Monthly Archives: February 2014

Oscar Glow, Today’s Tech Help Short Films Find Their Fandom


One of this season's Oscar-nominated shorts is Mr. Hublot, a French-language animated film about a reclusive man who must learn to adapt to a new housemate — a robot dog.

hide captionOne of this season’s Oscar-nominated shorts is Mr. Hublot, a French-language animated film about a reclusive man who must learn to adapt to a new housemate — a robot dog.


Zeilt Productions

If you, an ordinary non-Academy member, wanted to see an Oscar-nominated short film a few years ago, you couldn’t — not unless you lived in a city with an art-house theater that happened to be showing them.

Now, if you want to see an Oscar-nominated short like Mr. Hublot, an animated gem about a steampunk Paris filled with Victorian mechanical gadgetry, all you have to do is download it on iTunes or Amazon. Or you can watch via video on demand. This year’s Oscar-nominated shorts are also playing in more than 400 theaters across the country, where they’ve become an increasingly hot ticket.

“Since 2006, we’ve probably had over an 800 percent increase in box office,” says Carter Pilcher, president of ShortsHD, a company dedicated to making shorts more accessible. “Short films used to be kind of out there, and nobody saw them. I would say the technology has caught up with content.”

Now we have YouTube, among other things, and it’s created an insatiable appetite for short, easily digestible chunks of content we can watch on our mobile devices. And over the past 15 years, shorts have been redefined by Pixar.

It’s hard to remember now, but Pixar used to be mainly a hardware company, and one that was teetering on bankruptcy. Its owner, one Steve Jobs, hired someone to show off what its animation technology could do. That someone, John Lasseter, thought, “Why not shorts?” He created one about a trembling little toy tormented by a sadistic oversized baby.

Scientists and engineers gave that short, Tin Toy, a standing ovation in 1988 at a computer-graphics conference, says Pilcher.

“And because of that story, they were able to go on and make and get financial backing for big ones.”

Namely Toy Story, directed by … John Lasseter. Since 1998, every Pixar movie in theaters has been shown with little shorts. They’re fun, they add buzz.

“We think of them a little like an hors d’oeuvre before the main course,” says Osnat Shurer, who ran Pixar’s shorts division for years.

Or a digestif after. Now Shurer works for Walt Disney Animation Studios, where, as at so many other media companies, shorts have become a trendy way to try things out.

“The stakes are a little lower, you have permission to take greater risks in shorts,” Shurer says.

Risks on technology, on ideas, even on people: At Disney’s animation shop, Shurer says, everyone in the company gets to pitch ideas for shorts — from the president to the janitor. Disney’s Oscar-nominated animated short this year was originally proposed by a story artist.

You’ve seen Get A Horse if you’ve seen the movie Frozen. It takes some of the oldest existing animated footage of Mickey Mouse — complete with voicing by Walt Disney — and throws just about every kind of new technology imaginable into the mix.

“I had never seen anyone break barriers between 2-D CG and 3-D all within one shot,” Shurer says. “This is something that’s never been done before.”

Shorts are also a way for filmmakers to gather feedback, explore tertiary characters and hype other projects. There’s also something liberating about shorts that’s not limited to animation. Filmmaker Nick Reed felt freed by the idea that his movie could be just as long as it needed to be.

“I wanted to make a film that, when you finished it, you went, ‘I want more,'” Reed says.

Reed produced the Oscar-nominated short documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. It’s about Alice Herz-Sommer, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 110 years old, and who died Feb. 23. Herz-Sommer was a musician in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

“As amazing as she is, my fear was if you make a 90-minute or a two-hour film, you lose the power,” Reed says.

Mouse, Meet Bear, And Let’s All Make Friends


A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.i i

hide captionA bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.


Gkids

A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.

A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.

Gkids

Animated movies excel in bringing to life the impossible stories, the ones drawn from fairy tales and mythology and the ones exploring the imaginary lives of creatures and things. It’s an incredibly attractive notion, isn’t it, to imagine there’s a whole world going about its business, just out of sight?

The French-Belgian animated film Ernest & Celestine takes on that idea twice over, investigating the fictional lives of bears and mice, two societies living side by side, utterly intrigued by and terrified of each other.

Based on the long-running book series written and illustrated by Belgian-born author Gabrielle Vincent — and animated with backgrounds of stunning hand-painted watercolors — Ernest & Celestine tells the story of the meeting and unlikely friendship between a big bear and a little mouse.

Bear and mouse communities have their differences, mostly to do with portion sizes, but from the outside they have much more in common: They’re highly concerned with rules, well-intentioned but quick to judge, entirely distrusting of the other species. Each haunts the other’s fairy tales: The mouse fills the role of tooth fairy in bear mythology, while bears are the sharp-toothed, ravenous monsters in stories told to little mice in the dark.

The young mouse not buying those tales as told is Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), a bright orphan and talented painter living in the orphanage of a complex mouse civilization located in the sewers beneath a bear town. The children’s ancient caretaker (Lauren Bacall) likes to warn her charges about the bear menace while she casts terrifying shadows on the wall (in rich dark chocolate browns and saturated coffee-stain blacks), but Celestine likes to draw pictures of her ursine neighbors. She makes covert trips to the surface to gather bear teeth for her dentistry internship — this movie is really into teeth — but she’s shunned by the other mice and yearns for a friend.

Living aboveground in a town with cobblestone streets and cozy shops and police who ticket for street performing, the bears largely stand in for humans in this story, though they have greater appetites for food and sleep. Some respectable bears like George (Nick Offerman) and Lucienne (Megan Mullaly) make their living peddling sweets or replacement teeth, respectively, but refuse their son candy, all too aware of the racket they run.

Then there’s Ernest (Forest Whitaker), ignored and misunderstood, living in a quaint cottage outside the town and scraping by as a starving but talented musician. Ernest gets laughed off, his songs scoffed at by adults, his instruments impounded when he tries to sing for his supper. His ensuing hunt for anything food-adjacent leads him to almost eat Celestine.

Celestine’s no pushover, though, and Foy makes her character’s boldness in an unmanageable situation seem the most obvious, logical response. She shows a maturity the sleepy Ernest lacks, and they slowly develop a friendship that’s at first transactional: Their different sizes and backgrounds mean one has knowledge about food, while one has the skills to collect teeth the other just doesn’t.

With a little trust and despite plenty of misgivings, they develop a relationship that’s part father-daughter, part mentor-protege and several parts partner-in-crime. They quickly run afoul of both their societies, violating all kinds of laws, and they go on the run.

Ernest & Celestine is a tale of found family, sweetly realized and supported by clever writing and talented voice work, but it’s the animation that really makes this Academy Award-nominated movie. The characters are computer-rendered, but the watercolor environments they move in are expressive and detail-rich.

The dark, oppressive walls of the orphanage tower over the children; the colorful display at George’s sweet shop invites passing bear cubs in with pastel gumballs and candy canes; and when spring arrives, green emerges from everywhere like a quiet, fresh-scented breeze. The visible brushstrokes and the white space left in the frame complete the suggestion that the film is a lovingly drawn children’s book splashed onscreen. (Recommended)

‘Non-Stop': Liam Neeson, Armed And Dangerous Again


Liam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.

hide captionLiam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.


Myles Aronowitz/Universal Pictures

“Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” So asks one character in Edgar Wright’s excellent 2007 comedic tribute to buddy-cop movies, Hot Fuzz, in a moment meant to highlight the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that particular action-movie trope.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson doesn’t fire two guns, nor does he jump through the air. He does, however, grab a gun in midair while in a zero-G nose-dive on a transatlantic flight, and fire said gun whilst floating through the cabin. In slow motion. It’s Liam Neeson at his Neesoniest, and yet another entry in his expanding late-career bloom into gruff and commanding action hero.

Non-Stop bears a surface similarity to the glossy European-style high trash of 2008’s Taken, but Neeson’s Bill Marks in this film is a far cry from the ex-CIA operative — “with a very particular set of skills” — he played in that film. Marks is a Federal Air Marshal, and his particular skills largely involve numbing himself with a very Irish coffee on the way to his next flight and managing to have a smoke undetected in the airplane lavatory. The flight attendants on his regular New York-London route know his habits well enough that they bring him bottled water when he futilely orders a gin and tonic.

We see the flight as he sees it: hazily, as an endless parade of potential evildoers, even though chances are that in the course of his air-marshal career — which he’s landed in after a personal tragedy gets him kicked off the police force — it’s unlikely he’ll ever share a cabin with an actual terrorist.

