Flight ****

Denzel Washington is often associated playing real-life characters and ‘reliable’ ones in law enforcement. But in the last year or so, the versatile actor has decided to try his hand at challenging, flawed parts (Tobin Frost in Safe House), still managing to win our empathy at the end of each journey his character makes. Captain Whip Whitaker in director Robert Zemeckis’s Flight is no exception, and probably the most controversial to date from its opening scene. In fact, far from what appears to be an action drama in the first part, Flight is a serious and austere character study addressing a serious issue that seems a change in direction even for Zemeckis, immediately making it intriguing.

Experienced commercial airline pilot Whitaker (Washington) saves a flight from complete catastrophe and loss of life with his years of advanced flying experience. But as the crash investigation into the supposed plane malfunctions widens, more troubling evidence comes to light that throws suspicion on the ‘hero’ pilot.

Up for an Oscar this year, Washington is unsurprisingly, utterly compelling once again in this solid drama with a touching and relevant human struggle and jaw-dropping flight action scenes to boot. Whip is a charming but an ugly, broken character that Washington seems to relish laying bare from the very start, and ever so slowly, readdressing his thinking to court our empathy by the end. The actor is a magician at such character rejuvenation, and it’s always a wonder to watch him in action: whether it’s because Washington is very likeable in real life and we want his characters to redeem themselves, or because he has a natural gift at connecting us with his onscreen personality remains a mystery, but we will probably never tire of seeing him doing so. This is Washington’s time to shine and a good reflection of how far he has come as an actor.

A lot of the supporting characters, though, seem to lack credible impact that it’s sometimes hard to imagine Whip in reality realising the error of his ways based on their influences. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as the embattled allies in Whip’s criminal case do an adequate enough job steering proceedings, but it’s Kelly Reilly as fellow addict Nicole, the woman supposedly set up to change Whip’s wayward ways who fizzles out of screen, only predictably to have a change of heart with Whip’s public revelation at the end. Writer John Gatins is guilty of introducing characters necessary to the plot and Whip’s enlightenment then leaving them subsequently hanging.

That said, not all of the supporting cast fail to fully convince. Tommy Kane as blunt, chain-smoking cancer patient Mark Mellon makes a highly impressive appearance in a short hospital scene, stealing it from Reilly and Washington. John Goodman lightens the mood, injecting bittersweet humour into the most perverse of situations as Whip’s larger-than-life narcotics supplier, Harling Mays, without trivialising the process, but coming across as pathetic as his client and friend.

Indeed, Flight puts the immense Washington talent and appeal centre stage once more, but is a demanding watch with moments of reflection and stabs of dark humour. With a charismatic protagonist at the helm with very real, relatable problems and an Awards-worthy performance that can’t be easily disparaged, it’s bound to be another sure-fire hit for both actor and director alike, regardless of its other character development flaws.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Chained ****

Writer/director Jennifer Lynch’s obsession with desolate places where all kinds of ‘life’ flourish, as well as rendering a human being helpless is evident again in her latest film, Chained, starring oddball crime cracker Vincent D’Onofrio from Law & Order: Criminal Intent fame. This thriller engages, terrifies and ultimately questions: It’s a claustrophobic and highly compelling human study of one man’s ‘norm’ being another’s ‘abnormal’ with powerful, psychological effect. The intriguing and unexpected end twist demands another viewing just to pick up the pointers, which are not initially evident.

A mother (Julia Ormond) and her young son, Tim (Evan Bird), are collected outside a cinema by a regular-looking cab driven by Bob (D’Onofrio). It soon becomes apparent that Bob is holding them hostage, and is a serial killer who stalks his female prey then takes them back home in his cab. Tim becomes his prisoner then reluctant protégé as he grows up into a man (later played by Eamon Farren) – renamed Rabbit by the killer. Bob and Rabbit develop an unusual father-son relationship, but ultimately, Rabbit must make a life or death choice between following in Bob’s footsteps or breaking free.

Lynch is quite brilliant at combining the disturbing with an all-together ‘familiar’ effect. Both this film and Boxing Helena, for example, may be horrors in the situations they present, but there is always a twisted ‘love’ angle that develops and overrides the obvious plotline – even when serial killing is involved. From the start it’s apparent that Bob is deviant and highly dangerous, but in trying to reach his ideal of perfection that he attempts to instil in his young charge, there are elements of fondness displayed that seem contrary to the supposed emotionless ‘monster’ or ‘psycho’ you expect. We are naturally horrified by his cold-blooded acts and violence against women, and make no excuses for them. However, as his character develops we are made to uncomfortably observe and analyse them while trying to displace any empathy felt through his disjointed thinking and flashbacks. This is the power behind Lynch’s storytelling.

D’Onofrio in the predatory role as Bob is quite a tour de force: To be honest, Detective Goren in the TV series is just as weird and passionate as Bob in personality that it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to witness him in this opposing role. Whether his playing Bob as someone with suggested learning difficulties in his speech delivery disarms his character a little to allow us to further explore his shades of grey is debatable; the actor seems more than comfortable playing parts on both sides of the law, setting an exciting precedent, hopefully, for more of such roles as Bob to come.

Lynch’s story does become a little too conventional near the end to allow her captor his moment, as well as for tying up the loose ends with the unexpected twist. This could be deemed as an unnecessary conclusion to portray, taking the story out of its intense claustrophobic context and removing the remnants of the warped relationship from beneath the microscope. However, in a way, it gives purpose to Tim/Rabbit’s violated being and evidence of how such a victim copes with his ordeal and begins thinking as an individual. Farren slightly overplays the suffering and guilty captor at times but is nevertheless physically compelling to watch.

Chained reinforces Lynch’s mastery in this genre as she deliberately dissects the abnormal within a standard thriller/horror context. It is first and foremost a character study and not a bloody, made-for-thrills horror escapade, as the writer/director thankfully continues to champion the misfit personality in her stories and challenge stereotypes.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Zero Dark Thirty ****

You don’t expect anything less rigorously researched from the engaging filmmaking pair behind the 2008 hit, The Hurt Locker, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter/former news journalist Mark Boal. Their latest action thriller, Zero Dark Thirty does not fail to diligently lay out the facts like some on-the-scene reporter with ‘access all areas’ coverage.

However, this no-nonsense portrayal isn’t without some elements of concern in its first half. Also, while the toast of Hollywood, star Jessica Chastain puts in another career-defining performance – subsequently leading to a Best Actress nod at this year’s Academy Awards, there seems to be a certain detachment felt with her character, CIA Agent Maya, as she stands by her hunch as to Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, something that was never the case with Jeremy Renner’s unhinged bomb disposal expert character Sergeant First Class William James in the 2008 film.

Zero Dark Thirty – espionage code for ‘half past midnight’, the time when bin Laden met his maker – begins with the chilling voice of a victim caught in one of the towers in 9/11, speaking to emergency services against a black screen. It then changes location to a CIA detention camp where dubious torture methods are being tested on an inmate said to help bankroll the 9/11 attacks. All this tense activity is watched by Maya (Chastain), a new recruit to the deadly interrogation game, introduced by hardened and cynical boss Dan (Jason Clarke).

The next two hours play out a series of worldwide attacks – including a re-enactment of the 7/7 Tavistock Square bus explosion – as well as dead ends as the casualties tally up, with some close to Maya. Simultaneously, a determined Maya pursues her theory that bin Laden isn’t holed up in a cave, but closer than US authorities think, while her Washington ‘boys club’ doubt her evidence but not her conviction. The end of the film is the cream on top, with a Navy SEAL night-vision raid on the compound in Pakistan.

Bigelow and Boal cover a lot of ground in this, taking us through the whole post-9/11 history. It could be argued that some of this is unnecessary back story for this film, though a shocking reminder all the same. As it stands in this context, all it provides is a grim graphic timeline, with some wordy political game playing – it seems to have little direct effect on Maya’s emotional state at what she is witnessing and how she thinks, considering a major part of the film is about her single quest to find bin Laden’s courier and hence the terror leader’s location. Still, it could be argued that it widens the whole picture to include the international impact, rather than being US-centric.

The really interesting factor is how torture is used and what Bigelow’s characters make of it – even though it’s debatable whether methods such as waterboarding actually unveiled the detailed information needed to track those closest to bin Laden (as contested by American authorities). Clarke’s input is intriguing and much needed as the emotional catalyst and benchmark with which Chastain can develop her character’s responses, and without his charisma and an implied attraction shared between the pair, the film would feel very remote indeed from a human aspect.

This aside, the climax of the film with the raid on the Pakistani compound, ironically a stone’s throw from a Pakistani military academy is utterly exhilarating, recreating the standard chest-pumping Allied patriotism that you would expect from those fighting dirty on the ground and in the thick of it with, some fantastic directing and cinematography, repeatedly delaying the moment we are all waiting for and satisfying our curiosity as to how this is portrayed on screen. This finale alone is worth the wait, even though other straggling elements of the mission remain abandoned and unexplained after the deed.

Nevertheless, as an action thriller, Bigelow further shows her prowess in the business, brewing the tension and curiosity and using a female protagonist/heroine to lead us through what is predominantly a ‘man’s world’ of broken rules, promises and ugly happenings: It’s just a shame we don’t get more of a sense of how Maya ticks earlier. Zero Dark Thirty is a long but respectful watch with an all-out punchy ending.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2012: The Sessions ****

Once in a while there is a film that on paper seems totally different to how it’s actually perceived, and because of its plotline could be a hard sell at the cinema. Writer-director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is such a film. However, appearances are truly deceptive here, and this feel-good drama is full of inspirational moments, warmth and delightful humour that resonates like an understated breath of fresh air, without shamelessly tugging at the heartstrings to leave us with defining moments.

