Sunday, February 20, 2011
Unknown is being marketed to people who liked Taken and The Bourne Identity. While you will probably like this movie if you liked either of those, it's a misguided attempt. All it shares with the first is that it is a thriller with Liam Neeson headlining, and with the second, that its plot is remarkably familiar to anyone who has read a lot of Robert Ludlum.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is flying into Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a biotechnology conference. Forgetting a bag at the airport, he hops in a cab driven by hapless Bosnian immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), and is promptly involved in a near-fatal accident. Waking up four days later in the hospital he discover that his wife is now seemingly married to another man who claims to be Dr. Martin Harris, and he has no way to prove his identity. Confused and disoriented, unsure if he is hallucinating, he sets out to discover the truth, even as sinister forces seem to be massing to remove him from the equation.
Right off the bat, I'll say that Unknown wants to be a "twist" movie. The only problem is that if you are familiar with even a handful of espionage and mystery novels, you will not be surprised by anything in the movie. With that being said, it's still an entertaining film. And while it's being compared to the Bourne movies and Taken, I was more strongly reminded of the Roman Polanski/Harrison Ford collaboration Frantic, as both movies hinge on an American attempting to unravel a mystery in Europe, even as everyone around him assures him that there is no mystery.
Liam Neeson is solid as Martin Harris, displaying a sort of restrained panic and dogged determination to uncover the truth that makes him a relatable protagonist. Honestly I am surprised that Neeson's reluctance to turn down a role hasn't gotten him in trouble yet, but somehow he manages to bring a touch of class and seriousness to every movie he is in. I also find myself amused that only now, on the cusp of sixty, has Hollywood realized how capable an action star he is.
His supporting cast is also quite capable. I remember when Diane Kruger was cast in Troy, and the amount of flak she took for her acting. Well, in the years since the worm has turned, and she's now one of the more dependable Euro-women working in Hollywood. As the good-hearted, spunky Gina she more than satisfactorily fills the role of heroine, even though her willingness to aid the seemingly insane Harris seems like a cinematic convenience. Aidan Quinn is sleazy and a little creepy as doppleganger Harris, while Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella provide a sort of grave sobriety as a pair of relics from the Cold War. As for January Jones, the woman looks like a special effect herself, and displays about as much acting range.
Unknown is an enjoyable mystery, although I highly doubt anyone will be fooled by its main twist. It's a perfectly satisfactory Euro-flavored wrong man-wrong time thriller, that keeps you in suspense right up to the very end. Just remember it's not Taken and it's not Bourne 4, and you should have a good time.
For some reason, if anyone makes a movie or TV show about Roman warriors, I have to watch it. If asked, I would doubtless name the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades or the Hundred Years War, as my personal historical fascination, but I am nowhere near as inexplicable drawn to those as to the Romans. I blame two sources for this: the first going to see Ridley Scott's Gladiator back when it first came out. It's still one of my favorite movies and I can watch it over and over without it getting old. The other would be the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, which I read when I was about thirteen, stirring adventure novels set in or around Imperial Rome. My favorite of all her novels was one about the disgraced son of a Roman officer going north of Hadrian's Wall to recover the gilded standard of the vanished ninth legion. That novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, has now arrived in cinematic form, called simply, The Eagle.
For starters, save at the very end, the book is remarkably faithful to the movie. I was not excited by the trailers, but given my dedication to action movies about Romans, and my nostalgia for Sutcliff's novel, I went to see it anyway. All my doubts were swept away as I watched scene after scene, perfectly and skillfully replicated on the screen. It's worth pointing out that Kevin MacDonald is primarily a documentary film-maker, responsible for, among other things, the excellent mountaineering documentary Touching the Void. I did not know this going in, but it helped explain why I was so impressed with the movie.
The Eagle was filmed mostly in Hungary, with a little bit shot here and there in Scotland, and the location shots are amazing. When Centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his Pictish slave Esca (Jamie Bell) go north of the Wall, it honestly feels like they're stepping off the end of the world. Wild mountains, impenetrable forests, and gloomy seashores abound, drenching the viewer in a sense of forbidding isolation. Regardless of anything else, the movie is already halfway to success just because of how amazing it looks.
Despite appearances by distinguished actors like Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, this one really boils down to a two-man show. While I have never hated Channing Tatum, he has always struck me as a square-jawed meat head with limited range. However, he appears to have improved significantly in this film, although Centurion Aquila's honorable straight-arrow character feels like a throwback to adventure movies of yore, and also probably demands slightly less Thespian complexity. Jamie Bell has a far better acting reputation, and his turn as the conflicted Pictish gladiator turned slave Esca is quite good. The two actors have a good friendly chemistry, and just as in the novel, their friendship is a highlight of the film.
