Movie News & Reviews

Playing against type, actors shine

As movie fans, we get accustomed to seeing actors and actresses in their comfort zones – Jim Carrey does comedy, Meryl Streep does drama – so it’s a little surprising when we get a curve ball like Carrey in “The Majestic” or Streep in “Mamma Mia!”

That’s not to say it’s a good or a bad thing; it’s just that you expect to see certain people do certain things because the powers that be in Hollywood try to steer them that way.

So when there are these out-of-their-comfort-zone roles like I’ll look at this week, I try not to judge too harshly because I respect that at least someone took a gamble.

LUMINOUS, IF A BIT BLAND

As an actor, Brad Pitt remains somewhat of an enigma, despite his star status. The people I asked couldn’t really place him as a particular type of actor, and personally, I identify him most as a comedic one (the “Oceans” movies, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Snatch”).

I don’t think of Pitt headlining a serious prestige picture, but that’s exactly what he did with THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (PG-13, hh 1/2 stars), a technically sound but thematically light film that earned most of its accolades because of its special effects.

A sort of “Forrest Gump” redux (which just so happens to be scripted by the same man, Eric Roth), the story revolves around Benjamin (Pitt), a boy born with a strange disease that causes him to age in reverse – at birth, he’s a withered old man, but as the years progress, he gets younger and stronger.

Director David Fincher is no slouch behind the camera, and he (with a lot of help) shows off every trick in the book and then some to seamlessly fit the 40-year-old Pitt into the wizened frame of an 80-year-old man.

Benjamin lives with his adoptive mother, Queenie (Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson), in a nursing home where he gets to reflect on all manner of life and death, and meet all sorts of interesting people.

One of them happens to be a precocious young girl named Daisy, who becomes Benjamin’s friend. After Benjamin serves as a deckhand, lives in Russia and gets embroiled in World War II, he returns home to find that Daisy (Cate Blanchett) has blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

It seems inevitable where the film is headed, yet – thanks to the somewhat ponderous framing device whereupon a dying Daisy listens to Benjamin’s story courtesy of a handy diary – we get more “Gump”-like adventures before the romance kicks in.

Honestly, the story is background to what is an amazing technical achievement. The film is stunningly shot, with beautiful cinematography and sharp sound. It doesn’t say much about anything, especially given the turbulent time of our country’s history in which it takes place, so it feels a little thin in that regard.

As for Pitt, he fares much better in the old/young scenes than when he ages into a matinee idol, but it did earn him an Oscar nod, so it was worth the gamble. The story, however, leaves you wanting more.

TAKE-NO-PRISONERS LIAM

Liam Neeson is a regal kind of actor – the kind you expect to see in Shakespeare adaptations and genteel British productions, not kicking ass in a Bronson-style revenge picture.

But maybe that disconnect is what made TAKEN (PG-13, hhh stars) such a surprise hit. Released in Europe a year before an inauspicious January release, the thriller went on to gross more than $140 million and is still in the Top 15 of the box office upon its DVD release.

I enjoyed it, but left thinking this is probably the tamest revenge flick I can think of, which perhaps explains some of its across-the-board popularity.

Neeson stars as Bryan, a former CIA agent who has given up his career to reconnect with the teenage daughter (Maggie Grace) he ignored while traveling the globe.

When she plans a trip to Paris with her friend, Bryan instinctively says no, but is convinced (guilted) by his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) to let her go.

Big mistake. Almost as soon as she steps off the plane, she’s targeted by sex traffickers and is kidnapped, barely getting in a desperation call to her dad before she’s hauled off.

But that’s all our man needs. Instantly springing into action, Bryan is in Paris cracking heads before you know it.

Of course it’s patently ludicrous that Bryan can do anything he needs to do to get closer to his daughter, but you forgive the implausibility because of the breakneck pace of the film and the gravitas that Neeson brings to the role.

Bryan meets up with an old friend, a French inspector, and when you see what happens during an awkward dinner, you’ll know why he has no qualms about taking out people he doesn’t like.

The weak link in the movie is Grace as Bryan’s daughter. First of all, she’s 26 years old and looks it. And secondly, her interpretation of a 17-year-old is borderline mentally handicapped. I can’t believe anyone who’s just been through a traumatic experience would react the way she does at the film’s conclusion.

But this is Neeson’s film, and he owns it.

A B-MOVIE WITH STYLE

Michael Sheen is a well-respected British actor who has practically made a living out of playing Tony Blair (“The Deal,” “The Queen”), and faced off against Frank Langella as David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” last year.

So why has Sheen been in all three “Underworld” movies, including the recent UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (R, hh stars)? It’s a little jarring to see a “serious” actor star in such schlock, but there’s some history there.

Sheen was in a long-term relationship with star Kate Beckinsale, who left him during the filming of the first movie to marry the director, Len Wiseman. You’d think that would have ended Sheen’s affiliation with the franchise, but no. He appeared in flashbacks during the sequel, and now that Beckinsale and director Len Wiseman have departed, he’s back in a major role.

These films are funny – they’re like the modern day Hammer films: high-gloss horror productions filled with reputable actors, yet with little real value beyond the visceral thrills.

In this prequel, we find out how Lucien (Sheen) became the powerful Lycan leader that eventually led his werewolf brethren into battle against the Death Dealers, the deadly vampire race, which formed the backbone of the first two movies.

Lucien’s adversary is Lord Viktor (Bill Nighy, another actor slumming here for the third time), and the sticking point between the two men is Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra, a Video Guy personal favorite). Lucien and Sonja’s illicit romance is the stuff of “Romeo & Juliet,” and marks the tragic turn that frames the series.

While there are plenty of werewolf-versus-vampire throwdowns, the familiar blue hue of the cinematography and lots of leather, the real action here is watching Sheen and Nighy chew the scenery, bringing a strange class to a strictly B-movie enterprise.

The Video Guy is Elliott Smith, a former Olympian reporter who lives in Seattle. He can be reached at ejsteeler@hotmail.com.

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