Liam Neeson is one of the most commanding and versatile actors around, and yet, over the past few years, he seems to be playing the same character over and over again. That's not to say he isn't good at it, or that he's still not able to emit a strong screen presence, but for his sake, and for his fans, perhaps he can choose roles that run him less risk of being typecast. Believe it or not, he possesses the skills to embody men that aren't just over-the-hill, disgruntled action heroes.
But that's exactly what he plays-again-in "Non-Stop," another high-concept thriller in which a lonely, cynical law enforcement agent suddenly finds himself caught up in an unbelievable situation. Neeson's character, Bill Marks, is a United States Federal Air Marshal on a flight from New York to London. Shortly after takeoff, at which point we see that Marks has an inherent fear of flying, he receives a disturbing text message on his supposedly secure network. The unknown sender tells him that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a Swiss bank account.
One of the catches is the suspect is somewhere on the plane and he's watching Marks. He knows, for instance, the marshal just snuck into the lavatory to have a cigarette (and goes on to advise him this is a federal offense). The other catch is the bank account number is in Marks' name, which draws suspicion from the plane's crew, including the captain (Linus Roache), co-captain (Jason Butler Harner) and head flight attendant, Nancy (Michelle Dockery), all of whom know Marks and trust him. But when random people really do start dying every 20 minutes, they start to think that Marks, an alcoholic prone to stress and anger, might be taking the plane hostage.
Nevertheless, Marks enlists Nancy and another female passenger, Jenn (Julianne Moore), to help him pinpoint where the suspect might be sitting. He has them read the manifesto and circle anyone on the security cameras using a cell phone when he sends and receives text messages. He tries to carry this out while avoiding unnecessary panic and conflict from the other people on-board, who are, of course, a collection of colorful individuals from just about every race and background. There's even a six-year-old girl (Quinn McColgan) who, wouldn't you know, reminds Marks of his own deceased daughter and to whom he gives his lucky blue bracelet (it goes without saying this will play a sentimental part later on).
Once "Non-Stop" has its setup in order, it more or less proceeds along standard thriller lines, and for anyone who's seen Neeson's other recent thrillers (the "Taken" films, "Unknown"), "Non-Stop" feels even more standard. In fact, you could probably take the characters he played in those films and swap him out with Bill Marks, or vice versa, and the result would essentially be the same.
But even on its own, which is how any film should be judged, "Non-Stop" is a mostly silly, over-the-top and underwhelming ride. The action scenes and plot twists are all of the stock Hollywood variety and proved to be ineffectual, predictable and, surprisingly, rather dull. Even the sensational climax (and I'm not giving away too much given the premise and setting), in which the plane must make an emergency landing, felt trite and perfunctory. It's as if the movie's three screenwriters borrowed the plot and structure right out of a screenwriting 101 book, including the ending's patronizing and cheesy dialogue.
In spite of all this, I'll continue to support and admire Liam Neeson as an actor. After all, he's not the problem with "Non-Stop"; it's the hackneyed plot and lack of innovation that let us down. Still, before Neeson was this generation's senior badass, he had a well-rounded repertoire, and after this movie, I'm hoping he stops fast in his tracks and chooses to take a break for his current signature role and add diversity and range back into the mix. We all know he's capable.
I admit my expectations for the new "RoboCop" were rather low to begin with, and whether that's now playing a part in my being pleasantly surprised by it, I can't say for sure, although it's likely. In any case, this rebooted version, which comes out nearly 30 years after the same-named original, is surprisingly well-made and entertaining. It's not a great film, and on the whole probably unnecessary, but what keeps it going is its refusal to merely be an updated version of its predecessor. It actually executes its premise from a different angle than what we've seen before, which is what all remakes, if there have to be any, should strive to do.
Besides the fact this is a remake of a popular science fiction movie (and is therefore already part of our collective consciousness), the title alone should tell you everything you need to know "RoboCop." In a futuristic society, one fraught with crime, violence and cynicism, not to mention an ever-widening gap between political parties, a billion-dollar technology company called OmniCorp has engineered highly sophisticated robots, which look uncannily like the clones from the "Star Wars" prequels, to police the streets. The company has sold these "drones," if you will, to nearly every country in the world--every country, that is, except the United States.
