Dallas Buyers Club

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Since Matthew McConaughey jumped the mainstream track and took on challenging roles in unconventional fare starting with Killer Joe and Bernie in 2011 followed by Mud and Magic Mike in 2012, the actor’s skills and ambition have been building toward his playing AIDS patient/activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s a career-defining performance and, if he doesn’t get his Oscar nomination for it, he never will. The rest of Dallas Buyers Club, though, is a more pedestrian run-through of honorable themes in material that feels like its been over-workshopped in screenwriting labs.

A regular at local rodeos, Woodroof is also known for his womanizing, gambling and all-around partying ways when he isn’t working his day job as an electrician and trash-talking fags. Then, after being taken to a hospital following an on-the-job accident, Woodroof finds out he’s got AIDS, and, by all measures, he should be dead. This is all happening in the midst of the ’80s AIDS scare, when it was still deemed a gay disease. Woodroof hits the local library and reads a whole bunch of articles and reflects on all the risky sex he’s had. That all throws on the lightbulb in his head. We can see him face palming himself in our minds.

Meanwhile, there are two doctors in the movie: One good and one bad. The good one is Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner who lulls us with her on-par adorability, who becomes mother hen to dying patients taking part in the hospital’s AZT trials and eventually Woodroof’s confidante and cheerleader. The bad one is Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), the tool for the pharmaceuticals eager to push AZT onto the AIDS-stricken. These characters are painted in such broad, black-and-white strokes that labeling their purpose in the story pretty much sums up their breadth and depth. Every character in Dallas Buyers Club can be thus condensed: Tucker, Woodroof’s cop friend, is the hard-ass cop with a heart of gold; T.j., Woodroof’s drinking buddy and wing man; and so on. Then you’ve got Jared Leto putting on dress and make-up and doing his damnedest for his own Oscar nomination as troubled transvestite Rayon, who forms an unlikely business partnership with Woodroof. Of all the movie’s performances, his is the weakest, the most egregious plea for awards attention.

Speaking of business, it’s what the movie boils down to: Woodroof’s scammy attempt to start up a club in which he can supply members with alternative meds and vitamins, stuff that the FDA either hasn’t approved or can’t profit from. So, the movie is also a critique of the profit motive of the pharmaceutical business, personified in the cliche of the hard-ass drug enforcement agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill). Yes, it’s as tiresome as that. And how Woodroof goes about running this underground operation evokes elements of Catch Me if You Can as he jet-sets and cons whoever he has to to get the drugs he needs–for no reason other than to make him an appealingly gonzo character.

There’s nothing terribly bad about Dallas Buyers Club. It is exactly what the ads tell you it is. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s for upscale moviegoers who’re after something substantial and “important,” but then realize that what they sat through was a lumbering, shallow TV Movie of the Week. And this is as good a time as any to mention that I’ve never been a fan of McConaughey. He’s obvious, heavy-handed and seems to revel in his obnoxious Texan twang (put so far to its only good use in the actor’s first role in Dazed and Confused) with its irritatingly enunciated “S’s”. Every smile, glance and audible exhalation is telegraphed as if to communicate to us that he’s an actor up on the screen playing a role, in case you were wondering. He’s well-meaning, sure, but he’s not a persuasive actor in anything in which I’ve seen him.

The best thing I can say for McConaughey as Woodroof is that he most successfully disappears into the role. He evokes emotional shades and employs silences, a sense of humility in the character that I’d till now not seen. The sheer awfulness of everything else in the film can be blamed on Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s paint-by-numbers script, which really wants to create a noble picture of its subject but lacks the subtlety and imagination to do so, and on Jean-Marc Vallée’s infuriatingly bland direction, which has all the inquisitive power of a children’s board book.

When I first saw Dallas Buyers Club, I thought, “OK, that was relatively interesting and harmless.” But the more I’ve reflected on it, the more its crimes became nakedly obvious. Using the controversial and difficult nature of its subject matter as a facade for what is just half-baked product, it is everything cheap, shallow and pandering about American independent cinema.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne

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12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.

