MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the era of sequels and spin-offs, and every studio dreams of franchises they can squeeze for profit again and again. The 4th entry in the MIB franchise {MEN IN BLACK (1997), MEN IN BLACK II (2002), MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)}, is certainly more spinoff than sequel, although there is a nugget that ties it to the earlier versions. While we get a new cast and a new director, there are plenty of familiar elements to satisfy loyal fans, although winning new ones may be less likely.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are reunited from THOR: RAGNAROK and AVENGERS: ENDGAME to take the leads as Agent H and Agent M, respectively. Replacing the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty tough challenge, even for two likeable and talented actors. Because of that, it probably makes sense that director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, 2015) and co-writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (also co-writers on the original IRON MAN, 2008) take the film in a slightly different direction. There are two key story lines: discovering the “mole” within MIB, and protecting the world’s most dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Hemsworth overplays his dashing, somewhat inept super agent (a cross between Bond and Clouseau) who charms his way out of every situation, and even though he doesn’t fit the MIB we are accustomed to, he’s fun to watch and good for some laughs. Ms. Thompson (so good in CREED) is the brainy rookie who spends two decades trying to maneuver herself into a position at MIB, and once she does, it’s clear she belongs. Back from the third film is Emma Thompson as Agent O, a senior MIB manager who interviews and hires Molly. Rafe Spall is Agent C, Agent H’s internal adversary, and Liam Neeson is High T, the bureau chief. Rebecca Ferguson appears as Riza, Agent H’s handsy former squeeze turned villain in a cool fortress. Dancing twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play two shape-shifters (a description that doesn’t do justice to their skills).

The story bounces from Paris to Brooklyn to London to Marrakesh to Paris to Naples. It’s a pretty wild adventure with the snazzy guns and futuristic vehicles we’ve come to expect. In fact, the Lexus reps the brand quite nicely. Molly’s backstory is provided early on as the kind of kid who reads Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in bed, and the film offers some clever touches with office artwork and the early years of MIB (Gustave Eiffel), but overall it just seems to be missing something. Fortunately, while H and M are saving the world, Kumail Nanjani as Pawny (voice) is saving the film. His little character provides the most laughs and the most creative punchlines. The franchise has enough of a loyal following that the film should do fine, however it will be surprising if this one can replicate the success of the first 3 films … although, you guessed it, the sequel to the spin-off is teed up.

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WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

January 5, 2017

a-monster-calls Greetings again from the darkness. “From ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-legged beasties/ And things that go bump in the night,/ Good Lord, deliver us”. It’s an old Scottish poem that doesn’t take into account what movies like Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, The BFG, and now this latest from director JA Bayona have intimated this year … not all those ‘bumps’ are necessarily evil.

Lewis MacDougal delivers an incredibly nuanced performance displaying a wide array of emotions as “a boy too young to be a man, and too old to be a child”. His beloved mother (the always terrific Felicity Jones) is bedridden with a terminal illness, and Conor faces relentless pressure for a kid: bullies at school, a dying mom, a strict grandmother, and some rough and vivid dreams/nightmares. As his clock flips to 12:07 am, he watches as a Groot-like giant sprouts from a nearby Yew tree. It’s an intimidating and magnificent beast who, through the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson, informs Conor that he will tell the boy three stories … after which Conor must tell his own.

The meaning behind the three stories (Prince/Queen, Apothecary/Parson, Invisible Man) is not immediately obvious to Conor, but the stories are animated through beautiful watercolors providing depth to the dreams and the lessons. This fascinating film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness who completed the idea of Siobhan Dowd after she passed away from the terminal illness that inspired the story.

I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be a kid’s movie in the style of another featuring the voice work of Mr. Neeson (as Aslan) – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005). Instead, it’s a heavy drama, filled with emotions beyond what most kids experience. Conor is trying to come to grips with living with his stuffy grandmother (a solid Sigourney Weaver) while his mother slowly fades (but not without first introducing her son to the original misunderstood beast in King Kong), and already having a mostly absentee Dad (Toby Kebbell).

As with most tearjerkers (and this certainly is that!), there will be those who describe it as manipulative and obvious, but it’s likely most will find it to be a touching, well-written, superbly acted film with standout special effects utilized for the advancement of the story. Young Mr. MacDougal carries most of the movie and seamlessly bounds from anger to sadness to hopeful. Director Bayona proved in The Impossible and The Orphanage that he has an eye for kid actors, and when combined with the voice of Liam and the other fine actors it makes for a powerful experience … and a reminder that dealing with death is difficult for both kids and parents, and we all need a little help letting go (displayed literally here).

**NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will spot a photograph of Liam Neeson as Conor’s grandfather on a shelf in the house.

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SILENCE (2016)

January 5, 2017

silence Greetings again from the darkness. Martin Luther King said “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. Martin Scorcese’s esteemed film career could be described as unveiling that staircase, one step/film at a time. Religion, spirituality and yes, faith, have played a key role in his life and his films – most notably, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, but also most of his other projects.

A high-ranking priest (Ciaran Hinds) is meeting with two younger Portuguese priests and informing them of the rumor that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has reportedly renounced his faith and is now living as a Japanese Buddhist in Nagasaki. The two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this and request to be allowed to track down Ferreira and bring him home. It could be termed a rescue mission, and the two men could be called missionaries, but what follows is an excruciating test of their own faith.

Martin Scorcese has been working on this passion project for more than two decades – ever since he read the Shusaku Endo novel (published in 1966). Cast members have changed through the various iterations of the project, but after the box office success of The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese received the financial backing to bring his vision to the screen. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) and the result is the visual and emotional epic that you might expect from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

17th century Christianity in Japan might be a difficult subject to sell to the general movie-going public, and Scorcese goes out of his way to leave unanswered the multitude of questions the film raises. Rather than wrapping it up with a clean ending, he leaves viewers craving further discussions, clarity and explanations. In other words, it lacks mass appeal and shouldn’t be confused with light-hearted entertainment.

Rodrigues is resolute in his belief that God is the answer … even when the film’s title is at the forefront. As Rodrigues and Garupe minister to the village of secret Christians (led by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto) at night and hide during the day, we learn of the Japanese state’s commitment to eradicating Christians and Christianity to ensure the power and isolation of the country. The oddest character in the film is that of Kichijiro (an excellent Yosuke Kubozuka). He is both guide to the priests and a constant challenge to their faith, while also providing moments of comic relief in a film with very few. Were this a Kurosawa film, this role would have been a perfect fit for the great Tishiro Mifune.

The most obvious adversary for the priests is the Japanese elder known as The Inquisitor. Issei Ogata excels in the role as a wily, half-smiling, quite knowledgeable wartime (a war on Christianity) leader intent on creating the most painful and public extermination of Christian believers and those priests who dare to infect his country (Japan’s 1614 Edict of Expulsion). The torture and persecution is too much to detail here, but it portrays how even the most ardent believers could choose life over faith.

The film blends fiction with some true-to-life aspects, and is most effective at asking questions and spurring thought. Which is more crucial – public or private faith? Is doubt allowable and even understandable? Is Rodrigues so committed to faith or is there also an element of martyrdom present? How about the “Judas” sub-plots? Is it betrayal if it saves one’s own life? Just where is that line? Is Ferreira a disgraced priest or simply a man valuing survival? The film is beautiful to look at (superb work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker) while being exceedingly tough to watch (and quite long). Be prepared to set aside time for reflection and discussion … you may even discover some surprises in your views and beliefs.

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KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET (2015)

August 19, 2015

prophet Greetings again from the darkness. An animated, artistic, philosophical parable based on a 1923 book from a Lebanese poet … it’s as if the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure most everyone would be turned off by some aspect. Instead, director Roger Allers delivers a beautiful and thoughtful representation of nine of the 26 stories from Kahlil Gibran’s influential best-seller.

The story revolves around Mustafa, an artist and poet who was exiled seven years earlier when his words were deemed harmful to the local regime. Mustafa is informed that he will be granted his freedom to return home, and as he is escorted through town, Mustafa periodically delivers his insightful and inspiring words to the people of the land. These make up the 9 segments (Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Love, etc) within the movie, and each of these segments is the unique work of a different renowned artist/director. The artistic style and presentation varies between each segment, and some employ the use of music (Damien Rice, Glen Hansard).

As Mustafa recites the words of Gibran, the individual segments unfold with the artistry of each director. These blend well with the overall story which also features Mustafa’s housekeeper and her young daughter (who initially doesn’t speak). The voice acting is top notch thanks to Liam Neeson (Mustafa), Salma Hayek (the housekeeper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Almitra), John Krasinski (a lovesick guard), Alfred Molina (Sergeant), and Frank Langella (regime leader). Mr. Neeson is especially effective as the soothing voice of Gibran’s words.

This was evidently a pet project of Salma Hayek, who also is Producer of the film. She wisely enlisted director Roger Allers, who has ties to Disney and the hugely popular The Lion King. The film is Disney-esque in its approach, but is certainly not aimed at kids. It’s really a blend of the segmented structure of Fantasia, the adult-themed style of Watership Down, and the philosophical meanderings of Gandhi.

Gibran writes that “all work is noble”, and the work of these filmmakers certainly is. As with any poetry or philosophy, one must be receptive to the message and willing to be inspired. If not, it’s merely “love and flowers”.

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RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

March 13, 2015

run all night Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine if Liam Neeson’s burned out Air Marshall from Non-Stop was instead a one-time mob hit man who had seen better days. That seems to be the inspiration for director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film (yes, he directed Non-Stop as well). When a guy is a drunken mess with no family who speak to him and only one friend – his old mob boss – a nickname like The Gravedigger tends to conjure better days of yore.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, the has-been hitman whose only remaining friend is boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). These days, Conlon expends more effort emptying a glass than fulfilling a contract.  Shawn respects their history and does all he can to protect his long-time friend who seems intent on boozing himself to death. As is customary in these “crime doesn’t pay” films, things get really messed up in the blink of an eye. Thanks to a wrong place at the wrong time moment, Conlon protects his own son (Joel Kinnaman) by shooting Maguire’s misguided son (Boyd Holbrook). Thus endeth the friendship.

The script is from Brad Ingelsby who wrote the original script for Out of the Furnace (2013), but most of it is pretty predictable. Still, with an excellent cast and some wildly creative camera work from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, The American), this one offers plenty on the entertainment scale. The restaurant scene where Harris and Neeson face off is alone worth the price of admission.

As you might expect, there is plenty of gun play and swagger, but as the title suggests, mostly it’s a game of running and being chased … featuring a crazy car chase. Neeson has an extended public bathroom fight scene with Holt McCallany, and the detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio continues his decades long pursuit of Neeson’s character. Bruce McGill plays Harris’ right-hand man and Common is a steely new age hit man. Kinnaman’s wife is played by Genesis Rodriguez, and the film’s most bizarre scene features a grizzled Nick Nolte – you will find yourself asking “is that him or not?”

Mr. Collet-Serra has directed Unknown and Non-Stop, so Neeson is quite comfortable working with him, and you should certainly know what to expect going in. The friendship between two mobsters ends the way most do, and it’s another take on the blood family vs mob family loyalties. The Gravedigger may have one foot in his own grave, but he also has enough left for one wild night.

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A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

September 18, 2014

tombstones Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the annual off-season gift from Liam Neeson. Seemingly every year, he provides us with a February or September release that requires his particular set of tough guy skills. This time, he plays Matthew Scudder – of the popular Lawrence Block crime novel series (17 books).

Director Scott Frank (The Lookout) works to create a 1970’s feel, although the film opens up as a flashback to 1991, and quickly fast forwards to 1999 NYC. There are no shortage of clichés here, yet nothing is over the top; and the bleak, somber, usually rainy setting establishes the tone that fits with “unlicensed” private detective Scudder’s preferred method of living and detecting.

Of course, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former cop, with a tragic, careless incident on his record and conscience. The film is so ever-bleak, that the moments of humor … though often awkward and out of place … are quite welcome. The only shining light of innocence comes courtesy of a sharp homeless kid named TJ, played by Brian “Astro” Bradley. TJ is a Philip Marlowe wannabe, and quickly assumes the role of Scudder’s partner/intern/IT Department.

Bad guys are everywhere. Even the serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) target the family members of criminals, so as to minimize the involvement of the proper authorities. As an improper authority, we can’t ask for better than Liam Neeson. He works for “favors”, not a paycheck. It should also be noted that this time, he is more likely to outwit the bad guys, than kick their butts.

Other support work comes courtesy of Dan Stephens (“Downton Abbey“), Boyd Holbrook, and creepy cemetery groundskeeper (is there another type?) Olafur Darri Olafsson, who creates yet another memorable character with limited screen time (see “True Detective“).

Mr. Neeson gets plenty of telephone action, which plays right into the strength of Taken, and it’s pretty amazing how much WALKING he does throughout the story. He looks great walking in his duster, but it seems a bicycle would be more efficient … though admittedly, much less intimidating. As a whole, though the movie is probably a bit familiar, it’s the little details and the powerful Liam Neeson that makes it a welcome late summer release.

**NOTE: the character of Matthew Scudder previously appeared on screen in the 1986 Hal Ashby film 8 Million Ways to Die, and was played by Jeff Bridges.

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