‘Flight’ is Not What I Expected it to Be

Flight movie poster

The advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are actually quite deceptive. It almost looks to be a mystery movie as we wonder if Denzel Washington’s character of Whip Whitaker was drunk or not when he crash-landed the commercial airplane he was flying. Whip ended up saving a lot of lives, but is the company which owns the airline he flies for trying to make him take the blame so they can reduce their loses? Looking at the commercials and trailers for “Flight,” it looked as if the film was being sold as a relatively easygoing cinematic affair. However, it turns to be something far more complex and ambiguous than what Hollywood is used to putting out.

“Flight” isn’t a mystery in the slightest, but instead a character study about a man who is overwhelmed by his addictions and has yet to be honest not only with others, but most of all with himself. From the start, we can see Captain Whip Whitaker is one messed up dude. Waking up in his hotel room after an evening tryst with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), we see him drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, and arguing with his ex-wife over their son’s school tuition while snorting some cocaine. All of this happens before he puts on his uniform and heads over to his plane to get ready for takeoff.

Whip clearly has no business flying an airplane under these conditions, but fly it he does. When a malfunction suddenly forces it into a vertical dive, he manages to roll the plane over to where he’s flying upside down, and he does so just long enough to stabilize the descent and land it in an open field. Next thing Whip knows, he is waking up in a hospital room only to discover the real nightmare for him is about to begin.

It says a lot about the star power of Washington and Zemeckis that they could get a movie like “Flight” made today. Made for only $30 million, far less than what it cost for Zemeckis to make “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Carol,” this is more of a character driven drama from the 1970’s as it gives us a main character who is not particularly likable, and yet we are compelled to follow him all the way to the movie’s end.

What I loved about the screenplay by John Gatins is how it revels in the ambiguity of its characters and the situations they are stuck in. We know Whip was far from sober when flying the plane, and yet we cannot help but wonder if his heroic act can somehow excuse his personal sins. His lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, terrific as always), tells him how ten other pilots were placed in flight simulators which recreated the event, and of how they ended up killing everybody on board. But there is one big difference between Whip and all those pilots: they were all sober.

We can always count on Washington to give us some of the best performances in movies today, and his work in “Flight” is unsurprisingly superb. It’s also the riskiest role he has played in a long time as his character is far from likable and apparently determined to drive everyone who tries to reach him away. Heck, Detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day” almost seems like a nicer person than Whip as Alonzo tried to have his partner killed, but we always find ourselves rooting for Washington no matter which character he plays, and he does an exceedingly brave job in uncovering this character’s wounded humanity for all of us to see.

I do have to say, however, how amazed I am at the enormous amount of alcohol Whip consumes throughout the movie. Any normal person would have likely experienced liver failure long before this story reaches its final act.

Much has been said about how this is Zemeckis’ first live action movie since the year 2000 when he made “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath,” but people should really take note of how this is the first R-rated movie he has directed since “Used Cars” and that one came out in 1980. Having made so many films largely geared towards the whole family, it’s tempting to think he was no longer in a position to helm one with such complex characters and issues. But with “Flight,” Zemeckis does some of his most memorable work behind the camera in some time. There are moments where he paints some dramatic strokes broader than they need to be, but he never once shies away from the ambiguous nature and fascinating questions which Gatins’ screenplay elicits. He also does a brilliant job in one crucial scene involving a minibar in a hotel room, and the suspense of it had the audience I saw the movie with absolutely enthralled. And, of course, he stages a very frightening plane crash that tops the one he put together in “Cast Away.” Even from the safety of a movie theater, this sequence is truly harrowing to sit through, and its images hang over the rest of “Flight” like an ominous shadow.

Another superb performance comes from Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole Maggen, a former photographer trying to free herself from the throes of a nasty heroin habit. Reilly may be best remembered for her role in the deeply unsettling horror film “Eden Lake,” and her portrayal here feels very honest in how she presents an addict’s day to day struggle to stay clean.

There’s also a number of other terrific supporting performances to be found here from actors like John Goodman who looks to be channeling Jeff Bridges’ Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” for his role of Harling Mays. Goodman provides the movie with its much-needed scenes of comic support, and he proves to be as entertaining here as he was in “Argo.”

Bruce Greenwood, who increasingly lends the movies he appears in a strong integrity, is also really good as Whip’s longtime friend, Charlie Anderson. Also showing up in a small but pivotal role is the great Melissa Leo whose sweet voice can’t hide her relentless pursuit of the truth as FAA investigator Ellen Block.

I didn’t think I’d see another movie in 2012 other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which offered an equal amount of complex characters in ambiguous situations. As a result, “Flight” turned out to be a big surprise for me as it challenges viewers in ways a strong dramatic film should. It offers us yet another great Denzel Washington performance, and it reminds us of what a terrific director Robert Zemeckis can be regardless of whether or not the characters in his films are computer generated.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Red State’ is the Best and Most Unlikely Film from Kevin Smith

Red State movie poster

Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.

The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.

The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.

The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.

With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.

Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.

Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.

This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.

Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.

Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Argo

Argo movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Ben Affleck should not have to prove what a great movie director he is. But for those who, for some utterly bizarre reason, still believe they need further evidence to support this conclusion, I give you “Argo.” His third movie as a director tells the story of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez went about trying to extract six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It proves to be a very intense experience watching this movie, and I also got a huge kick over how it skewers Hollywood and the business of making movies as well.

I loved how Affleck really went out of his way to make “Argo” look like a 70’s movie. He even included the old Warner Brothers logo (referred to as the “Big W” logo) which preceded the studio’s movies from 1972 to 1984. I’ve really missed this logo for the longest time.

Anyway, when Iranian revolutionaries ended up storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six diplomats manage to evade capture and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, back in the United States, the State Department has learned of the escapees and their predicament, and they start looking for ways to get them out of Iran. It is Mendez who comes up with the idea, after watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television, to create a cover story of how the six are actually filmmakers from Canada who are scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This looks to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and it would have been fun to watch for all the wrong reasons had it ever been made.

The scenes where Mendez goes to Hollywood are among my favorites in “Argo” as he works with movie business veterans who are keenly aware that lying to others is part of their job description. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are priceless as make-up artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel, and they are given great pieces of dialogue to speak throughout. The lines Arkin is given are especially biting:

“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”

The tension is then ratcheted up tremendously when Mendez heads over to Iran to prep those six diplomats on how to get out of the country alive. You feel their collective anxiety as they become fully aware of how one little slip up will get them quickly executed in public view, and you are with them every step of the way as the walls continue to close in on them. Emotionally speaking, “Argo” is the first movie I have found myself crying after in a long time, and the tears I cried were from sheer relief.

“Argo” is based on a true story and, while this remains a serious pet peeve of mine, this is one which needed to be told. It wasn’t until 1997 that this rescue operation was declassified for all the world to know about, and it speaks a lot about how two countries can come together in a tough situation (in this case, the U.S. and Canada). Yes, portions of the story were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but that’s always the case so just get over it.

Affleck casts a lot of great acting veterans in “Argo,” and kudos to him for doing so. I’ve already mentioned Goodman and Arkin, but you will also find Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Philip Baker Hall doing terrific work here as well. As for the diplomats, they are played by such actors as Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, and they all are uniformly excellent.

In addition to directing this movie, Affleck also stars as Mendez and gives a particularly understated performance. I know we all love to pick on him as an actor, but he’s a better one than we give him credit for. Not once does Affleck try to steal the show from the actors around him, and his work is commendable as acting and directing a movie at the same time can be a real pain in the ass.

“Argo” has more than earned its place among the best movies of 2012, and it makes clear that Affleck’s success as a director is no fluke. This is a guy who has seen the heights of success and the utter embarrassment of failure, and he has come out the other side of it all proving he is a great talent whether he’s in front of or behind the camera.

Be sure to stay through the end credits as well as there is information you will need to hear about this true story.

* * * * out of * * * *

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is an Infinitely Intense Thriller

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.

The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.

They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.

Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.

John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.

But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.

It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.

Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in its predecessor. To say just how many of them it shares, however, would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.

While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.

2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

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