Tag Archives: Liam Neeson

Sounds of ‘Silence’

Martin Scorsese’s epic new drama looks for God, not gangsters

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in 'Silence.'

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in ‘Silence.’

Silence
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver & Liam Neeson
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R
In wide release Jan. 13, 2017

The director best known for hoods, gangsters and thugs turns his eyes to God in this epic tale of two Catholic priests who face persecution and death as they travel to Japan in the 17th century to spread their Christian faith.

Martin Scorsese, the cinematic maestro whose iconic work includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, transforms the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo into a sprawling historical drama about faith, centered on God’s “silence” in the face of human suffering.

In the movie, two young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail across the globe to Japan to seek their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). In the Land of the Rising Sun, Christianity has been outlawed, Ferreira is missing and there are rumors that he’s dead—or worse, that he’s renounced his faith, or apostatized, and become a Buddhist monk.

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

And in Japan, talk about a “war on Christians”: Local villagers are rounded up and subjected to various heinous tortures if they do not publicly disown their faith—crucified in the ocean, burned alive, beheaded, scalded with hot water, hung upside down and slowly bled to death.

When a missionary priest is captured, he’s forced to watch the torture until—unless—he will apostatize and publically denounce and deface his God.

For Rodrigues and Garrpe, this is no exotic Japanese vacation—it’s some 350 years before Disneyland Tokyo, BTW—and they are the only two Catholic priests on the whole island. How far, and how long, can they spread the seeds of their faith without being caught? Can they find out what happened to Father Ferreira? Can they come to understand why a benevolent, loving God continues to let Christians suffer, if holding on to faith is worth all the terrible pain it causes—or if God is even listening at all to their prayers?

These are big, unwieldy questions, and Scorsese tackles them head-on. Silence is a big, sometimes unwieldy movie. It’s two hours and 40 minutes long. Its majestic cinematic scope, grand scale and thorny theological themes will probably put it out of the mainstream, at least for a lot of viewers, down at the multiplex. And it doesn’t have one single note of music, even on the opening or closing credits; it begins and ends with the sounds of nature, a symphony of crickets and frogs.

But it looks gorgeous. Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, his collaborator on Gangs of New York and Casino, and Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (Hugo, The Aviator, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Scorsese depicts Japan as a lush, sprawling wonderland. Even the film’s horrors have a savage, artful beauty, like modern-day movie paintings of Christian martyrs rendered on the big screen.

SILENCEAndrew Garfield is having a great run, coming off director Mel Gibson’s critically acclaimed Hacksaw Ridge and now right into this role, making a back-to-back pair of exceptionally strong performances that show his depth and range. Adam Driver continues to impress, and I was disappointed when his character was dismissed halfway through the movie to go his separate way. He’s a much more interesting actor than Garfield, but Garfield has better hair, so hey, I get it.

But one of the movie’s most memorable performances comes from Asian TV veteran Issey Ogata. As the ominously nicknamed Japanese “Inqisitor,” Inoue Massashige, he gives forceful pushback to Rodrigues and his message of Christian evangelism. By turns sinister and menacing, comical and humorous, and sympathetic and pragmatic, he’s one of the film’s most compelling, complex and pivotal characters.

“Am I just praying to nothing, because you are not there?” Rodrigues, near madness, asks God at one point. It’s one of the questions that ring deep and long in the powerful, potently quiet spaces of Silence, long after the last cricket chirp has faded away.

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You Rang?

‘A Monster Calls’ scares away terrors of childhood

A MONSTER CALLS

A Monster Calls
Starring Lucas MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver & the voice of Liam Neeson
Directed by J.A. Bayona
PG-13

J.A. Bayona knows that childhood can be a scary, perilous time.

The Spanish director’s first major movie, The Orphanage (2007), was a poignant, unnerving haunted-house horror tale about ghosts of the deep past. His second, The Impossible (2012), swept a couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three children away in the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Now A Monster Calls finds a 12-year-old boy, Conor (Lucas MacDougall), visited in the night by a giant “tree monster” who tells him a series of stories to help him cope with the inevitable consequences of his mother’s incurable cancer and the bullying of his schoolmates.

_MG_5478.CR2Is the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) a fantasy creature from Conor’s dreams, a figment of his fertile imagination, or one of his pencil drawings come magically to life?

Like the ancient, towering tree that “becomes” the monster every night, just past midnight at exactly 12:07 a.m., there’s a lot going on both above the surface and beneath it in this beautiful-looking film of great depth, heart and soul. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a boy and his mom (Felicity Jones, who’s terrific), and how he gets tangled up by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), who’s now remarried and living stateside.

Not to mention those bullies, who tease and threaten him, push him around, ambush him in the schoolyard and debase his artwork.

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Felicity Jones plays Conor’s mom.

Conor is haunted by a recurring nightmare about being on the maw of a dark, seemingly bottomless pit, where he’s holding on for dear life to the hand of his mother, who’s fallen over the edge. Curled up one evening on the couch with her, watching King Kong on late-night TV, it’s no wonder Conor can relate to the great beast, dogged by biplanes peppering him with gunfire until he can no longer hold on to the top of the Empire State Building. The mighty Kong loses his grip and falls to his death.

Conor’s eyes fill with tears and he asks his mom why Kong had to die. Why did people hate him? Why did they kill him? “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” she tells him.

A MONSTER CALLSYoung people will certainly be able to relate to Conor and his plight, an adolescent symphony of anger, resentment and righteous rage that will ring true in a variety of circumstances. Grownups will appreciate the movie’s craftwork and gorgeous artistry, especially when the monster tells Conor his stories; each one is a mini-parable with a lesson, illustrated and animated differently.

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. If they more of them were as cool as a storytelling tree that sounded like Liam Neeson, maybe the world might not seem like such a scary place.

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Trashy Teddy

Seth MacFarlane and his foul-mouth furball strike again

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Ted 2

Starring Mark Wahlberg & Amanda Seyfried

Directed by Seth MacFarlane

R

The bawdy little talking furball is back. Writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy teddy bear returns in all his crass, computer-generated comedic glory for another round of surrealist stoner silliness with his Bostonian best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), in this sequel to the $550-million-grossing 2012 hit.

It begins, as many movies do, with a wedding, as Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) ties the knot with his gum-smacking bride, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). Soon, however, there’s trouble in paradise: Ted and Tami-Lynn discover they can’t have a baby, for a couple of reasons—including that Ted, a teddy bear, lacks the necessary anatomical equipment. And trying to adopt creates another problem, which comes to loom large: The legal question of whether Ted is a person or a piece of property.

5708_FP2_00111RV2.jpg_cmykHow you feel about the humor in Ted 2 will likely align with how you feel in general about the work of MacFarlane, whose TV show Family Guy established and enshrined him as a golden boy of rollicking, ribald politically incorrect hilarity. For some, he’s a brilliant, envelope-pushing social satirist. Others lean to the opposite, more “offended” side of the critical spectrum, noting his penchant for crude jokes, scatological humor and the sharp, scathing edges on the blades of his irreverent, “insensitive” lampoonery.

There’s plenty of all of that, however you feel about it, in Ted 2, from the dazzling Busby Berkeley-inspired musical opening credits sequence to the almost nonstop parade of bawdy jokes, celebrity cameos and gurgling bong hits that follow.

I won’t say it’s not funny, and some of it is flat-out hilarious. MacFarlane runs his characters (which include Amanda Seyfried as a newbie attorney who takes on Ted’s “personhood” case) through a gamut of R-rated punch lines and crazily comical setups. A Liam Neeson walk-on, as a grocery-store customer overly concerned about the age-appropriateness of his breakfast cereal, is a total hoot. (Stay for all the credits for the full payoff.) Jay Leno gamely goes along with a joke about gay sex.

5708_AC0003_COMP_V013_1006R.JPG_cmykCharacters come to expect the same (obscene) search suggestion for any Google query. Ted’s bachelor party—remember, he’s a bear—features a unique kind of porn. There a profanely inspired moment of speculative banter about what the F. in author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s name really stands for.

But some things seem unnecessarily drawn-out and repetitive, with gags and ploys from the first movie simply recycled or repeated—like a subplot with the creepy stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), who wants to slice into Ted to see what makes him tick. At one point, John yells “Déjà vu!” I hear you, sir!

The Kardashians, rocker Steven Tyler and Harrison Ford all but assuredly won’t like the jokes made at their expense, but quarterback Tom Brady was clearly aboard for his scene, in which Ted and John infiltrate his bedroom for an ill-fated artificial-insemination scheme.

If some of that sounds like the bottom of comedy barrel, perhaps you’ll be a bit more uplifted by Ted 2’s underlying civics lesson about gay rights, the struggle of blacks in America and the inherent dignity of all living things.

Who says tubby, trash-talking teddy bears are all huff, puff and fluff?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Grim Reaper

Liam Neeson takes a stroll on the Big Apple’s dark & seedy side

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A Walk Among The Tombstones

Starring Liam Neeson & Dan Stevens

Directed by Scott Frank

R, 113 min.

“Behind you! Behind you!!!” the lady seated beside me urgently whispered to the screen, to Liam Neeson’s character, as unseen danger crept toward him from the shadows.

At this stage of his career, Neeson is fairly accustomed to threats in the shadows—and often it’s him. At 62, he has emerged as one of Hollywood’s leading “older” action stars, playing weathered, well-worn men well-versed in covert ops, and more extreme activities when needed, in the successful three-movie Taken franchise and the recent high-in-the-sky airplane drama Non-Stop.

A Walk Among The TombstonesIn the new thriller-chiller A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on a novel by popular crime-mystery writer Lawrence Block, he’s Matt Scudder, a rumpled, crumpled New York City ex-cop loner on the trail of two pervs plucking women off the streets and subjecting them to unspeakable horrors. The title helps set the creepy stage right off the bat, and the opening credits—which play over a “dreamy” scene that you slowly realize is actually a nightmare—hit you like a punch to the gut. The grim atmosphere is orchestrated by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shoots the grungy New York locations in muted, washed-out tones and smoky pastels that match Scudder’s bleak, bleached emotions, drained of color and joy after all that he’s seen…and done.

The story is set in 1999, which also plays into the look of the movie—it was a time before much of the Big Apple’s modern urban-renewal polishing, and it burrows into the city’s shabbier side streets and seedier locations to give real-life dimensions to its down-and-out drama. Scudder’s a recovering alcoholic, which also contributes to the theme of brokenness—and also the hopeful idea of working toward reparation.

A Walk Among The TombstonesBrian “Astro” Bradley plays a homeless teen—and aspiring detective—who becomes Scudder’s tag-along sidekick. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey) is a prosperous heroin traffiker whose wife’s kidnapping draws Scudder down an ever-darkening trail that ultimately leads him to the tombstones of the title.

This is a movie about violent, twisted people, although much of the violence is left to the imagination rather than depicted. Most of the story is about the process, the escalating cat-and-mouse game, the “procedural” that will be familiar to anyone who watches TV shows like CSI, Law and Order or Criminal Minds. But that doesn’t make it any less unsettling, especially when one of the victims is a 13-year-old girl, or when the camera lingers on a kidnapper fondling the bloodied tools of his torture trade, or asking one of his terrified, bound captives a question that should make the skin crawl on any woman, of any age.

“People are afraid of all the wrong things,” says the movie’s tagline. The wrong things, it suggests, are “scary” but benign places, like cemeteries, or the fear of death. The true terrors, and the real monsters, it so chillingly reminds us, can be ordinary-looking people in a cargo van cruising up and down the street, in a house next door—or sneaking up from the shadows right now, behind you, behind you!

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Sky King

Liam Neeson takes charge on a ticking time bomb with wings

NonStop

Non-Stop

Blu-ray $34.98, DVD $29.98 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

If I’m trapped on a plane about to blow, Liam Neeson is someone I’d want nearby—especially after seeing how he handles that exact scenario in this action-packed thriller, playing a federal air marshal with more than his hands full trying to save his fellow passengers, find the hidden bomb, discover who on board who put it there, and why. Everyone’s a suspect (even Liam!), including Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey, and Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes look at shooting the stunts and staging the gripping drama inside a 20’ by 30’ set the shape of a tube.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Everything is Awesome

Sharp, smart writing, gonzo wit and the pursuit of special-ness

LEGO

The Lego Movie

Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman & Elizabeth Banks

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

PG-13, 100 min.

Since their introduction in Denmark in 1949, Lego construction toys have spread all over the world, across multiple generations and throughout the reaches of pop culture. In addition to almost endless varieties of play sets, characters and components, there are also Lego videogames, Lego clothes, Lego competitions, and Lego amusement parks in Europe, North America and Asia.

Now there’s a Lego movie—and more people have seen it than any other film in America since it opened earlier this year.

Clearly, Legos are immensely popular playthings. But The Lego Movie is also an exceptionally well-done, wildly entertaining piece of family-friendly fare, a rare piece of work that engages both grownups and kids with a sharp, smart writing, gonzo wit and a story that bridges cross-generational audiences.

000048.0027807.tifBrilliant digital animation creates a teeming, brick-by-brick Lego world—several of them, in fact—and a sprawling cast of Lego characters: Emmet (Chris Pratt), a everyday, by-the-book construction worker nubbin who may—or may not—be the fulfillment of a long-ago prophesy foretold by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a blind seer; Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful female resistance fighter; Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), a walking maritime junkyard of a pirate; Batman (Will Arnett), Superman (Channing Tatum) and the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill); Lord Business (Will Farrell), an evil control freak who wants to micro-manage everything and everyone; and Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), a literally two-faced law-enforcement officer.

Co-directors and writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose growing collaborative résumé includes the movies 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and TV’s How I Met Your Mother and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, weave themes of creativity, independence and cooperation into a story that runs on a crazy rail of nearly nonstop pop-cultural riffs and satirical references, understated comedic nuance as well as explosively absurd visual magic, and just the right tones of subversive cool for a movie that needs to appeal to children as well as parents.

LEGO

Early in the movie, Emmet gets in his Lego car, turns on the radio and hears a song, “Everything is Awesome.” It’s meant to be a big supersonic joke, an ironic mantra-like jab about conformity in a place where being mindlessly happy is mandatory. But it’s infectious as all get-out, and it becomes the movie’s theme. (It’s performed by the Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara and the comedy-rap group the Lonely Island, and produced by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.)

And like the interlocking pieces of the gazillions of Legos it would have taken to make this movie if it weren’t for the digital magic of computer animation, the song just fits. Yep, in this joyous, joke-filled parable about the joy of making stuff, the power of imagination and the pursuit of special-ness, everything pretty much is awesome.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Texts on a Plane

Liam Neeson kicks butt at 30,000 feet

Photography By Myles Aronowitz

Non-Stop

Starring Liam Neeson & Julianne Moore

Directed by Juane Collet-Serra

PG-13

His name may not have the same action-hero ring as “Willis,” “Norris” or “Stallone,” but 61-year-old Liam Neeson has carved a pretty successful niche for himself a one-man kick-butt machine.

Those other stars might have more brawn, but the “everyman” personas of Neeson’s characters, pushed to their limits physically and psychologically but always finding ways to overcome, connected with audiences in movies like the 2008 revenge thriller Taken, its sequel, and Unknown.

5688_FPT_00074R.JPG_cmykNow, working again with Unknown director Juane Collet-Serra, Neeson stars in Non-Stop as a stressed-out federal air marshal on a six-hour transatlantic flight, once more a rumpled, crumpled underdog, this time grappling with a plane-full of life-or-death stakes high above the clouds. Just after take-off, his character, Bill Marks, gets a cryptic cell-phone message: Unless he arranges for an immediate transfer of $150 million dollars, people on the plane will begin to die, one at a time.

And eventually, something even more catastrophic will happen—and it’s all been rigged to look like Marks did it.

Who sent the message, and others that follow, taunting Marks, spelling out the devious details? It’s obviously someone else on the flight, someone who knows him—and the heavy emotional baggage he’s carrying. Everyone becomes a suspect, and the guessing game is part of what keeps the movie—otherwise contained in the closed, confined space of the airliner—moving along at a brisk, breathless clip.

Non-Stop

Lupita N’yongo, who received a supporting actress Oscar for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” plays a flight attendant.

No one is above suspicion, including Marks’ overly (?) friendly seatmate (Julianne Moore); two flight attendants (Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley on  Downton Abbey, and Oscar-winning Lupita N’Yongo from 12 Years a Slave); a Middle Eastern-looking doctor who practically has “TERRORIST” stamped on his kafi; a mild-mannered school teacher (Scoot McNairy); and a computer programmer (Nate Parker).

There are twists, turns, some cheesy laughs, a serious tussle in the lavatory, a murder by improvised peashooter, and a rip-roarin’ finish that had one woman seated behind me whooping, gasping and hollering “Save the baby!!!”

The specter of 9/11 hangs over the plot in more ways than one, but this isn’t a movie with much of an agenda beyond being a high-flying, B-grade thrill ride that takes you up, shakes you up and sets you back down when it’s over.

So don’t’ buy a ticket to Non-Stop looking for award-winning performances or a profound message (although it clumsily, hurriedly tries to tag one on at the end). As the captain tells Marks at one point, just sit back, buckle up and “Enjoy your flight”!

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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