Monday, February 21, 2011

Guess Who: UNKNOWN

Unknown is a nice, chilly thriller that’s so pleasantly confounding for so long that the biggest shock of the last act is to find how dull and routine it becomes. I enjoyed the film, but only to a point. The mystery is tantalizing, but the big twist left me disappointed. It’s a real shame, considering how much enjoyment I had been getting from the moody opening which finds a biologist and his wife landing in Berlin for a big scientific convention of some kind. The biologist is Martin Harris (Liam Neeson, in the same ballpark as his surprise hit Taken), an imposing figure with a soft-spoken demeanor. His wife (Mad Men's January Jones) is an alluring frosty presence. The happy couple threads through the airport and end up in a taxi that cuts through the snow and slush taking them to the fancy hotel and conference center. When they arrive, Neeson discovers that he has left his briefcase at the airport. Rushing back to retrieve his important files, his taxi driver swerves to avoid an accident and ends up plunging off of a bridge and into the ice-cold river below.

Four days later, Martin Harris wakes up in the hospital. His only problem is his newfound sense of disorientation. He learns his wife wasn’t searching for him. That’s odd. When he shows up at the hotel, she claims she doesn’t know him. That’s odder. What’s more, another man (Aidan Quinn) is claiming to be the real Martin Harris. The camera tilts and the focus pulls. What’s going on here? The sense of confusion and impenetrable mystery kicked up by this development is intriguing.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who last directed the disturbingly effective 2009 horror film Orphan, keeps the atmosphere heavy and slick. The wintry Berlin wind kicks off-white snow down endless mazes of grey concrete and imposing architecture. There’s a chill in the air as Neeson makes his way through a crisis of identity. The existential dilemma is balanced nicely with the sub-Hitchcockian silliness of the plot. For quite some time, it’s a nice little B-movie with A-list talent.

As Neeson sets out to discover the truth behind his situation, the plot thickens. He searches for his cab driver (Diane Kruger) and, when he finds her, discovers that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Hit with a dead end there, he talks to a kind nurse who tells him about an acquaintance of hers, a former Stasi agent (Bruno Ganz) who likes to keep his mind agile by doing some light investigation on the side. Intrigued, he agrees to help.

After several enjoyable chases and surprising murders that force Neeson to team up with Kruger to find the truth behind the mayhem, the elderly agent makes a breakthrough. This leads to the greatest scene in the picture, a case of when very good scenes happen to mediocre movies. It involves Bruno Ganz’s investigator coming into contact with a shady gentleman played by Frank Langella. For this one brief scene, the two world-weary men converse easily and warily while revealing some Big Secrets about the upcoming plot twist. It’s an example of accomplished, dignified actors elevating their material.

But, unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there. Once Martin Harris realizes the true nature of his reality and the full ramifications of what is about to happen, the film turns into a series of fairly standard action beats. While still technically accomplished pieces of action filmmaking, all the central tension of the film has gone missing. I could not care less about the late breaking MacGuffin. What hooked me into the film were the nice chilly thrills with a suitably rattled protagonist. It begins as a movie of icy blondes, mysterious strangers, and wise old men. It ends as a rote action thriller with a ticking time bomb of a threat. The questions the film sets up made me curious for answers and when they arrived I wish they hadn’t. It’s a shame that the long-awaited answers end up killing the tension. When a thriller about a man who doesn’t know who he is turns into thriller about a man who simply has to save the day, that’s kind of a letdown.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Teenagers from Outer Space: I AM NUMBER FOUR

D.J. Caruso is a capable director who has helmed several middle-of-the-road efforts, none better than his 2007 Disturbia, an enjoyable suburban Hitchcock riff. He returns to suburbia for I Am Number Four, easily one of the worst of his films. It’s a dull, rote sci-fi thriller for the Twilight crowd. (Indeed, it’s based off of a teen novel by James Frey and Jobie Hughes). Here’s a cheap film that feels cobbled together entirely out of generic parts that have been shipped unaltered from the cliché factory.

It features a charisma-free performance from bland blond Alex Pettyfer as a teenage alien who was one of nine children sent from his planet to escape genocide at the hands of some things called the Mogadorians. He and the others were to be raised separately on Earth to become warrior defenders of all that is good (or something like that). His older alien protector (the usually reliably entertaining Timothy Olyphant) keeps him moving around so that humans don’t get suspicious. There’s not much on the surface to suggest that suspicion could be a big concern. Are they worried about the fact that they look exactly like normal humans?

When the movie starts, Pettyfer is flipping around on a jet ski and having a great time with the human teens until a weird symbol starts to glow underneath the skin of his leg. That’s the sign that another of his alien brethren has been killed. You see, these Mogadorians have come to earth and have apparently spent around sixteen years or so hunting down these other aliens, the last of the kind. For some never explained reason, these refugees can only be killed in a certain order. How is this order decided? Who knows? They’ve just killed Number Three. Any guess as to the identity of Number Four? Hint: check the title.

Anyways, these Mogadorians, who look like Voldemort with gills and are almost exclusively shown under the cover of darkness, are on the hunt for our protagonists, as is a mysterious blonde (Teresa Palmer) who is on her own separate search. On the run, Pettyfer and Olyphant (what a couple of surnames!) end up crashing in Paradise, Ohio where, of course, the best way to blend in is to send the alien teen to high school. There he meets cartoonish archetypes that have marched straight out of the nearest teen comedy including the inevitable romantic alluring artistic girl (Dianna Agron), the nerdy sidekick kid (Callan McAuliffe), and the antagonistic bullying jock (Jake Abel). For some reason or another, they’ll all inevitably be drawn into the looming intergalactic conflict that will play out on a depressingly small scale.

This is a movie that is never more successful than in its moments of empty-headed spectacle, but that’s mostly because it means the characters have a chance to remain silent while the plot slips even further into autopilot. It is yet another superpower metaphor in the coming-of-age story. It’s yet another low-key genre effort that’s so sleepily dull that it only makes all the more obvious its status as mere pretty product. It’s yet another achingly predictable plot that descends into a conclusion that consists of a shootout, a few explosions and the threat of a sequel.

I was so incredibly bored watching this all play out in front of me that little could be done to rouse my interest. I could not have cared less about the Mogadorians and the special numbers, the magic rocks, the stupid symbols and the plodding teen romance, though I suppose coherent exposition would have made it all go down a bit smoother. Actually, that’s probably not true. This is a movie so impersonally assembled out of prefabricated parts that little could be done to spark it to life without a complete and total overhaul featuring a bit more imagination and energy.

Rainbows Have Nothing to Hide: FOR COLORED GIRLS

I’ve never been a fan of Tyler Perry, mostly because film after film showed he had promise that he was failing to fully realize. Instead, he spent his time making films that fit safely within what his base of audience members already wanted to see. (He was essentially becoming a new Kevin Smith). I very nearly liked a handful of his titles (for my money, his Family That Preys barely missed its chance to be a camp classic), but with each new release it was frustrating to see him gather up a collection of great, and otherwise underutilized, African American actresses and put them to use in plots of overstuffed and sloppy, anything-goes comic melodrama that gave bad names to both comedy and melodrama. The worst involved his own drag portrayals of a sassy grandma named Madea.

But I’m glad such underwhelming critical and overwhelming financial success has paved the way for his latest film, For Colored Girls, a go-for-broke adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed experimental choreopoem play from 1975, For Colored Girl Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Perry’s freely adapted, tonally brave film is just strange enough, just intense enough, and just enough of a leap forward in showing off his filmmaking talents that it could never have been made under a conventional studio deal. Instead, his personal fortune and own production company had put him in the perfect spot to take a large risk. I’m glad he did. This was a risk worth taking, rewarding him with a film that at long last marks his arrival as a talent to watch.

