Unknown

Liam Neeson fairly burst onto the big screen in 1993 with his compelling performance as Oskar Schindler, the man who saved over a thousand Jews from Nazi execution, in the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. It wasn’t his first film by any means, but it was his first big film, and it garnered him an Oscar nomination for best actor. From there his career turned in the direction one would expect for an Irish-born, classically trained actor with a resonant voice and proclivity for accents. He played characters with stature: Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Alfred Kinsey, Jean Valjean, the god Zeus. He was the voice of Aslan. He also had fatherly, mentoring roles in such films as Batman Begins and Star Wars Episode I.
So how did this stately-but -slightly-sagging, now-middle-aged man suddenly morph into an action figure? A figure who has become a number one draw at the box office?
It started with Taken (2008), a film in which he plays a father determined to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Not an unlikely reach for a man his age — except that his character, Bryan Mills, is a retired CIA agent who is highly trained in combat and espionage. Taken was 10 percent distraught father’s angst and 90 percent thrill ride, with enough hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, dead bodies, and car chases in a 93-minute thriller to satisfy the most avid video game player. (And that’s what many of these new thrillers have become: video games without the controllers.)
From there Neeson has voiced a character in an actual video game (Fallout 3), and fought the bad guys with The A-Team. Now he is taking on a horde of assassins in the new psychological conspiracy thriller, Unknown.
With a more engaging plot than most action movies, Unknown offers a satisfying evening’s entertainment. The story has numerous unexpected twists and subtle clues, with enough red herrings to keep even this staid reviewer off balance. Neeson plays Martin Harris, a bio-chemist arriving in Berlin with his beautiful wife (January Jones) to present a paper at a scientific conference. When his briefcase is accidentally left behind at the airport, he grabs a cab to retrieve it and ends up in the river when the driver swerves to avoid some falling debris. By the time Harris returns to the hotel, after spending four days in a coma, another man has taken his place, and his wife does not recognize him. Creepy men start following him. Cars race through traffic with guns blazing. Bodies crash through walls in the throes of battle. Bones crunch. Bullets fly. Blood flows. Necks snap. And in the middle of it all, Liam Neeson, looking more like Al Bundy than James Bond, is the unlikely action hero.
I don’t get it. But I like it.
Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Warner Brothers, 2010, 113 minutes.

Spidey’s Last Stand: Turn out the Lights, The Party’s Over

Turn out the Lights–The Party’s Over.
With a budget of $65 million, “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” is touted as the most lavish musical ever mounted on Broadway. Much of the money has been invested in mechanical lifts and flying machines, high-tech costumes, and, unfortunately, medical bills. Already one performer has broken both wrists, another has broken both feet, another fractured his ribs and injured his back, and the leading actress suffered a concussion that took her out of the show. And “Spiderman” hasn’t even officially opened yet.
You know you’re in trouble when the stage manager has to make an announcement before the show assuring the audience that OSHA representatives are on hand backstage to make sure the stunts are in full compliance with safety requirements, and that the state Department of Labor has okayed the production, despite the numerous injuries. (The continued injury rate gives you a lot of confidence in OSHA and the Department of Labor, doesn’t it?) Going to a performance of this new musical can feel eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race–you hate to admit it, but you’re almost hoping to see blood. Look at all the laughs Conan O’Brien has milked from the show’s growing injury list.
Accidents aside, the show was frankly doomed from the beginning. All the stunts and technical tricks in the world can’t make up for a bad script, and this one is a snoozer. It had the potential for an interesting plot, by introducing a new character, the mythological Arachne of Greek mythology. Arachne was transformed into a spider for boasting that she was a better weaver than Minerva, goddess of weaving. Two characters from different eras cursed with spidery traits and struggling to become human again could have led to a dynamic new story.
But instead of focusing on this new character development and trusting the audience to already know the story of how Peter Parker became Spiderman, the show’s producers decided to leave Arachne dangling (literally) for most of the show and concentrate on retelling the core story.
The production is framed by four punk teens who seem to be writing a script or filming a video (it isn’t clear what they are doing) in front of the stage. They tell each other the story, and then their story comes to life as the actors perform it, almost action-for-action and word-for-word the way we have already seen it in comic books, on film and in amusement parks. First we hear it, then we see it, and we already know it. Talk about overkill! I was ready to pull out the industrial strength Raid before the first act was finished.
Even then, the show could have survived a weak storyline if director Julie Taymor had delivered what she is known for: A montage of splashy, whimsical, creative production numbers that wow the audience with unexpected visual delights, as she did in her film “Across the Universe” and Broadway’s phenomenal “Lion King.” In both those shows, the story is just a vehicle for delivering breathtaking musical productions, and it works. Who can forget the spectacular parade of lifelike animals or the dancing grasses and rivers in “The Lion King”? The sets, the costumes, the choreographies, and the thrilling music are simply magnificent, despite the silliness of some of the main characters.
Unfortunately, Taymor’s vision for “Spiderman” falls as short as the safety harness that was supposed to catch Spidey’s stand-in during his unintentionally death-defying drop into the orchestra pit mentioned above. Yes, Arachne’s spider costume is pretty cool as she hangs and twists in the air while her legs and abdomen grow. But we saw something quite similar at the end of Act One in “Wicked.” The dance of the golden spiders as they swing from 40-foot golden curtains is lovely as well, but we’ve seen that in every Circ de Soleil show for the past 20 years. The fights between Spidey and Green Goblin as they fly above the audience and land in the balconies are probably the most unexpected and technically difficult, but only about half the audience can actually see them, since the fights take place high at the back of the theater.
In short, even if the production crew of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” can get its acts together and fix the technical problems, the show still has artistic problems that may be insurmountable. It isn’t as showy as a Circ de Soleil, or as campy as “Spamalot,” or as interesting as “Wicked.” It simply isn’t very good, and it certainly isn’t worth risking people’s lives for. My advice: Turn out the lights; the party’s over.

Oscar’s Big Ten

I wasn’t a fan of the Motion Picture Academy’s decision to expand its field of Best Picture nominees to a crowded 10. But maybe the Academy is onto something. This year it has given its membership the opportunity to recognize a range of work that includes small independent films, big-budget blockbusters, thoughtful biographies, an animated film, a comedy (of sorts), and even an old-fashioned western.
With one exception, I have reviewed all the nominees in Liberty — and I have “viewed” that exception, even though I didn’t review it. I don’t know which of these fine films will take home the statue, but I think I’ll be satisfied this year no matter what. Here is a quick review of each of the Best Picture nominees.
Inception. The most exciting, astounding film of the year, this psychological thriller stunned audiences with its mindboggling cityscapes folding into themselves, how’d-they-do-that weightlessness, multiple layers of reality, and action scenes worthy of a James Bond film. Added to all that are the creative musical score by Hans Zimmer (also nominated for an Oscar); knock-out performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Leonardo diCaprio, and Marion Cotillard; and an intellectual script that challenges the viewers’ perception of reality and of how beliefs are formed. Months after the film’s release, fans are still arguing about its central meaning: The action takes place inside a dream, but whose dream is it? (I know–do you?) Unaccountably, writer-director Christopher Nolan was shut out of the nominations for Best Director. Also, the film was probably too popular at the box office to take home the prize. But I’m glad to see it nominated. It’s my favorite studio film this year.
Winter’s Bone. This rugged little indie film was my happiest surprise of the morning when the nominees were announced. Ree Dolley (Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for Best Actress) is the most libertarian heroine in the movies this year. When her meth-lab father puts the family farm up for collateral with a bail bondsman, then vanishes from town, Ree must track him down and bring him to court to keep from forfeiting the homestead. She is the kind of self-reliant heroine one can genuinely admire. A high school student raising her two young siblings, she briefly considers joining the Army to take advantage of the $40,000 enlistment bonus — but she does not consider turning to the government for welfare handouts. Despite her family’s deep poverty, there is no evidence of social workers, child protective services, section 8 housing, or even food stamps. The film is set in the Ozarks, in a closed, insulated community where people eat off the land, or they don’t eat at all; and Ree manages not only to eat but to triumph over her difficult surroundings. I’m delighted that this film will be brought back for viewing, now that it has been nominated for Best Picture.
127 Hours. If Ree Dolley is the most libertarian heroine of 2010, Aron Ralston (James Franco, nominated for Best Actor) of 127 Hours is her male counterpart. When Aron gets pinned by a large boulder after falling into a crevasse while hiking in a Utah canyon, he sets to work figuring out how to free himself – which he does in an heroic and horrifying way. This film could have been claustrophobic and gratuitously graphic, but instead it is a celebration of level-headed innovation and the drive for self-preservation. Moreover, it is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go nineties, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to be pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, “there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon.” Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for “someone” (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston’s story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the cell phone you don’t have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don’t be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.
The Fighter. This film about boxing brothers Dicky and Micky Eklund received its nomination largely on the strength of its cast and director (David O. Russell, also nominated). The film boasts three Best Supporting nominations, and each of them is richly deserved. Christian Bale seems to be Hollywood’s go-to guy when directors need an actor to lose a ton of weight (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn), but it isn’t just the weight-loss that garnered Bale the nomination. As the wide-eyed, hyped-up, drug-addled, former boxing legend Dicky Eklund, he lights up the screen with his cocaine-induced enthusiasm and gut-wrenching pathos. And Melissa Leo, who plays the Eklunds’ hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels, is my favorite Supporting Actress of the year. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, to supervise Micky’s training session. Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. Going head-to-head with her, on Oscar night and in the film, is Amy Adams as Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who stands up ferociously to the matriarch and her seven big-haired daughters in this film. Adams is a skilled actress, at home playing charming ingénues in romantic comedies or gritty working girls in dysfunctional dramas like this one. But Leo is my Oscar choice, for her performance in The Fighter and also because I admired her equally strong performance as the investigator in this year’s weaker prison film, Conviction. Mark Wahlberg’s performance as Micky is strong as well, but he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, possibly because he’s the straight man in the cast, and those characters are often overlooked by the Academy. It’s a shame, because Wahlberg shepherded this story for several years and is the driving force behind the film.
