Open Road Films via Everett Collection
David Ayer's Sabotage is just the latest stop in Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback tour, though it probably won't do the actor too many favors. Schwarzenegger plays John "Breacher" Wharton, the leader of an elite DEA task force that specializes in taking down drug cartels. Each member of the team is a blunt instrument drunk off of their alpha male (and female) machismo, but to be fair, they are damn good at what they do. They're masters at going in hard, killing whoever needs killing, and heading to the strip club and drinking themselves into a stupor before the next round of street sweeping. Unfortunately, it turns out years of busting cartel bosses and being deeply unpleasant to everyone you come into contact with eventually catches up to you, and members of the squad start dying in ghastly and elaborate ways. And just like that, we have what basically amounts to an Agatha Christie novel with a gym membership and a pile of meth.
Unfortunately, and as expected, giving Agatha Christie a couple of reps at the gym and a pile of drugs turns her into a blithering idiot, because Sabotage is incredibly stupid. The central mystery somehow manages to be both preposterous and predictable at the same time. The film's one saving grace is its action. The action scenes are adrenal and exciting and unbelievably gory. Bloated corpses are poked and prodded, viscera hangs like ropes from a rafter. This film takes immense pleasure in being completely disgusting. It’s downright gleeful about it. Here's a full shot of a soiled toilet, just because. Here's a piece of skin hanging on some metal, why not. Isn't that cool?
While Sabotage does manage to thrill in spurts and stutters, there's absolutely nothing beating at the heart of the film. All of the main characters are completely and utterly repugnant, and you'll pity anyone who has to endure their company throughout the film. When characters do start to die, you won't feel all that broken up about it. In fact, you may even feel a twinge of joy, like the earth was suddenly unburdened from a pure source of rampant douchebaggery. Just imagine the most disgusting, and off-putting person you can, and then give them a gun, a badge, and a fierce sense of entitlement, and you have every single member of the film's DEA squad. They're all terrible.
And if that weren't bad enough, the acting ranges from mediocre to terrible. The usually wonderful Olivia Williams and the capable Sam Worthington continually forget which continent they're on, their accents dropping in an out like a bad radio connection; Schwarzenneger has a complete inability to emote anything apropos of the situation at hand. When looking upon a pile of ooze that was formerly in the shape of one of his best friends, his disappointment is more akin to seeing a temporarily occupied gym bench on chest day. All of the charm the actor showcased in something like the recent Escape Plan is washed out by Breacher's moping about his dark past, and when Schwarzenneger isn't allowed to be fun, then he's completely boring.
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Really, I should hate Sabotage. It’s a completely stupid and mean spirited film, but there’s a strange charm to the depravity of it all. There's an audaciousness to it. The film goes as far as it can to push limits, and succeeds at being appaling. It’s a film that knows how stupid and ugly it is and champions that fact. It’s playing in its own filth, and as gross as that is, at least it’s having fun. This is the kind of film that will be in heavy rotation at the local frat house. That’s doesn’t mean the film is good or even okay, but if you like watching horrific violence, awful mysteries, and awful people being awful, then boy do I have a film for you.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.