Liam Neeson

Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

Widows is very real. You know it’s very real and not Hollywood because it takes place in Chicago and it’s real Chicago and not Hollywood Chicago. Though Robert Duvall, who gives a fine performance, does make it feel a little like Hollywood Chicago. But it’s also real because Liam Neeson has nose hairs. And because even as horrific events, plot turns, plot twists, horrific revelations bombard lead (and ostensible protagonist) Viola Davis, she’s able to harness all of them and make it all seem reasonable and not contrived. Because she’s Viola Davis and she’s what makes Widows possible. Without her gravitas, director McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn couldn’t get away with half of it.

McQueen and Flynn are adapting a six hour British series. Might explain the episodic plotting, might not. Widows has an expansive plot. Until it doesn’t. There’s a switch thrown somewhere in the middle when McQueen and Flynn stop with the expanding. Once Cynthia Erivo is on the team, everything changes. Including who gets character development. The film’s well-paced enough you don’t even realize a couple characters go on pause and Davis is in the picture less and less after her inital story arc ends. But it also means when the finale comes up short and awkwardly so… well, all of a sudden it’s time to cash in Widows’s chips and McQueen’s been bluffing.

Not to mix metaphors.

The film is about Widows Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon. Erivo is actually a babysitter; unfortunately the original British series is not called Four Widows and a Babysitter. The film opens with the women and their men. Then their men, career robbers, all die. Horribly. So now the widows have to figure out what to do, because none of their men left them in good shape financially.

Coon, for instance, has a newborn. She was married to Coburn Goss, who has no personality in his few scenes. Unlike some of the other dead husbands. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a deadbeat who steals all wife Rodriguez’s money. She has a thrift store. Debicki’s husband, Jon Bernthal, is mentally and physically abusive. But mostly physically. And then there’s crew leader Liam Neeson. Charming career robber, known and hated by cops, beloved by crooks, on and on. He’s married to Davis. Her scenes imagining Neeson still with her–nose hairs and all–should be some of Widows’s best moments for McQueen. Instead, he just showcases Davis’s acting and doesn’t do anything else with it. Because Widows is too real.

As such, all mastermind thief Neeson leaves beloved widow Davis is his Moleskine. It’s got the plans to his next job. He also leaves her Garret Dillahunt, driver and boy Friday. Dillahunt’s good. In hindsight, his part should’ve forecasted McQueen and Flynn’s later problems.

Well, turns out Neeson stole from crime brothers Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. They have an ill-defined criminal empire. Henry is trying to take the family straight, Kaluuya isn’t so sure. Henry’s plan is to get elected alderman. He just needs to beat corrupt public official and Chicago political family guy Colin Farrell. Duvall is Farell’s dad, the outgoing alderman. He had a heart attack or something. Doesn’t matter.

Henry then goes to Davis and tells her he wants the money–for his campaign, which he doesn’t mention–and she’s got a month to get it. She recruits the other widows to pull Neeson’s last job.

Through their new, sometimes dangerous experiences, Rodriguez and Debicki get character development. Well, Debicki gets it. Rodriguez gets a hint of it, then gets shut down. She becomes more functional, bringing in Erivo later on. Erivo who’s actually part of a C plot about small businesses too. McQueen and Flynn is overloaded with texture. Widows has enough material to be twice as long, because either its supporting characters need to get developed or they need to go away. The first act has a bunch of throwaway characters around just to play with expectations.

The texture–very realistic and don’t you dare acknowledge the adorable puppy–works. When Widows is expansive, it’s because of all that texture. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed texture. Narratively pointless because not even Davis can bring enough gravitas to fix a somewhat craven epilogue. McQueen–intentionally–eschews so much of the heist genre for Widows. And when he finally does employ genre narrative tropes, they’re all the bad ones. He’s also trying not to direct the thriller sequences–Kaluuya takes it upon himself to stalk and terrorize Davis in another C plot–but McQueen does a bunch of thriller sequences. And rather well. His narrative instincts are strong and he can do a lot with his cast, but the script’s the script. The twists, the turns, the disappearing characters.

Davis is great, Debicki is great. Rodriguez is good. She doesn’t get enough to do. She doesn’t even get C plots, she just gets to bring in Erivo, who does get a C plot. But Rodriguez is probably in the movie more than Erivo. She’s at least more active in the first act.

Erivo’s good. Again, thin part. Erivo acts the hell out of it.

Farrell ought to be great but his election subplot gets more time in the middle than Davis and crew planning. The whole Farrell thing–which also gets into the Chicago corruption and related institutionalized racism–takes up too much time in the film, which loses track of Davis and skips over Rodriguez. Great acting, great direction of that acting, good part, not great part.

Duvall’s a cameo pretending to be bigger. Henry’s fine. Kaluuya’s good, but the part’s too functional. And has no character development. None of the men get character development. At best they get some revelations. And it’s fine. But it’s thin.

Technically, the film’s perfect. McQueen’s composition, Sean Bobbitt’s photography, Joe Walker’s editing, Adam Stockhausen’s production design. It’s all great. The Hans Zimmer score is good but very functional.

Widows is fine work, with some near exceptional elements. And some particular problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the television series written by Lynda La Plante; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Iain Canning, McQueen, Arnon Milchan, and Emile Sherman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Viola Davis (Veronica), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Lukas Haas (David), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Carlos), Coburn Goss (Jimmy Nunn), Molly Kunz (Siobhan), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Kevin J. O’Connor (Bobby Welsh), Jon Michael Hill (Reverend Wheeler), and Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan).


Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

The last twenty or so minutes of Darkman are when director Raimi finally lets loose. He’s been building to it, hinting at how wacky the movie’s going to get, but it doesn’t all come together until the end. And the end is when Darkman has the most standard action sequences. There are big set pieces. Before, it’s all very constrained. It all looks great–probably better than those last twenty minutes, when composite shots kind of do in Raimi’s imagination–but it’s limited.

The end is exciting, imaginative madness.

Darkman’s problem throughout is the script, but more because the movie’s too short for the story it needs to tell than anything the five screenwriters do wrong. Until the end of the second act, the movie hops and skips through its present action. There are way too many MacGuffins, way too many contrivances; Raimi’s fidgety and he creates momentum and Darkman needs it for those script lulls. Almost nothing in the middle of the movie actually matters by the end. The movie’s killing time before the set pieces.

More so the beginning of the second act than the end of it, but still… it’s too short.

So Liam Neeson is a scientist who is working on fake skin for burn victims. It disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. Unless it’s in the dark, which you’d think might have something to do with the title, Darkman, because after Neeson is horribly burned and the doctors cut off his nerve receptors so he can’t feel pain (or any touch sensation) and he becomes super-strong, he needs the fake skin to exact vengeance. But he never uses it for extended periods of time in the dark.

He apparently uses the dark thing for storage purposes, but even the storage thing is just a sight gag.

Neeson’s girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer who comes across a document bad guy Larry Drake wants. And he kills Neeson for it. Or so he thinks. Drake and his band of ultra-violent, but darkly comical goons blow up Neeson’s lab. His lab is also his apartment, which seems like a zoning problem, but whatever.

Added to the convolution is Colin Friels as McDormand’s… client? It’s unclear the professional relationship, but after Neeson “dies,” Friels puts the moves on McDormand. Though mostly offscreen apparently. Because McDormand disappears once Neeson starts his vengeance mission. Most of that mission is just killing off Drake’s goons. It seems like there might have been a plan in some cut scenes or a different draft of the script. It’s okay, eventually, because once McDormand comes back, Neeson’s character arc is more about how he’s going crazy from not having any touch sensation. And inventively and graphically killing the bad guys.

The visuals on Neeson losing his self-control are these fantastic montage sequences. There’s some montage to summarize his attempts at making his fake skin work too, but it’s function, not fervent. The madness montages are awesome. Inexplicably the last one, when Neeson needs to power up his adrenalin (he also has uncontrollable adrenalin for super-Darkman strength), is super short. It’s restrained, while everything else in the finale is outrageous. Raimi’s able to get away with a lot of bad composite shots just because the action’s so excessive. Not that montage, however.

But Neeson’s not just making fake skin faces of himself, he’s doing it of the bad guys to fool the other bad guys. So while Neeson’s performance is getting loopier and loopier, it only plays out when he’s opposite McDormand, which really isn’t much. They have three scenes together after she finds out he’s alive. Two of them really short. Otherwise, it’s Drake pretending he’s Neeson pretending his Drake or Nicholas Worth pretending he’s Neeson pretending he’s Nicholas Worth. There’s actually not a lot of the impersonation so Raimi never really figures out how to do them. The movie’s too short.

The movie dawdles through its first half, finally picking up in the second, and then getting really good in the finale. Only it’s too late. It’s not too little–there’s some awesome stuff in the third act–but it’s definitely too late.

Neeson’s good. He needs about ten more minutes to play the character after the “recovery” arc completes. Instead he basically gets a scene; it’s too bad, because his performance gets much more interesting as it goes along. McDormand’s fine. Her arc is similarly underwhelming. She does get a great visual cue for development in the first act, which Raimi sadly drops. The film’s not confident enough with his extravagances. Or more like the studio isn’t confident enough with his extravagances.

Drake’s good. He’s maybe in the movie too much. Friels’s isn’t in it enough, especially not after he gets to let loose. Friels and Neeson, who only have a scene together, both find ways to match the film’s peculiar intensities.

The goons are all fine. Though Rafael H. Robledo is in the film the most and has the least to do. Like, he’s just a goon. He’s not weird like the rest of them. He’s just got a scar and a ponytail.

Bill Pope’s photography, composites aside, is excellent. So is the editing–from Bud S. Smith and David Stiven.

Danny Elfman’s score is fine. It’s basically his Batman score from the year before, but it’s fine. It’s effective without being distinctive.

Darkman is seventy exceptionally competent, enthusiastic minutes before twenty minutes of sublime madness. It’s a shame Raimi couldn’t get the finale’s intensity through the whole thing. There are plenty of real, practical reasons he couldn’t, but he does hint at that intensity to come, so it’s still a damned shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin, based on a story by Sam Raimi; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Randy Ser; produced by Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Liam Neeson (Peyton Westlake), Frances McDormand (Julie Hastings), Larry Drake (Robert G. Durant), Colin Friels (Louis Strack Jr.), Rafael H. Robledo (Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (Smiley), Nicholas Worth (Pauly), Dan Hicks (Skip), Ted Raimi (Rick), Nelson Mashita (Yakitito), and Jenny Agutter (doctor).


Operation Chromite (2016, John H. Lee)

There’s no indication there’s a better movie anywhere in Operation Chromite. Director Lee just doesn’t have a handle on it. The script’s an uncomfortable mix of predictable and manipulative–director Lee and co-writer Lee Man-hee lay on the war movie jingoism so thick, it actually takes a while to realize Lee Beom-su’s giving a legitimately great performance as the North Korean bad guy. There’s too much crap going on with really questionable guest star Liam Neeson.

While the decent parts of Operation Chromite are a South Korean film with actors speaking Korean, there are these horrendous moments with Liam Neeson as General Douglas MacArthur. It’s a terrible performance, the kind you’d think Neeson would only give if he didn’t think the film would get a release in the United States. Sean Dulake did the dialogue for the English language scenes (he also appears as Neeson’s sidekick); it’s awful dialogue. You don’t have any respect for Neeson, but I did feel bad for Jon Gries, who shows up to have an awful expository dialogue argument. I hope Neeson bought something nice with his paycheck.

Worse–sort of–is the digital composites intended to convince the audience Neeson is filming with the rest of the cast. He’s clearly not, as the terrible composites betray. Chromite’s cinematography is weak to begin with, especially since they attempt to match the overblown lighting of the composite shots. As if Lee Dong-joon’s soulful but adventurous, rousing but melancholy music doesn’t slather on the vapid anti-Communism message enough–more on it in a second–with that overblown lighting and Neeson’s porky performance….

Neeson and Lee’s handling of his scenes, not to mention the crappy, manipulative resolution, sink Operation Chromite. Because even though it was a dumb, jingoistic action war thriller, it was a relatively fun one. Sure, whenever the movie tries to juxtapose Communist Lee Beom-su and ex-Communist Lee Jung-jae and their ideologies and whatever, it’s crap. But it’s crap whenever Neeson is around too so it’s a familiar experience. You just wait them out, because otherwise it’s sort of fun. None of the characters get enough attention but they’re at least likable performances, some of them good. Director Lee doesn’t know how to get a good performance–not in English, not in Korean–but he does recognize when he’s shooting one and gives his actors occasional space. The leads anyway.

If Operation Chromite were a completely different dumb, jingoistic action war thriller, with a different script, a different director, no Liam Neeson, but the same Korean cast and the same concept, it’d be better. With an excellent director–someone who knew how to make a war movie (since Chromite goes through various types of war movie sequences, haphazardly stuck together with CG), someone who knew how to balance a big cast–and a better script, the project might deserve the performances Lee Beom-su and Lee Jung-jae put into it.

Lee Beom-su’s evil little North Korean commander is a dangerous person. Even in the exaggerated scenes, Lee Beom-su brings something real to it. Everyone in Operation Chromite is a caricature (at best), but Lee Beom-su makes it feel like his character is pretending to be a caricature. Shame the script can’t keep up.

And Lee Jung-jae’s great as the soulful ex-Communist turned action hero. It’s not a deep role, but it’s got some details and Lee Jung-jae’s able to make it work. He’s got some excellent scenes in the film, even if his character’s way too thin.

The most disappointing thing is, after a rocky start, Operation Chromite gets better. The less Neeson, the better. Then he comes back. And down it all goes. But it’s not just him–it’s got a weak third act. Chromite is a mess with occasional smooth patches.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John H. Lee; written by Sean Dulake, Lee Man-hee, and John H. Lee; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Lee Dong-joon; produced by Chung Taewon; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (Jang Hak-soo), Lee Beom-su (Lim Gye-jin), Jin Se-yeon (Han Jae-seon), Park Cheol-min (Nam Ki-seong), Kim Hee-jin (Ryu Jang-choon), and Liam Neeson (Douglas MacArthur).


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

Hi. My name is Andrew. And, from 1999 to sometime in 2000, I was a Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace apologist. When writing out the title, I forced myself to type it Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Because having two colons in a title is too lame.

It was a dark time. But, every day, as the ramifications of Phantom Menace (and its critical and cultural reaction) played out and destined mainstream American cinema into a bottomless pit of cynical opportunism masked as fan service, things got brighter. For my film appreciation, anyway. All the rest of the world got was a couple more Star Wars prequels, which I avoided like the plague at the time.

I refused to return to Phantom Menace, after it had become clear there was no way to justify any of it. Jar Jar Binks, the moron who saves a planet, becomes the scapegoat for a film with a gentle, kindly, oftentimes humorous look at slavery. In his screenplay, director Lucas talks about adorable little Jake Lloyd, who’s so Aryan and sweet, we can’t imagine him growing up into Sebastian Shaw, much less James Earl Jones, being a slave almost as much as he talks about those stupid midi-chlorian. He thinks they’re really cool. Just like slavery. And Jar Jar Binks.

Lucas loves Jar Jar Binks. He doesn’t love a lot in Phantom Menace. He could care less about almost all of it, until he gets to the end and thinks he’s directing a sixties MGM war movie. Because there’s nothing original in Phantom Menace. Lucas is just cribbing from other movies–so much Spielberg, so much Cameron–and trying to put something together. It’s like a demo reel, which–if I was being nice–could be used as a rationalization for Lucas, Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s godawful editing, which goes out of its way to distance the viewer from the characters. Because if the viewer has to get close to the character, to the actor, it’d all be over. Lucas can’t be taken seriously, because he’s so disinterested. He’s copping out.

It’s easy to tell the effects sequences Lucas cares about–with the exception of the visuals of the city planet (yeah, I know what it’s called, but can we just pretend for a second I don’t–I’d have to look up the spelling and I don’t want to)–has flying birds in the shots. Just like Spielberg would have. Because Lucas is jealous. He’s seen ILM do amazing work, both practically and then digitally, and none of it really had anything to do with him. But Lucas hadn’t been making movies, he hadn’t been doing anything, with the Star Wars brand for a decade until the twentieth anniversary edition. And what did all those new special effects, which gave Lucas a chance to have ILM aggrandize him instead of someone else, do? They got a reaction. That reaction emboldened Lucas. It probably emboldened him from the first tests they would have had to do. I’d love to know how that project happened.

All of the effects shots in Phantom Menace attempt to top one another. None of them inform the story. Not even the good ones. Those shots just happen not to be some of the awful ones, which usually involve compositions or first person point of view. But for the effects shots to build in expectation, well, you need a plot to back that approach up. Because Ray Park’s idiotically terse villain doesn’t pay off with that build-up. Neither does Lloyd’s space adventure, which is just a bad Top Gun knock-off for kids. Lucas either doesn’t know what to rip off from somewhere else or he does know what to rip off, but can’t rip it off successfully. The direction is awful.

So what’s good about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace?

Not Liam Neeson. He’s terrible. Not Ewan McGregor. He’s even more terrible. Not Natalie Portman. She’s better than those two guys. Pernilla August is comically bad. Jake Lloyd’s crappy but it’s hard to blame the kid, Lucas didn’t know how to do this movie. He paces the thing like a bad Saturday morning cartoon.

It’s hard to dislike Ian McDiarmid. He’s almost fun. If Lucas had any ambition for the film, he would have made so much questionable at the end of it. He was bluffing. Phantom Menace is a conceptual bluff, which most entertainment ends up being. Only Lucas got called on it because he’s so bad. It’s so bad.

Though it’s hard to dislike Anthony Daniels. His idiotic cameo at least has sincere acting, which isn’t present anywhere else. Not even from McDiarmid. He’s just too bemused.

Then there’s Terence Stamp looking like he’s working for quaaludes. Or Hugh Quarshie, who’s desperate to make an impression even though Lucas refuses to let anyone make an impression except maybe Sam Jackson just because Lucas is a political animal.

Low mediocre score from John Williams. Awful photography from David Tattersall. He’s overconfident, trying to cover for his inability with the effects work.

Is there anything good about it?

No, don’t be silly. It’s awful. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace or even if you were crazy and really thought The Phantom Menace was more important than the Episode I part… it’s awful.

And, just like the original, it’s changed Hollywood. Lucas disrupted the system once again. Only this time, he did it too well. He figured out a way to make movies for everyone, whether they knew it or not. I mean, there’s not a single real conversation in this film. There’s not a single time the viewer has to ask a question or have a thought. Lucas pats your hand and takes your money, one stupid scene after another.

I used to defend this movie. I used to say it was okay. I got people to see it.

You know what, I like Andy Secombe’s Watto. I’m just going to say it. I always have. Even now, when it’s obvious Lucas is painting him as a benevolent slave owner. He’s an endearing rip-off of Quark. I wonder who came up with that characterization for the film. It wasn’t Lucas.

I’ve rationalized this film to people. I shouldn’t have. It was wrong. It’s so lame it’s awful, but it’s so lame it can’t actually be awful, because it can’t be taken seriously. Not as a film. Not as a toy commercial. Not even as an expression of Lucas’s ego. Phantom Menace can’t even be that.

Because The Phantom Menace is in vain.

And to those people out there who tried to tell me I was wrong back in 1999 and 2000 during those dark, apologist days and I didn’t listen to you… well, I was a dirty bird. You weren’t grungy, you were bitchin’.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


Breakfast on Pluto (2005, Neil Jordan)

Breakfast on Pluto starts with talking robins. They’re subtitled, but talking. Robins can talk–or these two robins can talk (they show up from time to time), in which case they just live a long time. Before the talking robins, who director Jordan uses to keep the viewer off balance, the film opens with Cillian Murphy’s protagonist. During the rougher portions of the film, it’s hard not to think they opened with Murphy–playing a transgender woman in sixties and seventies UK–to give some hope the character isn’t going to have a bad end.

For a while, the film seems to be a distant character study, set against the Irish troubles. While Murphy’s life is separate from the troubles, she keeps getting drug into them. Only when the two collide does the film begins to define itself. Before that moment, Pluto is a connected set of vignettes, as Murphy tries to navigate the world, having a series of adventures (some amusing, some devastating) with various people.

The collision reveals–rather grandiosely–subtle insight into the protagonist. The film never shies away from insight as Murphy moves to London to search for her mother; the later revelation is about the film itself. Pluto is incredibly complex. And without talking robins, one might not digest it properly.

Great supporting turns from Ruth Negga, Liam Neeson, Ian Hart and Steven Waddington. Gavin Friday, Brendan Gleeson and Stephen Rea each have extended, fantastic cameos.

Murphy’s spellbinding.

Jordan crafts a spectacular film with Pluto.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Jordan and Pat McCabe, based on the novel by McCabe; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Tony Lawson; music by Anna Jordan; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Alan Moloney, Jordan and Stephen Woolley; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cillian Murphy (Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden), Stephen Rea (Bertie), Brendan Gleeson (John Joe Kenny), Ruth Negga (Charlie), Laurence Kinlan (Irwin), Ruth McCabe (Ma Braden), Gavin Friday (Billy Hatchett), Steven Waddington (Inspector Routledge), Ian Hart (PC Wallis), Liam Cunningham (1st Biker), Bryan Ferry (Mr. Silky String), Eva Birthistle (Eily Bergin) and Liam Neeson (Father Liam).


Taken 2 (2012, Olivier Megaton), the unrated version

Besides a truly excellent real time (or very close to it) sequence where Maggie Grace avoids being kidnapped in order to help already kidnapped parents Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen, there's not much to Taken 2. Even the action-packed finale is a disappointment. I had been hoping it'd match that long sequence–which goes from a foot chase to car chase, with action moments throughout–but it's like everyone gave up and truncated the ending.

Maybe Neeson had it in his contract the movie could only run so long. A major part of his performance is his visible distain for the film; he incorporates the world weariness into the part well, but one can't help notice he doesn't run very often and many of the complicated action choreography happens when he's offscreen.

Still, director Megaton does a perfectly adequate job. Taken 2 is fast and dumb, no one seems to disagree. Writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen don't even try to fill the runtime with action and intrigue–there's a long first act setting up Janssen and Grace visiting Istanbul with Neeson. The writers pretend spending time with the characters will make the audience care, but really… no one cares. Not the writers, not the actors. They all do okay enough–even Grace, who looks about twenty-two as a teenager (which isn't bad, considering she was twenty-eight or so during filming).

Maybe it'd be better if Rade Serbedzija's villain weren't so lame, but why bother caring. Like I said, no one else does.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivier Megaton; written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen; director of photography, Romain Lacourbas; edited by Camille Delamarre and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Nathaniel Méchaly; production designer, Sébastien Inizan; produced by Besson; released by EuropaCorp.

Starring Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills), Maggie Grace (Kim), Famke Janssen (Lenore), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), D.B. Sweeney (Bernie), Luke Grimes (Jamie) and Rade Serbedzija (Murad Krasniqi).


High Spirits (1988, Neil Jordan)

High Spirits is another fine example of how excellent production values, earnest performances and a genial air can make even the most problem riddled film enjoyable.

The studio, infamously, took Spirits away from director Jordan in the editing and the resulting version isn’t his intention. The narrative is disjointed–characters get lost, their arcs collapse, in the case of the hotel employees… they don’t even get established.

The film has an utterly wonderful comic performance from Peter O’Toole near its center. Eventually, O’Toole has to give up the spotlight to Steve Guttenberg, who isn’t nearly as funny (or as good). Guttenberg’s generally likable, thanks to having an fire-breathing dragon of a wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and a pleasant way about him. Terrible outfit though. Spirits has great photography from Alex Thomson, a nice score from George Fenton, lovely Anton Furst production design and lame eighties costuming from Emma Porteus. Why Guttenberg’s wearing a heavy wool coat around indoors half the movie is beyond me.

Jordan’s direction is decent but not exceptional. The special effects and Thomson’s photography make the film after a certain point, especially the effects.

Besides O’Toole, the best performance might be Liam Neeson’s hilarious turn as a horny ghost. As his wife–and murder victim (not to mention Guttenberg’s romantic interest)–Daryl Hannah is good. She doesn’t have a lot to do though. D’Angelo’s on the low side of mediocre.

Regardless of Jordan’s original intent, High Spirits is often rather funny and exquisitely well-made. It’s fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Neil Jordan; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Michael Bradsell; music by George Fenton; production designer, Anton Furst; produced by David Saunders and Stephen Woolley; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Daryl Hannah (Mary Plunkett Brogan), Peter O’Toole (Peter Plunkett), Steve Guttenberg (Jack Crawford), Beverly D’Angelo (Sharon Brogan Crawford), Jennifer Tilly (Miranda), Liam Neeson (Martin Brogan), Peter Gallagher (Brother Tony), Ray McAnally (Plunkett Senior), Martin Ferrero (Malcolm), Connie Booth (Marge), Donal McCann (Eamon), Mary Coughlan (Katie) and Liz Smith (Mrs. Plunkett).


Unknown (2011, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Unknown is not a bad continental thriller. Liam Neeson is an American scientist in Berlin who wakes from a coma to find no one remembers him. As often happens in these situations, he finds himself a pretty sidekick (Diane Kruger) and a sympathetic native (Bruno Ganz) who try to help him unravel the mystery.

The film benefits a great deal from John Ottman and Alexander Rudd’s score, Flavio Martínez Labiano’s photography and the Berlin locations. Director Collet-Serra only has a handful of bad sequences—he likes the CG-aided slow motion a little too much—but he’s otherwise a perfectly mediocre thriller director.

Having Neeson for a lead helps too. He’s able to bring an air of respectability to the project, which would otherwise feel a little too pedestrian otherwise. January Jones—as his forgetting wife—doesn’t bring much substance too her performance and Aidan Quinn—as Neeson’s replacement—looks a little lost. Quinn gets this bewildered look from time to time, like he can’t believe he’s in this kind of picture. Neeson—who’s been doing these genre pieces for over a decade now—looks a lot more comfortable. Though it does occasionally seem like a thematic sequel to Darkman, which isn’t so much bad as unintentionally amusing.

There are twists, there are turns. There’s an ornate car chase (with unnecessary CG). The finale isn’t exactly predictable, but I’ve seen it before….

Unknown’s a diverting couple hours; Neeson and Kruger (oddly, a German playing a Bosnian) make it worthwhile.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert; director of photography, Flavio Martínez Labiano; edited by Timothy Alverson; music by John Ottman and Alexander Rudd; production designer, Richard Bridgland; produced by Leonard Goldberg, Andrew Rona and Joel Silver; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Liam Neeson (Dr. Martin Harris), Diane Kruger (Gina), January Jones (Elizabeth Harris), Aidan Quinn (Martin B), Bruno Ganz (Ernst Jürgen), Frank Langella (Rodney Cole), Sebastian Koch (Professor Leo Bressler), Olivier Schneider (Smith), Stipe Erceg (Jones), Rainer Bock (Herr Strauss), Mido Hamada (Prince Shada), Clint Dyer (Biko), Karl Markovics (Dr. Farge) and Eva Löbau (Nurse Gretchen Erfurt).


Krull (1983, Peter Yates)

From the director of Breaking Away and one of the many fine writers of the Adam West “Batman” TV show….

Krull is just as unwatchable now as it was the last time I tried to watch it, some eleven years ago.

As a kid—assuming kids are the best audience for the film—Krull never registered as something I might want to watch. Finding anything to say about it is difficult. It’s an object lesson, I suppose, in how not to direct for Panavision. Yates is about as incapable of directing an action sequence as one would imagine Woody Allen would be directing one. The opening alone is painful.

It’s unclear what successful fantasy film the makers were trying to capitalize on—it’s not a Star Wars knockoff, for example. Wait… it’s knights with laser-swords versus some kind of Stormtrooper stand-ins. But these Stormtroopers don’t have a Death Star, they have a big rock. Krull might have actually kicked off the eighties fantasy genre—I fairly sure that genre produced anything of any value. At least not the straight, non-comedy influenced genre pictures.

