Monthly Archives: January 2014

‘Downloaded’

The Generation Y Promise

Way back in the late 1990s, Napster was the rage. All the crappy mp3 files were there to be downloaded if you wanted it. being of the Gen-X persuasion, the excitement of this technological development passed me by because I was quite happy buying CDs andtrying to get a better sound quality out of my limited Hi-Fi budget. Even now, I’m not big with this downloading business. I recently downloaded the David Bowie release ‘The next Day’ when it was released, through iTunes. A few weeks later, I spotted the CD version and bought that too and really, I’ve listened to the CD more often than the iTunes-Download. I’m just old fashioned that way.

Still, I get the excitement. Not having to pay for stuff is great. Even if the file is crappy, it’s better than not having it at all. Napster essentially plugged that ‘gap’ for the young and a bunch of hotshot Gen-Y guys made it fly, changing the world forever. If you ever wondered about those guys and what they were like, well, this is the doco for you.

What’s Good About It

The awful truth is that both the Baby Boomers and Gen-X were completely ambushed by the advent of Napster and peer-to-peer sharing, and this film doesn’t sugar coat it.

The doco goes into great lengths with Sean Fanning, and as the the film unfolds, you come to realise that the Sean Fanning that the media demonised so much back in the heyday of Napster was probably a lot more genuine and admiring of musicians and the music industry, rather than this great disruptor that destroyed the business model. Sean Parker too comes across as a lot more vulnerable and human than the hyper-real, slick, wheeler-and-dealer he was presented as  in ‘Social Network’, played by Justin Timberlake. We get lengthy explanations by the guys who formed the core of that company, and in turn we get a firsthand account of the rise and fall of Napster and what it was like  to be on the receiving end of the music industry’s ire.

The shooting style is quite dry, and the best work is probably in the edits; both picture and sound. It makes a very interesting presentation out of something that might have been a little dry.

What’s Bad About It

Because of the terrain it covers, the film seems to shorthand the more interesting ethical and legal questions surrounding copyright. In some ways you’re none the wiser for why the music industry fails to understand the future is at their doorstep. The film explains it in terms of control and how the big labels don’t want to relinquish control, but the issue is deeper than that when it comes to copyright law and the film doesn’t quite get to it,even though it puts it in scope.

What’s Interesting About It

The truly interesting thing about Napster is that it might have only been the harbinger of the Big Now. It came out of the brain-space of a bunch of young kids not even twenty years old, and it essentially broke the business model of record companies. As somebody who lived through the destruction of that business model, it’s exciting to see that Napster merely signals the beginning. The rigid corporate control of media is breaking down faster as more technology becomes available. The Napster phenomenon, when properly documented shows what Schumpeter called creative destruction.

Even the great success of Google and then Facebook comes downstream from the impact Napster made as a tech start up. And despite the money lost on Napster, the rise and fall of the company essentially kicks off the era of internet where people who code, code our world.

The Big Now Beckons

The interviewees in the doco have a few insightful things to say. One of the things pointed out is that Napster and peer-to-peer sharing represents a break from the vertical line structure of authority as presented by the law and instead releases things in a horizontal plane across the users. In other words, the process of sharing is immensely democratising. This is then dovetailed with Henry Rollins’ claim that musicians are going to be providing more and more social power through social networks and empower people.

Certainly, we now live in a  time when there are more people alive today than there have ever lived and died in the history of Homo Sapiens – a Big Now that flattens history across geopolitics today, rather then as a thread we follow through a time line. What is extraordinary about the Napster story is that it is at once an expression of the Big Now as it is a force that propelled the effect of the Big Now. in essence, it destroyed music industry price through unleashing and supplying demand for free music. In the process, it effectively ended recorded music as having any commercial value and cosigned it to history. We can talk about the history and development of music along different lines up until the moment Napster comes along. After that, the industry is a shadow of itself, and there’s just this strange landscape of the industry trying to sell things with ever diminishing relevance than ever before.

