Our critic reviews the best and worst of this week's new releases...
I Am Number Four (12A) *
Directed by: DJ Caruso
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer
CYNICALLY conceived as an amalgam of Twilight, Harry Potter, The X-Files, and about a dozen superhero movies, the terribly titled I Am Number Four presumes audience interest in an ongoing saga without bothering to provide the kind of engaging characters, plots or workable mythology that would justify one movie, let alone a whole series. Bleach-blond personality vacuum Alex Pettyfer stars as a teenage alien hiding out on Earth from a bunch of tattoo-headed warriors hunting him down for vaguely defined reasons. Cursed with a "chosen one" complex, he has to wrestle with his duty to his hinted-at exalted status and the feelings he's developing for the soulful (she wears a beret and takes photos) outsider girl destined to be his one true love. Blessed also with nascent powers that have started to cause light to shoot from the palms of his hands at inopportune moments, his abilities afford Spielberg protg DJ Caruso lots of opportunities to distract from the story's generic dullness with lots of generic special effects. The end result is deadening and the decision to pad out the running time by setting up lots of sequel-ready narrative possibilities is horribly arrogant.
The Rite (15) **
Directed by: Mikael Hfstrm
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga
"WHAT did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?" So smiles Anthony Hopkins' matter-of-fact exorcist in this latest attempt to profit from possession on screen. Alas, merely acknowledging the existence of William Friedkin's pop-culture penetrating horror masterpiece isn't the same thing as transcending its influence and, despite the presence of a sceptical hero in the form of a trainee priest having a last fling with atheism, it's not long before The Rite unleashes its own (medical) bag of body-contorting special effects tricks in an effort to turn us into true believers. Acknowledging the film's journalistic source material (a non-fiction book by Matt Baglio) with a euphemistic "suggested by" credit, Swedish director Mikael Hfstrm uses the existence of an actual exorcist training school as a jumping-off point for the story of a brooding American seminary student (Colin O'Donoghue) sent to Rome in a last-ditch effort by his mentor to help him connect with his faith. Once there he's seconded to Father Lucas (Hopkins), a Welsh Jesuit whose unorthodox methods may or may not be a sham designed to exploit the faithful. Hopkins at least has fun hamming things up, but the film around him simply goes through the motions.
West is West (15) ***
Directed by: Andy De Emmony
Starring: Om Puri, Aqib Khan, Linda Bassett
A BELATED, fairly unnecessary, but acceptable-enough sequel to the 1999 multicultural Brit hit East is East, West is West picks up the story of the Kahn family five years on and finds hypocritical patriarch George (Om Puri) still bemoaning his children's lack of respect for their cultural heritage. The focus of his ire this time is youngest son Sajid (Aqib Khan), who is being bullied at school and disrespectful at home. George's solution is to whip him off to Pakistan for an eye-opening history lesson, which immediately gives the film a different energy to that provided by the somewhat drab, rain-soaked Salford locale of the original. The culture clash gags are still quite pronounced, though, and at times the humour is gratingly broad (surely "Delhi belly" gags have run their course?). Nevertheless, writer Ayub Khan-Din's script still has plenty of the barbed, sarcastic humour that made his East is East script stand out, and the film handles the tonal shifts from comedy to drama efficiently enough as the story becomes more focused on the life and the wife George abandoned to emigrate to England several decades earlier. Once again, it is Puri's commanding presence that holds the film together, though as Sajid, young Aqib Khan has enough natural charm and confidence to make him an endearing scene-stealer. Animal Kingdom (15) ***
Directed by: David Michd
Starring: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver
THIS ambitious 1980s-set Australian crime thriller is drawing some ludicrous comparisons to Scorsese's best work from reviewers, but it's a promising debut all the same, albeit one marred by a rather blank and unengaging central performance from newcomer James Frecheville. He's plays Joshua Cody, a passive 17-year-old sucked into the criminal underworld occupied by his estranged extended family, after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Taken in by his loving but ruthless grandmother, Smurf (an Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver), his loyalty is put the test when his uncles vow to get their revenge on the police after a rogue cop from the armed robbery division executes one of them.
The convoluted action that follows strives for the grandeur of Greek tragedy, something that doesn't always sit easily with the gritty style writer/director David Michd deploys. On the plus side, it includes enough localised details about the changing nature of crime and the debilitating bonds of family to give it a distinctive voice all its own, ensuring it never feels like a Hollywood rip-off. Aside from Weaver's tough, no-nonsense turn, Guy Pearce adds a little understated star-power as a trustworthy cop and Ben Mendelsohn is quietly menacing as the most psychotic of the brothers.
No Strings Attached (15) **
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline
LIKE the recent Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached is preoccupied by the question of whether or not men and women can have a purely sexual relationship without all the emotional stuff getting in the way. Unlike Love and Other Drugs, the film doesn't feel the need to justify the heroine's bone-jumping proclivities by condemning her with a dreadful debilitating illness. That slight bit of progress aside, this is a fairly rote romcom that never threatens to let anything particularly complex get in the way of the characters fulfilling a journey that will take from their first "meet-cute" scenario to an inevitable last-minute race-against-time declaration of love. Indeed, the only thing distinguishing it from whatever gushy nonsense will be out next week, or the week after, are the stars in the lead roles. In this case, those dubious honours fall to Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, the former playing an unsentimental, stressed-out medical intern with no time for love, the latter a wannabe screenwriter secretly looking for something more meaningful. Neither actor is particularly memorable, and veteran director Ivan Reitman's try-hard attempt to fulfil the raunchy promise of its sexually liberated title with Apatow-style crudeness is often just cringe-worthy.