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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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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“My dick is going to get so wet tonight ” declares Costa the foul-mouthed ringleader of a trio of sex-starved teens in the opening moments of Project X the new “found-footage” comedy from director Nima Nourizadeh and producer Todd Phillips (The Hangover). Believe it or not this qualifies as one of his more charming moments in the film. All of 17 but blessed with an obnoxiousness lesser men would take decades to cultivate Costa (Oliver Cooper) is the perfect mascot for a film that makes no bones of its mostly prurient intentions proffering what is essentially a succession of debaucherous montages intermingled with uneven attempts at comedy and held together by the slimmest pretense of a plot.
Caustic as he is Costa at least exhibits something of a recognizable personality; the same cannot be said of his two cohorts the tubby dweeb J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) and the earnest blank Thomas (Thomas Mann). None of them seem to enjoy much in the way of popularity at their high school located in the fictional suburb of North Pasadena but Costa has a plan to fix that. On the occasion of his 17th birthday Thomas whose parents have conveniently departed for the weekend reluctantly agrees to host a party that Costa promises will be a “game-changer” for their lowly social status.
Hardly a game-changer is Project X’s script co-written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall which mostly treads a predictable teen-comedy path. At its outset the party appears to be a bust. Soon however hordes of eager revelers descend upon Thomas’ house and the event swiftly devolves into a festival of wanton hedonism that would impress Charlie Sheen. The orgy of booze drugs and sex is captured by Nourizadeh in one impressively slick sequence after another set to a vibrant soundtrack.
To maintain the guise of an actual movie – and to occupy us between shots of topless beauties downing tequila and frolicking in the pool – Project X tosses in a few familiar tropes to push its story along: an unstable drug-dealer bent on revenge a buzzkilling neighbor seeking to end the night’s festivities prematurely a budding but hesitant attraction between Thomas and his childhood friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). But the scenes are so hollow and contrived that you get the sense even the filmmakers don’t buy them and only added them to the film in a transparent ploy to forestall allegations of complete and utter vapidity. The efforts serve only to add a dash of the banal to the proceedings.
Project X’s natural forebears – R-rated teen comedies Superbad and American Pie – tempered their crudity and outrageousness with a surprising degree of depth and sincerity. Moreover they were actually funny. Project X is a shallow affair to be sure but a dearth of laughs is what ultimately dooms it. A belligerent little person who goes on a crotch-kicking spree after being tossed in an oven amounts to the film’s most sophisticated attempt at humor. More often it relies on recycled gags from previous films (including Phillips’ own library from Road Trip to The Hangover Part II) and Jackass-inspired mishaps.
The found-footage approach has proven to be a potent (if overused) tool in horror films but its utility in the service of comedy at least in the hands of Nourizadeh is limited. It mostly comes across as a needless gimmick good for marketing purposes but little else. Perhaps acknowledging as much Project X’s backup plan calls for an incessant raising of the stakes. As the once-innocuous gathering metastasizes into a fully-fledged riot one so dangerous that even the police dare not intervene the specter of parental disapproval gives way to the threat of incarceration and finally to the potential incineration of the entire neighborhood. The scale of the destruction is impressive – especially for such a (presumably) low-budget film – but like much of what precedes it almost entirely pointless.
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On paper Sylvain White’s ensemble thriller The Losers doesn’t display much promise. Its budget (around $25 million) is miniscule by action-movie standards; its cast apart from female lead Zoe Saldana is unexceptional; and its plot about a group of disgraced Special Forces operatives who seek revenge against the shady arms dealer (Jason Patric) who had them framed is hardly original. And yet The Losers makes for a surprisingly entertaining ride an apt prelude to the summer blockbuster season. Call it The B-Team.
Though based on a graphic novel (what Hollywood movie today isn’t?) The Losers boasts no superheroes just a quintet of mercenaries with complementary skills and catchy names like Cougar and Pooch. Presumed dead after being double-crossed during a black ops mission in the Bolivian jungle they languish in a third-world limbo until a mysterious woman named Aisha (Saldana) approaches their leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with an enticing opportunity.
The Losers establishes a lively pace from the outset and with the exception of one appallingly disjointed planning scene director White adroitly handles the challenges of a plus-size cast. Save for a few extraneous twists that mar the film’s second half screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Peter Berg maintain a straightforward storyline keeping the tone determinedly light (always best when dealing with the constraints of a PG-13 rating) but never too cartoonish -- at least not by comic book-movie standards.
Morgan who previously underwhelmed in Zack Snyder’s doomed Watchmen adaptation isn’t the ideal choice to headline the film’s male cast and he appears hopelessly overmatched by Saldana. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if The Losers didn’t try to sell us on a hastily-hatched romantic subplot between the two which serves only to provide us with a few scantily-clad glimpses of the sultry Avatar star. Needless to say there are worse sins a filmmaker can commit.
The only aspect of The Losers that truly vexed me was the performance of one of its castmembers. I doubt that Joe Johnston director of the upcoming Captain America adaptation caught a screening of this film before he chose to award Chris Evans the coveted starring role in the big-budget comic-book flick. Because if he had I’m certain he’d have chosen differently. Evans’ clownish wiseass routine is instantly and perpetually grating. Even when delivering the most innocuous of line readings he radiates a natural douchiness that no Super Serum can fix.
