Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
“A Monster Calls” is unflinchingly honest, a harrowing tale of a boy who yearns for escapism but instead receives an unwanted but much-needed dose of reality. There isn’t a wasted word in its script, the cinematography ranges from gorgeous to bleak to terrifying, and at its core is an outstanding performance by 14-year-old Lewis MacDougall, starring in only his second film. In fact, he upstages a sci-fi legend without even trying.
The life of English boy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is, well, shit. His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from terminal cancer (his father left the two of them long ago), he is bullied at school, and as his mother gets sicker, he is forced to spend more time with his stuffy grandmother (aforementioned sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver). He stays up late drawing as a means of avoiding his recurring nightmare. One night shortly after midnight, he is visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), which comes to life from the yew tree that is visible from his bedroom window. The monster tells Conor that he is going to tell him three stories, and then Conor is going to tell the monster a fourth one, and the story must be true. The stories the monster tells Conor do not offer him any comfort, and as his mother’s condition worsens, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point where Conor has difficulty separating the two, acting out in one world when he thinks he’s in the other.
Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
It’s not often that there’s a movie set at the turn of the millennium or a truly engaging film released during the limbo months between blockbuster seasons, but Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones” delivers on both counts.
Liam Neeson Stars as Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective who used to have a very unhealthy habit of chasing booze with as much passion as he chased bad guys. The two intersected with tragic results when he took a booth at his favorite dive just as two thugs were robbing the place, blowing away the bartender in the process. What follows is a shootout that grabs you by the throat and leaves Scudder reexamining his life.
Flash forward to 1999, where we find a clean and sober Scudder. He’s traded in his police title (but still holds on to the badge) for a private eye shingle. Fresh out of an AA meeting, Scudder is approached by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife was recently kidnapped and murdered. Scudder is a bit conflicted working with the yuppie junior drug kingpin, but forty grand helps ease his inner turmoil. Just as he’s had enough of Kristo and his business, a young girl (Danielle Rose Russell) is abducted by the kidnappers and Scudder goes all-in on finding them and making sure no one is taken again.
Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson
There’s a reason why there aren’t many comedy Westerns, and even fewer that are actually any good, and that’s because the subgenre as a whole is very difficult to pull off. So you have to credit Seth MacFarlane for not only having the cojones to follow up “Ted” with such an offbeat genre hybrid film, but actually succeed where so many others have failed. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is probably his most ambitious project to date, and although that may sound strange for a man who made a movie about a talking teddy bear, it’s nice to see a filmmaker with that kind of confidence. Like most things in MacFarlane’s career, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is guaranteed to divide audiences, but it’s a really solid comedy with more than enough laughs to offset its minor shortcomings.
MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who’s astutely aware of just how horrible life is in 1882 Arizona. After weaseling his way out of a gun fight, Albert’s embarrassed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the arrogant owner of the local moustachery. While contemplating leaving town for a fresh start, Albert saves a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) and they immediately bond over their shared hatred of the Wild West. When Albert challenges Foy to a duel in the hope of winning back Louise, Anna agrees to help him become a better gunfighter, falling for the lovable loser in the process. But what Albert doesn’t realize is that Anna is married to a dangerous outlaw named Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who rides into town upon hearing of Anna’s infidelity to kill the man that stole his woman.
Because of Liam Neeson’s presence, some have described “Non-Stop” as “’Taken on a Plane,” but a more apt description would be “Speed on a Red Eye,” as in the underrated 2005 Wes Craven thriller “Red Eye.” There is a ticking clock that (conveniently) resets several times, a villain hiding in plain sight, and post-9/11 paranoia by the truckload. The beats and twists may be familiar, but it’s well executed, and director Jaume Collet-Serra wisely resists the urge to go turbo, as it were, resulting in a film that is not the action-packed thriller that its trailers suggest, and all the better because of it.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an air marshal boarding a plane leaving New York for London. A few hours into the flight, Bill receives a text on his secure server notifying him that a passenger on the plane intends to kill someone every 20 minutes until his demands are met (read: a wheelbarrow full of cash). Bill enlists flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and seatmate Jen (Julianne Moore) to help him isolate potential suspects, but quickly has reasons to suspect that either of them might be in on the plot. While this is playing out on the plane, the media on the ground is running with the story that Bill is in fact the hijacker, and once the world hears of Bill’s flaws (divorced, temper issues, drinking problem), he not only loses the trust of the public and gives the news networks a sexy (if completely backwards) narrative, he also loses the trust of people on the plane, the pilots, and the co-workers on the ground assigned to assist him. Worse, he still doesn’t know who is taunting him or what their end game is.
