The Non-Stop Monuments Men

I also got to see Non-Stop and Monuments Men this past weekend. while neither was great, they were both far better than the other movies I saw (300 Rise of an Empire, Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill).

Non-Stop

 

Non-Stop (2014) – Rated PG-13

An air marshal springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account.

I’m not hijacking this plane. I’m trying to save it! ”

One Line Review: Exciting, generic thriller is enjoyable albeit pointless

Non-Stop was a breath of fresh, yet recycled, air after 300: Rise of an Empire.

Non-Stop is a standard Liam Neeson thriller. As long as he can keep up the quality and they bring in the box office, Neeson’s turns should not devolve into direct-to-DVD fodder like the output from Van Damme, Seagal, Bronson, etc.

The story is nothing, simply made to keep you guessing. It is fun as it goes along but after the climax you’ll be scratching your head realizing so-and-so could not possibly have known about such-and-such. Such and such being many, many different things. The only possible ending that makes sense of the events is a fascinating one that you have to read into the script. I’d love to discuss it at length but I don’t post spoilers.

Liam Neeson is in fine form. They give him a tragic backstory to help propel the plot and appeal to his hangdog demeanor. At one point, Julianne Moore simply blurts out her character’s backstory as an exposition dump but is otherwise fine. Lupita Nyong’O is wasted here in a role that is only exceeded in thanklessness by the played by Shea Whigham. I have to assume that some of his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

The Monuments Men

 

The Monuments Men (2014) – Rated PG-13

An unlikely World War II platoon is tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners.”

One Line Review: Fascinating story told rather passively and by-the-numbers.

George Clooney has a knack for finding unusual stories and telling them well. Ignoring his acting achievements, Clooney was nominated for both directing and writing for Good Night, and Good Luck. He nominated for writing again with Ides of March.

Clooney co-wrote The Monuments Men with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. He directs a fabulous, if topical cast: Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman all perform well here. Clooney’s direction is assured if not inspired.

So what went wrong? The Monuments Men is too unfocused. Throughout the film, the men are scattered across Europe. There is not enough humor to turn this into a Dirty Dozen, not enough planning for a caper film, and we don’t really feel invested in the characters. Perhaps the narrative is flawed by sticking too close to real events and the book but I never felt invested in the characters.

The Monuments Men is not bad. It just isn’t what it should be, considering the pedigree.

People Watch: Look for Downton Abbey’s own Lord Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as one of the Monuments Men.

Elysium and the Sophomore Slump

My wife is not a big movie-goer (at least not like I am) but we had a rare movie night out the other week. We used a couple FREE tickets provided by Epic Theatres to go see Elysium.

One-Line Review: Elysium is somewhere between heaven and Earth.

ElysiumElysium (2013) – Rated R

Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

I loved Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). It had a believable bureaucratic protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who truly changed over the course of the film. It had a wonderful science fiction setting with some great special effects. District 9 also had a huge and somewhat heavy-handed message about apartheid.

Fast forward to 2013. Neill Blomkamp has written and directed Elysium. Having transplanted from South Africa to Hollywood, Blomkamp’s new film is about the dangers when the gulf between the haves and the have-nots becomes insurmountable. It also has a lot to say about our current healthcare system. There are important truths to be told here. Unfortunately Blomkamp’s tendency to be heavy-handed with his message has run amuck here. There were several times I wanted to yell back at the screen, “yes we get it, the system is completely unfair!”

Matt Damon does a lot with what he is given to work with – his humorous asides in the first act really elevate the film. If that humor had shown through the whole film, this could have been a good satire a la Robocop. Unfortunately Elysium quickly goes off the rails with very little of it showing the wit of District 9.

Jodie Foster co-stars as the villainous administrator Delacourt. Although I don’t always care for her films, I’ve always enjoyed her performances. Until now. This is the only bad performance I have seen her give. She has a ridiculous accent that transforms from American to French to South African to I don’t know what.

Sharlto Copley (District 9) snarls and growls his way through a supporting role here. Alice Braga, Diego Luna, and Wagner Moura provide nice ethnic support (especially as the poor areas seem to be based on favelas) but aren’t given much to do. William Fichtner shines as a slimy bureaucrat.

