FRESH POUR: Non-Stop (2014) / Stalingrad (2013)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. 

Non-StopNon-Stop
Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
Universal Pictures

After Taken, Liam Neeson’s career has become firmly entrenched in the “grumpy badass” niche; it’s a role he plays well, and manages to subvert to great effect in films like The Grey, but it can’t help feeling a little repetitive by the time Non-Stop comes along. Essentially Taken on a Plane, Non-Stop follows former NYPD cop turned air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) – an alcoholic, drunken mess of a man who somehow is still entrusted with the safety of entire flights – as he encounters a rather strange situation on one of his trips. Receiving strange, cryptic text messages on his oddly-antiquated mobile phone, he learns that someone on the plane a)knows who he is, and b)will kill one person every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into a certain bank account.

It’s honestly a great idea for a tense little thriller, and the first two-thirds of the movie are paced extremely well; the 20-minute mark allows for differing stages of skepticism, believability, fear and cunning on the part of Neeson and the few passengers and crew he lets in on the secret (including Julianne Moore’s haunted ingénue Jen, Corey Stoll’s bigoted cop and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o‘s frightened flight attendant). Cliches abound – the Middle Eastern guy is a suspect at first, but turns out to be a very helpful asset, Neeson himself is being set up as the hijacker so he can get no help from the ground, etc. – but the film moves along at a nice enough pace that these issues barely register. The layout of the plane is also established quite well, making great use of space to wring every bit of variety out of such a confined area. As a tense thriller, it’s a functional but entertaining one, and the supporting cast is good enough to keep up with Neeson’s growly anger.

SPOILERS

It’s in the climax of the film, unfortunately, that Non-Stop fails to stick the landing (see what I did there?). In the opening minutes of the film, I saw a character interact with Liam Neeson, and I immediately called him as the bad guy. My prediction paid off; the filmmakers tipped their hand far too early to me, despite attempts in the middle to introduce doubt in my mind. Granted, they end up throwing a surprise in there by having two bad guys, which turns into a Scream situation where they turn out to be at cross-purposes when it comes down to the wire.

However, what was previously a fairly grounded, sedate thriller turns into an over-the-top action-fest on a dime, where too many extreme things happen at once (including the image featured on the film’s poster and the trailer) and the villain’s motivations are poorly, pedantically explained. The film, through these villains, attempts to make a statement about the inadequacy of security theatre, and the way 9/11 has changed the way we relate to each other and ourselves; however, it’s all spat out at the end in clunky exposition by the villains, like an Aesop’s fable with zero-g gunfights, and you just end up rolling your eyes.

In the end, Non-Stop inserts every cliché in the book, but Liam Neeson plays this role for the millionth time with incredible conviction, and director Jaume Collet-Serra makes great use of space and pace to slowly ratchet up the tension as the film continues. It’s worth a rental, at the very least.

Random Thoughts:

– If the network is down, how did the people hear the news that Marks was “hijacking the plane”?

– Why is Marks such a poor disgraced cop, but he could make it into the TSA as an air marshal?

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Non-Stop Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever Liam Neeson’s text ring goes off
2) Drink any time Liam Neeson gives someone a suspicious glance
3) Drink every time you see an exterior shot of the plane
Finish Your Drink When:
Liam Neeson says, “I’m an alcoholic!”

StalingradStalingrad
Dir. Fedor Bondarchuk
Columbia Pictures

Russia’s reputation in the news lately isn’t all that great – you leave Ukraine alone! – but by God, they’re really trying to capture the glory days of Soviet Russia. This is never more evident in their film industry, where they are doing their damndest to keep up with the Hollywood blockbuster machine by releasing their own internationally-palatable fare. I think it was Night Watch that started the road down commercially accessible genre films coming from Russia, continued by Russia’s superhero entry Black Lightning (which we’ve covered on the podcast) and now Stalingrad.

