Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Spy Next Door (2010)

I have seen hundreds of movies go bad. I’ve seen plenty try and cram a ham-fisted saccharine, entirely phony message about family values or whatever hackneyed lesson needs to be delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Rarely have I seen a movie that tries to cram in EVERY banal family message possible into one exasperated running time. There was one point where I counted three clich├ęd platitudes in a row. Rarely have I seen a movie fail at comedy so badly, even the generous definition of comedy in family films, a subgenre that haunts all those who crossover into it. Rarely have I seen one single family film try to do so much and succeed so breathtakingly little. The Spy Next Door is that movie. Jackie Chan stars as a retired Chinese super spy who the American government wants to keep contracting. He’s also dating his neighbor (Amber Valetta) who has three rambunctious kids that fall into easy slots (surly teenager smarting from parent’s divorce, dweeby tech kid trying to learn to stand up to bullies, precocious little tyke who makes a mess). Chan agrees to watch over them for a weekend to convince those kids they should give him a shot, or else it’s splitsville between he and the mom. It’s the Vin Diesel Pacifier movie but done with even less finesse, if possible. The comedy is nonexistent, which is saying something for being as broad as it is, the physical action shows how badly Chan is aging, and the plot is painfully predictable. This is just a sad, uncomfortable viewing experience; it reeks of desperation and despondency. No one looks to be enjoying themselves for a single second. That’s probably because The Spy Next Door is a vacuum of fun; it’s lazy, incompetent, but worst of all, devoid of any effort to be something other than a mind-numbing, head-scratching waste of 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: D-

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Gentlemen, if you were looking for an original excuse about not calling a girl back, try this one on for size: I couldn’t call because a team of men who control human destiny told me that if I did they would erase my memory and keep you from the fame that you are destined to achieve. She’ll probably at least give you points for originality before throwing a drink in your face (but it was all part of The Plan, or was it?).

David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost a New York congressional election thanks to his frat boy ways of old resurfacing. As he composes his concession speech inside the men’s restroom, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer hiding out. They have one of those crazy only-in-a-movie conversations that manages to feel authentic. Then they kiss. She inspires him to ditch his prepared remarks and speak from the heart to the national TV audience, which eats it up. David spends the rest of his days trying to meet the enchanting Elise again. Then he runs into a big stumbling block. He’s late to a meeting and catches a group of mysterious men in suits and fedoras fiddling around with people frozen like statues. They are the adjusters, the ones who ensure that the participants of mankind follow The Plan. These are the people responsible for the illusion of choice in our lives. If we deviate too far from The Plan, causing ripple effects that too need to be accounted for and adjusted, they step in. Richardson (John Slattery) is the spokesmen for the group and decides to just level with David. He is not supposed to be with Elise. He has a different future ahead of him, so sayeth The Plan. They will throw obstacles between the two of them. David seeks out Elise and fights against the whole universe for the two of them to make a future together.

Horrible title aside, The Adjustment Bureau is a sometimes corny but often deeply satisfying movie. It may distract with some efficient and just-smart-enough sci-fi leanings and magic tricks, but it’s really a unabashed romance at its core. Not just that, it’s a good romance, once that flutter the heart and causes the ends of your mouth to do that thing, you know – smile. It helps when you have movie tars as gorgeous as Blunt and Damon, and are such good actors that they can fill their roles with dangerous amounts of charm, but let’s credit writer/director George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Ocean’s Twelve). He takes a fairly routine concept (powerful forces control our lives and choices) and turns it into a finely tuned character-driven romance. Immediately from their first meeting in a men’s room, Blunt and Damon have that electric dynamic that you can genuinely believe in. Their chemistry will knock you over. You feel the spark between these two, which is essential because the two characters spend years apart at times, forever hoping to reunite. In that brief encounter, you fall in love as well and realize that this character, and this actress, is worth waiting for. I think people are going to be surprised that The Adjustment Bureau is a big gooey, stars-in-the-eyes love story, and it’s actually good. It’s a really enchanting love story, tackling the question of whether whom we love is a result of choice or destiny. This central concept is what every sci-fi element and thriller sequence is spun from. Here’s a funny thought: it’s all in service to the story.