The Metal Guys Were Supposed To Be The Outlaws

One of the more interesting observations by Sean Parker is that the people who got the most irate with Napster were Heavy Metal artists and Rap artists. Artists presenting themselves as renegades and outlaws turned out to be the most sensitive to the flow of money that comes from the control of copyright.  It’s funny how the two Seans were bamboozled by this turn of events, but the politically conservative undertow in Metallica is fairly obvious to see and Rap artists are looking for slights everywhere so it’s no surprise they jumped on a bunch of white boys giving their music away for free.

Peer To Peer As People Power

The really obvious lesson in all of this is that Peer-to-Peer technology is one of the most disruptive technologies out there. Napster connected peers, thus cutting out the middlemen which, essentially made record stores selling back catalogue right out of business. The extension of this today is that the internet vendors of various goods are sending bricks and mortar retailers to the wall. The more interesting extension of this phenomenon right now might be Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dogecoin and all the other crypto-currencies taking off as we speak. What these virtual currencies are doing can be described as Peer-to-Peer of money, cutting out retail banking as well as the Reserve Bank’s function of setting interest rates. Bitcoin is the Napster of money-trade instead of music-swaps. If the rise and fall of Napster is anything to go by, we can probably expect a giant backlash against Bitcoin by the worldwide banking establishment, but in the long run it might not be possible to stop all of these Virtual currencies from sending retail banking to the wall.

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Blue Jasmine

Down And Out In San Francisco

Here comes another Woody Allen movie, headed straight for another Oscar accolade. Combined with a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett, you’d have to say somebody is going to collect the golden statue on the big night.

Here is the usual spoiler alert.

What’s Good About It

Cate Blacnhett, Alec Baldwin and the script. The directing in this one is a bit prosaic, but that’s not bad because it puts Cate Blanchett front and centre and lets her do her thing. It is well cast and zips along nicely. The guys from ‘Boardwalk Empire’ rock in this movie.

It’s a very tidy Woody Allen film and I should like it more. But I don’t like it as much as his other films.

What’s Bad About It

Maybe it’s a little too pat.

There were even more acid observations to be made about such characters but Woody Allen seems to go easy with the poison pen in parts. He could have been meaner. He’s certainly meaner about the working class. The narrative contempt towards Bobby Cannavale’s Chili is pretty mean, while Andrew Dice Clay’s Augie is just as mean and a touch patronising. Yes, it’s Jasmine’s view, but it’s also Woody Allen’s view that is familiar to us from other movies such as ‘Stardust Memories’. In Stardust Memories, he has the self-deprecating humour to say “It’s all luck. Look at me. If I were born in Poland instead of Brooklyn, I’d be a lampshade by now.”

There are no such re-balancing remarks in this film. It seems Woody Allen hates the lumpenproletariat even more than he hates the moneyed chattering classes.

What’s Interesting About It

Woody Allen’s unlike a lot of American directors in that he regularly shows class separation as a feature of American society. The traditional American cinema view of class is that it doesn’t matter if you come from the wrong side of the tracks, if you do well in your chosen area, and you have exceptional talent and make it, then the success is what validates you. Woody Allen persistently pits the middle class and immigrant class against the wealthy and financially independent class. This trend was more pointed in the late American period of his work before he set off to make pictures in London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome and so on. Now, back in America with this picture, he’s taken up exactly where he left off.

Both Jasmine and Hal inhabit a the rarefied world of high finance of Wall Street, with domiciles on Park Avenue. They are so rarefied it is not even clear they feel they have a cultural connection to any demographic except the defining characteristic of having money. It is this centripetal pull of money that essentially makes and breaks the marriage and thus sets the story in motion. It is clear through the flashbacks that Hal is willing to do dodgy and down right ethically wrong things to get ahead, and that Jasmine is entirely complicit with these choices by simply claiming ignorance and turning a blind eye.

On that level, Woody Allen’s indictment of the hypocrisy of the moneyed class is pointed. The only reason Hal is undone is because jasmine is willing to go to the FBI and divulge what she knows. In a sense, they are beyond authority – and only the suicidal inclination of one of the members of the class will bring about justice. It reminds us of the observation that Rome didn’t fall through its own chaos an corruption, that it took a barbarian horde to do it; and yet somebody let the barbarians through the gate.

