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Rated M

Director: Robert Luketic

Stars: Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Zac Efron, David Schwimmer, Amy Adams, Halle Berry, Kenan Thompson, Gong Li, Shakira, Michael Caine, Daniel Day Lewis, Miley Cyrus, Jessica Alba, Cate Blanchett, Luis Guzman

THE PLOT: Ten intertwining stories of love and romance, in which ten different couples face a terrible crisis in their relationship when the woman suspects the man of infidelity, only for it to be hilariously revealed – ten times – that it was actually his sister she saw him with.

***

In Robert Luketic’s latest feather-light slice of sugary rom-com, based on a napkin stolen from Richard Curtis’s pocket, a dazzling all-star cast bring big laughs and touching moments of tenderness, as the Australian auteur directs like a master puppeteer, skilfully manipulating all the diverse strands before finally bringing them together in a finale at the Taj Mahal that plays out like a hyper-realistic interpretation of David Lean’s version of Don Quixote, in a surprisingly literal way.

As is only natural in a multi-narrative film like this one, some stories come through more strongly than others, and in particular, the revelations that the supposed mistress is in fact the hero’s sister vary from stunning, moving and uproarious to dull and viciously racist. For example, the story strand following Harvey Keitel’s dishevelled circus acrobat and Ellen Burstyn’s haughty Tongan princess on a quest to find a Zurich chocolate shops snaps and crackles with screwball dialogue and sizzling chemistry, only enhanced by the denouement wherein Keitel makes a miraculous recovery from ebola; whereas on the other hand the story of Danny DeVito trying to win back the heart of Miley Cyrus by becoming an astronaut coms across as both unrealistic and gratuitously pornographic, although there are laughs to be had in Miley’s cringe-inducing stint in an Amsterdam brothel window.

Other highlights include Kenan Thompson and Cate Blanchett’s tense two-hander in a torture dungeon, and Gong Li, Shakira and Daniel Day-Lewis playing out a heart-rending love triangle over the course of a charity fun run, while the weakest section all in all is probably Luis Guzman and Zac Efron’s gay Bedouins, with Jessica Alba totally unconvincing as an elderly camel driver, and Michael Caine’s sudden appearance as Alfred from Batman Begins confusing to say the least.

And yet, in the end, That’s My Sister! succeeds on the basis of its enormous heart, good-natured skewering of human foibles, and inreasingly foul-mouthed humour. The perfect way to spend a Saturday night for all lovers of wacky misunderstandings.

REVIEW: Stolypin!

Rated MA

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Gwen Stefani, Albert Finney, Denzel Washington, Jet Li, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Paxton, Nia Vardalos

***

THE PLOT: In early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Pattinson) attempts to reconcile his desire for agrarian reform with his love of song-and-dance routines, and his quest to win the heart of Anna (Stefani), the peasant girl he has lusted after ever since having her father hanged.

The musical has come somewhat back into fashion in recent years, with films like Chicago, Hairspray and Hellraiser vs Mame lighting up the box office. Given we have had musicals about Eva Peron, PT Barnum, and Dr Jekyll, a musical about nearly-known Russian PM Pyotr Stolypin was a no-brainer in more ways than one. And who better to mount a lavish historical musical epic than king of the musicals Vincente Minnelli? “Lots of people,” would be the answer from many, given Minnelli has been dead for some time. Yet, undeterred, the folks at 20th Century Fox used old notebooks, diaries, and sketches, to allow Minnelli to direct the film from beyond the grave. Given the difficulties inherent in constructing a movie without a director, issuing instructions to cast and crew from a series of sources that were in no way related to the movie being made, and which were mainly written 50 years ago by a man who never heard of the project, the result came up remarkably well, even if you can, for example, occasionally see that Robert Pattinson has been working in some scenes from notes intended for Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me In St Louis.

The film is in some ways a triumph of style over substance – we are given glimpses of the socio-political issues of pre-revolutionary Russia, without ever truly getting to grips with them. For example, on seventeen different occasions we are shown a slow-motion depiction of one of Stolypin’s political enemies being hanged, but each time, instead of exploring the deeper resonances of the violence inherent in the Tsarist system, we cut away to a picnic.

Narratively, though, the film cannot be faulted, as it follows the classic three-act structure: we see young Pyotr go through university and meet his wife Olga, and rise to the position of Prime Minister; before then meeting and falling for Anna (a surprisingly sensuous portrayal by pop star Stefani, who made the brave but ultimately triumphant decision to play the character as a triple amputee – all the more impressive given all of her limbs are clearly visible throughout). We then see him fight against the Tsarist bureaucracy, who wish to stymie his plans for reform and the development of a successful middle class, while simultaneously seducing Anna and plotting to kill Olga and his six children in a series of escalatingly comical vignettes. The final act is concerned with Stolypin’s attempt to forge a career as a graphic designer after losing his job, and his final zany flight from his assassins, which creates a spectacular, Busby Berkeley-style death scene, complete with singing blood.

At the core of the story is Pattinson’s dark, brooding performance as Stolypin. Pattinson, in a major shift away from his dark, brooding performances in the Twilight series, delivers his best dark, brooding performance yet, accurately conveying the inner turmoil of a man who dreams of a better future for his country, but is beset by self-doubt, political opposition, and a wife who won’t die. His sex scenes with Stefani are also tastefully yet pornographically done – you feel you are actually there in the room being splattered with tomato sauce. Pattinson’s deep, soulful eyes, combined with his compellingly tremulous singing voice and little acting flourishes, such as his dramatic removal of his false beard in moments of high emotion, or his habit of wandering offscreen in the middle of conversations, leaving his co-stars talking to nobody, make up for a mesmerising picture of a man in moral crisis.

Stefani’s performance, as noted earlier, is equally impressive, although in several of the musical numbers she struggles with high notes, and in some shots the welts on her back are visible from the beatings meted out by Fox executives whenever her voice failed necessitating retakes.

The rest of the cast is solid, if unspectacular. Nia Vardalos is reliable as ever as Olga, Stolypin’s harridan wife who claims to be acting her husband’s best interests, but is actually secretly selling homemade videos of him in the bath. The only quibble to be had with her performance is that she is Nia Vardalos, but to be fair she cannot help this.

Elsewhere, Albert Finney brings quiet dignity and an amusing pair of novelty spectacles to Tsar Nicholas II, while Denzel Washington is by turns crafty and epileptically violent as Lenin. Jet Li’s Rasputin steals several scenes, while Bill Paxton, as Stolypin’s best friend Arnie, shines both in the numerous picnic scenes, and in several charming quiet moments at the winter palace, where Arnie and Pyotr retreat to play chess, discuss existential matters, and kill strippers.

Michelle Pfeiffer, unfortunately, is a disappointment as Stolypin’s feisty schizophrenic Aunt Millie, reciting her lines as if reading them off a piece of cardboard, and making the crucial error of holding the cardboard in her hand as she reads them. It is also never explained why she is, in every scene, sitting on a penny farthing bicycle. In fact it is never explained why she is in every scene at all. She is a minor peripheral character, making her appearance in the background of sex scenes in rural barns, cabinet meetings with the Tsar, and on the deck of the battleship Potemkin during the uprising, all the while sitting silently on her bicycle, somewhat ludicrous.

However, as always, it is the songs that make or break a musical, and this film has a bunch of beauties. Pattinson’s big show-stopper, “Tsars In My Eyes”, will no doubt gain a lot of the plaudits, but Stefani’s belter “Stolypin Won’t You Stop Stolypin’ Me?” equals it for power and emotional heft. On the lighter side, Finney and Li’s jaunty polka number “Disputin’ With Rasputin” brings a smile to proceedings, while a brilliant cameo by Sting for the song “Quit Stalin!” will be talked about for many years. From “Necktie of Love” to “Bowled Over By A Bolshevik” to the touching torch song “My Agrarian Contrarian”, it’s an all-killer, no-filler line-up of toe-tapping thrills.

Minnelli can be congratulated for an effective slice of pure entertainment, which makes up in energy what it lacks in historical authenticity or sets that don’t fall over. If one really wished to criticise Minnelli’s efforts, it would be to note that entire scenes within Stolypini are verbatim repeats of scenes from Father of the Bride and Brigadoon, and it must be admitted that all of the cast look uncomfortable when Stolypin and Tsar Nicholas face off over the question of peasants’ rights, and segue awkwardly into a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz routine from The Long, Long Trailer. Nevertheless, for a dead man, he did remarkably well, and it is doubtful that any living director would have brought quite so much chutzpah to the job.

