Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

March 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 2

July 23, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

21 Jump Street (2012)

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You can be forgiven for thinking that a movie version of 21 Jump Street, the iconic 1987 TV series that made Johnny Depp a star, would be lame. Few movie reboots of old TV series are successful for a multitude of reasons. But this one, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, is a surprise hit — mainly because no one actually expected it to be funny.

Strictly speaking, 21 Jump Street is not a reboot of the TV series at all. It’s more of a homage/spoof that takes the basic concept of police officers going undercover as students to catch bad guys and drug dealers. Hill, a geek, and Tatum, an underachieving jock, are high school classmates who become best friends at police academy. They are idiots but look kind of young (well, Hill at least) and are assigned to the “revived” division at 21 Jump Street to go undercover as brothers, though a mix-up has them picking up each other’s assigned identities.

The reason the film works so well, apart from the amazingly effective chemistry between Hill and Tatum (whose acting isn’t all that bad here), is because it doesn’t take itself seriously and delivers much amusement making fun of the whole ridiculous premise and idea.

One of the running gags, for example, is that Tatum used to know what was cool 10 years ago (such as how to wear your backback, how to treat people and issues), but now those things are frowned upon. Another one is how old Tatum looks to be a high school student. Stuff like that.

Not all the jokes worked for me but enough of it was consistently funny for this to be one of the better comedies of the year. The film also had some excellent surprises, especially towards the end, although as usual the running time of 109 minutes felt like it dragged on a little past its welcome. A sequel, 22 Jump Street, has reportedly been green-lit, but I am sceptical that it can rekindle the magic the second time around.

4 stars out of 5

Contraband (2012)

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Contraband is a crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Foster. Marky Mark is an ex-smuggler who has given up the rough life for the sake of his wife (Beckinsale — can’t blame him) and two kids. But his brother-in-law is still in the game and gets in trouble, and Marky Mark becomes embroiled in the mess and has to go to extreme measures to keep his family safe.

Contraband dark, it’s moody and it’s violent, but it also comes across as generic and average. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just feels like there are so many of these types of movies every year and after a while you just can’t remember anything about it. To be fair, the plot is intricate and well thought out, though I found it unnecessarily convoluted. But the core problem is that there’s not much to make Contraband stand out from the rest of the pack.

Marky Mark has done what feels like a dozen similar roles and feels exactly the same as he does in those films, and Kate Beckinsale is somewhat underused. Ben Foster is effective with his trademark wide-eyed maniac routine, and the supporting cast of Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas and JK Simmons is solid. But the performances can’t save Contraband from being the forgettable film that it is.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Grey (2011)

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I wanted to watch The Grey because I like survival thrillers and I wanted to watch Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

Neeson plays a depressed, suicidal dude who protects an oil drilling team from wolves in Alaska, and on his way out of there their plane crashes. They are in wolf territory and he must lead the survivors (including a virtually unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney) to safety. Time for Liam Neeson to channel his inner Bryan Mills (Taken), Ra’s Al Ghul (Batman Begins), Zeus (Clash of the Titans), Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars), John “Hannibal” Smith (The A-Team) and Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List).

Over the last few years, Liam Neeson has emerged as the one dude you never want to mess with, and that applies to wolves too. The Grey is a solid survival thriller that has plenty of close calls and Neeson doing what he does best. Many have compared it to the 1997 film, The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, which is about surviving a bear in the woods. I think The Edge is probably the better film, but The Edge doesn’t have Liam Neeson. Strangely, another film it reminded me of was Frozen, a 2010 survival horror about a bunch of kids stuck on a ski lift and then being hounded by wolves.

One problem I had with The Grey was all the philosophical and religious mumbo jumbo that was probably trying to add for meaning to the film but for me just slowed it down unnecessarily and disrupted the tone. The ending was also a little anti-climatic, though there is a nifty little post-credits scene everyone should stick around for.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I know technically this is a 2011 film but it was released in 2012 in most places I know.

The Cold Light of Day (2012)

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If you want to be mean about it, The Cold Light of Day should have been a straight-to-DVD movie. If it had been, the film probably wouldn’t have gotten such scathing reviews.

