Unknown

Kish and I went to see Unknown on Saturday.  We both like Liam Neeson and were in the mood for an action-adventure film.  Unknown met those requirements — but not much else.

Unknown is a story of a man who is knocked unconscious in an accident, lapses into a coma, and is surprised to learn when he awakens that he has been replaced, in every facet of his life, by another man.  It is the kind of movie that asks audience members to completely suspend their reasoning faculties and tries to maintain such a break-neck pace that you don’t have time to consider the plot holes and implausibilities.  It features a big twist toward the end, and I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to see the film.  However, it is the kind of twist that renders the overall plot so improbable that I, at least, felt a bit cheated.

With his craggy face and physical size, Liam Neeson is a believable action hero who looks like he could throw a punch and absorb a beating.  His character is helped by an illegal alien taxi driver, played by Diane Kruger, and a former East German spy, played by Bruno Ganz.  (Ganz is an accomplished actor and turned in a fine performance, but as I looked at him I couldn’t help but think of his performance as Adolf Hitler in Downfall.  His depiction of Hitler, as Der Fuehrer is advised that the Russians are closing in, has been turned into countless YouTube parodies in which a subtitled Hitler supposedly reacts to unexpected results in sporting events.  Whenever Ganz was on screen I found myself thinking of Hitler talking about his TO Dallas Cowboys jersey.)

Unknown is no great film, but it’s not an unpleasant way to spend a few hours on a cold and rainy day.

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The Company Men

Kish and I went to see The Company Men today.  It is not a great film, but it had its points of interest.

The movie is about what happens when white collar workers lose their jobs.  The main character, played by Ben Affleck, goes from a highly self-confident yuppie executive to a blue collar family man after he confronts the desperate reality of months of unemployment and rejection.  His wife supports him as he adjusts to the fact that he is not God’s gift to the business world, he reconnects with his family, and he realizes that his brother-in-law, who gives him a mercy job, is a good guy.  His story, alone, would have been a decent plot line for a movie.  Ben Affleck is not the greatest actor in Hollywood, but he did a decent job in conveying a character whose gets torn down by life like a raw recruit gets torn down by the drill sergeant in Marine boot camp.

Of course, The Company Men is a Hollywood product — which means it can’t just tell a simple story.  Instead, it inevitably must be gussied up with extraneous back stories, unnecessary characters, an affair that seems to be in the movie only to allow for a gratuitous nudity scene, the pontifications of a sad-eyed, craggy Tommy Lee Jones, and other predictable Hollywood trappings that detracted from, rather than contributed to, the essential story.  All of the Hollywood stuff slowed down what otherwise could have been an interesting and enjoyable movie about how lives are not defined by jobs and and how money and possessions are not essential to happiness.

True Grit

It was cold in Columbus today and the Browns were getting their asses kicked by the Steelers, so it was a perfect day for a movie.  I’d heard good things about True Grit, so that is what we saw — and the positive word-of-mouth turned out to be right on target.

Who would have thought that they would remake any John Wayne movie, much less True Grit?  Have they remade Sands of Iwo Jima, or The Searchers, or for that matter The Sons of Katie Elder?  Wayne was such a huge personality that it often was difficult to separate him from the story.  The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, took on that challenge, however, and the results are strikingly good.  It is a beautifully photographed movie, with an excellent soundtrack and a stunning script.  To me, the biggest star of the movie is the English language.  Were the mud-spattered, tobacco-crusted residents of the old West really so articulate, with vocabularies as sweeping as the broad western vistas?  Whether they were or weren’t, it is a pleasure to listen to the actors speak the lines and appreciate the expressive richness of the spoken word.

The acting is pretty good, too.  Hailee Steinfeld, who plays precocious and iron-willed 14-year-old Mattie Ross, has a breakout performance.  The remake succeeds, in part, because the focus of the film is on Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge her father, and it wouldn’t have worked if the actor playing Ross had not delivered.  Steinfeld does, in spades.  Jeff Bridges has by now perfected the grizzled, whiskey-soaked hero role, and he is terrific — funny, pathetic, maddening, and then awesomely heroic when the chips are down.  Matt Damon is excellent as LaBoeuf, the talkative Texas Ranger.  Watching Damon convincingly playing a man of the frontier, you realize that he is developing a portfolio of fine performances in a wide variety of roles.  Damon is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and this film gives him another chance to display his talents.  There are a number of other great performances; my personal favorite was the beleaguered stable owner who comes to regret negotiating with the single-minded Mattie bent on properly settling her dead father’s affairs.

In modern Hollywood, westerns have been a neglected genre.  True Grit shows that timeless westerns can still be made, and enjoyed.

Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.