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Taken 2 (2012)
This film is a disappointment in so many ways, ranging from stupid and predictable dialogue to incomprehensible fast-cut action where you can't tell what's going on. But here's one huge problem. It's set in Istanbul, an attractive and modern city, where there's a strong police presence that keeps the city's many visitors safe. Many people have visited Istanbul, either as a destination or as a layover on low-cost Turkish Airlines. A major part of the film's audience knows that the city is NOT like it's portrayed here. Women do not wear burqas in Istanbul. The police do not drive tiny flimsy 1970s-era sedans. Boulevards are wide and well-marked. You can't fire guns and toss grenades around without a LOT of police attention, very fast.
Why bother setting the film in Istanbul, then acting like it's some uncivilized lawless Third World slum? A large part of the film's audience knows Istanbul is nothing like this.
More significant problems:
* The US Embassy is in the nation's capital, Ankara. There is a US Consulate in Istanbul.
* US embassies and consulates do not have American soldiers guarding the buildings from behind sandbags, ready to gun down anyone who approaches. That would be awfully inconvenient for American tourists who need additional passport pages and for local citizens applying for visas.
* If you could simply crash through a flimsy guard booth and have your vehicle in the middle of the US compound, that wouldn't be much protection against car bombs, would it?
* Albania and Turkey do not have a common border. Neither country has frontier checkpoints with primitive hand-raised gates on a single dirt track.
* Travelers cannot simply check their guns and grenades into their luggage, then pick them up in Turkey. Travelers cannot detonate grenades in crowded areas in Turkey, then simply board the flight home. Travelers cannot fire guns, destroy police cars, and commit multiple homicides, then easily pass through passport control.
It's an utterly moronic movie. I love suspension-of-disbelief action flicks as much as anyone else (I love the Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises), but "Taken 2" is a complete waste of time.
Sniper 2 (2002)
Were those exploding cars Bosnian, or Serbian, or Hungarian...?
Okay, let's see if I got this straight...the assassination target is a Serbian general attacking Muslim villages, but the cars all have Hungarian plates, and the locals all speak Hungarian, not any Slavic language. Okay, we'll suspend our disbelief that there are any Muslim villages in Hungary. But if Serbia were attacking Hungary, a NATO member, the response of the West would be something more than sending over a couple of guys who look like anything but Eastern Europeans. NATO is a mutual defense pact that comes to the defense of any member (well, NATO gets involved with other adventures, too, but that's a different debate).
So we find out that there are opposition leaders being held without charges in prison. Wonder whether the European Union knew about this when it invited Hungary to be a candidate for EU membership?
In any case, before Hungary joins the EU, it'll definitely have to do something about its product safety standards, particularly the tendency of every vehicle to explode into an enormous fireball when crashed, shot, bumped, or if its doors are slammed too hard. How big a fireball would an exploding Trabant be able to produce anyway, with its feeble East German two-stroke engine that's comparable to a lawnmower?
Did anyone notice that our heroes were dropped off by a helicopter marked "SFOR", but picked up by an unmarked helicopter? One might assume there was an enormous diplomatic outcry when the Bosnia-based UN Stabilization Force (SFOR) exceeded its mandate by carrying out a mission that took it over Croatian or Serbian territory and into Hungary, so when they made the trip again, SFOR removed all the identifying details. Either that or the film's continuity person fell asleep on the job.
And what was up with the heroes' desperate dash for "the border"? If they were in Hungary, they were safe. If they were dashing for the Croatian or Romanian borders, they'd be safe there too. But since they were in a place where villages were being attacked by Serbia, they were presumably close to the Serbian border. Why on earth would they want to reach the Serbian border? Shouldn't they be sitting tight, safe in Hungary, waiting for the NATO airstrikes to end the little Serbian incursion into Hungary?
And who were the bad guys, anyway? Invading Serbian troops who can somehow move freely around the streets of Hungarian cities, commandeering police cars without resistance, conducting shootouts on the street without any protest from Hungarians?
If anyone out there considering making "Sniper 3," please pick up a world atlas and read a few newspapers before you write the script!
Pay It Forward (2000)
didn't hate it as much as "Stepmom"...but it was close!
Did Helen Hunt really win an Oscar not too long ago? I think she's fallen into the Cuba Gooding Jr. trap of reprising the Oscar-winning performance over and over, not seeming to notice that the first movie has ended. If she plays one more struggling single mom with a heart of gold, I'm going to have to add her to the short list of Actors To Avoid At All Costs (which currently includes Robin Williams, Melanie Griffith, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Whoopi Goldberg). It's a drastic step to take, Ms. Hunt...please don't make me do it.
"Pay It Forward" is a relentlessly manipulative, mawkish soap opera. Everything about it is unrealistic, from guzzling vodka straight from a bottle hidden in the light fixture (doesn't it get hot?), to high-security schools with metal detectors that don't have any security guards to intervene when kids are being beaten, from a Hollywood-style homeless-people landscape of burning trash barrels and shuffling winos, to a "Field of Dreams"-like line of thousands of car headlights making a pilgrimage toward a suburban house (where will they all park?).
I didn't believe anything about this movie, not for a second. But I tried...I really WANTED to believe in the "pay it forward" idea, in the inherent altruism of man. But "Pay It Forward" kept reminding me that it's not the concept that matters, but the ability of the marketing people can try to pack fannies into theater seats. Put together a few off-the-shelf plot ideas--a kid plays matchmaker, emotionally damaged adults find love, bullies threaten the nice kids, alcohol is evil--and wait for the box office receipts to roll in.
How easy is it to track down a homeless person in another city, based on a vague description given by a stranger? How often do kids get killed in YOUR school? Did Mom get fired from her job that required her to wear the blue wig at the beginning of the movie, or was her I-just-found-a-new-job scene left on the cutting room floor? Isn't it convenient that Jon Bon Jovi shows up at exactly the time the plot requires a relationship crisis?
"Pay It Forward" is a bad, bad movie. Give it a wide berth.
Ms. Fairchild and Mr. Pare must be nostalgic for the 1980s...
I found "Peril" in my local video shop back in Sofia, Bulgaria. Sure, straight-to-video-in-Bulgaria films tend to be real stinkers, but after the first 15 minutes of the film, I started to think I had found an exception to the rule. Michael Pare is a mental patient who goes on a violent rampage. Meanwhile, Morgan Fairchild is a harried housewife who accompanies her semi-disabled husband on a not-quite-legal treasure hunt. The husband falls into a storm drain and can't get out, and Ms. Fairchild goes for help because the water will start rising soon. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it's all downhill from here. Ms. Fairchild meets Mr. Pare, who kidnaps her. Pointless mayhem ensues, including crack police sharpshooters (okay, one guy sitting on top of a wobbly van...think he'll miss?), a hostage crisis in a gasoline-soaked grocery store, an old station wagon able to outrun a slew of Vermont police cars, and rising water that threatens the trapped husband (who lies moaning in agony, gripping his broken leg, when the plot requires him to be helpless, but can run with just a slight limp when the plot requires him to be helpful).
By the 30-minute mark, I found myself shouting helpful advice to the characters, particularly Ms. Fairchild, who must have read only the first few pages of the script before accepting this role (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt here). By the 60-minute mark, "Peril" had crossed the line into the painful-to-watch category.
Let's go back to the husband trapped in the storm drain for a moment. He's too heavy for the wife to lift him, so she goes for help. Now that the water is rising, shouldn't it help him? He can simply float up with the water and pull himself out, right? Nope, in "Peril," the screenplay confuses his situation with the often-used movie crisis in which a person is held/chained down while the water's rising (like in "Titanic" or "Hard Rain"), and shows us shots of the water rising slowly up and over his body. You're not chained down, pal...use your arms and swim, already!
Cause of Death (2001)
Surprisingly effective--definitely worth a rental
This movie was released straight-to-video here in Bulgaria. However, "Cause of Death" turns out to be a surprisingly entertaining whodunit. It has a couple of major flaws in the story, but nothing so serious as to prevent me from recommending it as a weeknight rental.
Patrick Bergin is the prosecutor leading the case against Joan Severance, who's accused of the brutal shotgun murder of her husband, a corrupt businessman. But things get complicated, and Bergin starts to develop some sympathies toward the defendant's story, and soon Severance is responding. Did she or didn't she commit the murder, and will he or won't he cross the line between the prosecution and the defense?
I mentioned a couple of major flaws. One is that it takes too long to explain an episode from Bergin's past that makes him especially cautious in the case against Severance. The viewer is left to wonder for about 70 of the film's 90 minutes what all of the references to the "Gennaro case" mean, and whether they explain Bergin's bizarre decisions. That's the other major flaw: even when the "Gennaro case" is explained, there's still no rational explanation for the ridiculous choices Bergin's character makes. There are some things you can and can't do when you work in the prosecutor's office. Bergin breaks the rules in such a careless and self-destructive way as to be implausible.
But if you can be patient and wait for the "Gennaro case explanation, and you try not to think about whether Bergin's character makes realistic decisions, "Cause of Death" is a pretty good thriller. Joan Severance (whom I recall fondly from TV's "Wiseguy," as Susan Profitt, the sister of Kevin Spacey's Mel Profitt) is aging gracefully--I thank the filmmakers for including a lingerie scene.
Maxim Roy plays Bergin's long-suffering co-prosecutor, who has a crush on him. She has an electric presence, stealing every scene in which she appeared (okay, there's a badly-written polygraph scene she limps through, but she does her best with some terrible lines). I'd never seen her, but I'll have to remind myself to keep an eye out for anything else she appears in.
Although Michael Ironside receives top billing on the video box, he hardly has any screen time. Maybe in a few years, around 2004-5, after Maxim Roy is a well-known screen presence, "Cause of Death" can be re-released with her name in Ironside's place. Hey, I can hope, right?
Radical Jack (2000)
"Road House" meets "Stone Cold" on the way to the cutout bin
He's a two-fisted, slow-talking drifter who's just blown into town and taken a job as a bartender at the local roadhouse. But he's really a lone government agent under deep cover (don't worry; this is established in the opening scene) who's out to bust a small-town arms dealer. I think the idea behind "Radical Jack" was to make Billy Ray Cyrus an action hero, like "Road House" did for Patrick Swayze, or "Stone Cold" did for Brian Bosworth. If you're thinking, "But Swayze and Bosworth are not exactly the guys at the top of my list of action heroes," well, draw your own conclusions about Cyrus' action-hero future.
"Radical Jack" isn't a bad movie. It's an adequate straight-to-video flick, with good-looking actors, atrocious dialogue, cheesy action, and attractive scenery. I just wish it didn't seem as if everyone were taking it so seriously. The movie's set in Vermont, but the script contains references to "rednecks"...c'mon, how seriously can you take that? Lighten up, everyone. This isn't a Steven Seagal movie!
Here's an example. A character has been savagely kicked and beaten, and was nearly killed. He's being nursed back to health by an attractive woman. One thing leads to another, and suddenly she's on top of him, kissing his chest. "I...I can't," he says. "Why," she asks. And he goes off on some long tale about his tragic past. A more clever screenplay would have had him reply, "Because I have a few miles of bandages around my broken ribs, and you're sitting on my chest, that's why!"
But the movie's worth a rental, I think, as long as you're in the right mood. If you think you're getting a high-quality action thriller, you'll be miserable. But if you're the type to talk back to your TV, a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Radical Jack" will have you howling.
Send this one back for more editing
"Fall" (the Bulgarian video title is "The FBI vs. the Mafia") is a harmless witness-protection comedy that would be fine as a 30-minute short film. However, it stretches out to 90 minutes, which seem more like 180. I believe the point was to make a character- and dialogue-driven comedy, along the lines of an Elmore Leonard adaptation. But the film centers around the wrong characters, a couple of annoying dimwits, leaving the viewer waiting for the more interesting characters for some 20 minutes at a time.
Michael Madsen is an FBI informer who agrees to testify against a Mob boss, and goes into the Witness Protection Program (Joe Mantegna pops up on screen for about one minute as Madsen's brother-in-law, an FBI agent, which apparently was enough for him to get his name on the front of the video box). Daniel Baldwin (who also directed) and Chad McQueen are the aforementioned dimwits, Mafia thugs who may--or may not--be assigned by the Mob boss in question to kill Madsen.
Baldwin and McQueen generally behave like annoying buffoons. They're not funny, despite a slapstick-sounding soundtrack. Their characters could have been acceptable in small doses, but instead, the film centers around them, pushing Madsen and his straight-arrow FBI babysitter off to the periphery of the film.
My suggestion: send this one back to the editing room. Cut 80% of the Baldwin-McQueen scenes. (Optional: stop now, and release "Fall" as a short film.) Add a lot more scenes with Madsen and the FBI babysitter. Add more background with Mantegna, the Mob boss, and whatever crime Madsen's being charged with. Add more scenes to the chase at the beginning/end of the movie, so the viewer can figure out how Madsen is caught.
Don't get me wrong: even with the edits, "Fall" isn't going to be "Go," or "Pulp Fiction," or "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels." But at least it has the potential to get onto the "This Week's Picks" shelf at your local video rental shop. I think that's worth a trip back to the editing room...don't you?
I Spy Returns (1994)
Please, no more reunions...?
My wife didn't catch the name of the movie when it started playing on Bulgarian national TV tonight. I checked the listings, and found something like "The Spy Comes Back". I started watching, and found Bill Cosby as some sort of aging spy acting foolishly. "Oh, no," I thought..."it's 'Leonard, Part 6'!" I was relieved to find I was mistaken, and the movie was "I Spy Returns". The relief didn't last long, though.
The premise is, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby are now much older, and their son and daughter, respectively, have joined whatever spy agency they worked for. The aging dads follow their kids around on their first field assignment to make sure they're safe. Hilarity ensues.
The movie stops dead during the long, long, long banter-and-bicker scenes between Mr. Culp and Mr. Cosby. And there's not much more to the story beyond the bantering and bickering. A few horribly choreographed action scenes (when you yell the single word "freeze!" at someone in Vienna, will they understand you're telling them in English to stop moving or be shot?), and bantering and bickering, and ...ummm, I can't think of anything else.
But that's the point of TV reunion movies, I guess: to see what the actors look like today, 25 years after they were in prime time. If there's actually a plot, interesting characters, strong dialogue, or even a semblance of intelligence, it's a bonus. "I Spy Returns" aims for the bare minimum, nothing more. Yes, Mr. Culp and Mr. Cosby have indeed aged, and no, there's no other reason to see this movie.
A harmless way to spend an hour-and-a-half
Dad's always working and never has time to come to Justin's baseball games. Older brother Tyler models himself after Chet in "Weird Science". What's Justin to do? Naturally, plant subliminal suggestions in Mom and Dad's stop-smoking self-hypnosis tapes. Before long, Justin and little sister Monica are living large. How long can it last before Mom and Dad learn that they're being manipulated?
Actually, this movie wasn't bad. It wasn't good, either, but it was some harmless fun. A few recognizable actors signed on for the film, including Lyman Ward, whom you might remember as Ferris Bueller's dad. Come to think of it, I'm probably predisposed to any movie that features cast members from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".
I saw the movie for free tonight on Bulgarian national TV; I'd recommend it as a rental, as long as it's on the cheap shelves and you've already seen the good new movies.
Golf Punks (1998)
Wasn't National Lampoon famous for doing comedy?
I think the concept for "Golf Punks" was something like, "Caddyshack" meets "The Bad News Bears". Trouble with that idea is that those films are some 15-20 years old. At the end of the 1990s, is there still a demand among moviegoers (or even video renters) for ragtag-band-of-lovable-losers-wins-the-big-match flicks?
National Lampoon used to attach its name to funny movies a long, long time ago. Remember "Animal House"? The "Vacation" series? For the past dozen years or so, quality has steadily declined. With "Golf Punks," National Lampoon has hit bottom. I can't recall another comedy so completely laugh-free. There's no humor, no drama, no triumph of the human spirit, no nothing. Just a few silly camera tricks that give the impression that the movie was made by a few high school students fooling around in the editing room.
Maybe National Lampoon will bounce back. If it's any consolation, it's hard to see how it can get any worse than this.