If there’s one thing about film festivals that I enjoy most it’s the opportunity to watch actors accustomed to lavish sets personal trailers and assistants work in a more practical environment and with decidedly more dangerous material. Thanks to the wonderful programmers at the annual Tribeca Film Festival I got to see Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow get delightfully debaucherous in 2008’s riotous Finding Amanda and Chris Klein and Elijah Wood question their patriotism in the 2007 existential drama Day Zero taking risks and showing audiences sides of themselves that Hollywood rarely allows.
This year there’s no shortage of name recognition on the TFF schedule. I was particularly excited to see J. Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed primarily because of its cast of bankable performers but also because of its intriguing -- if familiar -- premise about a pair of ex-cons who kidnap a rich man’s daughter only to get entangled in a web of lies and double-crosses before they can cash out.
Unfortunately I re-learned the hard way that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover. Mr. Blakeson was incredibly lucky to catch Gemma Arterton (Clash Of The Titans Prince of Persia: The Sand Of Time) and Eddie Marsan (Hancock Sherlock Holmes) in between super-sized productions because without performers of their caliber inhabiting two of the three roles in the film it would’ve completely crumbled as a result of his formulaic and predictable screenplay. It’s not the dialogue that ruins the movie; it’s the forced twists thrown into the narrative that unearth more weaknesses than revelations.
The film begins with a procedural look at Vic (Marsan) and Danny (played with tense insecurity by Martin Compston) as they prepare for the coming kidnapping meticulously sorting out every detail in cold silence. Blakeson leaves the actual abduction of Alice (the stunning Arterton) to the imagination probably because the cruelty and horrific nature of the events that follow are traumatic enough to his audience. As we learn more about Vic’s all-too-common plan the aforementioned twists begin to unfurl handicapping the suspense by making this heightened cinematic situation a victim of plausible but cheap coincidences. From this point on The Disappearance of Alice Creed becomes a rather conventional crime thriller; I guessed my way from scene to scene all the way through the end credits.
The film’s victims in fact are its most endearing aspect. Though Alice’s broken relationship with her wealthy father serves as the catalyst for Vic an Danny’s actions don’t assume that she’s just another rich damsel in distress. Arterton gives the character resourcefulness and an inner strength that should be noted by aspiring young actresses. The 24-year-old Brit is a fearless performer who despite her blockbuster status shows that she isn’t afraid to get gritty in the harshest of scenarios. With her facial features and body language she conveys the primal terror that Alice experiences with total sincerity. Even more impressive is Marsan who is frighteningly fierce as the brains and brawn of an operation that he hopes will provide him enough cash to start a new life. The stakes are high and he never loses sight of the finish line or breaks from his character’s terrifying persona even in the face of deceit and defeat.
Though the film’s sharp cinematography and coarse production design will keep you visually engaged The Disappearance of Alice Creed falls short as a casualty of cliché. It borrows generously from other works within the genre be it Ron Howard’s Ransom or Rob Reiner’s Misery and sadly doesn’t give anything in return making for an awfully average and prescribed moviegoing experience.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman adapts Brown’s bestselling page-turner to the best of his ability adding a few variations of his own but following the general plot of the novel. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) a professor of iconography and religious art becomes embroiled in a mystery when the highly respected Louvre curator in Paris is found murdered. Before he died he was able to leave Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) the curator’s granddaughter clues through Da Vinci’s works which eventually lead them on a quest for the Holy Grail itself. Along for the ride is historian Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) a Paris detective (Jean Reno) and an albino monk (Paul Bettany) intent on stopping them. But here’s the kicker: one of Da Vinci’s theories is that Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ were married and had a child thus creating a “sang real” or “royal bloodline” that must be protected destroyed or exposed--depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Ah the stuff great stories are made of. Upon hearing the casting of Da Vinci many of the book’s avid fans rejoiced--it is indeed a stellar line up. But it is probably one of the least compelling performances star Hanks has ever turned in. It’s not his fault really; Langdon is equally as stiff in the book. Same sort of goes for the Sophie character which is a shame for the lovely Tautou (Amelie) who isn’t able to fully utilize her incredibly expressive face here. Both actors could have been more animated but they are really the conduits for the more colorful supporting characters surrounding them. Bettany (Wimbledon) does an admirable job as the baddie a self-flagellating zealot intent on following orders even if the amiable actor is a bit ill-suited as a villain. But it’s McKellen who steals the show as the acerbic but jovial Teabing full of conspiracy theories and revelations about the true meaning of the Grail. The veteran thesp has a lot of information to pass on in the film but does so in a very engaging way. When he finally exits so does the film’s energy. Therein lies the main problem with The Da Vinci Code: Keeping up the momentum. The novel is chockfull of exposition--pages and pages of historical information along with passages about the characters’ pasts. It’s great to read but to watch it unfold on screen could have been an excruciatingly boring experience. Goldsman and Howard have both admitted having trouble adapting the material trying to find ways to make the story more cinematic. But the Oscar-winning Howard has proven himself to be a highly capable director and gives Da Vinci Code the necessary touches interweaving visual re-creations within the narration. Salvatore Totino's glistening cinematography also accentuates the lush sets while Hans Zimmer's score pumps it up. Still at two and a half hours Da Vinci Code drags. It has to--you’ve got all the book’s theories to get out. It's true Brown’s imaginative opus for obvious reasons rocked a few boats when it was first published but it sold millions. It stands to reason the movie will do the same at the box office.
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.