Made in Italy

Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson

Made in Italy feels like it’s based on one of the books by Peter Mayle, the British advertising executive who tired of the life and lit out for France, where he set about writing lighthearted sun-dredged reports on his new life. A Year in Provence was the first and it sold very well.

That became a TV series of the same name, starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan as the expatriate couple making a new go of it, and another Mayle book, A Good Year, later became a Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe as a Brit in Provence learning to be a bit less of a bull at a gate about life.

Writer/director James McAvoy clearly has Mayle in his sights for his Tuscan version of the same thing – Brits abroad, charming vila, a beaker of the warm south, daffy locals, life lessons learned, the soul restored.

And, as if to make a connection to Mayle’s books, Lindsay Duncan turns up, as an estate agent, McAvoy clearly not remembering that A Year in Provence on TV got a critical hammering.

What A Year in Provence did with a husband and wife, Made in Italy does with a father and son. Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s actual son) play the pair. Robert (Neeson) is a once well known painter who hasn’t actually produced anything for years. Jack (Richardson) is the son travelling to Italy with his father to sell the family’s holiday home in Tuscany to raise money after a messy divorce in which “she got everything”.

Off they go, grumbling curmudgeonly Robert and lightly simmering Jack, old beefs kept on the back burner so they can do the necessary, patch up the house neither has visited for years and then carry on with their separate lives.

We know with a certainty strong enough to wager a kidney on it that this is not going to happen. And so Robert and Jack arrive and the film takes wing – those Tuscan landscapes, the fabulous villa looking like (broken down) property porn, the obligatory romance (for Jack) with a stunningly attractive, warm smart Italian (Valeria Bilello), the montage sequences of the house being licked into shape, including the simple glorious meal of bread, cheese and a glass of rustic red. McAvoy spares us the idiosyncratic locals – maybe they got lost in the edit.

Natalia and Jack
Natalia and Jack

In the background lurks the dead wife of Robert, the local girl Robert married all those years ago, and whose death lies ever-present in the life of both him and his son – dad won’t talk about it, won’t paint, won’t drive. All three are connected and at a certain point this emotional boil has to be lanced, in scenes that jar not because the acting is bad – it isn’t – but because they upset the prevailing tone.

Up till now nothing has really had any emotional consequence – dad’s painting, son’s broken marriage, their bad relationship, and on top of that we’ve been introduced to Natalia (Bilello), struggling single mother with an ex husband (Gian Marco Tavani) who looks like he’s being lined up to be a proper villain. But that goes nowhere. None of it really goes anywhere.

In fact in Made in Italy nothing really happens, while the tone swings around wildly – comedy, romance, drama, melodrama. Neeson struggles manfully with an underwritten role, his comedy-curmudgeon dad flashing on and off like a distress beacon, while there’s enough of a romantic subplot between Jack and Natalie (she runs a local restaurant, naturally) for us to realise that there is no chemistry between Richardson and Bellilo.

Still, there’s Pavarotti on the soundtrack and plenty of fabulous views of Tuscany. Valeria Bilello emerges relatively unscathed, somehow embodying what the film is meant to be full of, but isn’t. As a picture-postcard movie for a wet Sunday night, Made in Italy might fit the bill.

Made in Italy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Commuter

Liam Neeson between two train carriages

Liam Neeson. A Very Particular Set of Skills. They’re back in The Commuter, in which everyone’s favourite geri-actioner gets physical… this time on a train.

This is the fourth collaboration between Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, after Unknown (skills in Berlin), Non-Stop (Skills on a plane), Run All Night (Skills in New York) and now Skills on the way home from work.

If it seems like there have been a lot more of these films than that, you’re probably also adding Taken (three of them) and Walk Among the Tombstones to the tally. They were directed by different people but also featured a gravelly and largely unsmiling Neeson being forced into a corner and then coming out fighting. 2019’s Cold Pursuit wasn’t far from a Skills movie either, even if the Skills did get in the way of successfully translating an excellent Nordic black comedy into the English language. The original even had a better English-language title – In Order of Disappearance.

As in the Taken trilogy, The Commuter’s plot pivots on a threat to the loved ones of committed family man Michael McCauley (Neeson), who has been lured by the offer of easy money from a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) on the train because he’s just been fired, after having clawed his way back from the abyss of the 2008 financial collapse. No need to worry about all that detail, by the way, though the script does insist on throwing in a couple of “fuck the banks” references to differentiate The Commuter from Non-Stop, which it resembles.

Michael stands to gain $100K if he can find the someone the mystery woman is looking for… that’s it. The sting in the tail being that once he accepts the job and takes the upfront payment of $25K he’s got to go all the way or his wife and son will be killed.

Michael finds the money
Michael takes the bait

The rest of the film is Liam Neeson running up and down the train, challenging people and getting punched in the face or threatened with gun.

Clearly open to the Gibson/Glover charge of being too old for all this shit, Neeson is playing a 60-year-old (he’s 66 at this point, though careful grooming and a Hollywood lifestyle easily knock ten years off) but there’s a reason why a string of these films starring Neeson have been made – he’s a brilliant actor and a plausible physical presence, and he’s lucky enough to be yoked to a director who really understands how to do action. Even so, time marches on, and though the acting chops are still there, Neeson and Collet-Serra bow to the inevitable this time out – in The Commuter when Michael gets punched, it really looks like it hurts.

Hitchcock-era Cary Grant is the template for all these films – the innocent urbane gent pushed into ever more paranoid corners by forces (usually) unseen.

