Dreamgirls (2006)

2015 #195
Bill Condon | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar-winning adaptation of the stage musical that doesn’t tell the story of the Supremes in fictionalised form, no sir.

Jamie Foxx is the ambitious car salesman who transforms a trio of black soul singers into a crossover hit by replacing chunky lead Jennifer Hudson with sexy Beyoncé Knowles. Personal issues dog the girls’ career, as Foxx becomes megalomaniacal, leaving early successes like R&B star Eddie Murphy in his wake.

Despite oddities, like diegetic performances being replaced part way by characters breaking into song, and questions over the story’s adherence to fact, the film is a compelling (if heightened) character drama.

4 out of 5

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.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

2014 #81
Marc Webb | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Amazing Spider-Man 2Despite the fact that the first film of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot was a wannabe-hipster over-angsty teen-romance take on the webslinger, which needlessly re-told his origin story and posted unexceptional box office takings, it seems there was some degree of consensus that it wasn’t too bad. I don’t agree. Two years later, this sequel seems to have met with a largely negative response, accused of crimes like navel-gazing and franchise-building. Again, I don’t agree — I think this is the best Spidey movie since the previous Spider-Man 2.

Dialling down the rom-com elements to their appropriate subplot level, ASM2 sees Spidey (Andrew Garfield) having to deal with an electricity-powered supervillain (Jamie Foxx) trying to destroy the city, and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), who inherits OsCorp when his father passes away. If you’ve seen Spider-Man 3 (the last one, not the one that’ll be out in a few years… maybe), you’ll know where that’s going…

Fortunately for us, ASM2 has some new twists on the old formulas. Harry’s transformation may be inevitable, but it’s played with different emphasis and motivations. Plus DeHaan is a much more unusual and engaging actor than James Franco, his version of Harry notably different from the previous “pretty young rich kid”. The storyline afforded to Foxx’s Electro is in-keeping with previous Spider-baddies — a fundamentally good person who ends up misguided — but his cool powers keep things visually engaging. Their first big face off in Times Square felt like one of the best effects-driven action sequences I’ve seen for a while, in fact.

Best friends?Then we have the much-maligned backstory about just what Peter Parker’s parents did all those years ago, before they abandoned him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There are pros and cons to this: it’s all new, which at least makes it interesting and unpredictable because it has no forebear in comics or films; but it’s also a pretty stock set of circumstances. Worse still, it robs Spidey of a major defining trait: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider by accident — it could’ve been anyone. In this version, it could only have been him. Boo. Sony clearly want an arc plot they can run across a trilogy (or more), so presumably this thread will rumble on… though whisperings that they’re considering some kind of soft-reboot may see it cut short. I wouldn’t complain.

It’s a moderately minor part of the film though, I thought. So too the setting up of some league of supervillains — presumably the Sinister Six, as that’s the first planned spin-off movie. I still think people over-emphasise how much time Iron Man 2 puts into setting up The Avengers at the expense of being its own film; ASM2 does it even less, so I think the complaints are even less warranted. Honestly, there’s so much else going on, why hone in on the one thing you wish it hadn’t done?

That other stuff includes an increased dose of fun and humour — darkness abounds, to be sure, and in everyone’s storylines too; and Webb still dodges the bright-and-breezy tone of Raimi’s movies (which is a shame, because there’s a good argument that that’s where Spidey belongs) — Electrifyingbut it’s more textured, at least. Then there’s Electro, who (as mentioned) may have a familiar story, but is nonetheless perfectly pitched by Foxx. His powers lead to some excellent sequences, including but not limited to the aforementioned Times Square duel. He also contributes to the music, in a way, as Electro’s whispered/sung thoughts ‘bleed out’ into the score. It’s creepy, especially as it’s so subtle in the mix — I wondered what the hell was going on at first. I thought it was a fantastic score all round, in fact, bringing in a modern music element that fits the notion of Spidey as a young character perfectly.

While I don’t advocate a like-for-like repeat of all that in future Spidey films — innovate, don’t replicate (is that a saying? That should be a saying) — I hope there are people at Sony who are aware that things in ASM2 do work, and work very well. As they rush headlong to fix the film’s perceived failings in future instalments, purely so that they can make a success out of their desired Avengers-style multi-franchise franchise, I hope they don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or washing the spider down the drain. Or some other similar but more apt metaphor.

While ASM2 isn’t perfect, I don’t really see what all the negative reviews were on about — I properly enjoyed it. Is it the best Spider-Man film? No. Spider 'splosionIt lacks the confidence, heart and flair that mark out Spider-Man 2, and the bold originality and clarity of purpose that define Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Equally, it doesn’t suffer from the compromised creativity of the forced Spider-Man 3, nor the fumbled plotting and try-hard hipsterism of Webb’s first Spidey effort. It’s a distinct improvement, but beyond that, it’s an entertaining Spider-Man movie in its own right.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on Sky Movies from New Year’s Day 2015.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Ray (2004)

2007 #50
Taylor Hackford | 146 mins | TV | 15 / PG-13

RayIt’s easy to see why Walk the Line has been described as “Ray with white people”; but Ray has also been described as being an outstanding performance in an average film, and I’d pretty much agree with this too.

Jamie Foxx is indeed an amazingly accurate Ray Charles (based on the little I know of the man, anyway) and deserving of his Oscar. It would be unfair to say such a performance is wasted in this film, but it is true that no other element is quite up to the same level.

While Ray is good, I personally thought Walk the Line was a better film.

4 out of 5

Ray is on ITV3 tonight, Sunday 19th April 2015, at 11:10pm.