Non-Stop (2014)

Non-StopReleased: February 28, 2014. Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy. Runtime: 106 min.

As a film filled with enough red herrings to keep you guessing the whole way through, “Non-Stop” works as an effective mystery. It proposes the idea of what would happen if a trusted figure of authority turned into a supposed criminal; how would you feel about the state of national security? Not very good. It answers this in an action vehicle for Liam Neeson, who has taken to action films a bit later in his career than usual action stars. It just shows that he’s a versatile actor; and at least his characters have a good amount of humanity.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a struggling alcoholic on an ordinary flight as a U.S. Air Marshall. Partly through the flight, he receives a mysterious text from somone on the same plane – on a secure network. The text says that the texter will kill someone every twenty minutes unless the killer is paid $150 million dollars in an off-shore account. How do you get away with murder on a crowded plane, you might ask? Well, this film shows pretty innovative ways. Marks must spring into action to save the people he pledged to protect, and simultaneously clear his name.

Neeson’s character might not be as impressive as his one featured in 2012’s “The Grey,” as far as the most human characters he’s portrayed in action flicks, but Marks is a decent character. Before I get into the character, it’s getting harder to differentiate some of Neeson’s characters… especially when some have the same initials. This film he’s Bill Marks, and in “Taken” he’s Bryan Mills. I’m bound to mix those up sooner than later. Anyway, Marks is motivated to protect the people of the plane because it’s his job, and he’s motivated to catch the suspect to clear his name. (Don’t have a cow, I don’t consider a major spoiler since it’s exposed in the film’s trailer.)  A short list of suspects become apparent when they look for any plane patrons using their cell phones on the plane’s monitors.

I won’t say who the suspects are narrowed down to, because that’ll just be boring; but they’re mostly just generic stereotypes representing a lot of cultural make-up, but you know the filmmakers aren’t going to make the Middle Eastern the perpetrator in a terrorism film. Because that might just cause an uproar. (Is that racist to assume that?) This is a terrorism film that is able to bend in suspsense in such a taut environment, something directors like Wes Craven are capable of, shown in 2005’s half-political thriller “Red Eye”.

The film’s actually pretty fresh, too. It’s not “Snakes on a Plane” fun, because Neeson repeatedly telling people to sit down and shut the front door becomes irrating after awhile. Something else that doesn’t help is that the action takes about 25 minutes to get into; and while there’s decent suspense welded in, the action isn’t non-stop. It comes and goes, but what a deceiving title. The only thing that doesn’t stop is the plane. Part of the problem with the action is the taut setting, it’s not a lot of room for the stars to beat the crap out of each other or anything like that; or shoot off a gun, since they’re in a plane. The cinematography is decent, there’s a sequence in the beginning where the world is seen through a “drunken vision” that isn’t that great. Everyone’s focused but the background is blurry. Wouldn’t alcoholics develop a tolerance to alcohol after awhile and it’d become harder and harder to get hammered?

The supporting cast is filled by Julianne Moore, who brings a good performance to the film; and damn, she is looking great for someone who’s fifty-three years old. Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) is in the background in her second movie role, as a stewardess. Scoot McNairy’s featured, too, and I think he’s just a great supporting presence.

A star of the film is the great sound editing, and awesome sound effects; especially when turbulence is present. The flick’s weak spot might just be the lackluster reveal of the perpetrator’s motivations. Just didn’t do it for me. And for a mystery, there are a few too many “Why did that happen…?” and “How does that make sense…?” situations throughout. This also has probably the most awkward exchange of dialogue as the final lines so far this year. All in all, it’s a decent watch and it keeps you guessing throughout. That’s the intention of a mystery – and this is a capable one.

Score70/100

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a SlaveReleased: November 8, 2013. Directed by: Steve McQueen. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch. Runtime: 134 min.

Imagine you’re at home enjoying your life as a free black man in upstate New York. Your beautiful wife and kids go away for two weekends, and when two men approach you with an opportunity to make some money, why not say no? One couldn’t predict that by saying yes to making a paycheck, they would then be drugged and sold into slavery. That’s exactly what happens to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a real person sold into slavery in 1841.

