In ‘Taken 3,’ trouble comes home for Bryan Mills

For former government operative Bryan Mills, his ex-wife Lenore and his daughter Kim, family therapy comes in the form of mortal peril — kidnappings, chases and fatal violence. As much as he tries to be a divorced father and toe the line of being an ex-husband, Mills (Liam Neeson) stumbles along. Then trouble arrives and he is back in his element — but the stakes are high with Lenore and Kim in the line of fire.

After the traumatic events of “Taken” and “Taken 2,” one cannot blame Mills for wanting to stay anchored in the United States, away from human traffickers in Paris and avenging fathers of dead human traffickers in Istanbul. Unfortunately, Mills and his loved ones cannot escape bad things even at home.

The screenwriting team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are back for their third installment of life with Bryan Mills, while Olivier Megaton is directing his second film of the “Taken” series.

Like its predecessors, “Taken 3” spends some of its early moments focusing on Bryan’s relationship with Kim (Maggie Grace) and Lenore (Famke Janssen). Bryan and Kim have overcome some of the alienation that plagued them in the original “Taken,” but she still teases him for being “predictable.” She also cannot work up the courage to discuss some personal issues with her father. Meanwhile, Lenore’s marriage to Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott, taking over the role from Xander Berkeley) is hitting some rough patches and she turns to Bryan to vent.

Once the family update is complete, the anticipated action finally begins. Bryan suddenly finds himself a suspect in a brutal — and very personal — murder he did not commit. Obviously framed, he transforms into his operative mode, escapes arrest and goes underground.

Fortunately, he has his colleagues like Bernie (David Warshofsky), Casey (Jon Gries) and particularly Sam (Leland Orser) to assist him.

Leading the police investigation is Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who upon finding out more about Bryan Mills realizes he will not have an easy time tracking this man down.

While Bryan plays cat and mouse with Dotzler and his squad, he also needs to find out who committed the murder and is trying to frame him.

The hardest working people on the film crew, other than the stunt people, had to be the film editing team of Audrey Simonaud and Nicolas Trembasiewicz, who pieced together all the action scenes. The quick cuts — unfortunately a staple of these kinds of movies — have a jerky and dizzying effect and are hard to follow.

As Bryan continually eludes the police and gets closer to discovering the truth, the plot twists really are not that surprising. The only question is how Bryan will resolve the situation.

Per usual, Neeson continues to build on his recent evolution into an action star, although at age 62 he inevitably will have to slow down. Grace as Kim does not get to do as much in “Taken 3” as she did in “Taken 2” except snarl at the police officers pursuing her dad.

Whitaker’s Dotzler is one of the high points in the film. His quirky habit is having a rubber band around his wrist that he pulls and twists as he contemplates the case and meets repeated frustration in his attempts to bring Bryan to justice. Dotzler is smart and honorable, soon developing a respect for Bryan’s resourcefulness.

“Taken 3” is a cookie cutter action flick, pure guilty pleasure. It is lifted by Neeson’s Bryan Mills, a man who can survive under the gun but has his emotional vulnerabilities. Some promotional teasers have stated this will be the last in the “Taken” series. Of course, that really depends on how well this one does at the box office. But it would be nice if Besson and Kamen would give Bryan Mills a break and allow him a quiet, violence-free old age.

Fake scares dilute effectiveness of ‘The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death’

When it comes to horror movies, the sub-genres — the crazed killer(s) on a slasher spree, the demonic possession, the monster/zombie rampage and the paranormal/ghost story — are recycled with a few tweaks here and there to keep the fans interested. Of these themes, the ghost story has the most disadvantages because there are fewer options to maintain a fresh and creepy presentation. Mysterious bumping and creaking, furniture moving on its own and fleeting ghostly images can only go so far in making an impact on an audience.

“The Woman in Black: Angel of Death,” the sequel to the well-received 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe, is one of those follow-up movies that really adds nothing to the story.

The premise shows some initial promise. The story takes place in 1941. With EnglandĀ  being pummeled by bombings as part of the Nazi Blitz, a group of children who have no immediate relatives is rounded up to be taken to the rundown Eel Marsh House as a temporary and supposedly safe orphanage.

The adults in charge are Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), a strict school mistress, and her assistant Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), who has a better grasp of handling these vulnerable children than her boss.

Times are desperate in England, which is the only rationale for sending already emotionally distressed children to a remote, derelict ruin like the Eel Marsh House, with limited access and surrounded by dreary and creepy woods, and, of course, a cemetery.

The script by Jon Croker does not devote much time in developing characters of the youngsters, focusing primarily on Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), a boy who has gone mute in the aftermath of a bombing that killed his family.

The set-up is effective in that children are now facing potential peril, so it would have been better if some of these young people were given a chance to display some personality.

But that aspect is devoted entirely to the adults. Eve at first seems to be a grounded young woman who has managed to maintain a positive perspective in the midst of the horror of German aggression. Jean is authoritarian and often cold — this is her way of coping with the grim reality of war.

A third adult is introduced upon the party’s arrival at Eel Marsh House — Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), a young pilot who seems to have a lot of time to drop in at the house, with hints of him having designs on Eve.

Once the people get settled into the house — not exactly the most cozy of lodgings — it is time for the creep show to start.

But after a decent build-up of dread, the spookiness deteriorates. A major is problem is that writer Croker and director Tom Harper overuse the gimmick of the fake scare. Sure, they make the audience jump, but it is all just a tease. It’s cheap and lazy.

Eve and Edward are the only ones who become aware of the malevolent spirit of Jennet Humfrye, still out to wreak havoc in response to the death of her illegitimate child Nathaniel. Amid the not-so-scary incidents, Eve tries to unravel the mystery of the haunting, and along the way, confront an unfortunate incident in her own life.

The action intensifies later in the story, but the conclusion wilts in its soggy resolution. One cannot help but wonder if the director and writer had not expended so much energy on thinking up the inconsequential scares they might have been able to create a truly nerve-wracking story of a restless, vengeful spirit.

Code-breakers go up against the Germans in ‘The Imitation Game’

As in any conflict, not all the battles are fought on the front lines, and wars often are affected by what is going on in places where bullets and bombs are far away.

“The Imitation Game” is an intriguing look at how England dealt with trying to decode the many German military transmissions that used the Enigma code, a complex method of encrypting them so that any interceptions of the messages virtually were undecipherable. Things were dire in Europe as the Nazis easily could communicate their plans and were sweeping across the continent, overtaking countries at an alarming rate.

In England, a team of brilliant mathematicians and cryptanalysts was being put together to decode the messages. One man who was not called but volunteered his services was Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). As job interviews go, Turing’s lacked tact but was brutally honest.

“You need me more than I need you,” he informed Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), whose working relationship with Turing would be strained at best. Turing, however, had an ally in Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a high-ranking intelligence official who had earned the confidence of Winston Churchill. Thus Denniston had to chomp at the bit because not only was Turing drafted to work as a decoder but per Churchill’s decree was put in charge of the program.

“The Imitation Game,” directed by Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) and adapted for the screen by Graham Moore from the book by Andrew Hodges, is not a linear presentation. It jumps around in time to focus on three different phases of Turing’s life. There are scenes of his early teenage years when as a brilliant student but social outcast the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by a classmate, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Christopher not only introduces Turing to cryptology but also triggers homosexual feelings in the teenager.

Another aspect of Turing’s life that is explored is in the early 1950s when his home is burglarized and police grow suspicious when he insists there is no need to investigate. Not willing to drop the case, Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), presses on with the investigation, revealing a part of Turing’s private life that was against the law at the time.

The movie mostly centers around Turing and his team’s seemingly insurmountable task of trying to discover the key to breaking the code among 150 million million possibilities — in only a 24-hour period because each new day the key was changed.

Turing concludes that a machine needs to be designed that could wade through all the possibilities at a much faster rate, and he is able to secure funding to build it.

“The Imitation Game” also zeroes in on Turing’s personality and his shaky relationships. Despite being in charge, Turing fails at gaining the respect of his colleagues, especially Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode from “Stoker”). Luckily for Turing, one of the people who tested to be brilliant enough to be on the team is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who serves as a bridge between Turing and his team.

Turing and Joan develop an unusual relationship, growing to care for each other without any physical attraction. When things unravel between the two, Joan proves to be the much more mature and perceptive one.

Cumberbatch likely will be an Academy Award nominee for his performance. He presents Turing as the complex man he was. Turing was brilliant, arrogant, unwittingly funny and deeply compassionate about his work. Even when the code is finally broken, it is Turing’s Spock-like logic, devoid of emotional considerations, that leads to the wrenching decisions that had to be made by the English military brass, essentially having to respond to one threat while allowing others to go unheeded as part of the wartime strategy.

The tragedy of Turing’s life was that his contribution to the war effort was not made known to the public until nearly 60 years after his death by suicide. Aside from that, his private life put him at odds with English law, making him even more of an outcast.

As portrayed by Cumberbatch, Turing was not a warm person, someone people would want to hang out with. He realized his intellectual superiority and was not shy about expressing it. He was a lonely man whose primary function of his relationships, aside from the private ones (which are hinted as being devoid of any emotional bonds), was to get the job done no matter how bad feelings were hurt. As cold as this was, it proved to be a valuable commodity when dealing with the horrifying threats of Nazi conquests.


The pressing problem with “The Gambler” is that the main character, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), does not seem to care much about his destructive path, so why should anyone else?

A remake of the 1974 movie of the same name that starred James Caan, “The Gambler” is the study of wasted potential, of a life degraded by an insatiable desire to beat the odds despite the enormous setbacks.

Bennett is a professor of literature and the author of a modest-selling novel. But he is living two lives. By day he teaches college kids — although he concedes his students probably will gain nothing from his class other than the necessary credits for a degree. By night he engages in big-stakes gambling — at which he is not very good.

He racks up sizable debts to a couple of nasty loan sharks: Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) and Neville Baraka (Mark Kenneth Williams), and has a week to come up with money numbering in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As played by Wahlberg, from the script by William Monahan based on James Toback’s 1974 screenplay, Bennett is self-centered and self-loathing and very exasperating. Despite being alienated from his wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), she gives him the money to repay his loans. Does he seize the opportunity to get out of hot water?

No spoilers here.

There are a couple of positive aspects of “The Gambler.” In the classroom scenes, Wahlberg shows he can do more than physical, action roles, managing to keep the students off balance and adeptly turning the lectures into his own self-exploration.

Also a highlight is John Goodman as Frank, a huge, menacing loan shark with a shaved head and a darkly humorous but deadly philosophy on business and life. It is yet another set of scene-stealing performances by Goodman.

Wasted is Brie Larson as Amy Phillips, one of Bennett’s promising students who inexplicably falls for him even though in her job as a cocktail waitress she is aware of his destructive gambling habit.

Ultimately, “The Gambler” is all about Bennett, and the frustration therein of waiting for this man to somehow redeem himself, to do something he certainly could be resourceful enough to pull off, if only he cared. Even in the end, the audience is left with the suspicion that despite apparently seeing the light, Bennett will not peel off the dangerous path he has taken.