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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Killer Elite, What’s Your Number?, Jane Eyre, The Adjustment Bureau


Killer Elite (Two Stars)

U.S.: Gary McKendry, 2011 (Universal)

There are lots of reasons to get irritated with Killer Elite — a big-bucks, big-star, mucho-macho, heavy-duty actioner that throws up several hours of murkily photographed violence, preachy dialogue and byzantine plot twists, while wasting three good actors — Jason Statham, Clive Owen and, sadly enough, Robert De Niro (again) — in three ridiculously unoriginal roles that, but for the British accents, might have more appropriately gone to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone and William Shatner.

So, here’s what happens in this allegedly fact-inspired movie, based by director Gary McKendry and co-writer Matt Sherring on the “fact-based novel, “The Feather Men,” by Ranulph Fiennes (not one of the acting Fienneses). In the movie’s first scene, in the middle of an assassination in traffic somewhere, free-lance hit guy Danny Bryce (Statham), on the job with his aging mentor Hunter (De Niro), suddenly finds he doesn’t have the stomach to kill kids, and decides to retire, move to Australia and make love to bombshell blonde farm lady Anne (Yvonne Strahovski). Lights, music, bring on the bed sheets.

But, as quick as you can say “Bourne Yesterday,” Danny is pulled back into the game by a conniving agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Albaje), who takes him to Oman, where the dying shiekh Amr (Rodney Afif) hires him for six million dollars to kill the three SAS agents who killed his three sons. (Is there a pattern here? “The Six Million Dollar Man?” “My Three Sons?” Maybe “Have Gun, Will Travel?”) In addition, the shiekh will promise not to kill Hunter, whom he has locked up in his palace‘s dingy dungeon, but instead release him. But impetuous Danny jumps the gun, breaks Hunter out, and kills a few of the shiekh’s guards, and he and Hunter get caught, after which the shiekh lets bygones be bygones and reopens negotiations.

It seems this finicky shiekh actually wants to dictate to Danny, the pro’s pro, how those three SAS hit-men are supposed to be whacked. First, Danny has to get them to make a tape-recorded confession of their guilt in his sons’ murders. Then he has to kill them, preferably in some gruesome way involving an action scene. Then he has to photograph the corpse. Then he has to do a song and dance, with cane, around the dead body in emulation of Malcolm McDowell’s Singin’ in the Rain number in A Clockwork Orange. (Sorry, that last one was a fib. But a factually-based one. There is a movie called Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, and, for all we know, it was ghost-written by Ranulph Fiennes while he was thinking of going to Oman.)

Danny, tired of death and violence, sick of the shiekh, finally agrees, collects his weaponry and expense account and flies off to Paris (still not recovered from Liam Neeson) and London (still not recovered from Hugh Grant), eventually joined by old pals Davies (Dominic Purcell, pretty good) and Meier (Aden Young), who have decided to hop aboard and help out with this incredibly foolish-sounding assassination scheme. Pitted against them are the SAS vets, who call themselves The Feather Men, and Clive Owen as Spike, the grim-faced, perturbed, mustachioed fairy godfather of the SAS, whose job is to keep his blokes alive and laughing, to thwart Danny’s endeavors, and also to defy those mean old men, babbling away around their table, nostalgic for old atrocities. From then on, you could write this one yourself: a veritable feast of gunfights, car chases, wisecracks, mayhem and parkour, spewed at you with an almost joyous embrace of unashamed stereotypes and narrative incoherence.

This movie tries to touch all the bases, but it has the look and feel of an expensive financial project constructed entirely of baloney. It’s loud, nervous and full of violent clichés. Its plot is over-complicated and messily told. Morally, it’s a quagmire, and there’s little distinction made between supposed good guys and supposed bad guys, or any one in between. Almost the only way we know Statham’s out-of-retirement hit-guy Danny is sort of the hero, is because he‘s billed first and he’s the one with the pretty girl friend.

