U-571


The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you're not one of them.

The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you’re not one of them.

(2000) War Thriller (Universal) Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann, Jack Noseworthy, Tom Guiry, Will Estes, Terrence “T.C.” Carson, Erik Palladino, Dave Power, Derk Cheetwood, Matthew Settle, Rebecca Tilney, Burnell Tucker, Robin Askwith, Carsten Voigt. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

After the success of Saving Private Ryan, movies about the Second World War began to creep into the studio release schedules in the first years of the new millennium, with this film and Pearl Harbor (among others) both hoping to recapture the magic of the Steven Spielberg classic.

This time, the focus is on the submarine service of the U.S. Navy. Lt. Tyler (McConaughey) is the very competent exec of the S-33, one of the Navy’s older rustbuckets. He is chafing for his own command, but hasn’t been able to get the recommendation of his commanding officer (Bill Paxton), so he continues to be second in command as the battle in the Atlantic shipping lanes continues to go badly for the Allies. German U-Boats continue to sink allied ships at a terrifying rate and the navy is virtually powerless to break their codes.

However, that’s about to change. During a battle at sea, a U-boat is left crippled and sends a radio signal to Berlin. Allied intelligence manages to figure out what happened (don’t ask how, since they supposedly don’t know German codes) and have sent a taciturn intelligence officer, Lt. Hirsch (Weber) and a gung-ho Marine (Keith) to lead a mission to rendezvous with the crippled German sub posing as its supply vessel and steal the Enigma decoder and codebook. Along with them they bring Tyler, his respected by the men chief (Keitel) and a group of seamen to help take over the sub.

After a bloody battle, they manage to secure the German U-boat and get the decoder, when the REAL supply boat arrives and sinks the American submarine. The survivors are left aboard a vessel that’s unfamiliar and in which everything is written in a language they can’t read. To make matters worse, the U-boat is still crippled (although they manage to make some jury-rigged repairs) and is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with a German destroyer.

Mostow manages to capture the claustrophobic feel of submarine service of the time, and the amazing stress that comes with avoiding depth charges, enemy torpedoes and the pressure of the deep. The sacrifice and bravery of the men and the coming of age of Tyler are the center of the storyline. Along the way, you get a pretty good idea of what terror a depth-charge barrage can be.

In the early years of his career McConaughey was a bit wooden more often than not but here he plays the heroic role with a certain amount of stoicism. Keitel plays the cliché gruff ole seadog pretty well, considering it’s not the kind of role he’s known for. But then nobody really expects the acting to be this film’s strong point. It’s the stomach-knotting tension that makes or breaks U-571 and there are times when this movie makes you want to leap out of your skin. However, they are unable to maintain the atmosphere consistently.

The reality of submarine service during the war, as nasty as this movie depicts it, was way more intense. If you are looking for a more realistic portrayal, try Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which is THE best submarine movie ever done. If that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat, nothing will.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic sub battles. A good sense of tension. Keitel makes a terrific seadog.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Inconsistent. McConaughey was a bit too laid back.

FAMILY MATTERS: A pretty goodly amount of violence and some scenes of extreme tension and fear.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Enigma machine depicted here wasn’t a prop; it was an actual Enigma that was loaned to the production by a collector.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some newsreel and archived material which are used to explain what inspired the making of the film. The Blu-Ray version makes this available in the U-Control Picture-in-Picture function.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.7M on a $62M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thor: The Dark World

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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 Cell


The Cell

Jennifer Lopez is terrified of horny men.

(2000) Science Fiction (New Line) Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Dylan Walsh, James Gammon, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Musetta Vander, Colton James, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Tarsem Singh

Really, the more I see ex-music video directors (such as The Cell‘s Tarsem Singh) take on feature films, the more I realize how excruciatingly painful to watch a two-hour music video would be.

Catherine Deane (Lopez) is a social worker who by some strange pseudo-science can enter the minds of comatose patients. Of course, I’m sure Jennifer Lopez enters the minds of a lot of men, but we won’t go there. Currently, she’s attempting to help a young scion of a billionaire with somewhat unencouraging results.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, serial killer Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) is happy as can be, having constructed a diabolical device that will automatically drown his young, nubile female victims without Carl even being present (naturally, a bank of video cameras capture every morbid moment of their final struggles). A marvel of modern technology, that.

He doesn’t realize how close the FBI, led by twitchy agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) is to him. When they finally break down his door, Carl is already face-down and – you guessed it – comatose, the victim of a schizoid virus or some other such babble. With a victim locked in Carl’s Infernal Machine at an unknown location, time ticking away, you can guess what happens next. Uh, huh; an excuse for Jennifer Lopez to wear a lot of striking, exotic costumes and more important to Tarsem, a chance for the director to show off his visual style honed in dozens of music videos, notably R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.

Tarsem suffers from the “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome, a disease especially prevalent among ex-music video directors. “Art for art’s sake” may be MGM’s motto, but, pragmatically, it doesn’t work in movies. A movie isn’t just a series of images strung together; there has to be some sort of story, a reason for watching those images. If the story is mediocre, all the beautiful pictures in the world won’t save the film.

To make matters worse, the movie often violates its own internal logic – for example, as the social worker points out ad infinitum throughout the movie, it often takes a child months to build enough trust to let her in, but the serial killer only takes a single session! As we all know, serial killers are known for their trusting natures.

A trip inside Jennifer Lopez’s brain wouldn’t be as fruitful as the one we take here. Assuming there was enough room for anyone else in there, considering her ego, we’d be assaulted by letters 40 miles high in garish, blinking neon blaring “I’M ALL THAT & A BAG OF CHIPS.” Believe me, honey, you’re not. For his part, Vaughn showed most definitely that he was to become a star of the future. He has for the most part made good on that promise, largely because he’s learned to choose material where he has more to do than just smirk.

To Tarsem’s credit, some of the visuals and special effects are very nice indeed, but for the most part, its eye candy for its own sake. Frankly, Da Queen and I got more of a kick from the two guys in the row behind us discussing the philosophical implications of The Cell and its somewhat overbearing subtext of redemption and absolution when we saw this in a theater back in the day. Guys, you’re watching WAY too much of the Independent Film Channel.

By the way, what is up with film credits? Do we really need to see everyone’s name who is even vaguely connected with the movie? On the credits for The Cell you will see (I’m not making this up) the identities of the salad chef and of Jennifer Lopez’s bodyguard. I imagine the guy who cleaned up after the movie’s canine star will be graced with a poop wrangler credit next.

Roger Ebert, a voice I normally respect, did cartwheels over this movie which mystifies me to this day. The more I think about The Cell, the lower its rating goes, and if I don’t stop here, it’s going to get a zero rating, which really isn’t fair. It’s not completely without merit, but as fantastic as the visuals are, the movie is ultimately unsatisfying. Too many special effects and not enough solid writing, plot and characterization a dull movie makes – eye candy is tasty but doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Some amazing visuals and Jennifer Lopez’ exotic wardrobe.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A story that violates its own internal logic and falls apart over it’s own ponderous weight. A major case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is violence, sexuality, bad language, nudity, and bizarre images. Unless your kids are fetishists, you might want to steer them away from this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Scenes in the movie are inspired by artwork by such artists as Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum and H.R. Giger.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The two-disc Platinum Series edition includes an interactive map of the brain that gives more information than you probably want on the subject, as well as an empathy test that allows you to determine how you handle your emotions. Good, free therapy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.2M on a $33M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Back-Up Plan