Know that I love contained thrillers, and I love suspense stories where we think alongside the characters step for step, and know that I love Liam Neeson in his career’s second life as our buttkicker in chief, and it looks like Non-Stop was the kind of film made exactly for me and my ilk. And until the final twenty minutes or so, Non-Stop kept me in the throes of entertainment.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an Air Marshal still getting over a lingering personal tragedy. On a flight from New York to London, he receives a text message on his secure Blackberry. Someone onboard is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million dollars is deposited into an offshore account. When the bodies start piling up, Bill must find the killer but first he has to discover whom we can trust onboard.
Nobody is going to mistake this as a groundbreaking movie of any sort, but it sets about a very specific mission and executes it with vigor. You would be surprised all the different ways the film is able to squeeze out suspense in the meager confines of one airplane cabin. Just when you think you got the film figured out, it throws another twist and complicates matters in a way that is nicely escalating. I loved the fact that the killer essentially uses Bill to commit the first murder. It’s in self-defense, yes, but it also directly ties to his actions, which leaves an air of uncertainty attached to Bill. He now has to keep his own deadly actions a secret, lest he lose more trust with the airplane crew he so desperately needs to assist him. As the passengers start to become suspicious and unruly, it’s a rather plausible scenario that Bill will be subdued and arrested, if not worse. It finds ways to make the outlandish conceivably plausible, at least during the confines of the movie theater before you pick apart the plot holes.
And let’s talk about that for just a moment. I’ve said before that plot holes only really matter when you’re not enjoying the movie, because then they consume your attention rather than the story and the whole thing falls apart. As long as I’m satisfied, I can excuse the stuff that doesn’t make sense to an extent. With Non-Stop, the movie contorts its mystery in such a way that you know it will never fully deliver on an ending that will perfectly snap together all the pieces and clues as well as satisfy. I went along for the ride already accepting the ending would more or less blow it, but beforehand I just wanted to be ably entertained, and I was thusly. In the end, without delving into too murky with spoilers, the evil plot by our onboard killer relies on such a perfect execution of so many variables that there’s no way this money grab would work. Well, there’s a reason for that, but I won’t elucidate on the details, but suffice to say it is a plan that does not make sense, would not have the intended impact, and you question exactly how somebody got parachutes onto an airplane as their carryon. Does that not strike TSA security as weird?
The screenplay by John M. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle (two of those gents are an editor and executive producer for the reality show, Big Brother) does just enough right to please without offending when it gives in to the inevitably stupid reveal. In fact, this screenplay could be a prime example of the “Save the Cat” plot formula that has arisen to prominence in Hollywood: the opening scene/image tells us about the character’s metaphorical journey, he does something kindly early, this time helping a child who lost her stuffed animal, and the plot beats are all there in lockstep. The key scenario where a death emerges every 20 minutes provides a potent sense of urgency, with a payoff that comes fast. Each escalates the stakes, adding a personal element with Bill being pinned with the blame and the news leaking to the passengers via rumor and the media. Then Bill’s supervisor adds another level of conflict, and it’s enjoyable to watch all the screws turn against our hero. It’s also fun to watch Bill have to use what limited means he has to suss out the killer, and each makes him more vunerable to a passenger revolt. It’s a well-constructed thrill ride that produces enough jolts, twists, and payoffs to wholly condemn it after the third act crash and burn.
Neeson (The LEGO Movie) has been carving out a niche for himself ever since the first Taken movie, and as my friend George would say, a movie with Neeson punching things equals his ticket bought. While the man has other great acting skills, it’s just a pleasure to watch someone of his dignity and stature, as well as with his natural sense of gravitas, bark at bad guys and punch them into unconsciousness. Would you rather watch the aging class of 1980s action stars still doing their thing, or Neeson? America has spoken. With Non-Stop, Neeson is again a solid anchor for the film and our interests. I like that his character isn’t portrayed so starkly heroic, like his concealing of personally harmful information. It gives a sense of fear to the character that we don’t ordinarily see. Then there’s the fact that Neeson has to act a third of the movie against nifty floating text subtitles, and the man still outshines others. It’s also nice to have a supporting cast of solid actors like Julianne Moore (Carrie), Corey Stoll (TV’s House of Cards), Scoot McNairy (Argo), Nate Parker (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Shea Whigham (American Hustle), Michelle Dockery (TV’s Downton Abbey), and a blink and you’ll miss her role for new Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).
Packed with twists, escalation, and squeezing as much suspense out of its premise as possible, Non-Stop is a contained thriller that invites you to play along for fun. It’s an entertaining ride that weaves its various characters and conflicts together in a satisfying manner that simmers with rising tension. The great supporting cast, and the unbeatable Neeson, sell the silliness, up until the end. By that time, I’ve already been having too much fun to quarrel much, though I’m sure you at home can figure out a dozen more probable and better endings. Non-Stop is an above-average thriller that makes great use of its unique location and the realities of this space to up the stakes. Premise-alone, you already know whether or not this movie is going to be your kind of film. Action fans should find enough to whet their whistle, and there are enough surprises and well-wrought suspense that I would recommend Non-Stop as the perfect antidote to a rainy day. Idea for a new action film… Liam Neeson versus the weather. Just wait.
Nate’s Grade: B
In the Eternal City, a.k.a. Rome, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has served as its unofficial emcee for years. The literary magazine writer has been coasting for years, living off the prestige and fame from an international hit novel he wrote in his twenties. Now at the age of 65, Jep has come to the conclusion that his life has been lacking the beauty he has sought. All the parties, the late nights, and the fast living have caught up with him. Jep explores the city and its peculiar inhabitants to examine his own life.
It’s impossible to watch The Great Beauty without conjuring images of the great director Fellini. It certainly brings to mind a modern La Dolce Vita. There’s a heightened sense of reality mingling with the surreal, the lives of the rich socialites stepping into the reaches of irony-free satire. At a small party, one rich lady compliments the jazz playing, and another lady says, “The only jazz scene worth listening to today is Ethiopian jazz.” I burst out laughing harder than I have all year. These are people living privileged lives that have lost their tenuous grasp on reality, unaware that they have become caricatures. Their silly ennui has consumed their perspectives. Like Fellini, the movie explores a cloistered world of the Roman elite and their tragicomic absurdities with a touch of the surreal and meditative. I can’t so much pinpoint a clear plot or structure that guides the film, but there are numerous moments, images, scenes that standout in my memory. A private Botox party is played as a zany spiritual gathering where applicants take waiting numbers and a doctor whisper about the great journey they are on together, and then injects botulism into your face. Nuns are everywhere, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but the sight of nuns just randomly populating scenes lends to the surreal nature. Then there’s the 104-year-old nun positioned to be a saint. She looks like a mummy, prefers to sleep on a floor of cardboard, and her mind is still capable of great insight. The ancient nun manages to thematically sum up the film’s interests in beauty, culture, religion, remembrance, and death.
The relaxed nature of the film and the abstract plot, with little sense of linear trajectory, will certainly test the patience of several moviegoers. At my theater, after twenty minutes several middle-aged couples walked out, muttering, “This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know what these people were expecting when they walked into a 140-minute Italian film, but there declaration is flat-out wrong. I mean, these people probably haven’t even seen InAPPropriate Comedy (cheap shot, achieved). The opening involves the death of a Japanese tourist, and then it switches over to a raucous rooftop party that rivals what we saw in last summer’s Great Gatsby. This is a slow movie but it is slow with purpose, if that makes sense. Jep’s life for so long has been about the party scene, the dulling of the senses, the rush of adrenaline and alcohol. After his sixty-fifth birthday, he’s decided he has no more time to chase after momentary thrills. The journey that follows is mostly a collection of anecdotes and ideas, but many of them have strong staying power. The most notable story is a budding romance he forms with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a 40-year-old stripper with no illusions about who she is. Their relationship is sweet and it ends abruptly, far too soon than a viewer would wish. I know if Hollywood ever remade an English version of this film, they’d structure the whole movie around this relationship. I suppose another benefit of a free-floating, stream of consciousness style plot is that few storylines overstay their welcome.
Jep has come to a turning point, a stark realization that his life is empty. A nice reminder of this notion, as well as a haunting “what could have been” review, is when the husband to an old girlfriend seeks him out. She has recently died and inside her diary, she writes passionately about Jep from their romance way back when they were teenagers. She only has a passing remark for her husband of 30-some years, and it rips the poor man apart. She was always hung up on Jep, always thinking about what might have been, the path not taken, and this defined her intimately. For the first time since he was young, Jep is looking at the world with different eyes and a hunger that exceeds Earthly pleasures. His friends all suffer from the doubt that they’ve wasted their time, that they were never good enough, and they accept their defeat and leave Rome one by one. One man, so humbled, doesn’t even want to bring any furniture with him, so he leaves it all behind. The only thing he’s taking with him is the years of regret, apparently. There’s a nice moment when he’s reiterating the story of his first kiss to Ramona, which also involves this now deceased woman. He can’t remember what she said to draw him, and the look of disappointment at his failing memory, at being unable to relive a moment that meant so much to him so long ago, it crushes him. Who knows how long Jep had held onto that memory as a source of respite. Jep is examining his life’s disappointments and misanthropy but it may already be too late.
There are plenty of messages and points of contemplation throughout the film, but the major theme seems to be as simple as, “Stop and smell the roses,” And yet, that doesn’t make the film less engaging and responsive. Jep is asked why he never wrote another book after his great success. There look to be a number of reasons, but he confesses he was waiting to be inspired again by the titular Great Beauty. Naturally, by this point, we and Jep have come to realize that waiting for beauty is foolish when it is all around us at any moment (especially in Rome). Most of Jep’s adult life has been consumed with social frivolities and passing pleasures, but only now does he seem to stop and fully appreciate his surroundings and his company, naturally, when his friends are departing. It’s a universal theme and one that hasn’t gotten old and the film’s handling is anything but sop-headed sentimentalism. It even ties back to the opening, where the Japanese tourist keels over dead. The man is so busy trying to document his vacation rather than experience it, and in the end, it’s all for what?
Like Jep, we too will fall in love with Rome as he strolls around it. Gloriously photographed, it’s a treat to experience the major works of art in Rome, so much so that it may stir your passions to see them in person. Even as the plot becomes lugubrious, you don’t mind because of how lovely Rome and its facilities look. Characters doing little and ruminating in Kansas may get boring, but characters doing little and ruminating in Rome, well at least that’s scenery worth watching.
I’ve read many differing interpretations of the film and its messages, the impact of different scenes and which hit hardest, and it reminds me what good art is meant to do; it’s meant to inspire us, entreat us, but also stir us to engage with it, and The Great Beauty does just that. It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere, and asks the audience to ponder as Jep does about regret, lost opportunities, and the contradictions of happiness. The surreal touches can provide plenty of laughs, but it’s the smaller appreciation of side characters, ideas, and the contrasts that provide more intellectual payoffs. The film is far more free-floating and meditative than American audiences are used to, but unlike, say the works of Terrence Malick, I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment. The Great Beauty is a beguiling movie that admittedly could have been chopped down from its 140-minute running time. If you’re a fan of Fellini, or art history, then this is a must-see. For others, I’d advise giving this a try, though don’t be surprised if it takes a while to grow on you with its ponderous nature.
Nate’s Grade: A-
A more family-friendly alternative to the wrenching The Magdalene Sisters, the drama Philomena is ostensibly a good movie, but woe unto thee if you thought you were in store for a crackling comedy. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was forced to work in a Catholic workhouse in Ireland when she became pregnant as an unwed teenager. Her child was placed into adoption into America and now, 50 years later, she wants to find her long-lost son and learn about him and his life. Helping her in her quest is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, co-writer as well), a recently unemployed journalist. Their odd couple pairing should inspire comedic repartee, as so the ads would also have you believe. The film is funny, in spurts, but it’s much more effective as an illuminating drama on the abuses of the church-run workhouses that guilted poor girls into, sometimes lifelong, slave labor. At the thirty-minute mark, when Martin comes across a makeshift graveyard of dead teen mothers, who were forced to give birth on the workhouse premises as punishment for their sins, you can pretty much abandon any hope of a ribald road trip comedy. Once your expectations are realigned, you can enjoy the film for what is has to offer: an intriguing mystery, solid characterizations, a terrific Dench performance, and an ending that doesn’t pull punches. Be warned, you will walk away from this movie wanting to punch nuns in the face. Coogan’s role is one of anger and outrage, and there’s plenty to go around with church corruption, scandals, and cover-ups uncovered. But it’s Philomena herself who is the life lesson for us all; her church fails her but her forgiveness is the model we should all strive for. It’s a moving film with as much compassion as it has criticism. Just don’t watch it in the company of a nun.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Luc Besson has long been a household industry when it comes to action movies, especially in the last ten years. The man has had his hand scripting, producing, and sometimes directing the Transporter films, Columbiana, Lockout, District B-13 and its soon-to-be released American remake Brick Mansions, The Family, and most popular of all, the Taken movies. Besson’s got his fingers in just about every Parisian action movie. But with a prevailing influence there is also the challenge of keeping things fresh. It’s easy to fall back on formula, which is precisely where 3 Days to Kill finds itself stuck.
Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is one of the top spies for the CIA, but a rare and terminal medical condition has taken him out of the field. He seeks out his ex(?) wife (Connie Nielsen) and their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), a girl he’s mostly sent messages on her birthday as the extent of his parental involvement. While living in Paris with his family, the mysterious Vivi (amber Heard) promises a radical drug treatment to extend Ethan’s life, but in return she needs his help killing some notorious terrorists in town.
We’ve all seen this movie before. In fact we’ve probably seen something similar enough produced by Luc Besson just in the last year or so. The formula is worked over and only the most die-hard action junkies will walk away fully satisfied. The plot is predictable from start to finish, short of the comic flourishes, and has all the trappings you’d expected with a simple middle-of-the-road genre picture. It’s a major surprise that the action sequences are lackluster and unimaginative. With Besson as co-writer, and McG as director, I expected at least a few sequences that would stand out from the crowd, some inventive takes on the action genre. Alas, it’s the same old shootouts, car chases, and the like. I’m not a huge McG fan but I can at least credit the man for his visual style, which, despite the quality of the films, was evident in Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation. With this movie, you would never be able to tell that a former music video stylist directed this. There is no trace of style outside a brief series of shots inside a Parisian tattoo parlor/club that provides some PG-13-approved partial nudity. It’s workmanlike direction with few images or compositions that rise above ordinary. Like most of 3 Days to Kill, the visuals are disappointingly bland and drably familiar.
There are also sizeable plot holes that jump out immediately. I’m not even talking about the usual action film clichés, like the good guys being expert sharpshooters, etc. First off, the name implies a remote time period, a natural opportunity for a ticking clock. He’s got three days to kill the bad guy… or else. But the movie never really provides an or else, nor does it really justify the title. Why does Ethan need three days to kill the bad guy? He’s spending three days watching his daughter, but that’s it. We’re given no real sense of urgency and the characters, the spies, don’t ever seem to sweat or panic. Ethan spends most of the second act bonding with his teenage daughter, teaching her how to ride a bike, and so on. These are not the actions of a man with a ticking clock. Then there’s the premise that Ethan has a rare cancer that requires a rare treatment that only Vivi offers. Ethan injects himself with this magic substance and it seems to do the tick, that is, unless his heart level gets too high. Then he starts to hallucinate and collapse. So there you have it, the plot of the Crank films now with a French polish. The problem with this scenario is that it ONLY happens during the most stupid of times. Instead of Ethan’s heart rate getting too high in the middle of deadly shootouts and speeding car chases, it’s generally when he’s one-on-one with an unarmed bad guy. Even with this, apparently drinking alcohol will slow down his heart rate. Knowing this, why doesn’t Ethan carry a flask of liquor on his person at all times then? He’s supposed to be a professional!
Despite the overwhelming mediocrity and formula-laden efforts, there are a few surprising and effective notes in 3 Days to Kill. The humor, Besson’s tongue-in-cheek genre riffing, is spry and involving enough that I wish the film had followed this tantalizing angle and become an all-out comedy. Ethan’s attempts to balance watching his daughter with his spy hijinks bears well developed comedic moments. Take for instance an informant that Ethan is intimidating for vital intel. His daughter’s phone call interrupts the scene, and she says she needs a recipe for spaghetti sauce. It just so happens the informant is an actual Italian, and so Ethan puts him on the phone. The informant recognizes that the longer he talks the longer he might live, so he draws out relating the recipe, and keeps mentioning how much he truly loves his mother and how she has no one else to take care of her. It’s a small scene but it’s clever and a nice twist on the formula. There’s another humorous scene where Vivi and Ethan debate the difference between beards and mustaches, since she told him to kill the guy with one and not the other. Ethan also forms an offbeat relationship with another informant, a limo driver named Mitat (Marc Andreoni), that becomes so casual, he knowingly helps himself into Ethan’s car trunk, requesting to be back before 4 PM since that’s when his daughters get home. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll make an effort,” Ethan says before slamming the trunk shut. This is the kind of stuff the film needed more of, well-crafted asides that punctuate how silly spy movies often are. If only the film just wanted to be funny.
I think Besson and his coterie believed that Heard’s (Paranoia, Machete Kills) character was a constant source of comedy, but she’s really a hollow pinup, a video game avatar come alive. There is no character here, which may be part of the jape, because she’s all style and moody, pert sexuality. She just sort of appears whenever the movie needs a dose of sex appeal (sorry Costner fans). I think her aloof and calculating manner is meant to be taken as comedy. She’s brusque but without any real sense of joy. Not to take anything away from heard; she is a woman of stellar beauty, but just having a sexy gal make droll quips while dressed in a corset isn’t the stuff of comedy but fetish.
