Monday, September 16, 2013

A MEDIOCRE FAMILY GATHERING: "The Family" Shows Hints of Potential, But Ultimately Fails.


Luc Besson has produced, written, and directed some of the most entertaining and pulse pounding films of the last two-plus decades, among them Leon: The Professional; Taken and its sequel; The Fifth Element; and The Transporter series. However, even with a track record like that it’s possible to misfire, and unfortunately, The Family misses the target.
The story focuses on Brooklyn mobster Fred Blake/Givoanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) who, after surviving a near hit, turns in evidence that puts high-ranking mobster Don Luchese (Stan Carp) in prison and force Manzoni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), into witness protection in Normandy, France with new identities. Each member of the re-christened “Blake” family is amoral in their own right and, as a result, this isn’t the first time that the family has been relocated, much to the consternation of FBI agent and handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
It sounds like a typical “culture shock” story, but one would expect (given that the story is written by Besson with an assist by screenwriter Michael Caleo with the entire process overseen by producer Martin Scorsese, who knows a thing or two about mobsters[1] ) that the premise would be given an interesting overhaul. However, the whole film is disjointed. It’s not that it is not enjoyable. It just seems uninspired.
Besson has been able to deftly juggle humor, dark or otherwise, with action and suspense before, as any of the aforementioned films can attest to. However, here the tonal shifts are discordantly jarring. The comedy, while effective in parts, is derived primarily from the actors and the audience's familiarity with them and, more importantly, their quirks. Robert DeNiro is essentially playing Robert DeNiro. Ms. Pfieffer basically repurposes her Married to the Mob character though she does manage to give her character a bit more bite that would give The Sopranos’ Carmela Soprano pause. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be on autopilot these days, playing Stansfield as a subdued Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls. It’s not to say they’re not enjoyable to watch, but there’s almost an underlying bored aspect to their performances combined with a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” at the audience that you’ve seen this all before (especially given the reference to another Scorsese film reference that is practically televised to the audience before it is even mentioned***). Surprisingly, it’s Agron and D’Leo who are the film’s standouts. Both start out as the stock “too cool for school” teenager characters but grow in an extremely visceral way as the story progress so that by its conclusion, they are at a more mature place. The world, and the circumstances by which they come to live in it, are no joke. The other performers are so one note rote that they barely merit a mention. That they service the story well is the best that can be said.
Besson seems more interested in, and devotes two-thirds of the film’s running time, to the Manzoni/Blake’s “fish out of water” story. Thus, the subplot regarding the price on their collective heads and the hit man in pursuit of them (an effectively creepy Jon Freda) is almost tacked on at the end. However, Besson’s direction ratchets the suspense in the limited amount of time remaining to actual edge-of-seat proportions. The climax also allows the two younger actors to shine in their respective roles, running a gamut of conflicting emotions warring with a surprising amount of self-possession. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is quirky but colorful, adding to the film’s general atmosphere. However, given the unevenness of film’s tone, it comes across as disjointed as well.
By no means is The Family a bad film. It has some enjoyable moments and some good character interaction. However, the shifting tone, the ennui of the leads, and the overall execution prevent it from being as enjoyable as one would expect given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. I never thought I’d see a Luc Besson film that would merit a “wait for cable” designation.
I guess there’s a first time for everything.
***The script is based on a short story called Malavita, which was also called Badfellas

Friday, September 6, 2013


The backstory behind the Riddick franchise is quite interesting. The first film, Pitch Black (2000) did well enough at the box office to warrant a big budget, studio backed sequel (The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)) which practically tanked at the box office. Reportedly, this was mostly due to the fact that it eschewed the tone and events of the first film. However, when Universal declined to green light a second follow up, franchise star Vin Diesel declined payment in a The Fast and The Furious cameo to obtain the rights to Riddick and went even so far as to mortgage his own house in order to secure financing for an independently produced second sequel. Does Diesel's gamble pay off?
On the whole, it does.
I have to admit that I went into this Riddick blind, as I had not seen the two previous films. However, it says something that this film makes me want to watch the first at the very least. While this film follows the events of the second film, it is still somewhat easy for the uninitiated to follow: A restless Riddick (Diesel) wears a "crown upon a troubled brow" (to borrow a phrase from Conan the Barbarian) as Lord of the Necromongers (don't ask). Riddick, a figurative caged animal tired of civilized trappings of rule, negotiates with Vaako (Karl Urban, in a blink or you'll miss him cameo) to relinquish his position in exchange for safe passage to his home world, Furya. However, a double crossed Riddick is left stranded, battered, and bruised on an inhospitable planet. Eventually, events force Riddick to send out a distress beacon that brings not one, but two different teams of bounty hunters: One led by a Hispanic caricature named Santana (a comically annoying Jordo Molla) who literally wants to put Riddick's head in a box; the other led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who is after Riddick for other, more personal reasons. The rest of the film plays like a combination between Alien, Castaway, and The Most Dangerous Game.
The script is a straightforward, by the numbers, if somewhat disjointedly directed affair by David Twohy. But then, let's face it; even someone who has not watched the previous movies knows that the big draw of the film is Diesel. He pulls a "Chuck Noland" for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film; i.e. it's just him and the landscape. However, thanks to his natural charisma, he manages to sell what could have been ploddingly unnecessary exposition and make it interesting (and there are a couple of gratuitous shots of Diesel in the buff to ensure that interest for those who are looking for that).
Would that the rest of the cast could have fared as well. Unfortunately, the trope of bickering competitors forced to work together is annoyingly overused. What is further unfortunate is that the characters are practically paper thin, disposable, two dimensional cut outs (so disposable that when certain characters are taken out of the picture, so to speak, you barely notice their absence, much less feel anything for them). While fan-favorite actors like Katee Sackhoff ("Dahl") and Dave Bautista ("Diaz") are given some choice comedic lines, their characters are surprisingly bland. The dialogue ranges from substandard to laughably execrable (especially in Molla's case), and the stereotyping goes a bit into the satirical side (again, Molla's character, as well as Sackhoff's character's name sounding too much like "doll", which Riddick mocks to delightful effect) and the editing could have been tighter as some of the sequences tend to go long even after the point has been made.
What the film lacks in dialogue or characterization, it makes up in sheer spectacle. In the last twenty years or so of sci-fi films, this is the first film where an alien planet actually felt alien. The special effects department and cinematographer, David Eggby, create a Frazettaian/Vallejoian landscape populated by alien creatures that truly do seem creepily alien. While the quality of the CGI is inconsistent in quality at times, special kudos go to this team for being able to create a CGI alien dog that evokes emotion in the viewer.
Graeme Revell's score is versatile, if somewhat lacking a core identity, in that his music serves the film's changing moods and beats. It's a suspenseful actioner, though not quite as suspenseful as it should have been. It plods at times but when the action does arrive it comes, if you'll pardon the expression, fast and furiously.  However, this film serves as set dressing for Diesel, who revels in his strutting, Sergio Leone-esque Riddick character.  It's a character he loves and believes in, and it shows, which is especially evident in the film's final act.
 This is, for all intents and purposes, an independent film done on a modest budget (if one can call $39 million "modest"). Free from studio interference other than distribution, the character is free to return to his cinematic roots. The film is somewhat unpolished in certain areas, but in a rather refreshing way; it comes across as more natural ... at least, as natural as a sci-fi/horror/thriller hybrid can get.  On the whole, it is highly straightforwardly entertaining film. The majority of that enjoyment really comes from Diesel, whose presence is felt in the entire film even when he's not in the scene (a rare feat in movies these days). If you like your heroes with an old-time chauvinistic swagger, then this is the film for you, and one deserving to be watched in IMAX.