“It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday.
“Michael Collins” is a 1996 historical biopic starring Liam Neeson as the titular Irish revolutionary. Written and directed by Academy Award winner Neil Jordan, the film won the Golden Lion, the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, and became the highest-grossing picture of all-time in Ireland upon its release. The high profile cast includes Alan Rickman (Éamon de Valera), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), and Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan).
For those who don’t know, Michael Collins was an Irish revolutionary, military, and political leader who made the liberation of his homeland from its British colonial overlords his life’s work. In the now 90 years since his death (and well before it), his actions made him a folk hero, “The Big Fellah,” the single most important figure in the fight for Irish freedom. As such, “Michael Collins” begins with the following opening crawl:
At the turn of the century Britain was the foremost world power and the British Empire stretched over two-thirds of the globe.
Despite the extent of its power, its most troublesome colony had always been the one closest to it, Ireland.
For seven hundred years Britain’s rule over Ireland had been resisted by attempts at rebellion and revolution, all of which ended in failure.
Then, in 1916, a rebellion began, to be followed by a guerilla war which would change the nature of that rule forever.
The mastermind behind that war was Michael Collins.
His life and death defined the period in its triumph, terror and tragedy.
This is his story.
Although the film depicts historical events, it is first and foremost a character piece. As such, I don’t consider it a spoiler to discuss the real-life developments of nearly a hundred years ago (aka the film’s “plot”). Even still, I won’t get into too much of the nitty gritty.
“Michael Collins” depicts its main character as the heroic leader of the songs. All at once he’s a brilliant military strategist and leader of men, but unafraid of getting his hands dirty. He’s the brilliant public speaker, the ideological inventor of guerrilla warfare, and ultimately the pragmatic diplomat who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty when he believed any further violence would be for naught but its own sake.
The IRA had been backed into a corner when the British unexpectedly called for a cease fire and offers were made to begin peace negotiations. Collins signed the aforementioned treaty, calling it “the best we can hope for at this moment in time.” The truce established an Irish Free State only nominally attached to the British government, but fell short of the independent republic the IRA had dreamed of and preserved the separation of Northern Ireland. Collins felt that the best method moving forward was further negotiations from the “inside,” with the hope that they could someday achieve those goals without further bloodshed.
Rickman’s de Valera is pitted against Collins to various degrees throughout the film, but never more so than in the treaty’s wake. His refusal to accept its terms led (indirectly) to the Irish Civil War, Collins’ assassination, and even the violence that continues to shake Northern Ireland to this day.
In 1966, de Valera, then the Irish president, was quoted as saying, “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.” I don’t think even he could have predicted just how right he would be, and “Michael Collins” is a shining example. The film seems to both run with the idea by, as Roger Ebert put it, portraying Dev as “a weak, mannered, sniveling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed” and concede it as an inherent flaw by including the quote in the picture’s end. In the film, Dev is the Judas to Collins’ Christ, characterizing the former’s refusal to support the treaty as indirectly leading to the assassination of the latter, and perhaps even hinting that Dev knew the attempt on Collins’ life was coming.
But as Neil Jordan has pointed out, it wold be impossible to, in a mere two hours, portray an entirely accurate account of events to an audience that (for the most part) would know nothing of the minutiae of Irish history. That said, “Michael Collins” gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. At the end of the day, the fact remains that it is a movie first and a biography second. For the movie to be both commercially and artistically successful, it required a villain outside of the faceless evil of the British Empire. Thus the role of tangible, human antagonist fell into de Valera’s lap. And let’s face it, if there wasn’t a hint of truth in the idea, Dev would never have made that quote.
Sometimes the (near) truth is stranger or more exciting than fiction, and there are few better examples than the life of Michael Collins. Whether or not you’re a history buff, “Michael Collins” is satisfying film that combines biography, war, and political intrigue without getting too intense with any of them (although the romantic subplot can seem out of place). And hey, for once you can tell people you learned something from a film rife with explosions.
Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.