(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) The British film industry has, by now, perfected the science of transforming transgressive subjects into nice little harmless comedies. From male stripping to The Fully Monty, from naked geriatric photography to Calendar Girls, from cross-dressing to Kinky Boots… Well, why not? After those precedents, seeing Hysteria make a gentle period comedy out of the invention of the first vibrator is almost expected. Hugh Dancy stars as a young doctor whose hand-cramps lead to the creation of an assistive mechanical device, but the real subject of the film is a discussion of the ways women were treated in Victorian England, with medical jargon being used to paper over a real disparity in status. Hysteria isn’t very subtle about this thematic focus (it’s definitely a modern film congratulating itself for not being Victorian England), but the overall light tone keeps things from getting too ponderous. The film can depend on the innate charm of Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal (in a provocative companion piece to Secretary), with occasional assistance by Rupert Everett in a handful of flashy scenes. Enjoy the lighthearted atmosphere, but don’t try to fact-check the film against the real history of the electrical vibrator.
(On DVD, January 2012) Much like I missed seeing author-centric Wonder Boys at the time of its release, it took me years to come along to Stranger than Fiction, a film in which an everyday man suddenly starts hearing narration about his life… informing him that he’s about to die. The wait was worth it, as Stranger than Fiction features Will Ferrell’s best role to date and a resonant message about life’s most important trivialities. The script allows itself a bit of fun with literary theory, satirizes the pathologies of authors and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Ferrell is effectively restrained in this atypical performance and, at the exception of a few shouted Ferellisms, comes across as far more sympathetic than his usual man-child persona. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is unspeakably cute as the love interest; Dustin Hoffman turns in a charming performance as a literary theoretician called to the rescue and Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as a neurotic author. Quirky, oddball and remarkably smarter than most other comedies (the “flours” joke is awesome), Stranger than Fiction asks interesting questions and suggests compelling answers. The script’s only flaw is a concept that’s almost richer than what the script can deliver: I could have used more scenes from the author’s point of view, or a more sustained interest in the wristwatch. But what made it on-screen is good enough. Of course; I’ve written enough fiction to be a particularly good audience for that kind of story. Non-writer’s opinions may vary… although not by much.
(In theatres, February 2010) Yet another entry in the “Film I wouldn’t see if it wasn’t for their Oscar nominations” category. Would I willingly go see the story of a past-his-prime country music singer who learns to deal with his alcoholism while romancing a single mom half his age? Gee, Oscar, you really make things difficult for me this year, don’t you? Cheap shots aside, there’s a little bit to like in Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges is great in the title role, and the various details about life as an ex country music star are fascinating. Maggie Gyllenhaal is as cute as she can be (which is a lot) as the single mom, whereas Colin Farrell has a small and perfect supporting role and Robert Duvall is up for another kind bartender role. This is not a fast film, and it’s definitely aimed at a quiet Midwestern audience. Bits and pieces of the film are trite and obvious (who couldn’t see the whole “missing child” moment coming?), and the overall arc of the film seems copied from VH1 specials. Still, for a movie that has practically no guns, explosions, comedy, one-liners, car chases, giant robots or anything designed to get me in the theatre, it’s a bit more bearable that I expected. But I’m as far from Crazy Heart’s target audience as I could be, so never mind me and go read a review from someone who cares more about the film.