Tag Archives: Liam Neeson

Silence (2016)

I’m a sucker for movies about the supernatural, the occult, a higher power, God (or gods) and faith. And so when I heard one of the greatest directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese, was making Silence, a film about 1600 Jesuit priests in Japan starring Spider-Man, Kylo Ren and Qui-Gon Jinn, I was like “Sign me up!”

I intentionally avoided reading too much info about the movie, and thankfully the fantastic trailer did not reveal anything major. Accordingly, I did not know what to expect going in, and boy, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see.

Twenty-five years in the making and based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Silence is unlike any film I have ever seen. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests from the 1600s who venture to Japan — where Christianity is outlawed — in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing after sending back a letter describing the horrors he witnessed — horrors that allegedly made him renounce his faith. This thus kicks off a harrowing journey of incredible danger as the two young priests are thrust into beautiful Japanese seaside villages where pockets of Christians remain hiding in fear and despair due to the brutal Christianity suppression campaign of a man known as the  “Inquisitor”.

Silence is without a doubt a difficult movie to sit through and is definitely not for everyone. The priests are subject to test after test of faith, many of which are impossible to bear from both a physical and emotional standpoint. I guess it could be called slow and torturous “religious persecution porn”, and despite how that sounds, I found the film so engrossing that I could not turn away at the horrors happening on the screen. Scorsese’s control of storytelling and the characters’ inner turmoil is downright masterful, and his use of sound and silence is incredibly powerful. From a visual perspective, the film — entirely shot in Taiwan — is stunning and accords with Japanese beliefs about nature while offering an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the ugly human conduct depicted in the film. The simple sets and foggy landscapes appear authentic and with no sense of CGI whatsoever, and now having seen all the Best Cinematography Oscar nominees this year, I would say that the Silence‘s DP, Rodrigo Prieto, should be the favorite.

The performances are of course great and should have garnered Oscar consideration. I don’t have a problem with Garfield getting his nomination for Hacksaw Ridge instead of this movie, though I think Liam Neeson should have gotten a nod for his difficult and heartbreaking portrayal. I’ve always known that Neeson has a very particular set of skills, but I never thought it would be playing a broken 1600s Jesuit priest who has had his faith shattered.

Silence is not so much a Christian film as it is a film about faith. It’s a movie that people of all faiths, regardless of religion, can appreciate and empathise with. I’d go further and say that even atheists and agnostics can gain valuable insights from this film, especially the extent to which one can have faith in a higher power that never speaks back no matter how much you pray and does nothing to put an end to unjust suffering. I was fascinated by the film’s portrayal of different types of people of faith, from those who succumb to persecution and betray their faith easily, only to ask for forgiveness again and again, to those who long for death — and thus entry into their promised paradise — as sweet relief from their wretched lives.

It’s a shame Silence was almost entirely overlooked by the Academy because it’s easily one of the best films of the year in my book. I found it significantly better and deeper than The Passion of the Christ, which can also be classified as suffering porn, though Silence is more about the mental than the physical, and goes much further by questioning the very nature of faith itself.

5 stars out of 5

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Run All Night (2015)

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In 2008, director Pierre Morel and actor Liam Neeson gave us Taken, an action film so unexpectedly awesome that it redefined the genre and spawned a new industry of copycat efforts, usually about a dude with a particular set of skills kicking ass all over the place in a life-or-death race against time. These days, just about every action movie with an “old” actor — be it Nicholas Cage, Pierce Brosnan or Sean Penn — is directly compared to Taken, whether justified or not.

Neeson himself, who discovered a brand new career thanks to Taken (and its uninspiring guilty-pleasure sequels) has made a couple of copycat efforts himself, two of which were made with the formidable Jaume Collet-Serra. Both Unknown and Non-Stop were completely preposterous and silly, but still relatively enjoyable in their own ways. Their third collaboration, Run All Night, is more grounded and serious, and it’s arguably the best of the lot. Perhaps I’d even go as far as to say that it’s Liam Neeson’s best Taken-like action film since Taken (though opinions will probably be split between The Grey — if you put it in that category — A Walk Among the Tombstones and Non-Stop).

In Run All Night, Neeson plays a retired mob enforcer named Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Collins. He is a man with a very particular set of skills, and if he finds you, he will kill you. But he’s tired of all the crap and the demons of his past actions are catching up to him. He’s abandoned his family, including his son, former boxer Michael (Joel Kinnaman, ie, the new Robocop), who wants nothing to do with his old man. When Michael witnesses a crime committed by the son of Jimmy’s boss (played by Ed Harris), however, he is drawn into their world of murder and corruption, and it’s up to Jimmy to redeem himself by making sure his son makes it through alive.

You know they’ll be running all night. The title says so. There’s no chance they won’t be running.

So what make Run All Night more enjoyable than a lot of other similar efforts in recent years? First of all, the action is superb. From car chases to the hand-to-hand combat, everything is well-choreographed and suspenseful. I don’t know about realistic, but it gets the job done.

Secondly, while the plot is relatively cookie-cutter, there is a surprisingly level of emotional heft due to the strained relationship between Jimmy and his son. We know Jimmy’s not a good guy, but we root for him because we know how much he loves his son and would do anything to make up for his regrets. It doesn’t hurt that Michael is a good guy and isn’t annoying, like say Maggie Grace is in the Taken movies.

Thirdly, the cast is wonderful. Neeson is who he is — kicking ass and taking names, so you get what you expect from him. Joel Kinnaman, on the other hand, is a solid piece of casting as his son. He’s got the height, and you can believe from his build that he could be a former boxer. Add on top of that you’ve got the reliable Ed Harris, who delivers a complex villain that is miles better than the bad guys in the other flicks, as well as Common, who is pretty good too as a contract killer. Even Vincent D’Onofrio makes his “good cop” character better than it should have been.

In terms of style and execution, Collet-Sera’s approach is rather straightforward. You get his usual grit and dark tones, and as such Run All Night doesn’t really stand out from the pack. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s definitely entertaining and one of the best post-Taken Neeson action films to date. Fans of this type of movie wouldn’t be wasting their time checking it out.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Manny (2014)

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Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Taken 3 (2014)

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I’m not quite sure if this is the right way to express it, but my soft spot for the Taken franchise is…getting hard?

Look, I knew Taken 3 was more of a cash grab than a genuine attempt to rekindle the magic of the original, one of the best action films of the last decade. Taken 2 was largely an over-the-top failure with some decent moments, but at least it tried. Taken 3, on the other hand, has more or less become an unintentional parody of itself.

The beauty of Taken was in its remarkable simplicity — a relentless man with a very specific set of skills sets out to find the man who took his daughter, and kills him. Taken 3, however, has reverted to a fairly typical murder-mystery in the vein of (well, more like ripped right out of) The Fugitive, where Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is set up for the murder of a loved one and must find the killer before the police — headed by a sleepier-than-usual Forest Whitaker — catches him.

The action is never really the problem with Taken 3.  Director Olivier Megaton, who was responsible for Taken 2, gives us plenty of car chases, shootouts and hand-to-hand combat scenes, most of which are executed rather well (with some caveats I will get to). Liam Neeson is still capable and relentless, but at 62 he has clearly lost a step, making Bryan Mills by far the most vulnerable we’ve seen him. Fortunately, he is still a regular Houdini and somehow manages to escapes certain death at least a handful of times in this film without incurring anything more than a couple of temporary scratches.

The big problem with Taken 3 is that the portrayal of the action is heavily muted for classification purposes. When audiences watch Bryan Mills they want to see swift brutality. The blood is almost expected. In Taken 3, the violence is rapid cuts at the point of impact and cutting away when the “good stuff” is about to happen. People get shot and stabbed, but we don’t actually get to see any of it. The result is a strangely unsatisfying experience that takes away a lot of the visceral thrills from the original.

The rest of the film doesn’t offer much. The script, penned by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kaman (who collaborated on the two earlier films), is truly horrendous, complete with dialogue that will make you shudder with embarrassment. Gaps in logic and common sense fails are all over the place, and I’m not even just talking about typical instances where bad guys conveniently spare lives and give the good guys opportunities to turn things around — though that happens a lot too.

And Maggie Grace’s character, Kim Mills, continues to be such an annoying, grating BIATCH that it horrifies me to realise that her father would go to all these lengths to protect her. I was secretly hoping that she would get killed all throughout the movie — which actually would have been awesome because it would have set Bryan on a historic rampage. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

At 109 minutes, the film is far too long as well, especially when you consider that Taken was a perfect 90 minutes and Taken 2 was a manageable 98 minutes. It’s as though the makers of Taken 3 have gradually stripped away everything that made the original Taken a classic and replaced it with conventional Hollywood action cliches.

Having said all that, if you are a fan of the franchise because of the first film like me, then you might still find Taken 3 to be acceptable. It’s essentially just another average Hollywood action-thriller being carried by the goodwill of the original and its familiar, iconic protagonist. For some, that might be reason enough to watch it.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

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You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

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Seth MacFarlane is an acquired taste, and his latest project, A Million Ways to Die in the West, encapsulates the best and worst of his comedic sensitivities.

It’s also the first time the talented voice actor, who voiced the teddy in Ted and a multitude of characters on Family Guy, fronts the big screen as the leading man of a Hollywood production.

The result is a hit-and-miss farce that showcases some of MacFarlane’s sharp wit but also the low-brow humour he has often criticised for.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a man living in the Wild West who is so self-ware that you suspect he might be from the future (and though this is never explicitly suggested, there are a couple of surprises which might be enough to convince some people).

Albert is a sheep farmer who is dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who thinks little of him as a man and prefers someone a little more macho, like, for example, the mustache-bearing Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). At his lowest point, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who decides to help him win back Louise. However, what she doesn’t tell him is that she happens to be the wife of the West’s most dangerous man (Liam Neeson).

You can guess the rest of this predictably conventional plot, but let’s be honest — no one cares about the plot. A Million Ways is all about laughs, and MacFarlane never stops trying to deliver them, however he can.

The central gag is essentially MacFarlane pointing out the absurdities of the West, from the boredom of life to its many life-shortening/life-ending dangers, as spelled out in the film’s title. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I giggled at about a handful of his “observations,” but most of the other ones felt either obvious or delivered without sufficient “punch.” There were many more “yeah, that’s a good one” kind of jokes than genuine, laugh-out-loud ones.

MacFarlane is at the top of his game when he is delivering biting satire, and while there is a lot of that in A Million Ways, the “bite” is never as sharp as it ought to be. Perhaps he’s trying to dumb down his comedy for general audiences, or perhaps his jokes are just funnier when they come from cartoon characters or a talking teddy bear rather than himself.

Speaking of dumbing things down, there are waaaay too many fart jokes in the movie. It’s not that such jokes can’t be funny, but they generally aren’t here. I love low-brow jokes as much as the next guy, but I just felt the fart (and shit and vulgar sex) jokes, which are typically very difficult to be effective, make up too high a proportion of the total gags.

MacFarlane is adequate as a leading man. He doesn’t have quite enough charm to pull off the whole thing by himself, though the chemistry he has with his co-stars — in particular Charlize Theron, the “straight man” for him to bounce jokes off — offsets his inadequacies to a some extent.

The four main supporting characters balance out MacFarlane well because they don’t have his level of self-awareness. Giovanni Ribisi plays Albert’s best friend, and his one and only gag is that his girlfriend, played by comedian Sarah Silverman, is a prostitute who won’t sleep with him until they’re married. It’s a gag that works well in principle but gets old quickly in practice.

The more dynamic duo is Amanda Seyfried and NPH, the latter of whom is in scintillating form as a douchebag for the ages. It’s a custom-made role for him and he just runs with it, and in the process nearly steals the show.

At 116 minutes, the film is about 15-20 minutes too long, and you get the sense watching it that MacFarlane struggled to cut it down because he was too in love with his own material.

To sum it up, A Million Ways is a serviceable farce comedy that takes a creative idea but can’t quite live up to its full potential. Joke for joke, I found it less funny and more uneven than Ted. On the other hand, that still makes it smarter and edgier than most comedies you’ll see these days.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

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I was really excited when I heard they were making a Lego movie. But then I saw the trailer and thought it looked lame. And then I heard people say really good things about it. So I watched it. And the verdict?

Everything is awesome!

I don’t usually care much for animated films and judge them by harsher standards by most people, but The Lego Movie is pure fun and a lot of joy. The jokes and wisecracks come fast and furious, and it didn’t take long before I found myself having an absolute blast, letting go of my prejudices and simply going along on the wild, adventurous ride.

It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen this year and probably still will be by the end of it. Not everything works, of course, but a surprising amount of it hit the mark with razor-sharp precision. And it’s a gags free-for-all, from slapstick to satirical and from lighthearted to black, with a touch of Will Ferrell randomness. I thought it would just keep using the same gags many of us have already seen from those Lego video games, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The best compliment I can perhaps give it is that the feel was Simpson-esque at times, with a healthy dose of the more tasteful South Park humour.

The most clever thing about the film is that it is multi-layered, from the jokes to the surprising message that rears its head towards the end. What it means is that it can be enjoyed by people of all ages and that everyone will probably take something different out of it. You might laugh at different things depending on your age, but there’s no avoiding the uncontrollable urge to laugh.

Is there a story? Yes, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek one too. Chris Pratt voices Emmett, an ordinary construction worker who is suspected of being the prophecised one known as “the Special.” Together with the help of a sassy lady by the name of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and a Gandalf-ish wizard by the name of Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Emmett must try and fulfill his destiny and stop the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world with dangerous superweapon.

The all-star cast is filled up by other big names such as Liam Neeson, who plays the hilarious Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett as Batman, Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as the Green Lantern and Colbie Smulders as Wonder Woman. Additional cast members include Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Dave Franco.

What impressed me about the voice cast was how they were utilised. Normally when you get A-listers doing voices in an animated film there is the risk of them being too recognisable to make the character effective. In The Lego Movie they used the most recognisable voices to its advantage, with Liam Neeson doing his best Bryan Mills impersonation (from Taken) while Morgan Freeman fired out his lines as he would had he been playing God. The results are but-gustingly funny.

The great thing about Lego is that it has so many licensing arrangements with different franchises that it has the ability to throw in a lot of well-known characters. If you were excited at some of the video game character cameos in Wreck It Ralph then you’ll spray your pants when you see some of the cameos in The Lego Movie. I don’t want to ruin the surprises, but if you the character has a Lego version then you’ll probably see him or her in the film.

And I haven’t even gotten to the visuals, which are spectacular. All the colours and all the bits and pieces of Lego you can imagine, being put together and taken apart rapidly on a regular basis. I expected The Lego Movie to be pretty, but not the visual feast it turned out to be.

At 100 minutes the length is about right, but it does slow down considerably as it tries to wrap up. Others might feel like the film was a bit out of control and too all over the place, and it probably was, but I think that was exactly how the filmmakers intended it to be — a crazy, energetic piece of imaginative entertainment that has something for everyone. Let’s hope the sequel (due May 2017) can produce an experience just as special.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 2

21 Jump Street (2012)

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You can be forgiven for thinking that a movie version of 21 Jump Street, the iconic 1987 TV series that made Johnny Depp a star, would be lame. Few movie reboots of old TV series are successful for a multitude of reasons. But this one, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, is a surprise hit — mainly because no one actually expected it to be funny.

Strictly speaking, 21 Jump Street is not a reboot of the TV series at all. It’s more of a homage/spoof that takes the basic concept of police officers going undercover as students to catch bad guys and drug dealers. Hill, a geek, and Tatum, an underachieving jock, are high school classmates who become best friends at police academy. They are idiots but look kind of young (well, Hill at least) and are assigned to the “revived” division at 21 Jump Street to go undercover as brothers, though a mix-up has them picking up each other’s assigned identities.

The reason the film works so well, apart from the amazingly effective chemistry between Hill and Tatum (whose acting isn’t all that bad here), is because it doesn’t take itself seriously and delivers much amusement making fun of the whole ridiculous premise and idea.

One of the running gags, for example, is that Tatum used to know what was cool 10 years ago (such as how to wear your backback, how to treat people and issues), but now those things are frowned upon. Another one is how old Tatum looks to be a high school student. Stuff like that.

Not all the jokes worked for me but enough of it was consistently funny for this to be one of the better comedies of the year. The film also had some excellent surprises, especially towards the end, although as usual the running time of 109 minutes felt like it dragged on a little past its welcome. A sequel, 22 Jump Street, has reportedly been green-lit, but I am sceptical that it can rekindle the magic the second time around.

4 stars out of 5

Contraband (2012)

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Contraband is a crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Foster. Marky Mark is an ex-smuggler who has given up the rough life for the sake of his wife (Beckinsale — can’t blame him) and two kids. But his brother-in-law is still in the game and gets in trouble, and Marky Mark becomes embroiled in the mess and has to go to extreme measures to keep his family safe.

Contraband dark, it’s moody and it’s violent, but it also comes across as generic and average. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just feels like there are so many of these types of movies every year and after a while you just can’t remember anything about it. To be fair, the plot is intricate and well thought out, though I found it unnecessarily convoluted. But the core problem is that there’s not much to make Contraband stand out from the rest of the pack.

Marky Mark has done what feels like a dozen similar roles and feels exactly the same as he does in those films, and Kate Beckinsale is somewhat underused. Ben Foster is effective with his trademark wide-eyed maniac routine, and the supporting cast of Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas and JK Simmons is solid. But the performances can’t save Contraband from being the forgettable film that it is.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Grey (2011)

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I wanted to watch The Grey because I like survival thrillers and I wanted to watch Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

Neeson plays a depressed, suicidal dude who protects an oil drilling team from wolves in Alaska, and on his way out of there their plane crashes. They are in wolf territory and he must lead the survivors (including a virtually unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney) to safety. Time for Liam Neeson to channel his inner Bryan Mills (Taken), Ra’s Al Ghul (Batman Begins), Zeus (Clash of the Titans), Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars), John “Hannibal” Smith (The A-Team) and Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List).

Over the last few years, Liam Neeson has emerged as the one dude you never want to mess with, and that applies to wolves too. The Grey is a solid survival thriller that has plenty of close calls and Neeson doing what he does best. Many have compared it to the 1997 film, The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, which is about surviving a bear in the woods. I think The Edge is probably the better film, but The Edge doesn’t have Liam Neeson. Strangely, another film it reminded me of was Frozen, a 2010 survival horror about a bunch of kids stuck on a ski lift and then being hounded by wolves.

One problem I had with The Grey was all the philosophical and religious mumbo jumbo that was probably trying to add for meaning to the film but for me just slowed it down unnecessarily and disrupted the tone. The ending was also a little anti-climatic, though there is a nifty little post-credits scene everyone should stick around for.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I know technically this is a 2011 film but it was released in 2012 in most places I know.

The Cold Light of Day (2012)

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If you want to be mean about it, The Cold Light of Day should have been a straight-to-DVD movie. If it had been, the film probably wouldn’t have gotten such scathing reviews.

I suppose this was a star vehicle for Henry Cavill, who would go on to become Superman. Cavill plays Will Shaw, a struggling advisor who doesn’t get on too well with his dad, played by Bruce Willis, who unbeknownst to him is actually a CIA agent. Will’s family suddenly disappears after an boating incident, and when he tries to track them down he finds himself in mortal danger as shady characters start coming after him.

The pace of the film is frantic but for some reason there is little excitement or a sense of real danger. Cavill runs around, gets shot at and must do everything he can to survive while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It’s one of those films where a lot happens but everything feels bland, lifeless and cliched. I could stomach the stupidity of it all but when an action film starts to bore you know something is seriously wrong.

Cavill looks pretty good but he struggles mightily trying to carry the film. I presume Bruce Willis picked up a nice paycheck for this movie but that was about it. The man has become a walking caricature of himself. And Sigourney Weaver…sigh…I don’t know what’s happened to her but this is a performance that lines up nicely next to her role in that Taylor Lautner movie, Abduction.

Having said all that, The Cold Light of Day is not that bad, and certainly better than the 5% it got on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just a fairly average B-grade movie that wasn’t supposed to be one.

2 stars out of 5