Education As Part Of The Entitlement

Woody Allen is always pointed sceptical of the value of education. In various guises through his career, his characters have made pro-education speeches and gestures but ultimately they get undone by events in his films. It was the central feature of the dynamic in both ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ and is a trope that gets repeated in countless other films. Thus, when Jasmine claims she wants to go back to school to become an interior decorator, there is something quite ironic about that desire. She feels she is entitled to live a certain lifestyle and do it through doing what she would like to do, and that these things are underpinned by something so simple as getting a qualification form an online course.

What is interesting in this assembly is that Woody Allen himself is a varsity drop out and clearly he hasn’t had to go back to that machinery of entitlement, but he seems to be acutely aware that awarding of qualifications and degrees forms the foundation of the wealthy classes. You don’t really get an education to better yourself; you get an education so you can fit into the moneyed society. While it is not a particularly revolutionary insight, the pointed manner in which Woody Allen shows us this trope suggests he is deeply critical of the institution of tertiary education in America.

That is to say according to the Allen ethos, education is a terrible thing, but the only thing worse than having education is not having an education.

The Problem With The Proles According To Woody

I mentioned above that he was rough on the working class. The contempt runs like this: Augie and Ginger win money in lotto. They lose that money to Hal who is essentially a corporate raider with no conscience. The film carries on as if the wealth Ginger and Augie dream of, are not only beyond their capability as human beings but that they do not deserve to even dream such dreams. Underpinning this notion is that true wealth can only be built through talent, hard work, and a touch of unethical behaviour. Luck, as represented by the lottery win, does no come into it. This may indeed be true. Nonetheless it seems to repeat itself in the story of Ginger’s affair with a sound engineer who turns out to be married, that even aspiring for a better partner is beyond her station.

The film is hard on Jasmine. At the same time it is even harder on the working class. It echoes the remark made towards the end of ‘To Rome With Love’ that it is better to be a celebrity than not. If there is any conclusive comment to be made, it seems it is better to be wealthy than not, and that is the be all and end all.

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Senseless In Davos

Where Rhetoric Goes To Die (But Where Bastardry Thrives)

This forum going on in Davos is a bit of a joke. A few days ago Shinzo Abe got up and said his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine was to pray for world peace. If you overlook how disingenuous this is, sure, why not? Except all it did was provoke storm of protests form the governments of China and South Korea who like it or not have made it an industry to complain about the alleged re-militarisation of Japan. And so the Chinese have been on a diplomatic offensive everywhere telling every world newspaper what a threat Japan is to world peace. Which of course taken in a vacuum might look that way but as with Shinzo Abe and his disingenuous-ness, the Chinese are building Aircraft carriers and unilaterally declaring  airzones in their favour.

Let’s be bluntly honest. The Chinese themselves are the biggest threats to world peace full stop, without comparing them to Japan. So if you overlook that glaring fact, then maybe Shinzo Abe’s visit to a war memorial looks provocative. I’m not sure the Chinese sales pitch is working, even in Africa. After all, it’s not like Japan’s been to any kind of conflict, let alone war for nearing on 70years while China’s happily had war action in every decade since World War II ended. The Korean War, the land war with the USSR, The invasion of Vietnam in the 70s not to mention the various oppressive things they are doing to their ethic populations in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and to the Uighurs.

So there’s that. But the clincher might be the fact that for any person complaining about the Yasukuni Shrine housing Class ‘A’ war criminals from the Tokyo Tribunals, nobody can name all the names. They just say, “Class ‘A’ War Criminals” like there’s some universal understanding of what that means. Most of them wouldn’t know who Justice Webb was, nor would they understand what Keenan and Pal had to say after the trial about the Tokyo Trials.

