Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How did these herrings get so red?

Unknown (2011) is another Liam-Neeson-running-around-a-European-city potboiler, so there is little to say about it with regard to film aesthetics or history. Just a few observations, then.

This film and X Men: First Class present conclusive proof that January Jones can't act. She has a petulant childish presence that works for her role on Mad Men, but nothing else to offer as an actor. She doesn't even move well, as you might expect of a former model. Can we throw the towel in on her?

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made a similarly botched and derivative horror film, Orphan, has a bad habit of shooting and editing ordinary events into little bitsy shots evidently intended to ramp up the suspense when what is happening on the screen is not and should not be a subject of suspense. Case in point - a baddy slides down the fire ladder from the roof down to the ground. It is presented in three separate cuts as if there was some question as to whether he would reach the ground, or perhaps suggesting that a surprise awaited him at the bottom. But no. He hits the ground and runs away. In fact, once he had left the roof, there is no reason whatsoever for the film to stay with him.

The whole film is a festival of red herrings, which do not serve as clever misdirection, but merely annoying clutter and lack of focus. The film huffs and puffs for a long time about the recovery of a briefcase which doesn't affect the story in the least.

The story turns mostly on Liam Neeson not being who he says (and thinks) he is. It takes him a really long time. About a minute into a really good but violent and destructive car chase through Berlin, replete with fancy stunt driving, I figured out that Neeson was not really a botanist. He didn't find out for another 15 or 20 minutes.

There is one moment of really good production design -- a cat and mouse scene in an art gallery filled with life-size photo portraits. Hitchcock would have known how to use the contrast between the real people and the images of people and the idea that the characters are presenting false images of themselves. Collet-Serra fumbles it.

Also, a filmmaker should have more respect for Frank Langella. He shows up, has a too-short scene with Bruno Ganz, delivers some information, half of which we had guessed, and then dies. That's a waste. You could get Dylan Baker or somebody to do that.

One innovation. You know that cliche where someone is trying to defuse a bomb, racing against time as the readout counts backward? And you know how they always finally succeed at the last moment? They don't do that here. It's almost worth seeing the whole movie.

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