REVIEW: Silence

16 04 2017

Like I do with many great films, I approached reviewing Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” with a reverence tinged with trepidation. No matter how many seemingly objective angles I took to evaluating it, I could not find a path that did not somehow cross with my own experiences and beliefs as a person of faith. Though this underscores just about every review I write, rarely does it bubble up to the surface. But since today is Easter, I thought it made sense to craft a hybrid akin to Scorsese’s work: a personal statement and a prayer.

I’ve been grappling with the film for the past three months; as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely observed, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” Scorsese himself has wrestled with Shusaku Endo’s novel for longer than I have been alive. Christian thinkers themselves have wrestled with these issues since the religion began two millennia ago. To project any kind of intellectual authority or issue some kind of vast, sweeping statement about the ideology and thematics of “Silence” is naive and preposterous. In its searing specificity, the film gets beyond the simplistic discussions of religion that predominate our polite culture and delves headfirst into the questions that demarcate contemporary Christianity.

It goes without saying that Scorsese’s involvement in the film ensures “Silence” does not issue the kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back and reaffirmation of most religious films. He zooms past the “what” of faith and immediately wades into the murkier waters of the “how,” specifically as it pertains to evangelism and discipleship. 17th century Portuguese fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail for Japan, where their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) disappears and allegedly disavows the Catholic religion.

Their rescue mission brings them into contact with persecuted Japanese Christians practicing their faith in private, an experience that tugs the fathers’ beliefs at opposite directions with equal force. On the one hand, their torture at the hands of Japanese inquisitors makes the abstract concept of martyrdom painfully real, humbling them tremendously. Yet these supplicants also view the priests as direct conduits to God to the point that they take on a God-like status, inflating the latent self-righteousness undergirding many of their actions.

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REVIEW: A Monster Calls

7 01 2017

A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.

Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.

But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.

His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+3stars





REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Non-Stop

10 06 2014

Liam Neeson’s career has taken one of the stranger trajectories in recent memory.  Beginning as a prestige dramatic actor whose stunning performance in “Schindler’s List” earned him an Oscar nomination, he was one of few with the gravitas to be the voice of God in the “Narnia” series.  Though he had a brief stint as a Jedi in the maligned 1999 “Star Wars” prequel, few would have thought of Neeson as an action star.

That was, until 2009’s game-changing hit “Taken,” the film that still sends chills down the spine of any student about travel abroad.  Playing the ultimate protective papa bear, Neeson channels Jack Bauer by way of Dick Cheney with such tenacity that it led to reprising various shades of the role in “Clash of the Titans.”  And “The A-Team.”  And “Unknown.”  (Heck, it’s already at the parodic stage as shown by “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”)  Neeson can now go on “Saturday Night Live” and threaten Vladimir Putin, presumptively as … himself.

Non-Stop” may well be the zenith of the Neeson craze, signaling the point at which pop culture accepts him as a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal-type figure.  His larger-than-life presence on the screen now apparently means we can and should accept a heightened state of suspension of disbelief.  Neeson might as well wear a cape because he’s a superhero in our real world that doesn’t involve aliens, time travel, or any other Marvel gimmick you can think of.

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REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

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REVIEW: The Grey

6 10 2012

At its core, Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” desperately wants to be a “127 Hours,” a deeply personal and intimate drama about the pitting of the human will against an unforgiving wilderness.  And while elements of that thematic narrative creep through the cracks at times, the movie falls far short of achieving any sort of meaningful revelations about our humanity at its most raw.

“The Grey” begins like the television show “Lost” – a bunch of strangers survive a plane crash in the desolate non-continental United States – but then proceeds like a “Final Destination” movie … with wolves!   If the movie didn’t have such a massive stick up its behind, it would have been a fantastic “Final Destination 6.”  (Or maybe more like a “Final Destination -1” since it’s so humorless.)

I mean, it’s just hard to take a movie seriously when it moves so predictably towards its end as everyone meets their end … one … by … one.  Carnahan’s uneven direction doesn’t help matters, dulling any chance of sympathy we might have for Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler ruthless daughter-saving dad John Ottway, the group’s de facto leader.  Sure, Neeson has some moments where he gets to curse God and his fate, but those aren’t anything new.  Just like the rest of the movie.

And then there’s the matter of the ending.  Some will praise it because they perceive it to be poetic, lyrical, beautiful in its ambiguity.  I found it inconsistent with the rest of the movie and a reprehensible attempt to turn a horror concept into art-house drama merely by refusing to come up with a satisfactory ending.  C





REVIEW: Unknown

23 06 2011

Half “Taken” and half “The Bourne Identity,” Liam Neeson’s latest thriller “Unknown” lacks the scintillating sizzle of such like-minded thrillers but will pass for decent entertainment.  If you want a rental that offers a tiny bit of mental involvement, a fair bit of thrills, and beautiful women named Diane Kruger and January Jones, this might be a decent way to spend a Monday movie night at home.  You won’t complain or be disappointed; you’ll just be content.

