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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Chris Lilley is bringing our favorite Summer Heights High character back with Ja'mie: Private School Girl. This time, she's left public school and back on her old stomping grounds, Hillford Girls Grammar School, where the lawns are more manicured and the trash bins are less random. We love Ja'mie for her brutal honesty, her words of wisdom, and her tireless goal of helping others. She's such a strong character that sometimes we forget that she's played by Australian actor Chris Lilley, who makes playing a schoolgirl look so natural and believable. We tip our hats to Mr. Lilley for creating one of the best female characters played by a man in comedy history. To celebrate Ja'mie's triumphant return, we're taking a look back at the best cross-dressing moments in comedy. (And of course, a feathered hat must be tipped to Eddie Izzard, one of the few real-life out transvestites in comedy.)
Dustin Hoffman's gender-bending role as Miss Dorothy Michaels is one of his most memorable. Out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) dresses up as Dorothy and auditions for a female part on a popular soap opera. He lands the part and becomes a famous actress, but soon faces complications with his new identity, as he falls in love with his costar Julie and is courted by Julie's father. Tootsie earned 10 Oscar nominations, one of which was won by Jessica Lange as Julie, and the American Film Institute ranked it as the second funniest film of all time.
The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994)
The boys of The Kids in the Hall made playing girls a regular thing on TV. In fact, playing women was one of their trademarks, but they weren't in drag, they were just playing regular women. They made cross-dressing and playing the opposite sex seem normal, natural, and comfortable, paving the way for characters like Ja'mie. Two of our favorite characters are secretaries Cathy and Kathie, whose sketches often feature all five of the members playing women.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Robin Williams was born to play Mrs. Doubtfire. After his character, Daniel, loses custody of his kids in his divorce, he finds a way to stay in their lives by applying to be their housekeeper. With the help of his makeup artist brother, he transforms into hefty Scottish matriarch Mrs. Doubtfire. His family has no idea that Mrs. Doubtfire is actually Daniel, and he is able to fully take on the role of their housekeeper, learning to be a better parent to his kids along the way.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Terence Stamp, known for playing villains and intimidating types, steps out of his comfort zone and into gorgeous gowns as Bernadette in this critically acclaimed Australian comedy. His stage partners are played by equally unlikely actors, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. The trio travel in a purple school bus named Priscilla through the Australian outback to reach their gig in Alice Springs. They encounter many interesting characters along the way, and Bernadette questions her path in life.
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
Coming off the success of Priscilla, To Wong Foo is a similar twist on the buddy-movie genre. Three professional drag queens, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), and Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) take a road trip from New York to LA and get into several mini adventures in the small towns along the way. In their encounters, the three ladies teach the townspeople valuable life lessons on self-confidence, chivalry, and love.
The Birdcage (1996)
This remake of the Franco-Italian classic La Cage aux Folles stars Robin Williams as Armand, the owner of a South Beach drag club, and Nathan Lane as Armand's domestic partner and star drag queen. When Armand's son, Val, gets engaged to Barbara, whose father is an ultraconservative Republican senator, Armand must create the illusion that he is a straight man when he invites Barbara's parents over for dinner. The ruse gets complicated — but hilarious — when Albert (Lane) uses his talents for cross-dressing and pretends to be Albert's wife.
Sorority Boys (2002)
It's definitely not the most eloquent example of cross-dressing in cinema, but Sorority Boys is proof that the tactic can been used in any genre, even teen sex comedies. Three mysgonistic playboys are accused of embezzlement and get kicked out of their frat, and their only option to stay on campus rent-free is by dressing up like women and joining the sorority Delta Omicron Gamma (D.O.G.). Not the best message, but their past mistreatment of women does come back to bite them in the ass, and they learn a few lessons in the process.
White Chicks (2004)
In this movie, not only do Shawn and Marlon Wayans have to become a different sex, but also a different race. The premise is ridiculous, but that's part of the film's appeal. Brothers and FBI agents Marcus (Marlon) and Kevin (Shawn) Copeland must pretend to be socialite sisters Brittany and Tiffany Wilson (this was when the Hilton sisters were still relevant) in order to catch a serial kidnapper. The movie might not go down in film history, but pop culturalists will forever be haunted by those faces.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.