Monday, October 8, 2012

Movie review: Taken 2 (2012)

A follow-up to the 2008 hit Taken was always inevitable.  That film was a constant surprise and built up a great reputation as a solid, hard-hitting action thriller.  Liam Neeson was nails and providing you left your brains at the door, it was perfect Saturday night entertainment.  With a decent showing at the box office, healthy DVD sales and a recurrent interest in Neesons character in particular (his phone call to the Albanian sex traffickers as they kidnap his daughter has entered the Internet meme lexicon), why would they NOT make a sequel?

Coming for him?  Big mistake ...

Taken 2 sees the same character and his family abducted while on a short sojourn to Instanbul.  Who knew that the gangsters from the original film had brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters?  Apparently they do and they are seeking revenge.  It's what they do in Albania.  Conveniently ignoring the fact they were sex-trafficking, drug-dealing rapist murdering low-life scum, the father and brothers of those killed by Mills in Paris have not learned their lesson and are now offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs to the 'special set of skills' possessed by Brian Mills.  After all, it's what he does best.

Nails, like proper well hard.

And that, essentially, is the plot.  If you've seen Taken, and presumably enjoyed it, Taken 2 is not going to offer up anything different in the formula.  Except for one: the ratings certification.  The first film was a 15, giving the director much more lateral freedom when it came to depicting the violence on screen.  As a result, the ham-fisted plot and cardboard cut-out characters (not you Mills, definitely not you) could be all but excused for great thrills and lots of spills.  Here, the 12A rating hampers the action so much, we're just about left with all the bad things about the first.  It's a real shame.

That's not to say the film is all terrible as there are some terrific action sequences.  Witness Brian and daughter Kim crashing through the US Embassy gates in a stolen Mercedes, some great fights between Brian and just about everyone and their dog and ... and ... that's about it.  Neeson is as good as ever and even at 60 years of age doesn't look too old for this shnizzle.  Maggie Grace as daughter Kim gets a slightly bigger part but Famke Jansson is largely perfunctory except as bad guy fodder.  Oh and the Eurotrash baddies are as slimy and stupid as ever.

No, don't do it, it's not THAT bad.

It's all so sanitized and routine and even Mills seems to have toned down his stuff.  Where before he'd not even hesitate to shoot his best friends wife just to illicit some essential information, here he allows himself and his ex-wife to be captured with only a few broken baddies bones by way of payback.  The finale barely stutters to an apologetic and muddled conclusion and whilst paving the way for a Taken 3, the lower age rating means we are unsatisfied by the despotic despatching.  Forget shooting between the eyes, this is more like tripping on an uneven pavement.

On the way to the movie theatre, my wife and I talked about what we were expecting.  Not so much Taken 2 but Taken Squared.  We wanted more of the good stuff, ramped up beyond belief, not more of the bad stuff tamed down to an execrable level and yet, that's what we got.  Taken Tamed, it should be.  A disappointment really.  I wouldn't say it to Neeson / Mills' face though, no way.

Rating: 2/5

A quick word about Vue Cinemas.  Seriously, sort out your ticketing arrangements and organisation.  We had pre-booked ours and 'inconveniently' the ATM's had broken meaning we had to queue at the concessions stand for our tickets.  Whereupon, the assistant tried to sell us your over-priced snacks and drinks.  Then, as Taken 2 was sold out (obviously no-one had read the reviews), there were several different queues all trying to get into the one screen, with no signs or directions or help from the harried ushers.  THEN, once sat, there were arguments breaking out over who was sat in who's seat, the grumblings of which lasted well into the film.  We paid a shit-load for this 'experience'.  Not cool Vue, not cool.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Board game review: Zombie!!!

A week doesn't go by without another zombie apocalypse or two so while you're waiting for the next one, why not play it out yourself?  That's the reasoning behind this board game, released by Twilight Creations in 2004.

Run like the wind.