It’s rare to see a studio movie that mixes so many different elements together to such effective, satisfying results. The film doesn’t get overly dark despite the cosmically long-reach and determination of the adjusters. There’s never any real threat of danger, only a broken heart or dashed dreams. The film has many light moments throughout, creating a rather bouncy tone that suits the romance angle nicely. The adjusters aren’t very menacing, more so comically perturbed. John Slattery, all silvery Mad Men appeal, is a perfect foil as the face of the adjusters. He feels like an exasperated parent baffled by the thought-processes of his youthful charge. It helps that these cosmic accounting agents have a finite level of power. If they had unlimited power then the film would fail to have any hope for David and Elise. But we learn that there are only so many adjusters that there are limitations to their powers, and that they can be outsmarted with enough gumption. Mingling with that light touch is enough whimsical science fiction to engage your brain. The concept of the adjusters and their supernatural abilities is nicely teased, setup, and then developed, making sure never to rock the audience with too much weirdness at one time. It’s a gradual process of discovery and it leads to a somewhat goofy, but infectiously amusing, climax that involves multiple doorway portals and magic hats. Yes, I said magic hats, which means there is an honest to God good reason why that stupid fedora hat, seen so prominently in advertising that it feels like the third-billed star, is featured. Admittedly, a concept like a magic hat that allows you to teleport through doorways would seem silly, but Nolfi makes it all work. The hardest aspect to believe (in a film with, I repeat, magic hats) is that Blunt could be a ballet dancer, let alone a future star of the medium. I’m by no means saying that the British beauty has anything to worry about in appearance, but she does not have a ballet dancer’s dangerously minuscule physique. Natalie Portman in Black Swan looked like a real-deal ballerina of fragile frame. Blunt doesn’t have the movement or the physique.

In his directorial debut, Nolfi does enough good things, and does them with a smooth sense of style, to impress. The visual trick of going in one door and opening to another world walks a dangerous line of over saturation, but it’s playfully utilized enough to forgive. Nolfi is not perfect with his plotting, falling to misstep that can push back momentum. Characters will be chatting, and then they’ll walk away and we’ll get a title card that says something like, “Three years later,” and it sort of makes it feel like we have to start all over again. The fact that this happens more than once means that Nolfi might have wanted to plot his story around a series of events that occurred more often than Senate election terms. If we have to begin with David losing one campaign at the start and then zoom ahead at several points through another campaign, then perhaps the timeline could have been condensed a bit in retrospect. The film manages to be religious and faith affirming without pushing an agenda or overstating its romantic cause. The ones behind the plan are only referenced in oblique business terms, never confirming a certain high power but definitely nodding in that general direction.

Damon and Blunt are a terrific team. This is easily Blunt’s finest role as an actress since breaking out in 2006’s Devil Wears Prada. The actress has taken many a role that makes use of her large crystalline eyes and her sometimes go-to acting response of simpering. But in this film, she finally finds that perfect role that makes use of Blunt’s modest, goofy charm. She’s never been a leading actress in a traditional set; there’s always been a delightful goofy appeal that set her apart. When Blunt offers her playful smiles and asserts those glassy eyes of hers, you too will be smitten. Her character is a charming woman thanks to Nolfi’s writing, but having an actress of Blunt’s ability fill her out is a blessing. Damon is at a point in his career where he just grinds out good-to-great performances that manage to be convincing in unassuming, dignified ways. Damon has never been an actor given to the superfluous. His character feels like a sincere sport, which is amazing considering he’s supposed to be playing a politician. He’s the kind of guy you’d actually stand in the rain to vote for, and you understand why Elise would keep a place tucked away deep in her heart for the dashing Damon.

While the movie hinges on the coupling of Damon and Blunt, the rest of the supporting cast does fine work matching tone and making the most of their roles. Actors like Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Terrence Stamp (Valkyrie), and Michael Kelly (Changling) can make any movie better.

The Adjustment Bureau, on paper, should not work. A sci-fi fantasy that’s unapologetically grounded in romance. A tone that nestles firmly in a safe, bubble-wrapped whimsy. And those magic hats, need we forget them? On paper this should be one overly silly, dumb, tonally disjointed, cornball movie worth venomous mocking. And yet it works; it does better than “works,” it succeeds. Blunt and Damon are terrifically charming together and imbue the movie with a sense of cheerful optimism in the face of uncertainty (and perhaps heaven itself). You desperately want these two crazy kids to get back together; they’re good, decent, charming people, winning personalities apart and even better together. What might have fallen apart in other hands becomes this endearing, fizzy piece of studio entertainment that fulfills and exceeds most expectations. I was really taken by this movie, won over by its effusive charm offensive, and left buoyant with happiness by the time the tidy, perhaps too tidy ending, came rolling. The Adjustment Bureau is hooey but it’s my kind of hooey.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

This lushly animated tale about good owls, and bad owls, but mostly owls feels indebted to Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIHM. There’s a legendary story about the guardians who would save the… remaining owls? The plot doesn’t ever really leap beyond the basic fantasy concepts of good and evil, heroic and manipulative. It’s hard for the tale’s drama to reach grandiose heights because, well, it’s owls. Not anthropomorphic owls, pretty much plain old owls. Some characters were just hard to distinguish between. I can firmly say that some things work better on page than screen, and descriptions of grand owl societies and owl-on-owl combat are definitely items that, when fully realized in such a literal fashion, just come across as goofy. Being directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), the movie looks gorgeously rendered but fails to leave any emotional mark for anybody who has ever seen a scrappy band of misfits topple the mean bad guys. The action follows the Snyder fast-slow-fast visual motif, which allows the audience opportunities to drink in the visual effects work. The mostly Australian vocal cast, plus Helen Mirren, provides some levels of amusement, but it’s the story that ultimately disappoints. Legends of the Guardians looks fantastic, but it’s story is far from legendary. And they needed to have a pop song by Owl City because the man has “owl” in his name, apparently.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)

Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker behind Enron and Taxi to the Dark Side, rolls out his third 2010 entry in what must have been a rather exhausting year for the man. The focus is on former New York attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer and his fall from grace after being linked to a high-end prostitution ring. Gibney charts the man’s rise and fall in a fairly straightforward and engaging manner, though you start to wonder if there’s really enough material to fill out a two-hour feature. Spitzer speaks candidly and will not humbly vanish as some may wish; the man is an intriguing mixture of righteousness, ego, and humility. What’s most fascinating about Client 9 (named after Spitzer’s name in the FBI sting) is that Spitzer gained a wealth of enemies when he went after Wall Street largesse and greedy shenanigans, and they all want to be on camera. No one with a serious grudge against Spitzer, including men who have since been convicted of crimes and ethics violations, refuses an interview. Gibney draws together a fairly convincing thesis on the take-down of Spitzer, a cabal of powerful execs, politically motivated prosecutors in the Bush administration, and government officials who reject accountability. It’s all circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but there’s a mountain of it. There is a definite conservative-backed coordinated effort to sully and embarrass the man. But ultimately, Spitzer admits that he is responsible for his sins. You will never get full satisfying clarity as to why he sought out the comfort of prostitutes in the first place. I don’t think even Spitzer knows for sure. But that’s an age-old mystery that can’t be tied up in two hours.

Nate’s Grade: B

Unknown (2011)

With Liam Neeson kicking ass in a European country, fighting a nefarious conspiracy, and trying to reclaim what has been taken from him, you’d be excused for thinking that Unknown is a sequel to the highly popular Taken. And the films do share plenty in common. Both involve Neeson trying to regain his life against a ludicrous conspiracy, and both are equally ludicrous in their action sequences, and yet both are fun, passably diversionary entertainment. Neeson gets into a car accident to find that his wife (January Jones, blankly Betty Drapier wherever she goes) doesn’t recognize him and enjoys the company of another man asserting the identity of Neeson. Is he really crazy? That idea lasts about ten minutes before the bad guys and their bad guy accents come to kill Neeson and tie up a loose end. The action is swift, well edited, and fairly exciting, a highpoint being a thrilling car chase through the streets of Berlin. The movie has enough clues and questions to string along an audience, though by film’s end you wish you got more scenes with Neeson in full-on attack mode, as seen in Taken from start to finish. What is it about losing one’s memory that always turns men and women into better people? Perhaps prison rehabilitation should consist of a Flinstones-esque treatment of knocks to the head to adjust moral consciousness for the better.

