TAKEN 3, starring Liam Neeson


I have not seen Taken and Taken 2, so perhaps there is an inside joke or some plot details that make Taken 3 more interesting than I found it to be in my pathetic ignorance of the other two films.

It’s like a TV crime show, just longer to fill up the two hours. Ridiculous car chases on Los Angeles freeways that have way fewer cars on them than I have ever experienced when driving in LA. This ridiculous: cars driving down the wrong way on the freeway, flipping up into the air, riding along the concrete barriers, and then driving off with nothing more than a dent in the fender; people enduring this vehicular mayhem sans-a-scratch; cars exploding with incredible amounts of fire–I mean, really, my van holds 16 gallons of gas. Is that enough, even without the preceding giant car chase, to make a fireball a hundred feet high with several separate explosions? Of course, I bow to the explosion gods who know these things.

Add to this nonsense, the folly of old guys playing roles in which they single-handedly kill Evil Russian mobsters, and note that the ERMs all have machine guns which destroy everything but Our Hero, but never even graze him. He, of course, kicks away weapons that might help him, trusting in his handgun that conveniently runs out of ammo only when there is another pistol on the ground handy enough for him to pick up. The evilest of the ERMs, gives us more of himself than we want to see in his defining scene. And if they were going to be all bodily like that, could they not have chosen an actor with some discernible abs? Tighty-whiteys have their place, and I’m not saying they don’t, but c’mon, man.

There’s also that tired old saw of the lone guy who can stop an airplane by chasing it with a car. See Argo if you want to see this sort of thing done in a much more highly-charged, yea, even terrifying manner. (See Argo immediately if you haven’t. Obviously.) In defense of the car-airplane scene in Taken 3, at least it’s not as completely inane as the idiotic plane-landing scene in the recent cinematic catastrophe Left Behind.

Movies that I didn’t like that were better than this one: The Equalizer with Denzel Washington, another movie in which an old guy single-handedly kills roomsful of Russian mobsters without getting a scratch . . . oh wait, I’m not sure that one was any better than this one, never mind; Gone Girl starring Ben Affleck, another movie in which a man is accused of murdering his wife, because in GG, there is a lot of tension–we don’t know whether Amazing Amy’s husband is going to go down for the crime. Here, we know from the get-go who is and is not guilty, and that’s a plot fail. Granted, there is a little bit of an “aha” moment, but it isn’t surprising, nor is the motive very complex.

Forest Whitaker, as the lead LAPD officer, adds some star power to the film, not that Neeson doesn’t have that, just that Whitaker’s role is not ridiculous. He isn’t given the world’s greatest script; for example, I’m guessing that LAPD officers don’t typically eat the evidence, nor was it necessary here, but I won’t say more, in case you’re going to see this mildly interesting crime drama.

The biggest problem with Bryan Mills’s (Neeson) behavior is that none of it is necessary. The evidence is so clear and so easily obtainable–indeed, the police do have the relevant evidence to find the killers of Mills’s ex-wife within 24 hours of her murder–that none of his “bustin’ in the doors to wreak justice” behaviors are necessary. Had he allowed himself (as a normal person would do) to be arrested, then talked his head off to the interrogating officers, cooperated, encouraged his daughter to cooperate, he would have been released with apologies within a few days, avoiding all the nonsensical car chases, foot chases in which an old dude outruns young police officers in cars, and so forth.

It’s the script, of course. Everyone does what he can, but you can’t overcome a script that relies on clues from a bagel, and the premise that the LAPD isn’t smart enough to check security cameras. The worst part of the script, possibly, is that this movie ends as The Equalizer ended, with the “good guy” who has done nothing but kill, maim, and disable people throughout the entire event walk away free and clear. I wonder if this happens: if you can escape from police custody by tossing officers out of their cars onto the freeway, terrorize the public by driving like a madman, obstruct justice, avoid arrest, assault multiple officers of the law, beat up scores of people–leaving some with broken bones, some with massive internal injuries, and some dead–all of this to find the real killer, who would have been found anyway in about two days, and then you walk away without any charges against you because, after all, you meant well, and you had your family’s best interest at heart. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen.

