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.

Captain Phillips (2013)

When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.

The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.

This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.

Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).

Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.

CREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Steve Coogan has done a lot of fine acting work, particularly in the films of Michael Winterbottom (A Cock and Bull Story is my own favourite, though earlier this year was the underrated and less overtly comedic The Look of Love), but he remains most famous to British viewers for his character Alan Partridge, who’s had a number of radio and television series not to mention special appearances over the last two decades. The popularity of the character is such, in fact, that it’s prompted this film, though I’m just reciting what I’ve heard because I’d never seen any of these previous appearances (except for his segments on the wonderful The Day Today media satire). Luckily, the film is strong enough to stand on its own without any previous knowledge of his character.

Partridge is by this point a radio broadcaster in his local Norwich, though an erstwhile TV chat show host and before that a sports reporter, known for his terrible fashion sense (knitted sweaters, polo necks and the like), his penchant for bloated MOR rock, his retrogressive political views and most of all, an overweening ego. When the station is taken over and rebranded by a conglomerate named Shape, threatening layoffs, Partridge does all he can to ensure he does not lose his job (or more particularly, his access to whatever small remaining local celebrity he still retains), forcing fellow DJ Pat (played by Colm Meaney) into the firing line. This leads Pat to take the station and its management hostage, and Partridge is the go-between in the ensuing crisis.

There’s some of the same play with a nostalgic past that’s in the other big British comedy of this summer, The World’s End, and though the initial impulse is to laugh at the expense of Alan’s character, in truth there’s a lot of sadness at some of the changes that have occurred, not least those wrought by the rapacious corporate overlords Shape, who have forsaken community values in implementing a bland programming schedule on the radio station. We repeatedly get the sense that the community is behind Pat and Alan rather than the hostages, though that’s only ever around the edges; the filmmakers thankfully aren’t interested in jokes at the expense of the audience (whether the one in the film, or the one watching it).

Beyond this affectionate tribute to the kind of regional and local media that’s so often overlooked, there’s no really big theme to the film, and it’s competently put together. However, it’s consistently funny and sustains the laughs to the end; even the big emotional scenes aren’t played entirely straight, but you get the feeling that beneath the laughs there is a genuine sense of fondness for a disappearing strain of media personality. Steve Coogan may play the character, but the character seems to have his own existence by now.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa film posterCREDITS
Director Declan Lowney; Writers Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 10 August 2013.