Rated R

Director:  Kenneth Branagh

Stars: French Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Dane Cook, Stanley Tucci, Adam Sandler, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Billy Crystal

****

PLOT: The colourful Professor le Spindle (Stewart), feeling restless seven years after having renounced his life of adventure for one of domesticity with his wife Erma (Bonham Carter), sets out to discover the underground city of Hobdenville, which his brother (Sandler) disappeared while searching for. On his dangerous quest he meets various strange and wonderful creatures, including a talking mouse (Hathaway), a man-eating bowl of soup (Crystal), and Mark Twain (Depardieu), all of whom aid him in his quest before then betraying him, repenting, aiding him some more, and then dying. Eventually he reaches the end of his journey and discovers that the city of Hobdenville was inside him all along, and is forced to admit some hard truths about himself and his self-destructive drug addiction.

For guaranteed movie success, there’s no doubt that you can’t go past a lengthy title. In recent years, we’ve seen such masterpieces as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, its less-lauded imitator The Execution of Cardinal Richelieu by Sexy Nude Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the steampunk stylings of Harry Wilstetter and the Magical Computer Virus of Doom that Travels through Time and Shoots Lasers and is Witty, and the multiple Oscar-winner Sarah, Macy, Lucy, Annette, Isabel, Hilda, Jolene, Nina, Amanda, Olivia, Catherine, Terri, Tenielle, Rosario and Henrietta, the Dangerous Murdering Prostitute Sisters of Late 19th-Century Carson City. And yet nobody before Kenneth Branagh has had the courage to meld a genuinely long title with a good old-fashioned globetrotting romp.

The Peculiar Adventures doesn’t start all that promisingly – many viewers in the preview screening were left scratching their heads trying to figure out why this heavily-promoted action-adventure flick was starting with an explicit sex scene between Adolf Hitler and a Japanese geisha. Fortunately, all becomes clear soon enough: Professor Herman le Spindle is not only the illegitimate son of Hitler and the geisha, but also dresses himself in a curious combination of traditional geisha garb and SS uniform to constantly remind himself of his roots. We too are reminded of this throughout the film thanks to le Spindle’s repeated flashbacks to images of Hitler’s swollen genitalia and a booming off-screen voice shouting “Remember this?” It’s helpful, and doesn’t intrude on the story as much as you might think.

And the story is an absolute cracker. Incorporating the principles of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and tragicomic riffs on classic narratives such as the Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, The Chronicles of Narnia, Catcher in the Rye, Field of Dreams, the Book of Revelation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Little Women and Star Wars, we watch, fascinated, as the good professor journeys through worlds both bizarre and mundane, meeting new friends, learning valuable lessons, and regularly singing catchy songs about helping each other and eating a balanced diet. It is these songs in particular that make the five and a half hour running time seem barely half that long, while also keeping a strong emotional core to the action. It would be easy to become detached when watching Herman and his newly befriended bowl of soup giggling shrilly as they hack a tribe of sleeping Bedouins to death while in the throes of an acid trip; but when, five minutes later, Herman stands sadly, singing to the desert moon, “I know I’ll feel better/if I eat my breads and grains”, you are hit with the full force of the Professor’s lonely yet nutritious quest.

Branagh is not necessarily known for his mastery of special effects – witness the several scenes in Frankenstein when the monster’s head briefly turns into an audience shot from The Price is Right – but here he excels himself, melding CGI, stop-motion animation, traditional make-up and marionette puppetry to create wondrous backdrops and stunning set-pieces that reach their zenith in the climactic battle in the Icelandic wastes, when le Spindle dons full body armour to battle a dizzying horde of giant snow-beasts, lion-riding berserkers, many-headed dragons and mid-90s Serbian death squads. What’s truly amazing about this scene is that the nudity never feels gratuitous, even though in a lesser movie the viewer would himself wondering just how the girls avoided freezing to death.

A film like this, of course, rests most of all on the shoulders of the leading man, and Third Rock’s Stewart delivers in spades. Of course, canny observers had always thought he possessed enormous talent, but up until now nobody had suspected it was in acting. And yet in The Peculiar Adventures he pulls off the not-insubstantial task of sympathetically portraying a half-mad, rickets-stricken, bisexual self-loathing Nazi Swiss spelunker with aplomb, switching smoothly between le Spindle’s array of comedy accents and performing every scene with an odd, loping, horse-like walk that perfectly represents inner turmoil and physical deformity. It would be difficult to recall a better performance this year, although I’m sure I can if I try.

