Monday, April 06, 2009

TAKEN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
Director: Pierre Morel
Runtime: 94 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Action

        If you have been following me dear reader, for an appreciable amount of time you would know that rating a movie is something I’m not especially good at. And neither do I strive to that end, though I am beginning to believe I should. At least for a product as Taken, which I give a single star only because I’m not sure how to represent half a star on a MS-Word document, or for that matter a blog. I did try prefixing “1/2” to a single star but it felt it might cause some needless confusion. I don’t seem to hate the film enough to attribute it a rating of Zero Stars, and I realize here I need to entertain thoughts of include some kind of graphic to highlight the rating as a good friend of mine suggested in the past.
        Never mind.
Fact 1: Taken has raked in close to $150 million at the box office, and is the year’s big box office champ along with one Paul Bart: Mall Cop, which is the leader.
Fact 2: Watchmen opens to a paltry $55 million at the box office, and is now officially a disaster. Fact 3: The latest installment of the Fast and Furious films opens to a resounding $72 million, and is well on its way to merit another entry to the series.
        If one needed anymore evidence that your average movie-goer is dumb, with little or no understanding of the medium, with little or no love apart from a passing interest in gaining some shallow pleasures in the name of entertainment, then all I would ask is to read the above facts a second time. Again, never mind.
        What sinks me into despair though is that for a Luc Besson film the pleasures have been packaged quite shoddily, and quite ineffectively. There used to be a time when one could at least depend on the fact that pure action was at least comprehensible, and there could at least be some measure of excitement in the manner in which violence was invoked. Not any longer. What audiences have found in Taken eludes me for the action is not just incomprehensible with respect to overall geography as well the details, it is just plain derivative. Car chases are anti-climactic and fist fights plain sloppy. The aim is to be economic and brutal, to evoke a sense of professionalism and bluntness in the ways of Bryan Mills (Mr. Neeson), who is now a retired and divorced CIA operative trying to makeup for the time he lost for his 17-year old daughter Kim (Ms. Grace), but all it ends up being is plain choppy. The same old impotency of machine gun fire is to be found here. There’s no sense of camera placement, no sense of editing, and more often than not one feels the camera has been placed in exactly the wrong place. One ought to remember Michael Mann’s Collateral, one of the most technically accomplished films of the decade, and how the acting was staged and filmed. There was an economy to it that remains unmatched in the present times.
        What’s the difference here? Simple. A shaky camera and over-editing never ever convey economy. They convey chaos, and that is the primary flaw to be found in some of the action sequences in the Bourne movies too. A still camera with the minimum possible edits actually goes a long way in displaying the sense of control that the protagonist holds over the said action sequence and all the bad guys within it. And considerably more impact too, for we know every little move made rather than not being aware of the geography at all.
        The plot is preposterous. The treatment more so. Mills only needs to listen to some needless lines to pinpoint the exact town these guys originally hail from, and the kind of Albanians they are. Applying logic here is another dumb exercise. The dialogs are utterly laughable. Everything is predictable. The movie is ridden with stereotypes. You might feel the 94 min. are passing too slowly. Mr. Neeson is supposed to lend some kind of credibility, but I believe nobody can be respectable in a role written for Steven Segal other than Mr. Segal himself. Mr. Neeson attempts to bring character when there’s no need, and it is not that he alone is at fault. The film does too, be some kind of plot driven actioner, but those kind of ambitions demand a kind of investment into the script the film isn’t ready for. Neither are the performances which border on the bad to plain annoying. All of them. Taken is just plain bad. Calling it a guilty pleasure is to cause disrespect to two of our most useful emotions.
        Whatever happened to good old fashioned action movies. And whatever you say, this isn’t fun. No, not even the mindless fun you’re referring to dear reader. Seek for that elsewhere. A Jason Statham flick is always around the corner.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

THE SPIRIT: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson
Director: Frank Miller
Runtime: 103 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy, Action

        IMDb users, mostly teenagers with plenty of time on their hands, concerned themselves with a little thread whose purpose was to rearrange the alphabets in the title of this film. What they arrived was a pretty usual tripe s**t, but that is not what is interesting. What is interesting is that this is the kind of film that is made from a source (Will Eisner’s The Spirit) that has a significant base amongst comic book fans and has been made by a man (Frank Miller) who is something of an icon himself. That the film still doesn’t find any favor is something that speaks volumes about its lackadaisical nature. You might wonder if this movie is bad enough to merit a viewing, considering especially the presence of hordes of busty females trying their very best to rack up the oomph factor. There’s Ms. Mendes, Ms. Johansson, Ms. Vega, all wearing as accentuating a gear as possible, but none of them can salvage this snoozefest, although none of them have been known to have done such a rescuing act in their past. There is bad filmmaking, there’s uninspired filmmaking and then there’s the plain ridiculous. Mr. Miller’s debut lands somewhere between there, and I confess here that I do not seem to find any inspiration within me to dwell any deeper and learn the exact point on the spectrum. Let us throw a ballpark figure and say you needn’t watch this one.
        Mr. Miller is a smart man, and he doesn’t make your standard bad movie. What he garbs The Spirit within his one of those ultra-campy and ultra-stylish tones, where the supposedly over-the-top stylization is to work as some sort of excuse and probably an explanation that it is all intended as mindless pulpy fun. Never mind that all the visuals feel less pulp and more like vomit. This is a film that is more cartoon-ish than comic-book-ish, but even something as banal and repetitive as the Tom & Gerry cartoons know that you need to create characters that the audience would want to care for, characters who are a trifle more than ridiculously campy dialog uttering and needlessly stylized posturing placards. For instance when I describe The Octopus (Mr. Jackson) as the villain, I’m attributing a word that is a zillion times thicker than his character. When I describe Silken Floss (Ms. Johansson) as the vixen, I’m assuming she is a flesh and blood person, which she most definitely is not. In bringing the aesthetics of comic books to the big screen, it seems Mr. Miller was inspired to imbue the same spirit within all of his characters, or rather drain every bit of it and render them utterly two-dimensional. Of course, a misguided enthusiast might claim this as the genius of Mr. Miller and his perception of the medium and there would be no arguing such an ill-conceived stance. There’s no sense of narration to the film, and as is found in the medium of comic books, every scene of the film either deals in exposition or unnecessary display of campy dialog. You want a sample, you could wander of to the Memorable Quotes section of the film, although there’s nothing really memorable about them. I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead, should be enough to keep you miles away from this de-spirited movie. Even the Nazis are invoked and Mr. Jackson and Ms. Johansson dress up and do some evil talk for reasons that are absolutely unclear to me. There was an old maxim that a Samuel Jackson movie would always be enjoyable no matter how bad it was. Guess that doesn’t hold true any longer.