The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.

Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza  from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.

Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.

It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.

No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty.  There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.

Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.

There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.

Grade: A

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt

Gravity

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Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has the experience of journeying through outer space been treated with the kind of awe, reverence, terror and–pardon the pun–gravity that it is in the latest from master director Alfonso Cuarón. The depictions of space flight, spacewalking, the specifics and limitations of technology and that fragile, frightening dividing line between life and death that astronauts must tread make for an intense, one-of-a-kind viewing experience. Gravity is one you absolutely have to see on the big screen–the biggest screen you can find. Cuarón also designed the film as a 3D spectacle and, on that score, Gravity acquits itself pretty magnificently. There are moments in the 3D experience that made me dizzy and terrified as the camera took in the grandeur of the view above Earth, especially in the story’s opening minutes.

On the level of technical skill and in capturing moments of sheer peril–and there are many in Gravity–the movie taps into our innate terror of the unknown, of loss of control, and our revulsion of danger and death. Integral to the story’s cinematic power are the breathtaking photography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the hypnotic, dread-inducing score by Steven Price. As with his emotionally gripping 2006 dystopian thriller, Children of Men, Cuarón expertly mines our common fears, terrors, our empathies and instincts for nurturing life in stories that connect with our nervous systems instantly. But instantly doesn’t necessarily mean deeply, and often in Gravity, there is the feeling that, intentionally or not, Cuarón is exploiting basic human impulses in crafting an edge-of-your-seat thriller, without actually developing novel and original characters. In the bargain, he offers us a cinematic spectacle without equal in the tradition of mainstream blockbuster cinema. So, is that deal worth it? In the end, I’d have to give a solid yes.

The story is a succession of heart-stopping disasters as a team of space-shuttle astronauts encounters a freak storm of flying debris, unleashed after nearby satellites are involved in a series of collisions. The debris destroys the shuttle and most of the crew (instantly killing off a thickly accented Indian spacewalker, I might add), leaving two marooned survivors–astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)–to improvise a plan to save themselves and return to Earth. While Kowalksi is an old pro on his last mission, Stone is a newbie–she’s an engineer who can’t wait to be back on Earth if only to settle her stomach.

When disaster strikes, Kowalski, being the problem solver, guides Stone (and the audience) through a series of actionable steps. At this point, the screenplay busies itself with goal-oriented objectives. And the audience watches with bated breath as a scenario in which the odds of survival are infinitesimally low becomes more and more tenuous as one possibility after another begins to falter, beginning with depleted oxygen and propellent.

Cuarón, who penned the script with his son Jonás, gets the nuts and bolts correct. That is, he fastens down a trajectory of rising tension and rivets in the wrinkles and reversals of increasingly danger-filled second and third acts. But, in Stone and Kowalski, he gives us connect-the-dots characters. Here is what we have: Kowalski is the glib, hyper-competent man’s man, a career astronaut who loves his gig if only to forget the wife who ran out on him years ago; Stone is the wild card–grieving after the loss of a young daughter, she gives indications of deep self-loathing and loneliness (her father, she says off-handedly at one point, wanted a son, hence her masculine name). Seeking a thematic through-line, the Cuaróns find one in Stone: Gravity is as much about survival as it is about Stone finding her self-confidence, her self-worth, her groove. Cue, then, a succession of heavy-handed imagery symbolizing her re-birth, starting with the image of her floating in a fetal position within the embryo of a space pod. The moment marks the inception of Stone’s re-defining herself, the first in a series of images and moments that underscore her transformation. But, ultimately, all this is just a thematic convenience, a blanket on which the propulsive dynamics of the action is overlaid. In the absence of closely felt, organic characters, the Cuaróns’ attempt at character development don’t get past screenwriting-class mumbo jumbo.

That leaves the inherent appeal of the film’s stars to bolster the script’s shallow characters. Clooney trundles out his typically gabby, twinkle-in-the-eye self, a modern approximation of both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. It’s a serviceable schtick without being very interesting. Bullock’s ability to exude vulnerability and competence in the face of crisis is put to maximum use as Stone is called on to buck up and take charge. The limited role calls on Bullock’s talents to reel us in and root for her. And we do–ardently and with sweaty palms–for no other reason than to see this poor woman back on Earth.

