Monday, October 15, 2012

Munchausen Weekend

Taken 2

Not exactly a film I thought I'd be seeing first-run in the theaters, but sometimes you have a few hours to kill near a strip mall and The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't starting for another hour, so what are you going to do?

The reason why the first Taken worked as well as it did was very simple: people like Liam Neeson. People apparently didn't know just how much they liked Liam Neeson until about five years ago. By the later part of the 00s, Neeson had spent the large part of his career switching between the occasional big budget fare - cartoon voice acting, Star Wars, Narnia, etc. - and smaller, more prestigious films. Pretty much par for the course for any well-respected older male actor in Hollywood, having earned one Oscar nomination and probably hoping to snag a few more before getting much older. Then a funny thing happened: the first Taken made a completely unexpected boatload of cash and Liam Neeson became the most bankable action movie star in the world. Spend a few minutes on Wikipedia and look at the grosses for every Neeson action film made since Taken - it's just crazy how people just decided one day that the one thing they couldn't get enough of in this world was movies where Liam Neeson squints menacingly and kills people. Compare his take to someone like Jason Statham, supposedly one of the more popular action stars of the moment, and it's not even close.

It's hard not to see why, though. He is very good in the role - more convincing than just about any of the other old dudes still stuck in the action movie niche. Maybe he works in the role because he doesn't have a deep history as an action movie star prior to Taken? You don't get the feeling watching him that he's trying to relive past box office glories, a la anyone featured in the cast of Expendables 2. Neeson has a fair amount of gravitas, accumulated the old fashioned way through decades of work in serious films, and therefore he can be convincingly menacing in a way that other actors who have already spent decades spouting pithy one liners in the shit factory can't possibly achieve. You know the shit has well gone down when Oskar Schindler starts shooting people in the face.

With that in mind, however, Taken 2 just wasn't very good. By which I mean, Liam Neeson is still good in his role as a Gruff Old Man who flies into hyper-competent homicidal rages whenever anyone in his family is threatened, but the film they have constructed around the bog-simple premise of Liam Neeson killing a bunch of people really is quite perfunctory. The first Taken worked as well as it did partly because it devoted a great deal of screen time to elaborating just how bad the bad guys actually were. There aren't many villains worse than kidnappers and white slavers - everyone will agree on that, there's no possible defense for that kind of crime, and anyone involved on any level immediately forfeits any sympathy whatsoever. So we followed Neeson as he went deeper into a terribly exploitive underworld of Parisian sex trafficking, and our pleasure at seeing the bad guys dispatched in ever more gruesome fashion was directly proportionate to our revulsion at the enormity of the crimes on display.

It was frankly manipulative and blatantly exploitive, but it worked in providing an excellent rationale by which Neeson could be safely excused from the otherwise quite grave party foul of summarily executing dozens of men of indeterminately Middle Eastern / Eastern European / Persian / Arabic / central casting extraction. And thereby Neeson's career as a latter-day sexagenarian action star was launched. It doesn't really matter what his name is in any of these films - he's basically just Liam Neeson, but I've taken to calling him "Taken" like it's a proper noun - as in, "Taken is going to fuck you up," "Taken isn't going to put up with this bullshit," et al.

Taken 2 fails because it doesn't really invest any time in showing us how bad the bad guys are - the motive here is purely revenge, with a bunch of dudes from rural Albania showing up in Istanbul to kidnap Taken and his family for the sole purpose of getting revenge for the dudes Taken killed in the first movie. As such, they're nowhere near as despicable, and therefore nowhere near as imposing. Although we get the impression that they're involved with organized crime just like their dead comrades from the first film - they seem to have enough resources with which to carry out their revenge plot, if nothing else - they're just not very good at their jobs. The first film took the time to show us exactly how bad the bad guys were, but this movie just assumes we will accept that anyone who would swear revenge over the death of a human trafficker is themselves a despicable human being, QED. That may well be true, but the fact is that the villains in the first movie had all the resources of a huge network of organized crime to call upon, with corrupt tendrils seeping all the way up to the Paris police and all the way out to filthy Arab sheiks paying top-dollar for the finest in blonde, blue-eyed, American sex slaves (boo, hiss!). These guys really don't come across as anything more imposing than a bunch of Good Old Boys from the Albanian foothills.

They don't seem to be able to do anything more effective than pay off a hotel concierge. Admittedly, they have some cell phones and a seemingly endless reservoir of black SUVs and windowless cargo vans - but other than that it's a bunch of indistinguishable swarthy goons in greasy track suits and old Soviet style machine guns. There is no doubt at any point in the proceedings that Taken completely outclasses every one of these guys, and the only thing separating any of them from a bullet in the head is the time necessary for Taken to locate a gun.

To illustrate just how ineffectual these guys are: the name of the movies are Taken, so the assumption is that the bad guys are going to succeed in taking somebody at some point. They start out with three targets: Taken, his daughter, and his ex-wife who is pretty blatantly trying to get back in Taken's pants. At no point in the film do they ever actually succeed in taking all three of these targets. Taken's daughter - who was, you may recall, taken in the first film - is never captured, and actually succeeds in helping to locate and free Taken after he is himself taken. Taken's wife is taken and serves as the primary hostage throughout the film, but even though she's given a potentially fatal cut on her carotid artery (which is a problem for five minutes until it isn't), she never seems to be in danger of anything worse than being banged around like a sack of potatoes.

The first and most serious mistake the villains make in this film is simple: they take Taken. The whole point of Taken is that when someone is taken, Taken tracks them down and retakes them. If Taken is himself taken, it just makes his job easier, because he doesn't need to take any time in order to track down the bad guys and take back whomever's been taken. He just wakes up from one of those convenient knockout blows to the head, figures out how to undo his cuffs while the bad guys very conveniently leave him alone in a room with a plethora of jagged pieces of metal (I only wish I was exaggerating how incompetent these Albanian mobsters are), and then proceeds to kill people for the entirety of the film's remaining running time. There's also a weird bit where Taken and his daughter have to crash a car through the gates of the American Embassy in order to reach the courtyard, which doesn't make any sense since you'd think as soon as they were actually at the Embassy they could just walk up to the door and say, "we're Americans." Crashing through the barricade staffed by trigger-happy American soldiers just seems unnecessarily provocative, don't you think? But then, no one in this film can actually aim a gun except for Taken, which is very convenient.

If the first film managed to convince the audience to overlook the potentially troublesome connotations of a white man spending 90 minutes shooting dozens of indeterminately Middle Eastern / Eastern European / Persian / Arabic / central casting bad guys by stressing the severity of their crimes against human decency, the second film throws its proverbial hands in the air and accepts the fact that the entire premise of the film is based on the dogged reinforcement of some rather unfortunate stereotypes and a Eurocentric fantasy of violent Orientalism. There is a scene in the film where Taken's daughter - a skinny young blue-eyed blonde - is literally running around on the rooftops of Istanbul and throwing grenades randomly into crowded neighborhoods, just so Taken can triangulate his location based on the proximity of these large explosions. (Subtext, meet text.) As with the first film, there are really no consequences for any of the collateral damage Taken inflicts on Istanbul or its citizens. He has some sort of vague CIA license to kill that inoculates him from ever having to worry about the consequences of his killing sprees. Because, you know, his family was kidnapped by bad guys. This is something we accept because we're the paying audience of a movie and we're exercising our willful suspension of disbelief because we want to believe in a world of consequence-free violence, where Taken can inflict untold millions of dollars of property damage in the name of exacting revenge on dozens of swarthy Orientals. Because we like Liam Neeson we don't really care, and the moviemakers are smart enough to know that most people are going to automatically sympathize with anyone who has their family threatened.

The problem is that while the villains in the first Taken were despicable enough that we could easily believe they deserved every ounce of righteous punishment Taken could deliver - and the severity of their crimes was enough to render them legitimate threats - the villains of Taken 2 aren't despicable so much as just pitiful. They do some bad things, but they do them so incompetently that we don't believe for a second that they are any kind of match for Taken. It's like seeing a lame puppy dog throw down against a grizzly bear - maybe the puppy dog can sneak up and take a piss on the bear while the bear is sleeping, but you know as soon as the bear opens its eyes that the puppy dog is toast.

Damsels in Distress

I put off Damsels in Distress as long as I feasibly could. I didn't catch it when it ran at the local indie theater, I didn't catch it on Pay Per View. I waited until it was at the Redbox, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of "least possible effort exerted."

My affection for Whit Stillman's tiny ouerve is profound, and so was my trepidation regarding his newest film. To put it as bluntly as possible, the dude dropped out of life for thirteen years following the release of The Last Days of Disco in 1998 and Damsels in Distress in 2011 - whatever reasons he may have had for doing so, including all the standard vicissitudes incumbent on independent filmmakers trying and failing to get movies made, thirteen years is a damn long time to be out of the game. Metropolitan was an excellent film - I'd even venture to say that it's a classic, in its own modest way - but so much time had elapsed since then that even the most charitable fan could have been forgiven for thinking that Stillman's time had come and gone.

If Stillman had simply retired after The Last Days of Disco his place in film history would have been assured. Although it might seem problematic to risk exaggerating the influence of such a willfully, almost perversely demure film such as Metropolitan, it cannot be denied that Stillman's reputation has only grown since the release of that film. All you need to do is look at the career trajectories of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson to see the outsized influence Stillman has had over his generation of directors. "It"-girl of the moment Lena Dunham openly praises Stillman at every opportunity. It's even feasible to see Stillman's slight influence in directors as disparate as Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino, in terms of the fact that these directors all share a willingness to trust their young-ish target audiences to have the patience to follow narratives communicated primarily or even solely through the medium of extended, occasionally even literate, conversation. It wasn't quite My Dinner With Andre - the film did have some romance, after all - but with its twin focus on the seemingly contradictory ideas of restless youth and effortless erudition, Metropolitan stood out even in an era already defined by very talky indie films. (Sex, Lies & Videotape came out in 1989, Miller's Crossing followed Metropolitan to theaters only a month later.)

With that said, in an era where many of Stillman's once-peers have gone on to incredibly successful careers in mainstream cinema, there is something positively quaint about the idea of seeing a new Whit Stillman film. Would Stillman's intensely mannered dialogue remain at all bearable? Stillman's approach to speech had always been purposefully artificial, definitely not intended to approach any kind of realism so much as to usher the viewer into a realm of dogged unreality: this isn't how people talk or think, but it's how this universe operates. The world of Stillman's films, while ostensibly "current" (or at least relatively so, as The Last Days of Disco is ostensibly a very early 80s period piece), wasn't so much contemporary as parallel to our own. The world of upper-crust, mannered tuxedo parties and deb balls was already mostly a memory by the time Metropolitan came out, and the complete lack of irony with which the characters comport themselves (save for the arch irony of witty repartee, that is!), could not be more alien to the decade that followed. Metropolitan was a strange hothouse flower, never so much dated as instantly timeless, capturing forever in amber a world that never really existed to begin with.

Now that we're even further apart from the time and place Stillman captured in his three films, what world do his characters inhabit in the year 2012? The answer is, a really weird world. One of Stillman's great strengths as a filmmaker was his excellent understanding of tone - despite their somewhat affected mannerism, his films worked because they carried a sustained and consistent tone throughout. What by all rights should have been mere trifles gained some degree of solidity from Whitman's relentless attention to detail. Tone is very difficult - many great filmmakers struggle with tone, so it should be no surprise that anyone back in the game after over a decade off should have produced a messy and uneven picture.

Damsels in Distress is ostensibly set in the present day, but the actual setting is a bit more vague - an East Coast liberal arts school (the cheekily titled "Seven Oaks") still improbably reeling from the aftereffects of coeducation many decades after the fact. Save for a handful of scruffy reprobates seen in passing, most of the students who attend the school are basically harmless preppies. (This should come as no shock to experienced Stillman watcher, as his previous films have focused almost exclusively on WASPs, with the occasional upper-crust Manhattan Jew thrown in for good measure.) The biggest shock is the fact that there are suddenly, incroyable!, black people in Stillman's universe. But don't worry, they're all still WASPs deep in their hearts, where it counts.

