In Unknown a generic conspiracy thriller from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan House of Wax) the protagonist played by Liam Neeson emerges from a four-day coma to find himself in the midst of a kind of reverse-identity crisis: He’s fairly certain who he is but everyone else around him seems to have forgotten as if they’ve contracted a kind of collective amnesia. The filmmakers hope dearly that this amnesia will extend to the audience that you won’t remember the Bourne trilogy The Fugitive or any number of other thrillers from which Unknown borrows heavily. Its main strategy for achieving this is to churn out action-thriller clichés at such a breathless pace that you won’t pause to ponder the film’s unoriginality.
Moments after arriving in Berlin for a biotech conference world-class botanist Martin Harris (Neeson) nearly dies in a traffic accident. Stranded in a foreign country without any form of identification he angrily asserts to everyone he encounters he is “Martin Harris Doctor Martin Harris ” to which he mainly receives puzzled looks from confused Teutons. Events take a more sinister turn when even his wife Elizabeth (Mad Men’s January Jones)* claims not to recognize him and another man purporting to be Martin Harris takes his place by her side.
Is this all some elaborate ruse or just the after-effects of the car accident? As Martin (Neeson’s version) probes the mystery of his lost identity he becomes enveloped in a grand conspiracy involving agribusiness conglomerates Arab sheiks a beautiful Bosnian immigrant (Diane Kruger) a sickly ex-Stasi member (Bruno Ganz) and a pair of stereotypically menacing German hitmen. The film’s setup is intriguing and its plot features a few clever twists but for the most part it's a predictable affair and one which gradually loses its grip on reality. As a piece of mindless entertainment Unknown has its moments – there are a handful of well-choreographed action sequences including the obligatory urban car chase – just don’t try to engage it on a logical level or you might end up in a coma yourself.
*I thought for sure Jones' character would at some point be revealed as an android but alas I was wrong.
On paper Sylvain White’s ensemble thriller The Losers doesn’t display much promise. Its budget (around $25 million) is miniscule by action-movie standards; its cast apart from female lead Zoe Saldana is unexceptional; and its plot about a group of disgraced Special Forces operatives who seek revenge against the shady arms dealer (Jason Patric) who had them framed is hardly original. And yet The Losers makes for a surprisingly entertaining ride an apt prelude to the summer blockbuster season. Call it The B-Team.
Though based on a graphic novel (what Hollywood movie today isn’t?) The Losers boasts no superheroes just a quintet of mercenaries with complementary skills and catchy names like Cougar and Pooch. Presumed dead after being double-crossed during a black ops mission in the Bolivian jungle they languish in a third-world limbo until a mysterious woman named Aisha (Saldana) approaches their leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with an enticing opportunity.
The Losers establishes a lively pace from the outset and with the exception of one appallingly disjointed planning scene director White adroitly handles the challenges of a plus-size cast. Save for a few extraneous twists that mar the film’s second half screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Peter Berg maintain a straightforward storyline keeping the tone determinedly light (always best when dealing with the constraints of a PG-13 rating) but never too cartoonish -- at least not by comic book-movie standards.
Morgan who previously underwhelmed in Zack Snyder’s doomed Watchmen adaptation isn’t the ideal choice to headline the film’s male cast and he appears hopelessly overmatched by Saldana. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if The Losers didn’t try to sell us on a hastily-hatched romantic subplot between the two which serves only to provide us with a few scantily-clad glimpses of the sultry Avatar star. Needless to say there are worse sins a filmmaker can commit.
The only aspect of The Losers that truly vexed me was the performance of one of its castmembers. I doubt that Joe Johnston director of the upcoming Captain America adaptation caught a screening of this film before he chose to award Chris Evans the coveted starring role in the big-budget comic-book flick. Because if he had I’m certain he’d have chosen differently. Evans’ clownish wiseass routine is instantly and perpetually grating. Even when delivering the most innocuous of line readings he radiates a natural douchiness that no Super Serum can fix.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
What no "giant sea pods" this time? Instead The Invasion skews the Body Snatchers scenario by making the alien invasion a virus rather than plant life. Said virus which comes to Earth via a mysterious crash of a space shuttle is transmitted by some form of bodily fluid-to-bodily fluid connection. For example throwing up into people's faces or coffee cups is a fun way to spread the disease. The end result however is the same: Once the infected person falls asleep they undergo a transformation and wake up looking the same but are unfeeling and inhuman—and ready to organize. As the infection spreads and more and more people are altered there are a few humans left fighting for their lives including psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Carol’s only hope is to stay awake long enough to find her young son who may hold the key to stopping the devastating invasion. But we won’t tell you how. OK it has something to do with an immunity but that’s all we are going to say. Nicole Kidman has had a string of bad luck since winning that damn Oscar for The Hours. One wonders if maybe the golden statuette might actually be a curse (Cuba Gooding Jr. anyone?). Still regardless of the movie--be it Bewitched The Stepford Wives or Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus--Kidman manages to turn in a decent performance. The same goes for The Invasion. Her mother bear act is quite believable as she races to find her son (played with spunk by Jackson Bond) while trying to stay awake and pretending to be cold and unemotional among the pod people--oh excuse me the virally infected people. You root for her all the way. Craig doesn’t have as much to do but still delivers when it counts. In a supporting role Jeremy Northam does a nice job as Carol’s ex-husband a CDC doctor who is one of the first to get infected. As does the always good Jeffrey Wright as a very clever genetic scientist. Even Veronica Cartwright one of the survivors in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a cameo as one of Carol’s patients who tells her “My husband isn’t my husband!” Famous last words. Body snatching must be a popular water-cooler topic at the movie studios. Starting with the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy barely escapes his small town with his life running into highway traffic screaming “They're here already! You're next! You're next You're next...” there have been at least two other versions including the above-mentioned 1978 film and the 1993 film Body Snatchers. To its credit The Invasion switches things up a bit nixing the pods and making it more relevant to our current socio-political climate. It even begs the question: Could we be better off if we didn’t have emotions? But the movie is still mired by its derivativeness and too-pat ending—and it also apparently had problems getting off the shelf. Originally wrapped in early 2006 rumor has it the studio didn’t like German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut and brought in Matrix’s Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski for rewrites and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. Again to its credit The Invasion surprisingly feels cohesive despite all the different influences. Let’s just say whoever came up with the tense car chase in which Carol tries to throw off the pod people (it's just more effective calling them that) draped all over the car kudos to them.
