Tag: liam neeson

Cold Pursuit

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.

The Commuter

The Commuter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Jaume Collet-Serra’s action-thriller “The Commuter,” we get the impression it is going to take us somewhere exciting despite the standard template of an ordinary person suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. But once it reaches the halfway point and some of its secrets are revealed, it proves to be yet another uninspired suspense picture in which the protagonist must prove his innocence during a hostage situation. And prior to the expected standoff, plenty of repetition is to be endured.

Liam Neeson plays life insurance salesman Michael MacCauley who is approached by a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition and a $100,000 on the line. In order to walk away with this money, all he must do is determine which person on the train does not belong, put a tracker onto his or her bag, and walk away. Neeson plays the beleaguered sixty-year-old ex-cop with convincing enthusiasm, but the screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle fail to provide personal details about the character amidst the action and plot twists.

As a result, Michael becomes a wooden protagonist. The material hammers us over the head with the fact that he loves his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), but what about his sense of humor, how he is like at his best (or worst), does he have any specific plans after retirement? There is nearly nothing worth knowing about him. Even action-thrillers are not immune from having to contain effective personal drama and seemingly superfluous details in order for the audience to invest into its characters. Collet-Serra has gotten away with this barebones approach, particularly in the wonderful shark picture “The Shallows,” but given that the content of the film touches upon real-world problems like family finances and personal satisfaction regarding one’s career, the overall strategy must change as well.

Some of the fight scenes are downright off-putting. While the picture makes good use of the limited space inside the train, hand-to-hand fights are executed poorly. A particular eyesore is the fight between Michael and one of the commuters he suspects. The fight scene is so exaggerated to the point where it feels like the scene is taken right off movies containing cartoonish violence. It just does not work here because the material has established a more humble tone and atmosphere, as close as possible to reality. In addition, look closely and notice that these fights appear to unfold in an unnatural speed.

As I sat through the film, I got the impression that “The Commuter” might have been a stronger work had it embraced a more cerebral tone, making room to excavate personal motivations; to establish a paranoid mood so no one, not even the protagonist, can be trusted; and to provide more details about each suspect. Instead, we are given a project designed to entertain the lowest dangling fruit.

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (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.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West (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

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

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.


Non-Stop (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

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.