Oddly enough for a movie this frothy, Damsels in Distress is filled with discussion of depression, mental illness, and suicide. Of course, even though the protagonists work at a suicide helpline, you don't get the feeling at any point that Stillman takes any of this very seriously - the girls' prescription for suicidal ideations is a dance recital. Even when the lead Damsel, Greta Gerwig's Violet Wister (was there ever a WASPier name?) suffers a serious bout of depression, she barely qualifies as disheveled, and still looks better than most people ever do on the best day of their lives. I believe it is safe to say that, despite the occasional glance in the direction of some kind of real anguish, this is not a movie that takes mental illness very seriously. It doesn't take anything seriously, and that's fine.

The problem is that, as I said, the tone is all over the map. After a while it dawned on me that the film was a complete farce, and was meant to be viewed as such - I think I finally clued in somewhere around the time one of the male characters admitted that they didn't know what colors were because his parents made him skip kindergarten. But it doesn't "read" as a farce, not quite at first, and certainly not for anyone familiar with Stillman's previous films - so you're left sniffing around a pile of contrary style indicators to figure out in what direction the movie is actually heading. The movie reaches for screwball but, with the exception of a few inspired moment, is too delicate to really carry the tone. This is one instance where a less careful touch might have been more successful, because as it stands the film is simply too polite to sell many of its jokes. The movie becomes more and more unhinged as it moves forward, and its hard to reconcile the relatively sedate feel of the early scenes with the gleefully silly (multiple) music and dance numbers that cap the story. It's an intentional progression from something resembling naturalism to something resembling surreality, obviously, but at least on the first viewing the transition is far from smooth, less cumulative than clumsy.

No one in the history of the universe has ever walked out of the theater after seeing a Whit Stillman film and exclaimed, "Wow, that was sure some great camera work / cinematography / editing!" and that trend continues here. With the exception of a few interesting lighting effects that pop up periodically, Stillman is a very utilitarian filmmaker: he isn't out to surprise anyone with his revolutionary mise-en-scène, he is content to present the viewer with clean and precise tableaus designed for the purpose of showcasing attractive people dressed in nice clothing. If you like looking at pretty people, Damsels in Distress is one of the best movies you're likely to find this or any year. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with that, and for all its problems the film still succeeds based on the sheer likeability of its characters. This is the secret of Stillman's universe: regardless of the fact that, by rights in the year 2012 (or even 1990) we should be resolutely unmoved by the spectacle of the young and privileged in the throws of heartbreak, we still find ourselves amused despite ourselves. Stillman's world looks so much more fun and welcoming than our own.

It is a world to which I was glad to return, despite the uneven results. That is to be expected after thirteen years' downtime. We must hope that our next visit is not postponed until 2024.


hcduvall said...

I daresay that Neeson seems like a big guy and is more imposing on film, w/o even necessarily the threat of gun finesse or big muscles, than any other action star as a sheer physical presence on screen. Though a got a touch of the Takeness that you describe in the first Taken, when off to rescue his daughter from the building with all the sex slaves he clearly has no interest in rescuing anyone but his daughter. And weirdly, perversely that was the straw too much for me. If I'm going to root for a killing machine, I want him to be the Punisher who's at least trying to rescue everyone/kill everyone, and that one note of "this is purely personal" put back into my consciousness all the problematic things about these kind of movies. Too much vengeance instead of fantasy justice. And there was that weird bit where he's running after a car, which is just silly. This is all to say, I'll likely end up seeing Taken 2, but there's going to be even less effort out of me then Redbox. Someone's gonna have to have it or it's on tv and you know, I probably won't change the channel.

DanielT said...

Calling Liam Neeson "Taken" reminded me of this MadTV sketch: