REVIEW: “The Commuter”

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I must admit, I do find some enjoyment in these January/February Liam Neeson action-thrillers. They are rarely great but almost always entertaining (to varying degrees). These things started with 2009’s “Taken” which reinvigorated Neeson’s career and made him an unexpected action star. Multiple films have followed (most with the same familiar flavor) and most do pretty well at the box office.

The latest addition is “The Commuter” which sees Neeson playing a 60 year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman named Michael MacCauley. Each day he takes the same train into the city with many of the same fellow commuters. His daily routine is shattered when out of the blue he is laid off from his job. Now unemployed with a son heading to college and a mortgage due, Michael boards his train for the ride home to break the news to his wife.

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As he takes his seat an unusually inquisitive woman played by Vera Farmiga sits opposite of him. Turns out she and the people she works for know a lot about Michael. The mystery lady tells him of $25,000 hidden in the train’s bathroom. If Michael takes the money they will consider him working for them. All he has to do is identify a passenger who goes by the name of Prynne before the train’s final stop. If he does that an additional $75,000 is his. The woman hops off and the train leaves the station.

The financially desperate Michael finds the money in the bathroom but quickly learns the task isn’t as easy or as innocent as it sounds. The people pulling his strings prove to be bad news and they will do anything to get the job done including hurting Michael’s family. From their the film becomes a cross between Michael identifying Prynne while also finding a way out of the mystery group’s clutches.

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As the train speeds along the track it’s the story that flirts with derailment. The further it goes the more intense and absurd it becomes. But that’s part of what I like about these things. Plus I enjoy watching Neeson who by now can do this role in his sleep. I also like the always good Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson who pops up playing Michael’s sympathetic friend and ex-partner (sorry, no Ed and Lorraine Warren shared universe stuff). But it’s Neeson who keeps the story rolling which isn’t the easiest of tasks.

“The Commuter” marks Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. All four of their ‘race against the clock’ thrillers feature the same basic framework with a few narrative differences. In other words you know what to expect – a fast pace, good action, that Neeson growl, and some amusing corniness. If you don’t like their previous movies this one won’t change your mind. But if you’re like me and get a kick out of these things “The Commuter” will give you what it promises. Nothing more, nothing less.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Silence”

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For Martin Scorsese bringing “Silence” to the screen has been a fascinating journey. It started as an inspiration in 1989. Over the next 25 years it grew and evolved into something deeply personal for the filmmaker. In several interviews Scorsese has intimated that the film’s conceptual evolution mirrored his very own spiritual maturation. This intimate connection seeps from every pore of “Silence” making it a profoundly affecting labor of love.

It was in 1989 that Scorsese first read “Silence”, Shūsaku Endō’s historical fiction novel published in 1966. Scorsese immediately knew he wanted to make a film adaptation but he didn’t know how. Early attempts lead to an unfinished script in 1991. Plans to begin production in 1997 were postponed. More delays came in 2004 and 2011. But these postponements weren’t without purpose. During that time Scorsese gained a better sense of what “Silence” was saying. In his words he finally figured out “the heart of the book”.

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Endō’s novel is a deep exploration of the depths of faith. It drills below the surface-level perceptions of faith, down to its most bare and intimate state. Scorsese’s cinematic study of this central spiritual theme is absorbing but also challenging. The story he and co-writer Jay Cocks tells is powerful and rooted in historical significance. At the same time the film is a bruising meditation that is calling its audience to self-reflection.

To get us to that point we follow two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (James Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). The two receive word that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has vanished after renouncing his faith amid intense persecution in the mission fields of Japan. Unconvinced of Ferreira’s apostasy, the two priests set out to find their mentor’s whereabouts despite the cloud of danger awaiting them.

The Japan of the 17th century was controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Christianity was deemed a threat and subsequently outlawed. Anyone breaking these laws faced torture and/or execution. It’s here that Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe sneak ashore with the aid of a boozing local vagrant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). There the “padres” connect with a small village of Christians who secretly practice their faith in the dark of night.

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It’s worth noting Scorsese’s use of his camera to portray the arduous, uncompromising world these two priests enter into. It feels just as foreign to us as it does them. Even the sound design contributes to the sense of uncertainty and isolation. The heightened sounds of nature routinely take the place of a your standard musical score and sometimes the silence itself speaks volumes.

Rodrigues and Garupe establish a semblance of ministerial and sacramental normalcy for the village believers and as a result see their own faith strengthened. But the region’s ruling shogunate led by the freakishly blithe and casually brutal Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) is intent on rooting out and purging the land of Christianity. His dogged persistence paves the way to the film’s central conflict – something much deeper than a faithful Christian versus his relentless persecutor.

The further you get into “Silence” the better you understand the challenge Scorsese lays before us. The obvious storyline is compelling, but to truly understand the heart of the story requires a willingness to internalize the theme of faith and reckon with what is revealed to you. Yes, it’s a deeply spiritual film but not a preachy one. In fact it could be said it asks more questions than it answers. Still Scorsese ponders these ideas with the sincerest curiosity and unflinching patience – the essence of faith, the pain of betrayal, our human frailty. And what do we make of God’s silence in the midst of tremendous suffering?

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As you would expect the performances are sublime. Neeson’s portrait of anguish and conflict helps make his handful of scenes some of the film’s finest. Driver is as tense as he is gaunt which is strikingly in-tune with his type of character. That gets to Garfield, a guy who has steadily gotten better with each role he has taken. In “Silence” he literally transforms before our eyes both in character and performance. He plays it a bit safe early on but quickly tosses aside all restraints and commits every ounce of himself. Portraying spiritual struggle is tough and Garfield impressively carries the bulk of that load.

It has taken me two viewings and a lot of wrestling to truly figure out how I feel about this film and what it means to me. It’s that type of movie – one that can’t be appreciated with a mere surface reading. Despite its incredible artistry and beautifully sculpted scenes (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserves an Oscar nomination), “Silence” seeks to be something more – a spiritual epic that not only reflects where Scorsese is in his personal journey but challenges us in ours.

“Silence” is a film that may not sit well with Scorsese die-hards looking for his normal cinematic swagger and it certainly doesn’t aim to be a 2 hour and 40 minute crowd-pleaser. But after a second look it clicked for me in every meaningful way. I still have questions the movie stirred up within me and I love the its unwillingness to give me every answer. In fact Scorsese isn’t saying he has every answer. But he is saying the questions are worth asking, and the answers you get just might change your life.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Taken 3”

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It’s the start of the 2015 movie season so you know what that means. It’s time for a Liam Neeson action flick. For several years we have gotten a Neeson action movie early in the year, mostly February. While they are usually forgotten by the end of the year, they do provide some decent escapist fun. Well, except for “Taken 2” which was an awful film, but it was also released in September. Now we get “Taken 3” and we get it in January. Will that early-year Neeson ‘magic’ give us yet another entertaining but forgettable thriller or does this film belong in the same crap bowl as “Taken 2”?

I can’t say I’ve been optimistic about “Taken 3”. Luc Beeson returns as co-writer and producer. Olivier Megaton returns to direct. In “Taken 2” these guys captured none of the first film’s edgy, butt-kicking entertainment. Instead they gave us a dopey and preposterous sequel filled with sloppy and undecipherable action scenes. With them back on board how could I expect anything different?

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The story follows the same basic blueprint as the other two movies. We spend the first 20 minutes or so getting reacquainted with these characters. Bryan Mills (Neeson) is still a fun loving father who loves a good bagel and owns a ‘particular set of skills’. He still has a close relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Lenore has been having marital problems with her husband Stuart (Dougray Scott) which has rekindled her affections for Bryan.

One day Lenore texts Brian and asks him to meet her at his apartment. When he arrives he finds her dead in his bed. The police immediately bust in and Bryan becomes the chief suspect. Thanks to a series of head-scratching decisions and amazing conveniences Bryan sets out to find who is responsible for his wife’s murder. Hot on his heels is LAPD Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) who wants to take him in. Clues, close calls, car chases, and fistfights follow as Bryan tries to get to the killer before the police get to him.

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The good news is “Taken 3” is better than the last film but not by a wide margin. There are just some things you have to expect. Beeson is going to give you some excruciating lines and some laughably bad plot contrivances. I swear, the guy writes some of the most simplistic and obvious dialogue. You can also expect Megaton to hack his action scenes to pieces and then paste them together in a headache-inducing collage of fast-paced images. His ridiculous quick cuts make following the action an impossible chore. He does slow it down a tad in the second half and that helps things a little.

I always enjoy Liam Neeson but for the first time he actually looks his age. Maybe it was how the fight scenes were shot. Maybe he was tired or uninterested. Whatever it is Neeson looked slow and limited. On the other hand he has that gravelly-voiced charisma and he can often make the most absurd scenes entertaining. He is asked to do a lot of that in “Taken 3” and in the end he makes it a lot more watchable than the last film. But as long as Beeson and Megaton are attached, it will be a silly and shallow series that even Neeson himself can’t fully save.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Non-Stop”

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Almost overnight Liam Neeson became today’s Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Whether he is tracking Albanian human traffickers across Europe or fighting Alaskan grey wolves with shards of glass attached to his fists, the 61 year old Neeson has not only embraced his action stardom but he’s really good at it. But this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. A brief scan of Neeson’s filmography shows that he is a versatile actor who has never been a stranger to action roles.

