Friday, September 26, 2014

Guest Review: The Parallax View (1974)

by ScottDS

In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and several assassinations, Hollywood films began to reflect a more cynical and paranoid culture, where the enemy was often not out there but perhaps right next door. Thus was born the conspiracy thriller. People often mention Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man, along with lesser-known films like Executive Action and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. But for me, the most unsettling film of the bunch is The Parallax View.

Presidential candidate Charles Carroll is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle. An armed man is chased and falls to his death, but another armed man gets away. A Congressional committee determines that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later… one of the witnesses, TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), visits her ex-boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She explains that a number of witnesses to the assassination have died under mysterious circumstances – she fears she’s next. A short time later, she’s found dead and the police label it a drug overdose. Frady decides to investigate and finds himself in the small town of Salmontail where the sheriff tries to kill him near a dam as its floodgates open. Frady gets away and discovers documents in the sheriff’s house relating to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Their stock in trade: recruiting assassins. Frady also talks to Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker but the boat they’re on explodes. Frady, presumed dead, applies to Parallax under an alias.
Frady is accepted for training at Parallax in Los Angeles. Apparently, he’s just what they’re looking for: a social malcontent with a chip on his shoulder. He’s shown a montage juxtaposing imagery (Americana, dictators, presidents, children, etc.) with words like “love,” “country,” and “enemy.” In the lobby of the building, Frady spots the gunman from the Space Needle and tails him to the airport. The man checks a suitcase but doesn’t board the plane. Frady manages to get aboard and slips a note to the flight attendant hinting at a bomb on board. The plane returns to the airport… as Frady and the other passengers walk away, all we hear is an off-screen boom. Frady’s investigation finally takes him to a political rally for candidate George Hammond. From the rafters, he spots several Parallax men disguised as security personnel. Shots ring out, Hammond is killed, and Frady is spotted. He makes a run for it but is killed by an unknown silhouetted figure. A Congressional committee pins Hammond’s murder on Frady.
There is a palpable sense of dread that surrounds this movie. It’s based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, who was inspired by the allegations of suspicious deaths of witnesses connected to the Kennedy assassination. The film was produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula who had previously directed Klute and would later direct the aforementioned All the President’s Men. (He also produced To Kill a Mockingbird.) I admit this film has lost a little bit of its impact in subsequent viewings, but the first time I watched it, I thought it was very effective. (It pretty much still is.) It does require some suspension of disbelief and if you’re looking for answers, you won’t find any. Only the political assassinations occur on-screen; we never see the other deaths. We also never get an official explanation about the Parallax Corporation and its activities. What are their goals? How do they get paid? Were they on to Frady the whole time? Who the hell knows? It’s all very… minimalist.
In Directing 101, they tell you that every element – art direction, cinematography, music, etc. – is there to serve the story, and this is one movie they can use as an example. The film was shot by Gordon Willis, who was known as “the Prince of Darkness.” (He also shot President’s Men and The Godfather trilogy.) This film has a naturalistic, moody style, with Beatty frequently dwarfed by his surroundings. There are shots toward the end of the film… mundane things like escalators and tile ceilings, but they way they’re framed (in full anamorphic widescreen), they take on a slightly more sinister appearance. Michael Small’s sparse score contributes to the uneasy feeling. There’s a theme, which works as a twisted anthem. The assassinations aren’t scored at all, nor is the sequence on the plane. And then there’s the Parallax test, which is given a folk melody with a male hum. The test took four months for the filmmakers to research and edit and it’s simple yet a little unnerving. (In the novel, the lead character simply reads words while his reactions are monitored with a special eyepiece.) And the first time I watched this, I nearly jumped out of my seat during the dam scene when the floodgate alarm goes off.
The acting is top-notch all around. This was Beatty’s first film after dabbling in politics (he worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign). I’m no Beatty expert – aside from Dick Tracy – but he’s very good, appropriately low-key and schlumpy. The doe-eyed Prentiss is only in the movie for ten minutes but her tragic performance certainly makes an impact. Frady’s ill-fated editor is played by screen veteran Hume Cronyn, Frady’s Parallax rep is played by stage actor Walter McGinn, and Anthony Zerbe and Kenneth Mars both make brief appearances. William Daniels plays Austin Tucker and he’s nothing but paranoid. A brief note: like many 80s/90s kids, I grew up watching Daniels as Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. In addition to his voice work on Knight Rider, he was a prolific character actor. I particularly enjoy his appearances in two other Paramount films from the period: The President’s Analyst, in which he plays a liberal suburbanite, and Black Sunday, in which he plays a VA bureaucrat.

