Unknown (2011)

Wait… who’s the trained assassin?

The only thing more popular than a thriller these days is a thriller in which the audience is not required to figure out much of anything.  If you’ve seen the trailers for Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra’s new flick, you have to ask yourself: “Did they really want me to go see this movie?”  So much is given away in present-day film trailers that I’m not entirely convinced films themselves won’t soon be thirty seconds long and inserted into ESPN News’ commercial breaks.

Unknown is a film in which questions beget questions, and you have to forget half of them in order to accept what’s next.  It begins on a quiet note, with scientist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones) visiting Berlin for an important botany summit (it’s a thriller, I swear).  Somewhere in all the hassles of settling into the hotel, Harris leaves his briefcase behind.  He goes back to retrieve it, and the cab in which he’s riding takes a not-so-refreshing dip in the river.  His life is saved by the cab driver, Gina (the amazing Diane Kruger).  After emerging from a four-day coma, Harris returns to his wife to discover that not only has she forgotten him, but he has been replaced with another man (Aidan Quinn) going by the name Martin Harris.  Through one thing and another, Harris must seek out Gina’s assistance in figuring the whole thing out.

At first, there seems to be a traceable breadcrumb trail – Harris’ notebook with little codes in it, constant (and almost random) flashbacks to tender moments between Harris and his wife, and so on – just little bits and pieces to sink our sleuthing teeth into.  But the eventual revelation of what’s really going on is nothing you could have figured out from the clues, most (if not all) of which turn out to be the reddest of herrings.

Not giving the audience the ability to solve the puzzle doesn’t make a poor thriller.  What makes a poor thriller  is overkill, or in this case, overthrill.  When David Copperfield made a fighter jet disappear, he made a fighter jet disappear.  He didn’t start with a rabbit, then a limousine, then an elephant.  If he had, you’d have been exhausted and unimpressed by the time the curtain had even closed on the plane.  Unknown earns its title.  A lot of why? is thrown at us, not least of which is Why does this film have two and a half climaxes?

The film shines when it comes to the performances.  Liam Neeson does the same thing he did in Taken, and he does it well, even if it is just running around, looking bewildered and beating the shit out of non-American people.  Bruno Ganz appears as yet another former German military man, but doesn’t seem the least bit convinced that he should stop.  Frank Langella even shows up in the film’s third act as an important character, but the brevity of this appearance leads me to wonder whether Langella is only allowed to appear in each of his movies for under ten minutes.  Is it in his contract?  Diane Kruger, however, steals this movie, and not just in performance: I’d argue that Gina is the real hero of the story.  She saves Harris from certain doom on three separate occasions, and disposes of the film’s villains herself.  She doesn’t need to.  She has no investment in this Harris guy, who may very well be insane, but she does it anyway.  Why?  She’s a person who helps.  It’s in her blood.

(Spoilers ahead, because you’d feel betrayed if I didn’t warn you)

To round out this piece, I need to reveal the big secret: Harris is a trained assassin, and his “wife” is actually just his professional partner.  The Martin Harris story was just a cover for the duo to kill a famous botanist (Sebastian Koch), and when Harris slammed his head into the cab window, he didn’t forget who his wife was, nor did he create a whole scenario around a woman he’d never met – he just forgot he’d made it up himself.  The problem here is an old fashioned case of irresponsible writing.  This plot twist causes the film to change from drama/thriller to thriller/action movie.  Gina saves Harris a final time after Langella clumsily spells out all the answers, as diabolical villains often do just before failing to kill the hero, and this should be the end.  But no, there’s another climax: now the super duo need to infiltrate the botany summit, disarm a bomb, save everyone, and kill the two uninteresting characters (Liz and the fake Martin, who was actually just a replacement for Harris himself after the car crash), neither of which have anything to do with the story at this point.  Even the dialogue changes to action-movie dialogue.  “I didn’t forget everything!  I remember how to kill you, asshole!”  This choice leaves us with no chance for a satisfying ending.

Was the car crash set up?  If so, how did they know Harris would forget his briefcase, which just happened to have the Collected MacGuffins inside?  By the same token, why would a longtime master assassin leave his mission’s most important tool on a hotel trolley?  Why wouldn’t the other assassins (four are shown in the film) go collect the briefcase?  Why would it be necessary to execute Harris after he woke up?  Couldn’t they just explain to him what happened if he had truly forgotten, and welcome him back to the “family,” as it were?  How would Harris regain his “assassin” bull-shitsu in a single instant, but not regain his desire to be an assassin?  Why don’t we see Harris confront Liz after trying to get to her throughout the entire film?  Why does Langella’s evil character mention his grandchildren so much?  Are we supposed to feel bad?  The laundry list of questions goes ever on, but if you can take the film’s twists with a fistful of salt, it’s an enjoyable and well-made thriller (note the differences between well-made and well-written).

Unknown is Collet-Serra’s best film, and it comes very, very close to being excellent.  We just needed one more rabbit pulled out of the hat (perhaps that the story of him being an assassin was, in fact, just another lie to throw him off course).  Instead, the filmmakers just tore the rabbit’s ears off.

Unknown (2011); written by Oliver Butcher; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, and January Jones.

The American


americanAnton Corbijn’s The American is packed with achievements other filmmakers in this genre attempt but fail: a truly gripping story, genuine sympathy for the Boring Hero, and a disguise so convincing that a fairly run-of-the mill thriller (based on a run-of-the-mill novel) becomes a thoughtful drama.  I once thought I was coming close to the latter with a screenplay I was working on, but alas, my hard drive crashed, and the only person with a copy still refuses to hand it over for reasons I will never know.  Anyway, in addition to what other filmmakers try, this film also achieves a few things other makers of thrillers forget about entirely – generally accurate portrayals of firearms (not just what they look like, but how precise a shooter can be at what range with what gun, what a silenced gun actually sounds like, etc.), an extra mite of thought into characterization, and artful direction.

The story centers around “Mr. Butterfly” (also known as Jack and Edward), played by the aging George Clooney.  Jack is an assassin and a maker of firearms, which he can apparently finagle from the simplest of items when he needs to.  In his age, though, he has become paranoid and bored.  His personality has become stony and impenetrable, a technique that often results in an uninteresting and underdeveloped character in a film like this (see Jason Statham in every American film he’s in), but here, the Boring Hero is redeemed.  He doesn’t act this way for the sake of the audience; he’s actually afraid.  Rival assassins are after him, and for good reason.  Love and all other forms of attachment evade him, and after being forced to execute a loved one to protect his identity, he’s resorted to seeing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he can fake fidelity.  Jack works for a sun-dried criminal who calls himself Pavel (the great Belgian actor Johan Leysen).  Pavel fills in another routine thriller role, the Shadow Premiere.  We never really find out who he is or what his reasons might be; we just know Jack has to do what he says.

For being based on a novel that tends to be shootout-y, the film focuses on Jack’s paranoia and attempts at living a life in Italy while he goes through the motions of his job.  A classic femme fatale called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is his newest client, asking for a blah-blah-blah gun with blah-blah-blah specifications for a blah-blah-blah murder.  She pops up three separate times in the film, each time with completely different hair.  Refreshingly, we don’t get the sense that this is intended to “symbolize” anything; it’s just an indication of the kind of shady and dangerous life she lives.  Clooney and Reuten, who played the sweetheart innkeeper in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, share a wonderful scene at a picnic area, during which the dialogue is so well delivered that the inclusion of bullets and butterflies in the same conversation doesn’t seem odd in the least.  The cast also includes Paolo Bonacetti as Father Benedetto, a kind old priest who befriends Jack, but his involvement in the story yields no real results in the end.

The final eighth of the film falls into thriller formula – running from bad guys, finding out who characters are “really” working for, twists that surprise Jack but not the audience, camera shots from within a sniper’s scope, and head-shots aplenty.  What saves the day is that Corbijn doesn’t change the tone – everything is still understated.  Death is never glorified nor accompanied by a crescendo.  The artfully-done love scenes with Clara become longer each time they happen, while the gun-construction and workout scenes become shorter, perhaps suggesting that Jack is more focused on love again, though he still doesn’t know whether he can really trust Clara (or, for that matter, anyone else in the film) until the final five minutes.  We share his paranoia because Corbijn wisely never leaves Jack’s perspective (until that final eighth I mentioned, and even then, only long enough to state two lines of dialogue that make us fear for Jack more than ever).

The American is a film that will put a smile on the face of those who (incorrectly) believe that “every story has already been told” and that “you can only tell old stories in new ways, not new stories.”  The film follows a specific formula comprised of stock characters, but it’s one of those gems in which the casting is picture-perfect, the care put into the storytelling is brilliantly evident, and our sympathies allow themselves to lie with a killer, because for an hour and forty-five minutes, he becomes a real person.  From the staggering opening scene to the sobering and inevitable conclusion, the audience walks a dark corridor with Jack, observing his decisions but never quite judging them, because as Al Green once said,  “Love’ll make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong.”

The American (2010); written by Rowan Joffé (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth); directed by Anton Corbijn; starring George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten.

The Parking Lot Movie

God will hand us the sword of justice

I began working in retail at age eighteen.  Having become accustomed to employee treatment at the hands of the customers, as well as behind-the-scenes dictatorships, retail politics and enforcement of unethical practices, I was pretty excited at the chance to see The Parking Lot Movie.  The thought that a filmmaker would focus attention on this rare and misunderstood sub-faction of American people seemed a miracle in and of itself, but the fact that this little documentary has become one of the top-queued films on Netflix gives me (of little faith) some hope again.  For what, I can’t yet be sure, but it means one of two things: 1) people are beginning to care; 2) more educated people are unable to get “real” jobs and want to commiserate with us.