What else can you say? The photography is drizzly and ugly, and the smudgy light makes almost every scene appear as if the film was shot on a rotten day when you don’t want to get up in the morning. The editing is so frenetic, that watching the movie’s action scenes sometimes feels like viewing the world with your head stuck in an Osterizer.

Other than all that, it’s not so bad. It made money. But that seems to be the movie’s only point — beyond maybe making a plea for better retirement benefits for SAS veterans and better working conditions for Oman sheikh guards.

What’s Your Number? (One Star)

U.S.: Mark Mylod, 2011 (20th Century Fox)

When an Anna Faris movie is so bad it makes you yearn for the good old days of Scary Movie 2, you know you’re in trouble. What’s Your Number?, a Faris rom-com of flabbergasting silliness and an awful smirking cheeriness that sets your teeth on edge, had me nostalgic for Take Me Home Tonight and Yogi Bear. And I hated Take Me Home Tonight and Yogi Bear. Faris is a very good comedienne, with  lot of blonde, amusingly pseudo-blowzy charm, but she sometimes makes bad movies, and this is one of them.  

The star plays Ally Darling, who’s at the wedding preparations of her sister Daisy Darling (Ari Graynor), where the gals talk as dirty, but not as funny, as the ones in Bridesmaids. In the midst of all the pre-nuptials brouhaha Ally learns of an article by some stupid pseudo-expert, spouting pseudo-statistics, claiming that women who’ve slept with 20 or more partners, have only a 4 % chance of getting married. (Or maybe it was a 96% chance of getting not married.)

After reading this ridiculous article, Ally becomes quietly hysterical, since she‘s slept with 19 men (at different times, of course) and, foolishly trusting this pseudo-expert, she decides that if she sleeps with one more guy, in the hopes of getting married, she won’t be able to marry anyone, because she’ll see her chances of marriage drop to 4%. (Or maybe see her chances of non-marriage soar to 96%.)

Why the moviemakers didn’t just make Ally superstitious and haul in a tarot card reader to say 20 or whatever lovers was a no-no, I have no idea, unless the notion of the 19 sex partner limit comes from the movie’s source bookl, 20 Times a Lady by Katryn Bosnak. (In honor of the song “Three Times a Lady,” What’s Your Number? sports a lot of Lionel Richie music.) So, while the wedding prep rages on, Ally tries to find those other 19 lovers, to see if one of them is plausible hubby-stuff.

As you might guess, most of the old flames are deeply flawed groom material, including the aptly named Disgusting Donald — played by Chris Pratt, who, in real life, is Anna Faris‘s husband. And while Ally races around nixing her exes, the movie supplies a possible alternate leading man. Her across-the-hall apartment neighbor is a randy, studly musician named Colin Shea (played by Chris Evans), enlists Ally‘s aid, by using her apartment as a hideout when he wants to get rid of his lovers.

Simultaneously, Colin flirts with Ally, and prances around without his shirt, without his pants and sometimes without anything but a convenient screen blip. Incredibly, since Faris is the star here, and you’d think she had priority, the filmmakers — including director Mark Mylod and writers Jennifer Crittenden and Gabrielle Allan —  seem to seize any excuse they can find to get Evans out of his clothes — making not only an idiot out of him, but a naked idiot as well. Their nuttiest inspiration: a game of Strip Horse, played in a mysteriously deserted basketball stadium, a variation on the old schoolyard shooting game that Ally mysteriously starts winning, mysteriously demonstrating trick shooting skills worthy of a Harlem Globetrotter.

What’s Your Number? eventually exposes its serious side. And like most of the bad cutesy rom-coms these days (maybe, in honor of their cutesiness, we should call them rommie-commies), that side is a testimonial to true romance. Eventually Colin puts on his pants and a serious expression and begins confessing his love for Ally, as well as his devotion to Lionel Richie’s songs. Unhappily, another leading man has shown up: Dave Annable as Jake Adams,  the favorite of Ally‘s mother‘s Ava (Blythe Danner), with Jake looking appallingly like a young Mitt Romney. Also appalling: one of Ally‘s other flawed ex-lovers is Anthony Mackie as Tom Piper, whom we see in a college flashback, passing out George Bush leaflets, and who now wants to marry Ally, so she can serve as his beard, while he becomes the first gay black Republican president. By now, not even Mel Brooks and the entire original movie cast of The Producers singing “Springtime for Hitler” (in the nude) could save this movie.

I don’t blame Anna Faris for any of this, except possibly for saying “Yes” to this script. I’ve laughed (pretty loudly) at Ms. Faris’s stuff in movies like The House Bunny. She can be marvelously flirty and funny, and she does everything possible here to get more chuckles, including setting her hair-extensions on fire. So we know this movie must be some kind of weird statistical anomaly. Meanwhile I have three simple suggestions: Don’t ever let these filmmakers get their hands on a movie adaptation of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Get Anna Faris a script. And make sure Chris Evans has a pants clause in his next contract.

Jane Eyre” Three Stars.
U.K.-U.S.: Cary Fukunaga, 2011 (Universal)

In college, as an English major, roaming happily among the great green fields of the literary Gods, I made some questionable choices. For example, I tended to ignore the more successful and popular Bronte sister (in her day), hard-working Charlotte, of Jane Eyre, in favor of Wild Emily, author of that sacred, romantic text of so many lovers of 19th century British novels, Wuthering Heights. I adored Emily, but Charlotte deserved better of me.

Jane Eyre was almost as famous as Wuthering Heights, and revered too (if not quite as much). And, important for a lovie-lover, it has been filmed almost as often as Emily’s stormy tale — which boasts in its filmography, the classic 1939 William Wyler-Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy (if only Cathy had been Vivien Leigh), and a 1953 Mexican adaptation by Luis Bunuel called Abismos de Pasion. Most notable of the screen Eyres, of course, is the classy 1944 film, with Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Welles, brooding his best, as Rochester — and the beautiful child Elizabeth Taylor as the little girl who dies at school. Some say Welles may have “helped” Robert Stevenson — a descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the man who later made Mary Poppins for Disney — with the direction. Maybe.

The story is a classic one, a model for dozens of Gothic-influenced novels about threatened ladies, teachers, guests, young wives or whatever, come to huge mysterious houses — stories of which the most famous is Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca, in which Joan Fontaine played Olivier’s nameless young wife for Alfred Hitchcock, four years before her Jane Eyre. In the plot that would become a paradigm, Jane, badly treated at her nasty aunt’s (Sally Hawkins) house, goes to boarding school, suffers there and eventually becomes a governess to the children of Mr. Edward Rochester, a strange man with a strange unspoken history — and a secret that will burst explosively into the light at the least appropriate moment. The novel “Jane Eyre” is an romance, but one with a heroine with brains: a novel that treasures feeling and intellect a bit more than beauty.

Now comes this new British adaptation by director Cary Fukunaga (who made the fine immigration drama, Sin Nombre) and scenarist Moira Buffni, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice) as Jane and Michael Fassbender (Hunger) as Rochester. Of course, that throws Bronte’s main idea out the window, since Charlotte wanted to write a romantic novel about lovers who were physically plain (Jane) or unattractive (Rochester), and Wasikowska and Fassbender are a couple of knockouts. So too, of course, were Joan Fontaine and — in his younger , slimmer days — Orson Welles. And so have been most of the actors and actresses who’ve played the parts.

It’s in many ways, a faithful movie, one that at least respects its source. But how can you really sympathize in the ways Charlotte wanted us to sympathize with Jane — to admire not her looks, but her brains, her pluck, her persistence, her bravery — when she’s played by a stunner like Wasikowksa, however disguised, however made “mousey?” Poetic license, I guess.

The Adjustment Bureau (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Nolfi, 2011 (Universal)

A rising young liberal congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon), running for the U.S. Senate and on a fast track to the White House, blows his chance when The New York Post publishes photos of his butt-bearing college high jinks days. At the concession, irrepressible David goes to the posh men’s restroom and runs into a sexy ballerina, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who’s hiding in a stall. Soon he’s making out with her, in fact, falling in love with her. But “others” don’t want them together.

This sounds like the beginning of a fairly entertaining political romantic comedy about a left-wing phenom, prime presidential timber, who can’t keep his pants zipped (Did I hear someone whisper “Bill Clinton?”), and who is either going to ignore his handlers and marry the girl. (Yay!). Or give her up for the good of the country. (Sob.)

Unfortunately, the “others” who are messing with David’s life aren’t just the usual political buttinskys. They’re a group of seemingly supernatural beings called “adjustors” (from the Adjustment Bureau, natch) in matching ’50s suits and fedoras who basically run the world, who can travel all over New York City at lightning speeds through dimensional wormholes, whom David sees “readjusting” one of his co-workers when they think he isn’t looking, and who are bent on reorganizing David’s life, and keeping him away from Elise, precisely because he is prime presidential timber and his eventual election and successful presidency is fervently desired by someone (God?) who is running this shebang.

There’s a double catch, all explained to David by friendly adjustors Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). One: David has to give up Elise, who apparently will ruin his chances somehow. (Why? Is she prejudiced against Presidents? Did the New York Post have a man hiding in the john that first night snapping photos of their make-out session?) And if he ever tells anybody about the Adjustment Bureau, his memory will be scrubbed.

To guarantee his cooperation, high-ranking adjustment Bureau exec Mr. Thompson (Terence Stamp) will soon take over.

What will Dave do? Justify the lofty future predicted for him in this movie by Michael Bloomberg, Jon Stewart and whoever runs the Adjustment Bureau? I’ll never tell. But remember, my memory may have been scrubbed.

All this has been scripted and directed, with considerable craft and movie-making intelligence, by newcomer George Nolfi, the scenarist of two other Matt Damon movies, Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. And it is supposedly based on a story by the great science fiction writer and chronicler of paranoia-gone-real Philip K. Dick. I say “supposedly,” because the original story “Adjustment Team” is in Volume Two of the Complete Dick short stories, and, thanks maybe to adjustors, I only Have Volumes One, Three and Four.

But I have to say that, while this script is a perfectly nice, competent, good-hearted job, and I would probably be happy to vote for Nolfi for the U.S. Congress, even if the New York Post has compromising photos of him, this movie just doesn’t say Dick to me. (I still insist that moviemakers should be adapting his novels, like The Man in the High Castle and Martian Time Slip and Ubik and Eye in the Sky and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Time Out of Joint and not repeatedly taking his early short stories and sometimes throwing most of them away. After all, it was Blade Runner, based on one of Dick’s best novels, that started the whole Dick deluge.)

When Dick is cooking, he doesn’t just make you root for two attractive lovers, in a Wings of Desire world. He makes you feel that the world is about to blow up in your face, that we’re in some alternative universe where everything is the reverse of what it seemed or should not seem, and that it may all be a nightmare but may be not, and that even the flies buzzing in the room may be part of a plot.

OF SPOILER) and though I don’t want to be a spoilsport, or even a spoiler-alertsport, there’s something sort of awry in its fantasy. Namely, why can’t beings with this kind of power, beings who can just sneak all around Manhattan, take over office rooms, and reprogram people and lobotomize them, just whisk Elise off to Patagonia? Or why can’t they hire out as special effects men and make huge political donations to David’s campaign? Or why can’t they be like Republicans and just buy the election?

Also, to be unkind, these adjustors, including Stamp, don’t really do their job very well, despite having lots of men on the schedule and despite having magical fedoras to get them around town. If we’re really counting on them to save us from the next Ice Age, we may be screwed.

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Killer Elite, What’s Your Number?, Jane Eyre, The Adjustment Bureau”

  1. movieman says:

    Good Lord.
    “What’s Your Number?” wasn’t great, but it sure as hell beat the incoherent slog/botch that was “The Killer Elite.”
    And “The Adjustment Bureau” deserved at least another star, Michael.
    For my money, it was one of 2011’s greatest “forgotten” (i.e., a modest hit in March, but completely off any/everyone’s radar by year’s end) movies.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon