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
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-
Taken 2 (no, Taken Again, or The Retakening?) follows the all-too familiar path for action movies when sequel digits get added to titles. They attempt to redo the original premise, but bigger and better, but rarely does it succeed unless there’s a fresh take. Taken 2 is reheated leftovers. The first film was a pleasurably surprising action film, led by a steely performance from Liam Neeson. Now Bryan Mills and his family are vacationing in Istanbul and they all get taken… again (or retakened). But what really kills this movie, besides the compilation of genre clichés, is that these are the dumbest bad guys I’ve seen in some time. If I were hiring these goons I’d want to see where their class rank was at Goon University, or if they actually completed their goon studies. These guys give new meaning to the term incompetent. They don’t search Bryan’s person, they leave him unguarded and alone, and naturally they even poke their heads through bullet holes in the wall, only to be shot in the face. When the bad guys are this inept, it removes all danger. Part of the enjoyment of Taken was watching Bryan work up the food chain to rescue his daughter. Now we just get Neeson too easily taking out the bad guys. The action is a bit too hectic and doesn’t have the same crackle that helped the first film.Then there’s the dumb plot, which is best exemplified by the rooftop grenade sequence. Bryan’s daughter (Maggie Grace) is running across rooftops and just randomly tossing grenades (vacation grenades?), so Bryan can hear the sounds of explosions and note how close she is. Except she never looks where she’s tossing, so she’s indiscriminately tossing live explosive devices on the innocent civilians of Istanbul. If there’s a Taken 3, I think one of these innocent Turkish families should seek vengeance. Oh but there’s more stupidity, like Bryan killing a corrupt Turkish cop and having no ramifications for this whatsoever. It’s never spoken of again. Or Bryan and his daughter crashing through the U.S. embassy’s gates in a car, and two minutes later he’s walking the streets with no hassle. To sum up: Bryan and family murder a police officer, throw grenades into the city streets, and crash into the U.S. embassy.Taken 2 is a classic example of sequel-itis, and while it tries to make you remember the parts you liked in the first film (Neeson on a paternal rampage, his speech), I just kept remembering how much better Taken was the first takening.
Nate’s Grade: C
On the surface, the classic board game Battleship would seem like a rather peculiar property to develop into a feature film. Unless someone was going the crafty Das Boot route, why would anybody even want to adapt the board game? And for that matter, why would anyone want to adapt the game and add killer aliens from outer space? Well actor-turned-director Peter Berg looked at the classic board game with the little pegs and the declarations of battleships sunk and said, “There’s a big summer movie in there.” With a hefty budget of $200 million, which is becoming alarmingly the norm for summer tent pole releases, Berg’s efforts have given birth to Battleship: The Movie. If it becomes a hit maybe it will start a trend. Who wouldn’t want to see Hungry, Hungry Hippos as a monster movie, or Connect Four as a searing domestic drama about alcoholism?
Off the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy is conducting an annual series of international war games in the Pacific. Oh but little did they expect to have to combat intergalactic foes. Alien spaceships crash land to Earth, emerging from the Pacific and creating a force field barrier. Along for the high seas action are the stoic Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), his screw-up little brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch), a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano), and a mess of other Navy personnel, including pop star Rihanna. On the other side of that force field is Alex’s girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a naval physical therapist who finds herself in the middle of the aliens communications plans. The handful of Navy ships, some American and some Japanese, must figure out a way to topple the aliens before they get their communications up and running to broadcast that Earth is ripe for the taking.
For some, Battleship will be the symbol of everything wrong with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, a perceived slapdash effort meant to appeal to as many mass markets as possible, combining clichés and empty action sequences into a cacophony of noise deigned entertainment. And for most of those charges, I cannot defend Battleship. It has its fair share of clichés, gaps in logic, and some especially corny moments (WWII geezers save the day!). And yet, I found myself becoming entranced by Berg’s siren song, laughing at the comic relief, enjoying the stock characters enough to root for their triumphs, and having a total gas with the action sequences. I was shocked at how much fun I was having with Battleship. Perhaps that means that from a mechanical standpoint it knows all the pinpoints of the summer blockbuster model and knows how to craft a satisfying crowd-pleaser of an action movie. Or perhaps it just means I have lost my mind. Or maybe this is Berg’s expertly crafted satire of the Michael Bay School of filmmaking, brilliantly capturing the beautiful bombast and cheery jingoism of Bay’s career, especially when those salty WWII vets get to strut in slow motion. A movie based upon the board game Battleship is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and Berg’s nautical adventure wants nothing more than to entertain the masses. Whatever the case may be, Battleship, weirdly enough works, and for some significant stretches, it works really well in the mold of summer spectacle.
I’m relieved that Berg has left behind his rigid docu-drama cinema verite approach he’s patterned after working on 2004’s Friday Night Lights. Berg’s verite style felt completely mismatched with 2008’s Hancock, an inexplicable global hit. With Battleship, Berg’s cameras settle down and give you plenty of action to soak up. Berg’s first foray into action, 2003’s The Rundown, was like the announcement of a great new talent and the herald of The Rock’s ascent in action. I’ve been waiting for Berg to return to that style he displayed with The Rundown, a slick, highly stylized flair, brimming with robust energy that popped at all the right moments. Thankfully, with his biggest budget yet, it’s like the return of the old Berg. Perhaps it’s just a reaction against the overindulgence of the “shaky cam” action style popularized by the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, but it’s nice to be able to actually follow what is happening. Berg’s cameras find different and exciting ways to frame the action. I enjoyed the speedy zoom outs to illustrate the size of the field of battle. The visuals really do feel like Berg is parlaying Bay’s shooting style, the tawny glow of people’s skin, especially women, a.k.a. sex objects, the fetishized ogling of giant toys/military hardware, the soaring camera. But unlike most of Bay’s pedigree, it’s spectacle on a mass scale without turning into a glorified video game.
The action in Battleship is huge but never dull. The scale of the demolition does not get out of hand because the movie works in shifts, focusing on pockets of action before ramping up to something even bigger and better. The alien tech, particularly the spheroids that munch through metal like the Langoliers (please, somebody tell me they remember that Stephen King TV movie), is impressively powerful without feeling completely over matched. Being totally obliterated in the movies has its own thrill, but seeing a slug fest between man and alien is more compelling. Watching the Navy go blow-for-blow and eventually triumph through ingenuity in the face of adverse odds makes for some pretty satisfying action. The Navy is learning through trial and, much, error about how to combat these alien antagonists. I enjoyed the tactile nature of the battles. I must say I found the film to be weirdly informative about the attack features of naval war vessels. I don’t know if its genius or absurd that the movie finds a way to organically squeeze in the actual Battleship game play (the alien bombs also look like pegs from the board game). The aliens are something of a mystery and kept that way. When we do see them minus their Halo helmets, you wish they kept those helmets on. They have some unexplained moral code, as we cut to alien POVs that scan for threats, choosing to spare innocent lives in other circumstances. When the alien spacecraft fist appear, they take up position in a row and wait for their Earthly challengers to strike. It reminded me of the fighting sequences in turn-based RPG video games. These aliens are more sporting than your typical interstellar advanced civilization just interested in conquest. These aliens are into turn-based RPGs. These aliens are nerds.
With all that surprising praise now established, Battleship the movie is still chock full of ridiculous moments and a rather leaky plot. The subplot involving a double-amputee veteran getting back his groove via alien invasion never feels well grafted to the major storyline. It feels like it was crowbarred in after the producers or Berg saw real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson and declared, “This man needs to be in a movie.” He’s likeable enough but over the course of 130 minutes you realize likeable isn’t the same as being a skilled actor. This entire subplot involving Gadson, Samantha, and a computer techie (the amusing Hamish Linklater) strains credulity even for a dumb action movie. The fact that three easily over matched people can take out a load of well-armed aliens with little more than a Jeep and a briefcase mitigates the life-and-death stakes at sea. If these alien bad guys can lose so stupidly, then what’s the hold up? Also, the movie inserts a lot of bizarre tension between Japan and the U.S., like it’s trying to iron out the last unresolved conflict from the Second World War. The term “inelegant” cannot come close to describing the nativsm conflict and its dopey resolution. And then there’s the fact that the movie is long giant recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. I suppose after the Marines had their own alien-fighting flick/recruitment ad last year (Battle: Los Angeles), the other branches of the armed services felt left out. I pray no one ever enlists over something this silly. No major life decisions should be made over the big screen adaptation of Battleship, people.
