Thriller

The Baby

the-baby-movie-poster-1973-1020206752

 

1973

Quintet Productions

Directed by Ted Post

Produced by Abe Polsky, Milton Polsky and Elliott Feinman

Written by Abe Polsky

I am so thankful and grateful that I live in a world where movies like THE BABY were once made. There is absolutely no way on God’s green Earth that THE BABY could have been made today. It’s a movie that is so totally and absolutely batshit insane that even while you’re watching it you honestly can’t believe what you’re watching. And I do not exaggerate, trust me. Just when you think THE BABY can’t get any crazier it ups the ante and gets crazier. And the last fifteen minutes of the movie finishes up the job of blowing what few fuses are left intact in your brain.

Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) is an earnest, well-meaning social worker who is assigned a new case involving the Wadsworth family. There’s Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) and her two daughters: Germaine (Mariana Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor). And then there’s the youngest and strangest member of the Wadsworth family. Baby (David Manzy) is a mentally impaired man in his early twenties who mind is still that of an infant and so he acts as such. The behavior is strongly reinforced by his mother and sisters who treat him as such. His mother never even bothered giving him a proper name and so everybody calls him “Baby.” He sleeps in an oversized crib and crawls around on hands and knees just like….well, just like a baby. And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t seem very creepy or horrific. You just go ahead and watch the movie and then try and tell me that, cousin. David Manzy is a guy who throws himself into his role so well you may end up like me, wondering exactly what he did to prepare for the role.

baby (1)

Ann takes a special interest in the case, thinking that if Baby has proper training and treatment in the proper facility he can start acting older and more appropriate for his age. No, he’ll never be a “Jeopardy” contestant but at least he won’t be wearing a diaper. Seeing as how she and her daughters are getting a nice chunk of change from the state for Baby’s welfare, Mrs. Wadsworth has a solid reason for keeping Baby exactly the way he is. In addition, Alba gets her kicks from torturing her little brother with a cattle prod while Germaine likes to sneak into Baby’s giant sized crib at night to play Doctor.

But Ann is determined to get Baby the help he needs and gradually it dawns on us that Ann is just a little too determined. It doesn’t take Mrs. Wadsworth long to pick up on the fact that Ann has her own agenda for Baby. One that doesn’t include the Wadsworths.

vlcsnap-00007

In a very weird ass way, THE BABY is a woman’s picture. A cracked woman’s picture, I grant you. Compared to the chicks in this movie, Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane” come off as being almost downright reasonable in their behavior. The few men in this movie are totally ineffectual and useless. I’m sure those of you with a psychological bent could make something out of the fact that the movie comes down to a bunch of women fighting for control of a man who is an infant and can’t take care of himself. Me, I take it as a superior psychological thriller with some surprisingly good performances.

526x297-D2B

The production values are also better than you would expect from a movie of such sleaze and exploitation but that’s part of the reason why I love THE BABY so much. It looks much better than it had to and the actors treat the material with a respect and seriousness I didn’t expect. They’re committed to the story, no matter how WTF it is and it shows and that gives the truly surprising conclusion an added wallop to the gut.

So should you see THE BABY? Without a doubt. This is definitely one of those movies that goes on the You Have To See It To Believe It list. It would make an excellent Saturday night double feature with that king of WTF movies; “The Apple.” Enjoy.

PG

84 minutes

The General’s Daughter and Arlington Road

So I’m going through this big blue notebook that I have on my desk that’s stuffed with character profiles, fragments of stories, research on technology and locations for future stories, character names, scraps of ideas for stories I’ll most likely never live long enough to write.  Every so often I’ll make an attempt to try and clear away some of the dead wood.  It’s a continual exercise in futility because I rarely throw away anything I’ve written because sooner or later it gets recycled into other stories.  And that includes the first two movie reviews I ever wrote.

Back around 1997/1998 we didn’t have a computer.  Instead, Patricia and I shared a WebTV that was an Internet access device that worked through your TV.  You plugged it into your phone line and voila, you were able to surf the web, send and receive emails, all that good stuff.  It wasn’t a computer but it was a good way for novices like us to get our feet wet as far as The Internet was concerned.

And it was by means of WebTV that I created the first version of “Derrick Ferguson’s Notebook” which was a website that mostly consisted of comic book reviews, television shows reviews…and oh, yes…movie reviews as well.

So I thought it would be fun for me to present here the very first two movie reviews I wrote.  After all, they’re sitting around not doing anything and I’ve already told you how much I hate waste.  I was tempted to rewrite them but that wouldn’t be fair at all and not nearly as interesting.  The only thing I’ve cleaned up is the grammar and spelling so 95% of what you’re about to read is unchanged from the day I wrote them around sixteen or so years ago.  Enjoy.

thegeneralsdaughter

THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER

1999

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Simon West

Produced by Mace Neufeld

Screenplay by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman

Based on the novel ‘The General’s Daughter’ by Nelson DeMille

THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER is a murder mystery set on an Army base.  Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is an investigator in The Army’s Criminal Investigations Division.  He’s kinda like an Internal Affairs cop, only for the military.  When he’s on a case he can question Colonels, Generals, anybody he pleases and rank doesn’t matter.  And it’s a good thing for him since his latest case involves the horrifying brutal death of Captain Elizabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) and Brenner’s quest to find her killer will bring him into contact with some very top brass.

