27 posts categorized "Action/Drama"

June 26, 2013


The DC Crime Ring Eats Its Own
Hollywood Can’t Help Taking Notice

White House DownCopycat redundancies to the recent “Olympus Has Fallen” aside, “White House Down” is an unintentionally laughable action movie that wallows in involuntary cynicism about how America — or screenwriter James Vanderbilt at least — views the White House as the world’s biggest crime ring. Buried in a shallow grave just beneath its veneer of absurdly cheesy Americana platitudes lays mocking subtext, twitching with spastic gestures and pointing awkwardly at a corrupt political system eating itself from the inside out.

U.S. President Jack William Sawyer (played by Jamie Foxx) can’t wait to explain his occupational predicament to the first pair of ears that comes along. “The first term is all about getting reelected,” he tells an upstart Secret Service agent before explaining that now, during his second term, he is finally ready to do something that will make a difference. Sound familiar? You’d think he was petitioning for single-term-limits for the Presidential office.

Interestingly, the ever-buff Channing Tatum dons the Edward Snowden mantle as John Cale [no, not the Welsh composer and musician of Velvet Underground fame, although that would have been interesting]. Like Snowden, Cale has a history of not finishing things — e.g., school. But our would-be Secret Service agent bodyguard has friends [mainly female] in high places. He went to college with White House Secret Service official Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of President Sawyer’s right-hand agents. Still, when Cale arrives at the White House for a job interview with Agent Finnerty, with his 12-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) in tow, she quickly gives him the thumbs-down — so much for friends in high places. Cale is a perfect outlier, ready to pounce for the true cause of liberty when he gets a chance.

On this particular day a crew of generic baddies sneak into the White House to hack into its computers, take hostages, and see how far down the line of presidential succession they can move the title of Commander-In-Chief. Naturally, Cale’s daughter falls into the hostage category while our able-bodied hero takes personal responsibility for getting the President out alive while all hell breaks out around them. You can’t help but transpose Barak Obama into Foxx’s character during goofy action sequences, as when Cale and President Sawyer climb up through an elevator shaft. The effect is mildly comical if only because it’s so hard to imagine Obama doing anything so remotely athletic and risky.

Although its plot gymnastics are idiotic to the point of parody, “White House Down” makes a smart point about how vicious, cunning, and vengeful America’s power-hungry politicians are. They all want to be king for a day, and don’t give a damn about how many civilians get crushed, punished, or put out of work and home in the process. The best thing this cinematic assault-on-the-senses has going for it is its title. Like Edward Snowden, America is on its own and there are very few places to hide.

Rated PG-13. 137 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)

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January 23, 2012


Chaotic Nature
Joe Carnahan Explores the Minds of the Walking Wounded
By Cole Smithey

GreyA strand of “Moby Dick” runs through director/co-writer Joe Carnahan’s wild and wooly tale of survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Like “Moby Dick” this amorphous story is an anti-narrative made up of dark encounters with nature at her cruelest.

The alpha male leader of a pack of hungry wolves becomes the focal point for a group of plane-crash survivors trying to walk out of a vast snow-covered trap. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an emotionally broken sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to protect its workers from bears and wolves, which attack without a moment’s notice. The ever-watchable Neeson easily fills the demands of his troubled character’s wolf-like place as the alpha to a group of flawed human males—whose number steadily diminishes.


Joe Carnahan (known for his uncompromising crime drama “Narc”) puts his audience through an episode of pure terror early in the film. After briefly contemplating suicide outside a rowdy oil refinery bar, John Ottway treasures memories of his eloigned wife while riding a private airplane carrying oil workers. Jolts of vomit-inducing turbulence rattle the passengers’ quickly fraying nerves. Just as Ottway falls asleep the plane goes into a fuselage-ripping plunge. Gravity and velocity become monsters of colossal fury.

Luggage and bodies are suspended in midair in one of the most spectacular plane crash scenes ever filmed. The effect is truly terrifying. Don’t look for “The Grey” to be shown as an in-flight movie. The cinematic experience is as close to the reality of enduring an actual plane crash as you’d ever want to get. Miraculously there are survivors amid the strewn luggage, twisted bits of metal, and bloody body parts which corrupt an otherwise peaceful expanse of snow-covered ground. Awakening from one nightmare into another, eight shocked men begin to pick up items of clothing and supplies they desperately need to go on living. Ottway thinks to collect the wallets of the corpses, to return to their family members should the opportunity arise.