One of the major problems with Elysium is the relationship between Max and Frey. We are told that they are in love and Max promises her the moon…I mean Elysium. The problem is that we are told this – there is never a feeling for their relationship so there is little to no emotional investment.

Wife’s review:Elysium has at it’s core a neat idea:  what happens when the gulf between rich and poor is literally as wide as the distance from Earth to the stars (well, maybe not literally).  From there it jumps the shark pretty quickly: our everyman becomes an everycyborg; the quirky henchman becomes the scenery-chewing UBG; and our lessons about rich/poor and universal healthcare are hammered home with such force that you forget that going to a movie is supposed to be entertaining.  To sum up I’ll quote my husband, “A passable waste of two (plus?) hours”.

An Evening with Kevin Smith – Chasing Amy Edition

Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy is currently available on instant Netflix.

One-Line Review: A good honest look at a romantic relationship and the insecurities involved slightly marred by the premise.

Chasing Amy (1997) – Rated R

“After comic book artist Holden (Ben Affleck) falls in love with the perfect woman, Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), he discovers she is a lesbian in this comedy from writer-director Kevin Smith. With no help from his friend, Banky (Jason Lee), Holden tries to make a relationship with Alyssa work. Although Holden knows Alyssa cares deeply about him, her homosexual past may conspire to come between them and ruin everything.”

“I don’t know. I love Chow Yun Fat. I just don’t see him playing Batman. “

Kevin Smith followed up the success of his debut Clerks with the sophomoric effort Mallrats. Mallrats had some funny bits but bombed at the box office, pulling in only half of its six million dollar budget.

Kevin Smith went back to the drawing board and reduced his budget to $250,000 for Chasing Amy. He sure got a lot of bang for his buck. He got a pre-fame Ben Affleck as well as his brother Casey and friend Matt Damon. Also starring are a pre-My Name is Earl Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams.

Joey Lauren Adams is absolutely adorable as the somewhat gay Alyssa. I won’t get into the thinking behind the heterosexual male fantasy of being able to ‘cure’ a lesbian but I will say that for the premise, it is handled much better than could be expected. Joey Lauren Adams shows a lot of real raw emotion when she is not busy being cute and, in spite of the other members of the cast, she is the best actor in the film.

Ben Affleck is charming as Holden and thankfully doesn’t try to mug his way through the film as he has occasionally done. Jason Lee is very funny as the crass Banky and is matched well by Dwight Ewell as an aggressively black gay man. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) put in their requisite appearance but thankfully don’t overstay their welcome.

Kevin Smith does especially well when he sticks to an oeuvre he knows. Here he tackles a slightly unusual romance set in the world of comics. Kevin Smith is a huge comic geek. After achieving fame as a filmmaker both DC (Batman, Green Arrow) and Marvel (Daredevil) have had him write stories and he owns his own comic shop. Interestingly enough Ben Affleck who stars here would later go on to star as Daredevil.

With most of his films, all of the success or failure can be attributed to Smith as he writes, directs, edits, and guest stars in his films and Chasing Amy is not an exception. In fact the movie he didn’t write, Cop Out, is actually his worst.

Performances are quite good as is the writing. The best scene is a wonderfully uncomfortable confrontational scene juxtaposed with a hockey game. Chasing Amy’s Jaws riff is better than the one in Clerks but the Star Wars one isn’t as funny. Smith also throws in a number of references to Clerks to let you know that this is part of a series.

People Watch: Comics VIPs Mike Allred and Joe Quesada play themselves and Illeana Douglas plays Alyssa’s roommate. Also look for Brian O’Halloran (Clerks) appearing briefly as an executive.

A Tale of Two Grits – Wait Three Grits! And a Rooster!

I admire filmmakers who can revisit material and put their own stamp on it, making a film that has its own identity and is not simply a remake for modern audiences. Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World is a wonderful 50s science fiction monster movie. John Carpenter’s The Thing goes back to the original material and makes a movie where the monster is almost incidental to the paranoia at play. Sadly the modern remake/prequel The Thing (2011) was not very good but I digress.

Wonderfully Netflix streaming has both the iconic 1969 True Grit and the sardonic 2010 True Grit. How do they measure up against each other?

True Grit (1969) – Rated G

“John Wayne landed one of his last great screen roles as crusty lawman Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, who reluctantly helps teenager Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) pursue her father’s killer. True Grit is more a character study than many of Wayne’s formulaic Westerns. The rousing final showdown between Wayne and the villains adds to the Duke’s long list of outstanding movie moments.”

 

True Grit (2010) – Rated PG-13

“After drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires alcoholic U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her exact revenge. The disreputable lawman still has grit, though, and mounts an epic search. Joining the duo on their quest is a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who’s also hunting for Chaney in this updated Western that received multiple Oscar nods, including Best Picture.”

Academy Awards:

1969: John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. The 1969 version was also nominated for Best Music, Original Song but lost to Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head from Butch Cassidy.

2010: Nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars, it lost every single one: Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Hailee Steinfeld), Best Picture, Writing, Directing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Costume Design and Art Direction.

10 is a lot of Oscars to be nominated for but history only remembers the winners so point goes to True Grit 1969.

Rooster Cogburn – The Duke and The Dude: In spite of this being Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance, it is not his best work. He is having too much fun and there is little nuance to his portrayal. His performances in The Shootist, The Searchers, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance are better. This is also not Jeff Bridges’ best performance but it is one of his better performances and is quite a bit more nuanced.

Mattie Ross: The part of the precocious yet pugnacious 14-year-old is played in 1969 by a 22-year-old Kim Darby and in 2010 by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. Not just for the appropriate age but also for the intensity of the performance, this point easily goes to True Grit 2010. John Wayne himself said Kim Darby was the lousiest actress he ever worked with. Of course that may have been sour grapes as he wanted his daughter Aissa to play Mattie and after she was rejected, he wanted Karen Carpenter for the role. Kim Darby really isn’t that bad – for bad we have to go to our next category.

La Boeuf: The dandy Texas Ranger is played by singer Glen Campbell in True Grit 1969 and by Oscar-winner Matt Damon in 2010. Need you ask? Point: True Grit 2010. Glen Campbell is just awful.

Villains: Jeff Corey vs. Josh Brolin, Robert Duvall vs. Barry Pepper, a very young Dennis Hopper vs. Domhnall Gleeson. I have to give the edge to True Grit 1969.

Sequels: Yes I used the plural! You probably know that John Wayne got to reprise his role of Rooster Cogburn in Rooster Cogburn, starring opposite a wonderful Katherine Hepburn. While a very entertaining film, it was obvious that it owed a lot to The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. In fact Hepburn’s character in Rooster Cogburn is not terribly different from her character in African Queen.

The part I bet you didn’t know was that there was a TV movie True Grit in 1978. It was a failed pilot starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn. Neither Rooster Cogburn nor the TV True Grit are available on instant Netflix. Since Rooster Cogburn is an entertaining sequel, this point goes to True Grit 1969.

Bottom Line: You can’t really go wrong with either version of True Grit. The 1969 version is a pretty straightforward western adventure with an iconic performance by the Duke and a rousing finale. Strangely even though the 1969 version is listed as having a “G” rating, it contains plenty of gun violence, a triple hanging, a man getting his fingers cut off, a man getting stabbed, a man getting bludgeoned, alcohol use and abuse, and a fair amount of profanity. Supposedly it was an edited version that received the ‘G’ rating but I wonder how much was cut. It isn’t overly graphic but I sure can’t imagine it getting a ‘G’ rating today.

The 2010 version is better in most regards. It is however quite a bit darker even though it covers much of the same territory. While much of the dialogue is the same, Joel and Ethan Coen have given the script a verbal polishing. Much of the best dialogue is still from the original and I will say that the climactic line of “fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” packs more punch from the Duke. Cinematography is good in the 1969 version but better in the 2010 version.


People Watch:
In the 1969 version, Jay “Tonto” Silverheels plays one of the condemned men at the hanging. Wilford Brimley makes his film debut there too (though that’s just from imdb – I couldn’t spot him). In the 2010 version listen for J.K. Simmons as the voice of J. Noble Daggett