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White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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An American Carol (2008)

Being a conservative in Hollywood is like being a gay Republican – tough business. Director David Zucker has a notable history with comedy, having helmed Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, and the back half of the Scary Movies. He says that he converted to conservatism in the wake of 9/11, and Zucker actually wrote and directed a short for the 2004 Republican National Convention that was deemed too edgy for the Grand Old Party. Conservatives have also garnered the reputation for not having the best sense of humor, and Zucker’s An American Carol will do little to change this belief.

Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is an egotistical, fat, liberal documentary filmmaker whose latest work is titled, “Die You American Pigs.” Catchy, ain’t it? Malone wants to abolish the Fourth of July (would we just skip to July 5th?) and plans to protest a Trace Adkins concert for the troops. A batch of inept Islamic terrorists want to bomb the concert and decide into tricking Malone into assisting their goal. He will score them media passes to get onstage at the concert venue. Following the Charles Dickens’ playbook, Malone is first visited by the spirit of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who horrifies Malone by saying war is sometimes necessary (really, conservatives are trying to reclaim Kennedy?). Three spirits will visit him although he spends almost all of his time with the ghost of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer). The ghostly general takes Malone on a trip to see what the alternative versions of U.S. history had the country avoided war at all costs. Malone stays defiant until he meets up with the Angel of Death (also Trace Adkins, because?) and sees the error of his “America-hating” ways. I don’t want to spoil things too much but the movie ends with an expanded Trace Adkins concert saluting the brave men and women in the armed forces.

Some from the opposing political viewpoints will find An American Carol to be infuriating. To those angry few I say get over it, because this movie is simply too lazy to get angry over. It barely reaches 77 minutes before the credits roll. Zucker and company tend to stretch their canvas too broadly, to the point that they aren’t exaggerating to lampoon but setting up cheap jokes. Michael Malone is fat. Michael Malone smells. Michael Malone falls down. Liberals hate America and want the terrorists to win. It’s so easy to write this material because there’s nothing topical or nuanced or even socially relevant. The movie beats reliable figures of conservative agita. When the movie tries to slam college professors as being dippy hippies brainwashing teens about the insurmountable ills of America, it just gets dumb (those people spend 10-15 years studying in a specialized academic field). There is no teeth to any of this satire because it’s all just recycled caricatures with the wit ground down. There isn’t anything of true satirical substance here. I don’t even get some of the satire, like the ACLU is depicted as a cluster of zombies with briefcases. What does that mean? Needless to say, the skewering of Arabs is mostly cartoonish and offensive. The flick constantly makes fun of the documentary art form, saying they are inferior to “real movies.” Because Michael Moore has an Oscar does that mean that the history of documentary film has to be slandered as being nothing more than transparent propaganda (at an awards ceremony, the top documentary is honored with the “Leni Riefenstahl Award”)? Marginalizing an entire art form seems rash, especially considering that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed over $220 million worldwide. As of this writing, An American Carol, a “real movie,” has grossed seven million and counting.

The film deals in distasteful absolutes. Every idea is presented crudely in black and white. By the film’s standards, being anti-war and anti-troops are inseparably linked. In my mind, and this might be crazy, but it seems to me that the most pro-troops one could be would be hoping for them all to return home alive and healthy. An American Carol attempts to justify the ongoing War in Iraq, though it conveniently only ever flashes to combat in Afghanistan, the war that a majority of the public agrees with. It makes a case that war is sometimes necessary, though it has to flash back to Hitler and World War II to find a morally justified military engagement that everyone can feel god about. I agree that war is sometimes a reasonable option, but the movie paints all pacifists as wimpy appeasers. George Washington (Jon Voight) even steps in at one point to argue for the necessity of war in reference to the War on Terror. Did the filmmakers forget that Washington spent great expense to keep the nation out of foreign wars in his two terms? Isn’t it also condescending and objectionable to have Washington say freedom of speech is misused when it goes against the government? I think the Founding Fathers would realize the importance of freedom of speech, including offensive speech. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic to use slave-owners as mouthpieces for the merits of freedom? An American Carol says that disagreement is the same as dissent; so refusing to support one’s government blindly during a time of war is traitorous. Criticism is not anti-American. It’s insulting to all rationale human beings. Zucker and crew make their case look just as myopic and dismissive as those they choose to ridicule.

The acting neither hinders nor helps the material. Farley is a game comedian but he cannot do much with such lightweight material. There are several celebrity cameos including James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Bill O’Reilly, Mary Hart, David Alan Grier, Gary Coleman, Leslie Nielsen, Zachary Levi, Kevin Sorbo, and Paris Hilton. When Zucker is calling favors into the likes of Paris Hilton, you know things cannot be solid.

Here’s the problem. It’s harder to satirize from a conservative point of view. Conservatism believes that the status quo is best or that things were better back in the day. Liberalism believes that society can always improve, so a liberal point of view would tweak the present situation in order to call attention to remaining improvements. A conservative point of view would make fun of that possible change. This is the same reason why documentaries, like it or not, typically have a more progressive bent, and it’s because the filmmakers are presenting a case for change or outrage. Why would anyone devote himself or herself for years to create a film that says the world is peachy? Now I’m not saying that conservatism and humor are conflicting concepts, but it just makes it harder to be smarter. Making fun of Good Night, and Good Luck is not trying hard enough. How dare George Clooney make a film about the media cowering and failing to question our elected leaders and have it be applicable to today’s world.

The Zucker gag-a-minute spoof style doesn’t necessarily translate well to political satire. I wasn’t expecting much with An American Carol. When they exploit 9/11, taking Malone to the wreckage of the World Trade Center to make its case, well the movie stops being a satire and just implodes. It hits its tired targets with a sledgehammer. The satire is extremely lazy, the slapstick is dumb, and the movie specializes in being obnoxious, coloring the world in two extremes. This isn’t satire. This is just cheap and petty. Seriously, making fun of Michael Moore is like four years too late. Moore is a figure worthy of satire but the best that the movie can come up with is he’s fat and hates America? That he’s angry because he couldn’t get girls when he was younger and all those studly military recruits did? That’s not satire, that’s just excessive name-calling. An American Carol presents a new low for Zucker and I think even he knows it. On the DVD commentary track, Zucker, co-writer Lewis Friedman (BASEketball), and actor Kevin Farley basically lambaste the final product, often criticizing their own movie. The derisive commentary track is more enjoyable than the film itself.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Oliver Stone is a seamstress of visuals and visceral noise. Any Given Sunday is perfect as he delves into the professional world of football and how it becomes a dance of testosterone and fury. But after awhile all the audience feels is a pounding and a ringing in its ears.

The biggest stumbling block may actually be its focal point – there’s too much football! The games last as long as actual games and there are multiple games through out. Though Stone captures the essence nicely that these spandex-clad athletes are the gladiators of today playing in a ballet of chaos, he just throws too many jangled cuts, quick shots, and extreme angles flashing around to hyper-decibel soundtrack fodder. After a while the viewer becomes dizzied by the rush of noise and flash of lights buzzing around their precious skull. It’s enough to cause a concussion simply from watching.

]Most of the action in Any Given Sunday actually happens off the field with some meaty drama delivered by multiple players. Stone focuses in on the people behind the catches and blocks and how the game can control or transform their lives. Finally a drawn-out story that covers football with respect. Diaz and Pacino get into screaming matches for roughly most of the movie, but it’s exciting to see two great actors throw the acting medicine ball back and forth trying to out-duel the one before. The supporting characters all have stories suitable to the game and interesting enough to warrant attention. Jaime Foxx has a nonchalant magnetism that keeps the audience pulling for him even after he vomits for the third time on camera.

Stone lets the viewer into the game of football in a manner truthful yet exaggerated. But with all the whiz-bang he throws out in Any Given Sunday one can’t help but have wished for more constraint in the excess and more minutes for the drama in between.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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