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Non-Stop: The Air Up There

by Ethan Alter February 28, 2014 6:00 am
Non-Stop: The Air Up There

During the course of his unlikely late-career stint as an action hero, Liam Neeson has logged plenty of flight time traveling to exotic locations like France, Turkey, Alaska and Germany to kick ass. So it's understandable that the nearly retirement-age actor is cashing in some of those frequent flier miles by saying yes to Non-Stop, a thriller that keeps him in a confined space (specifically a transatlantic airline) instead of traipsing through the urban and/or natural wilderness. The other benefit of keeping the action confined to a single set is that the filmmakers have more money to recruit a higher-caliber cast, which is how this glorified B-movie is able to recruit such noted thespians as Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery and current Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o. It doesn't give these folks anything challenging to do, mind you, but if you're going to be stuck on a six-hour New York-to-London flight, it helps to enjoy the company of the passengers and crew.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – The Sum of All Ryans

by Ethan Alter January 17, 2014 6:00 am
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – The Sum of All Ryans

When we last saw Jack Ryan -- CIA analyst and reluctant action hero -- on the big screen, he was racing against the clock to prevent an all-out nuclear war between American and Russia, the favorite antagonist of his creator, Tom Clancy. He also looked a lot like Ben Affleck, who had inherited the role from Harrison Ford, who in turn had inherited it from Alec Baldwin in a string of regenerations of Doctor Who-vian proportions. The casting switch was intended to give a fresh start to the then-three movie franchise, but following a respectable (though far from stellar) box-office performance, Affleck's Ryan was prematurely retired instead. (Just as well; there are a number of reasons why The Sum of All Fears didn't work and Affleck's callow performance tops the list. Funnily enough, though, he'd probably make a great fortysomething Ryan if he were to attack the part today.) A decade later, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers up another Ryan regeneration from which the character emerges with the face and form of Chris Pine. More notably, though, this is the first Ryan adventure that isn't directly based on a Clancy novel and perhaps that explains why it works as well as it does… at least until it doesn't.

Eight Reasons to Celebrate Homefront This Thanksgivukkah

It's being dumped into theaters over Thanksgivukkah weekend with zero promotion and is guaranteed to be in Walmart's discount DVD bin before you finish this sentence, but here are eight reasons to celebrate the existence of the schlocky action picture Homefront this holiday season:

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire: Now This Is More Like It

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instantly goes on the short list of sequels that not only surpass the original film, but the source material as well. (For the record, I'd also put the second James Bond outing From Russia with Love and Peter Jackson's thrilling distillation of The Two Towers in that rarefied air.)

Riddick: Assault on Planet 13

by Ethan Alter September 6, 2013 6:00 am
Riddick: Assault on Planet 13

With the re-energized Fast and the Furious franchise having returned him to pop culture relevance (however briefly), Vin Diesel and his regular collaborator, writer/director David Twohy, are seizing the opportunity to take one more run at Richard B. Riddick, the intergalactic, night vision-enhanced bad-ass they originated in 2000's surprise hit Pitch Black and effectively killed off (metaphorically, though not literally) in 2004's not-so-surprise bomb The Chronicles of Riddick. The secret to Pitch Black's success is that it plays like a lean, mean John Ford Western dressed up in sci-fi clothing, Stagecoach in outer space if you will, with Riddick functioning as its Ringo Kid -- the cool-as-hell antihero who is technically part of the larger ensemble, but gets the best lines and the best bits of action. The bigger-budgeted sequel, on the other hand, proved to be as muddled and convoluted and the original was clean and elegant, tying Riddick up in a confounding mythology that tried and failed to position him as some kind of Conan figure. The third film, simply titled Riddick, tries to split the difference, once again embracing a stripped-down approach to genre filmmaking (one that shares a lot in common with another filmmaker named John… Carpenter, rather than Ford), but still trying to show how its title character fits into the larger futureverse Diesel and Twohy are laboring to create.

Getaway: Stuck in Neutural

by Ethan Alter August 30, 2013 6:05 am
Getaway: Stuck in Neutural

You can tell it's the final days of the summer movie season when the only new wide releases in multiplexes are a One Direction documentary promotional video and an action vehicle for the not-so-dynamic duo of Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez, both of which are making pit stops in theaters prior to debuting on DVD where they really belong. If you simply can't abide the idea of seeing a movie that's been in theaters for longer than a week, I'd suggest going with the One Direction thing -- this despite not having seen it or deliberately listened to one of the manufactured band's manufactured tunes -- if only because the screaming of the group's target audience is sure to keep you awake. There's no such respite from the abject tedium of Getaway, which accomplishes the impressive task of vanishing completely from your mind as you're sitting in the theater watching it. Normally, I'm stridently against folks spending an entire movie on their cell phones, but in this case, it's not like there's anything happening onscreen that merits your attention.

The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:52 am
The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

Putting the "art" back into martial arts cinema, Wong Kar Wai's eagerly awaited The Grandmaster is yet another sumptuously photographed tale of romantic longing from one of the current grandmasters of love-found-and-lost stories. This time, though, the yearning is punctuated by high kicks and lightning-fast punches since the would-be lovers in question are a pair of martial arts wizards. In one corner, you've got Ip Man (the director's regular leading man, Tony Leung) a real-life fighting legend and grandmaster of the Wing Chun discipline, who lived through the Japanese occupation of China during World War II and later moved to Hong Kong, where he trained a young boy who would grow up to become Bruce Lee. Facing off opposite him is the fictitious Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of another martial arts master whose designated heir has sullied the family name, requiring his actual child to appoint herself to clean-up duty.

The Wolverine: Pain is For Chumps, Bub

If nothing else, The Wolverine is the first superhero movie released this summer that actually seems proud of its comic book origins. Shane Black's Iron Man 3 snarkily tweaked the genre's conventions… at least until the final act, when it became a traditional punch-punch-boom-boom affair, while Zack Snyder's Man of Steel plugged its hero into an alien invasion scenario that was more in the vein of Independence Day (minus that movie's good humor) than a Superman comic. If those directors seemed intent on running away from the source material, Wolverine helmer James Mangold is all too eager to embrace it. Freely adapted from a 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller, The Wolverine could almost be released in print form as an arc in the character's ongoing solo title. Mangold's frames frequently resemble comic book panels and the story neatly unfolds in 22-minute chunks, each containing a mixture of intrigue and action and almost always ending on a cliffhanger setting up the next issue.

R.I.P.D.: Almost Dead on Arrival

It was with cautious optimism that I went to see R.I.P.D.. I’m not normally one for action movies -- which, in the age of Transformers, have become heavy on the explosions and light on the everything else. But, R.I.P.D. does have a few things going for it. It stars Jeff Bridges and it has an intriguing premise, based on a comic book by Peter M. Lenkov. It also does not feature a talking snail… like Ryan Reynolds’ other movie that’s opening this weekend.

Only God Forgives: Prognosis? Pain

by Ethan Alter July 19, 2013 5:55 am
Only God Forgives: Prognosis? Pain

In a perverse act of audience-baiting, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling follow up their widely-liked auto-themed thriller Drive with Only God Forgives, a movie that actively seems to be trying to punish viewers who enjoyed their previous collaboration so much. "You liked Gosling's man-of-few-words character?" this film seems to be saying, "Well, here he's going to speak only four or five times." Or, "You loved the neon-lit cityscape of Los Angeles in Drive? Well, here we've shot the streets of Thailand through a bright, headache-inducing red filter that makes it resemble the seventh circle of Hell." Or: "You loved seeing Albert Brooks go bad? Well, here's Kristin Scott Thomas playing the world's worst mother." Or perhaps most of all: "You loved the slow, but confident pace of Drive's narrative? Well, here's a movie where absolutely nothing happens. Enjoy!"

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