Liam Neeson on Returning to Play Bryan Mills in ‘Taken 2’

TAKEN 2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Actor Liam Neeson returns to his role as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in the Olivier Megaton directed sequel “Taken 2.” Neeson has long been considered a fantastic dramatic actor, but playing Mills in the original “Taken” helped to reestablish him as an action star. Despite his increasing age (which I am NOT going to mention here), he still appears to be excited as ever taking on an action-packed role like this.

In “Taken 2,” Mills and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped while in Istanbul, and their abductor is the Albanian Mafia Chief Murad Hoxha (Rade Šerbedžija), father of the man Mills killed in the first movie. Neeson was understandably hesitant about doing a sequel to “Taken” as he described it as being “complete in itself” and that the original storyline given to him for the follow up was “not terribly good.” But once producer Luc Besson and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen came back to Neeson with the scenario set in Istanbul, he found himself saying, “maybe this could work. Ok, let’s go for it.”

Like the stars of “The Expendables 2,” Neeson is getting older but he doesn’t look like he has aged as much as Stallone or Schwarzenegger (and I’m not just saying that to be nice). While Neeson revels in doing dramatic movies like “Michael Collins” or “Schindler’s List,” he is still very eager to action movies like “Taken” and “The Grey.”

“I like doing this stuff. It’s come to me later on in life, with the success of the first ‘Taken,’ Hollywood have thrown three or four different action movies my way,” Neeson said. “I feel like a kid in a candy store, I love doing that stuff. I love hanging out with these great stunt guys and fight choreographers. It’s a great catharsis, I love getting the chance to be physical and do this stuff.”

While on “Good Morning America,” Neeson talked extensively about the fight training he had to do for “Taken 2.” His stunt double Mark Vanselow, whom Neeson has worked with for almost 13 years, and fight choreographer Alain Figlarz worked on the action scenes. They started doing them in slow motion in order to get the moves down perfect, and then they eventually speeded things up to where they did the scenes blindfolded to make sure everyone was in sync.

“He (Alain Figlarz) introduced a style of fighting in the first ‘Bourne Identity,’ very close combat, which I found very difficult because I’m a big person and I like a bit of distance in fighting,” Neeson said. “So, I found it a bit strange to do this very close hand-to-hand combat stuff, but we got the fight choreographed, and then it’s a matter of rehearsing it and practicing it every day after we wrapped.”

When he was a kid in Ireland, Neeson said he did some boxing for a time and found the experience helped him with this role in regards to the “work ethic and the discipline to get off my fat ass and go to the gym.”

While these action movies may have come late into Liam Neeson’s life, I am glad they did. We look forward to seeing him kick butt in “Taken 2,” and even if there is not a third movie in this series (which he made clear he’s not interested in), we can still be sure he will play the action hero again in another movie very soon.

SOURCES:

Neeson talks Taken 2 with RTÉ TEN,” RTE, October 1, 2012.

Liam Neeson ‘Surprised’ at Success of ‘Taken,’” Good Morning America, October 1, 2012.

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Before ‘The Hurt Locker,’ Kathryn Bigelow Gave Us These Movies

Kathryn Bigelow photo

You only need to see one film directed by Kathryn Bigelow to know that few, if any, other directors can create such an unrelentingly intense movie going experience the way she can. Bigelow didn’t win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” because she is a woman. She won it because she made a war movie which was unlike many we saw at the time. She gave us yet another intense war movie with “Zero Dark Thirty” which looks at the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It won the New York Film Critics’ Awards for Best Film and Best Director, and it maintains a strong level of intensity from start to finish.

But the truth is Bigelow has always been a great director, and her talent behind the camera has never been in doubt. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” or “Detroit,” her films keep us on the edge of our seats throughout and barely give us a moment to breathe. If you enjoyed these movies, here are some of her other efforts which deserve your attention.

The Loveless movie poster

“The Loveless”

This 1982 film marked Bigelow’s feature film directorial debut, and she co-directed it with Monty Montgomery, the actor who played the Cowboy in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” “The Loveless” stars Willem Dafoe and tells the story of a motorcycle gang that makes a pit stop in a small southern town while on their way to Daytona. Once they arrive, however, trouble starts brewing when the gang starts fancying the female locals.

Blue Underground, which released a special edition of “The Loveless” on DVD, called it “the thinking man’s biker movie.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Bigelow does give us many beautiful images of leather and chrome, and she does show a love for the look of neon lights as well.

Blue Steel movie poster

“Blue Steel”

Bigelow’s 1989 action thriller next because was the first movie of hers which I watched, and I was absolutely stunned by her unflinching style of direction. The always terrific Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Megan Turner, a rookie New York City police officer who shoots and kills a grocery store robber (played by Tom Sizemore) on her first day. But while staring in shock at what she has done, New York Stock Exchange trader Eugene Hunt (the late Ron Silver) grabs the suspect’s gun and uses it to go on a psychotic killing spree.

What looks like your average police thriller ends up turning out to be a far more violent and unsettling movie than you might expect. Silver gives us one of the craziest and most unhinged psychopaths ever to appear on the silver screen, and Bigelow gives the action sequences a thrill as vicious as it is visceral. Regardless of “Blue Steel” having a plot which has been used over and over, it still stays with me years after having seen it as Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the violent natures of Curtis’ and Silver’s characters.

Near Dark movie poster

“Near Dark”

Forget the “Twilight” films, this is a real vampire movie! Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) gets up close and personal with the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) only to be bitten on the neck by her. It soon turns out Mae is a bloodsucking vampire who travels from town to town with her extended vampire family which includes actors Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller. They end up taking Caleb in once he has become one of them, and this forces him to make some tough decisions which he may not be able to live with.

“Near Dark” was a box office disappointment upon its release, but it has since gained a large and deserved cult following. Bigelow, along with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, gives the film such a beautiful look which is aided by one of the many great Tangerine Dream film scores of the 1980s. Its best scene comes when the vampire gang visits a bar in the middle of nowhere, and Bigelow does a literally bloody good job in how she stages it.

Strange Days movie poster

“Strange Days”

Like “Near Dark,” “Strange Days” was a box office failure which has since gained a cult following over the years. Co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a former cop who deals in SQUID equipment, devices which record images taken directly from an individual’s cerebral cortex. When those images are played back, it allows the user to experience a person’s memory as if they are living it themselves.

This concept allows Bigelow to stage some exhilarating point of view action sequences which must have been insanely difficult to choreograph and put together. While it may be tempting to compare “Strange Days” to other futuristic movies which show a major city in peril, this film really has its own unique look. And like your typical Bigelow movie, you don’t watch it as much as you experience it.

K19 The Widowmaker movie poster

“K-19: The Widowmaker”

Okay, I know many had issues with Harrison Ford’s and Liam Neeson’s accents and of the liberties taken with the movie’s true story, but I still think “K-19: The Widowmaker” is a far better movie than people give it credit for. It’s no “Das Boot,” but Bigelow mines a lot of raw emotion out of the story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine. This comes about when the ship’s reactor malfunctions to where it will explode if the temperature to continues to climb, and members of the crew are dispatched to work on the reactor while wearing chemical suits which do far too little to protect them from severe radiation sickness (“they might as well wear raincoats,” says Neeson’s character).

Watching these young men essentially sacrifice their own lives in order to prevent World War III is devastating to witness, and Bigelow makes you respect their selfless act to where you cannot help but be on the verge of tears while watching them go into a room they will not come out of in one piece.

Kathryn Bigelow

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

 

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Sean Penn Shows How ‘The Gunman’ is Not Another ‘Taken’

The Gunman movie poster

Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn moves into the action genre with “The Gunman,” a film from “Taken” director Pierre Morel. In the film, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces officer and military contractor who is intent on putting his violent past behind him after all the damage he has done. But in the process of helping an African village find clean water, three men attempt to kill him, and he suddenly finds himself on the run in an effort to clear his name. This ends up taking him from one country to another to where he is reunited with the love of his life as well as friends who have since gotten greedy with their business endeavors. In addition, Jim also has to deal with PTSD which may claim his life sooner than he thinks.

With Morel directing, it’s easy to assume “The Gunman” is another “Taken” but with Sean Penn instead of Liam Neeson. But the truth is “The Gunman” is much more of a character driven action movie, and Penn brings his usual intensity to it to where you have no reason to doubt he did his research. I got to hear Penn share his thoughts and feelings about this movie at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. One question on everybody’s mind was on the research Penn did on military snipers and what he learned about them.

Sean Penn: I think that what’s interesting to me is that there’s a disconnect between that which is trained as a facilitator or an implementer, or in this case an operator. The training is done in a way that’s depersonalizing all of that. Of course in our story, things get personalized as it happens in the real world. The experience of working as a facilitator in an emotionally detached way using things one has learned is not an unfamiliar thing to me. Using it to take life of course is not my story.

For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of “The Gunman” as Jim Terrier has to go from a depersonalized state of mind to being in a situation which keeps him from being emotionally detached. This is where the movie gets much of its intensity as Jim’s feelings are brought to the surface to where he cannot hide from them, and this threatens his life more than ever before.

I asked Penn how he was able to balance out the Jim’s depersonalization with his more emotionally naked one when those closest to him are threatened with death. His answer gave us all an idea of what really drew him to the material, and it also allowed him to make clear how “The Gunman” is much different from “Taken.”

Sean Penn: It’s an interesting movie in that regard because it’s a movie about a very conflicted man killing very bad men largely in service of himself. This is why when we have conversations about the Liam Neeson movies. Here you have a 6 foot 4 melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man, fighting strictly for his children. So, I don’t really see the comparison.”

The Gunman” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

love-actually-movie-poster

Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *