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Column Fri Jun 28 2013

White House Down, The Heat, 100 Bloody Acres & The Summer Music Film Festival

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White House Down

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I don't subscribe to the "so bad it's good" or the "turn your brain off" schools of film loving. I don't need every film to be The Tree of Life, but I need something or someone to grab onto and give a shit about. The latest from disaster film maestro Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), White House Down, is not a great movie, but it fulfills a very basic need in me in that it gives me several characters whose fate I actually cared about because I liked them as people, or at least movie people. Much of the reason I empathized is that the actors inject a pulse into their characters that simply isn't there on the page. But that's allowed, and it worked wonders for me.

White House Down is the second film this year (after Olympus Has Fallen) featuring an attack and takeover of the president's residence. Just before that happens, Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum, exuding a confidence and charm that seems to grow with each film) applies for a job as a US Secret Service agent, and is politely refused by the head of the White House detail, Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Cale has his young daughter (Joey King) with him, and he manages to get them passes for a tour of the White House before they leave. Naturally, while they're on the tour, the White House is attacked by some kind of domestic paramilitary group (seemingly led by Jason Clarke), which moves in quickly and deadly.

Cale just happens to not be with the rest of the group when the attackers swoop in, and he hides to fight them and rescue his daughter, still with the rest of the terrified tour group. As for President James Sawyer himself (Jaime Foxx), he is being taken to an underground bunker by his chief of security (James Woods), who not surprisingly betrays him. Also featured are Michael Murphy as the vice president and Richard Jenkins as the speaker of the House, both of whom are swept away into some remote corner of trying to rescue the president.

The first very odd aspect of White House Down is that it's never quite sure what the end game is. Without ruining anything, it seems like each new layer of bad guy (and there are a few) has a different motivation for betraying their country and a different idea of how to wrap up this catastrophic event. Emmerich and his team have done a remarkable job re-creating the White House and its many lawns, gardens and fountains, all of which get totaled by the end. The attack itself, both the initial invasion and then the many attacks that try to draw out the bad guys from the White House, are spectacular, as one would expect from Roland Emmerich.

As thinly drawn as some of the film's villains might be, the amount of character development put into Cale and Sawyer is a nice counterbalance. The president is a bit of a lover, not a fighter, and when he and Cale are in hiding, their exchanges are actually really dialed back and enjoyable to listen to in way that just casual banter wouldn't work. They actually have conversations while they wait to see if the bad guys will come to them, and we get to know them throughout the course of the film. Is Tatum basically just stepping in for old-school Die Hard-era Bruce Willis? You bet he is; right down to the filthy wife-beater undershirt and walking with purpose. But who else is going to do it?

One of my favorite elements of White House Down was something I was sure I'd loathe. I actually think Joey King is one of the most talented actresses in her age group (her voice work in Oz the Great and Powerful as China Girl stone cold broke my heart), and she proves why by playing Cale's estranged daughter. Her character actually does things to forward the film besides getting kidnapped. She shoots cell phone video of her captors, and before too long, the government has their names — something they were trying to hide. King plays this kid as something more than average, and she succeeds.

While my brain was mercifully untaxed by White House Down, it didn't shut down either, and I ended up having a terrific time with this film. I want Tatum and Foxx to make seven more films together, all road movies set after President Sawyer finishes his time in office. They work and play so well together, and the results save this movie, unquestionably.

The film tries to go big, as it gives us a sense of how other nations are responding to America's big news. And anytime Tatum and Foxx are on screen together, things began to spark and take off. When we're watching a scene where they aren't featured, things tend to drag a bit and I lost interest in the overly explained background story, whose biggest crime is taking us away from the leads. White House Down never wants to be your only source of daily intellectual goodness, but it has enough going for it to entertain certain, more primal areas of the brain.


The Heat

I don't really care that director Paul Feig has made yet another female-centric (like his last film, Bridesmaids), heavily R-rated (mostly for language) comedy. What I care about is that it made me laugh a great deal. If you've ever seen a male buddy-cop movie, you know the formula. Two law enforcement types (in this case one an under-appreciated FBI agent; the other a ragged Boston detective) are forced to work together, hate each other's style, but eventually learn to like the other's strengths, and they solve a crime.

With The Heat, Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) are forced together to break up drug empire, and the truth is the early scenes of them at odds aren't that funny, mainly because we've seen this setup a million times. But once they start working together and getting along, the movie improves exponentially. A particular highlight for me is when the pair end up at the Mullins' family home, where her thuggish brothers (including Michael Rapaport), their idiot girlfriends, and Jane Curtain as their mother (all with thick New England accents that would put the family in The Fighter to shame) pester Ashburn relentlessly.

An opening scene with Mullins busting a guy (Tony Hale) for soliciting prostitution and then grabbing up another guy for dealing drugs gives us a nice range of what makes McCarthy so endlessly funny. She's a gifted physical comedian as well as a master improviser. Compare her performance here to that mess she pulled in Identity Thief; it's easy to tell that she actually cared about being a part of The Heat. I couldn't really swear that Bullock is giving us a new and exciting persona, but watching Mullins corrupt her unflinching dedication to the letter of the law is really fun.

The Heat doesn't get overly cluttered with cameos and larger supporting roles, although it does feature some nice work from the likes of Demian Bichir as Ashburn's superior and Marlon Wayans as her co-worker. The film doesn't offer up much by way of surprises, but the chemistry between Bullock and McCarthy is the real deal, and it would be great to see them try something like this out again. Just to mix things up a bit, the film has a bit of gory violence in it (in a sort of Pineapple Express fashion). Once scene that really threw me was one where Ashburn thinks she knows how to perform a tracheotomy on a choking man, and then does one, resulting in seemingly gallons of blood spurting out of the man's neck. If you can handle the Peckinpah-esque levels of gore, you'll be laughing heartily.

While I wouldn't say I was overly impressed with what Bullock brings to her role, which is a variation on the FBI agent she played in Miss Congeniality, I liked hearing her curse, I won't lie. No one touches the expressive, explosive manner that McCarthy hurls the four-letter words. But Bullock doesn't hold back and seems to have a great deal of fun in a style of comedy that she hasn't really attempted up to now. Between this film and the fall sci-fi offering Gravity, Bullock is finally branching out and making us believe she deserves that Oscar (cheap shot, yes or no? Discuss).

The Heat had me laughing a lot, rolling my eyes only occasionally, and hating life almost never. That's a pretty solid equation in my book. It doesn't approach the amount of funny featured in last week's This Is the End, but they're different films, so why compare them. They both features actors at the top of their comedy game, and you'll have a good time watching others explore their weaknesses. That's what cops do sometimes, but buddy cops do it all the time. I can't wait to see what Feig and his crew have in store the next time the get together for tea.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Heat director Paul Feig.


100 Bloody Acres

Somewhere in a remote small town in Australia, there exists the Morgan Brothers fertilizer company, operated by Reg (Damon Herriman) and Lindsay (Angus Sampson). The siblings make no secret about using average, ordinary bones and blood from animal roadkill, ground into a lovely mixture, but with one very special delivery there was an added ingredient. After a horrible car crash that left several people dead, the brothers took it upon themselves to remove the lifeless corpses before the police arrived and throw them into the meat grinder, changing the chemical makeup of their fertilizer for the better. It was a one-time event, done for a special customer — but now that customer wants another delivery of the special mix.

Riffing off the classic horror movie template of a rednecks in the woods going after unsuspecting tourists (or in this case, three 20-somethings going to a nearby music festival), 100 Bloody Acres maintains the tension that comes from being utterly isolated in a strange place, but it injects a great deal of humor into its grizzly tale, mostly at the expense of Reg, who is easily manipulated by both his brother and his victims, and is just an all-around screwup most of the time. Herriman might be best known to American audiences from his appearances in US television series "Vegas" and "Justified," as well as American films like J. Edgar and the House of Wax remake (in which he played, coincidentally, a roadkill pick-up driver).

While making a delivery run, Reg stumbles upon another accident, this time with just one victim behind the wheel. He drags the body into his truck and continues on, until he runs into a broken-down car with the aforementioned concert goers — the lovely Sophie (Anna McGahan), her boyfriend James (Oliver Ackland), and their friend Wesley (Jammie Kristian), with whom she's sleeping with on the side. After some convincing, he offers them a ride to the festival, but they discover the body in the truck, and things go sideways from there. Reg drives the three to the Morgan farm, where Lindsay is baffled by Reg's decision to pick them us, let alone kidnap them. As Lindsay, Sampson is a giant of a man with a beard that would look at place on an Amish or Mennonite person, giving the film slightly religious undertones. These themes are brought to the forefront when Reg attempts to shame Sophie for her whorish ways — both for sleeping with two men and for trying to seduce him as well as a means of escape. The Morgans do have a type of moral code, which is slowly chipped away as the film goes on.

