Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bringing Down the House: “Olympus Has Fallen” is Thrilling Preposterousness

What do the movie “Antz,” “Dante’s Peak,” and “Deep Impact” have in common? They all had to compete with a similarly themed movie released a couple months later.  This year brings us two White House hostage movies. The first being this month’s “Olympus Has Fallen” and yet another one is due in June (that would be Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down”). “Olympus” is the first one up to bat and as ridiculous of a movie it is, it’s certainly extremely entertaining. I have a feeling it’s destined to be the lesser of the two films, but with nothing else to compare it to at the moment it certainly is thrilling even if it features one of the most preposterous plots ever committed to celluloid. It’s essentially “Die Hard” in the White House and it luckily has washed away the pitifully stains previously left by the fifth “Die Hard” film released in February. This is what that film could of and should have been. It’s a little rough around the edges but it works in a purely turn your brain off type of way.

Gerard Butler plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning. He’s escorting President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family when tragic accident occurs, leaving the First Lady (Ashley Judd) dead. Flash forward over a year later, and Banning has retired from his Secret Service job. Cue the Korean terrorists who manage to shoot up half of Washington DC and take over the entire White House. I won’t go into further details about how this all happens but it’s certainly thrilling… and rather scary as well. Not so much that something so extreme could happen, but living in a post 9/11 world adds greatly to the terror these types of movies can depict. Somehow Banning manages to get into the White House undetected and must find a way to rescue the President and some of his staff members who are being held hostage in a fortified underground bunker. One of those staff members is Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan played wonderfully by Melissa Leo. Of course, the President is a tough guy, who is seen boxing in the opening scene. We’re not so much fearful for his life as we are about what the terrorists can do once they torture each hostage into giving up their personal nuke codes.

Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Shooter”) has staged pretty well orchestrated action sequences. The movie has a lower budgeted feel, but never feels or looks cheap. I can forgive the film for its lack of glossy Michael Bay approved shots since the movie doesn’t wallow in cheesy melodramatics with only a spare hint of “USA ALL THE WAY” patriotism. But what movie about terrorism in the USA doesn’t have that patriotism pull in this day and age? And the movie is well cast. Butler makes a wonderful action hero as evidenced in past movies like 300, and he’s likable and vulnerable enough that we care about him. The movie is briskly paced and hardly lets up for a moment.

If the film’s lack of a credible premise is its worst trait then what we’re left with is a purely entertaining piece of action filmmaking. It features fine suspense, performances, and action set pieces. It doesn’t go overboard with its patriotism, though it’s present. And think, if “A Good Day to Die Hard” was one of the worst action films of recent memory, this “Die Hard” wannabe can be that bad right? It’s possible the next White House hostage movie could be even better; if that’s the case this is a good year (or bad year?) for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Here Comes the Broom: The Stunning “Oz the Great and Powerful” Has a Heart and Brain

“The Wizard of Oz” is considered one of the greatest films of all time. You know it and I know it. Therefore it takes a little courage to attempt to top it. “Oz: The Great and Powerful” certainly doesn’t, and it doesn’t strive to, but as long as you look at it on its own merits as a loving tribute, you can find plenty to enjoy here. Since Hollywood is into fairy tales and whatnot, why not resurrect a property that has some truly wide audience appeal? It’s certainly what Disney does best – and often. They were smart to get someone with tremendous visual flair like director Sam Raimi who has come so far from his days of directing a low budget horror film in which a tree rapes a woman – which gets its own new vision next month. The director’s trademark visual touches are there which add greatly to this new vision of Oz.

The film is a visual wonder. The 3D effects work great. The movie even begins like the original by starting out in black and white (and even a full frame aspect ratio). We’re introduced to a young version of the great wizard named Oz (James Franco) who’s really just a sleazy magician working at fairs in Kansas. He womanizes and cares about making money above all else – though he dreams of being a great man. Since this is how this character is written, Franco is perfectly cast in my opinion. And it’s really a perfect characterization since we know from “The Wizard of Oz,” that the great and powerful wizard is nothing but a liar. Oz is quickly whisked away in his hot air balloon during a tornado to the Technicolor (and extra widescreen) land of Oz, where he meets up with Theodora (Mila Kunis) who explains to him – and us- about Oz and what’s been going on there. Her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain a prophecy regarding a powerful wizard becoming the King of Oz by defeating the evil Wicked Witch. They think he has real magic powers and he doesn’t tell them the truth.

Here’s where things begin to get tricky. There’s a slight twist in who is actually the Wicked Witch of the West in this film. The trailers don’t want you to know, and it’s more fun not knowing going into it. But all I can say about the actress who plays her is that she’s not very well cast as I never believed her as being very mean or wicked. She tries her best, but someone with a deeper, scarier voice could have worked wonders. I never was actually very afraid of her as a villain and perhaps that’s because I’m an adult, but there’s something sill creepy and terrifying about Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal from the 1939 original.  I’m willing to let this stuff slide however, since the film is such a strong visual wonder and it features some truly great supporting characters.

Like any great story told in the land of Oz, there are sidekicks that accompany the main character, and this new film is no exception. Oz meets a young china girl made of porcelain, who is lovingly sweet natured, but has a rather humorous darkness to her as well. She’s excellently voiced by Joey King and wonderfully designed by the amazing visual effects artists. And then there’s Zach Braff voicing a nice flying monkey named Finley (like witches there are apparently good ones and bad ones) who feels indebted to Oz after he saves the little simian’s life. He’s a cute little fella, and has some rather amusing lines. And then there are all other familiarities like lions, yellow brick roads, Munchkins and scarecrows – which all culminate in a battle for the throne of Oz – in gloriously conceived 3D no less.

Sure I had some reservations about the performance of the Wicked Witch and while Franco seems an odd choice as the Wizard of Oz he’s actually pretty perfectly cast. He’s unlikable when he’s supposed to be and likable when he’s required to be. Raimi has made a wonderful film – with enough scary moments to remind us all how traumatizing the old movie was when we were little – that is not nearly as bizarre and ill-conceived as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (a film that, as reviled as it is, I don’t actually dislike that much) which it has drawn the most comparisons to. After all, this CGI wonderland of Oz even features a great Danny Elfman score and fun Burton-like opening title sequence. “Oz: The Great and Powerful” is not a film that even intends on toping the original classic, but it’s a fun, harmless prequel that has enough visual stimulation and, more importantly, enough heart and brains to be worth any movie fan’s time.  GRADE: B+