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.

Elements Of The Screen: Yakkity-Yak, Don’t Talk Back (Dialog And Assumptions Thereof)

Hey, there’s a new ‘Elements’ article up!  Sweet!  Go check it out.

Know1ng

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A divisive but effective, philosophical thriller.

Review: So I pretty much geeked out over this movie when I first saw it. I’ve mellowed since then, and gotten control of my mind, so perhaps I can reflect more effectively on the ‘Knowing’ experience.  Director Alex Proyas has constructed a very effective philosophical thriller, but you have to be the kind of person (open to the concept of wonder, which is rare these days) that can take it in.

Like his previous films, Proyas gives ‘Knowing’ a really distinct atmosphere that sticks with you.  The man-on-the-ground perspective gives the intense, apocalyptic imagery a poignancy that big, dumb disaster movies can’t touch.  The disaster sequences are elemental, focusing on fire, dust, darkness and light, respectively.  Since it was shot on digital, it has an eerie, documentary feel.  The story is divisive because it doesn’t try to justify its supernatural elements.  They’re simply present, and confusing, and at once terrifying and comforting.  This is much like real world religions.  Every one of them has fear and love mixed together down to the core, and it indeed takes faith to turn confusion into catharsis.  Due to the rise of scientism, faith is considered childish and unevolved, and its hard to apply it even to fiction.  Its a sad thing, because faith is a crucial component of imagination.

The performances at the heart of the film are very strong.  Nicolas Cage is an underrated, oft-derided actor, and he carries the emotional burden of his character very well.  The supporting cast is good, especially the child actors, whose characters seem to be the only ones at relative ease with the impending doom of the world.

‘Knowing’ is proof that Alex Proyas isn’t out of ideas nor has he lost the ability to realize them.  I look forward to his next dream.

Classic Review: Rear Window

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A completely unusual and charming mystery classic.

This image speaks for itself.  Thats what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

This image speaks for itself. That's what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

Review:  What if your leg was broken, forcing you to be confined to a wheelchair for months with nothing to do but stare at the neighbors?  James Stewart’s character finds out just what it would be like in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.  Shot almost entirely in one room, Hitchcock defies the conventions of film for a seemingly pedestrian premise.  The result is dialog-heavy, but not unbearably so, and lacks the benefit of multiple locations to pique audience interest.

Hitchcock proves he doesn’t need them.

The filmmakers built a magnificent set for ‘Rear Window’, which comprises the protagonist’s apartment complex.  Every shot is either of the goings on inside the protagonist’s own apartment or the courtyard outside his rear window, hence the title.

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), still recovering from a broken leg he received by getting too close to danger in his line of work, spends his days watching his neighbors.  He is criticized by both his nurse, Stella, and his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont for his habits.  Multiple stories are going on around the courtyard.  The denizens of the complex each have their own quirks, and everybody feels real.  This film’s pedestrian look at life in the complex is not dull.  Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow burn of the film, however.

Over a series of days, Jeff witnesses strange behavior by his neighbor, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff suspects him of killing his wife.  He soon wins both Stella and Lisa over to his side of the argument, but Lieutenant Doyle, his friend in the police, is unconvinced.  Evidence continues to mount for both sides.  Is Mr. Thorwald a murderer or isn’t he?

The big issue of the film is voyeurism.  Hitchcock is questioning the nature of film itself through the narrative.  Is it right for us to watch even fictional strangers experience pleasure and pain, for our own satisfaction?  Hitchcock doesn’t provide us with answers, but the film doesn’t feel empty because of this.  The questions are subdued enough not to distract or confront us.  Eventually, Jeff gets too close to danger once again, showing in a humorous way that watching people for a living- or for enjoyment- has its costs.

The musical score for the film is entirely diegetic. That is, every musical cue has a source within the film.  Most of the music is provided by the character of the songwriter who lives in the courtyard.  This serves to enhance the feeling of audience involvement in the story.  We are a lot like Jeff, watching fictional neighbors.  This film couldn’t be described as a purely suspenseful drama.  It is more a benign, intelligent mystery with a romantic undercurrent.  The suspenseful moments near the climax, of course, don’t disappoint.  The best moment is when Thorwald, angry with Jeff for being accused of murder, breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by looking directly at the camera, and thus the audience.  It’s creepy fun.

I like this film less than Hitchcock’s later work, ‘North by Northwest’, which I have also reviewed.  It is less thrilling and fun at face value than that film, but they both are perfect in their own manner.

“See it!  If your nerves can stand it after ‘Psycho’!”

Classic Review: Vertigo

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A spellbinding, terrifying predecessor to the modern psychological thriller, as only Hitch could film it.

Best not to look at that too long.

Best not to look at that too long.

Review:  Hitchcock is known more for his thrillers than for anything else in his body of work.  This film shows us why. ‘Vertigo’ is a twisted tale of obsession, deception, and distortion.  More than anything else, it is a cautionary tale, showing the disastrous effects of the aforementioned elements in the lives of both its protagonist- if you can call him that- and his ‘love interest’.

It is darn creepy.

It opens with a strangely psychedelic journey through a kaleidoscope of multicolored spirals.  Kinetic (moving) text introduces the filmmakers, while we are treated to Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score.  By this time, we already know we are in for something bizarre.

After this journey into the weird, we are thrust into a dramatic, though brief, rooftop chase.  Two police officers are in pursuit of a criminal, and when he jumps across a gap to another roof, they try to go after him.  The first one makes it fine, but the second, police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), slides down the sloped tiles and hangs onto a drainpipe over certain death.  The first police officer goes back for him, but in the process of trying to save John’s life, he plummets (in a well composited shot) to the ground.  The emotional shock ingrains a fear of heights in John, which causes vertigo, a disorienting and often debilitating condition.

After retiring from the force due to the incident, he spends his days with his best friend, Midge Wood, a kindly young woman he was once engaged too.  Throughout the film she represents his good sense, and when that slips away from him, so does she.

He meets a friend from college, Gavin Elster, who asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine.  She seems to be suffering from a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or possibly even spiritual possession.  Gavin wants to know where she is wandering to every day.  Initially reluctant, John takes the job.

As he follows, evidence begins to mount that Gavin’s claim- that she is possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother- is true.  Meanwhile, John struggles with his increasing attraction to Madeleine, which Midge disapproves of.  She makes attempts to charm him into forgetting about Madeleine, but these backfire, much to her chagrin.

The film crackles with tension.  The cinematography and music perfectly compliment each other, unnerving the audience.  This is not an outright scary film (except, perhaps, for a couple dream sequences).  Hitchcock is too smart to rely on shock.  Suspense is a much more powerful tool. One notable aspect of the cinematography, is the first use of the now famous ‘vertigo effect’, where the background rushes forward or backward from the foreground by use of a clever blend of camera movement and zooming.  It would be later replicated, among other places, in ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

John’s vertigo could be seen as a metaphor for his increasingly distorted view of Madeleine, and later a woman named Judy.  While serving as the protagonist in the first half, the distortion forces him to become an antagonist to Judy, bringing the film to its startling and haunting climax.  Now, I am someone who loves happy endings… that is something this film does not have.  The story, in my opinion, is not too bad, but it lacks a magnification of some elements which would have made it a clearer experience, at least for me.  A greater involvement of Midge would have been excellent.  She seems to vanish once John’s obsession transforms him into a manipulator.  Since she serves as the moral ground zero, it would be appropriate- in my opinion- to show her reactions to John.  This would reinforce the cautionary aspect of the narrative.

‘Vertigo’ is not one of my favorite films.  In fact, when it is all said and done, I dislike it, and even hate some elements.  Nevertheless, it is well-designed, compelling, and everything else you would want from Hitchcock.  It is certainly a masterpiece of design and form.  The story’s dark turns make it an unpleasant experience, however, which I suppose is part of the point.  We really don’t want to be like John.

Classic Review: Jaws

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.

I can almost guarantee youve seen this poster before.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this poster before.

Review:  Bah… dum.  Bah…. dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum. Bah-DUM!  Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.

This first film was ‘Jaws’.

Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material.  It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished.  They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade.  Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster.  It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.

The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative.  The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed.  Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable.  It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.

After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach.  After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches.  And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor.  He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy.  Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident.  Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.

With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody.  His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.

To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen.  One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark.  It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock.  Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.  The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long.  Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is.  Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster.  You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.

There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it.  Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension.  The shark is a constant threat.  Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film.  The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’.  Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.

All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted.  It has stood the test of time.  It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’.  An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary.  There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense.  I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted.  Sort of like Hitchcock.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

The International

Stars:  **1/2 out of Four

Summary:  Decent plot, great acting, and striking visuals make for a good R-rated thriller.

A good poster, from the most shocking scene of the movie.  But Naomi Watts character was not present in the actual scene.

A good poster, from the most shocking scene of the movie. But Naomi Watts' character was not present in the actual scene.

Review:  I went to the movies this Friday the 13th, of the month of February, to see my second R-rated feature in theaters.  It wasn’t ‘Friday the 13th’.  It was ‘The International’, a surprising, globe-trotting crime thriller with a single action set piece.  That’s right, just one; don’t believe what the trailers have told you, this is not an action movie.  The slow pace may put off the people who are looking for an adrenaline buzz.  That’s not to say that the single action scene we are shown is not impressive; it is remarkably well executed, grounded, and intense.  Everybody involved gets hurt.  Boy, do they hurt.  It’s very shocking and bloody, especially for such an exhaustively realistic picture.  You feel somewhat guilty for enjoying it, actually.

Enough about that.  I did say that the film is “exhaustively realistic”, and that may be an exaggeration, but it somehow works.  I really believed in the characters.  The writing was somewhat thin, or blunt, at times, but the actors really managed to carry it to unprecedented heights.  Clive Owen is especially good.  He portrays an INTERPOL agent who teeters on the very edge of becoming corrupted by his fight against the titular bank, and I sometimes questioned how far he would go.  Yet he remains noble, and a very human hero, much more so than most recent protagonists in action films.  Alongside him is Naomi Watts as his (not romantic) partner, who provides his conscience and just plain good sense at times.  Not that he lacks those things; she just gives them a public voice.

Opposite Owen and Watts are several very good actors playing the heads of various arms manufacturers and, of course, the bank.  There is some very good interplay between Owen’s character and a former Communist, now a top player in the bank, which gives us insight into how both men see the world. How they interact is the best part of this movie, hands down.

I won’t bore you with details of the plot.  I thought it was good entertainment, if dark and shockingly violent at times.  As Ebert would say, two thumbs up.

NOTE:  The Stars rating has been lowered from *** to **1/2, not because I think less of the film, but because I realize I may have overrated it.