There’s a paucity of solid characters here. We get the bad boy younger brother who will discover his mettle and leadership by the end (by the by: having characters keep talking about how much “potential” somebody has is the annoying non-fantasy equivalent of talking about a prophecy being fulfilled). Kitsch comes off better than he did in Disney’s costly flop John Carter, but he seems too stiff and sullen for a leading man. If Battleship sinks, expect his leading man status to get dry-docked (okay, I’ll lay off the puns). Decker (Just Go with It) is still working out the kinks of transitioning from model to actress. Her romance with Kitsch is about as contrived as these things get in big action movies, a pathetic bone thrown to a deflated female audience who would rather see Decker in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The additional seamen, including Rihanna’s acting debut (insert your “S.O.S.” joke here), are given one-note to play for over two hours. And as far as Ms. Umbrella-ella-ella is concerned, it’s certainly not the worst acting debut by a pop star (see: Crossroads, or better yet, don’t). Most disappointing is Neeson (Taken) who spends the far, far majority of the movie on the wrong side of the force field. I want this guy kicking ass and not barking impotently into a phone.
I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror and declare, with solemn dignity, that Battleship is a good movie by the normal standards of objective excellence. Screw it, I had far too much fun with this film to stand back and pretend the movie’s flaws are too overpowering. Berg has slapped together what may be the most formulaic, pinpointed Big Summer Movie I’ve witnessed in some time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t win me over. They may be pushing buttons but Berg and company pushes them so well. Plus, I’m still uncertain whether or not the entire bloated affair is really the most expensive, subversive swipe at Michael Bay ever attempted. This is probably just wishful thinking from a critic looking to justify liking this movie. It’s got plenty of action, though doled out into bite-sized portions before the ACDC “Thunderstruck” montage ramps up the finale. Every now and then, you need a movie that gives you the right kind of stupid, and Battleship is the right kind of stupid for the summer movie season.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The 2010 Clash of the Titans made some sizable sums of money but it really became famous for one reason – the beginning of the 3D fleecing and the public’s souring on what was supposed to “save the movie going experience.” Clash was converted to 3D in post-production, and its lack of foresight and rushed conversion showed. After the high of Avatar, it only took approximately three months for the public to feel ripped off by 3D. Certain Hollywood bigwigs are concerned that bad 3D conversions will kill the golden goose, and it is having an effect. The percentage of movie audiences seeing big releases in 3D has slipped steadily from 2010. Whether it is the added cost or the underwhelming conversion, movie audiences are warier of the third dimension. And it was Clash of the Titans that destroyed a nation’s innocence. Two years later, the sequel is out and, surprise surprise, you also have the ability to see it in 3D. Either way, this movie will cause you a headache.
In the wake of Perseus successful slaying of the Kraken, he is now a widower with a young son, living their lives quietly, trying to avoid the daring heroics of his earlier life. Fat chance, kid. The gods are at war, particularly Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Aries (Edgar Ramierez) versus Olympian head honcho Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus’ absentee father. The titan Kronos will be unleashed from his prison, Tartarus, and this powerful behemoth will lay waste to the armies of mankind. The gods have grown weak due to mankind’s dwindling faith, and as such they cannot conquer Kronos without the help of man. It’s up to Persues, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), and Poseidon’s demigod son a (Toby Kebbell) to track down the right magic artifacts to take down Kronos.
Once again we have a threadbare story that involves running from one location to another to find a clue that leads to the next location; the plot is just a series of magic-item gathering missions, much like a video game. Greek mythology made regular use of magic weapons to slay great monsters, but the myths at least gave their audience heroes worth fighting for. Worthington’s scowling rendition of Perseus is a bore, and giving him a son doesn’t help much. Just because the guy keeps insisting he has someone to protect doesn’t fill his void of characterization. He’s so free of charisma, so gruff and without any defining personality, that you wish he could find some magic shortcut to find his dumb magic items faster. The whole setup with our villain is also vague, beyond the very specialty of the god in question. And then there’s the whole concept of the gods dying, which was also featured in last fall’s glorious-to-look-at-but-empty-on-the-inside Immortals, another cinematic tussle with the titans. What’s the point of being a god anymore if the defining quality, immortality, can be ripped away? I suppose the screenwriters wanted to raise the stakes when Zeus and other gods enter the fray, dangling the threat that they too could perish. “We may not have weapons, but we’ll fight how long we can,” Zeus declares with modesty, and then he proceeds to zap enemies with lightning bolts. I don’t think a club is going to outrank a giant projectile of electricity. Realistically, I think the whole death-of-the-gods angle, which cold have brought some real somber and existential weight to the film, was just a setup to allow the producers to recast future sequels with less costly actors (goodbye, Neeson and Fiennes; they’ll be no more Kraken-releasing for either of you).
Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) isn’t going to wow anybody with his addition to cinema, but he can put together a serviceable sequence of action. My favorite sequence in the entire film is when Perseus and crew enter the underground maze of Tartarus. The stone walls are constantly shifting around and the characters are zooming all around the room. It reminded me of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter world or think of it as the real prequel to Cube. And yet, even this nice sequence is limited because Liebesman and the screenwriters don’t take full advantage of their situation. We have a constantly shifting three-dimensional maze, and nobody gets lost at all? And the heroes, after discarding the map, easily find their way to the other side? What kind of design flaw is that? Liebesman prefers a lot of handheld camerawork and low angles, which can be jarring at times. Worse, the action favors a visceral chaos rather than steady development. There are plenty of people dying, columns exploding, fireballs tossing, but little of it adds up to much. It’s all disparate shots, like every character is in a separate movie. Such a shame because the special effects are rather good. If you’re going to spend this kind of money on a Greek mythology spectacle, at least make us care beyond a “fire pretty” level of tepid enjoyment.
The movie is in some breech of false advertisement since the title clearly states a plurality of titans, but by my modest account we only really have one titan to deal with, the giant lava beast Kronos (do the smaller creatures and Cyclops count as titans? I doubt this). Now we all love how fire looks, though some love it a bit too much. And lava itself has long been a childhood adversary. Who amongst us has never pretended the floor was once lava and but a handful of couch cushions were the only stepping-stones to safety? It’s hard to get an exact feel for how massive Kronos is considering he emerges from a mountaintop and seems to extend even higher into the sky. It’s intended to be a threatening and horrifying sight, but I kept thinking of a Marine ad from the 1990s where prospective recruits displayed their mettle by combating giant lava creatures (“Marines: Keeping the U.S. safe from lava men since 1916”). Instead of being awed by Kronos, I started picking apart the logistics of being a lava man. I suppose when you’re a god, or a titan for that matter, you don’t have to really eat or drink or do the things we mortals must for sustenance. But how does a lava creature work when part of his fiery M.O. is how drippy and malleable he can become? Perseus flies into the mouth of the lava beast but why does a beast, which needs no food or drinks, even needs a mouth? It’s not like this guy is speaking beyond a ground-shaking mumble. The entire face is almost superfluous. It’s not like a lava creature has eyes or a working circulatory system. Now I could apply these same annoying ticky-tack questions to any monster or mythological creature. The reason I did this is because the monster of monsters is no more intimidating, or satisfying, as the array of giant monsters that Godzilla would fight (or for you youngins – the Power Rangers). When your ultimate bad guy, and lone titan, can just as easily be blown up in the same manner as the Death Star, then we have a problem.
