Sunday, June 30, 2013

President’s Daze: “White House Down” is Really Dumb But at Least It’s Not Boring

Is anyone else experiencing a serious case of White House déjà vu? The Gerard Butler action drama “Olympus Has Fallen” came out four months ago to mediocre reviews and to be honest, I thought it would be the lesser of the two films. “White House Down” has the guy who made "Independence Day" and "2012" behind it and stars the always likeable Jamie Foxx hot off “Django Unchained” and the recent sensation Channing Tatum hot off a hilarious cameo in “This is the End.” However, in a twist of M. Night Shyamalan proportions “White House Down” is actually the lesser of the two “Die Hard in the White House” action flicks to be released this year.

 Channing Tatum is US Capitol police officer John Cale working under the Speaker of the House who longs to be part of the Secret Service protecting US President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). He’s divorced and has a young daughter who’s obsessed with politics. He’s one of those typical “absent fathers” in movies whose kids call them by their first names. He gets her a ticket to tour the White House on the same day he gets an interview for a Secret Service position. Moments there’s an exposition in the Capital building and soon after terrorists take over the White House. But they’re not the standard international terrorists we usually see in movies like this. In fact, once you actually find out who’s behind all this and why you may want to slap your forehead a few times. Cale’s daughter is one of the hostages and the film spends plenty of time putting the terrified young girl in harm’s way. How many times did this poor girl have a gun to her head? Oh but look, there’s the funny tour guide who cracks jokes and tells one of the bad guys carrying a machine gun to be careful with that priceless Ming vase. Meanwhile, Cale at first is undetected and he quickly joins up with the president and the two proceed to help take the White House back John McClane-style.

This movie is pretty dumb. It’s not dumb because the premise is unbelievable it’s dumb because of the choices Roland Emmerich decides are okay to be in his movie. Like why does John have a seemingly stupid and pointless conversation with a squirrel at the beginning of the film? Did he not deem that a stupid and unnecessary part of James Vanderbilt’s surprisingly shoddy screenplay? I could even forgive the fact that James Sawyer would never even remotely have a chance of being the President in real life because Jamie Foxx give it his all. He and Tatum work rather well together. Even Maggie Gyllenhaal escapes the movie with her otherwise successful career still intact. I can’t really divulge much about the motives of why these people would take over the White House, but it’s simply put the most preposterous and stupid reason ever! No doubt about it.   

It’s inevitable that “White House Down” is going to be compared with “Olympus Has Fallen.” And that makes sense since they’re practically the same movie. Except for one big difference. While both films are hugely far-fetched, “White House Down” has a serious personality disorder. It’s not sure if it wants to be a straight up balls-to-the-wall action flick or a silly buddy action comedy. “Olympus Has Fallen” played its ridiculous premise completely straight and was therefore completely confident of its intended tone. “White House Down” wants to be serious drama – look there’s a young child in jeopardy! – but throws in too many moments of silly comic relief that just makes you realize just how dumb this thing is. And the more you try to forget how you’d rather be watching “Die Hard” or “Air Force One” the more you might actually enjoy it.

“White House Down” even at a runtime of over two hours is never really dull. It’s loaded with action and it even has a few genuine moments of suspense and even a surprise here and there. The actors are pretty solid here. They give it their all. It does eventually begin to wear out its welcome moving into the third act which includes nuclear missiles being launched at Air Force One of all targets. I was never really bored by “White House Down” (and it’s still more entertaining than “A Good Day to Die Hard”)but it has too many cheesy eye-rolling moments and can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a serious movie or a silly movie so it decides to be both – with borderline disastrous results.  But in the end I didn't hate it. GRADE: B-


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Swarm Bodies: Brad’s Zombie Disaster Flick “Word War Z” is Kinda the Pits

There’s really only one truly great and memorable sequence in “World War Z,” the latest zombie related entertainment the industry has thrown at us. The scene takes aboard an airplane flight. Everything seems to be going well until an infected person (zombie) makes its way up from the cargo hold. Then all hell breaks loose. So where do you go exactly to get away from a zombie when you’re aboard an airplane? It’s a scary thought; perhaps the whole movie should have taken place on the plane. It worked for snakes, why not infected, raging humans? I looked forward to “World War Z,” not as a fan of the book (which I haven’t read), nor as a huge zombie fan (though I am), but more as a huge fan of disaster flicks. A movie that looks like “War of the Worlds” meets “28 Days Later?” I’m so there. The problem is, the movie just sort of quickly moves along without giving us anything truly memorable or giving us anyone to really care all that much about.

Brad Pitt gives a good performance in “World War Z” and it was truly fun to be able to watch someone of his caliber sort of slumming it in a zombie related summer action flick. Check out his filmography. While he does do fun movies (Ocean’s Eleven), action movies (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and silly movies (Burn After Reading) you’d be hard pressed to find just a flat out awesome summer action thriller on his resume. This film could have been it, but alas it just disappoints. The film begins like “War of the Worlds” in that it follows the plight of a family trying to survive the immediate onslaught of a terrible disaster; humans have been come infected with a rage virus which is spreading like wildfire. There are explosions and lots of people are killed and it’s pure chaos. But quickly (way too quickly) the family is saved by Gerry Lane’s (Pitt) colleagues from the United Nations where he used to be employed. His wife and two young daughters are whisked away to a US navy ship, where the family is no longer in jeopardy for the entire rest of the film. And Gerry goes off to various exotic locations like South Korea and Jerusalem in order to figure out how this outbreak occurred and how to stop it.

The problem is that none of the sequences Gerry’s involved in (save for that airplane scene I mentioned) aren’t nearly as exciting nor as frightening as they should be. The film sets up such a scary situation (though rather too quickly if you ask me) and then really doesn’t do much with it. The book, as I’ve heard, doesn’t follow a straight narrative and is rather a collection of various accounts about how this zombie war began, started, and ended. And even though the film follows one main character, we never really get to spend that much time knowing him or really caring all that much if he gets back to his family. We know they’re safe and we know since Gerry is the lead that everyone will most likely live happily ever after.

I’m not quite sure what the problem here is. Could it be that direct Marc Forster, who is a competent enough director though nothing special, has tried his hand at way too many different types of genres? He bounces from drama (Monster’s Ball) to comedy (Stranger Than Fiction) to action (Quantum of Solace) without any of them sharing any similar vision. I would have preferred to see James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan or even Frank Darabont’s interpretation of “World War Z.” Forster’s film just looks and feels bland; there’s nothing very visually interesting going on. And at this point it's just cliché to blame co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof, so I won't even blame him.

“World War Z” is not a horrible movie. The design of the zombies is pretty good. I like how they run and swarm like giant hordes of ants, even if some will say the effects looks kind of cheesy. They even climb on top of each other to scale walls. Of course they’re not your typical “back from the dead” type of zombies. They’re just infected by an unknown virus. The film’s conclusion isn’t horrible either (much has been said in the press about the film’s extensive reshoots and reworking of its ending). And there’s that plane sequence I’ve mentioned twice already. Like I said, the movie isn’t horrible. The problem is that as a disaster action movie the film is just merely ok (And let's not forget the PG-13 level lack of zombie gore) And when you have a summer filled with excellent big budget Hollywood movies like “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek into Darkness,” it’s impossible to be great when your movie is as ordinary as “World War Z;” or more appropriately, “World War Zzzzzzzz.”  GRADE: C+

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Apocalypse Now: “This is the End” May Be the Best Comedy of the Year

It’s all been leading up to this. Not long after “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen made a splash back in 2007 when he starred in Knocked Up and co-wrote “Superbad.” Let’s thank Judd Apatow. And ever since then him and his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been cranking out really funny and irreverent films. Sure there have been some hiccups along the way (I never saw “The Watch;” nobody did). But never have they come up with something so spectacularly awesome as “This is the End.” It’s a project that could have easily failed miserably. Seth Rogen playing himself along with a slew of slack pack Hollywood actors set during an apocalyptic event? All set inside James Franco’s multimillion dollar bachelor pad? It has all the makings of self-congratulating masturbatory pretentiousness. But these guys are smart. And funny. Very very funny. And this film only works because audiences have spent the last six or so years getting to know the onscreen personalities of the actors in the movie.

Seth Rogen plays himself. Most people probably think of him in real life a schlubby guy who eats bad food and gets high a lot. That’s pretty much how he’s portrayed. He picks up his friend Jay Baruchel who starred in his own movie, you probably never saw “She’s Out of My League.” The guys are best friends, but Jay isn’t into the LA lifestyle and so he feels like an outcast amongst Seth’s other good friends Jonah Hill and James Franco.  They attend a party at Franco’s house with lots of famous people. Sure these aren’t old Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise or George Clooney. We’re talking those funny guys you see in movies that haven’t quite paid their dues just yet. Look, there’s Michael Cera! He’s sort of a douche and he keeps slapping Rihanna’s ass. Hey, it’s Daryl from The Office. His name is Craig Robertson. Speaking of The Office, it’s Mindy Kaling! Of course Jason Segal is there. Even Hermione herself Emma Watson is chilling. And the kid who played McLovin. It’s a “Superbad” reunion!

Things take a turn for the worse when Seth and Jay visit a convenient store to get some munchies. A powerful earthquake rips through the city and some people are beaming into the sky by streams of blue light. They head back to the party where a giant sink hole forms hilariously sending many of these actors to their deaths. Cera gets it the worst, having a street lamp pierce him through the chest while everyone watches on in horror. The only ones left are Seth, Jay, Craig, Jonah, and James. They have no idea what’s going on, but decide to barricade themselves in the house. They figure since they’re actors rescue is most likely imminent. And let’s not forget that Danny McBride has been passed out in the bathtub and has no clue what’s been going on. And so begins what essentially becomes a feature film version of Big Brother with celebrities set during the apocalypse. There are too many surprises and laughs to go into much depth, but anyone who finds any of these guys’ humor is going to love every minute of it.

The film is surprisingly witty and well-paced. Rogen and Goldberg make their directorial debut and it’s simply wonderful. Every scene has some kid of sidesplitting laugh or surprise. You never quite know where it’s going and the mystery about what’s actually happening out there is perfectly and slowly revealed. Each actor has a great time playing a caricature version of their real life persona. Jonah Hill seems rather stuck up and special; after all he’s been nominated for an Oscar. As has Franco, who keeps all sorts of props from his movies including the camera from “127 Hours” and  a prop gun from “Flyboys.”  McBride probably comes off as the worse after he threatens the groups food and water supply and even dirties up the house’s only adult entertainment magazine. The whole thing is such a deliciously meta exercise in wickedly funny comedy.

The screenplay hits all the right notes. Even when you think you know what’s going to happen it occurs in a completely different way. The name Channing Tatum is mentioned, you think: well he has to turn up somewhere right? But not nearly where you’d expect. The humor here, with all of Rogen’s work is completely juvenile. There are even scenes of the actors drinking their own urine to survive, but it’s all in the name of hilarious comedy. And the violence is so over the top (we get to see the point of view of a severed head) that all you can do is laugh.

“This is the End” is so subversive and irreverent I’m amazed any studio had the balls to green light it. But why wouldn’t they? Rogen himself has proven that his brand of childish humor is something that really sells today. And it does because it connects with major audiences. The film is so fresh and funny the actors make it seem easy. It feels like a bunch of friends who decided to make a movie by playing themselves. But it looks anything but simple. There are some truly astounding special effects at work here especially for a comedy. And while the actors are basically playing themselves, they all give terrific performances. The relationship between Seth and Jay is disturbingly well fleshed out and as certain things are revealed you realize how much movie stars are just like you and me. It even has a, dare I say, poignant message.

“This is the End” is a simply astounding film from beginning to end. You’ll be in awe at how good it really is. I definitely am. If you’re a fan of any of these guys or of irreverent, ridiculous, and even offensive humor you’ll love it. It just may be the funniest movie of the year.  GRADE: A

Friday, June 14, 2013

Oh Henry! Superman Returns in the Sort of Spectacular “Man of Steel”

Is it even possible to make a really great Superman movie these days that will be universally loved? In 2006 Bryan Singer’s romanticized “Superman Returns” landed in theaters with a collective “meh” and I’m not quite sure anyone’s been clamoring for more. I enjoyed that film for what it was even though it was full of flaws (including a terribly bland Lois Lane and a mildly bland Brandon Routh). Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” hoped to correct all that. Now with the massively successful “Dark Knight” trilogy out of the way, Warner Bros decided to have another turn at bat with a darker, more brooding take on Superman. Even Christopher Nolan was brought in to help move things along. The result is sort of a mix bag: “Man of Steel” has some great sequences and is overall pretty exciting, but its focus on mind-numbing action and certain narrative choices stop it from becoming the definitive Superman movie.

A better title for Man of Steel might as well have been “Superman Begins.” After the success of the first Spider-man film and Batman Begins, the movie studios chose to follow the formula of telling various comic superhero characters’ origins. Why not start at the beginning and start a franchise? “Man of Steel” begins on the planet Krypton where a massive war is being waged and the planet is in imminent danger of a full on destruction because of its unstable core. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is basically being a big jerk and kills Jor-El (Russell Crowe) but not before he and his wife send their newborn son Kal-El in a space pod destined for planet Earth. Zod is banished to the Phantom Zone for his crime and is never to be heard from again, or until the plot requires his obvious return. It’s cool to see Krypton in all its CGI glory but this prologue goes on for far too long. We then cut to Kal-El as an adult now played by a homeless man version of Henry Cavill. We then see too many childhood flashbacks, which interrupt the flow of the film. His name is Clark Kent and we see him discovering his various superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and super strength. He’s raised by an Earthling couple played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. They are both great here. While I actually really liked these flashbacks, they are awkwardly placed and the film would have benefited from telling a more straightforward narrative.

Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is introduced while on assignment somewhere near the North Pole. It just so happens to be the location where Kal-El can communicate with the consciousness of his deceased father. Kal-El saves Lois after being injured and she becomes intent on discovering her rescuer’s identity. And then eventually it’s revealed that General Zod had been released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton was destroyed. That’s convenient. He then travels to Earth and demand that they give up Kal-El or face dire consequences which include a third act of lots of mind-numbing action.

Most might have complained that “Superman Returns” didn’t have enough action. Well Man of Steel just may have too much. Now, the film’s action-packed third act is nowhere near as atrocious as something Michael Bay might have made, but it still feels like action and destruction to pad out an already slightly bloated runtime. If there was even a whiff of actual suspense then it would at least be justified. But how suspenseful is it to watch two guys who practically can’t be killed fight each other? Where’s kryptonite when you need it? But in the end the movie is all worth it because it sets up what could possibly be a better and more familiar Superman story. Clark finally puts on those thick black framed glasses and perhaps we’ll finally get to see a ripped Henry Cavill act like a nerdy buffoon.

Am I being too critical? Yes and no. It is summertime and movies tend to be a lot dumber. It must be because so many kids are out of school. But at the same time many people have been waiting patiently for a Superman movie that is just plain awesome. “Man of Steel” comes close. There are some pretty great visuals here and for the most part there are some great thrilling moments which are enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s pounding score. Cavill is a good Superman overall. He’s got the look and the charm. Thought he doesn’t get to spend enough time as “Clark Kent” so the jury’s still out on that. I do think this is probably the best the filmmakers could have done with such an outdated American character, at least until the sequel. But the film moves along too swiftly foregoing character development in order to get to the action, but if we don’t know the characters why should we care whether they live or die? In the end the movie reveals its biggest surprise: for a more traditional Superman film, “Superman Returns” might actually be the way to go.  GRADE: B-