Talk to Me (2007)

I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.

Talk to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Accidental Love (2015)

Originally entitled Nailed and directed by David O. Russell, this troubled production began in 2008 and is only now getting a release, with Russell’s name removed from his directing and writing credits (in favour of “Stephen Greene”). If it remains remembered in future at all, it will almost certainly be for this story than anything actually in the film, though despite a healthy portfolio of negative critical reviews, it’s not actually all that awful. It’s disjointed certainly, with an uneven tone (slapstick is difficult to get right), and some of its jokes don’t land very well at all — there’s a scene of Gyllenhaal’s Congressman character Howard cringing through his fingers which could easily have been me at points. And yet Jessica Biel’s naive small-town girl Alice has a winning charm not unlike that of television’s Kimmy Schmidt. Alice gets a nail accidentally shot into her head but is uninsured and so needs a change in the law to allow her to have it removed, thus avoiding long-term damage. As a political satire, made at a time before President Obama brought in healthcare coverage, it does pretty well, giving a sense of the absurdity of the system, something you’d imagine the film’s writer might have experienced a little of as Al Gore’s daughter. It’s Catherine Keener’s conniving senior politician who is the film’s bad guy, though James Marsden’s schmuck-like local police officer Scott — engaged to Alice before taking it back, and overly fond of putting percentage chances on everything — comes close. I can’t in all honesty recommend Accidental Love wholeheartedly, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the beating it’s received from some quarters.

Accidental Love film poster CREDITS
Director David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”]; Writers Russell [as “Stephen Greene”], Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser (based on the novel Sammy’s Hill by Gore); Cinematographer Max Malkin; Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Showcase Cinemas Newham, London, Sunday 28 June 2015.

White House Down (2013)

As is Hollywood’s wont, there were two films last year which had terrorists take over the White House, hold the President hostage, and then have their plans ruined by John McClane I mean, an undervalued everyman character (where “everyman” is a white male, obviously). I went to see Olympus Has Fallen in the cinema, and that, I realise now, was the wrong choice. White House Down is no less silly, it should be emphasised, and it rips off Die Hard (1988) every bit as comprehensively. However, in every respect (except maybe in the acting chops of its authority figures: Melissa Leo > whoever the hell the VP is here), it proves itself the better of the two films.

It’s difficult even to pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better. Perhaps it helps that here the threat is a loose alliance of ex-military right-wing gun nuts and racists, rather than a generic East Asian terrorist collective (nominally North Korean, but apparently Chinese in the original conception), which immediately disarms the racist connotations of our white heroes’ triumph. Here the racial diversity is instead on the side of the Americans, with a post-Obama Presidential turn by Jamie Foxx, who does his best to capture the requisite gravitas. If he doesn’t always succeed, his looser performance still allows for some lovely moments with our hero Channing Tatum’s politically-savvy teenage daughter Emily (Joey King), not to mention a bit of knockabout humour involving a rocket launcher.

The daughter’s there for a bit of human interest, and the set-up follows a standard generic pattern: as John Cale, Tatum has been a bit of an unreliable dad and now must prove his worth to his daughter, which he does by trying to get a Secret Service job (he doesn’t pass his interview, but not before we’ve had a hint at some backstory with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol). When the terrorists attack, father and daughter are separated, giving his resistance to the terrorists a bit of personal motivation (when he overhears the evil mastermind threatening to kill the President, he means to push on with finding his daughter, and has to kick himself to go back and help). His daughter is not totally helpless, it turns out (shades of Jason Statham movies like Safe and Homefront there), but she’s still too young not to need his help. Then again, you only really need to accept these familiar tropes; the fun is in how efficiently they are mobilised, and there’s a relative minimum of sentimental mawkishness.

As you’ll have guessed, there’s nothing startling or new here. If you liked Die Hard and you are fond of this kind of action thriller, then you should really enjoy White House Down. It’s a solid bit of big Hollywood summer entertainment.

White House Down film posterCREDITS
Director Roland Emmerich; Writer James Vanderbilt; Cinematographer Anna Foerster; Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.

The television connection I allude to is certainly not by chance. Many of the franchise’s more memorable character actors found initial fame on the small screen (with, in many cases, these shows’ iconic characters referenced in the Marvel characters they play), while the directors of this outing are familiar to me from their work on the early, foundational, seasons of the cult television show Community, itself wrapped up in meta-commentary and fandom. I’m not saying Captain America is not at some level a straightforward superhero action film, but there are few films I’ve seen that work harder at making connections across multiple levels of meaning, gradually but insistently building up a web of dense allusive textures. By the end the film, it is weighed down with so much referentiality that the physical fact of enormous flying battleships crushing swathes of a city are almost inconsequentially forgettable.

Partly, of course, that’s because it’s not really a film about these battleships, which function more as the classic ‘MacGuffin’ device of being the thing that the characters care about within the plot. The now familiar trope of crushing metropolitan destruction (Washington DC where formerly it was New York) becomes less of a focus in this film’s denouement, because the untouchable superheroic inevitability has been displaced by some fallible, emotionally-compromised men locked in combat. For the audience, as for the filmmakers, the title is probably the key to the film, and it’s done rather slyly. This is because Captain America is not The Winter Soldier as the colon implies. Or rather, these may be two separate characters, but that colon links them together — perhaps as two sides of the same person, at the very least in a relationship, a combative one, but tender at some level too.

To get to that point, though, involves a lot of plot, and a lot of dashing hither and yon. The very Winter Soldier character, for all his importance in the end, gets barely any on-screen time — though largely one suspects that’s because the filmmakers are trying to hide the big ‘reveal’ of his identity (which isn’t much of a surprise once it comes, really). Instead, then, we get more of Samuel L. Jackson’s militaristically-inclined Nick Fury character, apparently neutralised by Robert Redford’s conniving demagogue Alexander Pierce, while Chris Evans’ clean-cut American hero pulls together his crack team of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow military running buddy he meets cute at the start. Via the Fury and Pierce characters, we end up getting quite a bit of detail about the politics of this world and about the unstable hierarchy of the SHIELD organisation (with its own Nazi-throwback black ops unit tying in the World War II-era setting of much of the first Captain America film).

Yet for all the feeling that the filmmakers have for the characters — with cute gags like Steve/Captain America keeping a notebook of the cultural touchstones he needs to catch up with while he’s been out of circulation (it’s apparently a slightly different list in each country the film’s been released), or the fond exchanges between Natasha and Steve as she tries to set him up on a date — there’s still the nagging sense that some of their ideas are based too much on generic clichés. For example, there’s the one where Steve is staking his life on unlocking brainwashed memories within the Winter Soldier, and launches himself into this task not so much with a strategy as with a blind faith in the effectiveness of the familiar generic trope to succeed (a variation on ‘search your feelings, you know them to be true’). The filmmakers also seem to lack a sure touch in choreographing the action sequences, most of which pass by in a frenzied incoherent blur. It’s times like these when you wish they’d had as much faith in the power of the camera (with images a bit calmer and more steadied) as they do in one or two sequences where the soundtrack takes on the work, cutting out in moments of emotional crisis, or taking over as when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” leads a montage sequence.

I suppose my point may ultimately be that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not really made for me, but that’s no failing of the film’s by any means. It follows through on the superheroic derring-do sufficiently well that one’s desires on this front are sated, and puts enough characters into play that those who follow the minutiae of the Marvel universe will find plenty to enjoy. But while there are hints towards these characters’ shadowy back stories, by the end of the film, there’s really very little extra that we know about Natasha or Nick or most of the others. As befits its title, it’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier whose stories matter the most here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier film posterCREDITS
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 2 April 2014.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

There is already a vast body of action films stretching back quite some time which imagine the various threats to the United States and how they will be (inevitably) overcome by the power of a lone individual and a massive armoury of weapons. Even this film is only one of two this year about the White House (aka “Olympus”) itself being taken over by terrorists. Sometimes it feels as if every possible permutation of scenarios has already been played out in the movies, and so the strong resemblances that this film has to Die Hard (1988, and still a high-water mark in this kind of enterprise) are difficult to overlook.

We know for example that our lone individual (Gerard Butler in this case) will be a bit of an outsider from the corridors of power (in this case due to an unfortunate accident earlier in his career as a Secret Service agent). We know that once he’s at the centre of the storm, he will be initially tested by a misguided authority figure sending his troops on suicidal missions while the aforementioned lone hero is sidelined and only able to offer Cassandra-like prophesies of doom. We know that the villains will be almost preternaturally prepared for all possible outcomes for the majority of the running time (also exceptionally well-funded and organised given their North Korean origins), and will have no compunction in sacrificing their number where required. Plus of course there will be the sentimental sub-plot putting everything at threat, in this case the matter of the President’s son abandoned somewhere in the building. Add to this a good helping of hokey jingoistic nonsense, with some footage of a burning and bullet-ridden Stars and Stripes flag fluttering to the ground (in slow-motion so you can properly appreciate the symbolism), and you have the basic plot.

Of course, nobody goes to action films like this expecting subtle geopolitical analysis, and as someone who has quite enjoyed the occasional retrogressive thrill at the moronic excesses of the action genre, in some ways I prefer it when they just drop any pretence to being up-to-date (my favourite of recent years was Salt [2010] with its unreconstructed Soviet-era baddies). So by having North Korean villains the filmmakers almost approach topicality, though I’d argue they come closer to blatant racism, not to mention leaving plenty of unanswered questions. The terrorists aren’t allied with the North Korean government, but instead are renegade agents (very well-funded for such a poor country) who have infiltrated the South Korean delegation, without somehow becoming known to that government. Their chief demand is the withdrawal of US troops from the 38th parallel, apparently to allow some kind of takeover of the peninsula, which is always just assumed will happen. They are also almost entirely without any individuating character, many dressed in face masks, and all executed very perfunctorily as required; only the leader (played by Rick Yune) has any significant presence in the film but to even call his character one-note would be to do a disservice to monotony.

That said, depth of characterisation is not a noted feature of the action genre, and I can’t deny that there are plenty of visceral pleasures to be had in the propulsive forward momentum of the film. Whatever the failings of the by-numbers script, it’s all directed with a tight clarity of focus which almost manages to efface the essential blandness of its hero (even Jason Statham in the similarly retrogressive, but in most ways superior, Parker has more personality). Moreover, there are around the edges of the film plenty of excellent character actors (Aaron Eckhart as the buff President, Morgan Freeman as the stentorian Speaker of the House, Melissa Leo as the Hilary-like Secretary of Defense, Angela Bassett as someone so underwritten I have no idea who she was actually supposed to be, but Wikipedia tells me she plays the head of the Secret Service), who are all let down only by lacking much in the way of characters to play.

Having then plundered the Hollywood costume box for villains, character actors, explosive special effects and impressive weaponry, the resulting assemblage is certainly passingly entertaining. It just lacks a few of those things that to me make a film really worthwhile, like coherent characters doing coherent things in a way that’s not essentially hateful. And because I am an eternal optimist with an unfortunate soft spot for filmic violence, there’s no reason why an action film shouldn’t be able to achieve such humble objectives.


CREDITS
Director Antoine Fuqua; Writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 21 April 2013.