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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.

Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.

With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.

The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.

There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.

The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.

There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.

The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.

With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two (2015)

Katniss-in-Red-The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-PosterThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.

Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-part-two-1The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.

There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.

If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.

With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.

hunger-games-mockingjay-part-2-jennifer-lawrenceDirector Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?

With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Taking place immediately after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the events of Catching Fire, we find ourselves locked away underground with the residents of District 13. Long believed annihilated by the Capital, and its tyrannical leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the people rebuilt their society as one large series of underground bunkers, preparing for a day of revolt. The leader of District 13, Coin (Julianne Moore, under a thick grey wig), is wary of Katniss as the symbol of the revolution. She would rather fight the Captiol without her, but the people love her, and it is the common people that Coin and her team must struggle to unite and inspire. Katniss is not exactly in the inspirational mood. Her family was saved from District 12 before it was bombed but the Capital holds Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a high-profile captive, ready to denounce the latest aggressive acts of the rebels as foolish and dangerous. Katniss desperately wants to rescue Peeta but before she can she has to accept her fate and become the Mockingjay, the figure to rally the districts in war.

KATNISSThe very title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 both tells you everything and nothing. Firstly, there are no Hunger Games anymore. This is a full-on war film, and we’re finally getting to all the good stuff, the revolutions stirring all throughout Panem we heard about and caught glimpses of before the plot required a redo of the games, repeating the structure of the first film. It felt overly redundant, especially when the stuff outside of the games was far more interesting. That structure has been cast aside and Mockingjay is a completely different film than the ones before it, focusing much more on character and the politics of propaganda. In many ways, this is a quieter film that allows the characters to deal with the trauma of their experience in the deadly arena. Even though war is fermenting and people are being bombed into oblivion, there is considerably less urgency, especially less contrived urgency. This allows the characters and the plot to breathe, the calm before the storm. Much has changed and a measured amount of time to process this is a good move. This is no longer the Hunger Games. This is war. The subterranean District 13 is the major setting of our film, which gives Katniss time to reflect on how damaged she is and her guilt over what exactly the Capitol is doing to their promotional lapdog, Peeta. The movie opens with her muttering to herself, hiding from others due to a disturbing nightmare. The psychological well being of our heroine is a ripe topic. While the world is on fire, much is once again expected of Katniss, and we get to watch her transform, awkwardly, into the revolutionary figure others require of her. The political and media critiques add another level of entertainment, as each side spins and contorts to position themselves for the news cycle. This expose of media manipulation makes Mockingjay feel in part like a post-apocalyptic Wag the Dog. Credit co-screenwriter Danny Strong, he of HBO’s Recount and Game Change fame. This welcomed change of pace and structure allows the film to finally feel like the story we want to watch. And while I’m tip-toeing around spoilers, I’ll just say that the split occurs exactly where you think, book readers.

And secondly, the “Part 1” of the title is also what defines this 125-minute prelude to the concluding movie, a fact that becomes inescapable as it seems all the good stuff is being reserved for later. While the reflective plotting allows more space to breathe, it also becomes abundantly clear that this wasn’t exactly a story that needed to be told in two parts. From a financial standpoint, I can’t argue with the decision from Lionsgate. This is their once-in-a-lifetime franchise and elongating the final film in YA franchises has become de rigueur and a box-office no-brainer. Still, the overwhelming feeling is that this is all setup and the best stuff is just ahead, a tease that the franchise also toyed with during Catching Fire, as we were stuck in the games instead of the revolution. Mockingjay Part 1 is mostly buildup; it’s entertaining and more politically adroit than expected, but in the end it’s still a story stretched out. The intriguing supporting characters from Catching Fire are still mostly put on hold. The inclusion of Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still feels relatively pointless in the scheme of things, except for prolonging the love triangle, the weakest element of the story by far, and one that even author Suzanne Collins seems half-hearted about. When the world is falling apart, who cares which boy Katniss decides to kiss? Old favorites like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) get brief appearances but little else. There is a stark decrease in action with this movie, only two real sequences of suspense, and one of them proves to be false. Strangely enough, there’s a high-stakes nighttime raid that plays out unironically like a dystopian Zero Dark Thirty finale. I await others to make a similar comparison. It’s no surprise that Mockingjay becomes more suspenseful, engaging, and meaningful just as it’s ending, leaving less on a cliffhanger and more on a latent promise. Instead, this particular movie features a lot of speeches and hushed discussions in dank quarters (the photography is rather dimly lit and hard to decipher at times). It’s not exactly rollicking.

