The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon tries to explain that the Sarah Silverman music video was a joke.

(2011) Science Fiction (Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Anthony Ruvivar, Lauren Hodges, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by George Nolfi

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the universe works – one in which things are pre-determined, planned in advance and that we are helpless to escape our destiny. The other says things are random chance and our own free will determines our choices.

David Norris (Damon) is an ambitious politician who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He’s running for Senate and has a big lead in the polls until a photo from his college days sinks him. He is in a hotel bathroom, running over his concession speech when he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt) who was hiding from hotel security in a stall when he walked in. They meet, flirt, kiss…and Norris is inspired to deliver a speech that makes him an immediate frontrunner for the next election.

David goes to work for his friend and former campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Kelly), a venture capitalist. David is on his way to work when he meets, quite by chance, Elise on a bus. A man in an old-fashioned suit wearing a fedora who we later found out is named Harry Mitchell (Mackie), chases the bus, trying desperately to spill coffee on the former Congressman. He is unsuccessful and David not only gets Elise’s phone number, he gets to work on time.

There he finds things a little strange. Nobody is moving…the people are frozen in position. Strangely dressed men are holding up strange instruments to Charlie’s forehead. David takes off in a dead run to try and escape but he’s captured. He is brought to a large warehouse-like space where another man – dressed similarly to Harry in a grey suit and a fedora – named Richardson (Slattery) tells him that he’s seen behind a curtain he wasn’t supposed to know existed.

You see, life is supposed to go according to plan – a specific plan – and they’re the guys who make sure it does. David and Elise were not supposed to meet again, as it turns out – they’re not meant to be together. Richardson burns the number Elise gave him and sends him on his way with a warning never to tell anybody about the Adjustment Bureau – or else he’ll be lobotomized.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game between David and the Adjustment Bureau. David trying to get back together again with Elise…the Bureau trying to keep them apart. Eventually, a higher-up named Thompson (Stamp) is drawn into the case but how can David find the love of his life when men who can alter reality itself are arrayed against him?

George Nolfi is directing for the first time; he’s better known as a writer for such movies as Oceans 12. He shows a surprisingly deft hand at the helm – he’s got a solid future in directing if he continues to direct.

He also scripted, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose works have been turned into such films as Minority Report, Total Recall and Blade Runner. Movies based on Dick’s work have varied in execution; this one, I’m happy to say, is one of the better ones. It brings up an age-old argument in a sci-fi setting and while Dick was firmly on the free will side of the discussion (as is Nolfi), he does make a credible argument for the other side as well.

Damon is one of the more appealing A-list actors; he has become a terrific everyman in the vein of Jimmy Stewart, and he continues to improve with every performance. This is another one, and he is certainly solid again, dependable and likable. He also has good chemistry with Blunt; while her character is a little bit bland, she does an admirable job filling it. Their back and forth reminds me a bit of the romantic comedies of the 50s.

There aren’t a lot of special effects; mostly the effects are optical, particularly in sequences involving doorways that transport the bureau men from one place to places far away. There’s a chase sequence involving David and the Bureau men late in the film that’s dazzling but also dizzying…it’s a little disorienting even as David goes by a variety of New York landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. It’s on the breathtaking side.

Mackie is emerging as a tremendous actor. An Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, he is very solid here as a Bureau man with a conscience. Slattery, who is one of those “you’ve seen his face but don’t know his name” kind of guys, also does real well as the bureaucrat (pun intended). Terence Stamp is, well, Terence Stamp.

While the movie is being marketed in Bourne-like fashion (Universal has worked with Damon on those films) this really isn’t. It’s a bit of a pastiche – part romantic comedy, part morality play, part sci-fi action thriller. It’s unusual and while not innovative, it fits the bill for a springtime action movie that probably would have drowned in the summer with all the more spectacular blockbusters. Still, it’s a solid and surprisingly thoughtful movie that even has a few religious overtones – you draw your own conclusions as to who the chairman is. This is the kind of movie that has good juju – it’s entertaining and smart. You can’t ask for more than that.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting concept nicely accomplished. Damon is becoming a 21st century Jimmy Stewart.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot ideas are a little hard to follow and the final chase scene is disorienting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a little bit of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the short story which the movie is based on, the lead character is an insurance salesman rather than a politician.  

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the overhead city shots benefit from the big screen, most of the rest of the movie works on the small screen just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: What Goes Up

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe