Friday, June 28, 2013


It’s said that for a few years after the huge success of the original Die Hard, every action movie idea in Hollywood was pitched as “Die Hard in a…” That 1988 film featured bad guys taking over an L.A. office building until their schemes are bedeviled by coincidentally visiting New York cop Bruce Willis, so for a while it was Die Hard in a hockey rink (Sudden Death), Die Hard on a cruise ship (Speed 2: Cruise Control), Die Hard on a Navy ship (Under Siege), Die Hard on Alcatraz (The Rock) and so on. I once heard that this became so reflexive that somebody brought it full circle, and pitched “Die Hard in an office building.”

It’s odd that it’s taken so long to get to Die Hard at the White House, but Hollywood is making up for lost time. Just months after Olympus Has Fallen, we get another action extravaganza about an armed takeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. The new film’s imitation of Die Hard is agreeably brazen. It even features an insufferably snide computer hacker, and Beethoven on the soundtrack (the Fifth Symphony here; in Die Hard it was the Ninth).

This time the attackers are an alliance of reactionaries and racists and militarist paranoiacs who despise the charismatic young black President (Jamie Foxx), who’s on the verge of pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East. The coincidentally visiting cop this time is Channing Tatum, as a member of the Capitol Police at the White House to interview for a gig with the Secret Service. Also present is his politics-geek daughter (Joey King). The two of them manage to join a tour, and about that time D.C. blows up.

Literally. Director Emmerich, as is his wont, seems determined to outdo, in excess, previous actioners of this sort. In some movies, a fiery explosion in the Capitol dome might be the climax; here it’s the appetizer. Airplanes and helicopters plummet from the skies, motorcade vehicles chase each other across the White House lawn spewing bullets and rockets, a fire is set in the Lincoln Bedroom.

The good news is that we aren’t asked take a minute of it seriously. Aside from the fears and hatreds that motivate the attack, I wouldn’t suggest that there’s a single plausible element to this preposterous movie. The zombie epic World War Z, now in theaters, seems much more convincing. Yet somehow White House Down, unlike some of Emmerich’s other films, has a good-natured tone that makes its absurdity fun and infectious, even though, like so many action blockbusters, it’s probably at least twenty minutes overlong. I laughed and rolled my eyes at its corniness throughout, but I wasn’t bored or irritated.

Partly this is due to Emmerich’s over-the-top approach. But it’s also due to the actors, who either ham it up or keep straight faces as required—James Woods hams it up and Maggie Gyllenhaal keeps her face straight, for instance, as Secret Service officials. Jason Clarke is the most rabid of the gunmen, Michael Murphy and Richard Jenkins are in the line of succession, and Nicolas Wright is amusing as the tour guide.

At heart, though, White House Down is a buddy movie, dependent on the connection between the two stars. Fortunately, their personas blend well. Foxx seems sharp and canny, a quick study, while Tatum, proclaimed the Sexiest Man Alive last year by People magazine, seems sweetly dim as usual. The idea that the fate of the free world is in their hands is simultaneously scary, comforting and funny.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


It’s the last Thursday in June, and somehow something bridal seems appropriate before the month is out, so with World War Z now in theatres…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the bride of Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas, or rather to the ravening zombie she turns into, in Seth Graeme-Smith’s 2009 novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The novel, which mixes cannibal ghouls into Jane Austen’s marriage-minded 1813 Pride and Prejudice, started a generally unwelcome vogue for such “mashups,” but is kind of witty all the same. A few years ago The Wife gave me the unabridged audio book to listen to on a road trip, and if you feel the need to experience it, I highly recommend this delivery method. It’s read by actress Katherine Kellgren in a fine droll deadpan. Austen is the big winner in this collaboration—as the book went into its homestretch, I found myself sighing with impatience every time it shifted into a zombie interpolation. Such are Austen’s chops that I wanted to forget the silly zombie conceit and just hear how her story turned out—even though I’d already read it.

Friday, June 21, 2013


The animated fantasy Monsters, Inc., from 2001, operated on the premise that blue-collar monsters cross over from their dimension and really do haunt the closets of children in ours. They don’t do it to be mean, but rather to collect the energy of the kiddies’ screams for use as a power source.

Like most Disney-Pixar flicks, it was funny and imaginative, but I like the new prequel, Monsters University, even better. As the title suggests, it’s a campus comedy, in which we see the initial meeting between studious freshman Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and lackadaisical BMOC James Sullivan (John Goodman). Their rivalry causes them both to run afoul of the haughty centipede-like Dean (Helen Mirren), and their only chance to stay at MU is pure Harold Lloyd: They must lead the misfit team from the school’s lowliest frat to triumph in the school’s “Scare Games.”

Ingenious set-pieces ensue, but amusing and well-paced as the film is, it’s also, in its lighthearted way, a real exploration of a painful, rarely-treated issue—what happens when our talents simply don’t line up with what we most want to do with our lives? Mike, you see, is determined to become a “scarer,” actually entering kids’ rooms and frightening them. The trouble is that the poor creature—a cyclopean green sphere with spindly limbs—just isn’t scary.

This theme was treated sentimentally in the 1993 football movie Rudy, but it gets a more frank and nuanced dramatization here. And the non-pandering resolution of some of the story points is really surprising—the characters don’t get everything they want, and even finishing college isn’t seen as a must.


“Movement is life.”

So says Brad Pitt, as the hero of the zombie epic World War Z, to a family he’s urging to evacuate. Director Marc Forster certainly seems to have taken this maxim to heart. Whatever else one can say about this adaptation of the Max Brooks novel, it can’t be called slow-paced. From beginning credits to end credits, the action is pretty close to non-stop.

Death seems to be movement, too—these zombies aren’t old-school slow plodders. In the early scenes, we see Pitt and his wife and daughters flee the viral horde from Philly to Newark, while their undead pursuers run and lunge and leap like wildcats, and charge headlong at their prey so heedlessly that they plummet right off the sides of buildings.

What we don’t see is those spry zombies tearing their victims up, or shedding much blood. They don’t seem, even, to be cannibals, just biters. World War Z, rated PG-13, is the least gory zombie movie I’ve ever seen (though I haven’t seen Warm Bodies). There are no dismemberments or disembowelments; a hand gets chopped off in one scene, but it happens out of frame. Gore enthusiasts may be disappointed by this, but Forster is admirably deft in keeping the splatter offscreen, and the result isn’t really a horror movie. It’s an action-adventure picture, and a fairly exciting one.

Once he’s gotten his family to relative safety, poor Pitt, who’s some sort of vaguely-defined UN investigator, must dodge the ghouls from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales in search of the key to the plague. He’s very good here—not jaw-droppingly good, like he was as Jessie James or in Moneyball or The Tree of Life. The role is too conventional and underwritten. It’s just a good-guy leading man part, but he executes it with skill, and he gets plenty of support from a large and fine international cast, which includes Peter Capaldi, Ruth Negga and the always cool-looking Pierfancesco Favino as researchers, Mirielle Enos in the thankless role of Pitt’s wife and, for a single creepy monologue about North Korea’s response to the zombie problem, David Morse.

One other actor deserves a nod: Michael Jenn, who plays a twitchy, snappy zombie that besieges Pitt in a hospital lab, turns his small role into an audience-pleasing showcase of grotesque comedy. Also, toward the end there’s a very clever product placement—a soft drink brand comes to the rescue. As with Roland Emmerich’s 2012, apparently even the Apocalypse can’t stop commercials.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


RIP to the great James Gandolfini, who embodied Tony Soprano among many other vivid characters, passed on too young at 51.

With Disney/Pixar’s Monsters University opening this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the severe centipede-like Dean Hardscrabble in that film, voiced by the great Helen Mirren…

Friday, June 14, 2013


Playing Superman is sometimes seen as a curse for an actor. The career and life of George Reeves were blighted by his association with the role, Kirk Alyn did little else of note, and Brandon Routh, from 2006’s tepid Superman Returns, has hardly become a household name. Even Christopher Reeve, who had many fine credits apart from the tights and cape, is still chiefly remembered as the Krypton Man.

On the other hand, none of these actors had much right to grumble, in my opinion, because…well, because they got to play Superman! They had, at least at that point in their lives, the looks and the physique and the genial charm to play America’s own folk hero, our Hercules/Everyman/Immigrant-Makes-Good hybrid, not to mention the even better role of sly, likably milquetoast Clark Kent.

If you get to do that, anything else you get to do should be regarded as gravy. Besides, if you’re right for Superman there’s a decent chance you won’t be quite right for much else anyway.

That seems to have been the feeling toward the latest victim/favored son—British actor Henry Cavill, of TV’s The Tudors, was reportedly considered and passed over for James Bond, for Edward in the Twilight movies and for a key role in a Harry Potter flick. As Clark Kent/Cal-El in the current Man of Steel, he’s buff of bod and pretty of face, and if he has any personality to speak of, he doesn’t show it.

But the movie has plenty of more vibrant actors to make up for this. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Clark’s Kryptonian parents, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his Kansan parents, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Richard Schiff as a mild-mannered scientist and Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix as military men all contribute solid turns, and Amy Adams is beguiling as usual as Lois Lane, though in general I object to Lois Lanes that don’t wear big librarian-ish glasses.

The best performance, however, is by Michael Shannon as the villain, the exiled, enraged megalomaniac General Zod. Though Zod is from Krypton, he seems oddly flinty and Midwestern somehow—he might almost be a shady politician from Smallville. Shannon doesn’t have the weird, campy magnetism that Terence Stamp brought to the role in 1980’s Superman II—he’s a repellent figure. But he’s more dramatically substantive. Without overdoing it, he carries a hint of tragedy in his eyes.

This echoes both the merits and the downside of Man of Steel. Unlike most of Superman Returns, the new movie isn’t dull, but it’s on the heavy-handed side. Directed by Zack Snyder from a script by David S. Goyer, it retells, in its first half, Cal-El’s nativity and his escape from the dying planet Krypton, his arrival on Earth and adoption by the Kents, his discovery of his incomparable powers and his early attempts to help humankind. In its second half, it’s basically a loose remake of Superman II, with Zod and comrades, banished from Krypton just before its destruction, invading Earth with an eye to remodeling it in their home planet’s image.

The ensuing clash between Zod’s forces and Superman is a special effects spectacle, no question, with cities crumbling before the might of cool spaceships that look like robber crabs or scarabs. There are superb, imaginative scenes earlier on, also—like the young Clark unable to look at his teacher or classmates without seeing their skeletons and organs. But I found the movie a bit much—too many percussive explosions and collapsing building, too many pummeling fistfights, a little too much sturm und drang.

What Man of Steel lacked, for me, was a fun, playful side. Part of the delight of the Superman myth has always been its unabashed, primary-color cheeriness, but Man of Steel has a chilly, haunted feel.

There are a couple of episodes—one on a oil rig, one on a school bus, and one involving a waitress being harassed—where the title character simply gets to come to people’s rescue, and they’re among the best moments in the picture. Why can’t we have a whole movie of this sort of thing? They’ve already turned Batman into a Dark Knight—would it be so terrible to leave us one uncomplicated, civic-minded Bright Knight?

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Strictly in terms of visual beauty, the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons made in the early ‘40s are certainly among the finest superhero art ever created. So, in anticipation of Man of Steel, opening tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod this week to the title character of 1942’s The Arctic Giant

…an unfrozen dinosaur who trashes Metropolis until Krypton’s greatest Earthly expat acts as animal control.

The short may be watched here in its entirety, and is worth the nine minutes of your life.

Friday, June 7, 2013


The new dystopian thriller The Purge made me think of a MAD Magazine cartoon from the early ‘70s by George Woodbridge. Get-It-Out-Of-Your-System Land depicted an amusement park devoted to venting antisocial behavior—attractions included “Deface a Masterpiece,” “Vandal’s China Shop,” “Looter’s Lane,” “Shoplifter’s Paradise,” “Den of Depravity” and, of course, “Belt the Boss” (“Unload That Urge”). I’ve never been sure that such a park wouldn’t be profitable.

Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge suggests a hardcore approach to the same idea: Get-It-Out-Of-Your-System Day. The film is set less than a decade in the future, with the U.S. under a reactionary and apparently theocratic government. “Our New Founding Fathers” have established an annual twelve-hour period of sanctioned anarchy: Any crime, including murder, is legal, and no emergency services are available. Supposedly this vile license provides a catharsis that stabilizes society, and has lowered the crime rate and improved the economy. So every year, ordinary folks run wild in the streets assaulting each other, while the suburban affluent party, or hunker down with their families, behind fortress-like security systems.

James (Ethan Hawke) has become wealthy selling these systems to his gated-community neighbors. He’s planning a quiet Purge Night in with his family: beautiful, reserved wife Mary (Lena Heady), lovely teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), of whose boyfriend James doesn’t approve, and weird but goodhearted adolescent son Charlie (Max Burkolder), who’s a secretive tech whiz.

All, it need hardly be said, does not go smoothly. Charlie sees a homeless black man (Edwin Hodge), wounded, outside the house on the security camera, pleading for shelter from approaching attackers. Before his parents can object, he opens the metal shutters long enough for the man to run inside.

Soon after, the man’s pursuers, a group of masked blueblood kids who were hunting him Most Dangerous Game-style, surround the house, demand their quarry be returned to them alive, and observe that they’ll soon be joined by trucks with the necessary horsepower to pry the place open. From here, The Purge gradually descends into a more or less standard grindhouse-style siege thriller, with elements of the original Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and—maybe—the mostly forgotten 1971 sleazo shocker The Night God Screamed.

After the screening of The Purge I heard many of my fellow audience members vigorously poking holes in its logic. While I’m not as sure as they are that the overall concept is utterly implausible, in the form it takes here it does, admittedly, seem pretty dubious. But I found I didn’t care while watching it—because of its direct attention to class (unless I missed it, race is never mentioned, not even the homeless man’s), the movie has a nasty, unsavory tension that got to me, especially early on, before it turns to routine stalk-shock.

The acting ensemble is up to the requirements of the material. Hawke is believable, Heady manages some moving moments, and, toward the end, some grimly funny moments as well, and the kids are both sweet. But the standout in the cast was Australian actor Rhys Wakefield, billed simply as “Polite Stranger”—the sadistic Richie Rich who leads the besiegers. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie villain this loathsome, one I wanted to see defeated and tortured as badly as this twisted One-Percenter.

But this response on my part is, of course, an irony at the movie’s core. At one point, when the family has their would-be murderers at gunpoint, the audience, with Pavlovian predictability, called out “Come on! Kill ‘em!” The societal function served in this movie by Purge Night is partly served, in our society, by movies like The Purge. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


A friend sent me a link to an item about Chris McMahon and Thyrza Segal, artists who are doing the noble work of adding monsters to thrift store paintings. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is McMahon’s Mountain Monster, just one of several such marvelous retrofits...

Check out more here.