Flight endangered by directorial turbulence
Robert Zemeckis, the architect of classic ‘90s melodramas Forrest Gump and Castaway, launches a new attack on tear ducts everywhere with the drama-with-a-capital-D Flight.
Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker, a coked-up airline pilot who doesn’t think twice about sliding into the cockpit after partying all night with flight attendants, then popping a couple of travel-sized vodkas into his orange juice to take the edge off.
On a short flight between Orlando and Atlanta, his plane malfunctions, sending him into a nose dive. He miraculously rights the plane and glides it to a crash landing in the middle of a field, saving the lives of most of the passengers and crew members. He’s a hero, but a post-crash toxicology report reveals he was loaded at the time.
Zemeckis, whose hallmark has always been F/X wizardry, rivets us from the get-go with one of the most intense plane-crash sequences ever filmed. The scene, featuring a bird’s eye view from the cockpit and the hair-raising perspective from the passenger compartment, will leave you breathless.
The bad news is that Zemeckis is packing a sledgehammer—he seems determined to punctuate every tragic moment of the crash’s aftermath with a thunk on the audience’s head. Extending the story to include a surprisingly well-adjusted junkie (Kelly Reilly), the director misplaces his focus on addiction rather than the moral dilemmas and self-evaluation Whip faces.
The good news is that even though the director lacks subtlety, Washington does not. His nuanced, stoic performance is a steady rock in this maelstrom of overwritten, over-directed sermonizing. Though he can’t quite wrestle the film away from Zemeckis and make it as quiet and personal as it needs to be, his attempt might be his career-defining performance.
Promising flick sinks to preschoolers’ level
Disney’s latest animated goo-fest, Wreck-It Ralph, feels barely one step up from the company’s straight-to-DVD flicks that serve as nothing more than proxy babysitters. It’s a clever idea that gets swallowed by schmaltz and drowned in a sea of migraine-inducing, candy-colored set pieces.
The film sets up well. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a Donkey Kong-esque bad guy in an ’80s-era video game. Tired of being shunned, he leaves the game to search for another in which he can triumph as the hero.
After a failed attempt at winning a medal in a violent first-person shooter, he winds up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed go-cart racer. There, he realizes he can be a hero by helping little-girl driver Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who has been banished as a glitch in the software, win a big race.
That’s when Ralph’s wheels come off. The setup, which is both kid-friendly but hipster-parent-worthy, is wasted as the flick takes a direct turn into preschooler land and never recovers. The rest of the movie is spent awash in the Candyland-meets-Mario Kart environment that is sickeningly sweet in appearance, tone and story.
The voice talent also leaves a bit to be desired. Silverman nails it as Vanellope, but Reilly seems to be doing his best Seth Rogen impression, bouncing back and forth between stoner idiot and earnest, misunderstood meanie. Plus, Jane Lynch (as a Halo-ish badass) and Jack McBrayer (as Ralph’s nemesis, Fix-It-Felix) add absolutely nothing because their too-recognizable personas get in the way.
Had Wreck-It Ralph embraced its concept, it could have been something smart and significant, like the best Pixar flicks. But it is simply inane kiddie fare that seems content with entertaining young children with goofy faces and bright colors.
They knew the struggle would outlive them
“It’s the proudest achievement the gay population of this world can ever claim.”
That strong statement comes from one of the major players in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, the powerful story of a grass-roots movement that literally became a fight for survival.
In the mid-1980s, when AIDS deaths first began escalating, the gay community in New York City was desperate for help in dealing with the crisis. In 1987, the advocacy group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed with a mission to “bring about legislation, medical research, treatment and policies” to fight the disease and assist those affected by it.
In his feature debut, director David France essentially lets ACT UP tell its own story. Though there are first-person interviews and some archival network feeds, the most effective segments come from grainy camcorder footage recorded during the group’s early meetings and public protests.
It was a time when many of the group members, and those closest to them, knew they had the disease and were resigned to the fact that they would not live to see their goals achieved. The fear and desperation is evident on their faces, as is their anger at foot-dragging public officials who seem to feel the victims are simply getting what they deserve.
Even as France puts you in the moment, you’re reminded how painfully relevant these issues remain. The chants of “Health care is a right,” condemnatory speeches from religious leaders and the stereotyping of protesters as “lazy hippies” remain part of the political landscape despite the victories earned by ACT UP.
Still, those victories deserve the acclaim given to them by the film. It is a story of bravery, perseverance, heartbreak and humanity, and it is nothing short of inspirational.
Transplanted teens and their conflicted identities
At its core, Somewhere Between is a gift from a parent to a child. The child it was made for will appreciate it when she’s ready. The rest of us can be touched by it now.
Veteran producer and documentarian Linda Goldstein Knowlton has a cute young daughter named Ruby who was adopted from China as an infant. Mindful of the questions and feelings Ruby might have in the years ahead, Knowlton used her talents as a filmmaker to not only help her daughter but to shed light on a subject many Americans know little about.
In 1979, the Chinese government instituted a “one family-one child” policy for the nation. As a result of this and other family circumstances, countless children, most of them female, are abandoned to orphanages with little more than a blanket and a note attached.
The film follows four of these girls, now busy high-schoolers living in different parts of the United States. As they face the normal teenage pressures, the girls also struggle with an identity that feels “somewhere between” American and Chinese. Some hope to address the problem by finding their birth parents, but they face a tough road, as many Chinese orphanages have little to no background information on the children.
Knowlton’s style is intimate, aided by the girls’ willingness to be open about their situations and their conflicted feelings. It’s clear that all four were adopted into stable, loving homes, and their parents should be proud of the girls they have raised.
There are plenty of sweet, touching moments, but the film works on a deeper level. It is able to transcend the girls’ self-explorations to reach the question of who we all are today, who we might have been yesterday and who we hope to be tomorrow.
War-haunted veterans take on a new challenge
No scripted film could convey the aftermath of being wounded in combat with more honesty and emotion than the startling documentary High Ground. Director Michael Brown’s film follows 10 war veterans who’ve suffered severe physical and/or emotional trauma—as well as one woman whose son was killed in action—as they take a trek up a Nepalese mountain.
Brown’s film is stunning on two fronts.
First and foremost, it’s an intense character study that gives the general population insight into the horrific effects that war has on its participants. The travelers’ emotions swing wildly among guilt, regret, sorrow, pride and hope as they try to make sense of what has happened to them, what they’ve done to other people and how they feel about it all.
Brown perfectly captures the former soldiers’ melancholy-tinged relief as they re-experience the camaraderie they were used to feeling in the military, bonding over the mission’s concrete goals and over the wartime horrors they share—something not even their family members and closest friends could fully understand.
Secondly, the film is a breathtaking travelogue, punctuated with both sweeping vistas of glorious mountain ranges and claustrophobic portraits of life inside the tents at base camp. Brown does a terrific job of placing us among the mountaineers and experiencing their physically and emotionally exhausting journey.
High Ground is ultimately about triumph. The veterans conquer the mountain as they also overcome physical disabilities, psychological struggles and sociological obstacles by working together and relating to one another as no one else could. It’s a gripping adventure that artfully and honestly gives voice to those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.
Found footage like this should’ve remained lost
The Gateway Film Center has “found footage” fever, opening two different FF films this week: V/H/S and Amber Alert.
V/H/S takes an unusual anthology approach, shoehorning five short pieces by nine different directors into a framing story. A handful of video-happy thugs are paid to break into a house and steal a VHS tape. They find several, and as they watch each, so do we.
The basic premise, then, is that douchey guys make tapes of themselves watching douchey guys making tapes of themselves. Nothing tedious there!
Most of the filmmakers have collaborated on other semi-underground (or at least under-seen) projects, and they bring an indie/mumblecore sensibility with them. But the contrived circumstances rob the style of any authenticity, leaving just low budgets and lackluster artistry.
Even Ti West, whose feature-length projects (House of the Devil, Innkeepers) rely on atmosphere above shock value, disappoints with an undercooked revenge fantasy.
Of the six episodes (including the framing story), only 10/31/98 offers fun and surprising chills. Otherwise, these are mostly amateurish shorts with little imagination, bargain-basement production values and acting worthy of a high school drama club.
Playing separately, Amber Alert uses the “tagged as evidence” style of found footage to take us on a road trip with a pair of teens who recognize a license plate from an Amber-alert road sign. They call the police, then tail the suspect while waiting for the shockingly apathetic officers to arrive on the scene.
It’s an interesting, if tasteless, premise, but the result is practically unwatchable. Imagine being trapped in a car for 90 minutes with two screeching, hyper-dramatic teens. It’s enough to sap your will to live. Your desire to see the kidnapped child saved is eventually drowned out by your desire to shout, “Will you just shut up?!”
Director Kerry Bellessa makes interesting points about how people’s reluctance to commit social gaffes keeps them from following their guts in a crisis, and the last act of her film develops real tension. But by the time the shrieking, ad-libbed hyperbole and tediously self-conscious dialogue give way to a short adventure outside the car, the leads have become so hard to tolerate that it’s tough to care what happens.
Filmed novel challenges actors and audiences
After reading David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, many fans thought Cloud Atlas was a movie that could never be made. Eight years later, that movie arrives as a challenging, yet surprisingly accessible, sci-fi fantasy.
Readers were presented with six different stories, each nested inside another. From a young notary shipwrecked in the 1800s, to a journalist investigating a nuclear power plant in the 1970s, to a clone awaiting execution in a dystopian future, each tale is revealed through another in the form of journals, letters, movies and recording devices of unknown origin.
Writer/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) alter the structure of the book enough to flesh out narratives that movie audiences can more easily grasp. The large cast is anchored by solid performances from Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess, all playing multiple roles as the story quickly moves across time and space.
The apparent drawback to putting such a complex book on film is that any grand profundity or originality there was has been watered down. The musings on brotherhood, war, consumerism and religion are noble, but far from new.
In addition, some viewers will be tested by the unorthodox storytelling and by the futuristic form of English that’s sometimes spoken. Some of the segments also struggle to keep silliness at bay, making the nearly three-hour running time feel a bit bloated.
As a whole, though, Cloud Atlas is ambitious, often visually stunning and constantly fascinating.