Captain Campbell is the daughter of General Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell) and daughter dear was inconsiderate enough to get herself murdered just as The General is contemplating entering the political arena since he’s practically been promised the Vice-Presidency.

Brenner is assigned to the case by The General himself and told he has 36 hours to find her killer because after that it’s in the hands of The FBI.  The General’s loyal aide, Colonel George Fowler (Clarence Williams III) gives Brenner some advice on how to proceed with his case: “There’s three ways of doing things.  The right way, the wrong way and The Army way.  I trust you’ll know which way to go on this.”

Brenner acquires a partner, Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill and they begin the investigation into Elizabeth Campbell’s murder and the more they find out about her, they more they begin to suspect that the solution of the crime may be more frightening than the crime itself.

What exactly was Captain Elizabeth Campbell’s job in the Army’s Psychological Operations Division?  What kind of relationship did she have with her superior, Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods)?  What could have happened to Elizabeth in her last year at West Point that caused her psychiatric evaluation records to be sealed?

I liked THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER right from the start and it held my attention right up to the end.  There’s some good plot twists and I’m hoping that our military leaders aren’t as twisted in real life as the movie makes them out to be.

The cast has a good time with their roles, especially Travolta, Cromwell, Woods and Williams.  Travolta’s Brenner is a guy who’s shockingly good at his job and he obviously enjoys using his C.I.D clout to bring the big brass down a peg or two.  Travolta has a scene with Woods where they verbally joust, using their wits like rapiers in a psychological duel that’s just as suspenseful as a well-choreographed fistfight.  And James Cromwell does an excellent job as The General.  A good mystery well worth the time and rental fee.

116 minutes

Rated R

 

poster

ARLINGTON ROAD

Directed by Mark Pellington

Produced by Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson and Peter Samuelson

Written by Ehren Kruger

First off I have to warn you about two things concerning ARLINGTON ROAD.  One: it’s a slow starting movie and you may spend the first forty minutes or so wondering when something’s gonna happen.  Do yourself a favor and keep watching.  Two: pay attention to what does happen because when you get to the shocking, jaw-dropping ending, everything that has come before clicks into place like a Rubik’s Cube and all the colors are there right where they’re supposed to be.

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) lives and works in Washington, D.C. where he teaches a class on Domestic Terrorism at the local university.  He’s raising his nine-year-old son and dating Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis) one of his graduate students.  Faraday’s still trying to get over the death of his wife, an FBI agent killed in action.  The FBI got hold of some bad information concerning an extremist group stockpiling weapons and Faraday’s wife paid for it with her life.

Through an action involving the son of his neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) Faraday becomes friends with Oliver and soon they’re sitting in Oliver’s backyard, drinkin’ beer, and kickin’ the willy bobo about terrorism, bombs and how screwed up the government is.  Y’know, regular backyard talk.

Faraday’s FBI friend Whit Carver (Robert Gossett) is glad Faraday is coming out of his shell through his relationship with Brooke and The Langs and Faraday himself is liking the way his life is going a lot.  Until he notices those blueprints of downtown D.C. office buildings that Oliver has lying around.  It’s probably nothing but Faraday’s paranoid has been reawakened and he does some checking on Oliver’s background.  And he discovers that Oliver changed his name years ago because he tried to blow up a government building in Kansas when he was just 17.  Faraday starts thinking and while he doesn’t like what he’s thinking he can’t ignore the very real possibility that Oliver Lang may be planning a new act of domestic terrorism.

Is Lang really planning a terrorist bombing or is Faraday just being a really, really nosy neighbor?  It’s a lot like Warren Beatty 1974 conspiracy classic “The Parallax View” in which you’re never sure what’s true and what’s not.  At least not until the ending and ARLINGTON ROAD has some ending.

I really can’t go into any more detail because ARLINGTON ROAD depends so much on the mood of paranoia it generates and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who decides they might want to rent it.  Jeff Bridges doesn’t play a superhero that grabs a machine gun in each hand and sets out to stop the terrorists single-handedly.  He makes mistakes.  He jumps to conclusions with nothing to go on.  He can’t get anyone to listen to him or believe him.  He’s confused and scared and panicked that he might have placed the lives of his son and the woman he loves in danger.  More than anything else, he’s afraid that more innocent people are going to die and he can’t do anything to stop it.  He’s a man whose terrible loss is a weakness that allows him to be twisted and manipulated in such a way that really took me by surprise.

I can’t let the great performances of Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack go without a comment.  Robbins is the perfect next-door neighbor.  Always helpful.  Always smiling.  Just think twice when he offers to take your kid camping.  And Joan Cusack manages to be both creepy and funny at the same time.  She’s like the ultimate Stepford Wife, smiling and baking cookies while sweetly planning murder and mayhem.  I was shocked out of my seat twice and both times it was because of Joan Cusack.

ARLINGTON ROAD.  Watch it.  Then watch your neighbors.

117 minutes

Rated R

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sabotage

2ahv8er

 

2014

Albert S. Ruddy Productions

Directed by David Ayer

Produced by Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, Paul Hanson and Palek Patel

Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer

I’m going to put my neck out there and say that I truly and honestly admire Arnold Schwarzenegger for what he does in SABOTAGE. This is a Schwarzenegger who realizes that he would look downright silly trying to do the same kind of action movie he did back in the 1980’s. He can’t be the One Man Army Killing Machine anymore. Sure, he’s still in better shape than 90% of us but he’s no kid anymore. And he doesn’t try to hide it unlike the other two members of The Holy Trinity of Action Movie Heroes. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis are still trying to convince us they’re still able to pull off stunts they did 30 years ago. But not Schwarzenegger.  He’s got respect for our intelligence. Oh, he still does physical stuff but nothing like the stunts he did in say, “Commando” or “Eraser” These days he’s relying a lot more on story, characterization and supporting casts to give his movies weight.

a_1395300574_540x540

SABOTAGE isn’t a movie he could have made back in the 1980’s. He had to wait until now to make a movie like this where he could make his age work for him and for the character he plays. Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t Schwarzenegger doing Hamlet (and I still say he should have done it. Who in their right mind wouldn’t pay to see that?) but he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself.

John “Breacher” Warthon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) ramrods an elite team of wildass DEA agents. These agents are just one notch above being full blown renegades. A couple of them (Sam Worthington and Max Martini) appear to have severe psychological issues while Lizzie (Mireille Enos) is the team’s loose cannon, brazenly flaunting her drug habit and sexual promiscuity in the faces of her boss, her teammates and her husband (Worthington)

sabotage-movie-hd-2014-wallpaper-1920x1080

During a raid on a cartel safehouse, Breacher and his team help themselves to $10 million of the cartel’s money and blow up the rest to cover their theft. They hide the $10 million but when they go to recover it, they’re pissed off beyond words to find it’s gone. In the meantime, the DEA has somehow found out about the stolen money. Breacher is put on a desk job and his team suspended pending an investigation. Six months later and with no concrete evidence tying them to the money, Breacher and his team are reinstated.

Turns out that isn’t a favor at all as a couple of team members are gruesomely killed and there’s only two possibilities: either the cartel is killing off Breacher’s team in revenge for stealing their money or it’s a team member who is killing his (or her) partners to keep all the money for themselves. Either way, Breacher’s stuck in the middle. Unable to trust his team or the DEA, he has to rely on the help of Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) the homicide cop assigned to the case. But can Inspector Brentwood trust Breacher? Because during the course of her investigation she discovers that Breacher just may have more motivation than anybody else on his team to steal and kill for the money.

Olivia-Williams-Sabotage-2014-Wallpaper

By now you should have tumbled to the fact that Schwarzenegger isn’t playing his usual good guy. In fact, this may be the closest we’ll get to see him playing a bad guy as Breacher nor his team are likeable characters. In fact, they’re all really not much better than the criminals they go after. But that’s okay by me. I don’t need my characters to be likeable. As long as I understand their motivations for doing what they do, I’m cool.

The supporting cast in SABOTAGE is an unusually strong one for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and yet another sign that you’re not getting your usual Schwarzenegger Shoot-Em-Up. Terrence Howard and Josh Holloway are members of Breacher’s team while Harold Perrineau is a cop partnered with Brentwood and provides the movie with much needed comedy relief. Believe it or not, it’s Sam Worthington who walks off with the acting honors in this movie as well as Mireille Enos. Their characters are complicated enough to deserve a movie of their own. They’re married DEA agents who have long ago surrendered to corruption and spiritual degradation in the pursuit of justice. Mirelle Enos just about steals the movie from everybody in sight during the third act.

What else? Oh, the violence…seriously, this just may be the most violent movie Schwarzenegger has made and considering his track record, that’s really saying something. Director David Ayer is not interested in cartoon violence or the glorification of it. The violence in SABOTAGE is amazingly cruel, bloody and horrifically messy. And Schwarzenegger has got quite the potty mouth as well. I gave up counting after his twentieth F-bomb.

So should you see SABOTAGE? If you’re a longtime Arnold Schwarzenegger fan like me you probably already have. But if you haven’t, give it a chance. It’s not his usual action movie and has far more of a mystery thriller aspect than the trailers would lead you to think. I appreciate him always trying to expand the range of what he can do in films and I think that with movies like this and “Escape Plan” in which he also played a different kind of character than we’re used to seeing, he’s showing that Arnold Schwarzenegger still has a lot to offer us.

109 minutes

Rated R

 

Duel

1971

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by George Eckstein

Written by Richard Matheson

Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:

And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:

Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment.  Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.

DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.

But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.

During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.

And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.

But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.

So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch the complete movie on YouTube. If you’ve never seen DUEL before, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. Enjoy.

Taken 2

2012

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

It would be difficult for TAKEN 2 to top 2008’s “Taken” and I think it’s a smart move on the part of all concerned that they don’t even try. Let’s take the “Die Hard” movies for an example. Each “Die Hard” is more expensive and bigger than the one before it, coming up with even more fantastic action sequences until we wind up with Bruce Willis outrunning a F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. But TAKEN 2 stays at the same level of the first movie and because it remains at that level we get action scenes that actually seem plausible. Liam Neeson, as in the first one is such a terrific action hero because he actually can act and so projects not only toughness but intelligence as well.

