Movie Review: ‘Men in Black International’ is Kind of a Lateral Move as Far as Spinoffs Go

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson

Director: F. Gray Gray

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gooey Alien Residue

Release Date: June 14, 2019

It’s often a joy to watch professionals perform their jobs competently, so there’s a bit of a thrill to watching Molly (Tessa Thompson) turn into Agent M in the opening act of Men in Black International. After she has an extraterrestrial encounter as a child, she dedicates her life to the goal of joining the secretive alien-monitoring organization, and she is undoubtedly a promising recruit, perhaps one of their best ever. But when it comes to making a film, what we demand isn’t competency so much as artistry. Director F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew have delivered a competent product, and I imagine they had a lot of fun making it. But it is not an out-of-this-world experience, nothing that rocks your sense of reality to its core.

The presence of “International” in the title and the lack of Agents J and K in the lineup seems to promise that we’ll be getting something a little different from what we’ve seen before. And it’s true, this chapter offers plenty that wasn’t on display in MIB‘s 1-3. But we have seen it in other movies in general. There’s the sort of globetrotting typical of Indiana Jones and James Bond, plus a paranoid infiltration angle that calls to mind Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a spy-within-our-ranks routine we know and love from John le Carré thrillers. Even the alien creature design, which at first glance features plenty of original imagination, may have had some inadvertent inspiration, as one blue fellow looks like the X-Men’s Beast, but with quills instead of fur. (Perhaps it’s a case of convergent evolution?) If the only movies you’ve ever seen are Men in Black, Men in Black 2, and Men in Black 3, then perhaps Men in Black International will expand your consciousness, but for the rest of us, we will continue the search elsewhere for whatever originality remains in the universe.

Men in Black International is Recommended If You Like: Reassembling spare parents

Grade: 2 out of 5 Neuralyzers

Movie Review: ‘Cold Pursuit’ Brings Liam Neeson’s Revenge Shenanigans to the Rocky Mountains

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CREDIT: Doane Gregory

Starring: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Julia Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi, Raoul Trujillo, Benjamin Hollingsworth, John Doman, Aleks Paunovic, Christopher Logan, Nathaniel Arcand, Ben Cotton, Tom Jackson, Mitchell Saddleback, Laura Dern

Director: Hans Petter Moland

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Drug Content, Angry Man Profanity, and Truly Wild Death Scenes

Release Date: February 8, 2019

Cold Pursuit appears to take place in a scenario where the souls of everyone involved have disappeared. That makes sense, because stripping away all of your morality is just about necessary to make working for a drug cartel or going on a reign of vengeance bearable to one’s psyche. This is perhaps the bleakest of any Liam Neeson actioner, but that darkness is alleviated by the fact that it is also the most offbeat. Neeson plays Nels Coxman, a snowplow driver in a Rocky Mountain resort town. He’s just been named Citizen of the Year, but now he has ventured out to kill every member of a notorious cartel who have killed his son. His wife (Laura Dern) leaves him as soon as she realizes what he is up to, but we stick with him, not because the revenge tastes so sweet (it doesn’t, or at least it isn’t designed to), but because the killings all go down in such deadpan fashion. That tends to happen in such a harsh and unforgiving climate and terrain as this one.

Nels’ primary adversary is the drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman), who is the breed of testosterone in a suit who tells his son that “all the answers” he’ll need to in life are in Lord of the Flies. His performance is just the right mix of hammy and deranged to make Cold Pursuit palatable. Without him or the whole film’s gallows humor ethos, this would be the type of movie to make me despair about the end of civilization. In a battle between the soulless, style is essential for the audience’s sustenance, and director Hans Petter Moland has style like you could never imagine. It also helps that there are some flashes of thriving humanity, in the form of a love story for one of the cartel members as well as a dogged detective played by Emmy Rossum. But for the most part, this is “No Country for Those with Love in Their Hearts.”

Cold Pursuit is Recommended If You Like: Taken, Fargo, Scandinavian Humor

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Tree Impalements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Widows’ is the Best Cinematic Crime Saga in Quite Some Time

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen

 

This Is a Movie Review: The Coen Brothers Sing ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and Other Tales in This Western Anthology

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CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Surprisingly, Perhaps Hilariously, Deadly Gunfire

Release Date: November 8, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/November 16, 2018 (Streaming on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a Buster Scruggs problem. That is to say: Buster’s not in it enough! That can be the trouble with anthology films in which no characters appear in more than one segment. This issue can be alleviated, at least somewhat, if there are multiple memorable roles. But when Tim Blake Nelson saunters into town in his white cowboy suit, guitar in tow, he immediately wins us over with his storytelling aplomb, extreme self-confidence, and superhuman marksmanship. As Buster’s is the first story, he sets a rollicking, self-aware tone that makes us want to spend as much time with him as possible. Alas, it is not meant to be. But surely, he could have been a narrator or a wandering troubadour throughout! As it is, though, his arrival brings us pleasure, while his quick departure only leaves us hungry for more.

The other segments are more scattershot, but if you believe that the Coen brothers’ droll humor belongs in a Western setting, then you should find enough to enjoy. The three chapters immediately following the titular kickoff – in which bank robber James Franco gets his comeuppance, Liam Neeson puts on a travelling show, and Tom Waits goes prospecting for gold, respectively – wrap up before they are able to have much of an impact. It gets better and deeper with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays a single frontierswoman who must summon an unexpected amount of independence, while also dealing with a surprising, but perhaps promising, marriage proposal. It’s actually quite sweet, but then a Coen-style cruel twist of fate swoops in, leaving you a little devastated but narratively satisfied. The concluding chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is more of a tone piece than anything else, with a group of strangers in a carriage on its way to somewhere resembling purgatory, or maybe even Hell. As one of the passengers, Tyne Daly is a force of nature to bring us home, but even she cannot quite protect us in this harsh landscape. It’s an otherworldly approach befitting filmmakers who are heavily influenced by the Old Testament God, and while I may find The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a minor Coen effort, it is not without plenty to chew over.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Recommended If You Like: Coen brothers comedy in general, but can deal with scattershot results

Grade: 3 out of 5 Color Plates

This Is a Movie Review: The Commuter

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CREDIT: Jay Maidment/Lionsgate

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Andy Nyman, Rolland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for All the Ways That Liam Neeson Can Improvise on a Train to Dispatch His Opponents

Release Date: January 12, 2018

Much of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken filmography has been readily reduced to “Taken on a [blank]” or “Taken, but this time they steal his [blank].” This is especially true in his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. 2011’s Unknown checked in as “Taken, but this time they steal his identity,” while 2014’s Non-Stop was essentially “Taken on a plane.” Their latest teamup, The Commuter, may at first glance be their “Taken on a train,” but a more accurate pitch would be: “take the government and law enforcement corruption elements of something like Chinatown, compress them into the hijacked train scene of The French Connection, and stretch out to feature length.”

Insurance salesman and former cop Michael McCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off, only a few years before retirement, when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition during his ride home along the Hudson on the Metro-North train: would he be willing to do one little thing that would affect someone he doesn’t know and receive a significant reward in return? This is presented as a hypothetical, but it soon becomes very real when he discovers a hidden bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This is an effectively simple premise insofar as it immediately kicks the narrative into high gear, but it is simultaneously confounding with how many details it leaves under wraps.

Ultimately, that it is to the audience’s benefit, as we are strung along with just enough info to want to sniff out what is going on. All Michael has to go on is the stop that this person is getting off and the fact that he or she does not normally ride this train. Collet-Serra specializes in populating his cast with a full crew of conceivably suspicious characters. Could it be this mystery person be the tattooed girl with a bag full of fake IDs? That certainly raises alarms. But for all we and Michael know, the nurse stuck in an emotional texting session is just as much of a suspect.

The Commuter sort of fits in the vein of the “decent man fights back against a rigged system” genre, but really, that is only the narrative that has been forced upon Michael. Yes, he has been unfairly fired. True, he did lose all his savings thanks to the recent market crash (and he makes sure to flip off the vain Goldman Sachs broker on the train). But the reward dangled in front of him appeals to his selfish motives and does not actually give him an opportunity to stick up for the little guy. Besides, he is driven more by the threats against his wife and son and his own law enforcement instincts for uncovering the truth. It is implied that this criminal enterprise is so insidious and far-reaching it they could set up any patsies they want and frame them for any motivation

As the vast conspiracy begins to be revealed, we are left to confront the question of plausibility. But in a thriller like this, verisimilitude matters less than following the own theoretical rules of this extreme situation. That is to say, The Commuter needs to be at least as relentlessly entertaining as it is ridiculous. And on that score, given the director, star, and location, it is unsurprisingly adroit. The film’s logical internal consistency, though, may be worth investigating a little more deeply, as the passengers at the mercy of Michael’s mission may come to trust him –  a man who has been getting into fights and throwing people out windows – more quickly than is conceivable. A late-stage Spartacus homage is quite amusing, though indicative of that questionable trust. But in a profoundly puzzling situation with life-or-death stakes like this one, it only makes sense to go along for the ride.

The Commuter is Recommended If You Like: Non-Stop, Face/Off, The French Connection

Grade: 4 out of 5 Train Defenestrations

 

This Is a Movie Review: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

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CREDIT: Bob Mahoney/Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Sizemore, Julian Morris, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kate Walsh, Maika Monroe, Bruce Greenwood, Brian d’Arcy James, Noah Wyle

Director: Peter Landesman

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for FBI Agents Yelling When Suspected of Leaking

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Limited)

Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt has been portrayed or parodied in plenty of movies and TV shows, his presence an easy source of tension, frequently cloaked in the shadows of intrigue and mystery. When Hal Holbrook set the template for all Felt performances in All the President’s Men, he literally remained in the shadows. Of course, for decades, the role was not “Mark Felt” but “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant who provided The Washington Post with key details about the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Now that Felt (here played by Liam Neeson) has been revealed as Deep Throat, a fascinating film about the man behind the informant is ready to be made, but The Man Who Brought Down the White House is too erratic and overstuffed to be that film.

The story of the Watergate break-in and its fallout is familiar to basically every American who has lived during the last 45 years. It is an ur-scandal, providing a lens through which all governmental scandals – really all public scandals – are interpreted. We don’t need Mark Felt to re-tell that story, and yet it does. To be fair, seeing everything through Felt’s perspective – the channel through which all information in this affair goes through – is fascinating, but not so fascinating to make the familiar exciting again.

As far as I can tell, Mark Felt’s main purpose is to draw back the curtain on all the hoopla that springs up around any person who exists anonymously for so long. There is plenty of material to mine for a rich domestic drama. Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is alcoholic and shares much of the stress he’s under, but her story seems like it could be that of any FBI agent’s wife and not Deep Throat’s specifically. The film’s other major point is that for all the good Felt did as an informant, he was not exactly a hero through and through. He was as guilty as (perhaps more so) anyone else in the FBI who violated American citizens’ civil rights. But save for one compelling scene snuck in at the end, that aspect is merely glossed over.

The major shortcoming of Mark Felt is all it attempts to stuff into just a little more than an hour and a half. Every name in the impressively sprawling cast list brings their bona fides, but nobody has the space to carve out a memorable character. Mark and Audrey reunite with their daughter (Maika Monroe) at a hippie commune in a third act twist that plays like it is so supposed to put everything that came before in perspective but mostly feels like it comes out of nowhere. If Mark Felt makes any cogent point, it’s that you always need folks like Woodward and Bernstein to compile everything together cogently and lucidly.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is Recommended If You Like: Watergate completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 (Nonexistent) Secret Files

This Is a Movie Review: Silence

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silence-issey-ogata

Does Silence need to drag on so portentously throughout its middle third? Probably, at least to achieve its goal of being as tortuous as what its protagonists undergo. Not exactly as torturous, obviously, but that is the tone it is going for. It may not be pleasant, but that is the goal. Perhaps it could have been both painful AND exciting if Liam Neeson had returned earlier. His scenes really get the film cooking. They are, after all, when Silence really grapples with its essential question of how best to sacrifice oneself to be a good Catholic, or a good leader, or a good person, and if those overlap.

I give Silence 20 Minutes out of 161 of Unexpected Humor.

This Is a Movie Review: A Monster Calls

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson)

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell

Director: J.A. Bayona

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Not Watering Down the Rough Patches in Life

Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

In the fantasy/domestic drama A Monster Calls, adolescent Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougal) must deal with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness, his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) overbearing presence, a classmate’s (James Melville) frequent torments, and the geographical distance from his father (Toby Kebbell). In the midst of all this arises a humanoid tree visitor (voiced by Liam Neeson) from the cemetery by his house. Is this monster a friend offering relief, or a foe busting in with more troubles? Hard to say. What he does have are stories, but their meanings are either difficult to parse or not as comforting as Conor would like.

A Monster Calls is admirably challenging for a film ostensibly aimed at family audiences. The laws of nature are likely to make the life of any teenage boy turbulent, and that difficulty is piled on via his parents’ separation, mother’s closeness to death, and the oppressive dreariness of England. A more typical “fantasy creature meets boy” story would position the monster as protector or companion, but for Conor the Liam Neeson Tree is mostly a source of frustration, which he internalizes and takes out on those around him – destroying a room at his grandmother’s in a fit of rage, getting back at the bully – and the consequences are confoundingly minimal. Conor expects to be punished, but life does not always make sense.

Making A Monster Calls difficult to embrace fully are the unpleasant sound effects that accompany every movement of the tree monster. They are, in a word, oppressive. Perhaps they are meant to illustrate the lack of comfort inherent in Conor’s story, but that strikes me as a step too far.

A Monster Calls is Recommended If You LikeThe BFG, The Mother-Son Relationship from The Babadook, Kid Actors with Fiery Emotions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Snapping Tree Branches

This Is A Movie Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson
When Liam Neeson entered the action star portion of his acting career, my reaction was, “Yes, of course.”  Actually, I may not really have had any reaction at all because the one-man army role suited him so well that I hardly noticed any difference.  This is partly a way of getting at the fact that Neeson’s action stardom has been more successful than the actual movies have been.  He made Taken work as well as it did by sheer force of will, but I found that movie to be too distressing and overly tidy to be able to embrace it completely.  His subsequent lone hero actioners have for the most part been variations on Taken.  No doubt about it, Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane, but I preferred it to the kidnapping thriller because it was just so insane that I might have had to lose my mind, and I was happy to.

(GENERALLY SPOILER-ISH INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT, BECAUSE I FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS MOVIE IN SPECIFIC TERMS.)  Non-Stop is filled with improbabilities right from the get-go.  Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who has turned to the bottle to deal with his daughter’s death.  The fact that Marks still gets assigned jobs despite obviously being affected by his drinking and the cause of his alcoholism being overly pat strain credulity, but it is actually purposeful to the narrative that his competence is suspect and that information about his troubles could be public knowledge.  Anyway, though, Non-Stop gets away with most or all its implausibility by being upfront about it.  A movie that crosses a classic mad-villain extortion scheme with a cat-and-mouse game at 30,000 feet is not aiming for everyday verisimilitude.

In addition to reveling in its absurdity, Non-Stop excels in its suspense by establishing just about every character as a legitimate suspect.  Julianne Moore, as Marks’ seat neighbor, is overly talkative.  Scoot McNairy, who excels at playing slimy (check him out getting into deep shit in Killing Them Softly) plays a punk who is rather inquisitive about what plane Marks will be getting on.  Certain traps and killing maneuvers suggest action in areas of the plane that only the pilots and flight attendants would have access to.  A second marshal is the only other one who should be on the cellular network that Marks is receiving the threatening texts from.  Corey Stoll is an overly aggressive New York City cop who questions why Marks doesn’t give the Muslim passenger as thorough a shakedown as he gives everyone else.  This seems like a typical moment playing on post-9/11 paranoia, but it may actually be a matter of class or profession bias, as Marks may have overlooked him because he is a doctor.

(THINGS GET EVEN MORE SPOILERY IN THIS PARAGRAPH.)  The nature of the manhunt suddenly changes in the final act when it is revealed that the killings are not just going to be those happening one by one every 20 minutes due to the revelation of a bomb, which had earlier been disguised by cocaine.  This new crisis prompts Marks, who has been backed into a corner by passengers suspicious of him, to reveal everything about his previously secretive investigation.  This sequence sets quite a benchmark for excitement that the rest of the 2014 film slate will have a tough time matching.

If you are worried that too many twists and turns have been spoiled by the promotion of this movie, don’t be.  While the trailer does include a fair amount of footage from the final act – and, admittedly, does feature as its centerpiece the most memorable shot of a pivotal struggle – there is actually a fair amount of misdirection.  The first death in particular does not go down exactly as the previews would lead you to believe.

Non-Stop falters a little bit with its ending, as the motivation for the extortion is revealed – it tries to be straightforward, which is difficult amidst all the insanity.  I did not have a problem with the spirit of the motivation itself, or how it went about being explained, so much as the fact that it was a bit too simplistic.  Still, that does not take away from all the highly pressurized excitement that precedes it. A-