THERE exists a select band of actors who are able to elevate a film to a level it may not have been capable of without them, or who can turn a good film into a very good one, even if the material isn't always up to their standards.
Denzel Washington is one such presence and in his latest, which has earned him a well-deserved sixth Oscar nomination, he plays Whip Whitaker, a hotshot pilot who, after a night of booze and drugs, captains the morning flight from Orlando to Atlanta.
Following a catastrophic engine failure, he brings the plane down in a field, shown in a gripping, clear-eyed and stunningly executed crash sequence that avoids any sensationalising.
Though he manages to save the lives of 96 out of the 102 souls on board and he comes out a hero, an investigation must still be carried out, and the toxicology report reveals the presence of alcohol and cocaine, from the night before at the very least.
And once Don Cheadle's persistent lawyer gets on the case, there's every chance Whitaker could face life in prison for manslaughter.
What follows is a sharp and clean procedural, driven on veracity and shorn of all melodrama, so very calm, collected and, ironically, sober. Though it could almost be mistaken for being low-key, and truth be told it is rather a one-note drama, just as it's also largely a one-man movie, it remains a compelling one.
Washington is magnificent, such a composed, assured screen presence, powerful but never showy and burning with an intensity in a film that's not afraid to play with shades of grey.
Whip is hardly a stand-up guy, yet a confident man so assured of his own righteousness that we buy his skill and commitment as a pilot, one who is able to bring down a broken plane even if he is partial to a mid-air vodka.
Even as he digs deeper to reveal himself as a proper scumbag with a god complex, who wants others to cover for his mistakes, it's a testament to Washington that we often find ourselves, if not exactly on Whip's side, then certainly empathising with him.
The investigation is the catalyst for a film that's as much about alcoholism and addiction as the flight itself or the inquiry. An addict Whip meets while in hospital (Kelly Reilly) provides a subplot that isn't always as interesting as the main thrust, and John Goodman's flamboyant cameo is something of a distraction, while the outcome does perhaps hinge on an unlikely scenario.
But see it for Washington, and you'll see just what a great actor can bring to a movie.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (12A)
Little of interest in this light and fluffy drama
IN THE years just before the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) heads to his country retreat, the titular Hyde Park in New York State.
Though this light and fluffy drama is supposedly told from the point of view of his distant cousin (Laura Linney) who lives locally, quite why her character had to be brought in at all is a mystery, as she hardly appears for much of the film and has no bearing on the outcome.
The visit to the States of King George VI and the Queen forms the main plot, meaning this somewhat positions itself as a companion piece to The King's Speech, though with nothing like the impact.
There's some humour to be mined in the clash of royal etiquette and American brashness, but the extent of the drama is whether or not the king will eat a hot dog.
Its best moments come when FDR and the king share some private time, with the warmth and kindness that passes between them really quite touching, but there's little else of interest here.
Director: Roger Michell
Running time: 95 mins
BULLET TO THE HEAD (15)
A bone-crunching old school thriller
WHEN hitman Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) sees his partner killed by a rival assassin (Jason Momoa), he teams up with a cop (Sung Kang) who is investigating another case where his own partner was killed and who thinks there may be a connection.
What the actual ins and outs of the plot are is anyone's guess, but this works perfectly well as an old school, very 80s, thriller. Scuzzy rather than slick, Bullet to the Head takes a bone-crunching, no-nonsense approach to the action and veteran director Walter Hill still knows how to shoot up a room.
The buddy movie banter isn't exactly what you could call electrifying, largely because Kang is so poor, but it provides a few chuckles in a nice change of pace, character-wise, for Sly, playing a wisecracking grump, and Momoa is much better value as a bad guy than he was as a good guy in Conan.
Director: Walter Hill
Running time: 91mins
cirque do soleil: worlds away (pg)
Mostly dull, or just plain daft
FAMED circus troop Cirque du Soleil take their stage act to the big screen in what is basically a filmed performance.
It starts at the circus, where a visiting young woman takes a shine to the trapeze artist moments before they're both, for reasons left unexplored, sucked into an alternate world where they then have to find each other.
Though it attempts to lure in the unsuspecting with the initial pretence that there's a narrative, this is quickly abandoned and pretty much the rest of the almost wordless running time is taken up with Cirque du Soleil performers doing their thing with the loosest of narratives chucked around it.
As a visual spectacle it sometimes recalls the Olympic opening ceremony and can occasionally be jaw-dropping, but it's mostly dull or just plain daft, though you might find something to enjoy if a bonkers, context-free procession of tumblers and contortionists and interpretive dancers is your thing.
Director: Andrew Adamson