There might be a 70s vibe to the movie at times – the plane/bomb scene might be the most dated for obvious reasons – but it still holds up, though it’s not mentioned nearly as much as similar films from the period. I have no idea why. It’s very low-key, the character relationships are all very understated, and there’s no partisanship. (Frady doesn’t place blame on our government or any particular politician, and the Parallax Corporation goes after people of all stripes.) Pakula’s stated intention wasn’t to trash America but to simply ask what happened to it.

“We're in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.”

(Special thanks to Film Score Monthly’s online liner notes by Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan for the behind the scenes trivia.)
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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TV Review: Once Upon A Time (2011 - ???)

Once Upon A Time is a television series beginning its fourth season on ABC. The first three seasons are currently available for binge-watching on Netflix. I’m actually not 100% sure I should recommend Once to you. Let’s put it this way, while I do enjoy the series a great deal, it has all the weaknesses that are typical of broadcast network productions and those rob the show of its punch. In effect, they prevent the show from feeling real enough to grab you or fantastic enough to be a wild ride.

The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
That has serious potential.

The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
The episodes themselves involve Henry’s attempts to get his real mother to help him break the curse and free the people of Storybrooke so they can return to the enchanted forest. Each episode typically involves two stories being told simultaneously. The first is the advancement of the story in Storybrooke. The second involves the telling of some character’s backstory. If this sounds like Lost, that’s because Once was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.
The backstories are interesting for several reasons. First, they tell you who the characters in Storybrooke really are. Secondly, they tend to take the stories we all know and twist them around. For example, we learn that Red Riding Hood is really a werewolf. We learn how Hook lost his hand. We get the story of who Prince Charming really is and how he came to marry Snow White, and we learn the sad fate of Stealthy the Dwarf... the eighth dwarf. Moreover, these stories are all intertwined and that intertwined thread is largely told backwards as we discover how Rumpelstiltskin manipulated each of their histories for his particular purpose. This makes for some nice twists.

All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
Unfortunately, the show does have some problems. Some of the actors simply aren’t strong enough to carry the roles they are given. For example, the actor playing Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is a lightweight who doesn’t come across as a capable leader. Emma, the lead, isn’t all that interesting either. She’s largely a placeholder to let the other characters do their thing. Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), another lightweight, is hard to believe too the way they present her.
Even worse, the show suffers from being produced for broadcast network television. Because it is being made for ABC, the production values are low. The CGI looks horrible on a big screen. Most of the sets feel like television sets rather than real places. Little in the show feels like it actually exists. Further, the show still panders to the broadcast view that each show must be broken up into acts, which are then separated by television commercial breaks. Thus, the demands of the story often feel like they are subsumed to the medium and each commercial break ends on a phony cliffhanger.

If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
Once has none of that. To the contrary, Once plays by network rules which tell you that main characters cannot die, evil must be cartoonish and incompetent, moral questions need to be obvious with easy solutions, and life’s underside has no place on screen. At times, I really wonder what HBO would have done with this amazing idea.

So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Is Disney’s Princess and the Frog Racist?

In its whole history, Disney has never had a black princess, at least until 2009 when it released The Princess and the Frog. But The Princess and the Frog is not a cause for celebration, claims the aggrieved-left, because the film is racist! Only, it’s not.

The Princess and the Frog is the story of Tiana, a black woman from New Orleans circa 1930s. She is a talented cook with dreams of opening her own restaurant, a dream she got from her father who has since passed. The story opens with Tiana working hard in a restaurant to save up enough money to buy an abandoned building to start her restaurant. She has finally saved enough! Hurray! Only, she's told that another buyer has appeared and she has only twenty-four hours to raise her offer, something she cannot do. Boo!
Tiana's friend is a spoiled, rich white girl named Charlotte, who wants to marry a prince, and it just so happens that a prince has come to town. This is Prince Naveen, who has been cut off by his family because he’s worthless and lazy. He and Charlotte are a perfect match -- he has the title, she has the money. However, the next time Tiana meets Naveen, he has been turned into a frog by a Voodoo witch doctor, who is plotting with Naveen’s servant to replace the prince, marry Charlotte and steal her fortune. Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him to change him back into human form so he can prevent this. In exchange, he promises to buy her the restaurant. She agrees, but when she kisses him, she turns into a frog herself.
At this point, Naveen and Tiana must venture into the swamp to find Voodoo priestess Mama Odie so they can become human again. Accompanying them are Ray, a Cajun firefly, and Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator who wants to play jazz with the humans. Trying to stop them are the witch doctor and his army of shadow creatures.