We pick up on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) back in L.A. helping his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) learn how to drive and comforting his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who is going through changes with her current husband. The husband cancels a family trip to China and Bryan offers to holiday with Lenore and Kim in Istanbul (not Constantinople) after he finishes up a job there. They take him up on his generous offer. Also in Istanbul (not Constantinople) is Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) the father of one of the men Bryan killed during the events of the first movie. He hasn’t come alone. He’s got a lot of help. A whole lot. And their intention is simple: kidnap Bryan and take him back to their hometown in Albania so that the families of the men he killed can watch him die. It’s a bonus that Kim and Lenore are there as Murad has plans in mind for them as well. Pretty soon it’s Bryan and Lenore who have been taken and have to rely on Kim to rescue them.

Now, don’t worry…Kim doesn’t pick up a pair of guns and start blazing away at the bad guys. But she does play a pivotal part in helping her dad get away from the bad guys in what I thought was a pretty ingenious sequence. And she does get to take part in a car chase that I thought was as funny as it was thrilling since it played out as a screwed up version of an earlier driving lesson Bryan and Kim had before everything went to hell.

And as in the first one, Liam Neeson is solidly at the center. Even though I didn’t enjoy this as much as “Taken” I liked it a lot more than “Unknown.” But you know what? I’d be perfectly happy seeing Liam Neeson doing these European based thrillers for Luc Besson and young hungry directors every two or three years because they’re so dependably entertaining. They’re pulpy action adventures with just enough characterization so that we care about the people on the screen but not so much that it gets in the way of the punchy punchy run run.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The bit with the world’s smallest cell phone had me rolling my eyes and the hyper quick editing during the fight scenes made me groan. Especially since it looked like Liam Neeson was pulling off some pretty good moves there. The two editors on this movie get no points from me.

And as the leader of the Albanian kidnappers Rade Serbedzija isn’t much of a fearsome evil criminal mastermind. It apparently doesn’t matter to him in the least that his son kidnapped and tortured underage girl, hooking them on drugs and selling them to pervy old men. All he cares about is that his son was killed and he wants revenge.

Famke Janssen does solid supporting work here as does Maggie Grace. TAKEN 2 isn’t as surprising or on the same blow-your-mind level as “Taken.” And it doesn’t have a badass speech like the now classic “I don’t know who you are” and you know something? I’m glad the writers didn’t even try. TAKEN 2 is a cheeseburger-and-fries action thriller as professionally efficient in its storytelling as Bryan Mills is at looking for, finding and killing bad guys.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

http://youtu.be/VpaT8NzkLgE

Taken

2008

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Pierre Morel

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

We really shouldn’t have been surprised that Liam Neeson emerged in 2008 as an authentic action hero in TAKEN. After all, he’s been playing badasses since 1981’s “Excalibur” where he was Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of The Round Table and you don’t get much more badass than that. But he played other badass characters in movies such as “The Mission” “Next of Kin” “Rob Roy” and “Gangs of New York” He’s been a superhero in 1990’s “Darkman,”  trained Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins,” a Jedi Master in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and put plans together as Hannibal Smith in the movie version of “The A-Team.” So Liam Neeson has earned his badass credentials legitimately. But he’s earned his reputation as an actor in more…shall we say, prestigious roles such as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List” Michael Collins in “Michael Collins” Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey” “Les Miserables” and a number of well-received and well-reviewed arthouse movies.

But I think what surprised all of us is how damned good Liam Neeson is as an action hero. This is a role that Bruce Willis, Jason Statham or Samuel L. Jackson could have done in their sleep. But because Liam Neeson is doing it and treats this role with the same professionalism and talent he brought to one of his more prestigious films he elevates the entire movie. The plot is pure 1980’s action but due to Mr. Neeson’s acting choices to play his character as a man of intelligence whose near obsessive attention to detail is just as much the key to him staying alive as his lethal set of destructive talents, TAKEN gets bumped up a number of considerable notches. In its own way it’s as remarkable an action movie as the first “Die Hard” “Lethal Weapon” “The Transporter” or the movie with which it shares a somewhat similar plot: “Commando”

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA’s Special Operations Group so that he can rebuild his relationship with his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after having missed so many years away from home protecting his country. It’s not easy when Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) plainly would prefer it if he stays away. And Bryan can’t compete on a monetary level since Lenore’s new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley) is obscenely wealthy. All Bryan has to offer is his time but he’s not going to be able to give her that as Kim wants go to Paris for the summer with her BFF Amanda. Supposedly the girls are going on a cultural tour of French museums but actually they’re going to be following U2 on their European tour.

Well, we all know what happens to good Caucasian American girls who don’t do what their parents say and go to foreign countries looking to drink and party and fool around with foreign boys, don’t we? They get kidnapped, of course. In the case of Kim and Amanda they’re taken by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Bryan hears the kidnapping while talking to Kim on her phone which is picked up by one of the kidnappers. Bryan tries to negotiate with the man in which Liam Neeson delivers what has to be one of The Top Ten Best Bad Ass Speeches in movie history. The man isn’t impressed and that sets up the rest of the movie which has Bryan go to Paris and with the single-minded relentlessness of a Terminator T-800 proceeds to do exactly what he told the kidnappers he was going to do: he looks for them. He finds them. And he kills them.

