Skip to main content

Nobody could've landed that plane like I did.


Flight
(2012)

Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking shoes up the same problems as his last couple of pre-motion capture pictures; a tasty premise, but what do you do with it?


Flight could have been a great movie. The first thirty minutes are as good as anything in any film released in 2012. Zemeckis has commented that beginning with a huge action sequence didn’t matter, since the personal story that follows is so powerful. But the problem is, the rest of the movie only fully engages sporadically. And when it does, it’s all about courtroom theatrics; not with the character arc it’s trying to justify.


The problem, as ever, is cliché, and in this case more particularly that of Hollywood moralism. Having set up a magnificent anti-hero, the script by (recovering addict) John Gatins sets on a course of sub-Leaving Las Vegas indulgence before finding a point of redemption that everyone can get behind. This is what mainstream movies with “edge” have come to; in order to justify the payload of an out-of-control character, one who doesn’t conform to the status quo, he must be rigorously punished (even at his own hand) in order to show the audience how they should behave. Don’t trust your viewer to work out that he’s in the wrong; have it spelled out by his own realisation. Movies used to be restricted by the edict that the criminal couldn’t be seen to win, no matter how likeable (see The Italian Job, or The Lavender Hill Mob), but the late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw a brief trend of trusting the audience to judge a character’s foibles and flaws for themselves, whether the movie served up retribution and repentance or not.


Flight struggles between this impulse to credit its audience with intelligence and another to treat them with kid gloves. It ends up flailing as it ultimately chooses to kowtow to the mainstream of presumed acceptability. The idea of an intoxicated pilot (Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington) who pulls off a feat of incredible skill and then has his heroic status called into question, is a compelling one and Gatins deserves enormous credit for it. But where he goes wrong is making him an addict. As much as the movie appears to be refraining from taking the moral high ground at the outset, it ends up having to depict Whip as extremely fucked up. How might the scenario have been more nuanced if he was just an occasional party animal, no doubt lacking an appropriate compass as regards his responsibilities, but not someone we could all point at as being completely out-of-control.


The midsection of the film drags us through Whip’s states of stupor to the point of disinterest. He’s no longer an intriguing character but a means for Denzel to show off his drunk acting. This kind of thing quickly became a bore when Nic Cage was going off on one to Oscar glory. No doubt, substance abuse isn’t something that the movies should extol. But showing every abuser as inveterately doomed is a false play. Particularly when we know Whip has been behaving like this for a good decade or more without incident. Suddenly it has to hit home to tell us why he’s so screwed up. There has to be a more insightful way to address such a subject than adopting polar extremes. But few Hollywood movies have been able to tackle addiction without hyperbole. It takes an indie picture like Drugstore Cowboy (now getting on for a quarter of a century old) to say something insightful about the mundanity of the lifestyle.


Flight’s intentions are worthy, but every other scene or supporting character hits a wall of over-familiarity. Zemeckis soundtracks the movie with every unsubtle tune he can think of (outdoing Killing them Softly), and requires his characters to indulge in worn-out theatrics on how they either will (John Goodman’s entertaining but only-in-movies pusher man) or won’t (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly) endorse Whip’s lifestyle. The performances are strong all-round, but the cast can only do so much to undercut how rote they all are. James Badge Dale has a memorable scene as a stairwell cancer patient, but it’s the point where the film begins to drift into overstatement. When Denzel starts knocking back a 1.5 litre bottle of Smirnoff in his car, realisation dawns that Zemeckis mush have insisted that a 1 litre bottle wouldn’t be enough to tell us that addiction is bad.


Zemeckis is a technically masterful filmmaker but, like sometime mentor Steven Spielberg, his blind spot is the script department. Maybe he should go back to writing his own, which is where his greatest artistic successes lay. He’s made a film that looks double the budget it is, and it is exquisitely crafted, but his characters hit every single obvious note imaginable. It’s not brave to have a character continually fall of the wagon and reject offers of help if life-affirming awareness is finally reached (the last scene is particularly trite). Wouldn’t it be braver, or more interesting, to end at a point where we the audience knows Whip is wrong but he is let off the hook? That’s what a good ‘70s movie would have done.

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …