Unknown (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011
You’re well-respected, well-fixed, famous, married to a knockout lady, happy. You‘re Dr. Martin Harris — or so you think.
You’re the major character in a movie called Unknown. And in that movie, you’re a brilliant scientist with movie star good looks (Liam Neeson’s looks, in fact) and now you’re attending a very prestigious international biotechnology conference packed with world scientific stars, and a Saudi prince or two, comfortably lodged in a deluxe hotel in a glamorous but unfamiliar city (Berlin), along with your gorgeous blonde, TV-star-looking wife Elizabeth (January Jones of Mad Men, in fact).
Life is good. It’s good to be the biotechnologist. But, very suddenly, the bottom drops out of your world, your life, your sanity. First, you mislay your passport, carelessly left on a luggage cart. Then, when you leave your wife (without explanations) to retrieve it at the airport, your cab swerves to avoid a collision and drops off a bridge. You’re just barely rescued from drowning by your beautiful Bosnian cab driver (Diane Kruger) who pulls you out of a smashed window in her sinking, flooded taxi.
You wake up four days later, after a four day coma, in a Berlin hospital where nobody knows who you are. Mysteriously, nobody seems to have been looking for you either. Ignoring your helpful doctor (Karl Markovics), and a friendly nurse (Eva Lobau), and very worried about your wife, you race back to the hotel, where a skeptical hotel manager informs you hat Dr. Martin Harris is already there, checked in, that the conference if proceeding smoothly, and that Mrs. Harris hasn’t reported any spousal absences.
Worse, when you run into Liz (still January Jones), she insists she‘s never seen you before, she treats you like a stalker, and she‘s irritatingly accompanied by another movie star-looking guy (Aidan Quinn), a smug smart-ass who claims that he’s Dr. Martin Harris and you’re not, and who has the passport, the I. D., the Internet bio shot, the attitude and the intimate family photos to prove it. When you blow your cool, you’re threatened with police. And two mysterious bad guys start tailing you around, chasing you on the subway and over the rooftops, killing witnesses and displaying dire intentions of all kinds.
Well, there’s a superficial explanation. This is all part of a nightmare movie thriller — Hitchcockian, Polanskian — that starts well and later collapses into utter balderdash, a movie vaguely reminiscent of Polanski’s 1988 Harrison Ford-in-Paris suspense picture, Frantic (in which Ford lost his wife), of the classic, fact-based 1950 British period thriller So Long at the Fair (in which Jean Simmons lost her brother), and of the great Alfred Hitchcock suspense comedy The Lady Vanishes (in which Margaret Lockwood lost Dame May Whitty‘s Miss Froy). The movie’s Dr. Harris, or whomever, has stumbled into an alternate movie life, full of skeptical witness, hired assassin thugs, bemused scientists, arrogant putzes like the false Dr. Harris, and people who just don’t know who the hell you are (or say they don’t).
In this bad dream of a world, your only seeming allies are that Bosnian cabbie (who’s also an illegal immigrant), a friend from America (Frank Langella) and a sad-eyed ex-agent of the brutal East German domestic spy network the Stasi (Jurgen, a part wonderfully played by Bruno Ganz). You’re in a nightmare mess that is going to waylay you and turn you into a “wrong man” on the run.
Luckily, or unluckily (depending on whether you‘re an audience member or a bad guy), Dr. Harris is not just any biotechnology scientist who’s lost his passport, his wife and maybe (soon) his life. He‘s a film character played with quiet ferocity by Liam Neeson, who’s a movie star with a “Schindler” or two in his back pocket, a prominent nose and musculature, icy eyes, deadly bad-guy-bashing skills, and a temperament full of controlled explosions — and also lately, an exotic thriller specialist-hero. When the killings and the car-chases and the explosions start piling on, anyone played by Neeson will always seem more than capable of doing to Berlin what he did to Paris in Taken.
Which is all to the good, unless you don’t like Taken. And I don’t — though I love The Lady Vanishes. Unfortunately, what’s vanished here is good sense, good writing, good thriller plotting. The movie’s “Bourne Yesterday” script is based on Didier von Cauwelaert’s novel Out of My Head and written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell — and you‘ll probably wish before it’s over that the movie was based instead on the Rolling Stones album “Out of Our Heads,” or written by Stephen’s father, John le Carre.
The plot of So Long at the Fair — based on a true incident that I don’t feel like recording and “Spoiler Alerting” for you — has been done with variations (including Hitchcock’s) a number of times, and it usually works. It’s a logical-illogical nightmare, the kind of movie where much of the world seems to have turned against the main identification figure, where the choice of explanation for everything that’s happening seems to be paranoia or an actual vast conspiracy.
What goes wrong here — and the movie, after an intriguing start, and despite that excellent cast, goes very wrong — is that the eventual explanation for what’s awry with Dr. Harris and his life, is utterly, baldly, irredeemably preposterous. It makes no effing sense, and the more that various characters try to explain it, the less effing sense it makes. From the moment that Dr. Harris and his wife drive off from the briefcase on a luggage cart that contains his passport (What?) and his speech (What?) and some important data (What? What?) and various other things that may be vital to world peace and progress, or their opposite, and to Harris’ own peace of mind, as well as the progress of the story itself, the movie becomes so increasingly, madly absurd, that you can‘t swallow any of it. At least I couldn‘t.
Anyway, you’d probably prefer, as I would, some less convoluted and daffy a reason for everything — like say, a revelation that the whole show is an elaborate practical joke being played on Liam Neeson by the rest of the cast and crew. I’m not going to tip any plot twists. But if I described to you what happened at the end of “Unknown” in the big payoff scene — and I won’t — you might want to start chasing me (or Butcher and Cornwell) through subways and over rooftops along with Dr. Harris.
The director, Jaume Collet-Serra made the creepily frightening psychological horror movie Orphan, and he knows how to weave a mood, and turn a twist. He and cinematographer Flavio Labiano give Unknown a lot of dread and wintry atmosphere. But he can‘t really sell these goofy plot twists or make his car-chases or fights any more stylish, or sensible, than every car-chase or fight that suddenly erupts in any big movie thriller like this, in cities like this movie’s snowy Berlin, seemingly empty of traffic control or consequences, a city turned into a huge video game, played by psycho players with fast reflexes.
As I said, the cast is excellent, and that includes Neeson, and it definitely includes Ganz and Langella. In fact, the best scene I’ve seen in any poor-to-middling movie recently is the eerily quiet confrontation between Langella’s Rodney Cole and Ganz‘s Jurgen, in Jurgen‘s dimly lit apartment: a sequence that bristles with tension, weariness, melancholy and an embittered Cold War nostalgia that seems positively le Carrean.
January Jones heats up one De Palmaesque art gallery scene, and she does her Hitchcockian blonde routine, albeit an ambiguous one, about as well as Tippi Hedren ducking birds or Eva Marie Saint going northwest. I liked Markovics’ overworked doctor. Kruger’s cabbie Gina has a shaggy sexiness and resilience. (It‘s amazing how together she stays when she does Dr. Harris a favor and her apartment and car are wrecked and two corpses are left behind.) And Quinn does a thriller fantasy villain here as well as he did a realistic literary one in the underseen The Eclipse.
As for Neeson, he’s good as ever, but though he may have found his box-office metier, the metier cheats him here. Neeson is the right kind of actor for this kind of movie. He‘s become a solid big action star, and here he‘s believably hard-case as well as believably brainy (and believably befuddled as well). But this is ultimately the wrong kind of movie for him, in most respects except financial ones. Whatever the book Out of My Head was, the movie Unknown is just too damned improbable and silly. When you try to put the whole puzzle together, the pieces keep sticking to your fingers, or falling apart like stale little thriller cookies.
I’m usually happy when a good actor finds a bread-and-butter role, or franchise, or type of role (like Neeson in Taken), even if I hate the movie (like Taken), because it means he or she can keep financially viable and maybe do good, cheaper stuff on the side as well — though, to tell the truth, Neeson isn’t now doing enough good, lower-budgeted stuff in his post-Taken period, or making movies as interesting as the movies he used to do fairly recently, like Kingdom of Heaven, Kinsey, or Gangs of New York. At least he’s not doing enough to make penance for hyper-active dreck like The A-Team. Maybe, after a 109 minute coma like Unknown, Dr. Neeson needs to wake up and find that Aidan Quinn has taken his place.
Just Go With It (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Dennis Dugan, 2011
Okay, here’s Adam Sandler again. He or somebody he knows saw Cactus Flower — the 1969 movie comedy, from Abe Burrows’ Broadway hit about a philandering dentist (Walter Matthau), the one where Matthau cons a pretty counter-culture gal he‘s dating (Goldie Hawn, who won an Oscar) into thinking he can’t marry her, because he already has a wife, although he doesn‘t. And then Matthau (a.k.a. Whiplash Willie Gingrich, by God) talks his smitten middle-aged nurse (Ingrid Bergman), into masquerading as that wife, so he can keep Goldie on the string. But Ingrid is in love with him too, and there’s a cute guy (Rick Lenz) down the hall from Goldie, and you can guess the rest.
I. A. L. (“Izzy“) Diamond, on temporary sabbatical from Billy Wilder, scripted it. Gene Saks (a.k.a. Chuckles the Chipmunk) directed it. It’s not bad, nothing great, but a pretty funny show, done by experts.
Okay, so Sandler likes it. He thinks it can be remade into a cute funny modern romantic comedy. He gets his buddy Dennis Dugan to direct — Dennis, the auteur of Happy Gilmore — and Allan Loeb and somebody to write the script. (Sorry, Timothy Dowling.) Sandler can play the Matthau part, now a guy named Danny, but instead of being a dentist (nothing funny about dentists, unless maybe W. C. Fields plays them), he’ll be a hip, very expensive, very rich L. A. plastic surgeon, and the first time we see him, he’ll have a monstrous big hooter on him, which he’ll fix, and then he’ll start fixing everybody else with a bank account, and he‘ll wind up as cute Adam Sandler a.k.a. Danny, cosmetic surgeon and babe magnet.
For Goldie‘s part, we’ll get Brooklyn Decker, that blonde Sports Illustrated swimsuit goddess who looks great in a bikini. (Just tell her she‘s got the movie’s Oscar winning part, which she does.) And Jennifer Aniston gets the Ingrid Bergman. (Just tell her Bergman won Oscars too, bigger ones, and maybe Adam will want to do a remake of Gaslight or Murder on the Orient Express some day. Or “Casa-fucking-Blanca” maybe!) (“Here’s looking at you, Jen.”) And The Rach’ still looks super in a bikini too. (Memo: Start buying bikinis. But don’t let Sandler anywhere near one. The schlemiel thinks he’s hung like a camel.)
Then we get some blonde godling for Brooklyn, compensation for when she doesn’t get the Oscar nomination. Now, all we need is a script. A snap. We modernize, take out the old offensive stuff, put in new offensive stuff. Izzy was great, at least when he was with Wilder, but we got Allan Loeb. (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.) We write a funny part for Nick Swardson as Danny’s funny, crude cousin, Eddie. (Just tell him he gets to have a hard-on and leer and say crude, funny things whenever Brooklyn or Jen wear a bikini. And when they don’t.) We write a funny, sexy part for Nicole Kidman as Jen’s old nemesis Devlin. (She’s already got an Oscar, for a nose job yet, so just tell her it’s a stretch, and she gets to be sexy and mean and leer at everybody, and also joke with her gay boyfriend, played by, I don’t know, Dave Matthews. And she gets to do a hula. Tell her we got a great body double for her.)
Okay. So how do we modernize this crappola that Sandler somehow likes? Well, hey, Danny can start off pretending he’s married with other chicks so he can stay unattached, and we get all these beautiful babes parading by. Okay, yeah, that’ll work. But Danny can‘t be as much of a schmuck as Walter Matthau was; he’s gotta have some heart. So instead of Danny trying to con Brooklyn so he can keep schtupping her, like Matthau, we’ll have him actually be deeply, tenderly in love, and want to marry her, but she sees the wedding ring in his pocket and he has to explain. So he gets Jen to fake matrimony with him, and Jen’s Katherine will have two adorable funny kids, and he’ll say they’re his kids, and she’ll pretend her name is Devlin (after that college rival, played by Nicole). And they all go off to a great-looking beach resort, so we can break out those bikinis. And Cousin Eddie can pretend he’s Jen‘s new boyfriend and come along and leer and wisecrack. And we’ll…
…end it like the other one, “Cactus Juice” or whatever…
END OF SPOILER
… but Danny will be a good guy, and we’ll have a good message about true love and not telling lies, and we’ll also have the bikinis and the dirty jokes. And….
Wait a minute. WAAAA-I-I-I-I-T-T-TT A MINUTE!! You’re telling me that Adam Sandler as Danny is doing all this — lying his head off, pretending he‘s married to Jen, pretending her name is Devlin, pretending his funny, crude cousin Eddie is Jen’s boyfriend, pretending her kids (Bailee Madison and Griffin Gluck) are his kids, pretending he’s going to get a divorce, pretending and lying his plastic surgery ass off, because he wants to marry the gal he’s telling all these outrageous whoppers to?
Okay. So what happens later when they’re married? What happens when Brooklyn goes to the office and sees Katherine, or bumps into her on the street and calls her “Devlin?” Or when she’s introduced to Cousin Eddie at the wedding? Or when she starts talking to Danny’s friends or relatives and starts asking about his ex-wife? Or when she asks Danny where his kids are, why they never come around? Or when she asks if she can help him send off his alimony and child support checks? Or if she bumps into one of his old girlfriends and they start comparing notes? Or when the National Enquirer calls and wants to see the wedding and birth certificates? Is he going to keep on lying the rest of his damned crazy baloney-slinging life?
You know something? Who needs the aggravation? I’ve got an alternative suggestion. Danny just sweats a while, goes over to Eddie’s to talk it over, and then he tells Brooklyn (or Palmer, her movie name) that he was just carrying around Eddie’s wedding ring for him, which Eddie thought he might use some day, or which belonged to Eddie’s mother, or something like that, and he accidentally stuck it in his pocket. You don’t believe me, ask Eddie.
But that doesn’t sound like a very funny movie. Even if we bring back the Wedding Singer for the reception. It sounds like kind of a dog, kind of pointless. “Eddie’s Wedding Ring.“ Yeccch.
So: Alternative Suggestion Number Two. We don’t have Danny coming up with all this garbage because he wants to get married. Who needs the aggravation? We keep him a schmuck out for nookie and high times until the very end, when he pulls the old switcheroo. He even goes after Nicole, right after he sees her hula. Hubba hubba, Nicole baby! And then it all blows up in his face and he reforms, and he gets down on his knees and says he’ll never lie again, and he pulls out the wedding ring, and Jen forgives him, and Brooklyn forgives him, and Nicole hugs him, and he’s finally a nice guy, and we maybe get a cameo for Brad Pitt as the hula judge. (So we ask him. How the hell can it hurt?) And everyone lives happily ever after, even Eddie. Okay! Break out the bikinis for that DVD featurette.
You don‘t want to watch that movie? We’re even. I didn’t want to watch this one. So, what do you say we try “Casa-fuckin’-blanca” instead? Just tell Adam that Bogie was famous for being hung like a horse. And get LL Cool J to do the rap “As Time Goes By.” And tell Nick Swardson he’s the one who gets to say “Round up the usual suspects!” Sounds like a winner to me. Ya think?
The Woodmans (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: C. Scott Willis, 2010
One problem with being a great, or hugely gifted artist, is that an artist’s temperament isn’t always easy to live with — especially for the artists themselves. Another problem: You have to depend on great or good critics and great or good audiences to earn your living or win recognition, and they aren’t always available.
The Woodmans is a fascinating documentary about Francesca Woodman and her family. The Woodmans are all artists: father George, mother Betty, son Charlie and daughter Francesca. But Francesca is the reason the story is being told. She was a prodigious young photographer of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, who killed herself by jumping from a New York City loft at 22, in 1981.