Except, of course, on this day: The secure network Marks uses to communicate with the TSA is breached and he begins receiving texts from a passenger on his flight, who claims someone on the plane will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specified bank account. So begins a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, as Marks tries to solve an increasing number of murders on this transatlantic express.

The film’s early look through Marks’ eyes at his fellow fliers winds up being extremely important; Non-Stop is less a nonstop actioner and more a high-flying whodunit. As such, it’s important for director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach to keep viewers guessing until the big reveal.

They may go a little overboard: Of the plane’s 150 passengers, a remarkably high percentage spend time as potential suspects, making this jet into a flying tin can of red herring. The confusion over the identity of the killer, who mysteriously manages to text Marks constantly, as well as killing multiple people mid-flight without being detected, also serves to leave the marshal barely in control of the passengers. For a variety of reasons, they think it’s Marks himself who’s causing the chaos and perhaps even hijacking the flight.

Non-Stop isn’t a great film; it may not even be very good, and it’s undeniably convoluted and silly. Yet I enjoyed nearly every moment. Sure, it’s probably 15 minutes overlong, thanks to that excess of misdirection. Add to that the ham-handed politics of the real intentions of the hijacker once the big reveal finally comes — the culmination of an undercurrent of blunt political commentary about air security and prejudicial assumptions about terrorism that runs through the entire film.

But if it works, it’s because Neeson and Collet-Serra, as well as Julianne Moore as Neeson’s business-class seatmate Jen, are all fully aware of how ludicrous this exercise is. Witness the wry joke Collet-Serra uses to obscure onscreen expletives in text messages that would have otherwise given the film an R-rating, or the way Moore’s breezy nonchalance provides a counterbalance to Neeson’s studied intensity.

And especially take note of that mid-air gravity-free gun-grab, which is a winking celebration of everything that’s completely absurd about this sort of film. Neeson does indeed have a very particular set of skills — in elevating the generic action thriller into guilt-free popcorn pleasure.

In ‘Stalingrad,’ Where The Fog Of War Is Plenty Thick


Teenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad.

hide captionTeenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad.


Sony Pictures

If you’re only going to see one film about the Battle of Stalingrad — and there are many — Stalingrad would be the wrong choice. Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk’s treatment of the World War II turning point is shallow and contrived, if sometimes impressively staged. The movie wins points, however, for sheer wackiness.

This is first film about Stalingrad, for example, to open with voiceover in Japanese. The completely unnecessary framing story is set in the Tohoku region just after it was pummeled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Among the international rescue workers is a Russian who speaks German. Seeking to calm five German students trapped in a collapsed building, he tells them a reassuring tale. It’s about Russians behind enemy lines, trapped in a nearly collapsed building during what some reckon was the bloodiest military campaign in human history.

Cheered up yet, kids?

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.i i

hide captionYana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.


Sony Pictures

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Sony Pictures

Cut to 1942, when Russians are sneaking across the Volga to strike German positions. To stop them, German Col. Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) manages to blow up a fuel dump, setting many of the attackers afire. In a deliriously impossible scene, blazing Russian soldiers continue their offensive, killing Germans as their own bodies char.

This brutal sequence is as sweeping as anything in Enemy at the Gates, the 2001 English-language Stalingrad epic. But then the movie shifts to a more intimate (and affordable) scale. A few survivors of the onslaught take shelter in a bombed-out apartment house. For most of the rest of story, they hold their position against the much larger German contingent outside. Eventually, only five Russian fighters remain, each waiting for a chance to demonstrate his noble spirit of self-sacrifice.

Just one tenant has survived the fighting: Katya (Maria Smolnikova), who’s almost 19. To the Russian soldiers, she’s everything they’re fighting for — country, sisters, mothers, wives. Radio operator Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk Jr.) is particularly taken with the girl. When not battling the Germans hand-to-hand in kung fu-style brawls, the men plan Katya’s birthday party.

To balance this sentimental tale, there’s a harsher one about another woman: Masha (Yana Studilina), who’s reluctantly under Kahn’s protection. Compared to his abominable commanding officer, the Colonel is almost a nice guy; he bristles at his fellow Germans’ brutality toward civilians, but intervenes to help only Masha, a blonde beauty who reminds him of his late wife. The fate of one of these women will ultimately be revealed on the movie’s concluding trip to Japan, which is just as disorienting as the first one.

This is the first Russian production to be presented in IMAX 3-D, technology that doesn’t add much to the film but does distinguish it from the 1989 Russian Stalingrad (which starred Fedor Bondarchuk) and the 1993 German Stalingrad (which starred Thomas Kretschmann).

The spectacle, literally amplified by Angelo Badalamenti’s strident score, helped make Bondarchuk’s movie a hit not just in Russia but also in China. It faces much dicier prospects in the United States, whose filmgoers didn’t grow up on the heroic national legend of Stalingrad — and lately haven’t shown much taste for gory war sagas unless they feature aliens, superheroes or the undead. Indeed, for all of Stalingrad‘s curious developments and bewildering gestures, the strangest thing about the movie may be that it’s even being released in the U.S.

Mouse, Meet Bear, And Let’s All Make Friends


A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.i i

hide captionA bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.


Gkids

A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.

A bear named Ernest, voiced by Forest Whitaker, befriends the young mouse Celestine, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, even though their societies forbid it.

Gkids

Animated movies excel in bringing to life the impossible stories, the ones drawn from fairy tales and mythology and the ones exploring the imaginary lives of creatures and things. It’s an incredibly attractive notion, isn’t it, to imagine there’s a whole world going about its business, just out of sight?

The French-Belgian animated film Ernest & Celestine takes on that idea twice over, investigating the fictional lives of bears and mice, two societies living side by side, utterly intrigued by and terrified of each other.

Based on the long-running book series written and illustrated by Belgian-born author Gabrielle Vincent — and animated with backgrounds of stunning hand-painted watercolors — Ernest & Celestine tells the story of the meeting and unlikely friendship between a big bear and a little mouse.

Bear and mouse communities have their differences, mostly to do with portion sizes, but from the outside they have much more in common: They’re highly concerned with rules, well-intentioned but quick to judge, entirely distrusting of the other species. Each haunts the other’s fairy tales: The mouse fills the role of tooth fairy in bear mythology, while bears are the sharp-toothed, ravenous monsters in stories told to little mice in the dark.

The young mouse not buying those tales as told is Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), a bright orphan and talented painter living in the orphanage of a complex mouse civilization located in the sewers beneath a bear town. The children’s ancient caretaker (Lauren Bacall) likes to warn her charges about the bear menace while she casts terrifying shadows on the wall (in rich dark chocolate browns and saturated coffee-stain blacks), but Celestine likes to draw pictures of her ursine neighbors. She makes covert trips to the surface to gather bear teeth for her dentistry internship — this movie is really into teeth — but she’s shunned by the other mice and yearns for a friend.

Living aboveground in a town with cobblestone streets and cozy shops and police who ticket for street performing, the bears largely stand in for humans in this story, though they have greater appetites for food and sleep. Some respectable bears like George (Nick Offerman) and Lucienne (Megan Mullaly) make their living peddling sweets or replacement teeth, respectively, but refuse their son candy, all too aware of the racket they run.

Then there’s Ernest (Forest Whitaker), ignored and misunderstood, living in a quaint cottage outside the town and scraping by as a starving but talented musician. Ernest gets laughed off, his songs scoffed at by adults, his instruments impounded when he tries to sing for his supper. His ensuing hunt for anything food-adjacent leads him to almost eat Celestine.

Celestine’s no pushover, though, and Foy makes her character’s boldness in an unmanageable situation seem the most obvious, logical response. She shows a maturity the sleepy Ernest lacks, and they slowly develop a friendship that’s at first transactional: Their different sizes and backgrounds mean one has knowledge about food, while one has the skills to collect teeth the other just doesn’t.

With a little trust and despite plenty of misgivings, they develop a relationship that’s part father-daughter, part mentor-protege and several parts partner-in-crime. They quickly run afoul of both their societies, violating all kinds of laws, and they go on the run.

Ernest & Celestine is a tale of found family, sweetly realized and supported by clever writing and talented voice work, but it’s the animation that really makes this Academy Award-nominated movie. The characters are computer-rendered, but the watercolor environments they move in are expressive and detail-rich.

The dark, oppressive walls of the orphanage tower over the children; the colorful display at George’s sweet shop invites passing bear cubs in with pastel gumballs and candy canes; and when spring arrives, green emerges from everywhere like a quiet, fresh-scented breeze. The visible brushstrokes and the white space left in the frame complete the suggestion that the film is a lovingly drawn children’s book splashed onscreen. (Recommended)

‘Non-Stop': Liam Neeson, Armed And Dangerous Again


Liam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.

hide captionLiam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.


