The Debt (2010)


The Debt

Sam Worthington takes aim.

(2010) Spy Thriller (Miramax/Focus) Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen, Marton Csokas, Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren, Istvan Goz, Morris Perry, Jonathan Uziel, Iren Bordan, Katya Tompos. Directed by John Madden

The thing about the truth is that it is rarely what we think it is. Often we are told one thing and the truth is quite another. Sometimes knowing that truth doesn’t set us free however; sometimes the knowledge of truth shackles us for a lifetime.

Rachel Singer (Mirren) is a retired Mossad agent who bears the scars of her vocation both literally and figuratively. Her daughter Sarah (Aboulafia) has authored a book about her career, particularly concerning a daring raid into East Berlin that was performed by a three-person team in 1965 in order to retrieve a Nazi war criminal. Although it didn’t end up well, Rachel emerged from the raid as a national heroine.

In 1966, Rachel (Chastain) was the junior member of the team which included team leader Stephan Gold (Csokas) and David Peretz (Worthington). They are in East Berlin to extract a former Nazi War criminal – Dieter Vogel (Christensen), the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau who performed hideous experiments on Jewish concentration camp residents and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

He is masquerading as an ordinary OB-GYN, so Rachel and David pose as a man and wife unable to have to date. The plan is set up meticulously with an escape route marked for them. However the plan misfires and they are forced to bring their prisoner back to their East German apartment while they try to find a way back home. Unfortunately, Vogel manages to escape his bonds and after a fierce struggle in which Rachel is scarred for life, she shoots him dead rather than let him escape.

But was that the whole truth? When Rachel’s ex-husband Stephan (Wilkinson) tells her that information has surfaced that puts everything she’s built in her life in jeopardy, she will be forced to take a journey to make things right, not only for herself but for her daughter, her team and her country.

John Madden is best known for directing Shakespeare in Love but he does pretty well in the taut spy thriller genre. There are some scenes that literally had me on the edge of my seat, cliche as that might sound. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has quite a cast to work with.

Mirren is one of the top actresses in the world at the moment and one of the finest of all time when all is said and done. She is one of the main reasons to see this – as always her performance is letter perfect. She plays Rachel as a woman haunted by that secret and embittered by the way her life has turned out. Her only saving grace is her daughter Sarah who is now getting sucked into the lie.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well. Chastain, who has had a couple of exceptional performances already this summer in The Tree of Life and The Help adds a third (although this movie was shot well before the other two). Her character is as naive as Mirren’s version is worldly and jaded. She is certainly flawed, but her dedication is unquestioned.

Worthington gets a role here that plays to his strengths as an actor and runs with it. His David is cold, shut-off and haunted by the specter of the War in which is family was decimated. He is guarded and closed off, which Worthington can do well.

Wilkinson is another veteran actor who has a complex role to fill and he does it admirably. His character is crafty, devious and infectiously charming while Hinds, who plays the older David, is thoroughly haunted and destroyed, his expression one of a man who doesn’t expect anything in life but misery.

The problem with the movie is two-fold. For one thing, the 1966 and 1997 versions of the characters don’t really resemble each other and when it comes to Csokas and Worthington, it is easy to confuse them with Wilkinson and Hinds (who resembles Csokas more than Worthington). For the record, here are the correct pairings: Wilkinson (1997) and Csokas (1966) as Stephan, Hinds (1997) and Worthington (1966) as David and of course Mirren (1997) and Chastain (1966) as Rachel.

It also must be said the ending is a little bit hoary, although I must admit there was at least some tension in the scene, enough that it made it entertaining. The movie itself harkens back to the cold war thrillers of the 60s in many ways, although I have to admit it’s a pale echo of some of the better examples of the genre. Still, given the performances and the tension, I can recommend it without reservation for most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Great cast. Some well-thought out taut moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is unsatisfying. Not easy to match 1997 versions of 1966 characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two movies that was distributed by Miramax whose release was delayed due to the purchase of the company by Colony Capital. The company eventually made a distribution deal with Focus.

HOME OR THEATER: Works just as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Columbiana

Mirrors


Mirrors

You should see what Jack Bauer does with more than 24 hours...