October 23, 2003 4:57pm EST
The reemergence of horror movies in recent years has helped create the most inescapable monster of all: The spoof. This latest lampoon strings together scenes and characters primarily from three films Signs The Ring and 8 Mile with a little Matrix thrown in for good measure and unifies them into a single 90-minute feature. Is it funny? Sure--on occasion. The film follows Scary Movie series heroine Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) now a college grad starting her first professional job as a local TV news reporter. Investigating the mysterious appearance of crop circles in ex-minister Tom Logan's (Charlie Sheen) farm Cindy develops feelings for Tom's brother George (Simon Rex) a wannabe rapper. Suddenly her friend Brenda (Regina Hall) becomes the latest to be killed seven days after watching a mysterious videotape circulating around. After seeking advice from Brenda's Oracle-like Aunt Shaneequa (Queen Latifah) and having a run-in with The Architect (George Carlin) Cindy learns she is "The One " and the crop circles and videotape deaths are somehow connected. It's up to her to help the president (Leslie Nielsen) prevent an alien invasion.
SM3 could have put Sheen no stranger to this genre (Hot Shots!) to its cast but the actor is pitifully wasted. His character Tom has to be the most boringly written in the film and should have been more of a wiseass. His real-life wife actress Denise Richards has a small role as his on-screen wife but her lines in their one scene together a reenactment from Signs in which she's been hit by a truck and reveals her dying wishes to her husband could have been much more creative than "NO MORE SEX!" As Tom's brother sweet but dimwitted George Rex has much funnier lines and sight gags and the chance to put his perfectly clueless expression to work. SM3 alum Faris like Sheen falls victim to some unfunny dialogue and her character Cindy is too over-the-top stupid; she irritatingly delivers practically every line as if she was asking a question. Hall who had some of the most brilliant laugh-out-loud moments in the original Scary Movie is completely wasted--her hilarious character Brenda is killed off early on and reappearances of her lifeless corpse are all you see the rest of the movie. On a brighter note there are some great cameos by Queen Latifah as Aunt Shaneequa Eddie Griffin as Orpheus and Anthony Anderson as George's friend Mahalik.
The Scary Movie franchise was originally created for Dimension Films in 1999 by the Wayans brothers who absconded from the series entirely after the second installment. The studio confidently gave the Scary Movie 3 reins to veteran comedy director David Zucker whose '80s spoofs--Airplane! Top Secret! and the Naked Gun series--rang true with brilliance. Sadly with Scary Movie 3 the director/producer demonstrates how out of touch he is with pop culture and spoof fans. While there are a number of good gags scattered throughout the movie including a jab at M. Night Shyamalan's cameo appearance in Signs Zucker fails to assemble them into a coherent comedy. Zucker also lacks the irreverence that Scary Movie director Keenen Ivory Wayans has and too often falls back on bathroom humor and excrement gags such as stepping (or in this case kneeling) in dog poo. The result is a spoof that lacks the scandalous effect of his hit comedy Airplane! and the cleverness of his 1984 World War II send-up Top Secret!. But the most baffling thing about SM3 however is the spoofing of the film 8 Mile which not only doesn't fit in a parody of scary movies but was also better parodied by Jamie Kennedy in last summer's Malibu's Most Wanted.
Seagal plays hard-edged Detroit detective Orin Boyd whose unorthodox methods to catch the bad guys generally leave him in hot water. After single-handedly saving the U.S. vice president from a terrorist attack and unfortunately blowing up too many things in the process Boyd is relegated to the dregs of all Detroit divisions - the 15th Precinct. There with the help of his no-nonsense commander (Jill Hennessy) and his naïve partner a by-the-book cop (Isaiah Washington) he discovers how truly corrupt the precinct is when several kilos of heroin and cash turn up missing. Boyd finds an unlikely ally in drug-dealing crime lord Latrell Walker (DMX) who is falsely accused and becomes the main target. The two men must team up together to expose the deep-seated conspiracy within the police department. Of course they do.
If you are a fan it's great to have uber-cool Seagal back on-screen. He took a break from his action fare over the last few years but has returned looking as buff as ever. However this time around he magnanimously shares the screen with a few young actors who take on as much - or perhaps even more - action than the big man himself. Hip-hop star DMX struts and preens with the best of them and Seagal seems almost amused having the young actor take over some of the dirty work. Good-guy cop Washington (Romeo Must Die) lends a helping hand while big guy Anthony Anderson (also in Romeo Must Die) does a nice job playing DMX's henchman. Hennessy is fairly wasted but it's refreshing to see a woman playing a tough police commander.
This isn't a warm and fuzzy film. This isn't a groundbreaking drama. This is a Steven Seagal action movie where the characters will not discover hidden secrets about themselves and become better people. If you are aware of this fact then the film doesn't disappoint. Seagal films have occasionally risen above the standard beat-'em-up blow-'em-up fare. The best example may have been the intriguing Under Siege like Die Hard on a U.S. Navy battleship where his I'm-king-of-the-world attitude wasn't as prevalent. In Exit Wounds Seagal is finally older and maybe a little wiser realizing his own limitations. The film even makes fun of itself (Seagal actually takes an anger-management class). Yet ultimately we know what this film is all about -- the fight sequences the guns the explosions - leaving room for little else.