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

Frank (2014)

★★★

Frank PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: May 9th, 2014 (UK); August 22nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As wannabe musician Jon strings together lines so monotonously hilarious in an attempt to spur lyrical inspiration, you get the sense that Frank is about to deliver (just ask the lady in the red coat). And it does deliver to a point. When it strikes a comical chord, the reverberating guffaws tend to be high in pitch and volume. Not to mention the outing’s headline act: a stupendous bodily performance from Michael Fassbender. But there’s something not quite right, a node of irony that occasionally jars indulgently. When wackiness overrules narrative, a handful of disengaging characters remain. Utterly bizarre beyond its frames, Lenny Abrahamson’s outing is as much Talk to Frank as it is Frank Sidebottom.

A keyboard player languishing in his own pit of disenfranchisement, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself taking the faux-piano reigns as part of an eclectic band. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer, his psychedelic sound usurped only by the group’s psychedelic demeanour and his own terminal cartoon-head. At first, Jon is perplexed by just about everything the band has to offer. However, as he is dragged further into their unorthodox make-up by manikin-loving manager Don (Scoot McNairy), the keyboardist remembers his toils as a struggling musician and engages in a game of manipulation and admiration.

Though the antics are told from Jon’s point of view, the titular Frank is wholeheartedly the film’s star and this is in no small part down to Michael Fassbender. Stripped of any ability to facially exhibit emotion (an element quickly acknowledged in a humorous manner) Fassbender suitably readjusts in a display of manoeuvres that are as admirable as they are chucklingly peculiar. Like bees to honey, the band whiz to Frank’s side in a constant plea for attention, particularly Jon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stern Clara. Frank is the cream of the crop to them, both of whom aspire to gain his level of musical insight and, in the same vein, we look to him as the central figure of goings-on.

Fassbender’s vocal expression is intentionally difficult to pinpoint, an element that bolsters the mystery surrounding Frank — it also adds verve to his singing which sees one scene towards the end particularly stand out. It’s not necessarily Fassbender’s face that garners any amount of intrigue — we already know what the Irishman looks like — rather, it’s his character’s motivations. (“What goes on inside that head, inside that head?”) Even then, the reason behind the lead singer’s mask-wearing becomes irrelevant as Fassbender’s actions whilst wearing the head gear become increasingly engaging and unpredictable. A man without a face, but not without allure. Face hidden by a large head, if we didn’t already know it was Michael Fassbender we’d be absolutely certain it was an actor of extraordinary talent anyway.

Despite being too whimsical in dramatic delivery, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is often very funny. From shoddy song creation, to blunt feedback, to hurling objects at one another, there is undoubtedly a plethora of laughs to be had. Though, whilst striving for humour the outing progressively trundles through a sea of perplex. In itself, a film without conventional boundaries is not necessarily a bad film — conversely, though innately different, Valhalla Rising is surreal and still very good — but Frank suffers as it dips in and out of madness, resultantly losing tonal focus. Unless it can be found obscured underneath a papier mâché head, there’s no real on display plot here, not one of intuitive significance anyway. This is the story of a band locked away in a cabin writing an album. The attachment must therefore lie with those on screen and, out-with Frank himself, there aren’t many hooks.

Jon is our mediator of mania; he’s the ‘normal one’ in an abnormal setting. Despite Domhnall Gleeson’s best efforts, the character isn’t all that interesting; an inevitable outcome given those in Jon’s immediate vicinity — a fake head wearer, a wrathful theremin player, a manikin admirer — but the keyboardist is just a tad too plain and subsequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Even when he does generate a semblance of interest, it’s at the expense of likeability: as Twitter followers increase, affinity decreases. Clara presents an even greater problem. She’s dismissive and abrasive and this isolates Maggie Gyllenhaal’s persona. Rather than becoming part of the crazy prerogative, Clara exists disparagingly on the outside. Between plods of hysteria, the film puts all of its eggs into Frank’s basket, a lot for a faceless anomaly to take on. When inadvertently the most amiable presence is one wearing a mask, something ain’t quite right.

On another problematic note, Frank attempts to juggle the trials and tribulations of modernity and music, before incorporating issues of mental health towards the conclusion. We often hear of musicians hiding away in isolation as they congregate ideas for the next album in an attempt to avoid the hyper-connected external world, and this is exactly the case here. Frank and company occupy the confines of a wilderness cabin for months on end, though ironically they’re concealing their music from a non-existent expectancy — nobody knows who they are. Heck, nobody knows how to pronounce the band’s name (Soronprfbs, if you want to have a go) highlighting their incessant need to stand out in an overpopulated industry. The lead singer adopting a giant fake head is probably enough regardless. Jon invariably narrates proceedings via Twitter, a nuance that sears as an unneeded attempt by the filmmakers to make Frank more current. Perhaps those like myself without much musical inclination, other than downloading the latest hit from The Killers or Katy Perry, will struggle to relate to Frank’s attempt at industry irony. Abrahamson’s late bid to relate Frank’s concealment and musical idiosyncrasy with mental instability, though well-meaning, is pillaged by a lack of cohesion.

In response to Jon’s apparent anguish, a bystander confesses, “I thought it was supposed to be funny”. This retortion reflects Frank, a film that is inherently humorous yet unsuccessfully aims for melancholic satire. Are we meant to laugh or cry? I’m not entirely sure. The song plays boldly and certainly hits an occasional high note, but unfortunately suffers from a muddled beat in the long run.

Frank - Frank

Images credit: Movie Review World, Guardian

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

Crazy Heart (2009)

★★★★

Director: Scott Cooper

Release Date: February 5th, 2010 (US); March 5th, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music; Romance

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Folkish melodies and acoustic guitar strums are the backbone of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a charming tale about a worn out country musician who finds hope and inspiration in a new, unexpected romance as he tries to get his career — and life — back on track.

Jeff Bridges is Otis “Bad” Blake, an ageing country singer/songwriter devoid of much enthusiasm unless alcohol is present. Maybe he lived a more frivolous and extravagant lifestyle in his younger years, but nowadays his tours consist primarily of small town bars and bowling alleys. If he makes it through a set list without choking on a beverage or vomiting in a bin, he’s probably having a pretty good day. Bridges is excellent as Blake and delivers equally well in conversation as he does in song. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s youthful journalist Jean Craddock is a recent divorcee who catches the eye of Blake and emblazons him with a new lease of life. The two actors strike up a a very equitable dynamic and make a seemingly unrealistic relationship, a believable one.

Just as Blake and Craddock’s romance progresses and the country man’s life and career both begin to reattach themselves to the rails, Blake encounters a number of alcohol induced demons, including a number of unsavoury incidents involving a car accident and Craddock’s four-year-old son, whom Blake has come to care dearly for. These issues increasingly drive a wedge between the pair and as their relationships begins to unravel, the film starts to lurch over the edge, peering cautiously into the depths of despair and darkness. Teetering on the edge of the abyss is as far as the drama gets however, as the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions.

And that is the main problem with Crazy Heart (perhaps the only problem). Too often characters are faced with a level of pain and anguish which, if prompted a little more, would generate additional degrees of empathy and frustration for them — and Blake in particular — from the audience. For a man who is surviving mainly on scraps and minuscule effort, who finds a beacon of light through love and family and who then goes on to throw all of that joy and security away by making stupid decisions, Blake seems to be dealing with life relatively well. Yes, he has a drinking problem, but he has the same drinking problem at the beginning of the film as he does after the collapse of his relationship. Scott Cooper is very close to writing and directing a perfect fable of loss and redemption, but the tone of Crazy Heart lingers a touch too high when it should be free-falling a great deal lower – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an example of a film that shares many similar narrative elements with Crazy Heart, but which hits depths lower than Cooper’s film and is all the better for it, albeit more heart-wrenching.

However, what Crazy Heart does not have in depth-plummeting ordeals, it makes up for in wonderful characters, tremendous performances and an incredible plethora of music. Produced in part by Coen favourite T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack to the film has bounce and soul and meaning; it is no surprise that the film’s headline song “The Weary Kind” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Often the songs develop the characters, be it through Colin Farrell’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” establishing his young, successful Tommy Sweet, or Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, which perfectly describes both the singer’s previous ambitions and current realisations (“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while”). Burnett’s musical involvement in filmmaking rarely signals disappointment, and his work here is another shining example of getting it right.

Jeff Bridges is the stand out performer in a film where much of the focus is on him, delivering a performance which returned the second of the film’s two Academy Awards in 2010. He is a part of just about every scene, yet his presence is always welcome and never wearisome. Bridges emits near-defeat and hopeful optimism in equal measure when required, his emotions often dictated by the outcome of interactions with the protégé-turned-star Sweet or the smitten Craddock. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as Blake’s lifelong friend Wayne, contributing melodically to match.

When the foot stomping ends and the guitar strings go silent, Crazy Heart simmers down to a very enjoyable film that boasts an exceptional lead performance and is littered with great songs, each of which do their job in encapsulating the moment. It doesn’t quite hit the perfect note all of the time, but it is not a long way off.