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The private detective genre has become more and more rare to see on
screen in the past few decades, and that's a real shame. In an age
focused on the oversaturation of 3D, visual effects and the sacrifice
of developed plot or characters in exchange for more attention on
blowing stuff up, these kinds of gritty and focused crime stories would
be a welcome relief. The genre really hit its boom in the noirs of the
'30s and '40s, and found a great resurgence in the '70s with classics
like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye but we barely see them anymore, so
I'm always excited when a new one crops up. Broken City definitely
isn't the finest entry into this canon and obviously no one is going to
even attempt to compare it to those greats of old, but for someone who
is constantly hoping for more of these throwback detective stories I
found it to be one that more than satisfied my appetite until the next
truly great one comes along.
Director Allen Hughes makes his debut here as an independent helmer, breaking off from his usual collaborations with his brother Albert. The two began their careers with the acclaimed Menace II Society, but have been met with largely negative reactions to their work since then, culminating in their disastrous post-apocalyptic tale Book of Eli, their most recent picture together. Separating from his brother seems to have done a world of good for Allen, as his assured direction here hits an old school rhythm that drives it along with a fluid ease from one scene to the next. Even as the plot gets hampered down somewhat by a final act that throws a lot at the audience in quick succession, Hughes' direction keeps pushing forward with a momentum that carries it strongly.
Aiding in that continual drive is a commanding turn from Mark Wahlberg as the former cop who brings us into this world of political corruption with grave consequences. I've long considered Wahlberg to be an underrated actor and while it's been great to see him stretch his legs more in recent years with comedic turns in The Other Guys and Ted along with one of the strongest performances of his career in the measured and intimate The Fighter, here we see him returning right back into his wheelhouse with a hard-boiled detective who refuses to be put down by his menacing opponent.
The first act opens up the plot as the conventional story of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart taking on a case for Mayor Nicholas Hostetler, played with scene-stealing gusto by the great Russell Crowe. Hostetler wants Taggart to investigate his wife (an underused Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects of having an affair. With an election coming up in a few days, he needs to know if there is anything that his opponent will be able to use against him to sully his reputation with the people. One could question why he waited until only a few days were left to hire Taggart, but as with most detective stories it's better left just rolling with the punches and not trying to focus too much on slight little ticks in the plot. If you're a person who does have too much trouble with those small malfeasances, Broken City will probably leave you rolling your eyes, especially as things open up for a bit too many twists, turns and contrivances in the final act. For me though, this was a very well- staged throwback to those gritty New York detective stories of the '70s and was elevated by a sterling cast of fine talent.
The script by Brian Tucker (his first script, and one that was on Hollywood's annual Black List a few years ago) sets the stage for a big David and Goliath showdown between Wahlberg and Crowe, and both actors bring their trademark masculine presence to the table in order to create a commanding centerpiece that drives the majority of the action, but the supporting cast is rife with impressive performances in smaller roles that make some memorable impressions. Jeffrey Wright plays the cop angle whose alliance isn't made clear until the very end, Barry Pepper gives stirring emotion to his portrayal of Crowe's electoral competitor and Kyle Chandler makes his mark as Pepper's campaign manager. I also want to give a special mention to Alona Tal, who plays Taggart's secretary and strikes up some really enjoyable chemistry with Wahlberg in order to make their playful relationship something that lasted in my mind. There's a whole subplot involving Taggart's girlfriend, played by the gorgeous Natalie Martinez, that ends up being pretty silly and tonally off but really that's my only major complaint with the film overall.
Broken City doesn't really strive for greatness, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to be. Traditional for sure, but it's in a tradition of films that we don't get to experience much anymore and I was more than happy to be able to embrace one of its kind. Allen Hughes has definitely given me confidence in his ability as a solo filmmaker and I look forward to seeing where he goes with his career next. With a standout supporting turn from Russell Crowe, reliable tough guy command from Mark Wahlberg and precise direction from Hughes, Broken City overcomes its few flaws to make for a gritty, hard-boiled detective thriller that stands out as something worth watching in the early part of the year.
How far does idealism go? Does it require personal sacrifice? Does it
conquer any and all familial loyalties? Can personal relationships take
precedence, or does everything ultimately play second fiddle to your
own moral convictions? These questions and many more ruminate deep
within the many assorted characters of Robert Redford's reflective new
feature, The Company You Keep. Based on the novel by Neil Gordon,
adapted to the screen by Lem Dobbs, the title proves to be the focal
point for these characters as one's decision in the opening scene sets
into motion an outpour of ramifications for the former members of the
Weather Underground activists. Set in the present day, the surviving
members of this group have spent the past few decades in hiding,
eventually having moved on with their lives and finally gotten to a
place where they were able to create families and settle down into a
place of normalcy.
As the film opens, one of these members, Sharon Solarz (played with heartbreaking conviction by the great Susan Sarandon), has made the decision to turn herself in after decades of hiding. The story of her and her co-conspirators is taken up by young ace reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), and when he interviews her one of the first questions he asks is why she chose now to come forward and serve the sentence that she has long eluded. Her reasoning? It's no surprise that the guilt became too much to handle, but she explains that her rationale for waiting so long was that she needed the time for her children to be old enough to remember her but not so old that they wouldn't be able to live their normal lives without her. Played with superb chemistry by the simultaneously arrogant and naive LaBeouf against the tragic, hauntingly remorseful Sarandon, this important scene is one of many that delicately hits on that core theme of where your personal cause ends and your responsibility for those outside of yourself begins.
The Company You Keep ponders on how far idealism can go before it gives way to an almost immature narcissism, if it does at all. Is it selfish to sacrifice your family for your personal cause, or is the true selfishness in putting your family above anything and anyone else? These characters are forced to ask this question of themselves and their personal answers drive the momentum of Redford's film and clash them against one another. After discovering the decision that Solarz has made, widowed father Jim Grant (Redford) gets into contact with former comrades long left silent in order to seek out past flame Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). Lurie is the answer to his need to protect his only daughter, and the plot here is driven by his search to find her, a search that sees him dig up old contacts and force everyone to reflect on the choices they've made.
While Grant, whose real name is revealed to be Nick Sloan, is hunted for his crimes by the FBI, led by Terrence Howard's dogged agent, Redford stages the majority of his film as a series of conversations between these former activists just trying to move on in their new lives. Digging up the history of these characters opens up a lot of old wounds that will never heal, and one of the primary strengths of The Company You Keep is in the way it posits that one can never truly outrun their past. Whether or not they've moved on and settled into new lives, these characters will never escape the sins of their youth and they will always be forced to live with the consequences of their actions. These people see the pain they've caused and that catalyst in the opening scene drives a story that causes them all to take a moment to look inside themselves and come face-to-face with the choices they've made.
Along with LaBeouf and Sarandon, the cast member who stands out in particular is Julie Christie, unsurprisingly making the most of her rare screen turn. When the characters played by her and Redford finally come together, all of those powerful themes come to a clash in a personal debate that sees both of them pushing against one another in service of their beliefs. While most of the characters in The Company You Keep are filled with remorse over their past, Christie's Mimi has gone the opposite path and never given up her old ways. She still fights for the cause and Christie plays her resilience with a captivating determination that refuses to back down to Sloan's emotional ploys. In this scene he looks at her and tells her that he can see her true self no matter how much she tries to hide it, that he sees it in her eyes and Christie's natural gifts allow her to make that moment absolutely believable with the way we (and Sloan) can see her soul right through them.
You've just created a film, widely considered to be your magnum opus,
encompassing a scope as epic as depicting the literal creation of the
universe and the afterlife. So, what do you do next? If you're Terrence
Malick, you take things in a more intimate direction with a domestic
psychodrama detailing the coming together and falling apart of an
American man and French woman. Played by Ben Affleck and Olga
Kurylenko, with support from Rachel McAdams as a former flame and
Javier Bardem as a troubled priest, the drama at the core of To the
Wonder is semi- autobiographical for the filmmaker and yet it's
ultimately just a metaphor for his more universal themes of faith and
love. Played without a traditional narrative structure and mostly told
in whispered voice-over inserted atop hand-held footage of the lovers
in the throws of emotion, To the Wonder could easily be the director's
most polarizing work to date, but for this viewer it worked like a
Marking only the sixth feature in his 40-year career, Malick's infamous habit of taking many years to produce his films has taken a sharp turn, as To the Wonder's release comes only two years after his previous effort, The Tree of Life. One couldn't be blamed for having worry that his quick turnaround would result in something less inspired or comprehensive, but to my surprise I found To the Wonder to be his most emotionally potent work to date. Watching it, you get the feeling that this is a cinematic journey Malick had been sitting on for a long time and after he got the epic saga of The Tree of Life out of his system he was finally able to tell it. Of course, this being Malick, things were never going to be told by way of conventional narrative and at this point in his career the plots of his films have become practically inconsequential, serving as only the most basic of platforms for the cinematic poetry that he lays out on top of it all.
I'm sure one can interpret To the Wonder in many different ways and some viewers have left perplexed as to what it all means, but for me it was rather straightforward. As he did with The Tree of Life, Malick uses a domestic drama as a metaphor to enhance a throughline of universal themes. Those themes are delivered primarily through Bardem's priest character, who spends his time wandering directionless and ruminating on whether god has left us or if he's waiting to be found. Presenting that question on the absence of god unfolds a greater depth to the dismantling of the relationship between Affleck and Kurylenko's characters, perhaps positing that with his absence also comes the absence of love. To the Wonder marks Malick's first film to take place entirely in the modern day, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that it's this modern setting that provides the environment for their romantic unraveling.
As the film begins, the two lovebirds are as free as can be, frolicking as pure and innocent as children through wide open nature. They play in the sand and waves on the beach (not coincidentally the setting for Malick's afterlife in his previous effort, perhaps foreshadowing the eventual outcome of their romance) and it's when they return to the modern suburbia that things start to come apart. Malick has always been an artist who has clashed with the modern nature of man, and To the Wonder is another representation of that, as one could leave with the feeling that he thinks there is no more room for that kind of pure love and freedom in this modern world. It's a rather harsh perspective, but Malick depicts it in a way that still manages to capture and illuminate the beauty that is out there within our grasp if we can only take the time to embrace it. It's free in the open air, ready for us all, if only we can break from the cages that our modern world has locked us in.
Through Affleck's commanding physical presence, Malick keeps the film grounded to the earth but it's with Kurylenko that he takes it to a more effervescent place and she really soars with his guidance. An actress who has mostly spent her career so far going the traditional post-model route of starring as eye candy in action films, Kurylenko gives a performance here that shows she has so much more to offer the world than what she's been allowed to give. A stunning collaboration of artist and muse, there is a purity to Kurylenko's portrayal that is frankly undefinable but captures an utterly enchanting beauty that brings the audience with her on a wide emotional spectrum. When she's free as a bird, enraptured in the the throes of love and the wonder of life, your heart soars along with her and I found myself stuck with a wide smile on my face. Yet when the romance turns and she's locked inside her domestic cage, broken and stripped of that love, your heart breaks along with hers and there's a brutal tragedy that overwhelms the emotional palette. It's an absolutely stunning performance that magnificently captures and compliments the poetic, ethereal quality of Malick's filmmaking approach.
Usually when a film depicts events that transpired in real life,
there's a great care to honoring those involved by adhering as closely
to the facts as possible while still understandably exaggerating it a
little bit for more dramatic flare. Gangster Squad, the new film from
Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, does away with all that pretense
by instead delivering a "true story" that feels more like it was ripped
out of a comic book than from the headlines. Adapted from a novel by
Paul Lieberman, which I assume was much more concerned with
authenticity, Will Beall's script goes straight for a shallow and
clichéd interpretation of the events and doesn't even strive for any
kind of depth to the matter.
In some ways it's a shame as one can only imagine what this stellar cast would have been able to deliver in this setting with more layered characters to work with, but I think where Gangster Squad does manage to succeed is in its deliciously over-the-top style and simplicity. Fleischer isn't trying to fool anyone by pretending that his film is more than it is, so what we get is a handsome, polished bit of hollow fun that's nice to look at but leaves nothing to think about. It's style over substance entirely, but it doesn't put on airs about being anything else. Fleischer clearly went in with the intention of taking this true story and making it pulp confection and I think he succeeds in just doing that. It's a total caricature, but with such a dismal script I'd much rather see that than a director trying to give it any kind of a realistic approach.
Granted, this means that anyone who is looking for any kind of originality or intellectual stimulation will be quite dissatisfied by their experience with Gangster Squad, but I for one can't say that I had a bad time with it. It's certainly nothing I would ever want to revisit or a film that I found remotely memorable, but the action flew by and I wasn't bored for a moment throughout. The cast generally has fun with their roles, however hollow they are, and Fleischer's style brings that comic book energy to it which I was fond of. Gangster Squad is excessively violent, entirely shallow and loaded up on every cliché in the book but it's aesthetically stimulating and with drastically lowered expectations from all of the negative feedback it received I found myself having a surprisingly inoffensive time with it.
Michael Mann gets a Brit kick in Eran Creevy's sophomore feature, the
cops-and-robbers thriller Welcome to the Punch. Coming off the breakout
success of his debut film Shifty (which netted him a BAFTA nomination
for Outstanding British Debut, among other accolades), Creevy is given
a much higher profile and two name lead actors to tell his energized
tale. Three years after criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) puts a
bullet into the leg of detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy), he comes
out of retirement when his son is put in the hospital, giving Lewinsky
a second chance to take down his Moby Dick once and for all.
Opening with a bang, we begin by setting the stage for Lewinsky's obsessive compulsion to get his revenge. As Sternwood and his gang pull off a robbery in the heart of London's exquisitely shot industrial scenery, Lewinsky is in hot pursuit, neglecting his superior's demand that he wait for backup and chasing Sternwood down into a series of tunnels on his own. Right away you can feel the influence of polished crime auteurs such as Mann or Nicolas Winding Refn, as Welcome to the Punch proves its title apt by giving one hell of an opening sequence to get the pulse going. The adrenaline rises for everyone involved, not least of whom being the audience, as Creevy proves himself a very assured director of slick action sequences, matching that truly breathtaking cinematography by Ed Wild with a killer score by Harry Escott and giving his second feature a pop that instantly pulls you in.
Unfortunately, the film is never quite able to capture that kind of hypnotic energy once we flash to the present day and the narrative begins, but there are plenty of kinetic action sequences throughout that continue to demonstrate Creevy's keen eye for bringing ferocious style to his viewers. Welcome to the Punch sets itself up as a rather conventional genre film, but where the writing may lack a depth of character or thematic weight it's more than made up for in terms of sensory-appealing thrills and a hyped up rhythm that keeps things moving along at an appropriately rapid pace.
Fortunate too, that Creevy's increased profile after his debut has allowed him to line up a cast with plenty of talented faces, headlined by McAvoy and Strong with support from the likes of rising star Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris and even Ruth Sheen in a memorable little role. McAvoy and Strong are the ones who truly impress though, and where the script may lack the time to bring more layers to their characters they are able to make up for it with their emotional understanding of these men and their internal struggles.
McAvoy once again demonstrates his ability to take on a wide range of characters, playing a type that we've never seen from him before -- a broken, defeated and resentful man who is quickly brought back into his aggressive, hotheaded ways when he gets the taste of blood for the first time in years. Strong, on the other hand, is able to take a relatively thin, vague character on the page and make him someone emotionally compelling as we get to spend more time with him and see his interesting morality scale lean one way and the other.
The narrative trips itself up somewhat with a messy third act that falls into predictable realms of police corruption and overly convoluted, poorly explained schemes to benefit the hierarchy while threatening the lives of our main characters (for some reason) but the lack of coherency can't get in the way of Creevy's skill for adrenaline-fueled action filmmaking and that is where Punch really delivers. With that sharp, smooth polish made perfectly to highlight the impressive modern architecture of the sprawling, almost suspiciously quiet city throughout, this is one case where "style over substance" is something that proves to the benefit of the overall picture.
An assured sophomore feature from a very promising filmmaker, Creevy proves himself here to be an adept director -- just maybe not the finest writer. If you're looking for a resonating character piece on the complexity of man this isn't going to satisfy your appetite, but if you want a bloody, in-your-face crime flick with a great cast and a unique, adrenalized style than Welcome to the Punch is right on the money.
Why would a child lie? That's the question at the center of Thomas
Vinterberg's The Hunt, a powerful examination of a small, close-knit
community that is thrown into disarray by a young girl's accusation
that her teacher has molested her. Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, the
teacher in question, and he brings his trademark gift for searing
vulnerability and genuine emotion to a role that is primed to bring the
audience to levels of utter devastation. A divorced father, Lucas' life
seems to be looking up early on in the picture as his son wants to move
in with him and he even begins a romance with one of the women working
at his school. This all changes though when the young Klara (Annika
Wedderkopp) makes an innocent lie that quickly spirals into something
that will distort even his closest friends' view of who Lucas is.
Vinterberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tobias Lindholm, has a sharp eye for drawing the conflicting emotions out of his actors and almost everyone we see is in a palpable internal struggle with what they choose to believe. They all know and love Lucas, they've trusted him with their children and yet they can't think of a reason why the uncorrupted Klara would tell such a twisted lie. As a result, Lucas quickly sees his once quaint life torn down around him and he is forced into a new one where he can't even go to his local grocery store without enduring the scorn of others. To make matters worse, Klara is the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), a deep friendship that will of course never be the same again.
The character work in The Hunt is superb, with everyone in the ensemble giving organic, emotional performances to match Mikkelsen's commanding lead but perhaps even more impressive is the way that Vinterberg observes the thematic material that drives this study of human behavior. One lie is told and suddenly an entire town's view on a man they have known for decades is altered forever, without a single piece of genuine proof. The power of words is a commanding theme of The Hunt, demonstrating how one can distort the truth, manipulate others and dramatically alter the course of a person's future with nothing more than verbal communication. It's a startling message that rings true for the way that society has grown accustomed to hearing the most despicable rumors and gossip only to respond without any skepticism, but rather a complete turn in their prior perspectives.
Lucas is destroyed within this community, his personal and professional life and he's never even given a chance to try and defend himself. It's a tragic character that Mikkelsen handles with the utmost intelligence for when he should play it soft and when to really deliver to the audience the pain that Lucas is suffering with. There are many moments in The Hunt that could have veered strongly into melodrama with a more outwardly emotive actor in this role, but Mikkelsen makes all of the heaviest emotions feel entirely earned in the way that he crafts this performance through the smaller moments as well as the large ones.
If I do have one complaint with The Hunt it would be that while most of the time the dramatic events are played appropriately honest, there are a few times where it slips a little too far into contrivance. Whether it's manufacturing a scenario a little too conveniently for the most extreme emotional reaction or hammering its themes in more bluntly than it should have when a softer approach would have been more effective, there is the occasion or two where it can slide a bit away from its usually organic craftsmanship.
This is especially true for its rather silly ending, where it takes the theme that no matter what when a stain like this is placed on someone like Lucas they will never be able to fully wash it away and really smashes you over the head with it -- despite already having gotten it across vividly. Thankfully though, Mikkelsen is always there to keep things grounded in an emotional sincerity that otherwise could have been lost in these few misjudged moments. It's a powerful film at its core, but surely wouldn't have been half as wrenching a journey were it not for Mikkelsen's marvelous portrayal holding it all together.
Taking heavy (noted) influence from Joon-ho Bong's Memories of Murder,
Baran bo Odar's The Silence doesn't do quite enough to distinguish
itself but remains a relatively effective little crime thriller. Along
with the obvious stylistic and thematic touches that Odar took from
Bong's film, The Silence has also been given a lot of comparisons to
the television series The Killing and it's easy to see why. With its
haunting cinematography and powerful score, Odar gives the film a grim
and hypnotic atmosphere that manages to get under the skin and unsettle
despite the lack of any gripping sequences of action or violence. A
thriller that is much more about tone than physicality, there's a
somberness to The Silence that builds slowly over the course of the
film and becomes more effective the longer that it sits with you.
When a 13-year-old girl vanishes on a summer night in the German countryside, the crime scene is manufactured to look identical to one that took place in the exact same location 23 years ago in which the missing girl was eventually found dead. We open by seeing the men who commit the crime in the past before cutting promptly to the present day, where we spend the rest of our time focusing on a diverse range of characters involved in the investigation. Running slightly under two hours, Odar's script (based on a novel by Jan Costin Wagner) stretches itself much too thin across its large ensemble that all get their share of attention without being afforded much depth beyond the surface.
Naturally, our primary focus comes in the form of the detective assigned to the present day case, played here by Sebastian Blomberg with a backstory involving a recently deceased wife. We never delve too deeply into this aspect of the character and that's a shame because Blomberg brings an impressive angst to his role that warranted further exploration. There isn't really time for anything in The Silence beyond the immediate impact of the present case on the various group of individuals, causing everything to operate on a surface level as opposed to probing the deeper emotions that are surely stirred by the girl's disappearance.
Spread across the family of the missing girl, the mother of the girl who was killed two decades ago, the detective assigned to that case originally, the two men who were responsible for the original crime, the wife of one of these men and of course Blomberg's lead detective himself there is just far too much split perspective here to do everything that Odar would like to achieve. As a result, The Silence doesn't have the kind of compelling character dynamics that Memories of Murder did, nor does its morbid, patient tone allow for any of the adrenaline that Bong charged into the workings of his thriller to keep the momentum pulsating.
The Silence's biggest obstacle is the weak script, but it does manage to make up for some its faults with that deeply somber and foreboding atmosphere that the director is able to achieve early on and continue to build upon throughout. Despite the fact that we get to see multiple characters weep or get into arguments, there is never enough time to build upon any of them to where you can invest in their struggles and so the emotions fall flat here but what does work exists entirely off the page. There's no real weight to The Silence, but manages to effectively draw you in with its unsettling tone that I just wish had been the service of something more substantial.
Sooner or later, when you're working in Hollywood there comes a time
that just about everyone has to take on a paycheck job. Whether it's
due to a contractual obligation or a simple need for cash, it's easy
for audiences to forget that working in film is also a profession and
sometimes the heart of those involved may not be in every project they
take on. It seems that even the magnificent Coen brothers weren't able
to escape this necessity for their entire career, as around the time of
their creative slump where they were directing films like the 2004
remake of The Ladykillers they also took on a side screen writing gig
of updating another British comedy for modern audiences, this one being
the 1966 Michael Caine crime caper Gambit.
In the ten years since, the Coens took the industry by storm with one massively acclaimed hit after another and all the while their casually produced work on the Gambit remake was passed around from one studio to the next. Gambit had seen itself start and stall many times over the years, with names like Alexander Payne, Robert Altman, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant all attached or interested at one point or another. For a while it seemed as though it would never get made, but finally in early 2011 the producers were able to get director Michael Hoffman (The Last Station) on board and filming got underway with a cast headlined by recent Oscar recipient Colin Firth alongside Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci.
Now the combined names of the Coens, Firth, Rickman and Tucci would generally promise something well worth investing time in and Hoffman certainly isn't a poor director by any means (I found The Last Station to be quite the underrated little charmer) but don't let the talented names fool you. After a decade plus spent in development hell, it's no surprise that the end result of this Gambit is an appallingly flat mess that grates the nerves from start to finish. It's a real shame that this is going to forever exist as a black stain on the filmographies of some truly great talents, but one can only hope that none of them really had a stake in its success at this point.
The marketing has made sure to get the Coen name front and center on the posters and advertisements, but even that tiresome Ladykillers remake managed to get more laughs out of its weak premise and flat script than Gambit manages to pull out. Here we see a film that constantly reaches for laughs out of the audience and comes up with nothing but annoyed groans every single time. Whether it's the hopeless, disastrously- accented performance from Diaz or the cringe-inducing fart humor, Gambit strives for the lowest level of comedy at every turn and can't even manage to pull that off without an annoying level of frustration.
Not even the usually winning talents of Firth, Rickman and Tucci can manage to bring a smile to the face or even a light chuckle as each are operating with material well below their most desperate standards. All three men have worked in their fair share of crap over the years and almost always manage to rise above it still with their undeniable talent providing a small bright spot in the most unappealing products, but here everyone is dragged down by a script that feels so hopelessly inept. Firth's nasal, dweebish and unrelentingly grating protagonist produces a performance far worse than anything I ever thought he was capable of, and I can't imagine a world where the audience is genuinely expected to root for this character.
I count myself among the Coen brothers largest fans, but there's no denying that their heart was not in the writing of this one and the warning signs were on the walls all the way toward this one being dumped out with a hushed whisper of a marketing campaign that was clearly hoping people wouldn't take much notice of it. A shame that this exists, but thankfully most of the talent here is strong enough to recover from the slight dent on their portfolios and move on. If only it could provide a nail in the coffin of Diaz's career, at least then something positive could have come out of this hopeless chore.
Following up the massive success of their animated debut Persepolis,
directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi teamed up again for
another adaptation of one of Satrapi's graphic novels, this time making
a live-action confection out of the winsome fable Chicken with Plums.
Whereas Persepolis was an autobiographical affair for Satrapi, Plums is
the fictional story of Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a renowned
violinist whose heart is destroyed when his instrument is broken and he
can find no worthy replacement for it. Deciding that life is no longer
worth living without being able to perform, he confines himself to bed
and awaits the arrival of death to remove him from this world.
It's an interesting premise for sure, but my chief problem with Chicken with Plums is that the directors don't seem to know what to do once this is all established. Ali stays in his room for the entirety of the picture but as the story darts back and forth between flashbacks, fantasies and several different styles (including a particularly joyful animated sequence) it never really feels like it picks up any narrative momentum and I was never able to invest myself emotionally in Ali as a character. Amalric is one of my most favorite actors working today (or ever, frankly) and he provides a capable performance at the center, but half of the time the focus of the film isn't even on him and I felt like the directing team were lost within their own imagination.
By the time they bring it all back into focus with what felt as though should have been the key arc all along, we had spent so much time in other areas with other characters that I wasn't remotely engaged by the film any longer. For something with a relatively brief 93-minute running time it drags on through most of the middle section due to this and despite their hardest attempts to give it the kind of quirky energy of an ace director like Jean-Pierre Jeunet (much of the atmosphere feels practically cribbed from his work), the weakness of the narrative makes it too much of a struggle to pick up any steam.
That's not to say that Chicken with Plums is all bad, though. Despite the flaws in adapting the story to the screen, Paronnaud and Satrapi remain impressive visual artists and Plums is an absolute feast for the eyes. Whether it's the frame-worthy cinematography, the unique and constantly unpredictable film editing styles or the luscious production design, there is always something going on that can keep the eye entertained -- even if the heart and mind are not. Overall, this one definitely lands as a big disappointment for me but there's still enough pleasure in some elements of it for me to say that it may be worth watching for some out there.
Chicken with Plums is certainly a pleasure to look at, I just wish I had been connected to it remotely on any other level. Paronnaud and Satrapi certainly do have a knack for sumptuous visuals though, and I'd be interested in seeing what they could perhaps do with a script written by someone else. Hopefully we'll get the chance to see that one day.
2009 was a year loaded with many enormous disappointments in film, but
one of the more pleasant surprises was the emergence of Liam Neeson:
Total Badass in the unexpected breakout hit Taken. Neeson turned his
new set of skills there into quite the interesting career path for him,
as now the actor who made his name on starring in Schindler's List and
Rob Roy can be seen semi-annually in action flicks ranging from Unknown
to Battleship, a career move which has met with decidedly mixed
As it happens with breakout box office hits that score well with audiences and critics alike, a sequel was quickly put into motion for Taken and three years later we see Taken 2 hit the big screens...or basically we see Taken: Tame. Replaching Pierre Morel at the director's chair with Transporter 3 and Colombiana helmer Olivier Megaton, Taken 2 aims to hit the exact same beats as the first successful picture and while it does near them it also feels decidedly less thrilling than it did a few years back.
The whole thing is a rather recycled play on the premise of the first -- it's been brought up before but it really is worth mentioning how questionable it is that this family would ever go to Istanbul after what happened in the first film -- except here it doesn't have that same kind of lean, stripped down rhythm and grittiness that the original contained. Whether it's in the script or the direction, there's a timidness to Taken 2 that is disappointing given how much adrenaline the first was capable of drawing out of its unexpectedly game star.
That being said, Neeson proved very adept at this kind of action thriller with its predecessor and I can't say that I disliked watching him take on the role of Bryan Mills once again. Taken 2 deserves to be knocked for its laziness and unmemorable action, but I definitely had much worse experiences with films in 2012 as well. It doesn't hold a candle to the exciting and surprisingly re-watchable Taken, but I didn't find Taken 2 to be nearly as bad as others have claimed it to be either.
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