Border (Gräns)


Swimming in really cold water can be a scream.

(2018) Romance (NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer, Andreas Kundler, Matt Boustedt, Tomas Åhnstrand, Josefin Neldén, Henrik Johansson, Ibrahim Faal, Åsa Janson, Donald Högberg, Krister Kern, Viktor Åkerblom, Robert Enckell, Elisabeth Göransson.  Directed by Ali Abbasi

 

Sometimes films come along that are so different as to be like a precious gem. You don’t really want to spoil the experience of the moviegoer by telling them too much about the plot or the movie itself – you want them to get the opportunity to see it without any preconceptions, without any prejudice. You want the power of the film to wash over them, or kick them in the gut where applicable. Border is such a film.

Tina (Melander) works at a border crossing as a guard looking for smugglers. She is successful at her job because she has the uncanny ability to smell emotions on people – things like fear, guilt and rage. When she smells that on someone, she hauls them in to have their luggage and their persons examined. Her ability has helped break up a child pornography ring and foil minors trying to smuggle booze into Sweden. Then she meets Vore (Milonoff), a traveler who for some reason foils her olfactory radar.

Vore also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Tina; both have pronounced ridges above the brow; both have teeth that would make Shane MacGowan flinch and both have mysterious scars on their backs. Both have also been struck by lightning and have a severe fear of thunderstorms which always seem to grow more violent around them. Tina is fast falling for the cavalier Vore despite the fact she lives with Roland (Thorsson) who breeds Rottweilers who for some reason have a strong dislike for Tina.

The movie is mainly from Tina’s point of view; she also has an ailing father (Ljunggren) whose memory is beginning to go who also plays a major role in discovering who Tina really is. Unlike a lot of indie dramas, Tina actually finds out who she really is. This discovery is at the heart of Border which is based on a novella by the same Swede who wrote Let the Right One In.

Both Melander and Milonoff shine in thankless roles. Both have to deal with a good deal of make-up prosthetics and act not so much around the applications but through them. Both are aware of their unconventional looks and use that to define their characters: in Vore’s case, it is a defiance that is at the center of who he is while for Tina it is shame.

The music and cinematography are both very lovely, from the winter wonderland of Sweden framed by beautiful ambient music that is soothing and not unlike the music of Sigur Ros at times. It makes for a dream-like atmosphere although there is nothing dream-like about where Tina works which is industrial and nondescript. This is like a fairy tale set in the real world and that’s really as descriptive as I can get without revealing a bunch of things that would lessen the experience for you. The best advice I can give is to go see this and decide for yourself, particularly if you like the works of off-kilter filmmakers like David Lynch or Yorgos Lanthimos. Abbasi could well end up being compared to those worthies…or they to him.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is a beautiful ambient one. Melander and Milonoff deliver strong performances in thankless roles. It’s a very different movie in a very good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending runs on a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex and graphic nudity as well as some disturbing images and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Perfume
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mercy

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Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

Maggie (2015)


Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson

sixdays2016-2

I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life After Beth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove)


Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

(2015) Dramedy (Music Box) Rolf Lassgärd, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Ida Engvoll, Börje Lundberg, Chatarina Larsson, Holger Hastén, Ola Hedén, Stefan Gödicke, Sofie Gallerspáng, Filip Berg, Zozan Akgun, Viktor Baagøe, Simon Edenroth, Anna-Lena Bergelin, Poyan Karimi, Nelly Jamarani, Simeon Lindgren, Maja Rung, Jessica Olsson Directed by Hannes Holm

 

As we make our way through life, we are sometimes fortunate enough to find that perfect someone, someone who compliments us and completes us. That person makes our life so much more satisfying; we share all our highs and lows with that person. We can’t imagine life without them. When that person is taken from us too soon, we feel an emptiness that can never be filled, like a part of us is missing never to return. It is understandable that when that happens our thoughts turn to leaving this life.

Ove (Lassgärd) is 59 years old and six months a widower. A crotchety, grumpy sort, he lives in a quiet development in Sweden where the homeowners association – once headed by Ove himself – has forbidden driving on the streets of the development, and requires gates to be closed, dogs to be leashed and bikes to be properly stored. Ove makes daily rounds to make sure these rules are adhered to, although they rarely are it seems. He has worked for the train authority for 43 years, starting out by cleaning the trains when he’s 16 years old. Now, his job is being automated and he’s being put out to pasture.

He’s ready to end it all and join his wife Sonja (Engvoll) in the hereafter. However his attempts to take his own life are continuously interrupted, particularly by Parvaneh (Pars), the Iranian-born (and very pregnant) wife of Patrik (Almborg) who is Swedish. The couple has just moved in across the street with their adorable but noisy children which irritates Ove no end. To make matters worse, Patrik is hopeless around the house so Parvaneh turns to Ove to help, borrowing a ladder (which Patrik promptly falls off from, requiring a hospital trip that rescues Ove from yet another suicide attempt) and eventually asking him to help her get her driver’s license. The two begin to bond as friends in a kind of father-daughter way but still definitely friends. They enlist Ove to babysit and he begins to connect with the little ones.

We see Ove and his relationship with Sonja in a series of flashbacks that are cleverly disguised as his life passing before his eyes during his various suicide attempts. Eventually he begins to respond to those around him, adopting a cat he’d been trying to chase away – while we discover what it was that made him so bitter in the first place.

Part of why this works – a significant part – is the performance of Lassgärd which is quite special. The cranky old man is a global cinematic trope which extends back to the silent days, but Lassgärd imbues Ove with a dignity that makes him larger than life, but at the same time allows his humanity to show sometimes unexpectedly. It is the latter bit that makes Ove real and relatable; he has been through some real tribulation and through it all he had Sonja by his side to bring out the angels of his better nature, but with her gone he has fallen into despair and loneliness. He knows what other think of him and while he sloughs it off, deep down he hurts. Lassgärd brings that all out to the surface and makes Ove vulnerable and intimidating at once.

There’s a scene where Ove is dressed down by one of the dreaded “white shirts” – his code for bureaucratic bullies who have antagonized him all his life, going back to when he was a young man living in his late father’s home where he’d grown up and a council member who wanted the land his home stood on, condemned his house and allowed it to burn with all his possessions in it, ordering the fire brigade not to put it out. Had it have been me I’d have thrown the bastard into the house and say “I’ll bet he wants you to put it out now.”

The relationship between Ove and Parvaneh is also very natural and realistic. She’s sweet and caring and she doesn’t allow Ove to bully her. Of all the residents of the development, she seems to be the only one who sees past his gruff behavior and realizes that there’s a good man buried under all that. She hears him refer to nearly everyone else (particularly her husband) as “idiots,” which seems to be a fairly common epithet in Ove’s world. In my more curmudgeonly moments I can relate to the sentiment.

I can get why some may have difficulty with this movie; it is, after all, unashamedly manipulative. Some people really don’t like having their heartstrings tugged and I get that, but maybe I was just in the right place for it. I was truly moved by Ove and his life, and when the end of the movie came I was bawling like a cranky baby. Movies like this one used to be called “tear-jerkers” and they came by the epithet honestly.

Watching Ove’s life unspool over the course of the film is satisfying. Everything makes sense here and while some might feel that some of the tragedies are a little contrived, I thought that it was very much a highlight reel; we get a sense of the day to day but like most of us, the big events are what stick in the memory. There are some moments that are shocking and unexpected; life doesn’t always come at us from an angle we see clearly. Sometimes, we are taken by surprise.

This is definitely one of my favorite films so far this year. I know not everyone will agree with me but I found it cathartic and touching and real. When the tears came, they were come by honestly. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with Ove – it would be like hanging with a grouchy bear – but I really loved getting to know him and seeing his life. I don’t do this very often, but after seeing this on a press screener, I’ve made plans to go see it at the Enzian and bring more family along. It’s that good.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Lassgärd. A very poignant but sweet and sometimes stirring film. There are some unexpected incidents that make the film even more powerful. Very much a “slice of life.”
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that are disturbing as well as a few brief instances of mild profanity and a couple of instances of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the official Swedish submission to the next Academy Awards Foreign Language film competition in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

White House Down


Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

(2013) Action (Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachel Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Jake Weber, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Williams, Kevin Rankin, Garcelle Beauvais, Falk Hentschel, Romano Orzani, Jackie Geary. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Okay, stop me if you heard this one before: a guy walks into the White House and then a terrorist attack helped out by traitorous elements from within go after the President with the apparent goal of getting nuclear launch codes from him, but that turns out to be a mere diversionary tactic for something far worse…

That’s pretty much the plot for White House Down which it shares with a Gerard Butler movie from earlier this year. Here, we’ve got Channing Tatum in the Gerard Butler role. So who will come out on top?

Well, both movies have a few things worth noting. Here you’ve got Jamie Foxx as President, a sometimes irreverent but well-meaning liberal sort who has pissed off the wrong people when he announces a treaty that will get all U.S. troops out of the Middle East. Those darned military-industrial sorts simply have no sense of humor and decide that a change in plan is needed. But rather than do it the old-fashioned way – by buying Congressmen to block the treaty’s ratification – they decide they’d rather have their own guy in office. So they decide to take the White House by force with an inside guy close to the President making it happen.

There’s a pretty decent cast here, all in all – Richard Jenkins as a hangdog-looking Speaker of the House with Jim Boehner-like politics (although he seems to have a much more cordial relationship with President Jamie than Boehner does with President Obama), James Woods as a wise Secret Service mentor who’s about to retire, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his protégé who used to have a thing with Tatum’s D.C. Cop character who applies (and is turned down) for a job in the Secret Service.

Tatum actually does a pretty decent job. He’s still not the most expressive of actors but he’s getting better and his likability quotient is also improving. Joey King plays his politically precocious daughter with whom he’s trying to repair his relationship with. There’s a pretty decent dynamic between the two although King’s character is so annoying that you almost root for the terrorists to win so she can be executed. Does that make me a bad person?

The movie telegraphs most of its plot points as if the writers were of the impression that nobody who goes to see this movie will have ever seen another movie before. Early on in the movie you’ll figure out where the betrayal is coming from unless you’re stone deaf, flat blind and plenty stupid. There are a few grace notes – Nicolas Wright’s neurotic tour guide who knows everything there is to know about the Presidential Palace – except what Joey King’s character knows but then there’s always one of those on every tour. Jimmi Simpson has carved out a nice niche as the wisecracking tech guy and here plays a…wait for it…wisecracking tech guy.

There are some nice visuals of wanton destruction and some nifty stunts – Emmerich who has done big budget summer movies for decades knows how to keep the testosterone flowing. I have to say that Foxx also does a great job; generally when he’s onscreen the interest level picks up. Emmerich realizes that this is very much an action buddy movie with Foxx and Tatum and he wisely emphasizes that aspect of it.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the believability aspect of this is pretty much nil; if a bomb went off in the U.S. Capitol (as it does here) the President wouldn’t be holed up in the Oval Office waiting for a situation report – he’d  be already on his way to a safe location outside of Washington before the sound of the blast had done echoing away. And even if he didn’t get out, once the White House was in enemy hands there’d be no question – he would be stripped of his Presidential Powers and the next in line of the succession would be President Pro Tem until the situation resolved. It isn’t the man, folks, it’s the office that is being protected and that’s why something like this would never work.

Still, all in all it’s pretty entertaining in a mindless way and sometimes that’s all a body needs. It just doesn’t really add anything to the genre so you’ll get that feeling of déjà vu all over again. Mindless fun has its place, and I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker creating a highly skilled entertainment, even one as derivative as this one is but I can’t necessarily say that the moviegoer doesn’t have better options available out there either.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of testosterone-churning action. Foxx is fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely predictable. Doesn’t hold up with similarly-themed movies released earlier this year.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bang for your buck – lots of violence, gunfire and explosions. There’s also a brief sensual image and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jimmi Simpson may best be known for playing Lyle the Intern on the David Letterman show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the movie got mediocre reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympus Has Fallen

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Heat

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)


The Illusionist

The Scottish audiences were most pleased when the Illusionist conjured Scotch out of thin air.

(2010) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey. Directed by Sylvain Chomet

 

There comes a time in life when we realize that the world has moved on without us. Very few of us can keep up with progress, particularly when the careers we’ve labored at all our lives have been rendered obsolete, either through technology or simply through changing tastes. It is bittersweet; the sadness that which we have labored at no longer matters, but there is also a freedom in it as well.

Monsieur Jacques Tatischeff (Donda) is a stage musician and a good one. He has played all the finest music halls and vaudeville theaters in Europe. Now, it is the 1950s and the 1960s are right around the corner and the audience for his kind of entertainment is shrinking. Once a headliner, he is reduced to taking whatever bookings he can and has found himself in Edinburgh.

He has caught the attention of Alice (Rankin), the young chambermaid at the hotel he is staying in. She is dewy-eyed and innocent, her eyes wide and open, amazed by the illusions Monsieur Tatischeff conjures. His act has convinced her that there is real magic in the world and that Monsieur Tatischeff has access to it.

For his part, Monsieur Tatischeff is touched at the attention he is receiving – one last true fan. He looks upon Alice as the daughter he never had and showers her were gifts – new shoes, new dresses. He can’t afford them on the meager pay of his bookings, so he works odd jobs when he’s not onstage so that he can buy these things for Alice, who thinks he has conjured these fine things out of air. He wants her to continue thinking that.

But this is one illusion even a master Illusionist like Monsieur Tatischeff can maintain indefinitely and soon he is faced with the wrenching choice of revealing the truth to Alice or continuing the lie. Reality is fast catching up to him as it does with us all.

Chomet was the auteur behind the much-acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville. The script he’s working off of here was written by the great French comedian and actor Jacques Tati, who wrote this back in 1959 but for some reason never got around to filming it as a live-action film although there is evidence that he intended to. This is said to be a highly personal work for him; the Alice character may represent a daughter that he abandoned, although Chomet has said that Alice was really Sophie, the younger daughter who first gave Chomet the script to produce as an animated feature.

The movie is hand-drawn rather than computer generated. This process is tedious and labor-intensive and rarely used since Pixar took over the animation market. It also renders the movie more beautifully, resembling paintings more than anything else. This is animated art folks and is as beautiful looking (even in its tedious Edinburgh scenes) as you’re likely to see.

There is almost no dialogue – Chomet prefers to make his work more universal, so most of the sounds you hear are wordless, like acrobats exclaiming “Hep! Hep! Hep!” as they bounce around the screen. There are sighs and cries, but few words. In many ways this is like a silent movie, relying on the characters to tell the story without using extraneous words.

Tati was inspired by Charlie Chaplin (and there are those who consider him France’s Chaplin) and in a sense, this is a movie that Chaplin would likely have approved of. There is some pathos and the comedy is quirky and well choreographed. There is a definite melancholic air however that might be off-putting for some; after all, this is supposed to be at its heart about a father-daughter relationship. However, it is also about the end of an era, about a man having to accept that what he had done for a living all his life was no longer meaningful. There is nothing funny about be rendered obsolete, but there can be a catharsis in it and Chomet finds it.

This is a beautiful movie, if you can find beauty in sadness. There is some joy here as well, but I walked away from it feeling like you do after you’ve had a good cry although I shed no tears while I watched. It is certainly different than the offerings of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, the two leaders in modern animation. It didn’t connect with the audience sadly, although it did get an Oscar nomination. It’s one of those movies that a lot of people kind of turned their noses up at, but it is also one of those films that if you give it half a chance you are likely to fall under it’s spell.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully hand drawn with a marvelously bittersweet story on aging and growing irrelevant.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Almost no dialogue and a melancholic feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here might be a bit difficult for smaller children to work through. There are also numerous depictions of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Illusionist’s stage name, Jacques Tatischeff, is the real name of Jacques Tati who wrote the script.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting feature that shows a scene being animated from storyboard to finished product.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $17M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Attack the Block