I Am Number Four (2011). My Facebook friend Kirk Kitsch recently sent me a code for a free Red Box rental, so I decided to give this teenagers-from-space flick a try (and unlike other newish CGI-heavy offerings we’ve seen lately, this particular one was my choice). Watching it reminded me of Fast Company magazine’s profile of Rich Ross, CEO of Disney’s film studio. Why? Although it’s an interesting enough profile, that article told me that current Hollywood obsession with franchising and developing “brand name” series like the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks has completely consumed the business. Which is depressing! I Am Number Four is actually made by DreamWorks, but it hews to this currently hot formula so much it might as well have been called Would-Be Franchise #387. The movie follows wayward teen Alex Pettyfer, a brooding type who doesn’t fit into his new school despite being devastatingly handsome and having a jock-perfect bod. He attracts the attention of a similarly beautiful yet outcast student (Glee‘s Dianna Agrom), who eventually learns the New Kid is really an alien (a sexy, Edward from Twilight esque alien, mind you) who is next in line to be assassinated by menacing space bullies. Not a bad film overall — the leads are pleasantly attractive, the CGI is generally good and it actually gets fun during the climactic battle scene. I’m just getting so tired of movies with pretty young things doing cliché high school stuff, and the way this movie treats them is no different. If I were a teen, I’d be offended (speaking as an outcast weirdo who, as a teen, much preferred The Women over The Breakfast Club).
Lena Rivers (1932). “Pre Code Shirley Tempe” might be the best description for this low budget melodrama, which came out on DVD earlier this year. I bought this one because it contains a supporting role for Joyce Compton (more on her in a minute), but the film focuses on elfin actress Charlotte Henry playing a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who bears the stigma of illegitimate parentage. Henry’s Lena Rivers is raised by her grandmother (Beryl Mercer doing her usual kindhearted mama thing) after he mother dies in childbirth. After the grandfather dies in a boating accident, the duo are invited to live with a rich uncle in their relatives’ plush Kentucky mansion. The girl doesn’t fit in with the hoi polloi, preferring the company of the servants, but one neighbor (James Kirkwood) has a strange bond with the girl — even gifting her with a wild horse that only she can tame. As it turns out, the neighbor is the girl’s father and her ability to turn the horse into a racing champion is what will endear her to the others. A rather sweet film that is marred somewhat by its condescending attitude towards black people (Henry even observes that they’re “like children” when she spies a group of them relaxing and singing). Charlotte Henry was best known for playing Alice in the flop 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland; here she is merely okay. Joyce Compton makes a much better impression as the vixenish Southern belle who gets jealous when Henry comes between her and her beau, played by Morgan Galloway. Her scenes are worth a peek in this otherwise routine, overly predictable outing.
Mary and Max (2009). This unique clay-animated film had been on my Netflix instant queue for some time before we decided to check it out. Supposedly based on a real life friendship, Mary and Max chronicles pen pals Mary, an imaginative if socially awkward young Australian girl, and Max, a neurotic and mentally challenged Jewish New Yorker. As the film unfolds, Mary and Max bond over chocolate, their favorite cartoon (the Niblets?) and the befuddling behavior of their family and acquaintances. Rather touching but overwhelmingly sad film plays a bit like Up with more edge and visual flair. Indeed, the lumpy “Aardman meets Red Grooms” aesthetic in the characters and settings is probably the best thing about the film. A lot of the visual appeal comes from the interplay between Mary’s brown-hued suburb and the dirty, monochromatic cityscape Max dwells in. Philip Seymour Hoffman strikes the right gruff yet approachable tone as Max, and the young actress voicing Mary as a child (Bethany Whitmore) was adorable and pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, the film drones on too long and gets overly burdened by the heaviness of what transpires. The character of Max, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, does some aggravating stuff here that calls to mind the worst behavior of that other Asperger’s-addled fictional character, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Some may find it lovable, I find it annoying and borderline dangerous. The final scene is quite touching, however, and worth the slog of this otherwise overextended movie.
Undercurrent (1946). This moody, noir-influenced MGM drama is something of an oddity in the films of both Katharine Hepburn and director Vincente Minnelli — it creeps up on you, however, despite the miscasting of Hepburn. She plays Ann Hamilton here, a mousy woman who is charmed into marrying a Washington D.C. industrialist played by Robert Taylor. As if his permanently grimaced face wasn’t warning enough, she begins to fall under her new husband’s psychotic impulses and eventually finds out about the man’s bohemian, poetry-loving brother (a young Robert Mitchum) whose existence Taylor is strangely trying to keep from Hepburn. The story is very pat and overly Rebecca-ish, and I couldn’t quite get over how wrong Hepburn and Taylor were for their roles. Still, I did enjoy Mitchum in an offbeat, non-typecast turn, and Jayne Meadows made a good impression as the Catty Woman With A Secret who seems to pop up frequently in these types of melodramas. I also give props to Cedric Gibbons and whomever was working for him at MGM for the deliciously luxe interior designs these characters traipse through. Ludicrous, miscast, but a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood.