Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Image is property of Netflix

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Film Review

Cast:  Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Synopsis: A collection of six unique short stories, telling the plights of various people in very different situations in the West after the Civil War.

Review: Beginning, middle and end, a structure that films tend to adhere to. However, every once in a while, a film will come along that deviates from this structure. It may choose to tell the story in reverse order or to jump back and forth.  Hence this latest venture from Joel and Ethan Coen is unique in this respect, as instead of telling one story across two hours and ten minutes to be precise, they fill this by choosing to tell six unique stories charting the lives of a handful of different folk, each of whom are in a variety of different situations in the wake of the Civil War.

To tell six miniaturised stories as opposed to your more traditional three-structured film is an unconventional choice to say the least, but under the assured direction of the Coen brothers, it for the most part works a treat. Though some are much stronger than others, there is enjoyment to be hand in each of the stories that the Coens bring to life. Telling each story through the perspective of a storybook, we jump in with funnily enough Mr Buster Scruggs himself (Blake Nelson) a tootin’ cowboy who likes to play his guitar and sing a song for y’all. But, he is also a dab hand with a pistol, which inevitably leads to some trouble down the line.

Next we move onto ‘Near Algodones’ a nameless-up-to-no-good cowboy (Franco) who finds himself in a tricky predicament when he tries to rob a bank, with some hilarious results. “Meal Ticket’ features Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a theatre double act, the latter of whom has no arms or legs. Despite putting on a good show, they find their numbers and income decreasing, which puts Neeson’s character in a tricky situation as to what to do with his companion. While there is some intriguing moments with both of these two segments, they do end somewhat abruptly, which is frustrating, particularly in the case of the latter, it really would have benefited with a bit more closure to the story.

The next two stories are where the film really starts to shine. ‘All Gold Canyon’ features Tom Waits as a prospector seeking the fortune of a rather large collection of gold located in an absolutely beautiful valley. Now would be a good time to mention Bruno Delbonnel’s superb cinematography which is on point across every story, but it is here especially is where it shines brightest. Waits is great as this wacky prospector seeking this fortune that, perhaps unsurprisingly has attracted the attention of some other folk looking for this fortune for themselves. ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled features Zoe Kazan as a young woman who after a family tragedy is seeking a new opportunity. It’s more dialogue heavy than the preceding stories, but Kazan’s excellent performance makes it extremely compelling to watch.

Finally, the last segment  ‘The Mortal Remains’ retains the intrigue but being the most dialogue heavy of all the stories, it is considerably not as interesting as the preceding stories. Though the dialogue is well written once again, it is really quite underwhelming as a final chapter to a rather fascinating collection of short stories. All six stories do explore similar themes about the human struggle as we all navigate this small little thing called life that we as human beings all negotiate, and the rather significant matter of death. However, to ensure that it is not all doom and gloom, The Coens, much like we all do with our own lives, fill each of these segments with their signature style of comedy that, for the most part, serves each story really rather well.

The short nature of each story will undoubtedly leave some viewers unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the thought provoking themes that beat at the heart of all six of the stories, plus some exquisite work in the cinematography, production design and costume department give this anthology film some mighty visual splendour. Though this is not on the level of say a No Country for Old Men or True Grit, given the rambling mess that was Hail! Caesar, a return to the Wild West, and indeed a much more coherent film from the duo is a darn good thing y’all.

Combining comedy and some very dark and dramatic moments, with some strong themes that beat at the heart of all six stories, this is a most welcome to return to form for the Coen brothers. 

 

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Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Widows (2018)

Image is property of 20th Century Fox, Film4 Productions and Regency

Widows  – Film Review

Cast:  Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Liam Neeson

Director: Steve McQueen

Synopsis: After a bank heist goes horribly wrong leading to the deaths of all the crew, their widows step up to finish what their husbands started…

Review: When as a director, you make one of the most heart-wrenching but extremely impactful pieces of cinema to come out in this decade. A film that landed you the Best Picture Oscar no less, how do you follow that up? For Steve McQueen, following on from his success with the aforementioned 12 Years A Slave, the answer is simple. You team up with another recent Oscar winner and make another exhilarating, heart-pounding piece of cinema. Namely a heist film quite unlike anything the genre has concocted before.

After a team of criminals are caught up in a heist that gets all of them killed, their widows are left in a very desperate situation. Veronica Rawlings (Davis) is the widow of the leader of the crew, Harry (Neeson). Not long after her husband’s death, she receives a rather uncomfortable visit from crime boss Jamal Manning, (Brian Tyree Henry) the target of the botched heist. Demanding repayment of the stolen money, and given a rather tight window in order to do so, Veronica has the plans for what would have been her husband’s next job. Needing her own crew to pull it off, recruits the other widows who also lost their husbands in the same heist, for a new mission to score the money that their husbands stole. Conceptually, though this may sound like your average heist film, in execution, it is a very different beast.

The screenplay, co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn adds deep political subtext to this story that really gives the film a unique feel to it. Furthermore with such powerful women at the centre of this gripping story, in the era of the Me Too movement, it feels all the more powerful and relevant in modern times.  What McQueen and Flynn’s script does so excellently is give each woman involved in this daring heist a significant amount of development. Though they come from different backgrounds, each woman absolutely stands on her own two feet and all give excellent performances.

Leading the pack and fresh from her Oscar success, Viola Davis is once again superb in the role of Veronica. She is a woman who has been to hell and back again, both with events in her past and in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s demise. Yet her fiery spirit keeps her going through this turbulent time. Likewise for Alice (Debicki) and (Rodriguez), both of whom are also dealt with a torrid set of consequences in the wake of the heist that robbed them of their spouses. But with the resolute Veronica at the helm, there is no time to mope, they have some work to do.

Though the women have the spotlight absolutely deservedly on them, Daniel Kaluyya’s portrayal of Jamal’s brother, Jatamme is magnificent and absolutely terrifying in equal measure. A VERY different kind of role especially in comparison to his Oscar nominated performance in Get Out, but with every moment he has on screen, his cold demeanour and brutality is enough to send shivers down the spines of the audience. This is a man whose path you do not want to cross under any circumstances.

With the theme of powerful women front and centre, McQueen also brilliantly weaves political drama into the story. There is one moment in particular that really stands out in terms of how the scene is filmed. And by doing it this way, it really sends a startling message about modern day America and in particular modern American politics. It is another film released this year that feels very timely in terms of its themes, whilst also being not afraid to pull any punches, or to let the bullets fly.

A heist/thriller with a lot to say for itself, boosted an impeccable stellar ensemble cast and bold direction, another exhilarating addition to the filmography of Steve McQueen.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

A Monster Calls (2016)

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Image is property of Focus Features, River Road Entertainment and Participant Media

A Monster Calls – Film Review

Cast:  Lewis MacDougallFelicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson

Director: J.A. Bayona

Synopsis: A young boy, battling with bullies and his mother’s terminal illness, finds an unlikely companion in a gigantic living tree, who teaches the boy tales about life.

Review: Growing up, no matter who you are, no matter your circumstances, is tough. Of course some may have it easier than others, but all of us as we leave our early years behind us enter a tricky phase in our lives, a period that is not exactly simple to negotiate. Now imagine if you’re in a situation where you’re frequently getting picked on at school, and your life at home is well difficult too, which again is something it is possible many out there have gone through. Yet what if, during these tricky and testing times, you were visited by a giant talking tree monster who came to you when you needed someone to talk to? That’s something certainly no one has ever had to experience, unless you’re the main character in this interesting delve into the fantasy genre, spliced with heartbreaking family drama.

Conor (MacDougall) is the boy in question battling all of these difficult situations in his life. Picked on by bullies, and with his mother (Jones) terminally ill due to cancer, his only solace is the titular “monster” a walking talking tree voiced and mo-capped by Liam Neeson, who in the dead of night, comes to Conor to tell him stories, all the while seeking to make the boy’s life happier. From a screenplay by Patrick Ness who also wrote the novel on which this is based, director J.A. Bayona steers this mesh of fantasy and real life drama and tragedy, into an extremely imaginative tale, that’s visually quite tremendous to watch, and gets some beautiful and emotional performances from its cast.

In what is only his second film role, MacDougall has much of the film riding on his shoulders, and for a young actor he rises to the challenge and does a tremendous job. He really conveys the unimaginable pain that someone in his position would be going through superbly well. Though his performance does wobble in parts, his emotion and rage against his circumstances ensure you feel for his character. Felicity Jones, on the back of Rogue One, gives also a very wounded and powerful performance as Conor’s mother. Though she is battling a terrible illness, she does her best to be positive and upbeat for her son’s benefit, and Jones could just potentially be a dark horse in this awards season race for best supporting actress. Signourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell do shine as Conor’s stern Grandmother and somewhat absentee Father respectively, but its Jones and MacDougall who are the leading lights, and they take home the acting plaudits.

There’s also the not so small matter of Neeson’s Tree Monster, a sort of Groot XL who can say a lot more than “I am Groot.” Through his booming voice and motion capture work, he brings the character to life brilliantly. Neeson has shown in the past he has quite the deep, powerful voice that has lent itself to the deity like figures of Zeus and Aslan, and as a tree like being, his voice and its deep tone is quite effective. It gives the tales that the Monster tells Conor really weight and ensures that they have the impact on the audience that undoubtedly the film makers wanted it to have. The tales themselves are told in a very intriguing manner, and doubt that it is extremely effective, at tugging at the audience heartstrings, and Bayona adapts the story beautifully, so much so that you might find it hard to fight back the tears once the credits begin to roll.

Visually breath-taking, combined with an emotional story that is not afraid to go in some dark and troubling places, that will hit home for anyone who has had a family member battling cancer, or experienced some rough years at school.

a

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Silence (2016)

silence
Image is property of Paramount Pictures and IM Global

Silence – Film Review

Cast:  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Synopsis: In seventeenth century Japan, two Jesuit priests set out on a mission to seek out their mentor, all the while trying to teach their faith, in a country that vehemently opposes Christianity.

Review: Religion is a subject that even to this day remains quite controversial. In certain areas of the world, people who practice other religions are frowned upon, and some even face extreme violence and persecution for their beliefs, with certain events in history demonstrating how people who are of certain faiths received brutal and fatal treatment because of their religion. It is then quite remarkable that a tale set in the seventeenth century, has certain elements that ring true in the 21st century. Therefore for Martin Scorsese, a man born and raised in a Catholic environment, it certainly takes a fair bit of courage to make a film that tackles such difficult subjects and religious persecution, and for that he certainly deserves plaudits.

Adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, the story focuses on Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) who travel to Japan seeking to find Father Ferreira (Neeson) who they believed might have renounced their religion, due to the extreme hostilities that Christians faced at that time. Undeterred by the daunting mission facing them, they travel to the country and try to locate their lost mentor, and to teach their religion. Scorsese is a man who is arguably most well known for his gangster flicks, but this is his passion project, nearly 25 years in the making, and he tells the story in brutal and unflinching manner. With a screenplay co-written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, there is no shying away from the horrific and painful treatment that Christians received for their beliefs, and if they didn’t renounce their religion, it usually would not end well. The film is very dialogue driven, but the writing is of a very high standard, and certainly poses questions that will certainly leave the audience with plenty to ponder as they watch.

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The performances are riveting to watch, particularly from the three main men, but the spotlight focuses primarily on Garfield. and he certainly gives one of the performances of his career. His belief in his faith is unwavering, even in the face of great suffering and pain, and the attempts made by the locals to renounce his religion. After shooting to stardom thanks to his work with Star Wars, Driver is also equally terrific in his work, giving a harrowing performance, and both men could certainly get award nominations for their performances.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is both beautiful and haunting at the same time. It is crystal clear that with each frame of this film, that great care and precision has gone into their creation. Nothing is rushed, as such the slow pace might jar with some, whilst also explaining the film’s 161 minute running time. There are plenty of visual images to get the minds of the audience deep in thought, and while some will almost certainly have viewers numb with the brutality that these Hidden Christians faced. “A picture tells a thousand words” is quite a popular phrase, and in this instance, that certainly rings true. Having spent so long on this story, Scorsese’s passion for the story absolutely comes to the fore, and makes it all the more gripping to watch, so much so that even if you’re not religious,or practise a religion that is not Christianity, you’ll find it difficult not to be moved by some of the events on screen.

Indeed, the title of “Silence” is quite appropriate, given that for the Jesuit priests and all those in Japan at the time who practised Christianity, they had to practise their faith in silence, and despite their suffering, their prayers were met with silence. And there will be moments of silent reflection for the audience once the credits begin to roll, as it’s pretty inescapable that although these are ficitonalised events of the past, they will still carry a significant weight to them given how in different corners of the globe, people of certain religions continue to endure strong hostility, to this day.

Quite a long time in the making, but certainly worth the wait. Scorsese’s passion for the story shines through, and it helps to deliver a tense emotional journey for all, with themes that continue to have great significance to this day

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Posted in 2000-2009, Film Review

Taken (2008)

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Image rights belong to EuropaCorp, M6 Films, Grive Productions Canal+, TPS Star, M6, All Pictures Media. Wintergreen Productions. Dune Entertainment

Taken – Film Review

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen

Director: Pierre Morel

Synopsis: When Bryan Mills (Neeson) a retired CIA agent finds out his daughter has been kidnapped half way across the world, he utilises all the resources he can to try and rescue her, before it is too late.

Review: If you have kids, chances are high that those kids are pretty special and important to you, or if you’re a kid who’s loved by your folks. So if you found out your child who had gone travelling around the world, had been kidnapped, you’d probably get in contact with the government and hope they are in a position to do something about it, and hope and pray for your child’s safe return. Well not for Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who, decides to use all of his skills over his career and pools together all of his resources in a bid to rescue his beloved daughter from some nasty folks who have sinister plans for her.

With a script written by Leon director Luc Besson, and Robert Mark Kamen, our story revolves around Mills, his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his estranged wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and after agreeing to let her go travelling, Bryan finds himself in a race against time to get her back after she has been kidnapped, before he will never find her ever again. The film is slow to get out of the blocks, but it does ensure there is character development. You do understand the emotion Bryan has for his daughter, but is very reluctant to let her go, thus straining his relationship not only with his daughter and also his already estranged wife.

Once Bryan lands in Paris, after he has had the galling experience of hearing his daughter’s kidnapping, the film picks really begins to pick up. Offering  plenty of very intense action sequences that are, for the most part, very well handled. The camera-work is fast and the scenes are cut very quickly, particularly during the many chase sequences that are packed throughout this film. As Bryan pummels bad guy after bad guy and will stop at nothing to get her back, and that means killing as many bad guys as possible. It is insanely fun to watch Neeson be a complete badass and he totally convinces as an action movie star.

There are moments to allow the audience to catch their breath, and of course there is Neeson’s now famous line which has been parodied to death but it’s still enthralling viewing.  It’s a simple plot and for sure is a little bit silly at times, but seeing Neeson beat the shit out of some bad guys, who are admittedly maybe a little too stereotypical, is just very enjoyable to watch. There is one torture scene that has caused a bit of controversy for its brutality. But nevertheless, Taken is pulsating action done right in just about every way possible, if perhaps just a little too short at 94 minutes.

 A thrilling ride in which Neeson reinvented his career as a badass action movie star with some top notch action scenes, and one very memorable line of dialogue. 

a

Posted in 1990-1999, Film Review

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

the-phantom-menace-poster
Image rights belong to Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Film Review

Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewen McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

Director: George Lucas

Synopsis: When the planet of Naboo comes under attack from the sinister Trade Federation, it falls to two Jedi Knights, and a mysterious young boy to try and solve the conflict.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Review: Back in the 1970s, in 1977 to be precise a film was released that would later go on to redefine not only the science fiction genre, but films in general. A film that would go on to have two successful sequels and remain insanely popular to this day.This film is of course Star Wars, and the man behind this remarkable feat of cinematic brilliance was George Lucas. Therefore when plans were announced to expand on this universe with a prequel trilogy, fans must have been overjoyed, and excitement built. However, ultimately their excitement and anticipation was misplaced.

The first film had the immediate sense of intrigue and excitement, and you would have thought that the creator of this universe would recapture that immediately. Yet right from the opening credit crawl, something just doesn’t feel right. This is not the Star Wars movie we were looking for, it is trying to be a part of the much loved franchise and although it technically is, it just feels hopelessly out of place. The first three films had great writing, some terrific characters, and some brilliant action scenes and combined great use of practical as well as visual effects, but virtually none of that is employed here, with some stilted dialogue and some horrendously written characters.

It is worth wondering when watching this film, is this the director who created this universe with his 1977 masterpiece? The main plot revolves around peace treaties, and political squabbling. It just doesn’t boast the excitement of the original trilogy, or have that emotional punch towards the climax, and the writing is absolutely nowhere near the level of quality that was on show in the original trilogy (for the most part.)It is almost painful to watch at times watching these characters devoid of any emotional connection to the audience. The film struggles to retain interest in the story, which in parts is down to the horrendous overuse of CGI. There is so much on show here it is once again painfully apparent that some shots were done on a computer, and the lack of quality written characters, despite some considerable talent in front of the camera, shows the real weaknesses in Lucas’ script, which is evident with what many believe is one of the worst characters ever put to film: JAR JAR BINKS!!!

Right from the off, this creature instantaneously irritates, with his nonsensical actions as well as his dialogue and he is just downright infuriating to watch. Also annoying, but not quite to the level of Mr Binks is the introduction of Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd. The big selling point of the prequels is to watch Anakin turn from the good Anakin to the evil Darth Vader, but he spends the majority of the movie moaning and it’s just painful to watch, particularly because Jake Lloyd does not give a good performance at all, but then again with the script by Lucas being as bad as it is, it doesn’t help him shine. Vader is one of the most iconic villains in film history and his back story is just ruined by this terrible performance. The absence of the emotional connection for the film is seriously damaging and the overuse of the CGI particularly in some of the action sequences is so noticeable that it hurts your eyes while you watch. It’s like being fed with the same food day in and day out, after a while you’re going to get bored, and the effects are a bore at times. The effects do not hold up in parts and they add nothing of substance to the movie.

With all that said, there are some, but not many plus points, namely the John Williams score remains as excellent as it always has been. There are some cool scenes such as the Pod racing sequence, and there is a very cool character in Darth Maul. In addition he is part of what is probably the best scene in the movie, the light sabre duel between him, Qui Gonn and Obi Wan. But yet again, there is frustration as Darth Maul has has very little screentime and is ultimately killed off before we had a chance to see what he could really do. It is ultimately a shame that after 3 near perfect movies, and a 16 year interval between Return of the Jedi and this, this is the end product. It’s a real shame because with the advancement in the effects at the time, there was scope for greatness, but this fritters away into a gigantic CGI and effects heavy mess.

With a poor script, and a frustrating over-reliance on CGI, as well as some truly atrocious acting and characters, this was such a missed opportunity to expand on the brilliance of the original trilogy, but instead chose a path of mind numbing mediocrity. 

C-

Posted in 2000-2009, Film Review

Batman Begins (2005)

All image rights belong to Warner Bros, DC Comics, Syncopy and Legendary Pictures
Image is property of Warner Bros, DC Comics, Syncopy and Legendary Pictures

Batman Begins – Film Review

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman

Director: Christopher Nolan

Synopsis: After his parents are gunned down when he was a child, Bruce Wayne undergoes intense training and becomes a superhero known as Batman and begins to wage war on the criminals of Gotham.

Review: If one was given the task of describing this film in one sentence, it would be: the film that is the rebirth of a franchise that died in 1997. As it is an origin story, it really excels in giving Batman a great deal of character development and depth that we have almost never seen on the big screen before. We understand what ultimately drives Bruce Wayne to bring about an end to the evil and corruption in Gotham. After his parents were murdered by a mugger, he becomes an angry individual and he becomes determined to eradicate the crime underworld that Gotham has been entrenched in for many years.

In the early stages of the film, Bruce endures training under the eyes of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and his master Ra’s Al Ghul who recruit him into the League of Shadows. Under their tutelage he becomes a very skilled warrior. However, he ultimately becomes their enemy and returns to Gotham to become a symbol of hope. To do this he fights crime in order to bring Gotham back from the mire of damnation. With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and the brilliant Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce gets the equipment he needs in order to eliminate the crime and evil that lurks within Gotham.

However, Ducard returns as the League of Shadows, together with the work of the evil physicist Dr Jonathan Crane, also known as the Scarecrow return with a plan to destroy Gotham and Bruce under his new alias must stop them. The film is packed with some intense action sequences including a sword fight on a frozen lake and a high speed car chase over Gotham’s rooftops that will keep the viewer glued to the screen with excitement and anticipation. But the action although entertaining is a secondary element of this film, the focus on the titular character is the centrepiece of the film and this is what drives it onwards.

Many of the actors in this film give some great performances. Christian Bale was outstanding in both his roles as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. We see his pain and his drive to become a great force for good in a city that is crawling with the evil and the corrupt. Similarly we see his anger and ferocity when he puts on the cape and mask. Liam Neeson also delivers as Ducard as he comes across as a good guy in the beginning but is quite the opposite at the end of the film. Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman really deliver in their roles as the scientist Lucius Fox and the cop Jim Gordon, both of whom are two of Batman’s closest allies in his fight against evil in Gotham.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s love interest. While their on screen chemistry is a little lacking at times, she also delivers in her role as Gotham City’s assistant District Attorney. Michael Caine who plays the Wayne family butler Alfred also gives a strong performance. He provides support to Bruce when he needed it most and also gives some comic relief moments that add a little bit of humour to an otherwise very dark and gritty superhero film.

All in all, Batman Begins does what it set out to do very well. It explores the character many of us know and love in great and almost unprecedented detail. On top of that, it boasts some excellent action sequences and some humorous moments, along with an excellent villain. It was the film that rescued the Batman franchise from the doldrums of the film industry and restored it to one of the best superhero franchises in existence. For that, Christopher Nolan deserves a huge amount of credit.

Well acted by all with a tremendous lead performance from Bale, the Dark Knight returned triumphantly back onto the big screen and the superhero radar.

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