Nate’s Grade: B

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

The next in an endless assembly line of vapid horror remakes, a new trip to the realm of Elm Street at least held some promise. The famous boogeyman Freddy Kruger was going to be played by Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). Has any other actor of Haley’s caliber played a blatant slasher villain in recent memory? And the playground of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was the world of dreams, which should be fruitful territory for some bug screen chills. I mean you don’t have to adhere to earth logic anymore, not that horror movies tend to. I didn’t expect much but I expected the movie to do more. Many of the signature moments from the first film are simply repeated. How does an entire school of young kids forget that Mr. Krueger molested them? What is the point of hiring Haley and giving him nothing to do? Lead actress Rooney Mara (soon to be seen in as the “girl” in David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) looks as bored as somebody watching her movie. Her performance is lifeless for a film that requires energy and action. There is such wasted potential in the world of reams and personal fears. The whole movie just feels so rote and routine, following an established pattern of terrorizing the teens and knocking them off one-by-one; you get an overwhelming impression that everyone was just going through the motions, repeating someone else’s song and not bothering to make it their own.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Eagle (2011)

In 140 AD, the Roman Empire has spread its reach across the European continent. Commander Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is stationed in northern Britain. 20 years earlier, Marcus’ father led a legion of Romans into the northern British territory. The natives attacked them and Rome’s golden eagle, a significant idol under the guidance of Marcus Senior, was lost to history. Marcus has endured shame and vowed to redeem his family name. After surviving a nightly attack at the fort, Marcus displays great bravery but is injured. He’s honorably discharged from the Roman military. While he regains his strength, Marcus plans on venturing into the northern British highlands and finding that missing eagle. He teams up with Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave whose life he saved, and the duo goes beyond the wall that separates civilization (Rome) for the wilderness (native Britons).

Too often The Eagle feels like its wings were clipped. With such life and death stakes, the movie feels curiously adrift and prosaic. It never feels like it has any rush to go anywhere. In some regard, that makes the film feel like a product of the Hollywood of old, where a plot was allowed to meander and marinate to build to something worthwhile. But The Eagle is hardly worthwhile. It begins with some amount of excitement but that quickly dissipates with an interminable middle that feels like it’s still going on even as I write this. The plot is far too lean to cover a wide canvas, and the characters are far too shallow and incurious. They say so little, and what they do say means so little. It’s general variations on the idea of honor and sacrifice. They’re just focused on retrieving the prize. Meaningful conversation would just get in the way of things. The character dynamics between Marcus and Esca is stilted and kept at a distance. The class struggle and history of foreign occupation is never really addressed beyond a superficial nod. It’s like being stuck with two boring guys on a long, uninteresting road trip. Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, Last King of Scotland) gives the proceedings a docudrama touch thanks to his background in nonfiction films; too often this means he goes on half-baked Terrence Malick-like asides to admire a grain of wheat or some old artifact. The docudrama approach seems to conflict with the relatively old fashioned feel for this film, like Macdonald is trying to do his best to lift up material in want. There’s just so little at the core of this movie.

Tatum (G.I. Joe, Step Up) tries some form of an accent, though I’m not exactly sure what region of the Roman Empire the man is hailing from. He still has an imposing presence that manages to fill in the gaps of his acting ability, much in classic Hollywood tradition. And yet the man seemed more masculine in a Nicholas Sparks movie from last year. Bell (King Kong, Jumper) takes his haunted, submissive character to heart and gives a performance that confuses submission with understatement. He main mode of acting is the power of serious staring. The two actors don’t ever develop any onscreen sense of camaraderie or warmth. Even during the climax, you never feel like these guys have anything more than a civil employer/employee relationship. That’s why the laugh-out-loud, tonally jarring ending seems so out of place. Instead, Marcus and Esca strut through the halls of Rome, music triumphantly rocking out, and says, “What do you want to do now?” like they’re lining up weekly wacky adventures to be had. You’ll be surprised to see actors like Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, and even A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim littered among the cast. Why are they in this movie when they have such insignificant parts compared to their bland leads?

The colonial perspective also started rubbing me the wrong way. Now colonial tales have long been featured in pop culture. I don’t on the surface have an issue with a storyteller utilizing a massive horde of natives to stand in as an antagonistic force. But sometimes that dynamic creates a skewed rather culturally tactless portrayal. Are the overpowered, conquering empires always blameless? Do the natives, who have been displaced and killed, not have a respectable grievance? Do they not have a right to fight for the lands that have been taken? Too often, the natives are viewed as blunt brutes (just watch the “cowboys and Indian” pictures from the 1950s) and the figures of expansion are viewed as heroic pioneers. The Britons come across as, essentially, the Indians. The filmmakers always want us to side with our hunky hero Marcus and his quest for honor at every turn, but the movie takes great turns to make the natives seem extra villainous. For a while they just come across like another culture. They have community, customs, and the like; it’s just not the dominant culture’s community and customs. And then, in an appalling moment of cheap melodrama, the Briton chief kills a child to send a message to Marcus and his Romans. This material is handled so indelicately that an unsettling undercurrent emerges and gains steady traction.

So what if the Britons stole one gold eagle 20 years ago? “It’s not just a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome,” we are reminded by Marcus. Symbols are great, but a one-man search in a land as large as Scotland seems impractical so many years hence. And then you have to take into account the time passage. It’s been two decades seen this beloved bauble went M.I.A., and damn near anything could have happened to it. It could have been thrown into the ocean. It could have been buried. It could have been smashed to smithereens. It could have been taken to another land. It could have been melted down into smaller, gift-shop sized eagles on sale to the general public. I’m just saying that in the ensuing 20 years anything could have happened to this bird. The fact that one guy can traipse on foot through Scotland and the first group of natives he runs into happen to possess the artifact that went missing 20 years prior is just insulting. First chance and he lucks in? I was eagerly waiting for an ending where Marcus, brimming with pride at having returned the eagle to Rome, is informed by one of the politicians that it’s the wrong eagle (“Here we go again!”).

The Eagle is dressed up to be an old time adventure story, but it’s just too slovenly paced and generically plotted to work. The lead characters are bland, distant, and noble to the point of annoyance. When a character is defined entirely as forward thinking, exceptionally lucky, ethically straight figure of honor, excuse me when I start to yawn. And when all he’s tasked with is finding an old relic that miraculously happens to be with the first freaking group of people he finds, then excuse me for eyeing my watch. The Eagle has some workmanlike action and suspense to it, brief moments of activity over what is in essence two hours of silent walking (it’s like somebody cut out the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie and sold it). The Eagle, both the film and the titular hunk of metal, are simply not worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

MacGuber (2010)

Far far worse than I was expecting, this is what happens when you expand a 30-second Saturday Night Live sketch to a full-blown movie. MacGruber, a one-joke parody of MacGyver, becomes a one-joke movie. It’s about an inept special agent who has to save the world from a criminal madman (Val Kilmer, why?). The flimsy plot would be acceptable if the movie had any sort of comedic momentum, but the jokes are sloppy and uninspired, often confusing naughtiness with humor. Just because something is brash or raunchy or shocking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny. Will Forte, as the title agent, tries too hard with material that doesn’t work hard enough. Villains with naughty sounding names? Sight gags a plenty? This movie makes the Austin Powers franchise look cutting edge. There isn’t enough focus for this to work as parody. MacGruber feels like what a bunch of 12-year-old boys would throw together if left unattended for a weekend with their parent’s credit card. The sketch was never meant to last over a minute by design, so you can expect what 87 more dreary minutes would produce.

Nate’s Grade: D

Let Me In (2010)

Essentially a faithful remake of the Swedish pre-teen vampire romance, Let the Right One In, this American reinterpretation loses points in originality and freshness but makes up for it with a bigger budget and better acting. Even fans of the original, and count me as one, must admit that Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) as a pint-sized vampire stuck forever in pre-pubescence, and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) as her aging caretaker, are upgrades. The true surprise is the eerie assuredness of the entire production from director Matt Reeves, he of shaky-cam Cloverfield fame. The entire film just feels so placidly precise, even as it draws tension and sets up for one vicious poolside climax. Some of the audience unfriendly moments from the original have been exorcised (say goodbye to lingering gender identity questions), but Let Me In still happily dwells in an unsettling place, forcing its characters to do questionable things in the name of companionship and forcing the audience to decide how they fell about that. Also, the film still retains its ambiguity for interpretation; whether you view it as a depressing saga of use and abuse, or an disaffected teen romance is entirely up to you. Let Me In won’t grab peoples’ attention in the same way its Scandinavian predecessor did, but it doesn’t screw it up either. And these days, that’s got to count for a lot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

I Am Number Four (2011)

Despite being based upon a young adult book series, I Am Number Four is an unfortunate title. What do you call the sequel? I Am Number Four 2? I Remain Number Four? Let’s not even mention the obvious pan that is begging to be covered by that title (“I Am Number Four? More like I Am Number Two!”).

Number Four, a.k.a. “John” (Alex Pettyfer), is your normal teenage alien hiding on Planet Earth and trying to live a regular life while eluding intergalactic mercenaries. Numero Quatro has relocated to the town of Paradise, Ohio with Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his alien guardian who poses as dear old dad. The two are trying to keep a low profile because Number Four is one of the last nine super-powered aliens from a dead planet. The aliens develop different special abilities as they mature and Number Four has begun to notice that his hands glow in the dark. Number Four catches the attention of Sarah (Dianna Agron), a pretty gal whose ex-boyfriend happens to be the super jealous quarterback. Number Four also befriends the school’s nerd (Callan McAuliffe) who thinks his father was taken by aliens. He’s not exactly keeping the desire low profile. Numbers 1-3 have been killed by a pack of alien mercenaries who intend to dominate Earth, and now Number Four is next.

While neither special nor afflicting, I Am Number Four is a pretty mundane, mediocre, special effects driven goof aimed primarily at young teen males. The plot lacks any trace of nuance and seems fantastical in what should even be ordinary. The Ohio town is one of those small towns that exist in the minds of west coast studio executives, where everyone gathers round for a carnival and the roads are mostly of the dirt variety. Sarah’s family is one of those ideal, chatty families that exist primarily in the minds of nostalgia. They don’t just sit around and chew their food; they are actively involved in dinner cutesy dinnertime games and cutesy embarrassing interactivity. But the movie never lets you think about these inauthentic tidbits for long before more explosions or colorful special effects rattle you. The plot follows an almost mechanical process, supplying some PG-13 skin (ladies in low rise jeans! Cleavage!) or some rudimentary chase scenes at a fairly brisk pace. The story borrows liberally from many sources, including a dash of super powered loner Spiderman stuff, angsty teen romance from Twilight, and a sprinkle of whatever is playing on TV right now as you sit reading this.

