White House Down (Roland Emmerich, 2013) – Between Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down both coming out this year, it’s like 1997 all over again: two films with vaguely the same topic coming out only months apart from one another. But while the insufferably bush league Olympus used Die Hard as a standard demarcation point, disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich’s latest opus owes a lot more to The Rock and Shane Black films of the 80s, immediately making it the stronger and vastly more enjoyable of the two options. Emmerich still doesn’t know what subtlety is, but all things considered, it’s handily his most accomplished effort since Independence Day (you know, that other movie where he destroys the White House).
John Cale (Channing Tatum) has been spending his past few years happily employed as the personal protection detail for the U.S. Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and unhappily trying to connect with the daughter (Joey King) he kinda, sorta abandoned as a young father to go back to Afghanistan. He dreams of becoming a Secret Service agent working to protect President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), but after bombing out an interview with a superior who happens to be an old flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his dreams look to go unfulfilled. Following the disastrous meeting, John takes his daughter for a tour of the most famous residence in the world, only to have it all taken over in a terrorist attack-slash-ransom extortion by a paramilitary mercenary (Jason Clarke) wanting to make a profit and a soon to be retired Secret Service bureau chief (James Woods) out for personal revenge. With his daughter lost in the house, Cale not only sets off on a mission to find her, but also rescues the president himself, leading the duo to try to escape, keep Sawyer in power, and find the missing girl.
There’s a whole lot going on in White House Down that leads to a lengthy running time, but it’s pretty fleet-footed when it comes to not dwelling on how silly it all is and the action just keeps moving along. Emmerich could make this kind of movie in his sleep by now, but he seems a bit more energized by the material this time out than he has in quite some time. There’s no way that a single frame of this film could really go down as it’s depicted, but as far as action movie fantasy goes, it delivers the goods. It’s a great Sunday afternoon movie to watch when there isn’t a football game on. It’s definitely hitting a sweet spot of some kind for the right viewer.
The action sequences are massive and refreshingly old school in their execution. Sometimes the CGI is a bit unconvincing, but shootouts and one particularly adept car chase across the lawns in and around the compound are thrilling and fun to behold. The script, courtesy of James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Rundown) contains appropriately knowing nods to future plot points and purposefully snicker-worthy bits of exposition that should make fans of the equally (but still far more) ridiculous Fast and Furious 6 sequel with B-movie glee.
A lot of White House Down gets by on sheer production value (it looks great even thought it was shot entirely in Montreal and not in D.C.) and the effortless charisma of its cast. Tatum reasserts himself as a likable everyman and adds “credible action hero” to his resume, taking tumbles and sliding across tables guns blazing like a pro. The number of bullets he has to dodge is almost vastly more comical than his one-liners, but he firmly gets the silliness of the situation around him. As for Foxx, who loves to talk about Abe Lincoln way too much, he gets to put to good use the blend of comedic chops and gravitas that he’s been honing for decades now. He makes for a perfectly good buddy cop partner for Tatum and the duo play off each other splendidly. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s having a blast manning the control centre and barking orders. It’s the perfect example of an actor taking a gig and going whole hog with it because they might never well have the same opportunity every again. The still astoundingly underrated Clarke and the due-for-a-comeback Woods make for great sneer worthy villains, and Jenkins is always a treat as the opposition leader who constantly flip-flops his allegiances based on whatever he’s feeling at the moment. The real scene stealer here, though, might be young King, whose politically minded and sullen youth blogger arguably does more good than any character in the film, and she’s also inarguably the biggest badass out of all of them.
It wears its goofy heart on its sleeve, often acting as the liberal counterpoint to Olympus Has Fallen’s staunchly right wing posturing. It’s more about demilitarization at its core than it is about rah-rah patriotism, and its anti-corporate bent is kind of surprising to see in a film of this size and scope.
