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IF (2024) Review

John Kransinski all but weaponises whimsy in charming but slight fable IF

Writer/ Director John Krasinski has a passion when it comes to his projects, and that passion is family. You can see it in A QUIET PLACE and its sequel, and it forms the beating heart of his latest offering, IF. Determined this time to make something inspired by and – crucially – for his children, IF ushers audiences into a fantastical world, where the line between imagination and reality blurs and everyday mundane considerations fall away to focus on the big emotional sweeps of childhood, love, and loss. Much like the imaginary friends central to its plot, the film encourages viewers to embrace the whimsical and the heartfelt, making it a charming if occasionally unsatisfying escape.

When Bea (Cailey Fleming), a 12-year-old girl grappling with her mother’s death and her father’s (John Krasinski) upcoming heart surgery, moves in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), she stumbles upon a hidden world under Coney Island where forgotten imaginary friends (IFs) reside. With the help of a giant purple IF named Blue (Steve Carell), and a colourful cast of characters including the quirkily curmudgeon Hank (Ryan Reynolds), Bea embarks on a mission to help these IFs find new homes and rediscover the joy they once brought.

Krasinski shines in his dual role as director and actor, crafting a narrative that’s both poignant and visually enchanting. The film’s design of the IFs, each unique and endearing, owes quite a bit to the eclectic character design of Cartoon Network’s THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL with its wildly variable, vibrant aesthetics. The starry voice cast includes Emily Blunt, Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, and Blake Lively, who bring their characters to life with charm and wit. Performances by Carell and Reynolds provide both heart and humour, while Cailey Fleming’s portrayal of Bea grounds the fantastical elements with genuine emotional depth, as does Louis Gossett Jr. in his final role as Lewis, an elderly bear long since separated from his kid.

As much as the film wants you to love it – and how much you’ll want to – there’s no denying the plot is a little meandering, with certain scenes feeling overly drawn out. There’s an absence of small details that nag at the edge of consciousness, such as the utter lack of supervision for a 12-year-old girl in New York at all times of the day or night. In a way, though, it fits the ambience of a freewheeling child’s imagination applied to telling a story, although as THE LADY IN THE WATER showed, that doesn’t always translate cinematically. Likewise, the commitment to whimsicality sometimes borders on the saccharine, and the film’s attachment to nostalgia and sentimentality teeters on the edge of manipulative at times.

Still, IF remains a heartwarming and heartfelt ode to the power of imagination and childhood wonder, despite its occasional stumbles. Krasinski’s creative vision and authentic passion for the subject shine through in every moment, and the stellar cast make it a delightful watch, even if it sometimes strays. As the credits roll, you’ll be left with a smile and perhaps a renewed belief in the magic of the imaginary. After all, as Krasinski reminds us, “imagination is not something we have to lose.”

Across The View Askewniverse: Dogma (1999) Review

His confidence and box office credibility restored, 1999 saw Smith take his most ambitious and provocative step ever with a free-wheelingly blasphemous road trip which dives deep into Catholic lore and expands the View Askewniverse to a positively cosmic scale. “Dogma” is a high concept ecumenical caper which simultaneously satirises and reaffirms faith. In amongst all the Helen Lovejoying which preceded its release (and prompted Smith to provide a series of pre-emptive disclaimer title cards) nobody seemed to notice or care that despite its superficially puerile and sacrilegious trappings, “Dogma” unequivocally establishes that God is a real and present force within the View Askewniverse.

When fallen angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) are made aware of a loophole within Catholic doctrine, they realise that a New Jersey church’s designation as a venue of plenary indulgence will allow them to finally reenter heaven, subverting the will of God – leading to the erasure of existence. But with God missing, the Metatron (Alan Rickman) has no choice but to send the last Scion on a mission to save the universe with the help of two very familiar prophets.

With his affinity for profanity-laced dialogue and sharp pop-culture sensibilities, Smith has often been compared to Tarantino and while he lacks the latter’s enthusiasm for bloodthirsty violence, the disparity in critical and commercial success between the two of them has always struck me as unfair. “Dogma”, sees Smith embracing a different style though, this is our favourite New Jersey auteur at his most Gilliam-esque. Not just in the relentless tweaking of the foibles of the pious and intolerant but in the visual style and anarchic storytelling.

