Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FRUITVALE STATION Tells a Powerful American Story


- Fruitvale Station is a jarring, powerful film that is well-worth watching. Not only is it one of the standout films of the year to date, but it's also a breakthrough for writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. This is Coogler's first movie, and, wow, it's a hell of a first effort. Jordan, meanwhile, has done great work already in TV and film, but this is his star-making, Oscar-worthy turn. It's rumored that these two are working on a Rocky spin-off film with Sylvester Stallone about the grandson of Apollo Creed. After seeing Fruitvale, I find that idea to be incredibly exciting. In fact, I'm eager to see whatever it is that this pair does next.

FRUITVALE STATION is the true-life story of Oscar Grant. A few years ago, Grant was shot by a policeman in San Francisco in a crowded subway station, despite not having perpetrated a crime. This isn't a spoiler for the movie, because the film opens with the actual footage that captured the horrific incident. At the time, numerous onlookers used their cell phones to record video of the shooting. The local and national outrage was immediate, and the incident sparked a wave of protests and investigations into the conduct of the San Francisco police department.

But the film isn't really about the incident or its aftermath. Instead, it's a snapshot of the life of Oscar Grant. By opening the movie with the cell phone footage of the shooting, a cloud of tragedy hangs over the entirety of the film. This is a movie about a life that was cut short, right as the subject in question was at a cross-roads. The fact is that Oscar Grant was no saint. He had a history of drug-dealing for cash, and of letting drugs and drug-dealing get in the way of holding down a stable job. He had been unfaithful to his girlfriend, who was also the mother of his young daughter. He'd spent time in prison. But Oscar was also on the verge of turning a corner. He'd stopped dealing, and was determined to walk the straight and narrow in order to support his family. He'd re-committed to his girlfriend, and planned to marry her. He was focused on being a good dad, and being there for his daughter. This was a guy who'd had a lot of bad breaks, who'd been raised in a tough environment, and who was going to have to put in a lot of work - and benefit from a bit of luck - if he ever hoped to become upwardly mobile. In a way, the inevitability of Oscar's untimely death gives the film a film noir flavor. In noir, a major motif is the way in which cruel fate can and will ruin even the best-laid of plans. This is true in the story of Oscar - in any other film, the driving narrative question would be "can he turn his life around and rise up above his circumstances?" But this film gives us an answer upfront - negating the question altogether, and becoming instead a meditation on how one person's story can be so cruelly and tragically cut short before it even gets a chance to resolve itself.

Michael B. Jordan is pretty phenomenal as Oscar. There's a realness to his performance that is striking. He embodies Oscar down to the small nervous tics. And in his eyes, we see the character's mixture of well-intentioned kindness and escalating frustration. There's an amazing scene - the movie's one flashback - where we see Oscar during one of his prison stints. His mom - played brilliantly by Octavia Spencer - comes to visit him. She loves her son, but is fed up with him ending up in jail time after time. In front of his mother, we see Oscar's carefully composed "nice-guy" persona. He's all smiles, compliments, and laid-back good vibes. Jordan shows us Oscar as he wants to be - a man who is trying to make good things happen by sheer force of will, trying to fix tough situations by flashing smiles and reassurances that everything is just fine. But when a white-supremacist inmate hurls an insult at Oscar and his mother, the carefully-composed veneer flies away, and Oscar snaps. In an instant, Jordan, powerfully, shows us the rage, frustration, and feelings of helplessness that are simmering just beneath the surface.

The rest of the cast is excellent. Like I said, Octavia Spencer is fantastic as Oscar's mother. And Melonie Diaz is also quite good as Oscar's girlfriend Sophina. The connection between Oscar and Sophina feels very authentic, very tangible. This isn't a movie where the script hits you over the head with manufactured drama between its main couple. Instead, this is a complex, nuanced relationship, colored by many small but telling moments between the two. There's also a really great child-actor performance from Ariana Neal, as Oscar's young daughter. She's funny and charming, and is responsible for some of the film's most powerful emotional beats.

For a first-timer, Ryan Coogler directs the film with pretty astonishing maturity. The film has a gritty, you-are-there aesthetic, but it's also not overly stylized. Instead, Coogler focuses in on really capturing the feel and sense of place of Oakland and the lower-income neighborhoods that Oscar calls home. The unglamorous details of Oscars life are meticulously captured, as are the details of the locations and neighborhoods. What's more, Coogler infuses the movie with a sense of dread and danger. In ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, he conveys the mixture of awkwardness and opportunity whenever Oscar's path intersects with those from other walks of life. Without hammering you over the head or being preachy, the movie smartly comments on how Oscar's race, class, and culture immediately shapes others' perceptions of him. In turn, we see how Oscar manages to both subvert, and at times conform to, those same expectations. It's all handled pretty brilliantly by Coogler. The director's one big stylistic trick is actually a pretty cool one as well - whenever Oscar sends a text, we see the text-typing super-imposed over the main action occurring on screen. What might have been gimmicky in the wrong hands turns out to be a smart stylistic device. It helps contribute to the film's sense of almost electric energy and motion, and it reinforces the idea that Oscar is both ultra-connected and yet - because of factors somewhat out of his control - stuck in place.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn't quite nail the ending. Coogler lets things linger far too long before finally bringing the film to a close, creating a final act that uncharacteristically lays things on too thick. With much of the film being so subtle, economical, and bristling with energy, the finale is disappointingly draggy.

But, wow, what a debut from Coogler, and what a breakout role for Jordan. They've made not just a great film, but a film that will get people talking about race, class, law-enforcement, and justice in America today. And, mostly, this is not a movie that sparks debate in a heavy-handed or melodramatic fashion. It doesn't cheat, and it's not overly emotionally manipulative. Focusing in on Oscar Grant - his life, his choices, his circumstances, and his death - we see a tapestry of America ... its hopes and opportunities, and its failings. This is one of the year's must-see movies.

My Grade: A-

Monday, July 29, 2013

THE TO DO LIST Doesn't Quite Go All The Way


- A few years ago, Bridesmaids inverted the usual Judd Apatowian formula and crafted a sweet-yet-raunchy comedy that also proved to be a big box office hit. Suddenly, the floodgates seemed open for gross-out comedies not explicitly told from the male point of view. And hey, to me, that's awesome. We've seen endless variations on the geeky-guy-pines-for-out-of-his-league-dream-girl story. Why not see what happens when you flip the template, and focus in on the good-girl valedictorian who wants to explore her inner wild-child? Psyched to see a group of smart and funny folks tackle this very subject matter, I went into THE TO DO LIST with pretty high expectations. In last year's Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza proved that she had the chops to be a great quirky-comedic leading lady. Throw her in an envelope-pushing hard-R movie alongside the likes of Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Donald Glover, Connie Britton, and Clark Gregg ... and I'm 100% onboard.

Unfortunately, as well-intentioned and as loaded with comedic talent as the movie is, it only occasionally scores big laughs. Good intentions, sadly, don't always equal hilarity - and the movie seems to struggle to define what kind of comedy it wants to be. The movie's spiritual successor definitely seems to be American Pie, but American Pie managed to capture a zeitgeisty tone that The To Do List seems to fumble to recapture.

The movie centers around recent high school grad Brandy Klark (Plaza), who made it through high school with barely an amorous encounter to her name - so focused was she on grades. Now, in the summer before the start of college, she's become smitten with a local, guitar-strumming alpha male named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who melts her heart with an acoustic rendition of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me," and who happens to be sharing a summer job as a lifeguard at a local pool. Determined to win the attention of Rusty, Brandy decides to work her way through a to-do list of sex acts so as to eventually be worthy for her older and more experienced object of lust. With the help of her two boy-crazy friends, Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), Brandy opens herself up (so to speak) to a multitude of new experiences - rounding the bases, if you will, before preparing herself to eventually go all the way. Of course, Brandy's single-minded pursuit causes some rifts with her friends, her family (her over-involved, over-sharing parents played by Britton and Gregg, and her prom-queen sister Amber - Rachel Bilson), and with her friend Cameron, who harbors a major crush.

Right off the bat, there's sort of an inherent dilemma in doing an apples-to-apples, gender-swapped inversion of the typical "She's Out of My League" type of story. Plaza may not be the typical young Hollywood starlet, but she's still an attractive woman whose character shouldn't have much trouble seducing any guy she sets her sights on - particularly the horn-dog Rusty. To the movie's credit, it becomes about much more than just the endgame. Instead, when a Brandy-Rusty hookup becomes an inevitability, it becomes a movie about women being boxed in as either the "virgin" or the "whore" (a problem that Brandy directly mentions). And it becomes a movie about Brandy having to choose either the geeky good-guy or the good-looking bad-boy. And it's about the unfairness of being forced into that choice (more a comment on other teen movies than any realistic sort of scenario). In between, Brandy semi-enthusiastically hooks up with just about every other male character in the movie, as part of her mission to complete the to-do list.

The problem is that THE TO DO LIST raises a couple of complex issues - acknowledging that it can't and won't simply be a female-centric version of American Pie - but never *really* tackles them in any meaningful or satisfactory way. The movie seems to want to say something about Brandy's behavior, but there are mixed messages, to say the least. It all climaxes (no pun intended ... okay, sort of intended) in a final act that is sort of off-putting. There seems to be a semi-conscious effort to subvert genre norms and not have Brandy do things just for the sake of pleasing the audience. But for that reason, the movie tends to have a bit of a mean streak. I mean, look, there's a reason why all those movies about awkward and geeky guys resonate - it's because the best ones seem to come from a real place of teenage trauma and pain. The To Do List rarely feels like it's tapping into anything real - it's more about the genre subversion for subversion's sake - and so it lacks a real sense of authenticity. Unlikable can still work if it's coming from a real place - I think of the brilliant, Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult as a prime example. But here, writer-director Maggie Carey makes it feel like she's working backwards from an admittedly hook-y premise. The premise doesn't necessarily feel like it comes organically from the characters. So Brandy feels less like a character and more like a walking vehicle for the movie's premise. Why was Brandy so puritanical in the first place? If her friends are out having sex and hooking up, why does she seem so ignorant to it all? Why exactly does lusting after one guy suddenly make her want to experiment with a whole menagerie of guys? There's a lot of stuff here that, honestly, feels a bit forced and contrived.

(Aside: the movie is set in 1993, but for no real reason other than as an excuse for lots of awkward references and "let's laugh at how things were back then" jokes. The 90's setting is almost less a plot-point than it is a running gag, but it's also played too straightforwardly to be all that funny.)

Here's the thing though: THE TO DO LIST could have avoided a lot of these sorts of issues by simply going big, broad, and absurdist. The movie's best moments come when it goes in that direction, and just chucks any pretense of sincerity or realism out the window. For example, when Andy Samberg shows up as an Eddie Vedder-wannabe grunge singer, who's hilariously dark and tormented howls while hooking up with Brandy had me loudly laughing. Another example is the hilariously over-the-top writing for Brandy's parents, which forces Clark Gregg and Connie Britton to give matter-of-fact sexual advice to their daughter in a way that might make even Eugene Levy blush. But the movie's more absurdist moments are outweighed by the movie's more dominant tone - which is much more straightforward and sitcom-y. The film attempts to mine a lot of laughs and extract a lot of shock value from how far it goes with some of its sex gags and gross-out humor. But despite the almost uncomfortably frank depictions of various sexual acts, things still seem oddly restrained. It's like the sex itself is supposed to be shocking/funny enough to power the movie's engine. In reality, the movie needed more jokes and gags that ratcheted things up a notch, and built some more real, comic momentum. Maybe the memory of the brilliantly-escalating jokes from this summer's THIS IS THE END is still too fresh - but in comparison, the comedy of The To Do List felt a bit weak and unimaginative. Yeah, it's different and semi-shocking to see a female protagonist get, um, intimate with herself onscreen in this level of detail. But the ensuing jokes to make the scene worth more than just shock value are sorely lacking.

Still, I mentioned the level of talent in the film, and it really is an impressive ensemble that helps to elevate things. I'm still a huge fan of Aubrey Plaza. She is eminently watchable in this, and she does innumerable little things to make certain scenes funny beyond what's in the script. She's getting really good at physical comedy as well, as evidenced in, among other scenes, her hilarious attempt to woo Rusty while wearing an ill-fitting bikini. Meanwhile, guys like Bill Hader bring improvisational talents so as to make little, off-the-cuff-scenes (like his impromptu Home Improvement parody) into memorable comedic moments.

THE TO DO LIST has its moments - it's helped immeasurably by a great and funny cast, and it's frequently fun to just watch these talented actors do their thing. But too many jokes and gags fall flat for me to recommend it as a must-see comedy. And for a comedy that has a number of incredibly broad, over-the-top gags, the movie still feels too serious-minded for its own good. To that end, it feels like a movie intent on saying *something* about femininity and sexuality, but that can't quite nail down what that something is.

My Grade: B-

THE WOLVERINE: Finally ... The Claws Come Out


- If I've had any one problem with the modern-day X-MEN film franchise, it's that it's always, to me, felt sort of middle-of-the-road. The team's colorful comic book origins were greyed-out (both literally and figuratively), and characters like Wolverine, at times, seemed to lose a bit of their bite. Growing up, Wolverine was always the badass berzerker - the furry ball of rage and bad-attitude whose feral nature made him a less-than-ideal team player. Echoes of the classic Wolvie have shown up in previous X-films, but the Hugh Jackman version has always felt slightly whitewashed. His was Wolverine-as-heartthrob - a gruff-but-lovable loner who felt slightly de-clawed. It's no wonder then that fans responded to the moments in the films when Logan was allowed to unleash his inner badass - his rage in the X-mansion in X-Men 2, or his brief but kickass cameo in First Class.

Sadly, the first Wolverine solo flick, Origins, was sort of a mess. Marred by a weak script and an overload of misused characters, it performed well at the box office, but fizzled with fans. Now though, THE WOLVERINE aims to take things back to basics - mining the classic Chris Claremont / Frank Miller Logan stories from the 80's, in order to present a darker, grittier, streamlined Wolverine story.

Whatever else there is to say about THE WOLVERINE, I give it credit for getting the basics right. On a macro level, this is the Wolverine solo movie that fans have always wanted. It's Wolverine in Japan, on a violent quest to protect a mysterious woman. It is a Wolverine struggling to reconcile his humanity with his animalistic, mutant side - who is grappling with the potential for a normal life vs. the instinct to be a wandering warrior - a ronin. This is a Wolverine movie that directly references the Claremont/Miller classics. It finally introduces Logan's Japanese love interest, Mariko. And it mostly adheres to the pulp-noir, stripped-down sensibilities that Miller brought to the character way back when.

And after all this time, it feels like a slightly older and more grizzled Hugh Jackman has now grown into the role of Wolverine, perhaps more so than ever before. Freed from being just a cog in a large ensemble cast, Jackman has room to breathe here, and to give some additional heft and texture to his performance that I don't think we've seen in previous outings. Jackman does a great job of conveying Logan's inner turmoil - his guilt at having killed Jean Grey in X-3, his creeping doubts about his mutant gene-enabled immortality, and his reluctance to get back into action - after retreating to a life of relative solidarity in the Canadian wilderness. Jackman also does a nice job of dialing up the gruffness. This feels like a legitimately dark and gritty version of Logan - and not the sanitized, PG-ified version from other movies. The added depth in the character is a welcome byproduct of a more mature movie, overall, than what's come before.

That said, director James Mangold seems to waiver between dark n' gritty and more standardized Hollywood blockbuster sheen. The movie *is* dark, and there are times where I was almost reminded of the aesthetics of 70's crime thrillers in the way that Mangold keeps things, mostly, grounded and street-level. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he quite pushes things far enough. The movie never quite jumps off the cliff, keeping at least one foot in the familiar waters of the Marvel movie house-style. Mangold also tends to break up the gritty mood with various scenes that burst forth with more standard-issue Hollywood blockbuster trappings. Some of the movie's more colorful villains, for example - like the poisonous Viper or the robo-assassin Silver Samurai, seem present more to up the film's f/x quota as opposed to any real necessity story-wise.

Mangold does do a nice job with the film's action scenes - giving us a level of brutality that we haven't yet seen in any X-flick. In particular, there is a riveting battle atop a moving bullet train that, I have to say, is one of the best action scenes in any Summer blockbuster this year. It's over-the-top, sure, but it's also thrilling, visceral, and nail-biting. It does sort of reinforce the movie's conflicted nature - trying to be both a stripped-down character piece and also a big-time blockbuster. But I also can't deny that it's an awesome sequence.

The Wolverine does, however, suffer from a problem that is becoming increasingly notable in blockbuster films - plots that are unnecessarily convoluted. I said earlier that THE WOLVERINE really nails it on a macro level - taking a commendable back-to-basics approach. But on a micro level, the details of the plot, the various characters, and their motivations - it amounts to a rather labyrinthine web that moviegoers are going to be hard-pressed to make sense of.

The main plotline involves Logan being summoned to Japan by an old friend named Yashida. During World War II, Logan saved Yashida from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki by getting him into a bunker in the nick of time. From that point on, Yashida became fascinated with Logan's mutant abilities. Now, elderly and dying - and the billionaire head of a large Japanese corporation - Yashida summons Logan to make him an offer. Yashida wants to drain Logan's mutant abilities, giving him the opportunity to live a normal, mortal life. In exchange, Yashida will gain Wolverine's healing abilities and be able to recover from his ailments - essentially unlocking a fountain of youth. Meanwhile, there is the matter of who will inherit Yashida Industries should its founder die. A war is brewing between Yashida's scheming son - who has ties to the Yakuza - and his beloved granddaughter, Mariko. Yashida sees the kind-hearted Mariko as the natural inheritor of his empire, but her father, Shingen, is not happy about being passed over.

Logan finds himself caught in the middle of these various power struggles, and over the course of the movie, he's pitted against a long line of adversaries. How all of the movie's various villains relate or don't relate to each other is sort of a tangled web - and it's often unclear who, exactly, is after Logan, and why. And yet, the film builds towards a pretty obvious endgame that comes off as a bit cartoonish given what's come before. Point being: when the movie focuses on being a simple tale of Logan-as-ronin, on-the-run, seeking answers, and grappling with his emerging feelings for Mariko - it really works. But that dynamic is undermined repeatedly, especially in the film's final act, by all the various plot convolutions and excessive characters - few of whom really leave an impression.

The one supporting character who is the clear show-stealer is Rila Fukushima's Yukio. Yukio - Yashida's adoptive daughter, and Mariko's friend and protector, is quite simply a badass. Fukushima's unique and striking look makes Yukio instantly compelling, but it's her uneasy alliance with Logan that takes the character to the next level. Yukio gives the film a great female hero who can go toe to toe with even Wolverine.

Mariko, on the other hand, is a little more of a mixed bag. Tao Okamoto is good in the role, but an extra scene or two between her and Jackman might have helped prevent their relationship from feeling just a bit boilerplate. The character also falls a little too much into the standard damsel-in-distress tropes. Part of the film's theme is Logan-as-protector ... so it mostly fits. But Mariko could have used a bit more fleshing out, so as not to feel so one-note. Overall though, Okamoto does some strong work, and there is a sort of interesting dynamic between Mariko and Logan - with Mariko having grown up hearing legends of the mythical Wolverine. Plus, in Mariko, Logan sees the kind of nice girl who he could maybe settle down and drink sake with - so there's that. She represents the quiet life that he could likely never have.

It should also be noted that Famke Janssen pops up throughout the film as Jean Grey, haunting Logan's unconscious mind, appearing to him in dreams. I enjoyed Janssen's inclusion in the film, although I can see how this may eventually be referred to half-jokingly as "that movie where Wolverine wakes up over and over." Suffice it to say, the Logan-wakes-up-disoriented-and-confused moment is used a couple times too many in the movie.

Ultimately, I think the *idea* of THE WOLVERINE is a bit more compelling than the execution. The movie hits a lot of the right broad strokes, but on a scene-by-scene level, it's up-and-down. The first act is the movie's strongest - when the movie really seems to have this Frank Miller-esque grittiness and moodiness. Later, it gets bogged down by too much plot and too many villains, and things begin to collapse under all of the accumulated weight. Luckily, there's a fun, geek-out-worthy post-credits teaser to make sure things end on a high note - setting the stage, just a bit, for the next X-film: Days of Future Past. Even if THE WOLVERINE doesn't hit a home run, it's still nice to know that we got this well-intentioned, reasonably badass Wolverine solo movie before Days of Future Past unleashes a full-on X-epic.

My Grade: B

Thursday, July 25, 2013

PACIFIC RIM Is a Pop-Art Passion Project


- Us movie geeks love Guillermo Del Toro. The man is a hardcore nerd, a scholar of film, and comes off as both the nicest and the most hilariously vulgar man in Hollywood. He's also a hell of a director. He's one of the few genre directors who is as much about the *artistry* behind the images he puts onscreen as he is about pyrotechnics. His work overflows with love and passion for the material, whether it's adapted (Hellboy, Blade) or original (Pan's Labyrinth). There's an appreciation for the history of the material as well that most big-budget genre movies rarely display. In the Hellboy films, you could see Del Toro striving to honor the unique art style and atmosphere pioneered by franchise creator Mike Mignola. In Pan's Labyrinth, you could feel Del Toro both paying homage to the history of the horror and fantasy genres, but also imbuing the film with a sense of wonder and imagination that rarely, if ever, is seen in so many off-the-assembly-line genre flicks. So let me again sing the praises of Guillermo Del Toro, and stop any detractors in their tracks. This is the kind of director that we need more of - people who love movies, who fight tooth and nail to make movies that represent a specific vision and that come from a place of passion.

I could write a whole separate column about the relative box office disappointment of Pacific Rim in the US, and how it brings out the legions of haters who like to rag on talented filmmakers for the (out-of-their-hands) fact that their movie underperformed. Would I have liked Pacific Rim to be a giant mega-hit? Sure. But ultimately, I am happy that a movie like this was made to begin with.

"A movie like what?" you may ask. After all, part of the reason that Pacific Rim may not have struck box office gold is that, admittedly, to many it probably came off, from the ads, as simply some sort of Transformers rip-off. Sad. Aside from everything else, Pacific Rim owes less to Transformers and more to the classic Japanese "kaiju" movies of the famed Toho studios - Godzilla, Mothra, et al. Its influences include giant monster movies, giant robot movies, Japanese anime, and classic 50's sci-fi. But more so than that, those in-the-know, well, they knew that Guillermo brings something different to the table - that passion and vision that I talked about above, that level of artistry, that the likes of a Michael Bay could only dream of.

So what you need to know about PACIFIC RIM is that it's just plain chock-full of awesome. The inherent conceptual premise is that it takes the sense of wonder, fun, horror, and humor of those old kaiju movies and takes it all to the next level, thanks to the wonders of modern f/x technology. In some ways, I would almost compare Pacific Rim to other modern pop-art genre films like Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Because Pacific Rim essentially distills the aesthetics of old man-in-suit monster movies, anime, videogames, and other non-traditional movie trappings into a modern-day action blockbuster. To put it simply: Pacific Rim is the ultimate live-action Saturday morning cartoon. This is a movie best enjoyed high-on-sugar and best viewed by your inner kid. If you *are* a kid, hopped up on Fruit Loops, and watching Pacific Rim ... chances are it'll be your favorite movie ever.

Yes, Pacific Rim is pop-art bliss. A movie not afraid to - without any sense of irony - end a massive mech robot vs. monster fight in outer space, the two hulking behemoths punching it out, evenly matched ... until the mech activates a last resort super-attack, unleashing a giant sword worthy of Voltron, and carving the monster decisively for ultimate victory. If that image makes you even slightly giddy, well, you'd better go see the movie, asap.

Here's the thing though: Pacific Rim - despite what the marketing told you - is more than just giant robots vs. giant monsters. Yes, that's the premise. But this is a movie filled with great, larger-than-life characters and great character moments. Everyone and *everything* in the movie has personality to spare. The giant robots - the Jaegers, as they're called here - each is an extension of their pilots' persona. Furthermore, each Jaeger is controlled by a mental mindlink called "the drift." Because of the mental stamina needed to neurally control a Jaeger, each has at least two pilots. And those pilots are bound by a psychic bond, in which each is fully exposed to the other's thoughts and memories. This sets up some wonderful character dynamics, and it's a clever device that pays dividends in numerous ways.

But let's back up for a second and talk plot. The background here (set up wonderfully in a mind-melting prologue montage) is that, years ago, a dimensional rift opened up deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. From it, one by one, emerged giant monsters - "kaiju" - hellbent on destruction. To combat the monsters, nations and armies banded together to construct the towering Jaegers. For a while, it appeared that humanity had turned the tide. Kaiju were dispatched of relatively easily, and there was talk of disbanding the Jaeger program. But now, suddenly, the frequency of kaiju attacks has increased. The remnants of the Jaeger program aren't enough to fight back. And so, a last ditch plan is formulated to attack the dimensional rift itself, and end the kaiju threat once and for all.

To carry out the plan, program leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) - a retired pilot himself - recruits the man who was once one half of the Jaeger battalion's most celebrated team: Raleigh Becket. For years, Raleigh and his brother co-piloted the Jaeger known as Gipsy Danger - until a fateful day when Raleigh's brother was killed in action. Now a drifter, Raleigh is convinced by a desperate Stacker to come back to the squad. There, he is joined by all manner of colorful characters: the unpredictable team of Australian pilots comprised of Hercules Hansen and his temperamental son Chuck, the Japanese trio the Wei Tang Triplets, and the imposing Russian husband-and-wife team, the Kaidanofskys. There's also Mako Mori - Stacker's right-hand-woman, who herself dreams of piloting a Jaeger. As the movie progresses, we find out the reasons why, and see how her unique relationship with Stacker came to be. We also see how, in Raleigh, she finds an ally and friend - and possibly a love interest.

