There’s a rule of thumb I’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmys nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.
K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.
The story’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.
K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.
Submarine movies have so many limitations to them thats it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.
Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.
Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.
K-19: The Widowmaker tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.
Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.
This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”
A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.
Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.
All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.
Re-View Grade: C
Men in Black International is a perfectly fine movie but it’s hard not to feel the franchise going through the motions in an attempt to recapture the elusive magic that made the original 1997 movie the standout it was. This time we’re introduced to new agents and new agencies, with Thor Ragnarok stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth decked out in black and on the hunt for rogue alien life forms in Europe and the Middle East. The two actors are charming and Thompson’s character is a great re-introduction to this hidden world, a woman who has devoted her life to finding and becoming a Man in Black. As we went from scene to scene, it felt like an MIB spy thriller evoking the undercover missions, arms dealers, shady informants, potential agency mole to expose, exotic locales, and crackling banter of that genre, and that’s something none of the sequels have done before. However, I also noted just how forced everything felt. What should be jaunty and droll came across as flat or overly exaggerated, trying to recreate the energy and style of the original but falling short. It feels like when someone is trying to retell a joke but has lost the rhythms that made it so amusing in the first place. The pieces are there but they don’t feel right. I also kept noting how it should be funnier. Many of the jokes are barely touched upon or developed for more potential. The set pieces are pretty humdrum and even the integration of the strange, otherworldly elements and aliens feels lacking. With that said, Hemsworth and Thompson remind you how winning an onscreen pair they are, and even with their charm kept at a lower, simmering level they are still enjoyable to watch. There’s a predictable storyline about an alien invasion and a predictable turncoat reveal, but it’s all played rather innocuously that it’s hard to get upset. Men in Black International is an intermittently amusing movie that’s hard to hate and hard to love. If you’re a fan of the series, or got a couple hours to obliterate, it should provide enough entertainment, but much like one of those handy-dandy nueralizers, you won’t remember much after.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.
The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?
Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.
Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.
Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.
The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.
Nate’s Grade: C-
We’ve seen this story before, the efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal and its sloppy cover-up from the perspective of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who tirelessly collected clues, followed leads, and investigated the facts. That movie was All The President’s Men and was terrific. This movie is all about Mark Felt, the man who was the “Deep Throat” confidential informant, and it’s a bit less than terrific. It’s hardly even a movie because Felt’s story just isn’t that interesting. The film offers little new insights into Felt as a character or his personal struggles working against his own government. The FBI director is portrayed like a glowering Bond villain. The other characters come in and out, leaving little impact except to remind you that they’re famous. Felt’s personal life is also a bore, including Diane Lane in a thankless role as his alcoholic wife distraught over Felt being passed over as the new FBI director. He also has a missing daughter who ran off to a commune. There’s one moment where Felt feels paranoid and tears apart his office, but then we simply move on. There’s not enough here to justify a full-fledged movie. Whatever writer/director Peter Landesman (Concussion) does it’s not enough to make this story interesting, and that’s because Felt’s involvement in Watergate is minimal at best. All the President’s Men was about journalists uncovering the evidence and putting together the pieces. This movie is just about a guy who knows everything and has to get it out there. It’s inherently less interesting. Even the subtitle of The Man Who Brought Down the White House seems misinformed; I’m fairly certain that was Nixon. The Mark Felt story was told better when he was merely a minimal figure in someone else’s Watergate story. Just watch All the President’s Men instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
A nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from a terminal illness. Her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) escapes into the world of his art and imagination to cope. This includes envisioning a giant living tree voiced by Liam Neeson who visits Conor to tell him three stories, and in the end he demands one from Conor. It’s a Hollywood cancer weepie with stylistic fantasy elements, kind of a Lifetime TV approach to Pan’s Labyrinth, and I must say I was rather unmoved through every drop of treacle. Part of my problem was that Conor has this larger-than-life fantasy creature… who only tells him stories, which lead to extended animated sequences that are beautifully rendered in watercolor paints. What’s the point of having a giant monster if all it does is tell you stories? He might as well be anything and any size then. The plot also follows a very familiar path as Conor must confront his grief and anger as his mother, one of those regular movie characters who become heavenly and wise when stricken with cancer, declines in health. I felt removed too often and kept at the fringes. Rarely did I care about these characters and that’s because the movie didn’t give me a reason to. Yes she’s dying, and yes he’s sad and troubled, but so what? A Monster Calls needed to lay more foundation with these characters who come across very thin. The ultimate purpose of the monster is a rather pat revelation and the emotional climax felt undeserving of all the swelling strings on the musical score. There just isn’t anything in A Monster Calls that separates it from a pack of maudlin imitators. The actors all do pleasant work but they aren’t given more than the barest characters to work with, which forces an audience to feel things simply by grief association. Coming from director J.A. Bayona, a visonary who startled and amazed with The Orphanage and The Impossible, I’m even more confused and let down that a man this talented would choose this. Also, at no point does a CGI tree monster Liam Neeson utilize any specific plant-based set of skills.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Nobody quite expected the second act that Liam Neeson is currently having. Before 2009, he was seen a dramatic leading man best known for portraying the titular businessman in Schindler’s List. And then Taken came out, and the world decided they liked their action stars with a dash of actorly gravitas, the kind of which was all too lacking from the likes of your Van Dammes. After so many films of Neeson pointing guns and barking at people, you forget that the man can act. That’s because, with few exceptions, the Neeson canon of action vehicles have been found enjoyable but insubstantial, momentary pleasures to be forgotten. The same can be said of Run All Night, a promising urban jungle thriller that’s a step above in several areas but ultimately another mildly entertaining film where Neeson points guns and barks at people.
Jimmy (Neeson) is a man haunted by his memories of his life as a hired gun for his pal, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy is a drunk who is living off of Shawn, holed up in a crummy home, and eking out his lonely days. He walked out on his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), when he was young because he wanted him to have a better life. Jimmy thought his misdeeds would create a bad influence. Shawn is also experiencing his own problems with fatherhood. His son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is ambitious, dangerous, and addicted to drugs. He agrees to a business arrangement with Armenian mobsters before dad gives him the A-okay; when dad balks, Danny is on the hook. He murders the two Armenian mobsters who are looking for their money back. Unfortunately, Mike just happened to witness this execution. Jimmy defends his son, shooting and killing Danny. For the rest of a very fraught night, Jimmy tries to protect his son from the many forces of violence that Shawn has sent for vengeance.
The premise of Run All Night is strong unless you say it out loud and examine it. I admire the film’s manner of weaving together storylines in a way that they feel like they’re crashing into one another and yet you could see their trajectory coming. That’s not to mean it’s predictable, which it is of course, but that the conflicts are properly established and set in motion. However, when you analyze the revenge-laden intricacies, it can seem like self-parody: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.” Gentlemen, commence your murdering. It reminded me of 2002’s Road to Perdition where a crime lord who readily admitted that his son was a dangerous hotheaded screw-up and had made a mess of things… and yet, he had to stick by him because… family. It’s a frustrating contradiction but it’s believable enough to hold onto. I just wish these crime guys could objectively calculate how guilty and irresponsible their kids are and cut them loose. Seriously, what exactly was Danny thinking when he killed the Armenian mobsters? Did he not think they were going to retaliate? Danny is the kind of irritating screw-up you want to strangle because he endangers others with his constant failures.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) has done his genre homework, and Run All Night is a slightly above average thriller that finds ways to flesh out its tropes amidst the urban jungle. After a steady first act, the majority of the movie is a series of chase scenes, several of which are shot and edited well by Neeson’s favorite director of his run and gun pictures, Juame Collet-Sera (Non-Stop, Unknown). The chase scenes make smart use of geography and the way Collet-Sera cuts back and forth with his parallel lines of action does a nice job of quickening pulses. A chase through a train terminal is well choreographed with Jimmy having to out run and out muscle goons and Mike ducking from encroaching police presence on the platform. Ingelsby has a knack for setting up organic suspense pieces and letting them loose. The final act feels a little pat from an action standpoint as well as a moral climax, but it does work. While the characters are birthed from familiar genre archetypes, the film adds interesting shadings to them. Jimmy’s loyalties are tested and he has a strong personal revelation that ties into this theme. The movies finest moment is likely a tense sit-down between Shawn and Jimmy shortly after the events of the night has been set in motion. It’s like Harris and Neeson are competing to see who can be more intimidating Oscar-nominated actor. Bonus: Bruce McGill (Lincoln) plays Harris’ number two and I love some Bruce McGill.
And yet, I kept wishing for Run All Night to go back to the power of its possibilities. There’s a segment where the movie truly feels like it’s being taken to the next level, namely after the crooked cops have been taken out. Instead of just Maguire’s muscle coming after them, now Jimmy and Mike have the NYPD hot on their tail and none too happy about cop killers. That’s another category of antagonists, another chase participant. I also wanted the movie to keep going, bringing in the Armenian mob, which would be incensed and seeking vengeance after their ambassadors were killed. This movie could have had three categories of antagonists (Shawn’s goons, NYPD, Armenian mob) chasing after Jimmy and his son, and the ongoing conflict would have been terrific. The more people that are on the hunt, for their varied reasons, the more possibilities there are for strong and escalating suspense pieces. It could have easily gotten too complicated and convoluted for a mass audience, which is probably why the movie doesn’t reach its true suspenseful potential and follows a conventional route. The NYPD angle is only really incorporated during a building-wide search of an apartment complex where Jimmy and son are hiding. Likewise, the addition of a contract killer played by now Oscar-winner Common (Selma) is a wasted antagonist that doesn’t add much more to the group of bad guys. He’s better at killing, sure, but he doesn’t offer anything new except some hardware. He’s essentially an elevated heavy. He’s meant to serve as the threat after the threat, and no surprise, he does. I wish the character had more personality because he’s just too rote to separate himself. He’s just another ho hum killer in the mix.
There’s a plot point that annoys me to the point that I need to talk about it in more detail, though to do so requires some spoilers, so tread carefully, reader. At one point, Jimmy insists his son does not pull the trigger and kill Common. His wish is that his son would turn out better, and so he doesn’t want him to be forced to commit murder. They leave the contract killer who, you guessed it, continues to try and hunt them down and kills innocent people in the way. I understand the moral imperative Jimmy is going for, but let’s analyze this. It’s self-defense, he’s determined to come back and kill you, and you know innocent lives will suffer if he stays alive and well, whether on this job or future jobs. If ever there was a situation where maybe Mike isn’t going to be racked with guilt into the odd hours of the night debating the descent of his soul into moral decay, this might be the one. It’s one of those moments where the characters have to behave this way because the plot demands it and we need, as stated above, a threat after the main threat. Again, I’m reminded of Road to Perdition, which had a much better additional hitman.
Some things are better enjoyed at your leisure, and Liam Neeson’s action ouvere fits into that category. With few exceptions, a Neeson action film checks the boxes of what you’re looking for in genre entertainment, and with a strong Neeson finish, but rarely will you be surprised or elated. Entertained, sure, for the time being. Run All Night is an action thriller that has its moments and some well-drawn suspense sequences, and I appreciate that it tries to provide more depth to the main characters besides their preferred killing weapon of choice. However, there’s just too much squandered potential, underwritten supporting characters, and heavy-handed messages about the sins of the father. Run All Night is a solid genre thriller that does enough well to be worth your time, though you certainly don’t need to exert any energy to run out and see it.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Scott Frank has only directed one movie, The Lookout, but as a screenwriter his fingerprints are everywhere in Hollywood. The man’s name is all over projects such as Out of Sight, Minority Report, Get Shorty, The Wolverine, Marley & Me, and those are just the ones that made it across the finish line. As any aspiring screenwriter knows, Hollywood is built upon an ever-amassing burial ground of unproduced screenplays. A Walk Among the Tombstones is only his second directing feature, which tells me it must have had significant personal value for this famous scribe. You can definitely tell Frank has an affinity for hard-boiled film noir of old, though the splashes of in-your-face sadism may be too much for certain audiences. It’s a genre movie all right, but it’s also a grisly one that bothers to take its time setting up character, plot, and resolution.
It’s New York City on the cusp of Y2K, and retired cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is just trying to enjoy his dinner. He’s pulled into a complex kidnapping scenario at the behest of one of his AA peers. Two men have been targeting the city’s drug traffickers, men with big pockets who cannot go to the police. These psychopaths enjoy abducting the trafficker’s wives, ransoming them for hundreds of thousands, and then slicing and dicing their victims anyway. Matt initially turns down the offer, working around the edges f the law, but the viciousness is too much to ignore. He reawakens his old detective habbits, falling back into a routine, and tracking down those responsible.
Those expecting a regular Liam Neeson afternoon of top-draw face punching may be in for a slight disappointment, because A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty detective tale that swims amidst an ocean of moral decay and queasy sexual violence. It’s a detective yarn that unwinds at a casual pace but one that feels like a natural connecting of plot points. Thankfully, this isn’t a movie that treats the identity of the killers as a mystery that needs to be dragged out as long as possible, with the ultimate pained reveal being one of the otherwise harmless characters we’ve previously been introduced. We know who these two psychopaths are after about twenty minutes, so there’s no prolonged guessing game. Rather than linger on who they are we now await the ultimate satisfaction of Matt Scuder finally facing off against our two psychopathic killers, and they are indeed psychopaths. These two are very wicked men, gathering sadistic pleasure from torturing their captive women. The two men are kept as unsettling ciphers; we don’t know much about them except they have an addiction to killing. It’s not about the hundreds of thousands they scam from the drug traffickers; it’s really about the thrill of the hunt. While I wish there was more depth, they were menacing enough. I was itchy with anticipation for them to get some comeuppance. I’ve read reviews indicating that our two remorseless killers are a gay couple; if this is true it’s kept very vague for interpretation. In the age of equality, it could be homophobic to declare, in absolutes, that psychopathic killers couldn’t also be gay or lesbian. That would be… wrong?
With two strong villains, you need a strong hero to bring them down, and Neeson fits the part like a natural. To be fair, the role is somewhat stock from a passing description: the loner former cop with the tragic past, a drinking problem, the gruff style, the over-the-hill age, the man trying to adapt to a new and changing world, sometimes not for the better. It’s a role that feels ripped from the tropes of crime thrillers, a world we’ve also become accustomed to seeing Neeson. The detective role is familiar but, like most within Frank’s film, it’s given more time to breath and a surprising degree of attention. This doesn’t come close to last year’s Prisoners in the realm of character work, but it’s still an above-average entry for a genre too often ignored when it comes to realistic and satisfying characterization. Matt Scudder exists in a New York City that owes a debt to the pulpy noir page-turners of old, but it’s not exactly stylized, and neither is he. The man still uses microfilm and needs the assistance of a street-smart homeless teenager to assist him with this newfangled Internet thing. While it feels somewhat forced, the relationship with Matt Scuder and his young protégée is the strongest in the film, opening up the character’s redemptive arc. It’s always appreciated to watch Neeson get to flex his acting muscles rather than just being given action choreography and trite tough guy bravado.
There’s one other actor I’d like to single out, and I’ll thank my mother for this. Fans of Downton Abbey (like dear old mom) may recall Dan Stevens as the dashing and departed Matt Crawley, but he is almost unrecognizable as the grieving husband/drug trafficker that kicks off our story. For one, the guy lost a decent amount of weight and his gaunt face makes him seem all the more mercurial and intense. The characters plays against type with our expectations for a drug dealer, and you may find yourself, like I did, warming to him and yearning for the man’s vengeance for his wife.
Frank’s direction is awash in the grime and seediness of New York City, with dark shadows washing over his troubled characters, and a sense of style that, while omnipresent in tone, doesn’t distract from the story. The rich cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro) is a great asset. The film noir elements are here in abundance and with due diligence. It rains in just about every scene. Why? All the better for a moody and eerier atmosphere, though the rain does actually factor into a character-based conflict for Matt’s protégée. It’s a moody thriller that is assuredly above average for its genre. Not everything quite works (the third act is too drawn out; a montage of AA 12 steps narration over sequences of violence is more than a little heavy-handed; the explicit Y2K setting doesn’t really have a purpose other than to limit certain technological advances not becoming of the genre) but Frank knows how to draw out the strengths of the genre.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty genre throwback, but what really jumped out to me was the hook of the premise. Neeson plays a man on the outer edges of the law but a man who still bends toward the justice system he once worked for. What makes this character unique, or at least the promise of, is that he ends up becoming the private detective for the criminal world, and that I find to be fascinating. We think of criminals, especially drug traffickers, are tough men who can handle their own problems with extreme authority. But they are also just people and can get in over their head as well, and when they need someone with private eye skills, who knows how to operate inside the bounds of the law and out of them, that’s where Neeson comes in. He does such a good job that he gets recommended around the New York ring of drug traffickers. He’s like a Michael Clayton-style fix-it guy but for the criminal underworld, and I think this concept it rife with juicy potential. Tombstones is based upon a series of books by Lawrence Block, so there could be further adventures, and I would welcome them, especially if the finished product is as entertaining as this first foray.
Nate’s Grade: B