Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Taken 2, The Paperboy, and Pitch Perfect

Dreck, sex and music.

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When last we saw retired black-ops agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), he was pitching a fit over the kidnapping of his teenage daughter, who'd been snatched by Albanian sex-traffickers during a schoolgirl vacation in Paris. This compelled Mills to fly to Paris himself and kill about 500 scuzzballs with his bare hands and quite a few bullets in order to get the girl back. Now, three years later, home in L.A. again, he's still doting on his little princess (still played by Maggie Grace), and also getting along much better with her mother, his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Jansson), an icy bitch in the first Taken, now considerably defrosted.

So swimmingly is this marital rapprochement going that Mills has an idea. He has to fly to Istanbul for a three-day private-security job (his current line of work), for which he has already packed his minibar-size case of armaments; when that assignment's done, why don't Kim and Lenore fly over to join him for a little Balkan getaway? This is like being invited to spend Christmas of 1941 in Moscow with the Wehrmacht. Would anyone in her right mind go anywhere with a havoc-magnet like Mills? Well, two people would.        

Taken 2 is even more frankly preposterous than its predecessor. In fact, I'm pretty sure that French director Olivier Megaton is playing this movie entirely for laughs. After some introductory dithering (Mills is trying to teach Kim how to drive), we join Mom and Dad and daughter in Istanbul, where they're immediately set upon by a gang of Albanian thugs led by the father (Rade Serbedzija) of one of the many creeps Mills terminated during his earlier Parisian visit. If the picture had a laugh track, it would start rolling right about here.

Driving through the teeming streets with Lenore, Mills realizes he's being tailed when bullets start smashing through his rear window. Pulling over at a crowded passageway, he orders Lenore out and tells her something very much like: "Go down to the end of this street, make a right, cut across the next square, make another right and then a left at the big red thing and take a taxi back to the hotel." Hilariously—given that Lenore has never been in Istanbul before—this almost works. A little later we see Mills fleeing another pack of pursuers, tearing through a bazaar in a car with Kim at the wheel, getting a literal crash course in driver's ed.

Most comical of all is the sequence in which Mills, shackled in a basement by the Albanians, manages to phone Kim (it's complicated) back at the hotel. He tells her to take a couple of grenades from his weapons stash, go up on the roof, and hurl one. He faintly hears the resulting explosion, which does much collateral damage. Then he tells Kim to run out along the neighboring rooftops, tossing grenades as she goes, until he can tell by the approaching sound that she's getting close to where he's being held. I mean, I ask you…well, no I don't.

The movie is also brazenly Bourne-like, with much roof-leaping and close-in kick-fighting, and many cars careening through exotic byways and somersaulting through the air. Unfortunately, director Megaton (not his birth surname, I'm delighted to report) has little gift for making all of this uproar coherent. Much of the action is so maniacally chopped up that it's a chore keeping track of what's being done to whom. Although I'm pretty sure that Mills is inflicting most of the pain.

Genre fans may get off on this totally generic film—it's minor fun, and, as I say, quite funny. Spoilsports will quickly realize that they've seen all this stuff before. They can take heart, though, in knowing that this time, they'll only have to see it for 91 minutes. 

The Paperboy

The Paperboy is a swamp-gothic shocker filled with wild plot jolts and juicy, whole-hog performances by Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack. The movie's abundant miscalculations of structure and tone, along with its garish lighting and unstable editing (possibly effected with a machete), qualify it as a mess by any ordinary measure. But it's never dull, and it has a vintage B-movie scumminess that sucks you in.

The humid setting is Florida, 1969. McConaughey is Ward Jansen, the "paperboy" of the title. He's a Miami newspaper reporter who has returned to his small hometown to investigate the murder of the local sheriff and the possible wrongful conviction of a bayou troglodyte named Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack, sweaty and mean and persuasively subhuman). Jansen has brought along fellow reporter Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an arrogant black Englishman who sees this story—if it pans out—as his ticket to journalistic fame (and, presumably, a classier job far from the Sunshine State).

Waiting to assist these two upon their arrival is Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a blowsy dim bulb in a bright blond wig who has become pen pals with Van Wetter and is postally engaged to marry him in the unlikely event that he emerges from his current residence on death row. Charlotte's too old for the tiger-print tops and tight gold-lamé pants she favors, but her generous sexual philosophy ("Fucking a man's the most natural thing in the world") seems likely to extend her use-by date for some time to come. She thinks Van Wetter is innocent of the murder—and as it turns out, he did in fact claim an alibi that was never looked into by local cops. Acheman leaps at this news, but the more-cautious Jansen counsels further investigation. Meanwhile, his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron)—still living at home with their father and now serving as Jansen's driver as he pursues leads—is becoming obsessively infatuated with the steamy Charlotte. 

The picture is spiked with peerlessly lurid scenes. The prison visit in which Charlotte and Van Wetter first lay eyes on each other and, prohibited from touching, erupt into a yowling bout of mutual autoerotic stimulation has to be seen to not be believed. There's also a ferocious sex scene in which Charlotte, making conversation with the guy who's pounding away at her over a washing machine, asks, "Do you always fuck like this?" I won't go into the bloody S&M interlude, which is boldly horrific. But I must mention the centerpiece beach sequence, already widely noted, in which Jack, following a painful jellyfish attack, is administered an emergency spray of urine by Charlotte. (Director Lee Daniels—a long way here from his last film, the Oscar-winning ghetto drama Precious—says this scene is real: Kidman actually did pee all over the recumbent Efron.)

As if all of this weren't enough, Daniels—adapting a 1995 novel by Pete Dexter—has also crammed in quite a bit of civil-rights-era race consciousness. To his credit, he carefully balances the familiar jibes of rural bigots with the oblivious condescension of local folks who consider themselves to be liberals. But this material feels jammed-in, especially in the case of a long-suffering housemaid (Macy Gray), whose complicated relationship with the Jansen family is a heavy drag on the movie's opening passages.

Who needs that when we already have Cusack demonstrating an unexpected aptitude for all-out dirtbaggery, and McConaughey exploring some alarming new character capabilities? And especially when we have Kidman, who demonstrated a surprising affinity for kink in the 2004 kiddie-love film Birth, braving this rancid terrain with such unflinching commitment? The woman is fearless. Whether her own career will survive this rivetingly bizarre movie is a question that will soon enough be answered.      

Pitch Perfect

It's hard to imagine anyone outside of dug-in curmudgeons not being swept up in the musical rush of Pitch Perfect. Even those with no interest in the world of collegiate a cappella competitions—or no idea that such a world existed—are likely to respond to the movie's many pleasures.

Reliable sweetheart Anna Kendrick is the star, playing Beca, an alt-pop girl feeling like an outsider in her freshman year at Barden University. When she's recruited by the Bellas, an all-female a cappella group led by prissy musical martinet Aubrey (Anna Camp, of The Help), she begins to bond with the other new members, all of them outcasts, too. There's Stacie (Alexis Knapp), a hottie with chops, and Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), a girl so whispery-shy that no one can make out what she's saying (the Bellas were desperate to round out their lineup). And best of all, there's proudly chubby Rebel Wilson (the Australian wonder of Bridesmaids and Bachelorette) as Fat Amy—who tells the svelte Aubrey that she calls herself that "so you twig bitches won't say it behind my back."

There's a requisite romance, of course—Beca has caught the eye of nice-guy Jesse (Skylar Astin, of the stage hit Spring Awakening), who has just joined the Treblemakers, the campus a cappella champs. This all-guy group, lead by a braying buffoon called Bumper (Adam DeVine), aced the Bellas at last year's national finals after Aubrey had the misfortune of throwing up onstage. Now, determined to put that fiasco behind her, she's whipping her new girls into top trophy-winning shape.

The movie's foremost virtue is its intent focus on the performances. The actors do their own singing (with only a few discrete soundtrack assists), and the songs are smartly divided between old pop tunes (by Ace of Bass, Salt-n-Pepa, Vicki Sue Robinson) and newer hits (by David Guetta, Rihanna, and Flo Rida). The director, Broadway veteran Jason Moore, here shooting his first feature, puts his camera right inside the complex stage choreography; and the intricate vocal arrangements (by Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, and Tom Kitt) give these scenes an electrifying lift. Pitch Perfect is a celebration of unaccompanied voices raised in harmony. It's the best kind of movie musical—a movie that really is all about the music.