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Taken 2 (2012)

Taken 2 (no, Taken Again, or The Retakening?) follows the all-too familiar path for action movies when sequel digits get added to titles. They attempt to redo the original premise, but bigger and better, but rarely does it succeed unless there’s a fresh take. Taken 2 is reheated leftovers. The first film was a pleasurably surprising action film, led by a steely performance from Liam Neeson. Now Bryan Mills and his family are vacationing in Istanbul and they all get taken… again (or retakened). But what really kills this movie, besides the compilation of genre clichés, is that these are the dumbest bad guys I’ve seen in some time. If I were hiring these goons I’d want to see where their class rank was at Goon University, or if they actually completed their goon studies. These guys give new meaning to the term incompetent. They don’t search Bryan’s person, they leave him unguarded and alone, and naturally they even poke their heads through bullet holes in the wall, only to be shot in the face. When the bad guys are this inept, it removes all danger. Part of the enjoyment of Taken was watching Bryan work up the food chain to rescue his daughter. Now we just get Neeson too easily taking out the bad guys. The action is a bit too hectic and doesn’t have the same crackle that helped the first film.Then there’s the dumb plot, which is best exemplified by the rooftop grenade sequence. Bryan’s daughter (Maggie Grace) is running across rooftops and just randomly tossing grenades (vacation grenades?), so Bryan can hear the sounds of explosions and note how close she is. Except she never looks where she’s tossing, so she’s indiscriminately tossing live explosive devices on the innocent civilians of Istanbul. If there’s a Taken 3, I think one of these innocent Turkish families should seek vengeance. Oh but there’s more stupidity, like Bryan killing a corrupt Turkish cop and having no ramifications for this whatsoever. It’s never spoken of again. Or Bryan and his daughter crashing through the U.S. embassy’s gates in a car, and two minutes later he’s walking the streets with no hassle. To sum up: Bryan and family murder a police officer, throw grenades into the city streets, and crash into the U.S. embassy.Taken 2 is a classic example of sequel-itis, and while it tries to make you remember the parts you liked in the first film (Neeson on a paternal rampage, his speech), I just kept remembering how much better Taken was the first takening.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Wackness (2008)

Every Sundance Film Festival seems to coronate new talent and new films that never seem to materialize once they step outside of the happy bubble of festival life. It happened with Happy, Texas, with Tadpole, with Hav Plenty, with Primer and numerous others that never managed to get started with the public. At the 2008 Sundance film festival, the biggest buzz followed the documentary American Teen and The Wackness. Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s coming-of-age tale won the Audience Award for Drama and boasts shimmering visuals, formidable actors, and a hip soundtrack. Too bad the drama gets the least attention in that package. I suspect The Wackness will be yet another Sundance buzz flick that, while well made, fails to leave a mark on mainstream crowds (here’s hoping more for American Teen).

Luke (Josh Peck) has just graduated from a New York City high school and is winding down the summer before he moves on to college. He has a unique summer job: Luke sells marijuana out of an ice cream vendor’s box. One of his clients, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), is a therapist. He trades therapy time to Luke for pot. The two of them form an unanticipated bond and Dr. Squires makes it a point to see that Luke is making the most of his youth. Luke is smitten with the doc’s stepdaughter, Steph (Juno‘s Olivia Thirby, gratifyingly authentic), and determined to lose his virginity and find love before the summer fades away.

The strength of The Wackness is in the unexpected father/son relationship that forms between Luke and Dr. Squires. Kingsley is sensational in his role and provides all the pathos and unexpected discoveries that the coming-of-age genre is associated with. I think that’s what’s most interesting about Levine’s film, is that Kingsley is going through all the coming-of-age moments reserved for teenage protagonists. Dr. Squires and Luke form a surprising and deep relationship where they learn from each other. Luke learns to talk about his life’s sadness and make it a part of his life, instead of sweeping it under a proverbial rug. Dr. Squires learns to re-embrace life and to kick his heavy supply of pharmaceutical prescriptions. He is coming of age at middle age. He even gets to second base with an Olsen twin (Mary-Kate is only in the film for two scenes and an estimated five minutes). Most of all, Dr. Squires needs a friend and Luke fulfills this desperate void. Kingsley is funny, pathetic, and the real star of The Wackness.

My main problem with The Wackness is how familiar it all comes across. It follows the coming-of-age model down to the end, so a savvy audience is going to realize that Luke will fall in love, get his heart broken, stand up for himself, and gather a bit more wisdom by the time the end credits roll. You’ve seen this movie played in a thousand different ways before, and now The Wackness makes it 1001; you will essentially know every beat of this story before it happens. The film doesn’t break any new ground and doesn’t manage to provide much commentary or lasting insight while it comes of age. The screenwriting fails to hide what disinterests Levine. So we get quick glimpses of Luke’s home life and I swear in every one of them his parents are just yelling. That’s all Levine is interested in, setting up one ten second shot of Luke overhearing his parents shouting again and again. Dr. Squires’ wife (Famke Jannsen) gets the same kind of treatment. She gets a cursory amount of screen time to glower and that’s about it. I can tell Levine is only interested in his three main characters (Luke, Dr. Squires, Steph) but then why does he not concentrate on them further and scuttle what he feels is wasted time?

The Wackness is awash in pointless nostalgia. The movie is set during the summer of 1994 for no real reason. The time setting doesn’t impact the film in any manner except for some digs at Mayor Giuliani’s policies (he was only in office for sixth months or so when the film opens). Levine dishes out pop-culture references like the 8-bit Nintendo game system, old chunky GameBoys, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, mix tapes, and lots of rap music. The Wackness is an ode to mid 90s rap music and Luke is a lover of acts like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and some up-and-coming guy named The Notorious B.I.G. The soundtrack is also meant to convey good nostalgic vibes of a simpler time only — 14 years ago. Setting the film in 1994 is a lazy attempt to cover the lapses in screenwriting with cozy audience nostalgia. And is there anything really culturally transcendent about the summer of 1994?

Peck may have lost like 100 pounds since he was fat comic relief on a Nickelodeon kids show, and he’s marginally handsome, but this kid needs some more practice before he’s a dramatic actor. I understand that his character gets stoned often and, as a typical teenager, is trying to pull off a too-cool-for-the-world-“whatever” attitude, but he seems freaking catatonic. He’s too aloof for his own good. His acting is dry and monotone and he feels like he’s constantly zoning out. Again, I understand that this works with his stoned persona but Peck is hardly ever convincing in the part and his acting shortcomings rob the role of a greater level of sympathy. A great actor can make you like a character that eats babies and kicks puppies, or the other way around, but Peck is not that actor. I believe that part of The Wackness‘ failure to connect and elevate beyond its genre trappings is due to Peck’s poor performance. He’s just kind of boring character and, to borrow a term from our pals on the other side of the pond, a bit of a wanker.

As a director, Levine has a playful and visually appealing look for the film, bathing it in arid tones to echo the hot summer days. The cinematography is a character all its own, giving the film a colorful and lively flair that makes every scene worth watching even if the script fails to do likewise. Levine has a handful of clever visual tricks up his sleeve, like a middle finger that moves through a crowd of New Yorkers at rapid speed before finding and dialing a pay phone. Levine has definite talent as a director and it shouldn’t be long before Hollywood comes knocking and plucks him away to make The Fast and the Furious 8: The Search for Curly’s Gold.

The Wackness feels like a coming-of-age film that goes through the motions. The main character is stoned to the point of comatose and he’s a rather boring protagonist, made even duller by Peck’s lackluster acting ability. Writer/director Levine flexes enough visual artistry to make him a talent to watch, however, his screenplay is too familiar with little personality or flavor to stand out against the pack. The movie looks good, it sounds good, and Kingsley is certainly good, it’s just a shame that it isn’t his movie. Steph tells the mopey Luke that all she sees is the goodness life has to offer and all he sees is “the wackness” (you can go home happy to understand the title). I guess I similarly be accused of focusing on the “wackness” of The Wackness because it’s certainly not a bad movie. It just happens to be ordinary. Though it does have some torrid Kingsley-on-Olsen Twin action. I suppose that isn’t too wack.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X2: X-Men United (2003)

Rollicking entertainment until they reach the dam and things get really bogged down. However, still the action film to beat this year. I heart Bryan Cox. X-Men 2 shows the promise of the X-Men world after the somewhat dull first film. thank God we got the jumping point out of the way because now we can have fun with these characters and their world. And X-Men 2 is great fun. This is how sequels should be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Don’t Say a Word (2001)

I don’t know about the marketers but something strange is taking place with the public recognition of Don’t Say a Word. At school, church, and home I hear it referred to often as the “I’ll never tell” movie. Which could be great for public awareness, what sinking that ending sing-songy whisper of Brittany Murphy into the populace’s mind, but what good is awareness if they think it’s a different movie?

Michael Douglas is the best child psychiatrist we have, but not only that, why he’s a loving dad as well. He gets called in to inspect a new patient Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy) who appears to be one loony nut to crack. But of course Douglas can because he’s the best. A team of foiled bank robbers kidnap Douglas’ child and order him to somehow dislodge a key sequence of six numbers stuck in the tortured head of Elisabeth. Can Douglas rescue his daughter and topple the bad bank robbers in the process and protect his disabled wife (Famke Janssen) in the process? Well of course. He’s the best damn child psychiatrist we have.

Don’t Say a Word is the type of film that leaves nothing to chance for the audience. It’s a film that paints with broad strokes, forgetting its massive plot holes and frequent missteps with logic, and spells everything out for the audience – but still fowls this up. Word is so by-the-numbers and predictable that it hardly ever muscles up enough of a fight to keep an audience’s attention. A female detective (Jennifer Esposito) is on the case and following the clues to find Elisabeth. We simply know that her only purpose is to come from nowhere and save Douglas in a tense exchange. The bad guys aren’t all bad; some make peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches. In the beginning robbery we know that it’s the past, why? They talk about football and U2 plays over the robbery! Surely this must be the early 90s!

Douglas spends most of the film either scowling at people or trying to look sincere, which comes off looking like an impatient child that has to go the bathroom. This is essentially a Michael Douglas film and I guess Michael Douglas plays the role of Michael Douglas with ease. Too bad the rest of the movie is full of people that look like they don’t know what they’re doing in this mess.

Janssen is confined for the entire movie to her bed. The movie could have expertly veered into her paranoia and feelings of helplessness stuck in her house while her daughter has been taken from her. Instead she’s merely pretty window dressing. The only purpose she has with a broken leg and confined to a bed is that we know that some bad guy will come down and she’ll have to hide and fight for herself.

Bean makes an adequate bad guy (as he did in Golden Eye) but he doesn’t have much to do except mug on a cell phone or in a speeding car. The rest of his posse is basically a central casting call for gang members, from the motor mouth black guy to the biker to the computer whiz. And all of these people are fighting, killing, and destroying mass amount of public property for a ruby the size of a fingernail? And where did they get all this money to pull off a scheme like the one they perpetrate on Douglas’ family? It’s like the team took a trip to Circuit City and bought the store.

Don’t Say a Word is really a thriller that doesn’t thrill, and one that causes you to smack yourself in the head at several eye-rolling moments. Douglas escorts his hospitalized and supposedly dangerous patient out of a hospital with nary a glance or tinge of trouble all because he pulled a fire alarm. Are we back in junior high or something? As well as the moment Douglas first spots Murphy he calls her out by dropping her arm but she supposedly had fooled a legion of trained medical professionals before? Word is a series of contrivances and mounting questions that never get answered.

Don’t Say a Word is so run-of-the-mill that its often times dull and void of life. The audience of Don’t Say a Word might come off thinking they have the power of Miss Cleo with all the predictions they’ll get right. It’s basically a recycling of everything you’ve seen many times before in better thrillers. Murphy’s performance lifts the bar occasionally but this is a dog that is in desperate need of being shot.

Nate’s Grade: C

X-Men (2000)

Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.

X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list size of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.

Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.

For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.

It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well with care. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.

Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.

X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.

Nate’s Grade: B

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

There are some classic horror pics in haunted houses, and the Vincent Price cheese-fest original of House on Haunted Hill is one. The original was campy fun and worth rewatches, but how does the remake fare with a 40 year age gap between the two?

What House on Haunted Hill miraculously achieves that Jan DeBont’s Haunting had tumble through its sticky CGI fingers is the establishment of a true unsettling mood. All throughout Hill you can actually feel the seething, eerie mood inspired from the wonderfully creepy ambiance of the constructed sets. It has a darker component and launches into many sequences of frightening imagery that seem like left-overs from Jacob’s Ladder but are no less effective and stirring to stay embedded in your head for the duration of your night’s rest. So maybe the plot is basically a premise that once established pretty much thins out to non-existence. You will be thinking to yourself that half of the flick is people wandering aimlessly in the bowels of an asylum when they should have enough common sense to not be.

There is no relevant acting since the cast is regarded to fill out the standard stereotypes and yell cheesy zingers at one another with F-bombs spliced into every line. This ain’t yo’ daddy’s House on Haunted Hill! Geoffery Rush, who talked funny in Shine and won an Oscar and who talked funny in Shakespeare in Love and got an Oscar nomination, gleefully plays the host of the supernatural shindig. And he talks funny. Taye Diggs surmises the “funny non-white” character, Chris Kattan surmises the “goofy nutball” character, Famke Janssen plays the “bitchy wife… who can crush people with her thighs” character, and the rest of the cast are interchangeable blondes who actually do get a bit interchanged physically.

Hill is a good shift in your seat spooker up until the end which just really drops the ball beyond belief into a cheap cop-out. Everything up until the part where the “ultimate evil” cloud of charcoal or something is visually haunting and solid entertainment even if it has to run to gore well once too often. But this whole slow moving cloud descends the movie into mediocrity and it just gets more hokey as it goes. The effects for the “ultimate evil” are preposterously bad and wouldn’t frighten a 4-year old with a bladder problem.

Up until the final ten minutes or so, House on Haunted Hill is a guilty pleasure directed sharply and intelligently to instill the correct senses one should bring out of the story and setting. Hill has moments of inspiration and memorable scenes of horrific faceless demons and hallucinatory flashes of the macabre and bizarre. But the absurdly thrown together ending drowns what could have been a real Halloween treat.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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