White House Down

White House Down is an Emmerich movie through and through, but amidst all the gunfire and explosions and stuff, this flick hits all the emotional setups and payoffs we want it to. Sure, there are some somewhat ‘interesting’ political ideas included in the movie, but they’re easily overlooked.

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Released June 28, 2013

Written by James Vanderbilt

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Rachelle Lefevre, Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Lance Reddick, Jason Clarke, Jimmi Simpson, James Woods, and Richard Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Cale (Tatum) is a Capitol policeman who is divorced with a sassy early teen daughter named Emily (King). Cale has a bit of a rough history and is trying to get onto the Secret Service, partly because Emily is obsessed with the White House and the current president, Sawyer (Foxx). Of importance is the fact that Emily has a vlog (video blog) and she gets lucky by getting the president on a video during a tour of the White House.

The film starts with scenes that introduce the major players in the story we’re going to watch. Cale is the primary character, followed by Finnerty (Gyllenhaal), who is the White House chief of staff. She ends up having to lead out on the efforts by external forces to retake the White House after it falls. There is also Walker (Woods), the Secret Service White House detail boss who might just have a plan to do terrible things. Stenz (Clarke) is definitely a bad guy, and he’s a smart, determined guy.

We also have a few smaller characters, notably Donnie the tour guide (Wright), General Caulfield (Reddick), who has to face the implications of a compromised president, and the Speaker of the House, Raphelson (Jenkins), who could use more screen time.

The story unfolds as Cale takes his daughter with him to the White House while he is interviewed for a spot on the Secret Service. Thereafter, as we watch scenes of the bad guys, including a hacker (Simpson) executing what appears to be a complex plan to infiltrate the White House, Cale and Emily end up on a tour of the White House.

Bad timing, of course, as the baddies start shooting up the place and killing people, blowing things to bits in the doing. And just before it begins, Cale and Emily are separated.

Now Cale needs to find Emily before something awful happens. He also ends up having to protect the president. In the meantime, Finnerty has to try to establish and maintain a connection with the president in the occupied White House and keep the country from spiraling out of control, while also tracking down exactly what the bad guys’ agenda really is.

Critique

White House Down is a preposterous, totally ridiculous idea for a film. But what’s astonishing is that it’s all kinds of fun, its characters are totally emotionally accessible, the conflicts have great emotional impact, and every setup has a fun, satisfying payoff.

The images, explosions, quantity of bullets flying, and dialogue are all Emmerich. The dialogue is not fully natural or organic or authentic, but it’s correctly tuned to the moments and scenes and interactions. The pacing is steady, speedy, and very well calibrated to heighten the tension and stakes and allow some breathing space so audiences don’t get burned out.

Action fans, cheesy satisfying flick fans, and pretty good acting fans are going to love White House Down. While it might seem like a dumb actioner on its face, it’s actually very intelligently done, with solid twists and interesting villains making things particularly interesting and engaging.

White House Down is all kinds of surprising fun. The characters who deserve a messy end get it and the characters we care about get to redeem themselves and work through solid heroic moments.

Content warnings: Some salty language and quite a lot of explosive violence, most of it fairly bloodless.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

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The Eagle

The Eagle seems to be billed as an action-packed near-thriller. Instead, it is a fairly slow-moving look at how a young man’s idea of honor is tempered by the realities of the world around him. And it’s pretty good, too.

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Released February 11, 2011

Written by Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, and Denis O’Hare

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) is determined to win back the honor lost by his father. His father was the leader of the Ninth legion of the Roman Empire, whose standard was a golden eagle, and which legion was completely lost/destroyed somewhere north of Hadrian’s wall.

That’s right: the year is 140 AD and Rome runs most of the world.

So Marcus has risen in the ranks of centurions and has just received a new commission in Britain, where he is in charge of a garrison and its fort. He leads his men in an impressive rout of attacking natives, being badly injured in the process. Due to the injury, Marcus has the opportunity to travel north and find the lost eagle standard, whereupon he would win back the honor to his family name. He convinces his uncle (Sutherland) to let him go, and that his slave, Esca (Bell), will not stab him on the journey.

So Marcus and Esca head north, with Esca having pledged his honor to Marcus due to a debt Esca feels he owes. Adventures ensue as Marcus has his ideas about honor challenged and he starts to find reason to break from the Roman party line regarding how honor is won. At the same time, the relationship between Esca and Marcus is explored as duty gives way to respect and friendship.

Critique

The Eagle is, again, not an action-packed thrill ride. It’s also not too concerned with accents, accuracy, and geography. But this film gets a few things right.

First off, the writing and direction allows for extended, character-building scenes, wherein multiple conflicts help the audience see what the characters are truly made of. Furthermore, there are some solid surprises that come from characters’ decisions and there are plenty of opportunities for characters to redeem themselves.

Secondly, the movie is well cast. Given that the film is not really a dramatic actioner but is instead a sometimes dramatic, sometimes stolid, sometimes tense, exploration of friendship and honor and loyalty, it is nice that the actors are young and can convincingly demonstrate a real arc. This arc shows the young men going from somewhat naive to a more grounded outlook on life.

The film is also beautifully shot and very well paced. The Eagle might not satisfy action film fans’ bloodlust and desire for colorful explosions, but it delivers an almost gentle resolution for Marcus, wherein he realizes his life is his own to live and honor is an every day thing.

Issues that don’t allow The Eagle to truly take off include a somewhat stolid pace and not quite enough effort from Tatum. It’s kind of slow at times and Tatum is very serious here. It might have been nice to explore a little more humor.

Content warnings: Some somewhat bloody violence.  

Writing: 4          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3.5

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G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G.I. Joe: Retaliation provides all kinds of explosive, semi-coherent, action tropes, but after a very solid first third, loses its way and becomes at times difficult to watch. Nonetheless, the sum of its parts equal an overall fun ride.

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The deets:

Released March 28, 2013

Written by Rhett Reese and Pal Wernick

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Starring Adrianne Palicki, Elodie Yung, Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johson, Jonathan Pryce, Byung-hun Lee, Ray Park, DJ Cotrona, Ray Stevenson, Arnold Vosloo, and RZA

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Roadblock (Johnson) and Duke (Tatum) are the best that US special forces has to offer. They run a team called GI Joes, which is the toy version of Navy Seals. They successfully pull off a rescue operation in the DMZ between North and South Korea and are living high. But soon after, they are betrayed by the US president (Pryce), and most of the Joes are killed.

Now Roadblock, Jaye (Palicki), and Flint (Cotrona) have to find out what is going on that the president would betray them.

Of course, Cobra is to blame, and it is the master of disguise, Zartan (Vosloo), who has done this terrible thing. But there is more to Cobra’s plan: they want to gain power over the entire world. So Firefly (Stevenson) is sent to free Cobra Commander and Storm Shadow (Lee) to bring to pass their nefarious plans for world domination.

Now Roadblock and his team have to recruit some old Joes, including the original Joe (Willis), in order to stop Cobra.

There is a totally forgettable sub-plot regarding Snake Eyes (Park) and Storm Shadow, as well as Jinx (Young), which is shoehorned into the film to make the final scheme come to pass correctly.

Critique

G.I. Joe: Retaliation starts very well, with Roadblock and Duke having excellent chemistry and putting an actual human and sympathetic face on the Joes. The dynamics of the team, with Flint being something of a wild card and Jaye being a no-nonsense, seriously kick-butt lady, are nicely displayed.

The problem is that all of this character development flies out the window as the main plot starts to unfold. The movie makers seem to have decided, “Okay, enough development, let’s blow things up.”

There is still some somewhat charming interaction, but the one-liners are a bit too precious– too highlighted by the film (as if the writers wanted to point out that they could writer cool zingers)– to really work without the audience giving an eye roll.

The bad guys, thus, become far more interesting than the good guys. Cobra Commander is fully lame, but Jonathan Pryce is clearly having a great time acting as if he is a disguised Zartan. Plus, Cobra’s plan turns out to be pretty cool. Firefly, as played by Ray Stevenson, is also not bad, although he has all of one level, so he gets boring fast.

All in all, with the writing shining every so often but mostly being formulaic, and the action scenes being rather too-precisely choreographed, G.I. Joe: Retaliation provides some distraction and entertainment, but there’s not much substance to that entertainment.

Content warnings: Plenty of explosive violence, a little salty language

Writing: 3          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3

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21 Jump Street

There’s a very nice surprise in 21 Jump Street that encapsulates the reason this movie is effective and enjoyable. I can’t spoil that surprise, but you won’t regret seeing this film.

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The deets:

Released March 16, 2012

Written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, based on the TV series by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Starring Brie Larson, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Ice Cube, Ellie Kemper, Holly Robinson Peete, and Chris Parnell

Rated R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

In 21 Jump Street, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) start out in high school. Jenko is a dumb jock and Schmidt is smart and has made himself look like Eminem. This is why Jenko refers to Schmidt as “Not So Slim Shady”. So I’m a little confused, because that’s a clever nickname, but Jenko’s dumb. I don’t get it.

All of that aside, these two have the dynamics you would expect in high school: Schmidt’s awkward but academically gifted and Jenko’s physically confident but failing his classes. And so Jenko bullies Schmidt. This is brief, and then we fast forward to five years later when both are entering the police academy. They become friends so that they can help each other out, and the friendship blossoms. Yes, it’s a bromance.

As newly minted cops, they’re eager to kick some trash, but they are over eager and flub their first bust. Due to their young age and immaturity, they’re assigned to a reopened squad that goes into high schools undercover and takes down teen baddies. Watch for Holly Robinson Peete as Officer Hoff, the same part she played in the TV show. She has aged very well.

Now Schmidt and Jenko have to stop a dangerous new drug before it gets out of Sagan High School and infiltrates all of teendom. While doing so, they have to make sure they’re not expelled, have to get in with the high-school dealers, and otherwise have to blend in as teens. Due to a clever mix-up, however, Schmidt is mistaken for the fake ID that was made for Jenko, so Jenko’s signed up in nerdy classes and Schmidt’s supposed to be a track star. The double fish-out-of-water trick is pretty good.

Hi-jinks ensue and Schmidt falls for Molly (Larson) while zeroing in on Eric (Franco) as the main dealer in the school. During the beginning of the film’s climax, check if you see the fun twist coming.

Critique

21 Jump Street is a very clever, very self-aware film. Jonah Hill shows a real flair for dialogue and genuine comedy with this script. Every cliche of the original TV show is skewered, then exaggerated. Teenagers are depicted with some honesty, although it’s still bothersome that we have yet another Hollywood film that has decided all teenagers are 100% susceptible to peer pressure and that every teenager you know will drink like a sailor and throw caution to the wind at a party.

But this is a film of some caricature, which is shown from the start, so these depictions, including those of Ms. Griggs (Kemper) and the principal are forgivable.

Comedy is mined from every possible moment, and most of it stems from the characters and their motivations and actions– so it is natural and at times extremely funny. You will appreciate the time that directors Lord and Miller take to let scenes unfold and push the comedy to a higher, but also more fundamental, level.

That said, there’s plenty of low-brow, and in some cases uselessly crass, humor. The movie could have done without these moments. Schmidt’s parents are one example where real humor came from their doting on him as an only child and their approach to parenting, but stupid humor is forced by the idea that parents, when away from their kids, do amoral things too.

A quick note on acting: Hill pretty much plays himself. He does a fine job of having himself be the right character for the film. Tatum steps up with timing, physical humor, and overall a solid performance. He should get out of romance films a little more.

All in all, 21 Jump Street works because Hill and Tatum have great chemistry, the script explores authentic dialogue from immature post-teens, and it never takes itself seriously. It’s a buddy cop movie with just a little bit of heart, but a great deal of intelligence when it comes to adapting well-known source material. This source material, rather than being adhered to, is used a springboard for a new story with new characters, while still paying homage to the origin.

The film shows great affection for every trope it uses: action, buddy cops, teen movies, old 80s and 90s schtick, and modern culture. But then it also skewers those tropes, giving 21 Jump Street some actual meat.

Content warnings: Lots of profanity and references to genitalia, some violence, some drug use, some brief sensuality, some blood.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4          Overall: 4

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