Monthly Archives: June 2013

Why You Should See White House Down (Seriously)

It’s the pinnacle of dumb fun summer blockbuster entertainment.

James Vanderbilt, writer of the infinitely more intelligent Zodiac, has crafted a masterclass in plant and payoff, and, to put it nicely, “pays homage to” Die Hard beat-for-beautiful-beat. There have been loads of Die Hard ripoffs over the years, but it’s been quite a while since they’ve been in vogue (and the relative failure of this film will probably ensure that we don’t see any more in the near future).

The thing is, White House Down is to Die Hard what 10 Things I Hate About You was to Taming of the Shrew. It’s a popular tale, retold and recontextualized for the post-9/11 generation, which makes it sound far smarter than it is. It’s not. But that’s also the point.

This generation, more than any other, has a refined appreciation for camp humor, a love of all things hilariously bad. From hipsters who thrive on ironic enjoyment to fans of cult hit The Room, the so-called “ironic lifestyle” has become the new “ethos of our age”, to mixed results (to further understand what I’m citing, read here: link). While a new style of brilliant humor blooms and a healthy cynicism permeates the electorate, it seems that sincerity has fallen by the wayside, a relic of times when we only assumed the government was spying on us. Modern media and pop culture reflect this sensibility, where antiheroes are the new bee’s knees, from Breaking Bad and Mad Men to Iron Man and Batman.

White House Down both celebrates and mocks that optimistic sensibility, appealing simultaneously to fans of Frank Capra and Fast Five successfully. There’s an earnest quality to the storytelling here, a genuine desire to bring out the inner good guy in all of us, but its some-would-call-it-corniness is well-tempered by its tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach. Each plot cliché, character trope, and tired setpiece is reinvigorated by the filmmakers’ choice to accentuate the normally negative qualities inherent in each one to humorous effect. For example, at one point, a stereotypical hacker (quite a fun character), literally types in “Access NORAD” and the Norad screen immediately pops up. (SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ THIS PARENTHETICAL IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED: Towards the end of the film, the little flag-twirling girl waves the flag on the White House Lawn for obvious metaphorical reasons and to call off an airstrike.) This film knows exactly what it is.

The audience of the screening I attended was cheering and applauding and laughing at all the right times, despite it being a Sunday and the theater only 80% full.

From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s a solidly made action film. On the screenwriting end, every plant is paid off, the one-liners are glorious and the structure is flawless (adhering to the Die Hard outline is never a bad decision in a movie like this). The trailers didn’t reveal the villain or its plot, which, while a bit predictable to well-informed viewers, remains enjoyable to watch and appreciate. While the CGI is occasionally not good enough to maintain believability, and the cinematography is one notch short of atrocious, Roland Emmerich does a fine job of telling the story and maintaining the tone so crucial to the film’s success (and often misinterpreted by critics as unintentional). It’s clear why he was selected to direct this film despite a series of recent misfires from his work in the postmodern fourth of July classic Independence Day, as that film similarly had many issues in the logic department and wondrously ridiculous action.

However, and this is where you can argue my theory goes totally off the rails, this film is almost a postmodernization of Independence Day, thematically, which is odd to say because that film is postmodern in and of itself, which is to say that this film might be a product of the next era of filmmaking (post-postmodernism?). It combines the earnestness of a work of a bygone era, like the original Superman, with the postmodern self-awareness of films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Overthinking it? Probably, but if you make the trek see this film, at the very least you’ll have a great time at the theater.

Holy fuck I just wrote an essay on White House Down. Definitely didn’t start the day thinking that would happen.

World War Z – Film Review

Brad Pitt showed up at the pre-screening I caught (thanks, Slashfilm). NBD.

The definition of a fun, harmless summer blockbuster.

The pre-, mid-, and post-production struggles on “World War Z” were well-documented on every film website known to man. After a draft by J. Michael Straczynski (the underrated “Changeling”) achieved a studio greenlight and received tremendously positive feedback on the internet, Matthew Michael Carnahan (the similarly underrated “Lions for Lambs”) was hired to rewrite. This draft, which was unfinished at the time shooting began, thus causing much footage to be missing, was the basis of the first version of the film. That film had many problems, according to everyone involved. Depending on which outlet of news you read, star/producer Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster may or may not have had major on-set disagreements. But once completed, everyone involved agreed that the third act of the film wasn’t working. So the studio brought in much-maligned Damon Lindelof (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Prometheus”, “Lost”), he of the “JJ mafia”, to pitch them a solution. He proposed two. One was a complete reworking of the entire third act, and the studio bought that one (at the considerable cost of very expensive reshoots, almost unheard of for a film of this size) and brought on Drew Goddard (the really underrated “Cabin in the Woods”) to help Lindelof as he got busy with other projects. But none of that I had an issue with. Unfortunately, it was also revealed that several of the scenes shot in Budapest were dropped from the final cut in order to water down the film’s political undertones, and steer it towards a more generally friendly summer blockbuster. Yuck. Just because something’s fun, doesn’t mean it can’t be smart or challenge an audience. Intelligence is not anathema to entertainment, studios. Okay, rant over.

The result is imperfect and doesn’t fulfill its potential, but it’s still quite a bit of fun. We’ll likely never know what the Straczynski draft would have become (some even went so far as to call it “Best Picture material” and compare it to “Children of Men”, with its reportedly political emphasis), but the screenwriting here isn’t bad. There are bold, inventive action and horror setpieces throughout, and while the character development doesn’t really exist, this isn’t a movie about Gerry Lane (Pitt)–though we do get just enough “family time” to care about his outcome–this is a movie about action, zombies and figuring out the root of the big zombie problem.

The film is designed to launch a franchise. I’m not sure if it will. It’ll have to do huge business to do so. But it works fine as a standalone. It’s not must-see, but if you’re into big blockbusters, this is a zombie movie that certainly deserves being seen in a theater.

The highlight of the film is actually Forster’s direction. He keeps the tension consistently high, throwing jump scares in at select times to keep you off-balance. The camera movements and action choreography are designed very effectively to place you in the unique world, maintaining a sense of realism and palpable fear despite the obviously false nature of such a scenario. He has a gift for creating atmosphere, and he gets great performances from his actors, including the kids, despite a script that’s thanklessly procedural in its nature. Pitt’s performance suitably carries the film.

Tech credits are solid all-around, with an added bonus of Matthew Bellamy‘s additional compositions performed by his band Muse. They blend in nicely with Marco Beltrami‘s suitable, subtle and strong score.

If you like good, fun blockbusters, you’ll like this. It’s not gonna win Best Picture, but Best Visual Effects is definitely on the table, and I’d give it at least a nomination for Best Badass Female Character.