I have enjoyed Costner’s (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) late spate of film roles and even enjoyed Mr. Brooks. But he’s all wring for this film, which looks like a modern Liam Neeson vehicle that he wisely passed on. Costner is convincing as a no-nonsense authority, but he’s not ready to take that Neeson-sized step into AARP action star. He sounds like he has a frog permanently lodged in his throat, or they filmed the entire film during a month where Costner was getting over a furious case of step throat. Perhaps he was doing his best Harrison Ford impression. Whatever the case may be, it’s not exactly winning, and while the actor sells the comedy bits easier, the badass moments lack the real punch the movie needs. Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) has a nice rapport with Costner and she doesn’t overplay the teenage outbursts. Her character starts to grow a more intriguing dimension when she seems to possess her father’s traits, but she’s too quickly funneled back into being a helpless damsel to shriek and cry.
When it comes to 3 Days to Kill, there isn’t enough new to justify or even enough effectively entertaining to justify your valuable time. Now, if your time is less valuable, say disposable, and your expectations are low, then perhaps you’ll find a serviceable amount of entertainment in this formulaic action thriller. When the most exciting part of your movie is the comic relief, then maybe it should have been time to start over.
Nate’s Grade: C
When it comes to notorious German director Uwe Boll, many are still waiting for what could be the man’s first genuinely good movie. The man has been prolific over the past ten years but sure-fire candidates for First Good Film, like Max Schmeling or Attack on Darfur, inevitably have some tragic flaw or approach that places them back in mediocrity, the company of many of Boll’s other movies. After reviewing more Boll films than a human should be allowed to willingly, I feel like I’ve been beaten down enough that when I find something that genuinely works, be it an actor or a sequence or plot turn, that I should be just as vocal as with the contingent of failure. So allow me to refreshingly applaud Boll for Assault on Wall Street, on coming up with a topic and a story structure that… actually… works. It not just works, it succeeds, and if a more polished professional screenwriter got a hold of this, I think it could actually impress the masses. If it weren’t for the surprisingly effective war drama, Tunnel Rats, I’d say without a doubt that Assault on Wall Street is the best work of Boll’s much-maligned career. And yet… it has just enough minor faults that hold it back.
Jim (Dominic Purcell) is a regular guy working as an armored security transport. His wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk) suffers from a rare tumor that requires an expensive series of injections to keep it at bay. Their insurance company won’t pay, and so they have to rely on Jim’s savings. Except those are gone as well. Jeremy Stancroft (John Heard) has ordered all his brokers to dump toxic assets, eliminating most investor savings but profiting the shareholders. Jim and Rosie are broke. Vowing vengeance, especially after some drastic decision-making by Rosie, Jim sets off to make the high-priced traders and corporate raiders on Wall Street feel the pain of what they have wrought.
The setup is concise and Boll does a nifty job of compounding Jim’s problems and showing how all the industries are interconnected to put the squeeze on. Because of unscrupulous health insurers, his wife’s medical treatment, deemed experimental, is quite expensive and they’ve reached a cap. With the brokers pushing their clients assets into junk stocks, at the behest of the betters and for commissions, Jim loses his entire financial cushion. He hires a lawyer (Eric Roberts) but has to pay $10,000 just to retain him to fight the $60,000 penalty his broker says is owed. He goes into debt and refinances his skyrocketing mortgage (variable rate) to pay for his wife’s treatments. His employer takes notice of his perilous situation and is uncomfortable with enlisting someone in deep financial woes with guarding money. He loses his job. The bank is poised to foreclose on the house. His wife won’t get her treatments to save her life. All of this leads to a drastic and completely understood decision of desperation and sacrifice. Admittedly, Boll does a compelling job of connecting all the dots, making each new pitfall a result of the previous, each compounding the misery of Jim. It takes a little long to go through all these points, and I think Boll could have trimmed it down so that a key event happens at the Act One break point, but I was flabbergasted that the man found a story structure that succeeds.
The second half of the film is Jim planning his vengeance, and after all of the callous movers and shakers have bled him dry, you’re onboard for some sort of righteous payback. Boll takes on Wall Street and the healthcare industry (double the populist outrage). Jim as a character could be made much more compelling, but he’s really serving as a symbol for how the forces are ganged up against the little guy, how the fix is in. When confronted, the big CEO of the brokerage firm barks that it’s always the same old story, that the titans of industry were all crooks and manipulated the system to their advantage, and he’s no different. In short, the little guy always loses.
