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Column Fri Feb 28 2014

Non-Stop, Son of God, Omar, Kids of Cash & Stalingrad



I can almost guarantee that if I went back for a second viewing of the new Liam Neeson air marshall thriller Non-Stop, I'd spend a lot of its running time saying, "How the hell did the bad guys find out X about Neeson?" And that's for the plain and simple reason that the villains in this film seem to have the uncanny ability to see through luggage, doors and minds and be able to know exactly what every single person on this New York City-to-London plane is going to do next, especially US Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson). And that's just the jumping off point to a whole slew of questionable plausibility issues the film has. But if you can set those aside, and just assume that none of these leaps of faith is really that logical, you might have a blast watching this movie.

We learn or suspect fairly early on that Marks is a troubled man. We hear his side of a phone conversation at the beginning of the film in which he is clearly trying to get out of flying that particular day. He's a near-broken man who orders a stiff drink when he takes his first-class seat; the flight attendant (who clearly knows him) brings him a bottle of water instead. We suspect he's suffered a loss of some sort, coupled with alcoholic tendencies (to what degree, we don't know immediately), and to put him on a long flight charged with protecting the passengers seems like a bad idea. In many ways, he's playing the same character he did in The Grey, minus the wolf punching.

A few hours into the flight, Marks begins to receive a series of texts on his private phone from someone claiming to be on the plane, someone who says a person on the plane will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into a secret bank account. Not knowing initially if the threat is real, he consults the crew and tries to figure out who on the plane is sending the text without upsetting the passengers. Sure enough, someone does die after that first 20 minutes, but in a truly unexpected way (under the first of many nearly impossible circumstances), and the adventure begins. The added bonus of Marks' dilemma is that whoever has set these death deadlines has also framed him to look like a desperate man turned to hijacking and ready to crash the plane into a civilian target, presumably in London.

Simply put, Neeson has become the guy who plays rugged and desperate better than just about any actor in his class or generation doing action films. And the way he commands every scene and makes the impossible seem possible (or at least slightly less impossible) is a trait that makes it likely that we'll put aside certain questionable facts and just go with the flow at 40,000 feet. The air at that height is about as thin as this film's premise, but Neeson drives it home, no questions asked.

Helping and hindering him — depending on the moment — is a cast of great supporting players, including Julianne Moore as Marks' seatmate and strongest supporter even when he appeears at his most guilty; "Downton Abbey's" Michelle Dockery and Twelve Years a Slave Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong'o as a pair of flight attendants; the great Corey Stoll as a passenger who also happens to be a New York City cop, who might be the closest thing to a voice of reason on this flight; and Monsters star Scoot McNairy as the plane's most likely suspect, who naturally means he shouldn't be. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (the House of Wax remake, Orphan and Unknown, which also starred Neeson) does a credible job letting us slowly get to know certain passengers, allowing us to suspect a half dozen of them as the perpetrator as things progress.

To get into specifics about the plot once the deaths start seems counterproductive. It's way to complicated, and to do so would spoil too many surprises, countless twists and confusing turns. But without Neeson as the strong central force driving this pretzel-shaped beast, the whole film falls apart into a sloppy mess, and all leaps of faith end like a skydive without a parachute.

It wouldn't be fair to call it a big, dumb movie, because a certain amount of thinking clearly went into its conception and execution. But the film might also be an example of what happens to your brain on drugs — some of you might consider that a good thing. It's a toss-up whether I'd recommend this or not. I'll admit, I was utterly entertained by Non-Stop, sometimes even for the reason the filmmakers intended, but often times not. It's completely within the realm of possibility that you could really non-ironically enjoy watching Non-Stop and all that it represents. If you have half a brain in your head, you probably know whether you'll dig this clown car of a thriller or not. So my advice is, use the other half of that brain.

Son of God

I'm sure the millions of people who watched the History Channel's "The Bible" miniseries took note (and were quite pleased) that the five parts of the 10-part that covered the New Testament took no licenses when it came to the words that Jesus actually spoke. What was written in the Bible is exactly what came out of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado's mouth. The only downside of this as far as extracting large sections of those five episodes (as well as including some unused footage) and converting them into a feature film called Son of God is that there's absolutely no effort made to get even a little bit inside the head of a man who was in many ways burdened with who his father was and his place and mission on Earth.

It may seem silly to say that there's no character development of Jesus in a film that covers his entire life, but that's the case. Even the sparse narration from John the Baptist is relatively free from personal commentary about the events he's passing on to us. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that classic definitions of story arcs and dramatic elements used to tell most stories go mostly out the window when it comes to telling the story of Jesus on Earth, but just 10 years ago we saw another, far more brutal telling of Jesus' last days in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ that still managed to feel like a more personal tale than Son of God. I certainly wasn't expecting the Hamlet-like inner torture that was found in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, but even a hint of emotion or angst crossing Morgado's face would have given us something to cling to.

If ever a film or subject matter was criticproof (or perhaps more accurately, the audience for such a film is criticproof), you're looking at it. And reviewing it the way one would any other film seems almost pointless, but why no go nuts and try the impossible. A film that should be a sweeping epic — a tale often referred to as the Greatest Story Ever Told — shouldn't feel so small. I'm not just talking about the third-rate effects shots and lesser-known actors; I'm referring to the way it doesn't feel Great. As told to us, Jesus was a being of pure love, yet the mildly blissful look that Morgado holds on his face for most of the film just makes him look slightly stoned.

And since the filmmakers (director Christopher Spencer and executive producers and entertainment evangelists Mark Burnett and Roma Downey) have chosen to stick with Jesus' words straight from the source material, we get no real sense of what Jesus is about. We've seen too many great actors play this role with the appropriate gravitas to let this just slip by unnoticed. Morgado is the weak link in a film that lives or dies more or less on his performance; simply looking like classic interpretations of Jesus isn't going to cut it. Stronger efforts from the likes of Greg Hicks as Pilate, Adrian Schiller as Caiaphas, and even Downey as the older Mary, mother of Jesus, help balance this lacking, but they don't save the film in the ways it needs saving.

Except for a surprisingly brutal crucifixion sequence (not as bad as Passion's, but for a PG-13 film, it's nasty), the film might find its greatest audience in younger people whose exposure to the Bible is minimal, and that probably sits exceedingly well with the filmmakers. Even with its gritty setting, the film has a polished quality to it, and it isn't afraid to layer in a little visual mysticism; the cheap effects shots are distracting, but they aren't the film's primary problem.

Above all else, Son of God is dull for those of us who don't find the gospel inherently exciting and compelling. This story has been done well in the past, so I'm not knocking the text of the Bible itself. Something about this particular approach — designed to appeal to the easily offended devout — is flat and lifeless, the irony of which knows no bounds. If you're going to tell a familiar story, breathe a little life and insight into it, otherwise, you're just painting inside the lines, and no art ever resulted from such a technique. Son of God is a closer call than you might believe, but I can't imagine any but the faithful being swept up in this stagnant storytelling.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Son of God executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.


Think you're all caught up on seeing as many of the Oscar nominees as you can before Sunday's award ceremonies. Let's sneak one more in before you check off your ballot and lose you money. Getting into theaters in select markets this weekend just under the wire is Omar, the first-ever Best Foreign Language nominee from Palestine and director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now). It's a truly tense little thriller about three young men who are best friends and have been self-training to become freedom fighters/terrorists for Palestine. We see them prep for a sniper mission to kill Israeli soldiers, and eventually one of them carries out the act.

We see this gripping story through the eyes of Omar (Adam Bakri), a baker who slips over the separation wall in the Occupied Territories to visit his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany), who happens to be the sister of one of the other boys, Tarek (Eyad Hourani). The third boy Amjad (Samer Bisharat), who was the actual shooter, is also in love with Nadja, but her heart clearly belongs to Omar. The police eventually arrest Omar and torture him and threaten to hurt Nadja as well if he doesn't tell them where Tarek is; the police mistakenly think Tarek is the shooter, since he's the leader of their little group, and Omar agrees to turn Tarek over if they leave him and Nadja alone.

At this point Omar is playing both sides, immediately telling Tarek upon his release that the police want him for the shooting. Along with Amjad, the group plots to lure the police, led by a wonderfully manipulative handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter), to a spot and ambush them, but a rat inside their organization alerts the cops to the double-cross, and all hell breaks loose. And that's only about the halfway point of the film. Omar is loaded with double- and triple-crosses, questionable loyalty for miles, and a love story that goes through the ringer when rumors start that Omar is a traitor to Palestine. Not only must Omar get out from under the thumb of the Israelis, but he must clear his name with his own people and keep the heart of Nadja, who seems to be slipping away into the arms of Amjad.

Omar is certainly a skillfully constructed work that deserves to be seen, but its nomination seems strange, since I can think of a half-dozen better qualifying films that should have been in the list of five instead of this one. Still, there's a one-two punch of a climax in the film that will leave you feeling like you got kicked squarely in the gut. And those scenes alone elevate the film from good to exceptional. There are a few strange moments when we find ourselves rooting for Omar not to get caught, but empathy is a strange thing sometimes, and the love story certainly makes it easier for us to want to see him get out from under everyone's influence and live his life with his lady. Using familiar cinematic devices, Omar creates some strange heroes and villains, but it's a hugely compelling work well worth your time. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Kids for Cash

This sickening documentary about one example of the corruption and twisted ways people manipulate the judicial system, Kids for Cash is a profile of juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella, who was elected to his seat in a small town in Pennsylvania in the wake of the Columbine shootings, when the nation became especially scared of its children. Not quite understanding the simple truth that you should never elect a judge with a personality, the folks in Luzerne County elected Ciavarella pretty much for his zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime in schools committed by kids. And it just so happened that a new independent juvenile facility had opened in the community, and Judge Ciavarella was more than happy to toss kids as young as 12 into this kiddie jail until they were 18, essentially destroying their childhood, and more than likely their adult lives as well.

Film producer and first-time director Robert May opens Kids for Cash with a title card with a declaration that 193 countries ratified the UN's "Convention on the Rights of the Child," with the US being one of only three nations not to sign (the other two being Somalia and South Sudan). I'd like to think the US didn't sign for the age-old reason that Americans don't like being told what to do by other nations, but it may speak to a much darker truth. As a nation, the government does not truly have the best interest of the child in mind when making decisions that will impact their lives forever. In the case of Judge Ciavarella, when enough parents got up in arms about jamming so many children into jail for minor infractions, a local reporter uncovered a money trail that appeared to indicate the judge made money off the building and filling of said juvenile detention center, along with some of his rich buddies.

May cleverly edits the film to go back and forth between the testimony of previously jailed kids (some of whom are in their 20s now) and the timeline of the corruption scandal being revealed by the media and other investigators, holding back certain high-impact dramatic moments until precisely the right moment. A sequence involving an angry mother screaming point blank in Ciavarella's face outside the courtroom where his trial is taking place is particularly hard hitting and shocking in what she reveals in her tyrade.

A small quibble with the film is its title. While Ciavarella did become known as the "Kids for Cash" judge, he actually wasn't ever tried for that particular crime — accepting money for each kid he sent to the juvenile center. But the moniker stuck, and thus the title of the film stands in all of its compelling and erroneous glory. Perhaps the film's most impressive get is an interview with Judge Ciavarella, who seems more than willing to walk through the micro-avenues of his case and deny what he can and avoid what he can't deny outright. There is the briefest of moments when you actually start to see how much the accusations are tearing him down, but then we hear more stories from the kids whose lives he ruined, and that all vanishes.

This is one of those great documentaries that hits all the right anger buttons, and serves up a healthy dose of the bad guys getting caught outright (whether they pay the price in court, I won't spoil). But in the end, no amount of justice or jail time can make up for the stories from these kids that we hear, nor will they bring back the lost years or undo the damage done from being thrown in jail, barely old enough to be called a teenager. It's a cutting and substantial work from director Robert May, and you can hope that he follow up in five or 10 years to see where these young people are, and whether they pulled their lives back together after this mess.


Wait, what? There's a 3-D, IMAX, Russian-made, loud-as-hell, epic-in-length telling of the World War II's Battle of Stalingrad, which claimed the lives of more than 1.2 million? You're damn right, and it was one of the biggest grossing films in Russian history last year. I'm not making light of this massive event with unimaginable casualties, but the film Stalingrad isn't going for realism as much as a thunder-and-lightning version of events told from the perspective of a small group of Russian soldiers holding off a much larger group of German soldiers from a bombed out building at the heart of the city.

It's a brash and exciting ride, but it's also a bit of a mess with a lot of unnecessary storylines that feel like (and are) fat in need of trimming. Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the film are its bookends, which takes place in wake of the post-tsunami/earthquake rubble of Fukushima, Japan, where Russian rescue workers are attempting to get five trapped German children from the rubble. One of the Russians begins telling the children the story of the Russian soldiers in Stalingrad, and the film takes off from there — maybe not the best story for calming down these kids, whose oxygen supply is low already.

I'll admit, it was a little tough keeping track of all of the soldiers' names on both the Russian and German sides, although I did recognize the Russian leader Capt. Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and one of the German leaders, Kapitan Kan (Tomas Krechmann), whose biggest contribution to the film is sleeping with a Russian prostitute (Mariya Smolnikova), who would rather spit in his face than service him (she does both, in the end). The only other major female character in this male-heavy work is Masha (Yanina Studilina), a slightly insane but inspiring figure who seems to represent the heart and spirit of Mother Russia. If the nation was still making propaganda films, I'd almost believe director Fedor Bondarchuk (himself a famous Russian actor) was placed in this movie to represent exactly that.

Where Stalingrad lacks in character development or sensibility, it makes up for in pure fireworks. Since I'm pretty sure the only chance you'll have to see this film in a theater is on an IMAX screen, the accompanying powerhouse sound system is guaranteed to blast your eardrums into oblivion. Every gunshot, mortar round, grenade, tank fire and air support attack is loud as holy fuck. And when your ears aren't bleeding, you'll be treated to a lovely and moving score by composer Angelo Badalamenti. The sum total of all of these elements bombarding you during the course of over two hours is more than a little overwhelming, but I'm fairly certain that was director Bondarchuk's intent — to approximate the constant, howling experience of being under relentless attack.

As much as the film attempts to make each major character his or her own representative entity, the result is a parade of cliché-ridden folks who seem interchangeable in the end with a few exceptions. The surprisingly sympathetic approach to Krechmann's character doesn't quite work either. His emotional instability doesn't make us empathize with him as much as it makes us think he's getting what he deserves. The fact the he falls in love with the prostitute doesn't score points with an audience either; instead, he just looks like a dummy.

I was excited to see Stalingrad, if only as a novelty. And I was curious what type of film does well in distant lands. And now I know. If you're a fan of war movies, you could do worse, but odds are, you could do a whole lot better without much effort. It's a beautiful-looking film, but it also looks somewhat artificial, almost too perfectly flattened, except for a few key structures needed to wage war. In the end, it's not exactly something worth recommending, but it's a fascinating curiosity that probably wouldn't work as well watching at home. The film opens in Chicago today at the Navy Pier IMAX theater.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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