The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

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Lucha Mexico


Blue Demon Jr. surveys his domain.

Blue Demon Jr. surveys his domain.

(2015) Documentary (Self-Released) Shocker, Jon Strongman Andersen, Fabian El Gitano, Blue Demon Jr., Julio Cesar Rivera, Tony Salazar, Kemonito, Arkangel, Ultimo Guerrero, Faby Apache, Sexy Star, Arkangel, Damian 666, Halloween, El Hijo del Pedro Aguayo, Gigante Bernard. Directed by Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz

Professional wrestling here in the United States is essentially an entertainment spectacle. While the participants involved are indeed athletes of the highest caliber, the matches are scripted and the outcomes pre-determined to a storyline that matches up good guys versus bad guys. The same is true in Mexico, where wrestling is known as lucha libre  but South of the Border it is something of a national mania.

For eons, wrestlers – called luchadores in Mexico – mainly plied their trade in two different establishments, the CMLL and the AAA. Many would wear masks that gave them a kind of superhero mystique, as if they were protecting a secret identity. As time went by, the masks became more and more a part of their identity; luchadores wear them often up to 18 hours a day. Some almost never take them off, feeling more comfortable in the mask than without.

And make no mistake, those masks are money makers for both of the wrestling federations; sales of masks for the fans are a very significant portion of the merchandising income for the CMLL, the AAA and the wrestlers themselves. The luchadores are very careful to market their image properly as this is part of what keeps them viable as draws to the organizations they work for.

&This documentary goes behind the masks and the marketing to a certain extent, trying to illustrate and explain the absolute obsession that the Mexican people have for wrestling and the luchadores. For many, it is an escape from the economic upheaval, the political corruption, the drug violence and the desperate poverty that is a part of Mexican daily life. In the world of lucha libre, good triumphs over evil (most of the time) and honor and virtue are lauded above deceit and avarice.

One thing that has caught the sport by surprise is the rise of the Rudos. Rudos are the wrestlers who generally are rule-breakers, although some use the term to describe any who wrestle without masks, or use brute force as their primary wrestling technique. Tecnicos, or technicians, tend to be high-flyers, and generally are the heroic who fight with honor and sportsmanship. Because of the corruption in Mexico, the people have begun to see those who refuse to play by the rules as more heroic than those who do, mainly because every day they see those who play by the rules tend to be the ones who support a corrupt system.

This has given rise to the Perros Del Mal, an organization that is roughly equivalent to the ECW in the United States. Their matches tend towards the extreme and here the Rudos worship is more pronounced. Founded by wrestler El Hijo del Pedro Aguayo, the PDM has taken off in popularity over the past five years and now rivals the established organizations for the imagination of the Mexican lucha fans.

The documentary, which was four years in the making, primarily focuses on Shocker, one of the most popular figures in the CMLL and Strongman, an American import in the same organization. Shocker comments on the loneliness of the luchador life and after suffering a severe knee injury that put him out of action for six months, saw him really having a hard time coming back to the level of competition he had been at previously. Strongman also suffers an elbow injury and is a devoted family man who lives in California, wrestling with a Japanese federation at the same time he labored for the CMLL, racking up the frequent flyer miles.

Injuries are a significant part of the wrestling game. Most wrestlers are injured at any given time, be it cracked ribs, fractured wrists, pulled muscles, and of course enough bruises to wallpaper a house. They gamely wrestle through the pain and perform in all sorts of venues, from the ancient but respected Arena Mexico in Mexico City to brand new sports palaces to tents at local ferias. They travel by bus, by plane and by personal car. They are often absent from families (if they have them) for weeks at a time.

The documentary has a good deal of information regarding the sport as it is performed in Mexico and the interviews are lively. We rarely see talking heads; people in this documentary are always in motion and always doing something, be it working out in the gym, walking down the street, signing autographs or preparing for their wrestling matches. The film is kinetic and colorful which makes it stand out among other documentaries. Even non-wrestling fans will find this entertaining and informative.

What the movie fails to do however is address corruption within the sport itself, of problems with wrestlers who are less well-known going unpaid by unscrupulous promoters who also sometimes abscond with the gate of a live show, or wrestlers being dropped by promotions after getting injured. It’s a vicious industry and we don’t get a sense of that, which may have been in order for the filmmakers to secure access to the stars of the CMLL and the AAA whose Blue Demon Jr. is, like many wrestlers in the sport, sons and grandsons of legendary stars of the sport.

We also get little context as to what about wrestling appeals to the Mexican soul, although that is discussed somewhat. It is a fascinating topic and I think would have served the film better if we had gotten the point of view of wrestling fans rather than just those involved with the industry. A little context and perspective might have made this a better movie.

Still, this is better than most documentaries I’ve seen this year, although the subject matter may be less urgent. This isn’t a movie that is going to change your life or alter your view of the world. It may just give you a further appreciation of the sport/entertainment/spectacle that is professional wrestling. While there are a lot of similarities of Mexican wrestling to the American version (i.e. storylines and character development), there are a lot of differences; there are more interactions between wrestlers and fans and the wrestlers themselves seem to be less egotistical and down-to-earth, even if they do spend an enormous time at the gym. I don’t know if Vince McMahon will be seeing this film, but he should; he might get a few ideas for his own promotion, the WWE. Even the most popular wrestling promotion in the world can learn something new, after all.

REASONS TO GO: Informative and appealing even to non-fans. Avoids talking heads syndrome.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks context. Doesn’t address corruption in the sport.
FAMILY VALUES: Wrestling violence, some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Four of the people who appear in the film have since passed away, including two who died during filming (and whose passing is covered in the film).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beyond the Mat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectre

Life Itself


Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken

Flight


Flight

It rains on the just and the unjust equally.

(2012) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly,  Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Charlie E. Schmidt, Peter Gerety, Boni Yanagisawa, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, Rhoda Griffis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

We take flying for granted. You are far more likely to be killed in a car wreck than you are in the friendly skies. We trust our pilots to be sharp and skilled, highly trained to handle any situation and get us to our destination in one piece.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is such a pilot. He is cool calm and in command on the outside, his aviator shades and uniform inspiring confidence. He is piloting a short flight from Orlando to Atlanta. The weather is frightful; a severe storm making the take-off anything but routine. But that’s not the worst of it; mid-flight, the plane goes inexplicably into a nosedive and nothing the crew can do can pull them out. Whitaker pulls off an incredible maneuver involving lying the plane upside down and manages to set down in a field. There is loss of life (four passengers and two crew die in the incident) but compared to what might have happened the landing was nothing short of miraculous.

Whip wakes up in the hospital barely remembering what happened. He’s being hailed as a hero and the press is in a frenzy, eager to get an interview with him. His good friend Charlie Anderson (Greenwood), a fellow pilot and head of the pilot’s union, flies to Atlanta to navigate him through the NTSB and other procedures that occur after a crash with fatalities.

Then everything falls apart. It turns out that the blood drawn from him routinely after the crash showed that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system. Which, in fact, he did – the night before the crash he had partied all night with a sexy stewardess (Velazquez) who had somewhat conveniently been one of the fatalities. They’d drank like fish, snorted coke and had lots of sex. In fact, Whip had even mixed himself a little cocktail of orange juice and vodka during the fatal flight.

In fact Whip has quite a problem; he could face jail time and lawsuits. A lawyer is hired for him by the union, the whip-smart (couldn’t resist the pun) Hugh Lang (Cheadle) who is charged with getting Whip off the hook because should he be found liable, so would the airline that hired him which would effectively put it out of business and put a good many pilots in the unemployment line, which the union decidedly doesn’t want.

But Whip’s biggest problem is his own demons. He can’t seem to stop drinking, although he tells everyone around him he can quit on his own, no problem. He resents even the thought of being called an alcoholic and yet his binges seem to come at the worst possible times as if he himself is crashing far worse than the jet he had previously piloted.

His estranged wife (Beauvais) and son (Martin) want nothing to do with him, but all isn’t hopeless – he has taken up with the recovering addict Nicole (Reilly) who seems to be serious about her recovery. Maybe this hook-up which was a result of his own kindness might turn out to be his salvation. With an NTSB hearing which will determine his future approaching, Whip is most assuredly his own worst enemy.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a movie about a plane crash although the crash sequence, which lasts twelve minutes at the beginning of the movie, is flat-out amazing and horrifying at once – so much so that if you’re planning to travel by air anytime soon, you may want to hold off on seeing this until after you’ve fulfilled your travel plans.

What this really is about is addiction and as harrowing as the plane crash sequence is, the rest of the movie following Whip’s fall from grace is far more so. It really isn’t very easy to watch as Whip gulps down liquor as if it were Kool-Aid and he continues to deny that there is a problem.

Very few actors could pull this part off properly – we need to be repelled by Whip’s actions even as we are compelled by his compassion. Washington is so likable and charismatic that we root for him throughout even though his character’s self-destructive streak is so profound that deep down we know he’s going to let us down. I imagine it’s much the same living with an alcoholic in real life.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar as one. Reilly, an Irish accent, is pixie-like and has an odd vulnerability that is laced with gravitas. Cheadle, one of my favorite actors, comes through again as a competent professional who is nevertheless out of his depth with Whip and the frustration becomes very apparent soon. Goodman, as a party animal who is Whip’s supplier, is marvelous and Tunie as a stewardess is amazing.

But it is Denzel who steals the show and simply put, this is one of the best performances of his storied career. He has to be considered an early front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar race, and I almost guarantee that he’ll nab a nomination early next year. It would be a major miscarriage of justice if he did not.

There are plenty of movies that show the horrors of alcoholism but few have captured it this well. This might be a good primer for those who suspect someone they care about is an alcoholic, but for those who already know someone they love is this might be a little too close to home. Just fair warning.

REASONS TO GO: Nothing like what you think it’s going to be. Oscar-caliber performance from Denzel.

REASONS TO STAY: Those expecting an action film might be put off by the drama. May be too close to home for those who are alcoholics or have someone in the family who is.

FAMILY VALUES:  The depiction of alcohol and drug abuse is pretty graphic; so too is the crash scene that opens the film. There is also plenty of bad language, a good deal of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the second R-rated film Zemeckis has directed (the first was Used Cars in 1980.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100. The reviews are solidly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Days of Wine and Roses

AIRPLANE LOVERS: A very realistic look inside the cockpit of a jetliner, and you get a real sense of what it’s like to fly a commercial airplane.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mission to Mars