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Posts Tagged ‘Liam Neeson’

Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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Normally nothing makes people in the film industry happier than when there is a buzz around their new movie and everyone is talking breathlessly about it. Occasionally, however, something comes along which really tests that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

The most startling example of this in recent years was Liam Neeson’s recent performance on the press tour for his new movie Cold Pursuit, directed by Hans Petter Moland. Neeson has enjoyed something of a career resurgence in recent years playing the protagonists of action movies centred on characters who tend to be approaching pensionable age, but who don’t let this stop them going on roaring rampages of revenge. Cold Pursuit is really an addition to this odd subgenre, and (in case you’ve been on a desert island) Neeson decided to share his own experiences of the corrosive effect of the urge for vengeance, cheerfully regaling his interviewer with the story of how, following the rape of a friend by an unidentified black man, he wandered the streets of Belfast hoping to be provoked by someone of that ethnicity so he could justifiably beat them to death.

Unsurprisingly, this was not greeted as the sign of insight and mature self-awareness that Neeson clearly thought it to be, and the poo-storm of disbelieving outrage which ensued has really eclipsed Cold Pursuit‘s merits as a film, whatever they may be. However, this is still by some metric a thriller, and where there is a thriller in the cinema, you will most likely find me and Olinka, sooner or later. Is the film as dodgy as Neeson’s attempts to promote it, or is the unfair victim of its star’s poor judgement?

Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, unassuming snowplough driver in the resort town of Kehoe, Colorado, who as the film starts is a loving father and husband and recipient of the town’s Citizen of the Year award. You just know that when someone starts a film by being dull and civic-minded, they are not going to stay that way, and so it proves. Coxman’s son turns up dead of a heroin overdose and he and his wife (Laura Dern) are knocked sidewise, unable to believe they knew their child so little. Struggling to come to terms, Neeson retires to the garage to blow his own head off.

However, he is stopped by the appearance of a friend of his son who reveals he was murdered on the orders of the local drug baron, Viking (Tom Bateman). This at least gives Neeson a focus for his negative emotions and soon he is carving a swathe through the lower echelons of Viking’s organisation and hoping to get a shot at the top man. Killing drug dealers tends to come with consequences, however, and Viking and his lieutenants jump to the wrong conclusion, assuming that a rival gang of Native American drug dealers are responsible. Soon a bloody turf war is in progress and threatening to spin out of control…

A friend of mine was recently, and somewhat improbably given his image as a thoughtful and humane family man, outed as a bit of a fan of the whole Liam Neeson revenge-thriller genre, and seemed genuinely disappointed when his schedule meant that he couldn’t come to see Cold Pursuit with Olinka and me. I am not entirely sure this film would have been his cup of tea, though: the opening at least is deeply suspect, with an awful, grating uncertainty of tone – in part a dour, uncompromisingly downbeat drama about loss and grief (shades of In the Bedroom) and the couple struggling to deal with the loss of their boy, and partly a gruesome, graphically violent revenge-thriller.

In the end, however, a third style becomes dominant. This is an American remake of a Scandi drama from a few years ago, and you can still discern traces of that in the setting of the film and its humour (I was going to call it a black comedy, but in the circumstances I think it’s best to steer clear of that sort of language). Most of all it resembles a pastiche of the kind of films that the McDonagh brothers have been making in recent years, with a mixture of calculated provocation and clever subversion of genre tropes, spiced up with quirky humour and characters who refuse to be defined by their roles in the story. Thus we get a drug lord who’s obsessed with macrobiotic dieting and who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies, believing it to be a valuable repository of life lessons.

There are some good jokes in Cold Pursuit, but on the whole it often feels quite laboured. Liam Neeson cheerfully sent himself up a few years ago in a sketch where he approached Ricky Gervais insisting that they work on ‘funny monologues… crazy characters… slapstick’, all delivered in that balefully intense manner, but the problem here is that he is really is playing it all much too straight and earnest. This is to some extent ameliorated by the fact that, as the situation spins out of control, he gets less screen-time, but this itself probably qualifies as another problem with the film – the script doesn’t quite hold together and contains some very cheesy bits of plotting. (The ending in particular is very abrupt and peculiar.)