This is not a perfect film, but it’s a vital one that shakes about with a messy power. It gives riveting showcases to a collection of outstanding actresses. Perry’s more daring with his camera. There are moments in the film when I realized that he had been holding the camera on a close-up of an actress, letting her character speak her mind in one unbroken take. That’s when Shange’s text shines through, in these moments when a character will stop and speak elegantly and fluidly about her innermost feelings and about her tragic situation.

And tragic is precisely true. The women in this film struggle with child abuse, rape, infidelity, infertility, disease, spousal abuse, murder, and more. Perry not only regards these tragedies; he gets deep under the skins of his characters. This is a film that aches with sympathy for these women. It moves and bleeds with their emotions. The characters live interwoven lives that cross paths around one apartment building with a tough but caring supervisor (Phylicia Rashad). There’s a woman (Kimberly Elise) with two kids from an abusive boyfriend. There’s a compassionate dance instructor (Anika Noni Rose) who is just starting a romantic relationship. There’s a community center worker (Loretta Devine) who has an on-again-off-again relationship with an unfaithful ex. There’s a deeply religious woman (Whoopi Goldberg) with two dissimilar daughters (Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson). There’s a caring social worker (Kerry Washington) who finds she can’t get pregnant. And there’s a successful businesswoman (Janet Jackson) who thinks she’s escaped her background but remains connected to it in ways that she can’t yet see.

Rather than a pile up of character and incident, the film has a riveting tension to it that comes from a thrilling sense of emotion and empathy. In ways that sometimes seem too simplistic and other times too over-the-top, Perry guides these women’s stories to deeply moving territory and back again with no camp, and no winking. This is earnest, deeply felt filmmaking. I’m glad he’s experimenting, even if I couldn’t always parse out the complexity (or is that messiness?) of what he’s trying to say. A sequence that crosscuts between one woman who is being date-raped and another woman suspecting her husband of infidelity is great filmmaking but muddled messaging. The moments individually have tremendous power, but Perry seems to be drawing a link between the two types of betrayal. (I hope he doesn’t think infidelity and rape are comparable crimes). Nonetheless, it seems to feed into the larger theme of shared pain within these women’s lives, even if it’s a theme that is at times inelegantly expressed.

What’s most thrilling about the film is the way Perry respects his actresses and discovers ways to use his camera to not just record, but express and augment performance. He frames Jackson in her posh apartment with walls and doorways forming cold, clean squares; she’s literally boxed herself away from emotional connection. Here and elsewhere within the film, he lets characters slip out the sides of the frame while conversing with each other. He pushes in on close-ups and pulls away to shift a close-up into a two shot. This is not, like any other Perry production, a film that sits idly by, casually collecting the surface of the story. Here Perry is utilizing his camera to get into his story, to explore his characters’ traumas in specific cinematic ways. As messy and muddled as it can get, it never feels less than alive. Even if it never quite feels like a cohesive whole, it feels emotionally full. It’s a fantastic, colorful piece of melodrama with deeply felt performances movingly captured.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


The massive publicity machine behind Justin Bieber: Never Say Never may have people thinking that this is a concert film pitched exclusively at the multitude of young girls who have already become ecstatic fans of the 16-year-old pop star known to the population at large as much for his coiffure as he is for his music. To a certain extent, it’s true that the movie will appeal to that demographic. This is a movie that is bound to please the hoards of fans that will flock to it this weekend. But it’s not exactly the hagiography his most venomous detractors will assume. Oh, it’s flattering all right, but it presents a somewhat honest, if also fairly calculated, look at the making of a pop star in the age of the Internet. If you have any interest in pure youth-centric pop music this could be of interest. It’s a bubblegum dispatch from the front lines of youth culture.

