White House Down: this is not a Bill Clinton biography. Instead, it is Channing Tatum starring as a John McClane (Bruce Willis/Die Hard) character named John Cale who just happened to be visiting the White House on the day bad people decided to take over the building and launch WW III. The headline for the Associated Press review that was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was “silly fun” and this time the headline is accurate. But amid the chaotic story is a political theme with some funny lines. If Oliver Stone had made the TV series “24”, this might be what he would have come up with assuming he had a sense of humor. The film is the work of German born director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, with a repeat of Emmerich’s White House burning idea from his Independence Day film. For those of you who like doomsday political films, you will see analogies to a number of movies ranging from Dr. Stangelove to Rambo during this 131 minute anarchist film in which Tatum saves our President (Jamie Foxx) and Cale’s 11 year old daughter, Emily (Joey King). There is a plot: President James Sawyer returns to the White House after making a deal with Iran to bring peace to the Middle East. This angers the military industrial complex. Cale, an Afghan veteran working as a Capital police officer, is at the White House interviewing for a job with the Secret Service. The interviewer is a do-gooder liberal who just happens to be a former Cale flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Later in the film, she has some lines that appear to be unintendedly funny. Cale takes his daughter with him and following his interview, the two begin a tour of the White House. This is when a group of right wing extremists launch their attack with assistance from the head of the Secret Service (James Woods) who is bitter over the death of his son who was killed in a failed mission authorized by the President. The script is topical and frequently ludicrous. Emily asks the best question as to the underlying political event (pulling all troops out of the Middle East): how do you stop the violence between Shities and Sunnis by having the U.S. enter into a peace treaty with Iran? Emily referenced Pakistan in her question but it exemplifies the political simplification of the film as well as the real underlying questions that our politicians address only with rhetoric instead of substance. As for Foxx’s performance and character, there are many ways in which we are told to think “Barack Obama” beyond skin color; i.e., he has a wife and a teenage daughter, when he changes out of dress shoes he puts on basketball shoes, he chews Nicorette gum, etc. Foxx isn’t asked to do much and he fully complies. It is easy to make fun of this film but if you watch it, you will probably find yourself enjoying much of it as the first part has Cale as a divorced parent trying to do right with his daughter and the second half has over the top shoot outs that appear to be a common theme in today’s blockbusters. You will not be bored - I was surprised by how many times I laughed. Just wish I was sure the director intended his audience to laugh as often as I did.
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Man of Steel: entertaining with a different perspective on a comic book character. The director is Zack Snyder and the producer is Christopher Nolan. Together they bring creativity to an old story. The script is credited to David Goyer of Blade fame. The combination of Snyder, Nolan and Goyer makes for a complexity not seen in prior Superman films although, at 148 minutes, the story runs a little long. This is not a remake or a typical superhero production. Presumably, they decided to send a message by not including the word “superman” is in the title of the movie. Instead, there is a Dark Knight attitude. The movie opens with Superman’s Krypton parents. There is time spent in explaining the consequences of ignoring science and global warming (not really, but there is a political tone to this film). Russell Crow plays Jor-El, Superman’s biological father. Kevin Costner plays the Earth father with Diane Lane as Ma Kent. This is the best Costner performance in years. Costner and Lane are part of an excellent cast, which also includes Michael Shannon (from last week’s Iceman review) as the master race villain Krypton General Zod. Henry Cavill is a very credible Superman and in this 21st century movie, Amy Adams as Lois Lane is given more to do than just being a damsel in distress. The part of the movie I enjoyed most was Superman as a young kid knowing that he’s an outsider and learning to adapt to his environment. There is a dialogue between young Clark Kent and his father, which would not have occurred in a pre-21st century version, about whether young children should have been left to die rather than Clark revealing that he is not an ordinary kid: Clark asks his father, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” The father responds, “Maybe”. The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Ayelet Zurer as Superman’s biological mother. The underlying theme of the movie is whether humankind could really deal with a person from another world – after all, look at our “success” in interacting with each other. Most of you know the Superman storyline and I’m not going to repeat it. I will note that what I liked least about this film was the traditional superhero/villain fight scene between General Zod and Superman; it went on for too long. How many times do you need to see one of them throwing the other through a building and everything collapsing like a big erector set? Based upon what had preceded the extended fight scene, I found the ending a disappointment. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like and entertained you will be.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Easy Rawlins is back. His creator, Walter Mosley, appeared to have killed him off about five years ago following a series of excellent novels commencing with Devil in a Blue Dress. The Denzel Washington movie was well done but the book is better. The 1990 publication and subsequent novels will tell you things about LA you probably will not have read anywhere else. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a WW II vet living in Watts. When you first meet Easy, he is an unemployed defense plant worker circa 1948. The 11 prior novels carry you into the 1960s. The most recent novel, Little Green, takes place in 1968. The book opens with Easy recovering from the auto crash which we thought killed him. While Easy flows from the Phillip Marlowe tradition, the character and the novels explore the racial and social injustices of LA and do so while contrasting with what existed in the South. Easy was born in Louisiana and spent his pre-WW II teenager years in the Houston’s Fifth Ward. Little Green continues the Easy tradition with the storyline of finding a friend’s son while exploring people’s reaction to a Black man who is a licensed private investigator (quite rare) and owns apartments. I’ve tried reading Mosley’s non-Easy Rawlins novels. I only recommend the Rawlins series. Easy is a complex man and the underlying stories will hold your interest while providing needed information.
The Iceman: an O’Neill play it is not. Rather, this movie is based upon the true story of a mob contract killer named Richard Kuklinski. The movie is worth seeing just to partake in the performance by Michael Shannon as Kuklinski. When the movie opens, Kuklinski is a shy individual on a date with a waitress named Deborah, played by Winona Ryder. They are sitting at a New Jersey diner - timeline approximately 1960 - and she asks him what he does for a living. He answers, “I dub cartoons for Disney”. The answer had some truth but the real story was that he dubbed porn for the mob. When the mob decides to close the film lab, Kuklinski is offered a new position following an “interview” with a small time crime boss played by Ray Liotta in which Kuklinski makes a favorable impression when he’s not blinking as a gun is pointed at him. The career move is to that of a paid assassin. In real life, Kuklinski reportedly killed over 100 people. The character and the movie, however, are more complex than just watching a killer do his job. Kuklinski was a loving family man whose wife (Deborah) and two daughters thought he was a Wall Street trader. Deborah was told that the film lab had closed. By the time Kuklinski was arrested in 1986, shortly after his oldest girl turned 16, we have watched a man living two lives and operating on a very short fuse. The director, Ariel Vromen, gives us only two short scenes to explain Kuklinski; one involves his brother who is to be tried on an anger murder charge, and the second is a very brief scene showing Kuklinski being severely beaten by his father. The movie implies that as a result of the violence he suffered as a child, Kuklinski had two personalities. Total movie time for both scenes is less than five minutes and they are the only explanation given for Kuklinski’s behavior. The film is violent and one scene, which explains Kuklinski’s nickname, Iceman, will remind you of Showtime’s Dexter. The joint scenes with “Captain America”, another mob killer played by Chris Evans, are marvelous. I did not realize who the ice cream killer was until the credits. Liotta has played his role in this movie before but new respect for Evans. A title card at the end of the end of the 104 minute movie tells us that Kuklinski died in prison in 2006 and never saw his kids after his conviction. For this man, not seeing his children was a greater penalty than death. Personally, I wonder how either daughter could ever trust a male after learning the truth about their father. This is an excellent crime drama with superb acting. These are crime characters you can believe. And like an O’Neill play, this movie raises real questions about the human condition. Because of the violence (short scenes but a couple are graphic) this film is not for everyone, but if you enjoy the crime film genre, the excellent acting makes Iceman a must see.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Fast & Furious 6: car racing and car crashes with a nominal storyline. This is the best Fast & Furious yet! It’s not often that a series improves over time but in this case, the sequels get better at staging crashes and giving the actors better scripts. Now keep in mind, we are starting from a very low threshold as the initial Fast & Furious films had virtually no substance. The heart of these films hasn’t changed. Either the action provides a sufficient 128 minute diversion or you stay far away. As a teenager I went to hot rod and sports car races. Part of me continues to enjoy fast cars, and devoting 2 hours to watching auto racing with a semblance of a story remains a pleasurable experience. Also, you know going into the theatre what will be delivered. I’m already prepared to see the next “Fast & Furious”. The addition of THE ROCK (Dwayne Johnson is so buff I felt I should put his nickname in bold letters) in the last two “Fast & Furious” films has improved the series. He and Vin Diesel, the primary star as the devoted family man Dominic Toretto, play off each other and both are better when they’re together on screen. The movie opens with Luke Hobbs (THE ROCK) informing Toretto that his former girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, played by Michelle Rodriquez, who Fast/Furious fans thought was killed off in a prior episode, is still alive and working with a true bad guy mercenary because she has amnesia and doesn’t remember Toretto (honestly, the script exists only to transition between car crashes). Toretto, being the loyal family man, reassembles his team and joins government agent Hobbs in stopping the bad guy and reuniting with Letty. Justin Lin is again the director. He keeps the camera active and the actors appear to be enjoying themselves. There are even some comedic lines. Part of me feels that I should reflect upon the statement being made about me and a significant percentage of the population that this film grossed more than $100 million over the Memorial Day weekend, but I won’t. Instead, my closing comment is this: if you slow down to check out the car crash that caused the traffic jam, then ”Fast & Furious” films are for you, and vice versa.