The King’s Speech. Let’s get serious now. While the films listed above are my personal favorites this year, The King’s Speech is the film that I expect (and hope, since it is better than those listed below) to see storming the stage at the end of Oscar night. It’s a film about triumph over personal and public obstacles, as the unassuming man who would become King George VI struggles to overcome his speech impediment and prepares to lead England during World War II. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are glorious as the prince and the speech therapist, sparring like equals despite their difference in social class. Helena Bonham Carter captures the tender affection and twinkling eye that would characterize Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, throughout her life. All three are nominated. Indeed, The King’s Speech leads the pack for nominations, with an even dozen. It is likely to walk away with at least half of those.
The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t even 30 yet, and already he’s been immortalized with a film about him. Reportedly the multibillionaire whiz kid, who changed the way people communicate with one another when he created Facebook (even I use it now!), isn’t very happy about the way he is portrayed in the movie. But no matter — this film is going to be the way people remember and define Mark Zuckerberg. A fascinating look at the relationships among conception, production, and capitalization in a startup business, the film focuses on the intellectual property lawsuit brought by classmates against Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, nominated for Best Actor) and the frenzied atmosphere that surrounded the beginning of the business. The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also nominated) contributes to that atmosphere and is likely to win.
True Grit. Wouldn’t it be fun if Jeff Bridges (nominated for Best Actor) won in this category? Then we would have two men receiving Oscars for the same role, and both for the wrong reasons. Let’s face it–John Wayne was a star, not an actor. He was good in True Grit (1969), but there was nothing outstanding about his performance. It was just his turn, and everyone knew it. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is better in every way than Wayne’s. But better than Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? Or Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Hour? Or James Franco in 127 Hours? It’s an impressive field of actors this year, and Bridges should be grateful that Crazy Heart came out last year instead (he won the Oscar for that film). Nevertheless, I could see the Academy voting for Bridges, just for the notoriety of having two men win for the same role. Cynicism aside, I have to report that this is a wonderful movie. But it’s Hailee Steinfeld (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as Mattie Ross, not Jeff Bridges, who lifts the film to greatness. Whether she’s negotiating with horse traders, sparring with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), or confronting Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, she dominates each scene with her combination of spunk, courage, intelligence, and vulnerability. Her relationship with Rooster develops slowly and genuinely, building to the scene where he literally drives her horse into the ground as he races against time to save her. It’s a thrilling film in every sense. Those Coen Brothers (nominated for Best Director) can do just about anything.
Toy Story 3. Pixar was a brand new animation company when it introduced Toy Story in1995, and the franchise has grown stronger with each installment of this clever series and its cast of beloved toys led by Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Mr. Potato Head. Now Andy, their owner, has grown up, and as he goes off to college his mother encourages him to donate his old toys to a neighborhood preschool. Their zany adventures continue as they try to survive the rough-and-tumble children and get back home to Andy. As witty and poignant as any of the films in the series, Toy Story 3 deserves its nomination for Best Picture. Incidentally, Andy’s decision to give his toys to a neighbor girl, while perhaps satisfying popular cultural values, broke this mother’s heart. I want Andy to come back five years from now with a family of his own who will play with his old toys!
Black Swan is a satisfying psychological thriller that explores what it means for a performer to enter a role and become a character. Nina (Natalie Portman, nominated for Best Actress) is technically a superb ballerina, but she lacks the depth of character to reach into the dark soul of the black swan in “Swan Lake.” As she prepares for the role she must deal with an overbearing mother, a lecherous director, a creepy competitor, and her own repressed sexuality. Not my favorite film of the year, but certainly a creative and visually impressive work.
The Kids Are All Right. I haven’t watched this film, but I’ve seen it. I was flying across country two days before Christmas in one of those planes with individual movie screens in the back of each seat that allow passengers to choose their own entertainment. I was quietly minding my own business, playing Trivial Pursuit, when I suddenly received an eyeful from the screen between the seats in front of me: two naked men were simulating sex on a screen within the screen, followed by what looked like a stern talking to from a concerned Annette Bening –evidently the “son who’s all right” was caught watching porn. A few moments later I glanced in that direction again and saw Bening apparently watching TV in bed. Suddenly her blankets started rumbling like an earthquake, she started smiling, and Julianne Moore emerged from under the sheets. And then the men’s naked bodies were onscreen again (I guess Mom #1 needed to discuss it with Mom #2, or something). I stopped playing my game and opened a book so I wouldn’t have to look in that direction any more. I don’t pretend to know what this film is about, and I don’t have an opinion about whether it deserves an Oscar nomination. I just don’t think a version offering unedited, unexpected nudity should have been shown on a Christmas flight full of children. Or old fogeys like me.