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Posts Tagged ‘Roland Emmerich’

I am not ashamed to say I have a certain fondness for many of the films of Roland Emmerich, particularly his SF and fantasy output. Let me at once qualify that by saying that I’ve never much liked Stargate, and I was in Italy when 10,000 BC came out and never got to see it, and, come to think of it, Universal Soldier was about what you’d expect from an early-90s vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. But I did enjoy 2012, The Day After Tomorrow was likeable tosh, his version of Godzilla was a decent monster movie (just a very bad Godzilla film), and I have very little time for people who go around bad-mouthing Independence Day (even if the sequel is rubbish).

Emmerich does have a real talent for wrangling these big, slightly bonkers special effects movies; it’s his other films that I find slightly hard work. Obviously, it’s nice to be respected and treated as a serious artist – but, you know, stick to what you’re good at. Bearing this in mind I didn’t quite know what to expect from his new movie, Midway. On the one hand, this is a big, epic film with lots of special-effects action sequences – but on the other, it proclaims it is intended as a ‘true account’ of some of the events of the Second World War.

So, nothing to do with the initial marketing of Space Invaders in the US, then (though I can just about imagine Emmerich coming up with a spin on that which would suit his talents). The film is named after, and largely concerns, the naval battle at Midway in June 1942, although it opens five years earlier with a meeting between US naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese navy officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Yamamoto warns his counterpart that if the US leaves Japan with no other option, it will fight to protect its access to the natural resources it needs: the hawks in the ascendancy in the Japanese government will see to that.

This struck me as an unexpectedly nuanced and even-handed opening to the movie, attempting to give some context to the beginning of Japanese hostilities in late 1941. However, from here we proceed almost straight into the events of December 7th 1941 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. There are a few things to be said here: firstly, as a movie whole and entire, Midway is certainly better than the grim Michael Bay offering Pearl Harbor, which troubled cinemas in 2001 (it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I am depressingly aware that movies from that period are now old enough to drink) and covered much of the same material. However, the decision to go straight into the first of several major action and effects sequences is questionable – apart from Layton, we’ve barely got to know any of the characters and so our investment in the story is still quite minimal: it’s all just bangs and flashes and fairground thrills. There’s also the problem, which persists throughout the movie, that while the special effects are lavish and a great deal of money and talent has clearly gone into them, the movie still ends up becalmed in the nautical equivalent of the uncanny valley – it looks very pretty, but never for a moment do you feel like you’re watching something actually real.

Anyway, with Pearl Harbor out of the way, Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a wig) is put in charge of the US fleet and the movie proceeds through the events of the next few months at a brisk clip: the initial American response, which is severely limited by the fact that their main torpedo would more accurately be called a torpedon’t, the air raid on Tokyo commanded by James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart and his chin pop up for what’s not much more than an extended cameo as Doolittle), the battle of the Coral Sea, and so on. Eventually we get to the battle of Midway itself, as American intelligence analysts figure out where the Imperial Japanese fleet are going to be making their next move, allowing the US navy to set a trap for them.

And, you know, it’s never actually dull, and it does move along very briskly, as noted. Of course, the film is kind of obliged to do this, simply because it has given itself such a lot of ground to cover, as well as the actual battle of Midway. It’s good to have a bit of context, obviously, but I wonder how much sense this actually makes to people not already familiar with the events of the Pacific war – Wilson and Harrelson rattle out the exposition heroically, but I’m not sure how much of it sticks. There is a real danger of subplot overload well before the end of the movie, which honestly feels bloated and unwieldy much of the time. Cutting a lot of the Doolittle material would have been one obvious choice, but given that a lot of this concerns the aid given to Doolittle by heroic Chinese fighters, and the Japanese occupation of part of China, I imagine that keeping all this in was stipulated by the Chinese investors who I understand provided a significant chunk of the film’s budget.