He shows it again by giving us another March action thriller called “Non-Stop”. The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who also worked with Neeson on the 2011 film “Unknown”. This time around he is 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean in a passenger plane and facing one Neeson-sized threat. “Non-Stop” is a huge step up from the star’s last action outing “Taken 2”. It’s a fun throwback picture that uses many of the same plot devices which service the story well despite the perfunctory impression they leave.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, a United States Federal Air Marshall who boards a non-stop flight from New York to London. We learn several things about him early on. He is an alcoholic who clearly has some emotional baggage. He also has a fear of flying (particularly takeoffs) which is a liability considering his occupation. The film also uses the familiar method of giving us brief glimpses of the major players in the film as they wait to board the aircraft – passengers, pilots, flight attendants. It’s cleverly executed here and it had me cautiously and suspiciously examining every face I was shown.

Once the plane is over the Atlantic Bill gets a phone text on his secure federal line threatening to kill someone onboard every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a bank account. At first he tries to decipher whether or not it’s a hoax, but he quickly finds out that the threat is real. With one person dead, 20 minutes until another person dies, and no way to quickly land while over the ocean, Bill has try and get control over the perilous and deadly situation.

As you can tell this is obviously pretty absurd stuff, but that doesn’t stop it from being a highly entertaining ride. Neeson gives his usual stout and sturdy performance but here he is also quite vulnerable. We do get those patented scenes where he breaks noses and snaps necks, but he also brings out the panic, perplexity, and brokenness which the story includes as part of the character. Julianne Moore plays a passenger he meets on the plane as does Corey Stoll in an entirely different role than his Hemingway from “Midnight in Paris”. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o play flight attendants although Nyong’o is relegated to a very small part.

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“Non-Stop” throws a few jabs at a number of subjects including the news media’s over anxiousness to tell a story despite its inaccuracy and various post-911 attitudes about flying and people in general. Some work better than others. The movie does take a few preposterous turns and the final revelation, while satisfying for me, was a bit goofy and requires the audience to refrain from asking some very obvious questions. On the flipside it was always casting doubt on my suspicions and I never figured out what was going on until the final reveal.

Will “Non-Stop” make anyone’s Best of 2014 list? I highly doubt it. But it is an example of a very fun and entertaining action thriller that allows the audience to just sit back and play along. It helps to have such a strong anchor as Neeson. He is comfortable with these roles and when given good material he can provide us with a really good escape. While “Non-Stop” has some obvious flaws it is an easy movie to recommend and it’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Now lets see what Neeson has in store for us next.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Lego Movie”

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Let me start off by saying Everything is Awesome! My wife and kids are awesome. My mom’s spaghetti and meatballs are awesome. Paris, France is awesome. A ballpark hotdog is awesome. And guess what else, “The Lego Movie” is pretty awesome! Yes even a picky old fogey like me, who finds it hard to find a satisfying animated picture, loved this crazy film based on (of all things) toy building blocks. Who says you can’t make a great movie out of almost anything?

“The Lego Movie” comes from the multifarious minds of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. A Lego movie in some form has been in the works at Warner Brothers since 2008. In 2011 Lord and Miller were brought on board to both write and direct the project. The two had previously worked on the brain-dead “21 Jump Street” and the fairly fun “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”. But “The Lego Movie” reveals a sharp and clever wit that stays consistent throughout the entire film. So many animated movies start promising but loses their focus in a deluge of schizophrenic slapstick or dumbed down humor (I’m looking at you “Wreck-It Ralph”). That’s never the case with this film. It occasional gets close but ultimately the same charm and humor runs consistently through the movie.

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The story centers around a very average construction worker named Emmet Brickowski (voiced wonderfully by Chris Pratt). He is an ordinary by-the-book guy who has no interesting or unique qualities at all. He lives in a Lego city named Bricksburg where everyone follows the same routine, everyone watches the same TV show (think Benny Hill), and everyone sings what must be the national anthem “Everything is Awesome”. Emmet is a lonely fellow but he is too busy following the instructions on how to live to even notice.

But one afternoon by sheer chance he stumbles upon a mysterious object called the Piece of Resistance and an even more mysterious woman named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks). Eventually he learns that the Piece is the key to stopping the dastardly Lord Business (Will Ferrell) who is actually a wealthy businessman and tyrannical President of Bricksburg. His ultimate goal – world domination by squashing the independent creativity of the people and maintaining the world in his image alone (oh yes, the evil capitalist corporation jab). Emmet discovers that he may be the fulfillment of a prophecy which states that one known as the “Special” would use the Piece to thwart Business’ plans. In other words, Emmet’s undistinguished life could be changed forever.

Emmet’s adventure takes him to a number of far away lands. It also introduces him to an number of different people voiced by a host of Hollywood names. There is a policeman with Multiple Personality Disorder (Liam Neeson). There is a blind wizard who first tells of the prophecy (Morgan Freeman). There is the one and only Batman who also happens to be a Master Builder (Will Arnett). There is such a fun assortment of other characters voiced by the likes of Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Shaquille O’neal, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, etc. etc. etc.

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But what separates this from the usual, run-of-the-mill animated feature? I get back to the goofy yet sharp wit of the script and the consistency it maintains from start to finish. I also think it does a marvelous job of straddling the line of comedy aimed at adults and comedy aimed at children. I laughed just as much as my two kids. In fact, we watched it in a packed theater where the boisterous laughs of children were rivaled by the laughs of their parents. That’s not an easy feat for a filmmaker to accomplish. And then there is the entire look of the film. Everything is Lego from the opening and closing credits to the vast colorful landscapes. The motions make you think Lego and even the action sequences stay within the crazy building block bounds. I loved the visual flare.

There are a few things in “The Lego Movie” that I could nitpick, but honestly those minor gripes did nothing to dampen my overall experience. For me this was a rare animated treat but more than that it was a rare modern comedy that actually delivered the goods. Great voice acting, sharp writing, and a wonderful story all the way down to its core. With the bazillions of dollars this movie is making, a sequel is all but guaranteed. I only hope it’s as funny and infectious as this first one because this is a hard act to follow.

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5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls

I originally did this particular Phenomenal 5 over a year ago. Honestly, it was one of the most fun lists to put together, but hardly anyone saw it. Thankfully to you all, my blog has grown some since then and I’ve been waiting to share it again for those who have missed it. So why wait any longer? There have been so many great movie moments involving phone calls and almost every single genre has their share. Putting this list together was a lot tougher that I expected and there are some great scenes I had to leave off. But such is the nature with the Phenomenal 5, right? So as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these movie phone calls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TAKEN” – “a very particular set of skills”

I liked “Taken” even though it kind of flew off the rails closer to the end. But it also provided one of the most memorable movie phone conversations you’ll find. Liam Neeson’s daughter and her friend are abducted while on a trip to Paris. Neeson’s character is a CIA field agent who we quickly find out has “a particular set of skills”. In a brief but incredibly intense phone chat with the abductors, Neeson presents them an offer (if they let his daughter go free) and then a stern warning (if they don’t). It’s a scene that became the signature moment in the film and one that I can’t help but love.

#4 – “DIAL M FOR MURDER” – “Hello?…Hello?…Hello?”

I still struggle with why ANYONE with an ounce of sanity would want to kill the beautiful Grace Kelly, yet that was Ray Milland’s plan in this Hitchcock classic. As his accomplice hides behind the drapes, Milland lures Kelly out of bed with a phone call from the party he’s attending. He then listens on the phone as his hired hand strangles his wife. Foolproof plan right? Of course not, this is Hitchcock, remember? This key scene turns Milland’s devious plans upside down and launches one of cinema’s best thrillers.

#3 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?”

One of the very best scenes in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men” is the phone conversation between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss. It marks the first time the two have had any communication and the intensity is simmering. The scene’s slick dialogue and clever tone is vintage Coen brothers but it also works thanks to great deliveries from Bardem and Brolin. From the startling first ring of the phone to the slamming down of the receiver at the conversation’s end, this movie phone call nails it.

#2 – “DR. STRANGELOVE” – “I agree with you, it’s great to be fine”

How can you have a list of top movie phone calls without including the hilarious conversation between United States President Merkin Muffley and Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov from “Dr. Strangelove”. In this classic Cold War spoof, a base commander goes “a little silly in head” and orders his planes to attack the U.S.S.R. President Muffley, wonderfully played by Peter Sellers, makes a courtesy call to Premier Kisov to let him know the base commander “went and did a silly thing”. The entire scene is just Sellers and he not only plays his character but also brilliantly sells us Dimitri, who we never hear. It’s a laugh out loud funny sequence and one of several great moments from the movie.

#1 – “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” – “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Who can forget the phone call at the end of this Oscar-winning crime thriller? After finishing a gruesome and intense serial killer case, the film ends with Clarice enjoying herself at her FBI graduation party. While receiving several commendations and pats on the back, she’s told she has a phone call. At the other end of the line is Hannibal Lecter. He congratulates Clarice on her success then drops the classic yet still disturbing line “I’m having an old friend for dinner”. Anthony Hopkins, decked in a blonde wig and tilted hat, then walks off after Chilton. The film ends with Clarice simply repeating “Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter…”. It’s one of those endings that leaves you uncomfortable but it’s also an ending you won’t forget.

What are your thoughts of my 5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls? See something I overlooked? Disagree with my choices. Please take time to share you picks or opinions.