The Ice Road

Release: Sunday, June 25, 2021 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Starring: Liam Neeson; Laurence Fishburne; Marcus Thomas; Amber Midthunder; Benjamin Walker

 

 

 

**/*****

Though Liam Neeson’s latest thriller The Ice Road may be out of season for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it lies smack in the middle of a prolific run the 69-year-old Irish actor has been enjoying the last decade-plus, marking one of three movies he will star in this year alone. Presumably it will also be the worst.

Written and directed by Jumanji (1995) and Armageddon (1998) scribe Jonathan Hensleigh, The Ice Road just may represent the nadir of Neeson’s post-Taken routine. Action titles such as Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015), The Commuter (2018) and indeed the Taken sequels have all coasted on the goodwill of a built-in audience but few as shamelessly as The Ice Road, a bare-minimum effort with original ideas as commonplace as service stations out on the Canadian Prairies. Compounding the problem is some really questionable acting from supporting parts and a villain who becomes the Terminator in ways more comical than compelling.

Neeson blends into the environment just fine but his Mike McCann, a North Dakotan big rig driver, is nothing you’ll remember when all is said and done. Recently fired from his job having stood up for his PTSD-suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), he joins a highly dangerous mission to deliver crucial equipment from Winnipeg to a mine in Northern Manitoba that has collapsed after a methane explosion. The 20+ souls trapped inside are relying on this last-ditch effort before they run out of oxygen. Time is of the essence but the trek to get there is paved with hazards, many natural and others man-made.

Good old-fashioned subterfuge at the corporate level is the cliched dramatic destination to which the increasingly apathetic viewer is pulled. This is less an action thriller as it is a conspiracy snoozer involving blue-collar truckers and white-collar snakes (Benjamin Walker’s characterization as a risk assessor belies his apparent immortality). At the Katka mine, company suits (Matt McCoy and Bradley Sawatzky, both pretty bad at acting on evidence of this movie) attempt damage control through an omniscience that becomes increasingly cartoonish. 

The best stretch of The Ice Road is its first half, as we are pulled into an extreme environment that offers entertaining man-vs-nature conflict not seen in a Neeson flick since 2011’s The Grey. The physical and technical challenges are effectively communicated as the crew — Mike, Gurty, a Winnipeg trucker named Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) and the hot-headed Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) — battle variable ice conditions and all sorts of nuances the layperson would never think about. Apparently dashboard bobbleheads are more than purely decorative. However, as environmental factors take a backseat to the human treachery lying underneath, The Ice Road sacrifices its blue collar identity for woefully generic melodrama. None of it written or performed particularly convincingly. 

While it is refreshing to see Neeson take on a character who is not endowed with a mythical set of skills, one is left wishing that the guy could have at least been endowed with better lines and quite frankly, a better film overall. 

“I do not believe in chance. When I see three wellheads, three drivers, three trucks, I do not see coincidence. I see providence. I see purpose.”

Moral of the Story: Pushes the line, for me personally, in terms of what a fan should be willing to accept at a base-line level of entertainment when it comes to these kinds of slight action-thrillers. Goodwill isn’t in infinite supply. The above review may be harsh, largely a reflection of frustration over how I entered the film with low expectations and not having even those met. There’s nothing sinfully bad about it, but all added up The Ice Road is just too lazy to recommend when there are so many other, (even if slightly) better Neeson options. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Check out the “slick” Official Trailer from Netflix here! 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.slashfilm.com 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Commuter

Release: Friday, January 12, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Byron Willinger; Philip de Blasi; Ryan Engle

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Commuter is the fourth time director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have teamed up to deliver you the questionable goods. Sure, it was Pierre Morel’s Taken that discovered the fountain of ass-kicking youth within the 66-year-old actor, but it’s Serra who has really taken that template and run with it, testing its flexibility by placing the aging but clearly still agile action star in a variety of gritty situations. He’s experienced identity fraud, dealt with the Irish mafia and beaten up terrorists at cruising altitude. Though he hasn’t achieved much distinction with this approach, in championing quantity over quality the barceloní is at least giving us options.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to actually recommend something as . . . . bleghhh as The Commuter. Of all the vehicles built around Neeson’s very particular set of skills, the train thus far has proven to be the least effective. Or at least its villains have. The story is also disappointingly a retread of 2014, borrowing everything but the pilots and tray tables in their upright and locked position from that year’s Non-stop. 

In this one Neeson plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley who has been working in life insurance for the last ten years. He has taken the train in and out of the city every single day and because he has, Michael begins the film like everyone else, as persona very grata, before invariably getting roped into a murder conspiracy that could have fatal consequences for all. Think you’ve had a bad day? Try having this shoved on your plate after being unceremoniously let go from a job you desperately need.

Moments into yet another ordinary commute home (minus the whole being fired part) Michael is joined by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her capacity) who can’t help but dump the plot all over his lap. In an Agatha Christie way she informs Michael there is one passenger on board who “does not belong,” and that, hypothetically, if he were to locate that person he would be rewarded with $100,000. The catch is he has no idea what the person looks like, the days of profiling complete strangers are far behind him, and (again, hypothetically) he must find the individual before the train reaches the end of the line. When Michael finds a stash of Ben Franklins in a lavatory he discovers that there is nothing hypothetical about this proposal.

Rounding out cast notables are Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. The former, who reunites with Farmiga for the first time outside the realm of The Conjuring universe, offers a confidante in ex-partner Alex Murphy (like in RoboCop!) when things go all pear-shaped for Michael. Meanwhile Neill is absolutely wasted in the vastly underwritten role of Captain Name’s Not Important. At least one of them is meant to suggest something about corrupt cops and departments, but there’s just not enough material here to get a feel for what is being said about it. Yes, crooked cops. Those are . . . those are bad.

The Commuter should be praised for its commitment to realism — insofar as ‘real’ means mundane, uneventful. Yet that same tactic tends to tip the film itself into mundanity. Despite there being an attempt to survey the moral depths of his character, Michael just isn’t interesting enough to justify the sheer randomness of his involvement. On one hand, the film’s lack of big action feels appropriate, but then it leaves you with plenty of time to ponder on the motives of the villains. Or how many trains derail every year.

Look, what mechanizes these kinds of late-career action films doesn’t have to be some sophisticated scheme nor do they need to be borne out of a sociopolitical movement, but at the very least there should be some kind of weight behind the nefariousness. And if we never do believe the threat is strong enough to actually overpower him, for the love of Qui-Gon at least make the adventure compelling. The Commuter does neither of these things, and as a result leaves fans wanting off at the nearest possible stop.

“My career is running off the rails. Pah. Says who?”

Recommendation: B-grade Serra if you ask me. When much of life is about choice, why would you choose the rather uneventful and dramatically uninspired The Commuter? For those dreaming of the day they get Non-stop set on a train, well . . . . . . . dream no more.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “What’s in the bag?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Silence

silence-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Jay Cocks; Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Marty’s new film is so tonally different from what he last put out it made me feel like I was atoning for all those good times I had with Jordan Belfort and company in his Wall Street-based bacchanalian. Silence is such a brutal watch I left the theater pining for them good old days of Leo snorting coke off of Margot Robbie’s chest. Fortunately Scorsese finds a way to make the suffering not only worthwhile but essential viewing.

The customarily near-three-hour running time (which is totally justified and passes by in no time at all) encapsulates a journey the auteur has been wanting to share with the world for some time — nearly 30 years as a matter of fact. Silence is no doubt a passion project for a director renowned for depicting complex morality tales fueled by themes of guilt, corruption and redemption and it carries the kind of weight that suggests this is what he has been building towards throughout a protracted and distinguished career. Whether it’s the director’s crowning achievement is debatable, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Silence is no ordinary theatrical release. It’s a transcendent experience that will haunt you long after viewing.

Scorsese adapts his material from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsakū Endō, who identified as a Roman Catholic. Endō’s sprawling saga told of the life-altering journey undertaken by two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan from Portugal in search of a mentor who goes missing and supposedly apostatizes under extreme duress. The book has inspired two other cinematic adaptations over the years but it’s hard to imagine either of them achieving the same magnitude of emotional and psychological discomfort the noted (and self-confessed lapsed) Catholic has here.

In 1600s Japan Christianity is outlawed, yet small factions still practice in secrecy in the mountainous regions surrounding colonial Nagasaki, where the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier had decades earlier attempted to plant the seeds of Catholicism in a country that already had an established national belief system. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has for all intents and purposes vanished. Scorsese wants to know what kinds of forces would be necessary to shake a man of his beliefs.

Now we watch as Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) similarly attempt promulgation as they are led deep into the mountains by an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas-like snake in the grass who vacillates between denying his Christian roots and wanting desperately to repent. He is an enigma not worthy of our trust, unlike the rest of these “hidden Christians,” who simply yearn for a conduit through which they can confess their sins to God.

Scorsese’s meticulous, methodical direction complements an altogether brilliant screenplay that barbarically strips away hope and conviction from those who find themselves at the center of a bitter ideological conflict. Co-written with three-time collaborator Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s appropriately expansive treatment deals with some upsetting material in a refreshingly blunt but unbiased manner, as emphasized by the numerous observational shots taken at a distance from the violence visited upon the innocent by merciless shogunates like Inoue The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). As the story unfolds we are challenged to question how much suffering is too much suffering. At what point does a cause become lost?

Several conversations take place that delineate the fundamental disagreement between practicing Buddhists and Catholics. These conversations are simultaneously fascinating and devastating to behold. Whereas Buddhists believe the individual can liberate himself from the perpetual cycle of ‘rebirth’ and ‘death’ (samsāra, which shouldn’t be literally translated as ‘suffering’ but rather a state of bliss that can never last) by choosing not to become obsessed with the material world, Christianity teaches that man can achieve salvation by governing their lives in a manner congruous with that of Jesus Christ. Of course, we all know how complicated it becomes when interpreting what is meant by following in his footsteps. All bets are off when what we’re arguing is whether or not being on Earth is merely another train station or the final destination.

Those conversations are largely what make Silence such a tough watch. Sure, the movie is violent and cruel in ways that you probably have never imagined, but it’s the stalemate we arrive at time and time again when neither party can convince the other. When no concessions can be made. What fuels emotional devastation is a combination of our steadily accrued respect for the priests and the narrative’s balanced perspective. It neither vilifies the Japanese nor glorifies Western influence. No party is entirely right and no party is completely off-base. We listen, we observe. We try to understand both views, though ultimately we are meant to empathize with one side more than the other.

Garfield, on the back of his portrayal of a similarly beleaguered soul in Mel Gibson’s tribute to real war-time hero Desmond Doss, essays a role for the ages as the Christ-like Father Rodrigues. Perhaps it’s worth noting how good Scorsese is in bringing out the absolute best in his actors, lest I lay too much at the foot of the budding British actor. Still, this is Garfield like I’ve never seen him before and it is an utterly heartbreaking performance that almost assuredly promises a nomination. Long gone it seems are the days of slinging webs in Manhattan.

If his co-star occupied the same amount of screen time, he too might’ve found himself on the ballot. Perhaps he still will. Driver’s contributions to the story, in particular that first third, are invaluable. Even though neither actor can quite convince us of their Portuguese descent — accents most notably slip when emotions run high — Driver in particular is good at reminding us of the flesh that lies beneath the cloth. He exudes self-doubt and vulnerability, at least more readily. Indeed, these are just men caught up in some extraordinary circumstances.

The mortality of these priests is what challenges us to really embrace the existential crisis at the heart of Silence. Scorsese of course is not asking the audience to do anything crazy like renounce their faith in a movie theater but he is challenging us to ponder ‘what if.’ That almost assuredly is the direction he gives his two leading men. What if what these priests are doing is actually causing more harm than good? What if you surrender everything you have known to be true for the sake of sparing others of their pain? Does self-doubt mean you have compromised everything? Does a simple physical act confirm what you feel in your heart?

Few of these questions come with answers. If we’re to pursue them, we’re better off trying post-viewing. That’s assuming answers are to be found at all. That kind of open-endedness could prove frustrating for some viewers, but I found it cathartic. Silence is a monumental achievement you have to experience for yourself, no matter what your beliefs are.

hero_silence-2016

5-0Recommendation: Whether you identify as devout, agnostic or atheist you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese’s historical/religious epic. It is going to be one of the hardest movies you’ve ever tried watching but come the end of it you’ll be glad for the opportunity. As for replay value, however, Silence might prove less successful. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.rogerebert.com 

TBT: Love Actually (2003)

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 2.23.07 AM

Once more I’m faced with writing about a movie I have never seen before. (Shouldn’t these TBTs be movies from my past, from my childhood? Isn’t that what a ‘throwback’ really is, a memory?) Yes, somewhere along the way I kind of lost my focus, or maybe I just don’t watch enough movies to make this a legitimate feature. I suppose what this has turned into is okay in the end, because I have only seen a finite number of films in my past; there’s (almost) no limit to what I can see in the future. Even still, I can’t help but think that maybe this part of the blog has run its course. With that in mind, we go to yet another new (to me) entry for the final segment this year!

Today’s food for thought: Love Actually.

Love Actually movie poster fart-fanugens

Loving, actually since: November 14, 2003

[Netflix]

Despite heartwarming performances from a stellar ensemble cast, this is actually a pretty terrible movie. Love Actually may not be quite as stuffed a turkey as more recent holiday disasters like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day — here’s a hint: if you want a quality bit of entertainment, you’d do well to stay away from films named after a holiday — nor is it quite as blatant in its commercialization of those holidays. Love Actually is, all the same, entirely too ingratiating.

The impressive ensemble helps make proceedings go down a little easier, but it’s still like trying to chew a wad of taffy that’s way too large for one person to handle. And taffy is kind of gross anyway.  But it’s not as gross as watching actors as talented as these try to make something out of a script that contrives human interaction in such a way that Love Actually becomes quasi-fantastical in its attempts to sell the events as something born out of love — you know, the kind of stuff that gets people by in the real world, not the sweet syrupy stuff in movies. Oh, how the irony stings.

After enduring these spectacularly unspectacular interweaving love stories for more than two hours, I can now only question my thoughts and feelings — all of which were positive — towards Curtis’ similarly precious About Time, in which Domhnall Gleeson discovers he could manipulate his ability to travel through time to build the perfect relationship with Rachel McAdams (or make her his concubine, I’m not sure which). Maybe I ought to just chalk that overly enthusiastic review up to being blinded by Gleeson’s likability. The guy can almost do no wrong. Add in Bill Nighy and you have a cast that’s hard not to be won over by.

Love Actually at least somewhat benefits from a similar reality, except this is a much larger pool of talent and not all participants fare well in this sugary, sappy mess. Like kids in grade school, the ensemble pairs off into smaller groups to tackle ten interrelated, England-set stories that end up coming together through circumstances that I feel more comfortable calling serendipity. I certainly can’t call it the product of good writing.

We have Nighy’s rock’n roll legend Billy Mack who is recording a Christmas song even he despises but goes on to promote it anyway because it has a chance of becoming a #1 hit. Throughout the film he lays on his anti-charm pretty thick, abusing his fat manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) and seemingly bent on self-destruction in a very Russell Brand-like way. His is one of the few stories that actually remain engaging throughout and ends up being far less manipulative. Maybe it’s just coincidence that his is the only story to remain completely independent from the others.

Liam Neeson, playing stepfather to Thomas Brodie-Sangster‘s Sam, sets himself apart from the chorus of others who can only sing in one key: and that is feeling lovelorn and lonely. His Daniel represents an entirely different, more tender side of Neeson that is entirely welcomed. It’s too bad his backstory revolves around the painful loss of his wife (the same wife, we assume, that many of his characters in later action thrillers will too be mourning). Daniel is a warm presence and his relationship with his stepson (also played very well by Sangster) affords Love Actually at least one or two brownie points.

Outside of these threads we start venturing into stories that become less interesting by powers of ten. The best of the rest manifests in Colin Firth’s genuine, affable Jamie, a writer whose girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother. Devastated by the discovery, he retreats into a cottage he owns in France where he meets Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia and soon falls for her, despite the language barrier. So he learns to speak Portuguese and tracks her down after making a brief return trip to England, because, well the movie’s all lovey-dovey like that.

The rest of the picture can be filled in as follows: Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who play newlywed couple Juliet and Peter, contend with the latent feelings of Peter’s old friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln); Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, body doubles in movies who find attraction to one another while staging sex scenes; Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, a longtime married couple now face a crisis in the wake of Karen (Thompson)’s discovery of an affair her husband is potentially having with a coworker; Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister, the most self-deprecating individual ever to find himself in a position of such power, can’t help but feel attracted to one of his secretaries even after her indiscretion with the sleazy U.S. President (an absolute waste of Billy Bob Thornton’s time). Rowan Atkinson has a slightly amusing cameo. And the less said about Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro’s parts, the better.

Love Actually too forcefully reminds the viewer that the world is indeed a small place and, playing out like one of those old McDonald’s commercials from the ’90s (“hey, it could happen!”), it champions taking a risk on romantic gestures over the holiday season. Because, hey — that thing you really want to have happen, it can happen. Because, as the movie justifies itself, it’s Christmas and it’s a time to be bluntly honest with each other.

So let me be bluntly honest with you. I took a chance on this film actually making an attempt to be believable after a few head-scratching developments up front, but too much of a good thing — the spreading of joy in this case — is worse than not enough of that good thing. Mr. Curtis apparently isn’t familiar with the concept of ‘less is more.’ Choked with coincidence and serendipity, Love Actually may spread holiday cheer like a wild fire but the feeling I get from it is more like . . . well, hate actually.

Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in 'Love Actually'

Recommendation: Star-studded romantic comedy bogged down by unabashed sentimentality. Stars are good, story is horrendous — played out, predictable, way too cheesy and not subtle in the slightest. A few supporting turns make some of the effort worthwhile but in the end, Love Actually isn’t one you turn to for performances. You turn to it to feel much better about getting to escape the banality of real-world Christmas events. A feel good movie that made this little grinch feel quite bad.

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

TBTrivia: Kris Marshall, who played Colin, a caterer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding, apparently returned his pay check for the scene where the three American girls undress him. He said he had such a great time having three girls undress him for twenty-one takes, that he was willing to do it for free, and thus returned his check for that day.

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Photo credits: http://www.playbuzz.com; http://www.fanpop.com  

Run All Night

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Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Emotionally resonant, impressively acted and frenetically paced to a fault, the latest demonstration of Neeson’s physical and intellectual stamina may suffer from a case of ‘been there, done that’ but that’s more in reference to the general direction this new release takes and less to its personality. There’s no shame in repeating a formula . . . if it works. What’s that adage — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well Liam isn’t broken yet as this film proves; he’s got plenty left in the tank.

The 62-year-old Irishman crawls under the skin of what may be his most apparent antihero yet, Jimmy Conlon, a former hit-man with more ties to the mob than to his own family. When a thug, the son of one of Jimmy’s only remaining friends Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) makes a sloppy attempt at disposing of unwanted evidence in the wake of a botched murder by tracking down an escaped ‘victim’ to Jimmy’s son’s home and attempts to clean house, Jimmy is awoken from a particularly brutal drunken stupor in an effort to save his son’s life. Michael (Joel Kinnaman, finally coming to life) hasn’t seen his father in five years since the death of his mother and finds the timing a little odd to say the least. Knowing full well what the consequences of his latest kill are going to be, Jimmy makes a strong case for Michael to trust his trigger-finger and gut instinct for just one night.

It’s clear we won’t be dropping the baggage of old age manifesting in bottomless drinks and endless cigarettes this time around: Neeson’s character once more gets to tout his miserable existence on this mortal coil as experience no one around him ought to share in, but within this fragile father-son dynamic the pain caused by his rejection from society — or those who haven’t committed murder for a living anyway — not only registers with the audience but it’s a burden that feels earned. If it’s not a better life Jimmy wants for his son and his family, which includes a regrettably disposable Genesis Rodriguez as his gorgeous wife, then it’s certainly anything but what the next 24 hours are going to offer.

As for those aforementioned consequences, Harris’ ruthless Shawn, whose previous claims of running a legit operation these days belie the monster dormant behind cold, blue eyes, stabs a man in the back no less than ten times with a large blade during a shocking sequence of mafia-related retribution. It’s not quite like Matthew 5:38 (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”), but the allegory, even if as subtle as a backstabbing, works to heighten the tension. Every move Jimmy makes to protect his son Shawn mimics out of desperation — desperation with which we can actually empathize. Credit Harris’ gift for powerful acting. Credit screenwriter Brad Ingelsby for setting up the stakes sufficiently, as the fall-out between the two men culminates in a surprisingly emotional showdown.

Run All Night is of course not without its own missteps. Its many action-packed (read: very violent) scenes are spliced together with an energy that takes some effort keeping up with, even for director Jaume Collet-Serra. A dizzying blend of awkward camera zooms that whisk us from one section of the metropolitan maze that is Manhattan to the other and close-ups of characters at rest nearly results in nausea and does result in frequent detachment from the movie. Not to mention this story, though much more attentive to character development and emotional gravitas than the latter Taken installments, merely adds padding to Neeson’s post-Ra’s Al Ghul résumé. Run All Night is neither as poorly titled as Non-Stop nor as ill-advised as extending the legacy of Bryan Mills, yet it won’t survive the year in most moviegoer’s memory.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t a film worth checking out though. It packs a punch and has strong performances peppered throughout, unsurprisingly from its head honchos and even Joel Kinnaman. Yes, I do realize how much that sounds like hyperbole . . . but for once on this blog I feel like I’m underselling something.

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3-0Recommendation: Run All Night could have gone either way, but Neeson once again delivers, with dramatic heft and some interesting relationship developments backing him up. At his age this could easily have been Walk All Night, or Hobble All Night. Or Talk on the Phone Menacingly All Night. But this character feels a little more three-dimensional as does the narrative. May I suggest this one to the more devoted fans of the rugged and imposing Liam Neeson and some other big-named actors who offer solid work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Tell everyone to get ready. Jimmy’s coming . . . “

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Walk Among the Tombstones

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Release: Friday, September 19, 2014

[Theater]

Mr. Neeson’s very particular set of skills, while not applied quite as liberally this time around, still make themselves available during creative bursts of energy in this brand new crime thriller from Scott Frank.

There’s a chill in the air and an eerie quiet about the New York City imagined in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a surprisingly more meditative experience whose title conjures up visions of a modern twist on the western. (Really, it’s an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel of the same name.) Such an impression is further solidified by the lack of pedestrian (really, any) traffic in these parts; spurts of grisly violence; a character that comes across more righteous protector than a blunt instrument who can wield an iPhone like nobody’s business.

Yeah, okay — he’s no John Wayne, but clad in the long coat with high-rise collar concealing nape of neck he begs a comparison to a number of badass outlaw archetypes. In 2014 Neeson may be deep in his trajectory to becoming one of the coolest action stars of the 21st Century, but he’s also mindful that his dramatic chops always have room for improvement. Given the number of avenues that are taken to subvert the lead’s aggressive persona Tombstones proves to be the ideal platform for him to work on that.

Matthew Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a former member of the NYPD hired on the spot by a desperate heroin dealer (Dan Stevens) to find who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. In the process he comes in contact with a homeless youth named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) whose attitude belies a warm yet vulnerable and perpetually crumbling core. Betrayed by both parents at an early age, he’s no original creation but he is a slight revelation as a humorous partner-in-crime who convinces us of his humanity. That’s a directorial decision that extends all the way to Neeson, who disposes with the over-the-top dramatics in favor of one of his most stalwart performances since Oskar Schindler.

Granted the circumstances are nowhere near as historically relevant. They’re not really relevant at all. A drug dealer’s home life falling apart in gut-wrenching fashion is not the same kind of gut-wrenching as the stipulations made by the developments within Schindler’s List. An alcoholic learning to overcome his personal issues is not the same as a humanitarian working diligently to save lives in the height of one of the worst crimes against humanity ever recorded. Then again, this is kind of an unfair comparison.

Relying on the strength of its source material and a pair of wonderfully sinister performances from David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as the sadistic kidnappers, actors more than willing to take on the challenge of matching the subtle intensity of Liam Neeson, this grave walk delivers a slow-burning, dread-inducing tale of good versus evil, which may sound on paper as rather unoriginal. In execution, however, Tombstones takes some fascinating back alleys that will have you riveted and possibly more infatuated with the gruff Neeson than ever.

And for those curious, yes indeed, the film does come complete with an electrifying phone conversation that will have you readjusting your jockeys. A Walk Among the Tombstones is not classic Liam Neeson, but rather a reinvention of the concept.

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3-5Recommendation: Going in expecting another Taken would be the mistake! Enjoy a solid and restrained performance from Neeson who more than capably holds the screen in yet another convincingly tense crime thriller. The title may be a chore to utter time and again, but the experience — though notably lacking in pulse-pounding action — is worth repeating to friends who you think may be interested, those who may consider themselves the more dedicated Liam Neeson fan.

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Once they’re in the van they’re just body parts. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Third Person

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Release: Friday, June 20, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Putting it mildly, Third Person is a rather luke-warm rumination on romance whose title feels fairly appropriate considering how much the content likes to emotionally strand the viewer for over two painfully long hours. In fact the lethargic pace is such that it’s easy to get the impression the director really doesn’t care whether you’re occupying a seat or not.

Clearly working within a certain blueprint, Paul Haggis at best treads water with his latest entry, a trio of love stories taking place simultaneously in Paris, Rome and New York. Whereas ten years prior he was comfortable allowing his cameras to settle on moments of pure and unnerving racial tension in his Best Picture-winning Crash, here his commitment to painting reality like it is just doesn’t feel as inspired. The structural similarity also suggests possible creative burn-out on Haggis’ part, though the recycled formula is less of an issue as the quality of this final product.

What dooms Third Person more than anything is one doozy of a predictable denouement that can be all but seen coming from the film’s opening title sequence. It’s the kind of unimaginative revelation that sends up red flags as to whether Haggis even bothered. It is also the second suggestion that inspires the thought that this was a film made with no real discernible audience in mind. Perhaps its just catering to the audience with the least discernible tastes in romanticism.

Upon this chessboard of troubled relationships Haggis has placed several bland characters, ones slightly improved by the big names portraying them.

Liam Neeson is once again a hardened, scruffy tough man. . .well, a writer. . .named Michael, and Olivia Wilde is Anna, a woman with a dark history. They’re introduced to us in a rather surreptitious manner; indifferent camera angles lingering on a young, beautiful woman and her significantly older, more moody male counterpart passive-aggressively suggests something ain’t quite right with the girl.

The second pairing finds James Franco playing a successful artist, apparently named Rick (at the very least, we learn character names aren’t worth much in this universe), and who is having trouble with an ex of his who had attempted to hurt their son. Spotlight on a Mila Kunis who might not have ever achieved this level of irritating. Not even as Meg. Shut up, Meg.

The third relationship takes place in Rome and blossoms between Adrien Brody’s Scott and a mysterious Romanian woman named Monika (Moran Atias). The two bump into one another at a dive bar, wherein Scott, a clothing designer harboring a disdain for Italian fashion, learns that Monika is on the trail to meet up with her long-missing daughter who was kidnapped by a Russian gangster. Awkwardly ingratiating himself in the woman’s personal affairs from the get-go, this thread might be the most woefully developed and conceived of the three as Brody does his best to force something out of almost literally nothing. Ice-breaker conversation at the bar comes close to inducing an early nap time.

Whereas the other stories experience less boredom, the intertwining scenes that flip between Michael and Anna’s affair versus Rick and Julia (Kunis)’ troubled history instead just cause a headache and a good bit of confusion. One might be able to admire Haggis’ ability to thread the needle in certain spots — his delivery of certain heartbreaking pieces of information do indeed almost break the heart they’re so painful and twisted in their morality — but these brief spurts of brightness are perhaps the only compliments you can pay Third Person — noteworthy or otherwise. More often than not the multiple tiers of varied trust issues add up to nothing more than a rambling, incoherent mess. A more detailed review of it would start to feel much the same.

If 2004 was the Crash, well, we should have been prepared for the burn.

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1-5Recommendation: There’s not a whole lot that Third Person presents compellingly. Love stories trend much the same way as the millions that have come before, yet the involvement of three stories punches up the intrigue factor just a little. But if I can recommend this film on a performance-basis, I see no reason to outright say ‘No’ to this. The actors do fine work. But the script and Haggis most certainly do not. May I recommend the rental. . .and then the very frequent scene-skipping to get to the good parts. Which basically involve Olivia Wilde. Okay, okay — and Liam Neeson.

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I need you to look at what you did, I need you to face what you can’t face, and I need you to tell me the truth.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Released: Friday, May 30, 2014

[Theater]

Oh, Seth. Seth, Seth, Seth, Seth, Seth. . . . .

Seth MacFarlane. It’s a name a great many are likely tiring of by now, maybe for good reason, maybe for ones less so. Judge as you will, but I’ve tried to make a case for the guy for awhile. I’m on my last legs.

For me it’s never been an issue how stupid the comedy has been. . .and we have gone to some fairly asinine places. One need look no further than Family Guy‘s running joke about Peter and how whenever he trips and scuffs his knee he whines like a baby for about two solid minutes of their precious air time. Or beyond the show’s myriad other deliciously tasteless jokes that have offended every culture from here to Hanoi.

The guy loves what he does and the passion effloresces in virtually everything his pervy hands have touched. That it takes a brain running on nothing but gasoline and guano to understand most of the humor MacFarlane now barricades behind him, arms folded with just the yuppiest of grins plastered on his face, well that’s just no surprise. Family Guy et al aren’t particularly high-brow concepts, and that’s quite alright with me. I have laughed, and I have laughed hard.

I have little patience for lazy filmmaking, though. It’s also a phenomenon that makes even less sense. Of all qualities a director, producer, writer and star (and in this case, MacFarlane is all of these things) can possess when shouldered with the responsibility of producing content for an audience that he’s been comfortable with for years producing content for, the last thing one thinks of is apathy. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a sham of an effort from an entertainer who really ought to know better. Consequently, I can only shake my head and crap myself awkwardly. (Actually, I don’t know why I did the second thing, or why I owned up to it. Whatever. It’s too late now.)

Seth, where’s the motivation, man?

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“Nah, it’s alright. We’ll get the title right next time this movie comes through.”

Recycled gags and scatological humor run amok out here in the wild west, a theme that has stuck with the creator of Ted like a wet turd on velcro. This is the story of a lowly sheepherder, Albert Stark (MacFarlane), who eventually comes into his own as a proud, confident and respected member of the small dustbowl community of Old Stump.

Well, he doesn’t exactly come into his own by accident. No. That’s actually thanks to the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) who rides into town one day with a band of baddies who are seeking gold deposits in the area and are led by one bad cowpoke by the name of Clinch (Liam Neeson).

As is the case in many a MacFarlane production, plot elements and developments are highly contrived and conveniently staged. His Albert sure didn’t have to do a whole lot of. . . .shepherding. . . to impress the new lady in town. It all comes together somewhat (in)organically, thanks to a script that might as well have been penned by a retarded sheep. The entire premise is one drawn-out and predictable affair, as Albert faces a series of gun fights in the center of town against multiple villains, none of which he’s had much preparation for. Not to mention, the story shockingly lacks the energy and enthusiasm typical of the man’s controversial work. Instead of being plump with brand-new side-slapping jokes, we get a different variation of the crass monuments the man has spent a lifetime erecting behind a microphone and hilarious animation.

Maybe the punishment fits the crime? My naïveté for hoping for something more original has landed me in a world of disappointment.

If he’s not careful, A Million Ways to Die in the West might well be the final frontier of MacFarlane’s live-action film-making career. It is not a good movie, and while disappointment might seem like an all but predictable conclusion to arrive at it is certainly the case here. A Million Ways to Die in the West. . .more like a million ways to yawn in your seat.

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2-0Recommendation: This isn’t a good film, even by Seth MacFarlane standards. The guy may have only made two live-action films, but his first stab at it still claims the higher ground. A Million Ways to Die in the West suffers from an uninspired premise and incredibly flat performances that are of no one’s fault but the script’s. Liam Neeson comes to work each day, this we can tell — and ditto that to Charlize Theron and Neil Patrick Harris. But the rest telegraph it in, including MacFarlane as a director and co-writer. Personally, I hope he sticks to animated TV shows more in the future.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Please don’t shoot us on sex night!”

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