Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol comes to Blu-ray/DVD on April 17. For those fans out there who are interested in becoming secret agents on their own accord, there's a special feature that might catch your interest: mask-making.
The below clip from the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Blu-ray feature "Life Masks" shows the technology behind the creation of the masks seen in the most recent of Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise) big screen adventures.
As you'll learn in the below video, the mask-making team kicked it up a notch since Mission: Impossible 3. Back then, you could only make one mask at a time. But in this new era of impossible missions, no mission is impossible. Even the mission of making two masks at once. Amazingly, the technology isn't that far off from from what the real spies are using. At an event in Washington D.C.'s International Spy Museum, former CIA agent Jonna Hiestand Mendez explained to reporter Matt Patches that "bioimaging" is used by agents in the field to create highly detailed disguises. Like artists utilize 3D printing, spies can utilize the technology to pull off Ethan Hunt-style switcheroos. Pretty impressive.
Check out the exclusive featurette for more:
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Will Drop In on Blu-ray/DVD
Exclusive Interview: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Director Brad Bird
IMAX President Greg Foster Talks Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
It’s not often that an entry in this column carries a caveat. The very purpose of these articles is to shed light on the unsung and the obscure in such a way as to cast a wide net for a larger audience. It is therefore counterproductive to thin the herd by warning off certain people. But if you are not a fan of classic, gory, splatter or slasher films from the '80s, I am not going to be able to convince you to seek out this week’s subject. It may behoove you to stop reading now, but thanks for stopping by. Well, now that those folks have left the room, have I got a disgustingly awesome treat for the rest of you!
In 2007, a film was released that paid the ultimate homage to the horror films on which so many of us grew up and for which we harbor massive affection. The film was Hatchet and, along with taking horror back to some of its goriest roots, it introduced the world to two new boogeymen: serial killer Victor Crowley and director Adam Green. The film got a limited theatrical release, but it was enough to develop a near cult following and cultivate a demand for a sequel.
Last year, Adam Green unleashed Hatchet 2 on film-fest audiences and managed to outdo himself on nearly every conceivable level. In the horror universe, there are a few requisite upgrades fans expect. If you’ve ever seen Scream 2, you’re aware of these conventions. Green hurdles the first expectation by upping the mayhem and bloodletting to astronomical proportions. The carnage in Hatchet 2 is, by all rights, inhuman, but for fans of the genre, it is like being visited by an old friend…who then kills you with a chainsaw. If you’ve seen the first Hatchet, many of the familiar brutalities are revisited and new ones are introduced that will elicit as many cheers as they do groans. The fact that a staggering majority of these kills is achieved with practical effects is a true testament to the legitimate artistry of special effects and how the all-too-frequent replacement of these effects with CG is shameful.
Another criterion of the horror sequel is that it should enhance the concept of the original film and, especially with slasher films, further the legend of its monster. Hatchet 2 gives us an interesting backstory for Victor Crowley and ties formerly ancillary characters in as conspirators in Crowley’s origins. But more than that, Green actually weaves his earlier works into this film to lend credence to the idea that they all exist within the same universe (a la Tarantino). There are ads in shops for the “Slap Chop” from his fantastic Halloween-themed short film as well as ubiquitous television sets featuring press conferences detailing the aftermath of the events of Frozen.
But what I really love about Hatchet 2 is its reverent celebration of the horror genre as a community. As with the original, the film stars two major titans of horror: Tony Todd (Candyman) and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th VII-X). But Hatchet 2 also offers cameos from horror filmmakers both classic and fledgling: Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2), Lloyd Kaufman (guru of Troma Films), Marcus Dunstan (The Collector), Mike Mendez (The Gravedancers) and Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red). It also stars Danielle Harris (the child star of Halloween 4 & 5) and Tom Holland (director of Child’s Play and Fright Night). The inclusion of all these horror personalities echoes Green’s commitment to the genre and his singular desire to make films for avid fans like us.
On top of all of this, Hatchet 2 is tighter, smarter and more elegantly shot than its predecessor. It also features better overall performances, especially those of Kane Hodder and Hatchet franchise newcomer A.J. Bowen. The spirit of the original film is alive and well but nicely augmented in perfect sequel fashion. The ending of the film is spectacular and, again, feels like a love letter to fans of great slasher films.
Being that the MPAA more or less stole away any opportunity you may have had to see this film in theaters -- do not get me started -- it isn't a mystery as to why you may not yet have seen Hatchet 2. But this injustice will be rectified next Tuesday, when the film is released on DVD and Blu-ray. I highly suggest picking up a copy, gathering your most hardcore horror-geek buddies, and enjoying a night of blood, boobs and dark comedy as only our beloved genre can deliver.