Cold Pursuit (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening chapters of action-thriller black comedy “Cold Pursuit,” a remake of Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance” (“Kraftidioten”), both works directed by Hans Petter Moland, leads the viewer to believe that it is a revenge picture told solely from the perspective of a father, Coxman (Liam Neeson), who is convinced that his recently deceased son was not a drug addict—but that he had been murdered in cold blood and his killers made it appear as though the young man’s death was due to overdose. But the self-aware screenplay by Frank Baldwin functions on a much higher plane; it works as a critique of both vengeance films and how drug underworlds are often depicted on film. The humor stems from our knowledge of commonly traversed themes.
While it is able to deliver bursts of violence in an effective manner, the film is less interested in providing raining bullets than exploring the circumstances that lead up to small eruptions. More specifically, it is willing to put a magnifying glass on the various colorful personalities we come across: our protagonist who just so happens to be a snowplow driver (Neeson), the rule-obsessed local drug lord (Tom Bateman) who looks at his son and recognizes only weakness, the Native American (Tom Jackson) drug lord from Denver, the overzealous cop (Emmy Rossum) who wishes to save the Rocky Mountain town, to name a few. The pot is stirred with preternatural patience until each subplot’s flavors meld into one another. At its best, it reminded me of the skillful writing and overall savagery of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s masterful “Fargo.”
The body count is high. Every person who dies gets a title card after the fact—kind of like reading a gravestone. It commemorates their demise, in a way, which hilariously ties into the film’s opening quote by Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” The assassinations have seasonings to them, too. While many are very much deserved (the majority of the men are cold-blooded killers), most are ironic, cruel even, and a few have a slight tinge of sadness to them. The manner in which bodies are disposed are purposeful and repetitive—yet it gets funnier each time. I will never look at chicken wires the same.
Despite its gallows humor, suspense constantly courses just underneath the plot’s sclera. Consider Coxman: Unlike the men he must interrogate in order to get to the truth of his son’s death, he proves to be no professional hitman. Even we can recognize his mistakes: his timing, how he gets too close to the enemy, a tendency to give pause when constant reaction is clearly the wiser route. At one point, a friend (William Forsythe) who finds it miraculous that Coxman is still alive despite having pummeled members of the cartel suggests that the grieving father hire an assassin—someone who does it for the money, someone who takes killing as impersonal, a mere job… a perspective that Coxman does not have—cannot have—since his boy’s body has gone cold. Meanwhile, the local drug lord is on the hunt for the person who has punished his associates. Naturally, every second gets him closer to Coxman.
Ferociously funny in parts, consistently entertaining, and propelled with forceful pacing, “Cold Pursuit” stands out from most revenge and gangster pictures because the story is told through an off-kilter angle which results in landing on unexpected territory. It makes an excellent double bill with Henrik Ruben Genz’ hidden gem “Terribly Happy,” a Danish noir thriller as twisty as a pretzel.
Monster Calls, A (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Deep inside “A Monster Calls,” based on the novel and screenplay by Patrick Ness, lies a heart of a warrior, and that heart is carried by a twelve-year-old named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Yet despite the premise of the film, the picture is not a standard “cancer movie” in which family members gather from across the world merely to hug and cry together because the plot demands that they do. Rather, the film takes a serious look at the fear of losing a loved one from a disease that ravages thoroughly through the eyes of a young artist increasingly desperate to see the person he values most be well again.
Its fantastic elements offer stunning beauty, the magical realism exactly right for the story being told. It can stand strong against great works such as Guillermo del Toro’s “El laberinto del fauno” and “El espinazo del diablo,” as well as Víctor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena.” The computer animation of the giant yew tree that visits our protagonist at exactly 12:07 A.M., voiced by Liam Neeson, is arresting in its detail, from the way it moves its branchy limbs to its inferno eyes and dominant bearing. It is a smart and refreshing choice not to have reduced this character to being cute or friendly; its firm personality is at times intimidating, seldom offering a deeply wicked sense of humor. The monster demands that Conor tell him a fourth story after the tree shares three stories with the boy. All of the tales are compelling.
Equally important is the look of the spaces the characters inhabit. The outdoors is often depicted as rainy, cold, and gray. Hidden places of the schoolyard are areas where Conor gets bullied relentlessly by his peers. The cemetery is the setting of Conor’s recurring nightmare. At times, however, equally unwelcoming are the indoors, from the white-walled, impersonal hospital rooms and increasingly claustrophobic classrooms, to grandma’s (Sigourney Weaver) house where fragile figurines and classy couches are meant to be displayed, not touched.
