Performances outshine movies

Last updated 12:51 21/02/2013
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REVIEW: Flight Starring Denzel Washington. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. R16. 3.5 stars

Not for the first time Denzel Washington and Helen Mirren find themselves contenders for best acting Oscars when the 85th Academy Awards are handed out on Monday (NZ time).

Washington earned a best actor nomination for his impressive portrayal of an alcoholic pilot facing a professional and personal crisis in the drama Flight; Mirren was nominated as best actress for her role in Hitchcock as wife to director Alfred Hitchcock during the making of the movie Psycho.

Washington, with six Oscar nominations (and two wins), and Mirren, with four nominations (and one win), both show how worthy performances can enhance a film, even compensate for weaknesses.

Washington's Captain Whip Whitaker is the central character carrying the weight of Flight's chances of success. Divorced with a teenage son, Whip is first met snorting cocaine as a pick-me-up for an alcoholic hangover, then donning his pilot's uniform, popping a breath freshener and boarding his passenger jet for a routine one-hour flight that's a chance to inhale some oxygen and get a little shut-eye.

But the flight is anything but routine - and only miraculous ingenuity and skill by Whitaker will save all but six on board from death (you're unlikely to ever see this film as an in-flight movie option).

Initially regarded as a hero, Whitaker soon finds himself possibly facing criminal charges for flying while intoxicated, raising the question of whether what happened was the result of poor aircraft manufacture, poor airline maintenance, an act of God or pilot error (there's a moment when Whitaker exceeds flight rules to get free of a storm).

But the intriguing, tricky question of blame is never fully answered in John Givens' Oscar-nominated original screenplay because it's not what Flight is about. Instead it's a movie about addiction - with the flight becoming a situation to force Whitaker to decide whether to take responsibility for his actions and be accountable for whatever consequences they caused.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future), Flight, perhaps inevitably after such a tense start, sags when it hits the ground, becoming a melodramatic character study that is predictable in Whitaker's trajectory, overlong (140 minutes) and at times too contrived (an open hotel door, Whitaker's chance spotting of Nicole, a recovering heroin addict he met in hospital) and never fully recovers.

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A commendable supporting cast includes John Goodman as Whitaker's drug-dealer, Don Cheadle as his lawyer, Bruce Greenwood as a pilots association rep and friend, Kelly Reilly as Nicole and Nadine Velazquez deserves mention for revealing all in an opening scene of gratuitous nudity.

But it's Washington who keeps the story buoyant and the audience engaged with a performance of bravado, charm and vulnerability as a man whose self-belief ("I drink by choice, I can stop whenever I want") becomes increasingly cracked with doubts and guilt. His is an Oscar nomination well-deserved.

Hitchcock Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren. Directed by Sacha Gervais. M. ★★★

In Hitchcock Helen Mirren plays Alma Reville, long-time wife and collaborator of director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), who became dubbed the master of suspense and psychological mysteries. Ostensibly the film is about the making in 1960 of Psycho, which was a financial and professional risk to Hitchcock, but it's also about Hitchcock's relationship with Alma.

It's certainly an interesting movie for film buffs - showing how Hitchcock, 60, looked for a "nice, clean, nasty piece of work" to follow up his huge hit with North by Northwest, how he had to finance it himself when studios feared it might be another Vertigo (an initial flop later beloved by critics) and contend with censors who didn't like a toilet being shown, much less one flushing, plus his handling of the famous shower scene and the importance of music and editing.

While Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel are commendable as actresses Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, and James D'Arcy is spot-on as Anthony Perkins, there is a shallowness to it all, as well as some dubious biopic credibility, including Hitchcock's jealousy over Alma working with a rakish writer (Danny Houston).

Hopkins is made to look close enough to Hitchcock and effectively adopts his mannerisms but despite depicting a neurotic man with anxieties and self-doubts, the film offers more impersonation than insight in Hitchcock's psyche.

A serious misstep is having killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who inspired Robert Bloch's Psycho novel and influenced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs movies, frequently appearing to haunt Hitchcock's thinking.

Mirren's Alma is the film's gravitational rock - at times a foil, an instigator or a salvager. But she's stuck in a movie that splits its attention, and ours, with its superficial treatment of its behind-the-scenes movie-making elements and love story resulting in what proves to be little more than diverting light entertainment.

Dave Manning's recent film reviews are online in the entertainment section of nelsonmail.co.nz.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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