Movie Reviews - 2013 postsSaturday 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. There’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 IMDb.com. 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.
Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)
After watching Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” at SIFF Uptown in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, my friend Vinny complained that the movie didn’t give us enough outside of the vacuous lives of its girl/gay protagonists, who are obsessed with celebrity and luxury items and combine the two fascinations by breaking into the homes of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) and stealing shit (jewelry, shoes, panties, pills).
“That’s what’s brilliant about it,” I said. “It doesn’t give us anything else. Just that.”
Seriously, I can’t remember a recent movie where form and content matched so well. You could make the movie and the characters more interesting. You could use better actors. You could create better dialogue and give us a better soundtrack. But there’s a kind of brilliance in immersing us in the awful, dreamlike horror of these empty, empty lives. What is it these kids do? They steal, then they wear what they steal, then they dance and party, wearing what they’ve stolen, and take countless selfies and post them on Facebook and tell their friends where they’ve been. It’s the emptiest of lives but it’s the pinnacle of life for them. How sad is that? They are drawn to the celebrity light as if only that which is filmed is real. They want to be on the other side of the celebrity camera. They want to be the watched rather than the watcher.
They get their wish.
Can you afford me?
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid in school in Calabasas, Calif., an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, and his arrival is greeted by the other kids with vague eyerolls, OMGs, and dismissive critiques of what he’s wearing. A girl in the hallway bumps into him and tells him to watch it. The sense of privilege here, particularly among the girls, is immediate and overwhelming. But Rebecca (Katie Chang) seems nice, if blank. She makes overtures. She invites him to the beach. Why is she so nice to him? Because she feels she can manipulate him? We never find out.
Soon they’re hanging regularly. They smoke pot. They go shopping. The actors aren’t particularly good and their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting because the characters have nothing really to say. “I was always self-conscious that I wasn’t as good-looking as other people,” Marc tells us in voiceover. That’s as deep as it gets. The whole thing feels inert and airless.
They begin to hang with a few others, including Nicki the princess (Emma Watson), her crazy half-sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and balls-out Chloe (Claire Julien, in one of the film’s better performances). They ride around town, listen to hip-hop, flash gang signs, and engage in girl talk:
Girl 1: Bitch, you’re just jealous.
Girl 2: Suck my dick.
They get into clubs even though they’re underage. Hey, there’s Kirsten Dunst. Hey, there’s Paris Hilton. Later, Marc reads that Paris is hosting a party in Vegas. That’s when Rebecca gets the idea. Where does Paris live? “I bet she’d leave her keys under the mat,” Rebecca says. CUT TO: Finding the keys under the mat. That was good. That made me laugh out loud.
Arguments can be made about which is worse: the kids’ celebrity obsession or the celebrity’s own celebrity obsession. Paris Hilton’s place, as portrayed here, is glitzy and filled with reminders of her own status: throw pillows with her picture on them; a wall of her magazine covers; a framed poster of herself wearing a T-shirt reading “CAN YOU AFFORD ME?” One secret room contains nothing but designer shoes. The kids, who return several times, try on clothes and jewelry as if they’re in a store. They fight over outfits. Rebecca tries to take Paris Hilton’s dog at one point. “You can’t take her dog,” Marc tells her.
Rebecca is the engine, Marc the brakes, but the brakes don’t work very well. The more often they get away with it, the more brazen they become. They go to Megan Fox’s home and Nicki practically undulates on the bed. They find a gun in Orlando Bloom’s home and Sam waves it around dangerously, enjoying the power. They find a stash of Rolexes under his bed and hock them with a bouncer at a club (Gavin Rossdale). I don’t know if Coppola intended this but the further they go, the more distant the celebrity names became to me. Eventually they steal from the home of someone named Audrina who was in something called “The Hills.”
As I sat in the theater, watching all this, I wondered whose home I would break into. Jackie Chan’s? E.L. Doctorow’s? And steal what? And why? I liked these people. Why would I take from them? That’s a few steps shy of Mark David Chapman territory, isn’t it? These kids rob whom they love. They want to be immersed in that. They want to be that.
Then they become that.
The lesson of the non-lesson
When the cops come—after the story finally hits the press—they come swiftly and smartly. They’re all rounded up. Of course the kids have been dumb. That’s part of the point.
For a time they get to experience life on the other side of the camera. A few (Marc) are uncomfortable there. A few (Nicki) have lawyers and managers and get interviewed by a reporter from Vanity Fair, who writes the article upon which the movie is based. We get Nicki and her awful mom (Leslie Mann), with her awful vaguely Eastern, me-first homilies, jockeying for position in the interview. “Mom, it’s my interview,” Nicki complains.
The harshest sentences go to the engine, Rebecca, and the brakes, Marc, who each get four years. We see Marc, wearing an orange jumpsuit, and chained to other hardened criminals, taking the bus to LA County Jail. That seems the lesson. You don’t want to be where Marc is at that moment. And the heavy steel door to the LA County Jail is clanged shut. It’s a classic ending.
But it’s not the ending because it’s not really the lesson. Nicki, with her lawyers and managers, gets only 30 days. She’s interviewed about her time in prison, about who she saw there (Lindsay Lohan), about what they were wearing (orange jumpsuits). She spins the whole adventure so it’s about her. “I’m a firm believer in Karma and I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me,” she says, aping her mom’s me-first, Eastern homilies. “I want to run a non-profit. I want to lead a country one day for all I know.”
That’s the lesson. It’s the lesson of the non-lesson, of nothing learned. It’s all about how you get on the other side of the camera, where real life is.
CAN YOU AFFORD ME?
No, we can’t.
Movie Review: The Kings of Summer (2013)
In sixth grade I read “My Side of the Mountain,” a young adult novel about a kid who gets fed up with family life and carves out an existence in a huge tree in the woods and has all sorts of adventures. I loved it. I was never that brave, or that adept in the wilderness (Indian Guides rather than Boy Scouts), so the furthest I got was a deep shelf in the back of the family garage. I set up a little fortress there, which is where I fled during family squabbles.
Joe (Nick Robinson) is made of sturdier stuff, and, when his widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman), lays down harsh laws at the beginning of another high school summer, Joe bolts for a clearing in the nearby woods, dragging along his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias), the odd kid in school. Together, with tools they’ve stolen from their parents, and supplies they’ve stolen from around town—wood paneling, a slide, window panes and an outhouse door—they build a reasonable facsimile of a very leaky house. And that’s where they spend the summer, having adventures.
Usually these adventures are slow-mo montages backed by a song. They jump off a small cliff and into a river. They punch each other and we watch the muscles and skin ripple. At one point, with machetes, Joe and Biaggio go hunting. They climb a hill expecting to see animals on the other side; instead, it’s a freeway with a Boston Market. Wuh-wuhr. So they buy chicken and bring it back. For some reason, they pretend to Patrick that they caught it and cooked it. Wucka wucka.
For a time, I was thinking that writer Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had given us this wonderful gift: a summer movie without super-powered beings or high-tech gizmos. They’d given us a movie about kids who don’t want to watch TV. But TV is never far away because much of the movie has a sitcom feel. The parents are too loopy, the kids too mature—except with each other, when they revert to odd lies and behaviors. Joe, who starts out hapless (he brings a crappy birdhouse to the last day of school, a week late), quickly becomes a James Franco figure: full of empty blather and not much else. There’s a girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarity), a pretty blonde, who seems interested in him. But when he brings her to their hiding place, she goes for Patrick. We don’t blame her. It doesn’t help that at this point Joe is cultivating The Worst Teenage Moustache Ever.
Their adventures in the woods are never that interesting, and the music to back up these adventures is lousy. Honestly, it’s one of the worst indie soundtracks I’ve heard. It’s almost a relief to get out of the woods, which feel increasingly muggy and bug-ridden and claustrophobic, and back to the parents and their search for their kids. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) gives us his usual droll line readings. (“It’s clearly a kidnapping,” he says to Patrick’s parents. “They took the kids, and the pasta and the canned goods.”) Patrick’s Mom, Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”), delivers dingy non sequiturs. Is that the reason for the sitcomy feel? That most of the actors cut their teeth on sitcoms?
In the end, not halfway through the summer, the boys are home, lessons are learned, rifts are mended. “The Kings of Summer” was not filmed before a live studio audience but it might as well have been.
