Movies on a Plane: Towering Inferno / Die Hard mash-up, funny spies, derivative dystopia, video game adaptation reboot prequel & some serious drama thrown in to boot

As promised last time, there was a flight back from New York to Perth, and thanks again to Qatar Airways top-notch in-flight entertainment system, I watched a whole lot of stuff.

My usual go-to viewing in situations like this is cheap entertaining fluff films that are engaging enough to hold my interest but not so taxing as to require any real focus.  As we’ll see, I stayed true to form for much of this trip, but not all of it…



So, clearly, we started very true to form.  Skyscraper is perhaps the ultimate movie to watch in a situation like this–entertaining in general, but definitely not too taxing.  Not even too taxing on the credulity front, as the whole thing is reasonably tight and generally free of the distractingly stupid.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Will Sawyer, a war veteran and former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader (before a botched job resulted in the loss of his leg) in this film which can easily be summarized as “Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno“.  Or Die Hard plus a fire.  Or The Towering Inferno plus terrorists.  Whatever.  Sawyer is now runs a small security company tasked with inspecting all the security features of the biggest skyscraper in the world, 225 stories tall.  It’s located in Hong Kong, where it seems well situated to grab the Chinese film market.

Unfortunately, the developer has fun afoul of some criminals, who concoct an elaborate plan to steal a digital record that he has of a huge network of organized crime (something he uses to prevent them from extorting money from him).  This plan involves stealing a tablet from Sawyer which gives him access to the off-site location where the building’s security is managed, killing everyone at that site, starting a fire halfway up the building, and turning off all the fire suppression protocols in the building from that off-site facility. Then when the developer tries to get away in a helicopter with his digital record, stealing it from him and killing him.

Unfortunately for the bad guys, the developer manages to lock himself away in his penthouse before the record is stolen.  Also unfortunately for the bad guys, Will Sawyer’s family (his wife and two children) are accidentally in the otherwise-nearly empty building when it’s lit afire, meaning that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will stop at nothing to get in there and rescue them.  Crazy stunts and some major criminal butt-whooping ensues.

Skyscraper is as predictable as one can imagine, but it benefits from a couple of things.  First, the Rock plays a decent, likeable guy who displays the right amount of fear and uncertainty as he is performing his extraordinary deeds. And his wife, played by Neve Campbell, is also pretty tough.  She’s supposed to be a former military surgeon, and so she believably gets to pull off a decent amount of terrorist-whooping as well.

Overall, there’s nothing deep here, but it is fun.

This Means War

So, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play two CIA buddies who both become smitten with an ordinary woman played by Reese Witherspoon.  They utilize all their spy resources (eg. the US taxpayer’s money) to try to win her affections, and their friendship suffers as a result.  Luckily, someone is trying to killing them both, so they come back together just in time.  Lauren (Witherspoon’s character) eventually finds out the truth, but the murderous villains put that out of her mind and she ends up choosing one of them, and things go forward.

There are a couple of mirthful smiles to be had in this movie, but for the most part it was an exercise in endurance, even on an airplane.  Mainly, I learned two things.  First, I obviously don’t easily recognize Tom Hardy, because I went through the whole film without realizing that it was him.  Second, I don’t find Reese Witherspoon all that attractive, as it’s hard to imagine that both of these guys would get that hung up on her that quickly, especially since Chris Pine’s character is treated as a womanizing lady’s man, and Tom Hardy’s character is only nervously entering the dating scene.

Bottom line:  a waste of time.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

And so after the misery of This Means War, I tuned into another spy comedy, this time the much more successful The Spy Who Dumped Me.  This one stars Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as two modern women who are best friends, who get wrapped in all sorts of espionage shenanigans when one of them is abruptly dumped by her boyfriend, a covert CIA agent.  The action takes them all over Europe, to the Cirque du Soleil, across the path of an insane gymnast / assassin, and into encounters with all sorts of double crossing murderers.  I’m not sure that the spy plot actually makes sense, precisely, but the jokes and the action were diverting enough to keep me entertained without really calling that into question.

The film is actually pretty violent, but also quite funny.  There’s a lot of surprising moments that come with the combination of these two things, and Kate McKinnon especially is fun to watch.  The laughs certainly swerve into some more awkward moments, including how the girls avoid a flash drive from being discovered, but it just about managed to straddle that line of not being too offensive for my relatively delicate sensibilities…although it’s possible that the version I watched was “toned down” for airplane viewing, which might have made it more palatable.

Gillian Anderson has a small role as the chief for the British spies in the movie, and famed whistle-blower Edward Snowden appears as a character, played by Tom Stourton, who has a crush on McKinnon’s character and thus does them a favor at a critical moment.

The Darkest Minds

Here is another adaptation of a Young Adult novel, this time by author Alexandra Bracken.  I haven’t read the book, but the movie feels like it was written over a weekend by a couple of guys who wrote down story beats from other Young Adult novels and shuffled them together; and then filmed off a couple of miles out of town over a few successive weekends by a low budget film crew that I used to be part of.

