Silence (*****) victory in defeat

silence

Silence – 2016

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Scorsese based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō
Starring  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto

Silence is a powerful story that will evoke strong feelings for those who absorb its message. What that message is can depend on what you bring to the film. Most people like Scorsese for the bigger films he’s made. Many who love The Wolf of Wall Street have never even heard of Kundun. All this tells us is that Scorsese has to make a lot of garbage to get the freedom to do passion projects.

For me Martin Scorsese is an amazing worker. His skill is extraordinary no matter what he does. When it is matched by inspiration, like he does in Goodfellas, The Aviator, Hugo and here, the effect is stunning. That it won no extraordinary amount of notice is not much of a surprise, though.

Silence measures the meaning of its title very carefully. The story starts with two Jesuit priests, Garupe and Rodrigues (Driver and Garfield) on a quest to find Father Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira had gone to Japan years earlier on a mission to convert Japanese people from Buddhism to Catholic Christianity. No one has heard from him in years. News returns that he has renounced the faith. Due to their special relationship with Ferreira, it is important to the young men that their hero in the faith be either found a martyr for the faith or alive and well, preaching the Gospel.

When they arrive in Japan, they are greeted by a translator  / guide named Kichijiro (Asano) who leads them to a village filled with people worshipping in secret who are overjoyed to finally see representatives of the church who can now give blessings and hear confession.Kichijiro lingers in the background, seemingly faithless.

There are many periods of daily silence for our priests as they wait for news in hiding. After the wait becomes unbearable, they decided to take a chance. To say that it backfires is an understatement. The result is not without its own form of stumbling progress. The meaning of the word silence takes a different form now with Rodrigues.

Discovering that Kichijiro has a secret past brings a new form of hope that – like everything in this film – is mixed with despair. Rodrigues is on the run from the Japanese shogunate but still seeking to find converts and therein the possibility of news of Ferreira. He also wants to hear from God.

After enjoying Garfield’s performance in Hacksaw Ridge, it is quite possible indeed he exceeds that performance here. The passion he pours into the performance is a remarkable raft in a story that is deliberately slow at times in an effort to show the hopes of communing with the Lord in the most desperate circumstances. His efforts to understand the meaning of suffering and the silence match ours. He is the best possible performer for his ability to make us feel the experience for ourselves.

His performance by no means the only great one in the film. Asano is remarkable in his ability to evoke repulsion and sympathy at once. In his face we see the true impossibility of those to be saved. His is truly a journey of Job, much more akin to the way some of us might falter along the way and shine at other times.

For his limited role in the film, this may be Neeson’s finest work. The nuance of his positions and whether they are the result of his condition or the architect of those conditions is an incredible intricacy that should stop most viewers in their tracks with passionate internal debate.

Driver  gives great, if limited performance of one who is allowed a sort of cruel mercy, when taken in the context of the other characters.

The last act of the film gives us a grueling sort of hope in the appearance of comfort. We see the final meaning of the titular silence and we hold out that somehow there will be a ray of light. Whether there is or not depends on one’s viewpoint.

And that is the pleasure and pain of watching Scorsese at his best. He lays it out there, with an abundance of passionate footage. Somehow, he is able to take a step back and let the viewer figure out how they feel about what they are seeing.

This film will be quite boring to some viewers who don’t have the requisite patience to understand why they are being subjected to the slow scenes. It’s a journey inward as much as it is outside in a foreign land.

The cruelty of the overlords is quite shocking as well. It’s not as simple as martyrdom, and that makes it impossible to endure quite intentionally. It is obvious to most viewers that oppression of another faith is by no means a ringing endorsement of the power of your own. This is about as close as we get to a statement. Where you go beyond this is up to you.

There is much to appreciate in the career of Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for the message medium of celluloid is unparalleled. I hope he has many more years of making movies like this. If it means I have to wade through commercial dreck every few years, it’s worth it.

(***** out of *****)

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A Walk Among The Tombstones (***1/2): Deliberate, with a few surprises

a-walk-among-the-tombstones

A Walk Among The Tombstones – 2014

Writer and Director Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Brian “Astro” Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Based upon the book by Lawrence Block

There is something very lived in about Liam Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, the protagonist from A Walk Among The Tombstones. Given the this story takes place in the 10th of 18 of the Block novels featuring Scudder, we get the feeling of the history that he lives with every labored step and every hesitant breath. There isn’t much that he has not seen, but that doesn’t matter much, because people end up in the same place, no matter how they get there.

