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Been communing with the dead?

Odd Thomas
(2013)

Writer-director and all-round auteur Stephen Sommers’ latest movie wasn’t greeted with the box office reception that he’s used to. It wasn’t greeted with critical acclaim either, although he ought to be familiar with that by now. Sommers is one of Hollywood’s most unbridled “talents”, unleashing attention deficit disorder puke of unmartialled images and edits onto cinema screens and then having the cheek to advertise the results as coherent movies. Odd Thomas is visually of a piece with this typical lack of restraint but, in contrast to the resto of his post-Mummy output, the big thing it has going for it is that Sommers didn’t originate the idea. It comes from a novel (since a series of novels) by Dean Koontz, and there are more than enough intriguing ideas and twists and turns during this 90-minute adaptation to make it the director’s best movie since Deep Rising. Which isn’t necessarily saying very much, given the quality of those intervening movies, and its not to say that Odd Thomas couldn’t have been a whole lot better in the hands of someone with a basic grasp of tone and pace, but it’s still fairly close to a recommendation.


Odd Thomas didn’t have an easy time of it getting to screen or being released. It completed production in 2011 on a modest budget of $27m (a sixth of his previous picture, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra), so I think it’s safe to say this was something of a passion project for Sommers. A lawsuit followed in respect of a prints and advertising budget that was never forthcoming, explaining its straight-to-DVD status (some very limited shows and film festival screenings aside). All of which is undeserved and unfortunate. It’s a decade since the unholy abomination that was Van Helsing, and the best one can say about Rise of the Cobra is that it didn’t stand out as terrible (or particularly memorable). It’s clear from Odd Thomas that Sommers is incapable of adjusting his style to fit the material, but there’s potential, should he stick to adaptations, for him to deliver something vaguely palatable on occasion.


Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), who is actually called Odd, announces himself via a voiceover in which he explains his special abilities; he’s a kind of psychic private detective and dispenser of justice (and a short order cook). As he says, “I may see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it”. His girlfriend Stormy (!) Llewellyn (Addison Timlin, a vision in tight shorts and prominent camel toe) and police chief pal Porter (Willem Dafoe; always nice to see Dafoe in a nice guy role) know of his gift, and the latter reluctantly covers up the loose ends caused by Odd doing his own thing.


Odd also sees bodaks, CGI-demon thingies that feed off carnage and bloodshed (but don’t cause it – although it seems they’ll kill anyone aware of their presence; go figure). A conflagration of them leads Odd to “Fungus Bob” (Shuler Hensley), a man who appears to have an obsession with serial killers, and Odd develops a growing conviction that a bloody massacre is soon to take place. There are twists and turns and fake-outs along the way to learning who exactly is up to what, many of which would be more effective if Sommers didn’t approach every shot with the same relentless enthusiasm. The supernatural mystery combined with arch humour and knowing narration initially recalls the superior John Dies at the End, but Sommers lacks the deftness to really play up the weird and accentuate the intrigue. Odd Thomas bowls along so breathlessly that inevitably the storytelling loses out along the way.


Nevertheless, this indiscriminateness occasionally leads to a successful wrong-footing that wouldn’t occur if one was forewarned by diligent direction; the number of occasions in which a character interacts with Odd only to be revealed as dead, for example. I didn’t get wise, even with the most crucial one. The constant barrage of crazy camerawork (never, ever, keep it still), the scene transitions with complementary sound effects; they’re sure signs of a director eager to utilise a box of tricks; there’s no doubt Sommers has a skillset, but he clearly lacks the confidence to sit back and apply it with measure and judiciousness. There’s also the CGI, which is as cheerfully slipshod as ever in his movies (which means that on this meagre budget it is comparatively more successful). A lurid mixed bag about sums up Sommers’ direction.


Yelchin is just old enough now that he doesn’t look as if he’s about to get ID’d, but he's always acted with a maturity beyond his years. Odd has a cocksure quality that could become annoying in a performer lacking a modicum of vulnerability, particular under Sommers’ merciless gaze, and fortunately Yelchin brings that, and an open likeability. Odd is breezily charming, and Yelchin has rapport with the deadpan Timlin and benign Dafoe. Patton Oswalt also shows up. He always does. While the movie is often funny, sometimes the dialogue is overly smart-arsed, which has the side effect of making the film look like it thinks its cleverer than it is (highly unusual for a Stephen Sommers movie!) Yet at other points Sommers manages to nail an appropriate off-kilter quality (the opening encounter with a murderer, and the line “Her blood is in your pocket”), even given the Day-Glo over-saturation of Mitchell Amundsen’s cinematography (he perpetrated the first two Transformers, if that’s any guide, but also the rather good Premium Rush).


Koontz seems quite happy with this adaptation, but then he’s generally had a rough ride with movie versions of his work. You probably have to go all the way back to Demon Seed to find something truly compelling. As Sommers movies go, Odd Thomas is as frenetic as ever, and the score and soundtrack respond in kind. While the results may induce motion sickness, he’s actually managed not to ruin a reasonably intriguing plot or completely overwhelm some decent performances (there’s even a nice little cameo from Arnold Vosloo as a one-armed apparition who carries his severed appendage about). It doesn’t look as if we will see any further big screen adventures for Odd, at least for the time being, which is rather a shame. It would certainly be a more productive use of Sommers’ time than yet another overblown, visually incontinent blockbuster.


***1/2

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