Tag Archives: Liam Neeson

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is actually 6 distinct stories. The first one opens in spectacular fashion, Buster(Tim Blake Nelson) mounted on his horse, strumming his guitar, his pleasing singing voice echoing off the mountains around him. When he rides into town, he lives up to the second part of his illustrious reputation: he’s the best gun slinger in town. And indeed. no matter how jaded a western, shoot em up, action hero connoisseur you are, Buster has some moves that will impress you. This opening vignette sets such a strong tone, and an enjoyable one, that its abrupt shift left me confused and grief-stricken, and maybe even bored.

We turned the movie off halfway through. But that opening part really stayed with me. It did such a good job establishing the movie as one to watch that  I succumbed to the MV5BMjQwNDI4MTA3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQ1OTEzNjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,960_AL_pressure and made attempt #2 the next night. I rewound to the beginning and what I found was: yes, the switch between the first and second chapter is brusque, and because for me unexpected, I had lost interest when I failed to keep up. In this second portion, James Franco is a bank robber who gets the ultimate sentence for his crime. Our first extended look at his face is perhaps one of the most striking portraits of a man I’ve ever seen on film. The editing is astonishingly economical: the story is told not so much quickly as efficiently. But during my second watch, with all guns firing, not only was I less confused, I was incredibly impressed.

Joel and Ethan Cohen know what the hell they’re doing. If their movie isn’t speaking to me, I should damn well know that it isn’t their failing as writer-directors, bu mine as a viewer. Subsequent chapters start the likes of Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan. They all tell their own stories about brutal and unforgiving life in the Old West.

The Coen Brothers have been at this a long time yet they’ve still got the ability to surprise. Their brevity inspires them to experiment in yet more ways, crafting stories that are compelling exhibitions of their dark humour and signature style. Did I like this movie? No. I fecking loved it. It took me two tries to get there mind you, but it was fecking worth it.

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TIFF18: Widows

The world didn’t need any further proof of Viola Davis’ talent or range, but director Steve McQueen is serious about his star, and he painted her the perfect sky in which to shine.

Ronnie (Davis) is devastated by the death of her husband in a robbery gone wrong. But she barely gets him buried before the guys he robbed come calling, and she’s the one on the hook for the 2 million dollars that’s missing. So she rounds up all the widows whose husbands died on that job (Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez) and takes over the family business, such as it is.

But this is not your typical heist movie. Like Scorcese’s The Departed, it’s about more than just the criminal element. While Scorcese looked at dirty cops, McQueen takes on crooked politicians, and he ably blurs the line between felon and city councilman. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) is the departing alderman of District 18, but after a recent heart attack, he’s vacating the spot that his family has held for generations, and his son Jack (Colin Farrell) is planning on stepping into his shoes at the next election. But strangely (to him), he’s not running unopposed. Turns out, he’s not the only willing to be corrupted for cash and kickbacks. The two worlds collide rather impressively when it’s Mulligan’s house the widows break into.

There are a thousand little details that make Widows into a truly great movie, but here are just two:

The opening scene. Liam Neeson and his gang of merry men are pulling a heist, but shit goes down. It’s frantic and violent and spectacular. But it’s intercut with almost its polar opposite: scenes of domesticity. Each man in the gang is shown at home, with his wife, widows-2018-viola-davis-liam-neesonhis kids, his little dog Olivia. Sure they’re criminals but they’re also doting dads, bill payers, lawn mowers, trash taker-outers. So you’ve got this brilliant back and forth of the two, somewhat disparate, halves of their lives. The hard and soft, the why and the how of tough jobs with lots of risk. We don’t spend much time with them, but we already know they are much than just their crimes, and when they meet their end, it’s not without sadness, a loss that is earned. And it’s also a highly effective way of introducing both theme and character. Brilliant, nimble work.

The second scene that really struck me was of Jack Mulligan (Farrell) in the back of a car. We already know his dad (Duvall) is an unapologetic racist. He rants gross inaccuracies about immigrants (even as he seems to employ them as servants in his home) and says the n-word while basically looking us in the eye. He’s not shy about it. He’s old school racist. His son is a little more savvy, but perhaps no less racist. Sure he trots out black woman business owners at his rallies, “success stories” he calls them, dismissively taking credit for their achievements. But as soon as he’s back inside the tinted-window safety of his car, he’s laying down some pretty shitty things to his poor assistant. Interestingly, the car, and thus the man inside, remain impenetrable during the scene. McQueen frames it with the car filling just a small portion of the bottom right-hand side of the screen as it drives the alderman-to-be away from the unsavouriness of his district, to the furthest border where his own palatial home is built and gated. Why would McQueen show Duvall so plainly while uttering his slurs but have Farrell hidden away? What makes Jack different? And what does it mean that the only person we make any contact with the entire time is an occasional glimpse of Jack’s black chauffeur, who Just. Keeps. Driving.

This movie is so well-made it gives me the tingles. I know I started this review singing Viola Davis her praises, but I want to end it that way too. Girl deserves her applause. She is so powerful. She can show vulnerability without making it about a lack of strength. She is commanding and flexible and she brings to this role her own kind of super power – called Strong Black Woman.

 

 

The Commuter

Michael is 60 years old, and after a lifetime of working hard and doing everything right, he and his wife are living hand to mouth with tuition to be paid and second mortgages due when he gets laid off from his job selling insurance in the city.

On the sad commute home, he meets Joanna, who asks him to do just “one little thing”, an experiment she calls it, because she’s a psychopath. But she’s offering cash money as a reward, so of course he’s tempted. And by tempted I mean he makes a beeline to the washroom to retrieve the money, which of course sets into motion a whole thing.

Liam Neeson gets into another sticky situation

How on earth has it come to this?

Joanna (Vera Farmiga) is asking of Michael (Liam Neeson) quite a lot, in fact: his commuter train is carrying a witness to a crime, and if he doesn’t find and kill the witness, they’re going to kill his whole family, whom he loves, which we know from a montage of monotony\suburban bliss.

I feel like all the right building blocks are assembled here, not least of all a terrific cast, including Neeson and Sam Neill, who make the material better than it is. But the script leaves out essential elements like suspense and intrigue, instead hitting overly familiar beats, which makes the whole thing drab and predictable. It feels plucked out of the recycle bin, which is insulting. Then again, the trailer did everything in its power to warn me away by collecting the 90 seconds worth of interesting, original thought and stringing them all together in a way that then did not play out satisfyingly in the movie. Like, why would a married couple ever remind each other of being married by flashing their rings at each other, EXCEPT in the case that those rings would momentarily become a plot point? I remember making fun of that so bad when I saw the trailer – and I began fancily revealing my ring to Sean so that I could mock the movie even as I cannily avoided seeing it in cinemas by conveniently forgetting that it existed. Ooooh, look, I’m showing you this right you bought me a long time ago that I have worn every single day since to the point where it’s not even considered jewelry anymore, it’s just a slightly shinier piece of my body that’s supposed to discourage others from flirting with me but generally doesn’t.

But anyway, back to the review, the gist of which is: not so much. It’s a mystery that you don’t really care about, a story that isn’t exactly fresh, and a premise that feels pretty goddamn ludicrous. It’s a “what you would do” that could have begun and ended with a simple ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’

Silence

Martin Scorsese and I had very different reactions whilst reading Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel, Silence. He thought: this will make a great movie, even if it takes me 28 years to bring it to theatres (and it did). I, however, got through the book like one gets through a prison sentence: head down, one day at a time, putting in my time, hoping it rs-silence-8ec449bd-cf0f-4008-942e-3d25d5a334f7doesn’t kill me. Having read the book, I knew exactly what we were in for with the movie, and I warned anyone who would listen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it. It’s Scorsese. I mean, that alone is enough. But I also know that Martin Scorsese has something to say about spirituality, and if he’s gotten away from it with his last few movies, this one is a major reinvigoration of his theme.

Little Marty was friends with a loving and influential priest growing up, and this encouraged him to join a seminary to become a priest himself. Lacking a true calling to the vocation, Scorsese flunked out, but he never stopped asking himself how a priest got past his own ego, his own pride, to put the needs of his parishioners first.

In many ways, that’s exactly what the film Silence asks of its main protagonist Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Christian missionary sent to Japan in the 1600s, when Christianity was outlawed, and his presence forbidden. He and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), make the voyage to a land unknown. They haven’t heard from him directly in years, but there are rumours that he has renounced his faith. Certain that this cannot be true, the two young missionaries vow to find and rescue him, while restoring the faith of their underground followers.

Praise be to Scorsese’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, who helps create this world with so many natural touches: fog allowed to hide and obscure, fire reminding us of the hell silence-01083r.jpgthat Rodrigues faces, or the hell that he’s in now. Even though the movie is relentlessly brutal, you’ll still be wowed by the images, the beauty lurking within the swamp.

Silence is uncomfortable – truly, truly uncomfortable. The tortures are otherworldly. What’s the takeaway from these 161 minutes of quiet pierced with merciless violence? Silence leaves you with more questions than answers, and how you feel about it will depend on how filled with god’s love your heart is going in. Yes it’s a meditation on religion and spirituality, but it isn’t afraid to point-blank ask us whether we’ve heard or felt god in the silence. Is he there, quietly observing his people be tortured and killed? Is he there, silently allowing persecution and murder? Does silence sow seeds of doubt?

For the most part, Scorsese seems to be fairly neutral in the plight of Christians vs. Japan. I definitely felt the strong whiff of colonization, the belief that the stories white people tell each other about their god and heaven are somehow more true than the stories the Japanese have been telling for centuries. Not just more true but The Truth. These might be 17th century problems, but they sound very familiar – almost like those same problems are here in the 21st century as well.

SILENCEThis Asshole Atheist really noticed the distinction between religion and faith – religion being something a government can choose to eradicate; faith, however, is much more difficult. Silence is really a question of belief, not just what you believe, but how strongly you believe it, how strongly you think others should believe it, how far you’re willing to go to impose those beliefs, how much pain you can endure before you abandon those beliefs. And if god himself can hide in silence, can belief dwell there also?

With Martin Scorsese at the helm, you already know this is a disciplined and wondrous exercise in film making, perhaps a masterpiece among masterpieces from this celebrated auteur. But Silence is best discussed by the feelings it evokes in the viewer. It’s meant to be thought-provoking. If god is love, is it better to love god even in the face of threat, or is it better to love our fellow man even when it means denying god? One gruesome scene marches into another, never quite glorifying the martyr, never quite condemning the oppressor. Maybe the point is that there is no point. Silence is a theological debate that grants permission to test the limits of faith, to ask the unanswerables. It is difficult to watch and difficult to process but I believe that Silence is meaningful even to the non-believer: it’s just that good a film.

Third Person

960Liam Neeson is a writer doing writerly things in Paris, estranged from his wife (Kim Basinger) after a family tragedy, and making up for lost time with his damaged young mistress (Olivia Wilde).

Mila Kunis is recently a NY hotel maid, the latest in a string of terrible jobs she can’t hold onto. Her lawyer (Maria Bello) is losing patience with her flimsy excuses for constantly missing court – should the custody battle she’s locked in with her ex (James Franco) be her first priority?

Adrien Brody is in Italy to track down designs he can knock-off when he runs into a beautiful woman in a bar (Moran Atias) with a sob story about stolen money and the smuggler who’s holding her daughter ransom.

Three couples, three cities, three stories, 1 movie, by the king of interwoven story lines himself, Paul Haggis. What do they have in common? Kids? Rocky relationships? Trust issues? Wonky coincidences? Unreliable narrators? A third-personweird triangle with an awkward “third person”? Or something a little more…literary? I found this flick on Netflix and wondered how such a monstrously recognizable cast had flown under the radar.

There are definitely small details scattered throughout Third Person that deliberately do not make sense, yet are major hinges to the plot. The stories are vaguely interconnected, but shouldn’t be. They should be divided by the rules of time and space which our universe obeys, but aren’t. It’s damn subtle though, ambitious in its reach. The kind of thing that’ll itch your brain, make you squint at the TV, make your constantly third-person-adrien-brody-and-moran-atiasask your partner “Okay, what?” Haggis’s gimmick overwhelms the movie, and the cracking chemistry between stars just isn’t enough to make up for it.

As frustrating as the film’s structure is, there’s also an underlying message that to me was even more disturbing. The men are all pricks and the women are all passive victims. In one vignette, a character actually says “Women have the gift of being able to deny any reality” but you know what, Paul Haggis? This woman is staring reality in the balls and calling it what it is: a waste of talented actors, pretentious without being smart, and a bit of a bore.

 

TIFF: The Rest

carrie-pilby

Carrie Pilby

Awkward, isolated and disapproving of most of the people around her, a precocious 19 year-old genius is challenged to put her convictions to the test by venturing out on to the NYC dating scene, in this adaptation of Caren Lissner’s best-selling 2003  novel.

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I was especially excited about the world premiere of director Susan Johnson’s debut feature because I knew I would get to share the experience with my parents. I also liked the sound of Carrie as described by the TIFF website. I’ve always enjoyed unlikeable characters who become easier to empathize with once we get to know them.

As it turns out, Carrie Pilby isn’t nearly as misanthropic or as unsympathetic as the website would have you believe. In fact, when played by Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley, she’s actually quite charming. She may be a little too sarcastic for her own good but she’s never mean and her posture suggests such obvious vulnerability that you may just want to give her a hug.

You may find Carrie’s exasperation with those around her easy to relate to considering the unforgivably forgettable supporting cast. Nathan Lane and Gabriel Byrne phone in their performances as her therapist and father and potential love interest Jason Ritter finds a way to make sleazy seem boring. Only Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer, who I was pleasantly surprised to see at the premiere, holds her own against Powley as Carrie’s co-worker and new friend.

In the end, the script is nowhere near as smart as Carrie is. Though it offers a number of big laughs and some seriously sweet moments, the dialogue is way too obvious most of the time. I found I was able to anticipate line after line almost as if I was dreaming the film into existence myself.

 

headshot

Headshot

The indomitable Iko Uwais (The Raid) stars in this fast and furious actioner as an amnesiac whose mysterious past as a killing machine comes to the fore when he takes on the henchmen of a vengeful drug lord.

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I ended my first night at TIFF 2016 the best way I know how- with my annual Midnight Madness screening. You never know what you’re in for with the Midnight Madness program but this year I felt like I was in good hands. Back in 2011, I caught a midnight screening of The Raid at the festival and I was so exhilarated by the experienced that I’ve made sure to catch at least one midnight film each year. No matter how many bad movies I have to sit through.

The Raid isn’t just a bloody good time. It’s actually an impressive film. There isn’t a wasted moment in the whole movie and every shot serves to build suspense. This combined with outstanding fight choreography and a less-is-more approach to dialogue make The Raid one of the best action films so far this century.

The Raid works in large part because of director Gareth Evans who I really wish was directing Headshot. The latest vehicle for Indonesian martial arts superstar Iko Uwais is nowhere near as tense or as tightly edited. Not that directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto do badly. They do an admirable job of capturing every chase and fight so that we always know who’s kicking who. But there’s something missing. Maybe it’s that The Raid managed to avoid the kind of silliness that Headshot has so much of (amnesia, for example, not to mention a sometimes corny love story).

That being said, Uwais’ hands, feet, elbows, and whatever else he can find always connect like they’re supposed to and Headshot manages to outgore The Raid. Friday’s Midnight Madness crowd seemed to have a good time and if you don’t mind a few heads being split open I’m sure you will too.

 

a-monster-calls

A Monster Calls

Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones star in this adaptation of the award-winning children’s book by Patrick Ness, about a lonely young boy struggling with the imminent death of his terminally ill mother who is befriended by a friendly, shambling monster that arrives in his room nightly to tell him stories.

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I read on Wikipedia that Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall holds over 2,300 people. I am quite sure that on Saturday afternoon I heard 2,000 cry. I could hardly stop myself from crying through the final moments of the latest film from director J. A. Bayona (The Impossible) and didn’t do much better through the closing credits or walking down King Street after.

I was surprised by my emotional reaction given that I was finding most of the film disappointingly uninspired. As much as I loved the design of the monster and the outstanding voice work of the great Liam Neeson, I expected more wisdom from his stories (which are brought to life in lovely animation).

Only in the end do the monster’s lessons really become clear. As frustrated as the young boy is by the seemingly pointless stories at first, it becomes clear that he is being taught lessons unusually mature for a children’s story. I can think of several family films where a child has to learn to cope with the loss of a parent but I can hardly think of any that are less condescending and more painfully honest.

 

hello-destroyer

Hello Destroyer

Jared Abrahamson (Fear the Walking Dead) plays a painfully shy but ruggedly capable enforcer on a minor-league hockey team who discovers the cutthroat nature of his locker-room “family” in the forceful first feature from Canadian director Kevan Funk.

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Tyson Burr (Abrahamson) may not be the star player of the Prince George Warriors but he’s an enforcer – the guy you can count on when the game gets rough. In one particularly rough game, Tyson puts someone in the hospital and soon sees how quickly his team, his coach, and the community at large can distance themselves in hopes of avoiding responsibility for the culture of violence that they helped to create.

When introducing the film on Saturday, Funk was quick to insist that Hello Destroyer is not intended as a commentary on Canada’s infamously violent national sport. He’s more concerned with violence in general and the social context around aggressive behavior. There’s very little hockey played onscreen and some fans of the sport may be disappointed by the slow pace of the film. I’ll admit to being frustrated as it slows down even more in the second half. (It was my third film of the day and I was starving). It’s only after the fantastic Q and A with Funk and the cast that I let it all sink in.

This is one tragic, hard-hitting, and beautifully acted film. It’s the kind of movie that gets better and better the more you think about it.

 

A Million Ways to Die in the West

So my mother gave me a film recommendation last weekend. She couldn’t remember the title, naturally, but she said it was an 1800’s western where they “say modern jokes.” Had my brother-in-law not come to the rescue I may never have guessed Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. A critical and commercial flop, I would never thought that its only thought was my mother of all people: the woman who taught us that “shut up” and “vagina” were bad words, and who to this day can barely utter “Frig” when the absolute worst has happened.

a-million-ways-to-die-in-the-westYet just ten seconds in, someone’s shouting “Pussy!” – a term I’m sure was used very sparingly in the western novels by Louis L’amour her father always read. Then there’s the death by flatulence, and Oscar winner Charlize Theron’s fat ass, and Sarah Silverman’s sore asshole. And MY MOTHER WATCHED THIS.

The premise of the movie is “the west fucking sucks and I bet I can get a lot of mileage out of that.” In truth, you can get a little mileage out of it.  Seth McFarlane, managing to only half sound like Peter Griffin, somehow attracts not just Theron but Amanda Seyfried as well, even though he’s a terrible sheep herder and looks stupid in a bolo tie. There are a few laughs along the way but the plot is useless-to-nonexistent, yet it still takes entirely too long for nothing to ever happen.

So, Mom, what was your favourite part? The daisy up the butt? The 15 year old spinsters?maxresdefault The sheep penis? No, wait. It was the pooping in hats, wasn’t it? I bet it was the diarrhea-filled cowboy hats that really got you giggling. A Million Ways to Die in the West will cost you 116 minutes of your life, but finding out your mother has a dirty, disgusting sense of humour? That’s priceless.