grace’s character work at a Suncoast Video (a store where I spent many of my few dollars in), there is little in this movie to suggest the writer is aware that 1988 was a different time, or that he was even interested in the unique time and place in which he set his movie. I had more fun searching around online about 1988 (I hadn’t thought of Kate and Allie is years) than sitting through this tedious “comedy.” I have read that the movie, which was shot in 2007, has been sitting on shelves since then because of concerns over flagrant and unrepentant cocaine use, but that was hardly the most offensive aspect of the movie. Aside from not being funny, the end of the movie features the glorification of a Jackass-style, potentially deadly stunt to win the attentions and affections of a girl. My mouth was wide open as he did this, without regard to his or other’s safety to impress a girl who, by all previous accounts, wouldn’t be impressed by something so juvenile. But of course, she’s happy he’s OK and gives him a big kiss. Pure junk. (Rating *1/2)