Chuck Koplinski: Spectacle, humor keep 'White House Down' fun
Check your brain at the door, and be prepared to put Roland Emmerich's "White House Down" firmly in the "Guilty Pleasure" file, as the latest from the master of disaster is a gloriously realized piece of popcorn entertainment that revels — and at times, wallows — in the ridiculousness of its premise.
Sure, we've seen the White House taken by siege before, most recently in "Olympus Has Fallen" from earlier this year, but it lacked the foresight to give us a president who is not above sporting a pair of Air Jordans when the going gets tough or crack wise when the tension is too thick.
From leading man Channing Tatum's biceps to the ever-increasing explosions that take place throughout, "White House Down" is an exercise in excess that will land right in the wheelhouse of the country's movie-going populace as it is shamelessly patriotic as well as repetitively violent.
The movie makes no bones about what it's all about, wasting little time plunging us into its cliche-filled script, knowing that when you are presenting well-worn material, the best approach is to cover it fast and get to the good stuff.
Channing Tautum is John Cale, a police officer assigned to protect the Speaker of the House, Representative Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). However, he has his sights set on two much bigger goals — being assigned to the president's security detail and winning back his estranged daughter Emily (Joey King), who happens to be a political junkie. He's out to kill two birds with one stone as he schedules an interview at the White House and then take his daughter on the tour of the mansion the same day.
However, his timing couldn't be worse as the home of the president comes under attack while they are there, and before the smoke clears, father and daughter have been separated, and Cale finds himself side-by-side with the Commander-in-Chief and vows to get him to safety.
What ensues is an extended game of hide-and-seek throughout the White House, as well as in its tunnels and on its grounds. It's an adventure that requires the utmost suspension of disbelief as the conspiracy that is revealed to be the catalyst for the attack is as far-fetched as the numerous action sequences that lay the most famous home in the county to waste.
With films like "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," Emmerich has established himself as a filmmaker who doesn't know the meaning of restraint where his visual style or narrative leaps of faith are concerned. That being said, it must be pointed out that he knows how to pace movies of this sort, expertly building a sense of tension before the big disaster hits and, once it does, presenting it in a spectacular fashion. You know what you're getting from Emmerich — a highly polished but entertaining piece of fluff, and if you happen to be in the mood for this brand of escapism, he's your man.
In addition to being a slick and competent filmmaker, the director also has an eye for casting. That he's able to assemble such an impressive roster of actors for each of his apocalyptic visions speaks to the respect he must have in the Hollywood acting community. I have a feeling he's quite the charmer as well. In addition to Tatum and Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as the president's right-hand woman, Jason Clark ("Zero Dark Thirty") is the terrorist with the biggest axe to grind and James Woods is the president's head of security. That these veterans play their roles straight and with conviction goes a long way toward successfully selling Emmerich's brand of soap.
However, in the end, what makes "White House Down" work is that neither Emmerich nor any of his cast takes much of what's happening seriously. Comedic relief occurs throughout, and some of the best moments come from the banter between Tatum and Foxx, who have no problem pointing out their characters' shortcomings.
This approach makes this ludicrous patriotic exercise — which should do well over the 4th of July holiday — go down a bit easier.
'White House Down' (3 stars out of 4)
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Michael Murphy, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Rachelle Lefevre and Lance Reddick.
Directed by Roland Emmerich; produced by Brad Fischer, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis and Harald Kloser; written by James Vanderbilt.
A 20th Sony Pictures Production. 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 (prolonged sequences of action and violence, some language and a brief sexual image.) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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"Dirty Wars" unflinching in expose of covert ops. (3 stars)
At times infuriating, at others frustrating, director Rick Rowley's documentary "Dirty Wars" is an important film for our times. It contains explosive information about an American covert military group that has been allowed to operate outside its initial purview while employing suspect methods. However, as jarring as the information in the movie is, the way it is constructed robs it of some of its power as, at times, the director seems more enamored of the man who uncovered this plot rather than the story itself.
Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, a writer for "The Nation" magazine, has been covering the war in Afghanistan for years, and while following the U.S. war effort there in 2010, he catches wind of covert nighttime raids occurring that have resulted in civilian casualties.
