The Adjustment Bureau

The hats aren’t just for show

There’s a scene in The Adjustment Bureau in which Anthony Mackie tells Matt Damon, “You know the Chairman by other names.”  I wondered, for one meteoric instant, whether this wasn’t the next Narnia film.

George Nolfi’s new flick features Matt Damon as David Norris (of no relation to Chuck, I assume, considering his political stances), a United States congressman in the running for Senator.  After losing the race due to some dirt dug up by the New York Post, he meets a barefoot wedding crasher named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s restroom of a hotel.  They have a traditional Meet Cute and a premature kiss, to which Matt Damon responds in the same way I did: “Holy shit.”  Since we know this movie will eventually evolve into sci-fi thriller, it’s okay that our suspension of disbelief is tested here – perhaps even more so by the fact that we’re led to believe the New York Post has any bearing on popular thought.  They’re practically on the same level as Weekly World News these days, aren’t they?

Norris has a respectable goal: get young people to care about politics.  The opening features some interesting work with montage and visuals, including repeat appearances from Jon Stewart (as himself), who interviews Damon (as Norris) on his own show.  This is a great touch, and a good attempt at keeping things current.  In this way, we’re told at the outset that this story takes place now (at least, in 2011, it appears that way).

Soon, after another chance meeting with Elise, Norris is accosted by suited, one-note agent types, all wearing silly fedoras.  They introduce themselves as case workers for someone called the Chairman, who has written a plan for everyone’s lives.  Norris has begun to diverge from his plan, as he was never supposed to meet Elise again, and under pain of being lobotomized, he must agree never to see her again nor tell anyone about his meeting with these men.  Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry (Anthony Mackie) are assigned to keep an eye on Norris and make sure he follows these orders.

Norris, however, is already too far gone after only two meetings with Elise.  Richardson, though, is able to keep Norris away from Elise for three years, during which Norris’ political career and Elise’s dancing career have both rocketed.  They meet again by chance, and Norris somehow BS’s his way out of why he didn’t contact her for three years.  (“I was mugged” – not exactly a lie).  The Adjustment team confronts Norris again, and we soon realize Richardson and Harry are relatively low on the Adjustment food chain.  Having used up their Adjustment limits (which seems like a plot cop-out, but presumably instated to avoid severely messing up so many “plans” that there would be too much of a mess to clean up), Richardson is taken off the case and replaced by Thompson (Terence Stamp, of course), a grizzled Adjustment member whose methods are legendarily ruthless.  Harry, however, meets with Norris privately, seemingly desiring to help.

The film, as with most recent thrillers, raises more questions than it answers.  The Chairman (clearly a “God” allegory) has a plan for everyone on Earth, yet his agents operate like low-end office workers and express human emotions.  They work in small teams and have limited powers.  Norris asks, “Are you angels?”  Harry replies, “We’ve been called that.”  He also reveals that their powers revolve, in large part, around the hats (halos?) they wear.  Yeah?  God is unable to “make” more agents, unable to make them more effective, and unable to give them powers beyond funny hats and digital printouts of “plans” that resemble a complex GPS?  Kitsch aside, the story progresses in engaging ways, especially when Thompson reveals that Norris will become President and Elise a famous choreographer if the two stay away from each other.  The film focuses on their relationship, not the backfill, which is a good writing choice, but at the same time, their relationship is not deeply developed (they actually don’t spend that much time getting to know one another).

In the surprisingly exciting climax, Norris is given an Adjustment hat and granted the transportation abilities of the Chairman’s agents in order to stop Elise from marrying a generic sleazeball.  After finding her in the bathroom of the courthouse in which she is to be married, Norris blurts out the existence of the Adjustment team, and is once again hunted by Thompson, who is now accompanied by the lobotomy people.  Elise agrees to come with him on one last challenge: enter the Adjustment Bureau itself and meet the Chairman face to face in hopes of having the “plan” rewritten.

What I like about the film is that it sticks close to its characters, despite the slight lack of relationship development (I guess we’re just supposed to accept love at first sight and leave it at that).  Even when it makes the transition from political drama/romance to sci-fi thriller, we’re not beaten over the head with superpowers, cheesy technology (other than the hats) and CG battles.  In fact, violence is almost completely absent in the film.  The tip of the climax is not a fight, but a conversation.  We’re allowed to root for the Adjustment team as much as we’re nudged to root for Norris and Elise.  A few observations, however: here we have yet another film in which the woman exists merely as the object of the man’s desire – yes, her “dreams” of being a dancer are mentioned, but she’s never depicted doing anything that doesn’t involve him.  Even the Adjustment team (all male) get their own scenes and inner conflicts (and they’re not even human, for pete’s sake).  Additionally, what are we supposed to think about Elise as a person?  She’s separated from her fiancee’ and started seeing Norris.  Fine.  When he abandons her, she’s back with the other guy (generic sleazeball) after less than a year, and once again engaged to him.  Norris shows up again, and she willingly returns to him, abandoning the other guy at the altar, and doesn’t mention him again.  You have three choices: she’s either fickle and heartless,  hopelessly dependent, or all of the above.  Considering what a cool customer and independent personality she seems to be when we first meet her, this is a bit baffling.

Another question: why does Harry want to help?  Why is he so “human” compared to the other team members?  It’s (sort of) explained in that he witnessed the collapse of Norris’ father and he believes that the Chairman’s ultimate plan is for humans to become responsible enough to have free will, but I’m a bit put off by the fact that he’s the only black member of the Adjustment team, and is portrayed as somewhat lazy and incredibly rebellious.  He’s ultimately the “nice guy,” yes, but why would the Chairman allow a team member the ability to subvert his own plans so thoroughly?  These aren’t normal guys he hired for temp jobs on CapitalAreaHelpWanted; they’re angels, man!  We also don’t get answers to what happens later: the future ends up blank when love overcomes the plan, but whether Norris and Elise’s respective careers fall to pieces due to their relationship, we never find out.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie, and despite its sci-fi elements, it’s a good date flick.  It’s barely worth mentioning that it’s based on a Phillip K. Dick story, because there are almost no similarities (par for the course with something in the public domain).  I’ve heard it described as a “love story,” but I’m more inclined to call it a “sci-fi story about love.”  Note the differences.  The performances are strong, Terence Stamp retains his usual typecasting, and the film manages to go from Real to Fantastic without abandoning its original story or overwhelming us with sci-fi nonsense.  If nothing else, it will make you look twice at people in funny hats.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011); written and directed by George Nolfi (based upon Phillip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team); starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery and Terence stamp.

The Fastest Gun Alive

The day finally came

In the second scene of The Fastest Gun Alive, a child with a wooden gun mock-threatens Glenn Ford as the latter rides into town.  My immediate thought: where did this kid come from?  There aren’t any women around here!

I know, I know.  It was 1956.  Cinema was approaching an age akin to what the Golden Age was to piracy, and as such, conventions were abound. The Western film was no exception.  This is your conventional Western: there’s a [nameless man or retired gunslinger], and he’s [visiting a little town for the first time or attempting to live peacefully], when he is [hired to pursue a villain or called back to arms by an outlaw threatening the town], which is eventually okay with his [wife/girlfriend/prostitute friend] because [she “always knew this day would come” or she’s out of the picture].  Usually there’s a little kid, probably obsessed with guns (whether obsessively for or obsessively against them), who roots for/helps the hero.  The only true exceptions to these rules might be the John Wayne Westerns (and not all of them), which were often based on books with slightly varied plot structures (usually involving a motley batch of protagonists) or simply dictated by Wayne, whom, with his barely-rivaled fame and pull, could pretty much do what he wanted in his films – examples include always using the same horse; always carrying that same silly hand-cannon (even in films like True Grit, where the character was written to have a different gun); and telling a director he refused to do the final shootout as it was written because he’d “never shot a man in the back.”

Glenn Ford doesn’t seem quite as detached from reality as Wayne was (in addition to being a control freak, Wayne was a resolute conservative and a monster of a human being, but that’s another story).  Ford also makes you want to go to Hollywood and have lunch with him whenever you see him on screen, which is also another story.  Regardless, Ford appears in this film as George Temple, a retired gunslinger who now lives with his wife, Dora (Jeanne Crain) and runs a little shop.  He has given up alcohol, which means he will undoubtedly lose his cool and get drunk at some point.  Outlaw Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford), obsessed with becoming the fastest draw in the West, shoots down the man who apparently holds that designation, and stories begin to travel.  George gets tired of listening to the local yokels endlessly retell the story of Vinnie Harold, and he finally loses his cool and gets drunk (told you), revealing himself as the true fastest gun in the West when he bull’s-eyes two airborne silver dollars.  Harold’s bank-robbing rampage brings him to George’s town (the outlaws need fresh horses to outrun the posse trailing them), and the little kid blurts out that the town houses a man faster than Harold himself, and Harold threatens to burn the town to the ground (yes, with three people) if the townsfolk don’t send George out to face him.

That’s pretty much the size of it.  It’s a classic Western with nothing all-too-remarkable about it, yet there’s something so…I don’t know…fifties Hollywood about it.  It’s an engaging anti-epic with good acting, interesting(ish) characters and a narrative that focuses on personal relationships and consequences rather than constant gunfighting – in fact, only a few shots are fired in the entirety of the film.  This isn’t to say that The Fastest Gun Alive subverts or even attempts to subvert the genre, but director Russell Rouse allows the folk of Cross Creek to occupy the main voices of the film.  By the end, we know who they all are, and a few even make attempts at heroism.  Jeanne Crain is the tender and understanding wife who (wait for it) “always knew this day would come,” but she still doesn’t want George to face Harold, even when he’s called out.  She isn’t given any more to do than the traditional Western female stock character, but at least she doesn’t let George boss her around, nor does she allow him to get away with not opening up to her.  Crain plays Dora as a strong, loving wife whose determination to protect her husband (and their joint business) influences the fate of an entire town – a bit of a tall order considering the script she was handed.  Bravo, Jeanne.

What makes Ford’s character different from the conventional retired gunslinger is that he really is just a normal guy, frightened to death of facing down a dangerous outlaw.  A good portion of the film is spent on George’s psychological conflict, in which he mostly stonewalls but eventually explains to the town, his wife (who already knows) and the audience why he’s hesitant to step out and face Harold.  In a very good pre-climax sequence, George walks into church during the Sunday service (the entire population of the town, with the inexplicable exception of the little kid, is in attendance), and places his gun belt, holster and pistol on the Father’s podium, swearing he will never pick it up again.  The townsfolk, one by one, swear before God that they will never breathe a word about George’s performance with the silver dollars the day before, for the sake of the town’s safety: if everyone hears about George’s skill, they’ll want to come face, him, blah blah blah, we already know Harold is outside.  John Dehner appears as one of Harold’s lackeys, who intermittently interrupts the sermon to warn the townsfolk they only have five minutes to send George out.  George, who has been wearing a pure white button-down shirt throughout the film, now wears a dark jacket over it, but sheds the jacket to reveal the white shirt again when he finally comes clean with his friends and decides to go out to meet Harold.  Does the white shirt indicate more than the old “white = good guy” in Westerns?  Has George become a warrior of God?  He’s never killed a man, he’s got the entire town on his back, and he decides to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.  After all, if Harold kills him, the town will be spared.

Rouse then cheats us by not allowing us to see what happens in the shootout itself.  All Harold wants to know is George’s name.  Once he gives it, there’s a draw, we hear gunshots, and we see Dora’s tear-drenched face.  Cut to a funeral procession, during which the posse following Harold finally rolls through town and asks why, if George was the fastest gun alive, is he now dead.  “He wanted it that way,” Harvey (Allyn Joslyn) says.  When the posse leaves, we see two graves marked, one for George and one for Harold.  George, however, is alive and well, once again ready to live his peaceful life with Dora.  The only things buried in his coffin are rocks and his gun.  Dora takes his arm and everyone walks off with satisfied smiles plastered across their black n’ white faces.  The end.

It just seems too easy, doesn’t it?  He never killed a guy before, now he has.  He’s not traumatized.  Dora was in tears before at the mere thought of George drawing against another man, now she’s perfectly happy with him.  Is this fantasy?  Were both men actually killed?  The film gives no indication that this isn’t reality; it’s just an old-fashioned case of the conventional film “resolution is resolution” epidemic – the idea that the slightest coming-to-terms is an all-encompassing cure for a film’s multiple conflicts simply because 90 minutes is up – a downside, perhaps, of my “fifties Hollywood” nostalgia, but this particular issue hasn’t disappeared completely in today’s cinema either.

The warrior of god cheats death, avoids martyrdom, and gets to keep not only his white shirt, but his amazing wife and the favor of an entire town.  Not a bad deal, though it raises question for us, not least of which is “Did he quit drinking again?”

The most noteworthy scene in the film is one in which Russ Tamblyn, one of the only (if not the only) still-living people in this film, performs an extraordinary dance sequence involving shovels, in nearly all one shot and with no wirework.  If we ever see anything like this in a film again, let it be known that I was the first to say “I always knew this day would come.”

P.S. “Gun,” as used in the film’s title, is short for “Gunfighter.”  Making a statement such as “I didn’t know guns were alive!” makes you sound like a moron.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956); written by Frank D. Gilroy and Russell Rouse; directed by Russell Rouse; starring Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain and Broderick Crawford.

Rango

We form a possum! ….

It’s rare that I find myself at a loss about where to start these things, but I suppose what bears underscoring at the outset of a Rango review is that it’s not so much a “kids’ movie” as it is an interesting animated film for people who love movies.

The most immediately striking aspect of Rango is that it’s in 2D.  It respects the conventions of not only hand-drawn animated films, but also the long-standing rules of classic Westerns.  Yes, you heard correctly: you don’t have to pay an extra five bucks for silly glasses, dim colors, and a headache.

The story involves a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who takes on the moniker of “Rango” after being dumped from the back of his owner’s truck in the middle of the Nevada freeway.  We’ve already got our first Western box checked: he’s a man with no name.  Make that two: there’s a Greek chorus of avian mariachis.  He meets an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who acts as a sort of guiding hand in the early going.  Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, run by Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), quickly coming up with tall tales about himself, which the local yokels eat up.  He also meets Beans (Isla Fisher), apparently the only woman in town.  Also appearing are the legendary Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who takes on the Jack Wilson role – the ruthless, black-hatted gun for hire – and Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, a cockney-talking gila monster.  Once Rango becomes the de facto sheriff of Dirt, he finds himself in a crisis: how to bring back the town’s lost water supply, a task made even worse due to his phony stories about himself, which have caused the residents to believe in him.

The writing in this movie is leaps above most animated features, including last year’s diamonds-in-the-rough, Despicable Me and Toy Story 3, if not only for the fact that it takes risks.  The opening involves Rango doing an exorbitant performance piece with a toy fish, a dead cricket, and the naked torso of a Barbie doll.  Throughout the rest of the film, the dialogue is clever, packed with relevant references to culture that will soar over children’s heads like the hawk that chases Rango in the post-opening sequence.  Screenwriter John Logan outdoes himself in this respect – the writing is much better than it has to be in a movie of this nature.  His knowledge (and more so his love of) classic Westerns is evident, but the screenplay always keeps in mind that the characters are talking animals (with guns and scaled-down bullets, yes, but talking animals nonetheless).  As I said, it’s a good animated film, period, not just a children’s movie.  In fact, children will likely dive under their seats every time Rattlesnake Jake slithers onscreen.

One of the film’s best sequences (and there are a lot of great ones) comes when Rango meets the fabled “Spirit of the West,” played by Timothy Olyphant.  I won’t spoil who the Spirit is, but I’ll say that it will confound anyone who hasn’t seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” and will cause those who love Leone’s films (as well as other classics such as Shane, Once Upon the Time in the West, and True Grit) to stifle the urge to stand and cheer.  I’ll also say that Olyphant, who barely alters his voice for this role, sounds just like the guy he’s portraying.  It’s absolutely stunning.

The film, of course, requires suspension of disbelief.  Why are the animals living next to modern Las Vegas living in a makeshift Old West?  How did they get those tiny guns and tiny bullets?  Stuff like that.  The thing that still stands out here, though, more than talking animals fatally shooting and crushing one another, is the one-woman-cast that pervades so many films now.  Even movies aimed at the young ones prevent female heroes from taking center stage.  Fisher’s character in this acts only as the damsel, and Breslin’s acts as the little kid who appears in so many Westerns to cheer the hero on.

Misogyny aside, we have a good film with bright colors and creative use of animated space.  It has good writing, conscious attention to film conventions (particularly the films that influence it), and it abandons (nay, ignores) the 3D nonsense sure to ruin countless upcoming films before the American movie-going public realizes 3D doesn’t work with our brains.  Above all, Gore Verbinski finally made a good movie with Johnny Depp.  There hasn’t been one of those in awhile.

Rango (2011); written by John Logan; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina.