Unknown: My review covers my thoughts on the medium quality of this latest Liam Neeson action thriller (I love that that’s a genre now; it wasn’t so long ago his job was to train all of the actual action heroes), so here I’m free to focus on the question of whether this is the best Dark Castle production ever.
Dark Castle started as a horror production shingle founded by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, remaking the films of horror maestro William Castle (how was Joe Dante not in on this action?). Over the past decade or so, they’ve branched out to other genre fare, essentially acting as the Warner Brothers version of Screen Gems. The earlier Dark Castle horror movies tended to be middling, gory schlock with a bravura set piece or two (most notable the opening sequence to Ghost Ship). Unknown, directed by Dark Castle house guy Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax; Orphan), beats those as well as the starrier/classier/still not so good Gothika and The Reaping, as well as most of their less horror-minded thrillers (Whiteout; Ninja Assassin). But I forgot that Dark Castle also handled the sleekly silly The Losers and, more importantly, picked up Splice, last year’s awesome Cronenbergian creature horror, so the competently preposterous Unknown can’t make it all the way to the end of the bracket.
More importantly (to the Dark Castle folks themselves, I mean), Unknown is poised to become their highest grossing movie in a walk: that title is still held by Gothika, which made just under $60 million in 2003. Man, Screen Gems movies can gross $60 million more or less in their sleep. Anyway, Warner Brothers is positioning Unknown as more or less Taken 2: reTaken, so there’s no way this makes less than $65 million, right? It’s actually a better, more enjoyable movie than Taken but without the extra bit of give-me-back-my-daughter righteousness, it’s probably too classy to make that kind of bank. Hey, there’s a record for Dark Castle: the first time I would ever refer to one of their movies as “too classy.”
Vanishing on 7th Street: Sometimes good directors seem to blunder into bad movies through sheer bad luck. Brad Anderson has made some smart, character-driven thrillers like The Machinist and Transsiberian, so he sounds like a logical fit for a Twilight Zone-y horror movie about an unnamed shadow-force consuming people en masse, leaving nothing but empty piles of clothes in its wake. About forty minutes into Vanishing, a few survivors meet up at a Detroit bar and weigh their options, but by this point the early, promising tension has long since leaked out of the movie, and every scene of menacing shadows chasing after hapless humans becomes more tedious than the last—to say nothing of the fumbling dialogue, something Anderson’s other thrillers didn’t bother with when unnecessary (he didn’t write this script, but he should’ve tossed as much of it as possible). It doesn’t help that Hayden Christensen and Thandie Newton overact wildly (so does John Leguizamo, but I don’t really mind when he does it; everything seems relatively restrained once you’ve been the Clown in Spawn). Henry Stewart gets into all of this and more of the movie’s failures in his review.
I Am Number Four: Normally I would be interested in seeing this because, you know, science fiction, but there’s a big James Frey-shaped speedbump in this movie, the only one so far engineered from Frey’s noxious YA Fiction Factory, whose purpose, as far as I can tell, is to funnel money to James Frey so he doesn’t have to write books himself anymore. A noble cause, except for the money part. The box office dominance of I Am Number Four (which will probably be minor in the scheme of things; young-adult spectacles released in February tend to top out around $80 million) wouldn’t just get Frey paid (although presumably, he already has been—you win this round, Frey!) but also unnecessarily wealthy superproducer Michael Bay. I Am Number Four: for anyone who really wants rich dudes to keep making money for no reason. Also: I find myself thinking that I’d rather see the version of this where Timothy Olyphant is the alien on the run, not the understanding father figure. I think this makes me old but I think I’m ok with it.
Immigration Tango: This spouse-swapping-for-green-cards indie seems like the kind of thing that would be great if more people were good at writing.
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son: The trilogy must be completed! Apparently! Despite your begging and pleading to the contrary! I’ve actually never seen a Big Momma’s House movie. Except for the Bad Boys movies, I’m not even sure if I’ve seen a Martin Lawrence movie; I think this stems from seeing the trailer for Black Knight over and over and marveling at how marble-mouthed and slurry he sounded. Anyway, I forget where I read the wisecrack about there being a truly amazing number of crimes that can apparently be solved by wearing a fat suit and a dress, but it made me laugh out loud (which puts it over every Martin Lawrence trailer I’ve seen), and it also nails exactly what seems particularly off-putting about Lawrence’s signature role becoming a franchise. At least Eddie Murphy plays actual fat-lady characters, not movie-land undercover cops pretending to be fat ladies. (“Least” may be the operative word there. But seriously, how did a third Big Momma movie get off the ground before a third Klumps reunion? I’m not clamoring for one, but in the spirit of economics, it seems like a fair question.) Based on my imagining of the first two movies, there is absolutely no ground left to cover for Big Momma 3 except to have him/her dance to a song from the newest Black Eyed Peas album in place of (and again, this is pure assumption) “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and, oh, let’s say “Baby Got Back.” I’m pretty sure I just spent about as much time thinking about this blurb as anyone who’s ever written a Big Momma’s House movie although, to be fair, it’s possible that the screenwriter spent hours programming the computer that writes his Martin Lawrence fat-suit movies for him.
To distract myself from the depressing sight of Brendan T. Jackson, so promising in Tropic Thunder, mugging on the poster for this movie at every subway stop in the city, I’m trying to think if there has been a comedy trilogy worth a damn. The Naked Gun movies, maybe, although everyone knows the third isn’t quite as strong. Most comedy sequels stick close to the gross-sixty-percent-of-the-original rule established in the 80s that action/adventure/horror sequels have been able to break regularly, which discouraged anyone from taking on a third (theatrical) Addams Family or Wayne’s World or whatever. The Austin Powers sequels have some scattered laughs, but they kind of move away from what’s conceptually sound about the original. I welcome any suggestions about comedy franchises that actually worked creatively or even financially. I’m sure the Hangover II people will find it reassuring, too.