First-time feature writer-directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes have concocted a messy, gruesome stew with 100 Bloody Acres, complete with every conceivable body part being tossed about, chopped off, and just generally used in way for which they were not designed. As Lindsay grows more comfortable with the idea of actually killing to get the bodies he needs for his fertilizer, Reg becomes less at ease with the practice. Each of the three live victims has varying degrees of success attempt to escape. Wesley is tripping on acid for most of the film, which makes his running into an abandoned Fairyland theme park quite interesting.

As the film moves forward, both the Morgan brothers' bond and the relationship between Sophie and James are falling apart, as the plot spirals into near-psychotic glee, with the body count steadily rising (largely thanks to Lindsay, who becomes fully unhinged by the end of the movie). The filmmakers should be applauded for what appears to be their steadfast commitment to practical gore effects rather than CG blood splatter, as is the norm in most Hollywood scare films. One of the strangest choices the Cairnes make comes with the soundtrack, with an almost non-stop assault of classic Australian pop songs playing on a classic rock radio station.

The primary objective of 100 Bloody Acres isn't necessarily to scare its audience. There are certainly a few shocks along the way that might result in some yelping. But what the film really wants to do is test your limits for good taste. The blood-and-guts quotient is exceedingly high, and some of it is downright graphic, especially anytime any body part gets near that damn meat grinder. But the comedic undercurrent keeps the proceedings from ever getting oppressively grim, even when the film is at its most violent and blood soaked. Make no mistake, the work is for strong-of-stomach only, but if severed limbs and squishy organs aren't an issue, this high-energy Australian splatterfest should be right up your alley.


Summer Music Film Festival 2013

Quickly becoming on the absolutely special film programs of the year, the Music Box Theatre is bringing its annual Summer Music Film Festival back once again for a week of great programming. A complete schedule can be found at the Music Box Theatre website. Highlights include Anton Corbijn Inside Out, a biography of Dutch photographer, music video director and most recently a powerful feature filmmaker (The American). Corbijn's work with U2 and Depeche Mode helped shape those bands' images, and I've always loved his stark black-and-white work in photos and videos. Director Klaartje Quirijns spent four years with the artist, and the results are quite beautiful and enlightening.

Also on tap is Downloaded, the revealing and thought-provoking film from actor-turned-director Alex Winter (of the Bill & Ted movies) about the rise and rapid fall of the music-sharing site Napster. All of the key players in the business are interviewed, and the impact Napster had on the music industry and is still being felt and debated by bands, lawyers and record company executives today. Since director Winter will be on hand, a special double feature of Downloaded and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is scheduled for Sunday, June 30 at 7pm, hosted by Pitchfork's upcoming film site The Dissolve, and featuring a Q&A with Winter.

One of the saddest films in the line up is Ain't In It for My Health, a sweet account of the life of former The Band drummer, the recently deceased Levon Helm. Helm is one of the great voices and steadiest drummers in rock history, and this film features him looking and sounding fragile, as he lived out the last few years of his life putting on private shows on his farm. The film isn't trying to tell his entire life story, but it captures the man pretty thoroughly nonetheless.

And finally, my favorite music doc of this festival is A Band Called Death, about the largely unknown pre-punk band Death from Detroit, circa the early 1970s. Made up of three brothers and led by the eldest who had spiritual leanings and a great vision for the group, which actually recorded and pressed two songs for a single and some additional music that stayed on reel-to-reel tapes for years in someone's attic. The path the brothers and their music took after Death was rejected by all record labels (because of their dark name) is remarkable, and the way in which their music re-emerged decades later is almost impossible to believe.

Were it not for last year's Searching for Sugarman doc, I might not believe this level of musical obscurity could be overcome, but the path of the men in Death is very different than a folk-rock singer also from Detroit. Their music was beautifully written, roughly played and energetically received, but they just couldn't hold it together and they wouldn't change their name until it was too late for any level of stardom.

The film features great interviews with surviving Death members, their offspring and loved ones, as well as a few key enthusiasts, from record collectors to fans like Questlove, Henry Rollins, and Elijah Wood, with each one of them telling their tale of first discovering Death and why their music is so significant, especially since their punk sensibility pre-dated the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Bad Brains. The film will almost certainly make you cry, because the brother are so wonderfully expressive and get quite emotional at this second chance in life that is so rarely given. They are talented and, above all, grateful. And you will be too after you see A Band Called Death.


 
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