Some have called Gravity a masterpiece. I suppose it is, of sorts: Gravity demonstrates virtuosic filmmaking, engineered for maximum suspense and thrills. From beginning to end, it is a masterful job. But what I couldn’t help but wish was that Cuarón had opened up his story more for the sake of his characters, perhaps even given them scenes of their lives on Earth prior to launch or simply moments of existential contemplation on-board the shuttle rather than start (literally) with a bang. Perhaps then we might’ve been more invested in Stone and Kowalkski as distinctly developed human beings rather than as mere instruments in a survival story. More Tarkovsky, less Zemeckis! Now that would’ve been a masterpiece.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Before Midnight

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After watching Before Midnight, the third installment in the two-decade-long cinematic romance between the Parisian Celine and the American Jesse, I re-watched Before Sunset from 2004. I wanted to find connections between the two films, the two most recent in the series so that I could compare the preoccupations of the characters in Sunset and how they evolved over the nine ensuing years to become the characters in Midnight. Thematically, the films are seamless, and, all taken together, the three Richard Linklater films are really an outstanding example of how to bridge fully realized human beings across an entire trilogy. Linklater and his stars and co-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have mined so much from the core of their two characters, so many naked human truths, that Celine and Jesse now seem to exist in that boundary between fiction and reality. We see so much of ourselves in them that they may as well be real people.

Be warned: Before Midnight is no romance. It’s a horror movie. It is a bitter, mocking, cynical rebuke to the hopefulness of the previous films. That’s not a criticism; it’s a simple fact of the film as much as it is a simple fact of life. Do not look for hope here.

Celine and Jesse are now in their forties, the parents of twin daughters, and living a messy and difficult life in a big city (Paris), as so many parents do everywhere. The film takes place at a writers retreat on a Greek island where Jesse, Celine and their daughters have been invited. Linklater places us in the midst of the colony’s earthy and writerly residents. We eavesdrop on their conversations, most of them about marriage, relationships, sex and (the transience of) love, getting the gamut of opinions from the colony’s ensemble. Teen lovers express their youthful rejection of true love while the colony’s more aged souls have found peace with the idea of heartbreak and come to accept the idea that love means letting go. In the middle of that is Jesse and Celine, who find themselves at the brink of some cruel terrors and realities.

Celine is disenchanted with Jesse, as a lover and as a man. At one point, around a table with the others, she begins to mock Jesse’s vision of an ideal woman and slips into a “blonde bimbo” routine, cooing and pouting as she pretends to flirt with him. It’s embarrassing to watch, even more so as Jesse chooses to play along. It’s also embarrassing because, as eavesdroppers here, we never fully understand the dynamic within this small group. It feels unhinged, the friendships false or artificial. Linklater and company never adequately establish the relationships so the openness and cordiality at play here seem alien and unconvincing. Still, the confessional nakedness of these opening sections felt reminiscent of Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle–the film has that awkward yet generous European vibe about it–and I did find that refreshing in a contemporary American film.

“Naked” and “confessional” describes the film in its entirety as Celine and Jesse must decide how to proceed in life. Jesse feels a powerful guilt and parental pull toward his now-teenaged son (from his broken marriage) living in the States. He misses him, wants to be a steadier presence in his life. In fact, the most devastating scene in the entire film is its opening, when Jesse has to say goodbye to his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport as the latter has to return to the States after a summer in Europe. We see Jesse, the father, doing his best to be strong and convivial toward his son, but his tentative gestures–all he wants is to hug his son and never let go–and his look–the look of a heartbroken parent–tell the truth.

Later, as Celine and Jesse head off to a private overnight stay at a nearby resort, the film’s ugly and jaundiced truths bare themselves as Celine, sensing Jesse’s conflicted heart, reacts to seeing herself as either the villain, keeping Jesse from his son, or as the victim, who must forever compromise her youthful dreams in molding herself to be the obedient spouse. To be fair, her anger is understandable: She has carried the burden of bearing and raising their daughters, keeping house and cooking while maintaining her career as Jesse pursues his writing. Celine’s barbs are particularly vicious, demeaning Jesse’s manhood, intelligence, his sexual and literary prowess, among everything else. Jesse, for his part, is as cocky and full of himself as ever. But he still grounds this relationship, his optimism now tempered by a newfound realism. Regardless of their openness, the sense of imminent terror here is palpable, the imminent break, of two lives approaching the point of no return.

What Before Midnight offers in terms of verbal firepower, it lacks in subtext and undercurrents. Nowhere does it achieve the breathtaking power of that first scene. The effectiveness of that opening airport scene was all achieved in those undercurrents of heartbreak and loss, conveyed simply and silently. The temperature of Before Midnight soon becomes a rising, overheated trajectory of verbal jabs and accusations. Everything is literal, right on the surface, leaving nothing to be gleaned elsewhere.

Others might say,”Of course, it’s all on the surface. These are raw, immediate issues that need to be expressed between two people.” I say that’s totally legitimate; people have arguments like this all the time, everywhere, but it doesn’t make for great cinema. Before Midnight is a bold movie, but it never achieves poetry (minus that opening scene) because Linklater and his stars never vary the tone, their dramatic strategy; it’s all in-your-face and the whole thing is an much an act of emotional aggression toward the audience as it is toward its characters.

To be fair, this is the same strategy employed in the previous two films. But when I watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m not listening to the dialogue so much as watching the performances, trying to discern deeper secrets and foreshadowings, to discern the implications of what’s said. Before Midnight, on the other hand, is a difficult film to watch. We sense nothing in its depths. Maybe that’s the point, I have to wonder; maybe there’s nothing to be sensed below what is stated explicitly. Its depiction of an unraveling relationship, of harsh words and tough realities, heartbreak and what’s it like to stare into the unforgiving chasm that is the rest of one’s life make it an important and worthy film, though not a particularly lyrical one. I admire its honesty and wish this couple well.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed, Jennifer Prior, Walter Lassally, Athina Rachel Tsangari

World War Z

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For a zombie movie, the PG-13 rated World War Z is among the tamest in the genre. There are scenes of horror and hysteria, induced by mobs of undead going berserk as panicked citizens flee–some do escape, others are bitten and transformed into zombies themselves. The only sure way to kill them is a bullet in the head. In that sense, this follows the zombie playbook. Otherwise, there isn’t the level of gore to which we’ve become accustomed coming from this genre. Indeed, the focus isn’t on the subject’s goriness, but the human drama that unfolds around it. World War Z is less about zombies than it is a portrait of human despair and one man’s quest to rid the world of the plague, fueled only by his love for his family. This movie is really about a father and husband’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Themes don’t get any more profound.

The world has been overrun by a terrifying virus that turns its victims into raving, run-amok zombies. Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family learn that firsthand when they find themselves in the midst of a zombie attack and a military crackdown in Philadelphia. Because of his UN status, Lane is able to secure safekeeping for his family aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, which serves as a kind of floating safe zone, before he embarks on a globe-trotting hunt for a way to stop the pandemic. Along the way, the film lingers on details of survival–on how a family that takes in the Lanes on the day of Philadelphia’s collapse clings close to their radio for news and on American soldiers in a remote South Korean military base and how they’ve barricaded themselves against the zombies waiting outside. And, of course, there’s the depiction of Jerusalem, sealed off the outside world by newly built steel walls, and housing a diaspora of Jews and Palestinians. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse but, because of its real-world geopolitical considerations, World War Z also feels like a convincing depiction of a humanitarian crisis.

