White House Down (2013)

★★★

White House Down PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (US); September 13th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal

White House Down is bonkers. The President of the United States wears white trainers; kids can get through security with an easily obtainable Chocolate-Factory-esque ticket; Channing Tatum has an 11-year-old daughter. Madness. Indeed, profusely fun madness. Roland Emmerich’s film will never win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — or anything, truthfully — but at no point does it set out to. Unlike the director’s genre-relevant 1998 attempt at Godzilla, a film still languishing in a pit of sheer idiocy, his most recent action-packed attempt promotes an infectious need to have fun. Spearheaded by a pair of goofy opposites, White House Down is more thumbs up.

In the midst of a tour of the White House set up to appease his politics-loving daughter Emily (Joey King), John Cale (Channing Tatum) suddenly finds himself as the sole agent against a group of terrorist insurgents. The Capitol police officer, fresh off an unsuccessful job interview, must formulate a plan to shield the President (Jamie Foxx) from intended harm whilst also saving the many hostages in danger, one of whom is Emily.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this big budget summer popcorn bonanza is flawed. The screenplay written by James Vanderbilt sorely misses narrative intuition. During its predictably mellow opening act we can pretty much piece together the various components as the make themselves known on screen. In that dimly lit room over there is a shifty-looking group of janitors. Our lead has just been scorched for an insufficiency in trustworthiness. He missed his daughter’s recent talent show too. (She’s just popped off to the toilet alone.) Man, if only there was a way he could redeem himself. Wait, what is that sweaty, nervous chap doing with a concealed trolley? Those are only a handful of the film’s commonplace elements. This might be perfectly fine escapism, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a slither of acumen occasionally.

Its unwillingness to deviate from the cookie-cutter norm aside, there are other issues. The fact that characters aren’t well-defined in general is likely a factor, but it should be noted that females don’t necessarily get a fair swing at things. Yes, Joey King’s youngster Emily is a girl who, on more than one occasion, displays intellect far greater than many of her male compatriots — Joey is great, by the way — but the significance is that she’s a child rather than a female. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays one of the President’s assistants and early on looks like she might be thrown into the action, but is told to go home before impact. (“And that’s an order.”) Two others are fodder for Tatum’s macho-cool father: Rachelle Leferve, criminally underused as Cale’s ex-wife, and Jackie Greary as his current partner, or something. It’s not brilliant, but then, character development takes a universal back seat.

On a more positive note, White House Down is a heck of a good time. Foxx and Tatum are together throughout the vast majority of goings-on, their companionship a comedic revelation. The two couldn’t be more unbelievable as President Sawyer and would-be service agent, but the lack of realism is their collective selling point. In truth, Foxx plays Sawyer as a bit of a bumbling idiot who makes smoking jokes in a time of crisis and doesn’t know what YouTube is. It’s exceedingly difficult not to laugh out loud as he sticks his head out of a moving limousine, rocket launcher in hand. Often, Cale manifests as the saner of the pair, but he too gets in a helping of humorous quips. Both actors succeed at elevating the lazy script, at least in terms of its comical output. Their dynamic is utterly absurd but wholly endearing. Unlike its White House disaster counterpart Olympus Has Fallen, which fails because it takes itself too seriously, Emmerich’s piece is far more audaciously light-hearted.

Discretion isn’t on the menu. We nod knowingly at Independence Day references, guffaw fully aware at pictures of a flaming White House and are reminded that bombs are dangerous by their accompanying rapidly booming theme song. But it’s easy to accept these inclusions that would otherwise incur a barrage of sighs, because Emmerich directs with energy and a carefree nature that is sort of charming. At over two hours the film bustles by fairly quickly and the director should be commended for ensuring that proceedings consistently retain a sense of alluring anarchy. One of the funniest moments sees a character throw the phrase “military-industrial complex” into the bubbling cauldron of crazy. Its flippancy is ironic and probably intentionally so.

Though coated in numerous explosions — of which the film insists on singling each out, as if in confession — White House Down actually looks rather splendid. The visual palette is both impressive and excessive; fireballs erupt skywards from grandiose helicopter crashes, whereas on ground level Tatum and company fight it out in clashes layered with grittiness. It’s a testament to special effects team that high ocular consistency is obtained. Like Michael Bay, but entertaining.

Roland Emmerich wins the 2013 big screen battle of American homeland threat by quite some distance. His film certainly struggles to engage in fresh ideas and lacks far too much in the depth department to be considered as anything more than surface splendour, but it’s never boring. There’s no high-and-mighty movement going on here; this is popcorn-chewing, Coke-Zero-slurping cinema at its tastiest.

White House Down - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

★★★

Director: Marc Webb

Release Date: April 16th, 2014 (UK); May 2nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx

As Spider-Man majestically manoeuvres around an invisible pathway above New York City, camera in tow as if magnetised to his every flip, swing and twirl, we hear him articulate one witty quip after another. An air of intertwined energy and humour instantly sweeps across the screen, exponentially infectious; we are watching a superhero flick after all. Fun is the order of the day, only it arrives at a cost and in 2014 a structured sense of direction can too be quite pricey. It should come as no surprise then that, as Spidey encounters one enemy after another, proceedings take a slightly messy turn. Almost two hours and 30 minutes pass fairly quickly, but as time ticks and Spidey’s checklist grows you get the sense that ongoing events would benefit from separation into two shorter films.