The premise is part of what makes “12 Years a Slave” such a powerful film. In any case, anyone being uprooted from their life is a terrifying reality, even today. Back then, it seems that many were a bit more clever than staging a home invasion. Solomon is backstabbed by business parters he trusted, portrayed by Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. This film might just be the one to open people’s eyes as to why the black people of today are so protective of their rights.

It’s an educational feature, and the most powerful film of the year. It’s one of my favourite slavery films as well, at least for educational purposes. I’d give this a rewatch with pleasure, which would also allow me to watch a few scenes again that I didn’t comprehend completely. I prefer Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but that and this cannot be more different in tone. “Django,” to sum it up in so many words, is an entertaining treat. Another similarity is that both films probably hit the 100-mark with using derogatory statements, mainly the ‘n’ word. Paul Dano might have said it about 40 times it one cruel Southern tune.

John Ridley (director of “All is By My Side” which I didn’t like) adapts Northup’s 1853 novel very well, and director Steve McQueen knows what makes humans tick. This film is the platform for a harrowing odyssey of a man’s bravery and will to survive. Solomon’s drive is his family and he is making sure he does not sink into despair, by keeping their memory alive. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see them again, but he tries to be as cooperative as possible in order to survive – which isn’t very at times, when he cares about fellow slaves. One of his friends is a woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who plays a critical role in the film. He meets her on Edwin Epps’ plantation/farm.

Epps is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, in a haunting villainous performance. Don’t be surprised to get chills from him in a few scenes. Epps is known famously in those parks for breaking his slaves’ spirits, it seems – even if his wife (Sarah Paulson) thinks he could do a better job. He is a malevolent soul, and he makes a previous slave owner of Northup’s (Ford, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) look like a saint – and he already was a very considerate man. Northup meets several characters along his long journey, helping this film have a star-studded cast, even if some big-name actors have about seven minutes of screen time (like Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Garrett Dillahunt – to name some).

There’s one main problem that the film has, it never really allows viewers be aware of what year it is. The only clue is the title. It starts out in 1841, and since there’s a scene at the beginning that shows up again in roughly the third act, we know that we’re caught up – but we still can’t tell what year it is. It doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment severely, but even cues like older make-up for Solomon would assist the film. It would give us an idea of how long he has been slaving for. There are some scenes that feel like they will go on forever, but that is purposeful in one scene to show that slaves cannot interfere when someone is being punished, so to speak. That being said, this has quite a few shocking moments – so it’s not for the faint of heart!

The film’s power is greatly prominent in Ejifor’s performance, as he tries to hang onto his humanity, not give up his hope and not sink into despair. Many slaves give up much faster than Solomon Northup, but he has something to fight for; and that’s what makes this film so inspiring and moving. It also helps it become an unforgettable experience.

Score95/100

Promised Land (2012)

Promised LandPromised Land

Release Date: January 4, 2013

Director: Gus Van Sant

Stars: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski

Runtime: 106 min

Tagline: What’s your price?

Corporate salesman Steve Butler (Damon) arrives in a rural town with his sales partner, Sue Thomason (McDormand). With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by a man (Krasinski) who counters Steve both personally and professionally.

This environmental drama reunites Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon and director Gus Van Sant. While it has the same good acting and fine direction, it doesn’t quite have the best characters or writing. Thus proving Ben Affleck’s writing was one heck of a contribution to Good Will Hunting‘s screenplay.

The characters in this feature are simple and generic. Damon’s character of Steve Butler is decent, but his beliefs seem distorted throughout the feature. He goes through a roller coaster of emotions where he tells the people one thing, but he thinks something else. However, that character change is necessary for the screenplay because his soul is supposed to be changed and touched by the people themselves. Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) is a fairly uninteresting character merely established as a mother on a business trip who just really wants to be back with her son. Krasinski’s Dustin Noble is playing the nice guy routine, trying to convince the people of the town that Global will ruin the local economy instead of helping it.

Global is a natural gas company that uses a process called fracking to go underground and retrieve the valuable resources. This film raises awareness of this dangerous process. This is also an analysis of how big companies don’t care for the environment or the people themselves, they only care for making money. But this town has something to say about that. The only other 2012 film that has a louder message of the environment is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. But really, that is tailored for children, and many aren’t clever enough to realize when an idea is being hammered down their throats. However, this is an adult drama and the majority of adults know when an idea is loud or preachy.

The only things that set this film apart is the rather loud message and the change of heart Steve has. Though, it really doesn’t stop it from being generic and often bland. Some redundant plot points that do not do anything for the story whatsoever are less interesting than a man snoring loudly. It is also a very by-the-book feature that goes through the motions. Sure, it’s a decent watch, but it’s nothing more. The cast is stellar (also including Scoot McNairy, Hal Holbrook and Rosemarie DeWitt) but none of the talented actors are given thoroughly interesting characters.

In a nutshell: Promised Land is a decent, but far from good, experience that isn’t more than that. It’s an environmental drama that tries to explore unique concepts like fracking and greedy large companies, but it needs Ben Affleck on as a writer. The end product comes across as usually bland, predictable and very generic. It goes through the motions of this type of drama until the very end.

55/100

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly

Release Date: November 30, 2012

Director: Andrew Dominik

Stars: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins

Runtime: 97 min

Tagline: In America, you’re on your own

Note: I love the idea of a good mob flick. I have a large list of ones I have to check out, including ‘Goodfellas’ (cue the gasp); and in all honesty, this is my second mafia related film (I think). The first being ‘Road to Perdition’. But I loved this. Enjoy the review. 

Ah. Hitmen meet the economy; they go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys, who think they’re smart, rob a mob-protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.

Johnny Amato (a.k.a., Squirrel; portrayed by Vincent Curatola) is the so-called mastermind behind the heist of a mob-protected card game. He enlists the assistance of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and the plan is seemingly golden. The host of this card game is Markie Trattman, a man who hosted another card game in the past, and he then robbed his own card game. Due to that, card games went away for a little while. Now they’re back. The local criminal bosses believe that if this one gets robbed, Markie will have to be behind it. That’s what makes these three dumb guys believe that this is a foolproof plan.

Because of all this, Jackie Cogan gets called in to restore a little order to this imperfect local economy.

The film opens with Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walking down a rundown street, and the film cuts between a politician speaking (Obama or George W., possibly) and him. The wording constantly gets off. This is both stylish and artistic, but it will get irritating to the impatient viewer. It becomes known that this film is set when George W. Bush was still leader of the free world, and America was in an economic crisis. The card game being robbed doesn’t particularly assist the local criminal economy in any way.

In that way, this is both a story of violence and despair, and a compelling and complex social commentary of 2008 America in the midst of one of the worst financial situations since the Great Depression. The concepts in Killing Them Softly are complex, but they aren’t hard to comprehend. The film suggests that America is not a place where one could easily raise their kids. It is not a community, it is a business. However, these concepts of economics and capitalism are not subtly explored. The political voice-over speeches are practically right in your face, as if they’re 3D. Though, this barely bothered me.

Jackie Cogan is an awesome character who is filled with philosophy and mystery. Though, he isn’t the only interesting character in this. There is also Frankie and Russell, who may be a little dim-witted, but they are nonetheless good characters. Russell is often really there just for comedic relief, and he is also a representation of the stupid people of America. Frankie may be sort of dumb, but he is much smarter than Russell. Both the characters are good enough to carry the film for their scenes. In fact, they practically carry the film for the first twenty minutes – with a little help from Curatola and Liotta. These actors remind us that a film can be good, even when Pitt isn’t onscreen. Also, Brad Pitt entering the screen to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is the perfect touch.

Brad Pitt, as usual, is a booming screen presence. Put him next to Richard Jenkins’ character, he’s cool and he has a mysterious bravado. Speaking of Richard Jenkins’ character, his name is never revealed. He is just the middle man of crime who pays Cogan. Though the question of who Jenkins works for is left unanswered. That is one of the pleasant ambiguities and mysteries of the film.

Though, put Pitt next to James Gandolfini’s character of Mickey (another hit man called in by Cogan to help out with killing the twerps), he’s nothing special. Only because he’s listening to Mickey talk his ear off. Mickey’s character hardly fascinated me.  He talks too much, and he doesn’t kill enough. Don’t get me wrong, Gandolfini’s a great screen presence. I just wasn’t digging the character. So don’t you tell Gandolfini to put out a contract on my head. I don’t want to die, man. I’m just telling it how it is.

Scoot McNairy has proved to audiences that he is a solid supporting presence (Exhibit A: this; and Exhibit B: Argo) and also a good leading man presence (as shown in 2010’s Monsters). I look forward to more performances by this promising actor.

The story, the cinematography and the editing are the real highlights of the film. There are a few other vividly cool editing sequences, that leave me feeling impressed. There’s one scene where Pitt is firing a gun in the rain in a slow-motion sequence, that is stunning. It’s vividly cool, and is worth the watch simply for that. Don’t stay for just that, though. This is one of the best films of the year!

There is a whole load of killing, but not as much as it seems to promise. In that way, the advertising is sort of deceiving. That’s okay, though, the other things that it never promises make up for it. There’s a fair share of soft, but brutal, killing to satisfy all, even though the kills are far between each other. The social commentary it offers is also profound. Sometimes it gets talky, but it is never uninteresting. The film has its fair share of intensity. The soundtrack is great and the atmosphere it offers is one of the most unique of the year. The writing is great, and the actors are great. They don’t disappoint one bit. There’s enough violence, and enough politics and economics to leave both crime movie lovers and scholars with a smile on their faces by the time the end credits roll. Just don’t expect non-stop carnage, and you’ll be good.

90/100

Monsters (2010) Review

Monsters

Release Date: September 30, 2010

Director: Gareth Edwards

Stars: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga

Runtime: 94 min

Tagline: Now, it’s our turn to adapt.

It’s actually a pretty impressive flick.

Six years after Earth has suffered an alien invasion, a photographer must take his boss’s daughter across through an infected zone of Mexico back to the safety of the United States of America.

It’s a fairly simple plot, and a really nice character driven narrative. The characters can be easily relatable and are actually likeable, even for the standards of a film with horror elements.

If you go into the film with the only knowledge of it being the title, you’ll be surprised by it because it’s a character driven science-fiction tale rather than just a horror film about the world being attacked by monsters. While it is something like that, there’s so much more substance here. There isn’t a lot of scary moments but when there are, it’s pretty effective.

The film does a nice job of blending elements of good characters, some horror, drama, science fiction, and some romance. It’s a pretty nice road trip flick.

The two leads actually deliver some really good performances, and play their characters really well.

The alien beings sort of made me think of those of War of the Worlds, not because that they’re metal or that they’re really colorful; but because of their height.

The camerawork was pretty good, and is a very impressive film made with a budget of $800,000. The filmmakers really don’t waste a penny.

The film is pretty well-paced and doesn’t drag on in many areas, but some of it isn’t completely compelling, but it doesn’t thoroughly boring either.

The characters are fairly well-developed and you want to see them get home safely, rather than be attacked by the aliens.

It isn’t completely must-see for those of you who don’t like science fiction flicks, but for those of you who do, it’s something worth checking out.

It isn’t completely memorable but it’s a fairly interesting story, which is not completely compelling but pretty good, it’s great enough for a watch. I won’t buy it, but for a film I really didn’t know a lot about and saw it because I caught it on TV, it was a solid flick.

This film stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (who is attractive and a great actress, which makes the film that much more enjoyable). There are quite a few extras. For a film with two stars as the main focus, they do a really great job even with so much pressure put on them.

A film that isn’t too scary or too long, but the plot didn’t win me over completely. I wouldn’t watch it again but it was a pretty unique experience.

Monsters is really worth checking out if you want a cool science fiction experience with nice characters, and a fairly fresh plot idea; you just may be impressed. I was impressed by the quality of the film that they were able to make on such a low budget for something of this science fiction caliber, but the story didn’t compel me as much as I would have liked.

70/100

Argo (2012)

Argo

Release Date: October 12, 2012

Director: Ben Affleck

Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman

Runtime: 120 min

Tagline: The movie was fake. The mission was real.

Argo is one of the best films of 2012.

Argo tells the story of the Iranian revolution, and hostage situations that were involved with it. On November 4, 1979, the Iranian revolution reached its boiling point, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed by militants, and Americans were taken hostage. During this revolution, six American citizens manage to escape and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. It was only a matter of time before the citizens’ cover was blown, or they were rescued. A CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) specialist, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), concocted the best bad idea the CIA had to rescue the citizens, and get them out of the country with their lives.

This was a covert operation that wasn’t known to the public eye until the 1990s. The story is amazing, and extremely memorable. This story was back in 1979 and 1980, so it definitely makes for an early 80s atmosphere. It’s nice that this revolution gets revisited, it brings knowledge of something that happened a fairly long time ago. The impact it had on the world at the time seems large, but, apparently, not large enough for me to hear of it in this day and age.

It’s sort of fascinating how Affleck made it feel more like the 80s, and he did it in quite the innovative way: according to IMDb, he shot it on regular film, cut the frames in half and blew those images up to 200% to increase their graininess. The viewer can also tell that they’re in for an older styled atmosphere because of the old Warner Bros logo which was to match the time of the 80s.

I recall seeing this W in the logos, or at least something similar to it.

Ben Affleck’s pure Hollywood acting career may be dust in the wind (or at least starting to feel a bit like that) but his directing career isn’t going South anytime soon. He has a real knack for making great and memorable films.

It’s an extremely thrilling and captivating film experience, and is the most riveting film of 2012 thus far.

There are history and politics thrown in here, but politics only crossed my mind a few times. It feels more like a great CIA rescue mission more than anything else. It’s intense and there’s some great comedy thrown in there. There’s one great joke that gets used a few times, but doesn’t get overused because it’s thrown at you at times you least expect it.

The rescue mission is a great gamble, because Affleck’s character is both risking his life and theirs.

The characters are fine, because they are real and none feel expendable at all. Affleck’s character has a son and a wife; and some of the Americans stuck at the Canadian Ambassador’s house are married. Each actor and actress wonderfully capture emotions of stress, anxiety and intense worry.

One of the most captivating things about Argo is the boiling suspense of the situation, and the viewer can just feel it build throughout. It also really is quite nerve-racking.The pacing is great, and it doesn’t feel slow in a lot of places. There are a lot of memorable scenes, and then others just build up the plot. There aren’t any bad scenes, though, so that’s great. Argo sort of plays out like an assassin giving you his first choke-hold, he’s inexperienced and you may feel the grip loosening from time to time, but then it strengthens again and doesn’t let go until the very end.

Something that annoyed me is the odd time when there wasn’t any subtitles when the Iranians spoke their language (Farsi, maybe?). Still, you can tell the emotions that they are feeling, so I guess it doesn’t matter very much, now that I think it over more.

The use of old footage really interested me some. It worked into the film well and didn’t feel out of place at all.

The film does live up to its hype, and to its trailer. The use of Aerosmith’s song Dream On, was extremely effective and amped it up about ten times as much. I wish they didn’t use some of the film’s best lines in the trailer. Yet again, studios do that a lot. They still were great when I heard them during the film though.

Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek and Titus Welliver make up this great cast.

Argo offers an incredible true story, a lot of fine action, and a lot of great suspenseful scenes. It’s one of the most riveting films of 2012, and definitely the most intense. The direction, acting, story, the amount of memorable scenes are all great. It’s such an impressive piece of cinema, and will be a real contender at the Oscars this year.

90/100