While actions such as this were not uncommon, the writer decided to dig deeper into these incidents, focusing on an event in Gardez. There, he interviews a family who witnessed the slaying of two men and three women, two of them pregnant, who had no connection to al-Qaida. The most disturbing thing about the slaying is reports that American soldiers in the kill squad dug the bullets out of their victim's bodies to avoid having the ammunition traced back to them. Video of the corpses seems to support this story.
This sends Scahill down a rabbit hole rife with misdirection and horrifying conclusions as he sets out to uncover the identity and purpose of this covert group. What he discovers eventually leads back to the White House and a Special Forces group known as JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command. This group has been in the spotlight and hailed as heroes since completing the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
However, Scahill found this highly secretive arm of the military has been in action since 2003, having conducted more than 1,700 raids like the one in Gardez and expanded its theater of operations to 45 different countries, some seemingly disconnected from the War on Terror.
As our intrepid reporter uncovers more and more video evidence and records more and more eyewitness accounts, it becomes clear that JSOC has free rein to act at will, and the fact that it is only answerable to President Obama makes the actions all the more disturbing. Equally troubling are the brick walls Scahill runs into as we see him testifying to a nearly empty Senate chamber about his findings and being brushed aside by petulant talk show hosts who are too busy waving the flag to see the truth about their corrupt government.
Without question, "Dirty Wars" is an important document, but its power is muted at times by the presence of Scahill. Set up like a modern film noir with the reporter in the Phillip Marlowe role as he digs deeper and deeper into this conspiracy, there are times when the focus remains on his efforts far more than the facts themselves, leading one to think this is nothing but an exercise in self-aggrandizement.
To be fair, Scahill has stated he did not want to be cast in a first-person role here, yet was convinced by Rowley so as to give the audience a perspective they could relate to. It's solid strategy but poorly executed as the messenger too often obscures his own message.
Reunion at core of "Monsters University." (3 stars)
With "Cars 2" and "Brave," Pixar Studios showed that it, too, could deliver mediocre animated films much like its competition. The problem with those two films was that they lacked the heart and pathos that made nearly all of the company's previous efforts so distinctive. Some have claimed that increased input by the corporate bigwigs at Disney, who have bought the studio, has led to a dilution of the Pixar brand, and what with the influx of sequels to its properties, it's hard not to think that there might not be a bit of credence to this notion.
Which brings us to Pixar's latest effort, "Monsters University," a prequel to the 2001 hit "Monsters Inc." Having been made and released 12 years after the original seems to suggest that there was little in the way of urgency to tell the film's story, and to be honest, this is far from a trailblazing effort.
However, after an awkward first 20 minutes, the movie hits its stride and ends up being a wildly entertaining effort that contains a solid, if less than poignant, message about self-confidence and friendship.
We first meet Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), whose sense of optimism is as big as his one huge eye, as a tyke on a field trip to Monsters Inc. where he finds his calling.
After illegally trespassing on a journey into the human world to watch a scarer in action, he realizes what he wants to do with his life. Problem is, he's just not that frightening, something he hopes to rectify years later by attending Monsters University. He has done his homework, knows all about various scare theories and techniques, but he simply doesn't have the presence to pull off a toe-curling scare.
However, James Sullivan (John Goodman) has this in spades. Coming from a long line of scarers, he can make a 5-year-old's hair turn white in his or her sleep. Problem is, he just doesn't take his studies seriously enough, which puts his position at the university in jeopardy.
Circumstances ensue that throw the two future buddies into a fraternity of misfits which forces them to put their differences aside as well as exploit the positive qualities of themselves and their frat brothers as they're forced to compete in a series of challenges in order to remain enrolled.
The movie builds a full head of steam during these scenes as the contests are inspired and funny. A gauntlet in which they must avoid being stung by poisonous puffer fish that are being hurled at them doesn't go too well, to hilarious effect, while a run-in with the mother of all evil librarians leaves them battered and bruised but more confident for having survived. These scenes prove that Pixar hasn't lost the sense of fun and invention that was a major ingredient in their past films.
Also present is a moralistic theme that, while not tear-inducing like those in "Finding Nemo" or "Up," is at least firmly grounded in the story. That Mike and Sully realize that their special qualities are not a reason for scorn but celebration may not be the most imaginative lesson to deliver, but it is at least delivered in a sincere manner.
In the end, "Monsters University" may not be ground-breaking animation, but at the very least, it's a nice, entertaining visit with old friends who deserve to be looked in upon from time to time.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski or read his blog, which you can find here. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.