erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2013 posts

Tuesday July 09, 2013

Movie Review: Mud (2013)


“Mud,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”), is ostensibly an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior (Ray McKinnon, the priest of “Deadwood”), and his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, “Deadwood”), who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability.

He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees.

A helluva thing
The movie opens with Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hopping a scuffed outboard motorboat and heading down the White River so Neckbone can show Ellis what he’s found. They jump onto an island beach, head into the woods, walk over a pond full of snakes, and … there it is. Poster for Jeff Nichols' "Mud" starring Matthew McConaugheyNeckbone says that his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon, in a small role), thinks the boat wound up there during the last flood, which sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then Ellis finds bootprints with a cross in the heel, which also sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then the bootprints disappear in the sand. Draw your own conclusions.

Immediately, next to their motor boat, they see Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in a nomination-worthy performance), a scraggly haired, unwashed, dangerous-looking man smoking a cigarette, fishing, and philosophizing about evil spirits, snakes, and that boat in the trees. “It’s a helluva thing, ain’t it?” he says. Then he argues with them about who owns it.

It feels lucky when they get away but they keep returning, spurred more by Ellis, who’s curious and idealistic, than Neckbone, who’s knowing and practical. When Mud tells them, for example, that he’s waiting on his girlfriend, Neckbone asks if she’s hot. “She’s like a dream you don’t want to wake up from,” Mud says, to which Neckbone coughs out a “bullshit.” Not Ellis. He may be blunt and straightforward but he wants to believe in the very thing that’s disappearing from his life: a love that’s firm and absolute rather than flimsy and disposable.

Wisdom comes slowly. Turns out Mud is wanted by the police. “I shot a man,” Mud says later. “Kilt him. Sorry I didn’t tell you boys sooner.” The man he killed was beating the girl he loved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so Ellis is less deterred than spurred by this revelation. Even as Mud’s enemies gather, including the brother and father of the murdered man, along with their many bounty hunters, Ellis acts as go-between for the star-crossed lovers.

When Ellis talks to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), however, the closest thing Mud has to a father, he hears a less romantic version of the story. According to Tom, Juniper didn’t love Mud. She used him. She’s the reason he’s stuck on that island with nowhere to go. She’s bad news. Ellis listens but doesn’t hear. Then he does. On the day the lovers are supposed to meet, Ellis, keeping an eye out for the bounty hunters, knocks on Juniper’s motel-room door. Nothing. He peers in the window. Nothing. He asks the hotel clerk, who points him down the highway to a bar, where she’s getting cozy playing pool with another guy. Their eyes meet in the dark. He acts as if he’s the one she’s betraying. He is.

“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen, who makes his living scavenging the bottom. “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”

That’s the lesson of the movie, and there’s no easy answer. There’s more with Juniper, for example, and the ultimate truth about her lies somewhere between Mud’s and Tom’s versions. Nothing's absolute. It's all muddy.

And a river runs through it
“Mud,” like the White River itself, has a slow, steady pace that’s almost hypnotic, while its performances are among the best of the year. Everyone seems authentically Southern because the actors are Southern: McConaughey (Texas), Witherspoon (Louisiana), McKinnon (Georgia), the kids. Shepard is a stand-out. At one point, Tom hears that Mud called him an assassin—something about past CIA activity—and he laughs for a second; then, for about five seconds of screentime, which is an eternity, we get nothing but him lost in thought. It’s nice.

Some of the story threads, particularly at the end, could’ve used trimming. Did we need so much with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), Ellis’ would-be girlfriend? Did Ellis, like Mud before him, need to get snake-bit, too, and did Mud and Juniper need to see each other one last time? Did we need one more shoot-out in the final reel?

The final camera shots recall Terrence Malick, particularly “The Thin Red Line,” but they also recall the movie’s beginning. Instead of two boys in a boat, it’s two men: Mud and Tom. In the beginning, Neckbone and Ellis gazed with happiness at something before Nichols allowed us to see it: the island, where they would have their adventures. He does the same for Mud and Tom. It’s the open sea, and it’s a helluva thing.

Posted at 07:44 AM on Jul 09, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday July 05, 2013

Movie Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)


Come back, Klinton Spilsbury. All is forgiven.

Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” isn’t quite as bad as 1981’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” starring Spilsbury—that would take real effort—but the latter had excuses. It was made in an era before over-the-top heroism once again became the default at movies, and the filmmakers didn’t seem to know what to do with their legendary character—a former Texas Ranger who wears a mask and has an Indian companion and shoots guns, pow pow. So they made him a lawyer, not a ranger, who uses silver bullets because he can’t shoot straight. To be honest, he should’ve been called “The Lone Lawyer.” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising.

Now it’s 30 years later, when we like our heroes any way we can get them. Give us our wish-fulfillment fantasy already. Tell us that story again, Daddy.

So what do director Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), screenwriters Ted Elliott (“Pirates”), Terry Rossio (“Pirates”) and Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), give us?

You don’t want to know.

The Tone-Deaf Ranger
The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer, trying), is a lawyer again. He’s a city boy, a tenderfoot, a dude. He grew up in Colby, Texas, but went away to law school, and apparently became a dim bulb and a naïve priss there. The Lone Ranger posterThroughout most of the movie, he assumes that right makes might; he assumes that businessmen represent civilization; he assumes—and this in Texas in 1869, mind you—that power comes out of a law book rather than the barrel of a gun.

He’s a fool.

Guns? “I don’t believe in ‘em,” he tells his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a captain of the Texas Rangers. “You know that.”

Everyone prefers Dan. John’s one-time girl, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), marries Dan and has a kid (Bryant Prince) by him. Even Tonto (Johnny Depp) recognizes Dan as the true warrior. “I would have preferred someone else,” Tonto tells John after he’s stuck with him. “But who am I to question the Great Father?”

In the first act, John Reid allows Butch Cavendish (William Fichter) to go free. Tonto is about to kill Cavendish but John stops him and Cavendish escapes and this sets up everything else. It sets up the ambush at Bryant’s Gap and the massacre of the Texas Rangers. Because John falls off his horse, Dan has to return for him and gets shot as he reaches for him. John, barely alive, then sees Cavendish cutting out his brother’s heart. Literally.

But that should toughen up our hero, right? That should set him right about the ways of the world and put him on the path to revenge.

Nope. John remains a fool until the last 20 minutes of the movie. His head is dragged on the ground, then over horseshit, then Tonto tells him to wear a mask. “Comes a time, Kemosabe,” Tonto says, “when even good men must wear mask.” The mask becomes a running gag. “What’s with the mask?” everyone asks. When he tells Tonto’s fellow Comanches who suggested it, they bust out laughing. Because they know Tonto is screwed up in the head. He’s a fool, too. For most of the movie, our hero is the fool of a fool.

As for why Tonto is a little crazy? Years ago, as a child, he inadvertently caused the death of his people at the hands of two men: Cole (Tom Wilkinson), now a businessman and railroad representative, and Cavendish, his disreputable flunky. He traded them a watch for information, and that led to a massacre.

Both the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in other words, are created out of massacres they inadvertently caused. They are tragic figures yet the movie treats them as comic relief. “The Lone Ranger” is one of the most tone-deaf movies I’ve ever seen.

Everything and the kitchen sink
What’s special about this Lone Ranger? Silver, the spirit horse, recognizes him as a spirit walker, a man who can’t die, but it’s Silver who’s special. He can ride off rooftops and over trains. The Lone Ranger is buried up to his neck by the Comanche, and covered in scorpions, and Silver licks off the scorpions and pulls him out. Silver is the true hero here. The Lone Ranger is part laughing stock, part chosen one. He only survives because he can’t be killed. Nice trick.

Plot? Cole, giving pretty speeches before the populace, wants to unite the nation via railroad, because whoever controls the rail controls the country. For this to happen, though, the rail has to go through Comanche land, so Cavendish’s gang raids settlements dressed as Comanches, which revokes the treaty, which puts their land up for grabs. Dan Reid, a friend of the Comanche, figured this out. That’s why the Bryant Gap ambush. The Comanches themselves are later massacred—ripped to shreds—by an early Gatling gun while the Lone Ranger and Tonto, nearby, are avoiding a runaway train via handcar—that little railroad see-saw thingee most of us first saw in a cartoon. Once again, the tragic is juxtaposed with the comic to perplexing effect.

Meanwhile, Rebecca, who has lost a husband, is attacked by the Cavendish-Comanches and witnesses her black help being murdered. With her son, she’s taken before Butch himself. Eventually she makes it back to Cole, who has always desired her. But this is a dull subplot and Wilson does nothing with the role.

