Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Endless Love has awakened something in me. Not a long dormant passion for an introverted high school classmate, or a sudden desire to break into the zoo after dark. A question about movies — more accurately, about movie criticism. The same question you would ask yourself if you fell drowsy in the middle of Citizen Kane, or welled up during the emotional climax of Just Friends. The question I ask myself now, as I recount the 103 straight minutes of asphyxiating laughter that I endured during a screening of Shana Feste’s would-be romantic drama: What makes a good movie?
We assign deference to some films, disgust to others — a lucky few of us make a living this way. But what, precisely, are we reviewing? A film’s mission or its execution? The product onscreen or the experience of watching it? All factors come into play when considering whether or not a movie “works.” But on rare occasions you’ll get a film that offers no common ground in its meeting of these standards. You’ll get Endless Love, which strives for dramatic sincerity, winds up with underwritten idiocy, and provokes in its viewers an unrestrained, absurdist revelry — the kind of joy you’d otherwise be forced to seek in a third viewing of The Lego Movie. Laughter at the ill-conceived antics and befuddling dialectical patterns of our central teen couple — a Mars native Gabrielle Wilde and her gaping mouthed beau Alex Pettyfer. Elated bemusement at the younger generation’s propensity for chaotic disrobing and didactically organized dance parties. Unprecedented ecstasy at the Mafia movie intimidation tactics of an overprotective dad (Bruce Greenwood) and the brain-dead disregard of a supportive one (Robert Patrick). As a comedy, Endless Love is unstoppable.
I can only hypothesize that it was not Feste’s intention to roll us in the aisles. I have no cold proof that her resolution in paving every nook in her Georgia-set remake with another farcical stone — Wilde’s instantaneous evolution from wordless ingénue to sexually aggressive spirit walker, Patrick’s loving caution-to-the-wind attitude regarding any situation that has to do with a girl, Rhys Wakefield’s “black sheep” character forming an odd amalgamation of Pauly Shore and Charlie St. Cloud — was not one of Wolf of Wall Street-like satire, or reappropriation in the vein of Spring Breakers. Here are two movies that earned scorn from viewers who read them literally, and in turn vehement defense from those who peered through the exaltation of cocaine and firearms into the filmmakers’ ironic intentions.
Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
To the latter community, one to which I subscribe, I ask: if we’re readily willing to dive deeper for Martin Scorsese and Harmony Korine, shouldn’t we grant Feste this benefit? If we’d defend the authenticity of the splendor we recognized in their movies, why am I inclined to write off the very same when present in this year’s Valentine’s Day cannonball? Why do I eagerly laud the merit in Leonardo DiCaprio directing Quaalude-charged tribal chants and relinquishing subhuman treatment upon anyone short a Y-chromosome, while instinctively shafting the invaluable merriment in Pettyfer’s goofily deliberate declaration that he likes to read into the category of happy accident?
But an even more precise question (one I was challenged to entertain by a friend and film critic far wiser than I am), and this time to the former community: does it matter? Did it matter to all those offended by gunplay and intrusive nudity that Korine set out to demonize youth culture and its omnipresent hedonism? Did considering his intentions make the endgame any less a visceral nightmare? If not, does it matter if Feste poured her soul into the machination of a timeless love story, only to produce a riotous cinematic episode that treads genre parody as expertly as anything from the golden age of the Zucker brothers? Does it matter that she didn’t intend for Wilde and Pettyfer’s sex scene to come off as super-hoke, for every mention of cancer to feel like soap opera send-up, or for Robert Patrick’s vindication of his son’s passion for menagerie trespassing to elicit the biggest laugh of a movie yet in 2014?
So long as I consider the power of cinema, I’ll never be sure if it matters. I’ll never be sure of the answers to any of these questions. But no matter where I find myself standing on this issue down the line, I had far too much fun at Endless Love — and entertained far too many questions on the nature of cinema and the way we react to it — to call it a movie that people shouldn’t see.
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I Am Number Four a sci-fi action drama from D.J. Caruso (Disturbia Eagle Eye) about a teenage alien’s earthly travails has the look and feel of a CW series – i.e. lots of attractive young people some of whom possess supernatural abilities and superhuman amounts of angst and alienation. This is not a coincidence: Two of its screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar happen to be the creators and executive producers of Smallville a series chronicling Superman’s youthful pre-Metropolis years that’s now in its tenth and final season on the CW. (The script is adapted from a novel by Pittacus Lore.)
Unlike Smallville’s solitary Kryptonian I Am Number Four’s hero is not alone. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is one of nine gifted residents (each branded with a number for reasons not sufficiently explained in the film) from the planet Lorien who fled to Earth after their civilization was annihilated by the Mogadorians a race of mumbly trenchcoat-clad goons with tattooed scalps hell-bent on ridding the universe of its water polo players. (Indeed Pettyfer’s hair in the film perpetually bears that fresh-out-of-the-water look common also to surfers and lifeguards.) Together with his anointed guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) he travels from small town to small town adopting assumed names and trying to keep a low profile so as to avoid detection by the Mogadorians who have followed the Loriens to earth to finish the job.
