Denzel Washington has played dicks before. He won an Academy Award for playing a huge monster of a human being in “Training Day”. So in a way he is returning to familiar territory here. His character is a hero, like Captain Sully from a few years ago, who landed a plane on the Hudson river and saved everyone’s life. This story is premised on a different scenario. The captain does an unimaginably heroic landing, but he is also a deeply flawed person. The crux of the tale is not that the accident was managed as well as it was, but that the Captain cannot manage his own life half as well as a severely damaged plane diving for the ground at six hundred miles an hour. That my friends is a screwed up life and it is really what the movie is all about.

Captain Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. I try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, but I can’t think of a way to write about this without discussing the main plot engine in some detail. His drinking and drug use have no real impact on the events of the plane crash. In fact, it is the opposite that happens. The crash forces him to consider the toll that his behavior is taking on everyone else but most especially on himself. Actors love to play parts like this because it gives them a chance to stretch some important acting muscles. Denzel gets to be intoxicated, belligerent, self righteous and thoughtful all within moments of each emotion. He has to be good for us to accept that he is a real person and not just someone play acting for us. In the long run, Denzel is a good actor, so he is convincing and gets to have a pretty good story arc.

The fact that the actor is good however, does not make it easy to put up with the reckless self destructive Captain Whitaker. Any one with a drug addict, alcoholic, or philanderer in their life will understand this. Whip is given multiple opportunities to turn things around. Friends come to his aid, a supportive fellow addict drops into his life, and the fates seem to conspire to give him a lift out of his screwed up life. At each turn, he makes the wrong choice. Look, millions of people enjoy a cocktail without ever having a problem, but when some one does have a problem, it is lights out. I never want to be in these situations and have to face the troubling image in the mirror and ask, what have I become? That is what Whip Whitaker has to do, and it is a frustratingly ugly sight. There were a couple of sequences which seemed to mock religious faith as a way to lead ones life. When all is said and done however, it seems that the hand of God is needed to put things into place.

The first half hour of the movie includes the lead up to and the actual crash of the plane. It is a harrowing experience and as close to an actual air crash as any of us will ever hope to be. From a technical point of view, this part of the movie is flawless. Robert Zemekis, the director, previously traveled this path with “Cast Away” and Tom Hanks living through a plane crash but being trapped on an island. In essence, this film is a remake. Alcoholism is the island, recovery is the rescue and the girlfriend addict is Wilson the volleyball. There are other characters in the picture but they are also just stand ins for the obstacles that our protagonist has to overcome. Don Cheadle played Denzel’s deadly funny friend “Mouse” in “The Devil in a Blue Dress” nearly fifteen years ago. They are reunited in this picture and are again good counterparts, although Cheadle feels a little underused here. Bruce Greenwood as the old friend and pilot’s union representative, is the fire on the island that sustains Denzel’s character, but delays him in making the decision he must ultimately confront. John Goodman appears and just adds energy to the movie.

As much as they might need each other for help, addicts also threaten each other with relapse. We have what little caring for Whip as we do, because of his entanglement with a woman facing some of the same issues he faces. Their meeting and subsequent relationship is a result of another addiction, nicotine. This addiction is so strong that even a dying cancer patient they encounter, can’t provide enough warning to wake Whip up. Listening to their dialogue sometimes feels theatrical, but the cruel things that are said in pitiful self righteousness are exactly the kinds of aggressive counterattack that addicts use to deflect from themselves. The movie is sometimes a little hamfisted with the story, but it still feels real for the most part. The actors are top notch and although it is not always pleasant to watch, it is well done and well worth a look.

Wreck-It Ralph

Animated films have always been a favorite, but they need to have a solid story to hold my interest. Years ago, “Toy Story” took inanimate objects and brought them to life, now Disney returns to the same vein to strike it rich again. This time providing an unseen life and environment for video game characters. These heroes and bad guys work all day in the salt mines of a video game in an arcade, and then after closing time have their own lives to lead. Apparently however, they are unable to slip the boundaries of their character’s role in the game as easily as they slip out of the games to mingle with each other.

“Wreck it Ralph” is the hero of our story but not of his game. The theme behind the film is as old as “the Wizard of Oz”, which is “there’s no place like home”. Throw in a little empowerment and an evil background character and you have the makings of a pretty standard kids film. As the story unfolds, we meet a lot of characters that are fun in their games but not necessarily great to hang out with. Ralph seems to be one of the only self aware characters, despite attending a support group for villains in video games. It is a little unclear why they all don’t see the issues Ralph is facing since they face much the same dilemma. “Fix it Felix”, the hero in the game that Ralph has become discontented with, actually appears to be a good guy who simply can’t bend to the feelings of Ralph’s character as easily as he does to those other characters in their game. The antipathy of the characters in his own game lead Ralph to seek a solution elsewhere, although he really just wants to be part of the gang.

I was never a gamer, either on arcade machines or home consoles. I may have played a few games of Pac-Man or Asteroids, but not enough to get good or to care whether I got good at them. Kids who grew up with this stuff will probably enjoy this film quite a bit since it uses many identifiable avatars from classic style arcade games. The two main games featured in the story however, appear to be original creations of the screenwriters. The “Wreck it Ralph” game looks like a variation of Super Mario Brothers, and the graphics are designed in a clever way to suggest that it is an older game. “Sugar Rush”, the location of most of the action in the story, is a racing game with a sweet theme and cute little avatars straight from the “Hello Kitty” school of design. There is a combat game that briefly figures in the action, but the main plot centers around the activity in “Sugar Rush”.

The graphic design and art work in the “Sugar Rush” game are fun to look at. The characters seem familiar even though the game does not really exist. The racing cars driven by players in the game are constructed in a separate level of the game and feature some wild candy themes accessories. Trapped inside of the game, is a character that needs to be released from a “cyber” limbo and this is where the story works the best. Ralph, starts off as a morose, somewhat self centered character and travels a path that allows him to empathize with others. He also turns out to be no dummy, so he quickly figures out that something is wrong in this world. As he discovers the true programming glitch in the game, there are additional points of jeopardy and plot development. The strings all come together almost as well as one of the Pixar films. The weakness is the motivation of the villain and the credibility of the character dynamics. Kids may not care that the rules don’t always make sense, but they do want to care about the characters and be able to relate to them. For the most part, they will.

The look of the movie is excellent and there are some stand out bits of humor. Kids will laugh at the Dooty jokes, and adults will not be able to eat a certain chocolate sandwich cookie again, without a familiar tune from their own childhood ringing in their heads. The sentimentality of the story takes a while to build up and the payoff is pretty sharp. To use a sports metaphor here, it is a home run but not a grand slam. Disney scores with an effective animated film that will satisfy the family audience and make you feel glad you came. It may not be on your list of great animated films, but it is definitely a solid hit.