Archive for September, 2013

White House Down

Posted: September 26, 2013 in Film reviews
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Roland Emmerich. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods

It’s typical. You wait years* for a Die Hard in the White House film and then two turn up in the space of a few months! (*Not actually true). Gerard Butler’s Olympus has Fallen got the drop on White House Down by coming out first, but which 1600 Pennsylvania Ave based action extravaganza has the edge, or like squabbling politicians are they just as bad as each other?

John Cale (Tatum) is a Capitol police officer with dreams of getting on the President’s secret service detail in hopes of impressing his daughter Emily, and he manages to swing an interview with the assistant head of the secret service Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal). Unfortunately Finnerty knew Cale at college and despite him saying that he’s changed she still sees a man who isn’t up to finishing what he starts, and he fails to get the job.

After lying to Emily that he’s got the job, father and daughter join a tour of the White House, and even get to meet President James Sawyer (Foxx). It’s a big day for Sawyer, he’s about to pull all US troops out of the Middle East, a strategy that hasn’t gone down well with a lot of people…and this includes the mismatched bunch of mercenaries who manage to storm the White House (with a little inside help).

Before you can say “I’m going to count to three…there will not be a four” all the secret service agents are killed, and the bad guys are on the verge of capturing Sawyer…luckily Cale manages to escape their clutches and before you can say “Yippie Kay Ay…” (I’ll stop that now) he’s become a one man army taking down the terrorists as he tries to protect the President and save his daughter.

As you can probably tell, there’s more than a hint of Die Hard about White House Down, but despite my note of sarcasm I actually think this is the best Die Hard film of the year, which is kinda sad considering we had an actual Die Hard film this year.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast this with Olympus has Fallen given the films tread extremely familiar ground, but I apologise in advance anyway. They’re very different films however, and for me White House Down gets right everything that Olympus got wrong.

For starters it doesn’t play the straight bat that Butler’s film did. Olympus has Fallen was so earnest and po-faced that it almost tripped over into parody. By contrast Emmerich’s film has no such pretensions. It knows it’s a ludicrous copy of Die Hard, and refuses to apologise for it, and the film is peppered with amusing lines, though it thankfully stops short of knowingly winking at the audience.

Emmerich of course is used to destroying national monuments, and continues the trend, becoming possibly the first man in history to trash the White House twice. He does spectacle well though, and there’s spectacle in spades here, and despite the long run time and the fact the film is a little baggy in places, on the whole he keeps things moving at a fair gallop. That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have flaws, but being boring certainly isn’t one of them.

The second thing it has over Olympus is its hero. This isn’t to say Tatum is any better an actor than Butler (both are fairly limited) but Tatum’s Cale wins out by being the likeable everyman, the wrong guy in the wrong place etc. By contrast Butler was exactly the right man in the right place, and ergo far less interesting.

The other thing it gets right is the rest of the casting, from Foxx’s excellent and believable statesman, to Gyllenhaal convincingly standing toe to toe with a bunch of gruff male character actors and never looking out of place. Throw in James Woods chewing the scenery with aplomb, plus a supporting cast including ever reliables like Lance Reddick and Richard Jenkins, plus a child actor who isn’t annoying, and you’re onto a winner. Heck even the henchmen get personalities (my favourite being the guy who seems to base his performance on Bennett from Commando).

As mentioned the film is a tad too long, and as silly as the premise is, Emmerich takes it to dizzying new heights of ludicrousness with each passing minute, and it curiously it gets less interesting as the nuclear missiles prepare to fly—but then Olympus has Fallen had a similarly ludicrous McGuffin with none of the self-deprecation White House Down has.

It’s a stupid popcorn action film, but as stupid popcorn action films go it’s hugely enjoyable so long as you stick your brain into neutral. So ignore just how easy it is to seize control of the White House, just enjoy the witty dialogue and the sight of POTUS with a rocket launcher.

White House Thumbs Up!

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Elysium

Posted: September 18, 2013 in Film reviews
Tags: ,

StarTrek64LetThatbe

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

Blomkamp exploded onto the film scene 4 years ago with his low-ish budget allegorical sci-fi film District 9, a South African set film about alien immigrants that made good use of South African shanty town locations with a tale mirroring apartheid and which introduced us to Sharlto Copley as the dishevelled hero.

Given a budget infinitely bigger to work with, along with it seems a lot of creative freedom, and an A-List star in Damon, Blomkamp has created a film that in many ways is very similar to District 9, but in many other ways is very different.

It’s the 22nd Century and Earth is divided into the haves who live on the giant space station of Elysium, and the have-nots, who scrabble to survive on an overpopulated Earth. Max (Damon) is an ex-con trying to go straight, working in a factory that makes police robots ( a nice irony given that police bots beat him up earlier for no other reason than they seem to have police brutality programming.) His dream is to make to Elysium, a land of wonder where medical technology is so advanced that they can cure any disease.

It’s something of a pipe dream however, until he receives a lethal dose of radiation at work. Rather than call injury lawyers for you, Max decides that now he has to get to Elysium, and he has to get there in the next five days before he dies. Throwing his lot back in with the criminal fraternity he agrees to help hijack information from the brain of a businessman, taking a copy into his own skull.

Unfortunately the information he gets hold of is something that can change the balance of power between Earth and Elysium, and something that Elysium’s Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Foster) is willing to kill to get a hold of.

Science Fiction has often been used as an allegory of real world issues, going back to Star Trek in the sixties, and earlier (consider HG Wells’ Molocks and Eloi) so there is a noble tradition at work here.

Unfortunately as allegories go, Elysium is about as subtle as a giant brick with the word ‘Brick’ painted on it. Given the nature of their brief run times (in the grand scheme of things) films often have to be less subtle than their TV cousins, but even so the brushstrokes at work in Elysium are so broad you could paint the Forth Bridge with just a few swipes.

To sum up succinctly. Rich =Bad, Poor = Good. So laughably unsubtle is the film that the businessman whose brain Max highjacks –who we’ve already seen is a nasty piece of work—actually has the word ‘Riche’ branded onto his cheek (as a quick aside the decorative scarring many of the rich have is just one of many nice touches in the film) just in case you didn’t realise, which is like someone writing EVIL in tippex on Darth Vader’s helmet…

Pretty much everyone in the film has characters so thin you can see right through them and they’re all familiar character types. So Delacourt is the cold, clinical, and of course evil, bureaucrat, and lord knows what was going on with her accent. Meanwhile Sharlto Copley has a blast as Kruger, the psychopathic agent Delacourt sends after Max, but his defining character trait is ‘mad’ and that’s about it.

Meanwhile Damon, who to be honest I’ll never be the biggest fan of, actually does a good job of imbuing Max with humanity, though again the ex-con trying to go straight but being pulled back into crime isn’t exactly original.

Alice Braga is Max’s love interest Frey. She’s a nurse and a single mother, and her daughter has terminal leukaemia. If only this was the kind of film where medical technology could cure any illness, eh?

Finally there’s Wagner Moura as Spider, who might be a noble revolutionary, or might just be a money grabbing people trafficker…it’s never quite clear…

The locations and effects are great, and the disparity between the clean shiny Elysium technology and the grungy Earthbound tech is a nice touch. Much as he used South African shanty towns in District 9, Blomkamp filmed much of the story in Mexican slums, substituting for Los Angeles. Whilst this gives the film a certain degree of realism (and the fact that most of the people are Hispanic is a nice touch given the way American demographics are moving) sadly little effort is made to actually make it look like LA has become this sprawling megacity, so we could be anywhere, we could just be in Mexico, which lessens the impact more than if we could recognise that this horrible place was once a modern Western metropolis.

Similarly Elysium looks gorgeous, a giant spinning wheel in space filled with lush green lawns, swimming pools and fantastic mansions, a literal gated community in the sky. But we see so little of what goes on there that we don’t really get a sense of it as a real place.

As I said earlier the film is both similar to, and vastly different from, District 9. Both were at least partly filmed in real life, poverty stricken locations to give added realism, both feature regular guys who undergo body modification and fight against injustice, in District 9 Copley’s character became part alien, whilst here Max has to have an exoskeleton bolted onto his body just so he can walk.

Both films deal with injustice as well, but that’s where the similarities end. District 9 had humour, District 9 was anarchic, sticking its middle finger up at polite society, District 9 also had shades of grey, or at least more shades of grey than Elysium, which is about as black and white as characters in a certain episode of Star Trek. District 9 was also well paced and the action nicely handled. By contrast the actions scenes in Elysium become a bit routine after a while, in fact at times it commits the cardinal sin for an action film, it gets a little dull.

And don’t get me started on the ramifications of the feel good ending. Remember, overpopulated Earth…

There’s the kernel of a nice idea here, a film about inequality, about people trafficking and about the First world shutting itself off from the Third World, about how there are people leaching off the poor on both sides of the equation, just as there are people trying to improve everyone’s lot on either side of the argument. Sadly Elysium jettisons any semblance of this in favour of sledge hammer politics and a frankly bland running/shooting/exploding storyline.

Elysium? Elysi-ho-hum more like…

And so onto the second in an occasional series of minor rants regarding things other authors do that annoy me…

Foreshadowing!

Note, I’m not talking about the good foreshadowing here, where authors deftly highlight things that may happen later, laying literary booby traps in chapter four for their protagonists to step into in chapter eight and making the reader go “Aha, I knew something was up when they made that vague reference to coffee earlier!”

No, I’m talking about the cheap, lazy end of the chapter you-don’t-want-to-be-surprised-do-you foreshadowing that even the supposed masters of the craft still do. You know;

“If only I’d realised then that it was the last time I’d see Jen.”

Or,

“Little did Ron know that within the hour he’d be fighting for his life against a terrorist army.”

I know it’s tricky to end a chapter, you want to give the reader some incentive to carry on, and cliff-hangers are fine, posing questions is fine, but why’d you have to tell people what’s coming? This doesn’t make me want to read on, it makes me want to throw the book across the room.

Maybe Jen dies, maybe Jen moves to Bognor, the trouble is I know something bad is going to happen to Jen, so the shocking reveal that Jen’s giving up her career as a neurosurgeon to open a bed and breakfast by the seaside is somewhat neutered.

“Little did Paul realise that during his best-selling author future he would end up falling into the same trap, eliciting cries of hypocrite, HYPOCRITE! Luckily he was so rich and successful by then that he really didn’t care…”

Riddick

Posted: September 10, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by David Twohy. Starring Vin Diesel.

And so a character who first appeared in low budget sci-fi flick Pitch Black thirteen years ago returns to the big screen in a film that, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t exist given how poorly the second film, Chronicles of Riddick, did nine years ago! That we now have Riddick in 2013 is testament to a vocal fan base, the fact that the character is a labour of love for both Twohy and Diesel, and because various people personally put their hands in their pockets to fund the picture. As an avowed fan of Dredd who still hopes to see Dredd 2 someday this is encouraging (and apologies in advance I will be mentioning Dredd again later on!)

Riddick is set five years after the events of the second film, which left the titular hero as Lord Marshall of the Necromungers, though thankfully the film doesn’t rely on a thorough knowledge of Chronicles of Riddick, all you need to know is that Riddick was king of some crazy space aliens, until betrayed and left for dead on a very inhospitable planet.

The first third of the film sees Riddick struggling to survive until he battles his way to an abandoned mercenary station and calls for help. As Riddick is still a wanted man, however, help comes in the form of bounty hunters after Riddick’s head (literally) and matters are further complicated by the arrival of a second group of mercenaries who’re after Riddick for different reasons.

Riddick starts to pick the mercenaries off one by one, but the imminent arrival of an altogether deadlier foe means he may have to join forces with them instead.

There really are three distinct stories going on in Riddick. Riddick battling the elements, Riddick battling the mercenaries, and Riddick and the mercenaries battling monsters, and whilst it would be churlish to suggest this could have made for a trilogy all its own, it’s fair to say that there’s probably a little bit too much packed into this film for it to work effectively, especially once you throw in a Necromunger prologue which feels a little tacked on, however great it is to see Karl Urban.

Clearly Twohy and Diesel decided to return to Riddick’s somewhat barebones roots after the middle film tried to turn a low budget movie into a big budget sprawling space epic complete with intergalactic armies and bizarre outfits. Chronicles was a noble effort but it never really worked for me, so the stripped down nature of Riddick should be a good thing, except oddly this pared back Riddick film’s around the same length as the second one!

For me the film is at its best in the middle portion. The start isn’t bad, and it’s interesting to see Riddick surviving against the odds (plus it foreshadows the finale) and the alien puppy he adopts is very cute, but it gets a little repetitive, and he really needs opponents he can spar with verbally as well as physically.

Luckily such opponents arrive, and the various mercenaries are an interesting bunch, and even those slated for an early death get at least a sliver of personality. The standout is Katee Sackhoff, and not just because she’s practically the only woman in the film, she might just be playing a riff on her Starbuck character, but she’s engaging to watch and (for the most part) more than just eye candy. Jordi Mollà as Santana is also fun, even if he is a nasty piece of work, and he and Sackhoff play off one another nicely as members of rival groups, and off Diesel as the three factions play a fatal game of cat and mouse.

The finale feels a little rushed, and also a little too familiar given it harkens back to Pitch Black. Overall the film could have done with a tighter focus, and this is where I mention Dredd again. Dredd is a film that understood its market (even if its market didn’t quite reciprocate) and is a great example of a stripped down, exploitation film. By contrast Riddick talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Getting away from all the Necromunger malarkey and going back to basics is only half the battle if you still end up with a film that’s too long and too bloated. There’s also some disquieting sexual politics at play that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Connery era of Bond. Being an antihero is fine, but it can be a delicate line to walk and on a few occasions Riddick steps over the line.

These problems aside there’s much to enjoy about Riddick. Diesel is never going to trouble the Oscars, but he’s a strong screen presence and holds the film together well, aided by a cast who for the most part rise above their limitations. The dialogue is sharp and often funny, and the action scenes mostly well done, and the realisation of the alien world and its various indigenous life forms is exceptional. Good sci-fi films are always welcome, especially ones that veer away from the generic 12A Hollywood blockbuster ideal, but whilst I always like watching Riddick films, I find I can never quite bring myself to love them, and for me the idea of Riddick is probably more enjoyable than the reality.