I Am Number Four skillfully mines much of the same emotional territory of the Twilight saga and its variants albeit from a slightly geekier less melodramatic more male-oriented angle. (Michael Bay produced the film.) Four’s itinerant lifestyle and otherworldly heritage make the adolescent struggle to fit in all the more difficult; he’s anti-social broods a lot and acts out toward Henri telekinetically. (Kudos to Caruso for the unorthodox but effective choice of Olyphant a guy who always looks to me as if he’s about to stab someone as the father-figure). This is likely because Four is in the middle of that awkward alien superhero stage: special powers like hands that glow brightly and emit beams of energy spontaneously reveal themselves at inopportune times causing him to flee from physics class mortified. Pettyfer's really got the tormented bit down; if he can master a few more expressions he's really gonna go places.
Despite these difficult public moments and despite Henri’s repeated warnings to avoid earthly relationships Four manages to strike up an inter-species romance with fellow attractive outcast Sarah (Glee's Dianna Agron) Bella Swan’s blonde equivalent a former cheerleader who has since disavowed her popular-girl past. This in turn invites the fury of Sarah’s former boyfriend and current stalker a bullying jock named Mark (Jake Abel).
Soon however Four’s rites of adolescence must take a backseat to the more pressing matter of defending his species – and his adopted planet – from the Mogadorians who’ve tracked him to his Paradise Ohio location via that advanced alien technology known as YouTube. An apocalyptic battle set at Four’s high school ensues during which he is joined by a fellow Lorien Number Six (Teresa Palmer) a hot-blooded Aussie biker chick whose powers include the ability to communicate exclusively in double entendres. Four is also aided by Sarah a UFO-obsessed sidekick (Callan McAuliffe) and a shape-shifting puppy.
I Am Number Four’s climax largely abandons its appealing Smallville ethos for something more suitable of a film bearing the name of Michael Bay but made with a fraction of the effects budget. The orgy of destruction involving CGI beasts and laser guns and explosions and tons of acrobatic stuntwork comes off a tad cheap if not a little tacky. Hopefully the filmmakers will get a bit more cash to make the sequel which I Am Number Four's ending rather blatantly labors to set up.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
In the tradition of a classic Disney-esque animated fairy tale The Tale of Despereaux based on the award winning children’s classic by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) with Dumbo-sized ears and an oversized heart. His home the Kingdom of Dor was once a happy place but now due to unexpected events it has been shrouded by doom and gloom. Not for Despereaux! The fearless rodent doesn’t adhere to the usual mouse-like criteria but instead yearns for adventure especially after he starts reading fables from the castle library. He also bonds with Princess Pea (Emma Watson) who is sad and lonely her kingdom is in such disarray. Despereaux looks at her as a damsel in distress and wants to help. Unfortunately these are all serious no-nos in Mouseworld and so Despereaux is banished him to live in the dungeon with the evil Rats where he meets an agreeable rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who is also different from his kind. Roscuro wants to right some past wrongs but is spurned by the princess. Needless to say things do indeed go awry and Despereaux must summon all his courage and bravery to save the day. Some of the best ensemble casts in movies are being assembled for animated features these days and The Tale of Despereaux is a prime example. Broderick is ideal as the dignified and ultimately courageous little mouse. Hoffman -- in his second ‘toon turn of the year (Kung Fu Panda) -- proves again as the soup-loving Roscuro he has a real future as an animated character. Harry Potter’s Watson has the perfunctory English princess role but plays it with compassion while Tracey Ullman as maid-cum-wannabe princess Mig doesn’t go for the laughs but portrays Mig as a hopeful outcast looking for a fairy tale ending to her humdrum life. A whole set of other wonderful vocal talents in Despereaux include Kevin Kline Frank Langella Richard Jenkins Stanley Tucci William H. Macy Robbie Coltrane and Christopher Lloyd. And to top it off with just the right touch of whimsy is the lilting narration of Sigourney Weaver whose comforting voice will assure the youngest kids in the audience that things in Dor aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen invest into this gorgeous-looking film all the care that went into the art of DiCamillo’s beautiful book. In fact unlike many other recent animated features Despereaux is distinctly old-fashioned despite all the CGI. The look of the movie is definitely inspired by older more traditional Disney-style fairy tale classics. Gary Ross’ (Seabiscuit) fine screenplay is reverential to the book and doesn’t back away from the darker aspects of the story which despite its G rating might be a little on the scary side for the very young ones. For everyone else The Tale of Despereaux is most likely this season’s must-see movie event for the entire family.