DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras C+
BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands
screenplay by Jon Bokenkamp, based on the novel by Michael Pye
directed by D.J. Caruso
by Walter Chaw The more cynical among us would note that the title might also refer to the time that movies exactly like Taking Lives have stolen from hapless audiences, but the fact of it is that if not for our mortal curiosity, we might have missed genuinely good mad-dog killer flicks like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Manhunter, The Untold Story, and Se7en. On a reptile level, I think it behoves the herd to slow down at the scene of a gory end, the flock imprinting another's messy mortal lesson as an explanation for our fascination with train wrecks and splatter flicks. But where a film like The Silence of the Lambs perversely reassures its captive audience that no matter the procreative ingenuity of a predator's unslakeable bloodlust, there's always a corn-fed, buttermilk-scrubbed farm girl there to put him away (and Taking Lives falls into this camp), there are films like granddaddy In Cold Blood (and great-grandpappy Psycho) that disdain the easy treatment of societal cancers. The one is appeasement and equivocation-bordering-on-exploitation, the other is always disquieting and sometimes even thought-provoking.
Taking Lives threatens to be interesting, nearly falling into the latter camp before it capitulates and turns out to be just another film that threatens the obvious twist only to deliver it unapologetically. The better twist would have been following through on its apparent intention to cast android FBI special agent Illeana (Angelina Jolie) as the übermensch and milquetoast art dealer Costa (Ethan Hawke) as the wilting damsel in distress, but alas, the cross-gender drag is altogether too daring. The film begins promisingly enough with a flashback to the "Me" Eighties, as the quintessential Reagan-kinder Martin Asher (the always-good Paul Franklin Dano), searching for his own morning in America with U2's "Bad" unspooling on cassette, boards a midnight bus going anywhere to begin a career killing similarly-sized young men and assuming their identities. Why? Because mother never loved him, of course.
Enter Illeana as the Oedipal patch twenty years later: stern, aloof, bee stung--needing to be won, in other words, never mind her pungent habit of keeping a collage of crime scene photos as her dinner mate, bath buddy, and spiritual ménage a trios partner. See, she's just like her quarry Martin--who, as an adult, is either Kiefer Sutherland, as the trailer suggests, sexist Quebecois detective Paquette (Olivier Martinez), as convention implies, or love interest Costa, as common sense advocates. Gena Rowlands eats scenery in great greedy swallows as the killer's mother, and Jean-Hugues Anglade steals the show, grabbing the spotlight the way he did in the underseen dead body intrigue Mortel transfert.
Directed with style by D.J. Caruso as the follow-up to his stylish tweaker noir The Salton Sea, the picture has a way with tension and the jump scare--at least until a Fatal Attraction/Astronaut's Wife conclusion proves again that the inoperable tumor of modern mainstream cinema is the ability to end. Up to and even including then, Taking Lives is packed with nice sequences and disturbing images, hitting its genre homage with intelligence (the best the mass-transit introduction, with shades of George Romero's Martin). Though the story is so familiar that most of its narrative reduces to a distracting game of "will they or won't they?" in regards to actually having the balls to cash in on the painfully un-shocking shocker, the craft of it forgives a lot of the tedium. Caruso's use of point-of-view, in particular, carries an unusually strong expository purpose: allowing the audience to share in Illeana's preternatural acuity. Where a film like Twisted verbalizes its heroine crime-fighter's brilliance ("Tell me what you see"), Taking Lives just demonstrates it.
Were the rest of the picture so economical. Good schlocky suspense, thrifty distribution of grue, Angelina disrobed again, and a supporting cast mostly in on the gag... What stops Taking Lives from becoming a guilty pleasure is an ending involving the sadistic stalking and injury of a pregnant woman. Ugly at the least and out of tune with the innocuous crimson camp of the rest of its lean genre silliness, the picture at that moment becomes high gender melodrama and morbid capitulation, offering the public at large its mother bear Madonna and sexually humiliated whore in one garrotted package. The only sense to be made of it is that Taking Lives intends some sort of angry statement about a woman's choice of career over family (an early conversation chides Illeana for, essentially, being successful in a traditionally male profession), finding a fugitive breed of Ashley Judd-like glee in punishing its powerful feminine centre with physical abuse-into-mutilation, rape of a kind, and a brutal disdain for her intelligence and discretion. What endures about Taking Lives is just how fascinatingly literal-minded it is about its debasement--and just how inappropriately sexy is its presentation. Taking Lives is a socio-political horror film trapped in the body of a game show hostess; smart in spite of itself, it's a statement on a bedazzled culture forever reaching for enlightenment with one hand and distractedly fondling the contents of its corpulent crawlspaces with another. Originally published: March 19, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Taking Lives arrives on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions; we're covering the former, which is also the "Unrated Director's Cut." (Running three minutes more than the theatrical version, this DC draws out Ethan Hawke's bump-and-grind with Angelina Jolie to an absurdly comical length and lingers on the aftermath of a decapitation.) Amir Mokri's cinematography seems to vacillate between Hollywood gloss and the Canadian equivalent, and this glamorous 2.39:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer may be a little too good in that it doesn't level the two out. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is sporadically aggressive, making it a kind of dramatic barometer, although the LFE channel is used all too infrequently. A four-part, spoilerish making-of entitled "Crime Lab: A Taking Lives Documentary" constitutes the bulk of the supplementary material, with the segments playable individually or collectively.
In "The Art of Collaboration" (5 mins.), director D.J. Caruso admits that Jolie's attachment to the script is what drew him towards it and we meet police consultant Sq Sgt. Francis Dore, who inadvertently contradicts Caruso's claims to authenticity by appearing in uniform, which none of the movie's characters do. "Profiling a Director" (6 mins.) showcases Caruso's crude but effective animatics, while "Bodies of Evidence" (6 mins.) pays homage to the well-traveled cast--nothing too insightful. The final featurette, "Puzzle Within the Puzzle" (4 mins.), disappoints for its brevity: Caruso alludes to creative differences he had with veteran editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) that remain unspecified, and Coates always leaves us wanting more besides. Taking Lives' trailer plus a 3-minute "gag reel" of line flubs and Jolie's botched attempts to break a mirror round out the special features; trailers for The Big Bounce 2004, Starsky & Hutch, and Triggerman precede the main menu. Originally published: August 19, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Taking Lives to Blu-ray in a straight port of the unrated DVD from 2004. (Curiously, the cover art rebrands the Director's Cut contained herein an Extended Cut.) The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer even looks to be sourced from the old master, though HiDef predictably revitalizes the colours and contrast. Unfortunately, posterization is sometimes evident in skin tones, and whatever combination of DVNR and edge-enhancement wasn't obvious before is now, as the image takes on a slightly waxy appearance after the intentionally gritty opening flashback. The audio meanwhile gets upgraded to 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (16-bit) and is noticeably more dynamic than the DD 5.1 alternative--there's a dizzying amount of sidewall imaging during the two big chase scenes (one through the Montreal Jazz Festival) that's more or less exclusive to this disc. All of the previous extras return in 480i and 4:3 letterbox. Originally published: April 29, 2009.
*½/**** Image B Sound B-
starring Angelina Jolie, Elizabeth Mitchell, Kylie Travis, Faye Dunaway
written by Jay McInerney and Michael Cristofer
directed by Michael Cristofer
by Bill Chambers There's a montage about a third of the way into Michael Cristofer's Gia that marries the peak of Gia Carangi's modelling career to Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself," and while I think Cristofer means to underscore Gia's loneliness, he's more successful in drawing a correlation between her bogus moxie (call it "cipherpunk") and, to crib from Robert Christgau, the "cartoonishness of [Idol's] sneering persona." Unfortunately for Carangi's memory, an embarrassing pre-credits placard touting the accuracy of this biopic puts the onus for almost all of the filmmakers' artistic decisions on the subject herself, who comes off as mostly unworthy of the attention--when she was famous or now. Told in the Bob Fosse style of intercutting interviews with the actors in character with dramatizations of touchstone events (something that only ever succeeds in sparking nostalgia for Fosse), Gia sketchily retraces Carangi's metamorphosis from a vain little girl (Mila Kunis--as if you're surprised) into a volatile fashionista (Angelina Jolie, doing her best).
Gia was also the first woman of prominence to die from AIDS, a feat expatiated upon by Cristofer and co-screenwriter Jay McInerney in implied solidarity with Carangi's desire, never consummated, to record an anti-drug PSA. (Indeed, they make her embody one.) Conversely, the seeds of Carangi's singular impact on an industry that had become a glorified assembly line are sown in haste: The film puts forth a few poignant images--Gia's colleagues mistaking her for a loiterer, Gia the only brunette in a pool of blondes (a tableau that really shows the novelty of her ethnicity)--but mostly treats Gia not as a model with a drug habit, but as a junkie who models, one of Paul Schrader's born addicts. Gia isn't hagiography, I'll give it that, but it is reductive to a fault; once known as a screenwriter with a literary bent, having risen to the challenge of distilling novels by no less than John Updike and Tom Wolfe, Cristofer turned into a sensationalist when he started directing, and virtually anything that's not an exploitation staple is relegated to the margins in Gia--not to mention in Cristofer's sophomore efforts Body Shots and Original Sin. This is good news for Angelina Jolie fiends and detractors alike, for her Gia facilitates raging hard-ons and schadenfreude in equal measure.
Reissued to capitalize on the DVD debut of Jolie's Taking Lives, HBO's unrated edition of Gia is new to the format and runs approximately five minutes longer than the broadcast version familiar to owners of the previous disc. The girl-on-girl love scene and baptismal shower have both been extended, while a more innocuous restoration finds Gia cooking for gal pal Linda (the luminous Elizabeth Mitchell) and then sitting on her lap to "serve" dinner. (If all you're after is a skin flick legitimized by the presence of Jolie, stick with the unrated Original Sin.) Meantime, though the DVD's fullscreen transfer looks fine, the Dolby 2.0 surround mix presents music and voices at a woefully mismatched volume. A photo gallery of Jolie posing as Gia rounds out the disc. Originally published: March 19, 2004.