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Posts Tagged ‘Liam Neeson’

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs

“THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS”  My rating: B (Now available on Netflix)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At one point In the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” several condemned miscreants stand on the scaffold awaiting the long drop.  One man sobs inconsolably; the guy to  his right tries to be sympathetic: “Your first time?”

Now playing on Netflix, “Ballad…” might be considered a toss off…but it’s a hugely enjoyable toss off.

The brothers — Joel and Ethan — have given us six short films set in the Wild West.  They are filled with loquacious characters, memorable faces, off-the-charts beautiful scenery.

In tone they range from comedy (usually of a very dark variety) to O. Henry-ish irony. There are a few moments of sweetness…not that they last. And there are a couple of terrific action sequences.

Zoe Kazan

Of course, the Coens aren’t exactly new to the genre, having given us a brilliant version of “True Grit,” not to mention the sobering modern Western “No Country for Old Men.”  Here they seem to be reveling in the opportunity to pay  homage to traditional Western tropes while playfully thumbing their noses at same.

A broad comic tone is set with the opening segment, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which features Tim Blake Nelson as a geeky parody of singing movie cowboys.  Buster wears an all-white suit, strums his guitar while riding (“he was mean in days of yore/now they’re mopping up the floor”), and cheerfully blows away anyone who gets in his way, employing a variety of trick shots. Of course, there’s always someone faster on the draw.

“Near Algodones” finds James Franco playing an outlaw with the world’s worst luck. A banker (Stephen Root) doesn’t take kindly to being robbed and fights back wearing armor made of kitchen pots and pans. The outlaw survives one lynching (it’s interrupted by an Indian attack) but he can’t rely on that sort of happy coincidence the next time he’s got a rope around his neck. The whole thing looks as if it were lifted from a Sergio Leone film.

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Viola Davis

“WIDOWS” My rating: B

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Widows” is a sprawling crime drama that wants to be something more…and almost gets there.

The latest from Brit director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” “Shame”) is a heist film with a twist: The perps are all women forced to engage in a crime in order to survive.

In the opening moments we see a group of career criminals — their leader, Harry Rawlings, is portrayed by Liam Neeson — saying goodbye to their families and going off to “work.”  That night all of them die in a fiery crash after stealing millions from a local Chicago crime lord.

They leave behind grieving women who aren’t sure how to get on with their lives.  Harry’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), still has the couple’s posh apartment and at least a small reservoir of cash. But her love for Harry was so intense and complete that she’s a mere shell of her former self.

Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has supported her two kids with a dress shop — though her no-good hubby was always dipping into the till and, in fact, hasn’t paid the rent for months. Trophy wife Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is pretty much cast adrift; her often-violent spouse (Jon Bernthal) has left behind nothing but bruises.

Worse is still to come.  Veronica is paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) whose millions, stolen by Harry’s crew, went up in flames. He now informs Veronica that she must make good on that debt…or else.  She has no choice but to recruit the other widows whose lives are also in danger; using as their guide a notebook in which Harry meticulously planned future crimes, the three women prepare and execute another multi-million-dollar heist.

This would be enough plot for most films. But the screenplay by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) is only getting started. What they envision with “Widows” is a multi-character examination of modern American urban life…and it isn’t pretty.

This is a world in which everybody is a crook, including — no, especially — politicians.

Despite his criminal enterprises, Jamal Manning is running for city alderman (hey, it’s Chicago). His opponent is the Kennedy-esqe Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose closet-racist father (Robert Duvall) has up to now kept the seat in the family despite redistricting that has left the voter pool almost 100 percent black. No matter who wins, the residents are going to get screwed.

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Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield

“SILENCE” My rating: C+ 

161 minutes |MPAA rating: R

The trouble with passion projects is that sometimes the passion isn’t felt beyond the small group of die-hard creators involved.

So it is with “Silence,” a film Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for at least 25 years.

This epic (almost three hours) adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel takes on the issues of faith and mortality Scorsese raised with his first major film, 1974’s “Mean Streets,” issues he has returned to [and to which he has returned] often during his long and celebrated career.

This story of Jesuit priests risking their lives to bring Christianity to 17th century Japan is visually beautiful and impeccably mounted.

But it is less an emotional experience than an intellectual one — and by the time the film enters its third hour, more than a few viewers will be wishing for the simple pleasures of a samurai swordfight.

Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) cannot believe reports that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has spent years in Japan, has committed apostasy, rejecting the church’s teachings.

They convince their superiors that they must travel to Japan — where an anti-Christian purge is in full swing — to both learn the truth about Ferreira and to minister to Japanese converts, who for the better part of a decade have practiced their religion in secret.

Their mission is filled both with inspirational moments and abject terror. They spend most of their time hiding from troops under the command of the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), an arthritic old fellow with a steel trap mine.

Suspected Christians are given the opportunity to renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. After this token display of rejection they are free to go on privately practicing their religion. (more…)

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Lewis McDougall

Lewis MacDougall

“A MONSTER CALLS” My rating: B- 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The makers of “A Monster Calls” work so hard to avoid anything resembling sentimental manipulation that the film runs the risk of being emotionally bland.

Blending psychological insight, fantastic images and the most painful of human conditions, this Spanish/U.K. production is nothing if not ambitious.

In describing how a 12-year-old British boy copes with the looming death of his single mother, this film from Spanish director J.A. Bayona wades into some serious territory. But despite a late-breaking emotional crescendo that will have all but the coolest viewers reaching for a hankie, I found much of the film to be curiously detached.

Conor (Lewis McDougall) — described early on as “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” — has some of the usual adolescent problems, including a trio of schoolyard thugs who revel in beating him up every day.

Things are no better at home where his loving Mum (Felicity Jones) is sinking into chemo-misery while his brittle granny (Sigourney Weaver, attempting but not really mastering an English accent) exudes about as much warmth and sympathy as a prickly pear.

Small wonder that Conor finds refuge in his own imagination. “You’re always off in your own little dream world,” observes one of his classroom tormentors. “What’s there that’s so interesting?”

A lot actually. Every night Conor is visited by a monster, a giant tree creature that uproots itself from a hilltop churchyard and comes stomping to his bedroom window.

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Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

“A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES” My rating: B (Opens wide on Sept. 19)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to modern mystery writers. Giants of the genre like James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and Tony Hillerman have seen big-screen adaptations of their work crash and burn (although Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series did finally find a home on PBS).

A similar fate befell Lawrence Block’s great detective character Matt Scudder.  In 1985 the Scudder tale “8 Million Ways to Die” hit the screen with Jeff Bridges as Scudder and the frequently great Hal Ashby behind the camera.  It wasn’t very good.

But now Scott Frank — mostly known as the screenwriter for films like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and, weirdly, “Marley & Me” — has written and directed a fine version of Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens

Frank seems to have absorbed not just the one novel but the whole of the Scudder canon, and has given us a film that could be either a solid stand-alone or the first step in a new franchise.Ticket sales will tell the tale.

In the meantime we have a taut, dark, surprisingly substantial thriller that is both a dandy detective procedural and a first-rate character study.

Neesom’s Scudder is an alcoholic former NYC police detective who retired from the force after accidentally killing a little girl in a shootout. He hit AA and went into business as an unlicensed private eye, meaning, he says, that “I do favors for people. They give me gifts.”

As “A Walk…” begins Scudder is called to a meeting with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, late of “Downton Abbey”) a drug dealer who reports that his wife was kidnapped and, after Kenny paid $400,000 in ransom, killed by her abductors and returned to her husband in little pieces. Kenny can hardly go to the cops.  He wants Scudder to find the fiends and deliver them for punishment.

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Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

“THIRD PERSON”  My rating: C  (Opens July 11 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge and the Leawood)

137 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

There are those who would argue that Paul Haggis’ “Crash” was a bucket of heavy-handed melodrama and that it only received the 2004 Oscar for best picture because the Academy was too cowardly or homophobic to give the award to “Brokeback Mountain.”

To those people I can only say this:  You haven’t seen heavy handed until you’ve sat through all two hours of Haggis’ latest, the artsy fartsy “Third Person.”

Taking the template of “Crash” — several intersecting stories centering on the same theme — Haggis has fashioned an emotionally remote, narratively confused yarn that goes through all the motions without ever delivering a payoff.

In Paris, novelist Michael (Liam Neeson) reunites with the fellow writer Anna (Olivia Wilde), with whom he is having a torrid if idiosyncratic affair (their relationship seems to be as much about baiting as boffing). Every now and then Michael gets a call from the wife he left behind (Kim Basinger, looking beaten down by life).

In New York City, perpetually woebegone Julia (Mila Kunis) is in the midst of a custody case.  Her ex (James Franco) won’t let her see their young son…because the last time Julia took care of him the kid almost suffocated in a plastic drycleaning bag. The penniless, luckless Julia is one of those people who can’t get anything right — not even showing up on time for meetings with her busy lawyer (Maria Bello). Mostly she mopes.

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 Seth MacFarlane


Seth MacFarlane

“A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST” My rating: C (Opens wide on March 30)

116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Mel Brooks needn’t lose any sleep.

The spirit of 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” hovers tauntingly over “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seth MacFarlane’s (he produced it, directed it, co-wrote it and stars in it) new comic Western.

“Saddles” is, of course, the blue chip standard for rude cowboy comedy, as hilarious now as the day it was released.

By comparison “A Million Ways…” is a slog. It’s got a couple of wildly comic moments – but only a couple.

The main problem is not that its humor is overwhelmingly puerile (graphic jokes about sex and bodily functions) but that it isn’t much of a movie. Oh, it looks great, with lots of gorgeous wide-screen cinematography of Monument Valley (John Ford/John Wayne country) and a visual style dishing lots of rising crane shots (MacFarlane must have been studying Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”).

But there’s no there there. And as storytelling it’s a meandering, shapeless affair. It’s not even a particularly good satire of Western movie conventions.

MacFarlane – an astonishingly productive comic force (TV’s “The Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show,” not to mention the 2012 feature “Ted” and hosting the Oscars) – seems most at home in the half-hour (which is to say 22-minute) animated TV format. He struggles to fill this 2-hour film with jokes, and a few hit home. But they’re not in service of a story – or characters – we care about.

And let’s get out in the open MacFarlane’s biggest mistake: Casting himself as the lead character, Albert, a miserable/angry sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona.

MacFarlane has no range. He sports a half-hearted smirk and…and that’s about it. I don’t much like watching him. So there.

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