A Rant About TAKEN

If I was to be topical, of course, this blog should be a review of the current Taken sequel taking vast amounts of box office money around the world, the imaginatively titled Taken 2. It’s not though, for one fundamental reason – I shan’t be going to see Taken 2 at the cinema. I may stumble across it on television late one evening four years from now, but even then I will probably choose to do something worthwhile with my time, like going to bed.

Why avoid Liam Neeson’s reprise of the his CIA agent-everyman-turned-vengeful-killing-machine surprise hit from 2008? Well, I imagine, and the reviews have told me, that it will be as awful as the original Taken.
I can hear the gasps now, the fanboys anger rising, the puzzled, unbelieving looks from the ardent Bryan (“he’s not the Messiah, he’s just got a particular set of skills”) Mills diehards. The smash hit  sleeper blockbuster, the global phenomenon, the film that stormed the US box office – awful? Surely, I must be confused. It’s this reaction that has prompted me to blog on a film that I only saw on DVD, and a sequel I will make no effort (or pay no money) to see. Because somewhere between Taken’s release in UK cinemas, where it was largely ignored by audiences and critics alike, and the arrival of this year’s sequel, the perception seems to have grown that the original film was somehow good, or at least decent, or a cult. And frankly, it isn’t. It’s rubbish.

Jump back to September 2008. Taken opens in the UK and scrapes together an opening weekend of £1.1 million, not a disaster for a European-funded action film, but not setting the world alight. The reviews aren’t overly kind, the esteemed Empire magazine, the best barometer of popular cinema, rating it 1 out of 5 with choice comments such as:
Liam Neeson’s ill-judged presence should not cause you to even consider going within 30 feet of a fleapit that’s screening Taken
a risible male-re-empowerment fantasy set in a world where a fatal headshot and rescue from a life of inter-racial rape is the best way to win back your daughter’s heart
and summing up neatly with
A venomous little actioner that mistakes bile for adrenaline.

Even the reviews that rated it slightly better, such as Total Film (3/5) commented on its “dubious racial politics,” making it “both reprehensible and enjoyable in roughly equal measure.” (I disagree with the enjoyable part of that sentence).

And so, 2008 came and went, Taken came and went and the world moved happily on to happier films. Until, that is, in early 2009, when Taken was released in America. Ah, the good old U. S. of A. We have many things to be grateful for the US for, but reviving the fortunes of Taken is decidedly not one of them. The problem was that the French film-makers behind Taken, producer-writer Luc Beeson and director Pierre Morel, premeditated and cynically produced a film designed entirely to tap into Northern America’s fear and irrational hatred of a) Europe, b) foreigners, c) travelling any further east than New York and d) Arabs. Clearly, they knew what they were tapping into, and $145 million later, an inevitable sequel was on the cards, much to the surprise of the film’s star at least, as he said recently on Good Morning America, looking overwhelmingly bored at having to promote Taken 2, when asked if he was surprised at the original film’s success: “We all were. We all were. We thought we were making this tight compact little European thriller that would do reasonably well and disappear off into DVD land“.

Yes “DVD-land.”  The place were even Seagal and Van Damme can still make a living, and the second part of Taken’s success. Once the word spread that America loved Taken, so DVD sales around the world, and especially in the UK rocketed. What were the film’s producers, distributors and backers to think but that the public were thirsty for more. And so, along came Taken 2, limping, lame and by all accounts as racist and violent as the original. And making just as much money.

But is the original Taken so bad? Well, yes. It’s not awful, it’s competently made by current standards, it’s certainly action-packed, and had it just disappeared without too much notice, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this blog. But there are people who seem to hail Taken as some sort of pinnacle of action film making, as something fun and enjoyable, a bit of harmless escapism, and mention it alongside films such as the James Bond and Jason Bourne series. That is just plainly wrong, and deserves to be ridiculed, and so for that reason, let’s take a look at what Taken has to offer.

