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Catching Up On Reviews With Erik Childress (2/18/11)
by Erik Childress

This week we catch up with Liam Neeson, a quasi-sequel to Centurion, Asia's bloody answer to the housing crisis and maybe the dumbest of all the recent young adult franchise wannabes.

By now we all know how the housing crisis led to the recent economic collapse. The things that people would do, overextending themselves with bad loans from jerky banks, to become a proud homeowner. Of all the bad bets made by Wall Street during that time, one good one would have been that none of them went to the lengths of Cheng Lai-Sheung in Ho-Cheung Pang's occasionally gruesome horror film, Dream Home. Josie Ho plays Cheng, who has been saving for years to purchase a unit in a choice apartment complex. And we see those years played out in flashback, from her days as a child to taking care of her ill father and to current days where she is working two jobs and carrying on an affair with a married man. More current though is the rampage she has started throughout the complex. Is murder her idea of cleaning house to make room or is revenge a factor, having finally been pushed over the edge through all the backroom deals and cancellations that have prevented her from moving in.

Whatever the reason is, it is treated like an arcane mystery that every big flashback may provide a different motivation for, and it tries to balance a tone between Ozu-esque domestic dilemmas and insane boundary-pushing violence. Those in sync with the world of the gorehounds may have heard the buzz about the bloodletting in this film - and it is extreme for sure. Unsettlingly so at times. When a pregnant woman is one of the first victims, it is practically impossible to then find sympathy with Cheng's past struggles. And still, these kill scenes are when Dream Home works simply because it has no pretense about anything else. Unfortunately, they only make up approximately 20 minutes of the 92-minute running time and are interspersed haphazardly with flashforwards from flashbacks with only an occasionally digital clock readout reminding us where we are on the timeline. The gore scenes have the lace of that dark Eastern sense of humor, so you won't leave with the kind of bad taste in your mouth, stomach and brain that more European efforts like Inside and Martyrs are capable of. But 20 minutes of creative over-the-top mayhem is not enough to overcome the everyday drama and overstuffed structure, particularly when the punchline to the whole scheme is low-rent Lex Luthor or high-rent Police Academy 6.
(out of 4)

While I did not think it were possible for any film to do a worse job in telling the story of the infamous Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire than Centurion, The Eagle does a pretty bang-up job of achieving that status. Kevin McDonald's film becomes a de facto sequel to Neil Marshall's as it picks up with the son of the Ninth's commander finding his place as a leader of men. When wounded - after a successive series of battles that must rank near the bottom in post-Braveheart skirmishes on film - Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) ends up under the care of Uncle Donald Sutherland, who is a reminder of the shame on his family since his father and the famed legion never returned under his command. After Marcus manages to convince an arena's worth of spectators to change their thumb rating on a brave slave (Jamie Bell), he finds a co-rider to join him on a quest past the great wall to recover the legion's golden symbol of fascism.

To The Eagle's credit it does actually pause a moment to acknowledge that the so-called hero is part of the oppressive regime ruling the land during this part in history. Centurion did not just ignore this fact but actually wanted its audience to root against their chief antagonist; a woman who was raped and saw her family murdered by the Romans. Was Conan the Barbarian the bad guy, too? This is the one and only aspect that The Eagle improves upon Centurion though as you would have to search far and wide to find a quest film so excruciatingly dull. It is a full 45 minutes before Marcus and Esca begin their trek and nearly another half-hour before running into Colonel Kurtz's followers and have the tables turned on them. (There is a whole montage dedicated to the two asking for directions.) Plenty of longing looks into each other's eyes to give YouTube fanatics a whole new array of Brokeback Centurion videos notwithstanding, there is almost nothing to hold your attention in The Eagle. It is far from any history lesson that needs to be passed down, leaving it as just another adventure tale. The action scenes are barely distinguishable, lasting no longer than a round of Crossbows and Catapults and about a tenth as exciting. Edited down to PG-13 or not, no film has cut away from the moment of violence so often since films shown on TV from 1980-82. And if all that is secondary to just wanting to see another film with Channing Tatum in the lead, then you have way bigger issues than the ones not raised in The Eagle.
(out of 4)

Question: Why is it that we cannot get a second Lemony Snicket film but we can get startup wannabe franchises from some of the worst young adult series on the market? Twilight is a phenomenon and I accept that. But Eragon, Jumper, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, and now this? We do not want to see second chapters to any of these films and this I Am Number Four may be the most dead-brained of the lot as an idea and in its execution. This may be the first time in movie history an introduction rather than a resolution of a character was reshot to make it more palatable for audiences. Forget mystery, forget film school 101 of trying to show rather than tell and the filmmakers introduce us to John Smith (former fashion model and Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker himself Alex Pettyfer) an alien, presumably from the planet Pocket Flashlight, who has been living on Earth as a human. His entire background is delivered in voiceover. Apparently there are nine of these aliens. Nine very important aliens, each being watched over by a guardian, except for the hot rogue alien (Teresa Palmer) who can take care of herself. John's guardian is Henri (Timothy Olyphant) who advises him to stay away from the public eye but can't stop him from wanting to go to school where he begins to fancy a girl (Dianna Agron) who loves taking pictures. Meanwhile, there are some other less conspicuous aliens roaming around like a Romulan cover band and taking out the good aliens in order like a bunch of fleshy billiard balls.

