Wednesday, October 31, 2012

FLIGHT begins as a swig of hard liquor, but ends as a sip of warm milk

FLIGHT (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

“Flight” is one heckuva movie right up until the moment when it decides not to be.

What began as cynical ends in cheese. What seemed like harrowing concedes into lame. And what should have been a peerless character study devolves into generic preaching. That it all happens in the final ten minutes almost amps up the slap-in-the-face nature. To show us what could have been and then yank it away borders on the cruel. 

Yet we have not gathered here to mourn the “coulda,” but praise the “still.” And regardless of its ultimate nose dive, here is one of the ballsier mainstream movies to step into the world in recent days. Anchored by a career-defining performance from Denzel Washington, his most fully realized since “Training Day,”  and marking Robert Zemeckis’ first live action effort since “Cast Away,” “Flight” concerns airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who treats a shot glass like a suggested serving. When he safely lands his crashing plane and hailed a hero by the public, word gets out that he also might have been drunk during the flight. 

Does that then diminish his heroism? Is the public lovefest worth the jail time he might also gain? Should we judge a man for his alcoholism when he also saved the lives of 100 people? Such questions are those which “Flight” spends its running time largely struggling with, like a schoolkid who knows the math problem but is too timid to go to the blackboard. 

Ever the Spielberg protégé, Zemeckis is a filmmaker who works best when painting in broad strokes. Remember the glorious widescreen cheese of “Forrest Gump” or the unbridled joy of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Apart from the plane crash sequence early in the film (which believe me, is as harrowing as anything you’ll see on screen this season), it’s difficult to see what drew him to this project. Its intimacy catches you off guard as it uses that wallop of a special effects scene to detail a surprisingly internal struggle of a man deciding whether he should question who he is or embrace it. 

Am I a drunk or am I a decent guy? Because only one of those two figures saved those lives.

Remember though, dear readers reading because the commercial break is still on, when I called this one of the ballsier mainstream movies in recent days? That’s largely because until those deflating final minutes, “Flight” downright EMBRACES Whip as a blazing drunkard. From the opening scene as he wakes up from a sleazy hotel sexcapade, drinks leftover beers, and snorts a line of coke, the movie pushes his substance abuse issues to the point of farce.

Not to say substance abuse is funny, unless you’re British and droll. But for God’s sake, when you decide to play farce, do not back down. Never, never, never. Hold your head up high and dive right into the muck. For the most part, “Flight” succeeds. Even as it struggles with those internal debates, it knows exactly how to approach Whip externally. And Washington in return delivers a deliriously unhinged performance that maintains a foundation of likeability, reminding us why we’d be on a first name basis with him whether he was Denzel or James.

Maybe allowing a man’s fatal flaws to also be his saving grace is too much to ultimately ask of a Hollywood movie. When “Flight” pulls back its curtain in the end and reveals itself to be a sloppy AA recruitment tool, it reeks of something enforced by the Hays Production Code in the 1940s.

You shouldn't have backed down, “Flight.” Let your seediest nature define you rather than control you. As it stands, this is still the stuff top ten honorable mentions of the year are made for.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TAKEN 2 - A Bunch Of Stuff You've Already Seen...But Again!

TAKEN 2 (dir. Olivier Megaton, 2012)
True confession: In the early morning after my “Taken 2” screening, I awoke and puked up an entire day’s worth of stomach contents.

Not to cast a direct physical connection between the two events - the undercooked hamburger probably played a role. But the symbolism is fairly easy.

For “Taken 2” is a checklist of the mundane - a dull, joyless slog through filmmaking as a product, with the paychecks hanging just out of reach for all parties involved, like the fake bunny in a dog race. When you see fellow audience members stumble out with a dead glare in their eyes, it’s not because they’re deeply reflecting on what they just witnessed.

Working from a screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, the movie plays like a direct embodiment of its own pitch – nothing more, nothing less. Liam Neeson’s family is kidnapped again. Liam Neeson must kill people to get them back again. A lingering threat is blatantly left dangling in the end for a sequel, but at this point, you gotta think his wife wishes they addressed kidnapping in the pre-nup.

Common sense is beside the point. A compelling narrative drive is beside the point. Spielberg can keep sending people to Jurassic Park to retrieve their lost Dollywood key chain or whatever all he wants, as long as he delivers the goods on screen. 

There’s still a list of fundamental things a movie must do to keep from sucking. And “Taken 2” doesn’t do a damn one of them.

Let’s talk about coherence. Not narrative coherence or logical coherence, but actual visual coherence. Simply looking at what’s happening on screen and understanding, “Ah, so THAT’S what’s happening.” Director Olivier Megaton fumbles his camera around like a child trying caffeine for the first time who clearly doesn’t respect the master shot. Fights and car chases are an incomprehensible hodgepodge of cuts and sounds. We know Neeson and some bad guys are in the scene at any given moment…we just don’t know what they’re doing.

Call me old fashioned, but seeing actual guys look like they’re punching each other is much more intense than cutting around the sound effect of slapping a couch with a ping pong paddle.

Now let’s talk about wit. Mind you, there is a distinct difference between this and humor. Humor is the stuff that makes you laugh, which can or cannot be necessary in an action movie. Wit is the spark that reminds you this movie came from a unique creative mind, not some hack who wrote “Taken 2” so that he can brag to dancers at strip clubs that he wrote “Taken 2.” It’s what makes a movie engaging, despite its clichés.

Gone is the fun novelty of seeing Liam Neeson beat lots of people up, and zeitgeist moments like the famous "skills" speech.“Taken 2” is just dreary and utterly unremarkable. 

Finally, let’s talk about emotional investment, the foundation for caring about a movie that obviously does not give two shits about us. Part of the appeal of the first “Taken” was the detective story aspect. We follow Neeson along as he (however implausibly) pieces together where his daughter wound up. It draws us into his world. This time around, we know full well before the kidnapping why his family is kidnapped, where they are, and how Neeson needs to find them. 

We have no reason to care. No reason to stick around. Like waiting for death itself, this is a slow, inevitable march to the end.

I get why “Taken 2” got made. Believe me, I do. The first one earned a ton of money in theaters, even more on DVD, and will be around as long as FX needs to fill late night programming slots. And I respect the desire of Liam Neeson, always dependable, to ride this action star wave his career unexpectedly took.

He just looks like he had more fun playing Oskar Schindler.