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Review – A Monster Calls (12a) [2017]

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Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • JA Bayona – The Orphanage, The Impossible, Untitled Jurassic World Sequel

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Fernando Velázquez – The Orphanage, The Impossible, Mama, Crimson Peak, The Invisible Guest

In medieval and early modern times a series of fairy tales came to the fore in European folklore. Based on true or quasi-mythical events, fantastical stories like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Little Mermaid taught children simple, moral lessons that could be adapted to all eras to help them deal with their problems. JA Boyena’s brilliant, A Monster Calls has a similar moral to its tale.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) looking at the old yew tree in the distance, which is fabled to be a tree that can cure people.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) looking at the old yew tree in the distance, which is fabled to be a tree that can cure people.

The film is based on the book by Patrick Ness, which itself was inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd. The movie centres round lonely, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall). His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness and he is being bullied at school. With so much going on in his life, Conor needs to find an outlet. One night, while at drawing at his desk, the old yew tree near his house comes alive (voiced by Liam Neeson) and advises him on how to deal with his problems.

A Monster Calls is a wonderful, yet heart-breaking fantasy drama. It is a folktale in all but name, since it handles very real issues and enables our protagonist to confront the unfairness of his situation in a constructive and tender way. Also, narratively, the movie links every element of the story together. By the end, viewers understand why Conor sees this particular monster, why the Monster has its voice, and the significance of the Monster’s advice, among others. This makes A Monster Calls all the more moving to watch.

Conor with his ailing mother (Felicity Jones), who is trying to reassure Conor that she will be all right.

Conor with his ailing mother (Felicity Jones), who is trying to reassure Conor that she will be all right.

The movie is delivered with great sensitivity. JA Bayona’s directing is top class and the fantasy parts of the film are always appropriate and never over the top. The script is down to earth and delivered with the right amount of anger, compassion, and bluntness, depending upon the scene. The cast must be commended for this; especially, young Lewis MacDougall. He spends much time on screen alone (or with a CGI monster) and he manages to hold the audience’s attention due to the strength of his acting. This is no easy feat (one need only watch Jayden Smith’s awful performance in After Earth to realise how talented an actor must be to keep viewers interested when he/she is alone on screen). If he continues to perform so well in the future, MacDougall will be a star.

But MacDougall is not the only one who shines. Felicity Jones gives a genuine and heart-felt performance, putting a good spin on her diagnosis for her son despite looking worryingly worse as the film progresses. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver performs splendidly as a grandmother locked in a bygone era, trying to come to terms with losing her daughter and having to look after her grandson. Toby Kebbell, too, does a good job as a man who is not the sharpest pencil in the packet academically, but has emotional intelligence and is trying to do his best for Conor, in spite of his character’s impossible predicament.

If the circumstances aren’t enough to touch people, Fernando Velázquez’s music will do enough to induce lumps in viewers’ throats. His score is subtle and tugs at the heart, thereby giving an added dimension to the pain that our protagonists are suffering, particularly Conor.

Conor facing the (Liam Neeson-voiced) Monster, which looks like a cross between Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Arnie's terminator, urging it to save his mother.

Conor facing the (Liam Neeson-voiced) Monster, which looks like a cross between Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, urging the Monster to save his mother.

Nevertheless, what is it that Conor is actually suffering from? If A Monster Calls has a flaw, it is that the film vocalises Conor’s pain. This comes across as tell-heavy and unnecessary. Just as the timeless fairy tales did not spell out the moral message of their stories, the movie would have been better served if it would have let audiences infer its message. Yet, this is nip-picking as the film should be enjoyed for the wonder that it is.

All-in-all, A Monster Calls is a fabulous, tear-jerking movie. It has a splendid plot, a cast that fulfil their roles superbly, and it finely blends reality and fantasy. What’s more, A Monster Calls has a strong moral message. This is what makes it a twenty-first century fairy tale, comparable to the classic folklore stories. The film offers children a coping mechanism for when they are confronted with a horrible reality.