This is the second Scudder novel turned into a film. The first being a labored effort starring Jeff Bridges and featuring the writing efforts of Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. It was one of the last big budgets given to Hal Ashby, and he was fired right after principal photography wrapped due to Ashby’s past erratic behavior and that he pretty much discarded the script. Having the cast shoot from the hip was a bad choice, because Block makes his characters work through dialogue.

Scott Frank has written some of the best adapted screenplays ever. Get Shorty and Out of Sight belong on every one’s top 50, while he made The Wolverine more real than he ever has been before or since on the big screen. The work he does here feels respectful to the point of being deliberately clunky. Taking place before Y2K, we see a film that would have fit in that time or even earlier. Cell phones were still used primarily for calling then, and so were pay phones. Both play a big part here, too.

Scudder is a recovering alcoholic who is fully in tune with the process. He’s made peace with who he was and who he continues to be: an unlicensed P.I.. When he is approached by an addict after a meeting, he goes to see the man’s brother, Kenny (Wilson, nothing like the guy one would remember from Downton Abbey). Kenny is a drug dealer who recently lost his wife to men who ransomed her. When he could not meet their financial demands, they literally cut a deal. Now he is out for revenge. He asks Scudder to find them and let Kenny know where they are, and that is it.

In the process of finding the men, Scudder discovers there is more to the case than anyone would have guessed. He also finds some help in the form of a homeless boy, TJ (Bradley). The relationship they strike up is near to every cliché one could think of for the situation, but Frank takes Block’s work and steers just clear of each one, leaving the film feeling fresher than it probably should.

It’s after the extortionists meet up with one of Kenny’s dealer friends that the action and Scudder’s dialogue begins to heat up. There is something about Neeson speaking frankly on the phone that gets the old engine revving. We know who’s going to come out on top, even if the person on the other end of the phone does not.

There is a lot to appreciate in Frank’s adaptation of the material here. The direction is somber, but not Se7en level despair. Scudder and TJ live in the same reality, even if TJ does not quite understand yet. He’s smart enough to survive it. The nemeses are a breath of fresh filth. Their approach to their lack of sanity works because we don’t hear them explain it, even when they try to start blabbing. Frank is smart enough to leave everyone damaged by what they’ve experienced, because, well, we were kicked out of Eden at the start of all stories.

Conversely, there is not a terrible amount of mystery to the general direction of the plot. The characters start at point A and we can tell by who they are who makes it to point B, C, or D. There is enough here, though, to call for another venture, perhaps even a series. There’s definitely more here than in the Taken ventures or the dreadful November Man. It’s the little things that make one feel the difference between an enjoyable story and one that makes you feel you just gave up precious minutes.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Non-Stop has Characters, Heroes

NonStop

Non-Stop – 2014

Director Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Jason Butler Harner, Anson Mount, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache, Corey Stroll
Screenplay John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle

Non-Stop is the kind of movie that is full of surprises.  It has the burden of a premise that we’ve seen many times before, most notably in Passenger 57, Executive Decision, Snakes on a PlaneAir Force One and Flight Plan.  This is better than any film of its kind that did not star Harrison Ford.  It has elements of other movies we’ve seen in the past, but it rises above the rest due to the plethora of characters that rise out of the passenger and crew manifest.  The script is winning and the actors are willing to play it for all it’s worth.

Liam Neeson is, Bill Marks,  a burned out alcoholic Air Marshall who receives a series of texts that the flight he is on is in danger and people will start being killed every 20 minutes.  This information sets him into motion towards figuring out who got access to his secured line and whether the threat is real.  After 20 minutes, he finds out. Soon though, the tide of information exposes the possibility that he is the main suspect.

It’s here that the film takes carefully plotted steps.  We get to see everything from Bill’s perspective, but what occurs could be read in multiple ways.  The Captain (Roache) and a Stewardess (Dockery) get bits of information, start trying to work with him, but also start to hedge their bets, wondering if their doubts are justified. Passengers (Moore, Stroll and others) also attempt to work through the information they get from Bill, and react according to their own beliefs.  The sequence walks a very tight line, and succeeds, for the most part.

Things really start to pick up in the last 1/4 of the story, as people make their moves and counter moves.  All along, we see Bill battling with their perceptions versus the reality of the situation as he sees it.  That there is an abundance of clues only serves to muddy the water and it adds to the excitement as well.  The best part of the film is that people don’t stubbornly insist on doing the stupidest thing possible at all times.  Some of their moves, yeah, you can set a clock to them.  It’s what they do when the information changes (other than the big reveal) that makes Non-Stop stand out.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie could have gone either way.  The material is not even close to original.  The presentation is pretty unique, though.

