Tatum can’t save presidential flop

Cert 12a | By Simon Thomson
Two stars

WHITE House Down could have been the biggest movie of 1996. Wedged in between Nicolas Cage’s The Rock and Harrison Ford’s Air Force One, the premise of terrorists attacking the seat of American government would have blown the minds of the movie-going public.

Almost twenty years later, there’s not a single element of the film that we haven’t seen a dozen times before, and its utter lack of originality renders it the opposite of essential viewing.

Terrorists last attacked the White House in April, in Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen. But White House Down director Roland Emmerich has already destroyed the building in Independence Day and 2012 (the movie), and clearly thinks you can’t get too much of a good thing.

Channing Tatum – whose previous career highlight was being named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2012 – delivers a far better impression of Die Hard’s John McClane than could be reasonably expected from a man who is essentially an agglomeration of abdominal muscles, slowly crunching its way towards sentience. His character, decorated-former-soldier-turned-DC-cop-turned-would-be-Secret-Service-agent John Cale, is a good guy, which is established early on with him talking to squirrels and trying to connect with his estranged, politics-nerd tween daughter. Nevertheless, it can only be a matter of time before their visit to the White House turns into an opportunity for him to strip to his vest and slaughter terrorists.

Jamie Foxx’s performance is judiciously understated as Cale’s protectee, the peacenik, former academic President James Sawyer, who is basically Barack Obama.

While the two leads acquit themselves well, the rest of the cast is a potpourri of actors you’ve seen being much better elsewhere. James Wood does his best with an underwritten part as the head of the President’s security detail, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s role is little more than a name and a job description, and – understandably perhaps – she doesn’t seem especially committed.

Though it overflows with flag waving displays of patriotism, it isn’t quite the uncritically fist-pumping USA! USA! cringefest some viewers might fear. While Olympus Has Fallen took the straightforward approach, and opted for North Korean baddies, the villains here are a heady threat matrix of white power groups, disgruntled former soldiers and Anonym-ish computer hackers, all backed up by neocon politicians, and arms manufacturers.

White House Down is a dumb, sometimes fun, solidly constructed, moderately engaging action film that could provide good background, and intermittent explosions, if you’ve got some mates round for a few beers, but it probably doesn’t merit a trip to the cinema.

Cert 15 | By Daniel O’Mahony
Four stars

IN A World arrives in UK cinemas with a Sundance award for screenwriting under its belt. The gong went to Lake Bell, who also stars in what is her feature-length directorial debut. She plays Carol, a Los Angeles voice coach who eschews social etiquette to record unfamiliar accents on a dictaphone. Her work is drying up (apart from helping Eva Longoria with her cockney), but she dreams of breaking into the rarified boys club that is the world of trailer voice-overs.

The leader of that boys club just happens to be her Dad, Sam (the excellent Fred Melamed), whose syrupy baritone makes every utterance sound like a Star Wars trailer. A veteran of the voice-over world (his licence plate reads “ANUNC8”), Sam is set in his ways and doesn’t like his daughter encroaching on his turf. “The industry,” he booms, “does not crave a female sound.”

There’s only one scene that takes place at a suitably “Hollywood” party; otherwise, the film makes a point of avoiding glitz and glamour. By showing regular Angelenos working on the less glamorous fringes of Tinseltown, much-maligned LA gets some sympathetic cinematic treatment.

Bell’s script is funny and intelligent, and commendably even in its distribution of screen-time to the supporting cast. There’s a healthy balance of comedy and pathos too, with Demetri Martin putting in a charming performance as Bell’s shy love interest. Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry are believable partners in a difficult on-screen marriage.

For a film advertised with the critical death knell of “hilarious and heart-felt”, In A World manages to stay on the right side of sugar-coated. On this evidence, we can expect big things of Lake Bell.

Cert 15 | By Simon Thomson
Two stars

INSIDIOUS: Chapter Two continues the story of a family haunted by their connection to the spirit world. It’s scary, but not much else. From a relentless horror production line that collectively extruded Saw (1-7), Paranormal Activity (1-4), and most recently The Conjuring, Insidious 2 is unusual for a sequel. Not only is it better than the original – not hard, given how low the bar was set – but it retroactively improves the original.

It should be stated at the outset that for anyone who hasn’t seen 2011’s Insidious, the sequel will be impenetrable. To recap, the earlier film was about a boy in a coma, whose spirit had become detached from his body while he slept, and various entities from “the Further” were trying to ride his empty body back into the real world. The narrative unfolded with his parents recruiting a medium to help them revive their son, while the poorly sketched entities buffeted them with a string of minor inconveniences; a more appropriate title would have been “Annoyance”.

The sequel picks up where the first movie left off. Through flashbacks, dabblings in the spirit world, and Scooby-Doo-level detective work, the back-stories of the main characters are revealed. An understanding of their motivations, however simplistic or contrived, makes them more engaging, and as the subtle, malignant machinations of the antagonists become clear, they might even justify the film’s title.

The story and production design are stripped back, providing only what is needed to set up the next jump. Much of the tension comes from the effective use of silence and restraint, repeatedly teasing an audience that expects something to leap out and say “boo!” leaving them lingering in a state of unease.

The actors work hard to wring plausible characters from appalling dialogue, with the central couple, played by Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class) and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen), making an especially valiant attempt. The comic relief – a pair of ghost hunters so scared of the paranormal they should really find a new line of work – are fleshed out in the sequel, and thus more tolerable. But the medium remains an insufferable ham, shrilly declaiming every badly written line.