Saturday, March 2, 2013

Movie Reviews-Flight, Bloody Sunday

directed by Robert Zemeckis
Flight might have been a great movie. I'm not sure that it was. It was very very good though. It reunites Washington and Cheadle. Though they've put on a little weight and picked up some age lines since Devil in a Blue Dress, they've gained even more in acting gravitas. Each of them have a lot of intensity here. This movie has an ensemble cast where everyone gets a chance to shine, even in very small parts, though obviously Washington's performance is what drives the film. To a certain extent, Cheadle is playing a more relaxed, confident and competent version of his character in Things Behind the Sun

I don't know if you've ever known anyone who's had a substance abuse problem. I have. It's not pleasant. It's even less pleasant if you're unable or unwilling to cut them out of your life. Such people can occasionally be charming and fun individuals who are quite skilled at putting out a line of bovine excretions, even though deep down inside they know they're full of it. And if you're unfortunate enough to have to listen to them, you know they're full of it too, even as they entertain you and maybe even make you laugh from time to time. The problem arises when you or life events make such people confront their own lies. It's one thing to lie to other people, even loved ones. It's something different to lie to yourself.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a high functioning alcoholic and junkie. Alcohol and occasionally cocaine consumption are daily requirements, just like brushing his teeth. He doesn't go an hour without having a drink or a snort of something. Actually it's not necessarily guaranteed that he will brush his teeth in a 24 hour period but it is a certainty that he will have something to drink. I say he's high functioning because of his looks (it's Denzel after all)  and job. He doesn't have bloodshot eyes, missing or grimy teeth and the shakes like some alcoholics I've known. He's not doing anything so prosaic as trying to slowly kill himself or working as a mechanic. He's not like the alcoholics depicted in Trees Lounge or Leaving Las Vegas. No. Whip is a senior airline pilot who, in the opening scene is shown to have a real good thing going on with one of his young attractive stewardesses, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez). Having spent all night drinking, snorting cocaine and playing land the 747 on the landing strip, the dynamic duo is running late for their flight. After an appreciative look at a wholly nude Katerina, Whip takes some more cocaine to get energized and they're off to the races.

Whip's flight crew seems to be somewhat aware of his proclivities. He gets knowing looks from a religious and married stewardess, Margaret Thomason (Tamarie Tunie) who wants Whip to attend church with her and her family some day. Whip's first time co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) balances respect for Whip's experience and skills with an unspoken suspicion of his demeanor and decision making.

In Atlanta a young heroin addicted woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), tries to get more drugs for herself and avoid paying her rent. She travels to an adult movie shoot to literally trade some a$$ for cash but decides against it. Nevertheless her (platonic?) male friend offers her some free drugs and warns her not to inject the drugs, just to smoke them. Maybe he felt sorry for her?  Reilly is a British actress. I don't think her attempted southern drawl would convince a southerner she was from the South but you wouldn't necessarily know she was British either.  Whip guides his aircraft through some really rough turbulence before handing off control to Ken and settling in for an alcohol induced nap. But before he can really get his nod going he's awakened. Various controls on the aircraft have broken. The plane is starting to go into an uncontrolled dive. Using every ounce of his skill as a pilot (this is probably the movie's most exciting point) Whip slows the dive, flies upside down, glides after he loses engine power and is able to deliberately crash land the plane outside of downtown Atlanta with minimal loss of life. He's a hero!

Or maybe not. As his ex-Navy buddy and union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and the NTSB inform him after he awakens in the hospital, there were six fatalities, including Katerina. The lawyer hired by the union to represent Whip both admires him and seems to have a certain disdain for him. This lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) points out that no one could have done what Whip did in saving so many people. He also lets Whip know that the toxicology report shows that Whip was high as a kite on various legal and illegal substances. Lang intends to get that report legally suppressed but both he and Charlie would greatly appreciate it if Whip would refrain from alcohol and drugs, even attend AA if needed. Lang, lawyer or not, doesn't like liars. He will be quite frustrated with Whip. The NTSB investigates everything anytime there's a plane malfunction, let alone a crash and deaths. There are a lot of jobs and livelihoods that are depending on what the NTSB determines the cause of the crash to be. So Lang, and especially Charlie have an interest in ensuring the NTSB reaches the "right" decision. Charlie is too old to find another job and doesn't want the airline liquidated to pay off settlements and fines.
And that gets into the meat of the movie as there is a struggle between Whip's (non-existent?) better half and the fact that he's an alcoholic junkie. Since he's in the same hospital as Nicole (who's recovering from an overdose) they meet and fall in, well it's not quite love but it's something that's a little more than co-dependence. She's no princess while he's not a knight in shining armor. But they both have tender feelings for each other. However Nicole is further along the path to recovery than Whip is. She wants to stop using. Nicole and Whip each must decide if their relationship is more important than the substance abuse. Whip doesn't think he has a problem and can be cruelly dismissive to anyone who points out the appallingly obvious. Imagine gently telling a significant other or relative with some sort of weight related condition that they probably don't need that third slice of deep dish pizza. Then let's say they respond by snidely pointing out your lack of career success or claim you smell bad.
One thing that I thought was a bit lacking in this movie was that we never learn exactly how Whip's substance abuse problem got started or why it's so fierce. That might have made the character a bit more sympathetic or even understandable. He has a supposedly unpleasant ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and a distant teenage son (Justin Martin) but it's pretty clear that we're seeing things through resentful and alcoholic eyes so these people might not be as bad as Whip thinks. There's a hint that Whip's highly successful father and grandfather were demanding but that's about it. There are times that you might be yelling at the screen for a character not to do something. It doesn't work. But even though I would have liked some sort of origin tale about his alcoholism, Washington is such an imposing and convincing actor that ultimately this doesn't matter. Dude likes to drink. End of story.
I wrote that this was an ensemble cast. And it certainly is. Look for big names like John Goodman as a relentlessly positive and cheerfully dangerous drug dealer, Melissa Leo as a resolute NTSB investigator, as well as other actors like Peter Gerety (who I just remembered is a Homicide:LOTS vet along with Leo) as the profit driven airline company owner, Michael Beasley, James Badge Dale, Ravi Kapoor. You may or may not know all the names but you'll certainly recognize the faces. A woman I know was interested in this movie because there are 1 or 2 scenes in which Denzel Washington (or a stunt bottom) is bottomless. I could have done without seeing that but whatever. So if your life to date somehow just hasn't been complete without seeing Denzel Washington's backside well there you are.


Bloody Sunday
directed by Paul Greengrass
Bloody Sunday is an inarguably great film. You should see it. I really don't have a whole lot more to write than that but I suppose I ought to at least try. Bloody Sunday is an incredibly powerful film that shows in detail the events leading up to and encompassing the doomed civil rights protest march by Northern Irish citizens in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30th, 1972.

Just as an aside you may be interested after watching this film in understanding more about the struggles in Northern Ireland and the resulting violence. No single version of history is 100% correct, but the bottom line is that Great Britain invaded and colonized Ireland. After a long period of time Ireland became a unified independent nation. But independent Ireland did not include the northern portion, which was disproportionately the home of British loyalists, many of whom were of Scottish and English descent as much as Irish and were often Protestant. They saw no reason to leave their ancestral land or give up political power to the pro-independence partisans, most of whom tended to be Catholic. They were of course Catholic Crown loyalists and Protestant independence supporters, just to complicate matters, as well as relatively apolitical people on both sides who hated the other side because that's just what they had always done. 

By the 1960s and 1970s the British government was taking increasingly repressive measures against Northern Irish Catholics, who were already the oppressed and marginalized group within the land. One tactic that infuriated people was the practice of government (Army) arrest and confinement without trial. Sound familiar? This was called "internment" and was of course primarily aimed at Catholic "terrorist" organizations like the IRA and of course anyone who looked like they supported the IRA. How do you look like you support the IRA? Be Catholic. How did people tell the difference between Catholic and Protestant? Heck I ask myself that about Tutsi and Hutu, Serbs and Croats, Greeks and Turks, and any other number of people that appear superficially similar to an outsider. In America we can sometimes get too caught up in our own struggles around oppression and violence. Things were tough all over.

In 2013 America anyone who wants to seize the moral high ground will oft cynically invoke Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement, whether or not they know anything about MLK.
But in fact MLK and the civil rights movement was extremely influential on people around the world, including one Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt). Cooper was a Protestant politician who upon seeing MLK's work became committed to non-violence and equality between Protestant and Catholic. He had long been very active in the Irish civil rights movement, though he was disdained as naive by some Catholics and hated as a sellout by some Protestants.

Cooper decides to lead a non-violent march through Derry protesting the internment and other British criminal or army abuses. He is a very optimistic man who is, despite the mutterings of radicals, able to bring together Catholic and Protestant Irish, to sing songs and walk for peace. It's Cooper's hope and goal that he can show the IRA that violence is not the answer and prove to Protestants that they have nothing to fear from equality.
But British Army officers, Brigadier MacIllen (Nicholas Farrell), General Ford (Tom Piggott-Smith) and especially Colonel Wilford (Simon Mann) have different ideas. Marching is illegal and they mean to stop it. They and their men have fought all across the dwindling British Empire and they'll be dammed if they take any cheek from some s****y Irish. Some of their men have died or been wounded in other engagements with Irish "terrorists". Most soldiers have no love for the Irish or "bog-trotters" as they call them.

The film's name is the name given to that day's events. Given the film's name, which also inspired the U2 song of the same title, which is used to somber effect in the ending frames of the movie, you can probably guess what happens. Like any other film in which bullies run amok you may wish you could jump through the screen and shoot back. This film does a masterful job in showing not only the death of innocence but how evil is often rewarded in this world. Much (all?) of the work is done via handheld camera which really gives a "you are there" feeling to the work. I can't overemphasize how real this all feels. Words really fail. We also get to see the random nature of events and how seemingly small decisions can have big impacts on your life. Maybe you didn't even want to go to the march but tagged along because your girlfriend/boyfriend was passionate about it. Maybe you got caught in diverted traffic. Either way, if you were there on that Sunday you were going to pass into history.


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