The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent, from Bonham Carter as le Spindle’s screeching, chickenpox-ridden wife – balancing her enormous Dutch hat skilfully throughout – to Crystal, whose turn as the foul-mouthed bowl of soup is full of blistering invective and savage violence rarely seen from Crystal during his film career, which suits him well. Hopefully we can see him torturing whores more often in future. It must also be said that the decision to cast Dane Cook as Hitler was inspired, and pays off in spades, as the popular comedian brings a sense of brooding sexuality and easy wit all too often lacking in portrayals of the Fuhrer. Cate Blanchett and Stanley Tucci are, as always, great fun as the two-headed bank manager from whom the professor must gain a large personal loan in order to cross the bridge of death.

The only let-down is Hathaway. As talking mouse Gilberto – a part sh3e was seemingly born for – she struggles with the lengthy rhyming speeches she is required to give, and seems intent on reacting to every piece of news her character receives with an horrific sort of demented rictus and high-pitched puffing sound. Of course, her well-documented falling-out with Branagh over costumes – which saw her refuse to don the mouse costume and therefore appear throughout the film in a dowdy field hockey uniform – didn’t help either, and her entire demeanour is that of an actress who not only doesn’t want to be there, but who is actively trying to spot the director behind the camera so she can shoot him. The revolver she points off-screen for no discernible reason during several scenes adds to this impression.

Fortunately, it is a small fault. Hathaway is not a major character, and her graphic dismemberment hides a multitude of sins. In fact, it’s the genius of the movie as a whole that every time it seems in danger of dragging, a scene of vivid, nightmarish violence springs to life before our eyes to jolt us anew.

If you love movies the way they used to make them – with cameras, and actors standing in front of them saying things – then certain aspects of this movie will appeal to you. If you like rollicking adventures full of loveable eccentrics, spectacular stunts and gut-wrenching emotion such as the sight of a man standing on a mountain crying over a dying Barbary sheep whom he had only just summoned the courage to declare his love for, you will LOVE it. It may even change your life.

REVIEW: Leningrad Slim

Rated PG

Director: Garry Marshall

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Chris Rock, Rip Torn, Anne Hathaway, Topher Grace, Patricia Clarkson, Glenn Close, Zac Efron

THE PLOT: Eddie Staines (Quaid) is a suburban no-hoper, stuck in a dead-end job at the post office, but with dreams of one day joining the CIA and marrying his boss, Madame Sikorski (Hathaway). When his bicycle explodes, leaving him unable to get to his CIA entry exam, it seems all his dreams have evaporated. Until, that is, the entry of the mysterious Leningrad Slim…

Every once in a while, a movie comes along. This is, basically, how the film industry works, and is no great revelation. In fact, if anything, the “once in a while” part is quite an understatement, given that film releases are pretty frequent. But the point is, if they gave out Oscars for movies, Leningrad Slim is exactly the kind of movie that would in all likelihood fulfil all the basic criteria.

There’s a lot to like about Leningrad Slim, not least Dennis Quaid’s heartbreaking turn as the non-titular hero. Eschewing showy melodramatics in favour of slow-burning internal turmoil, Quaid lets every tiny nuance of his character – a raised eyebrow, a sudden shouted obscenity, the unexplained development of a limp which continually switches legs – reveal to us a little more of the pain Eddie is in, so that by the end of the movie, we feel we know him intimately, and want him to go away. So immersive is Quaid’s performance that ten minutes in we have completely forgotten that he is playing an 18-year-old, and instead focus on the existential issues he has to deal with.

Anne Hathaway, as the beautiful Madame Sikorski, has a more thankless task, struggling with her Russian accent and the cardboard box she wears throughout the film. Yet she still has her moments, including one exquisite set-piece involving a sexually aroused orangutan and an ergonomic sofa that is as visually witty as it is horrifyingly inappropriate for a PG movie. Overall, however, one can’t help feeling she would have been better served without the accent, or the box.

As a mood piece, Leningrad Slim works reasonably well, with flat spots quickly addressed with hilarious celebrity cameos, although one migh argue that Marshall has pushed this too far when the entire second act is taken up by movie stars entering Eddie’s office one by one to play a succession of emotionally retarded aspiring postmen – although special mention must be made of Glenn Close, who pulls of a beautifully-mounted song and dance number without once falling off her donkey. Zac Efron also impresses as a transsexual rapist who wants to be loved.

If there is a criticism of the movie, though, it is that it is a tad overlong at 287 minutes, and that it takes too long to reach the climax. Indeed, Leningrad Slim himself only appears on screen five minutes before the end, and Eddie’s plunge into the world of international organised crime and espionage and quest to foil a terrorist plot at Slim’s behest before wooing and bedding Madame Sikorski therefore seems a little rushed. Most of the movie, then, is simply watching Eddie’s daily routine at the post office, including over six hundred close-ups of stamps, and listening to him sigh and occasionally sneeze. Perhaps if Leningrad Slim had at least been mentioned earlier, or if Eddie had in any way indicated his desire for a more exciting life prior to those last five minutes, it would have dragged a little less.

Nevertheless, Quaid’s performance, some stunning camerawork, and a beautiful sepia tone combine to make this a movie that you might as well see, given there’s very little else worthwhile doing in life. Which is really the movie’s message, after all.

Here’s a quick sneak peek at the hottest must-see summer blockbusters, just to give you a taste of what’s in store next time you hit up the local cinema:

Aged in Oak – A grizzled wine merchant, grieving for his dead wife, learns to open his heart when fate throws him together with a feisty eight-year-old girl with no head. Together they travel to Canada in a mobile home to buy a wooden prosthesis, and learn the value of intimate perversions. Starring Vin Diesel and Raven Symone, with Nick Nolte as Charles Dickens.
 
Things of Grub – David Lynch writes and directs a strange, surreal journey through the mind of a fiery Spanish elm tree. A comment of the dark side of contemporary America, with Steve Carell as the Nipple Queen and David Schwimmer as Black Beauty.
 
Greg – A hilarious romp, with Freddie Prinze Sr bringing the house down as a wacky corpse who sets out to win the heart of Julia Roberts, played by Demi Moore. Directed by Willie Nelson.
 
How to Molest A Girl in Ten Days – The long-awaited sequel to smash hit Bicentennial Man sees kd lang turn in a searing performance as Elwood the retired electrician, who finds a new purpose in life by entering strangers’ homes and fingering sleeping women.
 
Lazy Susan – Nicholas Cage (not to be confused with the actor) plays Jean-Marie Denouille, a French aristocrat struggling to bring up a severely crippled sea lion. Helen Hunt pops up as Napoleon, while director Penny Marshall plays both herself and the Peninsular Army.
 
The Life and Times of Henri Bergson – Deceptively titled biopic about the career of Ira Gershwin. Meg Ryan is in top form as Harpo Marx, and the musical score, by Joan Cusack, is gorgeous. Watch for a hilarious cameo by Billy Crystal as Ira’s famous composer brother Richard Rodgers.
 
The Hit – Whoopi Goldberg’s first foray into hardcore pornography showcases Tom Hank’s distinctive cinematography and Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller’s star turn as J.Edgar Hoover and his identical twin father Ann-Marie.
 
Hard Rock Pet Shop – It’s been years since we’ve seen anything new from Katharine Hepburn, and this film is no exception. Down-on-his-luck Ralph Fiennes buys a run-down pet shop and employs a former rock drummer (Michael Bolton) as his assistant. Together they come up with a scheme to prevent an evil developer (Anna Paquin) from anally raping them.
 
Austin Powers: The World is Not A Muff – Mike Myers reprises his roles as Austin Powers, Dr Evil, Fat Bastard, and adds portrayals of Gordon Nemo, Captain Grit, Stacey Leechback, Mickey Stifford, The Great Malkeeno, Nola Suckoff, Vladamir Mulkipin Rohypnovitch, Lassie, Aileen Quinn, President Gray van der Snuff, Maureen Snug, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Eddie Murphy and Little Nell. Powers is assigned to protect a beautiful scientist (Kathy Bates) who claims that the world is not a muff. Everyone on Earth agress with her, and they spend the next hour and half doing nothing at all.
 
