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'Taken 2' - Not as bad as they say ...

I have a soft spot for movies that get awful reviews- and I have found that a good number like ‘The Pirate Movie’, ‘Jake Speed’, and ‘Mammia Mia!’ to count just a few are underserving of the bad press that they got. Now part of that may well be down to the criticism to begin with , because if a film gets slated badly, then your expectations of it are low and more often then not, you come out of it saying something like “It wasn’t that bad!” or “What are the critics going on about?”.

‘Taken 2’ also falls into this category having received very lame reviews but that has not stopped its audience appeal. It has already grossed around $280 million and counting. If you did not see the original 2008 ‘Taken’, this sequel follows on from the episode where Liam Neeson plays an ex CIA Operative Brian Mills who still acts as a ‘minder’ or ‘Security Consultant’ for the wealthy, but his mind is set on putting back together the pieces of his broken relationships with his estranged wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace).

In the original ‘Taken’, Grace was kidnapped by people smugglers in France. Here, Mills makes a rare mistake by inviting his family to holiday in Istanbul, where, yes you’ve guessed it, they get kidnapped –this time by the family of the men that Mills wiped out in the first film, thus, the scene is set for Mills to do his Bourne/Bond/Rambo thing and recover them again.

This all sounds very predictable and as you might expect, you will not get surprised by any complicated plot twists, but what you do get is a superior action movie- it rises to a level above what you normally could expect by some strong performances by the trio of actors especially Liam Neeson. Yes, it is easy to say that he must be slumming it here again. Granted that ‘Taken 2’ is a long, long way from his roles in ‘Kinsey’ and ‘Schindlers List’, but you are charmed by him the playing of his character and there is subtle about his intense passion to protect his family.

Like Bond films of old, you are never in doubt as to who the bad guys are and that makes for a straight forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ epic. The film is violent, it is reminiscent of the Charles Bronson ‘Death Wish’ films with a very strong leading man leading his fight to the front line demolishing pretty much whoever gets in his way. But it still makes for some very good sub-James Bond entertainment that should satisfy you ahead of the real thing…  

'Everything or Nothing' - the 'Official' James Bond ...

Those of you who can’t wait for the latest and 23rd James Bond film –‘Skyfall’ have only two more days to wait but if even that is too far away, you can get some solace by watching a surprising good documentary on the Bond series ‘Everything or Nothing’- named after the film production company (shortened to EON) set up by Bond pioneers ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

As the documentary is made by the company it is about you could easily think it would be the corporate love letter suggested but it is far, far better than that- even better then the DVD Extra that Radio 5 Live’s Mark Kermode had also suggested.

It’s really aimed at the James Bond fan as it goes through the entire Bond history from Ian Fleming’s original penning of the character and novel,  the various legal battles over the years about who owned copyright to the character and stories, the difficulties with Sean Connery, the truth about George Lazenby to its rebirth under Pierce Brosnan and carried forward to the present day with Daniel Craig- thereby celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Although it’s subtitle is ‘The Untold Story of 007’, much of it is familiar to us all but where it wins is in the breadth of contributor especially from the Ian Fleming era. You have Christopher Lee who was Fleming’s Step Cousin as well as playing Scaramanga in ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, the actress Lucy Fleming his Niece, and Fleming’s assistant who could vouch for his ‘way with women’. Some of the most interesting elements in the whole story revolves around  the depression that Fleming suffered and how he came alive with his Caribbean hideaway named ‘Goldeneye’ and his creation of Bond himself.

As with many successful creations, Bond had various false starts before it hit the big time with ‘Dr No’ in 1962 but the film  does convey that Bond has had to justify itself when times changed- when the Berlin Wall came down, just who was the enemy? When Bond’s antics were out of step with contemporary living, what was his role?

‘Everything or Nothing’- depending on your take- is either harsh on Connery or just realistic. Despite making him the superstar he became, the film says he felt under appreciated and under paid and he does not provide any input to the documentary –the only Bond to do so. Ultimately the film charts the sad fall out between Connery and Cubby Broccoli in particular and it is only towards the end of the latter’s life that they make peace together.

It is an enthralling documentary and the contributions of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan are especially insightful and funny. The weakness of the film though is that there are no objective views of Bond or the films. We could have done with a non partisan view of the series- its highpoints and failures and an assessment of where it stands now –especially as it has recently been overtaken by the Harry Potter films as the most successful series of films.

But this is a minor consideration in what is as good an official history of James Bond as you will ever get. Well worth catching if you can find it before seeing 'Skyfall'.

Goodbye Hermione

It’s the perennial problem for stars of hit  films  or TV series, especially of the so call called ‘child stars’- that is how to successfully move away from something that has been both familiar to them but also very successful- and to avoid that awful tag of being ‘type cast’.

The problem has tended to be that writers, producers, the media especially but also the public have that one great role associated with the actor or actress and are not as welcoming when they do something else. You can think of ‘Dr Who’ actresses in particular who have struggled to convince in other roles and child actors like Tatum O’Neil, Kristy McNichol and Macaulay Culkin who have (so far) not made the transition into fully fledged adult performers.

It’s a dilemma and a challenge that the Harry Potter actors are actively taking on at the moment. It’s true that Rupert Grint (‘Ron’) is perhaps the least ambitious of the Potter trio and he has yet to be seen in any major productions although it was hoped that his anti-war picture ‘Into the White’ would change that but it is still waiting a major release.

The most successful so far has been Daniel Radcliffe who both in between  and after playing ‘Harry’ won critical acclaim in taking on stage starring roles in ‘Equus’, and more recently ‘How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, and even squeezed in the Australian movie’ December Boys’. His real post Potter breakthrough role though was in the hugely successful film version of ‘The Woman In Black’ with more projects in the pipeline.

