Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax) has worked with Liam Neeson previously on the movie Unknown, but there is another clear reason Neeson was cast for the role of alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks. The actor has the talent and star power to elevate an otherwise unremarkable, movie-of-the-week script like Non-Stop into a moneymaker with wings.
The story, penned by a team whose credits include TV's Big Brother and WWE/WrestleMania, lands Neeson in the role of Bill Marks, an air marshal on a transatlantic flight. He's confronted with text messages from an anonymous villain who promises to kill someone on the flight unless the exorbitant sum of $150 million is wired into an account within an unlikely time limit of 20 minutes. With the clock ticking and no clues to help him, he must reveal the hijacker even as the villain's complex plan unfolds to frame him for the deed.
The ensuing tense whodunit occupies the audience with guessing games, attempting to lead them astray with characters that play on ethnic stereotypes and dirty looks as Marks and his allies Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and Nancy (Michelle Dockery) attempt to expose the culprit.
As the flight's body count increases, so does Marks' level of stress, until Neeson is enraged, throwing passengers around like rag dolls and progressing only in cementing his image as a hijacker, already being painted in the media on the ground.
Non-Stop is best enjoyed by those who don't pick apart a script and can allow themselves to be caught up in the tense situation. Collet-Serra has a few tricks to keep the pace moving, including some impressive hand-to-hand choreography within the confines of the plane's lavatory. These tricks make for an enjoyable film, in spite of the descent into monologues as the clock is ticking and swift loss of direction when the hijacker is finally revealed.
Earlier this week, a law was signed by the president of Uganda that makes homosexuality an offense punishable with life imprisonment. While this legislation is being called reprehensible by human rights advocates around the world, many Ugandan politicians and citizens stand adamantly by it, holding fast to Christian-based beliefs that God-approved, male-female relationships are right and everything else is wrong.
How did such an anti-gay climate -- one that often results in acts of violence committed against both open and suspected homosexuals and their allies -- come about in this small East African nation in the first place? This is the complex and important question that God Loves Uganda attempts to answer.
Director Roger Ross Williams interviews several observers and activists from both sides of Uganda’s culture wars but largely focuses on the efforts and effects of missionary workers from Kansas City. Part of a megachurch operation known as the International House of Prayer (IHOP), these mostly white and very passionate "soldiers of God" have set their sights on Uganda in particular as a place that needs their spiritual attention.
The Iron Giant may not have been a box-office success upon its original 1999 release, but the animated film based in 1957 Maine has come to be loved and appreciated by many in the years since. The quirky, heartbreaking sci-fi tale pairs the beauty of its hand-drawn animation with a powerful message.
Hogarth (Eli Marienthal, American Pie) is a young boy in fictional coastal town Rockwell (presumably named after this Rockwell) who stumbles upon a ginormous alien machine one night. Hogarth befriends the giant, who has lost most of his memory, and attempts to pass knowledge on to the larger being. Harry Connick, Jr. figures into the voice cast as a hipster scrap metal collector/artist who supervises some of Hogarth and the giant's interactions.
Meanwhile, Hogarth's widowed mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston) rents out a room to government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald, Thelma & Louise), sent to the town after reports of metal monsters and strange happenings make their way to Washington. As Hogarth tries to teach the giant that he can choose to be what he wants (instead of what the machine may have been designed for), Mansley is determined to prove the dangerous existence of the imposing metal figure.
I have to be honest, I initially thought Winter's Tale was an adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Winter's Tale -- I hadn't heard of author Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, adapted into the new movie, until watching the trailer.
It's no coincidence that the movie made its U.S. theatrical debut on Valentine's Day -- a marketing ploy, of course, to get couples to hunker down in the dark for two-ish hours to watch actor Colin Farrell make love look even more confusing than it already is. This says something about Farrell, a chap whose real-life romantic mishaps have made headlines and had heads shaking (lest we forget his public outings with Britney Spears).
And its hard to forget this in the aptly named Winter's Tale because Farrell plays the burglar-with-a-heart-of-gold, Peter Lake, so much like his public persona: greasy, strangely-cut hair and all... with an Irish accent.
There really is no need for Peter to have an Irish accent because he was raised in New York City. The same can be said for the movie's female lead, Beverly Penn (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), whose convenient English accent is only briefly explained as a byproduct of her birth across the pond, despite her newspaper tycoon father's (William Hurt) American accent.
