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Review: The Signal

A conventional but visually stunning sci-fi thriller disguised as an indie drama.

The Signal is an ambitious sci-fi film about a group of computer hacking college freshmen who embark on a road trip. When they receive a clue about the whereabouts of a rival hacker, they are led to a mysterious house in the middle of the dessert. Here is where the sci-fi elements come out in full force, and after a twist, the hackers wake up in captivity at an isolated government facility. From there, they must try to escape and try (along with the audience) to figure out what is going on.

Despite truly stunning and unique visuals, the film's attempt to combine different tones ultimately feels uneven, especially at the end when it jumps from nuanced relationship drama to over-the-top, high-concept sci-fi.  At moments when it needs it most, the script lacks a sense of humor, seemingly taking itself too seriously. This tone fits the smaller, existential drama that we're watching for the first half of the film, but doesn't mesh as well once the plot gets crazier.

The film stars Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) as Nic, the crippled college student who makes decisions rationally, but lacks empathy. Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) plays Haley, Nic's girlfriend, struggling to make Nic see the value in making choices based on the heart. Part way through, we meet the stoic government agent subtly played by a hazmat suit-clad Laurence Fishbourne.

The movie starts our with a seemingly original plot, but moves into the realm of the more familiar over time. By the end the plot could be seen as an amalgam of a few other sci-fi movies (which to specify might spoil key plot points), however there are definitely a few wonderful twists added in.

Director William Eubank shows lots of promise, able to get great performances out of the young actors, while handling such a big talent as Fishbourne. He clearly has a knack for creating beautiful and disturbing images that pack a punch, and bringing out powerful yet nuanced performances from his actors.

Overall, The Signal has some breathtaking visuals, subtle performances, and it asks some thought-provoking, existential questions. It's best to go into the film knowing as little as possible, but while the plot starts out uniquely, it feels less bold and more conventional by the end. Still, despite its uneven, unnecessarily serious tone, the film is and inventive and intriguing piece of entertainment.

The Signal comes out June 13, 2014.

Rating: 6.5/10 Stars

Review: Locke

Tom Hardy makes 85 minutes of phone conversations in a car tense and engaging

Locke is an understated dramatic thriller about Ivan Locke, a family man whose choice to do what is right sets into motion a series of events that threaten his job and more importantly, his family. The central conceit is that this film takes place entirely in one location, Locke's car, with all dialogue coming from phone conversations, or occasionally, Locke speaking to himself. While the story is a little clunky, the film succeeds on the stellar performance of star Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises).

Locke can be easily compared to recent single location/single actor films such as All is Lost starring Robert Redford, or Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. What's different here is that rather than external forces keeping the central characters contained to the location, Locke remains driving into the car due to the heavy internal reasons. Over the course of the film, we see the emotional ramifications of his choices as his professional and personal life start to fall apart, and yet, the stakes never feel terribly high.

Tom Hardy's performance as Locke is riveting and perfectly understated, as it needs to be to hold our attention for the duration of the film. He is a man determined to do right by all cost, which comes with severe repercussions. Although I found his Welsh accent a little distracting, he gives a moving performance where every subtle facial expression delivers huge meaning and lots of emotion, particularly in between phone calls when he is contemplating or reacting to his own situation.

Director Steven Knight (Redemption) does a very good job at holding our attention by pairing the sincere performance with unique and dream-like visuals. Every shot in the film has motion, which almost becomes mesmerizing as we see street lights, cars, and trucks fly past Hardy's face, reflected against the glass. At times there he even effectively separated visual from audio to show Locke's breakdown. Listening to Locke speaking to himself while watching him stare silently at the road was a unique and eerie way to communicate his mental dissociation.

In order to deliver information, and keep the scenes dynamic, Locke spends most of the runtime communicating with various people in his life via phone conversations. He speaks with a one time fling, an angry boss, and a drunk coworker who provides some comic relief, and we see him deal with his troubled marriage through deeply painful conversations with his wife and sons. While these conversations feel organic, occasionally Locke imagines that his father is in the back seat, and has tense conversations with himself. These scenes feel like a clunky way for the character to deliver backstory and communicate their motivation, and they never fully worked for me. Rather, the moments when he is silent were the most effective at communicating the emotional ramifications of righting a wrong.

While the acting is superb, the subplot of his determination to complete a task for work (the company's largest ever delivery of concrete) is never made very interesting. On top of this, the movie never seems to earn his commitment to this task, making it feel slightly unnecessary and inconsequential.

Overall, Locke is a gripping and original drama about one man's determination to do right, and question his own moral compass. It thrives on Hardy's subtle and emotionally moving performance, and manages to hold your attention with unique visuals, yet the story itself feels slightly underwhelming due to a script which never establishes high enough stakes.

Locke hits select theaters April 25, 2014.

Review: 7.5/10 Stars

Review: Non-Stop

Like Taken meets Snakes on a Plane

Liam Neeson has regain control of the plane using his special set of skills. Watch the Trailer above.

Non-Stop is a fast-paced thriller about an alcoholic air marshal (Liam Neeson) aboard a plane who starts getting texts threatening to kill a passenger every two minutes unless $150 million is transferred to his account.

I went in with low expectations based on the previous work of Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown), since he tends to introduce exciting premises that lack payoff and fall flat. Fortunately, with Non-Stop he follows through and pays off on just about everything introduced in the initial premise.

Liam Neeson, as usual, is awesome as the badass who must operate outside of the law. Along for the ride are a few familiar faces: Julianne Moore (Children of Men), Corey Stoll (House of Cards), and current Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) who is severely underused. The supporting performances really elevate the film, populating the plane with a few stereotypical, but mostly likable characters.

If this film seems formulaic, that's because it is--it is riddled with action-movie cliches, expected plot-twists, and a few unexpected plot-twists. At times the movie can be patronizing. From the opening scene on, it ceaselessly and obviously reminds you of the main character's flaws: his alcoholism and relationship with his daughter. The movie also consistently pats itself on the back for being "not-racist," seemingly impressed with itself every time it subverts our (presumed) expectations by showing a Black or Middle Eastern character who does not turn out to be an antagonist.

Visually, Non-Stop makes the most out of its single plane setting. There are some fresh and exciting action scenes, and the climax will have you on the edge of your seat. There are some cool sequences I've never seen take place in a movie set on a plane, which often disregard common sense and physics.

Ultimately, Non-Stop is so-bad-it's-good. It elicits a lot of unintentional laughter, and just barely misses the mark of being a logical thriller, but it's a whole lot of fun.

Non-Stop comes out on Feb 28, 2014

Rating: 3/5 Stars