TAKEN became one of the surprise hits of 2008 as word-of-mouth spread and the movie got great reviews. And it’s all well deserved. I love thrillers like this that are set in Europe as the exotic, unfamiliar locations give added weight to the movie. I dunno, it’s just me but I take thrillers and spy movies more seriously when they’re set in Europe. Maybe I just like the locations. But that, along with the solid performances from all concerned adds up to one of the most exciting and entertaining action movies I’ve seen in recent years. TAKEN is an excellent example of a movie that takes something we’ve seen plenty of times in other action movies but makes it seem fresh, as if we’re seeing it for the first time and again, most of that credit goes to Liam Neeson. He’s not playing an invincible superman who walks through tons of disposable bodies to achieve his goals. We see as he methodically and ruthlessly works his way up the human trafficking food chain like the professional he is. And I really like the way he moves in the fight scenes. Neeson is no Jason Statham and wisely doesn’t try to be. I liked the effective and powerful economy of movement in his punches and blocks. It’s rare in action movies that we get heroes as smart with their heads as they are deadly with their hands and that’s the thing that makes Bryan Mills stand out.

So should you see TAKEN? What, are you kidding me? Chances are you’ve seen it already but if you haven’t then your homework assignment is to do so at your earliest opportunity. TAKEN deserves a permanent place in your home action movie library.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

Code of Silence

1985

Orion Pictures

Directed by Andrew Davis

Produced by Raymond Wagner

Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Mike Gray

Today Chuck Norris is best known as the star of the CBS television series “Walker, Texas Ranger” which ran from 1993 to 2001 and the subject of the Internet phenomenon known as “Chuck Norris Facts.” Most people know he had a very successful career as an action star during the 1980’s but when asked to mention what movies they’re familiar with, I’m betting most will cite the “Missing In Action” movies or “Invasion U.S.A.” since those are the ones that seem to get the most airplay on cable/satellite movie channels.  And that’s really a daggone shame as Chuck Norris starred in some really superior action movies during that period.

“Good Guys Wear Black” has a government conspiracy tied to the Vietnam war and “Expendables 2” has a nice call-back to that movie in that Chuck Norris’ character in both movies has the same name. “The Octagon” has a strong plot about private citizens taking it upon themselves to do something about terrorism and co-stars Lee Van Cleef. “The Delta Force” co-stars Lee Marvin and is based on the real life U.S. Army Delta Force. “Silent  Rage” is a sci-fi slasher flick and my all-time favorite Chuck Norris movie, “Lone Wolf McQuade” is a way more badass version of his later Cordell Walker character.

The point I guess I’m trying to make here is that while Chuck Norris can and has been dismissed as an action hero who gets through his movies with his beard and roundhouse kicks, that’s simply not true. Chuck Norris has made a number of movies that are significantly several levels above the standard action movie and the best example of this and undoubtedly the best movie he’s ever made is CODE OF SILENCE. While “Lone Wolf McQuade” remains my favorite; in terms of acting, writing and directing, CODE OF SILENCE is the better movie. Chuck Norris does bust some martial arts moves and even throws his trademark roundhouse kick but that’s only in one major fight scene. CODE OF SILENCE is a straight-up urban cop thriller with good, solid performances and a great story.

Sgt. Eddie Cusack (Chuck Norris) is a Chicago narcotics cop who speaks softly but when he does, everybody listens. He’s a straight arrow, incorruptible hardass but his men respect him. He and his squad have spent a month setting up a big drug bust in order to take down Victor Camacho (Ron Henriquez) of the notorious Comacho family who run the cocaine trade in the city. Cusack’s big bust is ruined by Tony Luna (Mike Genovese) of the Scalese family. Luna raids the meet and greet exchange, killing everybody involved and taking the coke and the money. Cusack’s partner Dorato (Dennis Farina) is shot and there’s a fatality but one that has nothing to do with the bust. A member of Cusack’s squad, the alcoholic, burnt-out Cragie (Ralph Foody) accidentally shoots and kills a teenager who simply steps out of his apartment into the hall to see what all the yelling is about. Cragie plants his throwaway piece on the kid and his partner Kopelas (Joseph Guzaldo) backs him up.

Now here’s where the situation really gets serious. Victor survives the raid and along with his psychotic older brother Luis (Henry Silva) declares war on the Scaleses. Luna decides to leave town as the Camachos go on a rampage, brutally wiping out the Scaleses. They also try to kidnap Luna’s daughter Diana (Molly Hagen) to bring her father out of hiding. Cusack rescues her and tries to keep her alive and safe while also trying to stop the vicious gang war and persuading Kopelas to do the right thing and stop lying for Cragie.

As you can guess from my plot summary, there’s an awful lot of story we’ve got going on here but CODE OF SILENCE is never confusing or gets lost. The three major plots interweave seamlessly with no problem at all. If the movie had just been about the gang war, it would have just been an average movie. But the Cragie subplot, which deals with the “code of silence” police officers have to cover and protect each other is examined here in far greater depth than you would expect from your typical Chuck Norris kick-and-punch flick.