White House Down is a blockbuster from a different era of blockbusters. It looks more to the B-squad of action movie royalty to take its cues from rather than going for the ones at the top that people have seen done to death over and over again. It has just enough going for it to feel fresh and more than enough going for it to feel like a high ranking summertime treat. Sometimes that’s just all you need.
The Blu-Ray release should find the film becoming a bit more successful than its disappointing box office take this summer would suggest. Sony brings to the table their almost trademarked perfect sound and visual presentation, proving to once again be the best in the industry with the technology to produce the best packages even for B-grade titles. There are 13 featurettes, that don’t make up for the disc’s lack of a commentary track, but are still fun, looking at everything from the weapons and pyrotechnics to the chemistry of the film’s leads and a look at how Emmerich “ups the ante” with this production. There’s also a DVD and digital copy so you can bring this movie around to friends and convince them that it’s the boatload of fun it advertises on the tin. (Andrew Parker)
In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994) – Like so many of John Carpenter’s movies, In The Mouth Of Madness was released to mixed reviews and box office failure, yet over the years has gone on to become a cult classic. Written by former New Line Cinema head honcho Michael De Luca, the film is a feature length homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and meta-storytelling. It’s also the conclusion to Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy after The Thing and Prince of Darkness and one of his finest efforts as a director. Typically speaking, Carpenter’s movies don’t have that much going on beyond their exquisite surfaces. The man is practically the Spielberg of horror, an expert craftsman and manipulator who wanted nothing more than to send his audience on one hell of a ride. In the Mouth of Madness is as close to a brainy departure from his usual spookhouse romps as Carpenter ever managed. It’s hardly an art film, but it is an intriguing and layered piece of work that can be picked apart and pontificated on like few Carpenter flicks can.
Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator who is hired to go looking for a popular horror novelist who has mysteriously disappeared. The author is Sutter Cane, a sort of mix between the small town horror populism of Stephen King and the interdimensional brain melting of HP Lovecraft. In fact, not only has Kane gone missing, but so has the manuscript for his latest-soon-to-be-best-seller that has driven all who read it insane. After seeing some spooky shenanigans to set the scene, Neil figures out that all of Cane’s book covers can be rearranged into a map that when followed takes him to the fictional town where all the novels take place. Obviously, it’s a scary place, but gets even freakier when Neil’s arrival seems to unleash all of Cane’s creations into the outside world. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just driven crazy by the book. After all, that’s classic Lovecraft. Plus, it was none other than Charlton Heston who sent Neil on the quest and how crazy is that?!
As a work of meta-horror, In the Mouth of Madness probably isn’t as clever or witty as the two stabs at the subgenre Wes Craven made at the time (New Nightmare and Scream). But then, Craven was always the brainy member of his class of horror directors. Carpenter on the other hand, was the craftsman, and In the Mouth of Madness is certainly more frightening than either Craven effort. The film is filled with as many expertly mounted suspense sequences and jump scares as Carptenter’s finest work, but stands apart thanks to the brain tingling premise that messes with viewers’ minds as much as it does their weak hearts. It’s one of Carpenter’s most sustained and intelligent efforts that deserves to rank alongside Halloween, The Thing, and They Live as one of his finest pieces of work. Much of that is due to the script (sadly the only one he ever wrote other than Freddy’s Dead and Judge Dread…shudder), but it certainly helps that the cast is capped by Sam Neil, who adds class and gravity to what could have easily been a pulp yarn. Simply put, this is one of the most underrated horror flicks of Carpenter’s career and the 90s, one richly deserving of a little reevaluation in HD.