"Why is America so Robo-phobic," screams Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the belligerent and outspoken host of "The Novak Element," a political talk show that leans toward the left. Those opposed to robots would say it's because machines simply can't possess those inimitable human characteristics like instinct, reason and moral judgment. One conservative senator poses the question, what would happen if one of the robots decided to shoot a kid?
The president of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), desperately wants to tap into the American market, not least because the U.S. is one of the most crime-ridden of countries, and every second one of his machines isn't out patrolling, so his advertising team tells him, OmniCorp is "bleeding money." But a current bill prevents him from doing so, and in order to sell a machine to the American people, Sellars believes he needs to put a man inside one. He enlists the head of his science division, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), to make it happen. The idea is to put a physically irreparable human inside an exoskeleton, yet giving him a face and personality with whom everyday citizens can identify.
Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop who, along with his partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams), recently stumbled across a stolen arms operation and believes men within his own unit are involved. After tucking in his son David (John Paul Ruttan), and while getting ready to make love to his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), Alex becomes the target of a car bomb and is nearly blown to smithereens. When it's clear he'll never fully recover, Clara allows OmniCorp to fuse Alex's remains, which consist only of his brain, his lungs and his left hand, with metal and hardware, making him the inaugural "RoboCop."
One of the interesting aspects of Paul Verhoeven's original "RoboCop" (1987) was that after Alex's body was merged with machinery, he had no recollection of who he was, including his role as a husband and father. Slowly, his human memories began to surface, which gave the movie an emotional and psychological edge in addition to its action and style.
The new "RoboCop" has these qualities, too, only it presents them in sort of reverse order. When Alex first becomes RoboCop, his memories are intact and he's even reunited with Clara and David. In scenes that are surprisingly well-handled by director José Padilha, we see that Alex is happy and starts to believe this could all work out. However, after he scores poorly on quality control tests overseen by OmniCorp's military tactician, Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), the company decides to take away his human elements. And because billions of dollars are at stake, not to mention the company's reputation, they do this without Alex's permission. Eventually, they let the software take over entirely and turn RoboCop into nothing more a monosyllabic automaton. This of course raises many obvious yet powerful ethical and moral questions, to which the movie pays moderate heed, and like the original, it's able to function as a social commentary, a satire and an offbeat comedy. All of these work in the movie's favor, as they disallow it from being categorized as just another run-of-the-mill action-thriller, at least entirely.
It's more or less a guarantee that remakes are never as fresh as their original counterparts, and "RoboCop" is no different, but it has its own virtues. The movie has a constant momentum and avoids falling into the trap of rushing through its setup just to get to obligatory action sequences. At times, it actually seems more interested in its underlying idea and moral ramifications than merely using its title character for chase scenes and shootouts. I was impressed that Joshua Zetumer's screenplay devoted as much time as it did to showing us Alex adapt to his new lifestyle and actually have the characters talk about and react to it credibly. You'd think, in this day and age, the movie would merely breeze over the science and deeper aspects of its premise just so RoboCop can race across city on his bike and track down the bad guys. That eventually happens, and the villains are your standard-issue, one-dimensional cartoons, but what the film does before and after these scenes holds our interest. Plus, the special effects and production values are sharp, slick and innovative, so at the very least, "RoboCop" is a pretty movie to look at.
But it's more than just pleasing spectacle. "RoboCop" has a brain and heart, too. It's atypical to say so, but this is a remake that's actually worth seeing in addition to the original. Sure, the first one remains the better movie (it almost always is); but this is still a good one.
George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" isn't a complex or terribly hard-hitting World War II drama, but it's a perfectly satisfying and informative one. Compared to other films of its kind--and there are hundreds--it's bright, upbeat and, in some ways, romantic. Given the significance of the subject matter, our instinct might be to criticize it for being so light and tame, but I think the point of "The Monuments Men" is not to stir debate or generate a visceral response the likes of "Saving Private Ryan," but rather to provide a broad overview of a piece of World War II history that's not as widely known. On that level, it gets the job done, and it does so with energy, emotion and class.