Meanwhile, Barry Pepper plays a George Custer-like cavalryman, who is supposed to come to the rescue but merely contributes to the slaughter of innocents. Then he doubles down on that slaughter so he doesn’t have to face the first fact.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter plays Red Harrington, a western madam with a fake ivory leg that masks a gun—like an early version of Rose McGowan in “Planet Terror.” She’s the kitchen sink of the movie.

Meanwhile, all of this is being told, believe it or not, by an aged Tonto in San Francisco in 1933. When the movie began, and I first saw these words on the screen, “San Francisco, 1933,” I had a glimmer of hope. “Oh!” I thought. “Good idea. Wonder what the Lone Ranger is doing in the 20th century?” Except we never find out. Instead we visit an amusement park, where a kid, wearing a mask and a cowboy hat, visits a Wild West exhibit. There’s the mighty buffalo, there’s a grizzly bear, and there, according to the plaque, is “THE NOBLE SAVAGE: In his natural habitat.” The kid peers closer and the Indian comes to life. “Kemosabe?” a wizened Tonto asks. Then, with a few interruptions along the way, he tells the kid the story. It’s like “The Princess Bride” but without any of the charm. It’s kind of creepy.

More, it means that no matter what happens in Colby, Texas, in 1869, Tonto winds up as a sideshow exhibit in San Francisco in 1933.

If you’d given me a week, I couldn’t have come up with a sadder end for Tonto than that.

Posted at 07:26 AM on Jul 05, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Wednesday July 03, 2013

Movie Review: The Heat (2013)


Joe Friday and Bill Gannon. Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Sarah Ashburn and Shannon Mullins.

That’s one small step for two women, one giant leap for Hollywood.

Seriously. Go to the Wiki page on buddy cop movies and search for “female.” You’ll get three movies out of more than 100. One is foreign (Michelle Yeoh in “Police Story 3: Supercop”), one is incorrect (Sondra Locke plays a convict, not a cop, in “The Gauntlet”), and Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in this one. So congratulations are in order. Or “about fucking time” is in order. For all its purported liberalism, Hollywood tends to be behind the curve on so many progressive issues. Like women telling dick jokes.

“The Heat” isn’t quiet about its feminism, either. One wonders whether that, or the comedy, is the best part of the movie. Then one realizes one is talking about both feminism and funny and it’s not remarkable. Suddenly we’re all past that.

Although, honestly, it could’ve been funnier.

The one with the Oscar is Felix
Remember in the mid-1990s when Sandra Bullock played the girl everybody liked? “Speed” and “Demolition Man” and “While You Were Sleeping” and “The Net”? Suddenly she’s playing the middle-aged career woman nobody likes. The Heat (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthyShe played bitchy in “The Proposal” and starchy here. She’s Felix to McCarthy’s Oscar.

Sarah Ashburn is a career-oriented, Ivy-League-educated FBI agent who’s smarter than her contemporaries, mostly men, but she has trouble working well with others. Hell, she has trouble working with dogs. That’s why her boss, Hale (Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who does a lot with a little), isn’t considering her for a promotion. But he will give her an assignment. Nail this Boston drug dealer/killer, Julian, whom nobody has seen, and he’ll think about the promotion.

Unfortunately for her, fortunately for us, she’s teamed with Mullins, a Boston cop who’s her opposite in every way: streetwise rather than schooled; balls-out rather than reticent; cussing a blue streak rather than prissily settling on neutered swear words. This is classic buddy-cop stuff. The point is to take two extreme characters and put them together to round out their rough edges. Each becomes a little more like the other.

Well, kinda sorta. Ashburn learns to work with a partner. She learns to swear and drink and use her sexuality to catch a perp. She learns, after she performs an emergency tracheotomy on a man choking on a pancake, that she’s not always right, either. She might even be wrong about her big case—catching a big-named serial killer. Mullins thinks so anyway. By the end, Ashburn agrees. She thinks she put the wrong man in jail. Based on …? Nothing, really. She just decides it. I think it’s supposed to show that she’s learned humility but it also meant she put an innocent man in the federal pen for a year. She ruined his life. Oh well. Civil lawsuit to follow.

Meanwhile, Mullins learns … what exactly? To be nicer? Kinda sorta?

This is almost always the way in these types of movies. The uptight one loosens up but the loose one doesn’t exactly tighten up. For two reasons. One, the looser, louder one is already more like us, or more like what the average Hollywood exec thinks we’re like, so they don’t have to change much, right? Aren’t they already great? And two, they’re where the comedy generally lies. And you don’t mess with the comedy.

