October 4, 2016


The Shallows is a disappearing breed – the mid-budget Hollywood hit. Made for $17 million and grossing $118 million worldwide, it is the kind of efficient thriller that studios were once able to crank out on the regular. But now in the age of branded universe nine-figure blockbusters it is treated as an anomaly, and entertainment reporters have dutifully sought reasons for The Shallows’ success, whether in Blake Lively’s social media numbers (11.6 million Instagram followers!) or savvy marketing partnerships with Buzzfeed et al. One compelling argument, via Scott Mendelson’s prescient preview at Forbes, is that ” in a summer filled with sequels and franchise installments, The Shallows looks and feels outright revolutionary by virtue of its small scale and (comparatively) small stakes. It’s about Blake Lively, who gets attacked by a shark while surfing and must fight to survive. That’s it. No world-building, no sequel set-up, no planet-in-peril finale, no Easter eggs.” It is a film that can be taken on its own terms, anchored by an intense central performance from Lively in a film hammered together by Hollywood’s premier genre problem-solver Jaume Collet-Serra. With financial and production limitations, the most heinous shark violence occurs off-screen, registered by Lively’s expressively weathered reaction shots, implying horrors beyond imagining.


Producers Lynn Harris and Matti Leshem formed Weimaraner Republic Pictures in 2014, and they told Anne Thompson of Indiewire that they wanted to “produce high-concept movies on modest budgets, aimed at the under-served women’s audience.” They were attracted to Anthony Jawinski’s script In the Deep, which had a relentless female protagonist, and the buzz of being selected for the 2014 Black List of best unproduced screenplays. The story, re-worked with Collet-Serra, follows lapsed med student Nancy on a trip to an isolated Mexican beach, a tribute to her late mother who traveled to that spot when she was pregnant with Nancy. After a day of surfing with a few locals, she is attacked by a Great White shark and stranded on a rock. The shark circles between her and the shore, cutting off any chance of her escape. Nancy will have to use all of her education and ingenuity to sneak her way past the beast.

Once they secured Blake Lively and her legions of advertiser-friendly fans, funding was assured from Sony. Harris and Leshem then sought a director, and were determined to land the unheralded but productive Collet-Serra. He told former Sony executive Michael De Luca he wanted to take on the job, ““Because I don’t know how to make it. I cannot figure it out.”


Collet-Serra approaches films as puzzles to be solved. He told Little White Lies that “I keep getting interested in movies that have challenges and I think that genre films usually have challenges in them – a concept that’s interesting but difficult to explain to the audience. I like to work within certain limitations and find creative solutions to the problems I’ve been given.” In Orphan he crafted a shockingly serious horror film from the story of a child who turned out to be an Estonian midget sociopath. With his Liam Neeson trilogy, he wrought tension out of the enclosed space of an airplane  (Non Stop), devised visual strategies to depict amnesia (Unknown), and sought new ways to shoot New York City (he found rarely used locations all around Queens in Run All Night). 


With The Shallows Collet-Serra is again confronted with a single location, but under treacherous shooting conditions – both on the beaches of Australia’s Lord Howe Island (standing in for Mexico) and in a Hollywood studio tank.  Shooting on the water provides endless headaches, whether it’s the unpredictable weather or the impossibility of setting up a tripod. Collet-Serra and his team, including regular DP Flaviano Martinez Labio (Unknown and Non-Stop) and production manager Sharon Miller (House of Wax) anchored camera rigs with cement to gain some stability. The main visual motif of the movie is a shot set at the ocean water level, the camera bopping above and below depending on the waves. It is the dividing line between human and animal domains. Collet-Serra and his sound editor Tobias Poppe cut out the non-diegetic EDM music when the camera dips underwater, further underlining the border.


The geography is simple, Nancy is safe above, and in mortal danger below. In the initial attack on Nancy the shark is unseen, but she is shown struggling underwater as the frame fills with red. This is the most brightly colored of Collet-Serra’s projects, as he embraces the summery locale – there is the bright blood red but also the electric tangerine of Nancy bikini top and the intense blue-green of the ocean. Nancy is the one soaking up the idyllic pre-shark atmosphere, her hair already rough and tangled with salt water as she readies herself to surf the isolated beach. Though she is something of an adventurer, she is also controlled and logical – all her beach gear is bagged and identified with label maker print-outs. A sketch is provided of her home life – a scamp of a sister and a concerned Dad who urges her to go back to med school. She dropped out after the death of her mother from cancer – thinking the profession had failed her one too many times.


These family talks happen on FaceTime, and Collet-Serra superimposes these screens next to Nancy as she strolls down the beach. It is a way to avoid cutting back and forth between locations, as one of the keys of the film is how thoroughly Fort Howe’s geography becomes part of the narrative. Collet-Serra experimented with texting in Non-Stop, placing texts as on-screen bubbles next to his leads, and here he is continuing that attempt to streamline. The less he has to cut into phone close-ups, the more he can pay attention to locations and his actors’ faces. And it is Blake Lively’s face that carries this film. She trained hard for the role, and is a believable surfer, but the whole film rides on her ability to convey fear as well as thought – since the movie is all about how to survive to the next lowering of the tide. And since the shark is entirely a CG creation, she has nothing to play off of the entire film aside from an injured seagull who becomes her inadvertent companion. Lively turns out to be a commanding presence, and whether she is gritting through self-sewn stitches, improvising with a live bird, or reacting to off-screen chaos, she brings a quiet strength to the part. It would have been easy (and fun) to overact, plashing about like a kid in the tub, but Lively proceeds as if her life is on the line. All of the thrilling action mechanics that Collet-Serra orchestrates to end the film – a shark chase to the bottom of the ocean – would have been a dampened squib if Lively wasn’t there to light the fire.


January 5, 2016

Since their inception the movies have been obsessed with fists hitting faces. In the testing phases of Edison’s Kinetograph in 1891, W.K.L. Dickson shot footage of sparring boxers, cementing the sweet science as one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Though the medium matured, its audience (myself included) did not, and the appetite to watch performers sacrifice their bodies for our amusement has never abated. For a century filmmakers have been trying to capture the perfect punch in action movies, whether it’s in globetrotting blockbusters with CGI blood spurts or no-budget brawlers with practical squibs. There were plenty of worthy  efforts in 2015, and since it’s list-making season, below you’ll find my top ten action movies of the last year.


10. (tie) No Escape  (directed by John Erick Dowdle) and Survivor (directed by James McTeigue)

Pierce Brosnan has entered his dissolute character actor phase, and it is glorious. The first glimpse of it was in John Boorman’s Tailor of Panama (2001), in which he took the piss out of his James Bond character by playing this secret agent as a lazy, decadent fool. As he transitions out of leading roles and into the background, his characters get more seedy. In the critically reviled No Escape, Brosnan has a small part as a sex tourist in Hawaiian shirt and puka shell necklace (or so it seems) who helps Owen Wilson and Lake Bell spirit their family to safety after there is a violent revolution in an unnamed Asian city. The movie is bluntly effective, as when the parents have to engage in some kid-tossing off of rooftops, or when Wilson has to learn to kill a man with an office lamp. Brosnan is the reason for seeing it though, with his oily, self-destructive swagger and perpetual five o’clock shadow, he is something like James Bond after his fifth stint in rehab. It’s a character going through the motions of heroism because it’s what is expected, but all he really wants to do is embrace the death he’s been courting his whole life.

Survivor is preposterous nonsense, but it’s MY kind of preposterous nonsense. Brosnan is a shadowy mad bomber called “The Watchmaker” who wears those tiny jeweler eyeglass things and occasionally has a mustache. If that wasn’t enough, he’s being chased by U.S. immigration official Milla Jovovich, who spends most of the movie panting in exhaustion. She is framed-up as being an inside woman for a terrorist group, and is in turn chased around London and NYC by Brits and Yanks alike. Cast also includes Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett (!), Robert Forster (!!) and in his final performance (as a maniacal Romanian “pharmaceutical gases” scientist), Roger Rees.



9. Close Range, directed by Isaac Florentine

The latest collaboration of DTV dynamos Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins is a simple showcase for Adkins’ ability to kick people very hard. Adkins is an ex-soldier and an ex-con whose niece is kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord. So Adkins does what he must, in a series of fights beautifully choreographed by Jeremy Marinas of 87Eleven Action Design. You can read my full review of the film here.



8. Redeemer, directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

This Chilean revenge drama is straightforward pulp, superbly executed. It stars Marko Zaror as the eponymous avenger, a haunted man in a hoodie trying to expunge his past sins. He focuses his redeeming powers against an American Bro drug lord (a very funny Noah Segan), and a specter from his past known only as “The Scorpion”.  Zaror is a physical freak (he is Adkins’ main opponent in Undisputed 3), and the fight sequences are very technical MMA-based grappling that proceeds at a slower speed than most fight films. This deliberate pace really allows you to see the development of the attacks and counter-attacks, making the film a reliable tension and release machine.


