Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: Non-Stop

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
There are no snakes on this plane, but who needs them when you've got Liam Neeson? In this latest collaboration between the unlikely action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (who was also responsible for 2011's "Unknown"), Neeson plays an air marshal with a past - what other types are there in Movieland? - who is first the investigator and later the suspect in a murder mystery playing out at thousands of feet in the air.

Neeson's Bill Marks, whose name you'll likely never forget due to the number of times it is repeated during the course of the film, has a bit of a drinking problem and some unresolved familial situations. At the beginning of the picture, he boards a plane and, shortly after takeoff, starts receiving cryptic messages from one of the passengers, threatening to kill people on the flight if Marks does not miraculously round up $150 million and transfer it into an account.

The killer keeps his word, although the first few deaths are preposterously carried out. As the body count increases, Marks himself becomes the prime suspect - at least to the investigators on the ground and some of the more wary passengers.

One of the elements Collet-Serra and company nails is how annoying our fellow passengers can be under duress. In fact, the obnoxious behavior of several of the characters on the plane struck a note of familiarity.

On the other hand, "Non-Stop" is pretty much non-stop ridiculousness. If you can get past the completely absurd plot turns, the ludicrous method in which the villains carry out their diabolical plans and the ultimately nonsensical reasoning behind carrying out those plans, you might actually enjoy yourself.

I typically roll my eyes when I hear people insisting that audience members "leave their brains at the door" in order to be able to enjoy so many of Hollywood's movies. In this case, however, that rings true.

"Non-Stop" is often entertaining and Neeson does his best at remaining serious amid completely preposterous twists and turns. It's not a great movie - and not necessarily even a good one, but if you are looking for a silly - but fun - action thriller, you could do much worse than this.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscar Picks: Who Will (and Should) Win

Image courtesy of Jeff Monteith.
The 86th Academy Awards ceremony will be held this Sunday, so I'm providing my annual rundown of which films I believe will win and which I believe should win. And, just for the hell of it, I'm throwing in my picks for the biggest snubs in each category.

Best Picture
Nominees: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave (maybe)
Could Win: Gravity (maybe)
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Biggest Snub: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Nominees: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Could Win: Steve McQueen
Should Win: Steve McQueen
Biggest Snubs: Spike Jonze (Her), Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Actor
Nominees: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Could Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Biggest Snub: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Could Win: Cate Blanchett. Oh, OK. Sandra Bullock could somehow pull out a win, but it's likely Blanchett all the way.
Should Win: Wait for it... Cate Blanchett
Biggest Snubs: Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Will Win: Jared Leto
Could Win: Barkhad Abdi could be the upset here, but it doesn't seem likely that Leto is going to lose this one.
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Biggest Snubs: Not too many in this category. I suppose you could make the argument for Jeremy Renner in American Hustle, but this category is pretty spot on.

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), June Squibb (Nebraska), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Biggest Snub: Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) and, no kidding, the voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: 3 Days to Kill

Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
McG's "3 Days to Kill" shows us nothing new. In fact, the story of a Killer Attempting to Go Straight and Spend More Time With His Family After Finding Out He Has a Terminal Illness, or some variation thereof, sounds as if it should be its own genre.

That being said, the film is often watchable enough due to its committed leading performance by Kevin Costner as a, yep, CIA-hired assassin who decides to reconnect with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfield) after finding out he has a strain of brain cancer that will only give him a few months to live.

Of course, there's a catch. There always is in these types of films. Have you ever actually seen a movie where the killer/CIA agent/cop, etc. actually goes completely straight after discovering said illness? Has there ever been a film in which he actually kills no more and just simply spends time with the family? Probably not.

The catch here is that a ruthless CIA higher-up (Amber Heard) agrees to give Ethan Renner (Costner) an experimental drug that will prolong his life, if not save it, in exchange for bringing down a terrorist and his crew, which includes a villain named The Albino. The sequences during which Ethan takes this drug feel as if they are the lost reels to "The Trip." How Heard's character just happened to be able to get her hands on the drug is not explained. Nor is the fact that Ethan tends to take his prisoners to his own apartment for interrogation. Nor is the fact that these criminals never end up paying a visit to that apartment at a later date.

The film aims at being both an action film and a drama about Costner reconnecting with his family. On the first count, the picture works pretty well. There are a number of shoot-outs and car chases, all of which are handled pretty expertly.

But rather than being sentimental, the plot thread involving Ethan and his daughter is mostly humorous, especially an ongoing joke involving Steinfield's character setting Ethan's ring tone on his cell phone.

The film's ending feels strangely inconclusive as if the filmmakers ran out of money before they could tie everything together. Villains are killed and a temporary solution for Ethan's illness is hinted at, but "3 Days to Kill" just sort of stops, rather than concludes.

While not a great film - and not even exactly a good one, McG's picture is not a bad one. Costner gives a little more than is necessary for these type of routine action thrillers and shows better comic timing than you might think was possible. If anything makes "3 Days to Kill" more tolerable, it's his performance.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: The Wind Rises

Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.
It's been said that "The Wind Rises" will be the final feature from Hayao Miyazaki, who is among the greatest film animators of all time. It would be a fitting finale for the filmmaker as his latest picture is yet another story of a dreamer, one who lives by the words of Paul Velary's poem "Le cimetiere marin"- "the wind rises, he must try to live."

The movie is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Japanese fighter planes for World War II. This has been the subject of some controversy as the film depicts Jiro as a pacifist whose love for planes has nothing to do with war. During a scene late in the film, he notes solemnly that none of the planes he designed for the war returned home. Some critics have pounced on this, noting that the film fails to mention the thousands of lives lost in Asia and the Pacific due to Horikoshi's dreams.

Regardless, the film is often visually beautiful and includes more than a few images that sear themselves onto the brain - a young woman painting atop a wind-blown field, that same young woman reaching off a balcony to catch a paper airplane and a POV shot of a plane attempting to land on an aircraft carrier are just several examples.

Although "The Wind Rises" is being mentioned as the frontrunner for the Best Foreign Film award at this year's Oscars, I don't think it is among Miyazaki's best films. It's a good movie, sure, but it doesn't reach the heights of "Spirited Away" or "My Neighbor Totoro," which is my personal favorite of the animator's works.

"The Wind Rises" squeezes a fair amount of history into its two hours - the massive Kanto earthquake of 1923, the Great Depression, the tuberculosis epidemic and, of course, World War II. These events mostly are played as backdrops to the love story of Jiro and the tragic Nahoko.

Much like Miyazaki's previous works, "Wind" meshes melancholy - Nahoko's illness - with offbeat humor, much of which is provided by Jiro's short and occasionally grouchy boss.

There's a lot to admire and be moved by here as is typically the case in any of Miyazaki's films and the blending of dream sequences with others of stark realism are often jarring and powerful. But despite that its tale aims for epic grandeur, "The Wind Rises" feels like a bit of a minor entry into the director's canon. Thematically, however, it's a fitting way for the filmmaker to hang up his hat. And I doubt you'll see any other animated films as ambitious as this one anytime soon.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: About Last Night

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
The new version of "About Last Night" wins this weekend's remake sweepstakes by default. It's definitely better than the reboot of "Robocop" and, well, I haven't seen the remake of "Endless Love," but the reviews for that film have not been particularly been kind.

This is not to say that I necessarily endorse "About Last Night," which is based on a 1974 David Mamet play titled "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" that yielded a much better cinematic adaptation with the same title in 1986.

In this new version, the ubiquitous Kevin Hart and Michael Ealy play the men out for one night stands who eventually become involved in sort-of serious relationships with two women - Regina Hall and Joy Bryant. While Edward Zwick's previous film version was more of a melodrama, this new version plays up the laughs, a majority of which are provided by Hart.