Movie Review: This is the End (2013)
Is the Hollywood-hating, “Left Behind”-loving, conservative Christian crowd checking out “This is the End”? I think they’d dig it the most.
If they did, they’d get to watch that horrible den of liberal iniquity, Hollywood, Calif., turn into a literal hell on earth, while its pampered godless denizens realize not only that they’re pampered and godless but that they have been left behind by God.
They’d get to hear lines like these:
Seth: That means there’s a God. Who saw that shit coming?
Jay: Like 95 percent of the planet?
It’s the Book of Revelation with dick jokes.
On the down side, some of the heathens wind up in heaven anyway. Yes, even the Jews.
Almost everyone in “This is the End” plays themselves, or “plays themselves” in the Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David manner. Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) shows up in L.A. to hang out with his longtime friend Seth Rogen (“The Green Hornet”). Apparently he just wants to hang, but after a day of pot-smoking and 3D video-game-playing Seth drags him to the housewarming party of James Franco (“Spider-Man 3”), Rogen’s co-star in the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.” Everyone’s happy to see Seth, everyone’s awkward around Jay. Jay’s awkward with them, too, and he searches for a place at the party where he might fit in. He doesn’t find it. It’s a good scene, actually. As a perennial not-fitting-in-at-parties dude, I identified. Hell, I do it when I’m not further burdened by the presence of Emma Watson and Rihanna, who, poor girls, probably double the awkward quotient whenever they walk into a room.
At a local convenience store a few blocks away, where Jay is buying smokes, Seth is wary of the tough-talking cashier who demands a man buy something before his daughter uses the restroom. The two stars are riffing on this when the earth cracks open. It’s like an earthquake but bigger, people are screaming, and Jay sees blue beams of light lift half the people in the convenience store into the sky. The father/daughter: yes. The cashier: no. At first I thought UFOs. I didn’t yet know where we were going.
Outside it’s worse, there’s fire everywhere, and, in a panic, Seth and Jay run and stumble back to James Franco’s place … where the party’s still in full swing. In fact, no one believes their story. Then the earth rumbles again and everyone runs outside, where a giant sinkhole opens up on Franco’s front yard, swallowing, among others, Rihanna, Michael Cera (“Scott Pilgrim”), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Kick Ass”), and Paul Rudd (“I Love You, Man”). By the time they regroup inside, we’re down to our principles: Jay, Seth, Franco, Jonah Hill (“Moneyball” ) and Craig Robinson (“The Office”). Danny McBride (“Eastbound & Down”), sleeping it off in the bathtub upstairs, joins them the next morning. Emma Watson returns for a mid-movie cameo.
Franco tries to buoy everyone up. “Just because a bunch of people fell into a giant hole doesn’t mean we can’t have fun,” he says. Jay remains unbuoyed: “I don’t want to die in James Franco’s house,” he tells Seth, whining. Seth panics: “We’re actors! We’re not hard! We pretend to be hard but we’re not!”
The longer they hole up the worse it gets outside. Heads roll. Literally. Demons prowl. By the time Jonah Hill gets raped and possessed by Satan (yes), everyone has finally agreed that Jay is right, that they’re dealing with the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. But Craig shows them a way out. Sacrificing himself for the others, he ascends to heaven just before being eaten (or something) by a giant demon. Franco tries the same method, is en route, but makes the mistake of flipping off Danny McBride, now the leader of a band of cannibals, and tumbles back to earth to get eaten alive.
Eventually we find out heaven is a bit like (alley oop) James Franco’s party, except with the Backstreet Boys. Heaven gets the Backstreet Boys, hell Rihanna. Something wrong in that equation.
“This is the End” has a few funny moments (“Something so not chill happened last night,” Jonah confesses after being Devil-raped), but a lot of clunkers. There’s an attempt to make a shoe-string “Pineapple Express 2,” for example. We also get the usual push-the-envelope stuff—arguments about jizz on porno mags—and too much Danny McBride, whom I’ve never found funny. The movie, like the Christopher Guest comedies, is 50 percent improv. Unlike the Guest comedies, it’s not that funny. I can’t recommend it.