SS_D8-3267.dngBeing a war film, atrocities are commonplace and examined openly, especially when Katniss visits the ruins of her home in District 12. Not once but twice does the camera slowly zoom out to allow the graveyard of charred skeletons to gets its thematic due. There’s only so far a mandated PG-13 rating can take you when it comes to illustrating the horrors of war, but I give Mockingjay credit for neither glossing over the loss of innocent life or glorify the leaders of this revolution, namely District 13. President Coin is shown to be a calculating and pragmatic leader who is concerned more about the big picture. She’s thankful for Katniss but just as ready to move onward and forget her. By the end of the movie, you don’t exactly have warm feelings for the people of District 13, who laid in wait, sowing seeds of rebellion with the other districts, all the while relying on their bunker for ultimate safety. The other districts are more vulnerable and more likely to feel the Capital’s wrath. Just ask the smoldering citizens of District 12.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is the Hunger Games’ version of David Yates, the director who steered the concluding four Harry Potter films. Chris Columbus put that world together, but a better, more visually adept director saw Potter through to its end. Likewise, Lawrence has taken the world that the original Games director Gary Ross cultivated and given it the mood and visual heft needed for the franchise to feel properly and triumphantly cinematic. If it weren’t for this man’s visual talents, the many conversations in the dark would be even harder to watch. Lawrence has been a helpful addition to the franchise, especially as the world was starting to get more fleshed out. While I bemoan the overly gloomy cinematography (which was also an issue with Catching Fire), Lawrence has brought a necessary sense of gravitas to the series. The emotional pain and psychological torment registers, and his handling of his actors will often be overlooked thanks to the natural talent of his lead actress, but Lawrence has found a way to strike the right tone to make us care.

Speaking of the woman in question, Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) is already an Oscar-winning Hollywood star in her mid twenties, and she elevates these films even more. Her character is a reluctant figurehead, never having asked for such prominence, nor having asked to trigger a revolution with countless casualties. Without as much physical activity and arrow slinging, Lawrence gets greater opportunities to emote and show the fractured, conflicted feelings of the woman in the middle of the revolt. She’s not a natural when it comes to being on-camera, she cannot fake sincerity (even though she played up the whole “star-crossed lovers” angle in the first film as a means of survival, but whatever), and it’s somewhat funny watching skilled actors pretend to be bad actors. The emotions are on a hair trigger here, as rage boils over to fear and shock. Lawrence anchors the series with another surefooted, strong performance.

The real standout is Sutherland (The Italian Job). This is as much President Snow’s movie as it is Katniss Everdeen’s. Rather than plotting from the shadows, Snow gets to become the worthy villain the franchise has been waiting for. Sutherland relishes his retorts with Katniss and preying upon her. His broadcasting of an ever-increasingly frail Peeta is more meant as a crushing psychological blow, a reminder that his prized hostage will be punished for Katniss’s and the rebellion’s mounting successes. When they’re finally face-to-face once more, it’s the film’s most invigorating moment.

o-HUNGER-GAMES-MOCKINGJAY-PART-1-900It’s also hard to watch the movie and not feel grief over the loss of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Mockingjay Part 2 will officially be the actor’s last onscreen appearance. He’s good, though the part isn’t exactly challenging, but the real pang is the realization that we’ll never get another Hoffman performance. Once the final minute of Plutrarch Heavensbee is gone onscreen, so is the cinematic ghost of a ridiculously talented man who was taken from the world far too soon. In a nice gesture, Mockingjay Part 1 is dedicated to his memory.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, as Mockingjay Part 1 lays the way for the promise of an exciting and action-packed finale. The extra pause, the last breath before the melee, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the film to break away from the plotting of the previous two entries and it provides a refreshingly reflective opportunity peppered with intelligent conversations about the political process and propaganda. It also stretches out a story that proves it did not have enough plot points to justify the expansion. No matter, the cash registers will ring loudly as the world’s hunger for the Hunger Games knows no limit. Lawrence and a team of great supporting actors help provide reasons to keep watching, as well as the increasingly dire circumstances of the war against the districts. This intermediary film serves as a bridge to the exciting conclusion, the assault on the Capitol. Let’s just hope that audiences don’t feel too stingy about paying to watch a two-hour trailer for another movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Non-Stop (2014)

non-stop-posterKnow 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.

NON-STOP1-master675And 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.

liam-neeson-non-stop-movie-2014Neeson (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

Don Jon (2013)

don_jonJoseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most talented and, yeah I’ll say it, dreamy young actors working today is proving to be more than a pretty face. Don Jon is his assured writing and directing debut, and it shows that every man has one more reason to feel insecure compared to Gordon-Levitt. The titular Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey lothario who sleeps with lots of women but the real thing just can’t measure up to his porn. The schism between reality and sexual fantasy is too much. Jon tries to reform his porn-addiction ways when he meets a hot lady (Scarlett Johansson) but old habits are hard to break, especially when he has to wait before sleeping with a woman. The narrative isn’t terribly deep or that developed but remains entertaining throughout, buoyed by feisty performances and stylish direction. The editing, sound design choices, and smooth camerawork made me feel like I was watching a promising Scorsese student. I found Don Jon to be a far more successful look at sex addiction than the recent sex addict drama, Thanks for Sharing. The parallel between porn and Hollywood rom-coms, both an inflated fantasy of relationships, doesn’t really stick, and Jon’s family is a bunch of loud Italian stereotypes, but the lead guy is a self-possessed lunkhead anyway, so it makes sense for his family to follow suit. Don Jon is funny, sexy, and an enjoyable diversion at the movies. What it really does, though, is provide the first notch in what may prove to be an exciting directorial career for its star.

Nate’s Grade: B

What Maisie Knew (2013)

1976Did you know that What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James that was published in 1897? I sure didn’t, but then again my knowledge of Mr. James is somewhat limited. James’ tale of negligent parents passing off their daughter back and forth was controversial when the novel was first published. Updated to modern-day New York City, seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in her parents’ contentious divorce. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly on his phone and making out-of-country trips. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging lead singer for a 90s alt rock band who also likes to party. Beale remarries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a young woman who previously served as Maisie’s nanny. Not to be outdone, Susanna remarries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an affable bartender who’s somewhat clueless around kids. Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky new relationships and what they think is best for Maisie, though Lincoln and Margo seem to be the only ones who actually care.

102042_galWhen it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there’s the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they’re kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You’ll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can’t quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a“happy ending,” though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it’s hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what’s in the best interest of Maisie.

This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie’s mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There’s a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You’ll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad’s always full of excuses and mom’s looking to flee from responsibility at a moment’s notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You’ll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It’s a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.

Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel’s joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It’s an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie’s perspective, and how she’s interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There’s also the nature of Maisie. She’s a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she’s a child, and processing a painful life experience, don’t expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She’s an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She’s not the kind of kid that’s going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don’t want to oversell this as if it’s a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It’s not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.

20901_356487047790508_945530912_nIf you’re going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I’ve found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it’s my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she’s splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character’s innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She’ll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile’s performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.

Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter’s well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln’s encouragement to Maisie as “undermining her as a parent”). It’s much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV’s True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard’s good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he’s doing but isn’t that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.

When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It’s a leap of blind faith. However, it’s much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn’t a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You’ll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There’s something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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