“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

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“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

When it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 2013, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” received a good deal of flak from movie critics determined to justified its failure to become a box office hit. But there were others who had offered another reason why the movie flopped in the U.S.  And that reason centered around the release of another film some three months earlier called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

Like the Gerard Butler film, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” focused upon an assault and invasion of the White House by a group of paramilitary terrorists. The movie begins with U.S. President James Sawyer proposing a controversial peace treaty between allied countries to remove military forces from the Middle East. One of the opponents of the treaty is Speaker of the House, Congressman Eli Raphelson, who is guarded by U.S. Capitol police officer John Cale. Hoping to impress his estranged daughter Emily following his divorce, John attempts to apply for a job with the U.S. Secret Service. He takes Emily to the White House for an interview with his former college schoolmate, Secret Service schoolmate, Carol Finnerty. Unfortunately for John, Carol rejects his application, claiming that his lack of respect for authority and inability to follow through with official reports makes him unqualified for the job.

Following his interview, John joins Emily on a tour of the White House, a paramilitary terrorist sets off a bomb in the rotunda of the Capitol building. Both Congressman Raphelson and Vice-President Alvin Hammond are among those who manage to safely escape. However, the Capitol bombing proves to be a distraction for a more important mission for his colleagues – namely the takeover the White House. Although the latter is officially locked down by the Secret Service following the Capitol bombing, a paramilitary group consisting of ex-servicemen and a computer hacker that managed to infiltrate the White House as janitors, proceed to take over the White House. Their leader is a disavowed ex-Delta Force member named Emil Stenz, who proved to be a hot head. Not only do the terrorists take a group of tourists – including Emily – hostage; they nearly kidnap President Sawyer with the help of Secret Service Agent Martin Walker, Head of the Presidential Detail. Walker sought revenge for the death of a son who had died in an aborted black op mission for the U.S. Army. Fortunately, John manages to rescue President Sawyer before Walker and the terrorists can use him to access the nuclear football for nefarious means. Unfortunately for John and Sawyer, they are trapped inside the White House with no way to get out.

Unlike a good number of moviegoers, I did not readily accept the opinion that “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” was a bad movie. Yes, it had its flaws. After all, it is a Roland Emmerich film. And like other Emmerich films, it possessed the usual cliches – a divorced main character, an annoyingly precocious child character, and slightly cheesy dialogue. The biggest flaw in the movie proved to be a plot point that allowed John and his daughter to get swept into the action inside the White House – a tour of the latter. Apparently, screenwriter James Vanderbilt forgot that White House tours have been a thing of the past since the September 11 attacks, twelve years ago. And I found Carol Finnerty’s presence with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Speaker of the House something of a stretch, considering that she is not the Secret Service’s Head of the Presidential Detail, let alone head of the agency. But despite these flaws, I still enjoyed the movie.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its virtues. First of all, it benefited from a strong chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, who portrayed John Cale and President James Walker. Two, Vanderbilt’s script did not make the mistake of turning the President Walker character into a highly skilled action man, like Harrison Ford in “AIR FORCE ONE”. Although he managed to avoid spending most of the film as a hostage, Foxx’s Walker made mistakes that struck me as natural for one not to used to violent action. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” also featured some first-rate action. My favorite scenes turned out to be the initial takeover of the White House by Stenz and his men; John’s rescue of President Walker; and the chase sequence on the White House lawn, with John and President Walker inside a Presidential limousine. The biggest virtue of “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” is that the terrorists managed to infiltrate the White House with inside help – namely Secret Service Agent Walker. In the post 9/11 world, I would have found it impossible to accept a terrorist takeover of the White House without such help.

Despite the occasionally cheesy dialogue that marred “WHITE HOUSE DOWN”, I was relieved to see that the cast managed to rise above such flaws. As I stated earlier, the movie did benefit from a strong chemistry between Tatum and Foxx. And both actors gave first-rate performances that blend good, solid comedy with well-acted drama. I also found the development of their on-screen relationship very satisfying. And Foxx managed to utter one of my favorite lines in the entire film. Maggie Gyllenhaal gave a strong performance as the no-nonsense Carol Finnerty. I could also say the same about Lance Reddick, who portrayed the equally no-nonsense Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman General Caufield. I do not recall ever seeing Jason Clarke in a villainous role before, but I must admit that he gave a scary performance as leader of the terrorist, Emil Stanz. Jimmi Simpson, on the other hand, was quite funny as computer hacker Skip Tyler. And Richard Jenkins struck me as very effective in his performance as Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson, who found himself with more authority than he was used to. There were a few performances that did rub me the wrong way. I think Zoey King, who portrayed Emily Cale, is a talented actress, but I feel that not even she was able to rise above the precocious dialogue and scenes that Vanderbilt dumped on her. Nicholas Wright’s performance as White House tour guide Donnie did not strike me as funny . . . only annoying. Kevin Rankin’s portrayal of the uber-aggressive terrorist Carl Killick seemed both hammy and wince-inducing to me.

When I saw “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” at the movie theater, the audience broke into an applause when the film ended. Minutes later, I found myself in one of the theater’s restrooms and overheard a woman claimed that although she liked the movie, she noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. And she was right. Both movies were about terrorists taking over the White House in order to gain control of the President and his defense codes. Both movies featured female Secret Service personnel trying to help the hero. Both movies featured the Vice-President getting killed and the Speaker of the House becoming the new Head of State. And both featured American elite forces making a failed attempt to save the White House from terrorists. I liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, but I feel that it was marred by one major flaw – the North Korean terrorists lacked any real inside help and was able to acquire top-secret military technology on their own. This led the Gerard Butler movie resembling some one-note anti-Communist propaganda film. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” managed to avoid this major trap by allowing the terrorists – who were American-born – receive some serious inside help from within the U.S. government. And this is why I rate “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” over “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its flaws. But it also possessed a decent story, first-rate action and some solid acting by a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx; thanks to director Roland Emmerich. And although its virtues outweighed its flaw, I suspect that in the end, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” became a victim of bad timing. Pity. I feel it deserved a better fate.

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“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

 

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“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

In 2005, director/writer Christopher Nolan had rebooted the Batman franchise with the highly successful movie, ”BATMAN BEGINS” that starred Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Both men reunited three years later for a new story centered around Batman’s conflict with his greatest nemesis, Joker in this sequel called ”THE DARK KNIGHT”

There had been a great deal of attention surrounding this movie. Many have not only praised it, claiming that it is better than the 2005 movie. But most of the word-of-mouth centered around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, especially after his tragic death two years ago. When ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was finally released, many critics and fans expressed the belief that the positive word-of-mouth had been justified. Not only have many judged Ledger’s performance as the best in his career, others have claimed that the movie is probably the best Comic Book Hero movie ever made. I do not know if the Joker featured Heath Ledger’s best performance ever. As for the claim about ”THE DARK KNIGHT” being the best comic book hero movie . . . I do not agree.

I am not saying that ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was a terrible or mediocre film. Frankly, I believe that it was one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Most of the movie featured an excellent story scripted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, in which Gotham’s organized criminal element has found itself threatened by the law ever since the end of the Falsone family in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, thanks to Batman (Bale). A former inmate of Arkham Asylum named the Joker (Ledger) approaches the crime bosses, which include Salvatore “Sal” Maroni (Eric Roberts), with an offer to kill Batman for pay. At the same time, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) contemplate including the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate the mob, as he could be the public hero Batman cannot be. Harvey Dent is found to be dating Wayne’s childhood friend and object of romantic desire, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). This conflict between Batman, the Joker and their allies escalates to a tragic and well-directed dénouement that leads to Rachel’s death. And it is here where I believe that the movie faltered.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” could have ended with Rachel’s death, followed by the Joker’s manipulation of a grieving Harvey Dent into madness and his eventual capture or death. Instead, the Nolan brothers and Goyer allowed the Joker to escape and continued the story with Dent’s vengeful hunt for those he considered responsible for Rachel’s death and the Joker resorting to a Green Goblin situation involving two ferryboats packed with explosives. The situation involved him telling the passengers on each that the only way to save themselves is to trigger the explosives on the other ferry; otherwise, at midnight he will destroy them both remotely. All of this occurred during the movie’s last half hour and quite frankly, it was a half hour I could have done without. I found the entire ferryboats sequence so unbelievable and contrived. It seemed as if Nolan teased us with the possibility of seeing the darker side of the average citizen . . . and wimped out, because he would rather stroke the ego of his moviegoers with some “nobility of man” bullshit by allowing the passengers refuse to blow or try to blow each other to kingdom come, instead of telling the truth about human nature. Very disappointing. It would have been more interesting or darker if Batman had prevented the passengers from blowing up the boats at the last minute. Batman would have saved the people, but the Joker would have proven a point.

A fan had pointed out that the ending of the sequence was Nolan’s message about leaving a sliver of hope for the audience that human beings do have the capacity to do good things. I realize that this was Nolan’s aim, but this is a message that has been done to death by moviegoers for eons. The problem is that screenwriters and moviemakers are always giving moviegoers this “sliver of hope”. They call themselves pointing out the dark side of humanity and then they pervert these messages by allowing them to come out of the mouths from villains like the Joker, before the latter is eventually proven wrong. It just seems like a cop out to me. Which was why I found the whole ferryboat sequence something of a joke. Sure, human beings are capable of doing some good. But in that particular situation? I rather doubt it. If there is one trait that humanity possess, it is a talent for self-preservation. It would have been more realistic to me if the boats had detonated or Batman had prevented this before anyone on one or both of those boats and activated the bombs. Granted, Batman/Bruce Wayne would have been disappointed in Gotham’s citizens, but he would have learned a valuable lesson about the very people he calls himself protecting. Even better, I would have preferred if Nolan had never added that sequence in the first place.

As for Harvey Dent’s hunt for those he deemed responsible for Rachel’s death . . . I would have been more satisfied if Nolan and his co-writers had ended the movie with Dent’s eventual slide into darkness in that hospital room and saved his transformation into a twisted vigilante and arch villain in a third Batman film. This would have prevented the movie from being unnecessarily a half hour long. And it would have saved the talented Aaron Eckhart for the third film as “Two-Faced” Harvey. It would have also spared moviegoers of that ludicrous ending in which Batman and Gordon decided to allow the former assume blame of Dent’s crimes in order to save the reputation of the D.A. I am still stunned by this little plot development. What were the Nolan brothers thinking? Why was it so necessary to save Dent’s reputation in the first place? Did Batman and Gordon harbored such a low opinion of Gotham’s citizens that they had to treat the latter like children?

The performances in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” were basically superb. Christian Bale beautifully captured the growing dilemma of Bruce Wayne’s desire for a normal life with Rachel Dawes, juxtaposed with his role as Gotham’s costumed vigilante and his growing power over the city’s criminal element, thanks to his alliance with police lieutenant James Gordon and the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. There is one aspect of Bale’s performance I did not like – namely the growling tone he used, while in the Batman persona. I did not care for it in ”BATMAN BEGINS”. I cared for it even less in this film.

I have noticed how many have expressed the view that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Rachel Dawes was better than Katie Holmes in the 2005 film. Personally, I did not see much of a difference in the quality of their performances. Both actresses gave good, solid performances. But . . . the screenwriters’ portrayal of Rachel in this film disappointed me. They had turned her characters into an object. She was Bruce Wayne’s prize for giving up the Batman persona, as soon as he could get Dent to assume the role of Gotham’s “hero”. She was Dent’s love interest, Girl Friday and a reason to go on a rampage for Dent. And for the Joker, she was a means to get at Batman, once he realized how the latter felt about her. There were times when Rachel’s character almost seemed irrelevant and a sad decline from the legal and moral dynamo that Holmes had portrayed in ”BATMAN BEGINS”.

Heath Ledger as the Joker. What can I say? The man was brilliant. He made Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like chump change. Honestly. One of the reasons why I have never care for the Joker character in the past was due to his over-the-top persona. Cesar Romero’s Joker has never impressed me, regardless of the numerous insane clown laughs he had utilized. Nicholson’s Joker was too over-the-top for my tastes. As one can see, I do not have a love for overly theatrical characters, unless they are done right. Granted, Ledger portrayed the Joker as over-the-top. But somehow . . . I really do not know how to describe it. Somehow, he managed to infuse some kind of control in the character’s insanity – not only with his behavior, but also with a talent for emotional manipulation and the views he had spouted to Batman and other characters. Do I believe that the Joker was Ledger’s best performance? No. I believe that the character was one of his two best performances, the other being Ennis DelMar from 2005’s ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. Do I believe that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, despite his death? Hmmmm . . . yes. He was that good.

The other truly superb performance came from Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. One of Eckhart’s virtues was that he formed an excellent screen chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Frankly, I found their romance more believable than her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Eckhart projected a great deal of magnetism, charm and intensity into his portrayal of Dent. But I was more impressed by the way he expressed Dent’s descent into vengeful madness, following Rachel’s death. Granted, this turn of his character occurred in the movie’s last half hour. Although I disliked the movie’s last half hour, Eckhart’s performance in it almost made it bearable.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) and Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow) all reprised their roles from the first film. All four gave solid performances, but only Oldman’s role as James Gordon seemed bigger. I found Gordon’s fake death somewhat contrived and manipulative. Aside from the creation of the Rachel Dawes character, everything about the two Batman movies directed by Nolan have adhered to the Batman canon. Which is why I found it difficult to believe that Gordon was dead. Alfred’s role seemed to have diminished from the first film. Freeman’s Lucius Fox is now quite aware that Bruce is Batman and seemed to be acting as the latter’s armourer, as well as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO. The only problem I had with the Fox character was his opposition against Wayne/Batman’s development an advanced surveillance system that can listen in and track the movement of any of the thousands of cell phones in the city. I found the whole scenario contrived. As much as I had enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, I found his less than ten minutes appearance in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” a waste of the actor’s time . . . and mine.

Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to score the sequel. I must admit that I had been impressed by their work in ”BATMAN BEGINS” and had expected another exceptional score by them. Unfortunately, I barely remembered the score. I understand that they had rehashed the original score for this movie and added a new theme or two. But it all came off as unmemorable for me.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” had the potential to be this summer’s best film. But there were some aspects – the portrayal of Rachel Dawes’ character, Zimmer and Newton Howard’s score, the portrayal of some of the minor characters and the contrived writing that dominated the movie’s last half hour – that I believe had ruined the movie’s chances of achieving this potential. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws and in the end, ”THE DARK KNIGHT” managed to remain first-rate and become – in my view – one of the better films from the summer of 2008.