The goal of Meghan Eckman’s little gem is not clear from the start.  It seems to be something as simple as shedding light on a ne’er-thought-about group of workers, albeit in a special situation.  The film features footage taken over a three-year period at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Parking lot attendants, both current and former, give testimonials about their experiences working at the lot’s money-collecting booth, edited together with candid footage of the daily/nightly goings-on of the workplace.  While this seems like a worker’s dream documentary, these aren’t your average retail employees: many are grad students or former teachers between jobs, and most (if not all) are philosophically-minded, educated, and speak eloquently.  Working in an employee-run parking lot also goes against the grain of the common job in that it throws one universally-enforced retail policy out the window: employee reticence.  These “kids” in their mid-twenties are smart, arrogant, creative, and listen to Minor Threat.  Piss them off or refuse to pay that $0.40, and you’re in trouble.  The guys are seen kicking cars, throwing things at cars, shouting profanity at rude drivers, and coming up with imaginative pranks to make it through the day.

As such, the film is more enlightening if you are currently working a job for which you are way overqualified.  Folks who might be “lifers” at a retail position may not like some of the comments given by the cast.  Refreshingly, the employees are widely opinionated despite being of the same proverbial “family”: one is a mid-forties retail-for-life man; two are musicians; one is married and working as a librarian after an eleven-year tenure at the CPL; and one is just a kid who “hate[s] all the customers equally” because they’re all “fucking morons.”  The spectrum of varied commentary represents, in a way, the ingredients that beget the adopted attitude of a person working in retail.  Some days you’re happy to be there.  You show up, you joke with the guys, you small-talk the customers.  Other days, they’re all morons.

A few essential members of the collective retail community are under (or not at all) represented here: 1) Women.  This is interesting.  No women seem to work at this parking lot.  Are the women of Charlottesville luckier in their job pursuits in the wake of education?  Do they just not want to hang out with these guys?  Does the owner of the parking lot (also featured in the film) simply not think females are suited to the job?  Are there women who work there who didn’t want to be featured in the documentary?  Did Eckman decide not to include them?  These questions are never addressed, and it doesn’t ruin the experience, but it takes something away from the film’s scope: the female hand is always a welcome one, especially when your principal cast is hosing down the pavement with philosophy and testosterone.  2) the Snow Crowd.  Would this job be as much fun if you moved CPL a few states north?  I’ve seen how pay-lots operate during the winter, and would love to see how this crowd would deal with the angry snow drivers, not to mention how they would keep themselves sane while sitting outside in below-zero temperatures, unable to skateboard, circulate blood, or chase down cars on ice.  3) The aforementioned “Common Worker.”  The run-of-the-mill “where are they now” at the end of the film informs us that several of the cast are now members of popular bands, college professors, and senior librarians, while maybe one or two still work at a parking lot or retail position.  As with my first two bullets, not much can be changed about this when you’re shooting real-life material in a college town, but it’s something to think about.  It’s also implied that the owner only hires people he knows: “You can’t get this job,” one worker says in response to friends who ask.

Perhaps the best parts of The Parking Lot Movie feature the ways in which the employees attempt to “create” while on the job.  They mess with newspaper headlines and comic strips, often in very clever ways, showcasing the lives and gutter-poetics of the parking lot attendant.  They paint and stencil the lot’s gate, which rises and falls over the opening to which they are the gatekeepers, with silly phrases like “Good Grief,” “Molly Shannon” and “Girl, You Know It’s True.”  Shots of the various gate-changes become a visual punk-rock poetry that encompasses the current life of the parking lot and its characters, perhaps best embodied when the gate is repeatedly broken by drunken vandals.

Ultimately, The Parking Lot Movie does not represent the universal retail experience, but it will touch the deepest parts of any and all retail employees.  This should be seen, even more so, by people who don’t work in retail, at least just the sections where customers shout at employees, complain about the prices to those who don’t determine them, or drive off without paying.  A certain attitude culminates in some of these workers throughout the years of working in the lot, something like being a god placed upon the Earth to punish people and deliver judgment.  It’s easy to fall into this retail-deity mentality when you’re in the booth or behind the counter, especially when you’re there every day.  You take the money, you’re in control, this is your turf – the commentaries on this subject become almost frightening, if not painfully true, until the laid-back owner of the CPL heartily chuckles, “It’s just a parking lot.  Don’t forget that.”

The Parking Lot Movie (2010); produced and directed by Meghan Eckman.