What a difference an actor makes. As it turns out, dropping Liam Neeson into a role and a film that both play out like ready-made slots for Steven Seagal can turn said film from a routine one-man-army rescue-actioner into something pretty interesting.

If you’ve got a guy friend (or maybe it’s you, who knows) who got the short end of the stick in a divorce/custody situation – like, say, wifey and The Kid are off with a new, richer, “cooler” guy – THIS is their new favorite movie, period. “Taken” is for ‘first-dad’s’ every bit the wish-fulfillment fantasy that “Gran Torino” was for angry old men. Neeson is a retired CIA hardass who’s fed-up wife took their daughter and got hitched to an ultra-wealthy tycoon years ago. Dad 1.0 is too square for their world, and too “uptight” about things like her traveling abroad… until, that is, she’s kidnapped by a sex-slave ring in Paris. THEN suddenly daddy’s obsessiveness and still-working spymaster skills are the only thing that can save her. They can do other things, too: Earlier in the film, his quick-thinking takedown of a stalker while freelance-guarding a pop singer nets daughter-dearest the music-industry invite she’s been wishing for since girlhood. Just like that. Oh, and it goes without saying he was right to be concerned about traveling abroad. They should’ve just listened to him all along. Doesn’t that beat all?

So, it’s not a subtle movie… but it’s a smart one that plays by smart rules and delivers the action goods without becoming a cartoon-in-a-bad-way. It also holds truer to the concept of a vigilante hero than almost any film I’ve seen on the subject. There’s no sudden-layer of moral righteousness – this guy is a CIA “prevention” expert for whom lying, spying and torture are the tools of the trade, and he has the grim, nigh-amoral determination that would come with such in REALITY. Not to give away what will surely be the film’s most talked-about moment, but suffice it to say THIS guy crosses a line that Dirty Harry, “Death Wish’s” Paul Kersey and even The Punisher wouldn’t cross – and he does it just to PROVE he’s willing to.

It’s also worth mentioning (though you’re gonna get REALLY sick of it’s mention from certain corners of the web and political sphere in the coming weeks) that this has to be without a doubt the most politically-incorrect “serious” film to play in theaters in a long time. Not only is the hero an avenging patriarch who also happens to be an (unapologetic) CIA torturer, the baddies are Albian immigrant (to Paris) criminals – who sport matching tattoos of a variation on the Islamic holy insignia, no less! – and, later, the henchman of a virgin-enslaving wealthy Arab figure known only as “The Sheik.” YIKES! It’s played sans-hyperbole and seems less “mean-spirited” than it does “unconcerned with collateral offense,” but there’s a tangible current of frustration and vengeance-by-proxy on certain elements of the French criminal world by the French filmmakers. Either way, you don’t see it very often.

Bottom line: Well above-average, worth your time.

Underworld: Rise of The Lycans

Here’s a third-installment prequel to a scifi/horror/action franchise dedicated to the retelling of a backstory that was previously told to completion – along with all relevant details – in a two-minute flashback in the first film. If that’s going to bother you, don’t see it. If it doesn’t – i.e. if you’re an “Underworld” fan or a genre-fan in general and thus have been down this road before – you can do A LOT worse.

What I like best about the improbably-good “Underworld” movies is that it’s a franchise wholly of and about itself – a rare feat. It’s not based on or trying to pay fealty to some previously-published material and (even better) it’s not trying to be in any way bigger than it’s own story and world: Here’s a trilogy (and counting?) about a centuries-long war between Vampires and Lycans (Werewolves) that never makes a move in the direction of social commentary, metaphor or even genre-deconstruction. It’s Vampires aren’t AIDS metaphors or wink-nudge abstinence advocates – they’re pale, fanged, blood-drinking immortal aristocrats. It’s Werewolves aren’t stand-ins for puberty-angst; they’re giant hulking wolf-headed monsters.

