For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
First with “Red” and now with “The Debt,” Helen Mirren has cornered the
market on films with senior-citizen assassins. Whereas “Red” was goofy
and spoofy, “The Debt” is stone-cold serious — the rare thriller that’s
actually smart. Would you expect less from a director as literary-minded
as “Shakespeare in Love”’s John Madden?
The way “The Debt” is structured, it’s as if audiences get two movies in one: a late-’90s-set spy movie with its mid-’60s prequel already attached, both roughly an hour apiece. In the ’90s half, essentially the wraparound story, Mirren plays Rachel Singer, one of three Mossad agents who, in the ’60s half (when she’s played by Jessica Chastain, “The Help”), hunkered down in a dingy Berlin apartment to track down a German gynecologist (Jesper Christensen, “Quantum of Solace”) wanted for Nazi war crimes.
I won’t spoil what Madden quiet effectively keeps secret from moviegoers until their need-to-know point, somewhere after the halfway mark, even if plot summaries and marketing materials do. The colder you are going in, the richer your experience will be. After all, how often does a spy movie with an Oscar winner rely more on story than shrapnel and sex?
The script — written in part by “X-Men: First Class” director Matthew Vaughn, remaking the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov” — presents itself in a nonchronological manner at first, so confusion over the dual time periods’ counterparts may have you scratching your head for a bit. Don’t worry: It’s only for a bit — all is cleared up by the time the plot requires it to be.
While Mirren is front-and-center on the poster and in the credits, “The Debt” really belongs to Chastain, who’s quite remarkable. So compelling is her role in the mission, that I wish the film were all about that. She has some scenes opposite Christensen, where she visits his practice under the guise of being unable to conceive — that’ll make you cringe. In a good way, of course. —Rod Lott