There’s a certain level of entertainment watching dignified actors in something so inherently campy. Neeson (The Grey) and Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two) are a long way from their Shindler’s List collaboration. The two men lend a level of gravitas to a movie that is leagues below their talents. Perseus proves to be such a dull demigod, that I wish the entire movie had followed the warring gods instead. That approach would have been much more interesting considering that they must confront mortality. Worthington (Avatar) still has a notable screen presence in the realm of action cinema, but his constant scowling is just getting tiresome. Hollywood, give this man something to do other than scowl and he may surprise you, like in The Debt. Pike (Doom) is unconvincing as a warrior princess, and her forced romance with Persues could not be more contrived (did somebody say, rebound?). The best actor in the movie is Bill Nighy (Underworld) who shows up as a daffy version of Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy and blacksmiths. Nighy understands how completely cheesy the whole getup really is and delivers a performance on the comic wavelength that the entire movie should have held.
While not nearly as humorless and joyless as the 2010 edition, Wrath is still a fairly block-headed romp through the noisiest parts of Greek mythology. After two movies with “titans” in the title, it’s somewhat remarkable that we only witness one single titan in the entire combined 245 minutes. It’s all CGI sound and fury with little cohesion to make anything feel important, despite huge mythological creatures demolishing cities. From an action standpoint, Wrath packs enough serviceable, escapist sights for the eyes to please diehards of Greek mythology and genre fans with low expectations. I wish there was a more compelling reason to run through all this stuff than big monsters needing to be killed; this hero’s quest needs more motivation or at least a grander sense of awe. The demise of the gods due to mankind’s mounting religious doubt seems like a juicy subject that could have opened these characters up. But then the theological discussions would get in the way of people hitting made-up CGI monsters. If you like your cheese feta, then Wrath of the Titans will provide enough wrath for your bucks, though found lacking in titans.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’ve always been fascinated with survival thriller/horror, where we think step-by-step with the characters through an unlikely scenario. I greatly enjoyed Frozen, a horror movie about three teens stranded on a ski lift, and Buried was in my top ten list for 2010. I enjoy the thought exercise and find the scenarios easily empathetic as long as people don’t make boneheaded decisions. Director Joe Carnahan has been paying his bills as of late with stylized, overdone, and generally overblown action movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. I would not have expected Carnahan to deliver anything that could be described as nuanced or meditative, but lo and behold The Grey is a survival thriller that’s as thoughtful and emotional as it is viscerally exhilarating. The Grey is the first great movie of 2012 and I’m astounded that it was released in January, the dumping ground for cinematic dreck.
We follow a group of grunts working on an oil pipeline way out in the northern Alaskan territory. They’re heading south for some R&R when their plane crashes due to electrical issues. Ottway (Liam Neeson) and seven other men are the lone survivors. While checking for supplies, they discover a pack of wolves feasting on some of the choicer corpses. Ottway is a wolf expert, hired by the oil company to patrol the grounds and hunt antagonistic wolves. He explains that wolves have a hunting radius of 300 miles and a kill radius of 30 within the den. It is uncertain where these men find themselves, so they bundle up and head south, hoping to escape the predators, find food and water, and discover a way to help.
The Grey is a harrowing, haunting, and intense thriller, masterfully played by Carnahan. The threat is real and brutal, enough that it convinces the men to leave the safety of the plane wreckage to possibly escape the wolf kill radius. We’re told that wolves are the only animal that will kill out of vengeance (look out Sarah Palin). The attacks are vicious and the violence is bloody and occasionally shocking, though it never seems gratuitous. The special effects and canine animatronics are seamlessly integrated. The sound design for this movie is exceptional, probably the best use of sound to fashion anxiety since 2007’s No Country for Old Men or even Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The sounds of the wolf pack echo around the theater, completely keeping you off guard, disorienting the audience. Carnahan creates such a vivid picture of dread that we’re convinced that the wolves could sic at any moment. And when they do the editing becomes chaotic, mimicking the ferocity of the animals and depicting the frenzied fear of the attacked.