All that said, I didn’t hate the movie. It was sort of okay, but if you want to see a movie where Mr. Neeson is escaping through the sewers (as he does here), may I recommend the classic 1998 Les Miserables?

BIG EYES, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz

big eyes

I know it’s shameful how many movies I’ve liked recently, since I usually hate everything. Blame it on the Oscar-baiting which occurs every year at this time. Oscar-baiting is the bizarre view that the good folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, when culling through all the year’s work, like the most recent stuff best. As if they think, “Wow, I can’t remember Belle, because May was so long ago.”

In any event, we, the viewing public, get a holiday bonanza because of this squishing of all the good stuff into late December. Therefore, I’m liking a lot of movies these days. Or perhaps I’ve just gone soft.

(Even the trailers are amazing this time of year. The Homesman trailer brought me to tears, as did the trailer for The Good Lie. The trailer for The Woman in Gold made me angry to the point of words under my breath, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel trailer made me laugh out loud with simple happiness. We’ve all been extremely disappointed by movies that fail to live up to their trailers–there are uncountable examples of this–but I am hoping for the best with all these, especially The Homesman, which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank. Watch all these trailers on youtube immediately, please. I’m not making them clickable here, because then you’ll go away and never come back to read my review.)

Whatever the answer, I loved Big Eyes, the true story of a woman who loves a man and a man who loves himself and wants everyone else to love him too. In his quest for love, riches, and fame, he tosses away truth as if there is no value to it, and certainly no value above his need to be paid and adored.

It’s the 1960s, and Walter Keane is a widely-admired painter of children with big eyes. Haunting, if simple, paintings of children who seem beat-down, emotionally starved. Walter grows famous and rich off these paintings, the prints and postcards of which become ubiquitous. But there’s a secret. There’s a hidden truth. Big Eyes is the story of that truth, the lies which surround it, and the inevitable conclusion, because of course, truth will out sooner or later, not always quietly.

Big Eyes is instructive, perhaps even healing, for anyone who has been in a difficult relationship, particularly one in which a partner seems charming and magnetic in public, but at home is controlling and cruel. It may be even more instructive if you haven’t experienced that type of relationship, but have a friend who complains about a relationship, and you can’t figure out why–his or her spouse or partner seems so nice, whatever could be wrong, you must be exaggerating.

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane is wonderful, as is Christoph Waltz as the charismatic-then-tyrranical husband/artist. Amy Adams can play anything, of course, and Christoph Waltz is magical in every role he undertakes. This one is very near the top, though it’s hard to pick this role over his dentist in Django or his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, but perhaps only because here he’s wearing ordinary clothes and not blowing people up or getting swastikas carved into his head.

It’s not necessary to see this one on the big screen, so if your movie time and/or budget is running thin because of Imitation Game and Theory of Everything, and you’re looking forward to Selma and American Sniper, you can wait for this one to come out on DVD or streaming.

Definitely a great movie for girlfriends of any age to attend so they can say bad things about Mr. Keane and throw popcorn at him and then go out after and talk about all the awful men they’ve interacted with. That sounds like manhate, but it could also be quite the catharsis. If you want to go out and talk about women who are awful, you’ll have to pick another movie, as Big Eyes is definitely a “Go Girl” show.

THE GAMBLER, starring Mark Wahlberg


This is my 200th post, woot woot. Now, moving along . . .

The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, is too long and too lacking in character development to be worth your time. If you must see it, because you like movies where people are foolish and brutalized and where random women, in random situations unconnected to the plot, walk around (or pole around, as the case may be) sans various garments, do me a favor and wait for the DVD or streaming version.

