Talking Movies

September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

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January 7, 2015

Taken 3

Liam Neeson returns for a final instalment of Besson nonsense; outrunning cop Forest Whitaker to escape a bogus murder rap by finding the real perpetrator.

tak3n-gallery2-gallery-imageTaken 3 begins with Eurotrash criminals Oleg (Sam Spruell) and Maxim (Andrew Howard) delivering a chilling message to a business partner who owes them money. Meanwhile Bryan Mills (Neeson) is once again earnestly buying an inappropriate birthday present for daughter Kim (Maggie Grace); a giant panda. Ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) confides in Bryan that her marriage to millionaire Stuart (Dougray Scott) is nearly at an end, despite much couples therapy, and a desperate Stuart then visits Bryan to beg him to not see Lenore anymore to give him a chance at salvaging the marriage. Bryan honourably agrees, but has already given Lenore his keys in case she wants some me time while he joins Sam (Leland Orser) on an out of town job. Det. Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) finds the key to be damning evidence when he starts investigating Lenore’s murder…

It’s over 6 years since I gave Taken a 4/5 review, enthused by its brutal fun riff on 24. Taken 3 is a very different kettle of fish, afflicted by many of the problems of Taken 2. The PG-13 neutering hurts immensely. Lenore’s neck wound looks barely painful let alone fatal, a man blows his head off with no blood splatter, and a shirtless man is shot in the abdomen twice; with no blood… Olivier Megaton has handled PG-13 action entertainingly in Colombiana and Transporter 3, but the absurdity of toning down Pierre Morel’s original R vision of this franchise seems to unnerve him; even the harder cut of Taken 2 saw action director Megaton fail as a director of action. Time and again Megaton films a set-up well, but then bungles the pay-off in a flail of incomprehensible editing.

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s script is very awkward. The panda shows Bryan having learnt nothing since the first film’s first scene, Kim deflecting her surprise pregnancy into a conversation about a puppy is excruciatingly ham-fisted, and the first act’s lengthy inanity makes you long for Taken’s efficiency. Whitaker, despite being lumbered with a chess knight, elastic band, and bagels as props masquerading as character traits, is on good form. Scott, however, gives the worst villain performance in a Besson production since Joseph Gilgun’s unbearable turn in Lockout. Indeed an early tearful scene of desperation rivals Colin Farrell’s essaying of guilt in Cassandra’s Dream for the hammiest screen acting I’ve ever seen. Scott takes over the role of Stuart from 24 and Nikita mischief-maker Xander Berkeley, and it is impossible not to daydream about what Berkeley would have done.

‘It Ends Here’ is a tagline that sounds exhausted, and the franchise, despite an awful villain and disappointing action, falls over the line with its dignity just about intact.

2.5/5

April 16, 2012

Lockout

Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.

Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…

Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.

This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.

Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.

2.5/5

November 18, 2011

Breaking Dawn: Part I

Respected writer/director Bill Condon takes the helm of the good ship Twilight, and surprisingly runs it onto the rocks of tonal inconsistency and painful protraction.

This is a film of three parts, each deeply flawed. First Edward and Bella get married in an incredibly prolonged section. The sublime Billy Burke has a number of wonderful comedic moments as Bella’s father. He snipes with Bella’s mother Sarah Clarke, instantly notices the wall of graduation caps the Cullens suspiciously possess, and gives a deliriously pointed wedding speech. Edward and Bella then fly to a private island off Rio for their honeymoon in an incredibly prurient section. Bella wants to be turned after the honeymoon, a decision Jacob doesn’t take too well, given Edward’s super-strength. Edward is equally concerned about the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ conundrum, though bizarrely his focus for potential lethal injury is her arms and shoulders, and he knocks Bella up while knocking her about in bed and destroying the room. Edward’s dumbstruck horror at this unplanned pregnancy sees Robert Pattinson set a high benchmark for comedy reaction shots for others to follow.

Bella returns to the Cullen house to deliver her vampire child, in the final section of the film. Sam, leader of the wolf pack, declares this abomination a violation of the treaty and encircles the Cullen house. Jacob insists on protecting Bella against them, but her all-devouring baby might kill her first as Kristen Stewart wastes away impressively. There’re wonderful comedic moments for the Cullens, surrounded by werewolves and desperate for blood, as well as some presumably politico-allegorical strife between Alice who refers to the foetus while Rosalie refers to the baby. Fellow werewolf Leah tells Jacob “Happiness of any kind is better than being miserable over someone you can never have” but this is countermanded by the pregnant Bella’s bizarre statement to Jacob, “It feels complete with you here”, as Edward looks aghast at this Jules and Jim proposition. The heavily-flagged werewolf ‘imprinting’ sequence is actually effective, but its first shot is so unintentionally funny as to undercut it.

Any notion that splitting the finale was an artistic rather than a commercial decision is dispelled by this film not reaching the 2 hour mark yet, like The Art of Getting By, being farcically padded with pointless montages in the hope that mediocre pop songs will disguise that sod all really happens. Melissa Rosenberg, Dexter producer and screenwriter of the entire saga, enjoys herself with a flashback revealing that a rebellious Edward killed murderers, a monster that killed monsters, as he dubs himself. Just in case you didn’t get the reference Dexter’s brother (Christian Camargo) shows up at the wedding as Edward’s cousin, accompanied by a blink and you’ll miss her Maggie Grace. Film though is a director’s medium. Condon starts promisingly with a self-referential gag as Edward kills someone during Bride of Frankenstein, featured in Condon’s biopic of its director James Whale. But thereafter Condon’s lethargic tone-deaf direction seems to say “This is beneath me, but it pays well”.

David Slade’s approach to directing Eclipse, by contrast, seemed to be saying “This is a great opportunity, and I can make it plenty nasty”. Slade of course had a better plot to work with, because Eclipse had a plot, but Condon renders the honeymoon sequence excruciating to watch with its Austin Powers choreography and unarticulated sexual nervousness, while the tartness Slade brought to handling the love triangle is largely absent throughout. Condon only achieves the required supernatural nastiness, which Hardwicke and Slade used to ground the eyelid-fluttering lip-biting romance, in the closing horror scenes which seem to be as gory as the rating allows, with the final image being cheered at my screening. But that final image sums up the film: you can see it coming for about 90 seconds but Condon still builds up to it very, very slowly – laziness or high camp?

Condon moves into Whale pastiche with his campy ending, credits and post-credits sequence – offering hope that a Fassbendering British actor might save the final film.

2/5

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

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