I was a terrible bundle of nerves throughout most of this movie. The plane crash is an exemplary sequence of terror, capturing the terrifying moments from Ottway’s limited point of view. The rest of the movie doesn’t get any less tense just because they’re on stable footing. There’s one scene where the wolves attack a guy who has fallen back from the group. Carnahan brilliantly captures the helpless reality by showing the men trying to race back in knee-high snow. They can only stomp so far while the man is ripped apart in the background. The action sequences, though to be fair they’re really more suspense pieces, are the most nerve-wracking I’ve endured since the brilliant Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Of course these being life and death stakes, there is plenty of death, as the men are generally picked off one by one, though not all by the pack of wolves. The frigid elements are just as dangerous as the killer wolves. The men could just as easily freeze to death. The need for shelter and food is dire (the men even joke about the famous cannibalism from Alive). One of them is suffering just from his brain being unable to acclimate to the elevated attitude. That’s almost enviable considering the doom that constantly hangs over the other survivors.
Naturally there’s some friction between the survivors as far as the best course of action. Ottway has assumed Alpha dog status thanks to his expertise on wolves and the Arctic climate, but that does not mean that the rest of the men follow lockstep. Give the alarming situation, it will be in these men’s best interest to work together for survival. Some of the men chafe at being what to do but the movie doesn’t drags out this conflict, thankfully, because jockeying for power positions seems like an absurd waste of time. There are heavier issues at play. The impact of the movie would be blunted if the characters came across as one-dimensional; then we wouldn’t care about their fate. Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker,” find creative ways to enrich and reveal the character of these lone men. They feel believable and their reactions to the implausible dangers seem plausible, keeping us invested. Ottway keeps flashing back to an image of his wife (Anne Openshaw) for strength, this angelic brunette telling him not to worry. It’s what he has to hold onto, though when we learn more about the context of this image it becomes even more meaningful. One character has had enough struggling and has no will power to continue. He argues that whatever life he may return to is no reward.
The thrills and scares are what are to be expected, but The Grey is also a much more thoughtful and intellectually stimulating picture than you may have hoped. Carnahan’s script covers a wide array of survival tactics without breaking from the reality of its premise. It’s just interesting to watch a group of men use their wits to make best use of their dwindling supplies and dire situation. It becomes a game that the audience plays, systematically judging every choice and assessing if we would follow suit. Beforehand, the men engage in a theological discussion regarding the existence of God, faith, the belief that there is a divine plan. The men are fighting for their survival but having an existential crisis all the same, trying to supply meaning to the horrific, find reasons to keep fighting. “We crashed going 400 miles per hour and we survived. That has to mean something,” one of them reasons. Or it all could just be very bad luck. Ottway at one point, an admitted non-believer in a higher power, bellows to the sky for something, anything. His desperation is effective and turns what could have been trite into a nice character moment. One of the men shares a memory of his daughter, who would wake him up by gently dangling her hair in his face. It’s a touching moment and when that same character meets an untimely end and is helped to the other side by a vision of that same daughter, it becomes profoundly moving (the quick snap to reality is a jarring point for grisly comparison). The Grey has plenty more on its mind than making an audience jump. It also wants to make the audience think and, in the end, feel genuine emotion.
The ending may rankle some who felt, especially with the advertising, that the film was going to be a two-hour Neeson ass-kicking vehicle, but for me it was fitting and the only way this story could have ended. Though let me advise all potential ticket-buyers to stay during the end credits for a small bit that offers a tad more resolution, though still leaves as much to be determined by the viewer. It’s not exactly ambiguous considering how things are left.
Neeson (Unknown, Clash of the Titans) has settled nicely into his newest incarnation as middle-aged ass-kicker, such an odd path for the man who famously portrayed Oskar Schindler. At some level, it’s below an actor of Neeson’s standards to be running through such genre frills, but it’s also a joy to see someone who can really, truly act give gravitas to his men of action. After he delivered his warning in Taken, I was completely on board and ready to watch this man bust some skulls. Beyond the physical challenges, the role really puts Neeson through an emotional wringer and the man gives a strong, stirring performance. You’d be glad to have this man in any predicament. The rest of the cast fill out their parts well, with Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) making the best use of his time onscreen to create a character.
The Grey is a startling movie; horrific, jolting, thrilling, moving, beautiful, philosophical, and extremely captivating. Carnahan has crafted an exciting movie that transcends genre. There were moments so tense that I was chewing on my knuckles. There were moments so intense I felt like I had to look away. And there were moments so poignant that tears welled up in my eyes. I look forward to watching this movie again and finding even more at work. No grey area here, this is one truly excellent movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
With Liam Neeson kicking ass in a European country, fighting a nefarious conspiracy, and trying to reclaim what has been taken from him, you’d be excused for thinking that Unknown is a sequel to the highly popular Taken. And the films do share plenty in common. Both involve Neeson trying to regain his life against a ludicrous conspiracy, and both are equally ludicrous in their action sequences, and yet both are fun, passably diversionary entertainment. Neeson gets into a car accident to find that his wife (January Jones, blankly Betty Drapier wherever she goes) doesn’t recognize him and enjoys the company of another man asserting the identity of Neeson. Is he really crazy? That idea lasts about ten minutes before the bad guys and their bad guy accents come to kill Neeson and tie up a loose end. The action is swift, well edited, and fairly exciting, a highpoint being a thrilling car chase through the streets of Berlin. The movie has enough clues and questions to string along an audience, though by film’s end you wish you got more scenes with Neeson in full-on attack mode, as seen in Taken from start to finish. What is it about losing one’s memory that always turns men and women into better people? Perhaps prison rehabilitation should consist of a Flinstones-esque treatment of knocks to the head to adjust moral consciousness for the better.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Atom Egoyan, working simply as a director, brings some serious heat to this somewhat lurid and Euro trashy art house potboiler. Egoyan gives the movie a credibility that it might otherwise lack. It starts promisingly enough with a doctor (Julinne Moore) convinced that her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her with his younger students. So to prove her suspicions, she hires a sexy call girl to seduce her husband. Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) agrees to help, but nobody seems to fully understand the magnitude of the consequences as Chloe inserts herself more into the family. For a solid hour, the movie offers some tantalizing drama about infidelity, doubt, and the nature of attraction. Then the movie shifts focus after a few tawdry, but effectively steamy, sex scenes. Sadly, the movie abandons the smaller-scale drama for lame thriller shenanigans. Chloe becomes a spurned lover pushed to the edge, like a third rate Fatal Attraction. At that point, Chloe just completely unravels into an unremarkable late-night Cinemax thriller. Even the gratuitous nudity feels tacky, and as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that’s a statement that makes me depressed.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Rather unremarkable and rather dingy, a big-budget remake of Clash of the Titans removes all the fun from the campy 1981 original. Stop-motion is replaced with the sheen of super CGI, but the whole souped-up production feels hollow and overly serious for a movie involving fantastical creatures and Liam Neeson as Zeus. The original film was by no means a classic but it had an enjoyable retro spirit thanks to effects by Ray Harryhausen. The gods are trivialized and hardly in the movie, which is a shame. Danny Huston, as Poseidon, gets one single line in the film. Worse, Perseus (Sam Worthington) is given the motivation of revenge, instead of love, seeking to stand up to the gods who have left man to stew in despair. He blames the treacherous Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for the death of his father. And so the epic adventure is for vengeance, which gives everything a somewhat nasty pall. Who wants to watch a story about Greek mythology where the main character wants to rid the world of the gods? Why would Zeus go along with this? For a fairly straight forward plot, the movie frantically rushes from scene to scene. The action sequences are a particular letdown for director Louis Leterrier (Transporter). The CGI effects, mostly efficient, are like quick blurs and whooshes. You can?t tell what’s happening or you just don’t care. The movie has no character development and I’m not even certain I liked Perseus. Worthington?s scowling and howling is starting to get old after three high-profile action roles in an 18-month window. Would you believe that there isn’t even a titan to be clashed?
Nate’s Grade: C