I suppose this was a star vehicle for Henry Cavill, who would go on to become Superman. Cavill plays Will Shaw, a struggling advisor who doesn’t get on too well with his dad, played by Bruce Willis, who unbeknownst to him is actually a CIA agent. Will’s family suddenly disappears after an boating incident, and when he tries to track them down he finds himself in mortal danger as shady characters start coming after him.

The pace of the film is frantic but for some reason there is little excitement or a sense of real danger. Cavill runs around, gets shot at and must do everything he can to survive while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It’s one of those films where a lot happens but everything feels bland, lifeless and cliched. I could stomach the stupidity of it all but when an action film starts to bore you know something is seriously wrong.

Cavill looks pretty good but he struggles mightily trying to carry the film. I presume Bruce Willis picked up a nice paycheck for this movie but that was about it. The man has become a walking caricature of himself. And Sigourney Weaver…sigh…I don’t know what’s happened to her but this is a performance that lines up nicely next to her role in that Taylor Lautner movie, Abduction.

Having said all that, The Cold Light of Day is not that bad, and certainly better than the 5% it got on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just a fairly average B-grade movie that wasn’t supposed to be one.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Taken 2 (2012)

October 21, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The moral of the story is simple: don’t f*&% with Liam Neeson.

After getting a thorough ass-whooping in the first film, which I declared was one of the best action films of the past decade, those pesky Albanians did not learn their lesson. The father of one of the human traffickers wanted revenge, and he was going to make Bryan Mills pay with a lot more inept henchmen. Bad idea.

I may sound like I’m teasing, but I actually enjoyed Taken 2 a lot. It was impossible to live up to the original anyway, which surprised just about everyone with its brutal efficiency and the total badassness of Neeson’s Mills, a former CIA operative who can kill you in just about every way imaginable. True, Taken 2 is a lazy and completely unnecessary sequel that is even more far-fetched than the original, and let’s face it, was made with only $$$ in mind, but it still manages to thrill by re-captivating some of the magic of the original.

The premise ofTaken 2 is about as unimaginative as it gets: the father of the dude whom Mills electrocuted in the first film in Paris promises to avenge his son’s death. Mills is in Istanbul for freelance security work and is visited by his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) — who is conveniently having “problems” with her second husband — and their daughter (Maggie Grace, who is surprisingly convincing as someone young enough to be going for her driver’s licence). Nasty henchmen try to “take” them all (and succeeds with two of them, hence Taken “2″ — get it?), unleashing the killing machine in Mills once again.

Taken 2 steals shamelessly from its predecessor without really attempting to do anything new or different. Liam Neeson shows off some incredible secret agent brains in addition to killing enemies with guns, melee weapons and his bare hands, and Maggie Grace has a much larger role, but that’s about it. Director Olivier Megaton (surely that cannot be a real name), whose previous efforts include Columbiana and Transporter 3, replaces Pierre Morel, but I didn’t really feel that much of a difference in style. There are gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and car chases galore, all of it happening at break-neck speed after the predictable initial set-up.

The script, written again by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is lazy — there’s no way to deny that. It assumes we know what Bryan Mills is and what he and has family have been through, and character development is essentially provided through flashbacks to the first film. The bad guy is pretty pathetic and is driven only by revenge, but at the same time he has some strange reasons for not wanting to kill Mills when given the opportunity. The Albanians also sometimes speak to each other in what I presume is Albanian, and at other times in English with Eastern European accents — none of it makes much sense.

But on the other hand, there’s nothing quite like watching the captivating Neeson — who is 60 years old in real life, by the way — run around beating up and killing a whole bunch of bad guys. It’s brainless entertainment but it’s fun and exciting while it lasts.

In other words, if you enjoyed Taken, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy parts, or at least elements, of Taken 2. It’s no secret that the film was cashing in on the success of the original, which is vastly superior in every way, but watching Liam Neeson go on a rampage for an action-packed 91 minutes is still preferable to the majority of action films these days.

3.5 stars out of 5!

PS: If there is going to be a third film, which is highly possible given the loose ends in the script, I’ll definitely be watching.

Movie Review: Battleship (2012)

May 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Gambit and John Carter is now a naval officer battling aliens!

