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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My favorite aspect of being an online film journalist -- or blogger, if you’re a fan of brevity -- is the opportunities it offers to meet my heroes. When those heroes bear names few people have heard of, it’s all the more rewarding. Absent is the narcissistic desire for future name-dropping, and in its place grows the realization of a true movie-geek dream. That being said, William Lustig is a name every fan of exploitation and horror should know. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest things about Lustig is that his films are of such a high caliber that they resonate even with those who harbor no passion for grindhouse cinema. I recently interviewed Mr. Lustig for Cinematical in conjunction with his visit to Austin to host screenings of three of his films at the Alamo Drafthouse -- each screening being immortalized with its very own limited edition Mondo Tees poster.
Here’s the interview that inspired me to provide this crash course in Lustigology.
Much like Martin Scorsese, William Lustig is a filmmaker whose identity is inextricably linked to New York City. His films explore the authentic grittiness of the big city as well as some absurdly magnificent supernatural elements. He never skimps on the genre-based shocks and thrills, but his films are sharper, more ambitious, and far more competent than the vast majority of the cult films of his era. Here are a few Lustig essentials with which you should acquaint yourself…
In what should have been a conventional serial-killer flick, Maniac is a masterpiece of low-budget artistry. Lustig gets an awe-inspiring, career-defining performance out of lead actor Joe Spinell, whose psychotic murderer Frank Zito is truly the stuff of nightmares. The entire story is told from Zito’s perspective, which lends a dark introspection to Maniac and dares you to sympathize with this monster. The cinematography is far more refined than one would expect from an exploitation film, and even the grisly horror effects are beautifully executed -- a credit to the master of practical horror, Tom Savini. Lustig’s all-consuming love for horror shines through the grime and allows Maniac to stand out among its contemporaries.
Here, again, Lustig takes what should be painfully standard exploitation fare and hones it into something remarkable. This time it’s a revenge film about a blue-collar factory worker whose wife and son are attacked by a gangster. When that gangster manages to cheat the system and get released, the grieving father turns to his coworkers -- who moonlight as, what else, vigilantes -- for help. Once again, the performances and the photography really elevate the material. Your heart goes out to Robert Forster as he exhausts every legal recourse at his disposal and ends up having to venture into a bloodstained moral gray area to find justice. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is superb as the toughest member of this self-appointed law enforcement squad, and the fact that they ride around in a big black van gives the movie a sadistic A-Team vibe.
Maniac Cop (1988)
Of the three films covered here, Maniac Cop is by far the most absurd. It’s about an NYPD super cop who gets too close to uncovering political corruption and is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While in prison, he is murdered by the criminals he helped put there. But he returns from the grave to get his vengeance on the police force, politicians and anyone found guilty…of being in his way. Maniac Cop is 50 lbs of fun in a 20 lb bag. It’s one of the only times a slasher film and an action film find glorious communion in a single movie as the film features just as much amazing stunt work as it does brutal slayings. Maniac Cop is also a who’s who of cult icons: Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins, Robert Z’Dar, Richard Roundtree and William Smith. I dare you not to enjoy it.
William Lustig has proven himself a hero to movie geeks not only as a director but also as a distributor. His company, Blue Underground, has released stunning transfers of some of the greatest cult and horror films of all time. Sergio Corbucci’s off-the-wall Western, Django, Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, and Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage are just a few of the films given a pristine high-def treatment by Blue Underground -- in addition to Lustig’s own Maniac and Vigilante. Later this year, the company will also give us Blu-rays of Fulci’s Zombie and House by the Cemetery. Like most of us, Lustig is a movie geek, one who not only made movies especially for us but also founded an entire distribution company because he got so tired of spending too much to import Japanese Laserdiscs that he opted to license the films himself. My hat’s off to you, sir.
Machete is coming, and I don’t think you’re ready. This week Danny Trejo hacks and slashes his way to bloody satisfaction. For those of you unfamiliar with this project, it began life as a faux trailer that played between the two segments of the 2007 Rodriguez/Tarantino co-production Grindhouse. Much in the same way that Machete is a celebration of the revenge films from the 42nd Street era, I intend to celebrate some of my favorite classic, score-settling revenge cinema. I want to make sure I am adequately prepared for people who may or may not mess with the wrong Mexican.
Thriller (AKA They Call Her One Eye)
First up is a nasty little treat from the sleaziest country on the planet: Sweden? Christina Lindberg plays a girl kidnapped, drugged, and forced into prostitution. I typically am not a fan of the female rape/revenge films (I Spit on Your Grave is reprehensible in all ways), and I won’t lie, the first half is incredibly explicit and very hard to watch. But by the time you get to the slow-motion, beautifully photographed shotgun rampage, you’ll understand why this film makes almost every list of the best revenge films of the '70s. The scene in which she loses her eye features one of the most grisly, and unflinching, practical effects I’ve ever seen.
Major Charles Rane lost his wife and child during a robbery -- and his right arm. But when he replaces that arm with a razor-sharp hook, he becomes a savage wraith with nothing to lose. As much as William Devane owns in this film, and he truly does, the real reason to watch is his costar: a baby-faced little upstart named Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays an army buddy of Devane’s who spends most of the movie silent -- that is, until Rane informs him he has found the men who murdered his family. At which point Jones stoically stands and nonchalantly states, “I’ll just get my gear.” You can guess what happens next.
One of my all-time favorite subgenres of exploitation has to be blaxploitation. If you are a fan of revenge films, blaxploitation should be your bread and butter. The spirit of the movement -- black heroes/heroines fighting back against the white establishment -- manifests itself in an entire catalogue of wronged protagonists bathing the streets in blood. My pick of the litter has to be Pam Grier in Coffy. The scene in which she shotguns the dope pushers who caused her sister’s overdose is a hallmark of Grier’s legendary badass status.
Another of my favorite exploitation subgenres is Ozploiation. Australia put out some of the most unabashedly awesome films from 1970 to 1989, and one of them was a low-budget preapocalyptic revenge thriller called Mad Max. Yes, I know Mel has since actually gone mad, but watching him systematically hunt down the marauders who murdered his family is sinfully entertaining. This film is so good that the writers of Saw constructed an entire franchise out of the final kill in Mad Max -- Max chaining a thug to a burning car and giving him a hacksaw to cut through his foot before the car explodes.
Charles Bronson made his mark on American cinema playing a regular Joe whose family is assaulted and who spends the rest of the film on a one-man crusade against crime. And of course by “crusade” I mean he blasts fools into next week with a gun the size of a trumpet. What is so great about Death Wish, apart from Jeff Goldblum making his film debut as one of the attackers, is that Bronson’s character is so tortured by his bloodlust that it keeps him sympathetic despite the fact he’s killing more than just those who wrong his family. Also, did I mention the gun the size of a trumpet?
When you take two cult heroes of mine, Robert Forster and Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, and put them in the same film, you already have my attention. When you let the director of Maniac Cop helm a film about factory workers who moonlight as outlaws cleaning up what the court system lets slip through the cracks, you win my heart. It’s not enough that these guys fear no gangster, drug dealer or vicious criminal in the city and beat them all to a bloody pulp; they do their work in a tricked-out van a la the A-Team!
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
The uber-anticipated sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen picks up shortly after the events of the blockbuster first film. With evil Megatron’s carcass buried at the bottom of the ocean Optimus Prime and his Autobot comrades working together with an elite group of human soldiers are now focused on hunting the remaining Decepticons scattered across the globe. Sam Witwicky hero of the 2007 movie is busy preparing for his first year at college while his unlikely girlfriend Mikaela Barnes stays behind to tend to her father’s auto-repair shop. Little do they know however that back on Cybertron a Decepticon elder known as “The Fallen” is hatching a scheme to invade Earth where hidden somewhere on the planet is the last known source of energon the life-blood of all Transformers. If he succeeds the devastation left in his wake will no doubt spell the end of the human race. With the fate of Earth hanging in the balance Sam and Mikaela must once again have to team up with Optimus and the Autobots to defeat this powerful new foe.
WHO’S IN IT?
All the major human players from the first Transformers film are back for the sequel including Shia LaBeouf Megan Fox Tyrese Gibson Josh Duhamel and John Turturro. Newcomers include Ramon Rodriguez who plays Sam’s conspiracy-obsessed college roommate Leo and The Office’s Rainn Wilson who enjoys a notable cameo as a pompous physics professor.
Of course the actors merely serve as background filler for the real stars of the show: those titular talking-alien robots. And director Michael Bay fills up the screen with enough mechanical eye candy to dazzle even the most skeptical gearhead. Returning characters include Optimus Prime Bumblebee Ratchet Ironhide Barricade Jazz (don’t act surprised) Starscream Frenzy and Megatron (again don’t act surprised).
Several new Autobots are introduced to the mix: Mudflap and Skids a pair of jive-talking ceaselessly annoying hatchbacks; Jolt a Chevy Volt; Sideswipe a silver Corvette; and Jetfire an elderly Decepticon turncoat who walks with a cane speaks with an English accent and transforms into an SR-71 Blackbird. Additions to Decepticon side include: The Fallen who we learn is the Decepticons’ real head honcho (consider him the Emperor Palpatine to Megatron’s Darth Vader); Soundwave a communications specialist who sinks his tentacles into a satellite and spies on us from above; Ravage a panther-like creature; Wheelie a radio-controlled truck who talks like Joe Pesci; “the Doctor ” a sort of mad scientist who speaks with a German accent (naturally); and the Constructicons a group of construction vehicles that fuse together to form a massive four-legged beast.
No director does over-the-top explosion-laded action better than Michael Bay and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen features several staggering set pieces. The CGI work on this film makes the last one look like it was designed on a Commodore 64.
Any scene in which people talk — and several of the ones in which robots talk too. Just as the action and visual effects are beefed up for the sequel the bad jokes and cringe-worthy dialogue are as well. Highlights include two dogs humping John Turturro in a thong a robot humping Megan Fox’s leg a sequence involving Sam’s stoned mom and a glimpse of a very large pair of testicles on one very large Decepticon. The latter will likely go down as the “nipples-on-the-Batsuit” moment for the Transformers franchise.
The show-stopping climax set in the Egyptian desert is one extended riotous battle royale packed with so much robot-on-robot action you’ll feel overwhelmed at times.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
This big-budget spectacle begs to be seen at the multiplex — IMAX if possible. Just bring a pair of earplugs for the dialogue sequences. You might want to bring some Dramamine as well as Mr. Bay went a little overboard with his trademark circling-camera sequences this time around.
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.