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Saturday, 9 February 2013

THIS WEEK: Flight / Untouchable

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Must See!!

 FLIGHT  (2013 - UK Certificate 15)

Robert Zemickis returns to live action cinema with Flight, which surely presents what must be Daniel-Day Lewis' closest competition for the Best Actor award at this year's Oscars; there is no doubt that Denzel Washington is the reason, above all others, to see this movie.  He plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot who crash lands a plane in a way that, it is later proved, nobody else would even consider, let alone be able to execute successfully (it really is genius!); he saves almost everybody on board, and becomes a hero.  How was he able to keep his head, while all around him were losing theirs, and perform this heroic and seemingly impossible feat?  Was it being the expert pilot he is, or was his ingenuity and gutsy handling of the situation a result of being hopped up on cocaine, and enough alcohol to make driving a car illegal?  Is his irresponsible action forgivable by virtue of the fact that, had he not been there, everybody would have died?  This is the conundrum the movie explores, and it even ponders the possibility of higher power, divine guidance, and bigger plans than we can imagine for those in need.  The latter theme may prove too lofty for some of the audience, and there are a couple of points where I must confess I felt it was a bit heavy-handed with the subject.  Then again, it is a trait that seems to appeal to Zemeckis and so should come as little surprise; consider previous work such as The Polar Express, Forrest Gump and Cast Away.  This, however, is not the only area that will feel familiar to Zemickis fans; the airplane disaster sequence is a few notches more frantic, bone-rattling and tense than the one we saw in Cast Away.  It is also possibly the best sequence of its kind that I have ever seen, and I saw Peter Weir's Fearless, which says a lot!
After this incredible opening it becomes a psychological drama, a character study of a man with a problem.  It was always going to be hard for the film to maintain its engagement level, but much like the plane, the second act does suffer more turbulence than I expected; Zemeckis certainly appears, at points, to be unable to marshal it all quite as well as has done previously.  This is not to say there are not many terrific scenes and performances, indeed the film is performance driven, but there is no getting around the fact that some elements are mismanaged.  A scene in which the co-pilot and his wife preach about God's plan for Whip comes off as a bit too humorous for the piece; it would have perhaps played better without the inclusion of the wife.  Being used to Zemeckis' cinematic ticks of the past, I understand how he saw her fitting in and depicting the archetype, and I don't doubt that these people do crawl out of the woodwork in such situations, but in terms of what the scene should have been, it does feel out of place.  A similar situation occurs when John Goodman turns up in a role I would have dialed down a notch and developed more; he is a perfectly fun, well played character, but I couldn't get it out of my head that he looks like he's wandered in from a Coen Brothers comedy.

Other characters are underused, and relationships not given as much fleshing out as might have been helpful in adding dramatic weight; a great example here would be the flight attendant Margaret, who really should have had more screen time.  Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly of Eden Lake and Sherlock Holmes fame, is a perfectly fine character who should have worked a bit like Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, but unfortunately never has that sort of impact.  The hour or so after the crash almost outstays its welcome by meandering a bit too much, which is ironic, given that there is a fair bit left under-developed here.  This is a shame, as there is a notable gear change for the final act of the movie, and we suddenly find ourselves back in a film that could have been flying high the whole way, had it been a bit more focused, and I daresay shorter. 

All of this said, however, the most important element of Flight is the story and the arc of Captain Whitaker; casting the right man for the job was absolutely crucial to selling this whole thing.  Washington reminds us, possibly for the first time since Training Day, how good he is at presenting not simply a good or bad guy, and not somebody we can easily say we like or dismiss, but rather the flawed human being.  The heart of drama is conflict and this film is full of the stuff for all concerned, but most notably and interestingly, for us the audience.  The study of the psychology of a man who will not, or cannot, face up to his demons is always compelling, and here we are brought to a point where we care about Whitaker, we want to see him redeemed.

Washington hits his highs and lows brilliantly, taking us with him; we find ourselves genuinely happy, and sincerely disappointed with him in equal measure, as we watch him struggle, wanting desperately to jump in and help him.  It is a master actor who can get us to this point, and it is in fact mainly he, not the director, who pulls us through the muddy middle of the movie.  The final forty minutes is a compelling performance, and the penultimate chapter showcases nothing short of a masterclass in acting.  The finale of the story has been foreshadowed for some time through the film, we are ready and waiting for it, and so the fact Washington is still able to move us quite so intensely is a pleasant final lift.  His delivery proves that the devil is in the details; there is no "Hollywood-ing" here, it is absolutely real, and as we watch him we see the quiet, subtle perfection that makes him worthy of his nomination.

Flight doesn't maintain its occasionally breathtaking altitude as consistently as I would have liked, but its star, and the phenomenal acts that sandwich a middle which feels in need of a script polish, elevate it from the generic and make it one to watch.

3.5 / 5

At cinemas now.
Catch it if you like:  Cast Away, Fearless.

UNTOUCHABLE  (2012 - UK Certificate 15)

Some films just surprise us; they may not be setting the world on fire and they may not receive a huge release, but they have that special something that those who see it can't help but respond to.  Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano bring us this truly heartwarming film, based on a real event, about two people who never should have met, but who, upon doing so, altered each others lives significantly.  The great Francois Cluzet, who some may recognize as the star of the thriller Tell No One, plays Phillipe, an aristocrat made quadriplegic through an accident.  He needs constant care and is searching for a new caretaker; nobody ever makes it beyond a couple of weeks.  Enter Driss, played by an unfamiliar Omar Sy, a man turning up to the interview with no experience, and with only getting his benefit papers signed as motivation.

Yes, you can literally plot the rest of the film yourself, but at the point in the opening sequence where Driss signals a change of tone before moving into a joyous credit sequence, we know the film makers are going to do the best they can to make the story as fresh and enjoyable as possible, and boy do they succeed!  Whilst the overall arc of the story is no surprise, some may even say rather cliched, there is no denying the joy of the film.  With scene after scene of terrific dialogue and amusing interaction, we watch one man bring into another man's life some unexpected fun and joy.  The movie doesn't touch on back story as much as I would have liked, although they do well in visually contrasting the lives of the two men, and the tone is far more joyous than I expected; you might see reflections of Awakenings or Scent of a Woman here, but it plays on a far lighter level than either.  In any case, it is a film much overlooked outside of Europe in 2012, and it shouldn't have been.  I haven't smiled and laughed my way through a film this much for a while; I recommend you see it as soon as you can!

4.5 / 5

Catch it if you like:  Awakenings, Amelie, Scent of a Woman 

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