Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room


Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Film Review: Faults (dir by Riley Stearns)


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Faults is many things.

It’s a character study.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a deeply unsettling horror film.  It’s a darker-than-dark comedy that will make you laugh even while you’re glancing over your shoulder to make sure there are no strangers hiding in the shadows.  It’s a look at religion, faith, free will, and guilt.  It’s a declaration that a major talent — writer/director Riley Stearns — has arrived.  It’s an acting showcase for both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser.  It’s a film that found success on the festival circuit and then had an all-too brief theatrical release in March.  It’s also a film that’s currently available on Netflix.  Finally, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.

When we first meet professional cult deprogrammer Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), he is eating dinner in a hotel restaurant and desperately trying to convince his waiter that he has an agreement with management, guaranteeing him free meals while staying at the hotel.  After Ansel is kicked out of the restaurant, he then tries to convince the hotel manager that his room is supposed to be free as well.  The manager gives Ansel an hour to check out.

As quickly becomes apparent, Ansel is nearly broke and he’s living out of his car.  What little money he has, he makes from giving sparsely attended lecture where he literally begs people to pay fifteen dollars to get a copy of his latest book.  After his lectures, Ansel is willing to sign his new book at a cost of five dollars per signature.

(At one point, when someone asks Ansel to sign his previous book, Ansel abruptly explains that he no longer signs that book.  If you want his five dollar autograph, you have to first pay fifteen dollars to get his new book.)

At one point, Ansel was a minor celebrity with his own talk show but, after a girl he deprogrammed subsequently committed suicide, Ansel’s life fell apart.  His latest book is self-published and his former manager, the oddly polite Terry (Jon Gries), claims that Ansel owes him money.  Terry’s enforcer, Mick (the always intimidating Lance Reddick), is stalking Ansel from cheap motel to cheap motel.

However, things start to look up for Ansel when he’s approached by Paul (Chris Ellis) and Evelyn (Beth Grant).  They explain that their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), has joined a cult known as Faults and is a follower of a mysterious figure named Ira.  They ask Ansel to deprogram her.  Ansel agrees to do so and charges them $20,000.

After Ansel and two “assistants” literally grab Claire off the street, they take her to a cheap motel where, behind locked doors, Ansel starts to try to deprogram Claire.  However, from the start, Ansel discovers that it’s going to be more difficult than he realized.

For one thing, Claire remains calm throughout the whole kidnapping and, even when locked in the shabby motel room, is confident that she is about to “move on” and achieve a higher level of existence.  When Paul and Evelyn show up and try to talk to Claire, it turns out that they’re not quite the loving parents that they initially presented themselves as being.  Paul, in particular, reveals himself to have a fierce temper and he demands that Claire change into clothes that would be more appropriate for a teenager than for an adult.  When Ansel suggests that the overbearing Paul should back off, Paul replies that he “knows” what Ansel truly wants to do with Claire.

Secondly, even as Ansel tries to deprogram Claire, he still has to deal with Terry and Mick.  Neither one of them is particularly concerned about whether or not Ansel can pull Claire away from Faults.  Instead, Terry just wants his money.

And finally, even as Ansel tries to keep control of the situation, he is personally falling apart.  He finds himself having sudden nosebleeds.  At one point, his suit spontaneously combusts into flame.  (Believe it or not, there is a relatively plausible reason for why this happens but that doesn’t make it even less shocking.)  When Ansel falls asleep in the motel room, he subsequently wakes up in his car and has no memory of how he got there.

And through it all, Claire remains a seductive and manipulative enigma.  Sometimes she’s cold and in control.  Other times, she’s surprisingly vulnerable.  Ansel finds himself both attracted to and frightened of Claire.  Throughout the film, Ansel insists that he has “free will” but Claire forces him to reconsider that assumption.

Faults is a low-key and disturbing film that is distinguished by a very dark and cynical sense of humor.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing as the mysterious Claire while Leland Orser is wonderfully desperate and surprisingly sympathetic as Ansel.  When Faults first started, I was concerned that, since it largely takes place in one cramped motel room, the film would be too stagey to be effective.  But director Riley Stearns does amazing work with that one location and, as a result, Faults is one of those rare films that actually gets more intriguing the deeper you get into it.

Faults is currently available on Netflix and you should watch it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #100: Pearl Harbor (dir by Michael Bay)


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“And then all this happened…”

Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) in Pearl Harbor (2001)

The “this” that Evelyn Johnson is referring to is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You know, the date will live in infamy.  The attack that caused the United States to enter World War II and, as a result, eventually led to collapse of the Axis Powers.  The attack that left over 2,000 men died and 1,178 wounded.  That attack.

In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, that attack is just one of the many complications in the romance between Danny (Ben Affleck), his best friend Rafe (Josh Hartnett), and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).  The other complications include Danny briefly being listed as dead, Danny being dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was (and yet, later, he’s still seen reading and writing letters with absolutely no trouble, almost as if the filmmakers forgot they had made such a big deal about him not being able to do so), and the fact that Rafe really, really likes Evelyn.  Of course, the main complication to their romance is that this is a Michael Bay film and he won’t stop moving the camera long enough for anyone to have a genuine emotion.

I imagine that Pearl Harbor was an attempt to duplicate the success of Titanic, by setting an extremely predictable love story against the backdrop of a real-life historical tragedy.  Say what you will about Titanic (and there are certain lines in that film that, when I rehear them today, make me cringe), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had genuine chemistry.  None of that chemistry is present in Pearl Harbor.  You don’t believe, for a second, that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are lifelong friends.  You don’t believe that Kate Beckinsale is torn between the two of them.  Instead, you just feel like you’re watching three actors who are struggling to give a performance when they’re being directed by a director who is more interested in blowing people up than in getting to know them.

Continuing the Titanic comparison, Pearl Harbor‘s script absolutely sucks.  Along with that line about “all this” happening, there’s also a scene where Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) reacts to his cabinet’s skepticism by rising to his feet and announcing that if he, a man famously crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, can stand up, then America can win a war.

I’ve actually been to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  I have gone to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I have stood and stared down at the remains of the ship resting below the surface of the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling site, one that leaves you very aware that over a thousand men lost their lives when the Arizona sank.

I have also seen the wall which lists the name of everyone who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and until you’ve actually been there and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you really can’t understand just how overwhelming it all is.  The picture below was taken by my sister, Erin.

Pearl Harbor 2003If you want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, going to the Arizona Memorial is a good start.  But avoid Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at all costs.

Trailer: Taken 3 (Official)


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Why are bad guys still messing with Liam Neeson…I mean Bryan Mills. He literally took on an Albanian gang in Paris (of all places) who were kidnapping young, female tourists to sell to Parisian sex-slave auctioneer who only did business with a very exclusive clientele. Then the hometown relatives of said Albanian gangsters tried to take him out. That didn’t work out so well.

Now, this coming January just when Bryan thought his life as a retired government worker with a unique set of skills can finally enjoy retirement with his lovely daughter and rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife people are out to be quite the killjoy once again.

Taken 3 will see Liam Neeson back as Bryan Mills, Maggie Grace as his daughter Kimmy and joined by Forest Whitaker as an LAPD inspector tasked with taking him down for a murder he didn’t commit. Once again this sequel will be helmed by that French director with the awesome name: Olivier Megaton.

Some people say Taken 3 (will not call it Tak3n) is just a rehash of The Fugitive, but I disagree. Richard Kimble never broke people’s throats and shot many people in their heads to find those responsible. The throat breaking alone puts Bryan Mills heads above Richard Kimble.

Taken 3 is set for January 9, 2015 release date.

Trailer: Taken 2 (Official)


Taken was the surprise hit of 2009 as audiences bought into Liam Neeson as the baddest of badasses. One would rarely think of him as an action-thriller hero. He’s done tough guy, man of action roles in the past but they tended to be of the mentor types. It was the Luc Besson-produced Taken that first made Neeson as a believable action hero.

The film was a simple enough revenge fare. One would thnk that the film’s ending was closure enough that a sequel wasn’t needed, but Hollywood won’t have none of that. It took a year or so, but soon enough 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to the sequel to Taken and quickly greenlit the project.

It’s now 2012 and Neeson’s former CIA black ops character, Bryan Mills, is back to do what he does best and that’s kill, torture and main (not in that particular order every time) every gangster and criminal who gets in his way as he tries to save not just his daughter (again), but his ex-wife as well as they vacation in that hotbed of spying and intrigue,

Istanbul. Luc Leterrier is not helming the sequel but another Besson protege in Olivier Megaton. Now with a name such as Megaton one should expect some explosive action and the trailer hints at such. Here’s to hoping that the film doesn’t go too overboard with the killing and maiming and torturing (again not in that order when they occur each and everytime).

Taken 2 is set for an October 5, 2012 release date.

Review: Taken (dir. by Pierre Morel)


In 2009 a little film coming out of France gained a buzz from on-line film bloggers. The film wasn’t the latest arthouse attempt to relive the glory days of French New Wave. It wasn’t a film that’s become part of the extreme French horror that’s becme all the rage in the horror circles in the past decade or so. This film was an action-thriller starring Irish actor Liam Neeson with an ensemble cast of actors from the US, UK, France and Albania. The film I am talking about is Taken by French filmmaker Pierre Morel (his previous film, District 13 with it’s parkour action scenes would make it a cult hit) and produced by his mentor Luc Besson.

Taken at its most basic core is a film about a father’s love for his daughter who has gotten herself kidnapped by Albanian sex-traffickers while on vacation in Paris, France. Liam Neeson’s character gets introduced as a retired government worker and divorcee whose attempt to reconnect with Kim his teenage daughter (played by Maggie Grace of Lost). His attempts to impress his daughter and make her happy gets upstaged by his ex-wife’s richer husband and stepfather to his daughter. It doesn’t help that Neeson’s character Bryan Mills has skillsets not easily translated to the civilian sector. He’d take an offer of a bodyguard gig from one of his former co-workers and it’s during this security job that we get a clue as to what sort of government employee Bryan Mills was before his decision to retire.

Moving forward we finally get past the introductions of the characters (Famke Janssen as Mills’ ex-wife really comes across as a major harridan who seems intent on punishing Mills for selfish reasons). Mills learns of a trip Kim will be taking with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) to follow U2’s European concert tour. Mills, the clearheaded parent, doesn’t like this plan to have his daughter galavanting across Europe without adult supervision, but his guilt for having neglected Kim while he was working for the government plus his ex-wife’s insistence that Kim take the trip makes him relent, but not without giving her some advice to stay safe.

To say that Kim and Amanda get into a heap of trouble right as soon as they arrive in Paris would be an understatement. The two get kidnapped while staying at the luxury apartment of Amanda’s cousin. Before Kim is taken by the masked intruders (who’ve already taken Amanda) she’s able to make a desperate phone call to her father. Calm, collected and knowing that her daughter’s abduction was an inevitability, Mills instructs his daughter to relay to him as much information as possible about those abducting her. With that information in hand Mills heads to Paris to find his daughter (and to punish those who dare kidnap her).

From then on Taken becomes an action-thriller which barely gives the audience a chance to take a breather. Mills knows his time frame when it comes to finding his daughter gets shorter and shorter thus goes about his job searching for her in a deadly efficient manner. Mills becomes Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne rolled into one. There’s no witty, debonair Bond in this character. Mills goes about his business of interrogating, killing and gathering information with cold, calculating efficiency which leaves no room for Bondesque dialogue. The story moving forward once Mills arrive in Paris becomes almost an extension of Mills’ character. Writers Besson and fellow collaborator Robert Mark Kamen keep the dialogue to the barest minimum. We learn more about Neeson’s character through his actions more than we do during character interactions with other players in the film.

The film hinges on the audience buying Liam Neeson as a deadly, ex-CIA operative who manages to survive every violent encounter throughout the film (some by his own doing and others just trying to survive through it). From how people have reacted to this film and Neeson’s character I would say that it’s a big definitive yes that we buy Neeson as someone akin to Bauer and Bourne. In fact, I would say that Neeson’s Bryan Mills would be the more dangerous of the three. He has no compunction about using torture to gather information and barely breaks a sweat when killing those involved in some way in his daughter’s abduction. He has no bouts of guilt about what he has done in the past (probably killing as a secret agent) , what he’s doing in the present (killing to find his daughter) and what he’ll be doing in the future (probably thinking killing thoughts about anyone who will look at his daughter funny). Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a cold, efficient killing machine who doesn’t use fancy moves to take out his opponents and willing to shoot them in the back if it ends the fight in his favor.

The action sequences in Taken has some parkour influences, but not enough to make it distracting. There were no Michael Bay-style skewed camera angles, slo-mo shots and ADHD-style editing. Morel actually keeps the frenetic editing that made the Jason Bourne fight scenes so dynamic to a minimum. There’s just enough of it to make the fight scenes look brutal and painful, but not enough to make people nauseous. The climactic action sequence on the yacht of a rich buyer of sex-slaves goes by so quickly yet was more entertaining than half the prolonged action scenes from Bay’s Transformers sequel.

The rest of the cast barely keep up with Neeson in the film. They become tertiary characters whose job were to give Neeson’s character the motivations he needs to get the job done. I will say that Maggie Grace as Kim was believable as a teenager even down to the spoiled teen she starts off in the beginning. But again her character was just there to motivate Neeson’s character to go back to doing what he did well and that’s kick ass (he’d probably do it just as well while chewing bubble gum).

In the end, Taken was an action-thriller which more than surprised many people. It cemented Liam Neeson as one badass dude in the same league as Kiefer Sutherland’s Bauer and Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. The film became a showcase for people to witness Neeson kickass and do it believably while Morel does just enough to keep the film from becoming too ridiculous. While Taken won’t herald the coming of another era of French New Wave, it does succeed in doing what it set out to do and that’s entertain, thrill and just give the audience some kickass escapist fare that some big-budgeted Hollywood studio titles never seem to do.