Twins Carly and Nick Jones (played by Cuthbert and One Tree Hill heartthrob Chad Michael Murray)--with Carly being the pretty goal-oriented "good" twin and Nick the sullen brooding "bad" one-- are road tripping to catch the big college game. Along for the ride are Carly's beau Wade (Gilmore Girls' Jared Padelecki) mini-cam-obsessed Dalton (Jon Abrahams) sports fan Blake (Robert Ri'chard) and his maybe-preggers girlfriend Paige (Paris Hilton in her first major acting role--unless you count certain portions of her infamous sex video). The requisite car trouble ultimately leads them to a requisitely isolated Iowa town where they must seek help from the requisitely creepy locals. Dominating the town is the House of Wax a paraffin-filled museum which doesn't just feature amazing wax likenesses of people and objects: the whole place is made out of wax walls and all. This despite being constructed over a fiery furnace used for…well these films aren't about logic are they? Throw in the requisite twisted menacing blood-lusting boogeyman--but wait! Let's have TWO bad guys! And make them twins! (Did I mention the script was written by Chad and Carey Hayes who happen to be twin brothers?) Cut to the running and the chasing and the cinematic carnage the corpses turned into those impossibly lifelike wax figurines the curvy Cuthbert in a white tank top and the impossibly big drippy finale and call it a day. This is just a messy pile of waxy build-up that'll take an extra-long Q-Tip to clean out of your brain.
Despite the jibes she gets for her 24 character's penchant for getting into laughably contrived peril the pert and sexy Cuthbert--who fills up a movie screen even more potently than the tube and lent a genuine vulnerability and pathos to her smoldering turn in The Girl Next Door--is emerging as one of the more interesting actresses of her TV-launched generation. Despite her natural charisma however there's no such opportunity for a multidimensional turn in House of Wax and for her career's sake Cuthbert should make this film her one-stop shopping trip to Horror-dom. She's made for much better things and the sickly sadistic and bloody punishments she endures in this film quite frankly can only distract her admirers from how hot she is. Murray also impresses as a film presence though he too is stuck in this thankless mess as the rebel who really has nothing to rebel against. Padelecki the film's "Hey let's see what's in here!" jackass whose idiotic actions drives every shallow horror plot should stick to his day job. And then there are the splendors of Paris: both she and the filmmakers seem to think that stripping the heiress of accessories like her tiny dog Tinkerbell and her Pepto-pink fashions is all that's necessary to believe Hilton as an entirely different character. Except none of us really want Paris to be an entirely different character. She's really only entertaining--and often equally as stiff and insipid like she is in this film--as herself and we'd all rather see her and Nicole Richie (or Kim Stewart or whatever less attractive less-wealthy and less-ditzy sidekick she's hanging with these days) screaming bloody murder at a real House of Waxing.
Let's hope for his sake music video director Jaume Serra didn't burn any bridges at MTV when he got called to the Hollywood ranks because House of Wax effectively demonstrates a lack of invention as a visualist an inability to effectively pace and develop a story--even one as shallow as this one--and an utter incapacity to create tension suspense or any genuine fear. The only scares here are the kind of easy unearned "pop-up-and-say-BOO!" variety that does little more than jolt the audience and cause their popcorn to spill. I'm tempted to give him mini-props for the nearly impressive and gooey finale but the credit probably belongs more to the f/x team than Serra. And it's shocking to learn that the entire film was shot on location in Australia if only because the claustrophobic town in which most of the action takes place seems as artificial and hermetically sealed as the Universal backlot.