In the end it’s all really very blokey, violent stuff, with a sort of motif – calling it a theme would be overdoing it – about fathers and their relationships with their sons. Most of the female characters are very secondary and don’t get much screen time; the exception being Emmy Rossum’s ambitious young cop. Rossum (who fifteen years ago looked like being on the verge of becoming a major star, but vanished into the netherworld of cable TV) gets some good scenes, but doesn’t really contribute much to the story either.

Neeson does the best he can with a character who doesn’t exactly leap off the screen; the actors playing all the comedy gangsters likewise make the most of their opportunities. But in the end, I don’t know – the film recovers well from a very dubious opening act, but in the end it feels just a bit too laborious in both its plotting and its quest to find unlikely sources of humour. I doubt people going in expectation of a Liam Neeson revenge thriller will find it very satisfactory, but then neither will anyone else: it’s a bit too self-consciously quirky given the subject matter, and it seems to have nothing really to say for itself about any of the themes and topics it touches on. Cold Pursuit is somewhat entertaining while you’re watching it, but if Neeson had kept his mouth shut on the press tour I suspect it would have vanished into obscurity fairly rapidly.

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Olinka and I settled into our seats, opened a bag of chocolate eggs, and prepared to enjoy the trailers. ‘And, of course, the good thing is,’ I said, ‘that these should all be trailers for thrillers.’

‘Aren’t they always?’ said Olinka, crunching an egg.

Yes, as regular readers will be aware, Olinka’s fondness for going to the cinema is considerable, as is her nigh-on miraculous ability to watch a movie and yet not actually be aware of what genre it is. This is the woman who thought Kray twin biopic Legend was a black comedy, and that properly spooky horror movie Ghost Stories was a thriller. (She also thought that going to watch Hereditary was actually a good idea, but it would be unchivalrous to dwell on that too much.) When I suggest we go and see a film, Olinka’s first question is nearly always ‘is it a thriller?’ And the pleasant thing is that I can always answer ‘yes’, safe in the knowledge that, as far she’s concerned, it probably will be.

This time we got the previews for The Favourite, Glass, Robin Hood, and The Girl in the Lucrative Franchise, only the last of which I would honestly describe as a proper thriller, but there you go, you can never be sure these days. I think I’ve observed in the past that films that don’t fit easily into genre categories tend to have more diverse trailers running in front of them, and the fact is that the film we had gone to see is a curious mixture of genre movie and very serious drama: I speak of Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (no, the other one). It was the thriller element that I expected Olinka to enjoy, but this is also a female-led movie and I felt sure she’d appreciate that bit, too.

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The film is set in present-day Chicago. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a former teacher married to Harry (Liam Neeson), who is a professional criminal (this might seem like a rather unlikely relationship for all sorts of reasons, but the actors and script are good enough to sell it to the viewer). However, no sooner has the movie got underway than we are plunged into the midst of Harry’s latest enterprise, which is going horribly awry. The robbery at least is quite successful, but then the crew are pursued by the police, there is a hail of bullets, an explosion, and a fireball. Veronica and the wives of the other robbers are now, well, widows.

This would be stressful enough in the normal way of things, but it gets worse: it turned out that in the fateful job-gone-wrong, Harry and the others stole two million dollars from another criminal, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning has decided to go legit, or at least become a better class of criminal, by going into politics, and is currently locked in a bad-tempered electoral race with establishment candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning needs the money back in order to fund his campaign, and is not about to let the fact it all got incinerated incline him to let Veronica off the hook. She has a month to raise the cash or it will go very much the worse for her.

However, Veronica finds herself the recipient of a rather unusual bequest from her late husband: a notebook containing the plans for his next heist, which would have netted him five million dollars. Rather than just selling the plans to Manning, Veronica decides that on this occasion, sisters are going to do it for themselves, and recruits two of her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to help her execute the job…

This is, I would argue, the other Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date, and looks every inch the slick Hollywood thriller. Nevertheless, this started life as a six-part drama on British TV thirty-five years ago: just goes to show that sometimes these things spend a while coming to fruition, I suppose (I’m sure I heard somewhere that Ann Mitchell, star of the TV version, has a walk-on part at one point in the movie, but I didn’t spot her).

Original writer Lynda La Plante gets a credit but you could be forgiven for assuming this had been written for the American screen by McQueen and collaborator Gillian Flynn (yup, the one from Gone Girl). La Plante’s plot survives essentially intact, but the idiom is wholly American, as are the social issues McQueen chooses to explore in the course of the film.

Given that McQueen’s last film was essentially 134 minutes of factually-inspired historical misery, you may not be totally surprised to learn that his version of Widows does not shy away from the darker side of life. Quite the opposite: this is a film set in a thoroughly, horribly corrupt and nihilistic world where virtually everyone seems to have given up hope and abandoned any principles they ever held. It is all about getting ahead and staying there: at one point, the mother of one of the widows basically encourages her daughter to become a call girl, as this is apparently a fairly agreeable way of earning a living. Racism, political corruption, and police brutality all feature in the plot to some degree or other.

That said, this is still a very absorbing film, helped by the fact it has a smart, intelligent script and an excellent cast – quite apart from the people I’ve already mentioned, it has Robert Duvall as Farrell’s repugnant father and Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s brother, both of whom are very good (Kaluuya is kind of playing the unpredictable-psycho-killer-brother stock character, but manages to find some new things to do with it). And it’s not even as if it’s totally bereft of lighter moments – at one point the widows realise they’re going to need an extra pair of hands to complete the robbery, and (in the absence of anyone else remotely qualified), end up recruiting Rodriguez’s babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete the team.

On the other hand, it does almost feel as if the film itself gets rather absorbed in the world of its story, rather than the heist narrative. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is inclined to sprawl somewhat (even so, not all of the widows are developed as individuals to anything like the same extent, with Michelle Rodriguez being notably less well served than Elizabeth Debicki).

I was slightly surprised when Olinka, a couple of hours in, emitted a great sigh and asked (of no-one in particular) ‘Is this film ever going to end?’ – but in retrospect I can kind of see where she was coming from. If there is a flaw in Widows, it is that this is a film with an awful lot of middle, most of which seems to have been taken as an advance on the end: the actual climactic heist does eventually materialise, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought – curiously under-developed and not really as tightly written or directed as you would expect. It is as if the more dramatic, social-commentary elements of the movie have staged a sort of coup against the heist plotline which it started with.

I am slightly saddened to have to report that, despite it still more-or-less functioning as a thriller, Olinka was less than fulsome in her praise for Widows as we left the cinema. Personally, I enjoyed the performances and the script enough for the issues with the central plotline not to be a particular issue for me. This is the kind of grown-up, quality movie which usually does very well with both critics and audiences – I’m virtually certain it will be more of a popular success than the other Steve McQueen’s last film; the question is whether it can achieve the same kind of critical triumph as well. Whatever the answer proves to be, this is a solid, intelligent movie.

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It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

silence

Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as ‘the best film of the year’ – though which year we’re talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it’s being released in?). I’m not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.

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This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it’s getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).

What with also being viciously bullied at school, it’s all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel’s character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come… (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)

I wasn’t really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he’s handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script’s occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).

But, as I say, you don’t really notice any of this while you’re actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it’s more or less clear from the trailer exactly what’s going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.

Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I’d expected – ‘honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,’ says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I’m not sure that there’s anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it’s told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn’t feel like something that you’ve seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot’s dad, there’s a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.

In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn’t mean we’re not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.

 

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It’s common for me to become aware of an actor’s name and talent, only for it to turn out that I’ve actually been watching them for years in films but they never quite registered with me. Not so in the case of Liam Neeson: I distinctly remember the first time I watched the 1984 movie The Bounty, which would have been in the late summer of 1985, and came out of it saying ‘that big Irish guy has really got charisma’ (or words to that effect). This wasn’t his first film, of course – since then I’ve caught up with his earlier performances in Excalibur and Krull from earlier in the 80s.

Neeson’s career, at first glance, looks not-atypical as that of a certain kind of actor – a few minor parts in high-profile genre movies, then a shift into more mainstream, quality fare, and finally some big lead roles. Let us not forget the critical acclaim and recognition Neeson received for Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Kinsey. Of course, the fact that I think it necessary to mention this is of course because there has been a bit of a shadow over the big man’s career of late. I’m not even referring to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I usually steer clear of commenting in too much detail on the personal lives of… well, anyone, but in Liam Neeson’s case I think it is pertinent to his career. Neeson suffered a family bereavement a few years ago and has said in interviews that, since then, working constantly has been a coping mechanism. I am not unsympathetic to Neeson’s situation, but I can’t help thinking that this may have had a bit of a negative impact when it comes to quality control. Never mind his turn as Hannibal in the A Team movie, in 2012 Neeson got two Golden Raspberry nominations in the same year (for Wrath of the Titans and Battleship).

And yet he has had an odd sort of rebirth as an action hero, mainly because of the influence of Luc Besson and the Taken movies. He’s in this mode in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, which is a film unlikely to do much to revive his reputation – but neither will it do it much damage, I suspect.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, who basically seems rather like all the other action heroes he has given us in recent years. Perhaps on this occasion Neeson is giving us rather more baleful old sod than usual, and it’s difficult not to read too much into Neeson’s portrayal of the character: Marks is a man clearly going through trying personal times, and almost seems to be in the throes of some kind of breakdown. We first meet him in an overcast airport car park, where he is idly stirring whiskey into his coffee, but soon enough he is getting onto his plane.

For, yes, this is another of those airliner-in-peril action thrillers, and the film gets on with introducing the various passengers and flight crew with an admirable lack of messing about. Neeson shows us that beneath the baleful old sod exterior there beats the heart of a softy, by helping a nervous little girl who loses her cuddly toy, while also on board are various ethnically diverse yuppies, blue-collar guys, potential love interests, and so on. With the plane in flight (the airline in question is the rather implausible-sounding British Aqualantica, which tells us that none of the real companies wanted to get involved), things get going properly as Neeson (a cop turned federal air marshal) receives a text from a mysterious source informing him that until $150 million is transferred to a particular bank account, one person on the plane will be murdered every twenty minutes. Looks like Neeson picked the wrong week to stop being a paranoid gun-toting alcoholic!

Without giving too much away, Non-Stop does end up being a little bit bonkers, and I’m not sure the plot is entirely hole-free, but the echoes of Airplane! are not too intrusive. The script does a good job of keeping everything trotting along for most of the film’s duration, and is actually quite inventive – Neeson finds himself implicated in the various crimes occurring on the plane, and thus has to resolve the situation without the assistance of his colleagues on the ground.

One interesting possibility that the film dangles briefly in front of us is that Neeson’s colleagues may actually be in the right, and that everything we’re seeing is just some sort of paranoid delusion being experienced by someone having a booze-fuelled breakdown. For a while it does look like the only person actually causing chaos on the flight is Neeson himself, and the various shots from his point-of-view have a slightly disjointed, queasy quality that definitely implies all is not well.

In the end, though – and I suppose this may constitute a spoiler – everything is pretty much what it seems to be. There really is a terrorist, and of course he isn’t after the money as such, he just wants to make a slightly contrived socio-political point about modern American society. We’re quite a long way post-9/11 for people to still be making as explicitly post-9/11 movies as this one, if you ask me, but this is just a fig-leaf for the action thriller stuff so it didn’t really grate with me too much. It’s also quite liable to date, I suspect, simply because of the plot’s reliance on smartphones and suchlike: Neeson spends a lot of his time barking at the flight crew to switch the plane’s wi fi on and off, for various reasons.

Hey ho. Neeson isn’t quite phoning it in, that famous charisma of his remains undiminished, and it’s perhaps his presence that has led to the appearance in the film of Julianne Moore, a rather classier actress than this sort of script honestly deserves. Also present and doing decent work are people like Scoot McNairy and Michelle Dockery (who I understand is a soap opera actress doing her best to break into films).

Non-Stop is a film which you’ve probably seen before under a different title – the ingredients and serving have all been jiggled around a bit to make them look new, but the actual recipe is one which has been doing the rounds for many years now. It’s still quite a good recipe and Neeson carries the movie reasonably well – this isn’t going to win any awards, and I hope Liam Neeson can find himself a quality project to appear in soon, but as implausible action movies go I’ve seen much worse.

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