Tag Archives: Alex Pettyfer

Weekly Movie Diary: “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Rango,” “Brotherhood,” “Beastly,” “Take Me Home Tonight”

The first week of March has not been kind to me at the movies. Let’s start with the best and work back:

Adjustors try to reason with Matt Damon in "The Adjustment Bureau"

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)

Johnny Depp voices Rango

Rango:

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)

Life tip: if you ever find yourself robbing a convenience store so your friends will like you, re-examine your priorities.

Brotherhood:

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 **)

Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens in "Beastly."

Beastly:

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 **)

If you remember 1988, the Suncoast Video reference will be one of the only things you recognize.

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)

 

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Weekly Movie Diary (2-21-11) “Even the Rain,” “Cedar Rapids,” “I Am Number Four,” “Unknown”

Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal in "Even the Rain"

My liberal sensibilities make me a sucker for movies that lament the exploitation of the weak and celebrate the power of the people. Even the Rain (También la lluvia) does both as it follows a Spanish film crew in Bolivia making a movie about Christopher Columbus’ violent conquest of the American Indians. Why is the film crew in Bolivia? It’s a landlocked, mountainous state smack dab in the middle of South America when Columbus actually tooled around the Caribbean. The producer of the film, Costa (Luis Tosar), can hire Bolivian Indians cheaper (two dollars a day) than anywhere in the Caribbean. The irony of this isn’t lost on the film’s writer/director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and constantly needles his friend and colleague for his spendthrift ways (but never really challenges him in a serious way). All of this plays out in 2000, the year Bolivians initiated mass protests against foreign ownership of their water systems and the exorbitant prices and debilitating shortages that came with it. (The title of the film refers to a law which prohibited Bolivians from collecting rain water for their use, codifying foreign control over all of Bolivia’s water.) The instability and violence stalls production of the film and forces Costa and Sebastián to reassess what is truly important – their film or their ideals.

The film could have better explained the water issue, but it does a great job of revisiting the horrors of sixteenth century colonization through rehearsals (including a great table reading scene), actual filming, and watching the rushes. Yes, the irony of a film crew making a movie about exploitation while exploiting is obvious (maybe inelegantly obvious), but director Icíar Bollaín plays the story out well. Also look for some nice supporting performances from Karra Elejalde playing the actor playing Columbus and Juan Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian actor portraying a resistance leader who also turns out to be a leader in the water rights fight. It is an effective and engrossing film that highlights the disparity between idealism and reality, and the insidious parallels between colonialism and globalization. It is, he argues, much easier to decry the violations of the past while turning away from injustice today. It is also remarkably relevant considering the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the current ones in Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, and Wisconsin. (Never thought I would see a list like that.) These protests and the protests in the film remind us that power still does reside with the people and if their leaders are deaf and/or corrupt they will find ways to take their governments back. (Rating ****)

Ed Hall lets loose with Isiah Whitlock Jr, John C. Reilly, and Anne Heche in "Cedar Rapids"

Cedar Rapids is a rare new-release comedy that works more often than not. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a sheltered, small town insurance salesman sent to an annual convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is awed and overwhelmed by everything from a typical car rental to the key card in his hotel. His roommate is the incorrigible and irrepressible Dean Ziegler played by John C. Reilly (a character he has been playing variations on for years though he is particularly effective here). There’s nothing terribly fresh here; we have a pretty good idea where things are going from the first scenes, but director Miguel Arteta handles the material well and mostly resists the urge to resort to cheap gross-out gags. The movie could have descended into mean-spirited condescension, but Arteta avoids it mainly thanks to his cast. Ed Helms is always sympathetic – we’re meant to appreciate his naivety, not look down our cosmopolitan noses at him. He might not be all that bright or worldly but he’s good, true, and still believes in things like honor and honesty and, even as an insurance salesman, has not bought into the cult of the dollar like many of his colleagues. Two particularly refreshing supporting performances come from Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has fun with his fame from The Wire (incidentally one of the best television series in history), and Anne Heche who reminds us that she used to be a pretty good actor before she turned into tabloid fodder. (Rating ****)

Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer look pretty in "I Am Number Four"

I Am Number Four is a surprisingly decent action movie – but just barely. If not being bored and not getting angry is the worst one can say about a movie, I suppose that is a borderline recommendation. The story is well-treaded ground and offers few surprises, but it all unfolds nicely despite lackluster performances. Leads Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron may be great to look at, but they don’t truly create characters and inhabit the roles – you know, act. Pettyfer has an attractive screen presence, but that will only take him so far. His cut abs don’t distract from his empty eyes and uninspired line readings. (Well, OK, they do a little.) He is, however, head and shoulders better than the icy Ms. Agron, who doesn’t do much beyond what she is called on to do in Glee. She has the most boring character in that show and has carried her over into this movie, making us unsure why it is John (Pettyfer) is willing to risk so much for her. John is one of nine protectors of an alien planet that was destroyed by an invading force when he was a baby. The nine and their protectors (who seem fairly useless) came to hide on Earth. John’s protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant) takes him from one city to another so the invaders, who have tracked them here, can’t find him. They can, it seems, only be killed in sequence and at the beginning of the film, Number Three is murdered. John knows they will come for him next and, even with supernatural powers, he and Henri don’t stand a chance. But, of course, he just wants to be a teenager. (That’s pretty lame – how many people died to keep him alive and he wants to go to high school and play sports?) I Am Number Four works if you want a brainless action movie (and there are plenty of plot holes someone with a brain can find). It is, however, fun, fast-paced, and, for the kind of movie it is, satisfying. (Rating ***)

Diane Kuger and Liam Neeson try to figure out what's going on well after we figure it out in "Unknown"

I was mostly curious about seeing Unknown because I wanted to test whether I had figured it out from the trailers. I’m disappointed to say that I did. I’m disappointed because I was hoping that the upshot wouldn’t be obvious, that they would have had a twist in there for me, but they didn’t. Watch the trailer and you can, more or less, figure out exactly what is going on. (There are two lines that really give it away and should have been excised from the trailer.) Liam Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotech conference. He is in an accident, wakes up after being in a coma for several days, and suddenly no one, including his wife, seems to know who he is. The more he insists, the more people think he’s crazy until he is forced to concur. After all, if everyone says you’re crazy, maybe you’re crazy. But when someone comes to kill him, he figures something must be up. Neeson does his best, but he’s just as lost in this material as his character. And like Agron in I Am Number Four, January Jones transfers her cold character from Mad Men, Betty Draper without showing any range – if we can call Betty Draper range. Luckily she doesn’t have a lot of screen time and Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz have opportunities to shine – and they do, which must have been hard in this drek. Ganz does have a great scene with Frank Langella, two old spies talking over the good old days and dancing around the problem today, but that was a rare gem. There are some well choreographed action and chase sequences, including a breathtaking car chase through the streets of Berlin that was refreshingly shot in Berlin rather than an Eastern European stand in, but there the scenes between are listless, a pale combination of Frantic and The Bourne Identity. The movie finds a better footing in the last act, but the poorly paced and awkwardly written first two thirds stymie any connection with the film as a whole. We just don’t care what is going on. (Rating **)

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