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Column Fri Nov 02 2012

Flight, Wreck-It Ralph, A Late Quartet, The Loneliest Planet & Brooklyn Castle

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Flight

Regardless of what you might think you know or expect about the first live-action Robert Zemeckis film since 2000's Cast Away, what you actually see will surprise you, because Flight isn't just one type of film. Above all things, the film is a hardcore, rough-around-the-edges drama that begins with a horrific but spectacular plane crash in which pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is able to put his disintegrating plane down in an empty field with minimal loss of life. He is hailed as a hero by the media almost immediately, but as the facts in the accident start to come out, it becomes clear the Whip was not in complete control of his faculties (or was he?) when he boarded the aircraft that fateful morning.

While the trailers for Flight make it look like some kind of cross between a mystery, thriller, courtroom drama about whether or not Whip was drunk while flying the plane, you'll know from the first scene that he absolutely was drunk, with a little cocaine thrown in for good measure. He'd also spent most of the night before partying and having sex with one of the flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez). So, you see: there's no mystery here at all.

What Flight actually is is something much more complex, dark and layered. It's a brilliant character study of a man who has spent most of his adult life being a selfish prick and a raging alcoholic. He sacrificed his marriage and his relationship with his son just so he could drink freely and not take shit for it. I honestly don't remember the last time Washington inhabited a character so ferociously to his core, to the point where it feels like an honor just to watch him play this toxic human wasteland.

What the film does so perfectly is spend much of its two-and-a-half hours is ripping away the layers of armor Whip has bolted to his flesh. We've seen movies about drunks for decades, and they all have their reasons, but writer John Gatins does marvelous work at getting into the dark soul of this man to find the raging pain that he's attempting the drown every chance he gets.

But on a larger scale, Flight is also about the value of the truth. Even once suspicions arise that Whip was intoxicated (probably just enough to keep him flying at his peak), there are those on both sides of the investigative fence who are willing to bury that information to keep up the impression that the world has another much-needed hero in its midst. The crackling Don Cheadle plays Chicago lawyer (because we know lawyers from Chicago have that extra layer of slick) Hugh Lang, whose expertise is never losing court cases and getting crucial evidence tossed out. He's up against lead National Transportation Safety Board attorney Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), doing a bit of manipulating herself, and she's quite good at it. But the hearings about the flight are the least interesting things about this movie.

A sizable portion of Flight isn't about Washington at all, or at least not just about him. We also get to know a woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly, best known in America as Dr. Watson's wife in the Sherlock Holmes movies), an addict and sometimes prostitute who meets Whip in the hospital right after the crash; she's in for a drug overdose. But for some reason, after sharing a cigarette in a hospital stairwell, the two cling to each other for some kind of twisted salvation. And for a time, it actually works. He dumps all of his booze in the sink, and she stops getting high, and they immediately move in together at his family farm away from the reporters waiting outside his home.

Their relationship is the emotional core of the film, and when she decides to leave, it destroys him and brings to task all of the terrible things he's done in his life (and will likely do again). The sequences with Whip falling off the wagon hard are ugly, tense and draining to watch, but watch them you will because it's impossible not to.

Also along for the ride are Bruce Greenwood as a liaison from the pilots union and old friend, who helps Whip get his story straight and his act together as best he can; Tamara Tune, terrific as one of the other flight attendants on that fateful crash who knows what she saw but is so grateful for living that she may not say a word to the investigators; and John Goodman, who is a joy to see as Whip's jovial drug dealer, but we also know that when he's around, Whip's sobriety will suffer. Goodman's only in a couple of scenes, but he makes a substantial impact. One of the more interesting characters is Brian Geraghty as Whip's co-pilot Ken Evans, a deeply religious man who is severely injured in the crash and is truly torn by what to say to the investigators as well. He's actually angry that he even has to consider lying because he's afraid he'll go to hell for doing so.

What especially shocking about Flight is that it comes from Zemeckis, a fine filmmaker, but one who has specialized in movies aimed at all audiences (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) that have become staples in pop culture. His latest work is not only a hard, R-rated (for nudity, drug use, language, a bit of violence... you name it), but it's also a mature, thoughtful piece that pulls no punches in its depiction of substance abuse and makes very few excuses for a whole lot of bad behavior. With some of the best acting you'll see all year, Flight is the type of absorbing work that will take you in its grip, never let you go, and might even shake you around a bit. This one sticks with you long after the credits stop rolling, and hopefully opens up entire new avenues for a director I thought I had pegged years ago.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Chicago native and Flight director Robert Zemeckis.

Wreck-It Ralph

Plain and simple, Disney's Wreck-It Ralph is a hoot. But as much as it's being pushed as the Roger Rabbit of videogame movies (characters from many of the most familiar games make appearances in a it), the film actually owes as much to familiar candy and dessert products as it does new and vintage games. The premise is simple: after 30 years of being the unlovable bad guy in the arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr., Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly as the perfect schlub) decides he'd like to be the one earning medals and the affection of players. So he abandons his game and heads off into other games, including Sugar Rush, a game set in a world made of sweet confectionary items and infected by a cute "glitch" character named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who is being hunted by other characters in the game for reasons unknown.

Not being much of a player of modern games, I was impressed how many old-school games were represented in Wreck-It Ralph. But the biggest threat in this universe is being unplugged because the game stops working. Ralph leaving his game means people can't play, so the other characters in his game (including the Jack McBrayer-voiced Felix) know the danger of his not returning. Some of the best early moments are those where Ralph is trying to cope with his feelings of inadequacies, both at a group therapy session of Bad Guys (who aren't all bad guys) and at his own game's 30th anniversary party, which he isn't invited to. There is something in Reilly's voice that makes him essential in selling Ralph as a sweet man who occasionally loses his temper and breaks almost everything he touches.

On his adventures outside his own game, he wanders into a more modern game that pits human soldiers led by Sgt. Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch) against bug-like aliens that take on the traits of anything they eats. He manages to retrieve a much-coveted medal, but in the process unleashes the bugs into Sugar Rush, a car-racing game that sends pixie-like, little girl drivers through scenery made of sweets. Silverman is the perfect foil for Reilly, as she sasses and insults him with a playful venom. Even her character talks out of the side of her mouth like Silverman does sometimes.

Eventually, all of the main characters end up in the land of candy, and all hell breaks loose, as it should. There's nothing particularly complicated about Wreck-It Ralph, but it does score points for being about the healing power of friendship, and for smartly using such actors as Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Joe Lo Truglio, Ed O'Neill and even Dennis Haysbert in clever ways. Director Rich Moore has logged in a lot of time helming such shows as "The Simpson" and "Futurama," so he's used to his humor working on several levels at once. There are as many jokes that will go right over the heads of youngsters as there are ones that will hit them squarely between the eyes. My favorite animated works tend to do that. The focus on Ralph is laughter and not necessarily story, although both are in fine for here.

Two footnotes: I went into my screening of Wreck-It Ralph not realizing it was in 3-D, and I'll admit, I was more impressed by the 3-D in the Monsters Inc. reissue trailer than I was by anything in the feature. Some of the Sugar Rush car chases look especially great in 3-D, but this movie will work just as well without the added dimension. Particularly impressive was the short film Paperman that plays before Ralph. It's a cute, funny love story about the magical powers of paper airplanes. Make sure to get to the theater on time so you don't miss it.

A Late Quartet

This one could easily slip in and out of the theater near you, and you might never realize it. But if you're into films where the emotional fireworks shoot off mostly internally in its characters (or through the music they play), you might want to seek out the feature debut from Yaron Zilberman (who co-wrote with Seth Grossman), A Late Quartet. The film's title refers to Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet, a lengthy piece that is meant to be played without pause. As one character explains, as the piece goes on, the instruments slowly grow out of tune and the quartet must make minor adjustments as the arrangement continues. It's meant to mirror human relationships and how we all adjust as moods shift. And when we finally stop, we re-tune back to perfection (in theory). And if you think there's a metaphor at play here, you're smarter than you look.

The film centers on a world famous string quartet that has been playing together for 25 years. It was founded by Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) and Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir, Schindler's List), who was at the time the lover of Mitchell's daughter Juliette (Catherine Keener), who is presently married to Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As they begin to plot their anniversary tour after being off the road for a time as Peter mourned the death of his wife, Peter has trouble getting back into the swing of things on cello; he can't seem to keep up. A visit to the doctor reveals early onset Parkinson's, and he decides he will play one more concert as his grand farewell.

News of his eminent departure is known sends ripples through the other players, and the reactions range from Robert wanting to take the occasional crack at 1st Violin (from his long-time 2nd Violin position to Daniel's 1st) to others simply thinking this is a sign the group should end entirely. What's fascinating about the dynamics of the group and the film is that each action, each subtle betrayal leads to another, and the small world of this gorgeous-sounding group begins to crumble as long-simmering emotions and rivalries explode at the slightest provocation. In the hands of lesser actors, this material might simply hang there lifeless. But with this exquisite combination, the angst and passion radiate off the screen like so many heatwaves.

Without giving away what few secrets A Late Quartet features, the wrong doings aren't simply limited to the four main characters. Imogen Poots plays Robert and Juliette's daughter, Liraz Charbi plays a sexy Spanish dancer, and the always-reliable Wallace Shawn plays a fellow musician of whom Peter must request an important favor. And all of these players figure into the devastation. What's especially shocking is how, even with all of these misdeeds, the survival and continuation of the quartet seems foremost on everyone's mind, which means they must all figure out ways to put out the fires and move forward with the work at hand. A Late Quartet is the classiest film about a type of dysfunctional family that I've seen in quite some time, even when physical violence is the end result of one squabble. And needless to say, the music is hypnotic perfection. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Loneliest Planet

If you ever had the pleasure of stumbling upon writer-director Julia Loktev's 2006 feature film debut Day Night Day Night, the idea that she has finally made a second film will excite you to no end. If you haven't seen it, seek it out. But where that unbelievably tense film focused on the very solitary mindset of a young female suicide bomber planning to walk into Times Square with a backpack loaded with explosives, Loktev's latest, The Loneliest Planet, is about a different type of tension — that between a young, good-looking couple hiking/camping through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia (that would be the one on the other side of the world, not in the U.S.) with a local guide and how their relationship shifts during the course of their trip.

Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger) play Alex and Nica, two adventurous travelers wanting to travel to corners of the world few people seek out and following the lead of Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). The film doesn't have much of a plot beyond some the three great scenery, but as they trek continues, there's a cumulative effect that makes the viewer feel very small and inconsequential on this large planet (thus, the title). But all the while, a low-level tension seems to be building, partially due to the sometimes-daunting wilderness and landscapes they must hike, but also because they seem to have gone a route where no other human beings exist.

Then, in one very brief scene, something happens involving others they finally do stumble upon, and Alex reacts instinctually in a way that completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between the three travelers. He regrets it, but he can never take it back. For the rest of the trip, the carefree nature of Alex and Nica has largely vanished, and what follows is a gradual repair of the couple's relationship (assuming that's possible) and hopefully some forgiveness as well.

I realize this all sounds very intellectual and possibly boring, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. That being said, The Loneliest Planet moves at its own, very deliberate pace, and it's not racing to get where it's going, nor should it. Bernal and Furstenberg are completely convincing as a young couple very much in love (and a few months from getting married). They are affectionate but also have conversations that reveal that they can always entertain each other for long stretches. Gujabidze is great at parceling out little bits of information about himself that makes sure we are always guessing about his mindset and threat level (assuming there is one). The movie is so rich with great settings that you can almost smell the woods and feel the mist and rain on your face. This is one of those rare works that seems to engage all of your senses as you're watching it, and it succeeds in getting under your skin in an often uncomfortable way. And there's not a damn thing wrong with that. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Brooklyn Castle

Over the last couple of years, those of us who tend to watch every documentary that comes with a 50-mile radius of wherever you live have been besieged by films about how horribly damaged our nation's education system is. Occasionally, we get glimpses of how things could be improved, but lately it's been a series of images of crying children and parents who came out on the wrong side of a school lottery, or another story of how test scores are plummeting and budget cuts are killing the few programs that work. So now we have a film that combines all of those tragic elements into a single compelling work from director Katie Dellamaggiore, offering us her feature debut.

Brooklyn Castle centers on five students at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, all of whom are members of the national champion chess team, despite the fact that most of these kids come from below-poverty broken homes. In fact, these kids have won more national titles than any other school in the country. With a slightly heavy hand, the director draws connections between the kids attempting to solve problems in their personal lives and working out intricate winning strategies on the chess board. We get to see these kids at home, in their classrooms, and most importantly, we see them studying and playing chess with their instructors, special tutors (for those who can afford them) and in riveting tournaments across the country.

One of the most frustrating things about watching this movie is how, despite their day-to-day struggles, one of the biggest obstacles to the chess team is the constant barrage of budget cuts that hit them during the early days of the recession. Whereas a few years ago, the school's budget could give the team travel and lodging money for tournament trips to Dallas and Minnesota, the team members must now constantly raise funds to make the trips possible or risk losing their titles and individual standings.

It's hard not to get caught up in the world of these intelligent, funny and sometimes suffering kids (suffering because they aren't playing as well as they know they can). Brooklyn Castle even manages to make watching a chess game exciting and suspenseful and gets us caught up in the way the competitions are scored, and how big of a difference there is between a win and a draw. There isn't a single student or teacher you aren't rooting for by the end of the film. And while the film can be a bit heavy and downright sad at times, it's still as exhilarating as just about any sports movie in recent memory. You sometimes forget how young these kids are and how fragile their egos and hearts can be at times. One loss can be devastating, especially in the lives of a child who has suffered many loses in a single lifetime. The fact that they found something like chess that they love and are good at is borderline miraculous. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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