It seems fitting that George Clooney of all people would want to make this movie. The outspoken actor-filmmaker is known for his liberalism and patriotism, both in and outside of Hollywood. But he's also recognized for his artistic passions, and wouldn't you know, his character in "The Monuments Men," Lieutenant Frank Stokes, is a nationalist with a deep appreciation for the arts and culture--so much, in fact, that he beseeches the President of the United States himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to sanction a mission that would save Europe's most treasured pieces of art from the Nazis. Stokes firmly believes if Hitler and his regime were allowed to keep or destroy the thousands of paintings, sculptures and statues crafted by some of the world's finest artisans, an entire peoples' way of life and legacy would be lost, which is tantamount to people dying.
But with the German stronghold on Europe waning, and the war nearing its end (the story opens in 1943), the president is hesitant to grant Stokes his request. He's not too keen on using America's current military resources to save art, but he does allow Stokes to form his own team to carry out the task. Deemed "The Monuments Men," their job is to infiltrate cities like Bruges, Paris and Milan to hopefully find and salvage its stolen art, lest it be burned or taken to Hitler's planned Führer museum.
Just as Clooney's Danny Ocean recruited a team of specialists in "Ocean's 11" to knock off a casino, Stokes gathers up his cohorts and former fellow soldiers to steal art back from the Nazis. The colorful and over-40 group includes James Granger (Matt Damon), curator for the MET in New York City; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); French painter Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin); ballet director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); and British army major Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), whose years of drinking have left him feeling disgraced and he's grateful for the chance to restore his dignity.
Two other notable characters are a German-American from New Jersey named Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), who turns out to be a crucial asset; and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who worked as a secretary to a German SS officer. After receiving devastating news about her family, she has a personal stake in seeing the Nazis fall.
After barely completing basic training, Stokes and his men branch off to various cities and keep in touch via radio. They're given little support from other military officers, who, like members of the White House, aren't convinced art is worth risking lives for, a question that becomes the film's running theme.
Once its straightforward plot is in motion, "The Monuments Men" more or less unfolds out the way we expect. Clooney plays it safe in terms of executing the story, opting for broad humor and pathos over violence and politics. He doesn't overcomplicate things and instead embraces conventional motifs involving honor, sacrifice and the indispensable role art plays in the world.
Though bold and daring "The Monuments Men" is not, it's still well made and entertaining. Based on Robert M. Edsel's book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," it recounts an important, real-life story that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, and we appreciate it for that. Plus, the cast is undeniably charming; they're able to disguise the film's rather vanilla and uninspired approach to the material.
If Clooney's goal was to simply bring this subject to light and not instigate debate, then he accomplished his mission. Yes, given the caliber of talent involved, and the underlying topic, "The Monument Men" probably had the potential to be greater and more compelling than it is, but as it is, it's rhythmic, engaging and, to a degree, educational. Call it a casual history lesson instead of an in-depth one, but a history lesson nonetheless.
Ever since "The Blair Witch Project," the "found footage" style of filmmaking has become inextricably linked with horror movies. It's with good reason, I suppose, since the purpose behind the technique is to lend the film a raw, realistic atmosphere, and when something feels more realistic, it often feels scarier.
But after so many examples, from the interminable "Paranormal Activity" series to "The Last Exorcism," the method simply can't have the same impact it once did, and in the case of "Devil's Due," I'm not convinced this manner of presentation was even necessary. Then again, the entire production doesn't seem necessary.
A movie like this practically embodies the word "derivative." It borrows so heavily from other movies, including the ones I already mentioned, that it almost seems deliberate. There's not one fresh or original bone in its body. And yet, it's not a train wreck, or even badly made. Perhaps at a different time across the cinematic landscape--say, 15 years ago--"Devil's Due" might have been more effective and only comparable to the superior "Rosemary's Baby," at least as far as demonic possession movies go. But now, in 2014, there's nothing about it that makes it stand out and we quickly grow bored with it.
The story follows a young newlywed couple, Zach (Zach Guilford) and Samantha McCall (Allison Miller), during a horrific experience following their honeymoon to Santo Domingo. On their last night there, they get lost and are picked up by a seemingly friendly cab driver (Roger Payano), who takes them to a secret underground party. Because Zach likes to record everything with his video camera (here's where the found footage comes into play), we witness everything candidly, even if he and Sam don't. After they get drunk and pass out, they're taken to an ominous stone chamber, where religious signs and symbols grace the walls and floor. (It's not clear who was recording them or holding the camera at this point, but never mind.)
Cut to Zach and Sam's hotel room the next day and they both have massive hangovers and aren't exactly sure how they got back. Nevertheless, they return to their quaint suburban home and Sam discovers she's pregnant, despite her claiming to "take the the pill religiously."
From here on out, strange and creepy things start to happen. Based on the genre, and because we're smart enough to know way in advance where the plot is going, we can pretty much check these occurrences off one by one: Sam develops bruises on her body but is unable to explain where they came from; an ultra sound of the baby causes technical glitches on the monitor; Sam, who's a vegetarian, impulsively tears open a package of ground beef at the grocery store and begins to eat it like a rabid animal; and she experiences sudden nosebleeds and spikes in strength that give her the power to break windows and throw people across the room. There's also the issue of the creepy guys who watch her from across the street.
Given the movie's title, not to mention the Bible verse that opens the film--"Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come..." 1 John: 2:18--it's pretty obvious what, or who, is gestating inside of Sam. But does the movie put any kind of original twist on this premise or offer any new insight into the underlying idea? Not really. It's all standard horror fodder and the movie dishes out all the usual conventions, such as the family dog suspecting something is awry (somehow dogs are always the first to know); or a priest (Sam Anderson) sensing an evil presence and bleeding out uncontrollably. You get the idea.
If you've seen any demonic possession movie before, "Devil's Due" will not seem like anything new. But unlike some of its brethren, it's not particularly scary, thrilling or really all that interesting. For its mere 89-minute runtime, we patiently wait for something gripping or frightening to happen, but because every scene feels like a retread, it never does. The plot rolls out exactly as we expect it to, which makes it something we bear instead of enjoy.
I mentioned the movie isn't badly made, and it isn't. On a technical level, it's competently shot and put together, even though we question the narrative purpose behind the found footage approach. Aesthetically, I know what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish, but how did they want us to interpret it from the world of the movie? Did they want us to think someone took all the footage from the various cameras that recorded the events and spliced it together?
In any case, we're probably not supposed to think too hard about it and just accept the movie's presentation as a device to make it more tense and suspenseful. And I'd be willing to do that had it actually been tense or suspenseful, but it's mostly bland and no new ingredients have been added to the mix to spice up this particular horror sub-genre.
It feels wrong to write this, but it's sometimes a shame movies like "Devil's Due" are so cheap to make (it reportedly cost $7 million to produce), because if they had higher budgets, perhaps the studio and filmmakers would make more of an effort to do something different with them to better ensure audiences got the best bang for their buck. As it is, "Devil's Due" barely give us a tap, let alone a bang.
Spike Jonze's "Her" has the ambition to be two different movies and it mostly succeeds. On one level, it's a science fiction drama that operates fully within reason of today's reality and that of the not-too-distant future; on another, it's an honest and touching romance that's keenly aware of the complexities of human relationships and how they're never entirely comprehensible. However, in its effort to be both types, the movie sacrifices a little from each side and doesn't always replenish what it takes.
The story is set sometime in the future in Los Angeles, and credit must be given to Jonze and the production designers for making the time and place a subtle backdrop instead of the film's primary focus. While the look and design are fascinating and picturesque, underlining them too much would have diverted our attention from the characters, who are (and should always be) more interesting.
Still, it's worth mentioning the filmmakers and their consultants have rendered a futuristic world that we believe really would look and function the way it does. It's convincingly in-line with our current culture and this helps sell the movie's premise. There are no flying cars, teleportation devices or things of that nature, although citizens have become increasingly reliant on technology in their day to day lives, specifically voice-activated computers and artificial intelligence.
Jonze uses this notion to once again explore whether humans and machines can build and maintain real, substantive relationships together. What's refreshing about the film's approach toward the idea, which isn't novel, is that it doesn't necessarily view the concept as far-fetched. In our current era, humans are indeed tied to their technological devices, and it's only a matter of time before we start to wonder whether the circuitry and programming languages embedded within them could collectively act as surrogates for other human beings, particularly in the realm of love.
Of course, it would have been very easy (and predictable) for the film to think that a man falling in love with an operating system was insane, sick or and just plain wrong; but I think we've reached a point in our society where this would be acceptable, and with this in mind, the movie is able to proceed freely.
The man in question is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a humble, empathetic soul with a big heart. He writes for a website called BeautifullyWrittenLetters.com, and at work he speaks his words into a computer, which then types them out and sends the letters to their recipients. It's sad to think that people in the future have resorted to paying companies to perform a task as simple as writing letters to their loved ones, although it's not unbelievable.
Theodore happens to be very good at conveying messages of love, but deep down he wants to be in love. He was at one point, and in a way still is, with Catherine (Rooney Mara), his soon-to-be ex-wife. The end of their marriage hinges on them signing the divorce papers, which they can't quite bring themselves to do. Another refreshing aspect of Jonze's script is it doesn't waste time deliberating who in Theodore and Catherine's marriage was in the wrong. It simply views their marriage as something that didn't work. They were in love, but in the end, his and her expectations for the other was too much for either to bear.
While walking home from work, Theodore happens to see an advertisement for OS1, an artificially intelligent operating system whose "personality" was programmed by hundreds of different engineers. He purchases one, initializes it to be female and is amazed by her remarkable communication skills, not least her willingness to talk.
She introduces herself as Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), and aside from not having a physical form, she seems every bit as human as any other woman. She's also hyper intelligent and comes with all the features of a standard operating system, including a spelling and grammar check. As they engage in several one-on-one conversations, Theodore begins to confide in her, and just as she asks him to take her out and see the world through his mobile phone, they establish a deep connection that eventually turns romantic and, dare I say, intimate. All of this is handled with great tact by the filmmakers, and we in what's happening wholeheartedly. If we didn't, the movie might not have worked.
Like most romances, the question becomes whether Theodore and Samantha's relationship will endure. What's unique about "Her" is that it doesn't see Samantha's being an OS as the only reason they couldn't live happily ever after. It play a role, naturally, but they face other, more "traditional" challenges, like the idea of growing apart, meeting other people and being unfaithful.
I'll not reveal the details, but the fact that the film sort of "falls back" on these ordinary conflicts made it lose a little bit of steam for me. Don't get me wrong-it all seemed perfectly genuine, and watching the characters deal with their situation and issues was always interesting and dramatic, but I was nevertheless hoping Jonze, as creative and quirky as he can be, would have provided them something different and more original to overcome. As it is, "Her" is a tender and passionate romance that's emotionally captivating, but it's not as mentally stimulating.
While operating as a traditional romance, the movie also sidesteps a few questions we were hoping it would answer about the OS1 technology, including how somebody like Samantha can have an orgasm, especially when the sensation depends on physical nerves (I'm not suggesting it's impossible for a computer to be programmed to feel orgasms; I'm just curious as to how). The other compromise is the ending, which feels too abrupt and predictable, relative to the rest of the picture.
Still, the film's virtues easily outweigh its slight narrative holes. The performances are rich and pure. Joaquin Phoenix proves once again he's one of our most versatile and sympathetic actors, able to change faces and personalities from film to film with alarming ease. Amy Adams is also effective as Theodore's friend and neighbor. Together, they speak Jonze's intelligent, unaffected dialogue that focuses on the ever-complex subject of male-female relations, which can't be easy to write about.
But the greatest thing about "Her" is how finely observant it is and that it lets us take on the perspective of its characters, whether it's through their memories and visions or simply their outlook on the physical world. The shots of trivial things, like stains on the street, icicles melting, or dust and lint floating around on top of a bedspread, really let us see things from their point of view, and this adds up to a uniquely profound experience.
"Her" is not a perfect film, but it's an earnest and beautiful one. I would have preferred it didn't succumb to some of the limitations of its combined genres, but I still walked away from it feeling I knew the characters on a personal level and could easily talk to them. In fact, I wanted to talk to them, and not just about the questions the film leaves me asking, but about life in general. "Her" pushes for humans to make any type of connection--be it with another human or a machine--in order to find out more about who we are, and we certainly make one with the people (and operating system) in it.