• “Non-Stop” fails to get out of the gate

    With the surprise success of “Taken” in 2009, Liam Neeson’s rise in popularity as an action star — an impressive feat given that the actor was nearing 60 at the time. Since then, Neeson’s become a bona-fide action star, starring in films like “The A-Team,” “Unknown,” and “Battleship.” “Non-Stop,” Neeson’s latest outing, puts the actor through the same motions in a new setting, and is ultimately as forgettable as tasteless peanuts and pre-flight entertainment. 

    Neeson plays Bill Marks, a washed-up, alcoholic Air Marshal who is contacted by a faceless adversary on a flight from New York to London. Marks is faced with a life-or-death situation: the mysterious enemy wants $150 million wired to an account, and he will kill a passenger on the flight every 20 minutes until he gets it. Though the phone usage is plausible given the FAA’s recent lift of phone restrictions on flights, but the plot’s over-reliance on people texting each other during the flight makes the siutaion seem less believable as the plot goes on. 

    The initial set up of the mystery actually gives the impression that “Non-Stop” will be smarter than its premise implies. Rather than try to track down the assailant alone and expose himself an obvious frame attempt, Marks employs the assistance of the pilots, his partner on the plane, and even a fellow passenger, Jen (Julianne Moore). The entire situation feels like a set-up from the start, and Marks looks as if he won’t fall into a cycle of plot-induced stupidity by enlisting allies. It doesn’t last, unfortunately, and Marks is quick to forget strength in numbers when the film needs to put him in a situation that will make the other characters suspicious of him. The uneven script makes a rough jump from nobody beleiving that the threat is real — an odd amount of skepticism given how serious airline security is taken in our modern climate — and everyone jumping to suspect Marks as soon as the threat begins to prove credible.

    Despite the film’s impressive ensemble, none of the performers do memorable work. Julianne Moore is delightful as always, but her character’s excitement at the chance to be involved in solving the mystery inappropriate considering she’s facing a potential plane hijacking. Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) is the most noteworthy in the cast as an NYPD officer, but neither he nor “12 Years a Slave” co-star Lupita Nyong’o are given enough material to make any sort of impression. Neeson, meanwhile, has settled comfortably into the ‘aging warrior’ archetype he’s embodied since “Taken,” and doesn’t step outside the box here. The opening shots show Marks spiking his coffee (the booze inexplicably poured in slow motion), the first of a rapidly expanding laundry list of reasons that the character is widly unqulaified for his job. There’s a character history that explains his fatigue, but the film ruins any nuance by forcing Neeson into a groan-inducing monologue where he explains his tragic past. 

    “Non-Stop” is directed by Jaume Collett-Serra, who also directed Neeson in the forgettable thriller “Unknown.” Like that movie, “Non-Stop” fails to stage a compelling mystery, its reliance on a convoluted premise and increasingly questionable character choices derail any plausibility or tension. The big reveal in the film’s climax feels both unrealistic and unsatisfying. Ultimately, “Non-Stop” can’t get off the ground as an intelligent thriller or an action movie, and is ultimately about as enjoyable as a transatlantic red-eye. 

    Genre: Thriller
    Run time: 106 minutes
    Director: Jamue Collett-Serra

  • 3-D blood and boobs in "300: Rise of an Empire"

    Eight years after the successful release of its predecessor, “300: Rise of an Empire” attempts to resurrect the great success of “300,” and ultimately, as many sequels do, falls short. “Rise of an Empire” certainly delivers on effects, fighting and babes, but lacks an effective story. 

    “Rise of an Empire” is a prequel, parallel story and sequel all rolled into one.  The audience is introduced to the hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the commander of the Greek army faced with the task of fighting a Persian takeover. Stapleton fits in nicely as the fearless, ripped and brooding commander stereotype, but doesn’t quite live up to Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas from “300.” The evil god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) returns but is no longer the main villain. The real antagonist of the film takes shape in Xerxes’ companion and naval commander, Artemisia (Eva Green). Artemisia’s vast forces attempt to overtake all of Greece in extensive battles against Themistokles’ small but cunning defense.The fighting doesn’t seem necessary to the actual story as much as it seems as foreplay for Artemisia and Themistokles’ relationship. Although some of the battles seem a bit pointless to the story, the visual effects are stunning, and the action is fantastic and endless.

    The cinematography of the film is something to take note of  — director Noam Murro lets his audience take in the striking color and movement on screen. The character of the locations lends the characters a power befitting their mythical status. The blood is darker and alive when it flies from the bodies of those killed. Each scene is dream-like and mystic in itself, leaving the idea that it may all be a fantasy. Every few minutes or so the film slips into slow motion, which is probably supposed to make it more dramatic but gets a little old after a while. The greatest scene of this movie is, surprisingly, the sex scene — an overly dramatic coupling that’s more awkward than enticing. I’m not so sure its intent was to be funny, but it had the audience laughing well after the scene was over, and made me think, “Wow, they really did this?” The sex tries too hard to be “sexy” and “dangerous” and ends up being comical instead.

    “Rise of an Empire” has the formula that gives any action-lover just what they need. I’ve never had so much 3-D blood or boobs flying at my face before, and I’m not necessarily complaining. “Rise of an Empire” is many things, but it is definitely not boring. At some point there is so much action going on in the frame that it’s hard to know where to look. Murro does a great job of making each battle as fantastic and as brutal as possible. “Rise of an Empire” does have flashes of deep and concerning motifs that go beyond the fighting. There is quite a heartbreaking look into Artemisia’s past and how it made her into the monster she becomes. The audience even gets a look into Xerxes past and sympathy can be gained for him. The only problem is we don’t get these types of insights with the protagonists like Themistokles. The audience is just supposed to automatically like and admire him because he fits the “hero” mold. I found myself liking Artemisia more than Themistokles, who seemed a bit dense even though he was the “good” guy. Eva Green also entices the audience with her menacing and slow movements as Artimisia. Green is simply captivating and frightening at the same time. Artimisia is only a naval commander, but demands power with her brutal sword and deceiving smile — she’s been betrayed, and boy will she get her revenge.

    “Rise of an Empire” fails to transcend the low expectations of the mindless action movie. That’s the great thing about it, though. You can watch this movie without any expectations or without thinking too much and simply be entertained. The striking visual effects and powerful fighting scenes are enough to make “Rise of an Empire” a good film for a mindless and fun afternoon at the theater.

  • 2014 Oscar Awards recap

    The 86th Academy Awards proceeded mostly according to expectation, but that expectation was such a pipe dream it seemed impossible that all of it could happen. “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture, while “Gravity” won Best Director, a split many were predicting, but just as many thought could never actually happen. Distinguished alumnus Matthew McConaughey won the award for Best Actor, completing his McConaissance and erasing his rom-com laden past forever. John Ridley became the second black screenwriter to ever win an Oscar. It was a big night.

    Host Ellen DeGeneres started things out with a bang. She was funny and down-to-earth but borrowed the snark of many of her Oscar-hosting predecessors to varying degrees of success. DeGeneres is known as one of the few truly nice comedians, but, last night, she was surprisingly cynical, comparing Liza Minnelli to a drag impersonator and mocking nominee June Squibb’s age. Mean doesn’t really work on Ellen, but she realized that quickly and turned it around, ordering pizza for audience members and taking the most popular selfie of all time. She knew when to be visible and when to let the show go. Even though the ceremony went well over its allotted time, it never felt like it dragged, and a big part of that is due to DeGeneres’s spot-on mix of energy and detachment.

    “Gravity” was the big winner of the night, taking home seven of its 10 nominations, including Director, Cinematography, Score and most of the other technical categories. The biggest loser? “American Hustle,” which was nominated for 10 Oscars (as many as “Gravity”) and won zero. “Gravity”’s dominance cost many other films their chance at awards too, including “Captain Phillips” and “Nebraska,” both of which also went home empty-handed. “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron has long been an industry favorite with his unique visual style and created an entirely new way of filmmaking, making his expected victory a deserved one. He is also the first Latin filmmaker to win the Oscar for Directing.

    The live performances, always a welcome diversion at the Academy Awards, were hit and miss. Pharrell performed a lively rendition of the admittedly repetitive “Happy” and even got some audience participation from nominated actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. U2 did a flawless acoustic rendition of their nominated song “Ordinary Love,” and Karen O and Ezra Koenig staged a charming version of “The Moon Song” from “Her.” But possibly the biggest surprise of the night was Idina Menzel’s disappointing performance of “Let it Go.” Easily the most anticipated of all the performers, Menzel fell flat, seeming terrified and unconfident. It actually made the song’s subsequent Oscar win seem awkward.

    All the acting categories shook out exactly as they were predicted. Frontrunners Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto took home Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine” and Best Supporting Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club,” respectively. Slightly less assured pick Lupita Nyong’o won Supporting Actress for her work in “12 Years a Slave,” and McConaughey won Best Actor, also for “Dallas Buyers Club.” While all these actors were largely expected to win, it’s hard to argue with any of the choices. All delivered career best — or career launching — performances and charmed the pants off the awards circuit.

    The biggest moment of the night was the final one, when Will Smith presented “12 Years a Slave” with the award for Best Picture. Steve McQueen was the first African-American to win an Oscar for producing and literally jumped for joy. “12 Year a Slave” only won three awards in total, but the fact that a grueling but stunning film about slavery won Best Picture, an award normally reserved for the most palatable, middle-of-the-road fare, made the supposedly most important awards in film seem relevant for the first time in quite a while.

  • Cold War thriller "The Americans"could be FX's next flagship show

    A lot of shows spend their first season figuring out what they do well, but when “The Americans” debuted last year, it was more or less fully-formed, and if not for “Orange is the New Black,” it would have easily been the best new show of the year. In its second season, which premiered Wednesday night, “The Americans” irons out the few kinks it has, continues to spotlight complex, unexpectedly sympathetic characters, and returns with remarkable confidence and intensity.

    The 80’s-set drama takes place in the throes of the Cold War, and Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) are walking justifications to American paranoia, a pair of KGB sleeper cell agents who’ve built a life as an American family. Last season found the couple struggling to determine just how real their arranged marriage had become, while trying to keep their identity under wraps from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent across the street. This year, Phillip and Elizabeth have to confront brutally heightened stakes after some of their colleagues are eliminated, while trying to throw their increasingly inquisitive daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), off the scent of their illicit activities.

    The increased focus on Paige gives Taylor an opportunity to shine in a role that was previously thankless, and the young actress makes her early stages of rebellion sing with authenticity, selling her curiosity as she begins to wrack up a few secrets of her own. Russell and Rhys continue to impress as they try to find the balance between their all-American image and their all-Russian allegiance. While the show isn’t afraid to paint the characters as ruthless killers (and does, often), Phillip and Elizabeth’s horrific actions are always filtered through an unflappable determination, making these complex, ostensibly villainous characters sympathetic and even admirable. Rhys in particular does a great job finding the small complexities in his character, his seething rage as he hands out a little parental discipline contrasting with the cool efficiency he displays as he kills a restaurant full of people – including a teen not much older than his daughter.

    Perhaps the best performer in the cast, however, is Noah Emmerich, whose FBI agent is currently embroiled in an affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian asset who’s milking him for information. Beeman is the show’s most conflicted figure, the weight of his job slowly disintegrating his personal life, and Emmerich brings tinges of regret and resignation to every bad choice his character makes. Though Nina is trained to hide all emotion, Mahendru makes the smallest gestures and moments count with her marvelously restrained performance.

    It’s impressive that “The Americans” is able to root itself in the 1980’s without pointing to the obvious aesthetic signposts, and the show’s soundtrack choices are often inspired, using off-the-beaten-path choices to underline character moments and emotional beats. This season also finds the show brutally upping the stakes, a twist towards the end of the first episode adding a welcome urgency and sense of danger to the Jennings’ adventures. “The Americans” has always been great at using its period and characters to build suspense, and even lingering threads like Beeman and Phillip’s budding friendship have moments of tension based in the inevitable discoveries to come.

    “The Americans” debuted last season as one of the year’s most exceptional shows, and teetered on the edge of greatness throughout its freshman year. With tonight’s second season premiere and the impressive episodes that follow, “The Americans” follows through on that promise, telling stories that beautifully use the dueling lives the Jennings lead to add tension to every scene and giving its strong roster of performers plenty of dramatically taut notes to play. If the rest of the season continues on such a strong note, viewers may be looking at FX’s next flagship show.

    Creator: Joe Weisberg
    Network: FX
    Airtime: 9PM, Wednesdays

  • Folk musician Angel Olsen plays her first show in Austin

    With her critically acclaimed third album Burn Your Fire For No Witness released last week, folk singer Angel Olsen is coming to Red 7 to play her first ever show in Austin.

    Unlike her first two albums, which were full of lo-fi, sparse folk songs, Olsen’s latest finds her delving into rock and roll, recording it with a full band that she is now touring with. The songs hit harder, with more energy than the tender ballads that fans of hers had grown accustomed to. 

    “I just started writing differently,” Olsen said. “I wasn’t working on being a solo musician anymore so it gave me more opportunities to express myself. I wrote songs that I thought would go really well with a rock band.” 

    Previously, Olsen played as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band, and through that met musicians that she collaborated with such as Emmet Kelly of The Cairo Gang. Working with Kelly and other musicians led her to want to find a group of people to tour with.

    “I feel like I met the right people,” Olsen said. “All this stuff happened at once. I met my band, introduced them to the old stuff and then introduced them to the new stuff I had been writing over the fall and it made sense to them.”

    Olsen plays with a four piece now, and while she will occasionally play solo sets, the addition of a full band allows her to open up her old material on tour without dramatically changing any of the songs.

    “There have been some parts on old songs, like “Tiniest Seed”, where we have someone who can play another guitar and there might be an extra guitar break instead of just lyrics all the way through,” Olsen said. “ I think that’s more fun to play.”

    Another change for Olsen, besides the addition of a band, was that last year she moved away from her home of Chicago to Asheville, North Carolina.

    “I was just ready to go somewhere else,” Olsen said. “I had been living in Chicago for 6 or 7 years and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I was ready for something new, I had some friends who owned business in Ahseville, and when we recorded there, it felt like someplace I might want to stay, so I decided why not?” 

    Asheville may not seem like the ideal location for a rising musician to settle down, but Olsen insists that a strong artistic scene is budding there, thanks in part to Jon Hency, who produced her first two records.

    “Jon runs a venue there called Mothlight and he’s been opening up a space for people who play abstract and atmospheric rock, not your usual country bands you get in Asheville,” Olsen said. “He’s cultivating a scene there and it feels cool to step in when that’s starting to happen.”

    Olsen’s new home of Asheville was also featured prominently in the music video for single “Forgiven/Forgotten,” which contained grainy 16mm footage of a suburb where Olsen was living. 

    “My friend and I had been working with 16mm for a while and and honestly we didn’t have any vision for the video,” Olsen said. “She came to town and was like ‘Act like you’re in Freaks and Geeks and you’re really angsty and upset with your dude.’ It was two minutes long, so we didn’t need that many shots. I honestly feel like those projects work best when you have no plan. I like the way the video turned out though.” 

    While Olsen will play her first Austin show at Red 7, she will finish up her tour by coming back for SXSW. She skipped the festival last year, but feels like her new material lends itself to a festival setting more than it used to. 

    “It’s going to be a shit show, but I hope we’ll have a good time,” Olsen said. “We’ve never experienced it before. I think we’re playing in a couple of cool venues while we’re there. Maybe it’ll be really fun, who knows.” 

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