Right at the forefront is the racism. Quite simply, the French-Arabs in Taken are presented as uniformly evil. They are bad men. They have no motives for what they do, they are given no back story or explanation, they are just bad. And Arab. It’s the classic white American good guy against dark, middle-Eastern foreigners. No explanations are needed beyond that. Rolled into this is the stereotype of Europe as a bad place, compared to the safe haven of America. Having been to Paris, I can verify that within 2 minutes of arriving, nothing bad had happened to me. Not for Bryan Mills’ daughter, Kim though (Maggie Grace, looking decidely like a 25 year old playing a 17 year old). As Bryan feared on first hearing she was going with friends to that evil continent, filled with ‘foreigners’, having stepped out of the airport, Kim immediately meets a ‘bad man’, as Paris is full of them. We know he’s going to be bad because Bryan has told us Paris is full of bad men. It’s not a safe place apparently.  Naive Kim, though, ever the one to ignore her father’s ridiculous warnings, is soon taken hostage.

This leads to the most famous scene from the original film, the phone call. The speech Bryan gives to the hostage taker has been lauded, repeated, put on t-shirts and posters and generally thought wonderful by people who somehow mistake this for good screenwriting. Having found Kim hiding under the bed, her hostage taker decides to hang about and see who she was calling, so picks up her mobile phone to hear Bryan Mills, halfway around the world, say the now immortal lines:
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
Lovely, all of which could simply be avoided by our evil French-Arab-baddy just hanging up the phone. But no, he waits patiently at the scene of his crime doing some very dramatic heavy breathing, just so Bryan knows he’s not talking to thin air. For some reason, the kidnapper doesn’t let out a smirk at the sheer nonsense of someone half the world away wittering on about his CV of mass murdering skills, not realising the sheer loonisy of our man Bryan being so certain of his ‘skills’. How Bryan thinks this sort of threatening will help Kim, only Bryan knows.

And so, Bryan drops everything and charges off to evil Paris and starts on his one man genocide. As pointed out by others, given he’s ex-CIA, and has numerous contacts around the globe, he decides the best course of action is to set off on his own to evil Paris. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing alone. The randomness and callousness of the violence that ensues is simply astonishing, and that any audience should champion a man who so randomly kills is quite staggering – not even made justifiable by all his victims being evil-French-Arab baddies. The nadir is Bryan’s interrogation techniques. When questioning an evil-bad-Arab-man he shoots dead, in cold blood, the man’s wife. A complete innocent. This is nothing short of murder. It is disgusting, and at the same time hilariously funny, as the misguided Bryan seems to think this will encourage our hapless baddie to talk. Which, of course, it does. Only in the world of Taken would this behaviour a) work and b) be an acceptable act by our ‘hero’.

It is all justified, of course, because Kim has been sold into prostitution, drugged and raped by the evil-bad-men of Europe. Only in action cinema, a world made possible by years of mindless Hollywood actioners, can the happy ending be that Mr. Mills, by now the murderer of over 50 people, rescues his daughter, who is, of course grateful, and never going to ignore her father’s advice ever again, once she’s shrugged off the scars of kidnap, torture, rape and drug addiction. Nothing like that sort of experience and rescue to bring a father and daughter together after their strained relationship at the start of the film – now Bryan will know what birthday present to buy Kim next year. American family bonding at it’s finest.

Part of the ‘fun’ of Taken is seeing an Oscar-nominated actor of the stature of Liam Neeson stuck at the heart of this mess. It endows the character of Bryan with a certain stature, integrity, and a strange American accent that veers into Irish every so often.  This is Oskar Schindler,  a star of Scorsese films, Rob Roy, Ra’s Al Ghul in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Since he looked mind numbingly bored through all of Taken, it has revived his career to establish him as a late-blooming action star, meaning he has been able to go on and star in such clangers as Battleship, Clash and Wrath of The Titans and Taken 2. Clearly then, not a man too fussed about the quality of the script anymore, and happy to take the money over any sort of integrity. And who can blame him? If people are actually going to pay to watch this rubbish, why not? Everyone of the awful films he stars in seems to break some sort of box office record, which, ultimately, says more about the movie going public of America and the UK than it does about anyone else in this whole sorry mess. With Taken 2, Neeson even looks bored promoting the monster he’s created. He can’t even be bothered to stand up for the film’s poster. He looks a man who knows what he is doing is wrong.  And (having only seen the trailer, not the film) why does he let his family stay in evil Europe again? Haven’t they learned about the evil-bad-foriegners?

Taken is a bad film, Taken 2 is by all accounts worse.  Mysteriously in Empire magazine it gets one star more than it’s predecessor despite being surmised as “The first one offered the novel sight of Oskar Schindler going Commando. Unfortunately, this half-hearted sequel is low on novelty and lower on fun.” Always one to bow to whatever its’ readers tell it to do, Empire seems to have reneged on its earlier criticism and decided, like the people of America, that there was something good about the original Taken. Well, there wasn’t, and there still isn’t. It was as bad as they said it was the first time.

Film Rating: 1 out of 5.



A film review with a bit of a difference: a letter, reprinted below, published in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine (November 2012 edition, edited slightly by the journal).  I wrote them in response to a largely positive review from Thirza Wakefield, of Disney Pixar’s Brave.

Whither Pixar?
It’s not so much the content of Thirza Wakefield’s review of Disney Pixar’s Brave (S&S, September) that troubled me, although I do feel we must have been watching different films given the weak character, derivative plot and desperate lack of originality or humour that I experienced.
No, it was the concluding sentence of the review: ‘The Disney/Pixar team is scaling new heights of ambition, and if Brave…isn’t the peak, who knows what fun we’re in for.’
Aside from the quality of animation that Pixar continues to develop, it is blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer that the ambition of Pixar has been on an inexorable slide ever since the unfortunate Disney take over. From Toy Story 3 to Cars 2 to the forthcoming Monsters Inc. sequel, and the recently announced Finding Nemo 2, Pixar continues to fall from once great original film-making to another division of the profit driven Disney business, churning out derivative sequels guaranteed to make a healthy profit, but designed to achieve little else. The fact that Brave is a barely disguised Disney -princess-coming-of-age story, lacking Pixar’s once famous wit, verve and confidence, only further highlights the distinct lack of ambition and originality currently pervading the studio.
I fear the longer it remains beholden to Disney, the more the great original Pixar films will be diminished by further inferior sequels and (heaven forbid) straight-to-DVD releases.
Iain Kelly, by email

Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.


Glasgow Film Theatre, 10.09.12

Documentary film has a long history of controversy when it comes to film portraying something as fact, when it is in reality false, in order to serve the film-makers story, or version of events, that they wish to present. The film widely regarded as the first feature documentary Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) established this constant tension within cinematic fact by becoming a massive hit, and subsequently exposed as a largely made up version of Eskimo life, with specially shot and composed scenes presented as matter of fact everyday life.  That trend continues through to the modern-day, where many of the successful documentaries are made by film-makers wishing to present their views, rather than present facts, such as the politically polemic documentaries of Micheal Moore (Bowling For Columbine, Farenheit 9/11). Others, like the excellent Man On Wire (produced by the same people behind The Imposter) are more traditional in a retelling of a past event, but still rely heavily on participants recollections of what occurred, statements of opinion rather than document.  The simplest fact is that as soon as any edit is made to a piece of material, the film-maker has altered the original meaning of that material.  All of which feeds into the debate surrounding Bart Layton’s extraordinary ‘documentary’ The Imposter neatly, as here we are given an incredible real life story, told by the participants, none of whom can be a regarded as a reliable witness, all of whom have something to hide, and led by the account of a convicted fraudster.

The story centres around the disappearance of 13-year old Nicholas Barclay from his home town in San Antonio,Texas in 1994. 3 years later, in a Spanish Children’s home, Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian with a troubled childhood, needing to provide the Spanish authorities with an identity, claims to be Nicholas. Despite the obvious differences in age,  accent and appearance (blue-eyed, fair, blonde-haired Nicholas versus brown-eyed, dark-skinned and dark-haired Frederic),  the authorities are taken in by Frederic’s tale of kidnapping, abuse and trauma. Nicholas’s sister flies to Madrid and believes Frederic to be her lost brother. Incredibly, Frederic is given a US passport and is flown home to be ‘reunited’ with his family, including his mother, who are all similarly, bizarrely, drawn into Frederic’s deception, along with the FBI. As each participant presents their version of events via interviews, and Layton uses dramatic reconstructions to visually demonstrate their narratives, the plot becomes more convoluted and incredible. Suspicions grow as Private Investigator Charlie Parker senses something is awry, and a FBI child psychologist  immediately refutes any suggestion that Frederic could be Nicholas Barclay, but the family, bizarrely, carry on allowing Frederic to remain in their house, publicly claiming he is Nicholas.  Once Frederic is eventually exposed as a fraud, new questions are raised as to what actually happened to Nicholas, and why would a family let a complete stranger into their home? Are there darker secrets to the tale? Frederic believes Nicholas’s half-brother Jason, a drug addict now dead, murdered Nicholas, and the family conspired to use him as a cover up. But as Frederic is exposed as a convicted fraudster on the Interpol most wanted list, can you believe anything he claims?

The beauty of Bart Layton’s documentary lies in the very fact that the truth is ultimately unobtainable, and his witnesses unreliable. It allows him to present key events from different perspectives and let the conflicting testimony argue against one another. Skillfully edited, Layton juxtaposes testimony to convey humour at the ridiculousness of the Barclay family’s  actions, fear and tension at the situation that Frederic lands himself in, drama as the threat of discovery and imprisonment hangs over Frederic, pathos as the grieving family mourn their lost son while having to fend off claims of wrongdoing, and betrayal as  the cheeky but loveable rogue Frederic is exposed as a compulsive con man preying on the vulnerable families of missing children around the world.

Accommodating so many contradictory viewpoints, shifting the viewers sympathies back and forth between several characters and maintaining the drive and tension of a fictional thriller are a testament to Layton’s crafting of his tale. Documentary purists may revile at the use of reconstruction, and the visual and audio trickery that is used to present the story.  The participation of Bourdin is in itself controversial as a known liar gets to present his side of the story as evidence – can we really believe anything of what he says? – but the film would be missing half of its’ incredible story without him. Indeed, so engaging is Bourdin that it is easy to be sucked into his world of deceit and lies, while the Barclay family, much more introverted, terse, suspicious and vulnerable constantly hint at hidden truths. 

As the end credits role and the denouement of the unconcluded tale is told, Bourdin is shown in home video footage impersonating another tragic figure with a damaged childhood – doing a  Michael Jackson dance routine while seemingly in some kind of psychiatric ward. Extrovert, performing, mimicking and mirroring, and at the same time funny and deeply disturbing, this artful portrayal sums up The Imposter itself. A film not to be taken as fact but to be questioned, enjoyed and dazzled by in equal measure. Astonishing in every sense.

Film Rating: 5 out of 5.


Odeon Glasgow Quay, 16.11.11

After a gap of 6 years since he wrote and directed Nicolas Cage in the average Lord Of War (2005), Andrew Niccol is back with In Time, a film in which he returns to the sci-fi world that he mined successfully for Gattaca (1997) and to a lesser extent in S1mone (2001).

Set in the near future, In Time inhabits a world where genetic engineering has allowed humans to live forever, and the ageing process to stop at 25 years old. Once a person reaches 25 however, they must accrue enough time to keep themselves alive. Time has replaced money as the currency of the world, and so while the rich have thousands and millions of years to play with, the poor live day-to-day, scraping together enough minutes and hours to survive. It is here we meet Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a factory worker who has lost his father when his time ran out, and who manages to earn enough time to keep himself and his mother (Olivia Wilde) alive. One night in a bar he saves the life of a rich man who gives Will a century of years as reward and tells him of the conspiracy among the rich which keeps the population under control and lets the poor die. As the taxes go up however, Will’s Mother runs out of time and dies in Will’s arms, just as he was about to give her more time. Enraged, Will takes his new wealth and determines to find the corrupt rich people who control the unfair system. He meets Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), and wins thousands of years gambling. When the police – or Minutemen – led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) track him down, he takes Weis’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) hostage, and they embark on a criminal spree, robbing time and spreading it among the poor.