Despite the influences, though, “Dogma” remains resolutely, uniquely Kevin Smith, populating his typically sharp and vulgarly witty script with his starriest cast yet. Linda Fiorentino is fine as Bethany, the leading lady and last Scion at the centre of the story, she lacks the kind of energy needed to make the most of the role. Janeane Garofalo, who appears in an early scene, ironically would have made a much sparkier Bethany. Thankfully, the rest of the cast are happy to lean into the film’s uniquely skewed and apocryphal take on matters ecclesiastical. Rickman, a self-confessed fan of “Chasing Amy”, is wonderfully sardonic as the long-suffering voice of God while Chris Rock and Salma Hayeck also seem to be having fun. Separated from the main action for the most part, Jason Lee still provides great value as the demon Azrael. As our heroes converge on the church which finds itself at the centre of the fundamental existential crisis (thanks to the hubris of Cardinal Glick (a tremendous George Carlin) and his new ‘buddy Christ’), they’re racing against Damon and Affleck’s disgruntled angles who spend their time bickering and debating the morality of humanity and their place in God’s affections compared with the lot of angels, leaving an increasingly bloody trail of murder and mayhem behind them.

Easily Smith’s most thematically audacious scripts, in amongst all the horny teen stoner jokes and scatological humour there’s a genuinely thoughtful and sincere satire on religion and faith which is as reverent as it is disrespectful. There’s a perverse delight in seeing someone like the classically trained Alan Rickman share the screen with a motormouth stoner like Jason Mewes and “Dogma” features my favourite performance by Smith himself as Silent Bob.

“Dogma” should have been a bigger hit and deserves a wider audience. It’s a bonkers road movie adventure movie with a philosophical underpinning and an infallible sense of iconic pop culture. It’s also a surprisingly personal reflection on spirituality and faith, with an ultimately uplifting and reaffirming conclusion.

8/10 

Across The View Askewniverse: Chasing Amy (1997) Review

Perhaps stung by the initial reaction to “Mallrats”, “Chasing Amy” sees Smith hew much closer to the down-to-earth authenticity of “Clerks”, this time wrapping his profane pop-culture infused dialogue around a romantic comedy with a twist, the twist being a more expansive view of sexuality than was around in mainstream cinema at the time, and especially in Smith’s target audience.

Best friends Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) live in New Jersey where they work together on the comic book they write and part in the evening. But when Holden meets Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams) at a convention, the friendship is put under strain as Holden falls in love. But there’s an added complication: Alyssa is a lesbian.

“Chasing Amy” sees Smith at his most lyrical in this semi-autobiographical tale of unrequited love and the raw, messy emotional risk that comes with falling in love. It may not be as laden with instantly quotable lines as some of his other work but the writing here is arguably sharper and more poignant than anything he’d done so far. It has a couple of scenes which are among my favourites in Smith’s entire oeuvre: the “Jaws” homage which sees Amy and Banky compare their histories of oral sex mishaps as Holden looks on and the wonderfully cut ice hockey match scene where Holden’s growing insecurity and jealousy finally boil over into a confrontation that’s beautifully intercut with the action on the ice.

In the film’s exploration of sexuality – and particularly bisexuality at a time when it wasn’t really acknowledged in mainstream cinema – offers plenty of opportunity for revisionist controversy and even Smith himself has acknowledged that its handling of the subject is potentially problematic but there’s a truthfulness in the way Smith has his characters explore and explode common adolescent tropes and myths about lesbianism, homosexuality and to dismiss it as clumsy and crass is to ignore that it’s genuinely written by a young man in his mid-twenties externalising his ongoing developing understanding of sex and sexuality and that it’s aimed squarely at the exact kind of nerd-bros who, like Holden himself, need to have some of their clueless preconceptions challenged and overturned. In many ways, the script embraces a sexual fluidity that feels decades ahead of its time, pushing back against a rigid binary system of attraction and while it makes missteps along the way, it’s open to the conversation in a way that’s quite unexpected and impressive.

Affleck delivers another solid performance as the insecure and increasingly jealous Holden, managing to bring both the unlikeable and likeable aspects of the character’s journey to life and keeping them in balance. Jason Lee continues to be an irresistible scene-stealer and Joey Lauren Adams is so effortlessly adorable it’s easy to sympathise with anyone falling in love with her.

Unusually, Jay and Silent Bob only appear in one scene – their least cartoony appearance – but it’s a pivotal scene for the whole movie which sees Silent Bob provide not only the movie’s title but, I suspect, a window directly into Smith’s heart itself.

A film about falling in love that’s brave enough to be honest about the pitfalls and perils of what kind be a messy, chaotic time and even braver to allow the story to end without the fairy tale happy ending which would have been a betrayal of the characters. For all the stoner comedy and fearless crudity, “Chasing Amy” confirms what anyone who’s seen “Clerks” and “Mallrats” would have long suspected: in his heart of hearts, Kevin Smith is a die-hard romantic.

8/10

The discomfort movie of the moment. Contagion (2011) Review

Having been concentrating on comfort movies recently, I took a break to take in what, in the present climate, is almost the diametric opposite of a comfort movie. Steven Soderbergh’s chillingly prescient docudrama CONTAGION covers the terrifying rapidity with which an aggressive and deadly new disease emerges in the far east and spreads to every corner of the globe. While its lethality is, mercifully, exaggerated the film is unnervingly spot-on in terms of its portrayal of how events unfold.

Featuring a star-laden ensemble cast, superficially it feels almost like a throwback to the grand Irwin Allen disaster epics of the seventies but ironically it’s at its weakest when it strays into disaster movie melodrama and tries to inject an artificial sense of narrative to proceedings and at its strongest when it’s a potent blend of documentary and slow-burn medical procedural, gradually but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. There’s enough compelling drama in the forensic medical detective work and unfolding public policy responses to keep the viewer gripped but its when it tries to over embellish the fictional (as opposed to hypothetical) side of things it begins to exhibit its own symptoms of fatigue.

CONTAGION’s cast is excellent, with Kate Winslet, Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne particularly impressing. It’s only Jude Law who ends up being an awkward fit, not really through his performance (although the Australian accent is an interesting…choice) but in that his storyline feels a little too sensational to really gel with the tone of the rest of the movie ( a kidnapping plot featuring Marion Cotillard is only marginally better). If anything, his conspiracy theory blogger storyline prevents the movie from providing more insight into the wider public response to the pandemic and the social upheaval which follows. By concentrating on such a fictionalised ‘player’, it robs the movie of the oppressive horror of the everyday impact away from the hallowed halls of Government and the CDC.

CONTAGION may seem an odd choice for entertainment at a time like this, but it was on TV (where it prompted 130 complaints from, I guess, stupid people) and I’d never seen it so I guess you could legitimately chalk it up to morbid curiosity. Anyway, dear reader, stay safe, stay well and wash those hands!

8/10 

Le Mans ’66 (2019) will get your motor running

Based on an incredible true story and bringing one of motor racing’s unsung heroes to due prominence, “Le Mans ‘66” (or, if you prefer – as many seem to – “Ford v Ferrari”) tells the fascinating story of how consumer motor giant Ford took on luxury carmaker Ferrari in a ruthless battle for dominance over the Le Mans 24-hour race.

In 1963, the Ford Motor Company eyes up an opportunity to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari as a way to inject some needed glamour into their brand but when Ford themselves get played by Ferrari in order to provoke a more lucrative and beneficial deal from Fiat, Henry Ford II vows revenge and instructs his racing team to build a car to defeat Ferrari in the prestigious 24 hour race at Le Mans. Ford look to Shelby American owner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American at that point to have won Le Mans and in turn, Shelby enlists the help of Ken Miles(Christian Bale), a hot-tempered British racer and struggling mechanic.

Although it has its roots in a clash of corporate hubris, James Mangold’s sunny and absorbing biopic actually eschews the Ford v Ferrari rivalry to explore under the hood of the Ford v Shelby and Miles drama where the real tactical and strategic game was played out. The tensions between the corporate suits of Ford and the pursuit of racing excellence from Shelby and Miles keep the film’s rev counter all the way to the redline and, despite its hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it never feels the need to downshift.