Before closing, I also want to make a few points about MacDonald's interesting decisions regarding the historical portions of the movie. Military formations, sets and props are all fantastic, and he's also made some very interesting anthropological decisions. Given that the Pictish language is long vanished, all the natives of Britain speak Gaelic in the movie, while the Romans all speak American-accented English. This was intended to provide a bit of contemporary political subtext, but to the average viewer it helps to ground the story in a sort of immediate realism. Likewise, his decision to depict the enemy tribe as white eskimos who paint themselves with blue beach mud may not be entirely historically accurate, but it provides an interesting touch which makes them all that more interesting.
Really, The Eagle will probably fall victim to its own marketing. The trailers aren't that exciting, and it's getting dumped in the middle of February, but take it from me, it is a remarkably good film and well worth watching.
Steven Pressfield, of course, is most famous for his titanic debut novel about the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, but he's kept up a steady stream of books since, most of them about Ancient Times, but most recently this little World War II thriller. It is nowhere near as good as Gates of Fire, but to be fair, that's a pretty much insurmountable accomplishment.
The story follows a young British Army officer named R. Lawrence Chapman, who goes from Tank Commander to liaison officer for the Long Range Desert Group, a real-life desert recon group. If you're up to speed on your WWII history, you know that the war in Africa was very touch and go for a while, especially thanks to the operational genius of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The LRDG was designed to travel behind German lines and provide intel on its movements, hopefully shifting the balance just a little.
Of course, given the title of the book, you know there is more afoot here. Chapman soon finds himself a patrol leader and on a seemingly impossible mission: finding and killing Rommel.
As with all of Pressfield's novels, there are lots of good moments. Plenty of speculation on what goes into turning a sane, civilized man into a warrior, the occasional ethical consideration and, of course, an excellent ear for the way combat soldiers talk and behave.
Another thing that is captured well is the nature of desert combat. In Gates of Fire we got a perfect look at war from the ranks of a Phalanx: the noise, the crush, the sweat, mud, and blood. Here he does the same thing for trucks and machine guns: the cacophonous noise, the constant fear of irreparable mechanical damage, the dirt and smoke, the frighteningly long ranges involved.
It's a short little novel, and as stated, it never rises to the heights of Gates of Fire, but by the same token, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. I was especially tickled to see a lesser known commando unit like the LRDG get the spotlight, and I enjoyed a novel set in the African theater for a change. Recommended to military and WWII buffs.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
I remember listening to "The Green Hornet" on the radio. Not back when it originally aired, but rather on a local radio show that specialized in replaying old radio dramas. I loved those old detective and mystery shows like "The Shadow" or "Escape," but "The Green Hornet" was my entry into the genre. It was never my favorite, but I enjoyed it and I had a special place in my heart for it. So it was with mixed enthusiasm that I heard a movie was being made, and even more so when I learned Seth Rogen had been cast in the lead. Definitely not the Green Hornet I remember. I had never seen the old TV show, so my doubts increased when I learned that Jay Chou had been cast as Kato. Mr. Chou has always been something of a joke to me, perhaps because of his debut Hong Kong film, Initial D, which was uninspiring to say the least.
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a shot, and lo and behold, The Green Hornet is actually a hell of a good time. Seth Rogen as Britt Reid inherits a newspaper empire and a kung-fu adept valet named Kato after his father dies. After an initial prank veers into crime-stopping territory, Reid finds himself with a new hobby. Make no mistake, he doesn't do it out of a sense of justice, he does it because he thinks it's pretty cool.
And that's the thing about the movie. It makes no bones about what it is, simply inviting us along on a crazy, pyrotechnic ride. Michel Gondry seemed an odd choice to direct this, but he is remarkably adept at directing action scenes, laying on the crazy camera shots and slow-motion like there's no tomorrow.
Of course, much of the weight lies on the stars. Some people dislike Seth Rogen, but I personally find his schlubby immaturity to be pure comic gold. His comic timing and physical performance are hilarious, and the actor, just like the character, is clearly having the time of his life headlining an action blockbuster. Jay Chou also surprises, turning his soft-spoken nice-guy act to his advantage as the amiable Kato who is just as happy tinkering with machines as kicking a guy through a window. Christoph Waltz doesn't get a whole lot to do, although he gamely tries to play his one comedic card as the less than menacing villain Chudnofsky. It's not his fault, it's just this movie is more about the Hornet and Kato. And then there's Cameron Diaz, who seems to only be present to get a major female star's name on the poster, because her character isn't really very necessary to the plot.
But again, this movie is all about fun. And fun it is. Whether you see it in 2D or 3D, the visuals will satisfy action fans, and the script will almost certainly have you laughing. It may not be great cinema, but somehow it's a lot more fun that many recent superhero movies.
Korean movies are delightfully bleak. If you think that knowing a major character will die in any given Korean film constitutes a spoiler, you clearly have not watched enough of them. Seriously, though, the country seems incredibly pessimistic regardless of whether they're doing romantic comedies (one of the leads will die in the end), action movies (one of the leads will kill another lead), horror movies (the kids will die), or crime movies (everyone will probably die). But this tendency makes their movies pleasantly grim and somber affairs, which, when blended with their stunning cinematography makes South Korea the go to country when you want a beautifully bleak cinematic experience.
The Chaser is no exception to this rule. Kim Yun-seok plays Jung-ho, a former cop turned boorish pimp who has a simple problem: his girls keep turning up missing. He tracks all the missing girls to one phone number, a number he has just dispatched a girl to. Racing after her, he finds a blood-stained man fleeing in a stolen vehicle. The police arrest him, but there is no evidence, and the last prostitute is still missing. With a clock ticking to the man's release, Jung-ho hits the streets trying to find the proof that this timid little man is a brutal serial killer.
It's an interesting set-up, not least because of the main character. As the film progresses, we find ourselves rooting for Jung-ho as his determination leads him from dead-end to dead-end, despite his seedy profession. He seems genuinely concerned for the fate of his girls, but at the same time we can never quite shake the suspicion that he just wants to stop his revenue from drying up. The addition of one of the missing prostitutes' daughter adds more layers to Kim's portrayal, and thankfully the movie lets us draw our own conclusions. It neither idolizes nor condemns Jung-ho, simply portraying him as a relentless force determined to hunt down the evidence he needs. The only other major player in the movie is Ha Jung-woo as Young-min, the killer. Alternately cowardly and weak, or frighteningly violent, he's an easy villain to hate.
This sort of reverse serial killer drama makes for compelling, if deliberately paced, watching. The killer is in jail, and he has confessed, but there is no physical evidence. Most of these movies involve hunting the killer. This one involves finding the victims.
The pacing is slow, but by about a quarter of the way in, you'll be sucked into the twisting mystery of it all and won't care. If there's a downside, it's that the movie's few attempts at action are generally weak. There are two foot chases that occur in an environment that looks exactly the same each time and lacks little real tension. But it all comes together for a disturbingly gory finale that proves once again that the Koreans have no idea what a happy ending looks like. But still, it's a hell of a movie.
Given my pending tour in Afghanistan, I've been trying to get my hands on as many books about the country as possible. This one seemed like an obvious first step, as it examines many of the forces and factors that led to the current US involvement over there. Plus it's pretty short and easy to read.
Tanner starts by pointing out that Afghanistan started out as not really having much value. Nobody wanted to conquer it for its own sake, it was always just the pathway to something better, either China and India, or Europe. So beginning with Alexander the Great, he makes his way through all the defining moments the country has experienced such as the Mongols, the Mughals, the rise of the Durranis, and of course, the British.
The largest section is undoubtedly the bit dealing with the struggle between England and Russia for the middle east, a conflict which was expanded upon in Peter Hopkirk's magnificent quartet (The Great Game, Setting the East Ablaze, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and Trespassers on the Roof of the World), which is highly recommended for those who find this aspect of the nation's history interesting.
As one would expect, it is difficult for any historian to remain apolitical in a book like this, and Tanner leavens his meaty historical analysis with plenty of heavy handed condemnation of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He leaps a little too quickly on the "Graveyard of Empires" moniker that Afghanistan has acquired. I would cautiously suggest that most military failures in the country rise not so much from the ferocity of the inhabitants, and more from the fact that at the end of the day there is not much over there worth an extended war. Insurgents who win a war are generally in possession of unwanted land. Those who live on ripe territory (Aztecs, the Sioux, the Saxons) pretty much always lose in the end.
However, politics aside, it's an excellent capsule look at Afghanistan's history. It's not too strong on culture or social aspects, but then again, you don't go to something touted as a "Military History" for such things.
If you are interested in this harsh country that has consumed so much of our country's manpower and resources for the past ten years, this is an excellent place to start.