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New films: Flight, Wuthering Heights, Wreck it Ralph, and more

Flight
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

I’ll probably be bucking a trend here, but I’m not especially fond of “Flight” – a movie that stars Denzel Washington as a skilled but flawed airline pilot – which is fitting because it also feels like a skilled but flawed film. The previews focus on the action scenes – which are well done – but they’re also over fairly quickly at the start of a movie that focuses primarily on the aftermath of those scenes rather than on them directly. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you enjoy where that focus takes you – and I enjoyed it until about 10-15 minutes before the end of the movie.

Part of that aftermath is really quite interesting, as we see the process of investigating a commercial airline crash. This includes the National Transportation Safety Board team, the airline, the pilot’s union, and a rather pragmatic lawyer (Don Cheadle). The problem that they’re all dealing with, in their own self-interested ways, is that Washington’s Captain “Whip” Whitaker is a raging drunk – but one of those high functioning alcoholics who can still perform better than many or most around him, even while under the influence of enough intoxicants to put most of us to sleep.

And that, to me, is an interesting story – the way that the Whip Whitakers of the world manage to get through life, covering their addictions, and being covered for by many of those around them. Except that this is a film that feels like it pulls its punches, with an ending that seems more trite than profound.

Coincidentally, while “Flight” is playing in wide release, Sacramento’s Tower Theatre is screening “Smashed” (which I haven’t had the chance to review) about an elementary school teacher also battling alcoholism, a workplace incident, and attempting to address it through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). And the Crest Theatre is continuing its extended engagement of “Bill W.” (reviewed last week) about Bill Wilson, another prodigious drinker who ruined his own career before founding AA. I probably would have enjoyed the story that “Flight” almost was more than “Bill W.” – but I think I enjoyed “Bill W.” more than the story that “Flight” became.

 

Wuthering heights
Directed by Andrea Arnold

This is a dark movie – quite literally – not just in terms of the star-crossed sweethearts and their doomed relationship. Set in Victorian England, many of the scenes are authentic in that they take place at night without lighting, or in interiors lit only by firelight or candles – which is good for mood and a sense of time and place, but not especially conducive to ease of viewing. In that sense it reminded me of the minimalistic style of a film like “Meek’s Cutoff,” about a group of settlers heading west across America, and also featuring scenes during which the audience strains to make out the action.

However the action and the classic story is still there – albeit occasionally murky. The daytime scenes are as spectacular for their scenery as the nighttime scenes are impenetrable and this is a production that is as much poetic in its imagery as it is focused in its narrative. There are moments that are almost like a Terrence Malick film, as the camera lingers on a view or on water droplets, but without being quite so indulgent. With tighter editing, the story itself could probably be told in 30 less minutes – but the film would lose a lot of its sense of slow and stark isolation.

In Emily Brontë’s novel, the character of Heathcliffe is dark skinned and a gypsy – but here he is played (as an adult) by black actor James Howson. After reading up on the production, there appears to have been quite a list of potential or attached actors for the lead roles, as well as more than one director associated with the project prior to production. The final choice for the adult Catherine Earnshaw was Kaya Scodelario, probably most recognized for her work as Effy Stonem in the British TV series “Skins.” And having seen most of her work in that show, it was interesting to compare and contrast the two works, written approximately 165 years apart but both featuring self-destructive relationships and a young woman torn between two love interests, one of which is more stable and the other more volatile.

This production is probably a little more front heavy than some – with more time spent with the younger characters. It’s likely to appeal to those purists who prefer their classics told simply, rather than spiced up or transplanted into a modern high school setting. But it’s not for those who want a speedy narrative that will get them out of the theater and on their way to dinner in a brisk and bright 90 minutes or so.

 

Wreck it Ralph
Directed by Rich Moore

The most upbeat of this week’s reviewed movies is “Wreck it Ralph,” an animated film about a video game villain who finds that a starring role in a classic game may offer great job security but it doesn’t offer much personal fulfillment. And realize that this is a depiction of the games in a video arcade in which all of the game characters are autonomous individuals who get to clock off work when the arcade closes and who have lives of their own to lead – like attending a villain support group.

Ralph is the bad guy to Felix, the title character of ‘Fix it Felix Jr.’ – a game in which Ralph breaks things and Felix repairs them in time to win a medal at the end. Which leaves Ralph yearning for a medal of his own. The arcade is wonderfully depicted with the games connected by their power cords such that the characters can move around within them – and this also gives plenty of opportunity for multiple classic references that will appeal to gamers – including those parents who are old enough to have grown up on games like ‘Pac-Man’ and who are bringing their children for the cute story. And films like this tend to be most successful when both the children and the adults in the room have a frame of reference to appreciate.

The cast here is fun to listen to in their voiceover roles, with John C. Reilly as Ralph, Jack McBrayer as Felix, Sarah Silverman as a small girl in a candy-themed racing cart game, and Jane Lynch as the leader of a military assault team in a game based on fighting off hordes of mutant bugs. If you’ve seen the previews and wondered if there’s enough interest and material here to carry a full feature film, there is – and it’s a neat treat to watch, and a concept that could yield multiple more cute video game crossovers (perhaps with even more recognizable games and characters wanting to get in on any sequels that might come along later).

 

Other film news and openings

Two other films are opening in Sacramento this week that I haven’t had a chance to review but which may interest some readers:

Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel” is a documentary about the woman who was Fashion Editor of “Harper’s Bazaar” and later Editor in Chief of “Vogue.” In 40+ years in the business, she also advised Jackie Kennedy on her clothing selections and consulted with the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All of which sounds like a must see for fashionistas and design students, amongst others.

The Man with the Iron Fists” is a genre movie that appears to blend Grindhouse and ‘chop-socky’ action in a highly stylized, Chinese-themed action movie, starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, that should appeal to those who like their fighting fast, bloody, and not remotely plausible.
 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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