Rising superstar Taylor Kitsch leads an all star cast in Battleship, a sci-fi blockbuster I, admittedly, thought was going to be pure trash when I saw the teaser trailer ages ago. I mean, come on, are we so short on ideas these days that movies now have to be based on board games? Anyway, Kitsch plays Alex Hopper, a bit of a loser who, we are told repeatedly, is a guy high on talent but short on discipline — until he is forced to join the navy by his decorated older brother Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard, the really tall vampire from True Blood). Meanwhile, he has managed to score Andy Roddick’s wife (Brooklyn Decker) as a girlfriend, but the relationship is opposed by her father, the always awesome Liam Neeson, who also happens to be the brothers’ superior.

Whatever. This is essentially a rather pointless backdrop for the real story — the sending of a satellite signal to an earth-like planet far far away, and eventually receiving an unfriendly response in the form of Transformer-like water fighter jets and nasty aliens in metal body suits. Let the battleship games begin! (And yes, they do to some extent replicate the “blind bombing” of the board game)

Look, despite how badly that sounded, Battleship turned out to be a pretty decent piece of popcorn entertainment that harks back to the fun-filled action blockbusters of the late 90s, such as Con Air, Face Off and Armageddon. Like those films, Battleship takes itself “half-seriously” — complete with huge explosions, tough guys pretending to be cool, cheesy dialogue, tongue-in-cheek jokes and groups of people walking towards the camera in slow motion while rock music blares in the background. If you can accept the film for what it is, let go of your brain and just go with the flow, you might end up enjoying the film as much as I did.

Battleship combines white knuckle naval battle action with supreme special effects, making it a great movie to watch on the big screen. All that running and flying around occasionally gets a little muddled with the quick cuts, but for the most part director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock) does an admirable job of keeping the film afloat.

Taylor Kitsch is solid as the confused hero forced to realise his full potential, providing a mix of leading man charm and self-deprecating humour. He’s already been in two blockbusters in 2012 and is set to appear in Oliver Stone’s crime-thriller Savages later this year. The rest do their best with the cookie cutter characters they have been given, with special mention going out to Rihanna for not sticking out like a sore thumb in her debut acting role. She plays an action-based character who doesn’t say a whole lot (definitely a good thing) but she delivers a performance that matches well with the rest of the cast.

At the end of the day, Battleship is unlikely to be remembered as a great, or even good movie, but as far as fun, visual-effects driven action blockbusters go, it’s definitely one of the better ones.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

February 18, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I had been looking forward to seeing Liam Neeson’s latest thriller, Unknown, ever since I saw the trailer a few months ago.  It reminded me of Taken (another Neeson film), one of my surprise favourites from a couple of years back, with an compelling mystery anchoring the plot — a biologist visits Berlin with his wife and has an accident, and when he wakes up from a coma days later, another man has assumed his life.

Is there a conspiracy at play here, or has he lost his mind?  And what lengths will he go to in order to uncover the truth and take back his life?

For the most part, Unknown unfolds as expected.  Nothing appears to make sense, and it keeps you guessing whether what you’re seeing is real, imagined, or perhaps both.  At the same time, there is action, suspense and thrills, and plenty of it.  I can honestly say I was intrigued.

Of course, Liam Neeson is brilliant, but the supporting cast wasn’t too shabby either — Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, and Frank Langella.  Each actor/actress manages to put their stamp on their characters, even with limited screen time.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the underrated Orphan) does a fairly good job here with some pretty farcical material (and I’m not just talking about how improbable it is for someone as attractive as Diane Kruger playing a taxi driver).

In less capable hands, Unknown could have easily spiralled out of control, but despite all the plot holes and unnecessary convolution in the unravelling of the mystery, the film manages to stay afloat and avoid total disaster.

Ordinarily, films with predicaments this bizarre can only end in bitter disappointment.  You’ll tend to be riveted by the mystery until you discover the truth, which is usually outrageous or silly or both, and the film just completely crumbles from that point on.  Surprisingly, Unknown‘s resolution is about as good as you can get for a film of this kind.  It’s not necessarily believable, but considering how far it takes you, it’s at least within the realm of possibility.  Or so I tell myself…

3.5 stars out of 5

 
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