The movie takes great pains to say that Justin Bieber is just a regular kid, and while that’s quite possibly the internal case, the movie shows external differences. He’s surrounded by a support system of stylists, choreographers, vocal coaches, back-up dancers, security guards, technicians, drivers, and celebrities. That’s not too normal. But when he is normal, just, to use the parlance of the film, a small-town kid from Canada, the movie’s actually kind of interesting. We see early footage of a pre-fame Bieber and a mid-tour sojourn that finds him back at home. His grandparents seem delightful, grounding forces. His friends from before his fame seem like normal kids. No matter how carefully collected the footage, it’s clear that this kid comes from a normal background that, at least to some extent, stuck with him.

The movie makes a gloss of his personal background. It has no intention of elaborating on why his young mother and father broke up when he was only ten months old. And that’s okay with me. This is not meant to be an in-depth psychological profile of a young star’s family life. This is a professional chronicle, at least when it is at its most interesting. I most enjoyed the movie’s glimpse into his meteoric rise. Home videos show his early musical aptitude, drumming, singing, and guitar playing from such a young age that the instruments dwarfed him. They also show his eventual steps into public performance through a competition in a local talent show and singing on street corners. But once he hits YouTube and gets discovered by an up-and-coming producer, his career takes off.

It may be hard to remember, living as we are in an age of Bieber omnipresence, but he released his first single less than two years ago. It’s encouraging to see a young performer break through the stranglehold of Disney’s tween celebrity machine to become a star on his own terms, even if those terms just happen to be set by a different set of corporate overlords. A social-network fueled storm of tween buzz kicked it off. The movie treads a fine line between praising his fans and pointing out just how crazy many of them are, showing both glowing, tearful fans and crazed mobs of stage-jumpers and clothes-clawers. The size of the crowds that greet him grow until, finally, he sells out Madison Square Garden in twenty-two minutes. There’s some kind of phenomenon happening here, even if sometimes I felt like these squealing girls who are interviewed were speaking some unknown foreign language.

By now, I feel like we’re on the precipice of the next stage of his career. Will he become a true star, breaking out of the child-star box in which so many people see him? Will he fade into obscurity? Of course it’s too early to tell, but history will naturally make this documentary a smidge more interesting, adding layers of subtext once we know where his story goes from here. For now, the movie’s fairly enjoyable in a way that’s slightly more than a promotional behind-the-scenes peek. Bieber’s music is smooth, listenable pop. The songs often have a nice groove and always feature good production value. His song “Baby,” especially, has some undeniably sturdy pop-music mechanics driving it forward. It’s quite an earworm.

I went in to the theater neither a fan nor a hater of Justin Bieber, but I definitely left interested in seeing where he’ll go next. The guy’s got talent. Director Jon Chu, of the delightful Step Up 3D, shoots lively concert footage in sometimes striking 3D. Otherwise, the footage is a mishmash of home videos, YouTube videos, and TV clips, typical for the documentary genre but not particularly well suited for the 3D format. (Not that that will matter to the target audience). Under Chu's direction, the movie is fluffy and lumpy, but it's also a slick, professional product with a nice sense of humor that sporadically pokes through.

By it’s very nature it can’t get as close to the truth as such legendary rock docs as the Maysles brothers’ Rolling Stones film Gimme Shelter or D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan feature Don’t Look Back. But nor are the stakes as high. As a surface treatment of a true-life Horatio Alger tale, Never Say Never achieves its goals. Bieber’s image is thoroughly varnished. What it means to future pop culture scholars will depend on whether or not Bieber can push past his early success and massive cult to achieve not just popularity, but greatness as well. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” his mom asks him at one point in footage from his toddler years. He grins and stares into the camera, but Chu cuts away before we hear the answer.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Cedar Rapids, from director Miguel Arteta, is a small, amiable comedy about a tremendously naïve small-town insurance agent, played with likable innocence by Ed Helms, who heads off to the titular city for an insurance convention. The convention itself is an excuse to gather up characters with clashing personalities and let them bounce off of each other in funny ways. The focus of the comedy is a trio of insurance agents that befriend Helms, introducing him to the faster-paced life of mild debauchery and bars that stay open past 10 pm. This group includes a sweet but boring guy (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a seemingly cold blonde with plenty of pantsuit allure (Anne Heche), and a boisterous, crude oaf (John C. Reilly). The friendship that develops between the four characters is sweetly handled and the actors, to their credit, don’t operate solely on the level of surface silliness. They find some of the deeper pain and inner struggles in their characters, especially Reilly who brings his usual expressive likability to a character that, in lesser hands, would be confined to simply playing the comic relief. Instead, the comic relief of the movie is the protagonist and Helms, though nice and amusing, can’t quite sell the character arc. (To be fair the script by Phil Johnston gives him very little chance to do so). Though it contains plenty of laughs, there’s never really a sense of comedic crescendo. The fast pace and light touch keep things moving along and the actors make for nice company, but with all of the talent involved I can’t help but be slightly disappointed that the end result seems less than vital. It’s an enjoyable night at the movies, and will make for nice future late-night television programming, but it doesn’t stick in mind the way better comedies do.

Monday, February 7, 2011


In The Roommate, the least observant girl on campus is forced to room with the creepiest schizophrenic on campus. Hijinks ensue! This agonizingly tedious cheapo thriller only exists as flavorless product, as an entry in Sony’s release schedule. It’s so poorly told, so clumsily paced and so lacking in plot, character, and anything of interest that it’s as if no one involved in its making were even trying. This is a cynical, crassly commercial product that can’t even bring itself to go through the motions. Flat, whiney performances from Minka Kelly (the normal one) and Leighton Meester (the crazy one) are fully annoying, and actors more likely to bring personality (like Billy Zane and Alyson Michalka) are left lurking on the sidelines with little to do. The script from Sonny Mallhi reaches lows of stupefying stupidity. It’s as if he was unaware that any psychological interest, or a little clichéd depth, would make the clunker of a thriller work even just a bit better. It still wouldn’t have saved it, though. As directed by Christian E. Christiansen, the movie is held in glossy focus and carefully framed to remain fully within the PG-13 rating. I’m not particularly interested in asking for blood and nudity, but I would have asked the creative team to at least keep suspense in the frame. This is a production that raises foreshadowing and subtext to the level of just plain text, laying out its plot on signposts for all to see. It’s one thing to be predictable. It’s another thing entirely to continually announce how predictable you are. The movie screams so loudly with its every fiber that the roommate is bad news, that there’s no good reason for our lead to stay in the dorm room. And yet she does, despite alienated friends, dead pets, stolen jewelry, and various other intimations of insanity. It’s not unusual for a member of the audience to view a character’s actions and think, “Don’t go in there!” while watching a dumb thriller. But it’s a bit much to sit thinking that for 90 minutes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


When it was first announced that acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, best known for beautifully fluid and rightly acclaimed period pieces like Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, would be remaking Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ great debut feature, eyebrows were raised. When the film finally got released in the United States, under the title A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, it was met with shrugs. The biggest surprise to me was to find that the film is not a curio and it is not easily dismissible. It’s an awfully good, and particularly smart, remake as cross-cultural conversation.

The basic story is still a bleak dark comedy about a particularly difficult corpse to hide, but in Yimou’s version the setting is no longer a small, ugly town in Texas. Instead, a similar plot unfolds some centuries earlier in a gorgeous, vibrantly hued, Chinese desert with a vast maze of craggy rocks that surround a humble noodle shop on the outskirts of town. The owner of the shop (Ni Dahong) is an abusive husband who is visited by a crooked lawman (Sun Honglei) who informs him that his wife (Yan Ni) is having an affair with one of their employees (Xiao Shenyang). With several crosscurrents of vengeance, greed, and betrayal setting it up, this situation won’t end well. In the opening scene, a travelling salesman (Julien Gaudfroy) sells the wife a gun. “I own the world's most powerful weapon!” she yells, much to the confusion of her other employees (Cheng Ye and Mao Mao), who are sweet but bumbling.

The cast is exuberantly expressive in their hyperkinetic clownishness that will soon crumble into hilarious pitch-black suspense. Yimou’s characteristically tight control over sound and image, a trait he shares with the Coens, is present in the crisp, efficient building and mingling of tension and comedy that dominates most of the film. One nervously funny scene shows a murderer, nearly discovered during the aftermath of a kill, standing at the base of a winding staircase. The light from the top of the stairs serves as a recurring visual cue of danger. The person who is hesitating about his need to descend opens and closes the door with each changing of his mind. From his nervous perch, sword drawn, the murderer watches this warning light shift bright and dark, bright and dark, each time accompanied by a soft squeak of hinges. It’s a masterful directorial flourish in a film that’s full of striking moments.

Yimou steps boldly, confidently out of his comfort zone making a darkly nerve-wracking slapstick comedy that proves that often our best stories work perfectly across cultures. He doesn’t supplant the Coen brothers’ indelible original, but that’s not the intent. This new film is a grand reimagining that works on its own terms. It’s better than a mere fascinating footnote. It is an experiment that pays off handsomely with a film that’s as engrossing and entertaining as it is unexpected.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Catching Up on 2010: The "War is Hell" Edition

When the story of the death of Pat Tillman, a football superstar turned soldier, started as one of simple casualty, became a heroic blaze of glory, and ended up as a tragedy of friendly fire, it was clear that higher forces were controlling the story. The government was using Tillman’s death as a publicity stunt, as war propaganda with the rosiest of tints. We only started to get the real story because of the dedication of Tillman’s family to figure out the truth behind whispered suspicions and because the official story didn’t seem to add up. What was worse, the cover-up or the refusal to acknowledge the cover-up? Amir Bar-Lev’s film pulls back the propaganda to reveal a portrait of who Pat Tillman really was, revealing the human complexities that show Tillman as more than a football star and as more than a good soldier. He was a hero, even if it wasn’t the kind of hero the Bush administration thought they needed. He was a young man, full of life and promise, with his time amongst his loved-ones cut way too short by a horrible accident of war. These loved ones show up in this film, his mother, his father, his wife, his brother, telling us not only about Pat’s life, but also about the struggle it took to find the truth when an entire presidential bureaucracy was standing in their way. Interviews with fellow soldiers and even a few officers help to round out the story. This is a devastating film that is by turns moving and maddening. It’s essential, expert reporting of a story that should not be forgotten.

Author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington shot footage of soldiers in Afganistan’s Korengal Valley, following one particular group through a fifteen-month deployment. One of the most charismatic of the soldiers was “Doc” Restrepo, who was killed just days after arrival. The soldiers were asked to take additional ground from the Taliban. They did so, and named their new outpost after their fallen comrade. This is Restrepo. The experiences we see these young people go through are remarkable. They fight and bleed and die for small tactical advantages. There is collateral damage. There are confusing, alienating encounters with the locals. Little is gained and much is lost. This is an important document of powerful verité filmmaking, creating a film that is compulsively watchable, that held me in its forceful, heartbreaking grip. It is a film of unbearable suspense and overwhelming emotion. This is essential witnessing, a film that is moving, overwhelming, and instructive. Some of the most unshakeable images in Restrepo are the youthful faces of the soldiers. In close-ups, these brave men stare straight into the camera and talk about the horror they have experienced. Their faces are youthful, but their eyes have wounded gazes. A scrawny kid scrambles up a hill, looking scarily similar to a boy playing dress-up as a soldier, toting around a plastic rifle. But this isn’t pretend. This is all too real. Here is war vividly shown in all its pointless, terrifying force.