Saturday, September 5, 2015

Movie Reviews: Zipper, Taken 3, Northmen: A Viking Saga

directed by Mora Stephens
What makes a man go crazy when a woman wears her dress so tight/ It must be the same thing that makes a tomcat fight all night -Muddy Waters "The Same Thing"

Why must I feel like that/ Why must I chase the cat/ It's the dog in me, nothing but the dog in me. -George Clinton "Atomic Dog"

Woman I can tell what's on your mind/ Cause I can see the lovelight shine/ You're wanting me to settle down and quit all my rambling around/ Oh woman this heart of mine just loves one day at a time/ Tomorrow is a brand new song and I might be moving it on -Jerry Reed "Let's Sing Our Song"

People have written billions of words detailing the differences great and small between men and women and debating whether such divergences are primarily cultural and environmental or instead mostly biological and hard wired. I lean more towards the latter explanation in most circumstances but that's neither here nor there. Culture and biology often reinforce each other so it can sometimes be difficult to tease out which is what. What's important is that for both genders but apparently more so for men, sex is a primary and necessary drive for which much will be risked. Unfortunately Zipper doesn't have a whole lot to say besides the obvious but it looks good doing it. There are too many politicians and celebrities to mention who could fit into this fictional story but I guess the most obvious parallel would be to former NY Attorney General and Governor Elliot Spitzer. Tiger Woods also gets a filmic shoutout. But you can probably just pick up your local newspaper and find someone who reminds you of the characters in this film. I wouldn't say the cast of Zipper is slumming exactly but they have done better things in the past. 
Zipper (and there's not a whole lot of subtlety to that title is there) tells the story of a charismatic and telegenic South Carolina assistant federal prosecutor named Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson). Sam has the look and attitude of a man who's going on to bigger things. He's made a name for himself going after corrupt politicians and bringing down the hammer on the sorts of bad guys who help him make the evening news. He's compassionate but not soft, stern but occasionally merciful. He's the office rock star. Men want to be him. Women want to do him. But they can't because Sam is happily married to Jeannie (Lena Headey) a politically connected and wealthy former attorney who gave up her career to support Sam and raise their son together. Her ambitions will be realized thru Sam's success. The sky's the limit for Sam. He could be the next US attorney for South Carolina. He could be a US representative. Even the US Senate is within reach, according to cheerfully slimy political fixer and family confidante George Hiller (Richard Dreyfuss). But Sam has temptations. He manages to stop just short of doing anything unforgivable with the sexy young office intern (Dianna Agron) who comes on to him after a big court win. But when Sam talks to a provocatively dressed case witness and unashamed $1000/hr escort he loses it. Adult entertainment and his wife no longer satisfy his needs. Sam needs real live women! And just like that Sam begins running to the ATM, buying burner phones and maxing out the family credit card. The story such as it was disappears under visuals that were reminiscent of Showtime movies or early nineties Shannon Whirry erotic thrillers. There's some moralizing but not as much as you might think. Ray Winstone does good work but is ultimately wasted as an family friend of Jeannie's. He's an investigative journalist who was contracted to do a puff piece on Sam but rather transparently has his own agenda. John Cho has a blink and you'll miss it spot as an image consultant and Sam's friend. 

The problem is as stated above there's really no explanation besides the need for variety that is offered for Sam's straying.  Sam is a bit of a cipher. He's neither a sympathetic nor tragic figure. He just is. Jeannie is ambitious but is also quite affectionate. Of course when you consider some of the song lyrics at the top of this post perhaps there is nothing mysterious about Sam's actions at all. Zipper's second half gives Headey more opportunities to shine. It's her character's actions and decisions which are the true driving force behind what happens next. When you live or are intimate with someone for a period of time you notice all the little things about them. Little things like a spouse or lover having a phone or ringtone you don't recognize can trigger all sorts of fears. All in all this independent film was occasionally entertaining but unsatisfying because the tension is lacking. And even where there is tension you don't care too much about most of the characters. Both genders reveal a fair amount of flesh. Again, it's Headey who makes the film work.


Taken 3

directed by Olivier Megaton
If the first Taken was a reminder that metaphorically speaking just because the mule was old didn't meant it couldn't still kick you in the head, then this installment served notice that age catches up with everyone. Entropy always increases. This movie definitely could have done with some cinematic cialis. What was once life or death has been suffused with moral questioning. In the initial installment Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) didn't mess around worrying about what he had to do to get his daughter back. He just did it. That was the whole point of the movie. There are some people you encounter in this world who as Walt Kowalski memorably informed us, you really shouldn't mess with. That used to be Bryan Mills. Trip his wire and he will chop your lips off and feed them to you before he gets really inventive. However in this film Mills ends up having to pull his punches quite a bit. And maybe it was just me but the interminable car chases and explosions just made things worse. There wasn't hardly any emotional involvement with the story or the characters. As I wrote about Taken 2, at this point is there anyone left on the planet who doesn't realize that messing with Mills' family is a very bad idea? There really shouldn't be. That's like the Japanese after Nagasaki saying "Is that all you got?" to the Americans. And how many times does Mills have to save the life of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) before she starts to catch feelings for him again. Hmm. 
The fight scenes are mostly incompetent. I'm not sure if that is a mark against the director or merely an unavoidable concession to the fact that a 63 year old man such as Neeson, however well trained his character is, won't be able to dominate similarly well trained men twenty, thirty or forty years younger than himself without straining or breaking believability. It may have behooved the writers and director to go in an entirely different direction and play up Mills' detective, tactical or mechanical acumen instead of his martial skills. That to me would have been a much more engaging and fun movie. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for this film. Don't get me wrong there are still a few fist pumping scenes and cool one liners but overall Neeson looks tired. And so does everyone else in this movie. Forest Whittaker has a redundant role as a police commander whose primary jobs are to warn everyone how dangerous Mills is and always to show up immediately after Mills has escaped. Again. It seems as if Whittaker would have the name to demand better or larger roles but a paycheck is a paycheck. Maggie Grace recaps her role as Mills' constantly endangered daughter. The camera is not kind to her. Plot? Well there's not a lot here I care to detail. Actually there's not much to detail period. Mills is framed for a murder and must fight to clear his name and of course save his daughter from unseen peril. Stupid people do stupid things. Obvious plot devices abound. Hollywood's new favorite all purpose bad guys show up. This film did rather well financially. I can't see why.

Northmen: A Viking Saga

directed by Claudio Fah
Well I thought that this movie was entertaining though even a genre fan such as myself would not say that it was a great film. If you ignore all the inconvenient things like lack of treated drinking water, modern medicine and dentistry, washing machines, air conditioning and the other goodies we take for granted that keep us healthy, safe and clean l still find something romantic about the Middle Ages. It was after all a time when it appeared to be a bit easier for one man to make a big difference in the world. All you needed was a sword, a strong arm and a bad attitude. This was a very similar movie in tone and mood to Sword of Vengeance (although it was much less violent) and not just because it had genre fixture Ed Skrein (aka the original Daario from Game of Thrones) in a supporting role. In another way it was also an updated Western. It might have run on a bit too long but the ending was solid. You may not have known it but at various times during English (Anglo-Saxon era) history the Vikings came not only as raiders and pirates but as traders, invaders and settlers. During some periods there were even Viking Kings of England. The movie is set during this time, say 9th century or so. The young Viking warrior Asbjorn (Tom Hopper) has fled Norway along with his father's last surviving loyal retainers. Asbjorn and his father lost a power struggle against the new Norwegian King Harald, who is apparently a bit greedier and more dictatorial than the previous Viking customs would permit. Asbjorn's father died; Asbjorn and crew fled. They intend to reach Viking settlements on the east coast of England, where they can live in peace and freedom or perhaps raise a new army to go home and settle accounts. But they can't do that because they get blown off course and wind up shipwrecked on what they later find out is Scotland. They need to get south. Adding to their bad luck a Scottish military patrol/caravan just happens to be heading their way. Well you can't call yourself a Viking warrior if you're going to let a little thing like being shipwrecked, famished, outnumbered and mostly unarmed ruin your day. In short time the Vikings have shown the Scots what the phrase "the fury of the Northmen" really means. 

Strolling through the dead or dying Scots, the Vikings find a cart with a woman inside. And it's not just any woman. The Vikings don't know who she is yet but they can tell from her beauty, youth and clothing that she must be someone important. They decide to take her for ransom. To some of his followers' irritation Asbjorn decrees the woman will be unharmed and unmolested. For a Viking, Asbjorn is a moral sort of fellow. All the same you can't lead hard men without being one yourself. Some of his wolfpack wonder if Asbjorn's really got the stones to call himself captain. As the Vikings later learn from a mysterious, cynical, sarcastic, modern thinking and quite irritable warrior monk (Ryan Kwanten) the woman they have "liberated" is Princess Inghean (Charlie Murphy), the daughter of Scottish King Dunchaid (Danny Keogh). She was being taken against her will to be married off to one of her father's nobles. The news that she was kidnapped by Vikings on Dunchaid's lands will have quite negative political impact on Dunchaid's reputation throughout all Scotland. It'll make the King look ridiculous, and as Jack Woltz would tell you a man in his position can't afford to be made to look ridiculous! On hearing the news the King sends out his A-Team group of killers, led by the sibling duo of Bovarr (Anatole Taubman) and Hjorr (Skrein) to rescue Inghean. But these brothers, who might as well have big red arrows pointing to them with "We're the bad guys!" inscribed, have their own ideas about what their mission should involve and how it should end. And in an era before instant communication and GPS, Bovarr and Hjorr have a fair amount of independence of action.
This kicks off a long chase movie with all of the requisite back to back last stands, sword duels, feats of derring-do, betrayals, and sieges that any genre fan might wish to see. The film could have benefited greatly from a few flashbacks or setpieces to allow you to understand who the individual Vikings were. Few of the Vikings are really given a lot of definition but there are all the usual tropes--the huge loyal brute, the impossibly skilled bowman, the best friend, the crazy guy, the old guy who's down for one last fight, the deadpan cynical snarker, the untrustworthy second in command--you know the drill. Inghean has other outre skills (and no I am not talking about "those" skills) which the movie uses judiciously. Obviously Inghean and Asbjorn start to make goo-goo eyes at each other but the film surprisingly underplays that. It's not that kind of party. The true stars of the film are the South African and German shooting locations. There is a lot of beauty in this world, and this film lovingly depicts that. I can't emphasize enough how wonderful the cinematography is in this movie. Even the most dedicated city-dweller will want to get out of his house to enjoy the woods, streams and mountains. The film also gives a fair, if cursory look at the benefits of both Christian and Norse belief systems. It is fascinating to consider a culture where some people believed the only way you reached heaven was by dying in battle with sword in hand. The camera work appears to be stolen from inspired by Peter Jackson. Again, this film will mostly appeal to people predisposed to like this sort of stuff, but there is enough here for the rest of you to make this slightly worthwhile. I thought it was a fun Saturday afternoon kind of movie. If you want more than that, look elsewhere.
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