Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.

I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Non-Stop (2014)

I sometimes wonder what makes a great actor, and what really separates the performances that get recognised in major industry awards and the ones that prop up straightforward genre fare that won’t get anywhere near such recognition. Because this film — a taut action thriller set on a plane for which the threat of global terrorism is just a convenient prop for a bit of gung-ho men-with-guns nonsense — certainly has some good actors in it, ones who’ve had that taste of recognition (Lupita Nyong’o, who has a small role here, just the other night). But none of them are going to be getting any nods next year, except from their accountants, because the difference between those two planes of acting has little to do with the actor, but with the quality of the writing, and this right here is boilerplate generic action-by-numbers. It just so happens that it’s done with enough aplomb that it mostly stays on the right side of enjoyable hokum.

Liam Neeson has certainly redirected his career towards the kind of terrain more fitted to the talents of Jason Statham, essaying growly-voiced vengeance with rote regularity. Non-Stop isn’t quite the same as his Taken franchise though, and here he’s not out for revenge but to try and figure out just what’s going on. It’s not even clear to everyone that he’s the good guy — he’s a man seen swigging whisky on the job and smoking in the airplane’s bathroom, with a ferocious stubble and the hangdog expression of someone not really up to the job. On the other hand, as a friend pointed out to me, the film’s opening minutes do a terrific job of implicating just about everyone we see, including plenty of obvious stereotypes, which is as any whodunit should be. And if there is, in the end, an explanation for what’s going on, it’s pretty perfunctory and I’m not sure I could recount it for you even if I wanted to. That’s not the point. The point is the chase.

The dialogue may not find any new levels of truth, and some of the emotion-laden symbolism (Neeson’s relationship with his daughter, Julianne Moore’s need to be by the window) is unpicked in speeches and then groaningly resolved by the plot’s machinations, which however self-awarely contrived (“in an unbelievable twist…” announces a news anchor near the end) are still contrived. And then there’s the usual overreliance of the malefactor(s) on procedures being followed and on things being done in a certain way (though not perhaps to quite the extent of, say, Skyfall). But the writers and director at least do a good job with stringing out the suspense until there seems no escape before finding a tiny crack and moving things forward to the next brick wall. It ensures that even in the claustrophobically limited space there’s still plenty to hold the viewer’s attention. And that too is where the good actors come in handy.

It’s a film in which the terrorist (but who?) wants $150 million. Neeson’s character at length feels it’s not about the money. But for the filmmakers and the studio it has to be, and maybe that amount is their own target to get from the audience? It won’t win any awards, and it may not deserve them, but it’ll make money and, for the daffy enjoyment it provides, it probably deserves at least that.

Non-Stop film posterCREDITS
Director Jaume Collet-Serra; Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle; Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano [as “Flavio Labiano”]; Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 3 March 2014.