But this is just the tip of the unexplained plot point iceberg in Winter's Tale.
This trans-century romance begins on Ellis Island, where baby Peter is left in a model boat and sent afloat into New York Harbor by his parents, who are refused entrance into the country because of his father's supposed illness. Somehow, someway Peter becomes the unwilling scion of the Devil's (Will Smith) minion, Pearly (an over-earnest Russell Crowe). When Peter rejects Pearly as a father figure, he is hunted by even lesser minions and stumbles across a Pegasus-like horse, which he names Horse. How original.
Oh, that's right, writer/director Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) is trying to shove theological and philosophical metaphors down audiences' throats. Of course, Horse acts as both spirit guide and guardian angel to Peter, and according to a Google search, there is a difference between the two terms.
With a sprawling and often dreamlike narrative that examines grand themes of life, death and art, The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is novelistic in its storytelling and enthrallingly ambitious.
Directed and written by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty was Italy's submission for this year's Best Foreign Film Academy Award and it has made the cut to compete for the Oscar alongside four other films. Mirroring the scope of other lofty Italian films (Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita certainly come to mind) as well as the work of revered writers like Marcel Proust, Sorrentino is passionate and audacious in his approach to a story that is classically familiar in its basic framework and often surprising as well.
At the story's center is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). He wrote a moderately successful novel as a young man, and following that chose to veer into a life of partying, carousing with beautiful people and rarely making it to bed before dawn. As the film opens he has just turned 65, and after hearing some painful news that reminds him of his younger days and the great love he lost, this well-dressed, smarter-than-average socialite is beginning to tire a bit.
It has been 27 years since one of the seminal 80s sci-fi films, RoboCop, blasted onto cineplex screens. By today's Hollywood formulas, it's the perfect age for a remake that can bring the franchise name to new viewers and cash in on an audience eager to see an updated favorite. Too often, this results in a disappointing flop like 2012's Total Recall, a development that wouldn't have surprised with Jose Padilha's modern take on the Verhoeven blockbuster.
It is impossible not to compare the two versions, for better or for worse. Verhoeven's movie had a signature gritty, steely dystopian feel that contrasts against Padilha's sleek modern curves and smooth black gloss. As the first set photos from the new RoboCop made their way to the internets, angry fans denounced the insectile look of the black armor that replaced the familiar brushed steel. Fortunately, a more familiar steel uniform does appear, and the black suit is explained away, eliminating this minor quibble. Drastic changes in the look of the film are surprising given the casting of relative unknown Joel Kinnaman, whose greatest talent appears to be a strong chin resemblance to Peter Weller.
The differences in this remake go far beyond visuals, however. Joshua Zetumer has adapted the original script into something with a vaguely similar plot but drastically altered themes. A PG-13 rating ensures the remake, while more marketable, has lost much of the hyperbolic action. Padhila's version is also entirely sanitized of the satirical advertising used so effectively by Verhoeven in scene transitions, confining overt political commentary to Samuel L. Jackson's appearance as host of an O'Reilly-esque conservative news program.
I mentioned altered themes, and the most significant concerns the title character. Verhoeven's RoboCop was a machine that begins to remember it was once human. Padilha's RoboCop is a human struggling with the horror of being placed in a machine body and fighting the programming that seeks to strip him of his humanity. This reflects the fundamentally different approach where Verhoeven's film satirizes the unreliability of technology, Padilha's celebrates its ability to perform better, faster than the human brain.
Updated 2/9 to include a review of Prison Terminal.
In previewing all of the short films that have been nominated for the 2014 Academy Awards this season, I must give a shout out to film programmers here and around the world. I don't know how you guys do it, but trying to watch an amalgam of films (short and feature length) and deciding which you like best makes my brain turn to oatmeal.
Okay, so that's a little dramatic, but I have a new respect for both programmers and short filmmakers alike. To make a feature is an incredible feat, but to try and tell a story in under 20-30 minutes? The thought alone could make one's head spin. Thankfully, the Academy has already narrowed down which films they think are the cream of the crop, and it's easy to see why.
I've always been one to gravitate towards this category. Perhaps its the inner child in me longing to still watch Disney films, but I truly love the craft of the animation process and am fascinated to see how it is constantly evolving. Get A Horse! is probably the most recognizable name in this bunch, as it's the short that preceded this past year's Disney hit, Frozen. Although I always enjoy a good Disney short, my favorites of the bunch were Room on the Broom (United Kingdom), about a young witch and group of animal friends who have a daring adventure, and Mr. Hublot (France), about an eccentric robot man who finds his life changed upon taking in a robot dog.
When my friend jokingly asked before our screening of The Monuments Men if this would be like an Ocean's Eleven part 4, she wasn't far off. Actor/director George Clooney assembles a cast of heavy-hitters for this World War II dramedy and only barely taps into their talent. I have a feeling the actors were having a better time chumming around together off the lot than we did watching the resulting movie.
Clooney's film is based on a group of men past conscription age -- art historians, architects and art directors -- who volunteer to go to Europe to save important works of Western art from Nazi capture or destruction. The characters all have names, but with the lack of any real character introduction or development, good luck remembering them. I could only keep the people straight by recognizing the actors involved.
John Goodman and Bill Murray play architects, Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom) is an art director/possible choreographer, Matt Damon and Clooney play art historians, then there's a Brit in need of redemption (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) and a French museum curator (Jean Dujardin, The Artist). The team goes through basic training, then splits up to recover works of art endangered by the Nazis (specifically the Ghent altarpiece and Madonna of Bruges). Cate Blanchett is the only female with a sizable role -- she actually may be the only woman with a speaking role in the film! -- as a French secretary to a Nazi officer.
The plot is formulaic, and the script is schmaltzy and heavy-handed. The confused tone reminded me of an episode of Futurama ("War Is the H-Word") that pokes fun at M.A.S.H. with a Hawkeye-style robot who can only switch between irreverent and maudlin.
The Monuments Men knows how it wants you to feel, and it will be explicit about it. Alexandre Desplat's score, far from his best work, soars at a moment punctuated by a remember-why-we're-here-Art-is-important voiceover by Clooney's character, and you are meant to feel sad right then. Too bad the film fails at emotional manipulation... except for the Battle of the Bulge scene with Murray's character silently crying in the shower tent as his daughter (via recording) sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Some of us just tend to get choked up when that song plays.
Of the five documentaries nominated for Academy Awards this year, four played Sundance Film Festival 2013. Festival Director John Cooper credited this to the heightened aesthetic excellence in the films at the festival as well as that "the world is accepting non-fiction in really interesting ways." During a discussion of the business and profits of independent films, Cooper stated that "at Sundance, we have to think a little differently. We think of impact. When you look at something like Invisible War is changing policy, when you look at Blackfish -- awareness is actually changing how things are done in our world. It's as important as how much money they (the films) make -- and actually way more important to us."
The documentary film that most affirmed this vision at this year's festival for me was director Michael Rossato-Bennett's documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. This moving and groundbreaking documentary received the Sundance Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, as well as a standing ovation at its premiere at Sundance 2014.
As high as I'd set my expectations for Alive Inside, the film far exceeded what I'd imagined. I nearly left the press screening that I attended simply because I was emotionally overwhelmed and in tears, while still a response that I would still describe as a positive experience from the aspect of grieving and healing after witnessing the mental deterioration of a beloved elder. Anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's disease, dementia, stroke or mental illness will recognize the profound impact of the this film's core message -- that personalized music therapy can not only awaken but in some cases prolong our emotional and mental faculties.
Preconceived notions about the male entertainment industry can drive some viewers away from film content, and I myself had little interest in seeing Magic Mike when it was released in 2012. However, a timely discussion with local filmmaker Richard Linklater about Matthew McConaughey's stellar roles of that preceding year led to his recommendation of Magic Mike due to the depth of McConaughey's performance as male strip club owner Dallas.
Joe Manganiello co-starred as Big Dick Richie in the film, which became a smash hit. Manganiello was so inspired by the discussions about the film's related topics of "objectification and post-feminist relations between the sexes" and interest in the characters that he and his brother Nick Manganiello decided to capture the men's stories themselves. The 3:59 Incorporated production team went to the birthplace of male entertainment -- the first La Bare club in Dallas, Texas, which has been open since 1978 -- resulting in their documentary, La Bare.
The men of La Bare are each unique and engaging in their own right. First up is the veteran Randy "Master Blaster" Ricks, a self-professed "205 lbs of twisted steel and sex appeal" who has danced at the club since its opening. His elderly mother Mary Lou supports him in his endeavors, even helping to run a side strip-o-gram service. Backing up Randy are the younger generation who go by first-name-only nicknames -- "Channing," "Chase," "Cesar," for example -- and who come from various backgrounds, including ex-military.