Outside of the main team of Jaeger pilots, we've also got a pair of slightly mad scientists tasked with studying the kaiju. There's also Ron Pearlman as Hannibal Chou, a big deal man-with-a-plan who's cornered the black market on all things kaiju-related and kaiju-derived.

I love the characters in this film. They're all big, bold, painted in broad strokes, and immensely larger-than-life. I came away from Pacific Rim wanting a Gipsy Danger T-shirt, a Hannibal Chou action figure, and a Wei Tang Triplets spin-off movie.

In terms of performances, the standouts here are many. Idris Elba as Stacker is one of those roles that again shows why Idris Elba is the man. Effortlessly badass and charismatic, this is the character who gives the big speeches and rallying cries that give you goosebumps. Rinko Kickuchi is fantastic as Mako - a great female character. She's a tempestuous mix of fear and rage. She's a do-gooder scarred by childhood trauma. And she kicks ass. One of the best scenes in the movie - one that should have been in the trailers to help sell the great character moments - involves Mako being pitted against Raleigh in hand-to-hand combat, as a means of testing their potential as warriors and possibly as partners. In Kickuchi's face we see Mako's story - a woman who's been underestimated and sheltered by her overprotective caretakers, but who is ready to show the world that she can hold her own. Meanwhile, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are a great comedic duo as Geizler and Gottlieb - the group's two off-kilter scientists whose professional rivalry sometimes gets the best of them. Day in particular brings a manic energy to the movie - gelling perfectly with the movie's anything-goes tone. Clifton Collins Jr. brings Elvis-esque swagger to the role of Ops Tendo Choi. And of course, Ron Pearlman is fantastic as Hannibal Chou. He's one of those actors who (literally, this happened in our theater) elicits applause just by appearing on-screen. You can always count on Pearlman to entertain, and here, he doesn't disappoint - decked in crazy-ass outfits like a character imagined from some anime-induced fever-dream.

From reading the character names alone, you can probably get a sense for the sheer sense of fun in this movie. There's no pretense here of being gritty, realistic, or dark. This is pure pop, and Gulliermo and co. unabashedly go big in all areas of the film.

As for Charlie Hunnam's lead role as Raleigh -- I liked him. He's got the screen presence to make for an excellent central hero. Ultimately, does he come off as slightly bland when paired with the more colorful characters who surround him? Perhaps a bit. Does Hunnam have what it takes to make Raleigh into the an iconic sci-fi hero on par with Luke Sywalker or Ellen Ripley? Perhaps not. Hunnam is good, but some combination of his acting and the script perhaps leads to a lead character just a bit less memorable than he might have been.

On a related note, the characters are so brimming with potential that I left wanting more. In some ways, that's a sign of great characters. But I would have liked just a bit more exploration of their backstories, and at least a couple more moments where the cool side characters get a chance to shine. If there's one flaw with Pacific Rim, it's probably just that the script, at times, feels a little flimsy. I suspect that some of the meatier character stuff was left on the cutting room floor (or reserved for the prequel comic book), in favor of more action. But ultimately, it's forgivable, because it fits with the hyperactive Saturday morning aesthetic of the film.

Visually, PACIFIC RIM is a marvel. Elaborate CGI creatures and f/x are so commonplace these days, that the creatures in and of themselves aren't as impressive as they might have been a decade or two ago. But what separates this film from others is the sheer artistry of it all. There's a sense of imagination and design here that most films lack. Like I said, the mechs are filled with personality and character. The creatures, similarly, are gloriously realized monstrosities that combine the cheesy splendor of the old Toho beasts with modern touches and details. Guillermo Del Toro is perhaps the best in the business at creating a mind-blowing setting and filling it with so much imaginative detail that you just want to freeze frame in order to take it all in. One of Del Toro's trademarks is crafting such scenes as if they were elaborate illustrations, drawing you in and immersing you in this exquisitely crafted world. Some of the movie's best scenes, for example, involve kaiju-ravaged Hong Kong. It's like Blade Runner meets Land of the Lost, with the neon-lit city re-built around the ruins and skeletons of vanquished kaiju. Later, inside the hidden HQ of Hannibal Chou, we see eye-melting scenes of Chou's collection of kaiju spare parts, like some weird monster museum. Scenes like these are realized so vividly that it feels like we're watching not just a movie, but a direct line into Guillermo Del Toro's dreams.

The action scenes are similarly vivid. We don't just get robots clanging up against monsters. We get gorgeously-rendered scenes of giant mechs towering over neon-lit cities. Ominous depictions of monsters rising out of the sea, waves crashing as they roar with evil intent. Epic clashes of science vs. nature - with claws and tendrils challenged by rocket-powered missiles and pro-wrestling style power-slams. This isn't just sound and fury, it's the stuff that childhood (and adult) dreams are made of.

My only complaint about the action is that the plot dictates that so much of it take place in stormy seas, sometimes in the ocean's deepest and darkest depths. This means that the action occasionally feels slightly obscured, and, once in a while, a bit hard to follow.

Overall though, there is so much visual punch in Pacific Rim that the effect is that of the best kind of sensory overload. The characters, the battles, the primal conflict of man vs. beast are depicted with so much epicness that you may find yourself sitting and doodling scenes from the film when it's over. There's just a palpable and contagious sense of creativity on display here, making it easy to overlook the occasional cheesy line of dialogue or what have you.

Guillermo Del Toro dedicates Pacific Rim to Ray Harryhausen (recently passed away, a man whose legacy looms large over this and all other blockbuster genre films) and IshirĊ Honda (the legendary director of Godzilla and its spin-off films). And more than anything, Pacific Rim is a tribute to and an extension of those great movies of old - and to the f/x wizards who made the impossible seem real. The movie's overarching theme is that mankind can do the impossible if we set our minds to it. And in their own way, Harryhausen and his peers did just that. That's why I'll always root for and support the Guillermo Del Toros of the world. Their movies may not be perfect, but there is that sense of wonder in their DNA that makes us remember why we love these movies in the first place. If you need to be inspired, awed, or reminded of that creative spark that tends to dull over time - go see Pacific Rim. It's proof that even in an age where we take the impossible for granted, old-school movie magic yet lives.

My Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 24, 2013



- It's been a good summer for quirky coming-of-age flicks. Several weeks back. The Kings of Summer really impressed me with its offbeat charm. Earlier in the summer, Frances Ha wowed me as one of the better movies about young adulthood in quite some time. Now, THE WAY WAY BACK comes along and impresses me even more. This is a movie that, first off, comes to you via some very smart and funny people: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. These guys really can do it all. They co-wrote the script for the Oscar-winning The Descendants. And they've both done very funny stuff as actors - Rash is hilarious as the Dean on Community, and Faxon impressed as goofball older brother Ben on FOX's tragically short-lived sitcom Ben and Kate. This is a duo that deserves major attention. I would love to see them continue to churn out oddball comedies that they both write and appear in. The Way Way Back is proof that these guys have great, funny, affecting stories to tell.

The lead character here is Duncan (Liam James), a sullen teen who is dragged on a summer retreat with his family. His divorced mom, Pam (Toni Colette) has a new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is taking Pam, Duncan, and his daughter Steph to his summer beach house. In a sunny, breazy, beachy town brimming with colorful characters, Duncan feels more miserable than ever. He hates Trent, the slightly older Steph is embarrassed to be seen with him, and the adults who hang around the beach house are less mature and more annoying than Steph's snooty friends. But Duncan finds an oasis from the misery in the form of the Water Wizz water park. After a chance encounter with the park's man-child owner Owen (an awesome Sam Rockwell), Duncan gets a job working at Water Wizz. There, with Owen as his zen-master mentor, Duncan learns to loosen up, be confident, laugh at himself, and just generally begins to realize that, yes, "it gets better."

The Way Way Back blends drama and comedy in such a way so as to perfectly capture a sense of teenage wasteland. The angst is reminiscent of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but there's also a lot of overt, quirky comedy that balances out the movie's darker elements. The relationship between Duncan and Trent is particularly raw. In fact, the movie opens on a car-ride conversation between them that is funny, but also flat-out heartbreaking. Reportedly based on a real-life conversation between a young Jim Rash and his step-dad, Carell's Trent says that Duncan is only a three out of ten - essentially calling him a loser to his face. This sets the stage for the rest of the film. We see Duncan grow up and realize his own self-worth, even as Trent - falsely confident, a yuppie d-bag - is cut down to size. Carell brilliantly makes Trent into a truly hateable character - taking some of the worst aspects of Michael Scott, but toning them down just enough so that Trent's self-centered meanness is all too believable and grounded. The performance though that really drives this home is Toni Collette's. To me, she is in many ways the heart and soul of the film - and she has some absolutely heartbreaking moments. It's a tour-de-force bit of acting, because Colette perfectly conveys just how desperate this middle-aged divorcee is to make this seemingly solid relationship work. At the same time, we see her eyes start to open as to Trent's true nature, and the cracks in the relationship start to show more and more clearly.

On the flipside, Sam Rockwell is similarly brilliant as Owen. He's the classic slacker sort of guy - the ultimate big brother: full of wisdom about life, girls, and how to achieve maximum waterslide velocity. He's got some hilarious moments, but there's also a slowly-developing poignancy in his relationship with Duncan. But the real fun comes when Rockwell's Owen is paired with Jim Rash and/or Nat Faxon, as an odd-couple pair of longtime Water Wizz employees. Both are absolutely hilarious - Rash playing the oh-so-over-it curmudgeon, and Faxon playing the horndog prankster who's made an artform of checking out bikini-clad girls as they wait for their turn on the waterslides. The gang at Water Wizz is hilarious, but there's also a specificity and authenticity to their interactions that rings true. Anyone who's worked at a summer camp or held any other such summer job will likely relate to the sense of wild-west possibility that comes with working at the Water Wizz.

There are several other strong supporting turns in the film. AnnaSophia Robb is quite good as an outsidery teen who forms a connection with Duncan. Also excellent is Alison Janney as her loopy, quasi-alcoholic mother. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are very interesting as a couple friendly with Trent. Corddry is usually the likable oddball, but here there is a menace behind his easygoing facade. He's like the school bully who never quite grew out of it. And Peet is also playing against type, as a troublemaking flirt. Again, there's something almost disturbing about her character, because it's illustrative of those moments you have growing up where you realize that adults - far from having it all figured out - can have just as many issues and failings as kids and teens, if not more so.

What didn't work as well for me? Surprisingly, even though I love Maya Rudolph in general, she seemed maybe a little miscast here as Rockwell's co-worker/love interest Caitlin. The movie really wants you to root for things to work out between the two, but there's not much chemistry. And it's hard to see what the laid-back, witty Owen sees, exactly, in the wet-blanket Caitlin. In any case, this part of the film seems a little forced. My biggest issue with the movie though might be some of the choices made by lead actor Liam James. Overall, he's good. But he lays on the malaise just a little too thick. He's *so* sullen and awkward for most of the movie that he seems less like an angsty teen and more like someone who has serious mental health issues. And who knows, maybe that's how he was told to play things. But if the character is really supposed to suffer from clinical depression, it's never really explored in the film. Not that this is a movie that needed to go the full Silver Linings Playbook route, but it does seem to take Duncan to some pretty dark, extreme places. The result is that some of the big emotional moments feel a little overdone and, at times, slightly cheesy - because James as Duncan seems to go a little too far.

One other weird thing about the movie - not a huge knock, but just sort of odd: I think it may have originally been set in the 80's? Clearly there's an autobiographical element to the film, but there's a sort-of-strange disconnect where many of the trappings (old Pac Man arcade games, 80's-era music, the Water Wizz park itself) seem of a certain period. And yet, there are cell phones, so I guess the movie's actually set in modern times? Regardless, there's definitely a very 80's vibe to the film, and many tonal similarities to the coming-of-age movies of that era.

While I felt some key scenes in the middle of the film felt a little tonally off, things really gelled in the movie's final act, and the film really won me over with its genuinely winning and triumphant final scenes. What I liked and appreciated was that the movie didn't cheat, and wrap things up, plot-wise, in a tidy bow. Things are left unresolved, and yet, the emotional arcs of the movie come to a head in a natural and satisfying manner. We don't know exactly what will become of Duncan, for example, but we do know that he has evolved from the character we met at the start of the movie. As has his mother. The movie has a great, macro thematic arc that colors it - the journey of these characters as they discover their own self-worth. When faced with the Trents of the world - those who rate them as mere three-out-of-tens, these characters can feel like they're stuck in the proverbial way-way-back (or the literal way-way-back - Duncan is forced to sit in the rear-facing backseat of Trent's old station wagon). But the movie shows how a guy like Duncan can learn to overcome - to become a man, maybe even a great man. Maybe - if he can be the first person to ever pass someone else on Water Wizz's tallest and windiest waterslide - he can even become a legend. The Way Way Back is highly recommended. It's one of the must-see indie flicks of the summer.

