Non-Stop, briefly

Non-Stop is better than it appears to be. Nowhere near as good as that other film starring Liam Neeson that is way better than you’d expect, but put it this way; I entered the theatre braced for diverting brain rot and nothing more. I left pleasantly surprised.

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Non-Stop is for around 60-or-70% of its run time a very enjoyable thriller. Liam Neeson is an air marshall who starts receiving anonymous texts on his supposedly encrypted phone (that incidentally looks like a Chinese knock off of an iPhone crossed with one of those early Android phones with slide out keyboards) threatening to kill passengers on board the flight if he doesn’t arrange the wiring of $150 million dollars to an account, an account that happens to bear Neeson’s name. Cue lots of rushing around, muttered conversations, and ever escalating paranoia as our grumbling Irishman tries to figure out what the hell is going on, while everything he does only indicts him further in the eyes of the plane’s passengers and the world at large.

The film expertly wrings a huge amount of tension out of this. From its opening scene, Non-Stop establishes something isn’t right. There’s a queasiness that runs through the film, with the enclosed nature of the plane and the frantic yet powerless Neeson digging a pit of unease in your stomach. The film takes pleasure in constantly wrong-footing you on who the anonymous threat could be, and how they’ll enact their plans. Only in the second half does the film really pull the trigger on more typical action. Up until that point it’s a relatively low-key affair of quietly tense discussions and accusations, and the few action scenes present are, like violence in real life, all the more unsettling because of their unexpected explosiveness.

Sadly, the tightly-coiled spring the film had been winding snaps as the threat is revealed, leading into generic bad guy speechifying and big but rote set-piece confrontations, the plot nosediving into deus ex machina convenience. After the promise the film had shown, this is unsatisfying to say the least.

The damp squib of the ending is emblematic of a bigger problem – it’s not very well written. Dialogue is a big sticking point, swimming in stock character cliches and heavily expositional. There’s a particular speech that Neeson gives where he basically reads out his character’s spec sheet, and from then on it’s completely impossible to ignore the hackneyed tropes at play in every layer of the film.

There’s something good here, semi-realised. The direction is solid if perhaps uninspiring, the acting of a good standard (Neeson’s impotence here is a welcome spin on a character type he’s played many times before, the supporting cast do a nice job portraying real people despite their underwritten roles). And of course there’s that delicious tension. With a limp second half and universally poor dialogue though, Non-Stop is merely decent.

The Wolf of Wall Street, briefly

The Wolf of Wall Street is a long film about self-centered people getting fucked up, fucked over, or just plain fucked.

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It’s a film all about the glory of excess, the kind of consequence-free decadence that a big bank balance can bring. We follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s likeably dislikeable stock trader Jordan Belfort as he rises from the ashes of the 1987 stock market crash, working his way back to the high life of neon extravagance and insincerity.

Adapted from the memoir of the real life Jordan Belfort, apparently without too much embellishment, the main feeling I left the film with was “that would’ve worked better as a miniseries”. It covers a solid ten year or so period. In pulling events from Belfort’s life to construct a tighter narrative arc of the rise and fall, it ends up feeling somewhat disjointed.

Not that any of the film is actually bad. This is well written, stylish, frequently very funny stuff, and the huge cast (full of “oh it’s him/her!” faces) is incredibly game. DiCaprio as Belfort is superb fun – a riches-stunted adolescent who preens and pouts his way across the screen, devouring scenery like a foppish black hole, with just enough realism sprinkled through the performance that his smaller realer moments in the fall part of the story don’t feel unearned or even unexpected.

Generally as big and bold as its subject matter, direction is also strong, my favourite touch being the use of music; 80s tunes designating success, 90s songs hinting at change.

Again though, I can’t help but feel the tale would have been better told over a six hour, six part miniseries. The film does have a kinetic hyperactivity that would certainly have been lost stretching the story out, but it would have benefited from more time to develop some characters and scenes (in particular, the collapse of Belfort’s second marriage feels like a largely untapped seam). The film sits a shade under three hours, jam-packed as it is with myriad characters and stories all coming and going. If you catch it at the cinema, get a big bag of popcorn; this is a bum-numbing undertaking.

The Wolf of Wall Street is garish, aggressively sexual, hugely hedonistic, pretty funny, and certainly worth a watch. Whether you’ll want to return for a second viewing is another matter entirely.