Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

Non-Stop

What do you do with a suicidal alcoholic who can’t hold down a job? You give him an air marshal’s position and let him prevent terrorism on our airplanes, of course! That’s what the fine folks have done with Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), who is the protagonist of Non-Stop. His job is to stop any “incidents” that might happen on the airplane, so when he gets a text that claims that a person will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to a specific account, you know there’s going to be trouble.

That, in short, is the plot of Non-Stop, which is a film whose villain is less evil and more serving the film’s primary point, which is that maybe we should look at the way security is handled when it comes to airplanes. See, it’s not about the money, or about killing anyone; it’s about showing how Bill isn’t fit to be an air marshal, how he never should have been hired, and how easy it would be for an air marshal to hijack a plane. Yes, Bill is being framed — or is he? — so not only does he have to deal with his anonymous texter, but he also has to deal with everyone onboard working against him, since it looks like he’s the one behind it all.

The other important characters: Jen (Julianne Moore), the woman sitting next to Bill on the plane; Nancy (Michelle Dockery), the main flight attendant; Zack (Nate Parker), a computer programmer; Austin (Corey Stoll), a member of the NYPD; Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o), an Oscar-winner forced into a completely pointless role; Dr. Nasir (Omar Metwally), a doctor who treats random injuries; Tom (Scoot McNairy), a school teacher; and Jack (Anson Mount), the other air marshal — there are two on each plane. One of these people is behind it all, probably.

So it’s a thriller that also has something on its mind. Great. That’s what the good thrillers do, assuming, of course, that they’re also thrilling. Non-Stop intermittently is that. It isn’t really able to sustain the amount of tension and suspense that it’d like, but it’ll keep you engaged since you’re unlikely to be sure who it is, and then eventually a bomb is found and bombs are inherently scary, especially if you’re on an airplane.

Does it all eventually make sense? I suppose so. Is it purposeful? Yeah. Why am I not more excited for Non-Stop? Technically it does pretty much everything I’d like it to, and it’s not like I was bored while I was watching it. So, what gives? I suppose that’s something for me to figure out, but in all honesty I don’t know. There’s something missing. Something important. But I can’t put my finger on it.

I’d initially guess it’s the shallow characters, but that kind of makes sense given how the immediate threat is all that would be talked about in real life. We find a little bit about Bill and Jen, but that’s about it, and it’s relayed a little awkwardly. So that isn’t it. Maybe there are too many characters, some of whom exist just to spout exposition. Maybe it’s how wasted Lupita Nyong’o is in her role. Or how some of the things the criminal mastermind knew are never explained. How does he know Bill smokes the lavatory, for example? That kind of bugs me.

Maybe it’s how — despite the good intentions the film has — impossible all of this feels. There’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s suspension of disbelief. This would be the latter. Lots of this simply couldn’t happen, and there’s more than one occasion when you’ll shake your head or smirk because you know this. It’s a little too silly and stupid to believe. Some people will easily be able to overlook these, while other people will be bothered by them and they might wind up ruining the experience as a result. I think that might’ve happened for me.

On paper, Non-Stop is an effective thriller. Most of its plot adds up, it is, for the most part, suspenseful, and it’s all done in service of a point. If you’re someone who gets caught up on the details, or has trouble suspending your disbelief too far, Non-Stop might push past those boundaries and you’re not going to enjoy it as a result. If you can overlook those sorts of things, you’re in for a fun ride.

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The November Man

The November Man seems to be at odds with itself. There’s a reason that the James Bond/Jason Bourne type of spy-thrillers are always rated PG-13. It’s because they’re fun action films for the teenage crowd. The November Man, starring former Bond star Pierce Brosnan, wants to be a fun action film for teenagers … but also be gritty, bloody, profane, and more “realistic.” It wants to have it both ways, and as a result kind of becomes a less interesting version of both. That’s not to say it isn’t without its share of fun, but it really needed to pick one or the other and stick with it.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is our lead. He retires from the CIA in 2008 after a mission goes kind of wrong, but he’s brought back into action after someone he knows needs extraction, and she requests him. As it turns out, this is all part of a bigger plan that involves the soon-to-be president of Russia, the CIA, war crimes, and a whole host of surprises that may or may not have real life analogues. Hint: they probably do, but you’d have to know about the Chechen War to “get” them. Maybe. I sucked at history.

