Kicking the Tweets

Veronica Mars (2014)

The Long, Cracked Lens of Nostalgia

Before diving in, let's get a couple things out of the way:

1. I'm a huge fan of the Veronica Mars TV series, which ran three seasons from 2004-2007. This is a sweeping generalization, but I suspect that anyone who writes the series off as a fluffy teen soap has never watched an episode (much less the first season, which is essentially a tight, twenty-two-hour Whodunnit).

2. I financially supported the record-shattering Veronica Mars movie campaign on Kickstarter last year. Series creator Rob Thomas asked fans to pony up $2 million to fund a feature, which Warner Brothers agreed to distribute if they came through. In less than a day, Thomas had his budget--which would nearly triple by campaign's end a few weeks later. I contributed just enough to get a t-shirt for my wife, along with digital downloads of the shooting script and finished film.*

So, is the Veronica Mars movie any good? Yes, but it's not great. In fact, it might even put off fans who appreciate solid filmmaking first and nostalgia second. Having now seen what I and more than 91,000 other backers paid for, I can safely say the money would have been better spent divvied up among six episodes of a fond-farewell TV miniseries.

I was skeptical but hopeful that Thomas could distill an inherently episodic property into a single movie. He has technically succeeded, as a matter of fan service. But newcomers will likely be left out in the cold by this confused, rushed mess of an experiment.

There's no way to talk about the film's triumphs and shortcomings without heading right for spoiler territory, so I'll leave those of you who are about to jump off with this: It's okay to wait for Veronica Mars' DVD debut in May--or to rent it on Amazon or iTunes right now. There's no reason to head out to the theatre for this one, unless you just like watching really big TV.

At the outset, we catch up on who and what Veronica Mars is: Ten years ago, pretty and popular Veronica (Kristen Bell) was shunned at high school when her sheriff father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), accused the wrong man of murdering Veronica's best friend, Lily (Amanda Seyfried). Freshly run out of office and subsequently divorced, Keith opened a private-eye firm and employed his outcast daughter to help him solve the weird mysteries that always seem to pop up in Neptune, California--a fictitious town where (to paraphrase the pilot) people are either movie stars or the cleaners of movie stars' homes.

Today, Veronica lives in New York with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). On the eve of landing a high-paying corporate attorney job, she gets a desperate phone call from former bad-boy/lover Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). He's been accused of electrocuting his pop-star girlfriend, and needs help navigating a sea of slimy, prospective defense lawyers. Before you can say, "dreaded high-school reunion trope", Veronica is back in Neptune, dusting off the ol' sleuthing equipment, and reacquainting herself with the friends and enemies who never left town.

Right off the bat, the key problem with Veronica Mars is Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero's depiction of Logan. In the original series, he was a troubled, psychopathic rich kid who was sort of tamed by his relationship with Veronica. When we catch up with him, he's a self-serious (read: dull) military officer who literally greets his old flame at the airport in dress whites. Aside from one scene later on, in which he gets into a massive brawl, there's not a hint of the madness or darkly wry personality that made this character interesting.

Many times throughout the film, I asked myself, "As a non-fan, how would I react to...?" In the case of Logan, I might wonder why Veronica would bother jeopardizing a bright future with the warm, funny, and responsible Piz (whom she has genuinely loved for nearly a decade)--in order to shack up with a guy who transcends "brooding" and zeroes in on "wallpaper".

Logan's case is also problematic. At no point did I question his innocence. From moment one, Veronica's mission isn't to clear his name in her own eyes, but to unravel the mystery that leads to the mystery that leads to him getting off. It would have been nice to doubt Logan's purity, at least once. Instead, he sheepishly follows Veronica around, waiting for permission to sleep with her (which is granted, in one of the most backwards-looking but sadly predictable plot developments I've seen lately). Had we been presented with the Logan of old who'd, say, spent the last decade as a Charlie-Sheen-like tabloid darling--a mega-public, mega-train-wreck--the filmmakers might have toyed with the audience's sympathies to great effect.

Instead, we're left with a barrel full of red herrings, including an obsessive fan of the dead girl (Gaby Hoffman); a sinister and corrupt local police force; and the newest incarnation of the once legendary PCH biker gang, whose main intimidation tactic now involves riding around in circles. We also get numerous references to the Kane family, who was at the center of Keith Mars' murder investigation; a horror story about a seemingly-unrelated-to-anything death on a yacht several years earlier; and the neutering of the other bad-boy in Veronica's high school life, Weevil (Francis Capra), whose arc literally goes nowhere and makes zero sense--in the absence of a sequel that isn't likely to happen.

Only one of the plots above is relevant to proving Logan's innocence, and its resolution centers on a climax so rushed that I was momentarily convinced my stream had skipped a few minutes by mistake (no such luck). The others are filler that, I'm sure, Thomas could have turned into at least one strong season of a Veronica Mars 2.0. When compressed into an hour and forty-eight minutes, though, the dropped subplots, bizarre asides, and pacing issues come across as a YouTube fan edit.

That's unfortunate, because the cast is so game to return. Bell is always a sassy, vulnerable delight, and her tender banter with Colantoni becomes the heart of the film (as was the case on TV). Brief appearances by Max Greenfield, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Majorino were welcome, but ultimately served to remind me of how much room this universe needs to breathe. Thomas hints at what might have been with an in-joke about the scuttled Veronica Mars: FBI spin-off series, and it's a cruel tease.

Maybe Veronica Mars was doomed from the start. When a story's success depends on building an audience's relationship with a large set of characters and then exceeding or subverting expectations, a Cliff's Notes version of same simply cannot cut it. From the opening montage through the confusing last scene--which felt like the lead-in to a network series (and not a movie sequel)--I could feel the pressure Thomas and Ruggiero were under. On one hand, the creative team had to let die-hard fans know that they hadn't been forgotten; on the other, they were tasked with shoving a VM-worthy mystery into less than two hours--and making newcomers understand what all the fuss was about.

Sadly, the focus was on the former, and instead of a harrowing, Christopher McQuarrie-style mystery, we're treated to ninety minutes of "Spot-the-Cameo" and "How Deep Do Your Nerd References Go?" (I don't know if Ira Glass and James Franco were backers, but their pointless, unfunny screen time is culpable in robbing us of a more substantial central mystery). Ultimately, the Veronica Mars movie belies what made the Veronica Mars television show so special: in a sea of forgettable, teen-targeted UPN/WB comedies and dramas, Thomas' vision stood out as a beacon of relatability, brains, and innovation. It was a show for adults, disguised as something that would otherwise compel them to leave the room.

Sadly, the kids have won this round.

*Allow me to add my voice to the chorus of annoyed fans who aren't very happy with the way Warner Brothers decided to distribute the Veronica Mars movie. Backers who were promised a digital download on the day of release have found ourselves wrestling with the awful, unintuitive, and unhelpful streaming services Flixster and UltraViolet (both of which are required to get the film). After several attempts to get these digital dinosaurs to work, I sent an e-mail to UltraViolet and have still not yet received confirmation that my complaint was even logged.

That was Saturday night, and I wound up plopping down seven bucks to watch Veronica Mars through Amazon Prime--which, by the way, was available on my TV as soon as I walked down the hall from my office computer and plopped down on the couch. If these lousy services are the wave of the future, I'll stick with my physical-media collection, thank you very much.


300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

The Pudding Problem

Don't be fooled: though the official run-time for 300: Rise of an Empire is an hour and forty-three minutes, it tops out, substantively, at seventy. Between the slow-motion action scenes, flashbacks, and sweeping views of roiling CGI oceans, Noam Murro's sequel feels not so much half-assed as just unsure if it even wants to retread the ground laid so definitively by Zack Snyder's original.

Sure, many have slagged 2006's 300 for being gaudy, over-the-top, and the most unintentionally (?) homoerotic blockbuster since Top Gun. But it also proved that, with enough imagination, processing power and Chroma Key paint, one could convincingly fashion a blood-soaked, sword-and-sandals epic entirely on a sound stage. It was Lawrence of Arabia for a generation that would never sit still through Lawrence of Arabia.

And I loved it.

Granted, I haven't watched that film in years, but my memories are fond enough to elicit a yawn when I learned a sequel was in the works. It took eight years, but Rise of an Empire proves the new-millennium adage that nothing so successful can simply be appreciated as a unique piece of art; if it's not sequelized, spun-off, or re-made, some team of mid-level executives isn't coming to the studio Christmas party.

So now we must contend with a well-made but utterly useless brand-spore that serves as a prequel, a paraquel, and a sequel to its predecessor. I knew nothing of the story going in, except that god-king Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) origin played a part; that the stunning and always fun Eva Green had a major role; and that the Spartan warriors' motif this time out was blue instead of red. That's pretty much all I left the theatre with, too--along with a giddy sense of elation that I'd witnessed my first 3D/IMAX sex scene (which was a wacky, ultra-naked doozy for the ages*).

There are two main problems here, one of which is evident from the first minute: all the blood in Rise of an Empire (of which there are tankers' worth) looks like red-velvet pudding. The gore is ninety-percent computer-generated, and has a uniformly thick, unrealistic mass and texture that took me right out of the picture. Snyder splattered his frames in Particle Illusion blood, too, but at least it was recognizable as something that might come out of human veins.

The second problem is a lack of Gerard Butler. We get glimpses of his King Leonidas, but are mostly stuck with Sullivan Stapleton as Themistokles. Butler played pensive, macho and fucking crazy in equal measure, and with a convincing charisma that made the actor appear like a genuine warrior from another era (I never thought I'd get misty eyed when the guy who screamed "Tonight we dine in Hell!" died at the end of 300, but I did). In contrast, Stapleton plays the leader of the Athenian navy with all the Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas of the self-serious period epics that have deluged TV since 300 opened those floodgates. Movies like this need a protagonist who exudes madness, not sadness, and it's no surprise that writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (working from Frank Miller's graphic novel, "Xerxes") spend so much time on the opposing ship--helmed by Green's Artemisia.

Green gets it, and looks to be having a wonderful time with the material. Her character's background is littered with tragedy, and we see her need to survive savage times morph into an inhuman lust for revenge, power, and a drive to conquer the gods. Unlike many action movies I've endured lately, Artemisia carries herself as a woman among men, instead of a woman trying to act more macho in order to gain the respect of the apes around her. Normally, I would have a big issue with a story that doesn't know which character it's supposed to follow; in the case of Rise of an Empire, I'm really glad the filmmakers forget what they're doing for long stretches and inadvertently focussed on the real star power.

Speaking of powers, did everyone in ancient Greece have super-vision? I lost count of the close-ups on characters' faces as the stared meaningfully at each other from thousands of feet away--usually in the middle of savage battles raging all around them. I know, I know, it's a comic book, or whatever...

Jesus, have I even mentioned the plot? Let me fix that with an elevator pitch: "It's 300 on the water!" That's really it; a few tweaks to the story beats aside (this time, a reckless young warrior loses his dad, instead of the other way around!), Rise of an Empire follows its predecessor to a "T". From the myriad conversations between shirtless, indistinguishable hunks;** to the posturing Xerxes sitting around, not using his alleged god-like powers; to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) giving seven thousand speeches about something or other, the sequel plods along, fueled only by the ensuing eight years' advancements in digital artistry.

I'm not mad at 300: Rise of an Empire. I just don't care enough to recommend it. The handful of great new material (all of which involve Xerxes and Artemisia) could just as easily have been edited into a ten-minute short film that might appear on the original's 10th anniversary blu-ray. There's certainly no need to pay for the 3D/IMAX up-charge--unless, of course, you plan to actually see this thing in a theatre. In that case, constantly craning your neck to take in the whole vapid image might help you stay awake through all the filler.

*I'm a child. Sue me.

**I'm sure someday one of them will turn out to be the next Michael Fassbender.


The Bag Man (2014)

Lynch Mobbed

Looking up the writing credits for The Bag Man, I found something that helped put this whole mess in context: co-writer/director David Grovic, Paul Conway, and James Russo were all inspired by Marie-Louise von Franz's story, "The Cat". I've never read "The Cat", but I was instantly reminded of Stephen King's Cat's Eye--particularly the segment in which Robert Hayes must endure a night of hell for the amusement of a slimy, ruthless crime lord. Like The Bag Man, Cat's Eye featured desperate people doing dangerous things for money, a mysterious satchel, and a lead actor whose face likely induced frequent flashbacks of their better-known (and just plain better) movies.

As with last week's Non-Stop, in which the Liam Neeson from our timeline hopped a trans-dimensional flight to a 90s highjacking picture, The Bag Man finds an alternate-universe version of John Cusack's character from Grosse Pointe Blank fumbling his way around a seedy motel on the outskirts of Twin Peaks. Cusack plays Jack, a World-weary Hit ManTM with Nothing to LoseTM, who does the dirty work of an EccentricTM, Omnipotent Mob BossTM1 named Dragna (Robert DeNiro). Jack's latest assignment has him checking into room 1408 (sorry, room 13) and waiting for Dragna to show up and collect the satchel--which he's been ordered not to look inside, lest he gaze upon Marsellus Wallace's soul.2

Of course, nothing's that simple: the guy who gave Jack the bag tried to kill him--but wound up dead and stuffed in a trunk, instead. And the motel is crawling with weird losers, from Crispin Glover as the EccentricTM, Nosy Front-Desk ClerkTM (whose Southern--I guess--accent must be heard to be believed), to the patriotically bedazzled Israeli hooker (Rebecca Da Costa), to the track-suited Russian midget enforcer (Martin Klebba) and his partner in pimpdom (Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones, whose look has been wholly appropriated from Sam Jackson's Marvel Universe getup). Throw in DeNiro's hilarious Robert Evans visage, and one gets the feeling Grovic raided a Halloween shop on November first, 'cause someone forgot to hire a wardrobe consultant.

The film's lone stand-out is Dominic Purcell who, as the corrupt local sheriff, delivers a performance that is understated, nuanced, and a complete surprise (he also delivers a line about death, at the start of a torture scene, that has no business being in a movie this far beneath it: "Just because it's inevitable, doesn't mean it's imminent."). It's hard to admit, but he does a far better job here than Cusack, whose constant look of fatigue and bewilderment far surpass anything he might consciously be doing with the character. Sadly, he's not in the movie much, which means we must contend with a sleepwalking DeNiro and a fully conscious Da Costa--who do nothing to elevate The Bag Man's mid-90s-direct-to-video-thriller vibe.

It's not fair to blame the actors, though. I place this near-near-miss squarely at the feat of the packed kitchen of screenwriters, who can find so little to do with their handful of locations that much of the movie is a series of trips in and out of identical rooms, as characters go to and from a wooded clearing, and occasionally shoot at each other. There's a car chase, and a forest pursuit, but it's all filler leading up to the Big RevealTM of whatever's in the bag (Hint: remember Cat's Eye?). By the ninetieth time someone asked out loud, "Did you look in the bag?" I almost shut the movie off in protest.3

Look, not every thriller can take the audience zipping through the streets of Paris. But the rules break down like this: in lieu of budgets, go for locations. In lieu of locations, go for dialogue. In lieu of dialogue, go for actors. In lieu of actors, go for a walk and start over. Yeah, I made all those up, but I challenge anyone reading this to defy them.

It's also not a great idea to supplement good writing and ideas for "shock value"--especially when the targets are uniformly women. I don't want to accuse anyone of being a misogynist, but there are two too many scenes whose intent appears to be getting the audience's blood up in less than savory ways. DeNiro repeatedly hits a female underling (Celesta Hodge) in the face, all for the sake of a plastic surgery joke, and the town's crooked cops treat Da Costa's character like a semi-sentient blow-up doll. I don't care who gets what comeuppance in the end; it's ugly and uncool.4

In the end, The Bag Man is little more than a curiosity that, I hope, will be remembered as part of a dark mid-point in Cusack and DeNiro's brilliant careers. Both men are lions who, through bad luck, bad judgment, and/or old-fashioned laziness, have found themselves anxiously killing time in a middle-of-nowhere hotel along the highway of their lives. Here's hoping that a little youthful inspiration comes a-knockin' sooner rather than later.

Okay, it's never established that Dragna's officially connected. But it's a DeNiro villain role, fer chrissakes.

2 Sorry.

As a point of pride, I couldn't allow my spotless "No Walk Outs" record to be tarnished by G-grade DeNiro.

4 And, yes, i find both merit and entertainment in films like A Clockwork Orange, in which women are roughed up and worse. But let's not pretend Grovic and company are operating on the same social-consciousness plane as Kubrick and Burgess, okay?


Bad Words (2013)

Awesome. A-W-E-S-O-M...E

Hold tight, everybody: 2014's first great comedy is just around the corner. For months, film fiends have endured everything from snowstorms and flash-freezes to wildfires and droughts, just to plop down in a theatre for some new-release entertainment. But between Taken 2.5, the unofficial Volcano prequel, and Branded Play: The Movie, there's been little to satisfy those of us who hunger for unsafe material that tickles the darkest and smartest parts of our brains. Luckily, Bad Words opens in two weeks, and this is an early review.*

First-time feature director and star Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a grumpy, forty-year-old jerk whose newfound purpose in life is winning a national spelling bee--for elementary school kids. The former warranty proofreader has deeper reasons for his journey than simply pissing off legions of beleaguered parents, but Guy's horrifically smarmy, racist, sexist, know-it-all demeanor makes it tough to care about what they are. Worse yet, he's an undefeated master wordsmith, a certifiable genius who cheats not because he has to, but to ensure that his grand plan goes off without a hitch.

Of course, there are hitches. One takes the form of Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter for an on-line newspaper with interpersonal issues of her own. She follows Guy across the country for what would be a juicy story--if this larger-than-life nut wasn't impossible to crack. It's unclear how much of her doggedness is due to journalistic drive, low self-esteem, or the fact that she just plain likes Guy for some really inexplicable reason. The truth ends up being messy, mostly unstated, and a refreshing combination of all of the above.

Guy's main obstacle, though, is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a wide-eyed, super-friendly ten-year-old kid who attaches himself and never lets go--despite the string of threats, insults, and expletives spewed right in his face. He represents not only a challenge to Guy's focus, but also to his victory, as contestants drop like flies around them. I'll leave it to you to discover how this relationship evolves as the televised final round grows closer. Suffice it to say, you've seen the twists before, but first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge arms his characters with a resourcefulness and apathy to adversity that allows them to return low blows with atomic ferocity.

Bad Words will not be for everyone. Though the audience seemed to have a really good time at the screening I attended (I saw no walk-outs) I can't recall the last time I heard so many incredulous gasps from so many people during one film. Dodge and Bateman make Guy absolutely irredeemable at every turn, from plying a kid with liquor and making him into a master thief and vandal,, helping him discover girls.** In many ways, I was reminded of Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa, which dealt with similar themes and featured a slimy yet compelling protagonist. If you had problems with that movie's offensive, edgy darkness, you may want to steer clear of Bad Words--which makes Billy Bob Thornton's drunken hijinks look like a prime-time-sitcom romp in comparison.

As a debut feature director, Bateman hits Bad Words out of the park. Working with cinematographer Ken Seng and editor Tatiana S. Riegel, he gives the film a terrific style that's literally and figuratively filtered through a shade of poisoned darkness. Something's kind of "off" about the visuals here, intentionally so: to look at him, Guy Trilby is a relaxed, attractive, everyman who would blend in at any Starbucks line--but we can only glimpse him through the black cloud of resentment misting from his pores. And, yes, we eventually find a wounded, gooey center beneath the muck, but the filmmakers never let us forget the devilish glee on Bateman's face--a welcome and disturbing sight on an actor who's been stuck in Wry-Straight-Man-Observer Mode since, I'll say, Teen Wolf Too.

Bateman's the main draw, of course, but his supporting cast is equally as twisted and phenomenal. Hahn's character could have easily been a doormat, but she has just as many moments of triumph as buffoonery--which places her right on par with her chauvinistic traveling companion. Chand is a remarkable child actor, playing inquisitive and bright, without the distracting precociousness one might expect to see in such a role. He's also just a plain cute kid, and there's something so charming about the way he's captured on film. It's easy to see how Chaitanya could so thoroughly complicate even a dyed-in-the-wool asshole like Guy.

I also enjoyed seeing Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, and the venerable Philip Baker Hall kill their parts with deceptive ease (it's no small feat to make cartoon characters and archetypes feel like flesh-and-blood people). But the real stand-out is Steve Witting, who plays the constantly disrespected spelling-bee proctor. His is a small role, but an important one to the main plot, and it's nice to see a seasoned character actor get a fun moment to shine.

Some will write off Bad Words as the latest attempt to capitalize on the the Seth MacFarlane comedy zeitgeist--where a sitcom premise becomes bankable through star power and extremely offensive language. But Bateman and Dodge take that idea a step further, sprinkling their non-PC pie with bits of humanity (or at least reality). When Guy Trilby finally achieves his goal, he comes face to face with the driving force behind what has been a revenge mission all along. Instead of going big or going violent, the filmmakers offer up one last gasp-worthy surprise in a single, multifaceted facial expression. The loudmouth Guy Trilby realizes, at long last, that sometimes there are no words.

*Though it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Bad Words will see a limited theatrical release here in the U.S., beginning March 21st.

**During the post-screening Q&A, someone asked the director if he'd had any difficulty getting such a young actor to perform such adult material. He said, essentially, that all the people they auditioned were game before they walked in the room--so at least we can't (officially) blame Hollywood for corrupting little Rohan's innocence.


Non-Stop (2014)

Red Herring Flight to London

I don't know what it is about 2014, but my education in movie-release-date science has been aggressive and mind-blowing. When it comes to mainstream fare, late-winter really is the dead season--but not because the films on offer are terrible (necessarily): more than likely, they're the mega-budget misfires that are just a tad too thinky for blockbuster season, but which smell way too much of popcorn for the Oscar quarter. I, Frankenstein was an off-brand comic-book movie; Robocop was the remake nobody wanted; 3 Days to Kill was so dumb it thought it was smart; and now we have Non-Stop, a Liam Neeson actioner too dusty and self-contained to spawn a franchise, and too boring to compete with real comic-book movies and sequels.

In short, if you think, "Oh, this looks cool. Maybe they're kicking off summer way early this year," sit back down, and save your money for Captain America 2

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a divorced, alcoholic U.S. Air Marshal who hates flying. While on an international flight to London, he receives a series of text messages from someone aboard the plane. If this person doesn't receive a $150 million wire transfer, they claim, a passenger will die every twenty minutes. If you've seen the trailers, you know that Marks himself becomes the prime suspect, and it would have been nice of writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle to introduce that idea gradually--or, better yet, make us truly believe it as a possible outcome. Instead, we know pretty much from the start that there is a genuine bad guy involved, and that, frankly, the filmmakers only care about landing the plane safely so Neeson and fellow traveler Julianne Moore can share relieved, platonic smiles.

The problem (and I suspect this has something to do with two of the writers' previous lives as reality-TV creators) is that not only is absolutely everybody a suspect--from the passengers to the stewardesses to the shifty-eyed co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner)--but that we literally spend minutes on end with a healthy percentage of people on the plane. We bounce back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between suspicion and acquittal more frequently than a trans-Atlantic airline pilot racking up overtime. It's exhausting, and leads to feelings of surrender rather than intrigue: "Just tell me who it is already, so I can start forgetting this movie on my way to the car!"

The film's single innovation, I guess, is its reliance on Final Destination-style kills. In an effort to cement his (or her) framing of Marks for the hijacking, the real terrorist arranges for people to die in seemingly accidental, or at least unavoidable, ways. From food poisoning to allergic reactions, to the hottest toilet fracas in cinema history, Non-Stop at least doesn't descend into slasher-film territory. Granted, by the second or third choking/foaming mouth, I began to crave a little poison-gas-in-the-drop-down-masks (you can have that one for free, Hollywood)--but overall, the filmmakers keep things classy.

There's another major component to the movie's head-scratching clumsiness, but I can't get into it without spoilers. So consider yourself warned, and feel free to skip ahead to the last paragraph.

Joel Silver is credited as a producer on Non-Stop, and it shows. Whether or not he was involved in day-to-day development, or simply acted as a brand-name for the sake of financing, it feels as though Neeson's character from Taken has boarded a non-stop flight to 1996--three years before Silver helped re-define action/sci-fi with The Matrix, but at the height of a career that gave us two decades' worth of macho cheese (including thrillers at 30,000 feet such as Executive Decision and Die Hard 2).

From Anson Mount's wardrobe and mullet; to the briefcase full of cocaine; to the lone Muslim passenger (Omar Metwally) who everybody fears; and the two-killers twist from Scream (hey, I warned ya), Non-Stop exists as a Tommyknockers-esque portal of half-eaten time between the golden age of corny menace and the post-9/11 era of self-seriousness. Neeson avoids the catch-phrase contagion of Air Force One and Passenger 57, although an argument could be made that his trademark glower is the new millennium's witty retort.

In fairness, I got three solid, out-loud laughs from this glacial mess. The first comes when Marks decides that the best way to alert an edgy stewardess (Michelle Dockery) to a corpse in the lavatory is to simply move out of the way and let her catch a glimpse--instead of, you know, dropping a calm, well-phrased hint or two.

Next, Marks lists "alcoholic" at the end of a long line of character flaws, while trying to convince the entire plane that he's not a maniac. One passenger takes such offense at this that they groan indignantly off-screen.

The last gut-buster comes just before the money-shot you've seen in all the previews--the one where Neeson flies backwards in slow motion, shooting at someone while the plane obviously has a giant hole in it. What they don't show is the moment where gravity takes a power nap, allowing that gun to float, force-like, into the air, next to Neeson's stern-but-kinda-confused face. I can't say much else for Jaume Collet-Serra's direction, but this two-second moment of greatness deserves its own Academy tribute.

Non-Stop isn't awful. It's just weird in a lot of bad ways--some of which are entertaining. I'd call that an improvement over much of the junk we've been asked to support at the box office lately. Still, I can't recommend trekking to the theatre to see this, when you'd have better odds renting eight or ten Red Box titles instead. Now there's a first-class idea.

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