Liam Neeson IS The Commuter

So you’re a guy who has a routine. You commute to work on the same commuter train every day and have been for the last ten years. You know the folks who regularly use the train and are friendly with them. One day, you get fired from your job as an insurance salesman. Not having the heart to tell your wife about it over the phone, you sit on the train by yourself and decide to read a book while you ponder how to break the bad news to your wife.

Then, a woman you’ve never seen before sits in the seat opposite you and strikes up a conversation. You’d like to be alone with your thoughts but don’t want to be rude. The woman tells you her name is Joanna and that this is the first time she’s been on this train. You tell her you’ve been taking this train every day for the last ten years. She says you probably know a lot of the other regulars, to which you agree. She then asks a somewhat unusual question.

Suppose, hypothetically, that she asked you to do something. Something that would not affect you personally, but would have a profound effect on someone you didn’t know. In return for this small favor, you would receive a hundred thousand dollars. Keeping in mind that you’ve just lost your job and have a kid who will be going to college soon, you can’t help but ask yourself…

…Would you do it?

Such is the dilemma faced by Michael MacCauley, played by the great Liam Neeson in his new film, The Commuter. It’s the fourth collaboration between Neeson and wonderfully-named Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in the thrillers Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. I’m a big fan of all three of those movies. They’re not perfect and the first two are very implausible, but they’re a heck of a lot of fun. They’re unabashedly entertaining B-movies which are tightly constructed and technically proficient. Collet-Serra’s shark attack thriller The Shallows is also quite a bit of fun, and features what may be Blake Lively’s best performance. Just throwing that out there.

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Has Liam Neeson made movies like The Commuter before? Yes. Non-Stop in particular has a number of striking similarities to The Commuter, in that they both take place mostly in a single location and Neeson’s character has to unravel a mystery in that location while a larger conspiracy begins to unfold. In Non-Stop Neeson played an air marshal, and in The Commuter his character was a cop before he became an insurance salesman, so it’s safe to say that he knows a few things most of us wouldn’t when it comes to solving crimes and kicking ass.

But his characters in both films are vastly out of their depth. His character in Non-Stop is an alcoholic and in The Commuter he’s a responsible husband and father, but he hasn’t been a cop in a decade so his skills are a little rusty. Another similarity the two films share is that they both have scenes of Neeson accosting his fellow passengers and driving people crazy as he attempts to figure out which one among them is not who they appear to be. The Commuter is a lot like Murder on the Orient Express, only with more fistfights.

I like the idea of setting an exciting, fast-paced action movie in a single location. It increases the tension because the hero has limited options and must be more strategic. The blueprint for this kind of movie is of course Die Hard, which has yet to be outdone. But The Commuter makes a damn good try. It must be very difficult to set an entire movie in a single location, especially a cramped location like a train or plane. The Commuter is a very well-directed movie, and has one of the best fight scenes of any of Neeson’s action films.

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The mysterious Joanna is played by the always great Vera Farmiga, although she’s sadly underused. She makes an impression with her limited screen time, though. I just wish the movie found more use for her. Patrick Wilson, her co-star from The Conjuring movies, is also in the movie as Neeson’s former partner. Sam Neill of all people is also in the movie as a police captain. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wilson and Neill are also underused. Underutilized supporting characters are a common flaw shared by Neeson and Collet-Serra’s collaborations. Poor Lupita Nyong’o had almost nothing to do in Non-Stop.

In an action movie set on a train, it should also not come as a surprise that the train eventually derails and goes tumbling end over end. I’ve heard some complaints about the CGI in this sequence, but to me it looked fine. What did surprise me was that the train crash was not the end of the film, there was quite a bit more to the story that happens after the train crashes.

A month or so ago, there was an awful train derailment that happened in my home state of Washington that made national news. It was nothing more than a weird coincidence that that happened so close to the release of this movie, but after the train crash scene I couldn’t help but be reminded of the pictures of the real train crash that I saw in the newspaper. Anyone who is sensitive to such things might want to skip this movie, although the timing was just a coincidence.

If one wanted to, one could easily pick holes in the movie’s plot. It gets a little farfetched, and the timing of certain events is perhaps questionable. But why bother to pick holes in the plot when the movie is this entertaining? The only thing you would accomplish is sabotaging your enjoyment of a very fun movie. Just suspend disbelief and have a good time. Life is too short to complain about everything.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Commuter. It’s not very original but it’s well-executed, fast-paced, and exciting. It also has a brisk running time of 105 minutes, which is exactly as long as it needs to be. If you like fast-paced thrillers and don’t mind suspending your disbelief, you should have a good time with it.

A Stroll Among the Gravestones

A man sits in the passenger seat of a car. He argues with the man in the driver’s seat, then gets out and walks into a bar. He goes in and sits down in a booth facing away from the door. When he sits down we see his badge and realize he’s a cop. He’s clearly a regular, since he doesn’t say a word to the bartender and he doesn’t need to: the bartender brings him a cup of coffee and two shots of whiskey.

Three men enter the bar. They are unwelcome, and the bartender tells them to get lost. They respond by blowing him away with a shotgun. The cop sitting in the booth pulls his gun and shoots at the men. They return fire and flee out the front door of the bar. The cop pursues them, and they exchange gunfire in the street. The men try to drive away, the cop shoots the driver and his blood sprays over the windshield.

The remaining two try to escape on foot, the cop kills one of them and shoots the third in the leg. The movie’s opening credits begin: we see a woman, filmed in close-up. We get the sense that we could be seeing something intimate. And we are, but not in the way you might expect. We see the woman’s eyes, which are wide and clearly terrified. A tear runs down her cheek. Her mouth is duct taped.

Such is the beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones, one of Liam Neeson’s latest films. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a New York City cop who, eight years after the shootout shown in the movie’s opening sequence, has retired from the police department and now works as an unlicensed private detective. He’s been sober ever since that day in the bar, and regularly attends AA meetings.

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He’s sitting in a diner when a man from one of his AA groups approaches him. The man identifies himself as Peter Kristo, and tells Scudder that his brother Kenny would like a word with him. Scudder reluctantly accepts. He goes with Peter to Kenny’s house, and deduces from the opulence of Kenny’s house that he’s a drug trafficker. Kenny tells Scudder that his wife has been kidnapped. Scudder tells him to call the police, Kenny replies that he already paid the kidnappers four hundred thousand dollars, but they killed his wife anyway.

Scudder doesn’t want to get involved. But when he gets back to his apartment, Kenny is there. He tells Scudder what the kidnappers did to his wife, which is unspeakable. Despite his reservations, Scudder agrees to find the men.

Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of Liam Neeson’s darkest films. It pulls no punches. The movie is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, and is one of a series of novels featuring Matt Scudder. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how closely the movie does or does not follow the book.

It’s a movie that tells a fairly simple story: evil men are kidnapping the wives of drug traffickers and doing unspeakable things to them. We see glimpses of the men, but the first couple of times we see them their faces are partially offscreen, or hidden in shadow. It isn’t until the movie is almost halfway over that we see them in the light, and they are just a couple of guys. Just a couple of normal guys eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Two guys named Ray and Albert. If you passed them on the street, you wouldn’t think twice about them. You’d never guess what evil was lurking under the surface.

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And that’s what compelling to me about this kind of story: it’s completely plausible. this is the kind of thing that could be happening right under your very nose, and chances are you would never realize it.

Some of Liam Neeson’s recent action films are a bit implausible, I’ll admit. They’re fun, but they can be pretty far-fetched. As much as I enjoyed Non-Stop, I’ll freely admit that the plot is a bit of a stretch.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the opposite. It’s not fun and it is very plausible. There are scenes in this film that are deeply disturbing and very hard to watch. But the film’s director, Scott Frank, wisely doesn’t the let the film go too far. He pulls back just short of showing the worst details of what Ray and Albert do to their victims, but he shows enough to get the point across, and what we do see is chilling.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but Frank pulls it off pretty well. This is a film that could easily have gone too far and turned into exploitation, and it does toe the line a couple times, but fortunately Frank is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t need to get too graphic, and what is left to the imagination is always worse than anything he could actually show. Still, there’s more than enough here to earn the movie its R-rating. The violence is brutal and disturbing, but fortunately for the viewer it stops just short of being gratuitous.

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The movie wears its influences on its sleeve (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are name-dropped several times), but it manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with the hard-boiled private detective genre. The whole recovering-alcoholic trope is a bit played out, but it didn’t bother me, since it’s important to Scudder’s character and there’s a compelling reason why he stopped drinking, which we don’t find out until later in the film (Spoiler alert: during the opening shootout, one of Scudder’s shots took a bad bounce and killed a young girl who was out with her mother).

The acting in the film is solid across the board: Liam Neeson is great as always, giving a compelling performance as a guy who knows he’s done bad things in his life, and is doing his best to live with himself. Kenny Kristo is played by Dan Stevens, our old friend from The Guest. While in that film he was lean and muscular, in this one he appears downright gaunt (and with good reason, the ever-useful trivia section for the movie on IMDb tells me Stevens lost 30 pounds for the role).

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And once again his American accent is convincing enough that you’d never know he’s actually a Brit (Why is it that British actors can do great American accents while most American actors can’t do a convincing British accent to save their lives? There are probably lots of people who don’t realize that Christian Bale, for example, is from Wales).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is not an easy watch, and it’s certainly not very uplifting. But it’ll stay with you, and maybe even make you think about the nature of evil in the world. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I’m glad this movie was made. It allows for the possibility of redemption, maybe not for Ray and Albert but certainly for Scudder. It’s a well-made and well-acted modern noir that, while not without its flaws, is still very compelling in painting a picture of the darkness that exists just below the surface.

Everything is Awesome

Sometimes, I don’t understand myself.

When I first found out about The Lego Movie, I thought, “Well, Hollywood has officially run out of ideas. A movie where everything is made out of Legos? That sounds kind of dumb.”

I clearly remember thinking this, and being confused when the movie came out, got rave reviews, (96% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes) and was a huge hit.

Well, last week I decided to get over myself and watched the movie. I loved it. It was fantastic. Contrary to my stupid assumption that The Lego Movie was proof of Hollywood’s lack of good ideas, The Lego Movie is actually an incredibly creative and fun movie, with gorgeous animation, top-notch voice acting, and a lot of heart. It’s also hilariously funny and is just a joy to watch.

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The movie is about Emmet, an ordinary Lego guy who just wants to fit in. He promptly becomes involved in a spectacular adventure involving Batman, Morgan Freeman, a cop with split personalities (both of which are voiced by Liam Neeson), a Lego love interest (my mom cracked up when I used the phrase “Lego love interest”) and an ultimate superweapon known only as…the Kragle.

If none of that makes sense, that’s okay. I’m not going to spend much time talking about the details of the plot, although it did occur to me that the plot is basically that of The Matrix, except that everything is made of Legos.

This is just a really, really fun, creative movie. Sometimes movies can enlighten you and make you consider deep philosophical questions about life and the human condition, and sometimes you need that. But there are other times that you just need to watch Lego Batman say “I’m here to see…YOUR BUTT.”

And I love what they did with Batman in this movie. I love Batman and I will defend Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies all damn day for being the serious treatment of Batman that the character deserves, but The Lego Movie’s Batman is just freaking hilarious, and pokes fun at the character in a way that is never cruel or mean-spirited, but just really funny and clever.

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The voice work in the movie is fantastic too. Emmet is voiced by Chris Pratt, an immensely likable actor who will soon be seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, and he gives Emmet an inherent likability that makes him so easy to root for. Batman is voiced hilariously by Will Arnett, whose gravelly Batman voice manages to make him both a good depiction of Batman and also completely adorable. Unsurprisingly, he’s my favorite character in the movie.