Here’s the story: Jim Bennett is a college English prof who has a lot of skills, though at the moment his teaching ability is hampered by his uncontrollable gambling, which he does in high-end secret and illegal joints stuffed alternately into lavish mansions with stunning views of the Pacific and seedy back-alley warehouse looking slum-digs. In both of these places, he makes obscene and absurd bets with (1) his and then (2) other people’s money.

Losing everything, he gets roughed up, threatened, made to ask something of one of his students that is unconscionable and illegal. He seems to feel nothing about it–no qualms, no conscience, no change of heart.

Stupid things happen: a kid goes to Las Vegas to place a gigantic bet on a sporting event, but when he comes back he doesn’t say, “Dude, I couldn’t do it because I’m like not even 21.” He comes back saying, “Why did I go to Vegas, man,” as if he doesn’t know.

The ending is all wrong, of course, and all rationality to the wind, Bennett takes off running at a sprinter’s pace for the entire night. Without breaking a sweat. Possibly literary license meant to show that he is now free, but frankly, I’m not impressed. Because a gambler isn’t free when he can run all night. A gambler is free when he can come into possession of money and use it in the right way. Every day. All the time.

Also ridiculous is an inappropriate prof-student relationship. Genius English majors don’t run off with broken-down neurosis-ridden used-to-be’s. (Yes, I agonized over that apostrophe.) They go, “Um, no, you’re gross,” and apply more lip gloss.

Nothing good happens in this movie, and there’s that horrible moment where you know you are cheering for the bad guy and when he wins, you have a “whew” moment of relief, but you feel bad, because you know what Bennett needs is an intervention and some very intensive rehab, not a roulette win.

Mark Wahlberg is good in the role, for what that’s worth, and Jessica Lange is great as his mother. Horrible family dynamic well played. John Goodman as Fat Frank the Money Lender is spectacular. If you want to see better movies with these people, see The Departed, Tootsie, and Argo. Right away, if there are any of those you haven’t seen before.



Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like this movie, but I did. It’s the story of Moses and Pharaoh, the Ten Plagues, Passover, and the crossing of the Red Sea. There are wonderful visuals of the cities of Egypt and the Hebrew slaves slaving to build said cities.

The story follows the Bible narrative, with some startling departures. God is not depicted as you expect. You don’t expect God to be depicted at all, really, but there he is. I asked my sons about this and one said, “God can show himself however he wants,” and I suppose this is true. Moses also doesn’t stay in the desert for 40 years. He’s there 9 years. I can overlook this, but lots of people won’t.

I enjoyed the slow pace of the movie–the plagues don’t start for a long, long time, and when they start they go fast.

There’s this beautiful little baby whom Pharaoh loves, and when you see Pharaoh’s father-love for this little boy, your own heart hurts because you know what’s coming. The Tenth Plague (thankfully, no green fog attends) moves slowly and sadly and your heart hurts for the poor Egyptians who after all had no say in the matter.

The eternal question asserts itself: how can a righteous God be so cruel. Not to sully a Bible story by evoking Quentin Tarantino, but the same question is asked in the over-the-top violent movie Django. How much violence is enough or too much when the object of the violence is to secure the beloved? How much violence is too much to repay a nation for enslaving a people for 400 years?

And couldn’t God have freed his people some other, less violent, way? I don’t know. I can say that I didn’t like all the violence, all the plagues. I’d never before thought of the ordinary Egyptians losing their livelihoods, their beloved animals, being eaten up by flies and boils, being beaten up by hail, seeing their hard-worked crops devoured by locusts.

Pharaoh is a sympathetic character. I liked him a lot and wanted him to survive. My heart hurt for him in his losses, his confusion, his desire to be a good king and father.

Moses was well played. He’s a strong and able man who wants to do the right thing in the right way and isn’t sure God knows what he’s doing. God straightens him up on that, and in the end, Moses believes.

