Reviews: Liam Neeson's new thriller 'Non-Stop'
Richard Crouse, Canada AM film critic
Published Friday, February 28, 2014 6:44AM EST
NON-STOP: 2 ½ STARS
Liam Neeson joins the mile high club in “Non-Stop.”
He plays Bill Marks, an aging U.S. federal air marshal safeguarding the 150 passengers (including Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache and flight attendant Lupita Nyong’o) on an international flight from New York to London.
He’s also a burn-out, a lonely guy with a loaded gun and a propensity to get loaded on booze. The routine flight becomes fraught with danger when he receives text messages from a mysterious source threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless a ransom of $150 million is deposited into a bank account. When that account is discovered to be in Marks’s name, he’s accused of being a hijacker.
“Non-Stop” has more red herrings than a fish and chips shop. Clues are dropped and discarded and the plot is so ludicrous that every now and again someone has to say, “I can explain this,” so the audience has a fighting chance of making some kind of sense of the intrigue. The story is simple but is muddied by outrageous twists. Once I decided to not try and play along -- this isn’t “True Detective” where every word and scene counts -- I enjoyed watching Neeson in action man mode. He’s better than the movie and he made this movie better simply by showing up.
There is a certain cheesy joy to be found in the image of Neeson floating in zero gravity, grabbing a gun out of the air and getting business done. Nothing can spice up a borderline action movie like the Flying Neeson Shot. He has carved a unique action niche for himself and seems to be having fun growling and gunning his way through trashy action movies.
Is “Non-Stop” great art? Nope, but did you really expect it to be? It’s the Neesonator after all.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes good use of the airplane’s small spaces, builds some nice scenes of claustrophobic tension and even makes a comment on how news organizations jump to conclusions, using conjecture instead of facts to fill the 24 hour wheel but story credibility is not his strong point.
Building tension, however, is. The movie is bookended by two terrific scenes. At the beginning Collet-Serra takes his time with the nicely shot boarding of the airplane sequence. Unease builds as the passengers, one of whom is a terrorist (not a spoiler, watch the trailer), take their seats.
The climax (SPOILER ALERT) is a typical ticking bomb sequence, but it’s an exciting one with cool visuals and the aforementioned Flying Neeson Shot.
The supporting cast is serviceable, in underwritten and generic roles. I hope Julianne Moore buys something nice with the pay cheque. She gets the job done, but that part could have been played by anyone. I feel worse for Lupita Nyong’o. She’s an Oscar nominee for “12 Years a Slave,” but here she’s reduced to a Grace Jones impersonator with just a few lines.
Despite a good pace and mounting tension, “Non-Stop is almost undone by superficial characters and a silly story. I say almost because it’s been Neesonized, the action movie equivalent of a sprinkle of fairy dust.
GRAVITY DVD: 4 STARS
As “Alien” famously reminded us, “In space no one can hear you scream,” but they didn’t mention anything about heavy breathing. “Gravity,” a new space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts adrift in the wild blue yonder, features more heavy breathing than a Linda Lovelace movie.
Beginning with an uninterrupted 15-minute opening shot, director Alfonso Cuaron presents a spacy story about medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). She’s an uptight novice; he’s a wisecracking vet on his final mission.
It’s routine stuff -- or as routine as space travel ever gets -- until a debris storm, comprised of bits and pieces of old satellites, chunks of metal traveling as fast as bullets, crashes into their space shuttle. Stone is knocked “off structure” and drifting through the inky darkness while Kowalsky uses his experience and calm to rescue her. Cue the heavy breathing as her oxygen slowly runs out and panic sets in.
The storm has knocked their communications offline and they are forced to become Space MacGyvers in order to survive.
“Gravity” is an ambitious film. A two-hander set against the bleak backdrop of space, it relies on the cast and some tricky camerawork to maintain interest over the film’s deliberately paced but slight 85 minute running time.
