Archive for February 2011

Drive Angry 3D

February 27, 2011

What we have here, folks, is body parts flying through the air in 3D, gratuitous sex and nudity in 3D, Satanic rituals in 3D, supernatural bullets blowing car doors off in 3D … Doesn’t sound like your thing? Click away to something else. Drive Angry 3D is a rock-solid, fist-pumping grindhouse throwback about ten times more entertaining than almost anything in Grindhouse. Gleefully shameless, the movie wallows in wrongness, and that’s exactly where an exploitation flick needs to be. It is also, of course, as dumb as a box of hair, but when delivered with wit and commitment, as it is here, dumbness can be more satisfying and liberating than anything that wins Oscars this weekend.

Nicolas Cage helps a lot. Cage is in iconic bad-ass mode here as John Milton, a former criminal out to rescue his granddaughter from a Satanic cult. I’ve seen reviews that give away what Milton really is, and I’ve seen reviews that don’t. I won’t. What I will say is that Milton has a way of attracting women who usually fall for bad boys. They fall very hard, very quickly for him. His relationship with foul-mouthed, hard-punching ex-waitress Piper (Amber Heard), however, remains chaste. He needs her help, and, more specifically, her ex-boyfriend’s ’69 Charger. I suspect that if Piper’s ex drove a modern hybrid, Milton might’ve kept looking; he and the movie both worship classic muscle cars.

Any movie that casts William Fichtner as a mysterious emissary who calls himself The Accountant and can kill two men with a flip of a quarter has done half its work already. Strolling through the chaos with amusing sangfroid, Fichtner is also responsible for perpetuating what I guess is a new micro-trend in recent movies: this is the second time in as many weeks in which a character sits completely deadpan inside a vehicle falling backward from a great height, last week’s example being Unknown. The Accountant is on Milton’s trail, while Milton is pursuing Jonah King (Billy Burke), the leader of the Satanic cult. You know Jonah is evil because he’s a white man with a soul patch. He also has ’70s hair and sideburns — whoever groomed Burke for the role knew what kind of film this is.

After an unpromising start with the execrable Dracula 2000, director Patrick Lussier has recently given himself a second life as a designer of cheerfully meretricious 3D drive-in fare; his previous effort was 2009’s My Bloody Valentine 3D, much loved by a section of horror fandom. Drive Angry 3D, too, dabbles in horror and gore; it is, unlike Milton’s preferred vehicles, a hybrid — a mix of lowball 42nd-Street revengeploitation and supernatural schlock, complete with a Satanic cadre that travels in a bland-looking Winnebago (an affront to the hard-driving Milton). This hybrid guzzles gas, though, and spews a fog of violence and profanity and T&A — toxic for some viewers, I admit, but a shot of oxygen to grindhouse acolytes. The movie stabs it and steers, to quote another Cage anti-hero, burns rubber, and doesn’t give a fuck about global warming.

PS: Tom Atkins is in this, being a bad-ass as only Tom Atkins can. I forgot to mention him in the review proper. But Tom Atkins should never be overlooked.

Unknown

February 20, 2011

He is in Berlin for a biotech summit. He is involved in a car accident, whacks his head badly, and wakes up in a hospital four days later unsure of a lot of things. He knows his name is Martin Harris, he knows he is a doctor, and he knows his wife is around somewhere, because she came to Berlin with him, and now she is probably wondering where he is. He manages to find her. She doesn’t know who he is. There is a man next to her, claiming to be her husband, Martin Harris.

And this is about all I can tell you about the plot of Unknown, a twisty thriller in which Liam Neeson, as Martin Harris — perhaps the real Martin Harris, perhaps not — bulldozes all around Berlin looking for answers. He does not — sadly for those who fondly remember him in Taken — punch everyone in the throat. Martin Harris is not a fighter, or at least he doesn’t think he is. He finds it increasingly hard to grab onto exactly who he is. What he discovers, and how he discovers it, are the movie’s currency. This is a by-the-numbers thriller, in which nothing is what it seems, but nothing is what it seems in pretty much the way you’d expect, if that makes sense. It may make a halfway diverting rental in a few months.

