WITH 1,600 hours of piloting under his belt, it is unsurprising that a story about humanity in aviation would coax director Robert Zemeckis back into live-action film-making after a long absence.
Flight sees Zemeckis hit the ground running, as it were, a smart and morally challenging drama that has already garnered two Oscar nods for star Denzel Washington and John Gatins's screenplay.
Washington plays William 'Whip' Whitaker, an airline pilot with a rock star's appetite for drink and drugs. When we first see him, he and hostess Nadine Velazquez are naked in a suite and surrounded by the remnants of a night their mothers would be ashamed of. A line of coke and a shower later, Whip is helming a plane carrying 220 souls. Soon after take-off, he and his co-pilot encounter a storm system, the evasion of which requires some unorthodox manoeuvres. When the plane itself malfunctions and swoops spectacularly nose-first, Whip's lateral thinking can't prevent the crash but he does stop an outright disaster.
All the while down below, skag addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) spirals into hospital where she encounters Whip in a superb staircase scene. The pair form a relationship doomed to failure as he refuses to stop drinking while she seeks recovery. Meanwhile, blood tests have shown up Whip's huge toxicology levels on the day of the accident.
Flight has its lumps, namely John Goodman's farcical drug dealer and a feet-dragging conclusion. But Washington has lots to work with and you forget how superb an actor he is in the hands of filmmakers like Zemeckis.
I Give It a Year
I'm not one for smug generalisations, but it's safe to say that audiences for new British funny-fest, I Give It a Year, will be divided between those who find it a hilarious side-splitting romp and those who don't know their comedy.
This anti-romcom romcom, written and directed by Borat writer Dan Mazer, deserves to be a smash.
Featuring a kickass comedic cast that includes, Anna Faris, Rose Byrne and ex-Extras stalwart Stephen Merchant, the narrative centres on a whirlwind romance that all too soon takes on the dimensions of a whirlpool.
London-based Nat (Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) seem to have it all. Good looks, good jobs and a zealot's belief in their own shared destiny has them married within months and attending the couples' counsellor from hell within the year.
Prompted by her husband's increasingly frequent connections with his inner prat, Nat's eye has started to wander. The situation is complicated by the fact that her husband's ex-girlfriend, Chloe (Faris), is still on the scene. Add grade-A hunk Guy (Simon Baker) into the mix and you've all the ingredients for a love triangle that is morphing into a rectangle. Throw in a quality script and an array of memorable performances and you've an early candidate for comedy of the year.
If you liked Bridesmaids, it's likely you'll be equally buzzed by this.
Many interesting films have been constructed from details of history, pieces from better known stories like My Week with Marilyn, The Young Victoria, The King's Speech. Hyde Park on Hudson seeks to do the same, focusing on June 1939 when President Franklin D Roosevelt (Bill Murray) hosted the first British royal visit. George VI (of The King's Speech) and Queen Elizabeth (the couple played by a good Samuel West and a better Olivia Coleman) came to stay in FDR's eponymous summer /childhood home.
Times were difficult, Britain's war with Hitler was inevitable, but relations with the US were cool. While the royal couple fretted over what might be the deeper meaning of Eleanor Roosevelt's (Olivia Williams) decision to serve them hot dogs, there were plenty of Roosevelt machinations, too.
The film is narrated by and largely from the point of view of Daisy (Laura Linney) a distant cousin of Roosevelt called upon to keep FDR company, becoming "a very good friend". Polite, poor and dull, Daisy's omnipresence in the run-up to the visit is accepted unquestioningly by all around and on the first night of the royal visit she finds out why.
Director Roger Michell has made a selection of well regarded films, including Notting Hill, Persuasion and Titanic Town. This one, based on Richard Nelson's stage play, which is in turn based on real facts, is pleasant, enjoyable, but a bit fluffy. Linney is always worth watching and it's good to see Bill Murray spread his wings, but the FDR character is underwritten and the man who steered the US through the Great Depression and the Second World War comes across mainly as a randy ould fella.
The serene backdrop might be a panorama of bucolic bliss, but there's very little that could be described as pastoral about the plotline that drives absorbing Belgian thriller Bullhead.
Oscar-nominated last year for best foreign language film, there's a Shakespearean quality about the manner in which this movie's central character, played brilliantly by Matthias Schoenaerts, is seen "to take arms against a sea of troubles" in the hope of ending them.
The muscle-bound Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarseneille, a Flemish-based cattle-farmer who becomes embroiled with the Belgian mafia after accepting an introduction from a dodgy vet. The deal involves the sourcing and use of illegal growth hormone, though unknown to Jacky, his mafia contact has just ordered the contract killing of a customs official that is destined to attract police attention.
Faster than you can say guilty by association, the innocent Jacky is prime suspect in the police investigation. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the mafia don's right hand man, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), is both a police informer and childhood friend of Jacky. A flashback reveals that Diederik was at the scene of a harrowing childhood incident that has defined Jacky's life and explains both his propensity for violence and addiction to steroids. Those expecting a happy-ever-after conclusion will be disappointed.
Impressive debut writer/ director Michael R Roskam has declared his vision for Bullhead to be a "grotesque tragedy about fate" and the random manner in which "our lives are sometimes determined by events over which we have no control".
Embellished by a stellar performance from Schoenaerts, it's a vision that can be said to have been comfortably achieved by the time the credits roll. A brooding and charismatic presence, Schoenaerts brings a poignant dimension to his portrayal that conveys a subtle but striking star quality. The new Depardieu?
At the IFI
Japanese film-maker Hirokazu Koreeda is said to have waited until he had just the right pair of lead child actors before completing the screenplay for I Wish. Following some 1,000 auditions, that duo turned out to be real-life siblings Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who charm birds down from the trees as brothers living apart following their parents' divorce.
Koreeda's fussiness appears to have paid a dividend in a sweet-natured film more concerned with texture and temperature than plot high jinks. Young scamps Koichi and Ryu live in separate cities in Kyushu in southwest Japan, the former with their lonely mother (Nene Otsuka) and grandparents, the latter with their dozy guitarist father (Joe Odagiri). As Ryu bounces through giddy days surrounded by friends and music, Koichi's existence is more sedate.
Conversing continually by phone, the two hatch a plan to reconvene at the meeting point of a new bullet train line that links their respective hometowns. The section of track where the trains pass each other signifies a wishing well for the brothers and their lively gang of friends. Meanwhile, overhead, pathetic fallacy duties are covered by the ever-present ash plume of Mount Aso, Japan's most active volcano.
Surreptitiously, Koreeda fills in the colours by observing those in the boys' periphery, such as their cake-obsessed grandfather and the aspirations of various classmates. Over time, the audience starts to be a bit more involved and a summery exuberance builds in the lead-up to a subtly joyous conclusion.
At the IFI
Director Jonathan Levine has a penchant for stories about sensitive young men with dilemmas (The Wackness and 50-50) and that continues with his zombie take on Romeo and Juliet.
R (Nicholas Hoult) can't remember the rest of his name nor much else since an unspecified epidemic hit the world. Like many corpses, he roams the desolate land feeling only occasional hunger for human flesh.
On a feeding trip, he comes across Julie (Teresa Palmer), daughter of chief anti-zombie agent General Grigio (John Malkovich). Transfixed, R saves Julie and brings her back to the plane where he has set up home. Brains are a zombie favourite because they allow the corpse to feel the victim's memories; as he feasts on leftovers from the brain of Julie's boyfriend (David Franco), R falls ever more in love with her. Although being near her awakens some of his human traits, there are clearly problems with this romance.
Warm Bodies is at its best in this first part, when it is a true mish-mash of genres; after a while it becomes more standard, but remains enjoyable and unpredictable. Hoult carries the film with confidence; he also narrates, and he and Palmer are good together and have great support from Analeigh Tipton as Julie's friend Nora (who would like to be a Nurse) and Rob Corddry as M (-ercutio presumably).
Shot in bluey grey in the Olympic leftovers of Montreal it feels sad rather than dangerous. Even the Boneys, the fully savage zombies who eat everything, aren't that menacing. It's surprisingly sweet and the message, although not exactly subtle, is apposite.
Opens on Friday