Monday, April 21, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

While I spend a lot of time on this blog heralding the innovative vision of Christopher Nolan, I’ve never mentioned the name Wally Pfister, Nolan’s chief cinematographer and a key guiding hand in the creation of that aforementioned vision.  The shadow of Nolan looms large over Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, though the end result feels more like the work of an impressionist than a disciple.

Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence scientist shot with a radiation-laced bullet by anti-tech terrorists.  During his last weeks, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) works to digitize and upload her husband’s consciousness, to the dismay of their friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany).  Max fears that the program Evelyn activates isn’t really Will, fears that take on weight when “Will” quickly advances beyond the realm of the possible.

Transcendence clearly rides the post-Inception wave of high-concept science fiction, a wave dominated by the technical achievement of Gravity.  With Transcendence, Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen tackle the issue of the singularity, a post-human digital environment epitomized by the idea of “living long enough to upload.”  The film poses a number of important questions about this technology – how much of a personality is changed during the dehumanizing process of uploading?  What are the upward limits of “transcendence”?  And at what point does AI surpass our understanding of conventional morality?

Unfortunately, Transcendence never really answers those questions, stopping short at presenting them.  What’s frustrating, though, is that the film presents these questions as though they will become important plot points, as when anxiety arises about whether “Will” is really Will; though at least one scene teases an answer to the question, it’s never revisited until the conclusion, which takes the answer for granted.  To be fair, this is Paglen’s film debut as well as Pfister’s, and he’s already offered something smarter than most science fiction does, but it is only half the battle.

Just as the script only takes us halfway there, the rest of the film never quite emotionally engages.  Depp and Hall have genuine chemistry together, playing the quirky-scientist-couple brilliantly in the one scene they have together before Will is shot, and Hall proves herself the actual star of the show with a commanding lead as the increasingly-distraught Evelyn.  As for Depp, he acquits himself rather well, playing a subdued performance that you won’t believe comes from the same man as last summer’s Tonto.  The rest of the cast, though – Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy among them – are basically interchangeable, which is a shame given the range they’ve displayed elsewhere (and largely in Nolan films).

This, then, is the larger weakness of Transcendence – its inability to pass the Plinkett test,1 which requires characters to be distinct beyond physical appearance and function to the plot.  Will and Evelyn for all intents and purposes pass the test, though none of the other characters do.  The result is a fairly uneven film, in which two out of three running plotlines proceed purely on the requirements of the narrative itself.  The film needs an antagonist for its central AI-based protagonist, so a thinly characterized terrorist group (RIFT) is created, with oblique gestures at their motives.  Common sense suggests that the US government might object to the existence of “Will” on their soil, so a team of government agents chases the plot wherever it goes.

I’ve never fully understood why some moviegoers have difficulty connecting emotionally to Christopher Nolan’s work.  Despite the overtly cerebral nature of his films, they’re anchored by very human stories, such that the very ending of Inception cares more for how its protagonist acts than whether what’s happening is actually real.  (The same can’t be said for twist-ending flicks like The Sixth Sense, where the revelation is all.)  With Transcendence, though, I feel like I’ve approximated that sensation; Will and Evelyn aside, I couldn’t engage emotionally with any of the characters on screen and indeed found several of their decisions – mostly shifts in allegiance – to be baffling beyond the necessity of the plot.  I have no idea, for example, how Freeman’s character goes from desk-jockey scientist to FBI analyst, or why (potential spoilers ahead) Paul Bettany’s character joins up with RIFT – beyond, that is, the need for characters in a film to move toward the conclusion of the plot.

At the core of Transcendence is a very moving, very meaningful science-fictional take on a hetero-organic marriage between a woman and her computer – the dark response, I suppose, to Spike Jonze’s Her.  Orbiting that compelling story, though, is a series of narrative false steps and mechanical storytelling that make Transcendence more of a disappointment than Pfister’s promising career to date would have foretold.  One wonders what would have come of “Christopher Nolan’s Transcendence” had a more deft filmmaker been at the helm.  Transcendence is just shy of a failure, feeling more like the training wheels on Pfister’s bike were taken off a bit too soon.

Transcendence is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.”  There are a few shootings with a fair amount of blood (mostly seen as bloodstains on clothing), and some viewers might be ooked out by the moments when machines augment human bodies via healing or implantation.

1 Plinkett dismantles the Star Wars prequels in a series of YouTube videos for many reasons, most prominently its failure to create characters as rich as the ones from the original trilogy. A focus group in his Phantom Menace review is able to describe with great precision the personalities of Han Solo and C-3PO but is unable to do the same for Qui-Gon Jinn and Queen Amidala.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday at the Movies - April 14, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, two spooky offerings on tap.  Coincidentally, both feature a character named Annabelle/Annabel – one a creepy doll, the other Jessica Chastain.

The Conjuring (2013) – Though the words “from the director of Saw” might give viewers pause, the truth is that James Wan actually turns in the strongest work of his career with this retro-exorcist horror film that both unsettles and goes for the full jump moment.  Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play a married couple who move into a seemingly haunted house; as the supernatural occurrences grow more dire, they contact paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to banish the malicious spirits possessing their home.  Usually typecast as milquetoast, Wilson musters up instead a stalwart and defensive skeptic pushed beyond his expertise.  Farmiga, who’s doing career-best work over on AMC’s Bates Motel as Norman’s loopy mother, plays a very convincing empathy who connects with the demonic spirit in frightening ways where the disquiet is superbly evident on her face.  Fortunately, The Conjuring suffers from none of the overacting or hacky clichés that often plague horror films; while the film does venture into moments we’ve seen before, the execution really sticks the landing in terms of genuinely unnerving the audience.  I’ll be honest and disclose that the exorcism subgenre of horror freaks me out more than most (second only, perhaps, to home invasion narratives), and the success of The Conjuring is that it’s immersive in the way of the best horror films – that is, it successfully eclipses your surroundings to the point where you’ll forget there’s a real world outside the film, allowing the mounting dread and inevitable punctuations of fright to pervade into your soul.  While I’m not sure that lightning can strike twice in these cases, I’ll be in line for The Conjuring 2 (2015).

Mama (2013) – Hitchcock famously said that the true terror is in the anticipation and not in the bang; by his logic, Mama is a highly successful horror film, but the rest of us will likely find ourselves disappointed by the way Mama handles “the bang” in the last twenty or so minutes of the film.  Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau star as the adoptive parents of two girls found in a feral state five years after their father abducted them, though it quickly becomes apparent that the girls’ invisible friend “Mama” has sinister intentions for the new parents.  Where The Conjuring crafted a compelling climactic possession sequence, Mama fails maintain its momentum at its narrative summit, in part because it discloses too much about the supernatural goings-on.  Mama is at its best when the spidery phantoms are unexplained, when the film’s visual language tells us that something is viciously awry (as in one brilliantly directed moment depicting what seems to be the girls at play – until we realize that one of the figures in the playroom isn’t human).  I even forgive the film its disclosure of who/what Mama really is, though what it does with that reveal leads it into some bizarre territory that takes a hard left from deft horror into something more at home in a Guillermo del Toro fantasy tale.  Chastain is gifted as Annabel, playing against type as a wannabe punk rocker; she’s suitably distressed by the haunting happenings, and her burgeoning affection for the girls is engaging.  But Mama forsakes its scarier moments when it sprints toward a conclusion that conforms to its own internal logic but is, beyond the borders of the film, likely to leave audiences asking, “Whaaa?”

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Skyfall was the closest to Christopher Nolan’s James Bond we’ll ever get, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the Marvel film that most clearly embraces that Nolan-level realism and its accompanying political significance.  For this reviewer, that’s a good thing – melding the financially successful Marvel method of filmmaking with the style of the most creatively successful comic book films (the “Dark Knight” trilogy) means a film that is considerably darker than Thor: The Dark World or even the retro fun of Captain America: The First Avenger but one that is no less compelling.

The Winter Soldier stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, the country’s leading super-soldier coming to terms with the world after being thawed out from 70 years on ice.  Captain America is partnered with Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but he’s growing suspicious of the secrets she and SHIELD are keeping.  After ghost-story assassin The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) attacks SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Cap faces life on the run from Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a SHIELD exec who’s convinced Cap is keeping secrets of his own.

Taking its cue from Ed Brubaker’s immensely popular run on the character, The Winter Soldier runs in its own direction without adhering slavishly to the source material.  There are a ton of fun shout-outs to the comics, but Winter Soldier continues the Marvel process of realigning classic stories for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Here SHIELD plays a much larger role than in the comics (which, really, I can’t recommend highly enough), opening a gateway to very exciting territory once Avengers: Age of Ultron rolls around.

On that note, one senses that the film suffers just the tiniest bit – as did the first Captain America film – from establishing plotlines for use further down the road, be it in Avengers: Age of Ultron or a third Captain America movie.  The difference between this and Prometheus (still the gold standard for audience frustration), though, is that Winter Soldier gestures toward future installments in the “to be continued” tradition of comics without failing to resolve its own central issues.  There’s one significant plot thread that doesn’t quite wrap up as neatly as it ought to – you’ll know it when you see it, since it’s right at the end – which I think is to the film’s detriment, as it deprives two members of the cast from having a very emotionally charged moment.

That’s all in the film we didn’t get, though (and, I’m sure, in the sequel we will).  The film we did get is anchored by another convincing performance by Evans as the soldier out of time, wrestling with fish-out-of-water issues and the more standard superheroic fare.  Meanwhile, Johansson continues to become a better actress after getting stronger material in The Avengers, and newcomer Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition as The Falcon.  The action sequences stand out as being first-rate, especially in a power-packed franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe; driven by Henry Jackman’s killer score, the shoot-em-ups and explosions crackle off the screen, especially in 3D.

I mentioned the tone at the top of this review, because it seems to be what sets Winter Soldier apart from its forerunners.  The humor here is certainly more restrained, surprisingly so considering that directors Anthony and Joe Russo are perhaps best known for their work on sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community.  But rather than paint the comedy broadly as in Thor: The Dark World, Winter Soldier opts for a more restrained tone in line with the conspiracy thriller genre to make a shrewd political point about the tradeoff between security and freedom.  It’s this venture into more substantial terrain that indicates, I hope, a shift in Marvel’s approach.  While some of the other Marvel films have been criticized for being insubstantial or mere teasers for future films – not from me, mind you, I love these things, even Iron Man 2Winter Soldier’s willingness to tackle pressing issues in current events might mark a sea change toward greater cultural relevance beyond merely making a literal ton of money.

As long as these movies keep being as entertaining as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, make mine Marvel.  (At least, until Batman vs. Superman lands.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.”  Plenty of gunfire, car chases, explosions, fistfights, et cetera.

The Living Daylights (1987)

If nothing else, thank God the reign of Moore has ended.  I can’t tell whether I like Timothy Dalton yet or whether it’s just ABM (Anyone But Moore) syndrome, but The Living Daylights is a welcome return to serious form, a bit like For Your Eyes Only both in that sense and in the sense of being ultimately underwhelming.

After saving a Russian defector’s life from cellist/sniper Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), James Bond (Timothy Dalton) finds his head spinning after said defector is apparently abducted by KGB agents out to kill all spies – “Smiert Spionom.”  The head of the KGB, though, denies any involvement, which puts Bond and Milovy on the trail of loony arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), whose plan is honestly a bit of a headscratcher.

There’s no denying that The Living Daylights is meant to return Bond to his pre-Moore incarnation; he’s grimly sardonic, ruthless in dispatching his enemies, and even occasionally violent to women.  Basically, he’s Sean Connery circa From Russia With Love, and indeed The Living Daylights – on the 25th anniversary of the franchise – recalls its predecessors with more attention to international espionage, even amid the cooling tensions of the Gorbachev era. 

Dalton acquits himself well as a sterner Bond, gruff and distrustful of the move toward global peace.  He has his moments of chivalry – as when he spares the life of a female sniper early on – but most of his time is spent growling at the baddies, especially in a fun precredits sequence.  Fortunately, though, he’s not above a good one-liner, and even more fortunately the script knows not to toss them at us rapid-fire (as in one of the better scenes of The Spy Who Loved Me).

The rest of the script, though, is reminiscent of For Your Eyes Only in the sense that I really couldn’t tell you much of what it was about.  The plot is quite thin, usually an excuse to move from one rousing action sequence to another, and furthermore it’s unnecessarily complex; Bond aside, every character double-crosses another at least once, and by the time we get the expository monologue from the main villain it’s really not clear how each of the moving pieces contributes to the plan – which I’m still unclear whether it was about weapons, embezzling, drugs, or human trafficking.  It’s a bit silly to go into a James Bond film looking for logical consistency, because this is a movie that otherwise ticks the boxes quite nicely – Bond sleeps with a lot of women, blows a lot of things up, and stops the Russians in the end.  I just don’t know what he stopped them from doing.

But as I said, the rest of the film plays pretty well.  There’s a nice supporting role from John Rhys-Davies as the bewildered and beleaguered head of the KGB, though Joe Don Baker’s role as the villain comes off a little too campy, his gee-whiz obsession with military conquest more like a holdover from a Roger Moore film.  d’Abo is a competent Bond girl; one senses that she’s not just playacting at playing the cello or at aiming her sniper rifle, though it’s a shame that the movie kind of forgets about her halfway through, reducing her to arm candy and bedsheet occupation.

All of this is coming off negatively for The Living Daylights, but I didn’t actively dislike it, as has been the case with some of the more recent entries in this review series.  Maybe it’s due to the John Barry score, or maybe it’s just Moore fatigue, but I’m actually kind of excited to see more Timothy Dalton.  Even if no one else in the film production crew is, at least Dalton seems to be taking it seriously.

The Living Daylights is rated PG.  Surprisingly for a Bond movie, there are two shots of a topless woman and one of male rear nudity.  The violence is what we’ve come to expect – occasionally bloody shootouts and explosions.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Licence to Kill (1989) on May 7, 2014!  Meanwhile, stay tuned to The Cinema King later this morning for Captain America: The Winter Soldier!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah (2014)

Abandon all hope, ye who anticipate a Biblically accurate adaptation of the flood narrative.  This here’s Aronofsky territory.  The same uber-metaphorical lens through which Black Swan regards Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” gets applied here to Genesis, resulting in a film that is often uncannily strange but never less than engaging.

Russell Crowe stars as the Scriptural patriarch who gathers his family and two-of-every-kind in a colossal ark after a vision from The Creator informs him that the world is about to perish in a flood.  As he gathers his family (wife Jennifer Connelly, sons including Logan Lerman, and daughter-in-law Emma Watson), Noah incurs the wrath of local warlord Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who refuses to believe that God has not spoken to him too.  Postscript – check out Anthony Hopkins as a berry-gathering Methuselah, doing that wise old man act he’s perfected by now.

Let’s set aside the religious debate right off the bat.  The film doesn’t purport Biblical accuracy; in fact, director Darren Aronofsky disavows any such intention.  Consequently, I think Noah ought to be measured by the same standards as any other film adaptation of a major mythic narrative, in the vein of superhero or Hercules movies.  And there’s nothing in Noah that constitutes an unequivocal betrayal of the source material, nothing incompatible with the core of the original story.

As an interpretive adaptation, then, Noah is mostly successful, though it borders every so often on the bizarre.  The film is fortunately anchored by a very compelling and very human performance from Crowe, who imbues Noah with a deeper humanity than most interpretations. Rather than present Noah as a stoic “true believer,” Crowe gives him his moments of doubt, his misinterpretations of the message, and his post-flood uncertainty.  (Plus, after this and Man of Steel, Crowe has the market cornered on “dads who put their sons in arks.”)