All in all, this was an excellent Disney film, easily the best after a miserable decade for Disney. The story is fast paced and relatable despite being both ethnic and deeply Louisiana. The art work is beautiful. Bits of the film are clever. And the songs are well done in a Broadway sort of way, which is greatly appreciated after Disney’s two decade use of ultra-bland, entirely forgettable corporate pop, like the song Elton John and Phil Collins kept passing off as different songs throughout the 1990s.
So what could possibly be racist about this? Well, that’s a good question. Several attacks were made on this front. Some argued that it was racist that Disney's first and only black princess wasn’t born a princess and had, instead, to marry into it. Others argued that the film used black stereotypes. Neither argument is valid.
That Tiana isn’t a princess is a key plot point which makes the story work. It isn’t meant as a sleight or to devalue her character either. To the contrary, her character is easily the most noble in the story. Nor is there any suggestion of a racial component to her lack of princess status. In other words, there isn’t a single suggestion, spoken or implied, that her race is the reason she isn’t a princess to begin with. And it’s not like all Disney females are princesses (see e.g., Penny, Jenny, Alice, Eilonwy, Meg, Jane). Essentially, the only way to see the decision to start her as a commoner as being a decision based on race is to assume that based on her race alone.

The stereotype argument is even worse. For one thing, there are no negative black stereotypes presented. Each of the black characters is presented as smart, capable, and (except for the villain) strongly pro-family and pro-community. Nobody is living on welfare, selling drugs or having kids out of wedlock. Nor are there any presentations that fit the “Uncle Tom” mold. The closest would be Tiana’s mother, but she’s not a servant; she’s an ultra-talented seamstress and business owner.
Indeed, the more you look, the harder it becomes to find any black stereotypes. What you see instead are Louisiana stereotypes aplenty. You have toothless Cajuns, everyone being a jazz player, voodoo princesses and witch doctors, corrupt-but-lovable parish politicians, gumbo-lovers, etc. Similarly, you have all the trappings of New Orleans: the bayou, gumbo, riverboats, the light rail, gators, etc. Everything in this film is regional rather than racial.

I think where the “racist” argument springs from is the idea that it’s somehow racist to show blacks in roles they occupied historically if they are shown to be happy and not the victims of white oppression. Hence, the fact that Tiana doesn’t struggle against white oppression offends the aggrieved left as a whitewash. That is ridiculous, however. In fact, if you think about it, this argument would relegate every black story to being about white racism, and blacks could never tell their own stories without the focus being on whites. Now THAT would be racist!

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games proved quite a sensation. Millions of kids the world over fell in love with the story and its heroine Katniss. It was only natural they would make a movie, and make they did. They eventually made four movies and this was the first. Interestingly, a lot of conservatives love this series, but I don’t see anything conservative going on in this particular film.


The Hunger Games takes place 74 years after some sort of nuclear civil war in the United States resulted in the separation of the country into a twelve districts (a thirteenth is mentioned, but is also mentioned as having been destroyed) under the dictatorial control of a central power. The country is called Panem, but few details about it are given. The film doesn’t even tell you where this central power resides, though you are told it is called “the Capitol” and it has the look of a fantasy version of Washington state.
The story focuses on a young girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). She lives in what was once West Virginia, where they mine coal which gets supplied to the Capitol. As the story opens, a group of “Reapers” shows up in Katniss’s district – District 12. They have come to run a lottery from which one boy and one girl will be chosen. Those kids will be taken to the Capitol, where they will fight to the death in a game of survival called “The Hunger Games.” This game was created as a punishment for the other districts for rising up against the Capitol and has continued on as a sort of bread and circus tool for controlling the population.
During the lottery, Katniss’ little sister is chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. For the boys, a useless son of a baker is chosen, who just happens to have a long term crush on Katniss. They are taken to the Capitol by high speed train (thanks Obama!), where they meet the other kids, several of whom have been illegally trained their whole lives for this event... providing the richer districts with an advantage. Katniss’s district has never won.

The children are then trained and paraded before television audiences. They are told to be likable so that sponsors will send them critical gifts during the game. They are also taught martial arts. It turns out, by the way, that Katniss has superior skills to the other kids.

Finally, they are dumped into a forested area and told to kill each other off.

