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Column Fri Jan 30 2009
For the better part of the last 365 days, the Luc Besson-written and -produced Taken has been opening country by country across the world until it finally hits screens in America this weekend. I'm guessing this film has been out on DVD already in some lands for quite some time, so those of you desperate enough to see this probably already have. But for the rest of us, the long wait it over — I've been seeing trailers for this film on and off for about six months now. And I'm happy to report the wait is mostly worth it. This is a quick-fix, shot of adrenaline in the brain work that doesn't offer much in the way of character development or plot, but has just enough of both to make this an above-average thriller and one of the better offerings I've seen from the Besson camp in recent years.
Perhaps an unlikely — although certainly not unwelcome — choice for our hero is Liam Neeson playing Bryan Mills, a seemingly mild-mannered father who has recently quit his government job and relocated to be closer to his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace, once of "Lost"), who has lived with her mother (Famke Janssen) and exceedingly wealthy stepfather. Kim seems open to allowing her long-absent father back into her life, but a lot of time has passed when he hasn't been there for her because of his mysterious job, and Bryan is impatient to reconnect. On the eve of a lunch Bryan and Kim area supposed to have together, Bryan is pulled by some old work buddies into a one-night, well-paid security job that involves playing babysitter to a young pop star, whose life Bryan saves from a stalker's knife. This is the first chance we get to see just how well trained this man is, and the veil is slowly lifted from his past.
At lunch, Kim proposes a long trip to Europe with her best friend that her father must sign off on in order for it to happen. At first, he's against the idea, but then he relents with certain conditions, all pertaining to her safety. If you can get past the fact that this daughter character is a shallow, selfish, world-class manipulator (not unlike her mother), you might actually care what happens to her as much as her father does. It's not an easy task. Sure enough, the two girls have barely landed in Paris when they are both snatched from the house where they are staying. Kim has just enough time to call her father before she is taken, and in the brief conversation, she conveys enough information to set him down the path to finding her, while maiming or killing everyone involved in the abduction with an efficiency that is quite wonderful to behold.
Through the course of the film, we find out that Bryan was a "preventer" for the government — a preventer of bad things, according to him. And he possesses some very special skills that make him uniquely qualified to deal with just these circumstances (and many others, I'm guessing). Part Jack Bauer, part Jason Bourne, with a little bit of Daniel Craig's James Bond thrown in, Neeson actually does a particularly stellar job pulling this role off and making us sense this man's desperation not to lose his daughter that he's foolishly waited this long to get to know. His search puts him into contact with some fairly seedy characters and situations (although the film manages to barely maintain a PG-13 rating — I imagine there's an R-rated version just dying to get out). The guy has no qualms about torturing the guilty — or the innocent if he must. There's one sequence in particular that may not sit well with people, when he shoots the innocent wife of a former ally who is holding back vital information Bryan needs. It's a totally unexpected moment that will make some people scream and others smile. Bryan routinely promises a stay of execution in exchange for information, then doesn't live up to his side of the bargain. It's a great thing.
Director and Besson protégé Pierre Morel (District 13, and whose next film with Besson, From Paris with Love, already has a pretty great trailer) has a real gift for staging fight sequences in tight quarters and choreographing exciting foot chases. I realize this is fairly familiar territory in today's action landscape, but there's something extra brutal and painful in the way Morel handles it. The final act when we find out exactly why Kim has been kidnapped (not there's any big surprise) might be a bit of a letdown for some — it was for me — if only because it was a bit obvious, rushed, and doesn't play out in an inventive way. For all of you proud Americans, beware of the not-so-subtle subtext here about American behavior. Kim and her friend are loud, annoying American teens who just want to come to Europe to party and hook up with French guys. Bryan represents the administration under which he served. Torture and cold-blooding killing come as naturally to him as brushing his teeth. It seems like a fairly clear-cut undercurrent throughout the film that's easy to push to the side, but impossible to ignore. Still, Neeson adds enough substance to his character that you can literally see him lift the material upon his shoulders and carry it to the finish line. Taken is far from a great film, but looking at the landscape of new releases right now, it's one of the better ones that isn't up for an award in a couple of weeks.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Taken star Liam Neeson.