There was some political backlash to the film as it relates to 9/11.  For me, the tie in brings one to the mind of United 93, which is a great film qualifying more as a documentary than an action film.  Is Non-Stop ever in bad taste?  I will leave this to survivors to evaluate.  My guess is that the feelings will be as varied as the people who feel them.

Liam Neeson has a limited range, and like all actors of his particular skill, he depends solely on the support that he gets.  This is the best film he’s been in during the post-Taken stage.  Producer Joel Silver pulled out all the stops, and helped create a movie with a familiar feel that does not leave a bad residue on your brain. If Neeson is smart, he will stay with Silver for a while, adding limited doses of Luc Besson.  That means no Taken 3, please.

But who am I kidding?  That one’s all ready for distribution.

(**** out of *****)

The Lego Movie: Applied to our lives like so much Kragl

the-LEGO-MOVIE-poster

The Lego Movie – 2014

 

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring (voices) Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman
Screenplay Lord and Miller

Where the heck did this film come from?  They’ve been releasing Lego movies for years straight to DVD, and for some reason, someone got the extremely bright idea to apply talent to the brand and the result is pure gold.  The message, so far as one can tell, is that you should buy all the different kinds of sets you can and mix them up.  Oh, and, believe, like the poster with the hanging cat says.

We start out with regular guy Emmett (Pratt), who is a dead ringer for my friend Young Haircut.  Emmett is happy with things as they are.  He eats at the chain restaurants, listens to the hit songs, and watches Where are my pants? television show, like everybody else.  He follows the world, and all instructions. If I were an unthinking movie watcher, I might just consider him blindly conservative.  Emmett comes across Wild Style (Banks).  She is a rebel, who is looking for the one who will fulfill the prophecy of  Vitruvius (Freeman), who said that someone he called The Special, will come along and save the world from the monotony of sameness.  Again, the well-trained drone will catch on to these ideas of Vitruvius as being liberal.  If you get this much out of the film, you will have been robbed.

The sameness being imposed on the world is the mandate of the evil Lord Business (Ferrell).  This message would be confusing if you thought of it only as business bad, creative good.  Lego is a business, and they really want you to buy their stuff.  So hang with us here.  Business gives not so subtle hints that something special is going to happen on Taco Tuesday.  If you think special means good, then you need to brush up on your cliché studies.

Wild Style immediately recognizes Emmett for the special when she sees him with the Piece of Resistance.  As they escape, she begins to hope that her original assessment is wrong. Emmett, meanwhile, just goes along for the ride, mainly because he is a nice guy, but also because he likes Wild Style.  Problem is, our heroine has a special thing for her boyfriend Batman, and Batman is as cool a boyfriend as anyone calling herself Wild Style could want.  Two guesses as to how that turns out.  Don’t guess too early though.

Anyone who thinks the movie can be relegated to pat messages about being special, being creative and not coloring within the lines would be wrong.  This is to say, the plot is all over the place, but in the best way possible.  It is a unforgivable cinematic sin if all the movie did was pass off a straight up message of business is evil.  That was what happened with The Lorax, and we’re all dumber for having experienced it.  Instead the movie pushes us to a sweet direction that completely makes sense once one shares the moment with the characters.  More than being smart, the story is emotionally honest, and that is the biggest, best surprise of all.

If you haven’t seen this film, give it a chance.  It takes the concepts in some of the best Pixar films and pushes them forward.  Lord and Miller have shown exceptional film-making prowess outside of their first film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  Then again, what they’ve done since has been so good, it makes one ponder if something was missed the first time around.  One thing is sure, though.  This film is an institution.

(***** out of *****)

Taken 2: Electric Boogaloo

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Taken 2 – 2012

Director Oliver Megaton
Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Rade Šerbedžija, Leland Orser, John Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Luke Grimes
Screenplay Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen

I became smitten with Famke Janssen almost 16 years ago, when I first saw her as Xena Onetopp in Goldeneye.  The wish to inflict damage was her major selling point. She never impressed me the same way since then, but she did a decent job with her role in the first 2 X-Men films.  Her characters shrank away from the fighter since that Bond film.  When I saw her in the first Taken film, the first vision was all but obliterated.  All she could do was sit and wait.  This was not sexy: it was not Xena Onetopp.

