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Flick Clique: July 17-23

The Adjustment Bureau (2011). Fair, muddled film is something of a romance with sci-fi backdrop. Matt Damon plays a senate candidate whose meet-cute run in with dancer Emily Blunt upsets the natural order of control as monitored by teams of mysterious, grey-suited men who are set up by a Supreme Being to keep humans from doing anything spontaneous — like, you know, creating the Renaissance or something. This was an interesting movie from a conceptual standpoint, but you have to wonder why the screenwriter picked water as the grey-suited mens’ Achilles Heel (a random weakness, no?). Damon and Blunt have a nice rapport together, but their flirting dialogue is so cutesy you could be forgiven for thinking this is a Chick Flick. I enjoyed John Slattery and Anthony Mackie as the main bureau members. The many cameos by politicians and newscasters seemed unnecessary and random, however, and the filmmakers’ apparent determination to show every single glamorous corner of Manhattan didn’t work in the film’s favor. (there’s location shooting, setting up a local flavor, and then there’s pure travelogue). Topping it off is a climactic chase sequence that winds up being the opposite of suspenseful. It has the parts of being an interesting flick and (at the very least) pleasing time-waster. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get too excited about most recent Hollywood flicks — this is no exception. Sorry.
Barcelona (1994). Last, and least, of my little Whit Stillman viewing party. For Barcelona, Stillman recruited Metropolitan actors Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman to enact his script of two Americans in (yep) Barcelona, Spain. Stuffy Ted (Nichols) is a salesman who decides to settle on dating only homely women, while his cousin Fred (Eigeman) is a Navy officer whose snobbish personality aggravates the corruptive, Anti-American sentiment amongst the locals. The film mostly consists of the two sparring against each other while walking the picturesque streets (admittedly, the scenery is gorgeous) and comparing notes on the two women who entered their circle, played by Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino. Stillman’s dialogue is smart and fascinating, but the film never really gelled for me. The story is rather ho-hum, even when it takes a dramatic turn. The biggest disappointment are the two lead actors, both of whose lack of skill and charisma make their characters into insufferable boors. Better performers might have made the men seem more sympathetic, but these two weren’t up to the challenge. They seemed so dull and stiff (I guess the fact that they were part of an ensemble in Metropolitain worked better in their favor). Strangely enough, I prefer the derided Last Days of Disco to this one.
Farewell My Concubine (1993). Caught this long, intense yet worthwhile Chinese epic on Netflix streaming. Farewell My Concubine opens in what appears to be an orphanage in 1920s China where dozens of boys are put through rigorous training. The boys are being readied to play parts in elaborate productions by the Beijing Opera, with the best of them having the opportunity to escape the drudgery and become local celebrities. The film focuses on two kids in particular as they gain skills and grow up into adults played by Leslie Cheung and Chun Li. This has a wonderful turn by Hong Kong fave Cheung, playing a delicate man who excels in the role of the opera’s herione. Actually, the entire cast is good, including Gong Li as the headstrong prostitute whom Chun Li takes as his bride. The film covers fifty years in Chinese history, rather smoothly and with the kind of lush photography you’d expect from a production of this magnitude. I was captivated by the many scenes with the opera, a flowery tale of a young girl and a warrior, playing onstage. It seemed like a completely different world, and yet it was only a few decades ago. The arrival of the Communists as the film progresses is bittersweet, since one senses a way of life disappearing.
Invisible Stripes (1939). The fate of ex-convicts and the temptation of crime drives this otherwise unexceptional Warner Bros. flick starring the stone-faced but strangely hypnotic George Raft. Raft plays Cliff Taylor, an earnest ex-con who wants to set a good example for his younger brother, William Holden. Fellow con Humphrey Bogart wants Raft to join his underworld gang, a lure to which Raft succumbs despite his better judgment. Holden is tempted, too, but Raft and their ma (good but miscast Flora Robson) strive to keep him clean and eventually attain his dream of running his own auto garage. Typical WB fare of the era, although Raft’s many speeches delivered with only the mouth/jaw muscles moving make this at least somewhat novel. I watched this and the DVD commentary for Kid Galahad (1937) at about the same time and was struck by the similarities, including Bogart as the gangster and Jane Bryan in the ingenue role. Although I prefer the latter by far (you can’t go wrong with Eddie Robinson and Bette Davis!), Invisible Stripes was a lot of fast-paced fun.
The Stepfather (1986). I first heard about this flick in Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars book from the early ’90s. In assessing the best male lead performances of 1986, Peary went out on a limb and picked the then-obscure Terry O’Quinn as giving an Oscar nominee-worthy turn in this low budget thriller about an otherwise regular guy with a hidden, killer instinct. That really intrigued me. O’Quinn has since gone on to play the devious John Locke on Lost, of course. Although dated in certain ways, The Stepfather really is worth checking out — if only for O’Quinn’s intense work. He plays a guy who murders his entire family, then takes refuge under a different identity in a small Washington town. He is ready to start fresh with new wife Shelly Hack, but teen stepdaughter Jill Schoelen’s suspicions have him worried. She starts her own investigation into the man’s past as a relative of the earlier victims (Stephen Shellen) goes on a separate one-man crusade to track down the killer. Surprisingly well-done, intense without being too gory, scary in all the right spots. Oh, and O’Quinn is amazing. This was filmed in Canada, substituting for Washington, with an calm, autumnal palette that effectively conveys the calm façade covering O’Quinn’s terrifying inner beast.
Unknown (2011). Another Recent Hollywood Flick that I couldn’t bring myself to get too excited about, although Unknown fared better than Adjustment Bureau. This is the film with Liam Neeson as a scientist who travels to Berlin with wife January Jones to attend a high-profile conference. He leaves an important briefcase at the airport, however, and in retrieving it ends up in an auto accident that leaves him in a coma for several days. Upon awakening, he finds his identity erased and another man (Aidan Quinn) taking his place with Jones going along with the charade. A retired German investigator (Bruno Ganz) and the cab driver (Diane Kruger) who saved his life are needed to help Neeson uncover the conspiracy. This was pretty okay, if padded out with an unnecessary car chase and several fistfights that drag. The performances and behind-the-scenes work pass muster, with Kruger’s comely Slavic cab driver faring most positively. Neeson seemed tired, however, and it’s odd seeing his otherwise placid doctor turn into a he-man action hero. I like January Jones on Mad Men, but here she seemed plain. On the Recent Hollywood Krep-O-Meter, I’d give it a 5 (out of 10).

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