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.
No seriously. Annapolis follows Gentleman almost to the letter right down to our main character rebellious Jake (James Franco) who comes from the wrong side of the tracks (with a father who doesn’t support him) but gets into the Naval Academy anyway. There’s the steely senior upperclassman (Tyrese Gibson) who rides Jake mercilessly but can’t make Jake quit. They inevitably end up duking it out in a boxing ring. Or the chubby freshman or “plebe” (Vicellous Shannon) who is the pride of his family because he got into the Academy but will fail if he can make it through the obstacle course letting everyone who’s counting on him down. Oh and there’s also the beautiful girl (Jordana Brewster). She and Jake flirt in a bar she rejects him and then he finds out she’s an upperclassman at the Academy. Wait that’s Top Gun isn’t it? You sort of have to feel bad for Franco. He has all the makings of a movie star--dark brooding looks heavy-lidded eyes Marlon Brando intensity--but he just can’t quite find the right movie to launch him into stardom. He missed the mark with the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde--and now as the insurgent Jake he simply can’t outdo Gentleman’s Richard Gere. Neither can bad boy Tyrese (Four Brothers) trying to be a younger tougher version of Louis Gossett Jr.’s Oscar-winning hard ass. At any moment you expect Tyrese to yell “Oh you’ll DOR!” Instead the actor comes off ludicrously ill-fitted in his Navy whites. The rest of the cast too have a tough time making us believe they belong in the movie. Please you think someone like Brewster (The Fast and the Furious) is going to be in the Naval Academy and know how to box? Highly unlikely. Wonder which genius exec over at Disney had the brilliant idea to greenlight this derivative mess? The impetus for making Annapolis was probably to give audiences a glimpse at the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy and how hard it is to make it through. Not a bad idea on paper at least. But it’s obvious screenwriter Dave Collard watched An Officer and a Gentleman several hundred times sat down and wrote his cheesy heart out but forgot to add any of the steamy sex. Then to add insult to injury they hire director Justin Lin(Better Luck Tomorrow) a relative novice who tries his best to keep up appearances that he knows what he’s doing but doesn’t really have any of the necessary experience to make the film better. Annapolis is simply doomed to fail.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.
Is anything more frightening than realizing that a desperate and hackneyed sequel to a desperate and hackneyed parody required the work of seven writers? Yes seven writers including brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans. Perhaps one group of writers divided their time poking fun at the latest pop culture phenomenons while the other group concocted new and disgusting ways to drench their cast in vomit urine excretion and semen. The result: a tired tasteless and uninspired send-up of The Exorcist and The Haunting complete with jibes at Nike's new Stomp-inspired basketball commercials and the Florida presidential election fiasco. Our heroes-plus some fresh meat--spend the night in the haunted Hell House as part of an experiment conducted by mad professor Tim Curry. Naturally they find themselves tormented by the ghost of the house. Cue sexual humiliations mutilations and giant wedgies.
So the sequel ignores the fact that some of its cast members perished or were implicated in the first film's murders. Were you expecting a semblance of logic to permeate the proceedings? Anna Faris as the virginal Cindy; Marlon Wayans as pothead Shorty; Shawn Wayans as the closeted gay Ray; and Regina Hall as the pushy Brenda return. They are joined by Tori Spelling wasted as a coed obsessed with her ghostly host; Curry hammy as the professor willing to sacrifice his students; David Cross hysterical as Curry's wheelchair-bound assistant whose self-reliance causes more problems than necessary; and Chris Elliott a hoot as the mansion's caretaker whose withered left hand generates more laughs than almost all the script's woeful cracks at satirizing its intended targets. All prove game especially Faris who finds herself up to her neck in all kinds of nasty goo in the name of comedy.
If only director Keenen Ivory Wayans made an effort to be funny rather than just shocking. He seems intent on making the sequel so much more outrageous than his first film that he forgets to make us laugh for the right reasons. The chuckles mask the slight disgust at seeing Faris dripping in semen or Shawn Wayans sodomizing a demonic clown (but the sight of Cross fellating himself is an amusing way to emphasize his character's doggedness). Wayans' attempts at parodying What Lies Beneath and Hannibal flounder but he does a fine job sending up John Woo's dove-filled climax to Mission: Impossible 2. There's nothing more lazy than tearing into The Exorcist--it's 28 years old!--and it's sad to see James Woods demean himself as a priest with a taste for little girls. Woods stepped in for Marlon Brando whose poor health cost him a reported $2 million but saved him his dignity.