Her photographs were mostly black and white, of herself, nude, in sparse backdrops (apartments, lofts, beaches, fields, walls with windows), given a slight surrealist tinge by blurring or off-center composition, or Francesca’s odd, unashamed full-frontal or curling fetus-like poses. She shot pictures from a very young age (her father taught her), grew up in Boulder, Colorado and Italy with her family, and moved to New York City in her late teens, planning to earn a living in fashion photography. She wasn’t hired. She missed out on an NEA grant. She was rarely exhibited. She had an unhappy love affair. At the end, she’d given up photography, given up art.
But she did enough in her short life to become, starting about ten years after her suicide, one of the stars of 20th century photography. Whoever didn’t hire her and whoever didn’t give her that grant, probably felt like idiots. The boyfriend who made her unhappy, should have felt terrible, and maybe he did, maybe he does. Her family, as we can see, still ache, though they all discuss her with an artist’s sometimes unsettling objectivity.
An irony. Francesca, in her short, unhappy life, achieved what every artist really wants: some kind of immortality. Meanwhile George, Betty, and Charlie, in their longer and relatively happier lives, missed the gold ring she posthumously snatched — even though they functioned productively, made art, were paid for it. Betty, maybe the most successful, made ceramics, and then fine arts ceramics, and then huge art works, like the one we see her doing, commissioned for the Beijing Embassy. (She says she wants her works to make people feel good.)
George was an abstract artist of that often sterile postwar smudgy school I don’t much like, and his first major recognition, a joint show at the Guggenheim, came five days after his daughter’s suicide. Charles is a professor of electronic art who makes a kind of fool of himself, by expressing unhappiness on camera that his work isn’t as highly regarded as he thinks it should be, as maybe his poor dead sister’s was. (He gets points for candor anyway.) Betty and George love their daughter, love her work. So, probably does Charlie. So did Francesca.
Death is a hard road to immortality. And obviously, it’s Francesca’s despairing jump from the loft that fed her later cult status — like Sylvia Plath’s posthumous fame, in literature. But Willis, an ex-Nightline TV producer, rightly perceives that this is a family story. It’s also a tale of the pain and glory of American success and romance and art and self-salesmanship. (If this were a novel, instead of a documentary film, it’s spareness, lyricism and power — and its subject matter — might suggest F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)
There were roots to all this. George and Betty were a love match, but his snobbish, arrogant upper-class WASPy family rejected them. (She was Jewish.) They had a very happy marriage, passed their love of art, their skill and dedication down to their children. Somehow, though — and this is the true core of the film‘s melancholy — they may not have given Francesca what she needed to survive.
It seems to haunt them all. They all, in some way, went on to at least a little the success and recognition Francesca never had in life (but won afterwards — and now they‘re in a prize-winning movie, because of her. George, in a weird way, almost became Francesca — or tried to. Instead of his mostly failed abstract painting, he took up photography, shooting black-and-white pictures of nude young women, not unlike his daughter’s haunting shots of herself.
Betty, George, and Charlie — and many of Francesca’s friends and classmates — all talk on camera, holding back, it seems, little. Francesca talks to us too, from her diaries, her journals, and, most of all, from those strange, beautiful monochrome pictures of herself. (How, she wonders at one point, can she be both so vain and so masochistic?) I kept thinking as I watched and listened to this beautifully told, sharply edited chronicle: Poor Francesca. Brilliant Francesca. Sad Francesca.
And, despite everything, Happy Francesca. She made the world a gift of herself, and of her art, but the world ignored it, the first time around. The world can be funny that way. She would be sold and marketed and profted from only later. In life, she laid herself open for punishment by making her art’s main subject her own naked body. She was daring, brash, maybe narcissistic. But any rejection of her work also became then in some way a rejection of herself. It must have hurt more. Poor Francesca.
Works of art are as mysterious as the artists themselves. Francesca’s photos take root in your mind; that’s part of what makes them art. So does this movie, which is a tribute to art and artists, and to their families, and to what remains behind when they’re gone, the record of their passing. (Chicago Gene Siskel Film Center.)