The assembly of blue-collar roughnecks runs the gambit. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is a tattooed ex-con whose personal insecurities threaten to undermine Ottway’s obvious status as the group leader. Ottway’s uses his thorough knowledge of wolf pack mentality and behavior to counsel the group to quickly abandon the crash site in favor of shelter above the area’s distant tree line. The wolves, Ottway believes, are more interested in protecting their territory than hunting down the men as food. Stormy whiteout conditions threaten to bury the men in a 40-below-zero grave of snow.

Violent encounters between the wolves and their human prey allows Carnahan to dig deep into his bag of action tricks. Blood flies through the air like freezing mists of tempered humidity. The confident helmer displays a greater kinship to Sam Peckinpah’s muscular approach to cinema than any other filmmaker working today. Every gutsy action scene is crafted with gritty detail and a muscular unpredictability that dares the audience to guess where it will end up. Punch-drunk suspense sets in as the film’s subtext of thematic discourse about subjects ranging from self-deception to religious belief to what it takes to be a man get bandied about. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Warrior”) lends his keen eye for magnificent compositions to expertly contextualize the men’s excruciating journey of inexorable attrition.


“The Grey” is an old-fashioned survival movie in the vein of John Huston’s 1956 version of the Melville classic. The glory of the adventure comes from what lies buried deep within the psyches of its personalities, and branded in their facial expressions. John Ottway remembers the only poem his stoic father ever wrote as it hung framed on a wall in his dad’s study.

“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”


Watch this movie to discern the poem’s meaning for the wealth of import that Carnahan and his filmmaking cohorts intend.

Rated R. 117 mins. (B+) (Four stars - out of five/no halves)

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December 14, 2011


A Remake by Any Other Name
David Fincher Takes One for the Team
By Cole Smithey

Girl_with_the_dragon_tattooDavid Fincher can do a great re-make. Now, let’s hope he never does one again. By definition, remakes demand that audiences go back to the original to compare differences slight and large. I don’t put any credence in the faulty premise that a second film based on the same source material constitutes anything other than a remake. Indeed many of the compositions and sequences are similar enough between director Niels Arden Oplev’s version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Fincher’s that watching both is akin comparing apples with apples. Still, the significant difference between the two films is a big one. In Fincher’s version Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist get busy, and as such earn a level of intimacy sorely missing from Arden Oplev’s sill powerful film.

Dragon tattoo

Audiences will split hairs over Noomi Rapace’s iconic Goth portrayal of Lisbeth Salander as compared to Rooney Mara’s savant-sex-alien rendition. It’s a fascinating comparison. Rapace kicked bat-shit-monkey-ass in the original, while Mara’s Lisbeth is more the type to ask permission before seeking lethal revenge—as occurs in a pivotal scene late in the film. Mara approaches a bland quality of androgyny whose asexual appearance is belied by her lustful intentions which she carries out with respectable focus.

There’s no question that David Fincher is a muscular director whose capacity for creating cinematic wonder is astounding. “Zodiac” (2007) is one of the most stunning police procedurals ever made. He understands the importance of seducing his audience right from the start of every one of his movies. His opening credit sequence here explodes with a shiny, oily-black sensual fury that announces the movie as an exploration in thoroughly modern style and sass. And to that end he succeeds full stop. Where he slips up is, surprisingly, in articulating Stieg Larsson’s story—something that Niels Arden Oplev did better. Some of the blame can be put on screenwriter Steven Zaillian, but editing decisions by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall play a hefty role. You don’t care as much about the mystery of the missing girl as you do with the original film because the narrative isn’t enunciated with the same degree of passion.


Even the seemingly ideal casting of Daniel Craig doesn’t work as well for the role. With his downtrodden bearing and doughy charm Michael Nyqvist made for a more empathetic Mikael Blomkvist. Although the filmmakers wisely keep the action in Sweden, rather than transposing the story to somewhere like the Hamptons, the film refuses to soak up the European culture it’s submersed in. Here again miscasting plays a part. Robin Wright just isn’t convincing as a Swedish character. Her accent evaporates mid-sentence. In spite of her blonde hair and Nordic features, Wright feels like an interloper in the movie. An utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Daniel Craig further distracts from the story.

Dragon tattoo

David Fincher’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a very entertaining movie. The credit sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Is it better than Niels Arden Oplev’s film? I’ll leave that up to you.

Rated R. 166 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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