Monday, March 14, 2011

Playing Ketchup with Googolplex Gulag: UNKNOWN & THE ROOMMATE

(Playing Ketchup with two movies I saw weeks ago but need to write about right now before it leaves my mind forever...)


Liam Neeson rocks.  Is that too simplistic a definition?  He can come in and at least make a movie watchable because of him; even Clash of the Titans or, upon further examination, The Phantom Menace benefit from his presence with is always solid.  By that I should clarify: when we see him we know that he's got something going on in his mind, even if he's half-crazy (Darkman anyone?) and we're on his side despite confusion at times in the plot or other things around him that don't quite fly.  He's a smart action hero, more along the lines of a Clint Eastwood than a Jason Statham.  There's thought behind the body count and the cunning decisions at physical action.

Unknown has been compared to Taken, which is fair yet (SPOILERS) is almost akin to revealing the entire twist.  But just to sum up: Neeson's character Martin Harris is a bio-technological guy who is in Berlin with his wife (January Jones, a classic throwback to Hitchcock blondes, a tip-off after the fact), and he gets into an accident in a taxi cab after forgetting his bag back at the airport.  When he awakens he has amnesia, four days after the fact, and when he finds his wife back at the hotel she acts like (believably) that she doesn't know who he is - further infuriating as a man saying HE is Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) is by her side.

What's going on here?  It's a 'Who Am I' scenario that actually would have fit into the Hitchcock pantheon in more ways than just the obvious January Jones comparison or the foreign local.  Neeson at one time could have been played by... um, maybe not Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewarts, just as Liam Neeson.  He gets into the mystery of it, tracks down the cab driver (sexy Diane Kruger) and finds an ex-spy (Bruno Ganz) who all try to assist him in his search for self-knowledge.

The lead up to this uncovering of the mystery is what works best.  It may seem obvious to a few in the audience, but the key is that Neeson's Martin Harris is such an everyman that he leads us along through the paranoia of the situation.  And the director, former twisty-McHorroson Jaume Collet-Sera (of 2009's Orphan), does a fantastic job orchestrating the paranoia of the 'who am I?' scenario with lots of red-herring side characters, men following Harris around, and some decent tilted-camerawork.  And, to reiterate again, Neeson is so appealing here because we can place ourselves (somewhat) in his situation: our identity is a terrible thing to have just taken away, and being in the Kafka-esque world of "People-Who-Go-Fuck-Off" is an alienating feeling.

But, of course, there are some hints there's more to Harris than meets the eye, particularly with his (yes) Taken-style ability to kick the every-loving shit out of people who do come into his path.  When the truth is revealed, it's just a little more hackneyed than it needs to be (mostly through the explanation of certain visions Harris has with himself and his wife in flashback form), but this isn't as troubling as the climax of the film which takes things to ticking-bomb-scenario heights that loses credibility fast.  And on top of this is an acceptable supporting role for Frank Langella, who is in less of the film than I would have liked (all of maybe five, ten minutes at most).

Until this twist kind of makes the film just 'okay' and veers into an action realm not quite unlike Salt (though Collet-Sera has a much better grasp at directing dramatic paranoia and a car chase than the big-level action of the last act), Unknown is a lot of fun in that dark-thriller sense, including the kind of scene that should make for comedy where the "two" Martin Harris' try to convince a doctor each is who he says he is.  All they'd need is a mirror and it'd be Duck Soup all over again.



(btw, as Tommy Wiseau would say, it is not "A" Roomate, it is "The" Roommate, just to clarify)

I think if I wasn't writing about this movie right now, at this exact moment, I... wait, what is this movie about again?  It's the kind of cineplex-by-way-of-Lifetime-movie trash that comes in very quickly in the month of January, done for dirt cheap with maybe one or two recognizable names (Billy Zane, where have you been!), and gets a few quick bucks from girls with half a brain cell each and then zips off to weekend-TV eventually.  I went in with low expectations and they were met when they weren't being even lowered by the lack of quality in acting, directing, writing and Zane-iness.  Ho-ho.

Ok, so it's another Single White Female clone, and when it's at its 'Best' its hilarious in the worst ways.  It's got a new college freshman whose new college roommate is a little bit on the kooky side - that is the kind that is super protective and jealous and paranoid and "OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT GUY!" kind, and while she's not trouble from minute one the signs come in little drips and drabs (some dialog that is just cringe-inducing in its bland explanation), and then she goes total apeshit in the last act of the film starting with getting a tattoo of a no-no image of the one girl's dead sister.  Yikes.

Christian E. Christiansen directs drably and with an eye of the blind.  Maybe he's making a reel for The Hills reboot on MTV, but he could have fooled me with trying to make this appealing past being the crummiest made-for-TV fluff.  And his attempts to add any sex or danger (albeit PG-13 anyway for the girls at the malls sneaking in to relieve themselves from Bieber-fever) are all flat as deserted deserts.  It's the kind of direction that puts in roving dutch angles for no other purpose except to have them in there (and not in the pleasurable-nonsense way that a Terry Gilliam would use them).

But ultimately it's not all the director's fault (nor his Chris Christie/Tommy Thompson like name), though it is.  It's mostly on the script, which equates horror and thrills with sleep-inducing medication.  There isn't any suspense since this material lacks the justification to wonder where the story is going.  That doesn't stop it from a few awfully bad-taste moments (albeit a moment that brought an inappropriate laugh from me in the theater) like when the crazy roommate played by Leigthon Meester puts a kitten into the drying machine.  Otherwise characters have cardboard emotions, save perhaps for Billy Zane who is there for the paycheck and to be around such girls-the-age-of-his-daughter, and for two minutes does have some fun as a slickback art teacher.

The Roommate is bloodless and lifeless except for those tweens who still need the blood and life of life itself to happen before moving on from such pseudo-psychological thriller stuff.  It's only memorable in how forgettable it is; I would quote a few bad lines from it, but's quotations page has nothing, zero, zip.  Oh well...

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