Wild Card Movie (4)

7. Wild Card, directed by Simon West

A laid back Jason Statham product that is a remake of Burt Reynolds’ Heat. This one debuted on VOD in January and swiftly disappeared without a trace. But it finds Statham playing around with his persona, trying on different poses that never quite stick: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. When he snaps back into Statham the cannonball, the fight scenes are choreographed by the great Corey Yuen (The Transporter), and they do inventive, violent things with ashtrays and butter knives. I also wrote about this one at length over here.



6. Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann

An impressionistic smear of our hyper-connected age, with gunfights. Leonine Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth makes for an unconvincing hacker, but this is a movie in which the small details seem absurd but the grand gestures are entirely, overwhelmingly convincing. Hemsworth is an imprisoned hacker who is sprung loose to help the U.S. feds track down a cybercrime network around the world. As Hemsworth moves from city to city, country to country, the borders seem to blur along with Mann’s woozy images.



5. SPL2: A Time for Consequences, directed by Soi Cheang

This won’t be released in the U.S. until later this year (by Well Go USA), but it has been out everywhere in Asia and has screened in festivals throughout 2015. SPL2 is a sequel to SPL (2005, aka Kill Zone), although it bears no relation to the original. The main protagonists Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung are nowhere to be found, here replaced by Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Wu Jing is an undercover police officer in deep cover inside a Thai prison, while Jaa is a guard at the prison. Both of them get entangled in the illicit organ trafficking operation of Louis Koo. This is an anxious film wracked with paranoia, and director Soi Cheang (of the Milkyway productions Accident and Motorway) sustains a tone of barely contained hysteria. People are profitable bloodbags for Louis Koo, and the movie continually emphasizes the brute limitations of the human body.



4. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

This is the slickest entry on the list, a sinuous series of set-pieces that never bogs down in exposition. Tom Cruise gets stranger and more robotic each year, but the Mission: Impossible series keeps improving. I was particularly impressed with the assassination games during the opera, a complex minuet of overlapping POVs that provides one of the many tense standoffs between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson, the MI5 agent whose motivations are at cross-purposes with the Impossible Missions Force. Ferguson slinks away with the movie, her lithe athleticism perfect for the film’s clockwork mechanisms.



3. Run All Night, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A chase film between two old men sapped of energy. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson play two buddies from NYC’s Westie gang who turn against each other because of the sins of their children. That is, Neeson’s son has murdered Harris’ son. Due to the personal codes of conduct buried in their genes, they must hunt the other down. Neither seems to relish it. Let’s call it a reluctant revenge film. So they trudge through the outer boroughs looking for a kill, and on the way pass through all their old haunts, which are also on their way out. It provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. I went longer on this film over here.



2. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, directed by Tsui Hark

This Chinese epic has grandly orchestrated ski fights and tiger battles, while the framing story deftly deals with the slipperiness of historical truths. It’s about a Communist army unit who infiltrates a bandit gang and brings them down from within, an old-school adventure told with wit and feeling. But the framing story does much to question the propagandistic value of the film inside. It’s a complex, hugely entertaining film that was a massive hit in China and deserves a larger audience stateside. I would recommend reading Grady Hendrix’s highly informative article for further context.



1. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

To Godard’s quote that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, I would add that you should also include a double-necked flame-throwing guitar.


March 17, 2015


Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.


In Brad Ingelsby’s script Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a former hitman for the Westie gang once led by Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy tries to drown out his past with booze, and has long since become estranged from his ex-boxer/limo driver son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Jimmy has become a punchline for the remnants of Shawn’s gang, who now hang out at a decrepit Irish Pub called The Abbey, remembering better days. Mike is reduced to playing a soused Santa at Maguire’s Christmas party to keep himself in cigarettes and porn money. But Shawn’s deadbeat son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets enmeshed with a track-suited group of Albanian heroin pushers, leading to a gruesome confrontation that Mike witnesses. Soon Mike is the target of Shawn’s whole operation, and the only person who can keep him alive is Jimmy. The cops, the Maguire gang, and an independent killer (Common) are all after Conlon blood. Mike has to bury his resentments against his deadbeat dad long enough to help him survive.


As in the underseen  A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson has perfected a weary urbanite stroll, his shoulders a little rounded as if expecting shit to be dumped on him. Again an alcoholic (as in Walk and Non-Stop), society has pushed him farther to the edges of society. He lives in an unheated apartment next to an elevated train, warming himself by the glow of the Rangers-Devils game on the TV, the progress of which marks off the time of the movie.  Ed Harris, who was acting in eight Broadway shows a week in between shooting, looks even more exhausted and cadaverous, his character rendered moot in modern NYC. Early on he complains that he used to lend money for people to buy a butcher shop, and now that shop is an Applebee’s. There is no neighborhood left, shrunken down to his bar, The Abbey, and his few aging, paunchy friends (including friendly character actor face Bruce McGill). Shawn feels increasingly irrelevant, and spends most of the film reminiscing about what used to be. When circumstances turn him against Jimmy in a battle neither will likely survive, it feels like the two old friends are doing each other a favor. The Neeson-Harris tete-a-tetes are thrilling sequences of underplaying, as decades of friendship are eviscerated in a few words over cocktails.


For a director of disreputable genre pieces, Collet-Serra has attracted an extraordinary run of actors since he was forced to direct Paris Hilton in the still pretty good House of Wax (2005) remake. Aside from Neeson, Orphan featured Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, Unknown had Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, Non-Stop cast Julianne Moore and, in a small pre-Oscar part, Lupita Nyong’o. For despite all of the flash of his action filmmaking, his features are very patient, actorly films. They all build slowly, paying attention to the slightest of character details regardless of the outrageousness of the scenario. Orphan is extraordinary in this regard – it is as much a story of a bourgeois marital breakdown as it is a tiny person slasher movie. Sarsgaard and Farmiga give a master class in passive-aggressive sniping and upper middle class liberal self-absorption.

While Run All Night is the most character-driven of Collet-Serra’s films since Orphan, it still delivers a series of exhilarating action sequences. There is a Mike-Danny footrace through back alleys that hurtles along as the camera is pulled back on a cable. Then there’s a white-knuckle car chase through the streets of Brooklyn that manages to maintain match cuts as a cop car hurtles into a deli facade. And the centerpiece is a multi-part mini-movie in a housing project. It begins as a search for Mike’s boxing pupil “Legs” (Aubrey Joseph), a tightly edited montage of door-pounding and rejection. Then it transitions into an escape, as the police converge on the site, the father and son looking through a way out as they maneuver through the bank of stairwells. The final stage is a brutal fight between the hired assassin and Jimmy, held in a burning apartment. Flaming table legs are the weapon of choice as they two men thwomp each other into submission.


Early on Dirk Westervelt’s editing style feels disruptive and disorienting. His cuts occur a few beats before you expect them to, creating a jagged rhythm. It’s unusual, but as the feature progressed I stopped noticing these awkward beats. I’d have to watch it again to determine whether the editing scheme changes, or if I simply got used to the offbeat cutting. In any case, it ceased to be an issue as the story hurtled along and I was subsumed in this amalgamated NYC. The Abbey, in which the penultimate shootout begins, is cobbled together from exteriors taken from Jamaica Avenue and Woodside, Queens, while the interior was shot in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It is a composite city, situated so a subway is always rumbling overhead, moving forward to connect the various nodes of the story.

These nodes converge into at least one ending too many, but Run All Night provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. Jaume Collet-Serra continues to prove himself as a resourceful genre problem-solver, adapting his technique to the demands of the story. While I would be satisfied with an endless string of Collet-Serra/Neeson collaborations, it would be fascinating to see what this elusive, chameleonic director can do with other subjects. He recently told Entertainment Weekly that “I would like to do a movie with every genre. To me, that would be the complete career—do a comedy, musical. Why not?” Make it happen, Hollywood.


February 22, 2011

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In its 11th year, the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, which runs February 18th – March 4th, is as staunchly idiosyncratic as ever. The slate is chosen by the venerable magazine’s contributors and editors, with an assist from the Asian genre aficionados at Subway Cinema, who are co-presenting three features. Pulling from brows both high and low, they open with the historical excavations of Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew and close with the horror kicks of James Wan’s Insidious and the  morbid comedy of John Landis’ Burke and Hare. In between lies an entire range of obscure festival titles (El Sicario), forgotten repertory gems (Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me, Peter Yates’ Robbery) and the latest philosophical doc from Werner Herzog, the 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s film is one of the few with U.S. theatrical distribution (from IFC Films), so for many of these titles this series is the only opportunity to see them on the big screen.

I’ve seen five films in the program so far, and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew stands out. As Tony Rayns reported in CinemaScope, Jia was commissioned to make a film about Shanghai for that city’s World Expo in April 2010. As with his last documentary feature,  24 City (2008), Jia uses personal histories to explicate the wider story of his country, from the communist revolution through the introduction and explosion of capitalism. 24 City focused on the industrial city of Chengdu, in which the lifeblood of the town, Factory 420, was being torn down to build a gigantic condominium complex. In the midst of the documentary interviews he introduces a fictional story about the factory, starring Joan Chen.

I Wish I Knew deals with a wider canvas, examining the Shanghainese diaspora created by the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Jia talks to survivors in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose entire lives were uprooted or destroyed, nationalists and communists both. Woven in between these interviews are wordless shots of actress Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent collaborator, strolling through the ruins of old Shanghai, as skyscrapers get erected all around her. This is an extension of the Joan Chen sequence in 24 City, but also of Jia’s entire corpus, extraordinary documents of living history in which China’s economic miracle inevitably buries and denies the history of the country. From Platform on, Jia has been trying to capture the last breaths of bulldozed and drowned neighborhoods and memories  before they disappear under steel and glass.

The people Jia interviews are natural storytellers. There is Yang Xiaofo, whose father, leader of the Chinese Civil Rights Alliance, was assassinated upon the order of Chiang Kai-Shek. Yang remembers the days when he and his dad would stroll down Nanjing Road and look for coffee shops. Jia then takes his camera and strolls down the modern-day strip, slowly weaving his way through a cafe, until  he settles upon Zhang Yuansun. Zhang informs us his father was a hugely popular Peking Opera performer, and owned a yacht.  But during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards declared him a reactionary, ending his career and forcing him to live in poverty. Then Zhang attends a senior dance, twirling to Dick Haymes’ “I Wish I Knew”.

There is an endless list of lost fathers. The most devastating is the story of Wang Peimin, whose dad was executed by firing squad by the KMT weeks before her birth. She has photos of him shortly before his death, handled by impossibly young-looking guards, and with a beatific look on his face, defiantly proud. And despite all of the impossible trials of their youth, all of the subjects share this  stubborn refusal to give up on life, and Jia honors their incredible perseverance. Zhao Tao wanders through the rubble-strewn streets of their past, now abandoned by the city, as the film itself tries to inscribe these spaces back into history. The film is currently without U.S. distribution, but there is a Region 3, English subtitled DVD available at outlets including YesAsia.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the hottest ticket, as seeing Werner Herzog’s mischievous mug in three dimensions is apparently too provocative to miss. I even spied David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in attendance, which hopefully means an extended blog post from them both looms in the future. But of course the main pull was seeing the 32,000 year old paintings that cover the interior of France’s Chauvet cave, which the government rarely opens to non-specialists. The spectacle of these ancient masterpieces can be overwhelming, especially the ingenious way in which they were adapted to the undulating surfaces of the walls. Many compositions were arranged in circular groups that lead the eye around the crevasses, imparting a sense of motion. This kinetic aspect appears in the figures themselves, as Herzog notes a bison drawn with eight legs, conveying an idea of speed, which he describes as “proto-cinema”, but which is more proto-Futurism, which is still pretty mind-blowing. The 3D image gives a wondrous sense of depth and curvaceousness inside the cave, but the large segments of interviews with scientists and researchers are a drag in the format. Herzog’s patented mystical madman commentary is pushing into self-parody, but in this case the footage alone is worth the price of admission.



The Silence (2010) is a heavy-handed but refreshingly downbeat police procedural from Germany, directed with precision by Baran Bo Odar. A little girl is murdered in the same spot as another child was 23 years earlier, and a jowly retired detective with his burnt-out former partner try to link the two cases. The characters are thinly drawn, but the actors are superbly worn-down, committing completely to the ornately doom-laden scenario.

Sodankyla Forever (2010): this is only part one of four segments from Peter von Bagh’s history of  the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, but it makes me want to watch the whole thing. Each section culls from the voluminous director interviews von Bagh has conducted over the years.This section focuses on a variety of directors’ experiences of war, with a lot of emphasis on Eastern Europe, with many pointed comments from Milos Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ivan Passer, who all attended the same boarding school with Vaclav Havel. There was also a striking exchange between Krystof Zanussi and Dusan Makavajev as they discuss their refusal to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin (those who celebrate it haven’t lived through its philosophy). Also, plenty of prime Sam Fuller.

I Only Want You to Love Me (1976): this little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so in his marriage he constantly buys his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs.


Unknown (2011): This is not a part of Film Comment Selects, but Jaume Collet-Serra’s sleekly beguiling thriller certainly belongs with that ragtag group. Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.