Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.




New Releases For the Week of February 18, 2011

February 18, 2011

Tell 'em Liam Neeson's coming...and a Cold Day in Hell's coming with him!


(Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A trip to a conference in Berlin for a doctor and his wife turns into something far more sinister when the two are involved in a car accident. When the doctor wakes from a four-day coma, his wife doesn’t recognize him and there appears to be a different person in his identity. Is he suffering from brain damage and doesn’t realize his true identity, which is what the authorities believe? Or is there something different going on, something with terrible ramifications?

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content)

Barney’s Version 

(Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver. A seemingly ordinary man writes a book about his life, which is far from ordinary. His story spans three decades, three wives, two continents, one wacky dad and a bizarre best friend. This is based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, best known for his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Yeah, I know – that’s like counting the rings on trees to determine how old they are.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and an online review here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

(20th Century Fox) Martin Lawrence, Brandon T. Jackson, Jessica Lucas, Faizon Love. FBI Agent Malcolm Turner returns as his undercover alter ego, this time as a house mother in an all-girls school – where he is taking his son with him to learn the family business. Oy vey.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Crime Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual humor and brief violence)

I Am Number Four

(DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron. A young teenager in a typical small American town is anything but typical. In reality, he’s one of the last survivors of an alien race who is being hunted into extinction by powerful alien assassins, who are trying to wipe him out before his powers begin to manifest. That can make finding a date for prom problematic.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action and for language)

Four-Warned: February 2011

February 2011

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

1. DRIVE ANGRY 3D (1.8)
2. SANCTUM (1.9)
tie. UNKNOWN (1.9)

2. A GOOD MAN (2.1)
tie. ORGASM INC. (2.1)
4. OF GODS AND MEN (2.3)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

FEBRUARY 4, 2011

COLD WEATHER (IFC) Genre: Mystery. A young man who once was a promising forensic scientist turns detective when an ex-girlfriend goes missing. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.9 Could be charming if done right; no trailer yet so no clue.
DRESSED (OneRock) Genre: Documentary. The story of Nari Manivong, a formerly homeless young man pursuing his dream in the cutthroat New York clothing design business. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.9 This doesn’t interest me. At all. If it did, I’d watch Project Runway.
THE OTHER WOMAN (IFC) Genre: Drama. After a law clerk has an affair with her boss, they wind up marrying and she is forced to cope with a precocious stepson, an angry ex-wife and a personal tragedy. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 Natalie Portman is on a hot streak; that might wind up giving this film a higher profile.
THE ROOMMATE (Screen Gems) Genre: Thriller. A college freshman’s roommate becomes obsessed with her. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.0 Didn’t I see this before and wasn’t it called Single White Female?
SANCTUM (Universal) Genre: Action Thriller. A group of cave explorers are trapped in an unexplored cave when a cyclone causes it to flood. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.9 The involvement of James Cameron will draw some crowds in; hopefully the movie will justify it.
WAITING FOR FOREVER (Freestyle Releasing) Genre: Romantic Comedy. When a failing actress returns home after her father becomes ill, she realizes the feelings of an old childhood friend are far stronger than just friends. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Rachel Bilson is moving upwards on my actress chart and the trailer looked charming.

FEBRUARY 11, 2011

CARANCHO (Strand) Genre: Thriller. The romance between an idealistic doctor and an ambulance chasing lawyer is threatened by corruption in the Argentine insurance industry. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.3 Argentina is proving to be adept at churning out good thrillers.
CARBON NATION (Clay Way) Genre: Documentary. Dedicated individuals seek solutions to reduce carbon emissions and help stave off climate change. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.5 While I’m a proponent for all the solutions the movie displays, I’m not sure they make a great case for them.
CEDAR RAPIDS (Fox Searchlight) Genre: Comedy. An insurance agent comes out of his shell at a convention. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 Ed Helms gets his first leading role; could be the one that makes him a star.
CERTIFIABLY JONATHAN (Self-Released) Genre: Mockumentary. A look at one of the most gifted and innovative comics of all time, Jonathan Winters and his quest to get his paintings hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Not sure this is an adequate forum for the talents of one of the greatest ever.
THE EAGLE (Focus) Genre: Swords and Sandals. A young Roman yearns to learn the fate of his father, who disappeared along with his entire legion in Britain. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.1 This has been oft-delayed and has changed studios which isn’t a good sign.
GNOMEO AND JULIET (Touchstone) Genre: Animated. Shakespeare’s most famous romance as interpreted by lawn decor. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.1 Could be too strange for its target audience.
IN HER SKIN (IFC) Genre: Crime Drama. When the body of a missing 15-year-old Australian girl is found in a neighbor’s yard, the ensuing realization her friend killed her sends shockwaves through the community. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 A terrific cast and an intriguing plot make this high on my list of films to watch out for on Netflix.
JUST GO WITH IT (Columbia) Genre: Comedy. Adam Sandler has friend Jennifer Anniston pose as his wife in order to impress a girl he wants to date. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.0 Yeah, I’d be impressed too.
JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER (Paramount) Genre: Horror. Teen pop sensation Bieber’s concert film. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 4.0 The fact that this will make millions is simply a sad fact of the continued unraveling of American musical taste.
ORGASM INC. (First Run) Genre: Documentary. A filmmaker covering the development of a female Viagra shows Big Pharma pursuing profit ahead of the health of the women using their product. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 2.1 A fascinating subject.
POETRY (Kino International) Genre: Drama. A free-spirited South Korean grandmother discovers she has Alzheimer’s as she is taking a poetry course. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.7 Sounds a bit schmaltzy but this could be another Korean cinematic gem.
VIDAL SASSOON: THE MOVIE (Phase 4) Genre: Documentary. The legendary hair stylists’ influence on fashion and grooming is documented. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 3.9 Because you’re worth it.