The racing scenes are superbly realised, kinetic, thrilling and genuinely white-knuckle whether or not you know how this story plays out and thanks to a pair of great performances from Damon and Bale, there’s a lot to enjoy when we’re not in the driving seat too. Sports movies tend to succeed or fail based not on the actual sporting events but the personalities that were involved and both actors go big-hearted with their performances here, bringing the gifted racing drivers to vivid life. Bale especially, an actor I often find to be like the Lloyds of London building when it comes to his performances: all the internal choices are externalised and you’re never not aware of his performance or his active choices, is superb here. Authentic and understated, there’s hardly any of his usual obviousness in his craft and he disappears into the role of Miles superbly. There’s such a wonderfully warm and genuine rapport between Bale and Damon that at times the film comes perilously close to being a big-budget “Top Gear: The Movie” – and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing and expertly crafted piece of cinema, a perfectly engineered assemblage of a sharp script, explosive screen chemistry and seamless practical and digital effects that sees the finished product roar across the finish line.

8/10

Downsizing (2018) Review

Not the quirky high concept comedy the trailer promises, “Downsizing” instead sets out to suggest that no matter how small you make youself, the big problems – the really big problems – never really go away.

Concerned by runaway population growth, Norwegian scientist Dr. Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) invents an irreversible process which shrinks a person to approximately five inches. Fifteen years later, Paul (Matt Damond) and Audrey (Kirsten Wiig) Safranek decide to undergo ‘downsizing’ after meeting old friends at a school reunion, as a way to escape their financial and job troubles. But just before the procedure, Audrey changes her mind, leaving Paul to explore the small world on his own.

Cinematic shrinkage isn’t anything new, as fans of “The Fantastic Voyage” and “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” can tell you but where “Downsizing” differs from its predecessors is in its astonishing aimlessness. From the moment Paul shrinks down, the film seems undecided as to what it wants to be or what it wants to be about. There’s zaniness as Christoph Waltz channels Alexandr the Meerkat juxtaposed awkwardly with pointed commentary about socioeconomic inequalities and the rotten underbelly of the so-called American Dream. Just as quickly, though, the film drops these themes to explore some half-formed environmentalist musings. It’s this meandering back and forth between the themes, as well as the back story of Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), that undermines anything the film wants to say.

There are fine performances – particularly from Chau, Waltz and an impishly eccentric Udo Keir – and the visual effects are pretty good (apart from some surprisingly ropey miniaturisation effects early on) but “Downsizing” ends up being far less than the sum of its parts, a fate partially self-inflicted thanks to some odd and disruptive editing choices which bear the scars of focus groups and studio interference. It could have been a quirky, laugh out loud comedy or a thought-provoking sci-fi parable but in trying to be both, it ends up being neither.

5/10 

The Great Wall (2017) Review

“The Great Wall” is an epic Chinese fantasy adventure film unfortunately compromised by the token addition of a pair of western actors in an attempt to increase its box office potential.

Set in the time of the Song Dynasty, the Great Wall Of China is one of the wonders of the world, but its true purpose is to protect the Empire from an extraterrestrial and monstrous threat, the Tao Tei. Manned by the nameless order, the Wall is home to five colour coded brigades, the melee-specialist Bear troop, the acrobatic Crane troop, the archery focussed Eagle troop, the siege specialist Tiger troops, and the Deer troop cavalry. Into this unknown conflict wander two western mercenaries, hunting for the fabled black powder used by the Chinese weaponsmiths.

As you’d expect from epic Chinese cinema, the visuals here are remarkable. While the CGI itself is decent enough, the sets and costumes and lavish fight choreography are the real stars, giving life to the ultimate big screen “Power Rangers” fantasy as colourful warriors acrobatically fight their way through wave after wave of alien menaces.

Unfortunately, the need to include an unnecessary subplot to account for the present of Matt Damon’s Irish? mercenary and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) forces the film to contort itself so much that nothing gets the exploration and exposition it deserves to develop the story to the levels of richness on offer in the production design. It’s a counter-intuitive decision to pander so much to western audiences in the casting and yet use subtitles so frequently, adding to the disjointed qualities of the finished product but, saying that, Mertmas enjoyed the movie a lot and the subtitles didn’t phase that 10 year old movie fan as he thrilled to the action and monster mashing on screen.

“The Great Wall” has to go down as a missed opportunity because away from the awkward culture clash, there was an impressive, epic fantasy film here trying to break through and the money spent of getting Matt Damon in front of the camera could have been invested in the skills of director Zhang Yimou, allowing him to bring it to the screen with the sharpness and elegance of his previous work.

6/10

Jason Bourne (2016) Review

“Jason Bourne” sees the reluctant super-spy facing his deadliest foe yet: the irrefutable sense of unnecessariness.

When Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reaches out to an isolated and off-grid David Webb Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), it kicks off a chain of events that leads the CIA to try once again to capture or kill the errant spy. Meanwhile, a secret collaboration between the state and private sector nears its fruition.

In its desperation to find something topical to justify its existence, “Jason Bourne” ends up rehashing the exact same plot McGuffin which propelled “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and – in a  slightly more bloated and boring way – “SPECTRE”, but it does so in a lazy and unfocussed way, failing to land any of its flailing punches on its thematic target.

The whole film reeks of obligation which is hardly a surprise given Damon and director Paul Greengrass’ longstanding reluctance to return to the franchise. Universal’s relentless pursuit of the pair fails to pay dividends though as they both phone it in for this flat and lethargic sequel.

The shakycam gets old really fast, which is the only fast thing about this tedious movie that manages to take the stripped down kinetic action which is Bourne’s trademark and make it feel dull and repetitive. Even the set piece car chase through the streets of Vegas feels monotonous and pointless as the truck ploughs through traffic which is clearly made of flimsy shells. Nothing has weight, from the plot to the props.

Even the usually effervescent Alicia Vikander fails to enliven proceedings and Tommy Lee Jones – who has clearly entered the anything for a payday phase of his career – picks up another cheque for a few days of weary hangdog mumbling.

The Bourne series’ continued reliance on the idea that there are secret black ops projects within projects within projects has become a millstone around its neck, as the idea that the US Government’s intelligence services are constructed like a set of bureaucratic Matryoshka dolls strains credibility at this point. Jason Bourne’s story is done. It was over at the end of “Ultimatum” and the constant grasping for a reason for Bourne to be involved gives this movie a chore identity.

5/10 

Matt Damon should be everybody’s favourite Martian. The Martian (2015) Review

There comes a point in “The Martian” where you have to start reminding yourself that it’s just a movie and that this stuff hasn’t really happened. The film will inevitably draw comparisons with “Interstellar” but it shares more of its dramatic DNA with 1995’s “Apollo 13”, such is the air of authenticity and plausibility Ridley Scott has achieved.

When a severe dust storm on the surface of Mars causes the Ares III mission to abort and return home, mission botanist Mark Watney is lost, presumed killed during the evacuation. However, Mark has survived and is alone on the surface of Mars. With rescue millions of miles and hundreds of days away, Mark must use everything at his disposal to try to survive until help can come.

The script, adapted from Andy Weir’s novel by Drew Goddard with the full cooperation and input of NASA is intelligent, playfully tense and unexpectedly funny as it takes us through Mark’s initial struggles to simply stay alive, the frantic efforts to figure out how to mount any kind of rescue and how to keep him alive until he can be reached.

The bulk of the film rests on Matt Damon’s screen presence and charisma and he rises magnificently to the challenge. He’s a world away from the treacherous douchebag astronaut of “Interstellar” and it’s all the more impressive given that much of the story is actually pretty light on actual acute danger, preferring to focus on the chronic challenges Watney faces and the ingenuity needed to overcome them. Fortunately for Watney, back on Earth, he has a starry NASA ensemble working desperately to figure out how to rescue him, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean to name but a few. The crew who were forced to abandon Watney are no less star-studded with Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan coming along for the ride. Despite the wealth of talent in the ensemble, it’s still Damon who grabs and holds your attention throughout.

The story also brings out the best in Ridley Scott who, together with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, recaptures the stunning visual style of “Prometheus”, turning the Jordanian desert into a truly alien landscape.

Spectacular to look at and grippingly tense, “The Martian” is a science fiction survival story with a firm grip on real-life space science and a finale that delivers genuine edge-of-the-seat, white knuckle thrills (especially if, like me, you haven’t read the novel). It makes “Interstellar” look like the self-indulgent new age nonsense it is and, for a planet so haunted by the ghosts of previous lacklustre movie appearances: “Last Days On Mars”, “Mission To Mars” etc., this is a glorious cinematic redemption for one of our closest solar neighbours at a time when it’s just starting to reveal its secrets to us in real life. There may be liquid water on Mars but for Ridley Scott and Matt Damon, the champagne is on ice. “The Martian” is a triumph.

