Fine ‘Flight,’ serious ‘Smashed,’ rousing ‘Ralph,’ striking ‘Sessions’

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FS, Contributing Writer

“Flight”

An airline pilot, played by Denzel Washionton, keeps his plane from crashing in "Flight." –Photo courtesy of IMDB

Denzel Washington gives his best performance in years in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (wide release), which also marks the director’s return to live-action filmmaking after more than a decade toiling with motion-capture technology.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial pilot with a penchant for drugs, alcohol and late nights with his flight crew. He shows up for a short tour one morning hung over and roused with a hit of cocaine, and consumes vodka on the plane itself. But when the craft suffers a serious malfunction, he manages what’s seen as a miracle landing in which only half a dozen people perish.

Toxicology reports show what was in his system, however, and the crux of the plot is whether the union and its slick lawyer can get him off the hook – and whether Whip can lay off the booze long enough to be vindicated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

There are subplots aplenty here, including Whitaker’s attempt to reconnect with his estranged wife and son while trying to build a relationship with a beautiful woman who’s also an addict but determined to clean up her act. Some are distracting and others – like John Goodman’s flamboyant performance as Whip’s overly helpful supplier – amusing.

Flight comes down to earth, however, in the last act, which abandons the cynical tone of the previous reels and emphasizes redemption instead. It’s a preachy cop-out to a picture that otherwise delivers a shot of stinging reality.

But even then Washington’s performance is powerful enough to bring the picture home.

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“Smashed”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul star in "Smashed," a movie about a married couple whose bond is over alcohol. –Photo courtesy of IMDB

Alcoholism also plays a central role in another new film, Smashed (Angelika), which is like a modern remake of Days of Wine and Roses played out in a middle-class environment.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a second-grade teacher who gets violently ill in front of her class after a hard night’s drinking. She tries to conceal her addiction to the bottle by falsely claiming that what happened was the result of morning sickness – a lie that gets her into deep trouble.

And when she joins Alcoholics Anonymous, her slacker husband – who enjoys hoisting a few with his buddies – doesn’t give her much support.

Smashed sometimes plays like a young adult version of an after-school special, opting to preach rather than deal subtly with the issues it raises.

But it’s an earnest effort, and Winstead’s performance has a naturalness that makes even the most melodramatic moments feel almost real.

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“Wreck-It Ralph”

Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, is a videogame villain who now wants to be the hero. –Photo courtesy of IMDB

What Toy Story did for cowboy dolls and spaceman figurines, Wreck-It Ralph (wide release) does for old-fashioned arcade video games.

In this colorful, energetic and predictably warmhearted 3-D animated Disney flick, the game characters have their own lives when out of human gaze, and one of them – the titular villain – decides he doesn’t want to be a bad guy anymore and goes AWOL to earn a medal proving he’s actually good.

His efforts cause trouble when he releases a dangerous “cybug” from an interactive war game, but in another venue – a sweet, candy-colored racing contest ­­– he befriends an ostracized “glitch” who desperately wants to join the contest and wins his hero credentials by helping her fulfill her dream.

Mixing nostalgia with wit, energetic action with sentiment, and deliberately old-fashioned visuals with cutting-edge technology, Wreck-It Ralph will win over gamers with its affectionate look backward and everyone else with its exuberance and geniality.

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“The Sessions”

John Hawkes stars in "The Sessions," a a man with an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity. –Photo courtesy of IMDB

Based on an episode from the life of the late poet Mark O’Brien, whom polio paralyzed from the waist down and left unable to breathe for long without artificial respiration, The Sessions (Angelika) could have been crude but instead is smart and sensitive.

It’s about O’Brien’s decision to try to lose his virginity despite his disability, and the time he spends with a therapist specializing in intimacy issues, which results in a relationship that goes beyond doctor-patient.

John Hawkes, who won an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, gives a performance as the wisecracking O’Brien that’s very different but equally impressive, and Helen Hunt is quietly effective as the therapist. Meanwhile William H. Macy proves an expert scene-stealer as the priest O’Brien confides in.

There are some explicit scenes in The Sessions, which might put off some viewers. But overall it’s as skilled and thoughtful a picture as My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which treated similar themes with similar good taste and humor.

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