Be that as it may, we’re going to keep hearing about these visits. Here’s the vexing thing. Japanese Prime Ministers since Junichiro Koizumi have eschewed going to the Yasukuni Shrine. That’s dating back to 2006 or so. Since then, the first go around for Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, Yukio Hatoyama, and Naoto Kan, have come and gone without attending the Shrine and you can’t say they got any slack from the Chinese or the South Koreans. It’s been a noisy chorus of complaint regardless. Its not surprising that Shinzo Abe decided he may as well serve himself and his constituency by visiting if there wasn’t going to be any merit in not going. The complaining – for all its pseudo-historic self-righteous legitimisation – is gratuitous.

Tony Abbott – Asshole Representative

By now it is clear that Tony Abbott’s essential style is ‘thrower of artless haymakers’. This week he got up in Davos to try and sheet home the blame of the Australian Government debt to the ALP and threw their record under the bus. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the done thing when you represent your country. It doesn’t stop him from behaving like a prat. It doesn’t matter that his characterisation of that recent history is totally at odds with how the rest of the world understood the GFC or how much they would like to swap their problems for ours. It doesn’t matter that he comes over like a jerk – he’s used to that, he doesn’t even notice any more – and that it subtracts from the sum total of Australia’s credibility for voting him in. That’s right. He really doesn’t care. If he went there as an individual to speak bullshit, that just reflects badly on him. Unfortunately as Prime Minister, his Bullshit speak makes us all look incredibly stupid.

Yet, he’s our man in Davos. The more I think about it, I think our political class has collectively flown into the twilight zone of good sense or simply into a post-modern simulacrum of politics and not real politics at all. Pleaides was threatening to destroy his computer in furious protest at Tony Abbott’s choice of general Cosgrove as the next Governor General, but really Tony Abbott’s just meeting expectations of being the pits. And just as the whole thing reflects badly on Australia, it reflects badly on the Coalition that they think this is their man to lead the nation. So far, he’s a bust.

It was reported Tony Abbott met with Shinzo Abe, and they didn’t discuss whaling as an issue. This upset the Greens back home. After all, how could Tony Abbott not bring up the most symbolic issue that exists between Australia and Japan? Quite easily it seems. Tony Abbot claims they mostly talked about the TPP, trade and security. In the most ironic of ways, it actually makes sense. Why bring up whaling and make thing unpleasant? That being said, I find it incredibly hard to imagine Tony Abbott bringing up a topic that is not close to his heart at all and arguing a robust case on its behalf. Whatever he is, he is not that good a politician.

Dissing Jakarta From Afar

The even more peculiar thing about the Abbott Government so far is how it has mishandled the relationship with Indonesia so badly, to the point where we ought not be surprised should a shooting engagement erupt on the high seas between our navies.

The worst provocation would have been this business of sending back the asylum seekers in boats. To do this, the Australian Navy had to sail into Indonesian waters without permission. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison fronted the media and claimed that the Australian Navy might have “inadvertently” entered Indonesian waters.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how that makes our navy look good when our Immigration Minister uses being lost as an excuse for being somewhere where they probably should not have been.

Jakarta’s in a huff and they’re buying more military hardware. They’re buying F-16s fro America and 8 submarines from Russia. All because we provoked them with our navy, unilaterally sending back asylum seekers in boats; and in turn, this was because this government came to power on the stupid slogan “stop the boats” so they had to be seen to be doing it (otherwise they would be seen  to have broken a promise).

If you thought Shinzo Abe was a bit of a dummy incurring the complaints from China and South Korea for having visited the Yasukuni Shrine, he’s got nothing on Tony Abbott.

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The Frozen Ground

Old School Serial Killer Movie

One thing that’s for sure with the movies is that the advent of the internet and mobile phones killed the kind of thriller where puzzles are pieced together slowly through painstaking work going through documents and looking for clues. From Watergate to the Unabomber to John Wayne Gacey, you’d think these cases would have broken a lot more quickly had there been more information flying around, or simply if people could talk from different locations by phone. In fact they never really caught the Unabomber through investigation, he was turned in by his brother. Still, one suspects Google and the iPhone might have made it a lot easier to catch somebody on the run.