As a general rule, John Carpenter’s movies always tend to be improved by Blu-Ray. The filmmaker favors wide frames and deep focus to fill every image with subtle details that will only be visible in theaters and HD. Despite being a low budget production and box office bomb, Warner Brothers provided a stunning restoration for the film and it’s never looked even close to this good before. The rich transfer is astounding and the uncompressed sound mix thunders through speakers (especially Carpenter’s electric guitar-driven score), which for a horror movie means the jolts and squirms you experience will hit that much harder. As far as special features, there’s nothing new. Ported over from the DVD is the loud trailer that suits the film well, but obviously didn’t sell many tickets. On top of that is a commentary track, which is a mixed bag. Carpenter is one of the best in the biz at commentaries so it’s filled with details to satisfy fans. The only trouble is that he always has a sparring partner to keep things moving, and while other commentaries with the likes of Rowdy Roddy Pyper and Kurt Russell yielded hysterically nostalgic results, Carpenter chose cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe as his commentary buddy here, which was a mistake. Kibbe is monotone and techno-driven in his comments, which sadly carries over to Carpenter. The commentary is filled with facts and lacks silences, but is pretty dry and dull by Carpenter standards. Ah well, it’s better than nothing, which is what we would have gotten if the duo hadn’t recorded the commentary for an old timey laser disc back in the day. Still, it’s a miracle that In the Mouth of Madness got a major studio Blu-ray release at all. The film has been out of print on DVD for years, so those who haven’t seen it are for a treat. (Phil Brown)
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) – Rather unexpectedly James Wan’s The Conjuring jump scared the pants off of audiences this summer until it was one of the most successful horror films ever made with a $312 million gross worldwide. That might suggest the film is one of the greatest horror yarns ever spun on the big screen. That’s not true. In fact, it’s a bit strange the film was so absurdly successful. However, The Conjuring at least works and is fairly fun. So that’s something. It’s a traditional haunted house that doesn’t rely on big CGI effects or even buckets of rubbery, runny gore. Wan of course helped usher in the torture porn era with Saw and already did the haunted house thing with his uncredited Poltergeist remake Insidious. He’s always been a work-in-progress director who seems to get better every time he steps behind a camera. This time he made a haunted house picture that got an R-rating from the MPAA not due to any particularly harsh content, but simply because the ratings board felt it was “too scary” for anything else. That’s a big claim that works well in marketing departments and probably helped hype up the box office dallies. However, in Canada the film got a 14A because that’s what the decent, if unspectacular movie deserves. There’s nothing here any kid who likes scary movies won’t have seen before, it’s just executed competently, unlike most of the Hollywood horror trash the MPAA sees these days.
The film takes place in the bad hair and even worse attired era of the 70s and more specifically in the world of late 70s/early 80s supernatural horror films like The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, which Wan constantly apes and references (even going so far as to use the font of The Exorcist’s title). The story unfolds in two overlapping plot threads. The superior half is the simplest, dedicated to a family of Ron Livingston’s trucker father, Lili Taylor’s warmhearted mother, and their five daughters who make the common mistake of moving into a haunted house. The weaker half follows a husband and wife pair of 70s ghostbusters in Vera Farmiga psychic and Patrick Wilson’s amateur exorcist. The film borrows the old horror conceit of presenting the supernatural shenanigans as being “based on a true story” and crafts the Farmiga/Wilson plot as a biopic of sorts. The trouble is that since ghosts and psychics aren’t real (sorry internet conspiracy theorists!), it’s hard to take that material seriously. Thankfully, most of it is limited to an awkward wrap-around plot, with the bulk of the film dedicated to spook house jump scares.
Wan essentially weaves together 120 minutes of haunted house set pieces and that material is a blast to watch, especially in a packed theater of sweaty-palmed viewers. The scare sequences pile up on each other with limited repetition so consistently that the audiences rarely have a chance to catch their breath. Make no mistake, if you’re the type of person inclined to jump in their seat from a well timed “boo,” you’ll be getting a workout. Yet, it’s all very tastefully and artfully crafted at an undeniably impressive level. The Conjuring is kind of like a multi-million dollar Halloween haunted house attraction. You know exactly what you’re in for when you walk through the door and even while in the midst of the ride, and yet you still end up squealing like a banshee because, well, that’s why you bought the ticket in the first place.