The story is one of survival, but screenwriter Cuaron (who co-wrote it with his son Jonas) hasn’t simply written a horror film about imminent disaster. Stone signed up for outer space travel to isolate herself from a personal tragedy, but when the chips are down she finds new meaning in her life.
It’s a good way to ground the story. The isolation of space is well portrayed, the “off structure” sequences are tense and effective and the shots of Bullock drifting in the void or floating through her space shuttle are beautiful, like interstellar ballet. As effective as the human story is in Gravity, however, I could almost imagine turning the sound down and being content to just watch the pictures. Like Laser Floyd in Space.
But “Gravity,” while beautiful to look at, is occasionally too in love with its technique. The 17-minute long uninterrupted shot that starts the film is spectacular and overall the look will make your eyeballs dance, but then there’s a scene where we see Sandra Bullock reflected in one of her own, gravity free, tears. It’s a great image, but one that feels a bit too clever. It was one of the few times in the film that I thought I was watching a special effect.
The look is an achievement, but when you find yourself daydreaming about how a scene was shot, it’s a sure sign the technique has taken you outside the story.
“Gravity” isn’t an epic like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or an outright horror film like “Alien.” There are no monsters or face hugging ETs. It’s not even a movie about life or death. Instead it is a life-affirming movie about the will to survive.
NEBRASKA DVD: 4 ½ STARS
Who wants to be a millionaire? Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) that’s who. He’s a Don Quixote character of “Nebraska,” tilting at windmills, clutching a worthless ticket he thinks is worth a million bucks.
When we first meet Woody he’s walking to Lincoln, Nebraska from Billings, Montana. There’s erasable and then there’s Woody, a cantankerous man who thinks the “You may already be a winner” notification he received in the mail is a ticket to a fortune. But at the rate he’s going it will take him months, if not years to make the journey to claim his prize in person in a city two states away. “I’m going to Lincoln if it is the last thing I do,” he says.
After several failed attempts to hoof it to Lincoln, Woody’s son David (former “SNL” star Will Forte) offers to drive him. He knows the ticket is of no value but sees the trip as a way of spending some time with his father.
As father and son travel across flyover country, through landscape as weathered as Woody’s face, David pieces together fragments of his father’s life to form a fully developed picture of who the man he calls Dad really is. The trip is both physical and emotional.
“Nebraska” is a plain spoken, but lyrical black-and-white film about a man grasping at a last chance for a legacy and a son who understands the ticket is worth more than money, it is the thing that gives Woody something to live for.
Sounds serious, and its ideas about how children interact with their aging, ill parents certainly have weight to them, but director Alexander “Sideways” Payne ensures the film is nimble and very funny in places.
The humour doesn’t come in the set-up-punch-line format but arises out of the situations. A scene of Woody’s gathered family -- his elderly brothers and grown sons -- watching a football game redefines the word taciturn but the subject of the sparse conversation, a 1974 Buick, is bang on, hilarious and will likely sound familiar to anyone with a large family.
Dern hits all the right notes, adopting the blank stare of a man overwhelmed by life for most of the movie. It’s a simple but effective performance in which Dern strips away almost all the artifice and presents a raw, unfiltered take on aging.
Dern shares virtually all his scenes with Will Forte. On the surface Forte’s casting is a strange choice. He’s best known as a comedian and while he has the odd funny line in “Nebraska,” he is primarily required to do much of the dramatic heavy lifting. It took me some time to divorce his most famous character, MacGruber, from what I was seeing on screen but soon enough his straightforward performance drew me in.
Supporting actors are carefully cast. Stacy Keach, who does a mean Elvis Karaoke, is suitably menacing as a former business partner who tries to cash in on Woody’s alleged new wealth and Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as thick-headed cousins Bart and Cole will make you long for the heyday of Beavis and Butthead.
Near the end of “Nebraska” there is one shot that sums up the reflective feel of the film. Peg (Angela McEwan), one of Woody’s ex-girlfriends, sees him in town for the first time in decades. They don’t speak, but the wistful look that blossoms across her rugged face perfectly visualizes the movie’s contemplative examination of a life lived.