THE INTERNATIONAL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Director: Tom Tykwer
Runtime: 120 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Thriller

        We open to a man sitting in the rear seat of a sedan conversing with a bald man driving it. Through the rear view mirror. They talk in ciphered dialogs that we aren’t supposed to make any sense of, but only wonder what they must be arriving at. We realize that the bald man is an informant, a pretty hefty one, and to bring him in he ought to bring in some pretty solid paperwork as evidence. They decide for a second meeting, and as audiences well versed in the techniques of spy movies and Ludlum books we already know this second meeting wouldn’t happen. Somebody’s going to disappear from the face of the earth. That is the norm. The man gets out, the one sitting in the rear that is, and he walks towards a nearby cafeteria right across the road, where the Interpol agent and partner Louis Salinger (Mr. Owen) is waiting for him. The film focuses on the crossing. In our capacity as the seen-it-all audience we know this is where this man would get killed. We’re wrong. He begins to vomit. He has already been poisoned and killed. We haven’t seen any action around him that would rouse our suspicion, yet the man has been killed right there on the curb. That is when we realize that the film would use convenience to enhance its plot, and more importantly wouldn’t necessarily be convincing.
        That it still manages to entertain us engross us and often surprise us, not via standard ultra-fast cutting and ultra-shaky camera but via thoughtful and precise shots allowing us to soak the environment in is something worth applauding. Salinger, whose wall is overstuffed with unsolved cases and whose life seems to have been lost chasing an evil organization in a labyrinthine world, has anger and frustration writ all over his face. If he seems old and exhausted than there is a reason to it. Impotency and failure and ineffectiveness can drive the sanest of men into a perpetual state of rage. He works at the Interpol headquarters in Paris but he seems to be so untrusting of others that he travels all the way to the corporate office of a Luxembourg bank IBBC to only ask a single question and catch the inconsistency in the official reply. This IBBC, if one would have been curious enough to venture into one of the late Robert Ludlum’s novels, would bring home the memories of that ridiculously omnipresent Inver Brass. Salinger, along with Eleanor Whitman (Ms. Watts), an Assistant District Attorney based in New York, can only see the tips of these tentacles of this organization spread every which where, but can only catch thin air when pursuing them. The film finds Salinger lost in this world through spectacular wide angle shots, surrounded by super-tall buildings, where he is no more than a worm ready to be squished. He wouldn’t have no identity, he is as dispensable in this ultra-convoluted state of affairs as the next worm, and The International finds Salinger and Whitman so tiny that it practically feels like a vast and relentless desert.
        One would observe that in times like these, slapping an international bank with the badge of organized crime feels justified. But one could argue that The International fits the bill of the standard European globe-trotting thriller Hollywood feeds us the annual dosage of. That it is significantly more competent technically but just as preposterous if not more is something we have to live with. There’re convenient plot developments, unexplained escapes, well-shot well-choreographed but unconvincing action sequences and unneeded philosophical rhetoric that spoils the film from towering above the confines of its genre. Obligatorily and understandably so, the conflict does find itself slowly shift from man versus organization to man versus few individuals. There’s a foot chase sequence that is so precise and well done that one is reminded of The French Connection. Maybe the man, Salinger that is, has had just about enough of dealing with failures every moment of his life and he has considerably lowered his expectations and has realized that pushing against the wall of such an organization is no more than an ungainly exercise, and to instead quench the thirst of his anger the mortal men running this lifeless (immortal) organization would be a better target. The International, directed by the exciting and talented Mr. Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), does provide with some valuable food for thought, especially through the Salinger character but loses itself to the extremely feeble script.
        I would consider Mr. Tykwer’s film a success that is more than worthy of some discussion for its formal choices, and its audacity to end the way it does. Even for the audacity it attempts to build itself gradually, one thread above another and admirably resisting the temptation of jumping from one action scene to another as is the norm. Mr. Owen, who’s hardly a formidable name to set the cash registers ringing at the box office, finds just the right tone for his character, and he is perfectly supported by the Ms. Watts, for whose awesome talent this kind of role feels bread and butter. The International is something you should see to realize how dumb the globe-trotting thriller has gone, and how a film like this one, which is otherwise quite mediocre in plot and quite good in execution, feels like a fresh breath of air. Something whose clarity inspires us to observe both the details and flaws, and not hide it all from us and throw is in nothing more than a state of confusion.