“THE FAMILY” (2013) Review

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“THE FAMILY” (2013) Review

Has Luc Besson ever directed a comedy before? The reason I raised this question is that I have always associated him with action drama and was surprised to learn that he had recently directed one. Mind you, I am not a major fan of Besson’s work. But I have enjoyed a few of his movies and decided to see what this latest one was about. 

Based upon Tonino Benacquista’s novel, “Malavita”“THE FAMILY” told the story of a Mafia underboss and his family living in France under the Witness Protection Program. Six years earlier, Giovanni Maznoni had displeased his boss, Mafia kingpin Don Luchese, in Brooklyn. After a failed attempt on his life at a family barbecue, Giovanni snitched on his boss, which led to him and his family entering a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI Special Agent Stansfield. The Maznoni family lived in the South of France for a while, until Giovanni’s disgruntled action against a local tradesman attracted the attention of Don Luchese to their location. The movie began with the family forced to move to a small town near Normandy.

“THE FAMILY” follows the Maznonis’ activities as they attempt to adjust to French small town life. Giovanni informs neighbors that he is a historian, writing a book about the Normandy invasion during World War II. Actually, he is writing his personal memoirs against Special Agent Stansfield’s advice. He also becomes obsessed with the local authorities’ lack of concern over the brown water coming from the plumbing. Wife Maggie’s unpleasant encounter with an anti-American grocer leads to the destruction of his store. Guilt leads her to the local church for confession and friendship with the priest. His daughter Belle falls in love with a substitute Math teacher, who also happens to be a college student. And his son Warren organizes his own intelligence clique at school, after being beaten up by a group of bullies. The Maznonis family’s storylines conclude when Don Luchese finally stumbles across their whereabouts and send a team of hit men to kill them.

And how did Luc Besson fare with comedy? Honestly, his handling of the story and the cast struck me as pretty effective. His direction of the cast and his handling of the screenplay he wrote with Michael Caleo certainly did not strike me as awkward or unfunny. Since the story began with Maznonis being veterans of the Witness Protection Program, I was relieved that Besson and Caleo’s screenplay allowed for a flashback to explain how they ended in that situation in the first place. I found the separate story lines regarding the Maznonis family’s experiences in Normandy rather amusing. I did not exactly find myself on the floor, rolling with laughter . . . well, except for one scene. But I cannot deny that I found the movie somewhat funny. My favorite moments included Maggie’s destruction of the bigoted grocer’s store, the Maznonis family’s barbecue for their French neighbors, Belle’s brutal handling of three fellow schoolmates who tried to seduce her into a ride into the countryside and a sex-filled picnic, Warren’s revenge against some school thugs and especially Giovanni’s violent handling of the brown water problem. As for that one scene that actually had me rolling in the aisle with laughter? Giovanni’s lies about being a historian led the head of a local film festival to invite him to comment on a historical film being shown. When the film turned out to be Scorsese’s 1991 film, “GOODFELLAS” . . . well, you can imagine my reaction.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I cannot honestly say that it was one of the best comedies I had ever seen. I found it more amusing than funny. I was also a little disappointed at how Don Luchese finally stumbled across the Maznonis’ location. I found it . . . well, irrelevant. This little plot point had nothing to do with the main story lines featuring the Maznonis family. It seemed to come out of no where. Despite the flashback featuring Don Luchese’s first attempt to kill Giovanni, Besson and Caleo’s screenplay never revealed the reason behind the Don’s first attempt. The screenplay never revealed what Giovanni had done to originally earn the Don’s ire.

“THE FAMILY” featured some first-rate performances from the cast. Robert De Niro gave a very funny performance as the stir-crazy former gangster who seemed to have difficulty adjusting to a less violent life after six years away from the Mob. Michelle Pfieffer was equally hilarious as his sardonic wife, who seemed to be exasperated by her husband’s antics. Besson made some excellent casting choices for the roles of Belle and Warren Maznonis. Not only do Dianna Agron (from FOX’s “GLEE”) and John D’Leo look as if they could be the children of De Niro and Pfieffer, the pair did a great job in holding their own with the two veterans. Tommy Lee Jones gave a nice, subtle performance as the family’s contact man – FBI Special Agent Stansfield. But aside from one major scene – the film festival – I did not find him particularly funny.

As much as I enjoyed “THE FAMILY”, I could honestly say that I would highly recommend anyone to see it at the theaters as soon as possible. Yes, it was funny. And yes, it featured some first-rate performances from the likes of Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfieffer. I found Luc Besson’s direction solid and well-paced. Also, the script he wrote with Michael Caleo struck me diverting. But as I had hinted earlier, “THE FAMILY” never struck me as a comedic classic.

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“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

I have noticed that during the past few years, Hollywood has released a minor political thriller during the first or second month of a new year. And to my surprise, I discovered that I found all of them quite entertaining. The latest political thriller to hit the movie screens during the winter season is film starring Liam Neeson called “UNKNOWN”

Based upon Didier van Cauwelaert’s 2003 French novel published in English as “Out of My Head”“UNKNOWN” is about an American scientist named Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth, to attend a science conference held at an upscale hotel. Upon their arrival at the hotel, Dr. Harris discovers that one of his suitcases had been left behind at the airport. While Elizabeth checks into the hotel, Martin hires a taxi to take him back to the airport. Unfortunately, the taxi becomes involved in a serious accident en route, and Martin’s life is saved by the driver. Several days later, Martin wakes up from a coma and returns to the hotel. He discovers that his wife has checked into the hotel with another man assuming his identity. Not only is Martin taken aback by this turn of events, he becomes aware of a mysterious stranger that has made one or two attempts upon his life. Martin recruits the help of the taxi driver, an Eastern European immigrant named Gina; and a former Stasi agent named Ernst Jürgen to help him learn the truth behind the deception being perpetrated with his wife and the man assuming his identity.

I really did not know how I would react to ”UNKNOWN”, when I first saw the trailer. It struck me as one of those movies in which the best parts were featured in the previews. I had also suspected it would be another ”TAKEN” or ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, a lightweight thriller with a great deal of action and a simplified plot. As much as I had liked those two movies, I never really found them that impressive. On the other hand, ”UNKNOWN” seemed to possess more substance as a complex political thriller. The movie had mysteries and plot twists that took me by surprise, before its denouement.

Director Jaume Collet-Serr certainly did justice to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay. Whether they did justice to the novel is another matter, considering that I have never read it. But ”UNKNOWN” featured exciting and well-dramatized scenes that provided both depth and atmosphere to the movie. One of my favorite scenes featured the recently hospitalized Martin’s attempt to connect with one of the conference’s other scientists, a Professor Bressler. Unfortunately for Martin, the man impersonating him happened to be at Professor Bressler’s laboratory. And both Martin Harrises’ attempts to prove themselves as the real McCoy were both strangely humorous and frustrating . . . at least for Martin and the audience. The meeting between Martin’s longtime colleague, Professor Rodney Cole and Ernst Jürgen, the former Stasi agent, proved to be fascinating and tense, thanks to the first-rate performances by Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. And Martin’s first attempt to reunite with his wife, Liz, came off as rather creepy, due to both January Jones and Aidan Quinn’s skillful acting.

However, I found myself greatly impressed by Collet-Serr’s direction of two major action scenes. One of those scenes featured the finale in which Martin attempts to prevent an assassination attempt that proved to be one of the plot’s surprising twists. I also enjoyed the action sequence at a Berlin hospital that began with the murder of a nurse and the first attempt on Martin’s life. But I must admit that I believe Collet-Serr did justice to what I consider to be the movie’s best sequence – another murder attempt on Martin’s life at Gina’s apartment that segued into an exciting car chase through Berlin’s streets.

”UNKNOWN” provided some first-rate performances by a cast that included Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella. Diane Kruger proved to be a surprisingly effective action heroine that racked up a higher body count than the rest of the cast. January Jones gave one of the most enigmatic performances I have ever seen in quite a while. She effectively kept me speculating upon the reasons behind her character’s failure to acknowledge Martin as her husband. However, the movie really belonged to Liam Neeson, whose portrayal of the beleaguered scientist proved to be the movie’s backbone. Neeson perfectly captured all the emotions that his character experienced throughout the story, without missing a beat. My only complaint is that I found his American accent a bit stiff and formal.

I really had no idea on how I would accept ”UNKNOWN”, once I saw it. The only reason I went to see it in the first place was because I had nothing else to do. I am glad that I saw the movie. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it for a second time. And I enjoyed it even more.

“FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” (2010) Review

“FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” (2010) Review

On the heels of last year’s action hit, ”TAKEN”, producer/writer Pierre Morel released another action packer last month called ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”. This movie centered around a pair of CIA operatives portrayed by John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers hunting for Islamic terrorists in Paris. 

Rhys-Meyers portrayed James Reece, an aide to the U.S. ambassador to France who also happened to be a low-level CIA operative with duties that include changing cars license plates for field operatives. His constant requests for a promotion to field agent finally led to a senior-level assignment as an escort for a visiting CIA agent named Charlie Wax sent to stop a possible terrorist attack. What started as a simply task of getting Charlie cleared by French Customs agents, eventually led to a series of dangerous and sometimes humorous adventures in the French underworld in search of Islamic extremists.

Unlike last year’s ”TAKEN”, producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel presented a tale that relied more on comedy and less upon family angst. I must admit that Besson and co-writer Adi Hasak’s screenplay for ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” did not seem all that original. The movie seemed like your typical action flick filled with one-liners, hair-raising stunts and explosions. However, like ”TAKEN”, the movie did provide plenty of interesting views featuring the steamier side of Paris and some very hilarious moments between Travolta and Rhys-Meyers. I am also grateful that cinematographer Michel Abramowicz’s photography lacked the shaky camera work that has occasionally marred some action films over the past 5 ½ years.

I do have one major problem with this film. Aside from one character, all of its villains – minor or otherwise – came from France’s immigrant population. Wax and Reece encountered criminals of Asian, African and Arabic descent. And although the movie featured one French villain, the character happened to be a recent convert to Islam. At least”TAKEN” featured a corrupt French cop and an equally corrupt American diplomat. Not even ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” can claim this brand of diversity.

Another aspect of ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” proved to be the screen teaming of John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Quite simply, they sizzled – much to my surprise. Travolta’s Charlie Wax bore a strong resemblance to some of his other over-the-top characters that he has portrayed over the years – including his performance in last year’s ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3”. However in ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, Travolta portrayed a protagonist. One of the good guys. Instead of being slightly overbearing, Travolta turned out to be funny as hell. But he was not the only one who provided humor in the movie. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers proved that he could match Travolta in the humor department, as his character James Reece reacted to Wax’s lunacy. And there were several scenes in which he also proved that he could be just as over-the-top as Travolta. Of course, this should not be a surprise. Rhys-Meyers has been portraying the extroverted King Henry VIII on Showtime’s ”THE TUDORS” for the past four seasons. My only quibble with his performance was that his American accent seemed ridiculously flat at times.

Would I be inclined to rent or purchase the DVD release of ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” in the near future? Sure. Why not? Granted, I found its portrayal of Paris’ immigrant population rather one-dimensional. And its plot seemed to lack any originality, whatsoever. But Besson and Hasak wrote a solid story with plenty of action, tension and humor. And Morel’s direction did justice to their screenplay. So, yes . . . I would consider buying the DVD version of the movie. After all, it is damn entertaining.

“TAKEN” (2009) Review

”TAKEN” (2009) Review

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen wrote this tight thriller about a retired CIA agent who tracks down his daughter after she was kidnapped by Albanian criminals engaged in the sex slave traffic, while traveling in Europe. Directed by Pierre Morel, the movie stars Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen and Olivier Rabourdin.

Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a divorced, former paramilitary officer from the CIA’s famed Special Activities Division. His 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) lives with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new wealthy husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley). After Kim accompanies her close friend, Amanda (Katie Cassidy) to Europe, they are kidnapped by sex trade traffickers from the apartment they share in Paris. Since Mills was talking to Kim at the time the kidnapping took place, he is able to get some information on who may have snatched her and Amanda before heading to Paris to track them down.

I am going to put my cards on the table. I enjoyed ”TAKEN” . . . a lot. It was a fast paced thriller filled with the usual stuff one can find in a top-notch action film – exciting car chases, tension, well choreographed fight scenes and sharp acting. I would not view it as an exceptional film. If I have to be honest, there is nothing new in this film that I have not seen in previous action thrillers. It also had its share of clichés that usually pop up in other action films. But I still enjoyed it. If there is one thing I must commend upon the movie is the level of global involvement in the sex slave traffic. Morel and screenwriters Besson and Kamen not only involved Kim’s Albanian kidnappers into the trade, but also French government officials and customers from all over the globe.

The cast did a pretty good job. But I was particularly impressed by four actors in particular. Olivier Rabourdin was surprisingly interesting as Jean-Claude – an old friend of Mills’ who also happens to be a former operative and now deputy director of the French intelligence agency. At first, I had assumed that Rabourdin would act as an ally who would help Mills in his search for his daughter. But thanks to Rabourdin’s performance, his role turned out to be surprisingly more ambiguous. I was also impressed by Famke Janssen’s performance as Mills’ ex-wife, Leonore. This was a different Janssen, who portrayed an uptight woman still harboring some residual of bitterness toward Mills and the way their marriage had ended. And I have to give kudos to Maggie Grace for effectively portraying a character that was at least seven to eight years her junior. Although I am certain that many actresses in their mid-twenties have portrayed a teenager, I have rarely come across many that were as convincing as Grace. She was excellent.

Liam Neeson must have been at least fifty-five years old when he filmed ”TAKEN”. Mind you, there have been other actors around his age or older who have managed to convincingly portray action characters. But his performance as Bryan Mills could give Jason Bourne or James Bond some stiff competition. Granted, his interactions with the various thugs and bodyguards almost made him seem unnaturally superhuman. But if one might as well accuse Matt Damon’s Bourne or Daniel Craig’s Bond of the same thing. Thankfully, Neeson’s Mills was more than just an above-average action hero. The Irish-born actor also infused his character with all of the emotional angst, paranoia and anger any father would face at the prospect of one’s child being snatched by strangers and placed into danger.

I do have one major complaint about ”TAKEN” – namely the photography and editing featured in the movie. Like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY”, ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” and ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” before it, ”TAKEN” is filled with that ”shaky camera” technique that I loathe so much. I realize that this technique was used to give a film an ad-hoc, news, or documentary feel. Frankly, I have never seen the need for to give action movies such as ”TAKEN” this type of style for action films, with the exception of movies based upon real life dramas or war movies. Thanks to director Morel, cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, and editor Frédéric Thoraval; the shaky camera technique only made me feel dizzy and frustrated. I am thankful that the fight scenes – especially in the film’s last twenty minutes – did not seem affected by this technique. However . . . Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two ”BOURNE” films, has a lot to answer for making this filming technique popular for action films.

In a nutshell, ”TAKEN” is not exactly what I would call an original film. It utilized many of the typical clichés used in action films. And the subject – the sex slave traffic – has been told with greater detail in such productions like 2005’s ”HUMAN TRAFFICKING”. And the shaky camera technique used by Morel, Abramowicz and Thoraval made it difficult for me to enjoy some of the actions scenes, especially those featuring car chases. But thanks to a first-rate cast led by Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, solid direction by Morel and a straightforward script written by Besson and Kamen, ”TAKEN” is a tense, yet entertaining film that I found very satisfying. I enjoyed it so much that I might be inclined to go see it again.