I can tell you the little bits I enjoyed. They may not be worth your $6.50 to experience for yourself, but they were worth something to me. To start with Liam Neeson: he is a sadder actor now than he was in Taken, for obvious reasons. He seems to have new and unfortunate resources to draw upon to play a disoriented man standing in a hospital wondering why he no longer seems to have a wife. Our awareness of Neeson’s extratextual grief lends gravitas, possibly unearned by the script, to the emotional center of Unknown. I liked Neeson sitting quietly on a cheap bed next to Diane Kruger as a taxi driver who he thinks can help him. Neeson, or Martin Harris, is so visibly overwhelmed by confusion and sadness that Kruger’s heart goes out to him, even though it should probably stay put.

Late in the game there is a diamond in the rough of all the convolutions. Two master actors, Bruno Ganz as an ex-Stasi agent Martin Harris has contacted for help and Frank Langella as a scientific colleague of Martin Harris’, stand facing each other in an unpretentious little Berlin walk-up. They talk about cars; they don’t say much. All is said with glances, silent realizations. The two great actors play an ominous duet of regret. This is what I hope to find in thrillers like this: malevolent elegance tuned to perfection. It’s very brief, and soon we are back to car chases and a skulking assassin and a bomb that threatens the lives of thousands.

I don’t imagine myself seeing Unknown again, but I would like to revisit the first ten minutes or so, to see if it squares with what we learn at the end. Part of this experiment would involve monitoring Liam Neeson’s pre-accident performance for any “tells.” As for January Jones as his wife: many critics have taken her to task for her somnambulant work here, but in her defense, it’s hard to say in retrospect how such a role should, or even could, be played. She certainly doesn’t seem like Martin Harris’ wife, or anyone else’s. Maybe January Jones knew that Liam Neeson would be doing most of the heavy lifting: we don’t have to believe in her, we just have to believe that Liam Neeson believes in her. And he sells that. I suppose that’s enough.

The Illusionist (2010)

February 13, 2011

The Oscar-nominated The Illusionist is the latest in an odd, tiny subgenre of films imagining real-life directors as characters in the sorts of films they might’ve made. (2009’s Double Take, which envisioned Hitchcock in a Hitchcockian thriller, was another.) Tributes like these, of course, exist primarily out of film-geek love, as well as the sort of homage usually left to novels in which, say, Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle solve some mystery. If we can’t have a new film by the long-dead French comedy master Jacques Tati (M. Hulot’s Holiday), the rationale goes, we might as well embrace a tribute by French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville).

Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, only directed a handful of films, though his work spanned decades (his first feature was released in 1949, his last in 1974). He gained his performing chops as a mime in pre-WWII music halls, and this experience seems to inform The Illusionist, which, we’re told, Tati wrote in 1955 but never made; it was intended as a letter to his estranged daughter. The film itself certainly gets much of its emotional fuel from a father-daughter relationship between the titular magician — drawn and animated as a Tati doppelganger — and a young woman he meets in a Scottish pub. Romance is never possible between them; she is charmed by his sleight of hand, he is charmed by her innocence. She is young; the capacity for happiness hasn’t been ground out of her yet.

There are some laughs in The Illusionist, but a lot of it is melancholic and somewhat self-pitying. The magician has to wander around looking for steady work (in one strange episode he winds up washing cars at a garage; in another he plies his trade in a shop window, making his employer’s wares appear out of a hat), because he can’t make consistent money performing illusions for increasingly sparse audiences. It’s the 1950s, and rock music has invaded music halls; the Beatles-ish group in the movie is presented, rather meanly and homophobically, as a gaggle of giggling limp-wristed sissies. Meanwhile, all around the magician are similar old-school entertainers — a clown, a ventriloquist — who fall into despair, musing on suicide or pawning their props.

