Movie reviews: A Walk Among the Tombstones, Wish I Was Here, Noble

A Walk Among the Tombstones ***

Movie reviews: A Walk Among the Tombstones, Wish I Was Here, Noble

SET in New York in 1999, A Walk Among the Tombstones (16s) opens with private eye Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) summoned to the home of drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens).

Kristo’s wife has been kidnapped, but he doesn’t want Scudder to find her — Kristo wants Scudder to find the men who took the ransom and killed his wife anyway. Adapted and directed by Scott Frank from Lawrence Block’s novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a perfect vehicle for Liam Neeson, a hardboiled revenge thriller with a craggy, ex-NYPD detective at its heart.

And heart is the operative word: for all the cold-blooded murder, rape and torture depicted (or alluded to) here, the story is very much one of redemption as Scudder, who is haunted by an tragedy that occurred when he was a hard-drinking police detective, attempts to balance the cosmic scales by tracking down the psychopathic kidnappers and serve a crude but effective justice.

Scott Frank has previously scripted inventive adaptations in Out of Sight and Minority Report, but this offering is rather more straightforward, the storytelling linear to a fault despite the labyrinthine twists and turns. Meanwhile, there are times when Neeson’s hard-bitten, alcoholic, lone-wolf private eye routine seems stitched together from clichés. That said, and the unnecessarily extended ending notwithstanding, it all hangs together very well as a stripped-down thriller, as the gruff Scudder prowls the seamiest dark corners New York has to offer, with Frank employing a limited palette of greys and browns to emphasise the murky morality of his quest.

Wish I Was Here (15A) stars Zach Braff as Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old man who is — in order of his priorities — an actor, a father to two children, and husband to Sarah (Kate Hudson). Unfortunately, Aidan’s last acting job was in a dandruff commercial many years ago; when his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), a devout Jew, announces that he is dying of cancer, Aidan has a number of hard decisions to make about his life, his faith, and who he really wants to be. Zach Braff graduated from the sitcom Scrubs to direct Garden State 10 years ago, but his career seems to have stalled since then (this movie was largely financed by a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign). Given that Braff directs here, and co-wrote the script with his brother Adam, it’s tempting to read Wish I Was Here as an autobiographical tale of a man at a creative crossroads and wondering if he needs to give up on his ‘clowning around’ and take a more pragmatic approach to life, for the sake of his wife and children.

Braff’s direction is overly cluttered with sub-plots at times, but he puts in a likeable, sympathetic turn as the emotionally conflicted Aidan (although it would have been nice to actually see Aidan act at least once, so that we might judge the quality of his craft and the depth of his passion), and overall the ensemble cast give full value, particularly Patinkin, Joey King as Aidan’s religiously inclined daughter, and Kate Hudson, who quietly steals the show as the put-upon, self-sacrificing wife.

Noble (15A) opens with Dublin-born Christina Noble (Deirdre O’Kane) arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in 1989. The philanthropist is on a grand mission: she has travelled halfway around the world to help orphaned and homeless Vietnamese children and immediately sets about cajoling local businessmen (including Brendan Coyle’s ex-pat) into funding a shelter; so successful is she in her endeavours that the locals take her to their heart and call her ‘Mama Tina’.

Despite the heart-tugging nature of her adventures and the engaging narrative behind her selfless drive, Noble’s most powerful moments are found during the flashback sequences dotting the trim and pacy 100-minute running time.

First it’s a grim 1950’s Dublin where young Christina (a star-making turn from Gloria Cramer Curtis) dodges truant officers, nasty nuns and an alcoholic father (Liam Cunningham) to make it to Birmingham just as Lyndon Johnson commits more troops to Vietnam. Later, having survived an horrific experience and a cheating husband, Christina (now played by a strong Sarah Greene), asks a seemingly uncaring God for a reason she has suffered her many travails, and receives a vision of destitute Vietnamese children in return.

It might lack subtlety but Noble is effective and O’Kane’s performance and a no-frills approach from writer-director Stephen Bradley (Sweety Barrett, Boy Eats Girl) provide the drive that pulls it through its shakier moments, such as an undercooked subplot involving child prostitution.

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