George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” – All according to plan

When I saw the trailer for this latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation, I was intrigued, but mostly disappointed. To see the film squander its high-minded concepts of fate, free will, and strangers in suits in the service of what seemed to be just another “us against the world” romance seemed like a profound waste of time. We see Matt Damon, an able presence in any film, once again showcasing his four-minute mile, this time with an out-of-breath Emily Blunt in tow, and the film seemed like little more than a chase thriller saddled with superficial overtones of meant-to-be amour.

It’s the story of New York State Congressman David Morris (Damon), who meets the girl of his dreams in ballet dancer Elise (Blunt), but never gets her last name or phone number. The besuited members of the Adjustment Bureau, guardians of fate the world over, go out of their way to ensure that the two never meet again. And why? Because “the Plan” says they’re not supposed to be together. But when Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) dozes off on the job, the two star-crossed lovers meet and form an instant and irrevocable attraction, prompting higher-ups Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) to come in and set the world back on track.

David’s inadvertant glimpse at the Adjusters in action has cosmic consequences, leading to a multitude of lengthy deliberations about fate and free-will. These discussions are probably where Dick and Nolfi’s carefully-crafted dialogue is at its strongest, striking just the right balance between existential technobabble (“We’re seeing some shifting confluence tides!”) and adept worldbuilding. In addition to the discussions, there are plenty of foot-chases wherein the Adjusters show off their uncanny ability to flit between any two locations via doorways. This is a mechanic we’ve seen before, in both Pixar’s Monster’s, Inc, as well as The Matrix Reloaded. I regret to invoke that first Matrix sequel, but The Adjustment Bureau feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that film. It has a similarly controlled and constructed reality (complete with its very own Agents), but unlike Reloaded, manages to philosophize without becoming overly self-indulgent. The foot-chases increased in length and complexity, and I actually found myself getting bored with them as the film went on. Its parallels to Reloaded became so striking at this point that I thought the only way the film could end was with David and Elise pleading their romantic case in front of the Architect (or “The Chairman”, as he’s known in this film).

I won’t spoil how the film ends, but I will say I found it mildly satisfying. It was a brave choice to focus on such a seemingly conventional romance (and give us not one, but three meet-cute scenes), but the undeniable chemistry between Damon and Blunt managed to justify it even as each leap forward in time made it less and less coherent. Blunt’s performance is striking, but her character exists as little more than an object of beauty and desire, her appeal explained solely as a product of her masterful skill in the art of ballet. Damon, meanwhile, is given a great deal more to work with as a would-be politician as well as a romantic. He delivers a speech that the film’s fictitious journalists rightfully refer to as “electrifying”, and has a number of fantastic scenes debating fate and free-will with the always enjoyable Terence Stamp. If the film’s romance offers one great disappointment, it’s that Elise is never given any say in the matter- indeed, she’s never even given a chance to understand what’s going on, and pays a great emotional price for it. While David knows he’s risking his life and defying his fate to be with her, Elise is simply caught in an on-again, off-again romance with an unreliable politician, and comes along for the ride simply because it feels right.

The romance aside, the film’s most fascinating character might just be Harry (Mackie), the Adjuster who’s had just about enough of manipulating people’s lives. Mackie gives an adeptly understated performance. Even as he delivers the bulk of the film’s exposition, he remains aloof and otherworldly while clearly feeling a measure of compassion for the people he’s manipulating.

In the end, The Adjustment Bureau is an adept rendition of unoriginal ideas, and that might just make it worth watching. Its grand questions about fate vs. free will are doled out at about the right pace – just as I began to wonder how the present world (or indeed, the past century) can be explained as a delicate web of clockwork predestination, the film offered what can at least be deemed a plausible excuse. In this world, God (or “The Chairman”) appears to be quite fallible, or at least willing to indulge in the kind of experimentation that inadvertently brings about the Dark Ages or the Holocaust. The film sidesteps the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence by never quite presuming either. The Adjusters aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing (despite their frequent claims to the contrary), and film’s resulting deity is neither a hands-off Deist type nor an ever-present micromanager that makes everyone’s dreams come true. The Bureau’s specific interest in David is never quite explained, but any success he might achieve will come at a significant personal cost.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

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2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9


Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer


In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air


George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon



In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 2: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

hurtlocker

I would say that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is the best film yet about the Iraq war, but it’s not as if it’s had much competition.The closest thing yet to a “good” Iraq war film was Paul Haggis’ small 2007 offering, In the Valley of Elah, which combined a heady realism and some strong performances with Haggis’ typically heavy-handed political message. The Hurt Locker has been described as “forcibly apolitical”. I’m not sure if I buy this sentiment, but more on this later.

The Hurt Locker tells the story of three members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team – the army’s bomb squad. When soldiers discover one of the many IEDs hidden in trashpiles and animal carcasses around the streets, EOD is the team they bring in to disarm it. The film is ostensibly about adrenaline addiction (a pre-credits title screen informs us that war is, indeed, a drug), coupled with a portrayal of intense (and only slightly homoerotic) male friendship that Bigelow has previously depicted so effectively (Point Break), amidst a backdrop of intense action and violence.

The bomb diffusion sequences in this film are immensely entertaining and suspenseful, but it’s really the action where Bigelow distinguishes herself as a director. Ever since Paul Greengrass decided to start using shaky-cam in close-quarters (the Bourne series), it has been a problem endemic to modern action films that much of the action is incomprehensible. The physical environment, the characters, and where they are in relation to each other ends up being at least partially unclear. This has happened in good films (The Dark Knight), bad films (Transformers 2), and middling, mediocre films (Quantum of Solace), and I think it’s fair to say that Bigelow’s direction leaves many modern action films in its dust.

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

This commitment to well-directed and comprehensible action is one of the film’s persistent strengths, and it works immensely well against the backdrop of the Iraq War (in particular during a pitch-perfect long-distance sniper battle midway through the film).

Joining an appropriately intense performance by Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later, ABC’s “The Unusuals”) are strong supporters Anthony Mackie (We Are Marshall, 8 Mile) and Brian Geraghty (The Guardian, Jarhead). I can’t single out any of these performances as the superlative one; but as an ensemble, these three work immensely well. The film has Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other. The dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

hurtlocker2

Shortly after diffusing a car bomb at a UN building, Sergeant James is approached by a colonel (David Morse, in a completely wasted cameo). “You’re a wild man”, the colonel says several times, practically giddy with excitement. Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce also appear in minor, if slightly meatier roles. With all the celebrities joining the party, I half-wondered if there was some thinly veiled anti-war message I wasn’t picking up on. The film is only anti-war inasmuch as a hyper-realistic war film inexorably conveys the notion that hey, perhaps it’s not such a fun place to be. But while the film may set out to be apolitical, it simultaneously exhibits unapologetic contempt toward any attempt to analyze or understand these men. The audience’s perspective is best exhibited by a well-meaning armchair psychologist colonel (Christian Camargo), whose story is easily the most overwritten and predictable part of an otherwise solid and suspenseful film.

That’s about as close as the film comes to a political message. You’re not there. You don’t know. Now go home, and enjoy the streets that aren’t filled with potentially explosive trashpiles. But this message is merely the subtle underpinning of one of the best action films this year, and it is well worth seeing. It is absolutely gorgeous to behold, and if you can catch it before it leaves theaters (it’s out in limited release), see it on the largest screen you can.