The direction by Marc Forster, while never inspired, is dependably utilitarian. Forster follows the paces outlined in this adaptation, which only takes its cue from Max Brooks’ novel in its premise and global overview, and he lets Pitt anchor the material and deliver one of his sturdiest performances. Over 20 years, Pitt has become of Hollywood’s best and most compelling actors; there’s both conscience and conviction at play in his work. It was front-and-center in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and it commands this film as the story tapers down from the large-scale chaos of its first half to a third-act stand-off set inside a WHO research lab. Sure, there are the alternately obligatory and frightening depictions of zombie carnage, civilian breakdown and military resistance, but they pale in comparison to Lane’s personal journey. Pitt’s soulful performance lends World War Z real heart and strength. When the end credits roll, you really wish that the movie were longer, extending and deepening its investigative mystery as Lane (and the rest of us) learns step-by-step the origins of the plague and its nature. The story’s premise, the seriousness and intelligence of this adaptation and Pitt’s performance towering over it all could’ve handily accommodated an epic of that scale. Were it so.

Grade: B

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse

White House Down

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The White House gets commandeered by a gang of anti-American conspirators and mercenaries, whose members include ex-soldiers and an elite computer hacker. They’re led by a zealous saboteur–who also happens to be chief of the President’s security detail. It’s a premise that seems tailored for a throwback ’80s or ’90s action bonanza. Indeed, White House Down plays a lot like Die Hard-lite, heavy on the artillery and the macho swagger but lacking the edge and creepiness that made us take baddies like Alan Rickman seriously. This is, after all, a Roland Emmerich affair, and–having avoided most of his output since Independence Day–I guess I’d forgotten just how schmaltzy the man’s films can be. There is an overload of cheese here, a fondue of it here dripping over the edges of this jingoistic B-movie hokum, and it makes for a very queasy combination with the sarcastic, even subversive comedy that peeps through at times from the lead’s performers.

Channing Tatum picks up where he left off in 21 Jump Street, playing an oafish yet confident security officer aspiring to the ranks of the Presidential Secret Service. As Cale, he marshals the same combination of befuddled machismo that created comic sparks opposite Jonah Hill’s nerdy buffoonery in 21 Jump Street, and it’s almost as effective here opposite Jamie Foxx, playing the President with about as stately and dignified an air as he can muster. Had director Emmerich allowed the chain reaction of comic chemistry sparked by these leads to carry the film, there’s no telling how good White House Down could’ve been. What we have instead is a sporadically amusing, ridiculously corny “thrill ride” contrived for maximum, infantile patriotism.

It so happens that, on the same day as Cale shows up for a bungling interview with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhall), a top White House staffer, the aforementioned gang infiltrates the White House and promptly begins to raise hell. It also happens to be that Cale’s daughter, a budding political junkie and pint-sized, all-American hero, is part of a White House tour. When Cale learns his daughter is among the terrorists’ hostages, he goes into overdrive, partnering up with the Foxx’s equally beleaguered President Sawyer–who finds himself the target of traitors in his own ranks–to save the day.

While its set-up and initial action set pieces have a breathable and involving-enough style, the movie completely unravels the deeper Emmerich goes into the takeover conspiracy and the more over-the-top its theatrics get. Top quality actors like Woods, Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke do the best they can with a ludicrous screenplay by James Vanderbilt. They hit all the notes that Emmerich’s direction, which tries to squeeze as much melodrama out of the script’s parental, presidential and patriotic themes, demands. His direction is otherwise nondescript–this is shot and edited as a straight-ahead, generic action movie of outsize scale and the hysterics to match. Emmerich’s depiction of the American media types, the jingoistic citizenry and the nefarious bad guys is so riddled with cliches and hammered home with such brain-deadening obviousness that White House Down is eventually a joyless enterprise in calculated mall-crowd moviemaking of the dumbest order.

The silver lining is the occasional spark of comedy seen in the team-up of Tatum and Foxx. They have a few moments that have a sense of slapstick and genre subversion that go about halfway to making White House Down a watchable experience. The best among these might be a frenetic moment when Cale and Sawyer, under fire, hustle into the White House’s garage and climb inside the presidential limo. But, even in the heat of battle, the President ducks into the back seat of the limo while Cale takes the wheel before taking off on a rockets-and-bullets addled tear around the White House lawn. “Why the hell did you get in the back?” Cale shouts. “Force of habit,” Sawyer answers. That’s a genuinely funny moment in a movie that should’ve had tons of them instead of the wall to wall of silly, self-serious melodrama punctuated by forgettable action scenes.