Apparently “the highest grossing movie in Russia” – I find it telling that Russian movie posters apparently show the literal box office numbers on them as a point of pride – Stalingrad takes a Saving Private Ryan-meets-300 approach to one of the bloodiest battles in history, telling the tale of six Russian soldiers holding a position in a house in war-torn Stalingrad, across the street from a German encampment in a perpetual standstill. Holding the line against the Reich, this small group of soldiers also befriends and takes care of a fetching young resident named Katya, which forms the central relationship on which this film is focused. Keeping the scale relatively small surely saved on the budget, but it allows us to get to know these characters, which is admirable.

Stalingrad certainly looks slick, but in a very elementary way – people bitch about the orange-and-teal color contrast too much on movie posters, but the entire movie looks like this. For something that’s 140 minutes long, that gets repetitive. While the color palette is sadly bichromatic, there are some great images to be found, despite being occasionally mired in unfortunately obvious green-screen. Russian soldiers jump through explosions, climb over hills while on fire to continue to fight, and the overall look of bombed-out Stalingrad is filled with a great level of detail. This is Russia’s attempt to ape American historical blockbusters, and perhaps even revitalize the Soviet propaganda film; Soviet soldiers are essentially shown to be action heroes. These six men manage to endure slow-motion fight scene after slow-motion fight scene, bending the laws of physics to dispatch their German foes. It’s thrilling to watch, but it starts to feel a bit icky and convenient after awhile. It’s melodrama in the most transparent and political way, which sours the notes a bit.

The film certainly attempts to create an even-handed adversary for them, but this only serves to make the film more objectionable. Capt. Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, a capable German character actor) is the film’s antagonist, a conflicted and heartbroken German man who has fallen in love with a Russian woman named Masha who lives in the same building they are occupying. His relationship with Masha echoes the Russians’ relationship with Katya; however, while the latter look after her like a little sister (with the exception of one soldier, whose chaste admission of love for her is a Soviet staple), Kahn trades food and protection for the right to rape her. From her first scene, she is clearly shell-shocked and in the depths of Stockholm Syndrome, hiding with him in one scene and threatening him with a knife the next. While the filmmakers attempt to paint Kahn as someone who was made this way by the senselessness of this war, the fact that he’s an open rapist makes it hard to sympathize with him, and so the film fails in that respect.

In keeping with its propagandist aspirations, Stalingrad’s script confuses romanticism for content and length for breadth – after the millionth scene of teaching Katya how to shoot, or Kahn sitting in bed post-rape wondering how his life has come to this, the repetitiveness and slow pace starts to get to you. Little progress is made from point A to B by the end of the film, and the dialogue (at least, how it is translated) is atrocious.

Perhaps the most egregious part of the script is the film’s framing device, which is nonsensically placed in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. You see, the story we are told comes by way of a mysterious stranger, a member of the international cleanup crew, who is telling the story of how he has “five fathers” to a young woman trapped under rubble. We never see the man’s face, even after the story is wrapped up and he drives away – all we know is that (as established early on) he is Katya’s son, who has not been born yet in the events of the film.* If we know this, then why is it important to obscure his face? Not only that, the reveal never even comes! This aggravated me; there was absolutely no reason to hide his face if it wasn’t going to be a face we had seen before, OR if you were never planning on showing his face anyway. It attempts a Benjamin Button-esque strategy of linking the past with a present tragedy (like they did with their Katrina subplot in the present), but we only see the beginning and end of this – it could have absolutely been cut and  nothing would have been missed.

I hate being so hard on Stalingrad – the performances are all right, especially Kretschmann’s Kahn, and the film certainly has a very direct, detailed style, even if the color palette is unfortunate. However, the propagandist nature of the film takes it down a bit, as that particular kind of naked melodrama doesn’t work as well today; also, given that these are the same attitudes that are persecuting gays and declaring war on countries in Russia today, it’s easy to see the same distasteful, aggressive nationalism in this film as well.

*It’s also stated that his biological father is the young man who declares his love for Katya, shortly before he is killed in battle. When did they have sex, though?

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Stalingrad Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever an explosion goes off
2) Drink any time a character calls someone stupid or an idiot
3) Drink every time the narrator pipes in with background information about a character
Finish Your Drink When:
Gromov says, “There are no retards in the USSR.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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