The two “later” films were futuristic and sprawling, this prequel is (literally) medieval and limited to a handful of locations centralized around a single Vampire fortress – in fact, it resembles nothing so much as a BBC ‘royal manor’ soap opera by way of the Universal Monsters. The story primarily concerns the hero-journey of Lucian (Michael Sheen,) the memorable Lycan rebel leader from the first film, here originating as a slave (the Vamps use the Lycans as brute laborers, the two races are technically cousins but the Vampires seem to be better about money) who’s picked up a yearning to breath free while coverlty fooling around with the King’s daughter Sonia. Sonia is embodied by Rhona Mitra, the amazonian Irish/Indian beauty whom you’d remember from “Doomsday” if you hadn’t ignored it in theatres but probably know best as Kevin Bacon’s unluckily-attractive neighbor from “Hollow Man.”

What you ultimately get is mid-budget, feature length “seige of Helm’s Deep” with armored, sword-wielding vampires standing in for the humans are werewolves standing in for the Orcs. I’m perfectly happy being among those for whom that spells “worth a look.” Oh, and you also get Bill Nighy, who doesn’t really NEED to act in this but does anyway. Good on him.

Small footnote, though: Warner Bros./DC Comics? If you’re looking at ANYONE to play “Wonder Woman” OTHER than Rhona Mitra… can I ask why?

Another week

I gotta work out a system for this…

Didn’t get much done this week. Closest thing I have to an explanation is that ONE of my jobs is at Circuit City. So that happened.

Anyway, “My Bloody Valentine 3D?” Not bad. The selling-point is the 3D gore FX shots, and they don’t dissapoint, but you may eventually find yourself wondering why a mostly-forgotten mezzo-mezzo 80s slasher like this one got the big glossy remake treatment. Is “Slaughter High” chopped-liver? Did they assume 3D would make the finale of “Sleepaway Camp” perhaps a little TOO ‘real’? But worth a look.

The big surprise, for me anyway? “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Kevin James has been one to watch since he started stealing whole movies out from under Will Smith and Adam Sandler (in “Hitch” and “Chuck & Larry,” respectively) but whether or not he can carry a movie as a lead has been a question mark particularly considering how not-great “King of Queens” generally is. Wonder no more: This guy’s the real deal.

The premise and the entire outline you’ve already gleaned if you’ve seen the posters: Blart is an overweight, socially-awkward mall security guard who (can you guess?) dreams of being a real cop (called it!) but can’t pass the physical requirements. Not necessarily because of weight – he’s a physical dynamo despite his size – but because his weight is largely owed to Hypoglecimia, requiring him to maintain a high sugar intake in order to avoid fainting spells. He lives with his mom (yeah, saw it coming) while raising the single daughter left him by his ran-off, green-card seeking illegal-immigrant wife (that’s new) and pines for the pretty new girl at the mall hair-extensions booth. You already know that he experiences an embarassing public event that sours the chances of that relationship, but to give the movie credit it’s much more his own fault than some prank or misunderstanding. Things come to a head when a small army of parkour/extreme-sports trained theives seize the mall on Black Friday for a robbery, taking hostages – Blart’s would-be girlfriend and daughter among them – and leaving Blart as the only non-imprisoned good guy on the inside.

So, it’s a formula “Die Hard” sendup, but it gets by on solid slapstick, competent action direction (it’s a family-friend PG for the language, but the myriad fight scenes are surprisingly intense) and James’ inherent likability as Blart. Maybe I’m just naturally inclined to be nice to a movie where a big fat guy on a Segaway throws a douchebaggy X-Games reject on a skateboard through a window. The obviously low budget hurts it, but funny is funny.

Incidentally, here’s the trailer for the remake of “Last House on The Left.” I’ve never thought the original was worth much outside of the ahead-of-it’s-time brutality, but there’s no denying that it has one of the all-time great exploitation-horror premises: A gang that brutally rapes and butchers a young woman in the first-half inadvertently wind up taking shelter in the home of her parents… who take even MORE brutal revenge once they find out who their guests are and what they’ve done. Violence that’ll turn your stomach followed by cathartic violence you can cheer for – perfect setup, yet to be fully realized, so maybe this will actually be better. The trailer gives away what seems to be the major deviation from the material, but I like where this is going. GREAT choice of ironic music:

The Wes Craven original is technically a remake of an Ingmar Bergman movie called “Virgin Spring,” believe it or not.

New Job…

…Is great, but early training schedules play hell with my free time. Hence the weeklong absence. Ah, well. Here’s what I’ve been up to recently:

Kicks quite a bit of ass in it’s own quiet way. It’s kind of amazing to see it and realize that almost NONE of Clint’s dialogue from the film can be shown in the trailers in-full – often it’s just one long stream of dated racist nicknames and cuss words divided up by verbs. The character isn’t so much a bigot as he is an angry man of a bygone era, who doesn’t quite “get” (or doesn’t want to get) that these days the words mean more than the intent. He slings “gook,” “chink,” “zipperhead,” “slope” and even “swamp rat” at his Asian neighbors both in anger and in jest; and if he’s aware that those are all meant for different KINDS of Asian people he certainly doesn’t care.

Clint (once again the star, director and song-composer) is Walt Kowalski, a recently-widowed 78 year-old Korean War vet getting by on barely-suppressed resentment of the world around him. His grown sons and their families are shallow yuppies who condescend to “the old man,” his home is the lone well-kept dwelling in an automotive-collapse-blighted neighborhood that’s become one-part ghetto and one-part immigrant gathering place for Hmong refugee families, and his only companions are his dog and his prized vintage Ford Gran Torino. The car becomes the target of a local Hmong gang, who try to use it’s theft to “jump in” Tao, a good, fatherless kid who happens to be Walt’s neighbor. When the gang fighting spills over onto his lawn, Walt beats the baddies back at gunpoint and finds himself a sudden figure of curiousity and hero worship among the Hmong.

It’s not so much that Walt is humanized by the Hmong as it is he’s given a second chance at a place in the world. In many ways it’s a revenge-on-the-world fantasy for elderly tough-guys: Walt growls and seethes when his granddaughter wears a belly-ring to grandma’s funeral and physically expells his son when they come for his birthday bearing “gifts” of a big-button phone… and retirement home brochures. He doesn’t “get” the world today, and doesn’t want to, but he’s shocked to see how much better he “fits” with his Hmong neighbors. It’s a well-observed bit of business, for example, that Walt’s apprehension about his neighbors strange customs get shoved right back in the holster when Tao’s sister Soo explains “my family is very traditional.” THAT he understands. He also finds a measure of long-missing personal fulfillment in becoming a psuedo-grandfather to Tao, whom he divines needs instructions in the ways of man: Tool-shopping, job-getting and even girl-wooing. Of course, there’s always that gang to deal with…

Whether or not it’s among Clint’s best films is up for some debate, but it’s one of the best out there right now.

In 1950s Germany, a teenaged boy slips into an affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) which last one summer and ends suddenly when she vanishes without a trace. Years later, as a college student studying the legally issues surrounding the war-crimes trials of former Nazis, he sees her again – as a defendant, charged with having been an SS Guard at Auschwitz. What’s more, there are some creepy paralells with her alleged treatment of inmates and the crux of their onetime relationship – she insisted he read to her before sex. Then things get REALLY complicated…

It’s a pretty dark but also pretty interesting character study, with the bulk of the film existing as a flashback by Ralph Feinnes as the boy now grown into an emotionally-stunted man. He’s walking around with secrets of his own, concerning a mystery he’s solved (and that, unfortunately, most of the audience will have already guessed WELL before he does) about his onetime lover that may or may not have made a difference at her trial. Winslet (who’ll almost-certainly be Oscar nominated) gets to do most of the heavy-lifting; spending about half the film in some state of undress and the rest at different ages in pretty powerful scenes. Newcomer David Kross, as the boy, handles a difficult role admirably – though given the first act, this is one young actor I never want to hear complaining about how difficult his job is.

