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Entries in Richard Jenkins (4)

Friday
Jun282013

White House Down

It was only three months ago that we sat through “Olympus Has Fallen,” the Gerard Butler action picture where terrorists took over the White House to make a future that matched their skewed ideologies. For all intents and purposes, this week’s “White House Down” is a remake of that film. It’s more humorous and it changes a few things around, but it’s essentially the same movie. A comparison of the two is inevitable and their different tones will split many audiences, half of who will favor the more violent, grittier nature of “Olympus Has Fallen” over the toned down cheese-fest presented here, but they both have their merits and work independently of each other, despite similar premises.

Cale (Channing Tatum) is an ex-soldier who served over in Afghanistan and is now working as a Capital police officer assigned to protecting Speaker of the House, Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). He’s divorced and has a young daughter named Emily (Joey King) who doesn’t particularly like him, but is stuck with him for the weekend. Despite her age, she’s a political junkie and blogger and is a big fan of the current President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), so she’s thrilled when Cale tells her that they’re going to the White House and he’s going to be interviewed for a Secret Service position. Unfortunatley, he’s quickly rejected by Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) due to his low school grades and unreliability, but before he even has time to process this, the White House is taken over by a group of mercenaries. He’s soon separated from his daughter, so he takes it upon himself to rescue not just her, but also the President and maybe even the country itself.

“White House Down” is a movie that’s so idiotic, it’s actually kind of enjoyable. That’s about the best outcome director Roland Emmerich, the man behind disasters like “10,000 BC,” “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” could have hoped for. His hackneyed approach to directing a movie, which includes his insistence on peppering humor throughout tonally dire moments, has made him a director to hate and with good reason. But given that the mostly straight faced and excessively violent “Olympus Has Fallen” has already delivered on the promise of a gritty White House invasion movie, Emmerich’s weaknesses become his strengths here. “White House Down” is so absurd, so monumentally silly, so preposterously ludicrous, that it proves itself to be wholly entertaining.

Every character in the film is a cliché or caricature and every moment is seemingly ripped from another movie. It mixes the action and humor of the “Lethal Weapon” movies with the concept and protagonist from “Die Hard” and the fearless, gung-ho president from “Air Force One.” One line, as the terrorists force Emily to tell Cale that they have a gun to her head, is even ripped shamelessly from that latter film. But in a weird way, combining all these elements, coupled with its drastic tonal shift from “Olympus Has Fallen,” gives it a unique identity, even as it (probably knowingly) rips dialogue from other movies.

President Sawyer is one of those presidents that doesn’t seem to have a single detractor, someone who makes everyone in the room smile when he walks in. He’s caring of others and puts them and the country above himself. He’s the type of guy who seems to constantly speak in “speech” and whose vocal tone can only be described as patriotic. The movie reinforces this by backing him with slowly swelling patriotic music nearly every time he begins to speak. It’s a manipulative ploy used by many amateurish filmmakers to manufacture the likability of their characters and it’s somewhat insulting to the discerning viewer, but in “White House Down,” it becomes just another dumb thing to laugh at.

And laughing is a big part of what makes the film so enjoyable. Despite the grave circumstances they’re in and the great loss of human life they’ve incurred during it, the film remains as goofy as can be. It’s not the intentionally placed jokes that work the most (though they do offer up the occasional guffaw); it’s the entire situation that is one can’t help but laugh at. A good example comes when the president loses his shoe in one scene and ends up in front of his closet in his room. Instead of grabbing the polished footwear one would expect a president to wear, he grabs his Air Jordans. While it admittedly makes sense given the situation (you’re going to need the flexibility of movement shoes like that will provide), it’s nevertheless endlessly amusing.

Even more amusing is the most worthless Secret Service agents ever assigned to guard a president. They hardly get any shots off at all as the terrorists pick them off one by one, tagging them all with one quick bullet to the head like they’re master arms men, that is unless they’re shooting at Cale or President Sawyer. Then it’s like they’ve been blindfolded and given a gun for the first time. This is standard action movie procedure, so it’s not so much a detriment to the film as it is a necessary element, yet the fact remains, this movie is blissfully stupid.

“White House Down” has stinted, inconsequential dialogue, complete with none-too-subtle foreshadowing bits (“It’s going to be a busy morning, boys,” the Speaker of the House says before everything goes to hell), and the CGI, particularly in the exterior scenes, is downright abysmal. Although fun, in terms of entertainment, it’s not quite as good as “Olympus Has Fallen.” The overrunning of the White House is a bit more believable here, but both are so outrageous that if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go all out. “White House Down” unfortunately plays it a bit closer to the chest than “Olympus Has Fallen,” no doubt to get that coveted PG-13 rating, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, even if in this case the merit is that it’s so bad, it’s good.

White House Down receives 2.5/5

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5

Friday
Apr132012

The Cabin in the Woods

I’ll be completely honest. I have no idea how to review The Cabin in the Woods. After struggling to come up with an opening that puts into perspective what the film is about without giving any key plot points away, I decided to just be upfront. Frankly, discussing even the most basic aspect of the plot is a spoiler and this is a movie that is best to walk into blind. The trailers, surprisingly enough in a day and age where everything is ruined in a short 30 second TV spot, have done a good job of keeping things mysterious and it’s best to keep it that way. The easy thing to say is that I absolutely adored The Cabin in the Woods and I rank it among the top two or three films of the year so far, but elaboration of why seems impossible. The typical movie critic plot synopsis paragraph follows. Let’s see how it goes.

The film follows a group of teenagers as they venture into a cabin in the woods where strange things begin to happen.

Although obvious, that’s about as deep as a responsible writer should go in explaining the movie’s plot. To go further would completely ruin the experience. When watching the film and taking notes, I jotted down the off kilter opening and planned on explaining why the place, time and characters that were present in it were so odd for a horror movie, but doing even that would take away from its impact. What the film does so brilliantly is set up a horror story that we’ve seen a dozen times, complete with your typical “dead teenager” horror movie characters like the jock, the slut, the stoner and the virtuous heroine, and then goes in a completely different direction. The Cabin in the Woods spoofs the construction of horror films by, well, constructing a horror film. That description may be a bit cryptic, but it will all make sense after you see it.

Some critics have been comparing The Cabin in the Woods to the first couple Evil Dead films. First of all (and most obviously), they both take place at a remote cabin in the woods. Where they compare more thematically and creatively is in the places they go and the things the characters do. Such a comparison is not unwarranted and may even be welcome by writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, who throw in what must be a dozen Evil Dead references, including one that they affectionately refer to as the “angry molesting tree,” but The Cabin in the Woods goes much further than Evil Dead ever did. If anybody tells you they saw coming the way the events in this movie transpire, they’re lying through their teeth.

The references to horror don’t stop at Evil Dead, though. Horror buffs will spot a plethora of them throughout, especially near the unspoken ending, and they encompass video games as well, like a hilarious sight gag pertaining to Valve’s hit Xbox 360 game, Left 4 Dead. I hesitate to list more because half of the fun is spotting these references (and only video game nerds like myself will notice the nods to the games), but it’s a major component to the fun.

It must be said that The Cabin in the Woods isn’t particularly scary because it utilizes the same tricks many other horror films do, but that’s precisely the point and in the context of the story, it makes sense. Things we may scoff at in other films are fondly used here to celebrate the horror genre while also pointing out just how stupid it can be. You’ll more often feel like smiling than shielding your eyes because of its clever skewering of horror movie clichés.

No horror fan should walk out of The Cabin in the Woods unpleased. It’s a love letter to them and the genre they love. It wears its adoration for the genre on its sleeve while also bringing it back to its roots and away from the steady stream of so called “torture porn” films that have invaded the theaters in recent years. It’s destined to go down alongside films like the aforementioned Evil Dead and the original Scream as a horror movie classic. It’s just that good. It’s not safe to talk about right now, so as not to deny moviegoers the right to see it as intended, but after a few weeks, when interested parties have already sat down with it, The Cabin in the Woods will be all that is talked about. See it now before it’s ruined.

The Cabin in the Woods receives 4.5/5

Friday
Aug132010

Eat Pray Love

There’s no debating it, summer is the best season for movies. We may not get many Oscar contenders, but we get Hollywood’s best attempts at delivering action, humor and fun. Being the last major movie week of the summer, we’re closing out with a bang. The Expendables and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World are tearing up screens with all types of awesome, so what better movie to pit against those juggernauts than Eat Pray Love? Working as counter programming to the manliest and geekiest movies of the summer, Julia Roberts’ latest star vehicle is, as expected, a girly movie through and through.

Based on the best selling book by author Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love tells the story of Liz (Roberts) as she works her way through a divorce and across the globe in an attempt to find what her life has been missing. Right off the bat, there’s a problem. You see, the divorce is her idea and she springs the idea suddenly on her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup), who loves her more than anything in the world. During the divorce settlement, Stephen asks Liz why she is leaving. Why couldn’t she just come talk to him? She replies with a quick tongue, arguing that she tried. He just wouldn’t listen. But we never see her try. We’re simply supposed to take her word for it. But Stephen brings up a good point. She’s so concerned with herself that she never even attempts to make the marriage work. While I’m not suggesting she should stay in a relationship she is unhappy with, her sudden decision to end the marriage without even first discussing it with her husband comes off as selfish and mean.

So off she goes around the world to discover herself. Along the way, she befriends a number of people in similar situations, including Richard (wonderfully played by Richard Jenkins) and a kind sage who accurately predicts her coming trials. But once she arrives at her first destination, Rome, Italy, she seems to do little more than wallow in self pity about being alone. She has an Italian to English dictionary and looks up words like “lonely.” When she sees a pretty dress and a friend tells her to buy it, she replies, “For whom?” The perplexity of the situation is that she broke off her marriage with a man who loved her unconditionally so she could be alone and then gets depressed that she has nobody to spend her time with. Her problem is self inflicted and I had no pity for her.

The biggest problem with Eat Pray Love, worse than its unlikable protagonist, is its awkward pacing and sluggishness. While some portions of the story, like the beginning, are rushed through, hence giving no reason to care, others are drawn out to an unbearable extent. Pushing nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, the film is far too long.

However, there is beauty seeping out of every pore of Eat Pray Love. The people, the food, the locales, all are great to look at, though that I’d chalk that up more to the natural presentation of those things than the direction. Any schmo can point a camera at Italy and make it look beautiful.

Still, Eat Pray Love is light, fluffy entertainment. It’s hard to hate, but it bores with ease. The monotony of the script and the dullness of the messages dilute any type of impact it may have had otherwise. Watching it was a chore and writing this review was the same. It’s tough to drag out “it was boring” to six paragraphs, but here it is. It was a hard fought battle and in the end I survived, but I pity those men who bravely walk into this movie ready to endure it for their loved ones. Their dedication is noble, but I’m afraid their integrity may suffer.

Eat Pray Love receives 2/5