by Craig Thomas
In Flight, Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with an alcohol addiction. At the start of the film we see him drink alcohol, take drugs and crash a plane into the ground. The rest of the film then follows Whip as he struggles to deal with his alcohol problem as well as the media and investigative frenzy surrounding the crash. During this time he befriends Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict, struggling to stay clean.
Calling the film Flight is somewhat misleading. After the impressive opening scenes to set the stage, there isn’t any actual flying. Instead, there is a character study of two people with substance abuse problems at different stages of using. But let’s start with the actual flight.
This is a very impressive scene and even though you can guess what is going to happen, the tension holds brilliantly. Each pull of the lever, each flip of numerous switches feel vital and precise. Whereas other plane crash movies might have the pilot flipping banks of switches, here each flip is specifically called for and built up to. Every time there is a sense of relief quickly followed by building tension once again.
For a big action sequence, it is very minimalistic. There are no drinks trolleys flying down the aisles, nor does every piece of luggage feel compelled to bound from its overhead compartment. There aren’t any shots of passengers wailing, or praying or any of that sort of thing. In fact, we don’t really get to see the passengers faces at all, with most scenes shot from the back of the plane. It wants you to be under no illusion, this is not a disaster movie.
Then the planes crashes.
This is when the movie really begins. We see Whip struggle with the situation he now finds himself in and the potential consequences of his lifestyle. We also see Nicole as she battles her own demons and tries to support Whip as he falls apart.
Things slow down here and though the script is solid, it is somewhat surprising to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Aside from a few lines which sound like classic Washington, there isn’t really much to get excited about. There is an interesting speech in a stairwell, but apart from that there isn’t much. At times it feels overwrought and heavy-handed, whilst some of the big scenes don’t manage to hit the right spot.
Yet the cast do their best with what they’ve got. Denzel puts in a very good performance as always, but the material isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, so there is only so much that can be done. One only wonders what this film would have been like were the lead role given to a lesser actor. Still, a Best Actor nomination seems overly generous if only due to the limitations of the script.
Kelly Reilly also gives a solid performance, but neither character feels particularly fleshed out, even though we know a lot about their (unfortunately predictable) backgrounds. Don Cheadle does well as the amoral lawyer (is there another kind?), Hugh Lang. There is also an enjoyable cameo from John Goodman playing Whip’s Rolling Stones soundtracked drug dealer.
Helmed by Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forest Gump, Cast Away) the film is very well put together. At times, his use of the camera really focuses on what is important, giving an insular feeling which reflects the character’s isolation. The only time he really slips up is during an inappropriate moment at a hospital where we are invited to laugh at some (again, two dimensional) people for their religious beliefs. It tries to lighten the mood, but ends up looking like something from an out-and-out comedy and doesn’t sit well with the frankly serious nature of the scene. It would be like placing a fart gag at the emotional climax of Schindler’s List.
This is a mediocre film pulled up by its bootstraps by some great performances and some inspired directing. It shouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is, but then that is true of a lot of Denzel Washington movies. The main problem is that it isn’t particularly deep which is usually death for a character study such as this. Still, everything just about comes together and there is enough good will in the first hour or so (which is regularly topped up) to carry you through to the end.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial and shocking films to emerge from the 1970s is without question Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, a big studio production that seems like it would have been right at home in a seedy 42nd Street theater during the heyday of grindhouse theaters. At the time of its release, most critics waved off Death Wish, which was based off of the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, as a tasteless and empty-headed exploitation film that advocates vigilantism. While the film certainly never judges Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, a liberal man who takes the law into his own hands after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a trio of drugged out street thugs, Winner certainly doesn’t make this transition from mild-mannered architect into cold blooded killer look easy or glamorous. About as bleak and unsettling as they come, Death Wish certainly isn’t as dumb as it has been made out to be. Star Bronson has said that he doesn’t believe that the film promotes an ordinary citizen taking the law into his or her own hands, but rather points out that violence just leads to more violence. No matter which way you choose to read Death Wish, I think we can all agree that this a film that really sticks with those who have seen it. It certainly isn’t a film that is afraid to shake the viewer up.