Most of the time, he’s with Alice (Olga Kurylenko), a social worker who handled the case of a woman, Mira Filipova, who has information that is valuable to, well, everyone. Hunting the two of them down are CIA Agent David Mason (Luke Bracey), whom Peter trained, and a Russian assassin (Amila Terzimehic), because you need just one main person to represent each side in movies like this. Both are enemies. Peter has to keep Alice safe all while trying to find this Mira person, avoiding bullets and plot twists along the way.

The majority of The November Man falls into the typical spy-thriller mold. You’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie before, even if you haven’t, simply because of how simply it plays things. It had some elements that could have elevated it beyond the usual fare, but it didn’t really capitalize on any of them. Add in the confusing tone it takes and you’ve got a mediocre film that’s even worse thanks to the way it was made.

The November Man’s action is bloodier than you’d expect, and the dialogue is more profane than it needed to be. One scene takes place in a strip club, and there’s a scene that kind of, sort of, shows rape. Why? Because this is a gritty R-rated movie, of course, except for all the cartoonish action that also fills the picture. It feels like a contradiction, one that might have worked if handled better, but as is comes across as tonally confused and not particularly effective.

At the very least, it’s paced well, is moderately funny, has competent action, and Pierce Brosnan is back as an action hero, although this time he’s more Taken than James Bond. Still, he has the suave and charm to pull it off, and the role isn’t anywhere near as physically demanding as Liam Neeson has in Taken, so you can believe him in the role. Brosnan is always fun to watch just in general, isn’t he? I feel like we really should have gotten more roles out of him, even though he did work a lot both pre- and post-Bond. They just often weren’t for “big” movies.

The supporting cast is largely irrelevant. Luke Bracey is never once believable as Brosnan’s foil, Olga Kurylenko only has to look good in her role, and nobody else gets enough screen time to make much of an impression. This is Brosnan’s film — he also produced it and was the one to get the screen rights to Bill Granger’s novel, There Are No Spies, upon which the film is based, so I suppose this makes sense.

The November Man is a mediocre spy-thriller that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. It has some gritty, violent, and profane scenes that fit its R rating, but then other times it throws logic and physics out the window with cartoonish action. These movies need to pick one or the other; the middle ground that The November Man wades into simply didn’t work. Pierce Brosnan is always fun, and the pacing and action will keep it so you’re not bored, but if you were to ask me if you should go out of your way to see this film, I’d have to respond with a “no.”

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Dying of the Light

It initially doesn’t seem clear as to the reason that Nicolas Cage would be hired to play a veteran CIA agent. He’s someone who withstood a lot of torturing, and now has a desk job because the CIA doesn’t know if he’s able to handle the rigors of the field. In all honesty, he should retire, but he doesn’t want to go because, despite what the reports claim, he knows that the man who tortured him is still out there, 22 years later. Again, does this seem like a Nicolas Cage role?

Well, as we learn early on, Evan Lake (Cage) also suffers from frontotemporal dementia, which the movie tells us is different from Alzheimer’s. In short, Lake’s losing his memory and starting to go crazy. Now it starts to make sense. This type of role allows Nicolas Cage to overact, as we now expect him to. This isn’t one of Cage’s zaniest performances, but he does get to lose it now and then. What about the rest of the movie? Well, we’re not likely to ever find out what Dying of the Light was supposed to be, as its director and stars are claiming the studio took the film away and re-edited it to what we get, which is not a particularly interesting or enjoyable movie. Maybe someday the director’s cut — which is supposed to be a good hour or so longer — will come to light.

What we do get, and what I have to review, is a very mediocre thriller about a man who wants revenge on another man. The first is Lake, who is slowly growing crazy, while the other is Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim), a well-spoken terrorist who, 22 years later, is suffering from a disease that will kill him soon anyway. Lake learns about this but decides to pursue him regardless, and in doing so loses his job, because of his medical condition being potentially compromising to the CIA.

Joining Lake on his quest are Milton (Anton Yelchin), a man half his age but seemingly his only friend at the CIA, and Michelle (Irène Jacob), someone he used to know and is now his contact in Bucharest, where much of the film takes place. The plan is to impersonate a doctor and then kill Banir.