Blood and Ham – Ethan Hawke assumes directorial duties in this adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel. Emma Thompson does a passable British accent while parachuting into German abattoirs and slaughtering everyone with an axe, in the mistaken belief that WWII is still on. Co-stars George C. Scott as Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Gaby Hoffman as Atticus Finch.
 
Starsky and Hutch – A pair of funky cops (Drew Barrymore and James Earl Jones) develop fatal brain diseases and slowly choke to death on their own mucus. Riveting.
 
Tobey Maguire’s Dracula – An evil Transylvanian vampire (Paul Rudd) visits an old movie theatre (Al Pacino) and discovers a magic ticket (Shelley Long) that allows him to enter an action movie (Paul Mecurio) and befriend Arnold Schwarzenegger (Halle Berry). Meanwhile he must get to London (Lucy Liu) in time to stop his evil minions (S Club 7) from carrying out his misheard orders to suck the Queen of England’s (Portia de Rossi) cud (Ricki Lake), as predigested hay is deadly to vampires. Not John Woo’s best effort, especially since it was directed by Baz Luhrmann.
 
Nifty Pixies – Catherine Zeta-Jones visits Santa’s village, and thereby becomes the NBA’s number one coach.

There you go – something for everyone, and I can already hear you slavering in anticipation of the treats in store.

Some of these will get the full Make This Movie review treatment – which ones are up to YOU! Vote in comments for which of these you want to see reviewed in extended form! Fabulous prizes on offer for voters!

Honest!

Rated MA

Director: Tony Scott

Stars: John Travolta, Ellen Degeneres, Eric Roberts

The Taking of Pelham 123 drew mixed reviews, but critics were united on one point: John Travolta’s villain had a small beard. So it was only logical that the Hollywood money men would try to parlay that beard into a franchise. And so Travolta and director Scott were persuaded to go around again.

This time, though, the would up the stakes – Travolta’s mad, bad baldie Ryder would hijack a plane – an elephant hunt to the first film’s grouse shoot. And no doubt, having decided on this plotline, both Scott and Travolta’s brains hit upon an even more exciting idea – what if Ryder hijacked John Travolta’s private jet? And what if Travolta played himself as well as Ryder?

And so we see Travolta, giving Eddie Murphy a run for his money, playing Ryder, himself, the president, an arrogant young rookie TV journalist, a stewardess, and in a triumphant melding of live-action and CGI, the plane, which speaks telepathically to Travolta throughout the film, giving him advice and building his self-esteem with well-timed compliments.

The really amazing thing is that, although Travolta refuses to change his appearance or vocal delivery in any way when switching characters, every one comes across as totally believable and sympathetic. And so we see the reporter, Harris, convincing all of us that he really does come from a broken home and is determined to get a scoop even at the cost of his cameraman’s life, to impress his irascible father – even though he looks and sounds like an overweight middle-aged movie star, and is in fact wearing the exact same clothes that Travolta is on board the plane, and indeed the same as Ryder as he brandishes his gun, and the stewardess as she panics and faints. They are all marvellous, allowing us to gloss over the question of why the stewardess is even there, or how Ryder manages to jimmy open a window and slip in unnoticed halfway through a trans-Atlantic flight.

The only possible quibble is with Travolta’s president, although this is less to do with the authentically Travolta-esque  performance and more to do with Scott’s insistence on shooting him only from underneath with a dark blue filter. It tends to make the Oval Office appear somewhat ridiculous, but all this is forgotten when we cut back to one of over forty extended fist-fights between Travolta and Ryder, and one steamy love scene between same.

Good support comes from Ellen Degeneres’s maverick air-force ace, and Eric Roberts’s mysterious Arab sheikh, who team up halfway through in an hilarious homage to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which may seem tonally inconsistent to some viewers, but does serve the important purpose of explaining what happened to Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston, who in the first scene wanders aimlessly out of shot and is never seen again.

Overall, Travolta 345 is quite an improvement on Pelham 123, mainly because where the first film was mostly empty flash and soulless action sequences, this one is mainly John Travolta talking to himself and making filthy jokes directly to camera. Also there’s a lot of good in-flight sequences, including one where Travolta escapes Ryder by going back in time and shooting down the Wright Brothers. Ryder himself has some good moments too, mainly featuring him talking to himself and making filthy jokes directly to camera.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong example of the lesser Scott’s ability to craft slick, intelligent action thrillers, and a welcome reminder of how good a film can be when a director simply lets a great actor let loose in a variety of different roles played exactly the same way down to the last detail.