Myles Aronowitz/Universal Pictures

“Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” So asks one character in Edgar Wright’s excellent 2007 comedic tribute to buddy-cop movies, Hot Fuzz, in a moment meant to highlight the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that particular action-movie trope.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson doesn’t fire two guns, nor does he jump through the air. He does, however, grab a gun in midair while in a zero-G nose-dive on a transatlantic flight, and fire said gun whilst floating through the cabin. In slow motion. It’s Liam Neeson at his Neesoniest, and yet another entry in his expanding late-career bloom into gruff and commanding action hero.

Non-Stop bears a surface similarity to the glossy European-style high trash of 2008’s Taken, but Neeson’s Bill Marks in this film is a far cry from the ex-CIA operative — “with a very particular set of skills” — he played in that film. Marks is a Federal Air Marshal, and his particular skills largely involve numbing himself with a very Irish coffee on the way to his next flight and managing to have a smoke undetected in the airplane lavatory. The flight attendants on his regular New York-London route know his habits well enough that they bring him bottled water when he futilely orders a gin and tonic.

We see the flight as he sees it: hazily, as an endless parade of potential evildoers, even though chances are that in the course of his air-marshal career — which he’s landed in after a personal tragedy gets him kicked off the police force — it’s unlikely he’ll ever share a cabin with an actual terrorist.

Except, of course, on this day: The secure network Marks uses to communicate with the TSA is breached and he begins receiving texts from a passenger on his flight, who claims someone on the plane will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specified bank account. So begins a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, as Marks tries to solve an increasing number of murders on this transatlantic express.

The film’s early look through Marks’ eyes at his fellow fliers winds up being extremely important; Non-Stop is less a nonstop actioner and more a high-flying whodunit. As such, it’s important for director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach to keep viewers guessing until the big reveal.

They may go a little overboard: Of the plane’s 150 passengers, a remarkably high percentage spend time as potential suspects, making this jet into a flying tin can of red herring. The confusion over the identity of the killer, who mysteriously manages to text Marks constantly, as well as killing multiple people mid-flight without being detected, also serves to leave the marshal barely in control of the passengers. For a variety of reasons, they think it’s Marks himself who’s causing the chaos and perhaps even hijacking the flight.

Non-Stop isn’t a great film; it may not even be very good, and it’s undeniably convoluted and silly. Yet I enjoyed nearly every moment. Sure, it’s probably 15 minutes overlong, thanks to that excess of misdirection. Add to that the ham-handed politics of the real intentions of the hijacker once the big reveal finally comes — the culmination of an undercurrent of blunt political commentary about air security and prejudicial assumptions about terrorism that runs through the entire film.

But if it works, it’s because Neeson and Collet-Serra, as well as Julianne Moore as Neeson’s business-class seatmate Jen, are all fully aware of how ludicrous this exercise is. Witness the wry joke Collet-Serra uses to obscure onscreen expletives in text messages that would have otherwise given the film an R-rating, or the way Moore’s breezy nonchalance provides a counterbalance to Neeson’s studied intensity.

And especially take note of that mid-air gravity-free gun-grab, which is a winking celebration of everything that’s completely absurd about this sort of film. Neeson does indeed have a very particular set of skills — in elevating the generic action thriller into guilt-free popcorn pleasure.

In ‘Stalingrad,’ Where The Fog Of War Is Plenty Thick


Teenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad.

hide captionTeenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad.


Sony Pictures

If you’re only going to see one film about the Battle of Stalingrad — and there are many — Stalingrad would be the wrong choice. Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk’s treatment of the World War II turning point is shallow and contrived, if sometimes impressively staged. The movie wins points, however, for sheer wackiness.

This is first film about Stalingrad, for example, to open with voiceover in Japanese. The completely unnecessary framing story is set in the Tohoku region just after it was pummeled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Among the international rescue workers is a Russian who speaks German. Seeking to calm five German students trapped in a collapsed building, he tells them a reassuring tale. It’s about Russians behind enemy lines, trapped in a nearly collapsed building during what some reckon was the bloodiest military campaign in human history.

Cheered up yet, kids?

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.i i

hide captionYana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.


Sony Pictures

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Sony Pictures

Cut to 1942, when Russians are sneaking across the Volga to strike German positions. To stop them, German Col. Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) manages to blow up a fuel dump, setting many of the attackers afire. In a deliriously impossible scene, blazing Russian soldiers continue their offensive, killing Germans as their own bodies char.

This brutal sequence is as sweeping as anything in Enemy at the Gates, the 2001 English-language Stalingrad epic. But then the movie shifts to a more intimate (and affordable) scale. A few survivors of the onslaught take shelter in a bombed-out apartment house. For most of the rest of story, they hold their position against the much larger German contingent outside. Eventually, only five Russian fighters remain, each waiting for a chance to demonstrate his noble spirit of self-sacrifice.

Just one tenant has survived the fighting: Katya (Maria Smolnikova), who’s almost 19. To the Russian soldiers, she’s everything they’re fighting for — country, sisters, mothers, wives. Radio operator Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk Jr.) is particularly taken with the girl. When not battling the Germans hand-to-hand in kung fu-style brawls, the men plan Katya’s birthday party.

To balance this sentimental tale, there’s a harsher one about another woman: Masha (Yana Studilina), who’s reluctantly under Kahn’s protection. Compared to his abominable commanding officer, the Colonel is almost a nice guy; he bristles at his fellow Germans’ brutality toward civilians, but intervenes to help only Masha, a blonde beauty who reminds him of his late wife. The fate of one of these women will ultimately be revealed on the movie’s concluding trip to Japan, which is just as disorienting as the first one.

This is the first Russian production to be presented in IMAX 3-D, technology that doesn’t add much to the film but does distinguish it from the 1989 Russian Stalingrad (which starred Fedor Bondarchuk) and the 1993 German Stalingrad (which starred Thomas Kretschmann).

The spectacle, literally amplified by Angelo Badalamenti’s strident score, helped make Bondarchuk’s movie a hit not just in Russia but also in China. It faces much dicier prospects in the United States, whose filmgoers didn’t grow up on the heroic national legend of Stalingrad — and lately haven’t shown much taste for gory war sagas unless they feature aliens, superheroes or the undead. Indeed, for all of Stalingrad‘s curious developments and bewildering gestures, the strangest thing about the movie may be that it’s even being released in the U.S.

‘Non-Stop': Liam Neeson, Armed And Dangerous Again


Liam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.

hide captionLiam Neeson is a Federal Air Marshal on an imperiled flight in Non-Stop, the latest film to feature the actor as a troubled action hero.


Myles Aronowitz/Universal Pictures

“Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” So asks one character in Edgar Wright’s excellent 2007 comedic tribute to buddy-cop movies, Hot Fuzz, in a moment meant to highlight the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that particular action-movie trope.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson doesn’t fire two guns, nor does he jump through the air. He does, however, grab a gun in midair while in a zero-G nose-dive on a transatlantic flight, and fire said gun whilst floating through the cabin. In slow motion. It’s Liam Neeson at his Neesoniest, and yet another entry in his expanding late-career bloom into gruff and commanding action hero.

Non-Stop bears a surface similarity to the glossy European-style high trash of 2008’s Taken, but Neeson’s Bill Marks in this film is a far cry from the ex-CIA operative — “with a very particular set of skills” — he played in that film. Marks is a Federal Air Marshal, and his particular skills largely involve numbing himself with a very Irish coffee on the way to his next flight and managing to have a smoke undetected in the airplane lavatory. The flight attendants on his regular New York-London route know his habits well enough that they bring him bottled water when he futilely orders a gin and tonic.

We see the flight as he sees it: hazily, as an endless parade of potential evildoers, even though chances are that in the course of his air-marshal career — which he’s landed in after a personal tragedy gets him kicked off the police force — it’s unlikely he’ll ever share a cabin with an actual terrorist.

Except, of course, on this day: The secure network Marks uses to communicate with the TSA is breached and he begins receiving texts from a passenger on his flight, who claims someone on the plane will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specified bank account. So begins a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, as Marks tries to solve an increasing number of murders on this transatlantic express.

The film’s early look through Marks’ eyes at his fellow fliers winds up being extremely important; Non-Stop is less a nonstop actioner and more a high-flying whodunit. As such, it’s important for director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach to keep viewers guessing until the big reveal.

They may go a little overboard: Of the plane’s 150 passengers, a remarkably high percentage spend time as potential suspects, making this jet into a flying tin can of red herring. The confusion over the identity of the killer, who mysteriously manages to text Marks constantly, as well as killing multiple people mid-flight without being detected, also serves to leave the marshal barely in control of the passengers. For a variety of reasons, they think it’s Marks himself who’s causing the chaos and perhaps even hijacking the flight.

Non-Stop isn’t a great film; it may not even be very good, and it’s undeniably convoluted and silly. Yet I enjoyed nearly every moment. Sure, it’s probably 15 minutes overlong, thanks to that excess of misdirection. Add to that the ham-handed politics of the real intentions of the hijacker once the big reveal finally comes — the culmination of an undercurrent of blunt political commentary about air security and prejudicial assumptions about terrorism that runs through the entire film.

But if it works, it’s because Neeson and Collet-Serra, as well as Julianne Moore as Neeson’s business-class seatmate Jen, are all fully aware of how ludicrous this exercise is. Witness the wry joke Collet-Serra uses to obscure onscreen expletives in text messages that would have otherwise given the film an R-rating, or the way Moore’s breezy nonchalance provides a counterbalance to Neeson’s studied intensity.

And especially take note of that mid-air gravity-free gun-grab, which is a winking celebration of everything that’s completely absurd about this sort of film. Neeson does indeed have a very particular set of skills — in elevating the generic action thriller into guilt-free popcorn pleasure.

In ‘Stalingrad,’ Where The Fog Of War Is Plenty Thick


Teenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad.

hide captionTeenage civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) shares a ruined apartment with a gang of Soviet soldiers during the battle of Stalingrad in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad.


Sony Pictures

If you’re only going to see one film about the Battle of Stalingrad — and there are many — Stalingrad would be the wrong choice. Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk’s treatment of the World War II turning point is shallow and contrived, if sometimes impressively staged. The movie wins points, however, for sheer wackiness.

This is first film about Stalingrad, for example, to open with voiceover in Japanese. The completely unnecessary framing story is set in the Tohoku region just after it was pummeled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Among the international rescue workers is a Russian who speaks German. Seeking to calm five German students trapped in a collapsed building, he tells them a reassuring tale. It’s about Russians behind enemy lines, trapped in a nearly collapsed building during what some reckon was the bloodiest military campaign in human history.

Cheered up yet, kids?

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.i i

hide captionYana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.


Sony Pictures

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Yana Studilina and Thomas Kretschmann play a Russian woman and a German colonel whose lives collide during the conflict.

Sony Pictures

Cut to 1942, when Russians are sneaking across the Volga to strike German positions. To stop them, German Col. Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) manages to blow up a fuel dump, setting many of the attackers afire. In a deliriously impossible scene, blazing Russian soldiers continue their offensive, killing Germans as their own bodies char.

This brutal sequence is as sweeping as anything in Enemy at the Gates, the 2001 English-language Stalingrad epic. But then the movie shifts to a more intimate (and affordable) scale. A few survivors of the onslaught take shelter in a bombed-out apartment house. For most of the rest of story, they hold their position against the much larger German contingent outside. Eventually, only five Russian fighters remain, each waiting for a chance to demonstrate his noble spirit of self-sacrifice.

Just one tenant has survived the fighting: Katya (Maria Smolnikova), who’s almost 19. To the Russian soldiers, she’s everything they’re fighting for — country, sisters, mothers, wives. Radio operator Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk Jr.) is particularly taken with the girl. When not battling the Germans hand-to-hand in kung fu-style brawls, the men plan Katya’s birthday party.

To balance this sentimental tale, there’s a harsher one about another woman: Masha (Yana Studilina), who’s reluctantly under Kahn’s protection. Compared to his abominable commanding officer, the Colonel is almost a nice guy; he bristles at his fellow Germans’ brutality toward civilians, but intervenes to help only Masha, a blonde beauty who reminds him of his late wife. The fate of one of these women will ultimately be revealed on the movie’s concluding trip to Japan, which is just as disorienting as the first one.

This is the first Russian production to be presented in IMAX 3-D, technology that doesn’t add much to the film but does distinguish it from the 1989 Russian Stalingrad (which starred Fedor Bondarchuk) and the 1993 German Stalingrad (which starred Thomas Kretschmann).

The spectacle, literally amplified by Angelo Badalamenti’s strident score, helped make Bondarchuk’s movie a hit not just in Russia but also in China. It faces much dicier prospects in the United States, whose filmgoers didn’t grow up on the heroic national legend of Stalingrad — and lately haven’t shown much taste for gory war sagas unless they feature aliens, superheroes or the undead. Indeed, for all of Stalingrad‘s curious developments and bewildering gestures, the strangest thing about the movie may be that it’s even being released in the U.S.

A Legacy Of War, Hitting Home Decades Later In Norway


Katrine (Juliane Kohler) has a golden life in Norway — and a dark secret rooted in Eastern Germany, in the dark days of war and division.

hide captionKatrine (Juliane Kohler) has a golden life in Norway — and a dark secret rooted in Eastern Germany, in the dark days of war and division.


Tom Trambow/IFC Films

Two Lives

  • Directors: Georg Maas
  • Genre: Drama, thriller
  • Running time: 97 minutes

Not rated

With Juliane Kohler, Liv Ullman

In German with subtitles

Decades after the end of World War II, the partly burned body of a young woman was found in a wooded area near the Norwegian town of Bergen. Her possible connection to a long-simmering Norwegian scandal, one dating back to the war, became the subject of a novel by Hannelore Hippe — and, in turn, of Two Lives, a new thriller loosely based on that novel.

The movie, from German filmmaker Georg Maas, speculates indirectly on the woman’s identity through another character — Katrine, a middle-aged wife, mother and grandmother with a comfortable life in a scenic Norwegian coast town. But Katrine (Juliane Kohler) is sitting on an unhappy secret, which becomes obvious early on, when we meet her arriving in Eastern Germany in a dark wig.

It’s 1990: The Berlin Wall has fallen, and reunification is under way. At the now-empty orphanage where she was raised, Katrine furtively cuts out a name from a document in the archive. It’s the first sign that her coming journey between two countries — between a murky past and a present that’s looking less golden by the minute — will be less a nostalgia trip than an increasingly panicked effort at damage control.

When an aggressive young human-rights lawyer (Ken Duken) asks her to join a lawsuit against the Norwegian government, Katrine’s carefully built domestic idyll begins to unravel. Is Katrine who she says she is, the long-lost daughter of Ase (Liv Ullmann) and the long-dead German soldier with whom she fell in love?

Two Lives makes a decent thriller, though it does seem a touch overloaded with grainy flashbacks and plotty flourishes retrieved from Sergei Eisenstein (or perhaps Brian De Palma). Not that these faults matter much: The most ham-fisted filmmaker couldn’t ruin the incendiary material on which this tale is built.

In the twists and turns that slowly reveal what Katrine is hiding, it turns out Two Lives has a lot more than individual culpability on its mind. Katrine’s agony taps into the painful legacy of Norway’s slut-shaming of women who fell into relationships with German men during the War, and the terrible price paid by their children.

From there the movie fans out into the ongoing toxic connection between Germany and Norway, rooted in Lebensborn, Heinrich Himmler’s mad effort to engineer an Aryan super-race by commandeering the offspring of blond, blue-eyed Germans and similar counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries. Norway was a clear favorite because of its Viking gene pool.

The pitiful alienation and identity confusion afflicting the children of such unions, once they were cast off after the war, has been well documented — not least by ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who was one of them. Two Lives focuses on their postwar exploitation by the East German intelligence service, the Stasi, which both recruited from Lebensborn homes and later planted Stasi agents with fake Lebensborn identities — operatives posing as grown children reuniting with their parents in countries like Norway. Astonishingly, some agents reportedly live on unexposed in Norway to this day.

Katrine, her family and that dead woman in the woods are smack in the middle of this noxious mess, and it’s a horrible irony that their chickens come home to roost precisely at a moment of political freedom. Two Lives unfolds in a slow boil of rage at the government that allowed all this emotional destruction. But Maas treats Katrine with compassion, as a victim of forces more damaging than her own ravenous hunger for love and family.

In the end it’s her mother’s harrowing confusion that hurts most. Ullmann is given very little to say, but the bewildered, cornflower-blue gaze that made her Ingmar Bergman’s queen of heartache expresses both stoic endurance and, finally, incomprehension that the unspeakable loss she thought she had laid to rest has returned in nightmare form. You couldn’t make this stuff up.