Videodrome (1983)

2015 #38
David Cronenberg | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada / English | 18 / R

Videodrome UK posterJames Woods is the owner of a trash TV station who’ll do pretty much anything for ratings. His hunt for the next ‘big’ thing leads him to come across the signal for a channel that shows just one bizarre, disturbing programme. Obsessed with finding out the truth behind it, he gets suckered in to a conspiracy that blurs the line between reality and imagination.

To look at things ass-backwards, my first exposure to the work of writer-director David Cronenberg was his 1999 movie eXistenZ, a thriller about people in a virtual reality video-game where the line between what’s real-life and what’s the game gets blurred. It’s fair to say that both that and Videodrome play on similar ideas at times. Both are also ultra prescient, in their way: for eXistenZ, immersive virtual reality games are now starting to become reality, with the Oculus Rift ‘n’ all that (there endeth my knowledge of such things); for Videodrome, even though it’s 32 years old and the tech being depicted is similarly dated, its fears about the influence of the media and the changes it brings to society could’ve been shot yesterday.

These thought-provoking themes are in part conveyed through Cronenberg’s familiar stomping ground of body horror, with top-drawer prosthetics giving tangible visual life to nightmarish ideas. OK, they’re clearly rubber and silicone and plastic and whatever, but the fact they’re there on set, that they’re genuinely one with the actors, not painted over the top later by a computer, that they’re pliable and squidging for real… it’s much more effective, more unsettling, more horrific than computer effects have yet managed.

3D TVI guess for some people the “ew”-inducing effects are the primary delight of the film. These are the kind of people who complain about the UK version being cut. In truth, this is actually the originally-released R-rated version; the so-called Director’s Cut adds just over a minute. Having read about what’s added (all of a few seconds here and there), it sounds like no great shakes, to be honest. I’m all for releasing movies uncut and as intended by the director, but really, some people get too hung up on some of these details. (For what it’s worth, Arrow’s new UK Blu-ray is the longer cut.)

Trims or not, the movie’s themes remain intact. They gave me the sense that Cronenberg wasn’t entirely sure where to go with them — the film descends into a kind of dream logic, fumbling around for a way forward and coming to a somewhat inconclusive ending. That, too, is likely part of the charm for some people. I wasn’t wholly sold.

At worst, though, Videodrome is certainly an experience; one that, over three decades on, still has plenty to say about our consumption of and reliance on the media.

4 out of 5

Videodrome is released as a limited edition dual-format Blu-ray by Arrow Video on Monday.

White House Down (2013)

2015 #51
Roland Emmerich | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

White House DownUS Capitol policeman Channing Tatum is visiting the White House, trying and failing both to impress his estranged daughter and get a job in the Secret Service, when terrorists attack and try to take President Jamie Foxx hostage. Tatum rescues him from some of them, but with the rest occupying the building the stage is set for “Die Hard in the White House”.

White House Down is less known for that pithy (but accurate) summary than it is for being released the same summer as Olympus Has Fallen, which has virtually the same plot. This had the misfortune of coming second, meaning it took less at the US box office and was dismissed by some critics, too. That said, others — particularly over here, apparently — assert it’s the better of the two. I think where your opinion is likely to land is most succinctly summed up in Film4’s review by Rebecca Davis: “Whether or not you enjoy this film depends entirely on whether you judge it to be po-faced or parody. If you believe it’s the former, you’ll probably hate it. If you believe it’s the latter, you’ll have an absolute blast.” That’s bang on, and I definitely judge it to be a parody. To clarify, not an out-and-out Airplane-style parody, but very much a self-aware retro-styled tongue-in-cheek Action Movie.

I can’t help but feel that most of the movie’s critics didn’t get in on the joke, but I’m really not sure how they missed it. Perhaps they have to watch so much poorly-made crap that they can’t spot when something’s been done deliberately. But White House Down is so gloriously, unashamedly cheesy that it has to be deliberate, and it’s so much fun because of it. It’s certainly not original, nor particularly clever, but a healthy awareness of the inherent ludicrousness of the very concept (and of all the clichés of the genre) keep it entertaining throughout. And based on everything I’ve read, it probably does a better job of being a Die Hard movie than the last couple of real ones have.

It's not a Die Hard movie, honestIf there’s a downside, it’s that this $150 million movie looks like it was made for closer to $15. There’s an overabundance of digital sets, ‘exteriors’ obviously shot on incorrectly-lit soundstages, and terrible CGI. Goodness only knows where all that money went — the actors’ salaries? Tatum and Foxx are good, but I’m not sure they’re worth that much. And here’s a good a time as any to say that this year I’ve become a bit of a Channing Tatum convert. I’d written him off because, to be honest, he looks a bit of a lug and I still think he’s woefully miscast as Gambit in the forthcoming X-Men spin-off. He’s brilliant in this and 21 Jump Street, though, showing a real likeability and flair for comedy. Someone should really team him up with the equally comically adept Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, White House Down: it may be derivative and look practically direct-to-DVD cheap, but get yourself in the right frame of mind and it’s a ton of fun. It’s a shame the po-faced Olympus Has Fallen was a bigger hit (in the US — worldwide, White House Down won) and is getting sequelised, because I’d far rather see a second adventure for this President/protector pairing.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow, my review of Olympus Has Fallen.