Aronofsky does some visually clever stuff when he introduces Noah’s visions from The Creator as slideshow dream sequences, working in a nifty sample of the overlap between creationism and evolution.  But then the film gets really weird, and by weird I mean “rock people help build the ark.”  There’s a bit of murky theology in these rock people being fallen angels who help mankind, and their bids for forgiveness play up a side of Old Testament God that isn’t seen too often.  In a movie that otherwise immerses you in a specific time period in antiquity, though, living rocks strain credulity.

The other major subplot Aronofsky introduces is the presence of a tribal chief who goes to war for a spot on the ark.  It’s a plausible addition that Noah’s neighbors might have been a bit jealous, and Winstone is wholly engaging as Noah’s foil.  Aronofsky uses these villains, though, to posit an underlying vegans-versus-carnivores message that ultimately confounds more than it proselytizes.  (Some are reading it as anti-industrialist, though that may be a bridge too far.)  It’s fine for establishing a contrast between Noah and the sinners, but it raises major ethical questions:  Noah kills three hunters to avenge their killing of an animal for food, but he turns a blind eye to the rape and pillage of actual humans next door.  I see what Aronofsky is doing, adding an earthy and spiritual element to Noah’s communion with The Creator, but it’s more distracting than it should be precisely because the logic doesn’t hold up.

All told, though, Noah ends up an engaging film, a successful spectacle – which is, at the end of the day, all I ask of a movie.  It’s far from patently offensive, and the parts in the film that work do work very well.  Aside from a few silly bits, Noah is big-budget pageantry at its most watchable, put forward by a powerful lead performance and directed by a man with an unmistakable (if punctuated by logical error) directorial vision.

Noah is rated PG-13 for “violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.”  Aside from the whole exterminating flood, there are a few scenes of bloody combat, other scenes of animals being killed in gory fashion, and a bit of bare-shouldered friskiness from the cast’s younger group.

Next week, something we haven’t done in a very long while – two reviews on the same day. Hint:  what’s the big release this Friday?  And when is the Double-Oh-Seventh of this month?  Put another way, when is an American icon like a British agent?  When they’re both reviewed here, that is!  See you next week!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday at the Movies - March 24, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a less than unfortunate flick.

Lemony Snickey’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) – Midway through my recent binge-reading (can this be a thing?) of the thirteen books in the series, I stepped aside for a few hours with the film, which loosely adapts the first three books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window).  The film and its source material find the Baudelaire orphans (Emily Browning as inventive Violet, Liam Aiken as bookish Klaus, and their baby sister Sunny) bounced from guardian to guardian after their parents perish in a fire.  The first guardian, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), turns out to be a cad of many costumes; the third, Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) is a paranoid whackadoo ruled by her fears.  In between is the kind herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a character who gets far too little screen time in contrast to his zanier counterparts.  The elephant in the room is Carrey; he’s at his best when he’s restrained (as in The Truman Show), but here his penchant for plasticity plays well with the character’s own fondness for disguises.  Each disguise Count Olaf dons is transparent, but it’s fun to see Carrey step behind Olaf’s theatricality and inhabit these alternate takes on the character (i.e., the meek Stephano or the gruff Captain Sham).  The three Baudelaires are mostly fine, though the film curiously steps away from Violet’s distinctive hair ribbon and Klaus’s definitive glasses.  But one of the most fun bits in the film is what I’ve always held as the cinephile’s true delight – a cast of celebrity cameos, including Streep and Connolly, of course, but also Timothy Spall, Craig Ferguson, and Dustin Hoffman doing his best Stan Lee impression.  Ultimately, the film feels a lot like a Tim Burton film – the best way, I suppose, to describe Snicket’s distinctive prose voice – but as a Burton fan and an admirer of the books, Lemony Snicket’s was engaging enough.  If only the film told us who Beatrice was!

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

It’s the classic story of a dog and his boy traveling through time, and while I haven’t had great things to say about DreamWorks animation in the past, I had more fun than I was expecting with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, a delightful kid’s movie with as much if not more to offer older audience members.

Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), having conquered every field of knowledge known to man, adopts a boy named Sherman (Max Charles) and builds a time machine called the WABAC (way-back) Machine.  Not bad for a talking dog, eh?  Mr. Peabody’s greatest challenge, though, comes when Sherman is bullied at school, and a reconciliatory dinner party with the bully Penny (Ariel Winter) and her parents goes awry.  Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny end up bouncing through time, where/when they meet King Tut, Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), and – on the eve of the Trojan War – Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton).

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is roundly the most enjoyable film adapted from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  It succeeds where its predecessors – Boris and Natasha, Dudley Do-Right, and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle – failed because it attempts to be neither too zany nor too self-aware.  Instead of banking entirely on nostalgia or on excessively cartoonizing reality, Mr. Peabody & Sherman creates its own world with its own rules and briskly justifies its own existence with a series of quick jokes about a genius talking dog.

I’ve seen Mr. Peabody and Sherman referred to as “Dogtor Who,” and it’s an exceptionally apt comparison – one I wish I’d thought of, to be honest.  Like Doctor Who, this film carries an infectious exuberance about the opportunities afforded by time travel, the sense of limitless adventures to be had by slipping through the timestream.  At the heart of it all is a refreshing optimism about humanity, the idea that we could all be a little better if we surrender to the search for knowledge and compassion.  But both Peabody and Who perform that critical function of any work targeted to younger audiences; that is, they both work on multiple levels for varying audiences.  There are jokes in Peabody that the kiddies simply won’t get – the implications of Bill Clinton’s “I’ve done worse” or the potential awkwardness if one accepts Oedipus’s invitation to holiday dinner – and that’s fine.  In fact, it’s great; it ensures the adults will be guffawing just as loudly at the asides as the young’uns at the word “doody.”

I concede that I had my doubts about this film, particularly after hearing that Robert Downey, Jr. wasn’t playing Mr. Peabody.  After all, he’d have been a perfect match for Bill Scott’s pointed delivery on the original series.  But the greatest compliment I can pay Ty Burrell – other than to say that his Phil Dunphy on Modern Family never fails to split my sides – is that I forgot all about RDJ as a Peabody candidate and found Burrell a creditable Peabody.  Burrell manages to weave Peabody’s exceptional intellect with his unique pun-based sense of humor and of course his “deep regard” for his adoptive son Sherman, giving a performance that is both clever and affective.  The rest of the voice cast is strong as well, particularly Stanley Tucci as a put-upon if caricatured da Vinci, but it’s undeniably Burrell’s show.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman could have pandered to an audience of children, but instead the filmmakers have turned in a movie that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.  Mr. Peabody & Sherman is so much more clever than it could have been, and as a result I found myself having a fantastic time in the theater – which in the end is all I ever ask from a film.  No need to go back in time to un-see this one; if I could, I’d see it all over again.  Until then, I’ll tide myself over with the original clips on YouTube.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is rated PG “for some mild action and brief rude humor.”  This movie is soundly appropriate for children who can handle a bit of light swordfighting, standard chase sequences, and the occasional flatulence humor.  Oh, and one scene of biting.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Non-Stop (2014)

Mark Kermode, a British film critic with whom I find myself agreeing more often than not, said of Taken, “It is the kind of movie that used to be the second-bill on a kind of junky double-bill at a drive-in and now somehow has managed to make it to the big screen with a big name.”  Indeed, that big name, Liam Neeson, has made a career of elevating otherwise B-movie action films.  Why Kermode doesn’t chalk up to Neeson the victories of Taken and its children is anyone’s guess, because it’s the clearest reason for Non-Stop to exist, let alone to succeed.

Neeson stars as federal air marshal Bill Marks (a name you won’t forget because of the way it’s growled throughout) on a red-eye transatlantic flight.  Midway over the ocean, Marks receives a series of texts from a terrorist who promises to kill a passenger every twenty minutes – and, we soon learn, frame Marks in the process.  But we know it’s not all as easy as that, and Neeson does not disappoint in his resilience, very nearly hijacking the flight in an attempt to clear his name.