Just as ‘The X-Files’ solidified the role of mobile phones in to the story, the way these things went prior to the mobile phone being ubiquitous was quite different. You can see that going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s opens up a terrain  for film makers where they can have a serial killer might live in plain view and operate for many years. in that sense this film has a lovely old school mood, thanks to its setting.

What’s Good About It

The film is shot in a really gritty style and for some reason they work in the colour brown quite a bit. The wood grain on the panels on the wall, the desks, the cars, the jackets all seem to have different murky shades of brown. It is like the whole story takes place in a public toilet. Some would say Anchorage is exactly that kind of town but they’d be unkind. It’s more like the accuracy of the colour palette and schema in nailing the late 1970s and early 1980s. It truly was ugly how the brown jackets went with beige things and sunglasses were tortoise shell rimmed with brown-gradation lenses. (And all these brown cars!What were they thinking back then?)

The film is fairly prosaic in how it presents its story. The story plods through the important points in a workman-like manner, and yet it never really gets tedious. The characterisation of the girl Cindy Paulson is really compelling and Nicolas Cage plays his detective character with a lot of reserved control for a change. John Cusack plays the villain Robert Hansen which, is surprising chilling.

What’s Bad About It

Because it’s based on true events, there’s a lumbering quality to the narrative. Maybe there isn’t quite enough material to make the story truly gripping. There’s something a little stand-off-ish with the emotional distance that keeps the audience at bay. The material isn’t terribly profound; which is a shame because it has the look and feel of something that could have been profound. It almost bottles a piece of the 1979-1981 Zeitgeist, but has nothing terribly important to say about it.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s a rare serial killer movie that doesn’t somehow end up with a foot chase and the serial killer getting gunned down. Maybe it’s just me, but Dirty Harry gunning down Scorpio is too archetypal. ‘Zodiac’ comes to mind as another film that haunts you with the denouement rather than hand you the phallic satisfaction of “bang-bang-you’re-dead”.

Nicolas Cage playing a really dour detective in this film is in of itself quite interesting. He’s a hard actor to watch sometimes when he plays buffoons but there are parts of his career that include that amazing turn in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and so you always hope for him to do something sombre and sober… and here he is. It’s not like actors lose their chops with age – they only get more interesting. In Cage’s case, he seems to get more ornate as a performer, and that’s interesting.

I guess it’s also notable that John Cusack is playing villains now. He’s the out and out sadistic psycho-killer in this one. He’s also played another psycho in ‘The Paperboy’, so this might be a trend. I guess he’s decided that the days of him playing dads and writers and love-sick dudes is over. I don’t think he’s played out and out villain since ‘True Colours’. Maybe it’s something he’s doing just to earn a buck.

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Stoker

Not Stalker

Although you could be mistaken. This psychothriller was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t know what to expect because the cast includes Nicole Kidman and that always makes me balk. I watched this one gingerly and really it’s not too bad. It’s not too good either but it’s not some bit of schlock and it’s not some pretentious bit of Arthouse crud so it’s already ahead of the curve there – even with Nciole in it.

The director and DOP are both Koreans so the pace of the film is a little odd. It might be a cultural thing or it might be a genuine weirdness the director brings to the pace of the film. It’s also difficult to tell where the story is going in the first third so that was a little hard to contend with – but past that point, the film becomes more rewarding.

As usual, spoiler alert!

What’s Good About It

The best thing in this little film might be the script, followed by the performances. The film is understated in most part with sudden bursts of lurid cinematic energy. The peculiarity of the story also keeps you off balance and therefore guessing. It’s also quite hard to get a bead on the moral centre of the main character. Is she simply put upon or  is she good or is she just plain alienated or weird or all of these things? The film doesn’t really give you an answer until the end, but when it does it’s oddly satisfying.

Also, this might be the last film with Tony Scott’s name in the credits – he’s credited with having produced this film.

What’s Bad About It

Some of the twists and turns feel like the film is meandering. Especially in the first half, making it quite hard to stay in the narrative space with the film. I felt myself wanting to disengage from it often in the first half. I’ve never been good with coming-of-age stories of weird girls as a sub sub genre. I understand it’s sensitive, but I’m too alienated myself to feel a great deal of compassion for the slightly disjointed. So every time the film veered in that direction I wanted to groan.

