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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2009’s Sherlock Holmes found unexpected synergy in the pairing of Robert Downey Jr.’s impish charm and Guy Ritchie’s macho kinetic visual style reinventing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective for a modern blockbuster audience. The follow-up Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows employs the same winning formula while adhering judiciously to the Law of Sequels and its more-more-more dictates: more action bigger set pieces higher stakes and a darker more convoluted plot. But more as so many past sequels have taught us is rarely better.
Game of Shadows marks the emergence of Doyle’s most famous villain James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Glimpsed only in darkness in the first film Moriarty takes center stage in the sequel as Holmes’s foremost criminal foil a genius-level university professor whose extracurricular interests range from horticulture to homicide. Holmes has deduced him to be at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings as well as the seemingly unrelated deaths of various titans of industry but can’t quite discern just what the professor’s endgame might be. Composed and calculating to a menacing degree Harris makes for a promising counterweight to Downey’s manic verbosity. But as in the first film Game of Shadows’ best moments are found in the comic interplay between Holmes and his reluctant sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) who is plucked from his honeymoon to accompany the detective on a trans-continental trip in search of clues to Moriarty’s machinations.
And it’s very much a boys-only trip. The female leads from the first film Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly are tossed aside – literally in the case of the latter – in Game of Shadows while the cast’s highest-profile new addition Swedish star Noomi Rapace (best known as the original non-emaciated Lisbeth Salander) is a curious non-factor in the role of a Gypsy (or Roma if you prefer) fortune-teller. The film maintains only the slimmest pretense of a romantic subplot between her and Downey. Rapace looking perhaps a bit lost in her first English-speaking role can’t hope to eclipse the Holmes-Watson traveling road show.
Ritchie’s technique with its signature blend of rapid cutting and slow-mo and super-high frame-rates – perfect for admiring the odd apple tossed in the air or a piece of bark shot off a tree – is once again evident in the film’s awe-inspiring (and occasionally coherence-defying) set pieces the most memorable of which is set in a munitions factory with Watson wielding a gatling gun like an early T-600 prototype. But some of the novelty of the stylistic juxtaposition has faded since the first film. Ritchie tries to compensate by ramping up the firepower to limited effect. Absent amid the hail of mortar blasts and automatic weapons fire is any real sense of intrigue or suspense which proves to be Game of Shadows’ most vexing mystery.
It all begins in the quiet village of Hobbiton where Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) comes to visit his old friend Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) on his 111th birthday and talk about the ring Bilbo found many years ago. Gandalf discovers the ring is indeed the One Ring of Sauron-the Dark Lord who once ruled Middle-earth with a terrible hand and has now risen to reclaim the Ring and rule again. Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) who learns how it gives its possessor unspeakable power and why it has now put his village in danger. Suddenly Frodo is thrust into a treacherous mission. With his hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Samwise (Sean Astin) Frodo leaves his beloved home to travel to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the Ring before it falls into the wrong hands. The journey is fraught with dangers--from the evil Ringwraiths Sauron's henchmen to the powerful wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army of horrible mutants called the Uruk-Hai. Luckily the hobbits receive help along the way from Legolas (Orlando Bloom) an elf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) a dwarf and the brave humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean) who all join the Fellowship of the Ring to protect Frodo and help save Middle-earth. But can they escape the lure of the Ring?
The all-star cast does an admirable job bringing the vivid characters of Tolkien's books to life. They've all managed to personalize their roles while dealing with the responsibility of portraying fictional icons. The film belongs to Wood who has proven he can carry a film (even at the tender age of 11...remember Radio Flyer?). His Frodo is so wrought with emotion and gets kicked around so much you feel like joining the Fellowship yourself just to help him out. Yet the hobbit's strong resolve is also quite evident. As Gandalf McKellen seems to personify the kindly wizard as if Tolkien had written the part for him and as the hyper-kinetic Bilbo Holm tries on big hairy feet and brings something new to his repertoire of characters. Other worthy performances include Bloom as the ultra-cool elf Legolas Astin as the stalwart Sam and Bean an underrated actor as the tortured Boromir who falls under the Ring's spell and sacrifices all to break from it. Some of the other characters didn't have the same amount of screen time but will more than likely be getting more play in the sequels including Mortensen's heroic Aragorn the man who would be king and his lady love the elven princess Arwen played by the beautiful Liv Tyler. It'll be interesting to see how the cast will handle their characters in the sequels to come.
Lord of the Rings looks nothing less than spectacular. What is even more impressive is the fact that director Peter Jackson decided to film all three of the books at one time no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. He uses all the technology and wizardry available to filmmakers today and thrusts the audience deep within the treacherous and exciting Middle-earth. From the diminutive hobbits to the Elven city Rivendell to the dark Mines of Moira it's all there. The amount of talent involved in creating the film--the conceptual artistry the production design the costumes--should be recognized come Oscar time. The pacing of the movie is excellent with enough down time and heartfelt if sometimes stilted speeches to counteract the incredible action sequences. You hardly notice the three hours passing by and it leaves you at the end wanting the quest to continue. The only one deterring fact is that the film really is for its die-hard fans. Certainly in the literary world Tolkien's story is the mother of all epic fantasies and Jackson has remained faithful to the material. In that the movie doesn't necessarily have the universal appeal of say a Harry Potter. Nonetheless Rings is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking.