“Unknown” review.

Liam Neeson and January Jones, playing an on-screen couple in one of "Unknown"s quieter moments.

Liam Neeson had an odd career resurgence two years back with the action thriller “Taken”. Long known for more serious, dramatic fare, ever since then he’s appeared in a steady stream of action fare – “The A-Team”, “Clash of the Titans”, “The Next Three Days”, none of which really made a good impression with me. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that his newest effort – the Jaume Collet-Sera-directed “Unknown” – is a well-done, engaging mystery-thriller.

In it, Neeson plays botanist Martin Harris. He and his wife Liz (played by “Mad Men”s January Jones) are in Berlin for a summit of some of the world’s great minds. Just as they arrive at their hotel, Martin realizes he left some baggage at the airport and takes a taxi to retrieve it. Unfortunately, his taxi drives off a bridge and he’s rendered in a coma for four days. When he wakes up and heads to his hotel, however, he’s met with another person there, named Martin Harris, and a wife who claims not to recognize him.

Martin must now claim his identity back, and uncover these people’s motivations for taking his place and robbing him of everything he’s ever had. To assist him, he hires a stout private detective (played by Bruno Ganz in one of the more amusing aspects of the film). He also seeks out the woman, Gina, whose cab the accident took place in, to try and prove his identity.

“Unknown” has a more intriguing premise than most – whereas most action movies operate on a man vs. man scenario, this one deals with identity, and in more ways than one messes with one’s head quite a bit. Neeson’s character’s constant uncertainty gives “Unknown” a certain paranoia that makes it more tense to watch than otherwise, it gives the film a really great sense of urgency and unrest. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography frames Berlin in an interesting, often atmospheric way.

Neeson is dependably solid here, but let’s not kid ourselves and think this is any great stretch for him as an actor. He needs to do very little here aside from speak urgently and run around, and Neeson does so with style and intensity. The side cast — January Jones, Diane Krueger, Frank Langella — are all strong supporting cast members. But it’s Bruno Ganz, the German actor most famous for his take as Hitler in 2004’s “Downfall”, who gives the movie an unexpected, yet welcome quirkiness. Ganz’s stout presence is a sight gag all its own, but his delivery of his lines, bordering on muttering, is perfect.

But alas, “Unknown” is at its core, a mystery-thriller, and so, like so many of its kind, constantly conjures plot twists that keep you interested at first, but dizzy later down the road. This is particularly evident in the final 20-minute-stretch of “Unknown”, where there’s a massive plot revelation that feels more random than it does important.

All that said though, in the barren cinematic landscape that is February, “Unknown” is an impressively made, competently acted thriller. It gets a little too ahead of itself, and bungles some revelations that should have hit harder, but it’ll keep you guessing and keep you content for two hours. B

“Cedar Rapids”: Early review from Sundance

I caught this film thanks to the Sundance Film Festival USA, a roadshow in which films from last week’s Sundance Film Festival tour the nation. They came to the Michigan Theater here in Ann Arbor, and director Miguel Artera was present for a Q&A.

The unlikely group of friends (left-to-right: Isiah Whitlock, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, & Ed Helms) in "Cedar Rapids".

The unlikely group of friends (left-to-right: Isiah Whitlock, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, & Ed Helms) in "Cedar Rapids".

“The Hangover”, was in many ways, one of the influential films of the past 10 years. Aside from Hollywood’s since-countless misguided attempts to recapture the odd magic of that film, it’s made just about all involved a bona-fide movie star. Enter the new independent film, “Cedar Rapids”. It’s a vehicle for “Hangover” star Ed Helms, his first starring role. He plays mild-mannered insurance agent Tim Lippe, who’s never ventured outside his small Wisconsin hometown. So when he’s given a chance to leave town to go to a “big-city” insurance convention in the town where the film gleans its name, Tim jumps at it.

In Cedar Rapids (interestingly enough though, filmed here in Ann Arbor), Tim gets into various adventures, including befriending an eclectic group of fellow conventioneers (played by Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock and the great John C. Reilly), exposing corruption within the powers that be at his insurance company, and sampling many an illicit substance.

The whole cast do their best, with solid results. Ed Helms himself in the title role doesn’t have much variation as a character, he’s stuck in a one-note naivete that I admit is often really charming. Isiah Whitlock (from the HBO series “The Wire”) is actually pretty hilarious here, mostly in the references where he’s…well, referencing the HBO series “The Wire”. But the real scene-stealer would have to be John C. Reilly, playing Dean Zeigler.

Zeigler is basically a variation of the lovable oaf Reilly’s perfected in his work with Will Ferrell (“Step Brothers”, “Talladega Nights”). He’s oblivious, obnoxious, and yet completely lovable at the same time. Whenever “Cedar Rapids” hits a flat note, Reilly steps in and single-handedly saves it each and every time. Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver are decent in supporting roles as romantic associates of Tim, as well.

It’s not the cast that’s the problem, once again. It’s just the script that they have to deliver that often times falters. “Cedar Rapids” is a movie not without its charms, but it never really takes off either. It sort of stays in a dramatic slumber for the whole film, with most events never really feeling consequential or important. It’s essentially a series of very amusing skits, but without much pull to it. C+

“Win Win”: Early review from Sundance

I caught this film thanks to the Sundance Film Festival USA, a roadshow in which films from last week’s Sundance Film Festival tour the nation. They came to the Michigan Theater here in Ann Arbor, and I caught up with the producer, Mary Jane Skalski. “Win Win” is set to be released on March 18th.

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Paul Giamatti has the best eyes in Hollywood.

Walking out of my screening of “Win Win”, this was the first thing that came to mind. Both in this film and in Giamatti’s body of work in general, through little expressions and glances of resignation, he somehow conveys emotions that hit hard and resonate deeply. That’s why he’s one of my favorite working actors, and that’s why “Win Win” was such a pleasure to watch. Because in this movie, Giamatti starts off as a man, Mike, who is doing what he loves (moonlighting as a wrestling coach), but somehow feels a certain dissatisfaction. This movie is about him coming into his own and finding purpose.

It’s odd, how this happens. See, a troubled 16-year old, Kyle, lands on his doorstep with nowhere else to go. Mike and his family take him in, but are surprised to find that Kyle is a fantastic wrestler. Mike puts him on the team. What follows is a somewhat standard sports drama…think “Blind Side” without the mildly racist undertones.

Although, as I described earlier, Giamatti is no doubt the leading man in the cast, it’s a much more ensemble-based effort than I would have imagined. Amy Ryan give solid support as Giamatti’s wife, but it’s Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Carnavale as Giamatti’s fellow wrestling-coaches that walk away with any scene they’re in. They provide much of the film’s humor, playing quirky yet still realistic, likable characters.

If there was a trip-up in casting, it was teenager Alex Schaffer. Schaffer plays Kyle, which is without a doubt one of the key roles in the film. I’ve heard that the crew were looking to cast a wrestler that could act, rather than an actor that could wrestle, and it definitely shows at points. Schaffer communicates feelings of angst and frustration effectively enough and is a likable kid, but it’s in the more emotional moments where Schaffer falters quite a bit.

Director Tom McCarthy’s script (oddly enough, written with his high-school wrestling partner Joe Tiboni) comes to life beautifully here. You don’t quite realize how well-done it is until you find yourself cheering, laughing or brooding within a 10-minute span, all done effortlessly. It’s a testament to how close you become with these people in the film.

“Win Win” is a movie with very modest ambitions. It aims not to provoke deep thought. Rather, all it really wants to do is stir your soul, and leave you feeling a bit more happy than before you stepped in. And thanks to the warm, interesting characters and good humor, it does exactly that. B+