Now it is the turn of the person who I have always thought was the most impressive of our magic trio-Emma Watson who enthralled people with her performance of the real backbone of Potter-Hermione. She showed her acting credentials almost instantly when at the age of barely 11 she strode into the carriage of the Hogwarts Express and said those immortal lines: “Has anyone seen a toad? A boy named Neville’s lost one”. Potter apart, Emma Watson has become something of a fashion icon (the youngest person to appear on ‘Teen Vogue’ and she became the ‘face’ of Burberry)  had  starring roles in the BBC film ‘Ballet Shoes’, opposite Victoria Wood, was ‘voice talent’ for the animated ‘The Tale of Despereaux’, acted opposite Eddie Redmayne and Richard Branagh  in ‘My Week With Marilyn’ and now stars in the critically acclaimed ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’.

In it, Watson- for the first time- puts on a (very effective you have to say) American accent as she plays Sam who with her step brother (played by Ezra Miller) and new adopted friend (Logan Lerman) play as eccentric but authentic school chums as is possible. It’s a kind of ‘Breakfast Club’ for the 1990’s told through a series of letters Lerman writes to a ‘friend’. ‘Wallflower’ was a signficiant novel for US Youth and like ‘Breakfast Club’ it says something poignant and true about teenage years, the importance and perils of friendship and why they are the greatest time ever.

In it, Emma Watson pretty much nails the character of Sam with her doubts about whether she gets the love that she ‘deserves’ and doubts about her academic skills (very non Hermoine) but she shows a maturity in her acting that bodes well for the future. ‘Wallflower’ had a limited release in the USA but a much fuller one in the UK so it will be good to see how successful it is not just in monetary terms but in developing peoples’ views of Watson as a non-Potter performer.  Certainly she seems to be choosing well in terms of who she works for. Up next is Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Bling Ring’, Seth Rogan’s ‘The End of the World’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’, currently filming in Iceland.

'Hope springs' - Naughty but not ...

The story of how I got to see ‘Hope Springs’ is an interesting one. I had been having lunch with a couple of close girlfriends and one of them mentioned that she and another friend had seen ‘Hope Springs’ but that her other friend was quite shocked by it – to the degree that the friend actually said that in her eyes it was ‘pornography’ – which I thought was quite strong. But looking at the various reviews for the picture there were several comments from people who had seen it that for something rated as ‘12A’ it was very strong and in one case someone walked out with their 12 year old because of its reference to talk of oral sex, sexual fantasies and ‘graphic re-enactment involving bananas” and got a refund too boot.

So, I thought I would see it to see whether it was as strong as some have made out. ‘Hope Springs’ has a fairly checked history as it was originally to be made with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges playing opposite each other and it was to be directed by Mike Nichols. But then Bridges dropped out with other names such as James Gandolfini and Phillip Seymour Hoffman mentioned but then they and Nichols left. In the end while Meryl Streep remained in the lead female role, in came in Tommy Lee Jones and the project itself was directed by David Frankel who helmed Streep’s ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

As written by Vanessa Taylor, it is on the face of it a simple tale of Kay  (Streep)  and Arnold Soames (Tommy Lee Jones) as a middle America couple who have been married to each other for 31 years, whose children have grown up and moved out and who have grown apart. Physically, their relationship has dissipated. He doesn’t touch her, it’s been 4 years since they actually had sex with each other and whilst he has his head in the sand (or falling asleep whilst watching Golf on ESPN), Kay wants to save her marriage and be loved and touched again and books the two of them in with an intensive marriage counselling course with Dr Bernie Feld (a very dry and droll Steve Carell) in a out of the way costal town in Maine.

Now whilst Kay wants to be there, Arnold does not in a really, really big way. His reasons range from the cost involved, to the kind of ‘quack’ that he thinks Feld is, to the kind of place they have to travel to. Underneath it all, he just doesn’t see that there is a problem in his marriage and just wants to carry on and deny that their lack of a sex life is a problem. Through various stages of the counselling, Feld gets Kay and Arnold to open and discuss what their sex life has consisted of, what they want from being physical with each other, what their fantasies are, and without giving anything away, these creates all kind of challenges especially to the oppressed Arnold.

To begin with, it is not to my eyes or ears ‘Pornography. It is very Adult though and for a ‘12A’ it is definitely pushing the boundaries as to what is acceptable for someone under 12 with a parent or over 12 on their own to view in a cinema. There are frequent sexual references and it is certainly not for those with prudish views as the language is quite explicit but very funny. The movie works on two levels for me- it is funny to see how the oppressed Arnold Soames (a brilliantly squirmy turn by Tommy Lee Jones) explains what he misses with sex whilst Meryl Streep is the heart of the picture whether it is as the wife who has been forgotten about by her dry husband or the woman who realises that she cannot turn on her husband. Streep is a remarkably attractive actress but here she is as dowdy and down beat as you could expect.

Steve Carell puts in a hugely restrained and controlled performance as the therapist who guides the married couple through their frustrations and resists the temptation to jazz it up too comically. The other angle to the picture is what it says about some marriages where after a while someone loses interest in sex, the other person gets used to that and that physicality does not return. It is at its best when looking at how reluctant men can be in discussing their needs and why so many find it easier not to address the problem and deal with it another way- Golf or other activities…

You also feel as good as the picture is that there is another movie trying to get out. There are shockingly short scenes involving two major Hollywood players in Mimi Rogers and Elisabeth Shue (go the toilet during the picture and you will probably miss them)  but what there is is still hugely entertaining but don’t take that maiden aunt of yours…….