The high concept thriller follows Martin Harris (Neeson), who awakes from a coma after a car wreck in a Berlin taxi driven by Gina (Kruger) to find that his wife Liz (Jones) doesn’t recognize him.  In fact, there is nothing other than a lost passport to prove his identity.  In order to get his life back, Martin must get to the source of this deep running conspiracy, and he will stop at nothing to reclaim what was once his.

It’s really an intriguing premise, and if you watched the trailer (or saw it a million times in theaters during December 2010), you can basically skip the first hour.  The set-up was done perfectly in two minutes there, and it was a little unnecessary to prolong the trailer.  The second hour is where things get interesting, yet by the time the movie’s “twist” comes around, I was just ready for it to end.  The movie squanders an opportunity to really cash in on the idea, which is a little disappointing, but at least it doesn’t totally tank.  There are much worse thrillers than “Unknown;” then again, there are also much better.  C+ / 





Random Factoid #529

8 01 2011

If I explained to you the thought process that got me to today’s factoid, I’d be writing an essay.

But something got me thinking of movies watched at really inopportune moments.  I can imagine that if someone watched “Revolutionary Road” in a really sour mood, they might go kill themselves.  Some movies with powerful emotions really shouldn’t be watched in certain moods.

But then I thought of the movie that I watched at the most inopportune time.  The second time I ever left the United States was when I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua (and before that, I had only gone to Canada).  A few nights before, I watched “Taken,” a movie where Liam Neeson’s daughter is abducted while traveling in France without adult supervision.  An attractive man elaborately preys on her at the airport, shares a cab with her, writes down her address, and sends men to kidnap her.  Neeson plays a security guard and goes after, killing everyone with the intensity of Jason Bourne and the mercilessness of Dick Cheney.

Of course, this was a terrible time to watch the movie as I was feeling a little scared about going to a country I knew little about.  I was with a huge group, but what was to stop someone from pulling the same stunt on me or anyone else in the group?  When we walked outside with our bags, some random person walked over and started talking to us.  I didn’t know he was our guide then, so all I could think about was that I was going to end up like the girl in “Taken.”

So lesson learned: look into movies you watch right before you head into a certain state of mind.  Don’t watch something that will make you paranoid if you are going to be leaving familiarity.  Don’t watch something depressing if you are feeling particularly glum.  Movies can alter your mind – so be careful.





REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

6 12 2010

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book series has been a favorite of Christians for years.  They jumped for joy when Disney and Walden Media adapted “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” producing an audience hit that barely concealed its allegory for Christ.  Then came “Prince Caspian,” which was a purely Disney movie that deserves to be scoffed at.  The final kiss at the end between Susan and Caspian, the obligatory Disney kiss that was nowhere to be found in Lewis’ work, was an absolutely appalling end to a movie that strayed so far from its roots no thanks to the encouragement of the studio.

But after “Prince Caspian” took in a disappointing sum, Disney dropped the series and left Walden Media to find a new distributor if they wanted the books to be adapted.  After some searching, the group partnered with 20th Century Fox to present “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

It’s amazing to see the difference a studio can make.  Fox and Walden’s Narnia is a reason for Christians everywhere to rejoice as it lays its foundation firmly back in the faith that has made Lewis’ books beloved for generations.  The movie gets its message across clearly but still leaves room for thought and pondering, all while providing great action and entertainment.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2010)

26 11 2010

It’s Black Friday!  While my shopping today was limited to Amazon.com, there’s something more to celebrate … IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!  (Officially, at least!)

What better way to celebrate than by watching a Christmas movie?  May I propose “Love Actually,” my pick for this week’s “F.I.L.M.”  It gets you in the holiday spirit like no other with its abundant tales of all sorts of different loves in the Christmas season.  This isn’t a traditional Christmas movie in the tradition of “Elf” or “The Santa Clause,” but the holiday plays such an integral role in the storyline that it’s hard to call it anything else.  It reminds you of the joys of the Christmas season so well that it’s become a sort of traditional holiday kick-off for my family.

Platonic love, impossible love, irresponsible love, mourning love, familial love, interlingual love, desperate love – you name it, this movie offers it.  Some might call it overambitious or cluttered, but I think Richard Curtis’ script is an enormously satisfying blend of love that makes flawless connections between its characters.  He packs the movie full of humor and heart, tied with a bow of such irresistible charm that you’ll wish every gift under the Christmas tree could provide such joy.

