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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If there's a cinematic alchemy award to be given this year director Bill Condon deserves to take it home after magically turning the tedious Twilight franchise into entertainment gold. 2011's Part 1 was a horror camp romp that turned the supernatural love triangle — the naval gazing trio of Bella Edward and Jacob — on its head. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 continues the madcap exploration of a world populated by vampires and werewolves mining even more comedy thrills and genuine character moments out of conceit than ever before. The film occasionally sidesteps back into Edward and Bella's meandering romance (an evident hurdle of author Stephenie Meyer's source material) but the duller moments are overshadowed by the movie's nimble pace and playful attitude. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will elicit laughs aplenty — but thankfully they're all on purpose.
Part 2 picks up immediately following the events of the first film Bella (Kristen Stewart) having been turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson) to save her life after the torturous delivery of her half-human half-vampire child Renesmee. She awakes to discover super senses heightened agility increased strength… and a thirst for blood. One dead cougar later Bella and the gang are able to focus on the real troubles ahead: Renesmee is rapidly growing (think Jack) and vampiric overlords The Volturi perceive her a threat to vampiric secrecy. Knowing the Volturi will travel to Forks WA to kill the young girl (a 10-year-old just a month after being born) The Cullens amass an army of bloodsucking friends to end the oppression once and for all.
Packed with an absurd amount of backstory and mythology-twisting plot points (some vampires can shoot lightning now?) Condon and series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg mine revel in the beefed up ensemble of Breaking Dawn - Part 2 and thanks to a wildly funny cast it never feels like pointless deviation. Along with the usual suspects Lee Pace adds swagger to the series as a grungy alt-rock vampire Noel Fisher appears as a hilarious over-the-top battle-ready Russian coven member and Michael Sheen returns has Volturi head honcho Aro and steels the show. Flamboyant diabolical and a steady stream of maniacal laughter Sheen owns Condon's high camp vision for Twilight and he lights up the screen. There are a few throw away nations of vampires — the oddly stereotypical Egyptian and Amazonians sects are there mostly there to off-set the extreme whiteness — but the actors involved bring liveliness to a franchise known for being soulless. Even Stewart Pattinson and Taylor Lautner give personal bests in this installment — a scene between Bella and her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) is genuinely heartfelt while Jacob's overprotective hero schtick finally lands.
Whereas Breaking Dawn - Part 1 stuck mostly to the personal story relying on the intimate moments as Bella and Edward took the big plunge into marriage and sex Part 2 paints with broader strokes and Condon has a ball. Delving into the history of the vampires and the vampire world outside Forks is Pandora's Box for the director. One scene where we learn why kids scare the heck of the Volturi captures a scope of medieval epics — along with the bloodshed. Twilight might be known for its sexual moments but Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will go down for its abundance of decapitations. The big set piece in the finale is something to behold both in the craftsmanship of the spectacle and in its bizarre nature.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 had the audience hooting hollering and even gasping as it twisted and turned to the final moments. There's little doubt that even the biggest naysayer of the franchise would do the same. No irony here: the conclusion of Twilight is a blast.
“Extraordinary rendition” is the very real practice of transporting terrorist suspects to a foreign country where they can be interrogated or held for the purpose of gathering intelligence or to face trial. In other words it’s a way to torture someone into confessing terrorist connections. And as the CIA’s head of terrorism Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) explains rendition is a necessary evil in catching the bad guys. But what happens when they nab someone who truly is innocent? Such is the case with Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) an Egyptian-American chemical engineer who is taken while on his way home from a business trip in South Africa and then shipped off to an undisclosed North African city for interrogation. His pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically trying to find him even asking an old college flame (Peter Sarsgaard) now an aide to a U.S. senator for help. Meanwhile Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal)--a CIA field officer who happens to be in the location of the latest terrorist attack Anwar is accused of being a part of—is sent in to observe Anwar’s “questioning” by the local police captain Abasi Fawal (Yagal Nior). Douglas doesn’t really care for the job—and eventually does something about it. The Arab actors far outshine their American counterparts in Rendition—save for perhaps Meryl Streep who could read the Yellow Pages and make it intriguing. Her tough-as-nails bureaucrat is utterly convinced what she is doing is the right thing—and the actress plays it with complete resolve. Metwally (Munich) has the unenviable task of being filthy and naked not to mention tortured throughout most of the movie but manages to bring humility to the role. Nior too commands the screen whenever he is on it. But the other American actors bring Rendition down. Witherspoon is required to play her thankless role without her usual pep and we miss it. Not even her Oscar moment in which she screams at Streep’s Whitman demanding to know the whereabouts of her husband can invoke much emotion. Gyllenhaal is also fairly lackluster as the very green CIA agent who witnesses the horror of torture tactics. When he finally springs into action it’s almost too late for us to care about his character. Sarsgaard is entirely wasted merely the conduit to explain “rendition” to the audience and Alan Arkin as the U.S. senator simply barks a lot. Although South African director Gavin Hood gave us the searing Oscar-winning foreign film Tsotsi he may not yet have enough experience to handle something on a grander scale. Visually Hood knows what he is doing. The camera is fluid and the shots well framed but Rendition fails to inspire in its message. It moves slowly manipulatively—even the torture scenes albeit always hard to watch are almost rudimentary. Plus why see a movie about something you can either read about in the papers or watch on the news? The only time Rendition truly shines is in screenwriter Kelley Sane’s far more interesting subplot revolving around Fawal and his defiant daughter Fatima played with exquisite beauty by newcomer Zineb Oukach. The traditional Fawal is unwavering in his disciples so much so that he has driven his daughter into the arms of a mysterious young man who offers excitement and the promise of freedom. It’s obvious Hood feels more comfortable framing the more intimate small details. In fact had this plotline been the focus Rendition would have soared. The title would have had to change though.