The story is about a world where 90% of the children abruptly die (something that is only lightly shown, mercifully) and the survivors develop superpowers.  These children are rounded up into camps where they are tested and then color-coded for easy identifications.  Our main character, Ruby, tests as an “Orange” which translates to “most dangerous” and thus earns an instant termination.  Fortunately, her power is to alter the perception or memory of anyone she touches, so she’s able to get rebranded as a “green”, the relatively safest color category.

Years later, when she is a teenager, Ruby is found out again but a kindly doctor helps her escape.  Ruby realizes the doctor’s organization might not be her thing so she flees again, meeting up with a van full of like-minded character cliches (a nerdy guy, a good looking guy, and a withdrawn girl) who are trying to find the a fabled sanctuary for their kind.

They do, but unless you’ve never seen any dystopia story ever, you know from the get-go that this sanctuary is worse than whatever the refugees were fleeing from.  It doesn’t take long for this to be confirmed, as its leader–the only other “Orange” aside from Ruby–is actually in charge of the government they are hiding from and is luring kids in to use them as part of an army.

The production of Darkest Minds feels cheap and most of the acting is subpar.  Ruby is played by Amandla Stenberg, who earned her dystopia credentials by playing Rue in the  Hunger Games , and she does fine here.  But a lot of the cast around her are awkward and lack sophistication in their performances.  The whole story, as I’ve mentioned, is a retread of things that have been seen many times before, so unless somehow you’ve never yet encountered Hunger Games or Divergent or Maze Runner or The Fifth Wave, then there’s nothing you’ll find here that is fresh or worthwhile. And if this is your very first exposure to Young Adult dystopia, it’s a bad place to start.  And that’s coming from someone who thinks that Divergent, Maze Runner and The Fifth Wave are all terrible.

Tomb Raider

This is an adaptation of the popular video game franchise, rebooting the previous version which starred Angelina Jolie. This time around, leading lady Lara Croft is played by Alicia Vakandar, who does the daring and the menial to earn money, because she has refused to declare her long-missing explorer father dead (and thus inherit his money). Just when she’s about to give in, she deciphers an obscure clue that her father has left behind, and embarks on a globe-hopping quest to figure out what happened to him. Her ally on this is Japanese sailor, whose father also went missing, and together the two find themselves prisoners of an unscrupulous archeologist who hasn’t learned that you can catch more flies with oil rather than vinegar, and has been forcing slaves for the last seven years to work to their death to find a particular tomb.

Anyway, Tomb Raider turns out to be a pretty fun film, even for all its silliness. A big part of what makes it enjoyable is the same as Skyscraper, above, which is that the lead character demonstrates the right amount of vulnerability and weakness to make her someone that you can relate to. So sure, she’s pulling herself up over the edge of a waterfall with superhuman strength, but she’s straining and looking terrified as she does it, so she feels human and relatable. This was a quality one never really got with Angelina Jolie’s version of the character (which I admit to having not seen all of), which made her kind of off-putting.

There’s nothing mind-blowing about the film, but it’s appealingly acted with sound, and a story that held my attention, with some fun escape room-like hi-jinks.  I’d definitely be up for a sequel if they can capture the same basic charm, especially if it’s on another big airplane ride sometime in the future.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

This is obviously the outlier, a very different sort of movie than I generally watch on the plane.  My brother recommended it to me largely on the performance of Sam Rockwell, and I have to agree that he does an amazing job, as do the other major players of the film, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson.  The story is about Mildred (McDormand), a mother who is frustrated by the lack of progress made in investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, so she hires three dilapidated billboards on a road that people seldom travel, and uses them to post a message to the chief of police, Willoughby (Harrelson), demanding to know why there haven’t been any results.

Her actions prove to be massive divisive, as many in the town feel she is being unnecessarily vindictive, as the police chief is well-respected, and is dying of cancer as well.  It does stir renewed interest in the case, but as the chief points out, it’s the sort of case that may never go solved unless there is some piece of dumb-luck that comes along.

But the film is not a mystery about the identity of the murderer, but a dramatic reflection about the nature of guilt and justice, which demands a much deeper response than I can give it here.  Sam Rockwell plays Deputy Dixon, a racist and reactionary police officer who is transformed by the events…but not into a nice person, but into a guy who at least has the potential to be better than is.  At the same time, Mildred wrestles with her own issues of guilt, often taking it out on people around her, but eventually coming to a level of balance over it all.

The film then deftly leaves these two characters in an open-ended position.  They have become united, but in exactly what is uncertain.  The film leaves us and them with a question, about exactly what constitutes justice, and what lengths are they and should they be willing to go for it.

It’s engaging storytelling by writer and director Martin McDonagh, and far above my usual airplaneviewing fare.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

And that wraps up this super-long airplane trip.  Incidentally, I also tuned into two TV series but didn’t make it through the first episode of either.  I watched about half of the pilot of Life Sentence, a comedy with the intriguing premise of what happens when a terminally ill girl is suddenly cured.  Her whole life has been built around the idea that things were coming to an end soon, and suddenly both she and her family have to adjust to coping with life indefinitely.  It’s an interesting idea marred by way too much voice over and some other annoying choices.  I also watched the first 10 or 15 minutes of a show called Counterpart, which I thought was just an espionage program but turned out to have something to do with alternate realities.  It starred J.K. Simmons and looked interesting, but the plane landed before I could get any further.



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