(2008) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Peil, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Julian Glover, Tim Ahern, Josh Cole, Ezra Buzzington.  Directed by Alexandre Aja

There are questions in the universe that bear asking – some of them are not what you’d call obvious. For example, if eyes are the mirrors of the soul, does that mean that mirrors are the eyes for the soul too?

Ben Carson (Sutherland) has taken a few hits to the soul lately. A recovering alcoholic – not a good place to be if you’re a cop – he was involved in a shooting that left an undercover cop dead. His antics have alienated his wife Amy (Patton) to the point where she’s kicked him out of the house, severely limiting his contact with son Michael (Boyce) and daughter Daisy (Gluck). He’s been suspended from the force and is reduced to sleeping on his sister Angela’s (Smart) couch.

He gets a job as a night watchman at the Mayflower Department Store. A burned-out husk that is awaiting resolution of an insurance company squabble, it was the site of a fatal fire years ago. Soot coats nearly every square inch except for the many pristine mirrors, oddly looking polished and untouched.

He begins seeing strange images in the mirrors, horrible murders that come to pass. He has terrifying, realistic hallucinations of burning alive. The mirrors begin to communicate tasks that he is expected to do, and when Ben resists, family members are threatened and even killed. Soon, Ben is in a fight of his life against an enemy that is supernatural – one that can travel to any mirror or in fact, any reflective surface – and can kill with its reflection. His only salvation may lie with a cloistered nun who is not exactly jumping at the chance to help.

Aja is one of the most promising up-and-coming directors in the horror genre. His French films – particularly High Tension and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes are strong from a visual standpoint, and he knows how to make characters relatable. The visual sense of Mirrors is pretty dark, which you would expect in a deserted, burned-out department store. Sometimes underlit is a good thing, and it adds to the creepy element.

The effects are a little on the chintzy side – the mirrors use a kind of television static ripple effect that looks a little bit like a low-rent Ring. However, there are some pretty successful moments, such as a death scene in which a naked woman in a bathtub is killed by her reflection pulling off her mandible. It’s one of the highlights of the movie.

Most people know Kiefer Sutherland through his TV show “24” and this role isn’t too different than Jack Bauer. Ben is a little more damaged than Jack (I know, I know, Jack is plenty damaged) but they’re both men of action who when backed up to the wall. He has demonstrated a terrific action hero persona and there’s no doubt in my mind that if he continues to pursue parts like this, he’ll continue to be successful. This is the perfect role for him.

Smart is one of those actresses who just does a good job every time out. She doesn’t get big time leading roles but whenever she gets a part, she runs with it. Patton is a beautiful actress who has little else to do but look beautiful. I would have loved to see more motherly instincts from her when her kids are threatened; she doesn’t seem anxious enough.

The movie is a bit on the talky side; too many conversations between Patton and Sutherland about how they really should be together but she just can’t get past his actions and he needs to get his act together…okay, we get it. Other than that, this is a competent horror film that while a bit pedestrian about the whole mirror conceit, has plenty of scares, enough to recommend it.

WHY RENT THIS: Aja is one of horror’s most promising visual stylists. Sutherland has plenty of charisma in the lead role; Smart has a memorable supporting role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Could have been a little less talky.

FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of images that may be too intense for youngsters, plenty of violence and bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The unfinished Academy of Sciences building in Bucharest, Romania doubled for the nearly-demolished Mayflower Department Store.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a vignette showing Anna Esseker’s none-too-cheerful childhood, and there is also a featurette on the role of mirrors in urban legends and myth that may well be more informative and interesting than the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was undoubtedly a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Rocket

Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen

Changeling


Changeling

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a mother taking on a corrupt system to find her missing son.

(Universal) Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Michael Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Gatatlin Griffith, Devon Conti, Frank Harris. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As parents, our job is to protect our children. We can’t be with them 24-7 and bad things can happen even when we’re around. The worst thing that can happen to a parent is said to be the death of a child; however, worse still might be not knowing.

Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mother, something of a rarity in the Los Angeles of 1928. Her husband was incarcerated, but she and her son Walter (Griffith) were getting along just fine. Christine worked as a telephone operator and was sure to be promoted shortly. They lived in a small bungalow on a quiet little street. They went to the movies and had ice cream afterwards. Life was good.

Unfortunately, Christine got called into work one Saturday, forcing her to disappoint her son Walter as they had plans to attend the movies. She kissed him on the head, promised him they would go to Santa Monica Pier the next day and nagged him to stay inside until she got back.

When she got back that evening, Walter was gone. Nobody on the quiet street had seen him go. Frantic, she called the police who assured her he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood and he would surely be back before morning. All that long night she waited, but he never returned. Finally, she went to the police station where Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) took her statement and promised to look for the boy. Days turned into weeks and still there was no sign of him.

The case was becoming an embarrassment for the Los Angeles Police Department. Already under fire for corruption and incompetence, pressure was coming from Chief Davis (Feore) on down to Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) to resolve the case. Finally, several months later, they finally caught a break; a boy in DeKalb, Illinois claimed to be Walter Collins. He was put on a train for Los Angeles, with the press invited to witness the happy reunion.

Except that when Christine Collins laid eyes on the boy claiming to be her son, she knew it wasn’t him. For one thing, he was three inches shorter than Walter was. When she took him to the dentist, his records didn’t match. When she took him to school, none of the classmates or teachers knew him, nor did he know who they were.

When she expressed her misgivings to the Police, they called her insane. The case was closed and the Police wished no further embarrassment. They tried to sweep it under the rug, but Christine Collins wasn’t the sort of woman to go into the night quietly. She railed publically and vocally, with the aid of crusading radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) who had been calling attention to corruption within the LAPD for years and saw this case as the crystallization of everything he had been warning his listeners about.

The lengths Christine Collins would have to go to, the tribulations she would undergo and the facts of the case of Walter Collins became this extraordinary story, all the more remarkable because the events were true. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, best known for creating the science fiction universe of “Babylon 5,” meticulously crafts a story so richly detailed and gripping that you are on the edge of your seat for the two hours plus running time of the movie.

Eastwood also meticulously recreates the Los Angeles of 1928, and wisely allows the story to unfold simply, without calling attention to technique. He allows the story to be presented organically; you’re barely aware that he’s directing at all, which is to my mind the mark of a great director. Even so, it’s a great looking movie.

Jolie delivers perhaps the best performance of her career. Although she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, she carries this movie on her back. Her desperation and despair show through her civil façade, which cracks the longer the story goes on. At no time do you not believe the emotional strain the character is under. She got nominated for Best Actress for this role, and although she would lose to Kate Winslet, there is certainly an argument that this was the superior performance.

There are some grisly scenes that are going to be disturbing to people who are sensitive to such things. The last portion of the movie does a complete turn, and you would be well-advised to be aware of it. There is a scene where Detective Ybarra questions a young boy who lived at the Wineville Chicken Ranch of Gordon Northcott (Harner) that is as terrifying a scene as you will ever witness. These are the kind of images that induce nightmares.

Eastwood is approaching 80 years old but he seems to be hitting his creative stride, producing one amazing movie after another. It is hard to watch in places, granted, but that is due to the subject matter more than the director. Those who love quality movies should seek this out if they haven’t already seen it and even then, it bears repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: A gripping true-life crime story that has twists and turns so bizarre and so terrible that nobody could possibly make it up. Great performances from Jolie and Malkovich lead a very solid cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes depicting violence to children are very disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of children in jeopardy as well as the discovery of their remains; as good as this is, it is definitely NOT for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer J. Michael Straczynski heard about the case of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from a source at Los Angeles City Hall where the records for the case were about to be destroyed. Instead, Straczynski took the records himself and became so engrossed in the story that he exhaustively researched the case; each event in the film occurs as cited in legal documents referring to the case and dialogue is often verbatim from court transcripts. He wrote the first draft in only eleven days and Eastwood agreed to direct within hours of reading it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which overlays the photographs of the actual people being portrayed, as well as newspaper events of the actual events and period photographs of the locations utilized in the film. It’s really impressive stuff, especially for a history buff like me.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Town