What holds back Assault on Wall Street, beside the fact that the titular assault is reserved for the last fifteen minutes of the film, is its too slick ending and Boll’s obvious transparency when it comes to his political message. After Jim suffers loss after loss, he puts together a plan pretty quickly, utilizing that Army training we’ve heard about. It’s actually too easy with little complications that can’t be solved in a David Fincher-style montage of death. It’s a full 70 minutes before he takes out his first Wall Street fat cat, and that’s just way too much dawdling. And then from there the climax involves Jim just going on a rampage in an office building, shooting several faceless employees who could very well be innocent for all we know. I think Boll is satisfied with a guilt-by-association catch-all for Jim’s fury, but it would be more satisfying just from a payoff standpoint if we saw these people in villainous lights prior, kind of like what Saw 6 did with its insurance characters before turning the tables on them. The last thing we need in our populist screed is to worry that the wrong people were dispatched. And what kind of office building fails to evacuate after a confirmed shooter has attacked?
This storyline could have also worked in a Falling Down turn, where a man consumed with evening the scales of a system broken loses his moral bearing and lumps all guilty parties together and condemns them all. Perhaps it was meant to examine the slippery slope of vigilante justice and how this too can decay one’s sense of self, sort of like what Jodie Foster went through in 2007’s The Brave One. However, I don’t think Boll was intending this direction because he’s not very subtle about anything in the movie. Oftentimes the characters just become mouthpieces for ideological talking points: “We’re busy busting some homeless guy when the real criminals are on Wall Street.” The bad guys actually say, with no hint of self-awareness, “We all took a loss. When I told my wife we couldn’t vacation in Barbados any longer…” It’s all just a little too on-the-nose to remind you of the overall intent rather than the story. Therefore, I think Boll is just going for a sense of (misplaced?) justice in the end, in a ludicrous plan that somehow invalidates witnesses, forensic evidence, and security footage to pin the blame on someone else. It’s too clever by half that it undercuts the final payoff. It gets even worse with the Batman-esque voice over to close out the film with a promise to all evildoers.
With such a tight focus on the plot, the acting is a marked step up from previous Boll outings. Purcell (TV’s Prison Break, Killer Elite) doesn’t exactly come across as a regular Joe but he has enough onscreen presence to pull off his character’s anguish as well as the requisite badass stuff. And apparently Boll has become fond of him because Purcell is scheduled to appear in future Boll films. Karpluk, a Canadian actress best known for the TV show Being Erica, has a natural grace to her, forgoing big moments to concentrate on the gnawing guilt and concern her character feels. While she’s a bit too willfully ignorant early on, Karpluk makes you care and provides whatever depth can be applied to Jim. I’m actually curious to see her comic skills since she has a face tailor-made for romantic comedies. Heard (Sharknado, Home Alone) doesn’t seem to embrace his duplicitous CEO role with enough gusto, appearing to be annoyed when he should be menacing. This is not the kind of movie to hold back.
There are plenty of other Boll Players, including Edward Furlong (3 appearances), Lochlyn Munro (2 appearances), Tyron Leitso (5 appearances, also stars in Being Erica), Michael Eklund (8 appearances), Natassia Malthe (4 appearances), and the stalwarts of Clint Howard (6 appearances) and Michael Pare (13 appearances). It’s been 13 years since Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) last appearance in a Boll film. Most of these are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, but then there’s Keith David (The Thing, Cloud Atlas) in a thankless role that didn’t need to exist. But hey, I’ll take Keith David in anything.
A welcome surprise, for the most part, Assault on Wall Street is a finely structured revenge tale with clear and precise plot points and a natural buildup. It’s Boll on a soapbox and the naked transparency of his ire and populist messages limits the effectiveness of his storytelling, but you might not mind, especially if you are a person who has slogged through far less competent Boll ventures. There is a marked improvement in just about every facet of filming. It genuinely works, that is, until the pacing becomes lopsided and the end just reverts to celebratory action mode. A more professional writer could take this film and whip it into a crowd-pleasing populist thriller. It’s got so much that works, and genuinely works well, that I feel like a buzzkill to keep harping on the elements that do not succeed. But if Boll wants to earn an undisputed victory, he’s got to earn it without lowered standards. Assault on Wall Street is so tantalizingly close to being Boll’s First Good Film but it doesn’t capitalize enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Every now and then you get to witness a special movie that doesn’t so much offend as it inspires, and what it inspires is a question you grapple with during the entirety of its run time, mainly – How did this get made? At any point, did the producers or actors or anyone stop, take a moment to reflect on the movie they were participating in, and think, “Wait, what is going on here?” Bad movies made by hacks are easy to shrug off because, well, hacks don’t know any better but bad movies (see: InAPPropriate Comedy, or better yet, bleach your eyeballs first). With Winter’s Tale, there are people who should know better, people that have been awarded Oscars. These people should resolutely know a terrible movie while they’re making it. Maybe they did. Look deep into their eyes.
In 1918, Frank Lake (Colin Farrell) is an orphan long abandoned by his family so he could have a better life in America. He hasn’t taken this message to heart. Frank worked as an expert safecracker under the employ of local crime boss Pearly (Russell Crowe), and Pearly hasn’t taken kindly to Frank leaving. Frank is able to escape Pearly’s goons and finds love with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy heiress afflicted with consumption. Pearly doesn’t want Frank to get away because Pearly is really a demon in the employ of the Devil (Will Smith, yes you read that right). In the battle of good versus evil, Frank and Beverly appear to be at the focal point.
I have to give writer/director Akiva Goldsman some credit for making an unabashedly earnest movie in an era of irony and ready-made snark. His goopy romantic fantasy longs to exist in a simpler era, but even then Winter’s Tale would fall apart on many levels. Its sheer unbending corniness is both a blessing and a curse. Magic realism is one thing (check out 2001’s Amelie as a how-to guide), but what Goldsman seems to be going for is a modern fairy tale (our maiden locked away in her tower, true love’s kiss, etc.). The film wants the audience to fall under its spell but instead will likely elicit numerous unintentionally hilarious moments; I was laughing to myself throughout, trying to comprehend all of the hokum and poor decision-making (Will Smith as the devil?).
Let’s begin with the fact that the movie is an obtuse fantasy that feels like it makes up its plot and its rules as it goes along. Bleeding fantasy and fantastical creatures into the everyday world is a marvelous conceit but it needs finesse and careful rule building. Otherwise it doesn’t so much feel like a story with a sense of internal logic as it does a bedtime story that can always just create a new shortcut or extension. The very first few minutes of the film will already push your credulity to the test. We see an adult Peter on the run from Pearly and his goons and all of a sudden he runs into… a white horse. Ah, but this is no ordinary horse, this is a magic flying horse, and Peter flies away to live another day. Yep, within minutes, we’re given a magic flying horse. No groundwork. Worse, the horse just randomly appears when the plot demands, and I think the horse is supposed to represent the side of God in this cosmic battle between good and evil. Whatever, there is a magic flying horse. From there the film gets even cornier. It’s the type of movie that posits the stars are really human beings, and so, in the end, rather than having our hero ride off into the sunset he (spoilers be damned) flies off into space on his magic flying horse and he BECOMES a new star, resting beside the star meaning to represent his beloved (never mind that these stars would be millions of light years apart). If you can read that sentence without rolling your eyes then congratulations are due.
Another problem is this massive time leap that creates far more plot holes. After Beverly succumbs to her illness, which I might add happens literally SECONDS after she’s done having sex for the first time (Colin Farrell killed her with his penis), the film leaps forward to present-day. However, Peter was given immortality through Beverly’s miracle. I suppose you could view miracles as a byproduct of sex. At first glance, this almost seems like a cruel gift; your love is dead and now you have to live forever without her. For no discernible reason, Peter also suffers amnesia, because, really, why not? All he does day after day, presumably for… 90 years, is sketch the same image of a redheaded girl in public places. In the intertwining years, why hasn’t evil Pearly picked up on the fact that Peter is still alive? He’s only been sketching the exact same image. Also, how does Peter even support himself? How does he feed himself? Who are his friends? These are the questions that arise when you take this foolish route with the plot. It could have been avoided with a simply Rip Van Winkle-style hibernation or time jump. Another problem is that Peter grew up with the 90 years of history, meaning he should know what things like the Internet and library cards are. He’s not a man out of time. The solution to Peter being confirmed is to seek out the still-living Willa (Eva Marie Saint, nice to see you again). The problem with this is that Willa should at least be over a hundred years old if you do the math. If the purpose of the leap forward was to just save another character we hadn’t seen previously, why does it have to be 2014? Why couldn’t it just have been 1940 or any other earlier period?
And the central romance between Frank and Beverly is just so boring you wish Frank would move on to someone new. Presumably they fell in love at first sight, which just so happened to be when he was in the process of robbing her home. Ah, but you see, her love redeems him because that’s really the whole role of the sick love interest in movies, to make the other figure a better person through this shared experience of grief. So in this regard it’s no surprise that Beverly lacks defining characteristics outside of her ailment. She plays the piano and falls fast for Farrell’s bushy eyebrows, but that’s all we got here. The entire second act of the film follows their abbreviated courtship, but there’s no real moment where you buy into their romance. Like most of the film’s storytelling, we’re told something is and expected to buy into it 100 percent without flinching. They’re in love, what more do you need? Well, some interesting characters would be a start.
I’m fairly certain that all of these actors were doing Goldman a favor by appearing in this nonsense, but only Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks) walks away favorably. He is the best person onscreen who burrows into their character, ignoring the absurdity of every moment, yearning so hard that you almost want to give in. You won’t. Many will best remember Findlay as the Lady Sybill on TV’s Downton Abbey (she was also the reoccurring ghost on the BBC’s Misfits). Here she gets little else to do but smile and give those knowing looks that all afflicted characters give, as if their illness has opened up the secrets to the universe for them. Crowe’s performance will likely draw up comparisons to his maligned work in Les Miserables, a performance that wasn’t as bad as advertised theater snobs. This performance, however, is as bad, as his Irish brogue seems to overtake him and he comes across like a hotheaded big bad wolf. Jennifer Connelly’s appearance isn’t even worth mentioning as it is that slight beyond the fact that she’s the mother of a terminally ill child (you really thought the movie had any sense of restraint?). The film has numerous well known actors for flashes, like Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Graham Green, Matt Bomer as Frank’s immigrant father. One suspects their brief time was either a sign that the screenplay evolved as production went or that they were repaying a debt.
I will say the only saving grace in this entire blunder is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). Even when the cheesy special effects take flight, Deschanel makes sure the images are worth watching, having a special skill with the cool hues of the wintry color palette. I wanted to at least credit one redeeming aspect.
The inconsistent plotting and rules, the corny and overly wistful characterization, the overwhelming silliness of every single moment, Winter’s Tale will spark far more guffaws and derision than plaudits. It’s a movie that bludgeons you with its unrelenting maudlin nature disguised as romantic fantasy. The source material is beloved by some but it all comes across as nonsensical twaddle onscreen. Goldsman’s screenwriting credits run the gamut from award winning (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), to big budget to notorious stinkers (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space). It’s hard to judge the man’s talents with such a wide range of quality. However, I can question the finished results of Winter’s Tale and openly wonder what in the world convinced Goldsman to cash in all his Hollywood cache to direct this dreck. I’m almost tempted to encourage people to watch Winter’s Tale just to try and make sense of it themselves, to try and take in 118 minutes of earnest bad decisions. Whether it’s the magic flying horse, the 100-year-old news writer, or the fact that we’re dealing with a bad guy named Pearly, or Will Smith as Lucifer, but sometimes Hollywood unleashes a disaster that begs to be seen.
Nate’s Grade: D
Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.
Nate’s Grade: A-
An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
You’re courting irony when you name your movie Paradise, as well as pained movie critic puns, but I had faith that Diablo Cody, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, would entertain, especially after her best screenplay yet, 2011’s Young Adult. The problem with Paradise is that it goes just about nowhere and it’s shockingly bland, a criticism I never thought I’d have for a Cody-penned work. The premise starts off strong, with Lamb (Julianne Hough) as a devout Christian living a sheltered existence until the day she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash. Her body covered in burns, her faith shaken to its core, she embarks on journey to Las Vegas to sin it up big time. It’s snarky and satirical, and then she gets to Vegas, she meets some nice new pals (Russel Brand, Octavia Spencer), and they hang out and… that’s about it. The Lamb character is meant to be a naïve but ultimately nice person, but she’s portrayed as vaguely racist thanks to Cody’s simple skewering of fundamentalism. Where are the sharp characters and incisive wit of Cody’s past efforts? The comedy almost dissolves as it goes and you realize that intriguing premise is never going to be realized. And then the third act happens and it feels like the film just gives up, unearned sentimentality takes control, and the characters all find unsatisfying conclusions. The characters aren’t given enough material, often left adrift in a plot-free environment of self-discovery. A misguided scene where Lamb pours her heart out to a former prostitute could work as a summary of what tonally doesn’t work with this movie. There are some funny moments, even some affecting ones, but Paradise doesn’t feel like it has a sophisticated voice and clear direction. Coming from Cody, I wouldn’t have expected those two chief complaints.
Nate’s Grade: C
Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.
Nate’s Grade: B