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Rebel without a Planet: “I Am Number Four,” “Unknown,” and “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son” PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Sunday, 20 February 2011 14:08

Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer in I Am Number FourI AM NUMBER FOUR

A handsome, troubled, rebellious transfer student dealing with alienation and the wrath of bullies at his new high school. The kid’s ineffectual father, shrugging off his child’s loneliness and conflicts with the authorities. The kid’s one new friend, a withdrawn, frequently picked-on nerd with his own parental hang-ups. The kid’s potential love interest, a pretty, popular girl who feels like an outsider herself, and appears to be the property of the kid’s chief tormentor. If you’ve seen a certain iconic drama starring Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and a red-jacket-wearing James Dean, the aforementioned character descriptions might sound a teensy bit familiar.

Breathe easy: Hollywood hasn’t decided to green-light a remake of Rebel without a Cause. (Not yet, at any rate.) Still, if it weren’t for the aliens, CGI, and relentless inanity, you could easily mistake director D.J. Caruso’s new I Am Number Four for a teen-flick revamp of that 1950’s classic ... just as his 2007 Disturbia was a dopey, teen-flick “homage” to Alfred Hitchcock’s ’50s classic Rear Window. I can hardly wait for Caruso to direct Shia LaBeouf and Amanda Seyfriend in an On the Waterfront reboot, and his inevitable helming of Taylor Lautner as Marty.

Of course, I Am Number Four’s chief demographic likely won’t recognize the many Rebel echoes, and it’s doubtful that young audiences will see the film as a baldly derivative, effects-laden take on 1988’s fugitive-family drama Running on Empty, in which River Phoenix was forced to evade the law whilst romancing an adorable young blonde. Certainly, though, they’ll notice how ineptly this movie steals from Twilight, The X-Files, and any given episode of 90210? As alien-in-human-garb John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) and his protector/surrogate dad Henri (Timothy Olyphant) attempt to keep a low profile while being hunted by vengeful, toothy beasties from another world, Caruso’s latest doesn’t offer one inventive situation or narrative surprise in the whole of its 110 minutes; it’s as if someone took the scripts for the world’s blandest sci-fi thriller and the world’s soapiest high-school drama and said, “You know what’d be awesome? Combining these puppies!”

So long as the constant rolling of your eyes doesn’t cause you to pass out, you might find a few random pleasures here. As the otherworldly hottie who becomes gradually aware of his superpowers (in scenes that – surprise! – pilfer shamelessly from Superman and Spider-Man), Pettyfer doesn’t bring much to the party, but he at least manages a lovely, low-key rapport with Dianna Agron; the Glee co-star may not yet possess much range, but her hesitant, touching fragility is enormously appealing, and Pettyfer perks up when she’s around. Smith’s tag-along sidekick – a gecko that transforms into a dog that transforms into a yowling, oversize, shell-less turtle (or something) – is good for some cheap fun. And Olyphant, with an incredulous smirk that suggests he knows exactly what he’s gotten himself into, adds a bit of grown-up gravitas to the proceedings.

You’ll notice, though, that the film’s few pleasures to not extend to the visuals (uninspired), or the pacing (sluggish), or the dialogue (witless), or the action (incoherent), and whenever this profoundly silly trifle shoots for cool points, it hits new peaks of embarrassment. Is there a viewer left who watches a leather-clad character saunter away from an explosion in slow motion, and thinks, “Wow, what a badass!” Don’t even grade-schoolers recognize this action-flick scenario as the lamest cliché in the Hollywood handbook? To no one’s shock, I Am Number Four ends with the promise/threat of sequels, yet I’m praying that we’ll at least be deprived prequels, as the series will no doubt be redundant enough without an entry boasting the title I Am Number Two.

 

Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, and Bruno Ganz in UnknownUNKNOWN

Unknown stars Liam Neeson as a prominent doctor suffering from acute memory loss – a condition, it seems, that director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell hope extends to the film’s audience. It’s actually pretty easy to have a good time at this agreeably ludicrous action thriller, one that finds Neeson, following a car accident and four-day coma, waking to find his life usurped by another man (Aidan Quinn), and his wife (January Jones) refusing to acknowledge his true (or is it?) identity. In order to do so, though, you’ll have to agree to erase your mind of one luridly plotted and oftentimes flat-out senseless contrivance, coincidence, and twist after another. Would Neeson’s character really hop a cab to retrieve a missing briefcase before telling his wife, standing less than 20 feet away from him, where he’s going? After taking a shower and standing naked in a bathroom, would he really be able to dress and escape through a window in just under five seconds? Would a level-headed cab driver (Diane Kruger) really hand this guy the keys to her borrowed vehicle and let him drive her at top speeds through an unfamiliar city? Would anyone in his right mind cast German actress Kruger in a Berlin-set adventure and then have her play a Serbian?

Yet while the movie appears to have been made solely for Guy Pearce in Memento, Collet-Serra has at least filmed it with energy and verve, and against all expectation, the impossible narrative actually adds up in the final reel; Unknown may be ridiculous, but it isn’t a cheat. And while Neeson, Kruger, Jones, and Quinn give dutiful, unimaginative portrayals that fulfill the needs of the story and nothing more, we are, happily, granted one truly spectacular scene of performance fireworks. In it, Bruno Ganz, as a former agent of the Stasi, and Frank Langella, as Neeson’s American colleague, meet up in an untidy Berlin apartment for tea and cryptic conversation, and over the span of about three minutes, these master character actors give Unknown everything that had been missing over the previous 100 minutes: intelligence, subtlety, and legitimate threat. After Taken, The A-Team, and this new outing, Liam Neeson may be our current Grand Old Man of testosterone-fueled thrill rides, but in many ways – as Ganz’s and Langella’s presences here prove – he’s still a whippersnapper.

 

Brandon T. Jackson and Martin Lawrence in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like SonBIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Is there anything to say, really, about the mind-numbing stupidity and soul-crushing awfulness of Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son? Maybe only that the howls of audience delight that greeted Martin Lawrence’s and Brandon T. Jackson’s drag act were so incongruous with the tortuously unfunny on-screen shenanigans that I almost felt like the unwitting participant in a cruel behavioral experiment of some kind: How long can a reasonable person listen to wholly unmotivated cackling without going completely berserk? Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that hell is other people, but I’m now reasonably confident that hell is actually a screening of this second, appallingly unnecessary sequel to Big Momma’s House, especially when trapped in an auditorium of patrons who are finding it the zenith in high comedy. Given this film’s $17-million opening weekend despite the lowest of low standards (would you believe a plot involving Russian mobsters and a missing flash drive?!?), a fourth Big Momma folly is no doubt in the planning stages. Please please please let that Mayan calendar be accurate.


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