RUN ALL NIGHT**Exhausting


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“RUN ALL NIGHT” is yet another loud testosterone fueled Liam Neeson high body count carnage-fest. But unlike the second and third “Taken’s” this one has a trace more of an idea that holds it together better and at least offers some glimpse of the acting chops that we remember about Liam Neeson the once great actor (Remember “Schindler’s List”?), now in hiding from Liam Neeson the action star.

The story is about the lengths a ‘real man’ has to go to protect his family (women are largely an afterthought in this film). Liam is Jimmy Conlon, aka “the Gravedigger”, a retired mob enforcer. He’s seeking to protect his son, Michael (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman of “RoboCop” and “The Killing” fame) – both from a vengeance obsessed Sean McGuire (Ed Harris), Jimmy’s ex boss and mob leader, and also from ever slipping into a world on the wrong side of the law. Michael himself is seeking to protect his family both from McGuire’s storm troopers as well as from any influence his disreputable, brooding, drunk, ex hit-man father may potentially exert over his young daughters.

But things have gone sour. Both men have gone straight. Alas, McGuire’s criminal DNA has been passed on to his wild, irresponsible son (Boyd Holbrook from “Gone Girl” and also from Liam’s last action flick, “A Walk Among the Tombstones”). The son has gotten involved with a gang of Albanian drug traffickers; all to prove his mettle to dad.

Well, it’s a small world and before you know it, young McGuire is gunning for Michael who’s witnessed his murder of the Albanians. Fortunately, and not for the last time, Jimmy (Liam) arrives just in time to protect Michael by killing the young McGuire.

Two fathers bound together in blood with two sons, one of whom is now dead.

Personally I’d have shot the son in the kneecaps or something. But Jimmy shoots him in the neck, fesses up to the killing to his ex mob boss friend (beneath the villainy and murder that marked his past, he’s a loyal and essentially honest friend) and now, what with McGuire and an army of thugs, not to mention a professional hit man (Common, who did the Oscar winning song from “Selma”) after them, he and son must… run all night.

And shoot everyone in sight.

Neeson has charisma and screen presence to spare. So that even at its most ludicrously improbable, he still manages to inject enough empathy and humanity into a stock character for us to give a damn. And stock character it certainly is: it ticks all the boxes of the faux Hollywood personality traits that are employed in (what seems like all of…) Liam’s recent movies. This particular character, Jimmy, isn’t that much of a stretch. He’s ‘done’ the brooding drunk type before. You no doubt remember that he was also a drunk, washed-up, has-been in “Non Stop” (the one where he was an ex cop on a transatlantic flight with a killer on the loose) or when he was a recovering alcoholic and also an ex-cop in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (the one where he’s also fighting the mob). He’s one of a long list of drunks reluctantly driven to flights of heroism headlined of course by Bruce Willis’ John McClane.

Perhaps the 4A’s should incorporate vigilantism and revenge as part of its 10 step formula, as it certainly works well. You need a steady hand to fire a gun on the run.

The director is Spaniard, Jaume Collet-Serra who has clearly learned a lot from the Michael Mann/Tony Scott genre of high concept action. “Run All Night” like his previous outing “Non-Stop” is fast, taut, exciting and what with all that running, quite exhausting.

And after a long day at the office, a couple of hours watching Liam recover from an alcoholic stupor to take out every bad guy in a dark and grungy New York is almost as good as a martini (though not quite)

STILL ALICE: Read the book instead


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STILL ALICE IS as traumatic as you’d expect with a well-deserved Oscar for Julianne Moore…even though it’s just an OK movie. The story (from Lisa Genova’s excellent novel of the same name) centers around Alice Howard (Julianne Moore), a renowned Linguistics academic who, as the movie begins, in the middle of a lecture, forgets – naturally – a word. This simple slip – it happens to us all – is the beginning of the end; and we follow as Alice’s brilliant mind, and her whole world, collapses.

The self possessed, well respected Alice morphs, as her early onset Alzheimer’s becomes more and more pronounced into a lost, dependent child-like person. Of her illness, at the time when she’s still lucid, she says, “I wish I had cancer. People wear pink ribbons for people with cancer. But for Alzheimer’s, it’s just an embarrassment”. It’s worse than an embarrassment. This is a disease that’s hereditary. Alice must face her three children, one of whom is pregnant, with the awful fact that there’s a 50/50 chance of some or all of them inheriting the disease.

It’s almost as though, as her world shrinks – from that of well respected global traveller to someone increasingly confined to a room under watchful eyes – her legacy is set to expand.

Whilst it is unfair to compare a movie with literature, in this case the comparison makes sense as it perhaps pin-points what’s wrong with the movie: “Still Alice” the book was centered entirely within the deteriorating mind of the protagonist. As a reader, you were made privy, in a very clever way, to one person’s unique, confused, selfish, frightened view of the world. The central conceit the book seeks to dramatize is a simple one: what is the meaning of self? If individuality is the sum of a person’s memories and experiences and interactions; and these memories begin to fade, what then happens to the individual? Is there something deeper than memory or friendship or familial love – all of which disappear – that retains the core of what makes a person a person? Will Alice still be Alice even as she slips into intellectual oblivion?

The problem with the movie is that directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmorland shift the focus away from an internal, introspective journey and transform the story into a soapy domestic drama about how families cope in times of stress. Alec Baldwin is husband John, whose caring and love is not enough to seduce him away from his self centered careerist drive; Kate Bosworth is daughter Anna – prim, self-righteous, and equally self centered around becoming the perfect mum. The only one who is prepared to put herself on hold in order to take care of the woman who, for her, remains still Alice is the rebel daughter Lydia (an outstanding Kristin Stewart).

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In her book, Lisa Genova (who also co-wrote the screenplay) knitted together elements of Alice’s memory and fragments of her past in order to offer the reader a perspective of who Alice was so that the extent of the loss became that much more poignant (there’s a nice moment when Lydia yields her diary – a record of memory – to her mother, almost as if there’s a need to compensate for the loss that’s taking place). But in the movie, the past is shown simply as a few blurred 8mm scenes of clichéd and generic “family life”. We never really get to grips with who Alice really was, and indeed how the past makes us who we are. The focus is so centered on how well Julianne Moore portrays the onset of Alzheimer’s that the driving idea of the book vanishes.

Since we never get to know who Alice is, the question of whether she is still Alice or no becomes beside the point.

The overriding questions become: will John leave New York and take up the big job in Minnesota? Will Lydia go to college as Alice wishes? Does Lydia have the Alzheimer’s gene? Do we give a shit?

 

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE*** All baaaaah, no humbug


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WITH THE OSCARS just around the corner and as we prepare to celebrate another season of brilliant acting and scintillating dialogue, along comes a very funny movie that manages just fine without either. In “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, the Claymation geniuses at Aardman (“Wallace and Grommet”, “Flushed Away”, “Chicken Run” etc.) have once again found the magic formula that combines great storytelling, pop culture reference points, broad slapstick comedy and extraordinary craftsmanship.

It’s a stunningly well written movie with only grunts, baas, cock-crowings, growls and sundry proxies for words to evoke an aural world that’s no doubt exactly how a sheep experiences it. The skillful storytelling of director/writers Mark Burton and Richard Starzak coaxes us into a tale that gallops along without a single false note.

From the very beginning, we’re cleverly teased into the mindset of the sheep: at ‘the farm’ we’re introduced to a world that’s safe, comfortable and boringly repetitive. And what self-respecting sheep would want too much of that? It’s no wonder that Shaun, inspired by a piece of advertising (damn advertising!), persuades his fellow sheep that they need to take a break. The flock follow his rebellious lead like, well, sheep.

And of course it all goes wrong. Before you know it, the farmer is in hospital in the big noisy city (the opposite to the quiet safe world of the countryside) suffering from amnesia. Naturally he needs to be rescued by his ever-loyal flock (who wouldn’t?). Fortunately, unlike the farmer – who’s a few bottles short of a crate – these are really smart sheep. They, along with Trumper the sheepdog, set off –natch- in a search and rescue mission. And then things really get complicated.
But not too complicated. Aardman have mastered the delicate balancing act of keeping the kids entertained and excited (enough to probably come back again and again and thereafter see it twenty more times)… all the while entertaining the adults too with its mix of sly in jokes (we meet a dog who’s really a canine version of Hannibal Lecter), visual puns and their sheer mastery of the medium.

For the medium is very much the message.
We’ve become such sophisticated movie-goers these days that when it’s done well, we can buy in to the immersive magic of the cinematic experience- say Sandra Bullock floating around in space- even when we know how it’s done (blue screen, CGI, what have you). And unless it’s badly done (some of the endless wars in “The Hobbit” with their clearly computer generated armies), the invisibility of the effects (the bear in “Paddington” for instance) becomes in itself a dimension in the thrill of the experience.

But here, not unlike those marvelous Pixar movies, the opaqueness of the technique’s the thing… it adds to the delight. For part of the pleasure of this movie lies in our appreciation of just how clever the movie making – the Claymation – is. We marvel at just how much – human – expression the team can squeeze from a lump of clay. When the farmer shears a wriggling lamb and the wool flies here and there, what could have been a pretty nondescript scene in any other format is transformed into something wondrous. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they do that? How long did it all take? (four years by the way) How extraordinary it all is!”

Go quickly, grab a child somewhere (having of course gotten written permission from the parents) and regress into the sunny delight of “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (Then treat yourself for a well done rack of lamb)

 

Shaun the Sheep Movie. Dir: Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. Art Department: 58 persons; animation department: 22 persons

 

 

SELMA***** King of the Oscars


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THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS this year for movie of the year have by and large veered largely between the decorous (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game”), the inoffensive (“Whiplash”, The Grand Budapest Hotel”and “Boyhood”) and the despicable (“American Sniper”). Really, only two stand out; only two don’t seem to have been written by accountants, lawyers and marketing men… shorn of passion, and burnished into an inoffensive safety zone: “Birdman”, that delirious, trippy flight of redemption and the extraordinary “Selma”. The latter is the stunningly powerful, emotionally rich and flawlessly directed movie that focuses on that one moment in America’s modern civil war when, in 1965, the State unleashed horrendous violence on its Black population as they struggled to get voter registration. Into this cauldron of hate and anger emerged one of its most powerful leaders, Martin Luther King.
Director Ava DuVernay has given us a movie of rare, raw and heartfelt passion. It zeros in on King’s uncompromising drive to make the constitutional freedom to vote – denied to the Black community ‘down South’ – a legal, actionable reality. The movie’s success is that, from that first shocking explosion, it manages to breathe felt life into the often abstract idea of the qualities that make for true leadership, as embodied by her all too human hero.

The storytelling unfolds on two interconnected levels: the historical events that took place at Selma (some of the footage is actual TV footage of the carnage), and – “cometh the moment, cometh the man”- the man whose leadership transformed a country.
But the movie isn’t about King per se. It’s not one of those ‘warts and all’ bio-pics. It’s about the idea of leadership. This is not to say that we aren’t privy to a strong sense of the man. DuVernay, and the outstanding David Oyelowo as King, give us a man who is thoughtful, eloquent, empathetic and deeply spiritual. He is also stubborn, and, we are told, unfaithful (that’s the warts side). He is the good father and the flawed husband. But he is more, and this is where the movie’s focus lies.

“Selma” offers us a meditation on the nature of leadership. We see three contrasting examples of it: LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) is the amoral politician, the leader of the nation for whom ‘the Negro question’ is just a pain in the ass; George Wallace (Tim Roth), governor of his State is a segregationist demagogue, gutlessly egging on his voting base still locked into a plantation mentality. To these two archetypes add the Black warrior activists intent on the catharsis violence.

King has traces of all of them: he too is an astute politician who knows how to use the occasion to his own advantage, who knows how to use his access to the President to further his cause; his extraordinary preacher’s eloquence is his demagogic gift; and he is, albeit peaceful, a masterful activist. But he transcends these labels. What none of them have is a clarity of moral vision, an abiding sense of faith and self belief that his is a mission of God.

His faith energizes and empowers him. In an exchange with LBJ, the President tells King (something like) ‘You’re an activist, and you do what you have to do. I’m a politician, and I do what I have to do”. Not for the first time, LBJ misreads King’s sincerity. For he is much more than an activist, he’s a genuine, faith energized, cynicism free leader, fighting- it is made clear – not for Blacks as a distinct group, but for Americans, and the idea of American justice, of which Blacks are just a part.

It is this moral stature – the mark of true leadership – that enables him to rise to the challenge offered by the events in Selma, and that gives him the courage and strength to be able to take on the state and its stubborn vested interests.

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And just as King, the leader, transcends King the (flawed) man, LBJ’s moment of truth also comes during a conversation with an unyielding George Wallace. LBJ tells him to think beyond 1965 to 1985. How will history judge them, he wonders. Wallace is unmoved; it is as if the hatred that fuels racism cannot stand up to the honesty of introspection.

In Selma, the movie suggests, the U.S had reached the tipping point. The violence was shocking. The Storm Trooper forces that try to block King’s march from Selma to Montgomery (State capital) bludgeon everyone in sight: young and old, men and women, the fit and the infirm. The Blacks are attacked with the venomousness of a society seething with pent up anger.

It was King’s determined leadership that shifted the course of history away from further quasi civil war to a more hopeful place. DuVernay suggests that Selma represents the point at which, for some, the pragmatism of politics yielded to the promise of justice. The point when politicians and activists became leaders, the point when the Black/White divide collapsed into the idea of the American. (A straight line past Andrew Young who became mayor of Atlanta to Obama?)
There is no question that this is the outstanding movie of the year, and that David Oyelowo is the outstanding actor of the year. That he failed to earn even an Oscar nomination is probably just a tawdry mix of xenophobia (“not another bloody Brit”…after all the roles of King, Coretta his wife and LBJ are all acted by Brits) and good old racism. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
And yet, the movie is an uplifting and optimistic one. DuVernay’s shows how the peace and faith and sense of brotherhood that defined King’s American dream is a true beacon shining in the night. The movie’s force lies in its ability to move beyond a – dated- dramatization of history to a perspective of a path to be followed.
It certainly is a path much needed. The police still seem to kill Black people with impunity. The visceral hate many Red state Republicans have for – ‘foreign-born’ – Obama is undisguised racism, The CIA’s wiretapping then has turned into the NSA’s omni-surveillance.

Where’s King now that we need him more than ever?

 

Selma: dir Ava DuVernay. David Oyelowo (King), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. Wallace) Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Giovanni Ribisi (counselor to the president). Writer: Paul Webb, Exec producer Brad Pitt

KINGSMAN** Kick Ass for teen boys


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“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE” IS EXPENSIVE, slickly produced and studded with a scatter of fine acting talent. It’s entertaining fluff; a momentary diversion of glittering nonsense in this pre-Oscar season of heavy, humourless drama.
The producers (Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” “Kick Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) have either cannily or cynically combined a mashup of spy movie archetypes to which the script of “Kingsman…” often and archly refers. You can just imagine the sales pitch:
“Guys, imagine a Spy Movie Greatest Hits (and by the way, you don’t need to imagine. This thick report I got here outlines all the scenes and hero characteristics our demo love best. You don’t need to read the whole report. There’s an executive summary at the front. We got Peter Brand (he’s the stats chap from “Moneyball”) to build us an algorithm, charting audience reactions. We call ‘em “likes and spikes”. Like I was saying, Peter has projected exactly what’s going to get 19 year old boys roaring:
“First of all, lots of really cool action scenes like Denzel in “The Equalizer”. Matthew [Vaugn] our director and one of the producers just did “X Men: First Class”. So he knows how to shoot action. And, gentlemen, let me remind you that that grossed $335M worldwide.
“It needs a clear, easy to follow plot, with something techy involved, like “Live Free and Die Hard”. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to the movies to feel dumb. It’s the KISS formula: keep it simple and stupid.
“It needs a young hip, edgy rebel type hero who gets to escape his shitty neighbourhood and dress in very cool clothes. Every member of the audience is going to relate to this. Also, what our research has shown is that guys are feeling bypassed by all these chick heroines… Katniss Evergreen, Tris from “Dvergent” and that lot. So in a sense, this movie’ll be fulfilling a social, a moral function. There’s a young Welch guy who can do London cockney really well, especially now that there are no young real cockney actors ‘cause they can’t afford acting school. He’s Taron Egerton – just did “Testament of Youth”
“I digress.
“We need a cool, badass Black dude. The ethnic audience is a mother lode of moulah. And Sammy Jackson has already signed. He says he’s gonna do the whole thing with a lisp; a sort of effete, maybe gay bad guy. A Black version of Javier Badem from “Skyfall”
“The plot needs a Tommy Lee Jones tutor figure, you know from “Men in Black”? That kind of tutor figure goes down real well. Think Yoda or Gandalf or Haymitch from “Hunger Games”. And we’ve got… wait for it: A-lister Colin, the babe magnet, Firth. The accent just slays ‘em every time. He says he’s going to channel John Steed from “The Avengers”, with the same shoes Rosa Klebb had in “From Russia with Love”. You remember them? The ones with knives in the tips. And he needs the work: been in a lot of stuff recently that nobody’s seen. Remember “Before I go to Sleep”? No? Well no one else does.
“And the babes are just going to sizzle. We’ve found this outrageous hottie from Algeria. Name’s Sofia Boutella. Starred in the underrated “Monsters: Dark Continent”. Here’s her Head shot. More important, here’s her Body shot. Imagine her in tight spandex; and imagine, instead of legs, she has killer blades. Below the knees she’s all Moulinex.

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“We’ve also got a proper, upper class, posh type. Emma Watson was coming in too steep, so we signed Sophie Cookson. Did a bit of TV stuff, but waiting to strike it big.

“And also waiting to strike it big is that great Brit actor Mark Strong. He was in “Imitation Game”, “Zero dark Thirty”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Great actor who no-one remembers. So we got him cheap too

“And of course Michael Caine. He’s not particularly good, but I refuse to allow Chris Nolan to monopolize him.

“And then, following the research, the movie needs lots of very cool gear. This is what research shows people most miss in the new Bond movies. Where’s all the cool gear Bond got from Q? Well, we have it here: exploding lighters, laser watches, X-ray vision glasses, bullet proof machine gun umbrellas.

“We throw all that together with explosions, car chases, airplanes that hide underground like X-Men, and I tell you, gentlemen, we’ve got us a winner.

“Well what do you think?”

“I really like it. I particularly like the fact that it feels like a sequel even though it’s the first one”

“Sign here on the dotted line”

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Dir: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: First Class”. “The Debt”. “Kick Ass”) and others. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Sunshine on Leith”); Composer: Henry Jackman (“The Interview”, “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Captain Phillips”)