The action is never really takes off beyond the general concept of Things Exploding and People Running. Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) can string together a series of pleasing visuals but they never amount to much. The film lacks real suspense and any risible sense of excitement. The action sequences are disposable but at least Caruso makes sure that the audience can follow along. I thought with all the sci-fi elements that the film would make more interesting choices, but alas I Am Number Four relies all too easily along commonplace action tropes like it’s an accomplishment. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) gets to walk away from an explosion in slow-motion (while she wears sunglasses). Nobody in town seems to ever pick up on the mounting collateral damage of this interstellar spat. Caruso and the screenwriters are too content to just be happy playing with the special effects toolbox, emulating the favorite moments of the sci-fi action genre. And one of those tropes is that ANIMALS CAN NEVER DIE. Number 4 has a shape-shifting guardian pet that decides to take the form of a dog. Then when things get rough, this dog mutates into a hulking CGI creature, which still looks like a dog. And when he gets wounded fighting another CGI monster, it’s not enough that we get the pained dog cry but the filmmakers decide that he also has to transform back into a regular Earth dog at this point to hammer home the image of pooch in trouble. Shameless to the very end. And then, during our resolution this space dog has to come hobbling out.

Fortunately for the audience, the actors are all rather beautiful. Pettyfer (Alex Rider) isn’t much when it comes to this thing called acting, but he’s got abs you could scrub laundry with and really that’s half the part of playing a hunk from outer space. I give the guy more credit just for having to be saddled with the lame superpower of glowy hands. It’s a long wait for those glowy hands to become instruments that launch glowy fireballs. For most of their screen time, Pettyfer’s power just looks like he’s clenching two very powerfully charged indigo-glowing cell phones. Olyphant (Deadwood, Hitman) is too young for me to be covering as the dad to a 17-year-old kid. I still remember Olyphant in 1999’s Go. Maybe that’s just my hang-up. The ladies are all gorgeous are all in the flawless skin and teeth variety, you know, the ones that populate every small town. No one truly makes much of an impression but they’re easy on the eyes. It’s like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue come to life with extra explosions (and more clothes).

The only actor that stands out is Kevin Durand and he’s under pounds of makeup as the chief villain. Durand first came to serious attention as a season-long villain on TV’s Lost as Martin Keamy. He has a real distinct menace that doesn’t come across as self-satisfying or ironic. He’s got a real presence and it seems like casting directors have caught on to this former Canadian standup comedian. From there Durand has become something of a go-to guy when it comes to large intimidating men and men with some kind of mild speech impediment; his characters in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Legion, and even Robin Hood all sounded like they had their mouths stuffed with cotton. Durand always has a good time with his bad guy roles, whether they are flinty or over-the-top. I enjoy watching this man onscreen even if he’s under some fairly lackluster creature makeup that makes him look like a tattooed shark man.

The point that caught my attention, and was scantily mentioned but once without nary a rejoinder from any character, was the fact that the big bad evil aliens are killing the alien teens in order. No reason is ever attempted. There are nine super alien teens but for some reason these interstellar killers are uncontrollably anal-retentive (“We may be vicious monsters, but we respect the value of numerology”). It makes little strategic sense to stick to the doctrine of taking out your enemy one at a time and in a predetermined order that everyone knows about. It also means that presumably Number 9 will be the hardest to vanquish since they will have the longest time to master their super power. Later on, Number 4 gets an added boost from a sexy, slinky Aussie who happens to be Number 6. My first thought: “What the hell happened to Number 5?” Then I figured that Number 5 has to be locked away somewhere in a protective safe house at an unknown location. Because that affords Number 6 to do whatever the hell she wants; the evil aliens would just have to stop and say, “Look Number 6, we’d really, truly love to vaporize you right now, but first we gotta go find and kill Number 5 first. See ya later.” If that’s the case then Number’s 7-9 need to get off the bench and team up. Number 4 can’t keep this up forever, guys.

I Am Number Four is tailor-made for a young male audience that doesn’t have the urge to see something harder or edgier. It’s got superfluous jet-ski stunts, girls with flat tummies, explosions, cool space weaponry, CGI monsters, villains in long black trench coats, failed attempts at romance, a dog, and even a reference to famous Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. It’s not an incoherent cacophony of light and sound like you’d find in a Michael Bay film; director D.J. Caruso is like Bay lite with more self-discipline. I Am Number Four is fairly derivative stuff but nothing worth getting upset about. After you see derivatives of derivatives, you start forgiving the final product for lacking any discernible flavor. All of the elements come together in rather harmless fashion making a rather empty but harmless sci-fi action flick.

Nate’s Grade: C

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