All your favorite Brits (and Laura Linney) are feeling the bliss and pain of love in overdrive with all the madness surrounding the holidays catches them.  The perpetually single Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is undeniably attracted to one of the women working for him (Martine McCutcheon), which makes for a difficult situation.  The clumsy writer Jamie (Colin Firth) finds himself falling for his Portuguese housekeeper while working France, despite the fact that neither can speak the same language.

Sarah (Linney) is madly in love with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but can never work up the courage to say anything.  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his long-suffering wife while trying to help his young stepson get noticed by his crush.  Karen (Emma Thompson) is trying to put on a happy face for her family while her husband (Alan Rickman) isn’t being entirely honest about his affairs.

And playing behind it all, there’s washed-up and rehabbed rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to reclaim his former glory by shamelessly converting an old song into Christmas jam, “Christmas Is All Around.”  He’s a hilariously self-depracating mess, making ill-advised remarks like, “Kids, don’t buy drugs; become a celebrity and they’ll give them to you for FREE!”  Nighy delivers one of those divine, once-in-a-decade comedic performances, and he absolutely steals the movie.

I didn’t even touch on about half of the storylines in the story, not to mention the subplots.  There’s just so much there for everyone in “Love Actually” that it’s practically irresistible.  While you might not click with one storyline, there are a dozen others that you are bound to love!  Like the poster says, it’s the “ultimate romantic comedy,” and you’ll be amazed at how entertaining and fun Richard Curtis and his army of British actors can make the dying genre.





Random Factoid #479

19 11 2010

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new pairing of legendary director and actor to make every pundit go “Oscar winner in 2 years.”  Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood for “Invictus” was an example of just such a pairing.

Now it’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, one of the most well-respected figures in American history, in Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed biopic “Lincoln.”  Liam Neeson was the original pick for the role, but due to scheduling and his eventual aging, he dropped out of the project.  Both are incredibly capable actors who would do a great job in the role, but there’s one issue I have – neither are American!

I hardly think ethnic casting is an issue for something as simple as American/British actors, as they cross over accents and nationalities with ease.  But when it comes to playing, in my mind, the greatest American in our history, I would think an American would be cast.  Not to say that Day-Lewis can’t, with the proper amount of research, know what a crucial role Lincoln plays in our history, but he won’t have the same passion as an American.

What do you think?  Should Abraham Lincoln be played by a non-American?





REVIEW: Chloe

24 07 2010

Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” is no fantasy, but it does ask us to suspend reality a little bit.  The movie forces us to believe that normally sweet, innocent Amanda Seyfried can be an obsessive nymphomaniac and normally steadfast, noble Liam Neeson can be a philandering husband.

Take a deep breath.  It’s hard to imagine these actors playing so against type, isn’t it?  The shock value from seeing them be so bad adds to the overall shock value of the movie, which is one of the few things it has going in its favor.  Overall, it’s a fairly predictable movie that still manages to unsettle you thanks to its graphic descriptions of sexual behavior and the psychotic Benjamin Braddock character that is Amanda Seyfried’s Chloe.

Chloe is a master of seduction, using the persuasive power of her good looks to take full control of everyone she comes into contact with.  This includes gynecologist Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore), who has become convinced that her husband (Neeson) is cheating on her.  She hires Chloe to test his waters and see how far he will go, but she soon finds out that she is in for way more than she asked.  The assignment only proves to feed Chloe’s purely carnal desires, and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

The movie is most notable for Seyfried’s turn, which is such a departure from her lighter roles that it will leave you completely awe-struck.  She proves that she can do more than just fluff like Nicholas Sparks adaptations and campy ABBA musicals, and I’m sure excited to welcome her into the realm of real acting.  Julianne Moore goes through the movie in cruise control, but that’s still enough for one of the finest actresses of our time to be compelling.  And then there’s Liam Neeson, who’s hardly in the movie long enough to sully our views of him as such an honorable man.

Really, the movie’s biggest flaw is it’s obsession with shocking us.  There comes a certain point when it becomes overkill, and then the audience learns to anticipate it, rendering any power it might have completely useless.  So by the end of “Chloe,” when the final twists come into place and Chloe commits her most shocking deeds yet, it really doesn’t mean anything to us.  B /





REVIEW: The A-Team

14 06 2010

I think part of the reasons that few people listen to film critics anymore is because they seem to review every movie expecting it to be “Citizen Kane.”  Such ridiculously lofty expectations have put the trade on the verge of extinction as a profession.  It’s important to have high expectations of a movie as a reviewer and moviegoer, yet at the same time, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

For a movie like “The A-Team,” the most we can expect is some well thought-out action sequences, a decent plot that has the ability to engage, and potentially some character development.  For pure entertainment, it’s fairly successful.  For much else, you’re might be out of luck.

“The A-Team” is no “Citizen Kane” of action movies, but it’s a very different kind of action movie that is a nice change of pace in the nearly homogenous summer market.  The action focuses on the plan, not just indiscriminate shooting and killing.  Many of the sequences weave in the team of elite operations carrying out the plan with them formulating it.  It’s a very cool way to execute the action, and the filmmakers nailed the only thing that was essential for them to get right.

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REVIEW: Clash of the Titans

3 04 2010

It’s a pretty rare feeling for me to walk out of a theater feeling scammed.  But as I pitched my 3D glasses in the eco-friendly disposal boxes outside my theater, that’s exactly how I felt.

After seeing the success of “Avatar” early this year, Warner Bros. decided to add an extra dimension to the release of “Clash of the Titans.”  Usually, 3D adds to the wow factor of a movie and enhances the experience.  This, as moviegoers are now beginning to learn, also enhances the ticket prices – and the more we go, the higher they climb.

But the only thing that 3D enhanced in my viewing of “Clash of the Titans” was my disappointment and indignation.  I like the technology, and I know that great filmmakers will utilize to create some truly incredible cinema.  But here, we see 3D at its worst.  When it is just arbitrarily added to any movie, then it truly becomes a boondoggle and a meaningless accessory.

It is now the responsibility of the American moviegoer to stop 3D from becoming an arbitrary embellishment, and it has to start here.  If studios and theater goers think that we are so smitten by 3D, then they will continue to take advantage of us.  Think a movie like “Clash of the Titans” being retooled for 3D is bad?  At this rate, we will have “Precious 2” playing in 3D in the coming years.  That idea doesn’t sound all that crazy to a studio executive with you $4 premium ticket price lining his pocket.

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What To Look Forward To in … March 2010

12 02 2010

There’s more to March than just the Oscars.  Finally, March arrives and we can stop dwelling on 2009.  In my opinion, March is usually a pretty decent movie month.  This year’s crop looks especially promising with new movies from Tim Burton, Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”).

March 5

After almost 3 months, “Avatar” will have to cede those illustrious 3-D and IMAX screens to Tim Burton’s twist on “Alice in Wonderland.”  The titular character is played by relative newcomer Mia Wasikowsa, who will look quite a bit older than the Alice you remember from Disney’s 1951 animated classic.  If that’s not a big enough draw for you, surely Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (who will hopefully channel more of his glorious Jack Sparrow than his Jacko-esque Willy Wonka) will suffice.  No?  How about Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts?  Or Anne Hathaway as the White Queen?  Perhaps Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar?  No doubt about it, this is one exciting cast, and I’m sure Tim Burton won’t have any problem distinguishing himself from the numerous “Alice in Wonderland” rip-offs that have sprouted over the past few years.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is directed by Antoine Fuqua, helmer of “Training Day,” which was enough to get me interested.  However, it really looks to be little more than a mash-up of every cop movie ever made.  But hey, that may be your thing, which would make this your potpourri.

March 12

I’m excited for “Green Zone,” which looks to be a smart political thriller. See my previous post at the release of the trailer for more info.

On the indie side of things, Noah Baumbach looks to return to Oscar form after “Margot at the Wedding” underwhelmed with “Greenberg.”  The movie stars Ben Stiller as Greenberg, the grouchy misanthrope who finds a reason to be pessimistic about everything.  However, a special woman comes along and begins to melt his heart.  I’m looking forward to a double-edged performance from Stiller, one that can show off his dramatic chops but also give us plenty of hearty laughs.

Seth Rogen’s four roommates in “Knocked Up” were equally as funny as he was. Each of them have slowly gotten their “moment”: Jonah Hill in “Superbad,” Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now, it could be Jay Baruchel’s turn. “She’s Out of My League” pits him similar situation: the uncomely guy getting the smoking hot babe. Hopefully Paramount gives this the push it deserves, maybe making Baruchel a breakout comedic star of 2010.

Could “Remember Me” get Robert Pattinson the Razzie for Worst Actor? After narrowly missing the cut for his two performances as Edward Cullen, this could finally be the one to get him the kind of awards attention he deserves.

Forest Whitaker is an Academy Award winning actor. What on earth is he doing in “Our Family Wedding?” For that matter, America Ferrera has won SAG and Golden Globe awards, and Carlos Mencia was once actually funny! This looks not only insufferable but almost racist. Plus, didn’t I see this movie in 2005 when it was called “Guess Who?”

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