Soused Denzel Saves ‘Flight’; Pinochet; ‘Savoy’: Movies

Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in "Flight." The film is written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Source: Paramount Pictures via Bloomberg

At the beginning of “Flight,” Whip Whitaker, an arrogant and alcoholic but superbly competent airline pilot, successfully crash-lands a disabled jetliner.

Denzel Washington, who plays him, has a more delicate feat to perform. To make the role work, he has to keep us on Whip’s side while showing us his appalling behavior.

Director Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight,” which had its world premiere on Sunday evening, made a satisfying finale to what’s been a terrific 50th year for the New York Film Festival.

As Whip coolly struggles to bring his plummeting jet under control (performing a surprise move that I’ve never seen in a movie nor, thank God, experienced on a plane), a viewer inevitably thinks of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and US Airways Flight 1549.

The writer, John Gatins, has explained that he’d already spent several years working on his script when Sullenberger made his famous landing in the Hudson River in 2009.

Whip knows what an expert pilot he is. He also knows, from experience, that he can fly on a cushion of vodka and cocaine. So where’s the problem? It doesn’t take long to understand that the title refers to Whip’s flight from himself.

Lying Lessons

Don Cheadle, as a lawyer brought in after the crash, knows Whip will probably go to prison if it comes out that he was drunk when he entered the cabin. The lawyer’s job is coaching him to lie. Cheadle plays him with modest restraint, frustrated by a disdainful client who seems bent on undermining himself.

Kelly Reilly has a showier part as a junkie Whip meets in the hospital after the crash. Tamara Tunie is elegant as a stewardess who keeps her head during the emergency. And John Goodman is hilarious, as usual, as a swaggering coke dealer. (His theme song is “Sympathy for the Devil.”)

Zemeckis draws uniformly beautiful performances from his cast. The picture seems shorter than its 138 minutes and it’s cleverly constructed, with the thrills at the front end.

The tense opening half-hour rattles you so completely, in fact, that the rest of the movie seems more complex than it is. The film only gives the impression of being unpredictable. A big studio-made production like “Flight” has just one place to go.

Only in retrospect can you see how standard the plot is. Right up to the end, Zemeckis pumps suspense into the question of whether his hero is going to give in to the bottle. And as Whip Whitaker might argue, when a movie is so smart about the way it suckers you, where’s the problem?

“Flight,” from Paramount Pictures, is scheduled to open Nov. 2. Rating: ****

Pinochet Referendum

In 1988, after 15 years of dictatorship, Chile held a referendum on the continuation of the Pinochet regime.

“No” observes the anti-Pinochet campaign with an ambivalent eye. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an advertising executive (a composite character) who had the insight that you could sell the future of the country the way you would a soft drink.

Because the director, Pablo Larrain, wanted to make the archival footage that constitutes some 30 percent of the film indistinguishable from the material he shot, he used superannuated cameras that gave him low-resolution images as “horrible” (his word) as what you see in blurry old newscasts.

This literal lack of focus carries over to the script: Its thoughtfulness too often comes across as diffuseness. The movie could have benefited from some of the slick salesmanship that it doesn’t quite know how deeply to deplore.

“No,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is scheduled to open in February. Rating: ***

‘Savoy King’

It was probably because the renowned swing drummer and bandleader Chick Webb (1909-1939) was a four-foot-one hunchback that movie cameras were so seldom pointed in his direction.

“The Savoy King,” Jeff Kaufman’s documentary about him, compensates with still photos, period footage, talking heads and computer-animated re-creations of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where Webb’s band ruled the dance floor.

At first these visuals seem awfully busy. And then Frankie Manning dances the Lindy Hop and Ella Fitzgerald sings at the Savoy, and suddenly the images, the memories and the music coalesce into a terrifically informative and affectionate movie.

Webb was beloved, influential and far too young to be on his deathbed when, in June 1939, he sat up on his pillows and announced, “I’m sorry -- I gotta go.” More than 10,000 mourners showed up for his funeral.

“The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America,” from Floating World Pictures, is scheduled to open in the spring. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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