The other main problem I had with the film is that I found it rather difficult to actually warm to. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of them are honestly fairly indistinguishable. Most of the movie is pitched at the same level of macho, stoic, belligerent patriotism, and most of the characters are naval personnel; there is consequently a lot of blurring together which only a few actors manage to avoid. Usually this is via some kind of prop: Wilson wears glasses and looks concerned, Harrelson has his wig, Eckhart has his chin, Luke Evans has a moustache, and Dennis Quaid turns up as Admiral Halsey with a permanent growl and a case of shingles. The de facto main character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), one of the most distinguished pilots in American history, but the issue here is that the script makes him out to be a swaggering, arrogant loose cannon, a characterisation that Skrein happily runs with. This made him quite difficult to empathise with; I was much more inclined to identify with his co-pilot, who eventually becomes very reluctant to fly with someone who seems to have a death wish. You may be wondering who plays all the female fighter and bomber pilots: well, the Progressive Agenda Committee were clearly unable to locate the offices of the production, for they have managed to get away with not including any. The only female character of any significance is Best’s wife, who is played by Mandy Moore. I have to say this is a largely decorative role and she is much more prominent on the poster than in the actual movie.

This just adds to the sense that Midway is very much an old-school war movie, although one has to wonder if we really need all the unsubtle tub-thumping patriotism – verging, to be honest, on jingoism in places – nearly eighty years on from the actual battle. It is, of course, distinguished by modern special effects, and plenty of them, but as noted the film does often feel like you’re watching someone else playing a computer game. I haven’t seen the 1976 film based on these events – however, I would be willing to guess that it has less impressive visuals but a rather better script. This film passes the time decently, it’s interesting to look at, and it does contain a bit of history. It’s just that the actual story is not that engaging or moving – it is war as an almost totally empty spectacle. Emmerich’s films are much more fun when he isn’t trying to be so respectful.

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Slim pickings down the cinema at the mo’, if you ask me – so this week I was planning to go and see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the local Picturehouse. However, I had reckoned without the cinema’s surprising entry policy for some of its daytime screenings, namely that you need not only a ticket but also an infant child in order to get in. Being unable to lay my hands on a toddler in time, I was faced with a bit of a quandary: go and see something I really didn’t have any particular interest in, or not see a film at all this week? Well, obviously I decided to go after all, and  after surveying the film times the best fit for my schedule proved to be White House Down (beating out Diana and R.I.P.D., in case you were wondering).

In the past I’ve gone on about how day-and-date releasing is now standard industry practice. When a major movie doesn’t get a simultaneous global release, and especially when a summer movie gets pushed back into the autumn, one is inclined to start smelling something a little funky. White House Down came out in the States nearly three months ago but is only now troubling British cinemas.

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Roland Emmerich’s film is – well, look, here’s the plot, see what you think. Reliable beefy lunkhead Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a vaguely-blue-collary cop with family issues – nothing at all like John McClane, vaguely blue-collary cop with family issues, right? – working in Washington DC. He wants to join the Secret Service and to that end toddles along to the White House with his young daughter, who is a monumental civics nerd and expert on the place, not to mention the American constitution.

However, the President (Jamie Foxx) has just unveiled his secret plan to bring about world peace, much to the dismay of various vested interests, and as a result a plan has been put in motion to… well, revealing the ultimate goal probably counts as a plot spoiler. Suffice to say I’ll be interested to see if this film gets an Iranian release. What really counts is that a traitor in the White House has organised a takeover of the place by a gang of mercenary nutters led by Jason Clarke, and Cale finds himself caught up in the middle of it all…

So it is, basically, Die Hard in the White House, which is fundamentally a silly idea for a film. This is not White House Down‘s biggest problem. You may recall that earlier this very year we were treated to GERARD BUTLER!!! (imagine me shouting that in a Scottish accent) in Olympus Has Fallen, a thriller which was basically Die Hard in the White House. So White House Down isn’t just silly, it’s silly in a way which doesn’t even seem very original.

I get the impression that James Vanderbilt, author of the script, has watched Die Hard itself many, many times, as pretty much every beat and reversal of that film gets painstakingly revisited here. Okay, I exaggerate, but you’re never in any doubt about how the story is going to unfold. The identity of the White House traitor is blazingly telegraphed from his first appearance (it’s James Woods, in case you were wondering), Cale is initially given a frosty relationship with his daughter so the moment when she starts hugging him and calling him Daddy has some impact, the white-collar Secret Service types are all snotty about him to begin with so he can be especially smug when he starts saving the day, and so on.

The thriller aspect, though polished, is terribly mechanical and familiar. The political aspect of this film, inasmuch as it has one, is very much in line with the way that the US President has been depicted on screen for the last two decades. If you look at Hollywood movies and TV from the mid to late 90s, it’s striking how they come across as thinly-disguised love letters to Bill Clinton: we get the Prez impressing everyone with his wit and humanity (The West Wing), wowing the ladies as romantic lead (The American President), personally punching out terrorists (Air Force One), and even jumping into a fighter jet to lead the resistance to an alien invasion (Emmerich’s own Independence Day). Hollywood loved Clinton. The Bush years, on the other hand, transformed the President into a nonentity who died off-screen (Emmerich again, in The Day After Tomorrow) or was cuckolded by the hero (The Sentinel): generally a rather less heroic figure. Now we find ourselves in the Obama era, obviously Hollywood likes the President again, although not as much as they did Clinton: Foxx here is obviously a good guy, but he still has to be looked after by Tatum’s character.

One does get a sense of a bit of a tension at the heart of this movie between its desire to be a credible political thriller and its need to tick the popcorn blockbuster boxes. There’s some interesting stuff about the constitutional chaos that ensues when the President himself is MIA, and various FBI, army, and Secret Service types squabble about who’s actually in charge – but the film can’t afford to spend too much time on this sort of thing and soon enough we’re back to the galloping, uproarious absurdity of a car chase round the White House garden with the President shooting a rocket launcher out of the window of his own limousine.

So there’s two films going on here, one rather more developed than the other. I would happily have watched either the serious, crisis-of-command one, or the preposterous crowd-pleasing President-with-a-bazooka one (although I suspect I’d have preferred the former). The thing is that putting them together, even as competently as Emmerich does, is a bit problematic. This is a film which is about terrorism and touches on genuine issues in world affairs. To do so and then include dumb visual jokes and moments of utter, unbelieveable cheesiness just seems incredibly facile and in very dubious taste. There’s a scene where a gun is put to the head of a crying child, which isn’t really something I’d expect to see in a proper, inoffensive popcorn blockbuster.

So this is a film which is not without moments of interest and entertainment: Jamie Foxx gets some funny lines as the Commander in Chief, Maggie Gyllenhaal is reliably good as someone stuck on the outside trying to take charge of the situation, and James Woods and Richard Jenkins give the sort of reliable support you would expect from them. But the basic set-up remains very, very familiar, and the film is so all over the place in terms of its tone that’s almost impossible just to detach your higher functions and enjoy it as a piece of cheesy fun. Emmerich marshals the proceedings with his usual aplomb, but White House Down is by no means one of his best films.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 6th 2002:

Just as the UK Tory Party aspires towards electability, so this column occasionally aspires towards being topical (usually with the same degree of success). I’m afraid the urge is upon me once more this week and a quick glance through the UK papers reveals three subjects of overwhelming interest: Big Brother 3, the Golden Jubilee, and the World Cup (there was some stuff about impending nuclear war, too, but let’s get our news priorities straight). I couldn’t honestly muster any enthusiasm for the first two and so the search was on for a movie I could link, however tenuously, with the football.

Escape to Victory is of course the greatest football movie ever made but I appear to have mislaid my tape of it. A lot of thought (much of it lateral) resulted in the nod going to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake of Godzilla, simply on the basis of all the elements it incorporates: Japan! France! Germany! The USA! Magnificent spectacle! A nagging sense of disappointment when it’s all over! The similarities are truly uncanny. Plus the BBC have nicked part of the soundtrack to advertise their own coverage of the tournament.

Matthew Broderick plays Nick Tatopoulos, a biologist specialising in the effects of nuclear accidents upon wildlife. (Whether all the associated radiation has impacted upon his fertility is not explored, but it certainly appears to have seriously interfered with Broderick’s ability to act.) His career takes an unusual turn when he’s seconded to a US army team investigating shipping losses in the Pacific: something large, fierce, and radioactive is on the loose and headed for the Eastern seaboard of America.

Well, obviously it turns out that naughty French nuclear tests in the South Pacific have spawned a bloomin’ big lizard-monster whom the press christen Godzilla for no adequately explored reason. Godzilla is making a beeline for NYC in order to raise a family there (word of the city’s childcare facilities clearly having got about) and it’s up to Nick, his irritating journalist ex-girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo), a shady French secret service agent (Jean Reno), and a passing TV cameraman (Hank Azaria) to sort it all out.

(On a personal note, seeing this film again for the first time in over a year was a slightly eerie experience. Even though it’s a total fantasy, any movie incorporating the widescale destruction of New York landmarks, fleeing crowds in the city’s streets, and so on, will forevermore be a bit uncomfortable to watch. One character specifically refers to Godzilla wanting to make the city ‘Ground Zero’.)

Godzilla was the follow-up by Emmerich and his long-time collaborator Dean Devlin to the phenomenally successful Independence Day. It wasn’t nearly as successful, mainly because it isn’t such a cheerfully dumb audience-pleasing extravaganza. Most obviously, the characterisations and dialogue don’t have the same zip and sparkle as in the earlier film. Broderick is annoyingly bland, Pitillo is just annoying, and even the normally reliable Hank Azaria (guaranteed a place in showbiz history as the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetalan, amongst others ) delivers a flat and unconvincing performance. Only Jean Reno really engages as the actor makes the most of the fact he gets nearly all the best lines (although there’s a nice performance by Vicki Lewis buried in the large supporting cast).

There’s a lot to suggest Devlin and Emmerich were attempting something with a bit more wit and edge than the traditional summer event movie. Most of Godzilla is set at night and in the rain, creating a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere. Those jokes that work are sly and self-referential: the French characters despair of the quality of American food and there’s an impressively spiteful caricature of the Independence Day-hating film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, too.

But the film has serious problems with pacing and the handling of its star. Godzilla appears on screen only a quarter of the way through a fairly long film and the script completely fails to find interesting things to keep him occupied. The set piece battles between the Big G and the armed forces are stunningly well-executed but also very few and far between, resulting in long lizard-free sections. A wiser choice would have been to stretch out the tension leading up to the revelation of Godzilla’s first appearance and concentrate all his big scenes in the closing part of the film.

Even this probably wouldn’t have been a complete solution as Devlin and Emmerich clearly don’t understand what makes Godzilla so appealing as a character. The classic Japanese Godzilla is an atomic-powered mutant dinosaur, a living engine of destruction who smashes cities out of pure malice and has levels of invulnerability that make Captain Scarlet look like an England midfielder. Devlin and Emmerich’s Godzilla is an irradiated, overgrown iguana who comes to NYC looking for a place to hide and who has to bugger off sharpish when a few little missiles get shot his way. The trademark Godzilla neutron halitosis only gets used once, and it’s so out of character you almost question your eyes when it happens. Purists might also add that all the best Godzilla movies involve a climactic rumble with Mothra, Rodan, or Anguillas, but I personally would have been happy to wait for the sequel to see this.

The ultimate proof that the producers were looking in the wrong place for inspiration comes from a long sequence near the end of the film, where our heroes are menaced by a brood of baby Godzillae (technically known as Godzookii). The special effects are nice enough but it’s painfully clear that the beasties are in every sense a rip-off of the raptors from the Jurassic Park franchise. There’s nothing wrong with the Jurassic Park films (well, not the odd-numbered ones at least) but they don’t have the charm and fantasy and creative energy of the Japanese kaiju eiga movies. The biggest problem with the American Godzilla is that it’s much too American and the one true Godzilla barely appears in it.

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