Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sabotage Review

“Sabotage” is the most exciting, satisfying, suspenseful and intelligent Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick I’ve seen in recent. The best way to describe it is: an ultraviolent actioner crossed with a revenge flick, crossed with an Agatha Christie “And Then There were Fewer” style mystery. Did I really just write Agatha Christie and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same paragraph?

The movie is directed and co written (with Skip Woods) by David Ayer who wrote the excellent crime drama “Training Day” and was the writer/director behind the Jake Gyllenhaal/Michael Pena cop drama “End of Watch” in 2012. Even though “End of Watch” didn’t completely work for me, Ayer still managed to breathe some refreshing and thrilling life into a tired subgenre and he does something similar with “Sabotage.” Though, with “End of Watch” Ayer was going for realism (the movie used an interesting but ultimately frustrating combination of Found Footage and Cinema Verite) whereas “Sabotage” is more in the vein of a cartoon-y, B-movie style action ensemble.

The picture revolves around members of a special DEA task force, although they don’t really seem like DEA agents, or at least what we think of when we think of DEA. They’re a big, beefy, tatted up, rambunctious group complete with cool action movie tough guy nicknames. There’s James “Monster” Murray, (Sam Worthington, who struggles to maintain his American accent near then end) Joe “Grinder” Phillips, (Joe Manganiello) and Eddie “Neck” Jordan (“Lost” star Josh Holloway). In addition there’s Julius “Sugar” Edmonds, (Terrence Winter) Tom “Pyhro” Roberts, (Max Martini) Bryce “Tripod” McKneely (Kevin Vance) and the solo female Lizzy Murray, (Mireille Enos, who gives a wild hot mess of a performance. If she was a wet blanket wife to Brad Pitt in last year’s “World War Z” she’s definitely not here) who might as well be considered “one of the guys.” And of course, how could I forget old Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger himself (“that’s not his movie nickname, but I like it better than “Breacher”) as Jack Wharton, the leader who tries to keep these unruly men in order.

Seriously these guys are ultra loud, obnoxious and rowdy; when they’re having a celebration at someone’s house and a detective named Caroline (Olivia Williams) comes over to conduct business they mistake her for a stripper. They’re more like mercenaries than DEA agents, exaggerated comic-book mercenaries at that. And yet, there’s something sort of genuine about them; as vulgar and bone headed as they can be at times, they’re still a tight-knit unit. They’re still a family. When they trade insults with one another or get into fights it’s done so out of adoration, much in the same way Gyllenhaal and Pena—as two street cops—in “End of Watch” would grill each other out of brotherly love. In their reckless, macho way the team loves one another and there’s also something endearing about Schwarzenegger playing the stern parental figure of the group.

The comedic banter between the team doesn’t always work as well as Ayer probably would have liked. I realize he’s going for a cartoonish vibe but sometimes the repartee feels forced and occasionally the performances are just a little too over-the-top and hammy. Again I realize this is Ayer’s intent but there is a point where things can be too silly, especially when Ayer is also trying to develop and maintain a sense of dread.

When drug money--that the team planned on taking for themselves--goes missing they start dropping one by one. Who could it be? The drug cartel looking for retaliation? Or is it one of the team members themselves. The team may seem close knit but they’re also loose cannons, (excuse the cliché cop movie terminology) in fact they’re more than loose cannons, so it’s not totally impossible one of them could be killing the others off in search of a payday. This is where the “And Then There Were Fewer” style mystery comes in. Now the mystery in “Sabotage” isn’t nearly as elaborate or intelligent as it would be in a more traditional mystery story, but it still contains legitimate tension and suspense. In this age of infinite franchises, sequels and remakes/reboots I can’t remember the last time I’ve experienced actual surprise in commercial action cinema.

It’s also sort of rare these days to see an action movie as violent and gory as “Sabotage.” With the seemingly endless barrage of watered down, PG-13 superhero movies (the studios need to attract a bigger audience so they can make more movies) it’s a relief to see bold, R rated cringe worthy violence. The team members get killed off in elaborate and grotesque ways; one guy gets nailed to the wall of his house. At the same time though, Ayer doesn’t overdo it. He makes sure to put story and character over action and violence, so that when violence does come there’s weight behind it. In other words, it’s deserved.

