Film Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st October 2014.

The trailer might suggest yet another addition to the Liam Neeson Action Hero Kills Europe™ franchise but A Walk Among the Tombstones is a thoughtfully paced gumshoe thriller that harks back to detective mystery movies of old.

Sure, some of the tropes are present: the threatening phone call, punching a bad guy through a window, a kid sidekick and so on, but there is more talking than action this time, and that’s why this film works.

Matt Skudder (Neeson) is a former cop and alcoholic with a traumatic past. Working as an unlicensed private eye, he is recruited by drug kingpin Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and his junkie brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook) to investigate a kidnapping where the ransom has been delivered and the victim returned, in pieces. Teaming up with wise beyond his years street kid TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Skudder discovers that this is not a random event, but a series of murders.

Adapted from the novel by Lawrence Block, screenwriter and director Scott Frank, whose varied writing credits include The Wolverine and Marley and Me, creates an atmospheric gritty New York City where everyone has a secret and shifty characters slowly cruise the streets in panel vans.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an intense and effective thriller that deserves your attention.

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:46  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd June 2014.

After making a splash on the big screen with his directorial debut, the hilarious Ted (he also voiced the titular talking teddy bear), Seth MacFarlane returns with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Still a powerhouse on television with his three ongoing animation franchises, Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane has placed himself front and centre in the lead role, a gutsy move considering his usual place is behind the camera or microphone, and his poorly received gig hosting the Oscars last year.

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From the beautiful opening aerial visuals of Monument Valley, Utah, alongside a memorable rousing score by Joel McNeely, it is clear that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild love westerns. By the end of the film, you’ll also know that MacFarlane and company also love fart, excrement and lowbrow sexual gags. If you like (or love) all of this stuff, you will have a great time with A Million Ways to Die in the West. I certainly did. I’ve even gone as far as to recommend it to my dad, a western fan, although I have a suspicion that I may live to regret that decision.

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Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer with limited prospects and a lack of the courage required to survive in the Wild West. When his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the far more successful moustache product merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert befriends the beautiful and gunsmart Anna (Charlize Theron) who agrees to help him win his beloved back. Unfortunately, Anna is married to the psychotic criminal Clinch (Liam Neeson), and their blossoming relationship soon has Albert preparing to meet his maker in the inevitable gunfight with Clinch, that is, if he survives a shootout with Foy first.

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MacFarlane has assembled a fantastic cast that is pretty much willing to do anything in the name of laughs. I’ve always found Charlize Theron to be lacking in warmth onscreen but on this occasion she radiates charisma, and clearly has a strong chemistry with MacFarlane. Neil Patrick Harris is at his smarmy, campy best. And the combination of Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a devoutly religious couple who are saving themselves for marriage despite her occupation as a prostitute is dynamite. As for MacFarlane himself, he makes a relatable leading man and I’d like to see more of him in front of the camera.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West is a very knowing comedy. Our hero Albert is well aware that life in the Wild West is hard and usually cut short by a multitude of deadly factors (many of them hilariously depicted onscreen). With quite a few current pop culture references, it is best described as a modern comedy that happens to be set in 1882.

The high water mark for the comedy western is undoubtably Mel Brooks’ sublime Blazing Saddles. Sure, it had fart jokes too, but they worked on more than one level. The famous baked beans scene (I can’t believe I am trying to argue that a fart joke is sophisticated) is not only funny for obvious reasons but it is also clever because it breaks the long established contrivances of the genre. Combine this with the confronting reflections on race and you have a comedy western that has something to say. MacFarlane’s film isn’t nearly half as smart and has nothing more to say than life in 1882 sucked, but that doesn’t stop it from being a laugh a minute romp that those with open minds will enjoy.

Taken for a ride – Review: Taken 2

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 16th October 2012.

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

With this ominous speech in 2008’s Taken, actor Liam Neeson completely altered his Hollywood persona from a serious dramatic actor to a bona fide action star. A surprise package, Taken was an unexpected hit at the box office. As retired CIA agent Bryan Mills, Neeson has only four days to track down his daughter, Kim, after she is kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers in Paris.

Using guns, knives, fists, torture and electricity, Neeson destroys 35 bad guys during the course of the movie. Taken is a bloody, violent affair which doesn’t attempt to hide the outcomes of combat, and I really enjoyed it.

Of course, a hit movie pretty much guarantees a sequel, and in the immortal words of Bruce Willis’ John McClane  in Die Hard 2, “How can the same s**t happen to the same guys twice?” Well, Willis is now onto his fifth Die Hard film and last week, Neeson returned to the silver screen as Bryan Mills in Taken 2.

Unfortunately, if like me you prefer your brawn to come with brains, you’ll be disappointed with Taken 2 as it’s possibly one of the most stupid films of the year. This time, Neeson takes his ex-wife and daughter (Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace, reprising their roles from the original) to Istanbul where they are targeted by the revenge seeking relatives of the deceased Albanians from the first film, led by Rade Serbedzija (best known for playing Dmitri Gredenko in season 6 of 24 and numerous other eastern European baddies).

Vengeful relatives travelling to improbable locations in a movie sequel? That would be the plot of the craptastic Jaws: The Revenge (1987) stolen wholesale. In fact, I think I’d rather watch Michael Caine make a shark explode by hitting it with a boat than watch Taken 2 again.

As an insult to intelligent Albanian human traffickers everywhere, the film also utilises the ridiculous plot conceit from the original camp Batman TV series. With known lethal weapon Neeson captured and tied up with his ex-wife in a basement, the villains reveal their plans, set up a death trap for the pair and happily leave them to escape.

Rubbing salt into our wounds, to broaden the potential audience, the violence has been toned down to an M rating, alienating the action movies fans who championed the original in the first place.

Neeson turned 60 this year, which surely makes him eligible for membership in The Expendables. Despite this, Taken 3 seems inevitable. In the meantime, go and see Looper instead, or better still, rewatch the original.

Published in: on October 23, 2012 at 11:14  Leave a Comment  
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