I attribute a lot of how good CODE OF SILENCE is to the director, Andrew Davis who knows how to make a thriller and has made a lot of good ones set in Chicago where he was born and grew up. He directed “Above The Law” which is for my money still Steven Seagal’s best movie, “The Package” with Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, “Under Siege” and “The Fugitive.” So he knows how to make this type of movie sing and swing.

I give Chuck Norris a lot of credit for not playing Cusack as an invincible superman. There’s a scene where Cusack goes into a pool hall full of bad guys and gets into a brawl with them.  Even though Cusack gets in some good shots what happens is what we know happens in that type of situation: Cusack gets his ass whooped. Norris doesn’t try to out act any of the more experienced actors he’s working with such as the terrific Dennis Farina, Henry Silva, Bert Remsen or Ralph Foody. Most of the time he’s simply reacting to what they’re saying or doing and it works for him.

Some people criticize the movie because of the robot Cusack uses to help him rescue Diana and take down the Camachos in the movie’s final shootout and back in 1985 The Prowler robot might have seemed like science fiction but this is a rare case where reality has caught up and since now we do have police departments using robots like The Prowler it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And CODE OF SILENCE has what is one of the funniest scenes in movie history when two bumbling hoods try to stick up a bar where all the customers are cops as well as what has to be the biggest car explosion I’ve ever seen in a movie.

So should you see CODE OF SILENCE? Absolutely. It holds up surprisingly well after all this time with its performances, production values, terrific action sequences and story. If you’ve never seen a Chuck Norris movie, watch CODE OF SILENCE. If you have seen other Chuck Norris movies and didn’t like them, watch CODE OF SILENCE. This one is worth your time, trust me.

Rated R

101 Minutes

Next

2007

Revolution Studios

Produced by Nicholas Cage, Todd Garner, Norman Golightly, Graham King and Arne Schmidt

Directed by Lee Tamahori

Screenplay by Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum

Based on “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick

One question folks like to ask me is this golden oldie: “Have you ever seen a movie so bad that you walked out on it?”  And I’ve always answered: “No.”  And don’t think that I stay to watch a movie all the way through out of some principal that I should stay to the end of a movie so that if I trash it later on I can do it fairly.  I stay because I’ve paid my money and I’m not getting up until I’ve seen what I’ve paid for.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of movies I’ve wished I’d walked out on.  I could give you a list in two minutes flat of 25 movies I wished I’d walked out on.  And NEXT is near the top of that list. NEXT is so appallingly bad that I don’t know who I feel sorrier for: the people who see it or the people who were contractually obligated to work on this movie.  At least I hope they were contractually obligated.

Cris Johnson (Nicholas Cage) is a third rate Las Vegas magician performing under the name Frank Cadillac.  He’s not flashy enough to play the big rooms.  He mainly works the small lounges where the losers nurse their drinks while trying to figure out how to tell their wives they’ve lost the kid’s college fund shooting craps.  Cris deliberately stays under the radar because he does have a gift that is akin to real magic: he can see two minutes into his own future and tell what’s going to happen to him before it happens.  He uses this talent to rake in some extra cash at the blackjack tables until one shitty night when he finds himself preventing a robbery that hasn’t happened yet and winds up on the run from not only the Las Vegas Police Department but also FBI Special Agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore)

next11

Turns out that Agent Ferris knows all about the special power Cris has, apparently from studying casino videotapes and somehow she’s convinced herself that Cris can help her find and stop a band of terrorists who have a nuclear device somewhere in Los Angeles that they’re going to denote in five days. Yeah, you read that right.  Terrorists have an active nuclear device on American soil and the FBI is chasing after a Las Vegas magician instead of trying to find the bomb.  Using his ability, Cris manages to stay out of the clutches of the cops and the feds as he desperately needs to find Liz (Jessica Biel) a young woman who keeps appearing in his visions of the future.  But these visions don’t take place two minutes in the future.  They apparently take place days and even weeks ahead.  Cris wants to find her to find out why.  This leads to a scene that is actually kinda amusing and clever: using his ability to see two minutes ahead Cris can actually ‘try out’ different approaches of meeting Liz until he finds one that works.

nextpic15

Now while Cris and Liz are falling in love and Agent Farris is tearing her hair out trying to catch up to Cris, the head terrorist (Thomas Kretschmann) finds out that the FBI is trying to catch Cris because they think he can help them.  In a stunning leap of logic that dazzled me beyond belief, Terrorist Number One pulls all of his people from their main objective of blowing up Los Angeles and sends them to kill Cris.  His reasoning?  Well, if the FBI thinks Cris can catch him then Cris has got to be killed at all costs.  You think the guy would do a background check or something before committing all of his people to such an action but NEXT never lets anything resembling common sense or logic get in the way of the next CGI action sequence.

