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New films: The Heat, White House Down, and other film news

The Heat
Directed by Paul Feig

One of the holy grails of the film industry is to produce a film that both halves of a couple might choose on date night, regardless of gender. There has been such a long running division between certain kinds of films that they prompt equally long running punchlines and labels. And even if one dislikes a term like “chick flick” for its political incorrectness, we’re rarely surprised at the movies it gets associated with, just as we’re not surprised when it doesn’t get applied to films about war, most graphic police stories, and explosive action movies.

However, there’s been a surge recently in films that blur those lines and one of the formulas that actually seems to work, at least in the comedic realm, is to take a script that on paper might seem like a film traditionally aimed at young male audiences, with male leads, and produce it with female leads. Thus, a film like “Bridesmaids” (from the same director) has all the crass behavior and toilet humor of many lowbrow, more male-oriented comedies, but with a female cast. It’s an odd approach, in some respects, as it seems to level a playing field but at a lowest common denominator kind of level – but audiences seem to enjoy the outcomes.

“The Heat” fits this mold. If you made this film with two male leads, it would be entirely unremarkable. It would still be funny, but it would resemble a whole host of prior cop buddy stories, as well as countless misfit friendships of the “Odd Couple” variety. It would be this year’s version of a film like “Beverly Hills Cop” and probably considered relatively derivative, even if it was well received. All the elements are there – the effective but unconventional cop, the very conventional person to provide a contrast, often a jurisdictional dispute, the antagonism towards the idea of partnership, the grudging accumulation of mutual respect, etc.

But with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as the two leads, FBI and Boston PD respectively, that same basic story takes on a fresh appeal simply because we don’t see it as often. And while a show like “Cagney and Lacey” might have offered a counterpoint to shows like “Starsky and Hutch” on TV, we’re still not familiar with vagina jokes being presented in place of penis jokes, at least not in mainstream movies. And it works – it’s a funny film that avoids that sense of overt genre repetition, despite being entirely conventional in all things other than the gender of the leads.

Interestingly, that gender disparity or allocation is inconsistent, or perhaps more traditional, elsewhere in the film. The two superiors to each of the leads are male characters – so the film doesn’t portray anybody in a position of greater authority as a woman. The villains are also all men. Meanwhile, there’s a younger, good looking colleague that becomes the target of some degree of flirty, ambiguous attention. That character is also male, and played well in an understated manner by Marlon Wayans, but it’s worth noting that there’s probably less overt physical objectification than there would be if it was a female colleague being harassed by two males. So it’s a film with two strong female leads, but still with virtually no other substantial roles for women, and still with a generally male sense of hierarchy and power.

It’s also a film that isn’t really intended to be picked apart that much. It’s loud and crude and funny, and generally well acted and directed. It may be disappointing to some of us that the answer to equality of taste seems to be at the lowest common denominator level, but this is an amusing cop buddy action movie and the laughter when I watched it seemed to be equally distributed across the audience.


White House Down
Directed by Roland Emmerich

This week’s other major release is “White House Down” which also has a couple of interesting gender and repetition issues, but not to its detriment. It’s another one of those films that’s one of two films that come to the big screen, very close together, with the same basic structure and premise. In this case, it’s remarkably similar to this year’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” not just in that the White House is taken over by hostile forces, but in terms of the relative outsider status of the reluctant hero who finds himself on the inside, the immediate jeopardy of a child that affects outcomes, and other significant plot details. And, in the context of the parallel discussion this week of “The Heat,” both include a female senior Secret Service agent in charge of the security detail.

So it’s natural to ask how the two similar films fare and compare – and, somewhat unusually, both fare well despite being different in tone. Where “Olympus Has Fallen” was more serious and played as a straight action film, “White House Down” manages to have a lighter air to it, in its character and character interactions, without making light of the circumstances themselves.

Channing Tatum is appealing here as the Capitol Police officer interviewing for a Secret Service position, who happens to be in the building with his daughter at the time of the attack (although I hope security surrounding actual White House tours is tighter than depicted here, where they tag along on the spur of the moment). Jamie Foxx plays the Obama substitute President – and that observation is not simply race-based, the similarities go far further than that. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the Secret Service detail supervisor who ends up on the outside while Tatum ends up on the inside.

When “Olympus Has Fallen” opened, many people including me made reference to the “Die Hard” franchise – largely because of the similarity to the original film in that series. So it’s no surprise to make that comparison again given the shared premise – but, as mentioned, the new film probably has more of the overt humor seen there. And both Tatum’s Cale and Gerard Butler’s Banning could easily be written into other situations in which they’re called on to save the day, just as with Bruce Willis’ McClane. Perhaps one day they’ll all book seats next to each other on the same hijacked plane…?

The other primary distinction between the two films is that “Olympus Has Fallen” featured a takeover by foreign forces whereas “White House Down” relies on the actions of disgruntled insiders and opponents to policy decisions. To some extent, the insider angle seems more reasonable and even in the presence of the relative levity, “White House Down” may actually deal better with some technical elements of the story (like launch codes and overrides) and presents a President who may at times seem less Presidential but who makes more Presidential decisions when it counts most.

At the end of the day, one’s personal preference between the films may come down to more favored cast members – but both are enjoyable and entertaining in a year in which many of the big budget presumed blockbusters are falling flat.


Other film news

The Sacramento French Film Festival concludes this weekend with three more days of programming at the Crest Theatre. It’s worth noting, as has been reported elsewhere in the local press, that Executive Director Cecile Mouette Downs received a French “knighthood” from the French Consul at last weekend’s opening night ceremonies. When the Festival Director is made a “Chevalier” of the French Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government for her services in advancing and promoting French cinema, it’s reasonable to conclude she’s very good at picking films. Many of us knew that about Cecile already, but that’s an amazing endorsement of a local cultural event on a worldwide stage.

Sunday also offers the second and final opportunity to see a screened version of the live stage play “The Audience,” from the British National Theatre, in which Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II in a series of meetings with British Prime Ministers. That screening is exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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