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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Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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Top Story: Marvel Ditches Plan for Princess Di Comic Series
Marvel Enterprises Inc. has decided to drop plans to reincarnate the late Princess Diana as a mutant comic superhero this fall. According to Reuters, the five-series storyline, titled "Di Another Day," was to feature Princess Diana as one of a team of superpowered mutants. Earlier this week, however, Buckingham Palace called the idea "utterly appalling" and a "cheap attempt to cash in on Diana's fame and the tragic circumstances surrounding her death." Marvel said in a statement that "upon reflection" it will remove Diana and all references to the royal family in its upcoming X-Statix monthly comics.
Tom Cruise Says Scientology Helped Him
In the July 21 issue of People magazine, Tom Cruise says Scientology helped him overcome a learning disability. "When I was about 7, I had been labeled dyslexic," he told the magazine. "I'd try to concentrate on what I was reading, then I'd get to the end of the page and have very little memory of anything I'd read. I would go blank, feel anxious, nervous, bored, frustrated, dumb." Shortly after the release of Top Gun in 1986, Cruise, 41, discovered the "Study Technology" method developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1960s. "I realized I could absolutely learn anything that I wanted to learn," Cruise said. The actor is a founding board member of the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that uses Hubbard's teaching techniques in a secular setting.
Elvis' Tooth on Auction Block
A tooth allegedly pulled from Elvis Presley 's mouth at a dentist's office, a lock of his hair saved from his haircut upon joining the military and a gold record for his hit single "Love Me Tender" are on the eBay Internet auction block, The Associated Press reports. The tooth and the other items have been on display at a Fort Lauderdale hair salon for about 10 years. As of Thursday morning, there was one bid for $100,000. Anthony DeFontes, curator of and spokesman for the collection, said most bizarre bid so far was from an anonymous European company that was interested in extracting DNA from the tooth, but DeFontes said the tooth's owner "is not interested in that." Get your bids in now, the auction ends July 18.
Maguire Brags About Spider-Man II
Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire promised Thursday that the sequel to that 2002 box office hit will be even better than the original. "I'm really happy with it," Maguire told reporters at a news conference for upcoming film Seabiscuit. It's going to be better than the first one. The story is a lot better." The actor said filming for Spider-Man II was about two-thirds complete but declined give any details about the plot, the AP reports. The first installment was one of 2002's biggest hits, raking in $806 million at global box offices.
Humanitas Awards Prizes to Fisher, Kelley
Screenwriter Antwone Fisher, TV producer David E. Kelley and Whale Rider director Niki Caro all picked up Humanitas prizes Thursday for their contribution to the film and TV industry, The Hollywood Reporter reports. Gordon Rayfield, meanwhile, received the TV award in the 90-minute or longer category for Showtime's Our America, and Larry Wilmore, Teri Schaffer and Steve Tompkins took home the 30-minute television category for the episode of Fox's The Bernie Mac Show titled "Sweet Home Chicago, Part 2." Established in 1974, the award recognizes television and motion picture writers whose work honestly explores the complexities of the human experience and sheds light on the positive values of life.
Glover Returns to Black Panther Film Fest
Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover will return to the third annual International Black Panther Film Festival as its honorary chairman, the AP reports. Glover, 55, who is now on Broadway in a revival of Master Harold ... and the boys, was the festival's honorary chairman in 2001. The festival was founded in 1999 by Black Panther members Kathleen Cleaver and Jamal Joseph and "emphasizes films that convey the spirit of resistance that the youthful Black Panthers and the Young Lords symbolized." The festival runs July 31 through Aug. 4 in Harlem, N.Y.
MTV To Document Newlyweds Lachey and Jessica Simpson
Husband-and-wife pop singers Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson will let MTV cameras record their first year of marriage in the new series Newlyweds, set to bow Aug. 19 at 10:30 p.m. EDT. "Nick is a complete neat freak, he's the woman of the relationship, and I am a total disaster," Simpson told the AP. "He's very good at ironing clothes and doing laundry and cleaning toilets, stuff that he won't let me hire a housekeeper to do." Lachey, the 29-year-old member of the boy band 98 Degrees, and Simpson, 23, married in October 2002."A lot of people are going to be able to see we're just normal people, normal newlyweds living a new kind of life together," Lachey said.
Boondocks Comic Strip Gets TV Deal
Aaron McGruder and partner Reggie Hudlin, the creators of the edgy comic strip The Boondocks seen in 350 newspapers nationwide, will write a pilot script and an animated feature treatment for Sony Pictures TV, Variety reports. The Boondocks revolves around two inner city kids, Huey, named after Huey P. Newton, and Riley, a wanna-be gangsta, who move to the suburbs with their slightly out-of-step grandfather. The TV and feature projects will introduce new characters and settings that haven't been seen in the comic. Sony hopes to shop the project to networks this development season for a 2004-05 season launch.