Abducted by Abduction

Taylor Lautner abducted me. Well, his movie Abduction abducted me. After a workout, I was looking for an adrenalin-pumping testosterone-fest, and I was even prepared to ignore the 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes when I saw that Abduction  was directed by the great John Singleton.

Johnny,  I hardly knew ye.

The modern style of movie trailers, in which the entire plot is given away, makes it unnecessary for long set-ups in the movies themselves. You’ve already revealed the entire plot. Why dilly-dally? Let’s get down to business! And yet, this movie spends a good thirty minutes or more establishing the hero’s life as a high school student with anger problems who’s attracted to another guy’s girlfriend. So far, very 90210. But then Nathan discovers his baby picture on a missing children web site, a discovery that triggers a chase involving people who may or may not be CIA agents, rogue assassins, or Russian mobsters. In other words, the usual suspects.

Is anyone else as bored as I am with digital surveillance used as a story device? It used to be that the go-to character in a movie was the wise eccentric who explained everything the hero needed to know. That got old fast. Now characters lay claim to knowledge with vague references to surveillance hardware. Need to find someone? A flurry of finger-work on a computer keyboard and you can tie in to traffic cameras anywhere in the world and—hey, presto!—there’s your man. Trying to locate someone who’s out of a traffic camera’s reach? Just track her phone with GPS. Need to listen in on a conversation? Just hack into any nearby cell phone and turn it into a microphone. Does no one do any old-fashioned detecting anymore? And when electronic devices aren’t being used as the exposition mule, the villain has a bout of logohrrea.

While all this cell phone hacking is going on, does no one think to hack into Nathan’s phone and get the document they’re all so desperate to recover?

But what about the acting? Taylor Lautner’s doughy scowl doesn’t carry him very far. On that bland face, my-parents-are-dead! looks pretty much the same as my-parents-grounded-me-for-a-week!. The supporting players do a better job than the script deserves.

But I’ll say this much for Abduction: it’s refreshing to see a movie set in a place that doesn’t get that much screen-time. Singleton sets the story in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, culminating in a big set-piece in PNC Park, the Pirates’ stadium.

Without giving too much away, I’ll add that the problem with the climax is that our young hero doesn’t have enough of a hand in the resolution of the conflict, a major Hollywood no-no when it comes to story-telling.

Directors and actors sometimes work with a two-for-them-and-one-for-me formula. They’ll do two Hollywood craptaculars in order to get the conference-room cred to do a movie that matters. If there’s any good news about Abduction, it’s that it’s number two, after 2 Fast 2 Furious. Next one’s yours, John. It’s time for another  Boyz n the Hood.

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Drive: The Mystery of Ryan Gosling

Drive opens with a getaway driver waiting for a couple of thieves to complete their heist according to his strict standards—in an out in five minutes or he’s gone. This leads to a high-speed chase that shows why he was hired: he drives very fast, very accurately, and he doesn’t rattle. Drive reminds you of movies like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and James Caan’s Thief, movies about edgy loners who are more comfortable in their cars than they are anywhere else.

The movie also related to Ryan O’Neal’s Drive, which is also about a getaway driver. Remember that great scene in the parking garage? The gangster who wants to hire him says, “How do we know you’re that good?” O’Neal replies, “Get in” and gives them a high-speed turn around the crowded parking garage, including creasing the sides of the Mercedes just enough to prevent the doors from opening and the gangsters from getting out easily. That isn’t a scene from this movie, but the same loner-with-a-code is at its heart.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan play their characters like the lovers in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (lines 17–20)

The resulting tension is, as they say, palpable. (Is that a first–a movie review that quotes Keats?) If Blue Valentine was about the decay of love, Drive is about love derailed, about everything leading up to, but not quite including, love. Where Blue Valentine had steamy sex scenes, Drive has no more than one passionate but ambiguous kiss. One of the interesting features of this movie is the way it plays with this serious and little-addressed theme in the context of a genre movie.

Despite his preppy good looks, Gosling, a world-class brooder, is a young Robert Mitchum. And Mulligan, despite her conventional prettiness, has an absorbing intensity that’s hard to turn away from. They’re well-matched in intensity and in the style of their acting. With acting this restrained, the smallest gestures take on great significance. Gosling’s character, who is nameless, always keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. When he meets a young boy, the son of Mulligan’s character, he offers him a toothpick of his own. It’s a small thing, a passing gesture, but it shows the character opening up to another, maybe to a younger version of himself, which might explain why a bond forms between him and the woman and her child. Later, another character will give the child something that conveys a much different message, an ending rather than a beginning. Drive has the requisite number of fights, gunplay, and explosions for edgy film noir, but it’s in the small details that the movie shines.

When Mulligan’s husband comes home from prison, we’re expecting a strutting thug, the wrong man for this quiet, sensitive woman. And when he shows up, at first he seems to fit the stereotype. Oscar Isaac plays him as tough and swaggering, but with a surprising edge of vulnerability. When he raises his glass to toast his wife and his friends on his return from prison, he admits, “It was a shameful thing that I did.” And though jealousy plays a role in how he deals with Gosling’s character, more than that binds them together and drives them part.

I’m a big fan of Albert Brooks, as a comic actor and as a writer (see and re-see Lost in America), and I was surprised to find him playing one of the heavies in this movie. But with the first words out of his mouth, I was completely won over by the character. “Won over” may be the wrong phrase. I believed in the reality of this genial and dangerous man.

In fact, all the actors do well. Ron Pearlman is excellent as Albert Brooks’s partner in crime. And Bryan Cranston does a great job as Gosling’s amped-up, jittery, but mostly well-meaning employer. Gosling’s character is a man of mystery who seems to have formed few attachments in his lifetime. So when he makes one, it has to count. A man of principle, when things go bad, he has to try to set things right. But the forces of darkness are powerful. It reminds you of the T-shirt that reads, “Where am I going? And what am I doing in this hand-basket?”

Someone once said that the best male actors convey an element of danger in the characters they play. To that I’d add an element of mystery. You don’t know what they might do next, and therefore you can’t stop watching them. Actors like Mitchum, DeNiro, and Malkovich look like they’re in the mood for mayhem, no matter what they’re in. Like James Dean, Gosling’s good looks are disarming. He might cut you or cure you: it could go either way. The dangerous element in his characters is deep inside, and he seems to nurture it like an eternal flame. When it leaps out, stand back.

We haven’t seen a movie this gritty-good since the late great Sidney Lumet’s last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

More, please.

Point Blank: Numéro Un avec une Bullet

Point Blank OnesheetFrench filmmakers have been so in love with American crime movies that they gave one strain its name: film noir. For me, this kind of film is summed up in a single image. In Detour, Ann Savage’s character has taken the phone into the other room to call the police. Tom Neal’s character yanks on the cord that runs under the door, trying to pull it out of her hands, not realizing that the cord is wrapped around her neck, that he’s strangling her. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The world of noir is a world where small crimes lead to large ones, where good intentions don’t count, where appetite rules the day, and where the line between good and evil is often lost in darkness. Point Blank (Á bout portant) isn’t exactly an example of film noir. It’s more of an action thriller, but it borrows the imagery of noir: the gritty streets of Night and the City, the subdued lighting of, well, all of them. And it’s not a remake of the 1967 Lee Marvin movie based on Donald Westlake’s novel. Its closer cousin is Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, about a man struggling to prove his innocence for a crime he didn’t commit. At one point, our hero, played by Gilles Lellouche, protests, “I didn’t do anything!” and is told, “No one cares.” That’s the moral universe of noir. In other words, my life-story.

It’s a movie Hollywood has made and remade many times, with varying degrees of success. Three Days of the Condor falls neatly into this pattern. So does Eagle Eye, proving that following the pattern doesn’t guarantee success. The challenge is to make the movie more than a series of elaborate stunts, to make you care about the people at the heart of the story.

Side Note: I saw the movie at Filmstreams, Omaha’s glorious art-house cinema, where normally people come to worship reverently at the house of light. But who was that guy in the audience honking with laughter at every blood spatter, honking like Batman’s Penguin? A middle-aged guy, not a young guy raised on first-person shooter games and anomie. Creeped me out.

In Point Blank, Lellouche plays a male nurse who’s forced to help a man who may or may not be a criminal, played with mystery and menace by Roschdy Zem, which makes the police think the nurse is his partner in crime. But is he saving the man for his own gang or for the gang trying to kill him? The movie is an extended chase scene on the order of Taken and Unknown, but with just enough attention to its characters to make you feel for even the secondary ones.

I’m a sucker for movies in which the hero’s quirky background and native intelligence give him an unexpected edge over the bad guys, and this is the engine that drives Point Blank.

It has always seemed to me that, if you can close your eyes and still understand a movie’s story, the director has relied too heavily on dialogue and not enough on the visual. Point Blank is a movie of few words, a movie that doesn’t explain itself too much. Instead, it allows the audience to draw conclusions based on visual evidence—a gesture, a shadowy encounter, fear flashing through the eyes.

And what a relief to watch a movie in which the actors look like real people, people who’ve been smoking too many Galoises, drinking too much, worrying too much. No face conveys anxiety and world-weariness as much as a French face. In contrast, too many American film actors seem about as expressive as hair product models.

There are turns and surprises in the movie, which is why I’m not including too many details here. It plays like a French version of The Shield, but from the victim’s point-of-view.

Is Point Blank great, or even memorable? Not especially. It has its problems. The female characters remain undeveloped, though the actors are so strong you see them putting everything they’ve got, and more, into the fairly thin roles. And yes there’s an unlikely pairing of good guy and bad guy, though this pairing feels more believable than most. Don’t come to Point Blank expecting the resurrection of Hitchcock, despite what I said above and despite the throbbing strings of the Hermann-like score. Come expecting a solid B-movie with a well-earned pedigree. See it especially if American movies have left you feeling a bit under-noirished of late.

Adding Up The Debt

The Debt OnesheetThe Debt is a political thriller about secrets and lies and about the awful aftermath when plans go terribly wrong. In many ways it reminds you of Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and even Marathon Man. And while it’s made with skill and explores an important part of our history and psyche, it falls short by being too solemn and restrained, especially among the younger cast members. I’m not suggesting jokes should have been added to the script, only a broader palette of emotions.

The main reason to see The Debt is the casting. Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson bring teeming, contradictory, believable life to their portrayals of the aging Mossad agents. One look at Mirren’s face at the beginning, and you know her character’s hiding something. And the under-utilized Ciarán Hinds is very good at conveying the shock that never went away. Wilkinson plays his character from a wheelchair but still commands every room he enters and holds sway over his old compatriots in a doomed scheme. And Jesper Christensen plays the Nazi war criminal at the heart of the story. As charming as he seems to be at first, there’s something in his eyes that conveys the history of his crimes and what he thinks of the world. Christensen is especially good in an extended debate, a kind of reverse-interrogation, in the middle of movie. As John Milton, William Shakespeare, and any other writer who has created villains has proven over and over again, the devil gets all the good lines.

Jessica Chastain does the most creditable job among the younger actors, torn between her duty and the horror of what happens (and torn, too, between two men in a fairly obligatory subplot). Despite her character’s restraint, her face subtly registers the changing fate and feelings she goes through.  To give her her due, you never once think of Celia Foote, the character she played so recently in The Help. Marton Csokas, too, is good as the younger version of Tom Wilkinson, though his is a fairly one-note character—brash. Sam Worthington is the soft spot in casting. He plays a character whose personal demons drive him to keep his feelings pent up.  To be fair, it’s hard to play a character who hides his feelings, but because his face registers so little emotion, we never quite believe in those passions, either political or personal.

The depiction of 1960’s Berlin is compellingly portrayed in tones of blue and sepia. And the action scenes are well-rendered, though there aren’t enough of them. John Madden directs with efficiency. The writing is spare. The older actors are especially good, conveying so much with a glance, an idea dawning on a face. And the plot has more than its share of twists and turns. If I haven’t given you enough of a sense of that plot, it’s because it’s hard to talk about without giving too much away. I’ll say this much. The story moves from capture to captivity to bloody aftermath. It’s a political thriller that knows all politics is local—and even closer to home than that.

And yet somehow, despite its many virtues, the movie doesn’t fully engage. I’ll say this much for it: with an almost constant diet of pure and infallible movie heroes (most of them wearing Lycra and/or body armor), it’s refreshing to be reminded that real life is a good deal messier, more ambiguous, and therefore flat-out more interesting than fantasy.

P.S. The Sleeper didn’t doze, though she closed her eyes at some of the violence. Before the movie ended, though, she had stacked her jacket and purse on her lap like a college freshman eager to be anywhere but in class.