Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

November 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

June 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Seth MacFarlane is an acquired taste, and his latest project, A Million Ways to Die in the West, encapsulates the best and worst of his comedic sensitivities.

It’s also the first time the talented voice actor, who voiced the teddy in Ted and a multitude of characters on Family Guy, fronts the big screen as the leading man of a Hollywood production.

The result is a hit-and-miss farce that showcases some of MacFarlane’s sharp wit but also the low-brow humour he has often criticised for.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a man living in the Wild West who is so self-ware that you suspect he might be from the future (and though this is never explicitly suggested, there are a couple of surprises which might be enough to convince some people).

Albert is a sheep farmer who is dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who thinks little of him as a man and prefers someone a little more macho, like, for example, the mustache-bearing Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). At his lowest point, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who decides to help him win back Louise. However, what she doesn’t tell him is that she happens to be the wife of the West’s most dangerous man (Liam Neeson).

You can guess the rest of this predictably conventional plot, but let’s be honest — no one cares about the plot. A Million Ways is all about laughs, and MacFarlane never stops trying to deliver them, however he can.

The central gag is essentially MacFarlane pointing out the absurdities of the West, from the boredom of life to its many life-shortening/life-ending dangers, as spelled out in the film’s title. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I giggled at about a handful of his “observations,” but most of the other ones felt either obvious or delivered without sufficient “punch.” There were many more “yeah, that’s a good one” kind of jokes than genuine, laugh-out-loud ones.

MacFarlane is at the top of his game when he is delivering biting satire, and while there is a lot of that in A Million Ways, the “bite” is never as sharp as it ought to be. Perhaps he’s trying to dumb down his comedy for general audiences, or perhaps his jokes are just funnier when they come from cartoon characters or a talking teddy bear rather than himself.

Speaking of dumbing things down, there are waaaay too many fart jokes in the movie. It’s not that such jokes can’t be funny, but they generally aren’t here. I love low-brow jokes as much as the next guy, but I just felt the fart (and shit and vulgar sex) jokes, which are typically very difficult to be effective, make up too high a proportion of the total gags.

MacFarlane is adequate as a leading man. He doesn’t have quite enough charm to pull off the whole thing by himself, though the chemistry he has with his co-stars — in particular Charlize Theron, the “straight man” for him to bounce jokes off — offsets his inadequacies to a some extent.

The four main supporting characters balance out MacFarlane well because they don’t have his level of self-awareness. Giovanni Ribisi plays Albert’s best friend, and his one and only gag is that his girlfriend, played by comedian Sarah Silverman, is a prostitute who won’t sleep with him until they’re married. It’s a gag that works well in principle but gets old quickly in practice.

The more dynamic duo is Amanda Seyfried and NPH, the latter of whom is in scintillating form as a douchebag for the ages. It’s a custom-made role for him and he just runs with it, and in the process nearly steals the show.

At 116 minutes, the film is about 15-20 minutes too long, and you get the sense watching it that MacFarlane struggled to cut it down because he was too in love with his own material.

To sum it up, A Million Ways is a serviceable farce comedy that takes a creative idea but can’t quite live up to its full potential. Joke for joke, I found it less funny and more uneven than Ted. On the other hand, that still makes it smarter and edgier than most comedies you’ll see these days.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

May 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was really excited when I heard they were making a Lego movie. But then I saw the trailer and thought it looked lame. And then I heard people say really good things about it. So I watched it. And the verdict?

Everything is awesome!

I don’t usually care much for animated films and judge them by harsher standards by most people, but The Lego Movie is pure fun and a lot of joy. The jokes and wisecracks come fast and furious, and it didn’t take long before I found myself having an absolute blast, letting go of my prejudices and simply going along on the wild, adventurous ride.

It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen this year and probably still will be by the end of it. Not everything works, of course, but a surprising amount of it hit the mark with razor-sharp precision. And it’s a gags free-for-all, from slapstick to satirical and from lighthearted to black, with a touch of Will Ferrell randomness. I thought it would just keep using the same gags many of us have already seen from those Lego video games, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The best compliment I can perhaps give it is that the feel was Simpson-esque at times, with a healthy dose of the more tasteful South Park humour.

The most clever thing about the film is that it is multi-layered, from the jokes to the surprising message that rears its head towards the end. What it means is that it can be enjoyed by people of all ages and that everyone will probably take something different out of it. You might laugh at different things depending on your age, but there’s no avoiding the uncontrollable urge to laugh.

Is there a story? Yes, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek one too. Chris Pratt voices Emmett, an ordinary construction worker who is suspected of being the prophecised one known as “the Special.” Together with the help of a sassy lady by the name of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and a Gandalf-ish wizard by the name of Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Emmett must try and fulfill his destiny and stop the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world with dangerous superweapon.

The all-star cast is filled up by other big names such as Liam Neeson, who plays the hilarious Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett as Batman, Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as the Green Lantern and Colbie Smulders as Wonder Woman. Additional cast members include Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Dave Franco.

What impressed me about the voice cast was how they were utilised. Normally when you get A-listers doing voices in an animated film there is the risk of them being too recognisable to make the character effective. In The Lego Movie they used the most recognisable voices to its advantage, with Liam Neeson doing his best Bryan Mills impersonation (from Taken) while Morgan Freeman fired out his lines as he would had he been playing God. The results are but-gustingly funny.

The great thing about Lego is that it has so many licensing arrangements with different franchises that it has the ability to throw in a lot of well-known characters. If you were excited at some of the video game character cameos in Wreck It Ralph then you’ll spray your pants when you see some of the cameos in The Lego Movie. I don’t want to ruin the surprises, but if you the character has a Lego version then you’ll probably see him or her in the film.

And I haven’t even gotten to the visuals, which are spectacular. All the colours and all the bits and pieces of Lego you can imagine, being put together and taken apart rapidly on a regular basis. I expected The Lego Movie to be pretty, but not the visual feast it turned out to be.

At 100 minutes the length is about right, but it does slow down considerably as it tries to wrap up. Others might feel like the film was a bit out of control and too all over the place, and it probably was, but I think that was exactly how the filmmakers intended it to be — a crazy, energetic piece of imaginative entertainment that has something for everyone. Let’s hope the sequel (due May 2017) can produce an experience just as special.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

March 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 2

July 23, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

21 Jump Street (2012)

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You can be forgiven for thinking that a movie version of 21 Jump Street, the iconic 1987 TV series that made Johnny Depp a star, would be lame. Few movie reboots of old TV series are successful for a multitude of reasons. But this one, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, is a surprise hit — mainly because no one actually expected it to be funny.

Strictly speaking, 21 Jump Street is not a reboot of the TV series at all. It’s more of a homage/spoof that takes the basic concept of police officers going undercover as students to catch bad guys and drug dealers. Hill, a geek, and Tatum, an underachieving jock, are high school classmates who become best friends at police academy. They are idiots but look kind of young (well, Hill at least) and are assigned to the “revived” division at 21 Jump Street to go undercover as brothers, though a mix-up has them picking up each other’s assigned identities.

The reason the film works so well, apart from the amazingly effective chemistry between Hill and Tatum (whose acting isn’t all that bad here), is because it doesn’t take itself seriously and delivers much amusement making fun of the whole ridiculous premise and idea.

One of the running gags, for example, is that Tatum used to know what was cool 10 years ago (such as how to wear your backback, how to treat people and issues), but now those things are frowned upon. Another one is how old Tatum looks to be a high school student. Stuff like that.

Not all the jokes worked for me but enough of it was consistently funny for this to be one of the better comedies of the year. The film also had some excellent surprises, especially towards the end, although as usual the running time of 109 minutes felt like it dragged on a little past its welcome. A sequel, 22 Jump Street, has reportedly been green-lit, but I am sceptical that it can rekindle the magic the second time around.

4 stars out of 5

Contraband (2012)

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Contraband is a crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Foster. Marky Mark is an ex-smuggler who has given up the rough life for the sake of his wife (Beckinsale — can’t blame him) and two kids. But his brother-in-law is still in the game and gets in trouble, and Marky Mark becomes embroiled in the mess and has to go to extreme measures to keep his family safe.

Contraband dark, it’s moody and it’s violent, but it also comes across as generic and average. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just feels like there are so many of these types of movies every year and after a while you just can’t remember anything about it. To be fair, the plot is intricate and well thought out, though I found it unnecessarily convoluted. But the core problem is that there’s not much to make Contraband stand out from the rest of the pack.

Marky Mark has done what feels like a dozen similar roles and feels exactly the same as he does in those films, and Kate Beckinsale is somewhat underused. Ben Foster is effective with his trademark wide-eyed maniac routine, and the supporting cast of Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas and JK Simmons is solid. But the performances can’t save Contraband from being the forgettable film that it is.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Grey (2011)

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I wanted to watch The Grey because I like survival thrillers and I wanted to watch Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

Neeson plays a depressed, suicidal dude who protects an oil drilling team from wolves in Alaska, and on his way out of there their plane crashes. They are in wolf territory and he must lead the survivors (including a virtually unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney) to safety. Time for Liam Neeson to channel his inner Bryan Mills (Taken), Ra’s Al Ghul (Batman Begins), Zeus (Clash of the Titans), Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars), John “Hannibal” Smith (The A-Team) and Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List).

Over the last few years, Liam Neeson has emerged as the one dude you never want to mess with, and that applies to wolves too. The Grey is a solid survival thriller that has plenty of close calls and Neeson doing what he does best. Many have compared it to the 1997 film, The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, which is about surviving a bear in the woods. I think The Edge is probably the better film, but The Edge doesn’t have Liam Neeson. Strangely, another film it reminded me of was Frozen, a 2010 survival horror about a bunch of kids stuck on a ski lift and then being hounded by wolves.

One problem I had with The Grey was all the philosophical and religious mumbo jumbo that was probably trying to add for meaning to the film but for me just slowed it down unnecessarily and disrupted the tone. The ending was also a little anti-climatic, though there is a nifty little post-credits scene everyone should stick around for.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I know technically this is a 2011 film but it was released in 2012 in most places I know.

The Cold Light of Day (2012)

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If you want to be mean about it, The Cold Light of Day should have been a straight-to-DVD movie. If it had been, the film probably wouldn’t have gotten such scathing reviews.

I suppose this was a star vehicle for Henry Cavill, who would go on to become Superman. Cavill plays Will Shaw, a struggling advisor who doesn’t get on too well with his dad, played by Bruce Willis, who unbeknownst to him is actually a CIA agent. Will’s family suddenly disappears after an boating incident, and when he tries to track them down he finds himself in mortal danger as shady characters start coming after him.

The pace of the film is frantic but for some reason there is little excitement or a sense of real danger. Cavill runs around, gets shot at and must do everything he can to survive while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It’s one of those films where a lot happens but everything feels bland, lifeless and cliched. I could stomach the stupidity of it all but when an action film starts to bore you know something is seriously wrong.

Cavill looks pretty good but he struggles mightily trying to carry the film. I presume Bruce Willis picked up a nice paycheck for this movie but that was about it. The man has become a walking caricature of himself. And Sigourney Weaver…sigh…I don’t know what’s happened to her but this is a performance that lines up nicely next to her role in that Taylor Lautner movie, Abduction.

Having said all that, The Cold Light of Day is not that bad, and certainly better than the 5% it got on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just a fairly average B-grade movie that wasn’t supposed to be one.

2 stars out of 5

 
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