That’s … really it. It’s a simple story whose only complications come from the aforementioned dementia, and that mostly comes into play in rather banal situations, such as at night when Lake goes for a walk and forgets the hotel he’s staying at. Sure, this gives Cage a chance to overact for a bit, but you could watch countless other movies for that. I mean, the second Ghost Rider movie would be better for Nicolas Cage overacting, and would also just be more fun in general.

Dying of the Light is inept in almost all areas. Its plot is so simple that you’d think it was written by someone without the understanding of how to make a thriller, the characters are so shallow and lifeless that you can’t believe they’re real people, there’s nothing to talk about after the film’s over — it has no point, in other words — and it’s painfully dull, despite being a — and I quote (from Wikipedia) — “dramatic action mystery thriller.” It is none of that. It is boredom on screen.

There are two possible reasons that Dying of the Light is this bad. We can accept the filmmakers’ word on it, which would mean that the studio took the film and re-cut it to the disaster that it is now. That’s happened before and I suppose is as likely as any other reason. Or, the filmmakers did a bad job and are using that as an excuse. The director is Paul Schrader, whose last film was The Canyons, so you can see why it’s hard to tell. Regardless, what we can see is a film that’s awful and not worth the 94 minutes it takes to watch it.

With a simple and thin plot, shallow and uninteresting characters, a complete lack of action, tension, suspense, or talking points, Dying of the Light is a disastrous film that doesn’t showcase any of the talent involved in any light other than a negative one. It’s unlikely to affect anyone’s career — about the only one is could hurt is Anyon Yelchin’s — but it’s not something that anyone can really be proud of. Maybe that’s why it’s essentially being disowned by its creators. Hopefully we’ll get a director’s cut someday, but somehow I doubt it.

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The Babadook

It’s rare that poor acting is a benefit to a film. I’m not sure if it is with The Babadook, but the most lasting thought I have from this Australian horror film is the poor acting from one of its leads. In this particular case, it’s Noah Wiseman, who plays a young child named Samuel. Kids usually suck at acting — they just do — but this might be the most annoying movie kid since Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds. They both try to go for the screaming record, anyway.

I note that this might be beneficial because you’re not really supposed to be on the side of the child in this movie. He’s a little crazy and not particularly nice, so it’s okay that we lose patience with him because of poor acting, too. Instead, we’re following his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), who eventually goes full Piper Laurie mode, as she deals with his antics and the ever-present grief of losing her husband … seven years ago. The anniversary is coming up, which also coincides with Samuel’s birthday, since the husband died driving Amelia to the airport to give birth. How’d she eventually make it? No clue, and it doesn’t matter.

One night, Amelia reads a bedtime story to her son. It’s about someone named Mr. Babadook, and it’s something on which her son begins to fixate. It’s a scary story, one which claims that Mr. Babadook will come and get you, and you’ll never get rid of him. Samuel begins acting out more than usual, so Amelia rips up the book, thinking that’ll be the end of it. It’s not, of course, and soon enough she has a monster on her hands.

The only things we have to see now are two-fold. (1) Does the monster really exist, or is it a manifestation of the grief that Amelia feels for losing her husband and the annoyance she feels toward her son. (2) What will Mr. Babadook do to our heroine and those around her? Will it just scare everyone for a while, or will it wind up following through on the book’s threats and harm or kill anyone and everyone into whom she comes into contact?

The answers? You’ll have to watch to find out. I’ll spoil the first one a touch and say that Mr. Babadook is not purely allegorical, which is a shame because I think we might have a better, more thoughtful movie if he was. Once we find out that the monster exists, doesn’t that kind of mean that all of the guilt-induced stuff wasn’t really guilt-induced at all? It was all caused by a monster? That really doesn’t make The Babadook particularly smart or thoughtful at all, except that it tried to scare us with lies. And, well, at least there’s that.

The Babadook is sometimes scary, and that it makes us think about real-world problems — and presents them in a terrifying way — does make it better than your average horror movie. But just keep in mind that your average horror movie sucks, and having a little bit of thoughtfulness or intelligence is only half the battle. The film still needs to be scary, which The Babadook only intermittently is. The first 45 minutes are pretty dull, and once we find out Mr. Babadook is just a monster, he gets significantly less interesting. There’s maybe 20-30 minutes of actual great film here; the rest is competent but nothing special.

One consistently great element is Essie Davis, who has to show quite the range in this role. She has to go from caring mother to possessed-by-a-monster-and-spewing-hatred in just a couple of scenes, and fill in the rest over the course of the film’s duration. She also has to act alongside Noah Wiseman, awful as the kid, for most of the film, which must have been a challenge on its own.

The Babadook is better than your average horror movie, since it lies to you and makes you think it’s about real-life horrors and not those of a monster-hiding-in-the-closet variety, and in doing so becomes thought-provoking and genuinely scary. Sure, it doesn’t exactly turn out that way, but at least for a good 20-30 minutes, it does this and is very effective. The rest of the movie is competent and the lead actor, Essie Davis, is really great. Her co-star, Noah Wiseman, is not, but it makes you hate his character which actually works out fine. The Babadook is not a must-see, but for horror fans it’ll be something worth watching.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1

From the end of the first Hunger Games movie, we knew that there was an inevitable way for it to end. There is going to be a revolution. The government — here called “The Capitol” — is evil and repressive, and you can’t let them maintain power forever, can you? So, here we have Mockingjay, which was a single book that has been split into two films, because Harry Potter and Twilight proved that you can make a lot of money doing that, even if you don’t necessarily get good movies. There is no better way to prove that Hollywood is a business, not a way to make good art, than looking at how it splits up films like this.

The story, this time out, focuses almost solely on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who now lives with her family underground in District 13, somewhere we previously believed had long been destroyed. After the events at the end of the last film, District 12 has been bombed to smithereens, so 13 was the only safe place to survive. Of course, its mayor, Coin (Julianne Moore), and the returning Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have plans for her. They’re going to use Katniss as a way to further inspire revolution.

Katniss isn’t entirely on-board, especially when she sees Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the television sets, saying exactly the opposite. But she’s coerced, and then the rest of the film is about her trying to convince the other districts, through a series of propaganda, to fight back against the Capitol. That’s about it. There’s about 45 minutes of story stretched into two hours in Mockingjay — Part 1.

Now, there is at least a small arc to the plot, and it does have a beginning and a conclusion, but the fact of the matter is that this is half of a movie whose content and pacing has been slowed down in order to make you wait another year and spend another $12 in order to view it. There isn’t a lot here, and after you watch it, you find yourself still waiting for the inevitable revolution. Not much of consequence happens in Mockingjay — Part 1, especially when compared to the previous Hunger Games installments.

That doesn’t mean it’s boring. Watching Katniss wander around bombed-out locales or delivering inspirational speeches isn’t going to be dull, especially with how invested you presumably are by this point in the franchise. But it does feel thin, and it’s not likely to bring about the same level of emotions that earlier films. One scene has Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, relegated to a very background role) asking the characters what moments were Katniss’ most inspirational. If audiences are polled with the same question, none of them are going to be from this movie.

Fans hoping for a lot of action will be disappointed. There’s one bombing scene that’s kind of exciting, but that’s about it. A raid happens late in the proceedings, but it’s terribly dull, especially in comparison to how much potential it had. And that’s it. Mostly, we’re talking about revolution, how horrible the government is, and how Peeta must be being controlled, because how could he say things like “a war will result in mutual annihilation,” even though that could be a very likely result?

Because Mockingjay — Part 1 focuses primarily on Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is front and center. She seemed more awkward this time around. Part of that is intentional — her character isn’t entirely sure how to be a revelatory leader — but even in other scenes, like quiet talks with her close friends, something seemed off. It’s her worst Hunger Games performance, anyway. Everyone else, even those who had primary roles in earlier films, are very much in the supporting cast here. Elizabeth Banks returns for a few scenes, Woody Harrelson hangs around for a bit, Josh Hutcherson appears mostly on TV, and Liam Hemsworth … should stop being in movies. The trio of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Jeffrey Wright provide reliable “good” cast members, while Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci are about the only evil Capitol members we get to see.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 is easily the weakest of the Hunger Games movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s got about 45 minutes of plot stretched out to two hours, which means it’s slow-paced and not a whole lot of consequence happens. It’s all building up to the next installment, which means that it’s a must-watch for anyone planning to see how this series ends. It’s full of politically fueled speeches and people looking somber, all while stuck underground waiting for the real action to start. The penultimate Hunger Games suffers from the problems most of these “Part 1″ films have, but that also means that the series’ finale is likely to be great. Here’s hoping.

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