Review: The reinvention of Ballymena-born actor Liam Neeson as a grizzled action man gathered momentum in 2008 with the opening chapter of the Taken franchise. Cast as a former CIA operative whose daughter is kidnapped during a trip to Paris, the Oscar-nominated star of Schindler’s List gave fair warning of his knuckle-bruising intent in a telephone call with one abductor. “I will look for you, I will find you… and I will kill you,” he growled in that distinctive baritone purr. He was a man of his word.
In Mark Williams’ generic thriller, Neeson is cast to muscular type as a brilliant bank robber, who is willing to turn his back on a life of crime to put down roots with an unsuspecting sweetheart. The adrenaline rush of a thief’s redemption in the name of love is a tantalising prospect. Regrettably, Williams and fellow scriptwriter Steve Allrich aren’t seriously committed to fleshing out the relationship between their conflicted hero and his girlfriend. Instead, they invest heavily in stunt sequences, which boast a ridiculously high bullet count for a disappointingly low return of pulse-quickening thrills.
Bank robber Tom Carter (Neeson) is calm under pressure, drawing on his expertise as a bomb disposal specialist in the Marines. He coolly executes heists over holiday weekends without revealing his identity, amassing a little over nine million dollars in cash from 12 banks in seven states. During a visit to Aurora Self Storage to rent a locker, Tom meets Annie Sumpter (Kate Walsh) and falls head over heels in love. He contemplates a normal life with Annie and decides to confess his sins to FBI Agent Sam Baker (Robert Patrick), promising the return of the stolen money in exchange for a reduced sentence of no more than two years in a minimum-security prison close to Boston.
Two members of Baker’s team, agents John Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Ramon Hall (Anthony Ramos), probe Tom’s assertion that he is the In And Out Bandit. Once the corrupt FBI agents have compelling evidence of Tom’s misdeeds – a cardboard box full of cash – they greedily confiscate the stolen property for their retirement funds and prepare to cover their tracks.
Honest Thief is hardwired to underline Neeson’s screen brand as a no-nonsense man of few words and outlandish actions. Walsh is short-changed as the two-dimensional love interest, who needlessly puts herself in harm’s way, while Jeffrey Donovan channels Tommy Lee Jones from The Fugitive as an honourable law man on their tail. Plotting is linear, relentlessly screeching between set-pieces until justice is served in an underpowered final act.
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Review: The brilliant mind behind a billion-dollar technology company announces a Willy Wonka-style competition to win the keys to his home in Sean Olson’s teen-oriented adventure. Following Roald Dahl’s template of five young protagonists at large in a potentially dangerous wonderland, Max Winslow And The House Of Secrets dips into a grab bag of limited digital effects to realise a state-of-the-art mansion where robotic knights in armour act as butlers and tiny drones remove dead flies from pristine surfaces. The teenagers look decidedly nonplussed by this gadgetry until they stroll into a games room with a floor-to-ceiling golf simulator, heaving jars of candy and an artificial intelligence that can project their social media onto one of the walls. Selfies and sugar suffice.
Screenwriter Jeff Wild sketches his central quintet in the broadest terms – a computer nerd, social media obsessive, gaming addict, online troll and persistent liar – to highlight glaring personality flaws. Once these misfits pit their wits against various riddles and challenges to earn points that will determine who wins the house, a clunky secondary plot kicks in and the film loses dramatic momentum at an alarming rate.
Maxine Winslow (Sydne Mikelle), who prefers to go by the name Max, feels more comfortable communicating in lines of computer code than face-to-face with another human being. She attends Bentonville High School with younger brother Ethan (Anton Starkman), who has a healthy appreciation for his sister’s abilities. “Max is like Neo from The Matrix except she’s from The Arkansas,” he quips to their mother (Juli Tapken). During lessons, school alumnus Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) broadcasts a video message to every classroom, which announces an “experimental competition” to win his hi-tech mansion.
Five lucky students – bully Aiden Ross (Emery Kelly), gamer Benny Carrasco (Jason Genao), lacrosse golden boy Connor Lawson (Tanner Buchanan), social media obsessive Sophia Peach (Jade Chynoweth) and Max – are chosen by text message to compete for the grand prize. The teenagers are chauffeured to Virtue Manor and face a series of games judged by the resident artificial intelligence, Home Automated Venture aka Haven (voiced by Marina Sirtis). As the night unfolds, Aiden, Benny, Connor, Sophia and Max discover the hefty and painful price of failure.
Max Winslow And The House Of Secrets remains in first gear, even when we discover Atticus’s ulterior motive for the competition. Romance between Mikelle’s titular heroine and a fellow competitor is lukewarm and one character’s transformative journey through the house relies too heavily on virtual reality. Scriptwriter Wild comes unstuck in pivotal emotional scenes, which require a far lighter touch to convincingly salve deep psychological wounds.
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Review: Director Barnaby Thompson and screenwriter son Preston plot a blood-soaked road trip along the ruggedly picturesque west coast of Ireland in their blackly humorous crime caper Pixie. Drawing inspiration from a drive from Sligo to Clonakilty, the film-making duo conceive a modern-day western that pits a wise-cracking heroine and two hapless accomplices against a small army of “deadly gangster priests”. An ensemble cast of gifted comic talent including Alec Baldwin, Dylan Moran and Pat Shortt relish choice one-liners as a freewheeling narrative slaloms inexorably towards a showdown in an abandoned church that nods discreetly to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.
Olivia Cooke is a delightful fit for the titular troublemaker, who exploits the supposed weakness of her sex to gain the upper hand against anyone who stands in her way, including her own family. Diction is occasionally smothered by the musicality of her Irish accent but there’s an irresistible effervescence to her scheming minx, who is determined to seize life by the short and curlies. “These sort of adventures are always more enjoyable with a positive attitude,” she trills after one particularly grisly interlude – a veiled instruction to us to gleefully embrace the escalating madness.
Once upon a time in the west of Ireland, Pixie (Cooke) plans to avenge her mother’s death by masterminding a heist with smitten boyfriend Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne) and his pal Fergus (Fra Fee). The two men don animal masks and interrupt a drug deal in a church overseen by Father Daly (Shortt) and Father McGinley (Frankie McCafferty). Bullets fly and copious blood is shed, ruining Pixie’s plan to escape Sligo, where her gangster stepfather Dermot O’Brien (Colm Meaney) is embroiled in a bitter turf war with Father Hector McGrath (Baldwin) and his gun-toting posse of corrupt clergy.
The stolen narcotics, with a street value of just under one million euros, tumble into the possession of nice guys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack). They give Pixie a second chance to start afresh in San Francisco by accompanying her to Dingle, where they hope to sell the MDMA to Raymond Donnelly (Moran). Frank and Harland ignore dire warnings about Pixie – “She won’t just break you, she’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart” – and fall under their travelling companion’s spell as they zig zag across the untamed Irish countryside.
Pixie is an entertaining and sporadically hilarious escapade, punctuated by splashes of violence and a memorable sex scene that proves the title character won’t be tamed by any man. Hardy and McCormack are endearing foils to Cooke’s comic whirlwind, whose only binding allegiance is to herself.
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Published as a novel in 1911, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden has fertilised myriad adaptations on the big and small screens including a 1993 film starring Dame Maggie Smith as housekeeper Mrs Medlock. For this latest incarnation tended by director Marc Munden, screenwriter Jack Thorne elegantly updates the book’s setting from the turn of the 20th century to the aftermath of the Second World War. He tinkers with the final chapter but there are no concessions to soften the unsympathetic heroine, which is a persistent thorn in the side of this visually appealing display.
From the moment she arrives in windswept Yorkshire, 10-year-old Mary Lennox is an insufferable and thoroughly unlikeable brat. When the time comes to redeem the lead character and facilitate a climatic reconciliation, the divide between the audience and Mary is unbridgeable despite the sterling efforts of young actor Dixie Egerickx to win us over. Gorgeous production design thaws some of the persistent emotional frost, captured in rich hues by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who takes us on a vicarious escape to the country with picture postcard tableaux of flora and fauna in sun-bathed harmony.
On the eve of Partition in 1947 India, Mary (Egerickx) loses her pampering parents to the ravages of cholera. The spoilt orphan is sent to live with an uncle she has never met, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), in his mouldering country pile on the wind-swept Yorkshire Moors. Purse-lipped housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) welcomes Mary – “No exploring, no playing about!” – before entrusting the child to kind-natured maid Martha (Isis Davis). The servant refuses to indulge Mary’s self-centred whims and the girl begrudgingly dresses herself before she explores the labyrinthine corridors of Misselthwaite Manor.
Naturally, Mary ignores Mrs Medlock’s stern instructions and in one of the bedrooms, she encounters a sickly, bedridden boy named Colin (Edan Hayhurst). He yearns to escape the confines of his chamber and Mary orchestrates a visit to her special place: a walled garden close to the house where plants bask lazily in the sun and tiny animals frolic with carefree abandon. Martha’s younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson) helps Mary to enact her plan. The verdant idyll is a tonic and Colin slowly builds strength in his legs to abandon his wheelchair.
The Secret Garden is pure escapism at a time when many of us are consigned to the depressingly familiar four walls of our homes. Egerickx captures the unwavering pluck of her pint-sized rebel while Walters and Firth maximise impact with limited screen time. Stunning garden locations throughout Cornwall, Conwy, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Yorkshire and West London seduce our eyes, compensating for the script’s meagre harvest for our hearts.
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The alarmist subtitle of Toby Genkel and Sean McCormack’s computer-animated adventure, replete with dramatic punctuation, suggests pent-up enthusiasm waiting to explode on the big screen. Sadly, the sequel to the 2015 European co-production Two By Two adopts a low, steady rate of knots as it continues to expand the biblical story of Noah from chapters of the book of Genesis into a heartfelt sermon about never judging a creature by its appearance. The original looked to the Ice Age films for inspiration and the follow-up continues with the introduction of a mishap-prone white dove, which shares some creative DNA with equally unfortunate Scrat the sabre-toothed squirrel.
Visual sophistication is lacking, which is particularly noticeable when characters and inanimate objects like barrels interact with water and produce disconcertingly few splashes or ripples. Vocal performances also fail to go overboard including McFly founder Tom Fletcher and his wife Giovanna as a pair of bickering guards with brightly coloured fur. Fleeting humour is simplistic and aimed at younger audiences including a limp running joke involving a tardy hippopotamus, which thunders in at the end of scenes and gasps breathlessly, “What did I miss?” As pantomime season beckons, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone indulges the wheezing ungulate and answers back: “Not much.”
After 147 days at sea aboard Noah’s ark, food supplies are dwindling, jeopardising the fragile peace between surviving pairs of carnivores and herbivores. The boat’s head chef, Nestrian father Dave (voiced by Dermot Magennis), hopes to avoid a bloodbath by making a little go a long way. His bowls laden with pungent green slop fail to curry favour. “If the food doesn’t improve, I’m putting Nestrian a l’orange on the menu!” snarls lion Leonard (Alan Stanford), who is captain of the hulking vessel in Noah’s absence.
During a visit to the ship’s food store, Dave’s young son Finny (Callum Maloney) and hyena-like Grymp best friend Leah (Ava Connolly) tumble into the sea. Leah is marooned on an island with a tentacled new pal, Jelly (Carly Kane). Meanwhile, Finny is warmly embraced by a colony of fellow Nestrians led by the charismatic Patch (Mary Murray), who has foolishly established her community on the sea floor in the shadow of a rumbling volcano. As Mother Nature prepares to roar, Finny follows his species’ alliterative yet grammatically clumsy mantra – “Nestrians never neglect no-one in need” – to repair strained links in the food chain and promote co-operation to all creatures great and small.
Two By Two: Overboard! is disappointingly smooth sailing though familiar channels, with few dramatic swells to place any of the characters in palpable jeopardy. The script treads water for extended periods but the sprightly running time is a blessed concession to the short attention spans of the target audience.
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