Also amusing is James Horner’s score, which is entirely—well, maybe not entirely, but heavily influenced by his Star Trek II and III scores. Actually, Star Trek III came out the following year so maybe Horner just reused the Krull bits in it.

Oddly, given the film’s incompetence, the outer space effects are solid.

Krull’s a punchline masquerading as a two-hour fantasy epic.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; written by Stanford Sherman; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by James Horner; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Ron Silverman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ken Marshall (Colwyn), Lysette Anthony (Lyssa), Freddie Jones (Ynyr), Francesca Annis (Widow of the Web), Alun Armstrong (Torquil), David Battley (Ergo), Bernard Bresslaw (Cyclops), Liam Neeson (Kegan) and Robbie Coltrane (Rhun).


Taken (2008, Pierre Morel)

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have been writing ninety minute and change action movies for about seven years. It’s the only thing Kamen–who at one time was a Hollywood action screenwriter–is known for these days. Besson’s written a lot more of these mindless action feasts on his own and I don’t think it ever occurred to me one of them might some day turn out good. I didn’t even know the duo was behind Taken (Besson also produces). I just thought Liam Neeson’s career as a leading man had gotten too tenuous. But maybe only a leading man on the outs could make Taken, because even though it’s good, it’s still a subplot-free, ninety minute action movie. There’s no character development, nor the pretense it would have any part in such a narrative.

Taken‘s story is simple–Neeson’s an action guy (in this case a former CIA operative) who’s daughter gets kidnapped in Paris. He goes to get her back. He beats up a lot of people. Every frame of film is utilized towards that story–even tangential sequences reveal themselves to be part of the main plot. The first act of the film, which runs a half hour (lengthy for a ninety minute movie), is actually rather boring.

There’s a lot of (as it turns out) necessary setting and character stuff; these quieter moments are where Taken is chubby and off-point. Without them, however, the movie would only run an hour, which means it’d never get a theatrical release in the United States. Also, the viewer wouldn’t get to find out Maggie Grace is fine (nothing more) playing a teenager at twenty-five. He or she also wouldn’t get to suffer through Famke Janssen’s latest attempt at essaying a harpy. She fails once again, no surprise.

But immediately–with the kidnapping scene–Taken becomes captivating. It’s cheap and manipulative and it works. It’s short enough not to outstay its welcome and its occasional incredulousness can’t surmount Neeson’s fine performance.

Neeson makes Taken seem like it isn’t a disposable action movie. As goofy as the film gets in its scenes (not the action ones, the buddy scenes at the beginning), Neeson always makes them work. The whole movie depends on him and he doesn’t fail it.

Taken is very obviously not a mainstream American action movie, simply because of the plot’s clearness. The bad guys are not techo-terrorists, they’re just human traffickers. As the film revealed that plot point, I wondered if Taken was going to inform on that situation (on average, American men laugh when told of human trafficking; American soldiers in Iraq frequent victims of human trafficking), but it does not. Taken doesn’t really have room to educate, doesn’t have room to linger. It slices quickly and directly, just like Neeson’s character.

Morel’s direction is similarly efficient. The fight scenes are well-cut (especially given how tall Neeson is compared to his co-stars) and Taken–thanks to the combination of acting, directing and editing–never feels as though it’s trying to hide Neeson not actually being a trained martial artist. There’s also no sped up film, which is a pleasant surprise.

Taken succeeds on a higher level than it should because Besson and Kamen have constructed it to be self-evident. Just as there aren’t any subplots, there aren’t any themes or metaphors. It’s an action movie and a good one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pierre Morel; written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen; director of photography, Michel Abramowicz; edited by Frédéric Thoraval; music by Nathaniel Mechaly; production designer, Hugues Tissandier; produced by Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam and India Osborne; released by EuropaCorp.

Starring Liam Neeson (Bryan), Maggie Grace (Kim), Famke Janssen (Lenore), Xander Berkeley (Stuart), Katie Cassidy (Amanda), Olivier Rabourdin (Jean Claude), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), David Warshofsky (Bernie), Holly Valance (Diva), Nathan Rippy (Victor), Camille Japy (Isabelle), Nicolas Giraud (Peter) and Gérard Watkins (Saint Clair).


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