Grade: C

Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods

The Way Back

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One of the most misunderstood and underrated films of the past couple of years has been The Way Back by Peter Weir. Before it came out, I remember reading an article lamenting how the Hollywood distribution landscape had changed so much over the previous decade that Weir — an Oscar nominated and widely admired filmmaker — could no longer get studio backing and distribution for his latest effort. Just seven years earlier, Twentieth Century Fox put its weight behind the production and distribution of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which went on to land 10 Academy Award nominations (including two for Weir). But, by the time of The Way Back, Weir’s financiers and distributors consisted of a network of fairly small companies geared for the art-house market. Not that the look and quality of The Way Back suffers, but it’s sad all the same because the absence of heavyweight companies with deep pockets as well as far-reaching distribution and marketing muscle could really have helped this ambitious and deserving film reach a wider audience. As it stands, Weir and his cinema — once A-list sure bets — risk becoming overshadowed by the studios’ desire to back only tentpole franchises engineered for maximum box office.

The Way Back follows a group of prison-camp escapees during WWII as they trek the thousands of miles from Siberia to safe asylum in British-occupied India. This is not an action or a suspense film, though Wier fashions elements of both into his tale. This is not a character study, particularly, since none of the characters — save that of Janusz, a political prisoner played by Jim Sturgess — really assumes fully rounded dimensions. There are two others, a cutthroat ex-criminal played by Colin Farrell and an enigmatic American played by Ed Harris who command our attention with their hard-edged personalities, their jaded world views. Gradually, through their cooperation and grit, we become fond of them, as we do the rest in the group because of their pure and enduring will to live. For the most part, The Way Back is a quiet and reflective experience in which its characters — and we, the audience — weigh constantly whether it isn’t better to just lie down and die. But always these men — and the one young Polish woman who joins them, played by Saoirse Ronan — push onwards, haggard, parched, famished, but driven toward life, escape, a more hopeful future.

Weir’s drama is decidedly low-key and exists largely as one between the individual and the passing landscape. The men distract themselves with conversations about chicken recipes as they subsist on tree bark, trudge on on swollen feet wrapped in rags, and dream of the next sip of water or a bit of real food. The Way Back is like a prison film and a prison escape film in one, because upon escaping the real prison, the group finds itself in another one, extending 4000 miles from end to end. They drop like flies as they go, one by one, their graves indicated by the markers like bread crumbs along the way. And there are surprising decisions too as, for instance, when Farrell’s character realizes that Mother Russia is the only home for him, for better or worse. His fate is a haunting one, visualized in the image of a lone man against the rugged, unforgiving starkness of his homeland, and we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for him. Whether The Way Back is fiction or not isn’t really important (there are assertions that the story, despite its claim as being based-on-fact, is all fabrication). There are greater concerns in the film, especially the running desire for redemption that inspires Janusz. Even after his betrayal, the man isn’t angry at his wife, he understands the duress under which she had to give him up. His goal now is to tell her he forgives her. Harris’s story too is anchored by the guilt he feels towards his child.

Weir maintains a sure, subtle hand throughout. His one major story flaw is that he doesn’t allow for enough buildup at the prison camp before the men stage their breakout. There isn’t enough of a sense of last-straw desperation or, for that matter, any sense of coordinated planning, things that would’ve added suspense to the breakout once it did happen. As it is, the breakout comes abruptly, too soon, and seems too easy, amounting only to a bunch of men running wildly through the woods as dogs and soldiers pursue. They have only to run hard enough and long enough to secure their chance at survival. Still, in the passages that follow, Weir offers a solid, resonant meditation on survival, on hope, on the value of life in the face of implacable hostility, portrayed memorably by an excellent cast and Weir’s vast, brutal, awe-inspiring landscapes.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Colin Farrell