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Out in Theaters: ‘THE COMMUTER’

Danny Glover’s Murtaugh famously opined in Richard Donner’s classic American buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon, “I’m too old for this shit.” He was 41 at the time. Liam Neeson, age 65 (full benefit retirement age for US citizens), is way too old for this shit. And in a humdrum action-thriller like The Commuter, it shows. Had this Taken on a Train redux a good shake more intelligence and a portion less generic action hero fisticuffs, casting Neeson as down-on-his-luck ex-cop turned insurance-hawking family man Michael MacCauley would make perfect sense. As it stands, The Commuter is just another forgettable notch in Neeson’s geriatric action movie phase defined by jarring editing and risible action that can’t strike a passable balance between taking itself seriously and being utterly ridiculous. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE HUNSTMAN: WINTER’S WAR’

The Huntsman: Winter’s War suffers from colon-movie spina bifida. Its curvy backbone veers near and far to collect the disparate parts necessary in making this part of a larger cinematic universe. In this case, that universe is Universal Picture’s Snow White, a bleak fairy tale retold with undeniable visual style and largely charmless aplomb in 2012 with an aggressively apathetic Kristen Stewart at the forefront and a scenery-smacking, mean-mugging Chris Hemsworth as her side piece. Putting his considerable beef to good use as the movie’s romantic tine/battle-weary whetting stone to slide K-Stew’s frosty edge against, Hemsworth proved a fleeting flash of joy in an otherwise grim and grimly serious saga. His burly Eric however hardly seemed an intriguing (or popular) enough character to stage a spin-off upon but if The Huntsman is proof of anything, it’s that adding a hefty scoop of Jessica Chastain, a dollop of dwarves and a much more tongue-in-cheek approach to this whole fairy tale thing may be just the spoonful of medicine the script doctor called for. Read More

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Out in Theaters: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

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Scott Frank
‘s slick, sky-is-falling neo-noir may be sold as the next installment in the “Liam Neeson kicks ass and takes names” genre but it’s as far from Taken as it is from The Grey. Dedicated to telling an uneasy tale of grisly murder and off-the-record justice, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the perfect vehicle for Neeson’s defining intensity. Adapted from one of Lawrence Block’s many new-age dick novels, Tombstones is plump with a decadent sense of malevolence often missed in films of its ilk. At times, Frank’s dedication to being so relentlessly dark ends up wounding the film, but irregardless, you gotta respect his all-or-nothing commitment to such a bleak, uncompromised vision. Like New York City before Giuliani cleaned up the streets, this gumshoe yarn is as nasty as stepping on a dirty needle.

Neeson is Matt Scudder, an alcoholic gunman who’s worked as a private detective ever since an incident made him leave the police force eight years back. When an AA acquaintance asks his assistance in a family matter, Matt becomes wrapped up in a ghastly murder case that can’t be brought to the cops. His employer is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) an independently wealthy man (read: drug smuggler) whose wife was kidnapped and ransomed. But even after Kristo paid the hefty bounty, his wife was sent home in pieces, packed like the very drugs he dealt. Even without a ton to work with, Stevens broods through his scenes sporting a spindly black caterpillar of a mustache, his intensity burning through his baby blues like rising fires.

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Before you can say “Boo”, Matt has hit the ground running, unearthing a series of clues that trace the murders back to associates of the DEA. Considering the film is – for some reason – set in the dwindling 1990s with misplaced Y2K fears running rampant and technological ability the exception rather than the rule, cell phones are sparse and clue huntin’ involves actually going to the stacks. Plopped in a rain-pounded library, Matt meets TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), a street smart and techno whizz homeless kid with sickle cell anemia. Teamed up little Short Round and Doctor Jones, they race towards finding the devilish duo behind these macabre homicides.

This aforementioned unorthodox partnership between Matt and TJ could easily have been a massive problem throughough, as any adult-teenager movie relationship tends to be, but it actually works by and large. Having a competent but vulnerable youngin under his wing gives Neeson an opportunity to flex some less predatory and more protective muscles. Surely, the sickle cell anemia aspect is a strangely cheap ploy for tension in a movie already thick with it but giving Neeson’s Matt a character to watch over ups his vigilant instincts to silverback gorilla levels. Plus it makes for some great one-liners.

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An unexpected bonus of the film is Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s dreary, deferential cinematography which offers a variety of interesting angles and lighting choices that harken back to the action films of the 60s and 70s. The opening credits scene as well as a POV shot down the barrel of a 9mm bring particularly noteworthy visual flair to the picture, further assisting to distinguish it as noir rather than a simple humdrum, action movie. There’s poignancy to Malaimare’s shots that won’t necessarily be worked out the first time through. But even while Malaimare and Neeson largely succeed, there are elements to this lurid tale that turn towards the cartoonish.

The villains’ – both of whom are without an ounce of humanity – morbid fascination with crudely deconstructing the female body exposes the sickly nature of their violent crimes but threatens to almost push the envelope too far. But then again, we live in a world that’s already seen Se7en and, more recently, Tusk so “too far” seems almost obsolete in this day and age. Nonetheless, Frank’s taste for bloodshed may leave some viewers wishing for less.

When darkness devours all, we’re left not being able to relate, but maybe that’s the point of a film that warns that “people are afraid of all the wrong things.” On the surface, it’s a winking Y2K tech joke but I’d like to believe there’s something beneath the surface that’s only vaguely hinted at. Something that pertains to how the embodiment of evil may be what we fear most when instead it should be how we respond to evil or, even more simple, how we respond to any kind of strife. Giving into a need for bloodthirsty revenge or ill-plated justice is what we should fear most, not the “evil” itself. It’s just a theory but I welcome a film that gives the opportunity for filmgoers to make their own meaning of things.

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In opposition to those intriguing, subtle elements at play, a late stage shootout amongst, you guessed it, tombstones plays off as far too heavy-handed, showcasing a strong directorial decision that doesn’t entirely work out. As bullets tear the night sky apart, Frank intersplices a 12 step AA moral message amongst freeze-framed images of lives lost and chaos asunder. It’s probably the easiest scene to point to that tries at something almost novel and falls on its nose. I can’t however deny my appreciation for Frank making that nonconventional choice, even though it, as I mentioned, doesn’t fully pan out. While not a total representation of the picture as a whole, the hit-and-miss aspect of doing something great and following it up by tripping over the shoelaces does neatly define the endeavor as a whole.

But from the categorically necessary duster to that retro first scene goatee, this is Neeson’s show. Instead of just another paint-by-numbers actioner where Neeson’s shoots, solves and barks, Tombstones flushes out some actual inner demons, allowing Neeson to balance his proven dramatic chops with his newfound action star persona. He’s so much more than a loaded gun and a bottle of whiskey, part and parcel of what makes this film ideal for a bushel of sequels if they approach it from the right angle.

With easy humor courtesy of Neeson’s growled quips, well-directed drizzly dramatics and a thick air of hardboiled, gloomy atmospherics, A Walk Among The Tombstones brings to life the aged marvel of a good noir. It’s not always perfect and may run a touch too long but it works heartily as a well-greased, appropriately artful affair. And for those expecting another Taken, don’t be scared off. This is miles better than Taken 3.

B

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Out in Theaters: A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

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Seth McFarlane‘s go-for-broke comic stylings looked to have runs its course when Fox pulled the plug on Family Guy in 2001. But like a zombie on the rise, McFarlane rose from the grave and has gone on to infest America with two spin-offs show (American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and two feature length films, each predicated on crass sight gags, a barrage of cultural references, and poop jokes. Somehow, McFarlane has saved some of his best – and most immature – material for his latest: A Million Ways to Die in the West. It’s a comedy in the crudest sense, a smorgasbord of pee-pee jokes and doo-doo gags. But, damnit, I laughed. 

McFarlane’s western comedy – one of the few in a genre that includes Mel Brook‘s love-it-or-hate-it Blazing Saddles and the Chris Farley and Matthew Perry-led Almost Heroes – starts with the most boring credit sequence I can recall in recent history. Skill-less heli-shots of rising Arizona plateaus superimposed with serif-heavy, western-style font declaring a tome of names is almost lifeless enough to snuff out any anticipation for what’s to come. An un-clever throwback to times when “they didn’t know any better,” this out-of-the-gates launch makes for a starting line lull that nearly derails the proceedings before they’ve even begun, and takes a full five minutes to recover from.

With that downtime behind us, we meet Albert (McFarlane) – a man too clever for his own good, cautiously living in the Wild Wild West. He’s quite obviously a man born in the wrong era, a conceit from which McFarlane mines much of his comedy. Albert is far too progressive to thrive in a society that resolves issues with shoot outs, far too sarcastic for a town where bar fights break out over a sour glance, and far too un-moustiacioed to be considered a man in good standing. Plus, he’s a sheep farmer who can’t even keep his sheep in one place so his pockets are more often filled with sand than pennies (or, God forbid, an entire dollar).

Because of his yellow belly ways, lowly social standing, and (presumably) lack of a mustache, his betrothed Louise (the ever-obnoxious Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the mustache-twirling Foy (a fitfully funny Neil Patrick Harris.) Albert vents to his only friends and loving couple Edward and Ruth (Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman respectively) but realizes his situation might not be so bad considering Ruth is a prominent prostitute and yet has not slept with her long-time boyfriend. After all, they’re both Christians saving themselves for marriage. The comedy of their nontraditional set-up is a well oft drawn from but when it works, it works really well. When it doesn’t, let’s just say someone’s scooping seed off someone else’s face. Ew.

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A largely humorless Liam Neeson (who knew he couldn’t be funny?) arrives on the scene as ruthless gun slinger Clinch Leatherwood with wife Anna (Charlize Theron) in tow. When Leatherwood takes off into the sunset (to do lord knows what), Anna befriends down-in-the-dumps Albert and their relationship blossoms into something that resembles a crush, which, you guessed it, causes a bit of an issue when Clinch does ride back into town.

For a movie basically resolving around a single joke – living in the old west sucked – McFarlane is able to mine a good few dozen laughs and reasonably commendable human drama (for what it is at least.) A likable and strangely committed Theron is partly responsible for us feeling any sort of bond with the characters as McFarlane’s Albert is as much a cartoon character as Peter Griffin is. But while Theron grounds us, McFarlane provides comedy in frequent, rapid-fire bursts.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone arguing that McFarlane’s quality of comedy is anything resembling sophisticated but his quick gag, shotgun style methodology of throwing as much as possible at the wall and seeing what sticks results in an undeniably buffet of giggles. Surely there’s poop jokes mixed in with the more clever one-liners (“Take your hat off boy! Thats a dollar bill!” being the one that made me laugh most) but – as Albert’s shooting skills with attest to – if you fire enough bullets, some of them are bound to hit the target.

That’s not to say however that McFarlane doesn’t occasionally cross the line. His penchant for the occasional racist zinger may land him in a bit of hot water with more liberal-minded audiences but remember this is a movie in which a man fills not one, but two top hats brimming with dookie. Because Seth McFarlane. If you’re not offended, you’re doing something wrong.

As much as I wanted to leave this one with more fodder for my anti-McFarlane campaign, the funnyman titillated my childish side just enough to free the laughs from my hard-worn shell. It’s not necessarily something I’m proud of, but I snickered heartily alongside the (predominantly juvenile) audience members… and fairly often. While A Million Ways to Die in the West may not be a film I actively recommend, it’s one I admit will likely work your funny bone, under the right circumstances.

C

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Out in Theaters: NON-STOP

“Non-Stop”
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally
Action, Mystery, Thriller
106 Mins
PG-13

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Perfectly adequate entertainment, slyly primed to keep you guessing and anchored with deliciously smarmy stars, Non-Stop is exactly the kind of in-flight, mile-high thriller you’d expect attached to the name Liam Neeson. From Neeson and Julianne Moore to Corey Stoll and Scott McNairy, there’s a bevy of great performers lining the rows from business class to coach, each given their fair share of silliness to weave into stakes-laden seriousness. While the script may leak the occasional nonsense into the proceedings of this 3,300 mile Transatlantic trip, thankfully none of the performers are caught with their pants down. If the goal is to keep the ball up in the air as long as possible, they’ve done their jobs right, helping make Non-Stop a perfectly suitable one-and-done thrill ride sure to please the masses.

Non-Stop Neeson might as well be Brian Mills at some different stage in his life – a bizzaro version whose daughter never made it to France (…or out of grade school). Instead of honing his particular set of skills, he stooped into a depressive alcoholic state. Still preserved is his towering frame and inimitable Irish-American cadence, making him the kind of pensive brute that you’ll believe can snap a neck with his bare hands, the brand of machismo that you can easily muster up a scenario in which you’d submit to him like a field mouse to its prey. If Neeson’s new found persona as an action hero relies on him domineering opponents in a mental wrestling match, he’s the E. Honda of intimidation. With this half-drunk, gunslinger of the sky growling at you in meaty garbles, you’d find yourself cowering in the fuselage corner too.

To call it “Taken on a Plane” would be an oversimplification but it’s a easy distinction to make for people with about a half-second attention span; a quick soundbite to consume for the inattentive rabble, so let’s run with it. But while Taken steered Neeson’s career in wildly unexpected places, having him dash around France at neck break speeds to, uh, break necks, Non-Stop is a good step outside the same categorical genre. Where Taken is an all-out actioner, this is much more of a suspense-thriller; reserved, predatory and only sparsely violent. As Non-Stop rarely relies on action beats, it’s ability to skirt around said beats makes it all the more intriguing to our somewhat quelled intellect and, more importantly, the film’s internal sense of suspense.

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Confronted with the threat that an anonymous hijacker will kill someone on the plane every twenty minutes until $150 million is deposited in an account, Neeson’s Bill Marks stirs with questions of “How do you kill someone on a crowded plane and get away with it?” Indeed. Cleverly enough, writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle manage to dovetail the promise of in-flight demise with the need to keep the antagonist anonymous. As we get to know the crowded plane load of colorful potential suspects, our suspicions waver like a compass on a magnet, never quite showing us true north and sporadically pointing in new directions. At times, we’re worried that the threat may not even be on the actual plane but thankfully we’re never confronted with this “waking from a dream” cop out of a twist. No, everything is rather succinctly handled in the as-promised confines of the airplane, allowing this Chekov’s gun to be as tightly loaded as possible and ready to spring at any moment.

When (s)he inevitably comes out of the closet, the perfunctory villain’s explanation is undeniably underwhelming, but it’s nice to see something other than the one-trick pony that’s become the man “who wants to watch the world burn” or, even more boring, those who “are just in it for the money.” Even though the worldview-cocking, diatribe-spewing conclusion feels half-baked, at least our villain musters up an excuse for their passenger-offing dickishness. As convoluted and circumstantial as their plan may be, at least there is a plan and a semblance of an ideology.

Demanding a mention is the addition of soon to be Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o who is also onboard for no particular reason other than to rock a relic of the past by way of hairdo, a glib style only suitable for runway models or Bond girl May Day. For someone primed to add a trophy to her shelf by the end of the weekend, she’s barely juiced for more than a line, a reality that I lament for little more than the fact that I wanted to see her flex her acting chops outside the realm of slavery.

While most of the film’s logic can be punted through with the mention of a black box, it’s not one of those omnipresent nags that won’t allow you to enjoy watching the events unfold as they do. The circumstantial implications throughout are hazy though, delving into the increasingly present question of whether security is worth the cost of sacrificing one’s personal liberties. 9/11 anxiety or no, I think we can all safely agree that we don’t want random security checks in the midst of our commutes, be they on board an airplane or otherwise. Pushing those bits of moralistic ponderances aside, Neeson again shows a knack for straight-faced comedy and his couple of off-the-cuff jokes roped the audience into easy stitches. Undeniably ripe for a sequel (or even franchise), Non-Stop is exactly what it ought to be: fun, fizzy and forgettable.

C

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Out in Theaters: THE LEGO MOVIE

“The Lego Movie”
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie
Animation, Action, Comedy
100 Mins
PG

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Dripping with commercial appeal and name brand recognition, The Lego Movie could have easily joined the ranks of previous toy-turned-tale blockbusters. With the likes of Transformers and Battleship, studios have established a shady history of leaning on bankable properties to churn out flimsy showcases that add up to little more than an audio assault and visual fireworks, a cheap attempt to capitalize on audience familiarity and earn a quick buck. While those movies sifted our childlike glee through a filter of blue-toned, sensory bombardment, attempting to twist our arms in hopes of nostalgic forgiveness and financial reward, The Lego Movie goes the completely opposite route and awards those hankering to see their favorite childhood toys onscreen with a gleefully told story of epic Lego magnitude. Irreverent and hyper-self-aware, this adaptation takes everything we loved about the buildable blocks and seamlessly weaves it into a startlingly awesome and fully engaging narrative about creativity, imagination and encouragement, resulting in the best animated movie since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

At the center of the Legoverse, lovable goof Chris Pratt voices Emett, a run-of-the-mill construction worker figure who tries his darnedest to assimilate with the uber-chipper Lego society marching in perfect formation around him. In Emett’s city, uniformity is the bee’s knees. Everyone loves the same song (“Everything is Awesome”), watches the same TV show (“Where Are My Pants?”) and has the same water cooler conversations day in and day out.

It’s a society structured around structure, a sociopolitical climate that’s laid out with instruction booklets (*wink*) and enforced with hive mind mentality. And no matter how hard Emett tries to fit in, he’s just so extraordinarily ordinary that people hardly remember his face (well that may be the result of everyone’s face being composed of same shade of iconic yellow, plastered with a smile and bulbous black eyes.) So when Emett stumbles upon a coveted brick and is mistakenly identified as “The Special”, he goes along with it. He allows new ally Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to believe that he’s a world class master builder because it’s the first time anyone has ever recognized potential in him.

Behind the scenes, President Business (a perfectly wacky Will Ferrell) secretly runs the show, cunningly steering the fate of the city’s inhabitants, hell bent on a maniacal scheme to unleash the ghastly Kragle, a weapon so devastating that it will forever glue the world into its proper place With Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) at his every beck and call, Business is out to destroy creativity as well as Emmet, the supposed harbinger of prophecy, and his fellowship of master builders.

Backed by enough voice cameos to keep you wracking your brain and a solid heap of characters pulled in from nearly every imaginable franchise, Lego is overflowing with talent. You’ll find the likes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day as an 80’s astronaut, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as Batman, Will Forte, Jonah Hill, Nick Offerman, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jake Johnson and even Morgan Freeman‘s sultry tenor all giving rock solid voice performances that aid the laughing stock The Lego Movie becomes.

With Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind the first Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the recently rebooted and well-received 21 Jump Street, at the helm, the project has just as much focus placed on the comedy as the storyline and stylish animation. Accordingly, the jokes fly a mile a minute.

But beneath it all is a genuine heartbeat. Emett’s journey is a common hero’s quest but his goofy antics and self-sacrificing ways provide an emotional basis for our ongoing investment in his arc. Driving home a message that everyone’s special may be a little pear-shaped in the age of the Great Recession but there’s something intentionally ironic behind all the hackneyed encouragement. Maybe The Lego Movie would like to tell us we’re all special but that’s a message that only lingers on the surface. Beneath that, Lord and Miller reach out and say “We know that’s not true, but that’s still cool.”

The film is loaded with irreverent, double entendre moments like this, a self-aware meta angle that makes the experience just as much rewarding for adults as it is for kids. The screenwriting duo even take potshots at the lesser regarded Lego properties to great comic effect. Rarely taking a break from tongue-in-cheek mockery of Business, who for all intents is a place holding satire of the very company footing the bill for this movie, their voice is strangely misaligned with the lousy money-grubbing staples of the industry. They preach thinking outside the box while the inevitable accompanying merchandise will deal in exactly this kind of box-set salesmanship. Just eat up that irony.

Going back to the kids, those sugar-stuffed Ritalinites are sure to just eat this up as the partially CGI, partially stop-motion visual style is mind-boggling enough to make even a surly old man’s jaw drop much less a wide-eyed youngster. Cross the delectable ratio of genuine belly laughs with the crafty visual palette and Miller and Lord deserve a hearty pat on the back. Congratulations guys, you’ve made the best animated film in years.

A-

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