Wendy and Lucy
Although technically a 2008 release, most places in the country aren't getting a chance to see this remarkable example of cinematic minimalism until now. I was recently on an episode of Chicago Public Radio's "Filmspotting" in which the two hosts and I selected our top five male and female performances of 2008. The only female performance that made all three of our lists was Michelle Williams' in Wendy and Lucy, and I'm guessing a little piece of each of our hearts was broken when her name was (not surprisingly) left off the list of nominees for a Best Actress Oscar. Williams has certainly given good performance after good performance over the years in such films as Me Without You, The Station Agent and Brokeback Mountain, but her work in this film is one of those classic examples of someone being so convincing and so embodying a character that you're forced to say, "I didn't she had this in her."
Nothing you have seen her in before (assuming you've seen her in anything) will quite prepare you for her portrait of Wendy Carroll, a young woman driving across part of the country en route to Alaska to find work and live. You get the sense that she's not so much running to something as she is running away from something on this trip. She stops in a drugstore parking lot in a small Oregon town to sleep and wakes to discover that her car has broken down. Short on cash, she takes her travel companion Lucy, who happens to be a dog, with her to a grocery store where she attempts to shoplift food. She's caught and hauled off to jail, leaving her dog tied up outside the store. When she return to the store, her dog is gone, her car is still broken down, and her money situation is dire. Wendy and Lucy is about a perfect storm of bad circumstances coming down on this woman all at once, and how she slowly and methodically pieces her life together and readjusts her priorities just enough to get back to where she started when she arrived. She's not the kind of person who expects a miracle to save her (hell, she can't even rely on her family member, whom she calls and is soundly rejected by); she just needs a break or two.
Williams perfectly embodies this strong yet fragile woman who refuses to beg but is also very open to the kindness of strangers, including the drug store's security guard (Walter Dalton, one of the members of the Dalton Boys folk trio) and the mechanic who looks at her car (the always great Will Patton). Director Kelly Reichardt, who made the magnificent Old Joy in 2006, stays far away from presenting any false or forced drama in Wendy's life. Instead, every bad thing that happens to her is all too believable and likely for someone in her situation. And Williams' performance is so understated as to almost be unnoticeable. She is someone you might not even notice walking down the street. She's entirely unremarkable in her appearance, sporting a boy's bowl cut, while her bony legs stick out their tattered long shorts. She's worthy of our sympathy without being pathetic or needy. Wendy and Lucy is as much a film about limits as it is about needs. It's not meant to be inspirational or particularly feminist. It's simply the slice of this young woman's journey that just happens to encompass the worst parts of the decision to make such a trip. The film and Williams' performance are both honest, quiet and, ultimately, uniquely powerful. Wendy and Lucy opens today at the Music Box Theater, and it's the best new film of the week.
New In Town
Although nowhere near as unbearably painful or insulting to women as Bride Wars, you can almost see the patchwork piecing together of elements from other, funnier and more romantic films of years past. This tale of Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger), a rising star at the executive level of her food product company, mashes together elements of pretty much every romantic comedy made in the last five years (granted, they all cannibalize each other on a monthly basis) with huge helpings of Fargo to make a film that is passable at its best moments and embarrassing at its worst. What made me cringe all the more was see a fairly large helping of competent actors scattered throughout the film. I've never been a Zellweger hater like so many. In fact, I've usually admired her choice in roles over the years (even ones she wasn't very good in), especially her refusal (until now) to be in a movie this fucking obvious. She goes out on a limb more often than not and isn't afraid look ridiculous in miscast roles. The Bachelor was probably the last film she made that approached the level of predictability we experience in New In Town.
I'm certainly not against making fun of people's accents or narrow beliefs or small-town idiosyncrasies, but making fun of people from Minnesota has gotten to be about as played out as this kind of humor can be. Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson taught the master class on this, and everybody else since has been a pale imitation. The actors in this film are no exception, even such quality players as Frances Conroy, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, and J.K. Simmons. They play these roles like a gaggle of inbred farmers, when in fact they are simply meant to be factory workers, homemakers and other small-town professionals. They call attention to their accents, clothes, hairstyles and wacky catchphrases rather than let them become a part of their characters. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Lucy is sent by her boss from the company headquarters in Miami to the desolate wintry wastelands of Minnesota, where she will take over as plant manager of a manufacturing facility that will bring in new robotics to produce a newly created energy bar. It's your basic fish-out-of-water story, with Zellweger trying her darnedest to liven things up with some physical comedy, poor clothing choices, and verbal battles with the townspeople about the differences between city and rural living. Oh the laughs never stop! The biggest and most obvious problem with New In Town is the pacing and timing, so I blame director Jonas Elmer. Now I am a great admirer of the Danish film industry as a rule, but I've never heard of Elmer, who is making his English-language film debuts. And based on his work here, I'm not rushing to my local specialty video store to check out his previous works. It's as if the film was made by someone who's never seen a comedy before, which isn't always a bad thing; in this case, it is.