10/10

The Monuments Men (2014) Review

In the closing years of Word War II, a unit is put together and tasked with tracking down and recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis during their occupation. With the Nazis in full retreat and the Soviets sending their own treasure squads, the Allied team led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) faces a race against time to protect Europe’s cultural legacy before Hitler invokves his ‘Nero Decree’ and destroys all the stolen artwork rather than let it be recaptured.

With an impressive cast and an incredible true story, “The Monuments Men” has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, working against it is a bitty, episodic structure and a lacklustre script which robs the film of much of its momentum and undermines the good work done by the cast. Perhaps trying to tell too broad a story, rather than being a WWII art history version of “Ocean’s 11”, it scatters the cast and the narrative, leaving little time to give the missions a larger context or sense of cohesion. Despite spending a considerable amount of time assembling the team, no sooner do they start to gel as a unit than they’re split up on separate missions, with varying degrees of focus and success. The end result is a sluggish film which lacks a strong central narrative despite the almost bulletproof premise.

Clooney, as star and director, clearly set out to make an earnest, serious movie about the virtue of risking everything for something other than money. His eye for framing a shot is superb and both the production values and cinematography are excellent, bordering on exquisite at times but no matter how noble the intentions, the life has been sucked out of this story. The cast are, as you’d expect, top notch and do what they can with the material but the script doesn’t give them enough screen time or dialogue to work with and the poor structure and episodic nature stifle them. Such is the quality of the cast though (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban), that there are still occasional vignettes where everything comes together to shine perfectly and you get a sense of what the film could have been had it been written and directed with a little more energy and, dare I say, fun.

Curiously slow and stiff for a film which has been accused of playing fast and loose with historical fact, it’s hard to shake the feeling that its deliberately worthy tone is the result of having one eye on the awards season than keeping both eyes on the prize of telling a great story.

6/10 

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) Review

Have you ever stopped to wonder what would have happened if you’d not missed that train, or if you’d gone to a different coffee shop on a whim, or decided to stay in instead of going to that party? And what if those decisions weren’t actually made by you, but were made on your behalf? That’s the fascinating premise behind 2011 romantic thriller “The Adjustment Bureau”.

A loose adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story ‘Adjustment Team’, the film tells the story of young, charismatic congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) who encounters free-spirited Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt) just as he is about to deliver a concession speech in the recent Senatorial election. Inspired by her zest for life, he discards his prepared speech and talks candidly from the heart, revitalising his political prospects and making him a front-runner for the elections in four years’ time. A month later, a smartly dress Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) receive an assignment from his superior to ensure David spills coffee on his shirt by 7:05 AM so he misses his bus to work. When Mitchell fails to make the coffee spill happen, not only does David encounter Elise again on the bus but he also arrives at work to find everyone frozen and being examined by a team of sharply dressed men. He is warned never to speak of what he has seen by the leader of the adjustment team (John Slattery) and informed of one more thing: he must never see Elise again.

What’s refreshing about “The Adjustment Bureau” is the sci-fi elements of the story are very much background details against the story of David refusing to accept that he cannot see Elise again. It’s a well-paced, compelling love story which doesn’t rely on flashy special effects, explosions or action-packed set pieces in order to tell its story. The concepts are neatly enfolded within the world in which David and Elise live and the abilities and actions of the Adjustment Agents hint at either magic or technology depending on your preference.

The film explores the concepts of destiny, free will and the existence of a higher power. While it flirts with the idea of a God (The Chairman) and the Adjustment Agents being angels, it stops short of explicitly saying so and lets you make up your own mind. They could, if you like, be an advanced alien race shepherding humanity towards an unknown destination.

These kinds of stories live or die by the chemistry of the leads actors and happily Matt Damon and Emily Blunt make a great on-screen couple and it would take the stoniest of hearts not to be rooting for David as he takes on the Adjustment Bureau to be with Elise. Anthony Mackie is an engaging and intriguing presence as the Adjustment Agent who sympathises with David’s predicament while Terrance Stamp gives an imperiously aloof performance as Thompson, a specialist senior Adjustment Agent brought in to deal with David’s intransigence.

