Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
With a tagline that reads "Steal All You Can Steal," it was bound to set off sparks. Miramax's Buffalo Soldiers, a satire about corruption on American military bases, is set to bow in theaters July 25, but its humor is being lost on military representatives and right-wing consumers who have sent complaints about the movie's negative depiction of U.S. Army conduct to Miramax and corporate parent Disney. Helmed by Australian director Gregor Jordan, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a wily Army clerk running a profitable sideline in black-market heroin and arms dealing. According to Variety, when Buffalo Soldiers screened at Sundance in January, an audience member was so incensed by Jordan's views on the military during a post-screening Q&A that he threw a bottle at the director, narrowly missing Anna Paquin, one of the film's stars. Miramax acquired the film at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2001, but held back on the film's release after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Steve Harvey Claims Black Actors Make Less
While promoting his WB fall series Steve Harvey's Big Time, actor-comedian Steve Harvey told TV critics at a meeting of the Television Critics Association that advertisers pay less for programs that attract black audiences--even when the ratings are equal to or better than those of other shows, The Associated Press reports. According to Harvey, advertisers reason that it is easy to reach blacks across the television dial because they are among TV's more trusty customers. Jamie Kellner, WB's chairman and chief executive officer, agreed: "There is a truth in what he's saying, that advertisers are trying to find people that they can't get easily. And they do pay a premium for those people."
Beals Takes Lesbian Role
Jennifer Beals, who rose to fame with the 1983 movie Flashdance, will play a lesbian in the upcoming Showtime television series The L Word. But the straight actress told the Television Critics Association that the question of her sexuality has come up since the show started filming. "What becomes interesting is to think about how easy it is for a heterosexual actress or actor to play someone who is homosexual, how that's somehow permissible, but for a homosexual to be out and portray a homosexual character it becomes sort of much more problematic for an audience to accept." The L Word, which also stars Pam Grier and Mia Kirshner, debuts in January.
Buena Vista's Compay Dead at 95
Cuba's Compay Segundo, the frontman for the Buena Vista Social Club group known for his trademark Panama hat, died Sunday of kidney failure at his home in Miramar, Havana, Reuters reports. He was 95. Segundo, whose real name was Francisco Repilado, won a Grammy Award in 1997 for the album Buena Vista Social Club, which was produced by American guitarist Ry Cooder. The group gained further recognition with the release of German director Wim Wenders' 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club. Segundo gave concerts until May this year, when his health deteriorated.
Jazz Luminary Benny Carter Dies
Legendary jazz pioneer and big-band leader Benny Carter died on Saturday at Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles at the age 95. According to Reuters, a family friend said Carter had been hospitalized for about two weeks after complaining of bronchitis and fatigue. In a career that spanned seven decades, Carter was one of the first black composers and arrangers to work on mainstream Hollywood films such as Stormy Weather and played with jazz stars such as pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He is also credited with launching Ella Fitzgerald's career by introducing her to bandleader Chick Webb. He is survived by his wife, Hilma, a daughter, Joyce Mills, a grandchild and a great grandchild.
Role Call: Schwarzenegger in Big Sir, Diaz and Carrey Reunite
Arnold Schwarzenegger is in negotiations to star in New Line Cinema's family comedy Big Sir. The Terminator star also has the sci-fi remake Westworld on his acting slate and is developing a sequel to Conan the Barbarian, to be produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski ... Cameron Diaz and Jim Carrey, who starred together in 1994's The Mask, will reunite for Columbia Picture's remake of the 1977 comedy Fun With Dick and Jane. Joel and Ethan Coen will rewrite the screenplay for director Barry Sonnenfeld.