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Kidnapping thriller delivers the goods

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Posted: Friday, February 6, 2009 10:00 pm

On we go with an effective, unapologetically brutal new kidnapping thriller; some more '70s gems; and a saucy, shockingly insightful little sex flick that would make for a great, cynical anti-Valentines Day watch. And a correction: In last week's review of "Straw Dogs," I credited Susan Day with a role that should have been credited to Susan George. I'm sure Ms. George and the apparently non-existent Ms. Day will get over it.

"Taken"

*** 1/2 (out of four)

2009, Pierre Morel, U.S., PG-13

First viewing.

It seems to go against my adventurous movie-going spirit, but I love genre movies that deliver exactly what they promise to, in exactly the way you expect them to. Take "Taken," a preposterous kidnapping thriller that really isn't all that different from any other cheap revenge fantasy, with some key exceptions. Most importantly, this skillfully assembled film recognizes and even embraces its own superfluous nature, and never even attempts to make any kind of serious statement about its subject matter. You're paying to watch a gracefully aging Liam Neeson (as a former CIA operative who goes after the European human traffickers who abducted his vacationing virgin daughter) tear through the streets of Europe with extreme prejudice and reckless abandon, taking out anyone or anything that comes between him and his little girl, and 93 minutes of badass Liam is exactly what you get. (As for any critics who would question the ethics of such a "base" or "fascist" exercise in primal protective responses, I invite them to relax and/or shut up, because the false moralizing is getting old.) If you're looking for a great, important film about the horrific - and tragically common - business of sex slavery, then rent the Swedish drama "Lilya 4-Ever." It's a masterpiece. But if you're simply looking for a little injection of testosterone, some quality thrills and an appealing hero to cheer on, you could do much worse than "Taken."

"The French Connection"

[Masterwork Selection]

1971, William Friedkin, U.S., R

Repeat viewing.

I remember watching this film - one of our greatest crime yarns - at the age of nine on TBS. At the time, I thought it was boring, but it turns out I simply lacked the capacity to enjoy any police thriller that didn't feature a shoot-out every seven minutes. Of course, I was barely cognitive, so my poor taste can be excused, but it does serve to highlight exactly why this modern classic (an Oscar winner for best picture, actor Gene Hackman and director Friedkin) is so amazing: Provided you're not a child and can glean suspense from something other than gunfights, "The French Connection" will keep you riveted even though it's rather lean in the action department by today's standards. Most of the thrills come courtesy of the old-fashioned police work done by detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider, in his best, Oscar-nominated performance) during their surveillance of major players in an international drug syndicate. Who needs shoot-outs when you've got "Popeye" Doyle trailing an aristocratic French drug kingpin through New York's subways, in what is for my money the best cat-and-mouse foot chase ever filmed? For that matter, who needs any other action at all when you've got the famous high-speed car chase through the city, with Doyle pursuing a henchman who has commandeered a subway train? This is great, gritty stuff, filled with evocative cinematography and a griminess you won't soon shake.

"Nashville"

[Masterwork Selection]

1975, Robert Altman, U.S., R

Repeat viewing.

Who would have thought that such a funky little experiment could go so gloriously right? Robert Altman assembled a cast of 24 major characters to improvise their way through a kaleidoscopic portrait of America that also functions as an intimately revealing character study and, yes, even a musical, with all songs written and performed by the actors "in character." The movie works so well so consistently that it's borderline eerie; how could such a mammoth production with so many wild cards come together so perfectly, with such unity? The movie (quite a sit at 160 minutes, even if it is ultimately too short) follows 24 oddball characters over the course of a couple days in Nashville, Tennessee. Most operate symbolically as certain aspects of the national consciousness; some defy categorization (particularly Jeff Goldblum, in his screen debut as a motorcycle-riding mute who could represent anything from God to a court jester). But all are fascinating in their own ways, and everyone has their favorites. Mine? Barbara Harris as Albuquerque, a young "hick" who gets her chance to shine at the film's devastating conclusion by singing a rousing rendition of "It Don't Worry Me" (the film's best song, by a mile). The famous sequence - set at a political rally -is often misconstrued as being uplifting and life-affirming, but personally, I would be hard-pressed to name any other movie set piece that is more infused with the vicious cynicism of the 1970s.

"9 1/2 Weeks"

1986, Adrian Lyne, U.S., R

First viewing.

For some reason, " 91/2 Weeks" has a strong reputation as a "naughty" sex film, and I often hear it dismissed with the same disgusted resentment that one might harbor toward something like "The Red Shoe Diaries" or the R. Kelly video. How shallow a response to such a probing, carefully considered work. Far from a steamy potboiler, this is one of the most richly detailed, highly moral examinations of modern sexual dynamics that I've ever seen. The film is often remembered for Mickey Rourke's smoldering turn as John, a sexually sadistic lothario, but the story is actually focused around Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), the naïve woman he seduces, and what she learns about herself through their experimental trysts. If the film ultimately presented John in an attractive light, I might have some ethical problems with it. However, director Adrian Lyne (just as in his infidelity thrillers "Fatal Attraction" and "Unfaithful") approaches the material with a moralistic tone, and manages to keep John sympathetic while still taking an unflinching look at what kind of effect his idea of "love" has on the vulnerable Elizabeth. She's not purely a victim here, and he isn't simply a perpetrator; it's far more complicated than that (as sex, by its very nature, must always be), and Lyne, working from Elizabeth McNeill's novel, always finds the right balance in tone. It's simultaneously one of the steamiest and saddest movies ever made about sex, and provocative to the point of qualifying as unmissable.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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