Also, when we do (SPOILER!) find out that the main character is just as murderously psychotic as her uncle at the end, we sort of switch right off from the  film. It’s merciful that it ends just about there.

Then the credits run up in the opposite direction like in Se7en’, which is pretty trite.

What’s Interesting About It

All these Aussies! Our Nicole, Mia Wasikowska, and Jacki Weaver race the screen and in one scene, the three of them are at the dinner table squabbling. It felt so much like… AFTRS!

More seriously, there is something weirdly taboo-breaking about the film. There’s something transgressive about the relationship between uncle Charlie and India, there’ something warped about Evelyn’s advances on Charlie, and then Jacki Weaver turns up looking like the loopy great aunt. After the murder of Whip, India washes herself of evidence in the shower and then masturbates, thus linking her libido with the violence. Uncle Charlie is full of love for his niece but he’s also completely full of it, so you keep suspecting that his professed love for family and India is downright incestuous as well, but of course it never quite plays out that way.  It’s all very odd.

The film really flipflops around these odd moments while it gathers a weird carnal energy, so the climatic gun shot comes more as a kind of ejaculatory relief. Like I said, it’s a very weird film. And then they bury the bodies under big concrete balls. It’s a psychosexual kind of thriller with special emphasis on psycho.

Nicole Kidman Is Quite Good In This

I know, I know. I’m usually harsh on the woman but I have to say she’s quite good in this one and she’s picked a good role. She’s good at playing phoneys much more than she is at playing earnest people, and this character is a big phoney. Just as an aside, she plays a delightfully bent hooker or stripper or some kind of low-life sex worker in ‘The Paperboy’ opposite Zac Efron and that’s a really good performance too. While the two roles are vastly disparate, what seems to be working in her favour in each instance is how disingenuous these characters are and playing up that angle seems to be a great strength with her acting.

It’s also amazing watching her because I don’t think I recognise the woman who played this role. It’s like a totally different human being.

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Elysium

Maybe I’m Getting Too Old For This

The latest action movie starring Matt Damon is a Sci-Fi number set in the near future where Earth has gone to pot, but somehow rich people manage to build an orbital arcology to literally rise above the fray and live in distant comfort while the whole earth degenerates into one big barrio. It’s one part Mad Max one part District 9 and 2 parts random action movie.

What’s Good About It

I’ve been reading reviews that this is refreshingly new and that it’s great that a writer director was able to bring this kind of vision from scratch rather than adapt some other property such as a novel, comic or computer game. It might be a fine caveat but I didn’t really see it that way. The good bits reside in the performance details and the odd bit of details in the props.

What’s Bad About It

It’s a fun movie but there’s something familiar about rolling around in the squalor of the future junk-culture domestic zone. It looks a little like Tijuana that goes for miles and miles. And the future may indeed be like that in many places but it’s hard to believe when you’re watching it.

The plot stays with you but the characters don’t and the central tragedy sinks into the artifice of the design. If I see another movie with people running around with rifles in futuristic corridors I think I might just groan and switch off. I think we’re at a point in cinema where that image is so done to death there’s really not much mileage left in it.

What’s Interesting About It

When this film first hit the cinemas, I happened to tune in on the ABC’s radio reviewers talking about this film. From the way they were talking, you’d think somebody had opened a new sub-genre or presented something so stunningly new it was going to change science fiction forever. When you watch this film it’s nothing like the idiot reviewers are raving. In that sense it reminded me of Australian films The way reviewers talk about it you’d think the Australian film had somehow transcended traditional genres or broke open new ground in the way an Eisentein or Kubrick might have done, only to find it’s the same old state-sponsored pap.

The fact that it happens that way is not very surprising because Australian critics are so invested in Australian cinema coming good at some point, but they do over do it and they do end up peddling a lot of crap. What’s interesting about this one is that it can’t claim the same support given that it’s not an Australian film. Why were the critics praising it o the sky when in fact it was merely serviceable?

