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.
It can’t just ALL be about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. There have to be other fantasy-driven stories grounded in reality that are just as exciting. And so there is: The Spiderwick Chronicles a series of short books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black which tells us about the magical creatures who live around us but who remain invisible so we humans won’t freak out. Probably a wise choice for most but there are a few who want to see the creatures. One such person is Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a turn-of-the-century naturalist who has witnessed the likes of sprites goblins hobgoblins ogres and trolls at work. He has documented their secrets and habits in his Field Guide--a book that if placed in the wrong hands could make some fantastical beast maliciously omnipotent. Jump ahead some 80 years when we meet Spiderwick’s descendents the Grace family who have moved into his dilapidated house in the woods. Newly divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has uprooted her kids--teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore)--to start a new life with Jared being the one protesting the loudest. That is until he finds Spiderwick’s field guide and quite literally opens Pandora’s box giving evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who has desperately wanted the book since its inception the window of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The Grace kids have to band together--with a few otherworldly allies of course--to protect the book at all costs. Although Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) struggles at times with the American accent the young British lad continues to prove his worthiness in the acting department--and joins the ranks of playing twins onscreen that dates back to Patty Duke on The Patty Duke Show (yes they were just cousins but they were identical cousins). Highmore does a nice job distinguishing between the two boys but he seems to have the most fun playing Jared. And rightly so since Jared is the true hero of the story. He is deeply wounded by his parents’ divorce blaming his mother for it all but in discovering this magical and dangerous world that goes way beyond his personal problems he quickly snaps to it. Bolger (In America) too takes her clichéd older-sister-who-knows-everything role and freshens it up adding a fierce determination to protect her family--with an expressive face that makes her very watchable. The adult cast isn’t nearly as important but they all fit in nicely especially Joan Plowright as Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick’s 80-something daughter who saw her father taken away by sylphs the keepers of the faeries’ secrets when she was 6 and has been trying to explain it ever since. Then there are the voices of some of the creatures the Graces meet including Martin Short as the ever-faithful house brownie Thimbletack; Seth Rogen as the hobgoblin Hogsqueal a piggish and friendly fellow whose spit in the eye gives you the Sight; and Nolte as the horrible villainous Mulgarath. OK all those who believe in faeries raise your hand! The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the kind of story that gets an imaginative kid to run out to the garden to start looking for sprites and director Mark Waters inherently understands this. Better known for his comedies such as Mean Girls and Freaky Friday Waters nonetheless grabs hold of the Spiderwick’s mythology and firmly plants it in reality with normal modern kids encountering a whole magical realm. Taking from the illustrations of co-author Tony DiTerlizzi Waters also gives us new versions of magical creatures we’ve read about for ages. Goblins for example look like giant frogs and act like attack dogs in this film as opposed to the more civilized view of them in the Harry Potter books--and goblins in Spiderwick can be killed by tomato sauce which melts them. Nice touch. Trolls too aren’t great big lumbering fellows but more dinosaur-like in Spiderwick. And let’s just say ogre Mulgarath looks nothing like Shrek but more so a devilish creature with yellow eyes and great big horns. Spiderwick is indeed scary at times maybe too scary for the younger kids but the action sequences and chase scenes are thrilling enough to keep everyone else’s attention.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.