But I am curious if a movie with this many dick jokes, and with Satan himself portrayed with a big swinging dick, can appeal to the “Left Behind” crowd. Because beyond the jizz jokes, the movie gives them everything they want. God rewards the good and punishes Hollywood. Leaving the theater wasn’t like leaving a typical stoner comedy. It was more like leaving “Saving Private Ryan.” You do a kind of spiritual patdown. You wonder: “Have I been a good person?”
Movie Review: Broken City (2013)
There’s a point in Allen Hughes’ “Broken City” when ex-cop, now private investigator, Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg), begins to investigate his own investigation.
Five days before a tight election, Billy is hired by New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), to follow his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta Jones), whom he suspects of infidelity. Lo and behold, Billy finds her in a house on the far end of Long Island having a clandestine meeting with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the opposition candidate’s campaign manager. Then Andrews winds up dead. So Billy asks for, and receives, a clandestine meeting of his own meeting with Cathleen, on the far end of a deserted pier (really?), and she tells him he’s been played for a sap. She was never having an affair with Andrews. She was going to be his snitch, not his snatch. She hates her husband, he’s corrupt, etc., and she was going to bring him down. Now it’s too late. Because apparently she can’t reveal that information to anyone else.
What information? One of the big issues in the election is the Bolton Village housing project, which is where, seven years earlier, Billy, still a cop, shot and killed a young man, Mikey Tavarez, who had earlier been acquitted of the murder and rape of a young girl. The incident roiled the city—white cop, Hispanic kid—but Billy was found not guilty. He lost his job but he walked. Later we find out that Billy’s girlfriend, the budding actress and supreme hottie Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), is actually Natalia Barea, the sister of the murdered girl. So was Billy her boyfriend then? Or did that happen later, as a kind of seven-year-long thank you? Either way: Ick.
Hostetler’s opponent, Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), sporting a Prince-Valiantish haircut no serious contender for mayor would wear, claims Bolton Village won’t be saved by Hostetler but razed. He claims Hostetler is in the pockets of rich developers like Sam Lancaster (Griffin Dunne), whose company has a contract with the city to redevelop Bolton Village. Lancaster’s son, Todd (James Ransone of “The Wire” and “Generation Kill”), with whom the old man has very public fights, was actually going to meet Andrews before Andrews was killed. Which is why Billy stakes out the Lancaster development company.
It’s late at night but there’s tons of activity. Things are being tossed into overflowing garbage bins, and when Billy sneaks close, he uncovers a box and looks at three papers inside: the first two show the plans to raze Bolton Village; the last is a blueprint of the high-rise they plan to put in its place. Ah ha! These three pieces of paper Billy found could cost Hostetler the election!
Then Billy peeks inside the building, sees Sam and Todd fighting (again), and various men shredding documents.
My question: What the hell are these guys shredding if not the three pieces of paper Billy just found?
All of “Broken City” is like this. It’s a ridiculous, over-the-top movie where everyone has one degree of separation from everyone else, and where Mark Wahlberg, bless his heart, has two acting ranges: kinda blank and kinda angry. Is Billy supposed to be an alcoholic? Once he falls off the wagon, he seems to function fine. Can Wahlberg not do hangovers or regrets, or is that not part of his movie-star persona?
One keeps watching to see if the thing finally makes sense. It doesn’t. The Mayor isn’t just in the pockets of the developers, he is a developer. He has a 50 percent stake in Lancaster’s firm. So the $4 billion the city is paying Lancaster to redevelop (that is, raze) Bolton Village? He gets half. Where is the press in all this? And why doesn’t anyone who’s trying to reveal the information (Cathleen, Todd) reveal it to The New York Times? Why don’t they put it on WikiLeaks? Why don’t they post it on Facebook, or tweet it, or create a Tumblr site? I mean, c’mon. What year are we in?
But Hostetler gets his. When he tries to blackmail Billy with direct evidence that Billy shot and killed Mikey Tavarez in cold blood, which he did (that’s our hero, btw), Billy records the conversation with that shitty Voice Memo iPhone app, and turns it over to Police Chief Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright, wasted), even though it means he’ll go to jail, too. And as Fairbanks leads Hostetler away, the day before the election, he lets him know that his wife was having an affair after all. With him.
Watch “City of Hope.”