Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: End of Year Mayhem: Flight, Hitchcock, This is 40

Monday, December 3, 2012

End of Year Mayhem: Flight, Hitchcock, This is 40

by Tony Dayoub

Here are more capsule reviews for a mixed bag of films (including one yet to be released that I have high hopes for).

First comes Flight, gimmicky director Robert Zemeckis's first live-action film in 12 years. His last movie was Cast Away in which the central contrivance involved a work stoppage midway through its production to allow star Tom Hanks time to dramatically lose weight, the better to look like a stranded islander suffering from malnutrition. This distraction overshadowed the plane crash setpiece which brilliantly set the table for the rest of that film. Not so in Flight, in which Zemeckis again directs the heck out of an even more pertinent forced landing. Though the main focus is and should be the erosion of airline pilot Whip Whitaker's resolve to deny his perpetual drunkenness played any part, one gets the impression that the effects-inclined Zemeckis would rather be directing more technically oriented scenes like the crash. Subsequent scenes utilize the shortcut of using overplayed pop songs to telegraph the protagonist's state of mind. (Is Whitaker (Denzel Washington) drunk? Not according to Joe Cocker's "Feeling Alright.") Washington's performance as an angry drunk is fine but different only in that his Whitaker actually performs better when under the influence than when not, a controversial perspective on alcoholism, obviously. In Flight's best sequence Whitaker, despite being kept under guard, manages to go on his biggest bender yet the night before a hearing that should acquit him of all criminal negligence. His pragmatic handlers (Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood) then call in Whitaker's drug dealer (John Goodman) to give him sufficient stimulants to get him through the hearing. Alas, instead of testing the audience's sympathy for the decidedly unsympathetic Whitaker, Flight ultimately chickens out, staging a last minute reversal in which the pilot's so far unseen remorse finally emerges from hiding.

Alfred Hitchcock was a director often accused of sacrificing emotional content in favor of camera technique as well, a distinction he was proud of despite the mischaracterization. Maybe that would have made a better thesis to explore in a film titled Hitchcock. Instead, the movie Hitchcock is a caricature of the man depicted most memorably on television—Anthony Hopkins in a fat-suit not unlike the kind one would see in an SNL spoof. Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) ignores virtually all of the Master's contributions to his own films in order to give the lion's share of the credit to his unsung collaborator, wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). It might have been interesting to see the Hitchcock's story—a look behind the making of Psycho—shot in a Hitchcockian style not unlike Psycho's or that of any of his other movies. Sure, it's a style that has long pervaded the thriller genre, but it has never been applied to the story of the director himself. But Gervasi chooses to frame his film through the smaller perspective of Hitchcock's cut-rate TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents..., fashioning a potboiler complete with bookends in which Hopkins-as-Hitch breaks the fourth wall to talk to the movie's audience directly. Which begs the question, why even bother aping the Master if you're only going to go as far as mimicking his cut-rate TV show?

Like Hitchcock, Judd Apatow is the rare director whose films have formed a genre unto themselves... for better or worse. I'm very happy to say that his latest, This is 40, falls into the category of the better. A pseudo-sequel/spin-off of Apatow's Knocked Up, This is 40 showcases Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), supporting characters of the previous film. Sure, there's a lot of legitimate criticism This is 40 is begging to have slinged at it, particularly of the Rich White People's Problems or nepotism (Mann and her screen daughters are actually the director's real-life wife and kids) variety. But hey, I'm 40, I'm a minority, and I'm in nowhere near as healthy a financial situation as the family in this movie is. Yet I can't think of the last time a movie has spoken so directly to me (and my wife, by the way) as this one has. From the constant negotiating games the couple plays with each other, their kids, and their immature parents to the often humiliating lowering of personal barriers husband and wife continue to engage in years into a marriage—one scene has Mann walking in on Rudd, bottomless, contorted in a strange position with a mirror and an iPhone trying to take pictures of his anus so he can figure out if he's got hemmorhoids—This is 40 is a comic exposé so personal I can only assume it begins with its writer-director's own marriage. This is 40 demonstrates how self-aware both Apatow and Mann (who despite my initial misgivings is wonderful) are about their failings both individually and together, and it succeeds at giving American comedic cinema another kind of neurotic couple to spotlight than the ones usually found in your average romantic comedy. So that's something.

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