Back in the day, Bill Cosby’s “Leonard Part 6” didn’t have much luck introducing itself to audiences as an original product with a higher integer in its title, and the teen-lilting sci-fi action adventure “I Am Number Four” perhaps elicited similar confusion when it bowed in theaters earlier this February. Unimpressive domestic returns ($55 million), however, might not have sullied the chances of survival for this adaptation of the first in a proposed six-book series cowritten by James Frey (yes, the lying author emasculated by Oprah Winfrey) and Jobie Hughes. If it returns, one will have both international markets (where it grossed $90 million) and the presence of Teresa Palmer, as ass-kicking “Number Six,” to thank.
The story centers on an extraterrestrial prodigy, John (Alex Pettyfer), hiding out on Earth from would-be rival alien killers under the protection of Henri (Timothy Olyphant), a man who poses as his father. John falls for Sarah (Dianna Agron), but their puppy love gets interrupted when the aforementioned, nasty, gilled alien race alights upon John’s new hideout, in smalltown Ohio. Stuff then gets blowed up real good, and no-nonsense huntress Six (Palmer, who pops off the screen) eventually shows up, helping John to more fully embrace his gifts and special legacy. “I Am Number Four” is a technically polished but rather unexceptional thriller that never much sets its sights beyond satisfying the lowest-common-denominator expectations of its target demographic. Pettyfer is pretty and easygoing but lacks the sort of charisma that comes with a more focused sense of interior purpose, and the film basically feels, at its core, like a mash-up of carefully cross-tabbed teen movie trends, which is probably what happens when you set out in pre-production with the chief intent of manufacturing the next big “Twilight”-type cinematic franchise.
If the product itself fails to ignite much excitement, at least the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release of “I Am Number Four”, also inclusive of a digital copy, delivers some nice extras. The 1080p AVC-encoded image, arriving in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is solid and well-balanced throughout, characterized by crisp color and a lack of any edge enhancement or problems with grain. The Blu-ray audio options are anchored by English language 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 DVS tracks, as well as Spanish and French Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound mixes. Bonus features consist of nearly 19 minutes of deleted scenes with optional introductions from director D.J. Caruso, including one offers up more details about the estranged mother of John’s new pal/sidekick Sam (Callan McAuliffe). There’s also a brief featurette, laden with behind-the-scenes footage, centering on Palmer and her character, plus the movie’s trailer and a three-minute blooper reel. More input from Caruso and an interview with source material co-author Frey, however, would have been very interesting.
Evoking as it does Oliver Stone’s “Wild Palms” (plus a handful of straight-to-video Shannon Tweed titles), even the self-conscious title of “Burning Palms”, a batshit-crazy anthology from writer-director Christopher Landon, seems designed chiefly to stir libidinal impulses. “The Hollywood Reporter” review of the title dubbed it “a cross between “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Red Shoe Diaries”,” which is a pretty decent shorthand for this laboriously weird and phony snapshot look at a cross-section of warped and/or mentally unraveling Los Angelenos. The opening segment finds Dedra (Rosamund Pike) worrying about the inappropriateness of the relationship between her new fiance, Dennis (Dylan McDermott), and his teenage daughter Chloe (Emily Meade), back home on a brief vacation from college. Dennis greets Chloe at the airport by cheerily commenting upon “tits that have grown,” and things get more even uncomfortable from there. The second segment finds Ginny (Jamie Chung) doing a rear-entry sexual favor for her boyfriend Chad (Robert Hoffman), but then becoming obsessed in Edgar Allan Poe-like fashion over the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of her offending digit. Other tales focus on a gay couple who adopts a little African girl as a sort of lifestyle accessory, and a young boy who overruns his hippe nanny (Lake Bell) and involves his brother in increasingly disturbing games.
The film’s concluding segment, featuring Zoe Saldana as a woman who tracks down and develops a twisted crush on the man (Nick Stahl) who has raped her, is far and away its strongest entry. Saldana gives a captivating performance that taps into the screwed-up manner in which abuse victims sometimes latch on to any sort of attention, but by this time any grander engagement with “Burning Palms” has long since dissipated. The film is billed as a satire, but I’m not biting; that feels like a bit of revisionist history. Many of the segments (most notably the one starring Chung) have only one place to go, and Landon never makes that journey either darkly comedic or more emotionally unsettling. There’s no honest unifying theory here, just the chance for a lot of recognizable actors and actresses to pick up a paycheck while not going on location. Housed in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Burning Palms” comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with English SDH and Spanish subtitles, and a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track that adequately handles the title’s meager, straightforward aural demands. Divvied up into a dozen chapters, there are no supplemental bonus features here, unless one counts the movie’s trailer.
“Gnomeo & Juliet” tries to embrace one of its shortcomings right out of the gate, noting in a preamble that this is a story “told many times before.” Sad, then, that its adapters don’t find a way to make the actual narrative match the lively, beguiling nature of its animation. The story, of course, is a tweaking of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”, except starring a bunch of garden gnomes who exist secretly, a la “Toy Story”, in a human world where they freeze up and become silent when people are around. There’s a star-crossed love affair between the titular members (voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) of two rival clans, and lots of what might forgivingly be described as shenanigans. Oh, and since Elton John is a producer, there’s new music from him, plus all sorts of excuses to work in his back catalog. The movie only really connects on a visual level, though, capturing in gorgeous detail the chintzy, flat-brushed style of painting of so many of these tubby decorative accoutrements.
For those who care not about 3-D, the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack release of “Gnomeo & Juliet” is perfectly serviceable. The 1080p high-definition transfer is superb, completely free of any grain or color distortion. Bonus features consist of a six-minute featurette charting John’s involvement as both an executive producer and songwriter; two alternate (storyboarded) endings with optional introductions from director Kelly Asbury; two character-based, two-minute interview chats with Ashley Jensen and Ozzy Osbourne; a collection of deleted scenes; trailers; and a music video for “Crocodile Rock.”
Finally, writer-director Mitch Glazer’s “Passion Play” is a title that, on the surface, should have a certain wonky appeal, if only because of the intriguing cast: Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox and Bill Murray. It’s a self-important misfire, however, a movie that attempts to trade in meaningful metaphor but instead comes across as merely silly and wearying — and that’s if one is being charitable. Exercising some terrible mock trumpet-playing, Rourke stars as washed-up jazz musician Nate Poole, who finds himself on the wrong side of a grudge with gangster Happy Shannon (Murray). After escaping mortal judgment, Nate stumbles across a dusty traveling circus fronted by Sam (Rhys Ifans, doing his impression of Peter Stormare). Sam’s star attraction is Lily (Fox), who has wings. No… like, seriously, she has real wings. Sprouting from her back. After a brief chat, Nate and Lily soon flee across the desert. With Happy’s minions closing in, however, Nate tries to make a bargain that will save his life. Soon, Lily is Happy’s concubine, but Nate tries to break her out of her new prison.
“Passion Play” has the outward appearance of something quirky and mysterious, but in reality it’s leaden. The characters don’t so much react to one another and exist on the same plane as they do make statements and occasionally deliver absolutes. With a deeply melancholic performance, Fox actually locates hidden reserves of pain within Lily that the script never really tries to more deeply elucidate. And while there are a few fascinating moments of almost entirely subtextual entertainment (“You were famous, and handsome — what happened?,” Lily says to Nate at one point), Glazer doesn’t develop any of his characters in interesting ways, and the film — with scenes in which night turns inexplicably to day — is riddled with various production shortcomings and editing glitches. Neither funny nor truly dark and moody, “Passion Play” just sort of… happens. Which is a strange thing to say about a movie featuring a winged babe. A drop-down, motion-animated menu allows viewers the option to briefly preview chapter selections, but otherwise this Blu-ray release — in 1080p high-definition 2.40:1 widescreen, with a DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track — comes with no bonus features.
by Brent Simon