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.
At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.
Two decades ago Burt Reynolds made a mark with The Longest Yard a not great but entertaining football movie that melded comedy with violence. Mean Machine attempts to do the same but with far less success. "Mean Machine" is the nickname of Danny Meehan (Vinnie Jones from Guy Ritchie's Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) a onetime soccer star turned reprobate drunk who fell from grace when he intentionally threw a major international match. After he beats up a couple of cops in a drunken rage Danny's given a three-year sentence in one of England's toughest prisons. There he meets your standard garden-variety group of inmates: the big-time crook who runs the place the wise old lifer the jolly bumbler the wily con the grouchy black inmate whose respect must be earned a sadistic and dishonest lot of jailers--the list goes on. The corrupt prison head (David Hemmings) wants Danny to take charge of the guards' soccer team and get them ready for the upcoming season; knowing that's the wrong side to be on in this lockup Danny suggests he organize the inmates for a match against the guards. (A footnote: Can ya guess what they dub their team? Yep Mean Machine). What follows is an all-too-predictable tale in which Danny must win over the prisoners to create a united team the Mean Machine must succeed by a hair in the Big Match and Danny must travel the road to moral self-improvement.
However much Vinnie Jones is liked for his roles in various Guy Ritchie films he ought to think about what he can do to break out of the grim tough-limey bit especially when he's required to do a little real acting. His Danny is supposed to be something of a thinker with more going on behind his dour demeanor. Featuring pretty much two expressions throughout the movie dour and dourer there's not much to Vinnie's performance. (At least Burt Reynolds had some charisma.) If it feels like we've seen all these guys playing the same characters in other recent movies it's because we have. Since the idea of doing this remake came from Matthew Vaughn producer of numerous Ritchie movies the usual Brit suspects reappear along with Jones: Snatch's Jason Statham as a wild and crazy prisoner-turned-goalie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' Jason Flemyng as the inmate who provides most of the movie's laughs and Lock's Vas Blackwood as Danny's right-hand man. Nobody stands out nobody steals the show--unless it's Hemmings' silver handlebar-lookin' eyebrows that are so long they seem to reach for the sky in every scene. (Ralph Brown though is quite effective as the underhanded head warden.)
The problem with this movie in addition to the clichéd characters rote story and mediocre performances is that soccer inherently isn't as violent and interesting to American audiences as our much more familiar sport of football. There's just something about a bunch of massive glowering linebackers brutally crunching helmets during a scrimmage or taking down a running back in a punishing tackle that you just don't get out of a soccer movie no matter how aggressive and dramatic you try to make it. Director Barry Skolnick throws in a couple of overly violent moments during the movie to make up for this but relies on a lot of slo-mo as the players dribble down the field and go for goals during the big showdown between the inmates and the guards. Yawn. Skolnick tried to capture the essence of a Guy Ritchie movie--herky-jerky camerawork edgy stylistics--but somehow it still feels rote and uninspired. However the film does give you a terrific sense of the isolation and dank dreariness of prison life (Machine was filmed in one of England's oldest prisons).