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Review – Wrath of the Titans 3D (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

The poverty of Clash of the Titans was so blatant, it was embarrassing. Yet, after making an astonishing near-$500million, Hollywood has (rather unsurprisingly) made a sequel. And with Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Battle: Los Angeles, Ninja Turtles) replacing Louis Leterrier as director, Wrath of the Titans is a marked improvement on the first in the series.

Perseus (Sam Worthington), the mortal son of Zeus, taking on a one-eyed giant. Perseus’s hand must be stronger than it looks to hold the giant’s strength at bay.

Wrath of the Titans takes place in ancient Greece, ten years after Perseus defeated the kraken. With his wife now dead, Perseus (Sam Worthington – Clash of the Titans, The Debt, Drift) has to bring up his son, Helius (John Bell – A Shine of Rainbows, Battleship, The Hobbit I-II), alone.

It is then that Zeus (Liam Neeson – Star Wars I, Clash of the Titans, The Dark Knight Rises), Perseus’s father, comes to Earth to warn his son that the gods need the help of the ‘half-gods’ to defeat the storm that is coming in the form of the vengeful titans. With treachery afoot in Tartarus, the underworld in which Hades (Ralph Fiennes – Clash of the Titans, Harry Potter VII(ii), Skyfall) is lord, it is only a matter of time before Cronus, the leader of the titans, unleashes his fury. Perseus will need the help of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy – Pirates of the Caribbean II-III, Harry Potter VII(i), I, Frankenstein), Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike – Die Another Day, An Education, Gone Girl) and her men, as well as the last of the gods and the ‘half-gods’ to defeat the evil that is to strike at ancient Greece.

Yes, the storyline is as ludicrous as that. When a film opens up with a narrator saying that the ancient world was ruled by “gods and monsters,” one has a fairly good idea that he/she is not going to be watching a classic, intellectually-stimulating film (to say the least).

Hades (Ralph Fiennes), the younger brother of Zeus and Lord of the Underworld, holding his pitch fork. Will he side with the evil titans?

Nonetheless, Wrath of the Titans is far from a hundred minutes of painful viewing. To make up for the plot’s (abundant) deficiencies, the film has many fighting scenes and a plethora of pretty good special effects to keep viewers entertained. The clockwork-like structure of the city of Tartarus has been put together exceptionally well, with much creativity and imagination. If there is one redeeming feature of the movie, it is Tartarus. (And it would have looked even better had the producers bothered to put some effort into the 3D.)

In addition, Wrath of the Titans is surprisingly accurate when it comes to informing its audience on certain aspects of ancient Greek mythology, such as how Hades became Lord of the Underworld; and who made his forked-pitch, as well as Zeus’ bolt and Poseidon’s triton.

However, the parts of the movie that have been done well are likely to be forgotten amidst the paucity of the rest of it. The music sounds like a contrived version of the uplifting score used in Transformers I-III. And if the music and the storyline aren’t bad enough, the acting and the dialogue are wooden and shallow. Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramires (The Bourne Ultimatum, Carlos the Jackal, Zero Dark Thirty), playing Ares, and Toby Kebbell (Match Point, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, The East), playing Agenor, are all seemingly unfit for their respective roles (and it’s not as if Worthington hasn’t played a hero before either).

Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) looking good as a warrior queen in boiled leather. Will her army rally to her cause to save ancient Greece from the destruction that will be unleashed with the wrath of the titans?

Moreover, one must wonder why Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and, to some extent, Bill Nighy, who reprises his bizarre Scottish accent that he used in Pirates of the Caribbean II-III, would accept such roles. One almost doesn’t want to see them in these sorts of films as they can only humiliate themselves by doing so. (Seriously, do they need the money that much?)

All-in-all, Wrath of the Titans suffers from similar insufficiencies as Clash of the Titans. The film has a ludicrous storyline, a cast that plays poorly, and an appalling script. Nonetheless, Wrath of the Titans is quite entertaining and an upgrade on the first in the series. Not that that is saying much.