Maggie Grace has never done anything for me as an actress.  Even though she played a big role in the early years of Lost, I was glad when she took an accidental bullet.  Her “little girl” run from Taken horribly offset the effect of seeing her as a little girl lost.  So annoying was she, I kind of hoped that she might have taken yet another bullet.  At least we would have Neeson as a seriously pissed off Dad for part 2.  Instead, we have this…

Everything is fine when Taken 2 starts.  At least it is for Bryan Mills.  His ex-wife (Janssen) is having marital problems, and his daughter would rather spend her time with a not so serious boyfriend instead of taking her driving test.  With all the believability of a Penthouse Letter, both of the girls end up going with Mills to Istanbul.  Guess who’s in town to exact revenge on Mills for killing all of their sons who lived in one house in the first film?

It’s not that this film is so much like the last one.  It’s not.  Istanbul is beautiful, even if the dialogue is not.  Neeson still cuts an intense figure when the shit hits the fan.  None of these guys are any better fighters than their sons are, but he has two somewhat useless women to protect.  Part of the selling point to this film is that this time he walks Grace through most of  her scenes.  She still has that stupid run, too, when she’s not running for her life.  Speaking of running, Neeson’s lope isn’t any less painful to watch.  Bowl legged does not work in an action film.

Since he has the extra load, the pacing of this film is affected and uneven.  Besson’s crew is too good to let it be boring, though.  Then there is the general hostility of a Muslim country with two uncovered women around.  So much is the frustration in watching Grace try to follow Neeson’s instructions.  You wonder how such an intense man of espionage could have birthed such a maroon.  He keeps it steady, though, and positive.  My dad would get pissed when I couldn’t hold the flashlight straight for 10 minutes.

If you loved the first movie, you will like this one.  It’s a solid base of a franchise, even if the top keeps crumbling and trembling.

As for Famke, I am afraid that ship has sailed, as beautiful as it was.  It’s just a shell now.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Battleship: Featuring ships that battle and loud music

Battleship – 2012

Director Peter Berg
Starring Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Tadanobu Asano, Peter MacNicol, Adam Godley, Hamish Linklater, Gregory D. Gadson
Screenplay John and Erich Hoeber

Early on in Battleship, there is a moment when a very large vessel is raised out of the water. The ship, recently landed on Earth is jutting out of the water hundreds of feet high.  Over 5 minutes or so, we see three Naval warships creep up on it.  As one small boat gets close enough to board, we look up with the camera to see a massive amount of water falling down off of its sides.

“Where is all of that water coming from?” my wife asked.

As if on cue, we see the camera pans up its length and we water coming out of…nowhere.  Through out the rest of the film no matter when or where we see the ships, there is always a large amount of water falling down all of its sides from nowhere.  It must have looked great in 3 dimensions, though.

There’s not a lot that makes sense in Battleship.  Little rolling chain saws are sent throughout the Hawaiian mainland destroying everything that may be a threat, but then the aliens decide to send their men to a ship looking for dangerous parts to destroy.  Why not destroy the ship in its entirety, like they did the other two that were with it?  To ask such a question is to waste one’s time. These aren’t the same existential questions that graced the screen for Prometheus.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

In this movie, the geek (Linklater) is disheveled, cynical, cowardly but with several tidbits of information that are helpful when the plot demands it.  The foolish leading scientist guy (Godley) is arrogant and has a British accent.  The arrogant younger brother (Kitsch) is foolish and “just crazy enough” to make it work.  Whatever “it” is.  His hot Admiral’s daughter (Decker) is a physical therapist for an overlooked segment of the military.  His brother (Skarsgård) follows rules.  He’s not much use here.  The Admiral is Liam Neeson. He does what Liam Neeson would do in a film like this.

There is some funny, touching and cool looking stuff in Battleship.  It is surrounded by cliché and testosterone, just like any Bruckheimer or Bay film.  The idea that they could tie such an action beefcake fest to a bloodless game of strategy is more than a bit of a stretch, but by the time they got to that part it no longer mattered much.  Lots of loud noises, plenty of flashes and explosions and a plethora of buddies helping one another to steer clear of wreckage.

The best thing about Battleship is the idea of no one and nothing being past it’s time of usefulness.  To share more would ruin what little surprise that anyone who hasn’t started the film.  What I can say, is the AC-DC Thunderstruck part of the film is the best part of the film.  Not just because that song kicks ass, either.  Forget that none of it is possible.  In the movies, anything is possible so long as you have the right song playing and enough special effects.

(*** out of *****)

Wrath of the Titans plays like Resurrecting the Greek Champ

Wrath of the Titans – 2012

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Houston, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Édgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell
Screenplay Dan Mazeau, David Leslie Johnson

So, taking for granted that one is fully aware of what they are to expect while watching Wrath of the Titans, they definitely get that here.  Perseus (Worthington), who stepped out of the limelight at the end of the first film, the decent effects extravaganza, Clash of the Titans, is beckoned by his father, Zeus (Neeson) to come back into the arena, for, you know, weak gods, tremors in the force, etc.  Perseus balks at the notion in order to fill a few more minutes of screen time with an effects-laden dream.  Meanwhile, Zeus is, you guessed it, betrayed and captured, by a couple of bad guys, one old (Fiennes as Hades) and one new.  Brother Poseidon (Huston) survives long enough to pass on plot points to an increasingly curious Perseus.

Shortly afterwards, a cool two-headed beast attacks Percy’s town, and he gets his taste for the old life.  Worthington plays his “retirement” for what it’s worth.  He is creaky and filled with a sufficient amount of self-doubt  to get the ball rolling cautiously.  Worthington, who did a good job in the first film portraying a “hero by accident,” is right in his wheelhouse here.

In human time, it’s been around 10 years.  He married Io, who bore him a son and, conveniently died before the events of the movie. One knows this is mainly so he can have one more shot at love later in the film with another name actress.  That actress is Rosamund Pike, taking over for Alexa Davalos as Andromeda.

Just like the first film, the movie looks good.  The only disappointment being the confined, poorly edited fight with the Minotaur and the cyclops family.  There wasn’t much to see, and it definitely did not match the  cool monster to the left of the poster above.  It came across more like the kid from Mask with two broken corn cobs stuck in his head.  The 3 cyclops have a decent lead up, until you get too close and see how the animation is not…quite…there.  The other battles, especially the one against the Chimera, are decently story boarded and look good, too.

Wrath of the Titans was filmed in 2D, but it edited for 3D.  As a result, we see a ton of shots that look like stuff coming at you.  It’s annoying, no matter the dimension, but there are plenty of decent shots to balance it out.  The net result gives one the impression of the film equivalent of throwing a bunch of stuff up on the wall and seeing what sticks.

The plot is nonsense, and having actors the caliber of Huston, Fiennes, Neeson and Nighy fails to improve it much.  That Neeson spends most of the film in captivity with Fiennes standing guard feels a little like having Meryl Streep sit at your house to wait for the cable guy.  Lot of talent wasted.

What is not wasted is Worthington.  He was made for this crap.  He has billions of receipts to his credit, but he, like everyone watching the film knows it’s not him they are coming to see.  This results in an every man performance where he gets to spend much of the film in utter amazement to all the blue screen magic that is going on around him, only not while he is there.  It is a special charisma that may never net him an Oscar, but is way more appealing than that French guy in The Artist.

The rest of the acting, including Pike, is not anything that will get the actors work in other films, unless they make it to the sequel.

Overall, I enjoyed this film as much as I did the first one.  Not quite enough to buy, but I would not turn the channel if I saw it on TNT in 2 years.

(*** out of ******)

The Grey really didn’t need the wolves

The Grey – 2012

Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring Liam Neeson, Durmot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Bale, Anne Openshaw, Jacob Blair, Ben Bray
Screenplay by Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers based on the short story Ghost Walker by Jeffers

The Grey has characters that get richer as the story goes on, even as they fight for (and often lose) their lives.  You hear more dialogue than your usual bickering, disagreements, or platitudes.  They are more than hollow human characters.  It’s a shame, then, that the story, already with enough natural tension of its own, would choose to change the true nature of wolves, making them predators on par with the inbred hicks from Deliverance.

Early in the film, we get to know that our main protagonist, Ottway (Neeson), is an expert of sorts, when it comes to wolves.  His job in the oil drilling plant in Alaska is to take out wolves who live on the fringes of the settlement.  We see a peculiar example of this when a group of men, oblivious to their surroundings as they talk to each other, are charged by a solitary wolf.  Given their nature to hunt in packs, this seems like an odd, desperate behavior for a wolf.  Why the wolf does this is never explained.

Marching away from safety.

Later, after an airplane crash has set 7 of the oilmen against the extreme weather, they start getting picked off by the wolves.  Ottway gives a couple of possible explanations to why these wolves would charge into an area with multiple fires and a relatively large number of men.  At once he states they might be in the territory of the wolves, that the territory is ever-changing, and they might stand a better chance if they amble off through the heavy snow towards a treeline.  Perhaps, he says, they will get out of the territory at that point.  Well, if I were one of the survivors, this is where I would ask for my 1/7 rations.  Better to be holed up where the plane lies burning in an open field than picked off one by one in territory unfamiliar to me and familiar to the wolves.  Make a shelter with all the burnable material.  Make a stand.  Use metal, jet fuel, anything you can for a weapon.  In the woods you have…sticks.

Of course the cast has no choice but to follow the script, and the script has them follow Ottway.  We have some squabbles, and various injuries, and the inevitable.  All the while, the wolves play games with the men and act as though they are holding a grudge, against man in general…Ottway in particular.  Okay…

The thing about The Grey, is it is a truly enjoyable and serious tale.  Neeson holds his character like an artist.  His performance is sad, valiant and brave, in the way he overlooks some of the sillier elements of the plot.  There is no such thing as over dramatization in Neeson’s vocabulary.  He underplays everything to the point that he is someone anyone could know and have no idea how kind, resilient or lethal he truly is.  The role he has been on since Taken is a glorious worldwide recognition of his abilities.  At 60, he has become a bankable headliner after a career of playing further down the cast list.

The rest of the cast is equally interesting, in particular, Henrick (Roberts), Burke (Anozie), Diaz (Grillo) and Talget (Mulroney).  All have interesting dialogue,  and none are taken out like chumps.  If the storytellers had just allowed the wolves to be part of the film, instead of an unconvincing constant menace, The Grey would have been much more logical and, hence, more interesting.

Carnahan has a wonderful touch for landscape, both human and nature.  His bar scene at the beginning is poorly shot in a comical way, but once they get to the plane, everything flows like art should.  The segues into important moments in the lives of the characters are beautifully shot and with a certain logic.  If only they could have stayed in that arena.

There are several memorable moments in this film.  Most of them don’t involve the wolves.  If you watch it, you should like it anyway.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Unknown: Take my life, please

Unknown – 2011

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz and the “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy

Written by Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell based on Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert

If you’d ever seen him run, you’d think Liam Neeson is an old and feeble man.  Yet, for some reason, since his wife Natasha Richardson passed in 2009, he can’t miss at the box office.  Thing is, all the hits have been action films, and I would not believe Neeson an action star any more than I would my wife’s grandmother.  As a man with questions about his identity in Unknown, he has found a nice spot for a 59 year-old.  It’s action, but at least he isn’t expected to kick anyone’s butt.  If he loses a fight or two, or gets lucky now and again, well, so could Grandma Evelyn.  Both are as likely to survive this film as they are to win the grand jackpot in her bingo tournaments.

This guy trades a cell phone for a syringe.
This guy makes the movie worth the price of admission.

The story starts out with an idyllic couple touching down in Germany.  He is coming to town for a biotechnology summit, and shed is his faithful wife.  A missed briefcase  and a couple of Taxi rides either, he ends up in the River Spree.  Waking up 4 days later, he finds his wife (Jones, in a somewhat wooden performance), who fail’s to recognize him.  After insisting that he is the real Dr. Martin Harris , he is presented with another man (Quinn) who has credentials stating the same.  And his wife chooses the other guy.

From here, the man formerly known as Martin Harris then spends the rest of the movie working with the Taxi driver who saved his life (Kruger, in a good, understated role) and a mysterious private investigator Herr Jürgen (the excellent Bruno Ganz, who steals every scene he’s in) to reclaim his life.  He is chased by goons, one of which looks remarkably like the “Can you hear me now?” guy.

Where this all leads, I will not share.  Suffice to say I enjoyed it thoroughly.  The scenes are economically paced and do not linger gratuitously.  There are some incredible stretches here and there, but overall, this one holds its cards closer to the vest than your average movie, making more out of the plot than is really there.  The only place it really suffers is in the forced stupidity at the end of the film by the authorities serving only to push the plot forward.  Oh, that and Jones.  She was better in Mad Men, and even quite chilling as Emma Frost in the last X-Men movie.  Here, however, she really gives the feeling of one trying to recite lines from memory.  Countering this, however is Neeson’s typical solid delivery and Kruger’s very believable portrayal of  frail, but helpful cab driver.  Add to that an iconic line in the last fight, (“I remember how to kill you, asshole.”) and you have the makings off a solid thriller, even if the hero is limping as bad at the end of the movie as he was in the beginning.

(**** out of *****)