One of the films many tiny bright spots is Harry Connick Jr. as Ted, a transplant from the Carolinas who also happens to be the union organizer at the plant who Lucy dialogs with frequently. The set-up is pretty obvious, opposites attract, city mouse-country mouse, blah, blah, blah. The scenario is hokey, but Connick is solid as the unlikely love interest. The guy has a natural charm that I've always thought translated well on screen. I'm utterly unfamiliar with his musical catalog, but his acting offerings have impressed me consistently, especially in such works as Bug, Copycat, Little Man Tate, and yes, even Independence Day. He can turn the Southern shtick on and off to put in a more appropriate performance, and here he strikes a balance that I liked. He's one of the few consistent bright spots of the film. But that isn't saying much. New In Town is tiresome, predictable, and often screamingly annoying. With few exceptions, the cast seems to be painting their characters by the numbers and right inside the lines. But the film's worst sin is not having any big laughs. I may have giggled two or three times at lines J.K. Simmons utters behind his Santa-like beard (something about "moving as fast as skinny shit through a tall Swede" comes to mind), but beyond that, the laughs just ain't there. If you're a woman and you've heeded my advise to stay far away from some of the garbage aimed at your gender in recent months, good for you. You could do a lot worse than New In Town, but let me ask you to wait one more week for a far superior relationship movie coming out next week. It's one your significant male others will like equally, and the laughs and insight is vastly superior to anything in this or any other recent date movie. Patience will pay off.
And if all goes as planned this week, you should be able to find my interview with New In Town co-star Harry Connick Jr. on Ain't It Cool News by now.
Where to begin. When you can guess a horror film's — any film's — big twist in the first 10 minutes, you are pretty much guaranteed a tedious time at the movies. When you have a great deal of affection for the original version of a movie you're about to watch (in this case, the film was the Korean offering A Tale of Two Sisters, the largest-grossing film in Korean history), tedium transforms into resentment. But when you watch the filmmakers — the youthful UK team Charles and Thomas Guard, a.k.a. The Guard Brothers — eviscerate all of the great plot devices and visual genius of that original film, then you just get pissed. So that's me in a nutshell watching The Uninvited, the story of a crazy teenager, released from a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt months earlier brought on by her mother's untimely death.
When young Anna (Australian actress Emily Browning from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) returns to her family's Maine home, things have changed. The nurse (Elizabeth Banks, in one of her least persuasive performances) brought in to take care of Anna's sickly mother is now dad David Strathairn's new girlfriend. Some things haven't changed: Anna's hot sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel), is still prancing around the house is skimpy outfits being a brat, but her family seems unusually forgiving of her behavior. So here's the first and deepest problem with The Uninvited — we know right from the outset that Anna isn't really cured of whatever was bothering her months earlier that got her thrown in the nut house. She has visions of her dead mother's corpse, as well as the dead faces of others, so we know we can't really trust these frightening images that are meant to scare her and us. The film uses the usual musical punctuation to make us jump at the loud noise, but the scares aren't really genuine. Eventually they wore off for me because I realized early on that we can't trust anything Anna sees, hears or even reads. And we're seeing things through her eyes most of the time, so we always know that whatever perceived threat to her probably isn't genuine, including times when she thinks her stepmother is out to kill her and Alex to have dear old dad all to herself.
The Uninvited hops back and forth from horror film to murder mystery, without either genre being particularly interesting. Browning is a strong enough actress to keep us with her for most of the film, but the script is so staggeringly weak that I really began to hate her character. Strathairn and Banks certainly add some much-needed class to the proceedings, but even they aren't putting forth their best effort...and they don't do much to hide it. As far as the style of the film, there is none. I would have settled for a gimmick, some weird and wild camera movements, fish-eye lens, something. But no, the film is standard-issue point and shoot horror stuff. The Uninvited isn't the worst film I've seen all year so far; it's not even the worst horror film of January 2009. But boy is it dull and unmotivated.