Let’s establish one thing straightaway – Non-Stop is not Taken.  It’s a far cry from Pierre Morel’s masterful action film, which still manages to thrill after all these years.  In fact, I might be more generous toward Non-Stop precisely because its star makes some of the script’s sins forgivable, or at least bearable.  Neeson is as always a stalwart and reliable action star, gravelly and determined.  He communicates both desperation and dedication in equal parts, allowing us to feel the urgency without fully doubting his abilities.

Bill Marks may share a set of initials with Taken’s Bryan Mills, but he lacks that critical “set of skills” with which the latter might have quickly resolved the crisis.  Instead, the script saddles him with textbook substance abuse and past family trauma, but it’s to Neeson’s credit that he pulls off these rather generic gestures toward characterization and pulls in a convincing portrait of a troubled man pushed to his limits.

Where Non-Stop misses the bar set by Taken is largely everywhere else in its filmmaking.  At 110 minutes, the film feels longer than it needed to be, in part because Bill Marks is air-marshaling aboard a flight chock overfull of narrative detours.  One even suspects that Julianne Moore was cast because of her hair color as a literal personified red herring.  The problem is that the film’s reliance on the classic locked-room formula means that Bill’s initial hunches are necessarily wrong; this puts the audience in the position of being fully aware of the misdirections at work, and the film never really tries to counteract our sense of those sleights of hand.  Consequently, the film feels in a bit of a holding pattern while the intuitive audience members look for the real clues behind the foreground.  Neeson’s performance is compelling, very much enough to hold your attention, but on reflection it’s very much a B-movie superstructure.

The film is, however, at its best when it surrenders to what might be considered the “dumb fun” action of the third reel, when the story takes on a ticking plot twist and a spiraling set of revelations.  Non-Stop does suffer from exposition-heavy villain monologuing, but it counterbalances with flashy fistfights and even a bit of high-altitude/high-stakes gunplay.  Ultimately, then, Non-Stop succeeds or fails based on how highly you value the screen presence of Liam Neeson.  For this filmgoer, it’s a fun enough diversion though not a close contender for greatness.

Non-Stop is rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references.”  There are a few deaths on the plane as the terrorist makes good on the every-twenty-minutes threat.  A younger passenger is seen flirting with two older men, and IMDb reports two F-words (only one of which I recall).

While The Cinema King enjoys spring break, it’s the perfect opportunity for multiple reviews.  So come back on Thursday for my take on Mr. Peabody & Sherman!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday at the Movies - March 10, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, the next best thing to seeing a play.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – I only recently encountered Edward Albee’s play of the same name and knew immediately I had to see Mike Nichols’s well-regarded film adaptation (his cinematic directorial debut).  Fortunately, Nichols’s film version avoids the trap that most filmings of plays tend to encounter; where some films rely too much on the power of the dialogue itself, what ends up emerging is an uncinematic talkfest slavishly devoted to the play text.  In the case of Virginia Woolf, though, Albee’s words are brought to life by two powerhouse performances.  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star as George and Martha, a beleaguered history professor and his browbeating wife.  Even if you don’t view the film as a side narrative to the real-life relationship between Liz and Dick, their work here is electrifying, the repartee arcing off each other in rapid-fire bursts of emasculating zingers and biting droll humor.  A part of me will always wonder what could have been if James Mason and Bette Davis had been cast (as Albee hoped), but there’s no doubt that Burton and Taylor are first-rate as George and Martha.  The film finds them at a late-night party with a new biology professor and his wife, played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis.  Segal and Dennis are suitable enough (though I’m surprised Dennis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), but their bigger strength is in knowing not to attempt to upstage Burton and Taylor.  And the black-and-white cinematography is a stroke of inspiration, allowing nothing to distract from the top-notch performances before us.  And for what it’s worth, just last year the Library of Congress identified this film for preservation.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Friday, March 7, 2014

A View to a Kill (1985)

We’ve really had just about enough of Roger Moore around these parts.  From boring to offensively bad, Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond has really disappointed after the initial promise he showed in Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. After seven films and twelve years, A View to a Kill marks Moore’s last outing as 007, and it’s mixed feelings all around.  The film itself isn’t bad, but one gets the feeling that Moore has wasted too much time getting here.

After uncovering something to do with a computer chip, James Bond (Moore) seeks out the chip’s manufacturer, cyber-wunderkind Max Zorin (Christopher Walken).  Bond poses as an equestrian, then a journalist, to uncover the truth about Zorin’s mad scheme.  Along the way Bond is aided by fellow agent Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee) and heiress Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) and foiled by Zorin’s Amazonian bodyguard May Day (Grace Jones).

A View to a Kill has a poor reputation among the Bond canon, though I don’t think the film is irredeemable.  I’m a fan of films where Bond has to put clues together to uncover a case, and this film plays that up quite well with a number of seemingly disparate plot threads – computer circuitry, illegal horse breeding, Nazi eugenics – that all come together with a satisfying cohesion.  It’s especially fun to see Moore puzzle through the matter with Macnee, the original John Steed, by his side; the two do a neat kind of “Grumpy Old Men” routine that riffs nicely on the shared espionage background between the two.

Having said that, Moore is really just too old to keep doing this sort of thing.  It’s clever when the film attempts to confront it, but once Macnee leaves the plot we’re asked to forget Moore’s age and regard him once more as the spry agent Bond ought to be.  But it’s a brutally unsuccessful move, made all the more apparent by how clearly youthful both Roberts and Jones are.  When Moore’s Bond beds both, it’s like catching a lusty grandfather in bed with a cheerleader; it feels both wrong and uncomfortable.  The other type of physical scenes also flounder due to his age, especially the ones involving complex stunts like another ski jump.  (You were right, Spy Who Loved Me:  nobody does it better.)

Fortunately, the film has an amazing antagonist in Christopher Walken.  Let that sink in:  Christopher Walken is a Bond villain, and it’s everything you’d expect from that sentence.  Walken is at his mid-80s nuttiest here, emphasizing all the wrong syllables and cocking his head at peculiar angles to give his character a fully off-kilter vibe.  Though the film relies on a clue-based structure, there’s no question that Walken, with his albino afro and shifty-eyed glances – is the villain, which allows him to surrender entirely to the character’s hammy quirks.  Best of all, Walken funnels that goofiness into full-blown psychosis; where some Bond villains have trouble toeing that line, Walken makes Zorin both engaging and terrifying, even without that curious subplot where (spoilers?) he’s revealed to be a Nazi test tube baby.

Perhaps even more than Walken’s performance, what helps A View to a Kill is its uncanny and unmistakable resemblance to the franchise’s finest hour – Goldfinger.  The basic plot outline is the same:  mad billionaire with lethal sidekick cooks up scheme to destroy resource and increase his own wealth.  While A View to a Kill never makes the connection explicit, with nary a reference in sight, reappropriating the successful formula carries with it a tried-and-true aspect that isn’t very surprising.  That is, it already worked in Goldfinger, so A View to a Kill doesn’t see a need to reinvent the wheel.  It’s ironic that we saw the same thing happen with Never Say Never Again, which rebranded Thunderball, though View to a Kill takes the remake angle a step further and at least does more than merely change the scenery.

And honestly, after all the missteps we’ve seen in the Roger Moore era, it’s subconsciously refreshing to be reminded of Goldfinger, arguably Connery’s and the franchise’s gold standard.  We’ve been through so much with Moore that I almost forgive the sin of uncreativity because it means we’re moving on to something new and different.  Plus, tell me the idea of Goldfinger starring Christopher Walken isn’t tempting.

A View to a Kill is rated PG.  There are several scenes of implied nudity (bare shoulders and backs), and in one scene a man machine-guns a crowd while another character is killed by an explosive.

Roger Moore may be out, but James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of The Living Daylights (1987) on April 7, 2014!