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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: 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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Rated M

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Rachel Weisz, Chiewetel Ejiofor, Tim Robbins

Roderick (Bridges), a jaded infomercial host disillusioned with his craft, has suddenly found himself without a job, without a wife and sitting at home, drinking himself to death in an orgy of self-pity. Until a meeting with a mysterious gypsy woman (Robbins) causes him to pursue happiness through his new, selfless purpose – stabbing random strangers in the eyes.

Cassavetes, who last tugged at our heartstrings with his gritty story of black market organ trading My Sister’s Keeper, has here crafted a quiet personal drama of rare power. His long, lingering close-ups suit the subject matter perfectly, particularly a touching ten-minute sequence where Roderick pokes tentatively at a pair of disembodied eyeballs to find out “how gooey they are” – Cassavetes lets his camera stay fixed on Bridges’s tortured-yet-giggling expression for the entire time, risking derision and even sleep for his audience in pursuit of the ultimate emotional pay-off.

The director is well-served by his brilliant cast. Bridges, as the depressed middle-aged man finding himself, is stunning. Having reportedly trained full-time for six months for the role, he utterly convinces the audience that he can throw a knitting needle with uncanny accuracy. His transformation from cynical, world-weary TV mop-seller to rejuvenated, inspirational eye-poker is portrayed with a subtlety and quiet strength rarely seen in big-budget blockbusters these days (the reported final budget was over $200 million, most of it on prosthetic eyeballs). The childlike wonder he displays at his first, almost-accidental blinding, makes us laugh and “awwww” in equal measure, while his climactic “Your eyes have made me see” speech, delivered whilst balancing precariously atop the Swiss National Museum, will soon take its place beside Braveheart and Return of the King in the honour roll of inspirational movie orations.

Not that Bridges is alone. Rachel Weisz, as the sassy single mother who falls for Roderick after he breaks into her house and blinds her toddler daughter, is a delight, pulling off a flawless Chinese accent and showing that she can tap dance with the best of them. Ejiofor, as Bridges’s Olympic swimmer best friend, steals several scenes with his high-pitched whine and extravagant hand gestures, while Robbins is perfectly cast as the gypsy woman who turns Roderick’s life around, but whose insatiable sexual appetite makes him doubt himself at the crucial moment. There are also nice minor turns from Andie MacDowell as Roderick’s ex-wife and Zac Efron as a conniving US Senator.

By turns poignant, tragic, hilarious, tense and uplifting, Random Acts of Blindness is a superior adult-oriented drama that will make you believe in the eternal capacity of human beings for change, growth, and horrific graphic violence.

****

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