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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.

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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.

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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.

***

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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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