FEBRUARY 18, 2011

BIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (20th Century Fox) Genre: Urban Comedy. Martin Lawrence returns as a detective with a penchant for going undercover in a dress. This time, his stepson is along for the laughs. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.8 I didn’t even like the first Big Momma – I have a feeling I’m really going to hate this one.
BROTHERHOOD (Olive) Genre: Drama. A fraternity pledge initiation goes horribly wrong and the pledge must stand up to save a friend’s life. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.5 Looked suitably intense, although I’ve seen a few too many fraternity-pledge-gone-wrong movies to be excited about this one.
THE CHAPERONE (Goldwyn) Genre: Action Comedy. A wheelman trying to go straight after a prison stretch and repair his relationship with his family runs into a few road blocks while chaperoning a field trip for his daughter. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.4 This WWE funded film will probably turn up heavy on action and light on quality.
EVEN THE RAIN (Vitagraph) Genre: Drama. An interweaving story of Columbus’ discovery of America and the making of a movie. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Meant to be an allegory on the treatment of aboriginals in South America.
I AM NUMBER FOUR (DreamWorks) Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi Action Thriller. Alien teenagers develop their superpowers while hiding on Earth from the monsters that destroyed their world. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 2.0 Usually this would sound terrible, but D.J. Caruso’s directing so it might be good.
UNKNOWN (Warner Brothers) Genre: Thriller. A doctor wakes up from a coma in Berlin to discover his wife doesn’t recognize him and another man has assumed his identity. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.9 This looks awesome; Liam Neeson has his most kick-ass role since Taken.
VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (Magnet) Genre: Horror. After a mysterious blackout in Detroit, people are disappearing into the darkness. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 The trailer looks terrifying; the cast not so much.

FEBRUARY 25, 2011

DRIVE ANGRY 3D (Summit) Genre: Supernatural Action. A criminal who is sent to Hell for his crimes escapes back to Earth to rescue his baby grandchild from a vicious cult. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 1.8 This looks over-the-top and insane – one I’ve been looking forward to since I first saw the trailer.
THE GRACE CARD (Goldwyn) Genre: Spiritual Drama. A police officer’s son dies in a tragic accident, causing a crisis of faith. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 4.0 Sorry, I don’t get into films that preach to me.
A GOOD MAN (Film Presence) Genre: Documentary. An Australian man weds his bride despite her incapacitation due to a stroke; he then turns his attention to helping his town reverse an economic downturn…by opening a brothel. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.1 Sounds like a very unusual subject for a film; I like quirky in this case.
HALL PASS (New Line) Genre: Sex Comedy. A pair of wives gives their knuckleheaded husbands Hall Passes – free reign to do whatever they like for a week without repercussions. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 It’s the Farrelly Brothers…’nuff said.
HEARTBEATS (IFC) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A pair of best friends finds their friendship turning into rivalry over a new roommate. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.9 This sounds a bit pedestrian and without a trailer I’m wondering what it brings to the table for a fairly done-to-death concept.
OF GODS AND MEN (Sony Classics) Genre: Drama. A group of French Christian monks live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors until a massacre sets tensions high. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.3 Based on a true story – could be something special.
SHELTER (Weinstein) Genre: Supernatural Horror. An expert in multiple personalities is confronted by a patient whose personality may be more than human. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 This sounds like it could be really scary – just the way I like it!

Sanctum, Just Go With It, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Eagle, I Am Number Four, Unknown, Drive Angry 3D, Hall Pass