Buoyed by his latest victory over Dr. Connors, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has become an ever-present on the streets of NYC, fighting off crime with aplomb and tactile guile whilst wearing the red of blue of his arachnid alter-ego. Beneath the surface, Parker has an awful lot on his plate: graduation, a relationship, mysterious parentage and an increasingly widening plethora of bad guys to deal with. Haunted by visions of his girlfriend’s dead father, Parker is at a moral crossroads as to whether he should continue dating Gwen (Emma Stone) and there still exists a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the motives of his father and mother. That’s not even to mention the blue-skinned Electro (Jamie Foxx) running rampant around the city, and he’s not the only one. Phew.

It’s almost a given nowadays that the combination of a gargantuan cinema screen and the latest summer blockbuster will yield exhilarating action and visual spectacle. On current evidence said expectation is justified. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens vibrantly and brims with commotion thereafter. Bolstered by some impressive digital creation and Daniel Mindel’s cinematography, each lively sequence retains an outstanding quality that keeps us engaged regardless of any plot misgivings. Notably, splurges of slow motion webbing are enticing and a transformation sequence towards the conclusion shepherds connotations of the magnificent scene in An American Werewolf in London.

One of the saga’s best branches stems from a trunk of genuine chemistry shared between its leading duo, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The pair are a couple in that thing we tend to call ‘real life’ every so often and their inherent connection flourishes on screen, even more so than in the first film. Garfield continues to cement himself as a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, who was hardly a damp squib in the role. The Englishman can hardly contain his wit at times, a trait wholly welcome in the superhero genre. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is ushered further into the limelight here and her performance alongside Garfield merits the busier workload. They jointly visit the entire emotional spectrum, a standout stop being an especially dramatic scene towards the end. It’s apparent that director Marc Webb and his cohorts are invested in these two characters and this is a positive sheen that rubs off on us viewers.

Beyond Stone and her beau, performances are generally excellent. Dane DeHaan is particularly impressive as Parker’s best friend and Oscorp inheritor Harry Osborn, his facial expressions often insinuating mischief. He resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio here more than ever — the voice, the hair, the mannerisms — and certainly has the talent to attain DiCaprio’s enviable portfolio. Jamie Foxx stars as the primary villain Electro, though is unrecognisable post-mutation. The character’s mindset drastically alters from one of blunder to one of forcefulness and Foxx handles the switch solidly despite the villain’s lack of conviction. Another unrecognisable face lost amongst the unnecessarily long list of antagonists is Paul Giamatti, who hams it up to the Nth degree as Aleksei Sytsevich.

Giamatti’s comedic purveyance is hit-and-miss, but by and large splashings of humour strike the correct spots. Comedy has become an essential element in the superhero formula, and getting it right undoubtedly provides a sturdy springboard for any subsequent action. Quality over quantity is key; brisk spells of funny are on the menu here and these bursts resultantly set the desired tone, ensuring wisecracking comedy doesn’t overpower the drama but simultaneously exists as more than simply a relief mechanism. Whether he’s arguing against the “laundry sheriff” or awkwardly atoning for making Gwen late (“I’m sorry to bother you my fair lady”) Andrew Garfield is often the source of amusement. Heck, he even generates a laugh out of the ill Spider-Man gag.

This is a far more entertaining watch than The Amazing Spider-Man, but it does adhere to the modern Marvel formula. The studio has been churning out at least two films annually over the past few years with more projects pencilled in until 2028, perhaps an indication that we are getting too much, too soon, too often. As time develops and these films come and go, it is become increasingly difficult to reinvent the superhero wheel and there are faint smatterings of this problem to be found in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film is on a similar level to Thor: The Dark World in terms of pure enjoyment, but unlike the Norse tale (which channels simplicity for the most part) Spidey part two gorges excessively.

This overabundance is a problem. Far too many things are going on. By the end of the film, there are at least five villains (admittedly, of varying importance) and a few characters so far out on the periphery of proceedings that their presence is called into question. Felicity Jones is criminally underused as Harry’s assistant Felicia and one can only hope that she has a greater role in part three. A random doctor plucked straight from 1960s Soviet Russia shows up at one point and his exaggerated demeanour is one step too far. A hefty percentage of the dialogue also gets caught up in discussions over physics. Modern day blockbusters should carry an intelligent weight, absolutely, but that notion doesn’t extend to rehashing school science lessons.

Reciting implausibilities within the context of a superhero film may not be the wisest of moves, but there is a difference between principal abnormality — that is, our main heroes displaying unimaginable powers — and plain absurdity. An early fight scene that takes place on an aircraft embodies preposterousness, as both a human being and his laptop withstand a free-falling, ripped apart plane. How on earth does the device manage to retain an internet connection?

Though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 becomes entangled in a complicated web of narrative strands, a healthy dose of thrilling action and toxic humour funds endless amounts of enjoyment. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone seal their place among the best couples going in the genre, and as the latter’s Gwen Stacy recites her valedictorian speech (“Make your [life] count for something”) we are appreciatively reminded of those familiar superhero themes: empowerment, belief, and laundry jokes.

Ray (2004)

★★★

Director: Taylor Hackford

Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Music

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren

Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.

We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.

Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.

Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”

That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.

On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.

Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.

By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.