White House Down (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Cale (Channing Tatum) snags an interview for a chance to become a part of the Secret Service but it does not go well. His record reflects that he has trouble committing to projects and seeing them through. It is also the day in which he and his daughter plan to take a tour of the White House. Emily (Joey King) is passionate about politics and it is exactly what they need to have the opportunity to bond especially since Cale missed her talent show performance. But something else is going on. Men disguised as blue collar workers surreptitiously gather inside the White House movie theater and await for a bomb to go off.
“White House Down,” directed by Roland Emmerich, is not an intellectual movie by any means but it is undeniably entertaining. Because the screenplay is willing to be goofy during the most unexpected moments as ludicrous events occur inside and around the White House, it is enthralling in its own way. More than once it proves that a well-placed attempt at a joke or a clever line is an effective distraction from the obvious clichés it embraces. Its goal is to deliver an escapist popcorn flick and it has the energy to match.
What I did not enjoy is the shallow earnestness of President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). One would think that since an ace performer like Foxx is at the helm, the character would have been written, or re-written, with more complexity from the moment we meet him. Is the president delivering syrupy speeches about America’s role in the war in the Middle East supposed to be a jab at liberals? If so, it is difficult to understand if it is supposed to be digested in that way because we do not know a thing about the character in order to make the necessary assumptions. Instead, he simply comes off silly—almost spineless—and I wondered how he got to be president in the first place. Sawyer is no Barack Obama.
The material picks up from the first explosion. The action sequences employ familiar quick cuts to evoke a sense of urgency but they are not done in such a way that it is difficult to tell what is going on exactly. There is a natural flow to the editing. Scenes that unfold in one scene offer various angles with accompanying cuts so we get a sense of place despite the flying bullets, pieces of wood, and broken glass. In addition, scenes that take place between two groups communicating via telephone are supported by dialogue that sounds urgent. The logic may not always connect but he flow to the editing is successful in creating the illusion that the thought processes are practical.
The villains actually work as a team for the most part. Though members of the group have different motivations, it is nice to see that the leader does not simply wait in a room and glare at his hostages while his henchmen do all the heavy lifting. Jason Clarke stands out as the lead underling named Stenz. Since we are given time to hate him for bit, the eventual hand-to-hand combat with the lead character is well-earned.
Though the two share a similar plot, “White House Down” exudes more joy than Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen.” The latter offers a few strong scenes but they are scattered among poorly-lit padding. With this picture, however, the energy is consistently positive. It invites us to have fun but at the same time it is not above having us poke fun at it.
Baby Driver (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Unabashedly an exercise of style over substance, Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” commands an uncanny ability to engage despite a plot with a familiar template. It does so, for the most part, through movement: the way the camera glides over well-choreographed action sequences featuring car smashes, how it switches between faces of people sharing an increasingly tense dialogue, the manner in which it jumps into and out of fantasies and memories. And supporting this technique is the ever-present soundtrack, a delicious stew of genres from artists like Queen, T. Rex, The Commodores, all the way to The Detroit Emeralds and Barry White.
Ansel Elgort has finally found a character that fits his rather limited acting style. He plays Baby, a getaway driver with tinnitus who must constantly listen to music in order to maintain focus on whatever is at hand. Baby does not say much which plays upon the strength of the performer; Elgort has presence even when simply standing in the background. Here, he has found a way to exude a cool aura that makes us want to get to know his character. However, when Elgort is required to speak, there are times when certain words and lines sound a bit mumbled which, I suppose, fits the character because of the relentless ringing in his ears.
Aside from “The Fast and the Furious” installments, modern action pictures involving heists and car crashes tend to look the same: grayish, wet, brooding, characters sporting miserable looks on their faces. But Wright’s picture is the opposite: it is colorful, the sun is shining, characters command their own personalities. Sometimes they end up surprising us. Particularly interesting to me is the revolving crew of robbers (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Flea, Lanny Joon) led by a well-dressed man named Doc (Kevin Spacey). These big personalities being stuck in a room and having to endure one another’s presence because they have a common goal is like shaking a pop bottle. Keeping in mind that the work is inspired by classic and modern heist flicks, one of them has got to be the central villain. I had fun trying to guess which one it will be.
The picture could have used more heart—and I am not talking about Baby missing his deceased mother or even his romance with a cute waitress (Lily James). A fresh choice would have been to explore the relationship between Baby and his foster father who is mute (CJ Jones). While the two share a few scenes that are almost moving, the writing does not offer enough depth when it comes to this relationship. As a result, scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings later in the picture feel forced at times.
There is a certain swagger, rhythm, and wit to this picture that I wish other filmmakers would notice and draw inspiration from. The scene before the opening credits is so impressive, so jubilant, yet so precise in terms of what it wishes to show the viewers, we recognize right away the kind of picture it is going to be: an unceasing displays of look-what-I-can-do and look-what-I-can-get-away-with.
Django Unchained (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist, approaches a group of slave traders and expresses his intention of possibly purchasing one of the chained men in line. Since he is greeted with animosity, what could have been a peaceful transaction turns deadly. But Dr. Schultz, a man of his word, does not neglect to pay the seller, on the ground and under excruciating pain for being shot in the leg, for the black man he just bought. Later, he tells Django (Jamie Foxx) that he is a bounty hunter. They make a deal: if Django helps Dr. Schultz track down three men, believed to be hiding in one of the plantations in the south, and help to kill them, Dr. Schultz will not only give Django his freedom, he will also earn twenty-five dollars for each corpse.
Perhaps the most notable quality of “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is its generosity when it comes to weaving subplots into its bones. This creates a narrative that inspires us to wonder how they will unspool and reconnect.
There are many elements in the screenplay that may be worth a second look in order to further appreciate its craft, like hybridizing the western and blaxploitation genres to create a farce out of the racism in mid-nineteenth century America, but what I am sure about is that the film would have been better if it had been shorter. This is because not all of the subplots unwind in consistently interesting or surprising ways. Most start off exciting but almost all eventually lose vigor. For instance, the scenes that comprise about half the picture often have one premise: the stupidity of a white person who ardently supports slavery. The scene with the Klu Klux Klan quickly comes to mind. Although the humor underneath the punches, some blood-soaked in irony, is present, I could not help but wonder when or if the material would change gears. I grew increasingly tired of the setup and as the film went on, some of the jokes that have been used are recycled.
I enjoyed that the dialogue is not as ostentatious as one would come to expect from Tarantino. Instead of the sentences demanding us to pay attention to a carefully chosen word and how it is used as, say, a double entendre, the actors’ performances outshine the script. If this had not been the case, the exchanges between Dr. Schultz and Django might not have communicated a friendship that we could believe and invest in despite the most unlikely circumstances that surround them. Times when the two main characters–a white man and a black man–are quiet or making a real connection by telling each other more about themselves are, surprisingly, the most memorable moments because the material taps into the simmering sadness and outrage of the scar that continues to define America.
The hyper-stylized violence also works but maybe not in a way one would come to expect. Sadly, a lot of people have the tendency to relate to violence on screen more than scenes of two people connecting to one another through simple conversations. The gun battles are dispersed and I think the writer-director is very smart to have employed such a technique to get people to care more deeply about what is happening. While I would have preferred that the violence be saved at end of the picture to serve as a catharsis, it is understandable why the bloodshed may feel to occur very randomly at times.
I did not find “Django Unchained” especially entertaining but I appreciated its visual artistry and carefully measured yet outwardly wild performances. Although it can be interpreted as a straight arrow revenge story, we can look at it another way and think about issues it wishes to address underneath the amalgamation of anachronisms.
Horrible Bosses (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) were unhappy with their jobs. Nick expected to be promoted by his boss, Dave (Kevin Spacey), because he had sacrificed eight years doing grunt work. Dave ended up promoting himself. Dale, a dental hygienist, was happily engaged but his boss, Dr. Harris (Jennifer Aniston), wanted him to have an affair with her. If Dale wouldn’t accept her aggressive sexual advances, she claimed she would tell his girlfriend that they slept together and she had evidence that they did. Meanwhile, Kurt, who worked in a chemical factory, had to deal with his extremely childish new boss, Bobby (Colin Ferrell), who didn’t care if his decisions endangered people’s lives. “Horrible Bosses,” directed by Seth Gordon, was, for the most part, a disarmingly effective workplace comedy. It started with crackle and pop: within the first ten minutes, we came to understand why the three friends felt the need to hire a hitman (Jamie Foxx) to kill their bosses. Although the comedic situations were wrapped in relatively improbable situations, we rooted for the trio because, in essence, none of them felt respected. We’ve all felt inadequate because someone had told us, implicitly or explicitly, that we weren’t good enough. That frustration builds anger and we could see the anger in Nick, Dale, and Kurt in varying degrees. The bosses had personalities and some were given a chance to shine. Dave was truly nasty because he was the kind of boss who got his way by purposely being blind to the difference between motivation and manipulation. Spacey was perfect for the role because he exhibited charm and sliminess with ease. Meanwhile, Dr. Harris was the definition of a nymphomaniac. She couldn’t function without mixing business with pleasure. Aniston played her character with glee. Her character was an exaggeration. There were times when it worked, especially since Dale was such a colorful guy. However, I wished Dr. Harris had more quiet moments aimed to remind us that she wasn’t just a cartoon character. Lastly, Bobby was my worst nightmare because he just didn’t care about his job. All he cared about was the money he undeservingly received at the end of the day. Farrell is a dynamic actor but his character wasn’t given enough screen time. We only knew three things about him: he was addicted to cocaine, supposedly held a green belt in martial arts, and there was a hint that he felt like an inadequate son. Otherwise, he just looked like a walking bad joke (perhaps because he was balding). Despite the many hilarious one-liners that “Horrible Bosses” effortlessly delivered, it fell short from being great because Dr. Harris and Bobby were more like punchlines rather than real people. Still, “Horrible Bosses” deserves a recommendation because the director took risks in terms of the picture’s pace and tone. It managed to acquire an offbeat rhythm–a key element that less effective workplace comedies could only wish to possess.
Due Date (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) was on his way back to California because his wife (Michelle Monaghan) was expected to give birth soon. But Peter’s luck turned for the worse when he met Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), an aspiring actor with a dog, at the airport. They both got into a car accident. Then they accidentally switched each other’s luggages. They even ended up sitting near each other on the plane. The two ended up talking about bombs on terrorists before take-off which prohibited them from flying. Despite all the unfortunate events and the fact that Peter couldn’t stand Ethan’s crazy antics, they decided to go on a cross-country road trip. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film was a broad comedy with two main characters we couldn’t help but dislike. Peter had a faux confidence about him but he was very sensitive to comments that one could easily let go. When threatened, he showed his mean-spirited sense of humor. One of the ugliest scenes was when he actually hit a kid in the stomach and the boy was left writhing in pain on the floor. It was supposed to be funny. On the other hand, Ethan, having the gall to try to pass off as twenty-two years old, was a total imbecile. I wondered how he made it through life not taking anything seriously. Or worse, living a life so completely unaware that other people needed their personal space. However, the film had few moments of hilarity. The bathroom scene was particularly memorable as Peter gave Ethan hypothetical situations and the aspiring actor had to prove that he had the talent to make it in Hollywood. Even though they didn’t necessarily get along, I felt a strange camaraderie growing between them. Unfortunately, with each good scene, a bad one always came after. Writers should know that when they feel like they should throw in an obligatory car chase, their material is in trouble. I just didn’t see what was so amusing about regular people doing their jobs and they ended up getting hurt because Peter and Ethan had a one-track mind. Casting actors like Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride, and Juliette Lewis was a waste. They were asked to play stereotypes, but I wasn’t convinced, in the five minutes of screen time they were given, that they injected something unique to their characters in order to make their roles memorable or worth watching. They certainly didn’t make Peter and Ethan any funnier or more charming. “Due Date” failed to make me laugh on a consistent basis. I chuckled (and was grossed out) during the masturbation scene and smiled when Ethan discussed getting a perm. But it wasn’t enough. Maybe the writers should have aspired to write a dark comedy screenplay instead.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the “Saw”-like twists and glimmering artistry of the vigilante’s (Gerard Butler) mission to teach a lesson about justice, “Law Abiding Citizen” was simply another one of those revenge flicks about a father out to get revenge for his slain family. Jamie Foxx played the assistant district attorney who made a deal with one of the murderers so that he could keep his 96% conviction rate. Ten years later, Butler returned to the scene. As a result of such decisions prior, one of the murderers was set free and the other suffered unimaginable pain during his death. If the movie wasn’t so entertaining and had good sense of pacing, I would have completely written this film off because the whole thing felt atrocious. I couldn’t believe for one second that one man could outsmart various levels of the government after only ten years of planning everything. At first I did root for Butler’s character because I could relate to the pain that he was going through. But when he started killing off innocent people, that was the turning point for me. With movies like “Kill Bill” starring Uma Thurman and “Taken” starring Liam Neeson, I was able to stay with the lead characters even though they killed people left and right. And the reason I was able to root for them until the end of their respective features was the fact that they only harmed those who were responsible. With Butler’s character, it was as if he enjoyed killing off people despite the scenes of where F. Gary Gray, the director, showed how much he was “suffering.” As far as morality tales go, I didn’t believe that it was as smart as it was trying to be. However–and this is a big one considering I’m giving the movie a recommendation–I did enjoy watching the movie because it was entertaining to watch the characters scurring around like rodents in hopes to be one step ahead of the vigilante and eventually dropping like flies when they unknowingly made bad decisions. It was not only thrilling because of the sense of dread that Butler’s character was able to deliver with each so-called deals but it was also very amusing because there were times when I found myself buying into everything that was happening. I’m one of those people that did not at all like the controversial ending because it made me think what the point was of it all. I felt as though the writer’s (Kurt Wimmer) decision to end it the way it did was a bit of a cheat after such strong build-ups. Thriller fans should be entertained by “Law Abiding Citizen” but those looking for something deeper might be a bit peeved. I also enjoyed the supporting performances from Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis and Bruce McGill. Overall, this is a pretty stylish cat-and-mouse film with brains on the outside but pretty emotionally and psychologically hollow on the inside. It’s just rare to find a film that embodies both.
Valentine’s Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Valentine’s Day,” written by Katherine Fugate and directed by Gary Marshall,” was an ensemble romantic comedy with many high-proile names that followed the footsteps of films like “Love Actually.” There are only three things one has to know coming into this movie: all of the characters are connected in some way, it is at times unapologetically cheesy with its typical (but funny) one-liners, and it is a good Valentine’s Day movie to watch with friends or special someone. Even before the film was released, I heard a lot of negative comments about it because people are not keen on the idea of a movie capitalizing on a holiday that “isn’t even real.” I say get over it because such moaning will not stop movie studios from releasing movies such as this; it’s a business and no matter how much you complain, money is money at the end of the day. Personally, the main reason why I wanted to see this film was because some of my favorite celebrities were in it like Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher (even though I change my mind about him quite often), and Bradley Cooper. From the trailers, I knew exactly what to expect and, surprisingly, it was much better than I thought it would be. Even though only two to four characters out of the twenty-one were fully developed (Garner and Kutcher as best friends failing to see that they were meant for each other; Hathaway and Grace as one lacking awareness of the other being a phone sex operator), it was fun to watch because it had a certain self-awareness–that none of it should be taken seriously because the characters’ lives revolved around falling in love. We are smart enough to know (or at least we should be) that the movie was simply trying to provide us an escape from our busy lives, whether our lives may revolve around our studies, our jobs, and countless other circumstances. As for the negatives, I wished that the main characters were cut down to fifteen. Even though I thought the scenes with Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift were amusing, their scenes didn’t do much when it came to the big picture other than comment on the fact that teenage love based on supercifial similarities was a good foundation for a potential heartbreak. (Well, at least that’s what I got from it.) I also wished that Jessica Biel’s scenes with her eating junk food and being neurotic were cut, while preserving her “I hate Valentine’s Day” intact and ultimately seeing Jamie Foxx as a perfect match for her. My favorite storyline has go to be the one with Cooper and Roberts meeting on a plane. I still think Roberts is one of the finest actresses because she has a perfect way of portraying sadness in her eyes. It was pretty subtle but when Cooper voiced out his assumptions that Roberts was on her way to see her special man, that specific look that Roberts gave him immediately made me realize that it wasn’t the case. “Valentine’s Day” is indeed a typical romantic comedy but if you know what to expect and you have an open mind, you will have a good chance of enjoying this flick. But if you come into the film in a bad mood or expecting the worst, prepare yourself to analyze every single flaw and not enjoy the movie. In other words, save your money or buy yourself a box of chocolates instead. Maybe that will make you happy.
Soloist, The (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I did not expect to dislike this movie as much as I did. “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was about a writer and a talented musician who happened to be a homeless man with schizophrenia and how they taught each other lessons in order to be more secure with themselves and eventually integrate with their families. Unfortunately, most of the elements that made up the film did not work for me. For instance, I think the movie went on for too long neglecting the fact that schizophrenia is a very serious mental disorder and that “friendship” does not necessarily cure it. It tackled the issue of diagnosis and medication in only two scenes, which I found to be absurd given the subject matter of the integration of a person with a fractured mind in society. I also found the pacing of the picture to be quite boring (for the lack of a better word). I wanted to know more about why Downey was so into helping Foxx. It certainly was not because he was a very giving person; in fact, he was sort of a reclusive, self-contained individual who neglected his family. If Joe Wright, the director, had found a way to balance scenes between Downey and his family (Catherine Keener as his ex-wife and a son who we never saw on screen) and Downey and Foxx, I think the audiences would have had a better understanding about his motivations. I also would have liked to see more of the history behind Foxx’ character. There were a few flashback scenes which I found to be very touching, especially his relationship with his mother, one of key figures in his life that pushed him to pursue his musical talent. All in all, I think the film’s fatal flaw is that it tried too hard to reach the most mainstream audiences via sentimentality and not enough common sense. We saw a lot of images of homelessness but it ultimately amounted to nothing–just images of misery and sadness. Also, I really hated it when Foxx’ character would play the cello and we would get random images of colors and buildings of Los Angeles on screen. It would have been so much better if we actually saw him play a piece and observe the passion in his eyes. Lastly, “The Soloist” lasted longer than it should have because of a dozen or so unnecessary dialogue that had nothing to do with the big picture.