So the movie comes across as a vaguely bitter ode to how things used to be before modernism came and ruined everything. It’s beautifully crafted, though. We forget at our peril how miraculous cel animation can be; an entire generation is growing up on the canned plastic of Gnomeo and Juliet and twenty other computer-animated romps just like it every year, and, to put it mildly, they don’t all have the taste and ingenuity of a Pixar production. The Illusionist benefits from what I assume is some computer enhancement, but mostly we marvel at precisely drawn people in movements slapstick and subtle, sometimes both (the animation work on the young woman as she gets used to her new shoes is exemplary). The landscapes are gorgeous, the background characters are always doing something; it’s a fully created world, and one well worth seeing on a big screen. But the nostalgic sadness that suffuses this story — which has been divorced somewhat from its painful source — leaves us with little except how tragic it is when artists are outmoded. For an animator who sees multiplexes clotted with stuff like Gnomeo and Juliet, this movie may be more autobiographical than even Tati’s original script was.

Sanctum

February 6, 2011

O hai, I can't actSwimming in a tight cave tunnel miles underground and miles underwater sounds like the most terrifying, claustrophobic experience I can imagine. If you get stuck, you’re screwed on two different levels, and either way you’re going to die very unpleasantly. Imagine my surprise that Sanctum, which involves doing that very thing, botches any opportunity for suspense.

One scene in particular drops the ball pretty hard. Five divers swim through an especially tight spot. The least experienced diver — a woman — brings up the rear, because, as she’s told, “If you panic, everyone behind you is dead.” So the first four divers make it through, and then the woman gets stuck. Cut to: four guys wondering where the woman is. Cut to: the woman, being stuck. Cut to: one of the guys, her boyfriend, indicating that maybe he’d better make sure she’s not dead or something. Cut to: the woman, finally making it through. What these cutaways do is destroy any horror in the moment. We could’ve been put in that panicking woman’s position as she blew precious air out and struggled to get free. We aren’t.

It didn’t have to be this way. As all the ads trumpet, Sanctum is executive-produced by James Cameron, whose The Abyss was the most intense and traumatizing underwater film since Das Boot. But he’s not in the director’s chair here. Someone named Alister Grierson is. This someone named Alister Grierson might do better with a different story (he’s made one other feature, an Aussie war picture), or something that doesn’t involve caves, diving, or 3D.

Ah, yes, the 3D. People see “James Cameron” and “3D” in the ads and they might think of Avatar, or they might think of his two 3D underwater documentaries. If he is lucky, they will not think of Sanctum. The movie makes very little effective use of 3D once it goes inside the cave, which happens about a reel in. There’s no spatial or visual wonder in the cave, which in any case looks either computer-designed or carved out of styrofoam. We don’t feel we’re there, or anywhere in particular. The underwater photography flattens everything. The above-water acting flattens every character. One actress, Alice Parkinson as the aforementioned woman, sounds suspiciously dubbed. Richard Roxburgh, as the tough-as-nails leader of the expedition, is your standard-issue obsessive who’s alienated his grown son, who also happens to be along for the journey.

The official plot motor, supposedly based on an actual experience that co-writer Andrew Wight had, traps five people in this massive cave after a storm blocks their way out. For a more visceral based-in-fact film pitting human against nature, I refer you to 127 Hours. That film, anchored by a fully committed James Franco performance, conveys the thrill and agony and triumph of putting one’s body in the uncaring company of ancient rocks. For a more gripping James Cameron underwater adventure, I advise you to Netflix The Abyss. For a more terrifying cave movie, add The Descent to your queue. For wooden acting, stupid plot elements (like a climactic fight ending in one guy getting impaled on a stalagmite), and scene after scene in which you can’t see and don’t care what’s going on, by all means waste some of your afternoon on Sanctum.


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