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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And now, the story of a wealthy queen who frost everything. And her one sister who had no choice but to save them all from weather. It's Frozen.
(Warning: Frozen spoilers to follow)
We expect every contemporary animated movie to sport a layer of comedy just for the adults in the audience. While the kids are mesmerized by the magic and kept giddy over the screwball sight gags, the parents, older siblings, and babysitters are kept from dozing off by double entendres, relationship humor, and — most of all — sly pop culture references. The Shrek films upped the ante on this trade, and many a big screen cartoon has followed suit since. But Frozen gives us something unprecedented: numerous direct references to Arrested Development.
Admittedly, they're subtle. So subtle that I wondered, leaving the theater after my dazzling experience with Frozen (these instances aside, I absolutely loved it, as did our reviewer Hans Morgenstern), if I was just reading too deeply into a few innocent gags. But right behind me out of the auditorium were two men about my age dicussing the very topic that was haunting me. "Did you notice all the Arrested Development jokes?" one said to the other. That's proof enough for me. So here they are.
The Chicken DanceEarly on in the story, the Scandinavian town of Arendelle is invited inside the new queen Elsa's (Idina Menzel) palace walls to attend her coronation party. This is when we meet Alan Tudyk's obnoxious autocrat, the Duke of Weselton — the character responsible for a good supply of Frozen's villainy as well as the first and third Arrested Development references. The Duke insists upon a dance with Elsa's sister, Princess Anna (Kristen Bell, the hero of the piece), bouncing around her in an animalistic fashion... one of which he is well aware. The Duke boasts openly about his feral rhythm, likening his movements (with pride) to the graceful chicken. But as he delivers this line, the Duke takes a posture that doesn't quite resemble that of any ordinary chicken... with his fingers fanned out atop his head and his legs jutting to either side, the Duke's chicken is almost identical to that dreamt up by one Lindsay Fünke in her rendition of the Bluth family Chicken Dance.
Finish Each Other's...Okay, maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe the animators were simply opting for the funniest way in which the squirmy Duke might contort his body. That's what I figured... until just a few minutes later, when Anna and her newfound love Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) break into their romantic duet, singing enthusiastically about just how compatible they are. The true measure of compatibility is exhibited in this couplet:
Hans: It's like we finish each other's...Anna: Sandwiches!
Okay, wait a minute, now that's a joke torn directly from an episode of Arrested Development. When Michael Bluth rattles on about the inspired connection he has found in a woman he believes to be his estranged sister, reveling in this fact that he and this relative stranger Nellie "finish each other's...", Michael's non-estranged sister chimes in with the conclusive "sandwiches?"
Buster's MantraCould it be that a pattern is amounting, or is this just wishful thinking? Maybe I didn't catch the Duke's chicken dance quite right, allowing my AD fandom to inform how I interpreted his quick movements. And sure, that sandwich gag might have originated on Arrested, but I seem to recall its subsequent adoption by other comedic entities (Community, for one, subbing out "sandwiches" in favor of "pie"). I was teetering on the edge of believing that Frozen could, in fact, be fostering a running gag for Arrested Development devotees. At this point in the film, all I needed was one minor gust of wind to force me over. And then it came.
"She's a mooonsteeer!" Yes. Once recognizing the powers of creating snow that lived within Elsa, the nefarious Duke belted this condemnation in a tone a little too reminiscent of one self-loathing, hook-handed Buster Bluth. And it was so. It couldn't all have been an accident.
The last AD nod I noticed was, admittedly, the flimsiest. Fleeing the wrath of the frightened and enraged townspeople, Elsa sprints away over a liquid lake that freezes upon her contact with it. If it weren't for the three preceding gags, I wouldn't have entertained the thought that this might be a reference to Rita Leeds' (Charlize Theron) illusionary stroll across the surface of a swimming pool and her cinematic brainchild The Ocean Walker (itself all a reference to the '79 film Being There).
I'll give you that this one is quite a stretch... but the other three? All in such rapid succession? You're gonna tell me that those aren't Arrested Development references?
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There was a recent article in the New York Times about "the end of courtship", about how this generation doesn't date — at least not in the traditional sense — anymore. Instead, twenty-somethings wind up in a series of convenient hookups and hangouts where romance is all but dead. The article likely resonated far too closely with some, and horrified others who wondered where it all went wrong.
The same could be said about any episode of Girls, but it rang especially true with the long-awaited Season 2 premiere. Even more interestingly, the episode (titled "It's About Time") was just about that: how the girls of the Girls generation are readjusting to the new rules of courtship and blurred lines of relationships and social conducts, all while trying to come into their own in the Big Apple.
Another big theme of last night's premiere was, well, themes. Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her new roommate/gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (a scene-stealing Andrew Rannells), in the midst of the line-blurring roommate bliss decided that, in addition to the housewarming party they were throwing, they'd start having theme nights. A fondue night, a craft night, a Japanese snack night, a French salon night. All those things you and your roommate say you'll do, but will never actually follow through with. (See, this is how Girls hits it on the head when it comes to peering into the lives of young Brooklynites.) But, in addition to theme of Well-Meaning, But Unrealist Roommate Plans, there were some other notable themes during the episode.
The Hannah Being Hannah Theme: Lena Dunham knows who Hannah is. She knows Hannah will still help out a disabled Adam (Adam Driver) despite the fact that she no longer wants to be with him (or so she says) and that she's now casually dating/sleeping with a charming new fellow named Sandy (guest star Donald Glover). That she'll push the new guy away when he even uses the word "love", but let Adam get away with spouting his typical bulls**t about not needing labels to define his own love for her. And, in true Hannah fashion, when she wasn't wearing ill-fitting clothes, she simply wasn't wearing any at all. Lena Dunham knows what she's doing.
The Disaster Waiting To Happen Theme: All the girls are following that theme, really. There's Hannah and her ultimately doomed courtship with Sandy (you just know she's going to wind up in Adam's manipulative arms) and her ultimately doomed friendship with Elijah (it's bad enough they sleep in the same bed together, but wait until she finds out that after a hilarious karaoke duet of "Building a Mystery", he and Marnie sort of kind of started to have sex.) Elijah and his sugar daddy boyfriend George are as co-dependent and messed up as Marnie is with Charlie (she wound up at his door looking for comfort, despite that fact that he's still with his terrible girlfriend Aubrey), so both of those relationships are doomed in their own ways. Then, there's Jessa (who showed up in true Jessa fashion at the last moment possible) and Thomas John (Chris O'Dowd). How doomed are they? Well, if you don't know where your new husband lives, it's not exactly a good sign. The only disaster that might weather the storm, against all odds, are Shoshanna and Ray. Go figure.
Inevitable Sex and the City Comparison Theme: The recently-fired Marnie's sex-fueled brunch chatter with her very SATC-like mother (played by guest star Rita Wilson), Shoshanna and Ray's very Charlotte and Harry-like courtship, and George's very Lexi Featherston-like anti-new New York rant. It all felt like moments standing in the shadow of SATC, which is unfortunate really, because while the two HBO shows have plenty in common on the surface (centered around four independent women, New York City, sex, catching an amount of s**t for being self-absorbed and unlikable to a degree that Entourage never even scratched the surface of dealing with) Girls will hopefully break free from feeling too much like SATC Jr. That said, an occasional theme night is okay.
The Killer One-Liner Theme:
- "Sorry I have a boner. It's not for you." — Elijah, sleeping next to Hannah. (Kudos to Dunham for letting her small belly hang out in this scene. This is what people actually look like when they sleep.)
- "My keen mathematical mind and fairly fast-growing hair." — Shoshanna, thanking her higher powers for her many gifts.
- "I may be deflowered, but I am not devalued." — Shoshanna — who is "oh em effing gee amaze" — hear her roar.
- "So, Hannah says Greenpoint and I'm like, 'Where the f**k is that'?" — Elijah, talking about his new neighborhood.
- "I f**king hate grown-ups." — Hannah, saying what we all think.
- "When you love someone, you dont have to be nice all the time." — Adam, on relationships. (True, but you do have to be nice sometimes, Adam.)
- "A panda next to a gun next to a wrapped gift, it makes no sense!" — Ray, on emojis.
- "Bisexuals and Germans...I happen to be both." — Elijah, on the only groups of people still acceptable to make fun of.
Aside from Marnie's chat with her unpleasant mother, this episode hit everything square on the head. From Adam's conveniently lax confessions of love ("You're my main hang") and Hannah promptly shooting them down to Shoshanna becoming the show's unexpected voice of reason, if these are the themes Season 2 will be exploring, Girls makes enduring your twenties worth all the heartache, humiliation, and hassle.
[Photo credit: HBO]
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When you're in high school it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman) whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under "Murphy's Law." Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals mixtapes and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths of course!) Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy shocking and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.