Friday, November 02, 2012

Film Review - TAKEN 2

2009’s Taken was a product of both limited ambition and intriguing novelty; a cut-and-paste Eurotrash blast-em-up starring respected thespian Liam Neeson as a vengeful father on a bullet-riddled rampage. Like the Charles Bronson Death Wish films, it offered cheap, vicious thrills in a hopelessly square conservative package, suggesting brutal vigilantism as the only viable course of action. But, thanks to cool scenes of the stunt-casted stoic star gravely reciting his special skills, and slick direction from District B13 helmer Pierre Morel, the whole wobbly enterprise gained a moderate level of respectability. It was fun, in spite of its doofy, xenophobic politics and B-movie clunkiness.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Taken 2, a generic, lazy cash-grab of a follow-up that’s only slightly more competent than your average DTV fodder. Rather than take the mean spirit of the original and go broader, darker or, god forbid, weirder, producer Luc Besson and directer Olivier Megaton (not his real last name) have taken the safest, most boring route possible, cranking out a virtual carbon copy that offers nothing new. You can feel yourself rapidly forgetting the picture during every one of its weary 91 minutes.

Picking up shortly after the last adventure, Taken 2 sees retired CIA agent Bryan Mills being targeted by the grieving father (Rade Serbedzija) of one of his many victims. Shortly into an impromptu Istanbul family vacation, our hero and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) are, yes, taken, leaving their mighty mature-looking teenage daughter (Maggie Grace) to help aid in their escape. Of course, for justice to be truly served, Mills must ultimately track down every one of his greasy captors and efficiently kick their ass off the moral coil.

While the perfunctory, silly script by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (Mills now has mutant sonar skills!) is pretty dire, there’s no reason Taken 2 couldn’t have sailed by on a tide of breathless violent choreography. However, Megaton (Transporter 3) seems incapable of directing a fight or chase sequence that isn’t a surrealistic, jarring mess of spastically edited chaos. He doesn’t so much show action as aggressively implies it's taking place. This technique, no doubt partly used to disguise the fact the imposing and game 60-year-old Neeson isn’t, in actuality, quite as spry as Jason Statham, robs the action of propulsiveness and impact. There are points when it’s near impossible to tell who is hitting who with what.

Worse, without any rapid-fire tension, we’re less distracted from the grimy sexism of the series, which really oozes to the surface here. In the Taken-verse, women are either virginal, helpless angels who must be protected beyond all sane, socially acceptable reason (Mills’ relationship with his daughter borders on creepily obsessive), or a commodity to be dominated like subhuman sex slaves. It’s an ugly, unhealthy message, and one the clueless screenplay is interested only in exploiting, not exploring.

Yet, to become angered or offended by the movie’s crassness is to show more investment in the material than even the filmmakers could muster. It’s a mite sad the most engaging moments come from music cues swiped wholesale from Drive (a comparison that should never have been invited). One could say Taken 2 fires nothing but blanks. However that would imply it even had the energy to load the gun in the first place.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - THE MASTER

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a profoundly fascinating and engrossing head-scratcher of a motion picture. Visually lush, cryptically aloof and boasting two of the most absorbing go-for-broke performances of 2012, it’s a chilly, intentionally oblique adult drama that actively challenges the audience to perform some heavy mental lifting. Those who found Anderson’s There Will Be Blood too meditative and enigmatic will be utterly adrift here. However, viewers able to lock on to its unusual wavelength will be treated to a provocative and unforgettable cinematic experience.

Set predominantly in 1950, during the birth of the American dream, the film stars an unrecognizably gnarled Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a socially maladjusted Naval veteran drifting through life on an gloomy cloud of homemade booze and pent-up salacious desire. Out drunkenly wandering one night, he crawls aboard a ship occupied by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual and charismatic religious leader and author (loosely modelled on L. Ron Hubbard), and his brood of converts. Immediately drawn to this shell-shocked lost cause, Dodd welcomes Freddie into his flock, determined to help guide him to spiritual reawakening.

Of course, being an Anderson film, The Master isn’t particularly story-driven. Rather, it’s a rich character study that uses riveting conversation and behaviour to explore philosophical ideas pertaining to humanity’s suppressed animalistic nature and yearning for community and connection (this isn’t the anti-Scientology screed some had anticipated/hoped for). In Dodd, the anchorless Freddie finds a stable presence of acceptance and equality. The leader, however, looks at his new charge and sees an alternately attractive and repulsive glimpse of the id-fuelled depravity and unrestrained emotions he himself battles to keep concealed from the world, not to mention his severe wife (Amy Adams).

There is a refreshing lack of judgment surrounding the characters. The writer/director knows his two central figures are quite mad, but is more interested in analytically observing them than tearing them down – a far more compelling choice. Working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (a recent Coppola regular), Anderson uses epic movie sheen to create gorgeously lived-in, mundane environments for their intensely personal discourse. Only Jonny Greenwood’s score hints at any underlying insidiousness.

The Master is a picture to revel in, to take apart, debate and stew over. It defies easy categorization and is exhilarating in its strange and mystifying otherness. A bold, ambitious and original statement, Anderson’s latest reaffirms his status as a preeminent master of the cinematic form. And one worth believing in, at that.