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Review – Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (U) [2012; originally released in 1999]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Star Wars, the saga that revolutionised special effects, has returned to the cinema. Thirteen years after it left the big screens, and now poorly adapted into 3D, Episode I: The Phantom Menace provides viewers with a convenient excuse to review the franchise from the beginning, and once more enjoy enlarged lightsaber v sith duels and mesmerising sci-fi-style battle scenes. (Warning, spoilers in this review.)

Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd). It is hard to see him as the masked villain of the saga at this point.

The Phantom Menace begins with turmoil engulfing the Galactic Republic. The Trade Federation has put up a blockade around the planet Nabu, due to a new taxation in trade routes. The Trade Federation wants to bring Nabu’s queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman – Black Swan, Thor, Lawless), to her knees and make her yield to their demands, using any means at their disposal.

Unknown to the Trade Federation, the Jedi Council have sent two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson – The Next Three Days, Unknown, Wrath of the Titans) and his apprentice, Obi-Won Kenobi (Ewan McGregor – Star Wars I-III, Beginners, The Impossible), to rescue Amidala. That way she can bring her case to the Senate. Yet, as they fly past the blockade, their starship is damaged and they are forced to land on Tatooine to repair the ship.

On Tatooine, a planet outside of the republic’s orbit, Qui-Gon and Amidala come across a cute, little slave boy, called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd – Jingle All The Way, The Pretender, Madison). Qui-Gon sees something in Anakin, believing him to be the one who will bring balance to the Force.

After buying Anakin’s freedom, via the young boy’s pod race success, Qui-Gon takes him to the Jedi Council, where he hopes the council will allow him to train Anakin as his second apprentice. But the council is wary of Anakin. Yoda (Frank Oz – Star Wars I-VI, Sesame Street, Monsters University) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson – Star Wars I-III, Coach Carter, The Avengers Assemble) sense ‘great fear’ in him. They’re not wrong because Anakin fears for his mother’s survival. But, still, fear can only lead one way: the dark side.

Simultaneously, the unknown (phantom-like) Sith Lord and future emperor, Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid – Star Wars I-III & VI, Crime & Punishment, Margaret), urges his stooges in the Trade Federation to find Qui-Gon and Obi-Won. When they fail, Darth Sidious orders his apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park – X-Men, Heroes, Avarice), to find and kill the Jedi knights.

Queen Amidala/Padmé (Natalie Portman) leading from the front in the fight for the freedom of her planet.

The plot for The Phantom Menace is enjoyable and surprisingly intelligent. The film has a thrilling pod race tournament and the second best lightsaber v sith battle of the franchise (second after the epic duel between Obi-Won and Anakin/Darth Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith); yet, the disputes over the trade blockade also make for a fascinating insight into the political workings of the republic.

More than anything, the disagreements in the republic reveal the cunning of Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid), as he slowly lays down the foundations for his arrogation of power. Behind the scenes, Palpatine commands the Trade Foundation (which will become the Separatist movement later in the series) to declare war on Nabu. To Queen Amidala, though, his advice is to go to the Senate and urge Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp – Wanted, The Adjustment Bureau, Big Eyes) to take action against the Trade Foundation. But knowing that the chancellor is incapable of doing that, due to being hamstrung by ‘bureaucrats’ (most likely Palpatine’s cronies), Palpatine recommends Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence in Valorum in the Senate to pave the way for a ‘stronger’ chancellor. (And guess who Palpatine might mean by that? Isn’t it a coincidence that he just happens to be voted in next?)

At the same time, Palpatine promises young Anakin that he will ‘watch over’ his Jedi training and be a father-like figure to him. The kindness of the gesture is unsettling to watch, knowing that Palpatine intends to exploit Anakin’s vulnerabilities to groom him as his long-term apprentice.

Ian McDiarmid plays well as the duplicitous Palpatine, despite the character’s crudeness. Yet, the star of the film is undoubtedly Liam Neeson. Even the most ridiculous of lines seem (almost) plausible when he speaks, and nothing looks (overly) contrived either. The same cannot be said for Natalie Portman or Ewan McGregor, who both give very poor and detached displays; whilst Jake Lloyd’s performance is passable at best. His enthusiasm and confidence (obnoxiousness) is refreshing at first, but becomes repetitive and annoying after a while.

The fantastic three-way fight scene between Qui-Gon, Obi-Won and Darth Maul. Who will not survive?

The acting and dialogue may not be noteworthy, but the special effects are enthralling (even if they’ve been touched up considerably since 1999). It is just a shame that the 3D is hardly visible. The three-way duel at the end would have been even more of a spectacle had it been properly adapted; especially, with the atmospheric theme ‘Duel of the Fates’ for accompaniment.

Although the 3D is inadequate, The Phantom Menace is an entertaining movie. Once more, audiences can enjoy the impressive battle scenes and pod races; be dazzled by the special effects and lightsabers; and be intrigued by the way Palpatine abuses his powers for his ultimate goals. But most importantly of all, The Phantom Menace starts to explain how and why Anakin becomes Darth Vedar.

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Review – Unknown (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

After viewing the trailer for Unknown, one gets the impression that they’ve seen this type of action film before. One knows the movie won’t be great, but will probably be worth the watch. On this premise, Unknown does not let the audience down.

The car crash that leaves Dr. Martin Harris, played by Liam Neeson, in a coma for four days.

The film revolves around Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson – Schindler’s List, Star Wars I, The Dark Knight Rises), a researcher/lecturer who is in Berlin for a conference, with his wife, Liz (January Jones – Madmen, American Pie: The Wedding, Anger Management). Martin realises, once he’s at the hotel he’s due to stay at, that he has left a suitcase at the airport. On his way back to the airport, an accident occurs. A fridge-freezer falls out of the van in front of the cab. The cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger – Troy, National Treasure I & II, Inglorious Basterds), swerves out of the way; but loses control of the vehicle. The car smashes into a boundary on a bridge and crashes into the lake.

When Martin wakes up, he’s in hospital after spending four days in a coma. No-one has come to look for him, including his wife. Martin releases himself early from hospital so as to find Liz. However, when he finds her, she maintains that she’s never seen him; plus she is with another man who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn – Wild Child, Legends of the Fall, Frankenstein). Without ID ‘the real’ Dr. Martin Harris has no way of proving his identity. To compound matters for the ‘real Martin’, he soon discovers that people are after him and he has no clue why.

The plot for Unknown is entertaining and fast paced, despite having many loose-ends. It also has car chases so far-fetched that those in The Fast And The Furious series may not look so ridiculous anymore. The twist is not unpredictable either, but this does not ruin the film.

The ‘real Dr. Martin Harris’ being taken away by security after his wife, Liz, claims that she doesn’t recognise him.

The quality of the acting is about as good as the storyline. Liam Neeson plays decently enough as usual; although this is far from his most challenging role. As January Jones and Aiden Quinn don’t appear much on screen, it’s hardly fair to judge them. The same can be said for Bruno Gantz (who plays Adolf Hitler in Downfall; The Reader) and Frank Llangela (Superman Returns, Frost/Nixon, Wall Street 2).

The only other actor with a notable role in Unknown is Diane Kruger. Despite looking pretty (and skinny) throughout the movie, her Bosnian accent is hardly plausible. It is interesting that the director, Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax, Goal II: Living The Dream), chose to play her as a Bosnian when filming in her native country. Then again, one does suppose that actors are paid to act. If that is the case then Kruger’s performance is not much better than her Bosnian accent. It is also hard to imagine one behaving in the way Gina does; especially once she grasps the reality of Martin’s situation.

All in all, Unknown is a distinctly average movie that is fun and entertaining. It is a light film devoid of complexity and quality; yet, filled with action and a solid performance from Liam Neeson.

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