New films: Taken 2, Frankenweenie, Stars in Shorts – plus film highlights
Directed by Olivier Megaton
When “Taken” opened, it came as a surprise for assorted reasons. The basic plot about a man who fights to free his kidnapped daughter was extremely simple, as simple as, for example, the original “Die Hard” about a cop in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both movies featured a favorite theme of mine – the reluctant hero, the person who finds themself in an unexpected and undesirable situation that requires their action. But “Taken” was also quite different from many other films of that nature in that while the hero is an ex government operative with prodigious skills, he’s also a father worried only about his daughter’s safety.
Most heroes in most films are bound by some set of rules – a character like Bruce Wllis’ cop in “Die Hard” may be off duty but he’s still a cop. James Bond may be licensed to kill, but the expectation is that he’s going to kill bad guys and he still has superiors to answer to. When we’re given protagonists who operate outside of some set of societal rules, they’re often renegades or outlaws to begin with – whether they be Robin Hood, Butch and Sundance, or a recent action character like that played by Jason Statham in the “Transporter” films.
In contrast, Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a good guy, and the hero/protagonist of the “Taken” franchise, who has a background operating within some set of rules, however hazy, who is now completely unburdened by any such limits. And so we get the relatively unusual character who is quite comfortable strapping a villain to a chair (as in “Taken”) and electrocuting him to death, while also seeking the critical next clue to the whereabouts of his missing daughter. This is helped, of course, by putting him up against human traffickers who aren’t exactly the most sympathetic bunch of opponents, but it’s still an intriguing dynamic.
One of the most similar films might be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “All I care about is Jenny” role as another father freeing a daughter in 1985’s “Commando.” But Schwarzenegger was already known for the “Conan” films, “The Terminator,” and “Red Sonja.” There was no big surprise in terms of the kind of character he would play or the action that would be involved. Whereas four years ago, Neeson wasn’t especially known for action hero roles – he was as more Oskar Schindler or Alfred Kinsey, than Qui-Gon Jinn or Godfrey de Ibelin (“Kingdom of Heaven”). So Neeson as a no-holds-barred ass-kicker wasn’t a given or even very expected.
Which brings us to “Taken 2,” which has the relative misfortune of needing to recreate what made “Taken” work, despite the fact that much of what made “Taken” work was a combination of surprise and the unusual character dynamic that we’re now familiar with. The action is still there, as is the pragmatic brutality as Mills has to keep his wife and daughter away from the disgruntled father of one of the men he killed last time around, but the plot stretches more in an attempt to bring us new surprises. It also has a slow buildup which might work well when the destination is a surprise but which represents more of an impediment when you know where the movie’s going – because, after all, where the movie is going is the movie’s only reason to exist, to show us Neeson killing the new crop of bad guys.
This recreation of Liam Neeson as action hero has brought us the god(s)awful “Clash of the Titans”/”Wrath of the Titans,” the interesting and meaningful “The Grey” (far deeper than the man vs. wolves survival story it’s often described as), and the sheer adrenaline rush of “Taken”/”Taken 2.” It’s worth noting that, at this point in time, Neeson is 60 and although he’s a big guy, he isn’t built like another Schwarzenegger. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to look that good at 60 (or now for that matter), but he doesn’t radiate ‘action hero’ when you look at him. And that may be part of the appeal – he’s also handsome but not in a magazine cover, pretty boy kind of way – he’s like an everyman’s thinking/action hero – and in “Taken 2” there’s a also a lot of thinking. He ends up being more appealing because he doesn’t look like he was carved from a block of granite and neither do the rest of us – and so his actions seem more like they might be within the reach of an everyman with a similar background.
“Taken 2” can’t realistically recreate the moment that was captured in “Taken,” but it tries very hard and it’s still a fun ride. And each time you see a new boyfriend for the daughter or hear mention of the lead villain’s unseen additional sons, you can’t help but count forward in your head to all of the potential new combinations of family kidnappings and kidnappers that can lead to “Taken 3,” “Taken 4,” etc., each of which now have a slightly lower bar to hurdle.
Directed by Tim Burton
This feature length stop-motion animation version of “Frankenweenie” is based on Tim Burton’s 1984 live-action short of the same name. So if you see it and wonder why there are end credit thanks for Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and Barret Oliver, it’s because they were the original cast. This time around the voice cast includes Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, and Martin Short. But, unusually for Burton, it doesn’t include either Johnny Depp or Burton’s partner Helena Bonham Carter.
The new version is neat on multiple levels. Not just for the story but for wonderful little details that give the film more depth. On its face, it retells the Frankenstein story with Victor Frankenstein as a young boy attempting to re-animate his dead dog, but the film also includes imagery consistent with other classic horror films. And this could be the secret to its potential success – where many films targeted towards children throw in all sorts of mildly adult jokes and double-entendres for the parents in the room, “Frankenweenie” achieves the same result through these visual clues that most of the smaller audience members won’t appreciate, at least not yet. It’s a film that many kids could watch now and enjoy, and then watch multiple additional times over the years and appreciate in new ways, as they expand their film horizons.
That said, to be honest, at the start of the film I was mildly annoyed that it seemed to be just another Burtonesque project with the predictable art direction and visual elements. But it all works here and is Burton’s best and freshest work in years.
Stars in Shorts
A film format not often seen by most filmgoers is the short which, under Academy rules, is any project with a running time of less than 40 minutes – and often considerably less. They are a staple of film festival programs and thematic collections occasionally make the rounds of art house theaters. Sacramento’s Crest Theatre has, for example, shown several annual collections of short films that have been nominated in their respective years for Academy Awards. Now they’re screening a collection of seven shorts that each feature actors that are better known for their work in feature films and television.
The films include “After School Special,” previously seen in Sacramento at last year’s Sacramento Film & Music Festival, starring Wes Bentley and Sarah Paulson as single parents whose encounter at a kids play area starts awkwardly and leads to an even more awkward ending. “Friend Request Pending” is a wonderful examination of dating in a time dominated by facebook and other social media, including the abbreviated language of “LOL” and “OMG” – except that the chatty action is between seniors, primarily the always wonderful Judi Dench. In “Steve,” socially isolated Colin Firth finds weak and increasingly desperate (and disturbingly amusing) excuses to visit his upstairs neighbors, Keira Knightley and Tom Mison.
The remaining four films feature Kenneth Branagh, Julia Stiles, Jason Alexander, Lily Tomlin, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, and Jennifer Morrison. Total running time for all seven films is 1 hour and 51 minutes and screening times can be found at www.thecrest.com.
Other upcoming film highlights
The 13th “A Place Called Sacramento” screening takes place on Sunday, October 7th at the Crest Theatre. This unique program, administered by Access Sacramento, begins in the Spring as a screenwriting competition, with 10 winning screenplays being advanced to the production phase and finished films being seen on the Crest’s historic main screen. All screenplays must feature Sacramento as an element in the storytelling and the program has helped many local filmmakers and actors take their first steps into the filmmaking community. Details at www.thecrest.com.
The 21st Sacramento International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will be at the Crest Theatre, October 11th-13th. Details at www.siglff.org.
The 6th Sacramento Horror Film Festival will be at the Colonial Theatre, October 12th-14th. Details at www.sachorrorfilmfest.com.
Disclosure: Tony Sheppard is Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a screenplay judge for the A Place Called Sacramento program.