Supposedly NEXT is based on a ‘novel story’ called “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick.  I’ve never read the story but I’d be willing to bet you my autographed copy of Clive Barker’s ‘Weaveworld’ that it bears no relation to the movie at all.  In fact, NEXT feels an awful lot like a television pilot on steroids.  It plays as if the Johnny Smith character from ‘The Dead Zone’ was the hero of ‘24’ instead of Jack Bauer.  To be honest, I think the character of Cris Johnson/Frank Cadillac to be interesting enough to sustain a television series and the ways he uses his power in the movie shows he’s a guy with brains. It’s a given that he can actually dodge bullets since he knows where a sniper is going to shoot him before the sniper pulls the trigger. And he can evade and escape his pursuers since he literally knows where they’re going to be before they do.  He can outfight just about anybody since he knows from which direction their punches are coming.  But there’s a goofy chase sequence where he orchestrates an escape that has a kind of lunatic Wile E. Coyote kind of deranged genius in the way one thing crashes over and flips something else over and causes something else to roll downhill.  There’s also a nifty scene where Cris ‘searches’ an entire ship by himself simply by running through his mind every possible route he could take through the ship and foreseeing how the multiple routes will end.

next_30

And even though “Ghost Rider” is the better movie (although not by much) I liked Nicholas Cage’s performance in NEXT much better.  Not once in “Ghost Rider” did I buy him as a daredevil motorcycle stunt rider but here, he inhabited the skin of this character very well.  Julianne Moore walks through her performance as if she just wants to get this over with, get her check and call Paul Thomas Anderson to beg him to have a role for her in his next movie.  After seeing Jessica Biel in “The Illusionist” and being highly impressed with her in that movie I was wondering if she was truly developing into a gifted actress or if it was just the director and the material of “The Illusionist” that made her look better than she was.  After watching her in NEXT I would say that yes, her performance in “The Illusionist” was a fluke.  And Peter Falk is in the movie for all of five minutes.  If you sneeze you’ll miss him.  The director Lee Tamahori knows how to direct action as anybody who’s seen “Die Another Day” and “XXX: State Of The Union” can attest but the action sequences in NEXT all were familiar to me, as if I’d seen them before.  Especially in the last 30 minutes that play like outtakes from ‘24’.

And the ending of NEXT…I sat there in my seat for maybe a minute not believing that they actually had ended the movie the way it did.  I’m sure that the writers sat around congratulating themselves on how clever they were.  I don’t think they were clever at all.  I think they wasted my time and the time of everybody at the showing I saw it with.  I remember vividly seeing this in the theater while on vacation with my wife in Florida. I looked at some of the faces of the people leaving the theater with me and they were not happy faces at all.  That ending, combined with the silly, sloppy premise of the story and an overwhelming number of plot holes as big as craters on The Moon made for a horrendously disappointing movie.

Rated: PG-13

96 minutes

And Soon The Darkness (2010)

2010

Studio Canal/Anchor Bay Entertainment

Directed by Marcos Efron

Produced by Chris Clark, Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder and Deborah Marcus

Screenplay by Jennifer Derwingson and Marcos Efron

Based on the 1970 motion picture “And Soon The Darkness”

In the first thirty seconds of the 2010 remake of AND SOON THE DARKNESS we see a bound, near naked woman doused with water and then whipped with a live electrical wire until she collapses into unconsciousness.  That told me right there that the writers and the director of this remake were going to throw out everything that the writers and director of the original had done to make their movie unusual, unique and suspenseful.

This version of AND SOON THE DARKNESS follows the basic plot of the original, transferring the setting from rural France to rural Argentina and making the girls American instead of English..  Stephanie (Amber Heard) and Elle (Odette Yustman) are part of a bike tour of that country.  They decide to split off from the group and go their own way for a bit, intending to catch a bus the next day and rejoin the group. They stay the night at a hotel where Elle persuades Stephanie to come with her to hang out at the local bar.  Stephanie’s promiscuous behavior gets her the wrong kind of attention and she’s rescued by Michael (Karl Urban) another American staying at the hotel.

The next day, while biking, Elle wants to stop by a riverbank and sunbathe.  Stephanie reluctantly agrees.  After a couple of hours, she’s ready to go but Elle still wants to hang out there.  This leads to an argument and Stephanie angrily rides off, leaving Elle alone. After she cools off a bit, she returns to the riverbank to find Elle gone, only her cell phone still on the ground where she had been sunbathing.

Now, unlike the original where we never learn the fate of the kidnapped girl until the last ten minutes of the movie, the remake has no problem letting us know that Elle has been kidnapped by the guy she was foolin’ around with in the bar last night.  He’s the muscle of a gang who snatches girls and sells them across the river to a white slavery ring in Paraguay.

Stephanie frantically tries to get help from the local police chief, Calvo (Cesar Vianco) who poo-poohs away Stephanie’s urgent pleas for him to form a search party.  “A search party?” Calvo says with a chuckle.  “Where do you think you are? America?”

Stephanie finally gets help from (surprise, surprise, surprise) Michael who has been in Argentina for six months looking for his girlfriend who also disappeared. Together they decide to track down Elle themselves and maybe find Michael’s girlfriend as well.

