New arrivals this week on Blu-ray and DVD include: The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as a pair of would-be lovers on the run from Fate’s minions; Liam Neeson’s latest action-thriller, Unknown; and The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum in a swords-and-sandals modern epic.
Philip K. Dick was a brilliant, imaginative man, and that’s evident whether you have read his stories, or have seen one of the films based on his books, like Total Recall, Minority Report, or Blade Runner. The remarkable thing is just how visionary his writing was, and how much it speaks of what it is to dream, and be part of humanity.
In writer and director George Nolfi’s adaptation of The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays David Norris, a politician in the U.S. Senate who comes face-to-face with Fate’s agents: men who are charged with changing the course of humanity’s future all in the name of what is best for the world. David’s glimpse of his own future pales in comparison, however, to the life he dreams of with ballet dancer Elise Sellas, played by Emily Blunt, a woman who Fate’s Adjustment Bureau says he can’t be with.
Chasing Elise through New York City, David will test the boundaries of Fate and attempt to defy Fate’s minions as they do everything in its power to keep the two people apart.
The biggest problem with the The Adjustment Bureau is simply that Nolfi is a first time director, and maybe the minor annoyance that The Adjustment Bureau moderately reminds me of Dark City, but Nolfi has a strong background nonetheless, penning hits that include The Bourne Ultimatum, and Ocean’s Twelve. Backing up Nolfi is also a strong team of filmmakers, like two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll, and ten-time Oscar nominated composer Thomas Newman.
The impressive team of filmmakers have created a visionary postcard of Manhattan that lives within the walls of the city, and the story even feels influenced by the buzzing metropolis, which makes this story feel all the more vibrant. What the filmmakers miss, however, is a certain energy within the story itself. Because the film exists within the city, it does move well, but the plot doesn’t always benefit from this energy.
Damon and Blunt are a good duo together though, even if the chemistry is not always lightning in a jar, the spark between them is compelling and honest.
What The Adjustment Bureau misses in pure energy, it adequately makes up for with charm, performances, and a stunning visual backdrop that doesn’t rely on super special effects. My biggest complaint against the film is simply that you shouldn’t believe the hype of the trailers. Universal would like you to think this film is a thriller of some sort, but it’s simply not. The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic drama that just happens to have some sci-fi trappings–if you go in expecting anything more you will be sorely disappointed.
The DVD for The Adjustment Bureau includes a good number of extras including some deleted scenes, which help flesh out a bit more about the Bureau, a look at how the doorway effect was captured in different scenes, and a commentary from the director, which needed some extra energy, but is certainly interesting.
Making a great thriller is a lot like pulling off a great magic act. The point of the show isn’t how many great tricks you can fill the time with, but how many times you can actually wow your audience with big tricks that are as grandiose as they are effortlessly executed.
Director Jaume Collet-Sera’s Unknown certainly has one big trick up its sleeve, there’s no doubt about that, but it will almost certainly leave you looking up the magician’s sleeves.
Set in Berlin, Unknown stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, the victim of a car accident who wakes up to discover that his wife, played by January Jones, doesn’t know who he is, while another man, played by Aidan Quinn, has almost literally stepped into his shoes, claiming he is in fact the real Dr. Harris.
Coming off like a deranged stalker, or a fevered car accident victim, Martin flails around wildly to find anyone who will believe him while he also hunts for answers.
His only friend as he fights to find out what happened to his life is the taxi driver, Gina, played by Diane Kruger, who pulled him out of the cab as it started to sink into the river, and a former Stasi officer turned private detective, played by Bruno Ganz.
The biggest problem with Collet-Sera’s would-be action thriller is that it takes a long time to get into the action part of the thrills, and for that matter the early thrills are mostly on the light side of real thriller territory. We get an occasional scene where someone’s neck is snapped, or Martin is running for his life, but somehow the urgency is missing and the pace is sluggish.
As an onlooker, you want Martin to figure it out and you want him to knock some heads together, but I never felt terribly worried what might happen to him.
At the same time, Unknown has a lot going for it. Neeson and Kruger are a great duo, and Bruno Ganz is nothing short of amazing in his darkly comic role. The cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is also stylish, and moves swiftly through the streets of Berlin. Labiano’s keen eye captures the fights, the explosions, and the car chases superbly.
Screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell just don’t have a very strong story to tell though, and the whole film lacks the sharp edge you expect from a good thriller. They get the dialogue right, and the mood is tense at times, but next to the usual tricks that are required to pull off this type of film, Unknown’s big surprise doesn’t ring true–it feels dishonest to the rest of the film–and because the movie doesn’t lead into these answers very well, Unknown looks all the more desperate for a conclusion, any conclusion in fact in which Neeson can finally hurt someone.
Unknown is not a terrible film, it’s just not what we expect from an actor like Neeson, and it’s not half as clever as it wants you to think. Once it plays its final big trick, that becomes all too obvious.
Sword and sandal epics are a dime a dozen, and so are films that try to set themselves in some far-off land and fail miserably to capture any of that far-off land appeal. Director Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle is not a dime-a-dozen adventure film though, and it might be the first epic I’ve seen in a few years that felt like it was made with blood, sweat, and tears, rather than computer generated fodder.
Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman soldier in 140 AD who is sent to the far North, near the edge of Hadrian’s Wall, to defend an outpost that keeps the recently defeated Britains at bay. For Marcus, the position is important because the area is where his father Flavius was last seen twenty years ago before he marched Rome’s 5,000-strong Ninth Legion into the wilderness, never to return, taking with him the proud symbol of Rome: a golden eagle.
Marcus doesn’t have a lot of time to soak in the scenery though when his outpost is attacked just a short time into his command and he is gravely injured saving some of his men. Carted off to heal with his uncle, played by Donald Sutherland, Marcus is honourably discharged from the army and left to his own devices, where he begins chewing over the problem of his family’s honour, which was sullied by the loss of the Eagle of the Ninth.
A chance encounter with a brave slave named Esca, who is played by Jamie Bell, changes Marcus’ life though, and sees the duo heading north, across Hadrian’s wall, to search for the lost eagle and restore the Aquila family name. Along that path, Marcus will have to hide in the shadow of his slave, or risk getting both of them killed by the tribes of Caledonia, known today as Scotland.
Although Macdonald’s film is unlikely to win any awards for acting, The Last King of Scotland director earns sharp performances from Tatum and Bell, who easily carry this film as something of a buddy epic. Both men are strong leads, with a chemistry that speaks of the characters’ shared honour, pride, and friendship.
Their performances, and the performances of all of the warriors of the north, lends credence to the feeling that we’re following these people through 140 AD Britain. I’ve very rarely felt so immersed in another time, another place, and another culture, but The Eagle handles all of these elements perfectly. The dialogue by Jeremy Brock, which takes a decidedly modern slant, was unfortunately a little hard to take, as are some of the last moments in the film, but these are forgivable failings next to the film’s overall story and mood.
Perhaps a stronger film would have raised more questions about Marcus’ honour, or the futility of war, but Macdonald is to be commended for creating a film that is uniquely driven. The cinematography by Academy Award-winner Anthony Dod Mantle, known for his incredible work on films like Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, and recently for 127 Hours, is also notable, as is the music by Atli Örvarsson, production design by Michael Carlin, not to even mention the art direction and costumes.
Had the film’s final 15 minutes been a little less silly, and not quite so terribly cheesy, The Eagle might be a lot more interesting to discuss, but in the end I’m recommending The Eagle because it succeeded up until that point. I’ll forgive the error in the ending only because the film is anything but standard. It’s not in the league of Gladiator, but it’s certainly closer than you might expect.