And who doesn't want to see how that will all play out, huh? You are more likely to figure out why this film has a Turkey fetish than want to care how the cliffhanger ending is going to play out in future entries. The Twilight films, being bad and all, at least had a commitment to its mopey teen angst/drama queen fantasy about hunky guardian dream boys. John Smith makes Edward Cullen seem like Rhett Butler on a Five-Hour Energy. There is absolutely zero chemistry between Pettyfer and Agron who look at each other with all the heart of two beautiful people dumbstruck by how pretty the other one is. Considering this is the primary relationship that is poised to drive John to risk everything for - and promise the inevitable "return" - if you cannot make it believable given an entire hour with only sporadic interruptions for its sci-fi mythology, best you get to the action a lot sooner.

The majority of it is saved for the final half-hour as red lasers pass blue beams in the night while winged turkey-loving beasts duke it out for their masters. Seriously, the evil Mogadorians have to rank as the silliest adversaries from a science fiction adaptation since the Psychlos from Battlefield Earth. It is suitable that they walk around freely with only the most minimal of disguises since this is a world where nobody seems to notice anything. Not photos missing from their own website, not meteorite parts that fit together, not even the dog that follows them around in all parts of town without seeming a little too perfect as an early warning device. If the characters are that dumb, how are any of them worth rooting for as an integral part of an universe that needs saving? I Am Number Four indeed. Cause this is a movie that just took two gigantic shits on my brain.
(out of 4)

It is a curiously direct title for a film that most people seem to already know the big secret of. That is either a real lapse of judgment in the marketing or we are just completely jaded to the lack of originality in Hollywood. In this case, both are actually true. For a while though, the makers of Unknown seem to be aware of those possibilities and go about business keeping us in the game. Until all IS made known to us and things get irretrievably silly.

Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, an American in Berlin for some big scientific conference. He is there with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), but he leaves her at the hotel front desk when he believes a taxi has taken off with some of his luggage. He hops another cab and in a moment straight out of a Final Destination film, an accident puts him in a coma for four days after which he wakes up with some fractured memories. When he returns to the hotel with no identification, he finds his wife has no idea who he is and another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be him.

Thus begins a better-than-usual attempt to prove his identity. Most films would use coincidence, bad timing and the inability to ask the right questions to further sink its hero's prospects. Here, the screenplay allows the Martin we know to say things like "why don't you just do an internet search?" and in a remarkably fun scene straight out of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, of all films, gets into a verbal sparring match with his double as they try to prove that they are the real deal using the exact same background info.

These innocent man-against-the-system movies are always provided a confidant and Neeson gets one in Diane Kruger as Gina, the cab driver who saved his life. But he also finds a more powerful ally in Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz, whom you may recognize as Hitler from all those Downfall YouTube parodies), a former member of the secret police who jumps at the chance for his old spy days to help Martin put the pieces together. Add in some hired killers and a pretty decent (if not high speed) car chase an hour in and Unknown is moving along at a nice distractive pace that is now dependent on not underwhelming us with its resolution. And if you think you know what is going on all along (or did when you walked in the door) disappointment is liable to sink in rather quickly.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra oversaw one of the nuttiest twists in recent cinema history with Orphan. Though he treats Unknown's role reversal with much the same authority, it is vastly watered down considering we have seen the twist (and variations of the plot) several times before. Once all is revealed, one can picture the screenwriters enjoying a double feature of The Bourne Identity and Total Recall over a large plate of corn. Actual corn, not necessarily of the hackneyed metaphor variety, though that does apply too.

Even when Frank Langella shows up late in the picture as Martin's old friend, we are hotwired not to trust him for several reasons. But the film even manages to spin his scenes just enough to appreciate an effort being made. That cannot be said of the explosive climax where characters spell out everything for the audience before taking action that has us longing for Taken to be on cable when we get home. Such absurdity might endear Unknown to some people (as Orphan did to me), but the reason a film like Taken worked as well as it did is because it was grounded by Neeson's everyman appeal even as he was clearly established as a bad-ass. We may go with our heroes temporarily enhanced with the skill of stunt drivers, but there is a more interesting movie lurking under the surface where we know all the secrets up front instead of trying to convince us of them 90 minutes in. It is like someone telling you an endless version of The Aristocrats joke, but promising you there's going to be a different punchline. Unknown certainly isn't as monotone as January Jones' atypical performance, but for every hilarious reveal made in the final half-hour, editor Tim Alverson should have cut back to Jones' early reaction where she channels a puppy who has been told they are being taken for a walk.
(out of 4)

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originally posted: 02/19/11 16:17:50
last updated: 02/19/11 16:21:32
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