Tag Archives: Liam Neeson

Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones

These days when a film with Liam Neeson comes down the pipeline you can generally have a good idea what it’ll be about in our post-Taken era. Revenge, chases, gunfights, he’s usually in his old dude action pic groove but there’s the odd one that strays from the flock. Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones, although encasing a few quick, breathless action scenes in its narrative, is far from the kind of film we’re used to seeing from Neeson and as a result is one of my favourites he’s done since Joe Carnahan’s The Grey.

Chilly, brutal, bloody, realistically violent and unrelentingly dark are the energies this thing traffics in. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a shambling ex cop turned private eye with some demons in his past that don’t quite hold a candle to the outright malevolence he must face this time round. He’s contacted by a shady mid level drug baron (Dan Stevens) whose wife has gone missing, and who chooses him over the cops because of their collective unique business ventures. This leads our antihero down an increasingly dangerous and suffocatingly scary on the hunt for two serial killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who are the distilled definition of pure evil.

I’ll be frank and upfront here: this is not a pleasant viewing experience or an uplifting film, in fact it’s downright oppressive in tone and for the most part emotionally desolate. However, there’s a stark beauty to this tale and I wouldn’t let the darkness deter you from experiencing one of the best and most atmospheric and suspenseful crime thrillers in recent years. Neeson is grim, haunted and adept at doling out graphic bodily harm on anyone who prevents him from getting to the truth. The two killers, Harbour in particular, are unrepentant, sadistic monsters who you just pray will be stopped before committing another murder and making you sit through the specifics of it which the film does make you do in one instance. Stevens comes from a Downton Abbey background but there’s a fierce, implosive aura to him that works great in darker roles like this (check out his work in The Guest too). This is based on one in a series of books by Lawrence Block that all focus on Scudder’s character. Jeff Bridges played the role once back in the day in another adaptation too, but Neeson makes a fierce predator out of him, with a hidden humanity that comes forth in interactions with a street kid (Brian Bradley) who becomes his sidekick of sorts. A very overlooked film in Neeson’s filmography and just in general as well. Oh and how about those eerie, sinister opening credits for setting the tone ?

-Nate Hill

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Joe Carnahan’s The Grey

When the marketing campaign came along for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, they really tried their hardest to make it look like ‘that Liam Neeson movie about punching wolves.’ It’s understandable, because what we really got was a heartbreaking, human survival story rooted in character, streaked with sorrowful existentialism and so far from the rugged action film advertised. That kind of film is hard to sell in Big Hollywood, but it’s always better as filmgoers to receive something this thought out, carefully made, entertaining and deep when visiting the multiplex, and it’s gone on to become one of the best films of recent decades as well as a personal favourite.

Neeson is scary good as Ottway, hired gun for an oil company and resident badass at the remote Alaskan rig where hordes of rowdy labourers chase that paycheque they’re just gonna blow on booze the same night. On a routine transport back to Anchorage their plane crashes horrifically, scattering the tundra with bodies and leaving a handful of survivors to fight their way across the desolation. Led by Ottway, they soon realize their path has cut right trough the hunting ground stalked by a hungry pack of wolves, and they are now in the crosshairs as well as at odds with the cruel indifference of Mother Nature. The wolves here are never really seen clearly and don’t mimic what you might see on BBC’s Planet Earth, instead we get snarls, gristle, sinew and nasty unseen phantoms growling out there in the dark until one of them lunges for a kill. They serve not so much as literal wildlife but rather as harbinger of inevitability, a spectral reminder of one’s mortality in a situation like that, and the ever present fear of death.

Carnahan has a background in what you might call ‘manly movies,’ previously helming the excellently gritty Narc, the fabulous and underrated Smokin Aces and the silly reboot of The A Team, but The Grey is a brand new bag. Deadly serious, deeply thoughtful and surprisingly emotional, this is a film that loves its characters despite putting them through icy hell. Neeson is uncannily good, his character goes through sadness in ways that mirror real life tragedy the actor has been through, events we can see echo in his haunted, career best, primal howl of a performance. Dermot Mulroney makes brilliant work of Talget, a pensive man who just misses his daughter and holds onto that as will to live. Frank Grillo brings down the igloo as Diaz, a macho, hard bitten jerk-off who quickly discovers that such abhorrent behaviour is something both his fellow survivors and the wolves have no time for. Other fantastic work comes from James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonzo Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw and more.

Roger Ebert said that the only time he ever walked out on a film was the next one in line after seeing this, and that sort of encapsulates the almost profound effect this one has. The first time I saw it was a bleary bootleg version on a laptop and I sat there stunned in silence after. There’s many aspects that went into attaining that quality, but what resonates and makes it work so well for me is how much it respects, loves, and treats its characters like actual human beings instead of cannon fodder victims for the wolves. They are all well developed, non-archetypal individuals, and it’s that that pulls you right into the story. There’s a scene where Neeson eases the passing of a fatally wounded man with comfort and grace, it’s easily the most devastating death scene I’ve ever seen filmed, made so by blunt realism and uncomfortable truth. My favourite scene has to be the remaining survivors sitting around a campfire, simply talking. They banter, Neeson shares a poem his father wrote, Mulroney tells a story about his daughter he misses so much and Grillo lightens their collective mood with a bit of humour. You feel like you’re sitting right there with them. A masterpiece on many levels.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

These days we take the abundance of DC/Batman films and TV series for granted, but back in the first half of the 2000’s there was a massive drought left on the land thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which we won’t go into here. Then Christopher Nolan came along and changed that forever, not with necessarily a bang, but the thoughtful, moody, introspective Batman Begins, a film that served as catalyst to one of the most celebrated motion picture trilogies of today. That’s not to say it didn’t blast into the scene with a bang, this is one seriously fired up action film that left iMax screens reeling and sound systems pumped. It’s just that Nolan gave the Batman legacy the brains and psychological depth that it deserves to go along with the fireworks, while Schumacher & Co. were simply making live action Saturday morning cartoons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either but after two films seemed a bit beneath the potential of what Batman could be.

Nolan bores into the roots of Bruce Wayne’s anguished past to expose themes of fear, not only facing his childhood fears but eventually becoming them to release the anger he’s harboured since that night in the alley. Christian Bale finds both the cavalier flippancy of Bruce and the obstinate, short tempered dexterity of Batman and yes, he makes an impression with a voice that has perhaps since become more well known than the films. Trained in the heartlands of the Far East by mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce returns to Gotham years later to find it rotting from the inside out with crime, corruption and poverty. Nolan shows the rocky road he sets out on and the failures he endures in his first few ventures onto the streets in costume, crossing paths with Cillian Murphy’s dangerous Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane, uneasily aligning forces with Gary Oldman’s stalwart Jim Gordon and assisted at every turn by Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Nolan assembles a cast full of roles both big and small including Richard Brake, Mark Boone Jr, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, Joffrey Lannister, Rutger Hauer and more. I have to mention Katie Holmes because she gives one of the most underrated performances in the whole trilogy. I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes when recasting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next film but it did no service to the character, Katie made it her own, is full of personality and will always be the real Rachel to me. Special mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, who is only in a handful of scenes but scares the pants off of everyone with his off the cuff blunt dialogue, violent tendencies and shark-like personality.

I can’t say this is my favourite film in the franchise or even the one I’d call the best (Dark Knight holds both those honours), but it is definitely the one that stands out to me the most when I think of the trilogy as a whole. Why? Visual aesthetic and production design. With the next two films Nolan cemented a very naturally lit, real world vibe that became his signature touch on the legacy, but Begins is different. There’s a burnt umber, earthy, elemental, very gothic tone he used here that just isn’t there in the next two, and whether intentional or not, it sets this one in a Gotham slightly removed from Knight and Rises. The mood and story are also rooted far more in mysticism and the fantastical as opposed to the earthbound, economically minded, concrete edged sensibility of what’s to come. Just a few observations.

In any case Nolan pioneered an arresting new Gotham for Batman, his friends and foes to do battle in, he injected the smarts, philosophy and character development that the franchise had been thirsting for a long time before. Wally Pfister’s swooping cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s cannonball original score, Nathan Crowley’s spooky, cobwebbed production design and every performance in the film work to make this not just one hell of a Batman film, but an overall excellent fantasy adventure that truly transports you to its world, the mythology, development and destruction of which leaves a lasting imprint on the subconscious. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit won’t be what audiences are expecting it to be, and these days in Hollywood, that’s a really good thing. There’s a whole string of Liam Neeson genre films since Taken that for the most part are generic vehicles for him to run around in and beat people up. Fortunately, every so often one breaks the mould and turns out to be a fresh, distinguished animal from the rest of the pack, and this is one of them. Yes it’s about a snow plow driver in a small mountain town whose son is murdered by drug dealers. Yes, Neeson plays him as the lone man who takes his revenge in a series of violent encounters and action sequences. But that’s just the blueprint, and honestly director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own 2014 film, seems far more interested in showing us the casual eccentricities and personal lives of all of these characters, particularly the dealers, than focusing on action alone. Neeson’s initial rampage causes quite a bunch of confusion in the ranks when the local outfit mistakes his mayhem for the actions of a rival Native American gang from Denver, and that’s when the snow really hits the fan. Tom Bateman is a coked up dervish as Viking, head of the local boys, the kind of guy who caps off his own people before breakfast and encourages his son to hit bullies back harder, ‘just for starters.’ The Native American dealers are my favourite part, adding a mystic deadpan quality and distinct class that makes the film seem just this side of a regular action flick. Tom Jackson is charismatic and scary as their leader White Bull, and Raoul Trujillo does a hilarious turn as Thorpe, his second in command. Emmy Rossum is good but slightly underused as an enthusiastic local cop, while John Doman gets a few of the film’s funniest scenes as her less enthusiastic partner. It’s terrific to see the great William Forsythe on the big screen again as Neeson’s ex criminal brother Wingman, an old dog who knows the ropes and seems both worried and amused at his brother’s drastic actions. Speaking of underused though, they’ve thrown Laura Dern a thankless role as Neeson’s wife who simply disappears from the plot like halfway through. A little Dern goes a long way, but she’s given almost nothing to do here. As Liam picks these guys off one by one and they all wonder just what the shit is happening, I found myself much more entertained by the precious little sideshow moments concerning all the criminals, narrative excursions that take huge liberties with the film’s pacing, a choice that I have no problem with. Viking has intense squabbles with his ex wife (Wind River’s Julia Jones) over their son’s ridiculous diet, Thorpe and his crew have a hilarious interaction with a hotel clerk who uses the word ‘reservation’ in a context that makes for the funniest joke in the film, and one of Viking’s boys has interesting ideas about how to bang hotel maids. My favourite is when the film stops dead in its tracks to show White Bull and his guys simply playing in the snow, watching skiers practice and getting one of their guys to hang-glide off the mountain. It’s that sense of playfulness, the care in stepping off the beaten path and giving us something we don’t often see in Hollywood films that sets this aside and makes it something special. It doesn’t particularly work as a thriller because it’s too funny, and won’t land with an emotional impact for the same reason. That doesn’t matter much though, because it’s just fine as a screwy black comedy full of really interesting side characters, offbeat situational comedy and high spirited, naturalistic comedic timing. A barrel of fun if you’re tuned into the abstract frequency. One last thought: I really wish they’d kept the title ‘Hard Powder’ instead of the much less tongue in cheek Cold Pursuit, which feels too run of the mill for a film this idiosyncratic.

-Nate Hill

Nancy, it’s you!: An Interview with Nancy Allen by Kent Hill

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There are actors that portray a certain kind of character. They fit so perfectly within the story being told that they appear to have been designed for just such a purpose. These performers often run the risk of being typecast – only wanted to fulfill similar roles for the duration of their career. Then you have actors who bring such a spirit to their parts that we, the viewer, find it difficult to separate the character they play with the actor in person. It is a performance so electric and all-consuming that the role will be forever theirs. And, though the part may be played by other actors – should the film in question be part of an ongoing series – their turn becomes the standard-bearer and the one to top.

I personally can’t imagine Anne Lewis being played by anyone else except Nancy Allen. The depth she brings to what on the surface might appear a mere formulaic character, if you look closer, is in fact the catalyst for change. Thus RoboCop’s central character, Alex Murphy, is, following his brief initial encounter with Lewis, on a mission to rediscover his humanity. The result rendering this simple concept of a kind of futuristic revenge-Western type tale a classic in the process, with more dimensions than first meet the eye. But RoboCop, though iconic, doesn’t define the truly stellar talent that is personified by Nancy Allen.

She again plays these deep, soulful characters in two other of my favorite films: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (opposite John Travolta) and Stewart Raffill’s The Philadelphia Experiment (opposite Michael Paré ). With her evergreen beauty, lustrous smile and endearing tenderness, Allen carries all the hallmarks of a phenomenal actor who has graced our screens, large and small, for decades now. Still, acting is not all Nancy applies her gifts to. She is a passionate advocate for the preservation of our environment as well as a soldier in our species’ battle against Cancer. We can do so much by merely setting an example for others to follow, and it is by this method Nancy serves these causes close to her heart.

As we live in an age where everything old is new again, the film in which she played a pivotal role, RoboCop, is in line again to be reworked by a fresh creative team. Nancy herself has gone on record saying you shouldn’t or can’t remake a classic – lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice? But if it does, it is the cinematic prayer of the faithful fans that if they are going to try, go all the way, and then they need to make us remember why we loved the original in the place. They need a touchstone, a standard-bearer. I don’t believe they’ll win hearts and minds without one. So with that in mind, I say finally to the movie gods – they need my guest. They need Nancy Allen.giphy My sincere thanks to Eva Rojano, without whom this would not be possible. Please do, all you Robo-Fans, jump on the bandwagon and sign the petition (https://www.change.org/p/mgm-studios-inc-we-want-nancy-allen-to-play-a-role-in-robocop-returns) to get Nancy back into the Robo-verse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The King has risen: A Joyous Appraisal of AQUAMAN

Now the dude in the video above isn’t singing about the movie I caught today (and I’m not denying the fact that that is a damn tasty burger he has there) but his song along in the words of the film’s charismatic lead: “That was awesome,” is kinda how I feel right now.  Yes folks, despite any negative press you’ve heard, read, whatever – Aquaman is a feast – a thrilling adventure that really transported me. Not merely into the sumptuous and glorious undersea kingdoms created by the filmmakers involved – but back to the fun, exuberant times I ‘used’ to have at the movies – before the dark clouds engulfed us, trapping us in the forgotten seas where the dark creatures of the trench started forcing us to feed on one franchise after the next. Dark, moody, brooding, shit. That is not the joy I remember in that magnificent dark place we call the cinema – where worlds merge and the magnitude of the movie-maker’s vision takes me into it’s care, placing me, willingly, under it’s spell.

What a spell indeed, let me tell you. James Wan had me when I read his response to a question regarding the tone of Aquaman: “I’m a film fan, I’m a product of the 1980s and 1990s, and a lot of people have said that  Aquaman has a very 1980s quality to it. Especially the high-fantasy of the 1980s, like Flash Gordon and Krull.”

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Flash Gordon meets Krull! Vibrant, fantastical, magical world building on a big canvas. I don’t chiefly give to much of a fiddler’s fart about the MCU or the DCEU and their never ending cavalcade of chicanery, but, when I read Wan’s response to that question I was, hands down, not missing this picture. And it’s become a common phrase of late – “see it on the biggest screen possible” – but, meh, they’re right. Aquaman is a big picture, so that’s the best advice I can give.

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The cast are wonderful in their parts, and I get the feeling they understand the kind of ride they’re crafting. The exposition is fluid like the oceans that dominate the movie. You feel carried along on a current if excitement and wonder as the story advances. But, one the best parts truly, in terms of constructing this film which Wan did so masterfully, is that he simply shunned the Marvel formula of tying it together with all that has come before – a line of dialogue sorted that out. It’s a freeing maneuver that allows this exciting director to do what he does best, which is to flex is visual muscles and take us into a world that makes anything James Cameron has done thus far seem a little flaccid. The production design, the gliding camera, the effortless action. Oh my God – I love it.

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Momoa brings a grand juxtaposition of the boy unwilling to take up his trident, mixed with a guy just playin’ it cool. His nonchalant approach is great, and I caught myself smiling at his delivery more than once. He is supported by strong players all. Patrick Wilson’s power-mad dictator, Dolph Lundgren on his seahorse (sorry, sea dragon). Willem Dafoe, always dependable, Nicole Kidman, getting better with age (love that fish suit), Amber Heard, feisty-sexy, badass Black Manta and hell, his dad is Jake ‘the Muss’ for Christ’s sake – and he can drink Fishman under the table.

It’s a whale of a tale I tell you lads, a whale of a tale that’s true. ‘Bout the flappin’ fish and a mother’s love – stoppin’ a deep sea war with the shores above. I’d swear by my tattoo if I had one but put simply – scintillating, sensational, spectacular. Home might be calling, but they’ll need to leave a message ’cause I’ll be out . . . watching Aquaman . . . again. GO SEE IT NOW!

As always, dig your movies . . .

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That Dude in the Audience.

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a dazzling, indisputable success, as both a standalone film and when viewed next to its literary counterpart. It stands as a milestone for me, in the sense that it’s pretty much the only film adaptation of a book that was very special to me growing up to not only do the story justice, but to come out a winner as the best cinematic vision of it possible. It’s a feast for the eyes, ears and spirit, and remarkably, a lot of it plays out exactly how my memories of the book do. Having said that, I would advise avoidance of the sequels, one of which I’ve seen and it put me off going any further. Prince Caspian felt lazy, rushed and cheap, all the mystery and wonder found here was gone, not to mention they fudged up the progression of the series and completely skipped The Horse And His Boy, one of my favourites. This one is the real deal and hits the right notes, and from the opening frame when a rattling POV shot of bombs descending on a WWII ravaged London, the film assures us that it means business, and isn’t going to slip into the pandering, glossy, watered down Young Adult world of adaptations. The Pevensie children, four precocious English youngsters, are sent away from the conflict to live with a distant relative in the country. There, they find a desolate old mansion, populated only by a starchy old goat of a housekeeper and the eccentric Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, brief but memorable). They also stumble upon a magical wardrobe leading to a vast kingdom called Narnia, filled with talking beasts, castles, forests and more legendary creatures than you can shake a stick at. Lucy (Georgie Henley is the perfect, darling Lucy I imagined), the youngest and most intuitive of the four, is first to venture through, meeting kindly fawn Mr. Tumnus (James Macavoy) who tells her that Narnia has fallen on hard, wintry times. Her siblings back in our world don’t believe her, until they too are whisked through into the land, unknowingly thrust into an adventure to save Narnia, which will well likely put them in more danger than anything WWII has to offer. The four are uncannily well cast: William Moseley brings the humbled nobility and budding leader in Peter magnificently, Anna Popplewell shows the compassionate warrior’s heart in Susan, and Skandar Keyes expertly handles the arc of Edmund, the black sheep of the group with lessons to learn, both bitter and sweet. They are pit against Narnia’s resident villain and warlord, the malicious White Witch Jadis (Tilda Swinton will freeze your heart), with the help of many a talking animal, including friendly Mr. Beaver (Ray Winstone), and the messianic lion and all around badass Aslan (Liam Neeson, because who else would you cast?). Michael Madsen provides his raspy growl to the voice of Maugrim, the Witch’s top wolf lieutenant in her lupine secret police force, and other hidden Easter eggs of voiceover work can be heard from Dawn French as Mrs. Beaver and Rupert Everett as a Fox. Scope and spectacle are paramount in bringing the world of Narnia to life, and the filmmakers spared no expanse here: The children delve into chases, battles, betrayals, icy encounters with the witch, sword fights and all sorts of wonder, including a surprise visit from Father Christmas himself, warmly intoned by James Cosmo. Equally important as the razzle dazzle are the quiet, contemplative conversations that flourish into important character beats and lessons for all involved. The four are at a crux of human development, and vulnerable to stimuli both internal and external. Even though the story takes place in a magical, heightened world of fantasy, the interactions and human behaviour couldn’t feel more real. It’s beautifully carried over from the book, violent darkness and uplifting light included and born on the gilded wings of a stirring musical score from Harry Gregson Williams that swells to near transcendent heights when we reach that climactic battle. Swinton switches up the traditional theatrics that Barbara Kellerman brought to the BBC production (that version is a whole other story) in favour of a vicious, unrelenting and at times almost extraterrestrial portrayal of the witch, she’s cunning, manipulative and oh so evil. Director Andrew Adamson brings magisterial beauty to it visually and stages the battles with kinetic but focused energy. I love this film, not a note felt false to me when keeping the book in mind as I sat in the theatre, and that is incredibly rare if the source material means something to me.

-Nate Hill