4 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - THE WATCH

What happens when you toss Attack the Block, some Judd Apatow man-child pictures and a Costco commercial in a blender and hit “Generify”? You wind up with a bland, watered down product like The Watch, a shaggy dog alien invasion comedy that aims for weird, wild and wacky territory, yet stalls out with a gasp in the middle of the road. Who would have guessed the sight of Vince Vaughn tenderly tongue-kissing the corpse of a green pincered extraterrestrial Pumpkinhead clone would feel so mundane? Not I, for one.

Vaughn’s loutish Bob is just one of the Glenview, Ohio nincompoops rallied together by anal-retentive, hyper-PC Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller) after a mysterious attack leaves one of the mega-store’s security guards sans skin. Battling uncooperative police and an apathetic public, the newly formed neighbourhood watch group, which also includes borderline-deranged high-school dropout Franklin (Jonah Hill), and afro’d introvert Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), inadvertently begins investigating a series of close encounters of the slimy and cow-splattering kind. Can they settle their combustible group dynamics and personal crises long enough to take down the town’s aspiring new reptilian overlords?

Despite a promising opening, Hot Rod helmer Akiva Schaffer’s film quickly loses sight of its raunchy V riff ambitions, filling time with amusing, if unfocused (improvised?), dick joke-filled banter and superfluous subplots involving Stiller’s sterile sperm and Vaughn’s creepy obsession with his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. The reliable comic star power, and supporting turns by unsettling neighbour, Billy Crudup, and buffoonish cop, Will Forte, ease the bumpy journey, but there’s no bizarro spark or momentum. By the time the routine action climax kicks in, it feels obligatory, not necessary.

To see such a fantastic collection of talent toiling in such unconfident paper-thin material is disheartening. In better hands, this might have been a fun gross-out variation on the Ghostbusters formula instead of a forgettable misfired opportunity. Alas, despite its gooey sci-fi trappings, The Watch couldn’t be any more earthbound.

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.


Writer/director Jonathan Joffe’s Burlesque Assassins offers blood, bullets, babes and tan-lined Hitler clones. What more could one ever ask from a motion picture?

Quite a bit, unfortunately. How about a quick-witted, engaging story to accompany the non-stop T&A-fuelled hijinx? Or sharp comedic dialogue that doesn’t elicit weary groans? (“You just knocked out Randy!” “What can I say, I’m a real knockout!”)

Alas, the Calgary-made Burlesque Assassins doesn’t so much “Seduce and Destroy” as underwhelm and frustrate.

Starring raven-haired stunner Roxi D’Lite as a 1950s tough gal recruited into a top secret burlesque unit, the film chronicles a covert mission to infiltrate an Alberta cabaret and recover Nazi Atomic Death Ray codes from Stalin (Dusan Rokvic), Mussolini Jr. (Matthew Graham) and Hitler 2.0 (Brendan Hunter).

Attractive back-up is offered by experienced operatives Bombshell Belle (Kiki Kaboom), Katerina Molotov (Carrie Schiffler), and Koko La Douce, portrayed by, naturally, Koko La Douce herself. Playing Charlie to the pasty-sporting fighting force is Johnny Valentine (Armitage Shanks – who was born to star in a flick like this), a cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced ladies man with questionable taste in disguises.

Joffe has an undeniably fun germ of an idea here (a boobier cartoon riff on Inglourious Basterds), but the results tend to be more tedious than titillating; a somewhat exhausting series of creatively-staged, yet energy-deprived burlesque routines and unsuccessful stabs at feverish broad camp.

That said, the film is not without its charms. Betty Boop-esque star D’Lite is a bubbly, ravishing presence, and the film’s intentionally terrible accents (Graham is Italian by way of Chico Marx) and black and white newsreel gags offer welcome amusement.

Ultimately, though, this is a stagebound one-joke sketch concept that, stretched to 90 minutes, strains and unravels like a moth-eaten corset.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - TED

Ted, the uneven, taboo-taunting directorial debut film by Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane, seriously strains plausibility. Not in regards to the cursing, boozing, whore-mongering teddy bear title character. No, that part I can believe. But rather that a 35-year-old man would struggle for even a split second to choose between said stuffed animal and Mila Kunis. Madness!

Amazingly, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is just that dunderheaded. He’s a Bostonian stoner man-child, half-assing his days away at a dumpy rental car lot, who won the heart of Kunis’s smart and stunning Lori Collins four years ago by doofishly clocking her on the dance floor. Standing crudely in the way of their relationship’s long-term prospects is Ted (MacFarlane, recycling his Peter Griffin voice), an anthropomorphized plush toy John wished to life one fateful 1985 Christmas day, who now must adapt to a world beyond his best “thunder buddy’s” pot-scented apartment. Can their unhealthy codependent friendship survive?

As far as premises for raunchy R-rated comedies go, Ted has a damn good one. Unfortunately the movie, scripted by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, too often feels like a slightly sweeter extended Family Guy episode – packed with characteristic hit-or-miss random pop-culture references (Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones feature heavily), warped cutaway gags and “edgy” offensive punchlines – mated in an unholy union with a generic, flat human-centeric rom-com. And as much as the picture wants us to love Ted, he’s really not spectacularly fun to hang out with; an effective CG presence with inconsistent physical abilities whose non-stop vulgarity isn’t as clever or shocking as his creators appear to think it is.

The film works in fits and starts; a brilliantly strange ‘80s quasi-celebrity cameo here, a perverse produce-penetrating babe-on-bear sex scene there. Yet it never quite gels into the crass, confidently engaging crowd-pleaser it yearns to be. Alas, like it’s fuzzy ‘lil hellraiser, Ted is ultimately pretty much just disposable fluff.

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.