Like I said earlier, everything that made the first movie unique has been ruthlessly stripped away to leave only a standard middle of the road thriller than doesn’t thrill at all. The way this movie unfolds and the way the story is told in such a blatant fashion I can easily imagine a group of suburban white families pooling their money together to finance this movie for the sole purpose of showing it to their daughters: “See? See? This is what happens when you go to foreign countries, get drunk and fool around with boys who don’t speak English!”

That nasty subtext is very strong in the movie and I also didn’t like how the script goes out of its way to depict Elle’s carefree indulgence in drinking and promiscuity as justification for what happens to her.  And unlike the original, many of the locals speak English.  Part of what added to the feeling of paranoia and isolation in the original was that none of the locals spoke any English.

Karl Urban does his best with what he’s given and like the professional he is, he comes out of this movie with the acting honors.  Karl Urban is on my list of actors who even if they’re trapped in a really shitty movie more than pulls his weight and delivers a good performance and he does so here.  And I’m glad that I saw Amber Heard in “Drive Angry” before seeing this movie as I might well have passed up watching that highly superior movie if I had watched AND SOON THE DARKNESS first.  If you want to see Amber Heard in a really good movie, go watch “Drive Angry” and leave the remake of AND SOON THE DARKNESS alone.  It’s a totally unnecessary remake that does not entertain one little bit. Go watch the 1970 original if you want to see a really good thriller.

Rated R

91 minutes

 

 

And Soon The Darkness (1970)

1970

EMI Films

Directed by Robert Fuest

Produced by Albert Fennell and Brian Clements

Written by Brain Clements and Terry Nation

AND SOON THE DARKNESS is regarded as a minor cult classic of 70’s British horror movies and now, after finally seeing it for myself I can see why.  It’s a neat, effective little horror/suspense movie that gets the job done with a subtle, intelligent script and solid acting.  It’s my kind of horror movie as the situation is one that could plausibly happen and the characters behave as I can see actual people in such a situation would act and as such I can take the movie much more seriously than say, the brain dead 2010 remake of AND SOON THE DARKNESS.  But that’s another review.  Let’s get back to this one.

Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice) are two young and very pretty English girls on holiday, biking through the French countryside.  They’re best friends but they have very different idea of how they want to spend their holiday.  Jane’s insistent they stay on schedule and she’s constantly consulting her stack of maps and checking their time against their itinerary.  Cathy wants to slowpoke it, take their time and enjoy the local color.

Part of that local color is Paul (Sandor Eles) a handsome young French man who catches Cathy’s eye in a café the two girls stop at briefly to get directions.  They go further on up the road and Paul passes them on his motorcycle, only to stop at a roadside cemetery.  In a blatant attempt to kill time and wait for Paul to catch up to them, Cathy insists that the girls stop to sunbathe at the side of the road.  This leads to a quarrel where Cathy tells Jane she’s fed up with being bossed around and that she’s going to have some fun.  Jane leaves Cathy and continues on by herself, stopping at another café a little ways up the road.  After a while, when she’s cooled off, she goes back for Cathy.

Except Cathy’s gone.  Jane finds her bicycle but except for that, there’s no sign of Cathy at all.  Jane frantically searches for her with no luck.  She runs into Paul, who claims to be a police detective and offers to help.  He certainly is more willing to do so than the local gendarme (John Nettleton) who treats Cathy’s disappearance with a laid-back casualness that frustrates Jane to no end. The locals are of no help because Jane doesn’t know any French and so can’t tell them what’s wrong.  And then it turns out that Paul has disturbingly graphic knowledge of a girl who a couple of years ago was raped and murdered near the same spot where Cathy disappeared…

If you have any knowledge of the careers of the writers and director of this movie then you know these guys aren’t amateurs.  Robert Fuest directed the two classic “Dr. Phibes” movies.  Brian Clements was a producer and main script writer of “The Avengers” as well as writing so many other classic British TV series and movies such as “Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter” which he also directed.  Terry Nation created The Daleks and if I have to tell you who they are then you’re in the wrong place.  He also created several notable British science fiction TV series including one of my favorites; “Blake’s 7”

Add to this the considerable acting talent of Pamela Franklin who starred in what I consider the second best haunted house movie ever made; “The Legend of Hell House” and was a standout in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” where she played the intellectually and sexually precocious Sandy. Pamela Franklin had a good career back in the 60’s and 70’s and if you see her name in the credits of a movie, watch it.  She’s a fine actress with terrifically expressive eyes who knows exactly what she’s doing in front of a camera and it’s a treat to watch her work.

The movie also is fun to watch because despite the title, 100% of AND SOON THE DARKNESS takes place during the daytime in broad daylight.  The events of the movie play out in the course of one day and just because it all takes place during the daylight hours doesn’t make it any less scary or suspenseful.  Increasing the suspense is Jane’s inability to communicate with anybody except the two people she suspects of having taken her friend.  It’s a smart move by the director to not subtitle when French is spoken and so as the audience we can share in Jane’s growing frustration and paranoia at her situation.

So should you see AND SOON THE DARKNESS?  I recommend so highly.  It doesn’t have graphic violence or gore but if you’re looking for a nifty little horror/suspense thriller that will keep you guessing right up until the end of the movie, this is for you.  It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix so enjoy.

PG

99 minutes