Film Review: Cold Pursuit (dir by Hans Petter Moland)


Released back in February (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), Cold Pursuit was this year’s Liam Neeson revenge flick.

This time, Neeson played Nels Coxman, a snow plow driver who speaks in a raspy tone of voice and tends to walk around with a thousand-yard stare on his face.  After his son is killed by gangsters, Nels sets out for revenge.  It turns out that Nels’s father was some sort of mob enforcer so both Nels and his brother (William Forsythe) have apparently inherited the “instinctively know how to kill” gene  So, while Nels’s wife (Laura Dern) stays at home and has a nervous breakdown, Nels heads out and starts killing folks.  Since the gangsters are led by an idiot named Viking (Tom Bateman), they all assume that they’re being targeted by a rival drug gang, one which is led by a Ute named White Bull (Tom Jackson).  So, while the two drug gangs are killing each other off, Nels is busy killing any stragglers that he comes across.  It all adds up to a lot of killing.

Cold Pursuit is different from other Liam Neeson revenge films by the fact that it’s an out-and-out parody of the genre.  So, while Neeson walks through the film with his usual glum expression and commits all the usual mayhem that we’ve come to expect from a vengeance-driven Neeson, everyone else plays their role as broadly as possible.  Tom Bateman leaves not a single piece of scenery unchewed in the role of Viking while Tom Jackson is stoic to the point of insanity in the role of White Bull.  Whenever a gangster gets killed, a title card appears, listing his name, his nickname, and his religion.  Meanwhile, two cops (Emmy Rossum and John Doman) prove to be comically ineffective.

And I will admit that I did laugh a few times while watching Cold Pursuit.  The scene where Neeson asks his brother to explain why everyone has a nickname made me smile.  Some of the murders are clever and the action scenes are frequently so over-the-top that you can’t help but be amused by them.

That said, Cold Pursuit didn’t really work for me.  I think the problem is that the filmmakers spent so much time trying to parody Neeson’s films that they didn’t consider that the majority of those films are themselves already parodies.  I mean, just watch The Commuter and tell me that film isn’t cheerfully winking at the audience.  Since Neeson’s screen persona hasn’t really been a serious one for close to ten years now, parodying it isn’t quite the subversive act that Cold Pursuit seems to think it is.  The difference between Neeson’s other films and Cold Pursuit is the difference between merely winking at an audience or pulling a gun on an audience while demanding, “LAUGH, DAMN YOU!”  Sometimes, the funniest jokes are the ones that you pretend you’re not making.

On the plus side, the film looks gorgeous.  It takes place in the Colorado mountains and makes great use of the frozen landscape.  And George Fenton’s score is nicely evocative and well-used in the film.  Finally, Liam Neeson is always fun to watch, even when it’s in a somewhat flawed film like this one.

 

Trailer: Men In Black International


MIB International

It looks like we have a set of new agents donning the black suits this time around.

Seems Thor and Valkyrie are doing a side gig for the Men In Black. There’s no Agent K or Agent J to save the world from otherworldly dangers. We now have Agent H and Agent M to take up the mantle of protecting the world. The trailer also shows us that the MIB is a global organization and no more New York as the stomping ground, but we also have London and it’s branch of the MIB.

Men In Black International was a sequel that didn’t garner too much excitement when first announced, but as the cast was finalized and announced the excitement began to rise. And it is quite a cast when one really looks at it: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Ferguson.

Men In Black International will be out June 14, 2019. A release date with enough time between it and the juggernaut that will be Avengers: Endgame.

Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Here’s The Trailer For Steve McQueen’s Widows!


Widows is one of those films that I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I first read about it.  Based on a BBC miniseries and featuring an amazingly talented cast, Widows is also director Steve McQueen’s first film since the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave.

The film deals with four women whose husbands are all killed during a failed heist.  The widows, under the leadership of Viola Davis, join together to pull off the heist themselves.  That may not sound like a typical Oscar movie but Widows has got tremendous buzz.  Plus, you’ve got a cast that’s full of past Oscar nominees and winners (Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Liam Neeson) and actors who seem to be destined to be nominated some day (Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Andre Holland, Carrie Coon, Garrett Dillahunt).  All in all, there’s a lot of reasons to get excited for this one!

Here’s the trailer:

Cannes Film Review: The Mission (dir by Roland Joffe)


(With this year’s Cannes Film Festival coming to a close, I figured that I would start of today by looking at some previous winners of the Palme d’Or.  We start things off with 1986’s The Mission.)

The Mission opens with a man stoically plunging over a waterfall.  That man is a priest who, in the 1740s, has been sent to convert the natives of the Paraguayan jungle to Christianity.  The natives’ reaction to the priest’s arrival was to tie him to a wooden cross and send him over the falls.  It’s an opening that perfectly captures one of the main themes of The Mission: the contrast between the beauty of nature and the savagery of man.

The majority of the film deals with two men.  Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Spanish Jesuit who replaces the martyred priest.  Father Gabriel is a pacifist who manages to win the trust of the natives through a shared love of music.  Gabriel plays the oboe and, when it is snatched away from him, reacts not with anger but with acceptance.  With the help of Father John Fielding (Liam Neeson), Father Gabriel builds a mission and works to educate the natives.  This brings him into conflict with the local plantation owners, the majority of whom just see the natives as being potential slaves.

That’s where Mendoza (Robert De Niro) comes in.  A brutish and violent man, Mendoza makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them into slavery.  When Mendoza discovers that his fiancée, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi), has fallen in love with his younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), Mendoza snaps and, in a moment of anger, kills his brother.  Seeking forgiveness for his violent past, Mendoza travels to Father Gabriel’s mission, dragging all of his armor and weaponry in a bundle behind him.  When Mendoza finally reaches the mission, he is not only forgiven by the natives but he also eventually ends up becoming a Jesuit himself.

And, for a while, everything is perfect.  That is until the Spanish turn over their land in South America to the Portuguese and the new colonials decide that having a mission around will make it a little bit too difficult to enslave the natives.  When Father Gabriel is ordered to close the mission, he refuses to do so.  He says that he will stay and that he is willing to be martyred if the Portuguese forces attack.  Gabriel believes that violence is a sin against God.  Mendoza, on the other hand, announces that he will stay and he is prepared to once again pick up weapons to defend the mission…

Dramatically, The Mission is uneven.  While Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson are both believable and sympathetic as Father Gabriel and Father Fielding and fit right in with the film’s period setting, Robert De Niro seems miscast and out-of-place.  As good an actor as De Niro is, he just doesn’t belong in the jungles of South America.  Whenever he shows up or speaks, your mind immediately goes to New York City.  The film tries to juggle so many theological and political issues that it can get a bit exhausting trying to keep up with it all.  Watching the film, it was hard not to wish for a chance to see what a director like Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick would have done with the same material.

That said, The Mission is a visually impressive film, one that captures the beauty, the innocence, and the danger of the jungle.  The scenes of both Gabriel and Mendoza climbing the waterfall are stunning to watch and, in the end, the film does have a sincere message about the ongoing fight for the rights of indigenous people.  That counts for something.

The Mission received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, though it lost to Platoon.  It also won the Palme d’Or, beating out such films as After Hours, Down by Law, Mona Lisa, Runaway Train, and The Sacrifice.

Film Review: The Bounty (dir by Roger Donaldson)


Oh, poor Captain Bligh.

For those who recognize the name, it’s probably because they’ve either read a book or seen a film that portrayed him as being the tyrannical captain of the HMS Bounty.  In 1787, William Bligh and the Bounty set off on a mission to Tahiti.  When, after ten months at sea, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti, the crew immediately fell in love with the relaxed pleasures of island life.  When Bligh ordered them to leave Tahiti and continue with their mission, his own second-in-command led a mutiny.  Bligh and the few men who remained loyal to him were set adrift in a lifeboat while Christian and the mutineers eventually ended up settling on Pitcairn Island.  Against impossible odds, Bligh managed to make it back to civilization, where he faced both a court-martial and a future of being portrayed as a villain.

Though most historians agree that Bligh was a knowledgeable and talented (if strict) captain and that the mutiny had more to do with Christian’s desire to remain in Tahiti than Bligh’s treatment of the crew, most adaptations of what happened on the Bounty have laid the blame for the mutiny squarely at Bligh’s feet.  Personally, I think it has to do with the names of the people involved.  William Bligh just sounds evil, in much the same way that the name Fletcher Christian immediately brings to mind images of heroism.  In 1935’s Mutiny On The Bounty, Charles Laughton portrayed Bligh as being a viscous sadist.  In 1962’s Mutiny in the Bounty, Trevor Howard portrayed Bligh as being an overly ambitious martinet, though ultimately Howard was overshadowed by Marlon Brando, who gave a bizarrely mannered performance in the role Christian.

In fact, it would seem that there’s only one film that’s willing to give William Bligh the benefit of the doubt.  That film is 1984’s The Bounty.

The Bounty opens with Bligh (played by Anthony Hopkins) facing a court-martial for losing the Bounty.  That the admiral presiding over Bligh’s court-martial is played by Laurence Olivier is significant for two reasons.  Olivier’s stately and distinguished presence lets us know that the mutiny was viewed as being an affront to British society but it also reminds us that Hopkins began his career as Olivier’s protegé.  Much as how William Bligh was a star of the British navy, Hopkins was (and is) a star of British stage and screen.  One gets the feeling the scene isn’t just about the admiral judging Bligh.  It was also about Olivier judging Hopkins as the latter played a role that had already been made famous by two other great British thespians, Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard.

By opening with Bligh on trial, The Bounty allows itself to be told largely through Bligh’s point of view.  We watch familiar events play out from a new perspective.  Once again, it takes longer than expected for Bligh and the Bounty to reach Tahiti and, once again, Bligh’s by-the-book leadership style alienates a good deal of the crew.  However, this time, Bligh is not portrayed as being a villain.  Instead, he’s just a rather neurotic man who is trying to do his duty under the most difficult of circumstances.  Bligh knows that the crew blames him for everything that goes wrong during the voyage but he also knows that the only way their going to survive the journey is through maintaining order.

In fact, the film suggests that Bligh’s biggest mistake was promoting Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) to second-in-command.  Christian is portrayed as being good friends with Bligh and one gets the feeling that Bligh promoted him largely so he would have someone to talk to.

The film does a good job contrasting the dank claustrophobia of the Bounty with the vibrant beauty of Tahiti.  When the crew first lands, Bligh proves his diplomatic skills upon meeting with the native king.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that, while Bligh views the stop in Tahiti as just being a part of the mission, the majority of the crew view it as being an escape from the dreariness of their lives in Britain.  For the first time in nearly a year, the crew is allowed to enjoy life.  When Bligh eventually orders the crew to leave Tahti, many of the men — including Christian — are forced to abandon their native wives.

Unfortunately for Bligh, he doesn’t understand that his crew has no desire to return to the dreariness of their old life, either on the Bounty or in the United Kingdom.  Bligh’s solution to the crew’s disgruntlement is to become an even harsher disciplinarian.  (Bligh is the type of captain who will order the crew to clean the ship, just to keep them busy.)  However, Bligh no longer has Christian backing him.  When the inevitable mutiny does occur, Bligh seems to be the only one caught by surprise.

Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that turns Bligh into a character who is, in equal amounts, both sympathetic and frustrating.  Bligh means well but he’s so rigid and obsessed with his duty that he can’t even being to comprehend why his crew is so annoyed about having to leave Tahiti.  Since Bligh can’t imagine ever loving anything more than sailing, it’s beyond his abilities to understand why his men are so obsessed with returning to Tahiti.  Hopkins portrays Bligh as being not evil but instead, rather isolated.  He knows everything about sailing but little about emotion or desire.  Ironically, the same personality traits that led to him losing the Bounty are also key to his survival afterward.  By enforcing discipline and emphasizing self-sacrifice, Bligh keeps both himself and the men who stayed loyal to him alive until their eventual rescue.

Interestingly, Mel Gibson portrayed Christian as being just as neurotic as Bligh.  In fact, if Bligh and Christian have anything in common, it would appear to be they’re both obsessed with what the crew thinks of them.  Whereas Bligh is obsessed with being respected, Christian wants to be viewed as their savior.  When the mutiny finally occurs, Christian gets an almost messianic gleam in his eyes.  While Christian is not portrayed as being a villain (and, indeed, The Bounty is unique in not having any cut-and-dried villains and heroes), Gibson’s portrayal is certainly far different from the heroic interpretation offered up by Clark Gable.

(The rest of the cast is full of familiar British character actors, along with a few future stars making early appearances.  Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson appear as members of the Bounty’s crew.  One remains loyal to Bligh while the other goes with Christian.  Watch the movie to find out who does what!)

The Bounty is best viewed as being a character study of two men trying to survive under the most trying of conditions.  Just as Bligh’s personality made both the mutiny and his survival inevitable, the film suggests that everything that made Christian a successful mutineer will also make it impossible for him to survive for long afterward.  Whereas Bligh may have been a poor leader but a good diplomat, Christian proves to be just the opposite and the king of Tahiti makes clear that he has no room on his island for a bunch of mutineers who will soon have the entire British navy looking for them.  Whereas Bligh makes it back to Britain, Christian and the mutineers are forced to leave Tahiti a second time and end up settling on the previously uncharted Pitcairn Island.  (Of course, no one knows for sure what happened to Christian after the mutineers reached Pitcairn Island.  The last surviving mutineer claimed that Christian was murdered by the natives who were already living on the island.)

The Bounty has its flaws.  There are some pacing issues that keep the film from working as an adventure film and a few of the actors playing the crew aren’t quite as convincing as you might hope.  (If you only saw him in this film, you would never believe that Daniel Day-Lewis is a three-time Oscar winner.)  But it’s still an interesting retelling of a familiar story and it’s worth watching for the chance to see one of Anthony Hopkins’s best performances.

 

Film Review: The Commuter (dir by Jaume Collet-Sera)


It’s January, which means that it’s time for another silly action movie starring Liam Neeson.  Ever since Taken was first released way back in 2008, Liam has been a regular fixture during the first few months of each new year, either killing terrorists or killing gangsters.  Regardless of the film, he’s always a world-weary guy who loves his family and who has a unique set of skills.  The specific skills may change from film to film but they all pretty much have to do with killing people.

For instance, in the latest Liam Neeson action film, The Commuter, Liam plays Michael MacCauley.  Michael may currently sell life insurance but he used to be a detective with the NYPD.  Judging by some of the things that Michael does over the course of this film, being a detective in New York City apparently requires you to have a set of skills that one would normally associate with James Bond or Jason Bourne.  However, Michael left all of that behind.  Sure, he might still get together with his former partner (Patrick Wilson) for a beer and he still complains about his former captain (Sam Neill).  But Michael’s in the insurance game now.  As he explains it, he’s nearly 60, he’s got a teenage son getting ready for college, and he has two mortgages to pay off.  Michael and his family still haven’t recovered from the recession.  Don’t get him started on Goldman Sachs…

It sure is a good thing that Michael has that good job!

Except, of course, he doesn’t.  One day, Michael arrives at the office, is given a rather weak severance package, and is told that his services will no longer be needed.  Wondering how he’s going to tell his wife and son that their lives are pretty much over, Michael wanders around New York, gets a little drunk, and then eventually boards the train that will take him back home.

Michael is a regular on the train.  As is quickly made clear, he knows all of the other regular commuters, like grizzled old Walt (Jonathan Banks) and neurotic Tony (Andy Nyman).  He’s also still enough of a cop that he notices people who are riding the train for the first time.  For instance, there’s Joanna (Vera Farmiga).  Joanna sits down in front of him and strikes up a conversation.  She asks him what he would do if she told him that there was a bag full of money in one of the air conditioning vents but that, if he takes the money, he’s agreeing to do something for her.  When Joanna gets off at the next stop, Michael checks the vent.  The money’s there and now, so is the task.  Michael has to find and identify one passenger on the train.  If he doesn’t, his family dies…

Even by the standards of a Liam Neeson action film, The Commuter is a deeply silly movie.  However, that very silliness is the key to the film’s appeal.  After getting off to a strong start with a witty montage of Michael repeatedly waking up and leaving for work day-after-day, The Commuter settles down and it seems as if it’s going to be a typical Liam Neeson action film.  However, as the film progresses, things get just more and more bizarre.  Suddenly, Michael is getting into brutal fist fights in empty train cars.  No one in the movie ever seems to care that, every time they see Michael, he’s a little bit more beaten up than he was the last time.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, trains are careening out of control, people are getting shoved in front of buses, and men with snakes tattooed on their neck are giving Michael the side eye.  At one point, Michael nearly gets crushed underneath the train and then has to run and leap to get back on.  You find yourself wondering how a 60 year-old insurance salesman is managing to do all of this.  (The answer, of course, is that he’s Liam Neeson and Liam Neeson can do anything…)

A little over an hour into the film, The Commuter hits an operatic level of silliness, one that will probably never be equaled by any other movie that Liam Neeson ever makes.  If you stop too long to think about any of it, the movie will fall apart.  To be honest, very little of what Michael does make sense but the conspiracy that’s taking advantage of him makes even less sense.  The bad guys are either incredibly stupid or incredibly brilliant, depending on what the story requires from scene to scene.

But no matter!  This is the fourth film that director Jaume Collet-Sera has made with Liam Neeson.  None of their collaborations make much sense but all of them are entertaining as long as you’re willing to sit back, relax, and don’t overthink the logic of what you’re watching.  Much as he did with The Shallows, Collet-Sera makes good use of the film’s limited setting and Neeson is his usual grizzled but charismatic self.  The Commuter is about as silly as can be but it’s an undeniably entertaining thrill ride.