FRESH POUR: White House Down (2013) / The Heat (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

White House Down / dir. Roland Emmerich / Columbia Pictures

white-house-down-poster2Blowing up the White House is very much in vogue this year; this film and Olympus Has Fallen seem to be the Deep Impact/Armageddon of White House invasion flicks, as both feature Die Hard-like scenarios of terrorists invading 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with one man (who naturally isn’t supposed to be there) left to stop them. This time around, we follow charming, hunky John Cale (Channing Tatum) who, in his bid to join the Secret Service, cons his estranged daughter into coming with him so he’ll look good. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong day to come to the White House, as American terrorists (led by Secret Service head James Woods, out on an over-the-top mission of revenge) hijack the place and set up a foothold in order to find and assassinate President James Sawyer.

This film comes to us by way of Roland Emmerich, who’s made quite a name for himself destroying American landmarks; the film even pokes fun at this through the tour guide’s assertion that the East Wing was “the one blown up in Independence Day.” Emmerich is at it again, but instead of disaster porn, he refreshingly gives us the Die Hard clone we were so desperately desiring in Olympus Has Fallen – unlike that film’s dour seriousness, and Butler’s glower, here we get an almost goofy film wherein Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx play buddy-cop through the elevator shafts and abandoned rooms of the White House. To be honest, this approach works much better; the concept is inherently silly enough that one might as well have fun with it, as opposed to Olympus’ watered-down 24 approach that is just as ridiculous but doesn’t seem to know it. White House Down is having as much fun as it wants the audience to have, and everything is kept charmingly light; one of the final scenes in the film might as well have come from the end of a Scooby-Doo episode, and it really works in an oddball way.

Despite its fun, it does wear its political leanings on its sleeve. Foxx’s Obama analogue is very much on the nose; he’s a young idealistic academic whose inexperience and distaste for the military make him take flack for being a “wuss,” and he learns over the course of the film to man up and start kicking ass. To the film’s credit, he doesn’t turn all the way into a violent warmongerer, and he maintains his principles with consistency throughout the film. The villains are repeatedly mentioned by the news to be “not Arab,” as if to shove its finger at the audience and say “Islamophobia is bad!” Much talk is made of the military-industrial complex (the definition of which is patronizingly explained in one ill-conceived bit of dialogue) and its predatorial desire to protect its economic interests even at the expense of peace. The villains end up being mostly high-ranking members of government or spurned members of the military (with the occasional white supremacist sprinkled in), which is at least a refreshing change from the Orientalized Korean monsters of Olympus Has Fallen.

All in all, Emmerich’s film sends the message that Obama’s idealism will work as a balm in the Middle East (particularly as the overly-optimistic plan he has where withdrawing all military presence in the region leads to peace seems to happen because of the very crisis that attempts to stop it). However, the message is a bit more cynical than it seems at first glance; at one point in the film, Foxx makes a point to Richard Jenkins’ character early on that the US should withdraw its physical presence in the Middle East because “we can just use drones and hit whatever target we want from halfway around the world anyway,” which makes it more of an empty gesture than a farewell to arms.

The cast is immense, almost to its detriment; we spend so much time juggling supporting characters that we sometimes lose the core of the story, which is Tatum-Foxx action movie antics in the White House. There are entire branches of government that could have been cut for time, including a redundant subplot involving the Vice President on Air Force One, a quaintly 90s hacker stereotype played by Jimmi Simpson (as much as I love watching him on screen) and the constant cutaways to John’s ex-wife camped out outside the White House. Nonetheless, there are some wonderful turns here; it’s so nice to see James Woods get so much scenery to chew on, as he hasn’t in this kind of big Hollywood movie in awhile. Tatum still has a bit of trouble making facial expressions, but goddamn if he doesn’t have a great sense of comic timing. Foxx works well with Tatum, and manages to personify an Obama-like president that has enough quirks without being an unfortunate caricature. Jason Clarke does what he can as the film’s heavy, and he and Tatum have wonderful physical presences. Joey King, who plays John’s daughter Emily, does a fine job, but the attempts to make her anything more than a glorified hostage fall a bit flat (except for a hilariously on-the-nose bit where Emily saves the White House by performing her flag routine with the White House’s flag on the lawn to wave off an airstrike; it’s so dumb and goofy that it just lands on charming). This all leads to a film that gives more development to the supporting characters and villains than it does its lead, which is a shame.