***

Rated: MA

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Starring: Tom Hanks, Giovanni Ribisi, Sean Penn, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel McAdams, Alan Dale

Mash-ups have long been a staple of popular cinema. We’ve had Alien vs Predator, Freddie vs Jason; even in the Golden Age of Hollywood crowds flocked to see hit mash-ups like Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy and Frankenstein vs Mrs Miniver.

But with this gut-wrenching thrill ride, Russian auteur Bekmambetov has delivered the dream mash-up to make even the most jaded cinema-goer salivate with anticipation, bringing together the A-Team of mentally disabled box-office titans together in an explosive action-adventure romp.

Adapted from an abandoned first draft by Alan Moore in which a group of mental patients pose nude for a charity calendar to raise money for Jack the Ripper’s legal defence, the story begins with mysterious Down’s Syndrome femme fatale Madame Catani (McAdams, in a career-making role) recruits a series of differently-abled heroes for a vaguely-defined secret mission.

The first act, in which Catani travels the globe, convincing the often-reluctant gentlemen to get on board, often with bribery and/or blackmail, is well-handled, the audience enjoying the reacquaintance with Forrest Gump (Hanks), Sam Dawson (Penn), The Guy From The Other Sister (Ribisi), and Rain Man (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, filling in for Hoffman, who turned down the opportunity to reprise his most iconic role). The recruitment, ranging from the hilarious – Catani’s visit to an alpaca farm where Gump is working – to the touching – Dawson’s inner turmoil as he decides whether he should take a risk and quit his job as a minor-league baseball catcher to chase one last shot at glory – never seem forced or tedious.

Nevertheless, the movie really picks up the pace as the team enter their training phase on a remote Indian Ocean island, and we see the unique talents for which Catani has selected them – Gump’s speed, The Guy’s irresistible charm, Dawson’s Beatles impressions, Rain Man’s ability to control the weather.

From there we move into the mission, and several sequences of heart-pounding tension as the team parachutes into deep jungle to infiltrate the secret lair of Lord D’Tard (TV star Dale, performing an impressive array of various accents, often within the same sentence), who is amassing an army to take over the world’s water supply and infuse it with mind-altering drugs for his own sinister entertainment.

The action set-pieces are exquisitely staged, Bekmambetov combining wire-work, seamless CGI, slow-motion and spectacular pyrotechnics in a wondrous ballet of violence and disability that doesn’t let up until almost the last frame. Each Gentleman gets his chance to shine, with routinely good performances across the board as their unique talents come in useful at each juncture of their journey. Johnson is perhaps the most impressive, stepping up manfully into Hoffman’s shoes and delivering a sensitive yet muscular take on Raymond Babbitt that delivers equal parts astounding mathematical talent, moving interpersonal disconnection, and furious-fist beatdowns. And his “Ten minutes to Wapnering your ass” just may be the catchphrase of the year.

But it’s far from a one-man show, with Hanks hitting top form as Gump, the calm, Hannibal Smith-like leader of the troupe, while Penn provides emotional ballast with his frequent monologues and sudden outbursts of self-harm, and Ribisi brings the comic relief with a series of pratfalls and hysterical misunderstandings of everyday social niceties that reminds us just how funny disability can be.

It’s not perfect – there are times when the plot stretches credibility, as when the intellectually disabled Sam Dawson hacks into the Pentagon’s computer system and redirects the Iraqi invasion force to D’Tard’s hideout; or when Forrest Gump throws an armoured car through the window of the Louvre – but overall the story is credible, exciting, and incredibly adorable, Bekmambetov proving himself a master at bringing out the innate cuteness of the handicapped, even as they’re gunning down bad guys and snapping necks like twigs.

The climax, with the Gentleman facing off against D’Tard in an enormous underground kitchen, as Madame Catani reveals her true identity and purpose, is almost perfect in its fusing of pathos and  knife-throwing, and the fifty-five minute coda as the protagonists kick back on the beach provides a satisfying polish to a story that never lets up on the thrills or the feeling.

If you’ve always found disabled people adorable, but wished they had a bit more get-up-and-go, this is the film for you.

****

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