Friday, January 30, 2009


A father's devotion to his daughter has rarely resulted in as high a cinematic body count as it does in "Taken" (Fox), a formulaic, contrived but effectively tense thriller about a kidnapping.

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a divorced ex-government operative who has moved to Los Angeles to be near his 17-year-old, pampered teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) -- now living with her mother, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and well-to-do stepfather.

When asked for his approval for Kim to travel to Paris with girlfriend Amanda (Katie Cassidy), Bryan hesitates. But Lenore and Kim eventually guilt-trip the largely absent father into relenting, with the only proviso that Kim phone him every day. At the airport, he learns that Paris is only the starting point for a European road trip, yet Lenore prevails upon him once again to put aside his seemingly foolish qualms.

Once they land, Kim and trampy Amanda fall for a charming young Frenchman's ruse to share a cab in order to learn the girls' address. And moments after they go upstairs, bad guys burst in and grab the screaming Amanda. Terrified Kim relates what is transpiring to Bryan over the phone, before she is summarily yanked from her hiding place.

Bryan hightails it to Paris -- leaving the now-hysterical mother and her milquetoast husband in the dust -- to track down the culprits, who, he has learned, are notorious Albanian sex traffickers.

Ignoring the warnings of former security colleague Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin), Bryan goes into full gear with the skills and inexhaustible stamina of a superhero. He has been told he must find her within 96 hours, or she'll be lost forever.

Sex trafficking is, of course, a very real worldwide epidemic, and it's a human rights issue of importance, though we suspect the makers of "Taken" are far more interested in shoot'em-up action than social commentary.

Neither the sex nor the violence here comes close to the exploitative elements in, say, the reprehensible "Hostel" series.

Though the violence is fairly intense, the worst of it is mostly implied without blood. Showing that he has no boundaries when it comes to rescuing his beloved daughter, Bryan is not above administering electric shocks to one of the grungy traffickers, or even shooting ("a flesh wound" only) Jean-Claude's very pleasant middle-class wife for dramatic effect after her husband tries pulling a gun.

Director Pierre Morel keeps things moving with a flashy visual style. The film was produced and co-written (with Robert Mark Kamen) by well-known writer and director Luc Besson.

Neeson, serious actor that he is, plays with a genuine intensity that almost, but not quite, makes you overlook the improbable setup and ludicrous plot developments. He also wears the mantle of action hero surprisingly well.

If you're looking to dissuade your teenage daughter from an unescorted trip abroad, this film will surely do the trick.

Friday, January 16, 2009


We're accustomed to so many Holocaust stories where Jewish people react passively to being rounded up, herded onto trains and interned in concentration camps that it's more than a little surprising to learn that some fought back.

"Defiance" (Paramount Vantage) is the well-acted, too lengthy, but ultimately worthy history lesson about the Bielski brothers -- Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) -- Jewish farmers from what is now Belarus who chose not to be passively victimized by the Nazis.

After their parents are killed, they take refuge in the Naliboki Forest. Before long, they're joined by several needy others. As time goes by, the brothers shelter hundreds of Jews, while violently dispatching German attackers.

Tuvia, the eldest, becomes the leader of the community, and one who brooks no opposition to his authoritarian rule. Considering the lives at stake -- and threats of hunger, disease, attack and internal rebellion -- this was perhaps a necessary dictatorship. "We will live free, like human beings, for as long as we can," he vows.

The hot-headed Zus who, at one point, spearheads a violent ambush of a Nazi convoy, later suggests joining forces with a Russian partisan group. The Russians reluctantly agree to the alliance, but despite the apparent effectiveness of the teaming, later reveal unchanged prejudice toward them.

Director and co-writer Edward Zwick keeps the episodic, story-spanning film moving as well as can be expected given the three-year time span it covers, and the script (written with Clayton Frohman from the book by Nechama Tec) obviously gives a different perspective than your typical Holocaust movie.

Given the complexity of the situation, the Bielskis' heroism here is shown to be marred by several instances of senseless slaughter. Though the Bielski detachment was the largest Jewish partisan band with the greatest number of lives saved, it was also responsible for a record number of German casualties.

When, for instance, the brothers confirm the identity of the police captain responsible for their parents' deaths, Tuvia tracks down the man at dinner with his family, and coldly shoots all at the table, except, presumably, the man's wife. And even beyond the lapses of moral rectitude shown by Tuvia and Zus, we see the crowd's hunger for revenge, when they capture a hapless German soldier who begs for mercy only to be savagely beaten to death by the mob, while Tuvia looks on enigmatically.

As the forest community grows to the point of constituting a virtual village, and relationships form, the concept of "forest wives" and "forest husbands" takes shape, even as pregnancies are forbidden. After learning that his wife and child have perished, Tuvia forms a bond with Lilka (Alexa Davalos). (In real life, Tuvia and Lilka would remain together for the rest of their lives.) Zus, in turn, forms an alliance with Bella (Iben Hjelje), while baby brother Asael falls for and actually marries Chaya (Mia Wasikowksa).

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Reader

The Reader" (Weinstein) is a necessarily bleak, yet well-played and generally affecting, adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 international best-seller. It was the first German novel ever to reach the top spot on The New York Times' best-seller list, and is said to be partly autobiographical.

Set in postwar Germany beginning in the 1950s, the narrative charts the morally complex relationship between lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) and older woman Hanna (Kate Winslet), with whom he had an affair when he was a teenager (18-year-old David Kross).

They met when the brusque, mostly humorless, woman (who works as a bus conductor) found the teenager retching in her courtyard, and helped him home.

Michael had scarlet fever, and after his long recuperation, he sought out Hanna's apartment to thank her. A palpable attraction eventually morphed into a full-out affair, unbeknownst to the boy's parents. But as time went by, what grounded their relationship most was Michael reading aloud to her the great works of literature from his school books: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "War and Peace," "The Odyssey," and so on.

Throughout it all, Hanna remained mysteriously bossy and remote, except for the time she accepted Michael's suggestion of a biking weekend when she seemed finally to enjoy herself. We don't yet know the reason for Hanna's austerity.

The relationship eventually sours and they part. Years later, Michael is studying law. When Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) has his students observe some court sessions on Nazi war crimes -- based apparently on the Frankfurt, Germany, Auschwitz trials held between 1963-65 -- Michael (partial spoiler) is surprised to find Hanna is among the defendants.

It would be unfair to reveal the details of Hanna's involvement or more of the plot, but suffice to say, Michael ages (and morphs into Fiennes), and the relationship between the two evolves into an utterly different but profoundly compassionate one.

In playwright David Hare's adaptation, the story shuttles back and forth through time, whereas the book's narrative was chronological. Stephen Daldry, who last worked with Hare on the movie version of "The Hours," directs with much the same sensitivity and nuance.

Winslet is superb and convincing as a downtrodden German worker, concealing (as it happens) not one but two secrets, aging believably to a haggard 60-something. Newcomer Kross is also outstanding, and though not a perfect match, somehow makes a plausible one for Fiennes.

Some suggest that the inter-generational relationship between Hanna and Michael is meant to serve as a metaphor for Germany's collective guilt and its impact on later generations who "inherited" the crime, while gingerly suggesting the possibility of emotional reconciliation, if not exactly forgiveness.

Clearly, the early parts of the story will be unpalatable for some. The book itself was controversial both in Germany, where it raised charges about Schlink courting sympathy for Nazi perpetrators, and elsewhere for its depiction of that initial relationship between Hanna and Michael.

A poignant footnote: Celebrated directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, co-producers of the film, both passed away during production.

Gran Torino

As with his 2006 double-release of "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima," the prolific Clint Eastwood is following up his just-released "Changeling" with "Gran Torino" (Warner Bros.). A more modest film, it proves an improbable and gritty, if ultimately humane, redemption tale.

Eastwood himself is in peak form playing crusty Korean War vet and retired autoworker Walt Kowalski. He's just been widowed and the film, set in Detroit, opens with a large Catholic funeral presided over by redheaded Father Janovich (Christopher Carley).

Walt's a tough old geezer with exacting standards, and casts a withering eye when his niece shows a bare midriff at the service. His grown sons, raised under Walt's autocratic thumb, keep their wary distance.

He's contemptuous of Father Janovich, rebuffing the cleric's condolences at the reception which follows. But the priest tells him that Walt's late wife expected Father Janovich to keep an eye on her reprobate husband and persuade him to go to confession; the priest declares he doesn't intend to give up. And he doesn't.

Throughout the film, Father Janovich shows up several times, even hounding Walt in the local bar. With each encounter, Walt becomes more receptive, and we see he's not such a bad guy as the early scenes suggest.

But Nick Schenk's script (story by Dave Johannson) establishes that Walt mightily resents the encroachment of the Laotians (specifically, Hmongs) who have moved into his rundown Detroit neighborhood, prompting a litany of racial epithets at every opportunity.

But Walt soon becomes the Hmongs' reluctant hero after he saves the nice young teen next door, Thao (Bee Vang), from being pressured to join a marauding Hmong gang. (The boy's first assignment was to steal Walt's prized Ford Gran Torino.)

Some time later, gun-toting Walt rescues Thao's smart and sassy older sister, Sue (Ahney Her), from serious harassment by three African-American thugs and drives her back home. His racial slurs in the car don't bother her in the least; she sees the good man underneath and, much to his irritation, dubs him Wally.

On his birthday, estranged from his own family, he accepts Sue's invitation to come over to their place for a feast. For reasons not entirely clear, the whole multigenerational clan warms to the stony-faced stranger who, after sampling some native dishes, undergoes an almost immediate transformation.

When Thao's mother offers to have the boy work off the attempted car theft through service to Walt, the latter reluctantly agrees. In short order, they bond.

On the plus side, this entails Walt landing a construction job for his young friend; on the other, he tries to teach the timid youth how to be "a man," which involves talking as tough as his mentor does. This is all played for humor, showing that Walt's misanthropy is only skin-deep. But, much as "All in the Family's" Archie Bunker was criticized for being a too-lovable bigot, the same might be said here.

Eastwood directs with his customary polish, and his sort of geriatric "Dirty Harry" character stops just short of the vigilante bloodbath you might expect.

Bride Wars

The title calls it right, for "Bride Wars" (Fox 2000/Regency) is an amiable -- if all too predictable -- romantic bauble about longtime devoted pals who have dreamt since childhood of June weddings at New York's Plaza Hotel, but then, as adults, have a falling-out just before their much-anticipated nuptials there.

Kate Hudson is Liv, a high-powered corporate lawyer and intense control freak, and Anne Hathaway is meek schoolteacher Emma, a perennial pushover under the thumb of abrasive colleague Deb (Kristen Johnston) who, improbably, becomes Emma's maid of honor.

Liv and Emma hatched their romantic plan as kids from New Jersey, after they attended a wedding at the famed landmark. Now, with live-in boyfriends Daniel (Steve Howey) and Fletcher (Chris Pratt) having proposed, the path is ready for their dream to come true. Daniel is a calming influence on the Type-A Liv, and loves her for all her faults, but Fletcher is far less understanding about Emma's escalating marital jitters.

Liv's brother, Nate (Bryan Greenberg), is clearly sweet on his sister's friend, whom he's known all his life, but Emma seems only dimly aware of his interest.

When the assistant to high-powered wedding planner Marion (Candice Bergen in an amusing bit) screws up the dates, the ladies are -- horrors! -- forced to have their weddings in the same room.

Before long, Liv and Emma are hell-bent on sabotaging each other's weddings. Their tactics include Liv fiddling with Emma's tanning spray at Emma's spa, turning the latter's skin burnt orange; Emma switching Liv's hair coloring to garish blue at the hairdresser; Liv substituting the dance-instructor-from-hell for Emma's real one; and Emma tempting Liv with fattening food so she won't fit into her wedding dress. And so on.

But, of course, throughout all the catty and sophomoric shenanigans, it's easy to see they actually profoundly miss their friendship, which comes to the fore in the film's farcical conclusion on the big day.

Hudson (who also produced) and Hathaway are in good comic form, and there's some poignancy beneath the slapstick, as orphaned Liv's longing for her parents figures in the plot, too.

With, as noted, the significant moral reservation that Emma and Liv cohabit with their fiances, director Gary Winick's only fitfully amusing "chick flick" otherwise has no significant sex or language issues. (There's a scene where Emma crashes Liv's bachelorette party and takes to the stage with a couple of male strippers, but it's fairly tame).

The screenplay by co-writers Greg DePaul (who wrote the original story), Casey Wilson (who briefly appears in the film) and June Diane Raphael features worthy if pat messages about lasting friendship and sensible priorities, including ultimately disdaining all the materialistic trappings of deluxe weddings. But we've seen all this before.