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There’s also Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius, the Morpheus-esque leader of the Lego resistance who wears a Lego tie-dye shirt and what I can only assume are Lego bellbottoms. Elizabeth Banks voices Wyldstyle, the aforementioned Lego love interest (who is totally not a DJ), Will Ferrell is the evil Lord Business, and of course, the great Liam Neeson is both Good Cop and Bad Cop. My favorite Bad Cop line is when he’s waving his little Lego hands around and says “Do you see these quotation marks I am making with my claw hands?” There’s also Gandalf, Dumbledore, Wonder Woman, Shaquille O’Neal…the list goes on and on, and part of what makes the movie so much fun is spotting all these characters in the background.

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The movie was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a directing duo who can pretty much do no wrong these days. The visuals in this movie are frequently nothing short of breathtaking, and I was particularly transfixed by the Lego ocean in one scene, which looks exactly like rolling waves of Lego bricks. I have no idea how the animators pulled this movie off, but everything in it looks spectacular. Lord and Miller also directed 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, and in The Lego Movie they manage to work in a pretty hilarious joke about how annoyed Lego Superman is by Lego Green Lantern, which is even funnier once you realize that Superman is voiced by Channing Tatum and Green Lantern is voiced by Jonah Hill.

The phrase “fun for the whole family” gets tossed around a lot, but The Lego Movie really is the perfect example of a movie that will appeal to pretty much everybody, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

When I wrote about Transformers a few weeks ago, I said that a fire-breathing robot T-Rex is a perfect representation of what you would find in the brain of a 12-year-old boy. The Lego Movie is similar, but in a way that is so much more meaningful than anything Michael Bay has ever been able to accomplish. This is a movie that has a really good message, and I know that it seems like every piece of children’s entertainment has to have sort of message for the kids these days, but this movie manages it so much more gracefully than most. The final scenes of the movie are genuinely poignant, and I found myself actually being moved by a movie about children’s construction toys. That alone qualifies The Lego Movie as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I’ve had all year.

I write about a lot of dark and violent movies on this site (which isn’t going to change much because I’m going to write about The Raid 2 soon), but it’s important to remember to have a little levity every now and then. I’m not in a great place in my life right now, and I’m always grateful when a movie like The Lego Movie comes along to remind me that hey, everything will be okay and life will get better.

Everything is Awesome!

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And now that song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

 

Taken On a Plane

Liam Neeson has real presence. I think that’s part of why I like him so much. He has this uncanny ability to get you to take him seriously, no matter how far-fetched the movie surrounding him may be.

Such is the case with Non-Stop, Neeson’s latest far-fetched but thoroughly entertaining action flick.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, an Air Marshal who starts getting threatening text messages in the middle of a transatlantic flight. He determines that the texter must be on the plane with him, and takes it upon himself to find the culprit. This becomes more complicated when the passengers’ suspicions are aroused as Marks’ methods become more extreme, and more and more evidence starts to point to him as having something to do with the whole situation.

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The text messages appear as little word balloons, kind of like in a comic book. The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in Unknown, has some fun with this visually. When the plane shakes, the texts shake. When Marks’ concentration falters, the texts get blurry. When he reads texts from a broken cell phone, there’s a big crack down the middle of the word balloon (that also helps to conveniently censor a bad word).

I really liked this effect, it provides a little variation, since reading all those texts up on the screen runs the risk of getting boring after a while, and for me it enhanced the realism of the whole scenario by helping to put the viewer in the characters’ shoes.

The review of the movie in my local paper said it was generic, but I don’t agree. Well, I kind of do, but not really. The whole “hunting for a terrorist” thing has been done before, sure. And there are some clichés about Neeson’s character (he’s an alcoholic whose daughter died of cancer when she was like eight and he wasn’t around because he was always working, and later he has to save a little girl from being sucked out of the plane and it’s kind of like he’s vicariously saving his daughter blah blah blah). And there are some missed opportunities (recent Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o is also in the movie, although she gets barely anything to do, which is a shame). And the big villain reveal was a little underwhelming.

But despite these flaws, I still really liked Non-Stop. For the most part, it really kept me guessing, and the suspense was palpable throughout. Of course it goes without saying that Neeson gives a good performance (despite the aforementioned clichés) and there are good supporting performances from Julianne Moore as a passenger and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as one of the stewardesses.

And I find it impossible to dislike any movie where this happens:

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Interestingly, almost the entire movie takes place on the plane, which provides a limited perspective. We discover things along with the characters, since there is no outside perspective. I’d imagine that a one-location movie like this isn’t easy to pull off, but in my opinion the filmmakers did the job admirably. There are also some nice touches to remind the viewer that this is all happening on a plane, like the omnipresent hum of the plane’s engines in the background.

The movie is kind of a midair murder mystery, like if Agatha Christie wrote a book that took place on a jetliner. So yeah: really good movie, despite some flaws. It gets The Zombie Room’s seal of action-movie approval.

A word of warning: if you have a fear of flying, you should probably not see this movie. Seriously, between this and The Grey, I’m starting to think Liam Neeson should avoid planes entirely.

The Closest I’ve ever Felt to Death at the Movies

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to write about death in movies, and here it is. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t going to be very much fun, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while so here it is. Instead of talking about the general portrayal of death in films, I’m going to talk about three specific films that really affected me in this regard. Those films are Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, and The Grey. There will be spoilers for these movies, so be aware of that also.

A quick clarification. The title of this piece is meant to be FIGURATIVE, NOT LITERAL. I stress this in the wake of the horrible shooting in Colorado at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. I have never been in a situation like that and I pray to God I never will. My purpose in writing this is not to try to make light of a tragedy, it’s to explore something meaningful to me that films have helped me think about. Though I suppose you could say that the Colorado shooting brought some of these thoughts more to the forefront of my mind.

Besides, I don’t think there’s anything I can say about the shooting that Christopher Nolan hasn’t already said himself: “I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.” I wanted to share that quote from Nolan because he really is a class act, and like I said, there’s nothing I could really add that Nolan hasn’t already said himself far more eloquently than I would be able to.

Now that I’ve said all that, let’s move on to the actual films I’m going to talk about here. First up is Saving Private Ryan. This is already a fairly infamous movie, both due to its extremely graphic violence and the fact that it somehow lost the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 to Shakespeare in Love, which was good but not that good. Saving Private Ryan is one of those movies that is amazing but that I’ve only managed to actually watch all the way through maybe twice. There’s a lot to say about this film, from the fact that the opening D-Day invasion scene is so realistic that WWII veterans who saw it had flashbacks, to the fact that Vin Diesel of all people is in it, and so much more. But there is only one scene I’m going to focus on here, a scene that has haunted me since the first time I saw it and remains indelibly burned on my memory.

This particular scene happens during the final battle of the film. One of the outnumbered American soldiers (I think his name was Mellish) is holed up in a wrecked building and is attacked by a German soldier. The Mellish’s friend has been shot in the throat and lies gurgling on the floor while Mellish desperately fights the German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It’s an almost unbearably tense scene, and the desperation inherent in both combatants is elevated by that other soldier, lying on the ground choking on his own blood while all of this is going on.

But the worst part comes when the German soldier gets the upper hand, and starts slowly, agonizingly, moving a knife towards Mellish’s heart. Mellish pleads with the German soldier, imploring him to stop, but the knife slowly, inevitably, pierces Mellish’s chest and you can see, you can feel the life ebbing away from him. His body shudders as the blade goes in deeper, with the German soldier whispering to him hauntingly the entire time. I don’t speak German, but according to IMDB this is what the German soldier says as Mellish dies: “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here! It will be easier for you, much easier. You’ll see it will be over quickly.”

I have a high tolerance for violence in movies, as you may have gathered, but all of this combines to make a scene that is nearly impossible for me to watch. Steven Spielberg films it in such a way that he makes you feel Mellish’s death almost as much as if you were actually there. It’s also remarkable that Spielberg manages to humanize the German soldier who kills Mellish, as he could easily have come off as a soulless monster. But he’s just a soldier too, doing his duty like everybody else. There are other agonizing death scenes in the film, but this is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

Next up is Aliens. Now I know that the inclusion of this film here may seem odd, since it’s an 80’s sci-fi action flick directed by James Cameron, but stick with me. There’s a scene late in the film where Sigourney Weaver’s famous heroine Ripley and the few survivors of previous alien attacks are fleeing from yet another alien attack, and one of them, a Marine named Vasquez, falls behind. The Marine sergeant, Gorman, tells the rest of the group to keep going while he goes back for Vasquez. It’s basically a suicide mission, as Vasquez is too badly injured to walk, and Gorman soon runs out of ammunition. Knowing the situation is hopeless as the aliens are closing in, Gorman pulls a grenade, looks at it, and activates it.

What follows is roughly five seconds of the most excruciating cinema I’ve ever seen, as Vasquez and Gorman wrap their hands around the grenade and wait for it all to end. Cameron draws out the moment, and like Spielberg, he makes you experience every single nerve-shredding moment of it right along with the characters. The first time I saw Aliens, I almost felt in a way like I too had only a few seconds to live along with these characters. Those few seconds were over in a flash, and yet at the same time felt like they went on forever. It was extraordinary and terrifying at the same time.

Last is The Grey. I wrote about this film a few weeks ago, but I left out some things about it since I wanted to save them for later. So, here they are now. I want to talk about the way this film depicts death. It’s surprisingly intimate, really. After the plane Liam Neeson’s character Ottway is on crashes, he makes his way back to the crash site, where some of his fellow passengers are trying desperately to save a man who has clearly been severely injured. He’s been graphically cut open and blood spurts from his wounds. He’s understandably starting to panic.

The men with him look to Ottway for help. Ottway puts his hand on the injured man’s shoulder and says, very simply, “You’re going to die.” The man is understandably unwilling to accept this, but Ottway manages to reassure him. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he says. “It’ll slide over you, it’ll start to feel warm, nice and warm. Let your thoughts go. Who do you love? Let them take you…” and the man dies, peacefully. Ottway knows he can’t save the man, but he manages to make the end easier. It’s a remarkable scene, graphic and disturbing yet also beautiful and intimate and heartfelt.

The thing about this film is that it doesn’t cheapen death. Often in films, death is portrayed almost casually. I fully admit that this is especially true of the action movies I love. But The Grey treats it with seriousness and compassion. One of the characters who survived the crash starts taking wallets from the bodies of the dead until Ottway stops him, telling him vehemently that “we’re not looting dead bodies for swag.” The man reluctantly relents, and the group collects the wallets and takes them with them as something to give to their families if they make it back alive, knowing that they probably won’t. The wallets become a reminder of every life lost. At the end of the film, after he has stumbled into the wolves’ den, Ottway takes the wallets out of his backpack and looks through them, seeing the pictures of wives and children that he has heard about but never met, and never will, and who will never see their husbands and fathers again. The film acknowledges that the dead are gone but never forgotten.

A character asks Ottway later in the film if what he said to the dying man in the plane is true. “Does it slide over you? Is it true?” and Ottway says, “Yes.” How does Ottway know this? How could anyone still living know what death is like? I don’t know, but The Grey is a film that brings you closer to knowing.

One more scene, then I’m done. It pains me to even think about this scene, let alone write about it, but here goes. When there are only two characters left, Ottway and an extremely likable fellow named Hendrick, they are struggling along as best they can when the wolves show up again and start chasing them. Hendrick trips and falls into an icy river, where he is swept along by the unforgiving current. His foot gets stuck between some rocks, and his face is just inches below the surface of the water. Ottway tries to free him, to life him up to the air, but he can’t quite do it.

Hendrick drowns, mere inches away from air.

Drowning is one of my biggest fears. The idea of being completely helpless as darkness overwhelms you terrifies me beyond words. The thing about this scene in the film is that it’s agonizing even if you don’t look at it, as Hendrick’s desperate gurgling cries underwater are as heartrending as anything else in the film. It’s made even more unbearable by the fact that Hendrick is the most appealing, reliable, and genuinely likable character in the film, and watching him die so painfully is nearly impossible.

Well, there it is. The closest I’ve ever felt to death at the movies. I’m sorry this post was so dark. I don’t want to depress people, and I don’t want to trivialize something important. I just really wanted to write about this, it’s one of those things I just couldn’t shake. It was difficult to write and probably difficult to read, but it was worth it to write and hopefully worth it to read. I promise to do something more lighthearted and uplifting next time.

I find it truly extraordinary how art is capable of making us feel like we can actually know the unknowable. Life is precious, and I’m grateful to these films for reminding me of that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

The Call of the Wild

Liam Neeson is probably my favorite actor. He’s one of those actors where if I hear that Liam Neeson is in a movie, I automatically make a mental note to see that movie. One of the things I like most about him is his voice. It’s very distinctive in a way I’m not quite sure how to describe, and it’s instantly recognizable. I remember seeing Taken in the theater, and during his now-famous “I don’t know who you are, but if you let my daughter go…” speech, the way his voice filled the whole theater was just awesome. It sent chills down my spine.

Lately he’s been re-establishing himself as a badass, and in my opinion, he’s been doing quite well. Since 2005 he’s done Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans, The Grey, Battleship, and voiced Aslan in the Narnia movies. So he’s been a busy fellow. Perhaps he’s been trying to work his way through the tragic death of his wife Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 in a skiing accident. She was 45. My condolences, Liam.

Many of his recent films have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, but it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed them all (except Battleship, which I haven’t seen). Neeson is one of those actors where even if the movie around him isn’t all that great, he makes it watchable. One of Mr. Neeson’s most recent films is The Grey, about a group of oil workers whose plane crashes in the wilderness, and the survivors are stalked by a group of vicious wolves. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, my immediate reaction to the question of “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves” was “my money’s on you, Liam!” and promptly resolved to see it.

What I did not anticipate was just how intense and genuinely harrowing the movie ended up being. I’m not saying I expected a barrel of laughs, given the premise, but what I was certainly not expecting was to be so stressed-out and relentlessly wracked with nerves that my hands were shaking and there were tears in my eyes by the end of the movie. When the movie was released on DVD some weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. Eventually I decided that I did, so I bought the DVD, and as with “Black Death,” it took me about a week before I managed to muster up the courage to watch it.

Man oh man. I’m still recovering. When it was over, my hands were once again shaking and there were once again tears in my eyes. I don’t think I could manage a third viewing. The film opens with Neeson’s character Ottway as he writes a letter to his wife and considers suicide. Ottway is a sharpshooter who kills wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. It’s unknown initially what happened to his wife, if she left him or if she died. His opening narration sums up where he is at this point in his life: “A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.” He gets as far as putting his rifle in his mouth, and even pulls the trigger, but for whatever reason the gun doesn’t go off, so he gets on the plane.

Those who have seen the film’s trailer and/or know the basic plot outline of the film know what happens next: the plane crashes, and only Ottway and about six others survive. The plane crash scene is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It’s the worst nightmare of anyone who has ever been on a plane, which would be everyone. The plane starts shaking, and your initial thought is “oh, it’s just turbulence.” But as the shaking gets worse and worse and people start to freak out, you keep trying to reassure yourself that everything is going to be okay, while everyone in the audience watching the movie knows exactly what is going to happen next.

I’ve thought about this scene a lot and I think I’ve figured out what makes it so effective, for me at least. It’s shot from the perspective of the people in the plane. There are no exterior shots of the plane being buffeted by wind, or of the pilots in the cockpit struggling with the controls, or anything like that. We don’t know any more about what’s happening than the people in the plane do. There is literally nothing to ease the terror of what’s going on. It’s a scene that is both extremely difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward, plotwise (SPOILERS AHEAD). The survivors try to find shelter and are stalked by the aforementioned vicious pack of wolves. There is dissent among the group as more of them are picked off, and there are a number of scenes that are so teeth-gratingly suspenseful that it is seriously hard to breathe. It reminded me of “The Hurt Locker” in that respect, since most of the film is nonstop nail-biting tension with only the occasional reprieve.

There was some controversy regarding the portrayal of the wolves in the film. Animal-rights activists were upset that they were portrayed as vicious man-eating killers. So yeah, PETA wasn’t very happy with this film. I know next to nothing about wolves, so I can’t comment on how realistic their portrayal is (or isn’t) in the movie.

But frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care if the movie’s portrayal of wolves was realistic or not, and here’s why. It’s effective filmmaking. The wolf attacks are as harrowing as anything else in the movie. The movie isn’t really about the wolves anyway. It’s a survival story. The wolves aren’t villains any more than the devastating cold. They’re just there. I don’t think the film portrays them as evil, per se. They’re defending their territory, as most animals would (one of the few things I do know about wolves is that they’re highly territorial). They see the survivors as a threat, they don’t just attack them for fun. They aren’t mindless, faceless, invincible slasher-film villains. Wouldn’t human beings defend their territory from invaders? Of course they would.

And here’s something else surprising about the film: it’s actually very philosophical. The survivors discuss their views on the afterlife, and speculate where their dead friends may have gone. One says that they’re not in heaven because there is no God, another disagrees. Ottway says that he too is an atheist, and that he wishes he could believe in that kind of thing, but he just can’t. I read some reviews of the film by people who thought this kind of thing was unnecessary. Frankly, I find it fascinating. What else would you talk about in a desperate situation like that? Wouldn’t you wonder why it had happened? Wouldn’t you wonder why you had survived when so many others hadn’t? What would there be to hang onto? These are questions I don’t want to think about, but I think it’s good to acknowledge they’re there.

One significant gripe I do have with the film is the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT). After all of the other survivors have died in various heart-wrenching ways, Ottway is the only one left. Alone and suffering from hypothermia, he unwittingly stumbles into the wolves’ den, where he comes face to face with the giant, ferocious alpha wolf. He tapes a knife to one hand, and in the other he tapes a couple of small liquor bottles in between his knuckles which he then breaks on a rock, essentially giving himself improvised Wolverine claws. This was it. This was the moment showcased in the trailers, where our beleaguered hero would finally do battle with the ferocious beast who had been so relentlessly stalking him and killing his friends! This was going to be awesome! Ottway stands up, charges toward the wolf, and…

…Nothing.

Fade to black. End credits.

Wait, what? Everyone in the theater couldn’t believe it. There was no wolf fight? That was it? That badass moment in the trailers that promised an epic wolf battle that wasn’t even in the movie?!?! WTF?! And now I read online that the filmmakers never intended to end the movie with a wolf fight at all! I still feel cheated by this. Marginally less so the second time around, but it is anticlimactic any way you slice it. It ends an otherwise extremely intense and harrowing film on a flat, dull note. It ends with a whimper instead of a bang. I just don’t understand it. Why would you have this showcase moment in the trailers and then not deliver on it? It’s like having a superhero movie with no climactic battle between the hero and villain at the end of the movie. Seriously, what gives?

Sigh. I really wish the movie hadn’t ended that way. It’s really a great film otherwise. The acting is excellent throughout, especially when you consider that most of the actors other than Neeson aren’t very well-known. The cinematography of the landscapes is really quite beautiful. The director, Joe Carnahan, previously directed Liam Neeson in “The A-Team,” which, personally, I thought was awesome. Carnahan is mostly known for big, loud, over –the-top action movies, but he proves with “The Grey” that he can direct small-scale, more character-driven films as well, while still managing to make it terrifically exciting and genuinely harrowing. “The Grey” is his most mature and well-made film, though A-Team certainly has it beat in terms of entertainment value.

It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s intense, bloody, and unrelenting, not to mention the fact that the F-word count is easily in the triple digits. I’m still bitter about the ending, but it didn’t spoil what was otherwise an extremely well-made, effective, and thought-provoking film. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something extremely intense, just as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

As a side note, I’m planning a follow-up piece to this exploring some other aspects of the film that I felt I didn’t really have time for here, since what I’m thinking of connects to other films besides this one, and I didn’t want this piece to feel overcrowded. It’s about death in movies, and it’s not going to be fun, but hopefully it’ll be worthwhile. So look for that in the next few days if you’re interested.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.