Quick Takes – 03.10.14 – Catching Up on 2014’s Studio Films

Non-StopNon-Stop (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)
Grade: B+

To word it too cutely, Jaume Collet-Serra is a man with a very particular set of skills. My own acquaintance with his style of tight action thriller filmmaking came with a knowing sense of irony, my interest in the hilarious plot of Orphan propelling me into the blissfully convoluted craziness of Unknown. These were movies, I told myself, that weren’t good, but were highly entertaining. That distinction between good and entertaining is common nowadays, but last year I was forced to seriously rethink that division. Are the likes of White House Down and The Lone Ranger just incredibly entertaining beyond any other summer action film, or are they also extraordinary in their craft and the points they’re making? I figure I’ll live a happy life if I don’t indulge the idea of these films being guilty pleasures, because I don’t find anything ironic or false about their pleasures.

All this is my way of preempting the statement that Non-Stop is a hoot, but also a very good film. Collet-Serra knows his craft and how to utilize it in thoroughly entertaining ways. The steely sanitized look is not far from the grimy Berlin chill of Unknown, but D.P. Flavio Labiano has an engaging hold on keeping things sleek and in motion, inside and out of the plane’s obvious confines. Besides the fact that the film’s an incredibly serviceable entertainment package, it also has thematic substance for those willing to see it there. Call its comparisons of social media and airport connections to human connections a reach if you like, but its tough to say these themes aren’t there to be appreciated. It’s a film about a man who can only make a connection in an environment where human connection is forced by proximity and similar circumstance. If you want to go there, it’s similar to Gravity in more ways than one.

And if you don’t buy the emotional backstory of Liam Neeson’s character, just know it’s building to a mid-air kill-shot to make all others envious. Very few films nowadays can make you forget plot and motivation for a moment to just lose yourself to a thrill similar to René Clair’s pure cinema, but I think the intense excitement of that suspended moment is something worth commending. The film too for not letting that moment cheapen everything surrounding it.

RoboCopRoboCop (Dir. Jose Padilha)
Grade: B-

Remakes aren’t really remakes anymore, at least where the studios are concerned. They’re buds laid in hopes of a franchise growing out of them, which almost automatically certifies these first installments will be to some degree uneventful. RoboCop is an origin story, which promises that characters will be established, but not fully developed, leaving that for future installments to deal with. With that fact stated, RoboCop does turn out more efficient than it should be. Working heavily off a darkly overdeveloped view of American militarism, where it now has a death-grip over foreign countries while domestic citizens remain reasonably fearful of what they’ve created, it’s clear the film’s forming its idea in very general ways, not delving too much into specifics.

So too are the characters established. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a good cop and a good husband. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is a greedy capitalist. Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish) is the sturdy, but essentially powerless wife. Samuel L. Jackson is Bill O’Reilly, and he does that for a whopping 15 minutes of this two hour film, time which could’ve been spent further developing these functional characters. If the script offers little for the actors, they do much to redeem those characters. Kinnaman writhes with crippling stoicism in spite having essentially just a face to perform with. Cornish really sells any emotional investment we have in these characters’ well-being. Gary Oldman may have the most complexly developed character, and the moral dilemma he finds himself raises both performance and character to best-in-show status. It’s functional, but never are we truly compelled or enthralled by the action, at least not enough to leave us wanting any more.

300 - Rise of an Empire300: Rise of an Empire (Dir. Noam Murro)
Grade: C+

Have to ask, how many merely functional action films are we supposed to take? The last full-blown action spectacle I deeply dug – I think we’re agreed that Gravity is not an action film in the strictest sense – would probably be The Lone Ranger. Kind of calls into question exactly how hard it is to pull off a thoroughly engaging action film. It’s admittedly harder than it is to pull off an engaging action sequence, something 300: Rise of an Empire does accomplish from time to time. When your aesthetic is founded in the desperate pursuit of beauty in bloodshed, of course some images will comes off as somewhat elegant. As blood flows from bodies as lusciously as rain and sweat, it’s tough not to find these manifestation sensually appealing.

Which is to say 300: Rise of an Empire works and gives us a nice helping of eye-candy, but the question rises again, how does it become a great action film and not just a series of well-produced battles? Given my distance from 300, I can’t recall if Rise of an Empire is an improvement, but it’s certainly a less freakish affair. The last film was so obsessed with physical and fighting perfection, discarding all those “sickly or misshapen” and turning boys quickly into fighters. Rise of an Empire makes more of a case for equality, not only in the Greek forces being made up of potters, farmers, etc.; In short, all the people Gerard Butler’s crew mocked as unskilled last time around. It also shows in their adversary, Persian naval commander Artemisia, who seeks vengeance for her Greek family’s rape and murder at the hands of Greek hoplites. Though the Athenians are ostensibly on the side of good, we find ourselves sympathizing more for Artemisia, not least because of how deliciously Eva Green’s plays up the character’s vampish qualities. Alas these touches of commentary on evil permeating both sides of a war do little to bring the piece sufficiently together as continuously enthralling.

PompeiiPompeii (Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson)
Grade: C-

After too much time dwelling on the subject, here’s my thing with Vulgar Auteurism: A good film is a good film. If you need to rationalize it with irony, it’s not a good film. Pompeii is not a good film, but I can see the rationalization. With the onscreen world’s hubristic politics corrupting even the legitimacy of the design, all it deserves is a gaunt, hideous destruction. Even I have to admit to seeing flashes of Roland Emmerich style beauty in its third act chaos, but Paul W.S. Anderson simply cannot support a textured, or even functional production. The sitcom quality design and cinematography begs to be consumed by lava, but frankly, lava deserves healthier things to consume.

So why did I pay to see it in the first place? Well, I still hold up my causes for Emily Browning and Jared Harris, a debt to how empathic and touching their work in Sleeping Beauty and Mad Men, respectively, was. They certainly deserve better, but I also have to wonder what exactly they’re doing to raise themselves above this aluminum-foil trash. At least *copy-paste* Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje seems contented with this level of cheesy destruction. “Eeet ees da mowntun. Eet grumbles frum tym to tym.” Kit Harrington’s abs seem the most responsive to Adewale’s baritone grumblings. Purse that for theoretical details, vulgar auteurists.

The Monuments MenThe Monuments Men (Dir. George Clooney)
Grade: D

About 30 minutes into a late matinee of The Monuments Men I fell asleep, only to wake to find only a few minutes past in the film. I endure the rest, only to walk out of the theater and find it pitch black outside. Turns out I’d slept through the rest of the film and the first 30 minutes of the next showing. In short, it wasn’t enough to swallow two hours of my life. The Monuments Men had to swallow up the rest of my free time as well. Yeah, I question the theater staff whom I could hear actively giggling as I left, but I blame Clooney more for assembling something that, while impressive in terms of the scale of its production design, never once excited me on an artistic level.

From the first moment we’re told that the war’s pretty much won anyway, so who gives a fuck about sending a bunch of inexperienced artists in to wrangle up some cultural artifacts? Commence a series of tired per-geriatric antics that, while they eat up the lives of two key members, never bring us closer to the group or feel the severity of their goals. If your film is meant to be a testament to the art these men died to protect, the least you could do is put up your own artistic chops. If not that, at least keep my pulse raised so I can survive the ordeal without feeling like it was none at all.

In summation, this is what happens when you let Clooney drift through space with country music playing on repeat.

What did you see this past week? Let us know! If you don’t… we’ll probably keep writing anyway.

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