My Grade: A-

DESPICABLE ME 2 Is a Step Up From The Original


- In an age when kids films often strive to be more than just kids films - an age of Pixar - it can be hard to fully appreciate a movie that aims squarely for the hearts and minds of the under-12 crowd. Maybe that's why I came out of the first Despicable Me feeling only mildly excited by the franchise. But you know what? Despicable 2 really won me over, despite my lack of enthusiasm going in. Everything to me felt more polished, bigger, and better than in the original. The movie's now got just enough meat to keep viewers of all ages interested. And the animation has been given a substantial upgrade, so that the look of the film now feels on par with the best in the genre. Despicable Me 2 is well worth a look, even if you weren't blown away by the first film. This one is better on all levels.

The first Despicable Me was all about the transition of dastardly supervillain Gru into a kinder, gentler sort - becoming the adoptive father to three young girls and realizing that, perhaps, it was time to move beyond evil schemes to steal the moon and the like. In this go-round, Gru takes another big leap towards the side of good. In order to help put a stop to the newly resurfaced badguy El Macho, a secret group known as The Anti-Villain League recruits Gru to help track him down and preemptively put a stop to whatever his next evil plan may be.

Gru has some mixed emotions about doing the bidding of the League. And he also has mixed emotions about the woman who recruits him: Lucy. Voiced with a wacky sort of Type-A moxy by Kristin Wiig, Lucy is the perfect partner and foil for Gru. Seriously, I didn't think that the Despicable Me series could pull off an involving and layered love story with this amount of skill, but that's exactly what it's done. Gru and Lucy - aided by the fantastic voice acting of Steve Carell and Wiig, are a truly dynamic duo.

And of course, there are also the Minions. I think I perhaps was suffering from Minion overexposure going into the film, but I also confess that they totally won me over with their often-hilarious antics in the movie. What keeps them from becoming annoying and repetitive is a great, Gremlins-esque twist in which some of the lovable yellow creatures are turned into monstrous purple "dark" Minions.

The Minions and their misadventures really benefit from the movie's animation upgrade. Illumination animation studios has always had an eye for fun character design, but the first film lacked the visual wow factor of its brethren from Dreamworks, Disney, and Pixar. Now, the movie looks as good if not better than anything else out there, with some truly breathtaking action sequences and set pieces, and some really striking visuals overall - with many scenes seemingly suitable for framing. Character design is still a strength as well. The Dark Minions are really cool. So too is El Macho and his over-the-top lair and weaponry. And I like the further-developed personalities of Gru's adoptive daughters - with Margo now cast as the geeky-cool teen, Edith as the tomboyish middle child with a destructive streak, and Edith as the too-cute youngest child who Gru hopes will stay that way forever.

The animation is more impressive, the story and characters more complex ... but the other thing that separates the sequel from its predecessor is just how funny it is. It's often laugh out loud funny - and not just from the physical, Looney Tunes-esque antics of the Minions. There seemed to me to be a wit and cleverness in the script that was lacking to some degree in the first film. A little less Sesame Street, a little more The Simpsons. The movie's got some really nice gags, jokes, and quotables. Plus, in plot points - like the Gru-Lucy relationship, and Gru's relationship with his daughters - there is that bit of sophistication that had me much more emotionally invested in the characters than before. That same sophistication is also there in the way the movie embraces world-building. Whether it's through fleshing out side characters like Dr. Nefario, giving us a bit more of a glimpse into Gru's villainous past, or just creating more appealing settings - like the dazzlingly futuristic shopping mall where Gru goes undercover to get dirt on El Macho - Despicable Me 2 feels less rough-around-the-edges than the first film.

What would make The Despicable Me franchise even better? Well, despite what I said above, there's still a lot about this world that feels sketchy, random, and inconsequential. Most centrally, the brand of "evil" once practiced by Gru is so lightweight that his turn to the side of good is still sort of "meh." I don't need this to be Shakespeare, but I'd like to see a little more thematic weight given to what should be a pretty impactful, central arc of the franchise - that Gru has chosen to do good with his life rather than harm. It's a difficult thing to navigate in a kids' movie, I understand. But something still feels a little off to me about the whole central conceit of these films ... does Gru still have "evil" impulses? Is he still semi-despicable? These sorts of unanswered questions also apply to the movie's universe. Like I said, the sequel does a better job of world-building than the first, but it all still feels just a tad bit ramshackle. Are there heroes in this world? The equivalent of a Superman or James Bond? What *are* Minions, exactly? And so on ... Point being: there's still an overtly cartoonish, simplistic element to Despicable Me 2 - one that feels increasingly odd as the films become more thematically complex.

Overall though, I had a blast with the movie. Whereas once I wouldn't have cared about additional sequels, now I'm sort of pumped to see the franchise get even bigger and crazier. The movie's oddball sensibilities are, mostly, super-endearing. And there's a manic energy to the Minions and to the movie in general that is pretty hard not to like. Yes, as an adult I enjoyed having a little more action, adventure, humor, and romance to make things more palatable to my tastes. But I can also appreciate the pure imagination and childlike sense of playfulness present in the film.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN Is Ridiculous ... But Also Ridiculously Entertaining


- The marketing of White House Down was all wrong. I can't help but wonder if the misdirection contributed to the film's underwhelming box office performance. The ads and trailers made this out to be some sort of gritty, hardcore action film. But in reality, it's anything but. This is, thankfully, vintage Roland Emmerich. Big, bombastic, cheesy as all hell, and possessing of a childlike glee and unironic grandiosity that has become Emmerich's trademark over the years. Think of it this way: Spielberg's classic family films appeal to your inner eight-year-old - wish-fulfillment fantasies that play off of childhood fears and flights of fancy. Michael Bay's cynical Transformer films repackage childhood nostalgia for the too-cool-for-toys high school jocks. Emmerich hits that sweet spot just in between. His movies are BEST MOVIE EVER! material for twelve and thirteen year olds everywhere. They're fundamentally innocent and naive, but there's just enough over-the-top violence, epic scope, and strategically-timed profanity to give them that added cool-factor. I mean, I still remember that day in 1994, coming out of the theater after watching Independence Day, having been rocked to my twelve year old core. This, I was convinced, was the best thing I'd ever seen. The movie had everything I ever dreamed of in one film: aliens, aerial battles, Area 51, and Jews kicking ass. It was everything my preteen self wanted in a movie and more. I imagine that one or two twelve year olds are going to get a similar feeling of "best thing ever" after walking out of WHITE HOUSE DOWN. No, it's not in the same league as Independence Day, but there's a similarly unbridled sense of movie-making joy at play here. It's not particularly smart or cerebral or sophisticated. Logic is sparse. But holy hell, does Roland Emmerich go all out here. Lacking a subtle bone in his body, Emmerich crafts a movie that is joyously, eye-rollingly ridiculous, and, undoubtedly hugely entertaining. You will probably lose brain cells - many brain cells - while watching it. But hey, this is what Emmerich does, and does well. It's a summer blockbuster for the twelve year old in all of us.

Where Emmerich has always drawn comparisons to Spielberg is the way in which the big action arcs of his movies intertwine with more personal arcs that are, in their own way, just as integral to the story. And so, Emmerich takes his time in this one setting the stage for the carnage to come. He introduces us to Channing Tatum's John Cale - a White House security staffer who's hoping to make a career upgrade to the President's secret service detail. It's all part of the divorced Cale's plan to get his life back on track, and to impress his preteen daughter Emily (Joey King) - a budding political and presidential buff. When Cale goes for his interview (conducted by Maggie Gyllenhaal's head-of-secret-service, who happens to be an old flame), Emily accompanies him, so that the two can take a tour of the White House together afterwards. As the two take the tour (and Cale mopes after being denied the job - seems he's got raw potential but not the qualifications), all hell breaks loose. As it turns out, the President (a very Obama-esque Jamie Foxx) is looking to sign a controversial Middle East peace treaty, and certain right wingers want to stop it at any cost. With the help of an inside man or two, the White House is attacked by a paramilitary group (led by Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke), and Emily is part of a group taken hostage by the bad guys. Of course, Cale is left as all that's standing between the attackers and their potentially earth-shattering plans.

Here's another area where the movie's marketing was misleading: the ads made it seem like this was to be the Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx show. But the truth is much more exciting, in that the two leads are surrounded by a ton of fantastic supporting players. A trademark of Emmerich's films is a strong ensemble cast, and White House Down is no different. And for a movie like this, you need people who can pull off earnest and over-the-top without getting too silly. Luckily, the movie is in some ways carried by young Joey King. She's great as Emily - smart and sweet, but creeping up on teenager-ish smart alecky tendencies. We all know that kid characters can be super annoying in this sort of movie, unless played by a special talent who knows how to play things just right. Luckily, King is up to the task, and plays a kid who other kids can identify with and root for, and who adults will only roll their eyes at once or twice.

Also, dude ... Lance Reddick is in this movie. He's really just a minor side character, but I'm still going to mention him right up top. Because Lance Reddick is awesome, and he is basically *the* best actor in the biz at selling lines like "Sir, Norad has been compromised." and making otherwise insane-sounding things seem totally badass and gravitas-infused. Note to all movie marketing people: put Lance Reddick in your movie trailers, and I'll know that the film is legit. Meanwhile - and from the trailers, who knew? - a crap ton of other awesome people are in this movie. People like the great Richard Jenkins, as the meek Speaker of the House, and James Woods, as the retiring Head of Presidential Detail, who ends up playing a major, unexpected part in the film. Yep, Lance Reddick, Richard Jenkins, and James Woods are ALL IN THIS MOVIE, and they each kick a fair degree of ass, hamming it up and doing what they do best.

Jason Clarke is great as a take-no-prisoners mercenary type. This guy is going places. Also excellent as a villain is Kevin Rankin - so good on Justified as Devil - as Clarke's redneck right-hand-man. Jimmi Simpson is also awesomely evil as the team's psycho-sinister computer hacker. This is another area where Emmerich channels Spielberg - each of his characters has some quirk or defining trait that makes them stand out. No generic stuff here. Suffice it to say, what could have been a bland team of villains is made hugely entertaining thanks to the antics of Clarke, Rankin, and Simpson.

As for Tatum and Foxx, both are good, but in some ways, they may be the weakest part of the movie. Tatum is okay as the leading man, but to me, he still lacks the sort of action-hero charisma that you want for this sort of movie. It's weird, because he's proven that he can be funny as hell in movies like 21 Jump St. But as an heir apparent to the Stallones and Schwarzennegers of the world, I'm not quite sure he has what it takes. Foxx, meanwhile, was so good in Django, and perhaps that movie was still too fresh in my mind to take him seriously as the kind of guy who could become president. Foxx adopts several Obama mannerisms and tics (he even chews Nicorette gum), but to me, there was never any doubt that his President Sawyer would be able to kick ass when called upon. And so scenes where we're supposed to be shocked and delighted that this President can mix it up with the terrorists mano e mano, well, they aren't all that shocking. And Foxx plays President Sawyer as a somewhat comedic character - you can see him revert to his over-the-top Living Color days when he's quipping and spouting one liners. Point being, this is the sort of movie where the actors need to play it totally straight for things to work (think Bill Pullman in Independence Day). Foxx is a little too broadly comic at times for us to take his Prez very seriously.

Back to Emmerich for a second ... the director does give in to modernity a bit and throws in some quick-cut editing and shaky-cam fight scenes here and there. Mostly though, watching WHITE HOUSE DOWN is a pleasant reminder of how a good action director can craft a battle or fight scene that's exciting and tells a story, all while being relatively easy to follow. Emmerich doesn't get enough credit as a great action director - he does Michael Bay style bombast without all the visual excess - he keeps things clean, and knows how to do big money shots for maximum dramatic effect. If anything, he at times overdoes the melodrama. Like I said, there isn't a subtle bone in his body. And so certain moments are *so* melodramatic that they are just too much. At the same time, I think that Emmerich is above all a showman, and he seems pretty well aware that he's crafting over-the-top, borderline ridiculous entertainment. He knows he's doing a live-action cartoon, and the humor and numerous winks at the audience in the film speak to that.

At the end of the day, on the grand sliding scale of Roland Emmerich summer blockbusters, this one falls well below the legendary awesomeness of Independence Day, but well above more mediocre efforts like The Day After Tomorrow. And, hey, maybe it's just me, but as the years go by, Emmerich's old-school brand of popcorn spectacle takes on an increasing tinge of nostalgic charm. What was once controversial and shocking now feels safe, reliable, and relatively harmless. In the world of Emmerich, Presidents can personally deliver K-O's to terrorists, a down-on-his-luck blue-collar schmo can save the world *and* win back the love of his daughter, and nobody - and I mean nobody - can get one over on the good ol' U-S-of-A. Cheesy? Sure. Ridiculous? Hell yeah. But in some ways, this is all you could want from a dumb-fun summer blockbuster. Bring the whole family, and enjoy.

My Grade: B+