You also worry about films that come with caveats like “this is the first original science fiction movie that isn’t based on an adaptation”. Is that such a good thing in of itself? I know I’m the first to grumble about the fact that we’re inundated with comic book adaptations but are we at the point in cinema history already that directors and producers get credit for coming up with something original? If that’s the case, then all I can say is God help us all.

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Movie Doubles – ‘White House Down’ & ‘Olympus Has Fallen’

‘Die Hard’ In A Box

Way back in the late 1980s when action movies were hitting the new generation of incoherence-over-substance, ‘Die Hard’ set a new benchmark in action and incoherence-over-substance. It was a great formula. You get a lone hero who cowboys his way to victory in the confines of a building against a group of terrorists or bank thieves or whatever else that came handy as a group of bad guys.

The formula worked so well, they started making these Die-Hard-In-A-Something movies, quite apart from the sequel which was Die Hard in an Airport. Most of these copycats featured Seteven Seagal: ‘Under Siege’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Boat; ‘Under Siege II’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Train and ‘Executive decision’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Plane (although Steven Seagal’s character gets blown out of an airlock about 25minutes into the movie.) Telemovies were worse – they were making all kinds of Die-Hard-In-A-Something movies at an alarming clip, some of which were so unimaginative, they were actually Die-Hard-In-A-Building-But-With-Somebody-Not-Bruce-Willis.

I don’t know when the fad died out in Hollywood. Maybe it died out about the time ‘Die Hard 3: Die Hard With A Vengeance’ came out an that was not set in any kind of confined space, it was just all out action all over New York State. but on some level all this stuff lives on because they recently made the fifth ‘Die Hard’ movie. The concept itself obviously dies very hard.

Going on 25years, and yes, not one but two studios have imaginatively decided to make Die-Hard-In-The White-House.

Spoiler Alert. Although if you’ve seen ‘Die Hard’, then there really are no surprises.

How To Spin A Bad Moment

This is kind of weird, but these two films are actually quite politically loaded in how they couch the problem. ‘Olympus’ casts the bad guys as North Koreans. ‘WH Down’ thinks the likely culprits to take over the White House are domestic MIC operatives gone rogue. The Olympus President is a white guy. ‘WH Down’ has a black President. The hero in ‘Olympus’ is a grizzled, hardened vet. A former US Rangers and Special Forces guy. The elite amongst the elite and played by Gerard Butler who is dragging his cache as Leonidas from ‘300’ The hero in ‘WH Down’ is a blue collar guy who did serve in Afghanistan but he’s working for the police department and comes in for a job interview with the Secret Service wherein he’s told he just doesn’t make the grade.

As you can see, ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is an out and out Republican sort of fantasy where the bad guys are foreign commies, the good guy is an elite killer and the President is a white man who is also capable of handling himself in combat. ‘White House Down’ is a Democrat fantasy where a black US President wants to defuse the tension in the Middle East by making peace offerings to the Iranians (!), and he wants to smoke out the Military Industry Complex and send them to prison. And dare I say, ‘White House Down’ is a slightly better film because not only does it look better, the drama plays better.

Fascism and Dufus Factor

The tenor of ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is tinged with fascism once the violence starts. There is no tangible logic except to fulfill the conditions of a Die Hard plot which involves traveling in the interstitial spaces of a building and unleashing appropriate amounts of lethal violence in short bursts. These Die Hard plots done well usually involve the good guy hiding for long parts of the story only come out for a flurry of action while the bad guy hogs the screen and preens and pouts for the camera. It certainly worked for Steven Seagal.

In turn, it is necessary for the bad guys to be squabbling dufuses. They usually come in hard with their plan and shut down power and communications and then start sending out threats and ransom notes, but the moment something starts to go wrong, they start bickering at one another. This leads to the opportunity for the hero to pick them off in small numbers. In other words, the only way the Die Hard story works as a first order text is if the hero is a fascist and the bad guys are stupid.

Of course, ‘White House Down’ is more of a tongue-in-cheek second order text. It’s clear they know they’re doing Die Hard in the White House, so Channing Tatum is the lead, he spends a few scenes in a white singlet, Jamie Foxx loses his shoes in reference to the barefooted John McClane. It’s a stranger film than ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ because the film includes political commentary, political satire and a good dose of deference to the original Die Hard so the whole film proceeds with a disjointed irony, more than the po-faced assuredness of the other film.

The Veep Is Dead

Both films make the interesting manoeuvre of ridding themselves of the Vice President so they can get to the Speaker of the House as fill-in President to make executive decisions. I guess it’s  an interesting quirk of American democracy where there is a President who heads up the State but there is a Congress that functions mostly like a Parliament. So the King got swapped out for a popular President and you have a Vice President who is the backup guy in case the King goes down mid-term. The Speaker of the House in Parliamentary terms would be the equivalent position of a Prime Minister but you’d never guess that from the way the US Congress is condicted.

The designers of the United States Government clearly didn’t trust the Westminster system because they clearly felt the power should devolve from the President to another figure who was also elected by the people on a popular ticket. Yet both films spend a small time to get rid of the Vice President. It’s hard to figure why they both did this except to get the story into the hands of somebody of authority outside the White House and a Vice President would not have achieved that aim.

The power devolves to the Speaker in both films seem to betray the notion that the House Speaker is an under-recognised office in the US Government. The thought did occur to me during the recent spats between the Obama administration and the Republican led Congress. I could see the argument that Congress should have more power to set budgets as you could make the argument that John Boehner was technically a kind of Prime Minister of sorts with the US Congress having some sort of roots in the Westminster system of government. Not that I felt the current Republicans were a good agency to have such power but that in some ways it would simplify the problems pertaining to budget limits and so on if more responsibility could be sheeted home to members of Congress. Even if that were to happen, one imagines the President of the United States would have significant ‘reserve powers’ to govern.

In any case it’s interesting both films wanted to show this system. Even on this issue both films betray their underlying political leanings. ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ gives us Morgan Freeman as the House Speaker and he is clearly an oppositional (if deferential) political figure to the President. The House Speaker in ‘White House Down’ turns out to be the chief instigator and culprit of all the mayhem, and he is a wealthy white man who is clearly in opposition to the President’s agenda.

North Korea As Threat

It’s a good thing to see that at least parts of Hollywood still thinks of North Korea as a threat. It’s a mad place. It’s also a much longer shot than the threat of domestic radicalised militias and disgruntled elements.

I know the whole Dennis Rodman is weirding us all out, first of all, for getting on so well with Kim Jong-Un but also because he seems to take his self-appointed diplomatic role so seriously. It’s hard to see how North Korea could really win back the proper place of straight-faced menace in movies after ‘Team America’, but I guess we’re on to the next generation and it’s anybody’s guess as to just how weird Jong-Un is going to be. In that light, it’s vaguely plausible a crack unit of North Koreans might make a dash for the White House but it seems more likely they’ll make a beeline for the nearest burger joint given how impoverished and famished they’re meant to be. Still, it doesn’t get much better than having North Koreans as the bad guys because it squarely puts North Korea in the spotlight of our consciousness.

The Really Scary People Are Closer

Unlike the threat of North Koreans hell-bent on changing the world order, the possibly scarier people seem to be ex-special forces and ex-CIA, living with liberal amounts of guns and ammo. I know it’s a lifestyle choice in some parts of the USA, but the bottom line is that there have been more terror deaths thanks to domestic terrorism than the spectre of 9/11 foreign terrorists in America. What’s worse, there are conspiracy theories which suggest even 9/11 was an inside hatchet job, so the deaths there would go on the domestic terror victims’ list.

Not that one takes one’s political cues from movies in a big way, but ‘White House Down’ is a bit more pointed about what kind of extremism lurks in the American political psyche. ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is more positive about this kind of loose cannon persona, armed to the hilt, doing the violent things they were trained to do. Some people might even call it blow-back, but who’s really counting?

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