I was excited to see that Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad was playing Joshua. Alas, he has a couple of decent lines and a few one- or two-word answers. Not sure this adds to his resume at all. He needs a real part. We know he can play it.

In sum, the large outlines of the story are intact, and there are some major departures (I didn’t list them all here). I will say that this movie has more Bible in it and more about redemption in it than any of the so-called “Christian” movies I’ve forced myself to see lately.

I explained all that to my kids and we all went. They enjoyed it, as did I.

In fact, I don’t want to hear any complaining about the little boy or the crocodiles or the lack of Gershom’s circumcision when there’s drivel out there like Left Behind being touted as “Christian.”

WILD, starring Reese Witherspoon


Wild is the true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Ms. Witherspoon), a troubled young woman who chooses to hike the Pacific Crest Trail’s thousand miles in an attempt to exorcise emotional chaos, put some distance (literally and figuratively) between herself and a significant other or two, and generally clean up her body with a hundred-day knockout punch.

Most people don’t get up in the morning and say, “Wow, I’ve screwed up my life and my life has screwed up me, so I’ll walk from the Mexican border to Washington state,” but then not everyone gets matching tattoos with her husband right before filing for divorce. The divorce papers include the change of name from whatever-it-was-before to “Strayed,” and that’s not because that was her maiden name.

The scenery is gorgeous. Ms. Witherspoon does a great job as Cheryl, hiking alone without any previous hiking experience a trail which is usually undertaken only by experts. Her inexperience gives us a few laughs, particularly with the backpack filled with everything except a refrigerator and set of encyclopedias.

I’m not sure the movie depicts the walk with any accuracy. I’m not a hiker, but there doesn’t seem to be a moment when Cheryl-the-novice is unable to move for pain. Nor does she weep her head off with the complete overwhelmingness of what she’s set out to do. She simply giggles and says, “Yeah, I think about quitting all the time.” Different personalities, different responses to seeming impossibility, I guess. Frankly, her approach is more likely of success than mine. I’d have (maybe) gotten to Kennedy Meadows and called an ambulance to drive me anywhere right now as fast as you can.

There’s a fantastic goldmine of an advertisement for REI, the camping store. No one who sees this movie will ever get his hiking boots anywhere else. I know I’m going to buy mine there.

Because this movie does make you want to go hiking. Or at least think about hiking. Or at least open a window and let in the fresh air while wearing your new REI boots-with-one-year-warranty. And all of that is good.

Also good are the parts of the movie that deal with Ms. Strayed’s great personal loss. The flashbacks are emotionally wrenching. These are the best part of the movie and the core of it. The long walk is a hoped-for catharsis for her heartbreaking loss.

Do not take your children. Drug use. Sexual situations. Language. I would have liked it better with a different set of problems to be overcome, but it’s a true story, and if the real Cheryl Strayed was a heroin addict who slept with anyone who asked, I guess that’s what the movie’s going to show.

INTO THE WOODS, starring Meryl Streep


Call me ridiculous, but I didn’t know Into the Woods was a musical. And not a musical like The Sound of Music where people do a lot of talking and then burst into songs about raindrops, kittens, and copper kettles, but the kind where people are singing all the time about everything.

Mrs. Baker wants a baby. There’s a decent and reasonable explanation why she can’t have one, but there is one way. A woman who wants a baby will do what it takes, especially if there’s only this one time. Only one chance.

Mrs. Jacksmom is starving. She needs food. Cinderella needs a prince. Prince Charming needs a bride. Rapunzel needs her freedom. The Wolf needs a meal. Red Riding Hood needs a grandma. And so on.

But the Witch (Ms. Streep) needs herself back. That’s controlling here. Everything that is done is done at her bidding and for that reason, although the other people have their own reasons for what they do. Their own wishes.

Dreams come true (Chris Pine as Prince Charming is a dream come true, right?). Some people don’t make it. The duet of Prince Charming and Rapunzel’s Prince is worth the price of admission. It’s hilarious, if far too short.