A Good Movie, But Hardly Conservative

I’ve heard a lot of conservatives, particularly libertarians, who identify with these books and swear they have libertarian overtones. That may be true of the books, but this film really doesn’t have political overtones. Apart from some vague populist finger pointing at a fantasy centralized power dominating the country in some future dystopia, there is virtually nothing political in this film, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a coherent political statement. Indeed, none of the characters fights for freedom. None of the characters even talks up freedom. The theme of abuse of power is barely explored, except as a plot device to heighten the challenge Katniss faces, and the theory of how concentrated power leads to abuse is entirely absent from the film. In fact, objectively speaking, we don’t even know that this government is particularly abusive except for the Hunger Games itself and the disparity of wealth between the various districts.
Moreover those things which are political tend to be generic liberal tropes, like all the bad kids being rich and Caucasian, whereas the good kids are minorities. This is combined with another liberal trope, the Magic Negro trope, where the sole reason black characters exist is to aid the white protagonist in finding their humanity... you have three of those here (two kids who sacrifice themselves to save Katniss in the game and Lenny Kravitz who exists to tell us how special she is).

So, as far as the film goes, there is nothing particular conservative going on.
In terms of the film itself, the film is shot with a high degree of quality. The camera work is excellent, the effects are solid and the acting is good. The film is well paced. The story itself is solid, if simplistic – essentially, this is a film about people hunting each other in the woods and the rest is just characterization. The characters feel unique (the unique costumes help a good deal with this) and they feel whole, as if they have strong backstories, even though you don’t delve into those. The action is good, though there is nothing truly spectacular. There are a couple holes, but nothing that will stick out to you as you watch the film.
The film does have a couple flaws, but they are minor. For example, parts of the film could use more explanation. One such part involves the sponsors. The film spends considerable time telling you the importance of winning over sponsors so they can send the contestants vital gifts during the game, and Katniss does ultimately receive two life-saving gifts. Unfortunately, the film never explains the mechanics of this, such as how many sponsor there are or the limits of what they can send. The end result is that something the film builds up considerably feels underused and you wonder why the contestants aren’t awash in more and better gifts.

Another issue that is both a positive and a negative involves this being the first film in the series. On the one hand, this film feels complete and it doesn’t seem to spend any time setting up the sequels. I appreciate that as too many films like this feel hollow and incomplete as they spend all their time setting up sequels with introductions that won’t pay off during the film. On the other hand, this story by itself doesn’t offer all that much to make you want to revisit the film. Indeed, I suspect the re-watchability of this film will depend entirely on the re-watchability of the sequels.

Ultimately, this film doesn’t feel particularly consequential, nor is it particularly deep, nor does it leave you much to think about after you leave the theater, but it is a good film that is worth seeing. I don’t really see the political appeal for conservatives except for a general lack of liberalism, but I suspect there is more in the books that didn’t translate to the film.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Summer of Films: Escape Plan (2013)

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are back together again! It’s too bad their film stinks. Indifferent writing. Indifferent acting. Uninteresting settings. Weak action. Yawn. This was disappointing.


Ray Breslin (Stallone) has a talent for escaping from prisons. He’s so talented that the Department of Justice hires him to break out of supermax prisons so he can show them their weaknesses and they can correct them. Indeed, the film opens with him doing just that, though his escape stretches credulity.

Soon enough, Breslin finds himself visited by the CIA. Because they can’t “rendition” the worst of the worst anymore, they need a new system to hold the people who should never be allowed to see the light of day. To that end, they’ve contracted with a private sector company to build a prison where they can make these people disappear. Naturally, they want Breslin to attempt to break out of the prison to test their new system.
Stallone agrees even though they won't agree to any of his normal safety protocols. Of course, the minute he finds himself in the prison he learns that he has been betrayed and that someone wants him "disappeared." He also discovers that the warden is cruel and the guards are sadists who maintain control by beating prisoners. What's more, they built this prison using all of his ideas from his book on how to build an inescapable prison. Now he must break out or spend the rest of his life stuck in this prison. Helping him in this regard is another prisoner: renown assistant cyber-terrorist Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Can Stallone escape and regain his freedom? Take a guess.