Shortly after returning from a sunny vacation in Hawaii, liberal architect Paul Kersey (Played by Charles Bronson) and his wife, Joanna (Played by Hope Lange), return to their upscale New York City apartment. The New York streets are a far cry from the sunny and peaceful beaches that the Kersey’s were lounging on. Crime runs rampant through the city streets and the police appear to be helpless to stop it. One afternoon, a group of street thugs break into the Kersey’s apartment and viciously assault Joanna and their daughter, Carol (Played by Kathleen Tolan). The attack results in the death of Joanna and Carol is sent into a catatonic state. Devastated, Paul and his son-in-law, Jack (Played by Steven Keats), slowly begin to realize that the police have little hope in catching the men who are responsible for this heinous crime. After receiving a gun as a gift from a satisfied client, Paul begins taking shooting lessons and then takes to the streets to hunt down muggers who hide in the darkened alleys. As the crime rates begin to fall, the police begin to secretly debate whether they should allow the vigilante to continue fighting back against scum or if he should be arrested for the killing spree.
Death Wish certainly takes its good old time getting to Paul’s killing spree. His slow descent into bloodthirsty madness is eerily realistic, especially when he dashes home after claiming his first victim and then vomits over what he has done. His revenge doesn’t come easy and I’m glad that Winner points this out. It is painful to watch his hope die as he the police fail to deliver any answers. It makes sense that Winner lingers on Paul’s emotional turmoil, because if the film jumped right into the killing spree, the film would be wildly redundant. When the film erupts in its fits of violence, it will make the hair on your arms stand up. The sequence between the street thugs and Paul’s family will have your stomach churning and you may even cover your eyes once or twice, especially when Carol is sexually assaulted. The scenes where Paul confronts muggers on the New York streets are tense and unpredictable, as Paul throws himself into vulnerable situations, only to reveal a pistol and blow the bad guys away. It is truly terrifying the way Paul begins to enjoy his work, faintly smiling when he hears news reports where ordinary citizens praise his work and even offer up their own tales of brutally fighting back against the unruly crime. One story about a little old lady stabbing a thug with a sewing needle was particularly disturbing.
In addition to the controversial subject matter, Death Wish also contains a classic performance from Charles Bronson, the mumbling hardass with a mustache. Bronson’s Paul is a seemingly peaceful and loving family man, a man who was a “conscientious objector” in the Korean War. He appears to have a great relationship with his son-in-law, who is quite fond of calling Paul “dad.” Even when Paul begins to really loose his marbles, he seems like he is coolly in control of his appalling actions. After his first squeamish night, he develops an insatiable love for punishment. Keats gives a jittery performance as the twitchy Jack, who is constantly looking to Paul for some sort of reassurance. He paces and slicks back his hair as he pours over the comatose Carol, desperate for her to be the person she once was. Vincent Gardenia shows up as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa, the man tasked with tracking down the vigilante and bringing him to justice. I was genuinely captivated by his confliction over bringing Paul in for his nightly actions. Also keep a look out for a young Jeff Goldblum as one of the thugs who breaks into Paul’s apartment and Denzel Washington as a mugger who makes the mistake of trying to stick up Mr. Bronson.
Despite being released in 1974, Death Wish still resonates today, especially when you turn on the news and hear about mass shootings and other unspeakable acts of violence tearing through America. It’s message is certainly troubling, especially since it refuses to ever criticize the trigger happy Paul. Yet when viewed as a portrait of a man consumed by grief, Death Wish is about as haunting as they come. You weirdly root for Paul to make his escapes from the scenes of his crimes and when one thug stabs him, things really get intense. It is incredibly difficult to believe that Paramount Studios, a major Hollywood Studio, was behind a film that is loaded with this much unblinking violence. The real shocker hits about fifteen minutes in with the prolonged torture of Paul’s family, a scene that more than once crosses into exploitation territory. It is tough to find Death Wish entertaining but it certainly is a thought provoking reflection of the violence in all of us that you can’t pull yourself away from. A gritty and unforgiving vision that I would certainly consider one of the most disturbing movies you are ever likely to see.
Death Wish is available on DVD.