Here’s an example of how delicate comedy is. Ashburn is trying to prove to Mullins that she has friends:

Ashburn: I was actually married for six, seven years.
Mullins: Was he a hearing man?

Not: Could he hear? Not: Was he blind? Neither would be funny. But: “Was he a hearing man?”? That made me laugh out loud.

McCarthy gets off most of the good lines. “Tattle tits.” “Keep your finger out of my areola.” “You’ve got to vent that furnace.” These are lines that wouldn’t work in a traditonal male buddy-cop picture. Well, maybe “tattle tits.”

But that’s what’s good about it. Much of the humor is specific to women. Much of it is also feminist. Some guy disparages Ashburn’s looks and Mullins reams him. “Are you giving beauty tips? Do you own a fucking mirror?” A would-be john (Tony Hale) complains that his wife’s lady parts are a mess after their fifth child and Mullins reams him for it. That’s the point of McCarthy, of course, to ream people. But it shouldn’t be lost on us that in a soliciation case, it’s the john and the pimp who get busted; the prostitute goes free.

Whatever happened to the 90-minute comedy?
“The Heat” is written by Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation”) and directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), but it isn’t up to “Bridesmaids”’ standards. It’s about a half-hour too long, and a lot of the movie is McCarthy going off, most likely improvising, while supporting players are forced to react. The two issues, I’m sure, are not unrelated. Pushing the envelope of comedy means pushing the runtime of movies. “World War Z,” the summer action blockbuster, is actually shorter than this. 

That said, “The Heat” isn’t a bad comedy. It feels new because in many ways it is new. It also means that Hollywood has released at least one movie this year that passes the Bechdel Test.

It just could’ve been funnier.

Posted at 07:40 AM on Jul 03, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Tuesday July 02, 2013

Movie Review: World War Z (2013)


“No time to explain!”

“World War Z” is often a smart, tense, summer action movie, but this is the moment when it loses me. To be honest, it started to lose me earlier, with its focus on the family.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) was once an investigator for the U.N. (HBO: dibs on creating that series), but now he’s a stay-at-home dad with two girls, Constance and Rachel, and a working (I guess) wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and they’re all playing 20 questions in the midst of a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia when the shit hits. And it hits hard and fast. People are dying, a huge truck is cutting a swath through traffic, but Gerry, using his head, using instincts he’s honed getting into and out of dangerous places, follows the truck out of the jam. I like that. Then he doesn’t use his head. His little girl is scared in the backseat, so, even though he’s zipping through traffic, he turns around to comfort her. Because his wife can’t do it herself? Is she that useless? So he takes his eyes off the road, and bam! Now they’re not moving. “Movement is life,” Gerry says later in the movie, yet here he risks that movement. He risks the lives of both daughters, his wife and himself in order to provide an unnecessary comfort to one daughter for a few seconds.

Focus on the family
He keeps doing this. He’s in contact with his former boss at the U.N., Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), and knows something swift, global and apocalyptic is happening. (Psst: it’s zombies.) Yet he still stops off at a Newark drug store to get albuterol for one asthmatic daughter. World War Z posterListen, I’m asthmatic. I use albuterol. But I wouldn’t exactly risk my life for it.

Worst of all? With the world crumbling around them, and people dying, or being turned into zombies, in the billions, Thierry sends a military helicopter to pick up Gerry and his family off a Newark high-rise, then transports them to the U.S.S. Argus, 200 miles off the coast of New York. It’s a post-apocalyptic way station where the remnants of humanity are trying to figure out how to keep the human species going. That’s why Thierry picked up Gerry. He was his best investigator and he needs him to investigate this. They’ve received word that the zombie virus may have started in South Korea, and he wants to send him there, with a Harvard scientist and a Navy Seal team. To find out what they can find out.

“I’m not your guy,” Gerry says. “I need to protect my family,” he says.

Is he shitting us?

I’ve written before about the thankless-wife role. We’re there to see X (the plot of the movie), the man needs to do X, but the wife urges him away from it. She urges him away from the story we’re all there to see. So boring. So thankless. But this is the first time I’ve seen the hero himself reject the plot of the movie he’s in.

And for what? Protecting his family? Doesn’t he get it? Without that international support structure around them, there is no family to protect. The entire U.S. just fell in a day and he wants to protect his family? Do the filmmakers realize how awful and insular Gerry seems at this moment? How selfish? Hell, it’s us out there turning into zombies. How about lending a hand, asshole?

Thankfully, a naval commander (David Andrews) tells him the obvious: that the U.S.S. Argus doesn’t have room for non-essential personnel. And if he doesn’t help save humanity? Well, both he and his family are non-essential.

I have one more family-related idiocy to complain about. By the time Gerry is leaving South Korea for Israel, where they’ve somehow held off the zombie plague, he already knows noise attracts zombies. So guess who calls as he and some Navy Seals are tiptoeing across the airfield to the plane? Right. The Missus. And guess who wakes up and attacks? Right again. Of the many men, only Gerry makes it onto the plane safely. At which point the Missus calls back, worried, to ask why he didn’t pick up. Now pretend you’re Gerry for a moment. What would you say to her? Tell her not to call anymore? “Honey, I should never have given you that phone.” “Honey, that last call you made resulted in the death of six men, and maybe in the last best hope of humanity.” Nope. Gerry just kinda smiles about it, as if the Missus had interrupted an important meeting, and talks about other matters. Because, you know, family.

Smarter than Superman
The movie admittedly does some smart things. First, it takes a dull horror-movie trope, zombies, and asks: Why are they dull? Well, they shuffle along, super slow, arms out. So the filmmakers do the opposite. Instead of super slow, they make them super fast, and as angry as rabid dogs. You watch them spread like a virus. They’re the living embodiment of a virus. So how do you defeat them?

That’s another smart thing WWZ does: It makes smarts matter. Gerry keeps noticing things. In Philly, he notices it takes about 12 seconds for an infected human to become a zombie. In South Korea, he notices one of the Navy Seals, who didn’t become infected, has a long-standing limp. In Israel he sees the same phenomena twice: zombies ignoring, first an old man, and second a bald-headed kid. The kid probably has cancer. So he comes to the conclusion that the zombies’ weakness is weakness. They don’t attack, or even recognize, people who have life-threatening illnesses. “It’s not a cure,” he later tells World Health Organization doctors. “It’s camouflage.”

But they need a test case. Unfortunately, at the W.H.O. research facility in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s crash-landed after the mishap in Israel, all of the life-threatening viruses are kept in B-wing, which just so happens to be Zombie Central. Meaning our heroes—Gerry, Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), and an Italian W.H.O. doctor (Pierfrancesco Favino)—have to sneak over there. We’ve seen this before, right? They tiptoe, inadvertently make noise, run. The latter two make it back safely while Gerry winds up with the deadly viruses in a sealed-off room guarded by a growling, teeth-chattering zombie. There’s no way out. There’s no way to communicate with the other doctors in A-wing, who can see him on closed-circuit TV. So he gambles. After writing a note for the security camera, “TELL MY FAMILY I LOVE THEM” (we know, they know), he injects himself with one of the vials. Then he waits. Then he takes a deep breath and punches open the security door. The zombie sniffs the air, chatters his teeth, but doesn’t recognize him as something to be attacked. He doesn’t see him. Gerry is able to walk right past him and enjoy a Pepsi in the vending area (surely the greatest product placement in years) before he lets all the Pepsi cans clatter on the floor, bringing the zombies running. But they run right past Gerry, who’s walking, almost sauntering, in the opposite direction. Because they don’t know he’s there.

That’s a great moment. Gerry doesn’t win by being stronger (“Man of Steel”), or having more tech gizmos (“Iron Man 3”), or inventing a cure for death (“Star Trek Into Darkness”); he wins by being smart. How rare is that in a summer action movie?

Unfortunately, by this point, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”; “Machine Gun Preacher”), and his four screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski), have already blown it.

They blew it with “No time to explain.”

Time to explain
OK, so Gerry has this theory about how to beat back the zombies. He’s seen it in action. Apparently no one else has. No one else has figured out why cancer wards escaped attack, for example. Only Gerry. Because he’s an observer. Stupid, but we’ll let that go.

And there’s really no reason, other than final-act heebie-jeebies, for the W.H.O. scientists to test his theory in B-wing. They could’ve just phoned or radioed another facility, maybe one in Nova Scotia, that might do the same. But at the least they should let someone else know, right, that they have this theory that might save humanity? In case, you know, the zombies get them first? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? But we’ll let that go, too.

But I can’t let go Gerry’s conversation with Thierry aboard Belarus airlines.