Why This Film Stunk

In 1989, Stallone did a film similar to this. It was called Lock Up. In that film, he was a minor convict and model prisoner whose time was up, but the warden wanted to punish him after he went to the press about the warden’s treatment of prisoners. This caused the warden to try to set up Stallone to spend the rest of his life in prison, which leads to a sort of prison escape film/revenge film. Lock Up had solid motivations, strong emotions and high stakes. It may not have been the best film ever, but it got your attention.
The problem with Escape Plan is that it never really captures your interest. For one thing, this film is entirely predictable. You know Stallone is being set up the moment he agrees to take the assignment. You know Stallone will eventually escape. It’s just not possible that these things won’t happen. Moreover, throughout, you know when Stallone will be punished. You know when he will learn whatever he needs to learn to escape. You know who his friends will be, who will betray him, who he will kill and how it will all end. There are two twists, but they are so incidental to the plot that they have no impact. It’s hard to feel any tension when you know how each scene will end all throughout the movie.

The characters aren’t very interesting either. Arnold plays Arnold the action hero. He technically has a character, but it’s purely incidental to the movie and it’s nothing you care about, and you know he's never in any danger. Ditto on Stallone. James Caviezel plays the warden. Normally, I’m a fan of his, but here he plays the character so indifferently that he almost seems like a robot at times. There are other characters, but you won’t remember any of them.
The writing is really poor too. There isn’t a clever or memorable line. There isn’t a moment of insight. For a man who supposedly is a master of escaping from prisons, there’s no moment where he tells you something you don’t already know about prison, about the human state of mind as a guard or a prisoner, or even about how he perceives the world. Basically, every line of dialog is transactional: “I need to get into that room.”

The action isn’t very interesting either. For the most part, the action is entirely asymmetrical. Thus, the guards easily beat up the good guys when they want to. When the good guys escape, they easily crush the guards. Then in the final shootout, the good guys mow down dozens of guards without any real risk to themselves. There is never a fight where you don't know the outcome the moment it begins, and at no point is there any fight which feels like a payoff.
So what you have here are characters you don’t care about, a story that means nothing to you, a story you can predict moment by moment, fights with no tension, and an utter lack of cleverness and nothing memorable to take from the film. The end result is a film that is entirely devoid of tension and interest.

Frankly, Stallone can and should do a lot better. Stallone is a capable actor with a good deal of charisma who should be picking much more interesting projects at this point in his career.

Finally, as an aside, this film also has whiffs of politics that aren’t appreciated. It seems to be assumed that the CIA is evil. The CIA tortures prisoners. The prison guards are sadists. The worst of the worst are all Caucasians, with the one Islamist turning out to be a noble heroic character. The “good guy” (Arnold) has invented a plan to destroy the world’s banks. None of this was shoved in your face, but in a film with little else to hold your interest, these little leftist tropes became rather annoying.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Summer of Films: Flight (2012)

Normally, I’m a fan of Denzel Washington. He has a compelling screen presence and his films tend to maintain a certain level of quality which I appreciate. Flight sounded like more of the same. It’s not. I really, really hated this film. Let’s discuss the disaster that was Flight.


Flight is the story of airline Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). The film opens with Denzel awaking in a hotel room with a Brazilian supermodel. They’ve been fooling around. He’s drunk and probably high, but his phone is ringing. He is being called to fly a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. He doesn’t look good... but one line of coke later and the soundtrack kicks out “It’s Gonna Be All Right” from Gerry and the Pacemakers and Denzel is good to go.
He boards the plane and addresses the passengers from the galley. As he does, he empties three vodkas into an orange juice bottle he’s drinking. He returns to the cockpit and takes off into a storm. As they take off, he needs to gun the engines beyond safety protocols to push his way through the storm to a clear patch. After that, he falls asleep and lets his co-pilot take over.

Denzel wakes up a few minutes later as the plane starts a nosedive. The hydraulics have failed and the plane is headed straight down. To save the plane, Denzel inverts it and flies upside down, which lets him straighten the plane just long enough to glide it in for a survivable crash. Only six people die.

Denzel wakes up in the hospital. Despite saving 105 people with a maneuver that we are told no other pilot could have done, Denzel learns that he’s suddenly the villain because the NTSB has taken a blood sample and found that he was super drunk and high on cocaine. They want to send him to jail. This will all happen at a final NTSB hearing. Fortunately, Denzel’s lawyer gets his toxicology report suppressed, so all Denzel has to do at the hearing is deny that he was drunk. But when the NTSB decides to accuse one of the dead stewardesses of having drunk the vodka, Denzel grows a conscience and announces that he drank them and that he is an alcoholic, even though this means decades in prison for him.

Why This Film Stunk

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this film won some awards and made $161 million on a $31 million budget, but I still despise it. Why? Well, for starters, the plot I described above sound pretty good, doesn’t it? Sure it does, only I left something out. The plot I described above takes up about 15 minutes of film time... but the film is 138 minutes long. So what happens in the other 123 minutes? Filler.
In several painfully long and slow scenes, we see Denzel throw away all of the hundreds of alcohol bottles he’s hidden around his house as well as the pot and the pills. He stares meaningfully at each and we stare with him. But you know how it is with alcoholics, so naturally we are treated to him buying more and we tearfully watch as he struggles not to drink any of it. Then he drinks it. Even worse, for reasons completely unknown, Denzel meets a woman who is a drug addict whose life is utterly boring and falling apart and the director thinks it’s a great idea to bring them together to be boring together... and we get to watch all of it. Yawn. I honestly contemplated skipping through those scenes after a while.

But that’s not even the worst sin in the movie. The bigger sin is the feeling that the whole thing is nonsense. It’s clear that whoever wrote this has no idea how the NTSB really works. They had no idea what brought down the plane or how to describe it to the audience. They had no idea what the NTSB does when it investigates. They didn’t seem to realize that the NTSB would be much more interested in finding out why the hydraulics failed than they would be in proving that Denzel had been drunk and high when he saved the plane. The sad result is that what could have been an interesting mystery about a plane crash with a good deal of tension as the question of his sobriety waits to be discovered at any moment turns into a nonsensical witch hunt in which the NTSB doesn’t care at all about what caused the plane to crash.

Nothing else makes sense either. The press seems to view him as a villain even though they apparently don’t know about his being intoxicated – as far as they should be concerned, he worked a miracle. Denzel has a friend (John Goodman) who can show up seemingly instantly and at will to give him drugs. After drying him out for a week, Denzel’s lawyer and best friend put Denzel into a hotel suite the night before the hearing. They have carefully removed all the alcohol from the minibar. Yet, magically, in the middle of the night the adjoining door to the next suite just happens to open, letting him into the empty neighboring room where he discovers the minibar and he goes hog wild; he goes to the hearing drunk and high on cocaine. Queue Gerry and the Pacemakers again.
The film creates fake tension by having Denzel fight with his lawyer (Don Cheadle) for no reason that makes any sense. Cheadle, by the way, is presented as a good guy even though he violates the rules of ethics in major ways that should easily lead to his debarment, including knowingly putting Denzel on the stand to lie. We are introduced to the evil airline owner who hides the fact from Denzel that he might go to jail... something everyone including Denzel already knows. Denzel pressures a stewardess to lie for him when the reality is she couldn’t have testified to what he wants her to avoid saying anyway. Not to mention, there's no payoff as we never see her testify.

Then we have the ending. The NTSB has been after Denzel, or so we are told as we never actually hear anything except through Denzel’s friends... show don’t tell, folks. But Denzel’s lawyer has gotten the toxicology report suppressed. So there is no alcohol issue anymore the NTSB can use to get Denzel. So they should now focus on the plane crash, right? Nope. The NTSB now seems determined to accuse a dead stewardess of being an alcoholic and having drunk the vodka Denzel did. Why? What does the NTSB care if a stewardess was drunk (a stewardess who was a heroine because she saved a boy who had slipped out of his seat when the plan inverted)? This is nonsense. The real NTSB will want to know why the plane crashed, not if a stewardess was drunk. Moreover, they will know that Denzel was drunk, even if they can't put it into the report. So why smear a stewardess? Further, as Denzel has been established as being both ultra-selfish and desperate to avoid prison, why would he care if they accused her of drinking the three vodkas? There is no way that draws a confession from him.
This movie made my head spin in bad ways. It was obvious the writer didn’t grasp the subject matter of airplane crashes or how the NTSB works. It was obvious the writer didn’t understand his characters. This feels like an attempt to grab an Oscar for playing drunk and the airplane crash was incidental to that. The film is packed with deus ex machina too... too much coincidence. Too much happens off screen - almost everything actually. The director mistook boredom for gravitas. And finally, the film was packed with clich├ęs.

Take for example, the use of “It’s Gonna Be All Right” whenever Denzel cokes up and suddenly fills with energy and confidence. This has the feel of having been done a million times. The scene with the evil boss, the portrayal of alcoholism, John Goodman’s entire character... these are all things you’ve seen a million times before and none of them feel fresh.


I like Denzel. I like Zemeckis too. But this was a disaster. It was boring. It was stupid. The only good bit was the airline crash itself, which was impressive CGI work, and they even had to ruin that with an impossibly clear “cell phone” video of the crash.

[+]