Even though James Wan has been steadily improving as a genre craftsman, he still has major weaknesses as a filmmaker. His ability to craft a competent narrative with believable characters has yet to catch up with his showman gifts. That’s certainly true in The Conjuring, which starts to feel like a TV-movie anytime the characters open their mouths. Fortunately, Wan gets away with that weakness here thanks to two things. First, he cast an uncommonly good group of actors who add emotional realism not present in the script. In particular, Vera Farmiga’s psychic is believable even to skeptics, Ron Livingston’s flannel clad Dad is charmingly truthful, and Lili Taylor’s haunted mom is heartbreaking thanks entirely to the work of the talented actors. You need only to sit through the painfully cardboard deliveries of some of their cast mates to see what a difference a good actor makes. The other element that helps Wan is more accidental. The Conjuring’s biggest weakness is that it’s humorless, which is a problem in a supernatural romp like this since a little levity is necessary to alleviate the relentless tension. Many of the worst lines and performances got laughs from the audience at The Conjuring screenings and not because they are that terrible, but because the audience needs the release. The filmmakers might not have intended that effect, yet it honestly helps.
The horror hit slides onto Blu-Ray with a package that confirms Warner Brothers’ shock regarding the film’s success. Sure the transfer is pretty and the sound mix pounds, but that’s standard issue for a major studio Blu-Ray release these days, especially since all Hollywood productions are mastered digitally. However, the pitiful special feature section suggests the studio planned to get this puppy on Blu-Ray for Halloween quickly and without fuss. There aren’t even any deleted scenes or interviews about the production. Instead all we get are two 15-minute documentaries about the “real life” psychic couple and haunting the film is based on that are just as hard to take seriously as you can imagine. Then there’s a 9-minute chat with James Wan about the art of scaring audiences that could have been boiled down to the words “low lighting, quite sound design, LOUD NOISE! SCARY IMAGE!” and been just as insightful. So, this isn’t a disc you’ll be buying to comb through the extras. It’s one you’ll pick up for the film that’s inexplicably one of the most successful Hollywood horror flicks ever made. Chances are if you loved it in theaters, you might not appreciate it as much at home since jump scare movies tend to play best with large scale audience reaction, not solo Wednesday night viewing parties. So, take The Conjuring for what it’s worth and don’t expect too much if you only know it by reputation. This should be an average Hollywood horror experience that’s expected week after week, but standards have fallen so low in the genre that it instead plays like an unexpected retro treat. Hopefully its success will at least greenlight some more traditional Hollywood horror flicks, because it’s getting rough out there if this is what is considered as good as horror movies get by the masses these days. (Phil Brown)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) – Before Sunrise is such a movie of its mid-90s moment, that it unavoidably became very dated, very quickly. However, since writer/director Richard Linklater and his co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy keep returning to the characters, the film holds up. Thanks to the wonderful Before Sunset, the characters were allowed to grow and deepen over time. It’s not just a sequel that’s superior to the original movie, but a sequel that actually makes the original movie better. Now we have Before Midnight, and those two crazy kids finally got together after meeting up 9 years later.
Before Midnight deals with the wonderful and tragic consequences of that long overdue union. Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are now married and have two beautiful twin daughters who they are treating to a summer holiday in Greece. Of course, Jesse already had a son and a previous marriage when they finally hooked up last time and the opening scene shows him painfully separating from the boy at the airport as he sends him back to America to live with his mother. Jesse’s ex-wife wasn’t exactly as thrilled by the magical reuniting of the last movie as audiences and has made Jesse’s life a living hell ever since. It’s one of the many cracks starting to show in their marriage nine years in, just like what tends to happen to all couples at that point. They open the film enjoying the end of their Greek holiday where Jesse the famous novelist (who got that fame from writing two books about the events of the last two films) was invited to visit. The hosts offer to look after the girls so that Jesse and Celine can enjoy a night alone in Greece. So they head out for another one of their feature length conversations with a picturesque European backdrop. Only this time they aren’t gently flirting into moments of connection, but bickering in ways that might drive them apart.
Sitting down to Before Midnight, the primary fear was that by virtue of the fact the beloved couple was together, the central joy of the series would be lost. How could one of these movies work without sexual tension? Of course it becomes clear within seconds that as in any marriage, tension between both partners is never in short supply. It’s fun to dive into these characters lives again because as a viewer you feel like you know them even though you’ve barely seen three hours of their lives in real time so far. In early scenes, it’s simply amusing to see Hawke and Deply together at long last. There’s a sweet eavesdropping quality to watching their in jokes and how they work as parents. These crazy kids finally grew up and they turned out ok after all. Then the bickering and fighting starts and the film really takes off. Sometimes you don’t really know someone until you fight with them and the gloves certainly come off here, even though the duo remain the people we’ve always known.
The screenplay by the stars and director is a thing of beauty, touching on everything from love in the digital age to the pains of raising children through divorce and the difficulty of keeping to parallel professional lives going without one half of the couple sacrificing their career for the other. As with all the Before movies, it feels like a film about everything and nothing, surviving purely on the pleasures of watching two brilliant actors wholly inhabit their characters for 100 minutes. Hawke and Delpy are as remarkable as always in these movies, wearing their roles like second skins and blurring the lines between their personal growth and their characters (Delpy only grows stronger as these movies go on and her career matures, while former hotshot 90s star Hawke has matured his character into a damaged soul whose learned as much from failure as success). Throughout it all Linklater shoots and directs expertly. He takes full advantage of the exotic location and frames his stars through carefully staged long takes. Yet, the visual style never distracts from the conversation even at its most postcard pretty. Linklater knows how to weave his visual tapestry just enough to make the material feel like a movie, but not so much that the film is ever about more than watching people talking.
Before Midnight arrives on Blu-Ray in a nice little package worthy of the flick’s charms. Than transfer is crisp, clean, and gorgeous. You wouldn’t think a movie about two people talking would benefit from HD, but those gorgeous backdrops are as much a part of the film as the conversation and they really pop on the disc. Extras wise, we’re treated to three short but fasinating features. First up is a commentary from Linklater, Hawke, and Deply that feels just as much like eavesdropping old friends as the movie. This series is clearly a labor of love for the three longtime collaborators and it’s a joy to hear them chat each other up throughout a film they all clearly love. Next up is a 7-minute feature Revisiting Jesse & Celine compiled of talking head interviews with the cast and crew from the set. It’s a promo piece for sure, but with everyone involved clearly passionate about the product, it’s one with a little more meat on its bones than usual. Finally, there’s a wonderful 40-minute onstage interview with the stars and director conducted by the great Elvis Mitchell. Since this wasn’t made specifically for the disc, there’s obviously a great deal of overlap between what’s covered here and elsewhere on the disc. Still, Mitchell knows how to moderate a movie chat and gets the trio to compare the three films of the trilogy in greater detail here than elsewhere. Overall, it’s a heck of a set. You can’t really expect any more special features from such a small, specialist film. But nor could you ever expect the film itself to be stronger than this. If anything, the Before Sunrise series is possibly the only franchise that’s gotten stronger with each installment as its creative collaborators grew and improved at their craft. So, well done Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. Shall we do this again in nine years? (Phil Brown)
Byzantium (Neil Jordan, 2013) – Much to the chagrin of people who actually like vampires, the last decade has essentially been dedicated to seeing the most romantic of all monsters transformed in grating supernatural soap opera fodder (both of the tween friendly Twilight variety and the only slightly more palatable cable booby playground of True Blood). Thankfully those willing to slip past the mainstream have been rewarded by a couple of genuinely interesting vampire stories over the past decade in Chan-Wook Park’s wonderful Thirst, and now Neil Jordon’s unsettling Byzantium. Neither movie is nearly enough to make up for the last ten years of vampire cheesification, but thankfully those who care have two strong post-millennial tragic vampire romances to help ease their mainstream pains. Hopefully once the sexy vampire trend finally subsides we can expect more of these psychologically chilling beauties, because they make the populist fluff look like the shirtless silliness they truly are. Byzantium might not be perfect, but this lyrical lonely tale works well enough to make you wish that director Neil Jordon hadn’t taken so much time off from bloodsucking after Interview with the Vampire.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play a mother/daughter vamp pair who have been going from town-to-town feasting on blood for the past couple of hundred years. Arterton is a perpetual sex worker who opens brothels for cash and seduces men for blood. Ronan on the other hand is more of a sad and tortured soul. She feasts only on those ready to die and constantly writes and rewrites her life story as a form of homespun therapy. The duo’s mortal days were scarred by a particularly pervy Jonny Lee Miller while their supernatural afterlife has been spent running from an all-male vampire society who don’t want women spoiling their immortal party. Cracks in the women’s 200-year bond appear when Ronan falls in love with a nice boy in her new town (Caleb Landry Jones) and thinks it’s time to set out on her own moral vampire quest.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Byzantium is the way that Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her own play) are willing to toy with the vampire rulebook to suite their own purposes. There are no fangs in sight, but retracting, phallic, skin-piercing fingernails used to pierce blood. A mysterious ancient crypt births vampires by choice rather than inheriting the curse like an STD. So, vampirism returns to its natural state of being: an immortal curse. The film revels in the eternal boredom and tragedy of blood-suckery and while the sexual angle that makes those creatures so damn appealing isn’t ignored, it at least isn’t the be all end all for Jordon and Buffini. They also find an intriguing feminist spark to their tale by presenting vampirism as a horrific old boys club as a nice spin on the traditionally rapey vampire mythos. Jordon carefully weaves those themes into a tale that’s deliciously pulpy, yet elegantly crafted in gorgeous long shots through evocative locations. It’s a horror yarm trapped in an art film and thankfully nowhere near as schizophrenic as it sounds. Sure, there will be some splits in the audience with art house hounds put off by all the filthy sensationalism and gorehounds frustrated by the pretentious existentialism, but that’s the same fate that most of the great vampire cinematic classics have faced since the genre first slithered out of the shadows in the silent film era.
Amidst the inevitable Byzantium debates, at least no one should be able to deny the incredible central performances. The underrated Arterton relishes her viciously manipulative creature without ever slipping into theatrics while the ever-impressive Ronan delivers a more internalized, philosophical spin on the Let the Right One In model of a vampire trapped in eternal childhood. Their deeply pained characters are lady vampires every bit as fascinating as the penis-packing Dracula’s of the world, while Jordon’s contemporary-gothic sensibilities create a gorgeously dark world for the audience to be swallowed up in (his vision of personal vampire sacrifice is one of the most strikingly beautiful images to grace the genre the quite some time).
After a sadly ignored theatrical run, Byzantium arrives on Blu-Ray where it will hopefully develop the audience it deserves. Jordan’s gorgeous scope photography is well rendered on the disc, with the deep focus and carefully controlled gothic color palate shining in HD. Special features are sadly limited, but at least informative. There’s the standard trailer and then no less than 12 interviews with everyone from the director and stars to the stunt coordinator and make-up artist. The questions asked can be a bit pedestrian, but responses are thoughtful and total over an hour of interesting material. It’s unfortunate that the interviews are presented in raw press-release form rather than being edited into a documentary, but that’s probably more due to the film’s low box office tallies than anything else.
The bar might low at the moment, but Byzantium is easily one of the high points of the recent vampire pop culture onslaught. It might be a little too stately, dreary, and thoughtful to become a new genre classic, but at least the film proves there’s still room for invention in one of the oldest monster myths. If tweens valued angst and existentialism as much as sweaty pectorals, Byzantium might even have been a sleeper hit. That didn’t happen though, so cult appreciation by a select few it shall be. With any luck, that cult will grow enough over time for revaluation in 5-10 years time when all those squealing Twi-hard youngin’s have matured enough to realize what they were missing. (Phil Brown)