As Danny, Ealy is the straight man to Hart's love'm and leave'm Bernie, while Bryant, as Debbie, is the female equivalent to Ealy, while Hall, as Joan, is the wild card.

The film gets off to a sluggish start and it feels as though the characters are reading dialogue from a screenplay, rather than playing parts. The humor and raunchiness often feel forced.

At around the halfway mark, "About Last Night" picks up some steam and the characters begin to feel more fleshed out and lived in. So, it's unfortunate that in the final stretch they are forced to once again act as characters in a movie - Danny, for example, temporarily kills his relationship with Debbie, mostly due to plot contrivances, rather than his behavior being in sync with his character's actions in the scenes leading up to it.

The film does not provide any particular insights into the modern dating scene or relationships at all, for that matter. And, I suppose, it is not required to. "About Last Night" is primarily made up of cliches from other romantic comedies about relationships and commitment. But the film is good for a few laughs and is amusing enough. And it's likely the only film based on a Mamet play to include a sex scene involving a chicken mask. So, there's that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: Robocop

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Both unnecessary and entirely too busy for its own good, Jose Padhila's remake of "Robocop" is all over the damn place.

The film, which looks good visually and boasts a few well-choreographed action sequences, aims at being a satire, a societal critique and an R rated-themed action movie in a PG-13 film. For years, there has been talk of a "Robocop" reboot - with Darren Aronofsky in talks at one point - and the finished product may result in a collective meh.

The good news is that the film is bursting with character actors - including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbie Cornish and Michael K. Williams, AKA Omar from "The Wire" - playing various good guys and villains. The bad news is that they are given little to do.

Jackson, for instance, always brings wit and personality to whatever role he inhabits. So, it's unfortunate that he is at the center of the absolute worst idea running throughout the film. The picture kicks off with Jackson, playing a loudmouthed political talk show host in the vein of Bill O'Reilly, questioning why the United States is so "robo-phobic" and insisting that machines be put on America's streets for crime fighting. We then cut to one of the film's more distasteful sequences during which said robots battle it out with Iranian citizens on the streets of Tehran.

Jackson's character, whose name is Pat Novak, is brought back every 30 or minutes or so to comment on the action taking place in the film, bashing the film's themes over our heads as if they were complex in the first place. For those who might complain that Stanley Tucci's talk show host sequences feel a little out of place in "The Hunger Games" films, you ain't seen nothing. The scenes with Jackson bring the story's momentum to a complete halt.

Otherwise, "Robocop" sort of sticks to the script of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film in that an honest cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, doing his best with the material) is nearly blown to pieces in the line of duty. He is placed in a robotic suit, courtesy of a greedy business magnate (Keaton), whom it behooves financially to sell the concept of robot law enforcement to the U.S. Congress, and a well-intentioned scientist (Oldman).

Once in his armor, Murphy attempts to track down the criminals, whose enterprise is rather vague, and crooked cops who set him up. Cornish plays his wife, whose job is to mostly wring her hands and look concerned.

The film boasts some halfway decent action sequences, although several of them are shot in that frenetic style that often makes it difficult to discern who is shooting at whom.

But the film is sunk by bad ideas - Jackson's talk show host, subplots that do not completely make sense, the opening scene in Iran and some poor choices in the writing. An example of the latter occurs when Oldman, Keaton and some other associates are flipping through the files of potential wounded officers to become Robocop. Most of them are white - that is, until a black candidate pops up on the screen, prompting one of the characters to note something to the effect that the man is "very popular among the urban set." Really?

I'll admit that although I'm fond of many of Verhoeven's films - especially his early Dutch work, "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct" - I've never been a big fan of the original "Robocop." So, it's not as if this remake is a big letdown to me. However, the concept for the film is intriguing enough to have led to something better than this new version. Unfortunately, the film is as clunky as its protagonist.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Arnaud Desplechin's "Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian" is an example of a filmmaker working outside his comfort zone. And while it only works in spurts, the film is also an example of an interesting misfire.

In the film, Benicio Del Toro plays the titular figure, a Blackfoot Indian and World War II veteran suffering from a variety of psychological issues who travels to a clinic in Kansas, where he is treated by Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric), a progressive French doctor who is sympathetic to Jimmy's plight.

What works best for the film ends up becoming its greatest hurdle - that is, the continued stream of conversation between Jimmy and Devereux that intrigues at first before becoming a bit meandering in the film's final third.

The picture is best described as watching the process of psychoanalysis as a patient - Jimmy - uncovers the elements of his life that are causing him distress. These include, but are not limited to, guilt over a long lost love who died, the fact that his daughter has been raised by another man, frequent headaches, occasional hard drinking and blackout-like events that include blurry vision filled with white spots.

The doctors at the psychiatric center attempt to diagnose Jimmy, but to no avail. They focus more on his physical health and appear to believe he is suffering from a sort of post traumatic stress disorder. But it's Devereux who actually helps Jimmy, who is mostly reticent around others, to come out of his shell. Their conversations are closer to those between friends than your typical doctor-patient relationship. If this all sounds a little too heartwarming, it's not particularly. Desplechin takes a semi-clinical approach to the material, which works better - at least, for the film's first half.

As it moves along, the constant chatter about psychological problems begins to play like the reading of a list of grievances. What was, at first, compelling, eventually becomes a little too rote. But, as I said, while the film doesn't completely work, it has its compelling elements. It's certainly not one of Desplechin's best films - those would be the powerful "Kings and Queen" and the creepy "La Sentinelle - but it's better handled than 2000's "Esther Kahn," which just didn't work for me.

Del Toro and Amalric are great as always and the period detail is impressive without being overbearing, but "Jimmy P." doesn't quite reach its full potential.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Charlie Victor Romeo

Image courtesy of 'Charlie Victor Romeo' Facebook page.
"Charlie Victor Romeo" is an example of an intriguing concept with a mediocre execution. The film is intermittently nerve-wracking and stultifying.

Based on a 1999 play, the film takes a documentary-style approach to portraying six airline emergencies that were based on 'Black Box' recordings. In other words, the scenes being acted out by the film's cast is, mostly, a word-for-word reenactment of actual airplane crashes that took place prior to 9/11.

At its best, the film makes for a slightly queasy and occasionally riveting experience of watching professionals under pressure. The film is being presented in 3-D, which I thought to be a little strange, considering that all we see throughout the entire picture is a tight shot of the various pilots involved in the crashes. A friend pointed out that the format was, perhaps, utilized to create a claustrophobic feel and she is very likely correct. Regardless, the use of 3-D does not add much to the experience.

Despite the obviously intense nature of the film's material, "Charlie Victor Romeo" becomes a bit dull for long stretches. On the one hand, I was thankful that the filmmakers did not melodramatize the proceedings with speech making or sentimentality. But, on the other, the shouting of technical jargon does not make for the most riveting filmgoing experience.

Another problem with "Charlie Victor Romeo" is that its performances often feel as if they belong more to the stage than to a feature film. The movie is, after all, based on a play, but the transition from stage to screen does not completely work.

I'll give the directors - Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Karlyn Michelson - credit for attempting something something different with this film, which is fairly unique in concept. Unfortunately, its execution leaves a little too much to be desired.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: The Monuments Men

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is not the bomb you might expect it to be if you've been browsing Rotten Tomatoes during the past few days. It's surely not the Oscar hopeful that it was once believed to be, but it's an amusing enough war-time drama with a unique twist.

One of the film's problems is that it is short on characterization, relying more on the personas of its talented cast to fill in the blanks. So, in other words, you're watching Bill Murray or Matt Damon in a World War II setting, rather than those actors delving into particular characters.

On the other hand, it's pretty entertaining and sheds light on a mission during the war that is rarely mentioned. I'd never heard of it.

In the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art historian who has been tasked with leading a platoon of architects, art specialists and several other non-combatants into Germany to safeguard works of art being eyed by the Nazis for Adolf Hitler's Fuhrer Museum or steal back ones that have already been snatched from locales across France and Belgium.

His team consists of a Who's Who of name actors, including Damon, Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and John Goodman. Cate Blanchett also turns up as a resistance fighter and art gallery worker who provides clues to the team.

"The Monuments Men" remains fairly entertaining without ever being particularly intense. Although much is at stake in Stokes' team's mission, we're never given the indication that they are going to fail.

Clooney attempts to recreate the feel of a classic war drama, including "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which composer Alexandre Desplat appears to have used for inspiration here, or "The Train," which also featured a mission to prevent the Germans from getting their hands on art.

As a director, Clooney tends to be drawn to period pieces. "The Monuments Men" is not nearly as good as "Good Night and Good Luck," which is easily Clooney's best film behind the camera, and not quite as involving as the flawed, but interesting, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." His latest ranks more with the football movie "Leatherheads," which was enjoyable enough, if not the best representation of Clooney's talents. "The Monuments Men" is a somewhat lightweight entry into the canon of World War II movies, but it's likable nonetheless.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Review: Labor Day

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures. 
Here's a movie made by extremely talented people - director Jason Reitman and actors Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet - that just doesn't work.

Reitman's previous films have mostly been comedies of a satirical or scathing nature that include moments that are truly heartfelt. Here, he aims for sentimental and something just feels off.

The film, which is based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, follows the story of a boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who lives with his depressed mother (Winslet) in a small New Hampshire town circa 1987. The boy's father (Clark Gregg) left the family to marry his secretary after Winslet's Adele fell to pieces following a series of tragedies that are revealed slowly during the movie, but won't be disclosed here.

One day in the grocery store, they are approached by a man with a bloody mark on his white T-shirt named Frank (Josh Brolin), who, as it turns out, has just escaped from prison and demands that Adele and Henry allow him to hide for a few hours in their home.

But Frank ends up staying the night and then for several days, first due to necessity and then because he develops a relationship with Adele. You've heard of the stock character known as the Hooker with a Heart of Gold? Well, Frank is not only the Convict with a Heart of Gold, but also the Best Handyman/Husband in Four Counties.

First, he cleans their house and cooks up some chili, which he hand feeds to Adele. He teaches Henry to play baseball and, during a later sequence - and I kid you not - he does the same for a boy in a wheelchair. He repairs the house's generator and not only fixes up Adele's car, but teaches Henry how to do so in the process. I'd imagine a scene exists during which Frank builds an orphanage in the backyard, but that must have ended up on the floor of the editing room.

And then, there's the now-notorious bake-off sequence that does for peach cobbler-making what "Ghost" did for clay molding. A neighbor drops off some peaches as a gift to Adele and Frank instructs Adele and Henry on how to make cobbler by standing behind Adele and using her hands to smoosh and knead the ingredients in a bowl, all the while as they give each other meaningful looks that do not escape Henry's notice. The sequence is memorable, but in the same way that the one in "The Counselor" during which Cameron Diaz had sex with a car's windshield was unforgettable.

It may sound as if I'm describing "Labor Day" as an outright disaster, but it's not. Winslet and Brolin make the best of the material, but it's the script and plotting that are off here. I'm not the type to nitpick about logic in a movie or point out script inaccuracies, but there are a few here that are glaring. And what's with the denizens of the town being so nosy and suspicious? There's a scene during which Adele asks to take out money from her bank and you'd think she'd asked them for the security code to the vault.

"Labor Day" is not so much a bad movie as it is a misguided one. And as tends to be the case of misfires made by very talented people, it has its heart in the right place and some elements that work.

But, on the whole, it doesn't live up to what you might expect based on the people involved. I will say, however, that the pie looks pretty damn good.