White House Down most certainly has its faults; it wants to be too many different movies at once, and it’s a bit overlong with all the subplots, circuitous narratives and endless conversations in Pentagon safe rooms. All the same, however, the action scenes are intense and well-edited, and Tatum makes a compelling action lead; it’s definitely worth a shot.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for White House Down:
1) Drink anytime someone uses electronic forms of communication
2) Drink whenever a character says the name “Emily Cale”
3) Drink every time John Cale (Channing Tatum) narrowly misses getting shot
Finish Your Drink When:
The tour guide (Nicolas Wright) shouts “STOP! HURTING! MY! WHITE HOUSE!”

The Heat / dir. Paul Feig /20th Century Fox

the-heat-mondo-posterI adored Bridesmaids, and I haven’t gotten tired of Melissa McCarthy’s schtick quite yet, so I went into Paul Feig’s The Heat with guarded expectations. Here, we find a reversal on the buddy-cop formula where the no-nonsense, career-minded intellectual and loose-cannon hard case are now played by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy; the two must, naturally, learn to get along despite their differing personalities in order to crack down on a big-time drug dealer supplying drugs to the city of Boston. That’s it; the story itself is simple almost to the point of nonexistence, as The Heat simply serves as a stage upon which Bullock and McCarthy can play off each other. This is fine on the surface, as both Bullock and McCarthy are excellent comedic actors – McCarthy gets the lion’s share of the laughs, of course, as her broader character simply gives straight-woman Bullock things to rankle at, but they have an effortless sort of chemistry that makes the film at least watchable on its whole.

Since the film is simply about Bullock’s and McCarthy’s antics, the other characters are given little to do. Tom Wilson is one of the few characters who truly shines, in his short stint as a tired police captain who has been thoroughly emasculated by McCarthy for years. It’s also really nice to see people of color in important positions in law enforcement without any comment, as Demian Bichir and Marlon Wayans play high-ranking cops with nary a word said about their race (save for a few unfortunate instances of Bullock patronizingly speaking Spanish to Bichir, but the punchline is on Bullock, so that’s sort of okay). Wayans, however, really gets the short end of the stick; he exists for seemingly no reason but as a lukewarm romantic interest for Bullock , and to refreshingly call out Bullock’s sanctimoniousness, but otherwise he simply isn’t in the movie enough to deserve fourth billing, in my opinion. If anything, the worst stereotypes perpetuated in the film are McCarthy’s “Boston white trash” family, featured in scenes which poke fun at their affected Bwa-ston accents, trashy clothing and constant argumentativeness – those scenes get old quick.

One of the biggest problems with this film, however, is its tone; Bullock and McCarthy’s characters are so broad and brightly cartoonish that it feels incredibly strange when the film dips into dark comedy. For example, there’s a scene involving a tracheotomy that is played for laughs (in essence, Bullock decides to prove that her book-learning pays off by immediately shoving a straw into a choking restaurant-goer’s throat); the way it’s filmed, however, makes it seem more like a horror flick, and something just feels off about it. It also never really becomes a buddy-cop movie, or at least an action-comedy; Feig seems unsure about how to film action scenes, and so he largely eschews them for more scenes of McCarthy being crass and Bullock being uptight. The climax of the film, where they stock up with McCarthy’s arsenal of weapons she keeps in her refrigerator, is disappointingly flat and even a bit regressive; all of the guns are quickly surrendered two minutes in after a small bag explodes, and they spend the rest of the scene captured and awaiting torture. Even the final showdown at a hospital is perfunctory and short, and the film’s villain (whose identity is supposed to be a twist) spends so much time in the background that his reveal leaves you cold.

This ambivalence toward actually placing women in a real buddy cop movie starts to make the movie feel less progressive, despite its own mission statement of showing that women can do this kind of stuff as well. Without the action that proves that these women truly are “The Heat,” the film ends up just feeling like a long-form improv sketch where someone answered “I need an occupation” with “police officers.” This is a tough film to read; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh throughout the film, but I still have to give it a ‘skip it’ if only for the fact that, if not for Bullock and McCarthy improv-ing the hell out of their scenes, the film’s not really worth your two hours.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Drinking Rules for The Heat:
1) Drink whenever Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) drops the F-bomb
2) Drink anytime Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) deliberately avoids swearing
3) Drink every time the two get into a bickering physical confrontation with each other
Finish Your Drink When:
Ashburn says, “Me and her? We’re the fuckin’ Heat.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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