At this point, Gerry’s made it into and out of Korea, and into and out of Israel. For some reason, which the movie doesn’t explain, or maybe explains too quickly, he had to go to Israel to find out why it was the one country prepared for the zombie invasion. He couldn’t just phone.

(BTW: Israel was prepared for it? I know we get the 10th-man theory in the movie, but doesn’t this smack of various anti-Semitic “No Jews died in the twin towers” conspiracy theories making the rounds after 9/11?)

But it’s in Israel, of course, that Gerry observes the old man and the bald kid, and when Segen is attacked he cuts off her hand to save her. It’s a gut reaction, and it works, and on the airplane out of Israel, Gerry anesthetizes her and cleans the wound with little bottles of vodka, but Segen is still distraught. She’s a soldier without a hand. “Now I’m just a liability,” she says. And that’s when it all comes together in Gerry’s mind. Liability! Of course! He now has the answer that might save all of humanity.

And what does he do with it? He phones Thierry, so the people on the U.S.S. Argus can begin to combat this plague. So they can begin to save humanity.

No, that would make too much sense. Instead, he tells Thierry the words that made me roll my eyes and give up on the movie:

“No time to explain.”

Right. No time to say these words: “The zombies don’t attack weakness. They don’t attack the terminally ill. They don’t see the terminally ill. That’s their weakness. Exploit it.”

And why doesn’t he have the time to say this? Because it has to be one guy, with one chance, in one place. It’s the only way we know how to tell our stories.

That’s our weakness. And Hollywood keeps exploiting it.

Posted at 08:15 AM on Jul 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday June 29, 2013

Movie Review: White House Down (2013)


“He’s last man standing. Everyone else that could possibly guard the White House, I mean every single motherfucking one of them, dies. Why? Because it has to be just one guy. We don’t know how to do it otherwise.”

-- Me, in my review of “Olympus Has Fallen,” March 25, 2013

And we still don’t.

If “Olympus Has Fallen” was “Die Hard in the White House,” then “White House Down” is … also “Die Hard in the White House.” It’s just not quite so offensive. It’s not patriotism porn.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Put the left one in
Once again, one man (John Cale, played by Channing Tatum) is in a closed-off location by accident (part of a tour group) when terrorists take over a building (the White House); and just as the terrorists systematically, almost immaculately, wipe out all of the buildings defenses (Secret Service, etc.), he, for the rest of the movie, wipes out the terrorists. White House Down, starring Channing TatumThere’s a rooftop battle in which the hero’s allies mistake him for the enemy and shoot. There’s a gum-chewing, scenery-chewing computer geek who’s annoying as all fuck out. (Presciently, he’s a hacker formerly with the NSA). There’s a loved one among the hostages (Cale’s daughter, Emily, played by Joey King), who is used by the terrorists as barter. The terrorists also mask their true intentions. In “Die Hard” they pretend to be political when they really want money. Here, they pretend to want money when they’re really political. Most of the outside people keep making the wrong moves but our guy keeps making the right ones to keep saving the day. Because the day must be saved. That’s why we paid our $12.

How does “White House Down” differ from “Olympus Has Fallen”? Hardly at all. Channing Tatum has a lighter touch than Gerard Butler, but then so does a gorilla. No, the biggest difference is who America’s enemies are and what this means politically.

In “Olympus,” the enemies are a North Korean terrorist group, which plans to blow up all of our nukes in their silos, and thus destroy the United States of America (and, one imagines, most of Canada and Mexico) for all time.

In “White House Down,” the enemies are a combination of mercenaries, warmongers, and right-wing racists who despise our African-American president, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), and who are brought together by the outgoing head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (James Woods), whose son was killed during a special ops mission designed to uncover nukes in Iran. (No nukes were uncovered.) For most of the movie, even as Walker lays out his subterfuge to the Joint Chiefs about wanting money, we, who’ve had a ringside seat this entire time, assume he’s in it for revenge. But that’s wrong, too. Pres. Sawyer, you see, has made historic peace overtures to various countries in the Middle East, and plans to withdraw our troops from the region. Walker sees this as a betrayal, and, in conjunction, with … wait for it … Speaker of the House Rafelson (Richard Jenkins), who is secretly doing the bidding of the military-industrial complex, they, or more accurately he, Walker, gets set to launch nukes targeting key cities in the Middle East. Because he wants the war to end all wars. He wants the missiles to fly. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

So if “Olympus” is the White House takeover from the paranoid right-wing perspective, “Down” is the White House takeover from the paranoid left-wing perspective.