An uplifting, intelligent and intriguing antidote to bloated effects-driven high concept blockbusters, “The Adjustment Bureau” is a smart, grown-up thriller which uses its science fiction sparely but to great effect. It’s another one which almost guarantees those ‘what if’ conversations afterwards.

7/10 

Behind The Candelabra (2013) Review

Looking back now, it’s hard to understand how nobody knew

“Behind The Candelabra”, Steven Soderbergh’s last film before his self-imposed ‘sabbatical’ from film making, is a useful reminder that we should hope he doesn’t stay away too long. Produced by HBO for television in the United States (because Hollywood studios declined to produce the film for being ‘too gay’ for mainstream audiences) it nevertheless received a theatrical release here in the UK. And a good job too, because a TV screen, no matter how big, is always going to struggle to accommodate that many rhinestones.

I don’t remember anything about Liberace from when I was growing up, although I do remember when he died because it was on the news. Looking back to the mid-1970s from the weary, jaded 21st century, two things strike me straight away:: how could anyone not have known he was gay and how could a pianist have become such a megastar?

Fortunately, the film deals with these two issues quickly and efficiently and leaves itself free to explore its central themes of deception, pretence and control. Charting the last ten or so years of Liberace’s life, it covers his relationship with Scott Thorson and its subsequent breakdown. Throughout the film, it plays on Liberace’s dominant, controlling private persona which guarded and underpinned his exuberant, genial public persona and the lies upon lies needed to support the whole Liberace industry. Indeed, it’s only halfway through the film that we, and Scott Thorson, discover that Liberace wears a wig.

Soderbergh is unafraid to show the darker or more graphic aspects of Liberace’s life beginning with his selection and seduction of Thorson as his new companion. Flipping unpredictably from generous benefactor to controlling megalomaniac to callous serial seducer, the film shows the lengths to which Liberace went to control and shape what he saw as his, including a series of unnecessary cosmetic surgeries and a bizarre plan to adopt Thorson as his son. It’s testament to him and his two lead actors that this becomes the absorbing, tragic drama that it is. Both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are amazing in “Behind The Candelabra”, delivering powerful and brave performances which Hollywood A-listers generally shy away from. There’s none of the subtlety of “Brokeback Mountain” here. There is instead frequent nudity and sex but thanks to Soderbergh’s expertise behind the camera, they are neither gratuitous nor sensationalised.

Matt Damon, as the lesser-known of the characters arguably has the more difficult task but demonstrates his range as he goes from wide-eyed innocent, overawed by Liberace’s star power to loyal companion to strung-out hanger-on. Douglas gives his all in the title role, and although he lacks the real Liberace’s easy-going charisma, he more than makes up for it by matching the mannerisms and convivial lecherousness of the man himself with real commitment. Both actors’ jobs are made considerably easier by the fantastic work done by the hair and make-up team, repeatedly transforming both men as time, drugs and surgery take their toll. Rob Lowe also makes a powerful and hilarious impression as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz.

This glitzy, diamanté studded journey through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s shows a glimpse of a more naïve, innocent time where the reign of hedonism and excess was abruptly being brought to an end by the emergence of AIDS. Against this backdrop, we are granted a backstage pass into the life of a driven, flamboyant but deeply closeted entertainer who wrapped himself in furs and sequins and showmanship, surrounding himself with only those he could trust and paying off those he couldn’t to keep his most precious secret safe.

Elysium (2013) Review

Elysium’s grimly determined misanthropy undermines a decent sci-fi action movie

“Elysium” is a political statement. Unfortunately, it’s a heavy-handed, ham-fisted political statement backed up by too little story, paper-thin clichéd characterisation and breathtakingly inept world-building.

The particular cause in Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the excellent “District 9” is access to healthcare, with a generous side order of elitism and “the 1%”. The year is 2154 and we are asked to believe that the rich have left Earth to live on the orbiting space station Elysium while the rest of the population live on the overpopulated, polluted planet below.

We are first introduced to our hero, a ne’er-do-well orphan called Max through flashbacks which are then revisited unnecessarily and intrusively throughout the film. In the present, Max (played stoically by Matt Damon) has served several years in prison and is now trying to go straight. He dutifully struggles with the cruel indifference of the world in which he lives, where the harsh social regime is policed and enforced by the very robots Max helps to assemble. When an industrial accident caused by the callous negligence of his employers exposes him to a massive dose of radiation, he is dismissively given five days to live and fired from his job.

This metaphorically ticking clock pushes Max to return to his old ways and old employer in return for the chance to get to Elysium. Along the way, he runs into and involves his childhood sweetheart and her daughter in his desperate quest for a miracle cure.

You see, on Elysium, everybody has magical medical machines in their homes which can cure any injury or disease at the molecular level. From broken bones, to cancer to missing body parts, nothing is beyond the capability of these machines (except, apparently, brain damage).

Guarding the space station is the no-nonsense hard-line Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has a zero tolerance approach to illegal immigrants and, well, pretty much anything else really. Her overzealous reaction to a potential breach of Elysium’s borders, including the use of her Earth-based psychotic attack dog Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) brings her into conflict with the blandly neutral President, and we learn that she has a zero tolerance approach to democracy too.

Colluding with a billionaire industrialist, Delacourt plots an elaborate conspiracy to seize control of Elysium. This sets her on a collision course with Matt Damon’s Max who has been upgraded with an exoskeleton which looks like the kind of coat hanger Tony Stark might hang his armour on at the end of the day. The suit helps him to remain mobile despite the crippling effects of radiation poisoning  and, as a fringe benefit, enables him to download the thoughts and memories of the very industrialist involved in the conspiracy in the hope of gaining access to Elysium. Of course, the heist is bungled and the vital information, including the details of the conspiracy and the means to control Elysium end up trapped in Max’s head which suddenly everybody wants to crack open to get the goodies inside.

It’s all pretty thin stuff and we never really get a good look at what life is like on Elysium or why, apart from the miracle healthcare, people would want to live in space. The society presented to us is so unbalanced that it beggars belief that it could be sustained. The economic and social disparity on the scale “Elysium” presents would suggest that resources are scarce. However, if you have technology which can manipulate matter on the molecular level, then suddenly virtually all resources become limitless.

There would be no need to have a space station so the super-rich could live in pastoral luxury while the rest of us scrabble around in the dirt and rubbish of generations of waste. Got a surplus of rubble, garbage and pollution? Fire up the old matter converter and create food, clean water and fresh air. It just makes no sense. Orbital travel is also commonly available (even to the have-nots, judging by the number of attempts they make to get to Elysium) so again you’d expect mankind to have reached out to solve its resources problem. Don’t even get me started on the inconsistency of the technology (self-sustaining atmospheres in space, energy weapons and projectile weapons etc. ) “Elysium” has the most incongruous and irrational world building I’ve seen since Pixar’s “Cars”.

And therein lies the ugly truth behind “Elysium”’s political posturing. This is a deliberately and calculatingly pessimistic and nihilistic view of humanity in the future. A future which assumes the super-rich are one homogenous, self-centred mass with no room for altruism, humanitarianism or philanthropy. In a world where resources can be almost infinite thanks to technology, it would only take one or two super-wealthy philanthropists to transform the whole world. There’s a cynical bitterness to “Elysium” that refuses to acknowledge that possibility.

The performances are decent enough, though in a film rich with a variety of exotic accents, Jodie Foster chooses an almost inexplicably bizarre Anglo-Ameri-Euro-Neutral which really seems to cause her problems in getting the dialogue out and makes her seem disengaged. [MAJOR SPOILER] When her character is betrayed and refuses treatment while dying, I found it hard to shake the feeling she was just glad to get out of this misjudged film.

Mention must also be made of Sharlto Copley’s turn as Kruger. There are times when he is one of the most terrifying, chillingly psychotic villains ever to grace the screen. Unfortunately, his tendency to go high pitched and squeaky when in full, thickly-accented flow robs him of much of his menace when a more restrained vocal performance could have made the character almost unbearably monstrous.

The visuals are adequate to good but nothing we really haven’t seen before and the style is straight out of the “District 9” playbook. Lots of shaky handicam shots and an overuse of the deafening/ disorientating after-effects of flashbangs and grenades.

It seems the “difficult second movie” was too difficult for Neill Blomkamp to pull off.