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Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times Knight at the Movies: The Debt; Don't Be Afraid...; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-08-31

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Sam Worthington in The Debt.


For 30 years Israel has glorified former Mossad agents Rachel, Stefan and David as the trio that brought to justice a sadistic Nazi war criminal who they found posing as a gynecologist in Berlin in 1965 and who they captured and killed (as he tried to escape). However, now, in 1997, just as Rachel's daughter has released a biographical account of their actions, the trio find themselves unwittingly drawn back into these decades-old events. That's the nifty set-up for director John Madden's taut political thriller The Debt, a remake of a fictional 2007 Israeli film that is helped enormously by its cast.

These include both older versions of the characters (Helen Mirren, sporting a Yiddish accent and an "L" shaped scar on her cheek, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) and their comely, younger selves (this year's "It" girl Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington). The bulk of the picture follows Rachel, Stefan and David—strangers when they meet—who are bound by their united mission of bringing the Nazi to justice and who, during the course of that mission, find themselves caught up in an emotionally potent love triangle (not surprising as they make for the three most gorgeous secret agents of all time, I think).

The plot to entrap the Nazi, going by the name Dieter Vogel, involves Rachel becoming one of his gynecological patients—an unbelievably discomforting situation for her (and the audience)—and leads to the attempted kidnap of Vogel, who the trio is supposed to ferret out of Berlin and back to Israel for trial. All does not go as planned, however, and the group is forced to improv an alternate scenario. Here's where "the debt" part comes into the story, commingling with the increasing romantic tension between the three and their prisoner (the appropriately smarmy Jesper Christiansen).

The movie recalls a myriad of other psychological thrillers—from Death and the Maiden on back to Hitchcock's Lifeboat—and works, as noted because of that good but oh so pretty trio and their acting elders. Mirren, as usual, is sensational and Wilkinson matches her intensity as her morally suspect ex-husband while Hans plays the conscience-stricken David with suitable complexity.

Although there are lots of credibility gaps as the picture enters its concluding sequence in which Mirren must finally make good on "the debt" owed by the trio, as these political thrillers go, The Debt pays off in both departments.

Speaking of credibility gaps ... well, that would be producer Guillermo del Toro's remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (directed by Troy Nixey). The film—a remake of the creepy 1973 TV classic starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton that del Toro and Matthew Robbins have adapted—now focuses on Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce as a couple who have invested everything in their restoration of a once-celebrated mansion (he's the restorer, she's the interior designer) that, unbeknownst to them, includes some terrifying inhabitants.

Once Pearce's sour-faced daughter, Sallie (Bailee Madison), arrives, the secret of these tiny creatures (who live in an underworld far beneath the house) is slowly uncovered. First, Sallie finds a hidden room (complete with an arched skylight) that the original owner, a painter of renown, used as his studio. The room also hides (via a heating grate) the entrance to the lower world inhabited by the nasty, goblin-type monsters who have an affinity for sticking sharp objects into their unsuspecting victims like so many pincushions, speaking in raspy, repetitive whispers reminiscent of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings pictures, and who can't abide even a smidgen of light.

In their script, del Toro and Robbins have included a backstory for the murderous wee folk that riffs on the legend of the tooth fairy (yes, really) that is laughable but which also allows for a stomach-turning prologue in which an unsuspecting servant girl's teeth are brutally dispatched. This is the movie's lone superior sequence and embodies del Toro's unsung ability to combine gore with the gorgeous. (He did this superbly in Pan's Labyrinth.) The rest of the movie is run-of-the-mill creature-feature stuff that finds as many gaping holes in the script as in the woodwork of the house. With the exception of that opening segment, this remake can't hold a candle to its chintzy but decidedly more satisfying forebear. (The TV version also has the benefit of Billy Goldenberg's truly chilling score, which haunts long after that movie's 74-minute running time.) Warner Archives has just released a special-edition DVD, which contains the film and a bonus commentary track by a trio of the movie's rabid enthusiasts.

Film notes:

—The Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., has a lot of screening options this week that will be of interest to LGBT film enthusiasts. First up is a weeklong engagement, beginning Sept. 2, of writer-director Mike Mills' autobiographical bittersweet dramedy, Beginners, in which a father (played by Christopher Plummer), comes out at 75 to his son (Ewan McGregor) after being widowed. It's one of the best films of the year and both Plummer and McGregor give Oscar-worthy performances.

—Next up, on Sept. 3 and 8, the Siskel presents three short films from the Outfest Legacy Project Program: Mona's Candlelight (circa 1950), Queen At Hearts (1967) and Choosing Children (1984). The films, totaling 95 minutes, each offer rare, historical glimpses into gay culture that have been restored and are being presented as part of the Siskel's 2011 UCLA Festival of Preservation.

—Lastly, the Siskel is presenting Cher's breakthrough movie role in Robert Altman's 1982 gender-bending classic Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film, which isn't on DVD, also stars Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Sudie Bond. It, too, has been preserved and will be presented, on Sept. 3 and 7, as part of the UCLA Festival. Complete information on all these screenings at http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org

—More Cher to share: On Wed., Sept. 7. at 7 p.m. (CST), Cher is the guest programmer for the evening on Turner Classic Movies. The gay icon sits down with TCM host Robert Osborne (in a pre-taped segment) and introduces four of her favorite classics which include Follow the Fleet (1936), Hobson's Choice (1954), The Big Street (1942) and Lady of Burlesque (1943). http://www.tcm.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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