Men In Black International

I did not have high hopes for this film, the trailers did not seem very interesting and the concept feels a little old. I happened to be in Austin this weekend and I wanted to see a movie in one of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters and this was the one that was starting at the right time so it ended up being selected simply because of lucky timing. As it turned out it was very entertaining and there is nothing the makers of the film should hang their heads about. I think the lack of success is mostly franchise fatigue and an abundance of similar products in the marketplace.

Chris Hemsworth is still trying to break out as a star outside of the MCU, and you can see why he might choose a part like this. Although I liked him very much in some of the other films he has made, his charisma is still stuck in the God of Thunder role he has owned for a decade now. Tessa Thompson is re-matched with him and they have pretty good chemistry but neither character brings the persona the two original stars did to their parts. It seems you need more than a black suit and a lot of CGI to make this concept work.

Fortunately, there are some funny bits of dialogue and some visual gags that will keep things interesting, but it can never match the charm that the first movie had. If I were ranking however, it would certainly beat MIB 2 which had very little going for it. The concept here suggests there is a traitor in MIB. The trailer makes it seem as if the “Hive”, the supposed antagonist in the story is replicating MIB agents and replacing them. That is misleading, although there is a pretty obvious character to suspect, not because of the script but because casting demands that you make use of someone of that stature in an appropriate manner. 

The shift of the story to Europe is fine and it allows for a few ethnocentric jokes at the expense of Americans, the French, and the British. There is also a sequence set in North Africa and the Mediterranean, so we get a pretty good travelogue as we go through the acts in the film. There may be a little too much of the cutie pie alien in the story, but I did not find him annoying, just a little obvious as to his role function as comic relief. Rebecca Ferguson, Liam Neesen and Emma Thompson are also in the film, and they have slightly better roles. Everybody seems to have a letter code name, which would leave you to believe that there can’t be more than 26 MIB agents at any given time, but that is clearly not the case. There must be some other explanation.men_in_black_international_ver8

So MIB International is not an important movie or essential to any comic book narrative, but it is an entertaining couple of hours that is not too taxing on the brain. If you still like all the CGI transformations, gadgets and aliens, then you should have a pretty good time.

Cold Pursuit

I’m more that two weeks late on this post. Life has gotten in the way of many of my pursuits these days, so it is appropriate that this is the film who’s trail I have let grow cold. If I need to be kept warm in the winter months, I need to see Liam Neeson kill people who deserve to die. It warms my heart to see rough justice since we so often miss true justice in real life.

The set up of the film is not complicated. Neeson’s son is murdered by being given an overdose of heroin. The authorities think he was just another drug user who didn’t know his limits. Neeson’s character’s wife thinks they didn’t know their son at all. It is only as he is about to end his own pain that he discovers what really happened and begins to seek retribution on those responsible. Nels Coxman is not an ex assassin, a CIA agent, or a well trained bodyguard. He is a snowplow driver. His approach is not sophisticated, and the fights are not highly choreographed. He is however methodical and intelligent. Nels simply works his way up the food chain, and fresh fish fall into his lap.

At a certain point in the movie, the deaths start piling up as a consequence of his actions rather than his deliberate execution of offenders. Because his motive is not understood, and the bad guys have no idea why these things are happening, they make assumptions based on their vocation which leads to huge complications. This reminded me a great deal of the 70s films “The Stone Killer” and “The Seven Ups”. Gangland crooks mistake their real enemy and start eating their own.

The nice part about this is that just about every crook who we see get his, earns the death that comes to him. The most effective part of the story other than Neeson is the characterization of the low lives. As each one does something horrible, we just get to start anticipating, “OK, you are next”. The film is based on a Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance”. In the credits, the character names and actors are all listed and the  names vanish in reverse order in listing. It was a clever capstone to the running tally that we have been given during the film.

Laura Dern appears as Nels wife, but she also vanishes from the movie after barely making it into a couple of scenes. The criminals are all the focus in the film. They all have colorful nick names and while the actors are not household names, they add enough personality to make the movie feel worth a watch. William Forsythe shows up as Nels mob connected estranged brother. He provide a little exposition and a satisfying moment with the main villain, but he has only a little to do with the story.

A woman walked out at the end of the movie proclaiming this was the worst movie she’s ever seen, [clearly she has not seen “Vice”]. I did not think it was a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I was entertained…and it kept me warm.

Widows

A slow burn with a heist that does not carry much weight in the end. “Widows” is a quality film about a criminal enterprise, unfortunately, it is the political system in Chicago as opposed to the robbery that is at the heart of the film. The cast for the film is impressive and the story is full of unpleasant twists but there is something about it that holds me back from a strong endorsement. Those who want a slick crime film will be disappointed because this movie travels down some byzantine alleys and the thing that is around the next corner is usually a downer.

The grime and decay of the neighborhood featured in this movie should be enough to tell you this is not “Ocean’s 4”. There is nothing cute or charming or fun happening here. This is a story focusing on rich criminals robbing each other in the midst of urban decay and neglect. That the criminals are all politically connected should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how things work in these big urban centers. One crooked deal makes way for another and the only thing more depressing is that everyone considers this de rigueur. The only thing that changes is who gets the power. This movie attempts to shift the power to a group of women by turning them into reflections of evil men. I’m not sure that is the best way to create a story of female empowerment.

It is a little hard to tell what the basis of the opening theft is. The story starts mid-crime when there is a shootout between the robbers and the security team for a local thug who has delusions of political grandeur. Half an hour later we see what happens to those crooks who were supposed to be providing security and got taken. They should have just asked to jump in the van and take off with the money. As it turns out, getting tagged and tracked down to a local warehouse is part of the plan. I can tell you that this detail was not included in the notebook containing the plans for all of the criminal masterminds plans. Viola Davis is an excellent actress and she shows her worth in a couple of grieving scenes. Her husband has been killed in the robbery and her moment trying to gather herself rings very true. In a flashback, we see another death that she mourns and again, it plays realistically although that death plays like a note from a producer on the film who is a little too “woke”.

As the widows begin to plan their robbery, there are several tasks they have to accomplish. Michelle Rodriguez has a very solid scene where she gets caught in a lie and still manages to get a piece of human behavior awkwardly into the moment. Had it gone any further, the moment would seem unrealistic but the guilt and the loneliness of the two people involved really does provide some emotional core for what is otherwise a very cold film. Elizabeth Debicki has the only moments in the film that could be thought of as light. As she tries to get a proxy to buy guns for her, she uses a story that is grimly amusing. Unfortunately, as we have learned, physical abuse at the hands of a man is not a fiction in her life. Cynthia Erivo who I just saw in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is equally good here as a babysitter/hairdresser who gets recruited for the job and turns out to be just the right touch of bad ass under the skin.

As for the rest of the cast, well there are a lot of them and most are solid. Lukas Haas who I just realized was in “First Man”, is a man with a cynically realistic view of romance who enables the women to get a key piece of information. Garret Dillahut makes a second appearance in a Steve McQueen film and this time he is a lot more sympathetic. Colin Farrel, Bryan Tyree Henry and Robert Duvall, dance around each other as political hacks with ambitions that confound each other. Jackie Weaver is the most cynical Mother you will ever hope to meet. It is Liam Neeson however who manages to turn a small roll into a strong performance and with one plot twist turn most of our assumptions around. What starts off as grief turns to long term resentment and finally to the worst sort of betrayal you can imagine. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya lurks in the background, menacing everyone with his crazy eyes and and reckless disregard for humanity.

The exposition that goes on in long conversations between the characters often reflects danger but it is not just physical danger but moral danger we are facing. Only the very last shot in the film provides any hope that the world might be an OK place to live.There was a point in the story where the worst crime we can see coming is directed at an animal, but at least the immorality of all of the characters is not taken out on the dog.

The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I’m willing to give him credit for “A Monster Calls” where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That’s too long and I don’t like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson’s character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don’t really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson’s character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn’t think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It’s not important, it’s just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson’s wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn’t require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I’m just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.

A Monster Calls

It’s January, so I’m ready for my annual dose of Liam Neeson kicking someone’s ass. So today we saw this and he did it, the only problem is that it was my ass he kicked. This is a sad story about the worst thing that can happen to a kid. As it builds up to the climax, I became more and more effected by it. At first I thought I was withstanding the story pretty well but then I turn around and there is Mr. Neeson’s voice, ready to help knock me down and remind me that I am a human being who is a big cupcake.

This is a story that seems like it should be familiar but it is told in a very unique way. As I mentioned, the arc of the narrative concerns the loss of a loved one and the young man that has to face this truth is struggling with a way to confront it. The Monster that comes is not friendly but in a strange way is very supportive. The story is direct but there are three specific moments when the monster tells a tale to young Conor. Much like A Christmas Carol, Conor is visited on separate occasions and each time he a story is shared with him. Buried inside of each tale is a lesson, but it is never a clear lesson and Conor finds the stories increasingly confounding to the task he has of finding a cure for his mother.

A third of the way into the film, Conor’s Grandmother appears. She is played by Sigourney Weaver, using the slight British accent that she probably picked up in “The Year of Living Dangerously” or “Half Moon Street”. The Grandmother is stern and foreboding in young Conors life. He sees the future that he despairs of in her and does not sense the warmth that he and his own mother have. Part of the story will have to manage that relationship more delicately. His father is an expatriate living in Los Angeles. He does not appear to be a practical lifeline even though he wants what is best for his son. Mom is played by Felicity Jones  and she is suitably beautiful and haggard as the path of her disease progresses. Louis MacDougal plays Connor and his most affecting scenes are with his Father, the bully who abuses him, and ultimately the two women who have and will dominate his life.

The real story here is a child trying desperately to reconcile himself with the loss of the most important person in his life. The Monster represents the turmoil and the tragedy that he is facing, but it never acts exactly the way you expect the story to go. Ultimately there is a turning point, and we can see that coming, but the path there is torturous and may leave some audience members a bit slack jawed. One of my favorite things about the film is that it contains some beautifully animated sequences that illustrate the tales being told. I suspect the water color paintings are based on the illustrations used in the book from which this film derives. Although containing some fairy tale elements, they are not really Disney friendly. Conor has to try to make sense of them and it is a final turn in the story that helps bring it all together.

Neeson is the voice of the Monster but his image does appear in a photograph that suggests Conor’s Mother in her childhood with her own father. Neeson has done voice work before. As Aslan (or God if you like) in the Chronicles of Narnia he was suitably ponderous. His two faced cop in the Lego Movie was just the right touch of sardonic indifference. In this film his voice is ferocious and soothing and sometimes harsh. In the end it is a comforting voice, maybe like all of our fathers, a bit scary at times but also a voice that we feel we can trust. Grief and guilt need to be met with a purposeful and supportive figure. Until Conor can find that in the adults around him, he has a Monster to call upon. This is a sad story that may be tough for children to endure as well as soft hearted adults. It is however a worthy drama and ultimately redemptive, but in a painful way.

Run All Night

There will be cynics out there who will dismiss this movie as another reach for your wallet, simply because of our love of Liam Neeson. I am as guilty as the next person of perpetuating the chain of Neeson badass characters showing up in the first part of the year and giving us some meaningless action pieces. “Unknown“, “Taken 2“, “Non-Stop“, and “Taken 3” are all about an inch deep and are really just an attempt to allow Liam to play a hard case. The storytelling in those movies is not well thought out and the action is usually shot in a manner designed to give us a memorable moment with Liam Neeson with a gun in his hand. While there is a moment like that in this film, the rest of the movie strays far from the formula and builds a real story around a sad character that we should have no sympathy for but who ultimately tries to redeem himself for his son and for all of us watching.

“Run All Night” comes much closer to the great Neeson action films of the last few years; the original “Taken”, “The Grey” and last years criminally under appreciated “A Walk Among the Tombstones“. Like those films, his character’s weaknesses are developed as part of the story, not just laid on to create background. His character, Jimmy Conlon, is a mob enforcer formerly known as “The Gravedigger”. Jimmy’s fortunes have fallen by the wayside as he drowns his nightmares in drink and sloth that barely keep him alive. His best, friend and former employer makes sure that he is taken care of but no longer entrusts him to do the dirty jobs he was once responsible for. That friend, Shawn McGuire, played by Ed Harris, no longer needs that help because his business is more legitimate and less violent than it once was, at least until his son Danny tries to make a name for himself in the rackets. If you have seen the trailer, you know the set up of the movie and it looks like it will be standard action killings for a couple of hours. There are indeed several action sequences and a lot of people get dead, but unlike the disposable types of perfunctory death that Neeson’s characters usually provide, these all take a toll on him one way or another. As he attempts to protect his son, Jimmy is forced to confront his legacy as well and it is not a pretty picture.

Neeson plays a real character here not simply some automaton  that walks through the door with guns blazing. The strained relationship with his son makes the process of trying to protect his boy more difficult. The fact that he understands his enemy so well because he once was that enemy is a slap in the face for the kind of person he has been most of his life. Ed Harris give a very strong performance in the film as the conflicted best friend and boss who now wants to make his former associate suffer for what are really his own faults as a father. He knew his kid was a bad seed, but he loved him. The tough love he tries when Danny attempts to build a drug kingdom, is directly responsible for the death of his son. No one will be able to accept that when he can put the blame on a boogie man that he helped create. Jimmy and his son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), become the fall guys for McGuire’s own faults. Everybody knows this except Michael, the grown son of Jimmy with a young family of his own and the good sense to stay away from his father’s old life.  When Michael tries to do the right thing, it leads to all hell breaking loose. Some cops are crooked, old haunts become dangerous and old friends want to kill the father and son. Reason was never a strong suit with these characters and there is no way of making this right. Ed Harris just received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and it was timed to go with this films opening. He can be proud that his work here is more vital than some of his recent efforts like “Snowpiercer”.

Even though it is a well told story, there are still a few trite elements that are inevitable. Michel’s family is in jeopardy so there will be scenes of them being stalked. The father-son dynamic is stress filled so there will be some defiance of orders/advice given by a criminal to his honest as the day is long son. An implacable hitman is put on the job to dispose of the pair, regardless of the fact that Shawn already has nearly two dozen guys and insiders in the police department working on the task. So if there is so much SOP in this movie, why do I see it as being so much better than the rest of these films? One reason is that there is a side story of a dedicated but frustrated cop who knows what Jimmy has done in his life and he still wants answers for those who have been gone for years. Vincent D’Onofrio is the weary but dogged honest cop who could be a key to saving Michael, if Jimmy plays it straight. An uncredited big name shows up for one scene and delivers a heart rending piece of information that makes it even more impossible for Michael to trust his Dad. There are also good supporting performances from the thugs and victims of the story. Whenever Bruce McGill shows up in a movie, it gets a little better, I only wish he had more to do in this.

The director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made “Non-Stop” and “Unknown” with Neeson before, has a much better story here and he uses the camera and the city of New York in an interesting way to tell it. Ultimately though, it is the story arc of Jimmy that makes this work. He is legitimately troubled by his past but lives through it in daily misery as a penance for what he has done. He never sees this as a chance to redeem his relationship with his son, he knows that he is a dead man, he just wants to do the right thing at the end of his life. The relationship he and Shawn had is brought to life by the solid work done by Liam Neeson and Ed Harris. Their scenes together are sad but reflect a deep bond in spite of the circumstances. You will get a requisite amount of mayhem, but you will also get a tragic story of wasted lives and lost friendships.

TAK3N

This should not take too long. This is a perfunctory sequel to a sequel to a terrific movie. It has little to offer on it’s own, except for standard action sequences and interminable car chases and crashes. The story is convoluted nonsense that  fits into many of today’s thrillers where criminals lurk around every corner and there is a convenient betrayal behind every door. All the actors do their jobs but it is mostly going through the motions rather than creating something memorable or essential. None of this is a surprise after the lackluster second entry, also directed by Olivier Megaton. When I looked back, I was more enthusiastic than I remember, and I know I must have been somewhat blinded because I have never revisited the sequel.

There are three things that make this movie worth a visit. Forrest Whitaker does a nice job playing a sharp LAPD Detective. At some point in his career, someone decides that he would make a good cop. I think he has been an FBI agent or a cop in the last two or three things I saw him in. The part is not especially well written but he adds some thoughtfulness to it through his performance and especially his voice. The second element that makes this somewhat worthy is the use of Bryan Mills team of buddies. That actually get to do something in this movie and they show they are pretty clever also. They still could have been utilized more but at least they don’t just show up and drop something off for him.

The third thing that makes this somewhat worth seeing is the star himself. Liam Neeson can now play these parts without breaking much of a sweat. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your view of Neeson. I have always liked him as an actor, my family jokes a little that I have a mancrush on him. I’m a fan, and I will probably always be available if Liam wants to show up on screen and kill a bunch of people. I do think it is interesting that he became an action star at the point in life when other action stars who have been doing these kinds of movies much longer, are sometimes mocked for being geriatric. He did star as “Darkman” in 1990, but his career did not really become littered with action roles until maybe ten years ago. I suppose he still feels fresh enough to the audience that we can still go with it.

Now the other things that made this movie a problem for me. I already mentioned the frequency of car chase sequences but they are problematic for some other reasons as well. The director shoots the car scenes in such frequent close ups that at times you might forget that the characters are in cars. Thie action of the cars is also so tight that you can’t really get a sense of what is happening to whom, except that there is a lot of mayhem in most of these parts. The ubiquitous shaky cam is present in all of these scenes as well, and once again instead of creating tension or a feeling of being in the action, it creates a sense of vertigo that made at least one member of our party nauseous enough that they had to leave the theater. The action sequences also have that problem, but they suffer from a bigger deficiency, “sanitized brutality”. There is a minimum of blood, the broken bones and cracked skulls don’t jump out and make you winch they way they did in the first film. There is something too “PG-13” in the way the material is being put together. I did however appreciate Bryan’s impromptu waterboarding sequence. It can’t hold a candle to the electric shock scene in the original “Taken”, but it does show what a nasty customer Bryan can be.

I liked the movie a little more than the second film, but neither will betaken_three very memorable. If you are a connoisseur of Liam Neeson action films, than you can’t really skip this one. It is a part of a Neeson Franchise and so it is necessary for you. If you are interested in an average action thriller for a date night, this will suffice. If you wanted a good movie, move along, this will not give you what you need. The fact that i enjoyed it probably says more about my faults than it does about the quality of the film.