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Archive for March 25th, 2009

Transsiberian

trans4Yet another undiscovered gem that bypassed the cinema. Directed by Brad Anderson who is best known for The Machinist but who has also been responsible for lots of episodes of TV programs including The Shield and The Wire. Starting out with the murder of a drug dealer Transsiberian soon switches to American couple Roy and Jessie in Beijing, played by the excellent Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. Having been on an aid project in China they travel on the legendry Transsiberian railway to Russia. After their first night on the train they meet the young couple who they will be sharing their cabin with for the duration of their week long train journey. A young American girl Abby (Kate Mara) and her Spanish boyfriend Carlos Eduardo.

transFor the first thirty minutes the film unfolds with the two couples getting to know each other, there is an underlying feeling that Roy and Jessie are being played or conned by the younger couple, you just don’t know how or why. Is the discussion about passports the crux of it or just a red herring? How are they connected to the death at the start of the film? Are they the drug smugglers described by a passenger on the train?

trans3This is all put aside when as the two couples get off the train in a small snowy town. They get to know each other as they wander around town.  But then things start to go wrong, Roy misses the train. Is this just an accident or is something more sinister going on? The story unfolds, sometimes predictably sometimes not! Until in the last thirty minutes it takes a surprising twist.

trans2The film has genuine tense moments and is brilliantly shot emphasising the contrast between the claustrophobic train and the stunning snow-covered landscapes. Emily Mortimer’s Jessie is the character who keeps the film moving. Her good girl with bad girl past is the most interesting character in the film and played to perfection, although some of her decisions are cringe worthy. A great little thriller that really should have had a wider cinema release.

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Taken came out in the UK last summer to mixed reviews including empire magazine who said.

“Liam Neeson’s ill-judged presence should not cause you to even consider going within 30 feet of a fleapit that’s screening Taken”

And

“A venomous little actioner that mistakes bile for adrenaline.”

taken1I think the reviewer Dan Jolin really hated the film, as well as the scathing review he gave it one star out of five. I have just read the review I wrote at the time. I gave the film a solid three out of five stars (high praise by my standards) but seemed to concentrate on the problems with the film more than the good points. Below is a copy of my review from the time:

Some great action set pieces such as car chases and brutal fights keep this film going, unfortunately there is real sense that you have seen it all before and done better. Best known is probably Roman Polanski’s Frantic staring Harrison Ford, also set in Paris. Arthur Penn’s Target staring Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon was set in Berlin but has the former spy theme again this time looking for Hackman’s kidnapped wife. Taken has its problems, firstly the daughter played by Maggie Grace best known as Shannon in Lost. At 25 she is far too old to play a 17 year old, she compensates by acting 14. The Liam Neeson character’s relationship with his daughter comes across as a little obsessive and creepy. The plot is a plodding and not completely believable. Not a terrible film but not one you will remember as a classic.

taken3Since then it has been released in America and is averaging 8 out of 10 on the IMDB website and has so far taken a healthy $133m and there is talk of a sequel already doing the rounds. Re-watching the film I can see what the empire film didn’t like about it, finding the characters and the movie itself Xenophobic. While I can see it could be seen that way the attitude is essential to the plot as it requires a certain a gulf between cultures in order to portray the innocent person I peril. You do have to get over that if you are going to watch the film. It is worth noting that it is directed by Pierre Morel and produced by Luc Besson who are both French. If it had a bit of comedy in it, it would probably be considered a satire on racial attitudes and American foreign policy but that really would be pushing it! But very much like the list that is the subject of John le Carré’s The Russia House it tells us more about the writers than the writers tell us about the subject. You also need to look beyond the fact that Liam Neeson’s character is a blunt instrument who bulldozes his way through the search for is daughter making some logic defying decisions that leave you thinking he could have more successfully achieved his goal with a bit more subtlety and guile. The same result could have been achieved with far less violence but that would have been a different film (see the poor performing The International as an example). If you can get over these things there is a lot to enjoy as a simple action film, the action comes thick and fast and done without the aid of CGI.

taken21The real joy of the film is not the action but who is doing it, Liam Neeson has a real intensity about him so much so that although you can probably think of a dozen names of actors who could have played the part (some far more famous than Neeson) the film would not have worked half as well with anyone else. When he says: “If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.” You really believe him. It is easy to think of Neeson as his most famous role Oskar Schindler but he has had some all action parts as well, think of Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars, Rob Roy and Darkman and lets not forget the villain in Batman Begins Ra’s al Ghul (sorry for the plot spoiler if anyone is about to see Batman Begins for the first time!). I have heard his character ex CIA “fixer” Bryan Mills compared to James Bond (Neeson was suggested as a possible Bond in the 90’s), Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, Paul taken4Kersey (Charles Bronson’s character from Death Wish) as well as any charter ever played by Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal (less the ponytail!) and it is true he has a little of all of these in his performance. The film would probably never have been made if not for the success of the recent Bond and Bourne films and its success will spawn countless nasty violent imitators most of them will go straight to DVD bypassing the cinema completely.

If you can’t decide if you want to see the film or not my recommendation is to give it a go but I will warn you may not like it. It doesn’t exactly have the love it or hate it “Marmite effect” but like Marmite if you hate it you will really really hate it. I stand by my three out of five star review.

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