But take note of Conor’s room. Warm, yellow lighting is utilized. There are a number of books sitting in shelves. Photographs of smiling faces line the walls. Conor’s various works are displayed and so we get a chance to look at what goes on in his mind. Conor’s room is a safe space from the chaos bred by circumstances with no easy solutions or resolutions.
MacDougall, increasingly impressive as the picture goes on, taps into every subtle rhythm of his character and so whatever happens to Conor—in dreams, in fantasy, in reality—is convincing every step of the way. Less daring, less ambitious casting directors might have chosen a performer who was only good in portraying one emotion. MacDougall delivers a spectrum of emotions, particularly in conveying anger and frustration from wrestling with the effects of terminal illness to the bearer’s loved ones. It would be interesting to see the kind of roles he chooses in the future.
Directed by J.A. Bayona, “A Monster Calls” makes a point about life rarely having standard heroes and villains, that oftentimes the truth is buried in the complex gray. A scene that will stick with me for a long time is when the grandmother walks into her living room and discovers that every precious belonging there is utterly destroyed by her grandson. As we do with a seemingly standard plot, we expect the scene to unfold a certain way. But it doesn’t. Instead, it overwhelms us with profound truths and humanity.
Million Ways to Die in the West, A (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Tired of her cowardly boyfriend being up to the same old schtick, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has decided to break up with Albert (Seth MacFarlane) a sheep farmer who detests living in the Old West. Though he is determined to get her back, just about every time they meet in town presents yet another opportunity to embarrass himself—especially since Louise has taken on a new beau (Neil Patrick Harris). However, when a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) meets Albert, she just might offer a friendship that he needs to move on. Unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the wife of the deadliest and most feared outlaw in Arizona (Liam Neeson).
“A Million Ways to Die in the West,” written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is a rambunctious and anachronistic western-comedy, with many jokes ranging from the sexually frank and politically incorrect to desperate. And yet it does not completely work. One of the reasons is because the picture reflects that of various sketch-like scenarios cobbled together to make a two-hour movie. Thus, it becomes a challenge to keep our attention—especially since the jokes are hit-or-miss in the first place.
The other—and perhaps more problematic factor—is the contrived romantic storyline. It is stretched from beginning to end that it eventually gets under the nerves and tests the patience. Similar to bad romantic comedies, the writers never provide a reason why or how the couple who break up in the beginning of the film were together in the first place. Right from their initial scene together, we can tell they are completely wrong for each other. Thus, there is no tension there, no underlying conflict. Thus, we do not care.
Seyfried playing her character completely straight, as if she were in a serious western drama, is a miscalculation. Though she is normally a very charming performer, she does not give her character a chance to be liked here. A little smile here and there or a bit of spice and cheekiness might have turned her character’s b-word persona into someone with a little bit more layer to her. Seyfried playing a straight-up mean girl is no fun.
Even the villain is a bore. Though played with a sort-of danger and growly menace by Neeson, like Seyfried’s character, Clinch Leatherwood also feels out of place. But instead of coming from a serious western drama, it feels as though he is straight off a western revenge-thriller, somewhere along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” And although that could have been the intention, the character is not exaggerated enough to symbolize true evil in the West. To me, the character is not anything more than a common bandit whose actions have received enough word-of-mouth that he has become a legend.
I laughed sporadically and chuckled somewhat consistently. I enjoyed the scenes when the material gets literal with the title, showing people dying in all sorts of ridiculous ways mixed with some historical truths. It is most disappointing that these do not compromise most of the picture. They are more like punctuation marks in the protagonist’s story of self-pity and broken heart. MacFarlane should have stuck to the jokes even if they do not always land. This would have resulted in a steady momentum—and a shorter running time.
The film is highly commercialized in that it tries so hard to appeal to as many people as possible that it ends up impressing barely anybody. In other words, it spreads itself too thin. Couple such a quality with a painfully ordinary man-wants-to-win-back-his-woman storyline, it becomes a slog to get through. Thus, I have to ask: Can a lack of brain stimulation be another way to die in the West? It sure felt like it.
At one point, MacFarlane’s character learns how to shoot. He shoots at bottles from a couple of feet away. No luck. So he moves a little closer. Still no luck. Then he walks directly in front of the bottles. Still, the bullets fail to touch the glass. That scene is funny on its own… and because it embodies how badly the film misses the mark at times.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the book “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, the film is an ambitious work not only because each segment—every one having a specific theme—is directed by a different individual but also because it is an animated film in which the target audience is adults. It is for mature audiences who are spiritual—not necessarily religious—and those who enjoy pondering over and having a relationship with what life has to offer.
I am convinced that the film is best consumed one segment at a time, preferably if one has chores and the viewer must pause the film every fifteen minutes or so. This allows Gibran’s words—since the poetry in each segment is taken directly from the book—to sink into our minds while we consider what he means by a phrase, rhyming scheme, and symbolism. This is not to suggest that the poetry is cryptic in any way. On the contrary, it is very accessible but one that, if one were to listen to the words carefully and how they are expressed, offers multiple meanings.
The hand-drawn animation is beautiful, particularly how the style adapts to each segment. For example, when a piece is about our relationship with the earth, hues of green and brown are dominant. There is a very grainy or sandy texture to the images. They tend to move into one another like water. On the other hand, when a piece is about how love should be shared between two people, we observe a dance and the poetic words dictate how the couple move and look into each other’s eyes. It is clear that a lot of thought and effort is put into each piece because each one has something memorable to offer.
Tying all of the segments together involves a poet named Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson) being informed that he is free after seven years of confinement in the mountains. But before he is given the news, he meets a little girl named Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) who has not spoken word since the death of her father. Mustafa and Almitra get along so well that we feel almost immediately that they are a part of the same spirit.
Although the template certainly has its peaks, there are times when the pacing lags, particularly Mustafa’s interactions with the common folk who have been touched by his work. One of these scenes is enough, but we get two or three of them. As a result, the man becomes idealized rather than remaining human, one who is flawed despite how people perceive him. The film might have been stronger if Mustafa had a bit of dimension to him divorced from his poetry and how people viewed him.
It is without a doubt that “The Prophet” is worth seeing… and again after some time. The words, music, and images complement each other so effortlessly that there are moments I forgot that I was seeing a film through the medium of animation. I was invested in its story and I wanted to dissect Gibran’s every line purely as they are as well as its relationship with the material’s pictures, sounds, and emotions.
Taken 3 (2014)
★ / ★★★★
“Taken 3” is a death rattle to a series that started off so strongly, we learned that Liam Neeson could be an action star—not just any action star who can shoot guns and look good doing it, but one who we can sympathize with when the chips are down and cheer for when a baddie deserves his comeuppance. This film exists to steal our time unabashedly, which is actually worse than taking money out of our pockets.
The nondescript setup is this: Bryan Mills (Neeson) receives a text from his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), that she would like to meet him at his place for bagels, presumably to talk about the marital issues she is having with her current husband (Dougray Scott). But when Mills gets to his apartment, he discovers Lenore on the bed with her throat slashed. He has been framed and escape will not be so easy since two cops are already on the scene.
Writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen should be ashamed because what they have come up with is a regurgitation of painfully standard action plot lines. They attempt to insert a twist here and there but they make no impact because there is no emotional heft to the material. We already know that Mills has a talent for extricating himself out of the most complicated situations and so when a rather straightforward and predictable murder “mystery” is placed in front of him, there is no tension. We watch passively as one boring scene bleeds through another.
The action sequences command no sense of urgency. The shootouts are not well-choreographed; everyone just seems to be shooting at each other aimlessly. Once in a while someone gets hit. The vehicle chases are sloppily put together; the editing is so manic at times that it is a challenge to appreciate the thrill or suspense of a scene. The hand-to-hand combat, too, is lacking. Eventually, Mills gets into a fistfight with a Russian man who is directly involved in Lenore’s murder. The scene is supposed to be raw, suggested by the closeups, but I found it only mildly watchable. The lead actor does not seem very into it either.
The supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) is supposed to be smart and highly pragmatic. It is difficult to buy into his character because although we see him make conclusions, we are not given a chance to walk in his shoes for a little bit and experience how his mind puts two and two together. Meanwhile, Maggie Grace, playing Mills’ daughter, is a bore, her character a caricature of a young woman in college who discovers that she might be pregnant. Of course she’s going to name her baby after her mother by the time the movie ends!
Directed by Olivier Megaton, “Taken 3” is an exercise is banality. There are only a few times when I have nothing positive to point out even in a bad movie. I don’t know what’s sadder or more infuriating—that the filmmakers, including the producers, know they are making this only to make money or that people are actually paying to consume the trash placed on their laps.
★★ / ★★★★
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a federal air marshal who was a cop for twenty-five years but recently discharged, gets a text from one of the passengers despite a supposedly secure network. The text suggests that Bill ought to start his timer because someone will die every twenty minutes unless a hundred fifty million dollars is transferred into an account. The plane has plenty of suspects, from the woman who makes a last-minute change of seats (Julianne Moore), a hot-tempered cop (Corey Stoll), to the air marshall himself.
It is somewhat of a feat that “Non-Stop,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is able to juggle the constantly changing plot. There is a lot going on but it never comes across messy or nonsensical. Because it moves quickly and smoothly, its limitations consistently fade into the background as we wonder about the true identity of the killer.
The picture excels during the silent moments. Scenes that consists only of our protagonist looking very worried yet determined while text messages are shown on screen create a foreboding atmosphere. There is something about the contrast between the silent, sleeping passengers and the increasing level of threat coming from a smart phone. Neeson does a commendable job in communicating an escalating level of danger. We feel his character always thinking but at the same time he is very human. We are allowed to catch him in small moments where even he is not certain whether a course of action will prove fruitful.
Though it has amusing moments, the dialogue in the final third is somewhat of a drag. I suppose it is necessary that the villain must reveal his or her endgame but delivering a speech in the middle of chaos comes across a bit cartoonish, as if we were watching a bad superhero flick. The revelation ought to have been executed in a more subtle way by avoiding forced speeches altogether.
The identity of the perpetrator is not easy to figure out. I guessed incorrectly. I noticed I was always on my toes, always changing who I thought had a good enough motive to try to pull off an act of terrorism. The movie benefits greatly from the casting. There are a number of familiar faces here—but not too familiar to be distracting—who can pull off being antagonists or at least worthy of being suspected.
Based on the screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, “Non-Stop” is somewhat of a misnomer—which is a good thing. Director Collet-Serra knows when it is worth slowing the pace a bit and when it is time to go on overdrive. That way, the picture is never a bore to sit through; there is always a question hanging on the back of our minds. If only the final third were written in a more understated way, it might have reached a level above conventionality.
Taken 2 (2012)
★ / ★★★★
After putting their dead in the ground, the enraged father of one of the deceased Albanians, Murad (Rade Serbedzija), bows to get revenge on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), a former CIA operative who killed everyone who got in his way to rescue her daughter after she was kidnapped in Paris. When their mother-daughter-new beau trip to China is cancelled, Mills invites his Lenore (Famke Janssen) and Kim (Maggie Grace), his ex-wife and daughter, respectively, to join him in Istanbul. He works there for three days and, if they want, they can drop by and spend time together. And they do. However, sightseeing is set aside when the angry Albanians execute their plan to take Mills.
Although “Taken 2,” written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is somewhat passable as an action-thriller, the technical elements utilized are not enough to save an otherwise very unambitious picture. There is enough material here to make a solid fifteen- to twenty-minute short film, but expanding it to a ninety-minute work means a lot of padding. Furthermore, a lot of the violence that transpire in Turkey’s largest city are weak, disposable, and unmemorable. There is a lack of energy behind scenes that should be exciting.
The set-up is cheesy and slow. While Neeson does a fairly good job playing a father who yearns to connect with his daughter on a deeper and a man who wants to be supportive of his former wife, the script is written superficially. Words that should communicate Mills missing his former life with his family come off silly at times. It is apparent that what we are seeing and hearing is the calm before the storm. Either the first act needed to be written more intelligently and with subtlety or it needed to have been eliminated completely and allowed the picture to start the moment the family are together in Istanbul. Why bother with introductory scenes when the approach is akin to sleepwalking?
The chase scenes are conventional, from cars slowly making their way through crowded streets to a desperate pursuit on the rooftops. No matter how nicely the would-be heart-pounding scenes are edited and put together, there is no masking the fact that there is barely energy coming from behind the camera. It feels like the same action sequence is shot about three times, but the director, Olivier Megaton, fails to hone in on what should be shown, how it should be approached, and when to break patterns in order to keep us on our feet. It is not that enjoyable to watch.
I appreciated the risk involving the daughter playing a key role in the action. At least for a while, it breaks the rhythm of Mills always having to be the one rescuing everybody. Though it is nice that Kim is capable of following instructions given by her dad, I would like to have seen her make more mistakes and less scenes of her jumping from one building to the next. Yes, adrenaline can help to overcome a person’s typical physical limitations. However, in this case, Kim’s mistakes would have been more interesting to watch than Kim looking like a trained government agent. Since the material leans toward the latter route, the picture lacks a down-to-earth human element.
“Taken 2” gets so stagnant at times that I caught myself noticing how tall Neeson is compared to the extras (and then snickering to myself afterwards). It should have been the complete opposite: a memorable thrill–or at least an element of surprise–every other minute that the holes in the plot end up unnoticeable because we are in the moment and at the same time wondering what else it has in store for us.
Batman Begins (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was sent to solitary confinement for fighting six fellow prisoners, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), invited the richest man in Gotham City, currently on the other side of the world and anonymous, to train and join the League of Shadows. Still angry from the murder of his parents (Linus Roache, Sara Stewart) in the hands of a desperate man (Richard Brake), Bruce accepted. “Batman Begins,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, had a gravitational pull so potent, its more sensitive moments actually managed to rival its most thrilling action pieces: it offered us a believable story that we could sink our teeth into instead of simply expecting us to lick a plate full of sugar and fluff that would inevitably leave us unsatisfied. The level of screenplay was impressive because it focused on the story of Bruce the man through first exploring his formative years prior to delving into Bruce the Batman, a symbol meant to inspire and nudge citizens of Gotham out of their apathy involving the city being ruled by criminals and the corrupt. While Bale was convincing as a man full of rage and thirst of vengeance, his character arc was even more involving despite the fact that the material jumped forward in time several times, especially toward the beginning when one detail after another regarding Bruce’s past were thrown on our laps. By keeping its dramatic momentum intact, it caught and maintained our attention; since we could follow its strands almost every step of the way without too much strain, the rewards were fulfilling. The film had a dark atmosphere, especially with its talk of the undetected depression serving as a catalyst for the common people’s desperation, it managed to have fun without being cartoonish and breaking the mood. For instance, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne’s longtime butler, caretaker, and Bruce’s remaining father figure, was given amusing comments regarding his master’s nightly extracurricular activities. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), formerly a member of the board in Wayne Enterprises but exiled to the basement after new power took control of the company, also had his share of the spotlight when Bruce paid him a visit for nifty and very expensive gadgets. This gave way to questions I’ve always wondered about such as how the Batcave was discovered, how the Batsuit was assembled, and how the Batmobile looked in its early stages. It even featured one of the most beloved treasures in my toy box when I was a kid: the batarang. The picture was also notable for its intelligent use of its antagonists. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), one of the biggest crime bosses in the city, was not an ostentatious figure that craved attention. He actually preferred to operate in the shadows but he wasn’t afraid to make threats in public if necessary. Still, he was notorious for his reputation. Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, zealously creepy behind those glasses), the eventual Scarecrow, was actually more interesting divorced from his mask. No DNA mutation here, just a regular human so willing to push his experiments to the extreme, he was no better than the criminals he surrounded himself with. The topic of fear ran in the veins of “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and it was handled with profound insight. The screenplay explored the various meanings of the word and how it changed contingent upon the stakes on the table. The film showed respect by treating the audience as thinkers.
Next Three Days, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Cops knocked on the Brennans’ door and claimed that Lara (Elizabeth Banks) was under arrest for the murder of her boss. Evidence was against her: a co-worker saw her leave the scene of the crime, the blood on her jacket matched the victim’s, and her fingerprints were on the murder weapon. But John (Russell Crowe), Lara’s husband, was convinced that she was innocent. In a span of three years, the community college professor did the best he could to get his wife out of prison. When the judge sentenced her to a life in prison, John turned to illicit means. His first move was to ask an ex-convict (Liam Neeson) how he managed to escape prison seven times. “The Next Three Days,” directed by Paul Haggis, was enjoyable for half of its running time. I liked it best when it focused on John’s increasing irrationality. There were times when I was convinced all the planning would ultimately amount to nothing because I figured by the time he was ready to execute his ambitious plans, he was already neck-deep in his obsession. When he made mistakes, the consequences were high. One particularly suspenseful scene was when he created a bump key, a key that could open most locks, and decided to test it on a prison elevator. It didn’t work and when he tried to force it out, it broke. An alarm went off a couple of seconds later. Worse, the room had a camera and it recorded every move. We were left to wonder how he was going to squiggle his way out of the complicated situation. However, the tension wasn’t consistent. If the tension isn’t consistent, the momentum doesn’t build. Worse, the movie ran for about thirty minutes too long. There were scenes between John and Nicole (Olivia Wilde), a single mother who was always at the park with her daughter, which suggested that there could be romance between the two. While Nicole was a key figure in John, Lara and their son’s (Ty Simpkins) eventual attempt to get out of the country, there wasn’t an effective moment between John and Nicole where we would be convinced that something was going to happen between them. Most of those scenes should have been edited out to make room for scenes from Detectives Quinn (Jason Beghe) and Collero’s (Aisha Hinds) point of view. Instead, we mostly saw the duo spying on John while in their car or just sitting at their desks. How were we supposed to take them seriously, to feel that they were a threat to John’s plans, if we didn’t know how their minds worked? Lastly, I wished that the picture kept some of its mysteries from us. In the end, it showed us whether or not Lara’s sentence was deserved. It didn’t matter. What mattered was we rooted for John’s plans to outsmart the system.
Grey, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.