You don’t have to look very far to see the parable involved here. This is a Robin Hood tale for the future age, and the replacement of money with time as a currency doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a moral tale directed at the evils of capitalism and the wealth of the world belonging in the hands of the rich few, while the poor of the world starve. While Niccol doesn’t do anything to hide this simple conceit, he also manages to avoid labouring the point too much, instead concentrating on the action, in what is essentially also a chase movie.  As the world’s population hit 7 billion this year, while all around the financial meltdown continues to threaten the established economies, it’s a timely tale to tell. With people living longer in developed countries, how will the Earth sustain the ever rising population? Could the proper sharing of existing wealth around the globe improve the living conditions of the poor, instead of being kept by the lucky few?  All these points are raised, and Niccol seems to put himself firmly on the side of the poor and underclass, suggesting spreading the wealth and letting everyone have a chance at a succesful, long life is only fair.

The main problem with that is, of course, it is massively over-simplified, and in essence, it seems the entire system has to be scrapped and replaced with something better, but as the film points out towards its climax, the system collapsing would result in anarchy. As the Minutemen watch the world change,  they ask what they should do? ‘Go home’ says Minuteman Rado,as he lays down his gun and walks out. But if economic (or time) equality leads to no law and order, is it something that most would genuinely desire?

The other problem exists on the Hollywood, or film in general, level. Churlish it may seem, but, as well as genetic engineering halting the aging process at 25, it has also apparently stopped the appearance of anyone overweight, bald or ugly. There is no information given that this is what has happened, but needless to say, not only is Will’s mother still 25 in appearance, but just so happens to look as glamorous and beautiful as Olivia Wilde too. Amongst the poor and starving, there are those made to look grubby and greasy, but everyone is more or less a perfect 25-year-old. The closest we get to someone looking less than perfect is Johnny Galecki as Will’s friend, Borel, and this is clearly down to alcohol we are told.  Elsewhere, all the women in the poor areas look like glamour models, even the prostitutes, while the men all look like Justin Timberlake.  Incidentally, given the conceit that everyone should look 25 and not a day older, the casting seems somewhat haphazard given that Timberlake is 30, Murphy 34, Galecki 36, and Kartheiser 32 – to be frank, without suspending disbelief, it’s hard to see them as 25 year olds. At least Seyfreid and Wilde are in the right ball park for age.

That aside, all those mentioned perform well, and manage to convince as older people trapped in younger bodies, particularly Kartheiser as the tired, corrupt 100-something Weis and Murphy as the 80-something cop.  Timberlake and Seyfreid mostly have to look good and run around and do this to good effect. The only mis-step in the cast and plot is Alex Pettyfer (only 21, but playing older!) as Fortis, a lowdown petty criminal who steals time from the poor for himself. Apart from providing a bit of action, he serves little purpose, and Pettyfer continues to show that he can’t act very well, following on from the disappointing Stormbreaker, I Am Number Four and the awful Beastly (quite a run of drivel for one so young). Fortunately here, he isn’t significant enough to unbalance the otherwise likeable film.

Niccol does a steady job as director, helped by some gorgeous photography by Roger Deakins and a decent score from Craig Armstrong. A good return to familiar territory for Niccol, and a watchable piece of entertainment, even if it over-simplifies the issues to make a neat morality tale.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Cineworld Glasgow, 13.10.11

Midnight In Paris is Woody Allen’s 44th feature film, and already his most successful at the box office. This says a lot about inflation rates and cinema ticket prices, but also points to the popularity of Owen Wilson, in the lead role as Gil, and of the city of Paris, which must surely hold the record for the city that features in the most film titles.  It also says a lot about Woody Allen, about the sheer volume of his work, his ability to still find new stories to tell and despite the baggage that a Woody Allen film brings with it – both positive and negative – his persistence to continue to make an audience laugh over almost half a century.

Midnight In Paris continues Allen’s European tour of recent years, brought about mainly due to easier financing for his projects in Europe than in the U.S. For a director so intrinsically linked to the New York he grew up in, the break has resulted in a mix bag of films over recent years, from the critically successful like Vicky Christina Barcelona (Barcelona, 2008), to the down right awful Cassandra’s Dream (London, 2009), to the bizarrely unreleased in UK cinemas Scoop (London, 2006 – that a Woody Allen film starring Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman cannot secure film distribution in the UK is surely an astonishing indictment against the UK film distributors). Happily, Midnight In Paris has found both a distributor and an audience, and if not quite a triumphant return to Allen’s career highs of the past, is without a doubt one of his best films.

Sticking to directing duties, Allen gives the lead to Owen Wilson as Gil, a Hollywood script doctor, plagued by the lack of artistic fulfillment in his work. He follows fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) on a trip to Paris, along with Inez’s parents, who have travelled for a business trip. While in Paris, they meet Inez’s friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), a snobbish know-it-all, and his partner, Carol (Nina Arianda). While Inez enjoys her friends and parents company, Gil dreams of the Paris of old, the Roaring Twenties, when the city was at the centre of the artistic world. While out walking on his own one night, Gil suddenly finds himself transported back to that decade and he meets the idols of his life – Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali – and falls for the young model Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Finding excuses each night to return to the Paris of the Twenties, Gil rediscovers his artistic inspiration and makes some decisions about his life in the present day.

Midnight In Paris manages to have its cake and eat it, reveling in the glory of this Paris of the past, and marvelling at the collection of literary and artistic giants that gathered together at that time, while at the same time making the point that through nostalgia, the past always seems better and brighter than the present. As the Woody Allen character, Owen Wilson is exceptional, managing to portray Allen’s nervousness, cynicism and whining nature, but also managing to inject warmth and sympathy, something that Allen has sometimes struggled to do as an actor. Having suffered a personal crisis of his own in recent years, Wilson’s return to more adult and intellectual comedy is a pleasant surprise, and the hope is he has left behind the juvenile nonsense of the likes of Drillbit Taylor (2008) and Hall Pass (2011). As he proves here, he is a comedic actor with the deftest of touches. Michael Sheen gets stuck into the part of pompous Paul with gusto, while Rachel McAdams copes well without getting any of the best lines to work with. The stars of the film though, are the impersonators of the historical figures in the Paris of the Twenties. As Ernest Hemingway, Corey Stoll steals every scene in which he appears, presenting the author as an embodiment of his literary style, swaggering around as a real man should, challenging anyone and everyone to a fight, drinking and speaking in short, sharp statements. Equally good are Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as the Fitzgerald’s – she the emotional, suicidal, erratic party loving woman, he the enduring husband. The most joyous vignette occurs when Gil tries to explain to Dali (Adrien Brody) Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Bunuel (Adrien De Van) about his time travelling predicament, only to be met with incredulity. ‘Of course it makes sense to you’ Gil remonstrates ‘you’re surrealists!’ Amongst all the fun and frivolity, Marion Cotillard shines as Adriana, Picasso’s muse and the ingenue that steals Gil’s heart. Like Gil, she longs for a previous age, and together they end up in her ideal time – Paris in the 1890’s, in the time of the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas.

Allen tries nothing fancy with his camerawork, framing and staging shots as he has always done, particularly in the modern setting. The Paris of the 1920s is lovingly recreated, and Allen does allow his camera some freedom here, giving longer takes and a flowing movement to intricate dialogue driven scenes.  Giving his common themes about life, love and angst a Parisian twist and a time travelling plot device, means Allen has created his most endearing film in years. Whether it’s the setting in the past, the European romantic sensibility or the playing of his accomplished cast, Midnight In Paris loses the acerbic, caustic tone that can hinder an Allen film, and gains an effusive, glowing atmosphere that means it is impossible not to warm to the characters. The ending in modern-day Paris may wrap things up a touch to neatly, but there is no doubt that you are on the side of Gil when he starts to make some choices about his own future in Paris.

A definite crowd pleaser, a sophisticated comedy with a warm heart and unequivocally a film to be seen.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5