And only one man, and a little girl, can stop them.

Wake up, Maggie
I need a new word.

You know how sometimes you can laugh and throw up in your mouth at the same time? I felt something similar during “White House Down.” It was a button-pushing moment—I don’t remember which one—that was so absurd that, even as I felt emotion welling up in me, even as I felt tears in my eyes, I burst out laughing.

I think it might’ve been the moment when the Speaker, now President, orders an attack on the White House, and Emily, running from the half-destroyed Oval Office, makes big sweeping motions with the presidential flag to warn them to stand down; and they do. Because of this speck of a girl doing something with something.

Then again, this movie is nothing but absurd scenes. How about the moment when the President of the United States, riding shotgun in a presidential SUV, gets out an RPG and blows away the White House gate so he and Cale can get out? “That’s something you don’t see every day,” one character says—a wink from the filmmakers on the absurdity of their own film. Of course, the two men still don’t get outside. How could they? We need to keep them in the one place, the White House, so they wind up face down in the White House pool, wheels spinning.

How about the moment when super-baddie and former special ops yadda yadda Stenz (Jason Clarke) realizes his buddy is among the first of the terrorists killed by Cale and reacts as if death is unthinkable? That they were going to take over the White House, and nuke Iran, and no one would get their hair mussed except Pres. Sawyer and Iran. And various Secret Service and military officers. And whoever was in the U.S. Capitol. Which is blown up as a diversion.

How about any scene with Killick (Kevin Rankin), the right-wing racist, who sports a full moustache and sleeveless fatigues, and struts around almost bow-legged as he guards the hostages? I guess he’s supposed to be terrifying, or maddening, but he looks like somebody who’s wandered away from a Village People tribute band.

My favorite absurd moment, though, is a line reading from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Was she ever any good as an actress or were we just fooled into thinking she was good? Because she’s awful in this. Aw. Full.

She plays Finnerty, who apparently has a past with Cale (go figure), and who, that morning, interviews him for a Secret Service job. She turns him down, of course. He was a C student, he has trouble with authority, etc. You, basically. When the shit goes down, she’s outside, winds up with the Joint Chiefs and the Speaker, butting heads, and delivering lines like, “Your first act as president … is to blow up the White House?” She’s supposed to be the movie’s Sgt. Powell, the ally on the outside, but she’s too high-level, not working-class enough, and almost everything she says grates like nails on a chalkboard. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is this: After John Cale single-handedly saves the country, and certainly the Middle East, and possibly even the world from massive death and destruction, she, Finnerty, meets him on the White House lawn, and, with all of the press buzzing around, and the White House still smoldering in the background, looks him squarely in the eye and says, “Thank you for everything you did today,” in a tone that my boss would use if I’d just done a pretty good PowerPoint presentation.

Thank you for everything you did today? In that officious tone? Maggie. Hon. Put a little love into it. Or at least a dollop of emotion.

On opening day, we fight back
You want to hear my idea for a paranoid action movie? Here it is.

It’s about a writer-director who makes big-budget action movies in which, even post-9/11, our most beloved landmarks and institutions are destroyed. Let’s make this guy, I don’t know, German. That’s an easy mark, right? Let’s call him … Franz Heimlich. No, too silly. How about … Roland Emmerich? That’s silly, too, but we’ll work on it.

So this German, Roland Emmerich, secretly hates America and the world, which is why, in his movies, he keeps destroying America and the world. His first big movie was an alien-invasion movie in which the money-shot was the White House getting blown up. He called it “Independence Day.” Then he goes on to destroy New York City (“Godzilla”), the world (“The Day After Tomorrow”), the world again (“2012”), and the reputation of William Shakespeare (“Anonymous”), before returning to destroy the U.S. Capitol and the White House (“White House Down”). In his wake, the world lies in ruins, smoldering. He is able to do what Hitler only dreamed of doing.

Best of all? He does it with our help. We pay to see these things happen. Over and over again. Even though none of them are any good. Even though all of them are eventually low-rated (< 7.0) on But by then he deed is done. By then, he’s in his bunker somewhere, laughing, and covering himself with our money.

That’s the villain of my paranoid action movie.

And the hero? The hero is you. Because you stop going.

Posted at 09:03 AM on Jun 29, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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