And as with Cary Grant, Liam Neeson creates his own reality – Neesonworld. In Neesonworld, Michael gets rape-sprayed in the face at one point by a young woman he’s just chased up the train and in his next breath (amazingly he can still take one) he’s offering her dating advice. In Neesonworld, even though this ordinary commuter leaves his carriage only to re-enter it minutes later all beaten up and bleeding, no one really comments or ever asks him, “Just WTF is going on?”

Vera Farmiga I’ve mentioned. Sam Neill, Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth McGovern also turn up – most of them for not much longer than their names shimmer in the opening and closing credits – to add a bit of ballast to the dénouement, which also doesn’t matter one iota but concerns skulduggery in high places.

It looks like everyone is still having a lot of fun making these – Collet-Serra throws in the bonus of a runaway-train finale just in case we aren’t having as much fun watching, and the screenwriters throw in an eye-roll reference to Spartacus (another innocent man) – but this run of films is clearly on its last knockings. Neeson even graciously admits to a little stiffness at the end – nothing a Badedas bath wouldn’t fix – having survived ordeals that would have killed ten normal men. He even smiles.

The Commuter – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

The Grey

Liam Neeson in The Grey


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



2 July


Amelia Earhart disappears, 1937

On this day in 1937, the pioneering 39-year-old female aviator (aviatrix, if you prefer) disappeared on a flight circumnavigating the globe. Flying around the world can be accomplished by taking a variety of routes (Howard Hughes had “flown around the world” in 1938 by circling the northern hemisphere, and theoretically could be achieved by circling the North or South Pole, a minute’s work), but Earhart was planning to do it the longest way by circling the equator. Earhart had been breaking flying records almost since she had first learnt to fly, in 1920, her first record coming in 1922, when she broke an altitude record for an aviatrix. She had been famous since being part of a transatlantic flight in 1927 and had been dubbed Lady Lindy by the press, who were obsessed with pilot Charles Lindbergh at the time. Earhart was photogenic, and used her fame to win advertising deals, the money from which she used to finance her flying. In August 1928 she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. In May 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Between 1930 and 1935 she also set seven women’s speed and distance records. Her 1937 equatorial circumnavigation was intended to put her in the record books as a pilot first, woman second. Her first attempt stalled at the first leg after an equipment malfunction. Her second attempt, jumping from Oakland, California, to Miami, Florida and then on to South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, had taken her 22,000 miles (35,000km) with only 7,000 miles (11,000km) remaining. Her plane disappeared en route for Howland Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific. Her plane went down in the Pacific, out of fuel and lost. Her radio signals were being picked up by a US Coast Guard ship, which was responding, but Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan – possibly because they didn’t understand the new radio navigation system – could not hear the ship’s reply, nor its instructions as to the whereabouts of the island. They were only five miles from the island, and were combing the ocean on a north/south line, but lost. In spite of the most expensive air and sea search in history, they were never found.




The Grey (2011, dir: Joe Carnahan)

On his way back to civilisation with a bunch of rowdies he has nothing in common with, a terminally fatalistic/seriously suicidal oil worker greets the fact that the plane he’s on is suddenly in dire trouble with a shrug. “You’re going to die,” the grizzled Ottway (Liam Neeson) tells a shit scared co-worker, “it will feel warm.” Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan then treats us to one of those intensely realistic air crashes that Hollywood has become adept at staging (Lost, Flight, United 93) – all chaos and panic, stuff dangling all over the place – and, boom, we’re on the ground, in the snow, with dead people scattered about. The survivors crawl out of the wreckage, only gradually realising that they’ve miraculously survived falling thousands of feet out of the sky only to die down here on the ground in the freezing cold, as they’re picked off one by one by a ravening pack of wolves who have smelt the mayhem and arrived to pick up some takeaway.
The prologue over, The Grey then settles down for the long haul, a cat and mouse movie using wolves and humans. If it’s Jaws with a pack-mentality foe, then Ottway is its Quint, a dead-eyed loner who is useless in normal situations where social niceties are required. But give him danger… And like Quint, Ottway’s strength is derived from the fact that he isn’t afraid to die, might even welcome it in fact. The strength of The Grey derives in part from the fact that we already know this, it’s been told to us just before and during the opening plane-crash sequence which at the time – since it was so lavish and well choreographed – looked like being what the film was all about. This piece of dramatic blind-siding really pays off as we enter this second, snowy phase of the film and Ottway and co are trying to survive while the wolves circle.
Don’t look at the wolves too closely. For some reason Hollywood seems stuck on the American Werewolf in London moodboard when it comes to depictions of our lupine friends. Instead watch the men, who we are introduced to individually, as in a war film, as they voice hopes and fears, talk about the big questions, as people tend to do in the movies when they’re faced with their own extinction. Personally, I could do without the gigantic drops into sentimentality which seem to act as punctuations between the more thoughtful disquisitions, and I’m not one of those people who think this is one of the best films of its year. But The Grey is a very good existential B movie – tight, lean, simple, gripping, and it keeps us hanging on till the end, speculating as to how long Ottway’s suicidal energy is going to act as a force field around him, wondering who’s going to die next. When. How. Right to the very last shot. Watch to the very end of the credits, in other words. Nicely done.



Why Watch?


  • One of Neeson’s great “geri-action” roles
  • Masanobu Takayanagi’s impressive cinematography
  • A barely recognisable Dermot Mulroney
  • Those unforgiving British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) locations


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Grey – Watch it now at Amazon