Unknown (2011)

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  A standard, gutless thriller that mostly fails as cinematic craft and relies too heavily on its talented cast.

I usually search high and low for unique posters, but I chose the generic one for this. It seemed appropriate.

Review:  Mmm. There’s nothing like a film that plays like a first draft.  A first draft, we may surmise, written by a team of bored writers whose physical diet is 95% sugary coffee and whose sole source of cinematic nutrition is Americanized Euro-thrillers.  ‘Unknown’, as you might have guessed (you clever fiend! *twirls mustache*) is just such a movie.  It really does seem like a hastily cobbled script that was either commissioned or bought by producers who believed that the path to success lay in capping off a shoddy structure with a shiny star, in this case Liam Neeson.  It doesn’t cut it, folks.  Liam Neeson is a great actor, but despite his best efforts he can’t save a film that’s damned to the recycling bin.

There is, of course, the inevitable comparison with the surprise 2009 hit ‘Taken’, released in the same time of year with the same star and European setting.  ‘Taken’ treats Liam’s character like a retired Jason Bourne almost devoid of conscience.  You don’t assign him to missions, you just turn him loose.  I think people were in awe of Liam’s ability to kick ass, but that’s a fact of life reinforced by better movies, like ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The A-Team’.  Nothing particularly special about ‘Taken’, though it’s a bit subversive because of how cold-hearted and impressively efficient the protagonist is.  I saw it four times in the theater, both in appreciation of its finer points and for social reasons, but I didn’t have the itch to see it again.  Until this film showed up on the horizon, that is, promising another Neeson action vehicle.   ‘Unknown’, however, fails to ride the gravy train.  It doesn’t give us ‘Taken 2: Took”.  He doesn’t go into badass mode until the inevitable climatic fight scene, and I felt cheated.  I was deceived by advertising, which I guess is unsurprising.

‘Unknown’ is generic.  One could craft a better film after visiting the Thriller index on TV Tropes.  I suspect they did, but failed to use the tired genre elements in a way that created lasting suspense.  It feels long.  ‘Unknown’ has the kind of raw Hitchcockian material that can be stretched so tight, you could pluck it and hear the shriek of Herrmann’s string section.  Instead, the filmmakers play it safe, preventing us from feeling hemmed in.  No roller coaster drama for us.

There’s also the disturbing lack of memorable symbols and themes.  Neeson ostensibly plays a botanist (and something more), the main plot involves a discovery in that field, and there is a plot device made of scientific plant names, but never is there any correlation drawn between the plot and bigger ideas.  Hitchcock used occasionally anonymous McGuffins to drive his movies, but most of the time there was some larger idea at play that you couldn’t easily miss.  ‘North by Northwest’ springs off the notion of a nonexistent spy, but ties this into its heroes reaction to being confused with a man who doesn’t exist.  This forces the protagonist into fulfilling the role.  It says something about the clandestine games governments play and how innocent people can get snagged in them.  Not grand, perhaps, but clear.  ‘Unknown’s ideas are too confused to have such focus or effect.  The filmmakers jump from locale to locale without anointing their doors with emotion.  I like to quote Kubrick’s notion of film as music, and he’s vindicated once again by this film’s unmusical construction.  The screenwriters seem reluctant to repeat cinematic melodies, opting instead to pack in more clichés, and those images that repeat lack cathartic transformation.

There are better ways to use one’s time.  Go watch some Hitchcock; leave this one for the soon-to-be-disappointed birds.

National Treasure

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A heedless, fun, and solid piece of summer entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition.

Review:  Cinema, like any other creative endeavor, slides on a scale between pretentious and pretense-less.  ‘National Treasure’, a deliriously patriotic and good-humored entertainment, somehow falls on the pretense-less end without sacrificing its ambitious quasi-historical narrative.  Disney assembled an excellent cast, with Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer, and they all seemed to have a blast hamming it up in this traditionalist matinée adventure.  Disney’s major collaborations with producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been mostly quality throwback stories with nostalgic sensibilities.  ‘National Treasure’ is not innovative, but it’s done well, as it hits all the popcorn flick story beats with heedless abandon.  In this sense, it is without pretense, knowing exactly where it stands.  On the other hand, central to the plot is a rather loose but very positive interpretation of American history that bubbles up into brief soliloquies.  Despite A-list talent, such diversions could have easily crippled its decent B-movie plot, but because of the story’s philosophical nature, it works.

The best thing about ‘National Treasure’ is that it actually has a good central theme, that is, all history is family history.  This is best illustrated in the excellent prologue when young Benjamin Gates sneaks into his grandfather’s attic in search of secrets.  Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) finds him there and rewards his quest for knowledge by summing up the film’s McGuffin, setting up the narrative desire succinctly in the first few minutes.  Above all, we learn that Ben’s lifelong desire to find the titular treasure comes from his love for his family.  His knowledge of American history is merely that love extended.  Also, by starting out with young Ben, we get a sense of time’s fluidity and how entangled past and present become over the film’s course.  Extrapolating, the moral of the story is clear: History is integral to our identity, and such entanglement, as is the protagonist’s desire, should be ours as well.

As I am fond of maintaining, sound is half the picture, and composer Trevor Rabin (formerly of progressive rock outfit Yes) really sold the film.  The score reinforces the scenario’s grand implications, deftly mixing epic brass with electronic and rock elements, a genre-bending feat indicative of Rabin’s roots.  The themes of depth of history, love of family, and acceleration toward a technology-laden future all find a musical spouse in Rabin’s work.

One last note before I close: The awkward finale, which features not one, but two fake-out endings, actually has a thematic purpose, though subtle.  The Freemasons, integral to the historical background, had only three levels or degrees in the period in which the titular treasure was supposedly hidden.  Therefore, the three treasure rooms, and their corresponding character reactions, correlate to each degree.  What seems excessive makes sense, with a little perspective.

Inglourious Basterds

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Audacious, shocking, funny, brilliant, and challenging storytelling.  More than entertainment, Tarantino uses the guise of a war movie to shoot holes in our conceptions of onscreen violence.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Review:  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur if there ever was one.  His striking, consistent, and audacious style is unmistakable and unmatched.  His films are often condemned by the morally conscientious for being violent and sexually explicit, a charge I have issues with, but will not answer in this review.  His cinematic reputation is marked by blood, swearing, and crime.  One would think, from a popular conception, that his films are concerned with reveling in the dark side of life.  I would contest this openly.  And ‘Inglourious Basterds’ provides an excellent reason why.

The story is dark, to be sure.  “Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France”, after all, is the story’s setting.  Blood is bound to be spilled.  The film opens with a truly chilling conversation between a Nazi villain known as Colonel Hans Landa — who I would call one of the greatest screen villains of all time — and a French farmer.  Hans Landa, as an aside, is played by Christoph Waltz, an unbelievably good actor, but not well known in the states.  Hopefully this movie will change that.  Anyway, the farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his house, and Landa knows it.  Tarantino has always been noted for the strength of his characters and the writing in general, and this film is certainly no exception.  The tension builds and builds throughout the scene, a solid ten minutes of rising horror.  Only one Jewish girl escapes the ordeal alive, spared for the hell of it by Landa as she runs away from a sudden machine gun massacre.

This girl grows up to become a cinema owner, through a series of events that the theatergoer is not privy to.  I had the privilege of reading the original screenplay Tarantino typed out, and there is a solid hour of events missing from the final cut, scenes I believe were filmed and should end up on the DVD/Bluray with any luck.

Meanwhile, the Americans have organized an elite fighting team of Jewish soldiers, dubbed the ‘Basterds’ by the Germans.  They are literally terrorists, waging guerrilla warfare behind, around, and between enemy lines, killing Nazis without mercy.

Eventually, both stories converge at the cinema, and let’s just say it becomes hell on Earth as history is dismissed in a brilliant checkmate by Tarantino.  Seriously.

This is not a simple revenge fantasy, however.  Killing Nazis may be the Basterd’s goal, but in the end, if the audience is really paying attention, they may have second thoughts about such simple moral terms.  In the end, there is no “them”, no heartless enemy we can kill without blinking.  They are real human beings, and we are just as evil as they are.  Just about everybody in the story has the chance to be a, well, bastard, and to be a good guy — or at least a decent individual.  Tarantino brilliantly exposes the truth that war, and any violence for that matter, is hell for everybody involved.  The violence, though brief, is utterly devastating and quite realistic.  There are not really any improbable escapes or awesome firefights.  There is a Mexican Standoff where everybody involved, and even some that weren’t, is killed, except for one person.  The violence is played at real time, without any of the slow-motion, Matrix-inspired action gimmicks.  There aren’t any moments where we are called on to enjoy the violence, just to watch and to experience the emotional and sociological implications of seeing those sorts of things happening.  It’s both awful and necessary to the story Quentin’s telling.

The cinematography, unlike all the Michael Bay, rapid-fire bullshit that’s so popular these days, is nearly perfect.  Forget 3-D, this is immersion in the scene.  During the Mexican Standoff, we are placed at the table, and forced to watch the characters interact organically, patiently, as they — and thus, we — try to figure out how to get out of the situation.  The tension is palpable because we are really invested.  Going hand-in-hand with the sheer patience of the cinematography is the way the characters are fleshed out.  Tarantino has claimed more than once that he allows his characters to literally drive the story, rather than following the common practice of moving your principal players around like sprites in a video game world, and it’s extremely well evident.  These are people.  Thank God, then, that the violence is so sparse, or else we’d feel like the characters were being disrespected.  Instead, they react to violence like any real person would, and we find ourselves caught up in sympathy.

Part of the complete package of humanity, of course, is humor.  Tarantino breaks with convention and even laces the humor directly into his filmmaking style, with wacky captions and musical stingers.  It’s a style that must be seen to be believed, and it’s hysterical.  Even the villains get to be the comics.

After all was said and done, history had been changed, and the credits rolled in typical Tarantino fashion, I walked out the theater reminded why I fell in love with Tarantino’s work.  Not only is this one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies Tarantino has made, right behind the cult classic ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In the words of Quentin Tarantino through the character Lt. Aldo Raine, “You know, that right there just might be my masterpiece…”