Doubt (2008)

“Doubt” is an adaptation of a play, set in a church-adjacent Catholic school amid the 1960s “Vatican II” shift from the old-guard church to the “progressive” version. It’s story principally involves a clash between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep,) the hard-bitten ice-queen leader of the Nuns and principal of the school; and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman,) the new young priest who gets under her skin with his newfangled compassion-focused sermons and staunchly Vatican II progressivism – a clash that takes a grim turn when novice Sister James (Amy Adams) confides in her superior her vauge suspicion that Flynn may have “behaved innapropriately” with an Altar Boy. Problem is, there’s exactly enough circumstantial evidence to make the accusation un-ignorable, but not enough to prove a single thing. Flynn is almost-certainly hiding something, Sister Aloysius is almost-certainly a semi-sociopath motivated at least in-part by a personal agenda, but the film has no intention whatsoever of letting you off easy as to what’s actually going on.

That much you know from the trailers, and any more than that oughtn’t be said. I’ll just add three quick points:

  • It’s excellent, you should see it as soon as possible.
  • Yes, I do have my own personal “guess” as to what the truth actually is, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments but not here on the main page because spoilers are uncool.
  • Amy Adams in a nun’s habit makes me think terrible, terrible thoughts.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The just-shy-of-whimsical title was kind of an ironic gag in and of itself in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” since it was about as far from a fairytale as one could get given the material: A bleak story of alienation and discomfort centered on title character who’s born a full-sized, fully-intelligent crotchety old man of 80 and ages backwards, mentally and physically, into and infant – failing at each step to “fit into” the world he’s rewinding through.

This expanded, loosely-adapted film from David Fincher keeps the title, but swaps ironic for wholly-appropriate by changing-up the central gimmick: The film’s Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born as a tiny infant but with all of the physical traits (maladies, more specifically) of a near-death 80 year old man and ages “normally” in terms of his mind but in full-reverse in terms of his body – as a “child” he looks for all the world a frail, weathered old man; but as he ages he only gets stronger and better-looking.

The result, as you might expect, is that THIS Benjamin gets a certain number of benefits from his condition – ‘old looking’ enough to gain access to life experiences and information otherwise not offered to a boy, blessed with the body of a 20 year old with which to put a lifetime of wisdom to use in his waning days. He’s less of a tragic walking-commentary and more of a magical being walking backwards through history; and the film is less of the expected allegorical ponderance and more of a biography of a man who can’t possibly have existed yet seems to thanks to technical wizardry and damn fine acting from Pitt.

As you’ve probably heard by now, this one is a real stunner: A thoughtful, ultra high-concept art film doing a spot-on impression of a sweeping middlebrow epic. One imagines that many who see it will enjoy it right off the bat, but only discover later upon reflection just how unique and “different” the film they saw actually was.

It’d be unfair to dwell on the various colorful characters and fascinating times Button finds himself in over the course of his (you’d think) already unique-enough life, as I’d prefer people to discover them on their own. I will single out, however, how refreshing it is to see both Cate Blanchett (as Benjamin’s almost-perpetually out-of-reach love interest) and Tilda Swinton – two actresses too-often tasked with playing icy, quasi-masculine hardcases – get to let their hair down as old-fashioned Hollywood glamour-gals.

This is already the surprise-hit of the Holiday season, so I probably don’t NEED to tell you… but if you haven’t seen this yet, you really should. It’s one of the ones we’ll be talking about for awhile (though I’m ALREADY dreading the innevitably “fun” the “Epic Movie” guys will have at the expense of the old-man-who-says-he’s-a-toddler concept.)