The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
Nimrod Antal is something of an anti-M. Night Shyamalan: a determinedly straightforward director who assiduously avoids "ah-ha!" plot twists and narrative bait-and-switches. And while that strategy proved refreshing in his previous film the 2007 horror flick Vacancy it severely undermines his latest effort the bland lightweight heist flick Armored.
Heist flicks are supposed to be complicated. That’s what makes them heist flicks — typically they involve some brilliantly detailed scheme that gradually unravels in exciting and unexpected ways. (For copious examples check out our list of the top ten heist flicks.) Armored’s slender running time generously pegged at 88 minutes tells you just about all you need to know about how inanely uncomplicated this film is.
Columbus Short stars as Ty a decorated Iraq war veteran whose new job at an armored transport company doesn’t pay nearly enough to cover his mortgage or feed his little brother. So when a group of his workplace cronies led by his godfather Mike (Matt Dillon) approach him with a plan to stage a fake hold-up and keep the contents of a high-priority bank shipment for themselves — something that surely no GED-bearing employee of a security firm has ever pondered before — he grudgingly agrees to join them.
The first wrinkle in their supposedly foolproof plan arrives quickly enough when Baines (Laurence Fishburne) a trigger-happy drunk inexplicably brought in on the scheme blows away a homeless guy who unwittingly witnesses their shenanigans. (Because incoherent vagrants always provide reliable testimony.) That’s enough to prompt good-hearted Ty to opt out of the botched heist — a non-starter for the rest of his crew obviously — and the remainder of Armored is devoted to his efforts at evading capture and alerting the cops.
And that’s it -- no unexpected twists no extended “this is how I did it” montages no revealing flashbacks no serpentine subplots. Imagine Reservoir Dogs re-cut as a completely linear film then stripped of its snappy dialogue innovative shot design and compelling characters. In fact the only thing Armored has in common with Tarantino’s flick is a cop with a bloody stomach wound — and even that’s disappointing.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
Like the many standard teacher-mentor stories before it Lead follows the same basic principals. It focuses on Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) a Manhattan dance teacher and competitor who volunteers his time to teach ballroom dancing to New York inner-city high school students serving detention. It’s never really explained why he wants to do this--maybe he’s just crazy that way. But through his determination the reluctant teenagers are soon waltzing and doing the tango all over the room. They even take it one step further and combine Dulaine's classical dance with their unique hip-hop style and music to create a high-energy unique fusion honing their craft for a prestigious city ballroom competition (and some of them win too!) And through it all Dulaine inspires these street kids to learn about pride respect and honor. Pardon me while I gag for a moment. Banderas does what he can with the syrupy role but tends to look uncomfortable with some of the line readings. Thankfully he’s got the moves. One of the better scenes is Dulaine dancing the tango with a hot blonde--to prove to the unbelieving teens how hip classical dancing can be. And after watching them slide all over the floor they get the picture. The urban kids are all pretty standard with Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) leading the pack as a troubled youth trying not to get involved with drug dealing but heading that way anyway. His love interest played by Yaya DaCosta also has her share of family strife. But as far as the best dancing is concerned hats off goes to Jenna Dewan Dante Basco and Marcus T. Paulk who all perform one heck of a steamy tango number. Alfre Woodard even makes an appearance as the school’s hardened principal who’s softened by Dulaine’s earnestness. How typical. Who would have thought ballroom dancing would be so popular these days? For awhile there was just one movie about it: the wonderfully quirky Strictly Ballroom. But then came the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez starrer Shall We Dance? (Americanized from a Japanese original) and last year’s stellar documentary Mad Hot Ballroom about street kids learning to dance. Now we’ve got Take the Lead which is also based on a true story about Dulaine and his efforts to introduce culture to inner-city kids. Sure ballroom dancing is fun to watch especially mixed with cool hip-hop moves. And in the hands of veteran music video and commercial director Liz Friedlander those dance scenes clearly stand out. Yet the fact Lead is Friedlanderr feature film debut it’s also clear she doesn’t have the skills to go beyond the cliché. They probably think they can away with a done-to-death story if the dancing pops. They’re mistaken.
Although it's modern day there's a distinct Raymond Chandler-esque feel to this story about a petty thief named Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who lucks into a movie audition and finds himself heading to Hollywood. Harry is replacing Colin Farrell as a detective in a film and to get the realism of the part he's shown the detecting ropes by Det. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) also known as Gay Perry--because he's gay. Then Harry runs into his old high school sweetie Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a Hollywood party. She believes Harry is a real detective and begs him to help her. That's when the bodies begin coming out of the woodwork. Greed torture and mayhem ensue. If there's any way to prove that Downey is back in true form this is it. He's glib charming deep and truly becomes a modern-day Chaplin in this very trampy role. Kilmer avoids some of the stereotypes of playing gay but as he points out "we're not good cop bad cop we're fag and New Yorker." Both deserve awards. Monaghan holds her own as a feisty red-head. Even Downey's real-life son Indio--who plays his character in the early flashback scenes--shows incredible promise as an actor. This is the Shane Black’s directorial debut the same guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Long Kiss Goodnight. He knows violence that’s for sure but he also has a keen sense of humor. In Kiss Kiss he mixes them well. Black sets the mood with Downey--giving his best Bogie-like voiceover-- narrating the action along the way. This is better than Get Shorty as far as a dark look into the entertainment industry and far more entertaining. And as Harry's character promises "I've seen Lord of the Rings and we're not going to end this 17 times."