I’m not going to tell you that “Sabotage” is great art and I highly doubt it will end up on any kind of year end list, but it’s still one of the most refreshing, R rated action movies I’ve seen of late. Besides the reasons I’ve already given, the movie contains not one but two strong female characters that match the males at every turn. And perhaps best of all, the movie isn’t just a gigantic wink to famous action movies of the past like “The Expendables” or “The Last Stand” was. “Sabotage” tells its own story, creates its own characters and contains some intelligence.

And it doesn’t have a post-credit scene teasing a future movie. I know, weird right?


Cesar Chavez Review

If anything, Diego Luna’s “Cesar Chavez”—a biopic about the famed Hispanic civil rights activist who fought for basic human and labor rights for migrant workers in the 1960’s and 70’s—should be commended for not trying to tell Chavez’ entire life story. This is a common trap biopics fall into, it was the main reason why last year’s Nelson Mandela biopic was so disappointing. With “Chavez” Luna doesn’t begin with Chavez as a little kid and doesn’t end it with him as an old man proudly looking back on his life’s work.

Instead it focuses on the five-year period in which Chavez led a grape pickers’ strike/boycott in Delano California with the intent to get better wages and better working conditions. When we first meet Chavez he, along with his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and others have opened up a credit union, formed the United Farm Workers group and are in the beginning stages of the boycott/strike.

However, while this narrowing in on one specific period is good, Luna and screenwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton leave out one important thing: they don’t show us Chavez’ motivation for wanting to be a civil rights activist in the first place. At the very beginning--in what looks like an interview with some unknown person--Chavez (Michael Pena) mentions how when he was younger and working in the fields (not the Delano fields) he was exposed first hand to the injustices faced by the migrant workers and that’s when he knew he would be an activist. This is a key bit of information but by just telling it to us instead of showing us--instead of placing us in those fields with him--we don’t get enough sense of why he’s passionate about his cause.

In fact, overall this movie does a lot of telling when it should be showing. We get a lot of speeches and lectures that pretty much say the same thing over and over again and are full of big, movie poster-worthy quotes like: “you can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore.” And to go along with these endless speeches (or rather over-explanations) we get one repetitive and generic picketing/protesting montage after another that don’t carry much weight. Furthermore, at times, Luna struggles to create a cohesive narrative flow, as there are numerous awkward lapses in the film’s timeline.

Pena does what he can in the role (I do think Pena is a massively underrated actor) but ultimately the script sort of lets him down. I don’t know much about the real Chavez but from the movie he appears to be funny, charming and not afraid to go head to head with the myriad of ignorant rich white jerks—such as a grape grower played by John Malkovich—that are opposing the strike. All good attributes but they remain surface level. We don’t get to know him as a person, how he interacts with people as a non-activist. Basically it’s not a down to earth portrayal and unfortunately he’s the one who delivers the majority of those speeches and lectures. And even as an activist he doesn’t seem all that commanding and influential. Pena doesn’t give him much of a powerful presence and so you wonder why so many people are following him.

The supporting cast isn’t treated much better. Ferrera tries her best but her character is mostly just there to be tough and loyal at Chavez’ side and also fill in plot points. At times you get the impression that this boycott/strike is taking its toll on her (especially when Chavez decides to go on a hunger strike) but Luna doesn’t dedicate much attention to that. There’s also a side plot involving Chavez’ oldest son and how Chavez’ neglects him too--it’s interesting how these famous leaders and activists turn out to be lackluster fathers—which again isn’t given much time to blossom into anything lasting. This wouldn’t really be a problem except that Luna ends the entire movie on a tender moment between the son and Chavez (well, in letter form) that’s well intentioned but doesn’t feel entirely deserved.

I don’t mean to come down on this film too much. It’s a feel good flick that sheds light on an important historical activist who did a lot of great stuff. The movie is never flat out boring and I still appreciate that Luna doesn’t bite off more than he can chew in regards to the film’s scope. And yet, it still manages to fall into biopic clichés and the characters rarely go beyond surface level.