Every Academy Awards season, the idea of adding a Best Casting category appears to gain some traction among film journalists and professionals. (This past autumn saw the limited release of a documentary - Tom Donahue's Casting by - devoted to the subject, and Woody Allen, whom one would've thought indifferent to the Oscars at best, even wrote an open letter to the Hollywood Reporter in support of a casting trophy.) I'm personally fine with restricting the ceremony to the two dozen categories we do have, but if such recognition were to be included, voters could do worse than to consider Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich Galfond - casting directors for the enjoyably ludicrous Non-Stop - for the prize. To be sure, it doesn't take much wit to suggest that Liam Neeson play a grieving alcoholic with a bad temper and a gun. But casting, as two beleaguered flight attendants, 12 Years a Slave's abused slave Patsey opposite Downton Abbey's rigid Lady Mary? Now that's witty.
And the pairing of Lupita Nyong'o and Michelle Dockery in this airborne action thriller is just the tip of the smart-casting iceberg, as the entertainment in this zippy little lark is substantially increased by spot-on performers who grab your attention even in the most seemingly throwaway of roles. Non-Stop's setup is a simple, juicy one. During an intercontinental flight to London, Neeson's troubled air marshal Bill Marks receives an anonymous text, purportedly from someone aboard the plane, saying that unless $150 million is deposited into an account in 20 minutes, a fellow passenger will die, with another knocked off every 20 minutes until the demand is met. Marks must consequently determine both whom the texter is and whom the potential victim(s) might be, and director Jaume Collet-Serra (whose 2011 Unknown gave him experience with Neeson in paranoid-and-angry-ass-kicker mode) does an expert job of escalating suspense, with the jet's confines seeming to shrink as the tension, and Marks' blood pressure, rise. Although his film, for all of its loose ends and practical impossibilities, may as well be titled Non-Sense, Collet-Serra delivers thrilling long takes and speedy, startling bursts of violence - a restroom fight to the death is especially jolting - and the movie is peppered with terrific jokes, a surprising number of them visual jokes. (When the plane experiences turbulence while Marks reads a text, the message, shown in on-screen subtitles à la House of Cards, vibrates along with the passengers.)
Yet in the end, it's the casting, and the spirited work of those cast, that transform Non-Stop from a guilty pleasure to a guiltless one. Neeson, like his physique, is solid as hell; the performer's tortured monologue detailing Marks' character foibles and unimpeachable decency is a tad embarrassing, but Neeson even pulls that off with fierceness and professionalism. The rest of the in-flight manifest, however, really nails it, with their crafty "Could he/she be the killer?!" underplaying lending the film a giddy whodunnit vibe that brings to mind Agatha Christie adaptations such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. (Sticking with that '70s-movie motif, the film is also a pretty neat update on the decade's kitschy Airport series that climaxed with the legendarily awful The Concorde: Airport '79.) Beyond Dockery and Nyong'o - the latter of whose appearance here, at this early stage in her career, is awesome because you don't know whether her role is merely minor or misleadingly minor - Julianne Moore shows up, in excellent form, as an eccentric flirt who, when asked what she does for a living, cagily replies, "I take a lot of flights." Corey Stoll, so marvelous as poor Peter Russo in House of Cards' first season, is a curt, racist NYPD cop, while Scoot McNairy is a twitchy nebbish en route to Amsterdam, and Omar Metwally a poker-faced Muslim doctor. And on and on: Linus Roache as the pilot, Nate Parker as a loquacious computer wonk, Anson Mount as a fellow air marshal ... even the unseen field agent speaking to Marks from the ground can't be trusted once you recognize his voice to be that of Boardwalk Empire's sensational Shea Whigham. Non-Stop is a good time. These actors, keeping you guessing throughout, also make it a pretty great one.
SON OF GOD
I truly don't mean to be heretical or cause offense with this question, but after so many screen tellings and re-tellings over the years, is the Christ story the single least interesting plot available to movie-makers? Heaven knows I understand why cinematic works on the subject are made, and I get why so many people flock to them. But director Christopher Spencer's new, ceaselessly mediocre Son of God unwittingly exposes their inherent limitation: Devoid of expressive filmmaking, they tend to emerge as little more than Greatest Hits packages of favorite quotes and favorite miracles, and unless you're Scorsese, it's not as though the material can be tinkered with; the story will always have the same depressing, horrific ending, followed by the same "Three Days Later" (an actual title card here) postscript of grace, that everyone expects. So if you're predisposed to, by all means attend and enjoy Son of God. Just don't plan on the experience being one iota better, riskier, or more satisfying than any other offering of its type. The movie has the Passion; it just doesn't have the passion.