Players take turns laying out map tiles making up a city.  As the city grows, more and more zombies shuffle into view, awaiting quick despatch at the hands of the few meagre survivors.  The objective of the game is to kill as many zombies as possible or escape via the helicopter.  Of course, you can't rely on your fellow survivalists to help you, they'll stab you in the back given the first opportunity (you know, as humans do).

For 23 quid or so, there are a LOT of components.  100 plastic zombie figures in two different flavours, a whole slew of counters, cards and nicely-drawn city map tiles.  Quality is not bad but for the low price, compromise has had to be made.  For instance, the health and bullet tokens are punched out of flimsy card and are quite tiny.  The map tiles in particular are of thin stock and move way too easily on the gaming table.  Even heavy breathing will shift your growing city around. The plastic figures are decent enough though and there sure are a lot of them.

Lots of luvverly bits
Rules are moderately easy.  During a turn, players will place a map tile, draw cards, move, attack zombies, move zombies and play cards.  Or something like that anyway.  Combat is easy.  Roll a die.  Over 4 is a hit, zombie dies.  Less than 4 and you're hit.  Lose a health token or use a bullet token to make up to 4.  Weapons or other cards can be utilized to make zombie despatch easier but be careful, other players will hinder your progress.

Actually, for the low price, it's a pretty decent game.  There aren't many tactics - kill or die, but the tension mounts up as more and more undead crowd the board.  Sticking it to other players is where the most fun is to be had.  Oh, you want to use that grenade to kill a whole building full of zombies do you?  Whoops, butter fingers, drop the grenade army-boy.  You know, that kind of thing.

The dreaded 'miss a turn' card is ever present and I really hate that.  There's nothing worse than giving up time to spend it on a lunchtime or evening board game club only to frustratingly spend it on the sidelines, watching others play, not able to do anything.  It's a lazy tactic by the game designers and takes me back to Snakes 'n' Ladders, a misspent youth, older sister rubbing butter in my hair while shouting 'He's toast! He's toast!'.  I shudder, thinking about it.  Combine the horrible missing a turn card with 5 players and not a huge amount of player-interaction in between turns, sitting around and picking ones nose is a real possibility.  Now I know how Michael Owen feels.

For an occasional slaughter-fest, Zombie!!! is good fun as well as good value.  It's pretty brainless and will provide a laugh or two but those looking for a bit more depth and strategy will feel disappointed.  In larger games, be prepared to sit out for a while so take along a cross-stitch or something.

Movie review: The Stepfather (2011)

It's a brave step by the production company to put the killer up on screen in the first pivotal moment of this film.  Instantly, we know who he is, what he does, what he looks like, his modus operandii, if not strictly his motives.  A guy leaves a family dead and with a new identity hooks up with another, using his charms and a set of outrageous fibs to worm his way in.  Their fate, therefore, is sealed, or is it?  Thanks to the attentions of the teenage son of this new household, suspicions of his mum dating a serial killer are well founded.  We know, because of the killers past, that 'hammer-time' is only a flipped-switch away, it's a case of *when* is it going to happen?

Him! He did it! The swine!

In spite of all the gaping plot holes, the play-by-play Hollywood thriller staples and obligatory acres of nubile flesh, we enjoyed this much more than I think we should have.  By eliminating the 'is he or isn't he a killer?' question right from the off, the tension mounts in different ways, namely the killer unravelling like his back story.  Even if we were able to predict what was going to happen in every single scene, by and large, it works (again, the point has to be made of 'in spite of everything').  It just about manages to lift its (bludgeoned) head over the parapet.

This is actually a remake of an original film from 1987 starring the rather wonderful Terry O'Quinn (John Locke in the Lost series) and as in that version, the films success lies on the performance of the stepfather, here played by Dylan Walsh (Congo, several TV series).  He's suitably creepy and definitely the best thing in this version but it's hard not to compare - his menace is nowhere near that of his predecessor meaning the whole film is nowhere near too.

Everyone plays their part well enough though, with the up-and-coming Penn Badgely making a decent fist of his role as the teenage son Michael.  Obviously I hate him because he's 25, can pass for 17 and his girlfriend is the enormously pretty Amber Heard.  Damn him.  Saying that, her part here amounts to little more than brainless eye-candy who only ever wanders about in a skimpy bikini two-piece.  She really is stupid.  Michael could have held up the severed head of a previous victim and she would have said, 'but THAT'S still not proof he's a killer'.  Duh.

"No, seriously, he's a killer, here's a head."

The film feels over-long and by the end, we were glad the malignant stepfather had begun his descent into madness again because we were just about to.  As mentioned there are some huge gaping plot holes.  How has he managed to evade capture all this time?  Someone, somewhere will have *something* on him, surely?  Maybe the net is closing and he's only perhaps two, three, maybe four slaughtered families away from being nicked and sentenced to 200 hours community service?  Why doesn't Michael *insist* on looking in those suspicious dead body-sized cupboards in the basement that his new suspected-serial killer of a stepfather forbids him from ever going near?  I'd have crow-barred them in front of him just to show him who's boss (him, obviously).  That old woman who suspected him and then amazingly fell down the stairs, breaking her neck and dying of suffocation?  HE DID IT, HIM, THERE, THAT'S HIM OFFICER, ARREST HIM QUICK.  Maybe that's why I'm not in the movies?

The Stepfather is a bit like eating candy floss.  It's nice while it lasts but is gone as soon as you eat it and you're left with decaying teeth and sticky jaws.  Or something.  What I mean to say is, we'd instantly forgot this film was ever made only seconds after the end-credits had rolled up and that's perhaps its most damning indictment.  It wasn't *bad*, just not very good.  5/10

Movie review: Circle of Eight (2009)

Jessica excitedly moves into a new apartment building but things quickly turn sour when all manner of strange things start happening.  You know, visions of dead bodies, weird building manager gets even weirder, lesbians, arty bloke tries it on, the usual kind of stuff.

Gives nothing away.

The films title is a direct reference to Dante's Inferno indeed the apartment building is called 'The Dante', so it's a big clue as to what's going on.  I say 'big clue' but in reality, by the end it's still pretty ambiguous.  That's part of the charm of the film however, trying to work out exactly what is going on, who is doing what to whom and more pertinently, why?  Employing a range of fringe actors, the budget is very much low-key and the special 'effects' definitely showed this up on the screen.  They're, well, a bit naff, if I'm honest.

With such a short viewing time of 84 minutes, plot has to come thick and fast so a lesbian scene was both tasteless and unnecessary.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not averse to some explicit woman-on-woman action but normally this is while watching 'films' that do not require much thought to the plot.  Here, *every* thought is needed for the plot and *that* scene just didn't stack up.  We could understand the romantical interludes between Jessica and the artist (well, we thought we understood them at any rate) but having two girls who weren't part of the building, had no connection in any way shape or form with the protagonist or story and who weren't seen ever again?  Meh.  To quote Ed, the building manager, that was counter-productive.

Mmm, lesbians, argagrhrghagh

Thankfully, or hopelessly depending on how you look at it, the films conclusion wasn't ... what we expected, to say the least.  I don't mind that and it's nice to get a refreshing twist in the tale of what could have been a formulaic haunted house scenario.  For others, the end will be hair-tearingly frustrating.  In my opinion, there are far too many movies that pan out to a limp, boring and entirely predictable finale.  We don't get that here and ones interpretation of it will differ from person to person.  Perhaps there will be a sequel?  I'm kinda hoping there will.  My wife doesn't, she hated it.  You could of course view it in a much more uncharitable light and say the ending is how it is because their original idea was so lame.  I don't think so though.  Make sure you watch through the final credits too, there are some more clues there (irritatingly so).

It's worth a watch if only to weigh in with your own opinion of it.  The characters are interesting enough and the story jumps along to a pacy beat.  Try and ignore some of the plot holes, crap effects or lesbians and you might just enjoy it.  Don't blame me if you're seriously flummoxed at the end. 5/10