The Sessions is based on the autobiographical writings of 38-year-old California-based journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a talented writer and poet confined to an iron lung contraption due to Polio. He longs for the touch of a woman in the sexual sense and seeks to lose his virginity, with the help of his therapists and the guidance of his local, liberal-minded priest (William H. Macy). After being referred to sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), O’Brien finds new experiences and opportunities for gaining personal fulfilment, while simultaneously touching all those around him in the process.

Instantly, The Sessions brings you into another being’s world and pace of life that settles you for the journey ahead. This is exactly what is needed for us to understand O’Brien’s personality and dry sense of humour. It also demonstrates his likeability, without any other distractions in place – as the supporting cast leave the stage open to his presence, reacting to his thoughts and comments while beautifully complimenting them.

Hawkes who is best known for his recent disturbing roles, like cult leader Patrick in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Teardrop in Winter’s Bone (2010), is quite marvellous as quick-witted and quietly charming O’Brien, moving us swiftly past his character’s disability and turning this story into one man’s search for love that touches and affects deeply but gradually, as we get to know O’Brien. Breaking up the emotional moments are wordy rifts with H. Macy as Father Brendan, who judges O’Brien only through the limitations of his ministerial position, but rising above these to see the bigger picture – hence the fresh and inviting take this film has in the faith sense on the matter of sex outside of wedlock.

However, all power and acting prowess to Hunt as Cheryl who really has the space to explore and evolve her intriguing character as she confronts Cheryl’s own issues while helping O’Brien. Hunt focuses our attention away from the obvious (like her nakedness) and manages to turn the usual screen sexual activity into one very normal, almost mildly ridiculous act that it takes a back seat to more important matters of companionship and feelings. It’s not clinical as such, and never loses the sentimentality. However, it has a positive and healthy attitude surrounded by warm humour about lovemaking and what toleration and give and take should imply. This is The Session’s hidden gem, and is unsurprising that Hunt’s performance has been recognised in the Awards season.

The Sessions is a wonderfully unique cinematic lesson in love and understanding that goes down smoothly with anyone willing to take a chance on the ‘oddball’ at the box office this week, reaffirming our faith in humanity and relationships.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Midnight Son ***

With the plethora of vampire films out there, it’s a brave debut director indeed to tackle one of the most well trodden genres of recent small and big screen offerings. However, Scott Leberecht’s debut feature Midnight Son toys with the genre and portrays it as an affliction or aliment in his low-budget film – and it has a refreshing and intimate take made all the better for its sound directing and casting of exciting, relative newcomer Zak Kilberg as the afflicted.

Kilberg plays Jacob, a young nightshift security guard who lives his life in the shadows after being isolated by a rare skin disorder that means he cannot expose himself to sunlight. Having recently witnessed a dramatic increase in hunger, Jacob cannot understand what is happening to him. Only after a cup full of animal blood from the local slaughterhouse can he quell his strange hunger pangs.

His world is turned upside down when he meets local bartender Mary (Maya Parish) at a club and falls for her. After Mary has a nosebleed, Jacob finds his tastes change, worsening his condition and making him crave human blood instead. Unfortunately, a series of local murders leads the law to suspect him as the prime suspect while he tries to come to terms with his ‘illness’ and his new feelings for Mary.

Granted, the idea of turning bloodsucking into an aliment has been touched upon before on the screen, but Leberecht cuts out any of the sexual references and ‘glamour’ normally associated, concentrating of the debilitating nature as social and health hindrance. There is nothing attractive about living a life in the shadows as Jacob does, and not having any expert advice to hand magnifies this film’s gritty remoteness and ambiguity that it so deftly portrays.

Coupled with very little standard imagery usually associated with this genre – it even challenges such with a crucifix scene, there is a quiet and disturbing ‘brooding’ sense to it, along with an all-consuming desperation for affection as you wonder just where Jacob’s story will go. Its parallels with a drug-addled lifestyle go hand in hand, what with a newly ‘addicted’ Jacob relying on seedy handouts to stop the pain, and his new girlfriend and her own addiction. Kilberg is highly impressive in this, sensitively portraying Jacob as a victim, rather than anything else sinister and foreboding of the night. There is never any sense of threat from his character, even when his inner demon gets the better of him, or confident swagger in his actions. The irony is he is trying to preserve some resemblance of ‘normality’ and ‘humanity’.

Leberecht sadly falls into the sensational commercial trap with a brutal ‘gangster-style’ scene of violence near the end, taking the film out of its quietly affecting premise of affliction and addiction, and into something more mainstream for a split second. However, the nature of where the situation is escalating to does require something more visually shocking for us to revel in the end scene of glorious, blood-splattering elation as a new chapter is born.

Midnight Son is a bold if rough-around-the-edges delivery of semi-cult-making status that throws new and unorthodox light on the genre while highlighting both Leberecht and Kilberg as rising talent to watch.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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