Thursday, March 28, 2013
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN Review:
- OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is not a good movie. The script has more holes than swiss cheese, the f/x are spotty, the direction is muddled and rushed-feeling, and even though the film plays things essentially straight, it's filled with moments that are flat-out ridiculous. And yet ... this is a highly entertaining popcorn flick that I would urge any old-school action movie fan to run out and see in a crowded theater asap. The film mixes the over-the-top, ra-ra patriotism of an Independence Day with the brutal, hilariously extraneous violence of an 80's-era Schwarzenegger flick. So for all of the movie's faults, it is, still, one heck of a crowd-pleaser. Even as I was rolling my eyes at the stupidity, I was smiling at the sheer insanity of it all.
The set-up for this film is so cheesy, yet awesomely so (if awesomely cheesy floats your boat like it does mine). The movie even begins with a lengthy prologue that establishes the back-story for Gerard Butler's Mike Banning (even his name feels old-school!). We learn that Mike was once the President's (the President, as played by square-jawed Aaron Eckhart, is clearly in the Bill Pullman-in-Independence Day mold) lead secret service agent, until a fateful day when Mike failed to protect the President's wife (Ashley Judd) from the destructive force of ICE-COVERED ROADS. Following the first lady's death, Mike resigns from the secret service in disgrace, and takes a pencil-pushing office job in DC, mere blocks from the White House. Of course, Mike being the paranoid, overprotective type, keeps one eye out his office window for any signs of trouble at 1600 Penn. And one day, trouble comes. An undercover army of North Korean extremists (note: this is NOT the North Korean government, just a radical group from North Korea, FYI) INVADES WASHINGTON. Suddenly, the streets of DC are filled with machine gun-wielding evil North Koreans blowing the crap out of everyone and everything. Their ultimate target is the White House. After mowing down nearly everyone in the vicinity, the leader of the North Koreans (who is actually named KANG - seriously!) hold the President and key members of his cabinet (including feisty Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense) in a security bunker, eager to extract launch code information from them. Meanwhile, the President's young son is hiding somewhere in the White House, an ill-prepared Morgan Freeman (playing the Speaker of the House) assumes the role of Acting President, and dammit all, Mike Banning springs into action, on a one-man mission to infiltrate the heavily-guarded White House and singlehandedly kill as many evil North Koreans as possible, preferably via the method of STABBING IN THE BRAIN.
There are many, many things that make little to no sense in the film ... but at the end of the day, logic and sense are thrown out the window so that Gerard Butler can stab North Koreans, Aaron Eckhart can boldly refuse to give up classified information, and many slo-mo shots of the American flag being either lowered in defeat or raised in triumph can be shown. Butler is pretty okay in the role, though I don't think he does "ordinary Joe who can kill like a mofo" as well as he does "ancient king who can kill like a mofo." Suffice it to say, I did wonder a few times what this would have been like had it just been the 24 movie and starred Jack Bauer in all of his gravitas-infused glory. But while Butler doesn't have any truly iconic "yipee-kay-ay" moments (though he does stab many people in the head in quite remarkable fashion), he does a good job overall of carrying the film. And others like Eckhart, Leo, and Freeman just feel super-overqualified. You've got to give them credit - they commit fully to their parts, and imbue every line with so much sincerity and gung-ho purpose that, my god, you can't help but root for them to save the day (and god bless America while we're at it).
While it's easy to forgive, say, Aaron Eckhart, for some of the absurdities of his character in this movie, it's a little less easy to find the good in some of the other characters. One example is Dylan McDermott's shifty diplomat, who seems to have paper-thin motivation and seems only there to be the obligatory slimeball character. I get that this is a big action movie and we're dealing with archetypes, but there are certain character beats in the film - and certain twists in general - that really have no explanation beyond "just because."
In all honesty though, the biggest distraction in the film is the spotty direction and visuals. Whole segments often seem oddly/poorly lit and hard to decipher. Director Antoine Fuqua seems to get a little lost at times trying to keep track of all the action, which often feels sloppily cut. There's a lot of chaos in the initial North Korean invasion scenes - which I get is part of the point - but it's also sometimes nearly impossible to tell who's shooting at who. The f/x also veer from decent to laughable, with some scenes of aerial combat feeling particularly Playstation 1-ish.
Still, man ... the movie is just so bombastic, so gleefully over-the-top, so unabashedly absurd ... I had to admire it. While Antoine Fuqua shows little of Roland Emmerich's directorial panache, he seems to share his love for ham and cheese. This is a movie that doesn't miss a chance for a Big Speech, a Last Stand, or a Last Minute Save. It's an SNL parody waiting to happen, but not at all ashamed of that fact.
And so I'm a little torn. There is enough that is downright silly, dumb, or shoddily-handled in this film that I really hesitate to sing its praises too much. And yet, it's uber-watchable, and I had to admire the movie's giddy sense of balls-to-the-wall, anything-goes insanity. If nothing else, I was both shocked and amused to see a modern action film that embraced both 90's-style earnestness and 80's-style violence, all in a single package. And hey, when you've got guys like Morgan Freeman onboard - it makes the madness that much more epic. If you've got a soft spot for movies from those eras, and can ironically appreciate a cheesy action film and all of its so-bad-it's-good schlock (and as a pleasant antidote to the uber dark n' serious action films we tend to get nowadays), you'll probably want to see this. Good? No. Ridiculous? Yes. See it? Yeah, you really, probably should.
My Grade: B
Monday, March 18, 2013
- Over the years, I'd heard whispers about an already-legendary Korean film called OLDBOY. Circa 2006, I'd seen it referenced in many articles, heard it spoken about reverently by film geeks and cinephiles. Oldboy was the movie you had to see if you considered yourself a film fan, and director Chan Wook-Park was the next big thing in badass filmmaking. So one day, I drove over to Amoeba in Hollywood on the hunt for the film. I purchased the DVD (Amoeba has everything), and eagerly brought it home. I watched OLDBOY, and instantly, I got what the hype was all about. This was the dawn of a new era of Asian extreme cinema. Now, several years later, comes STOKER. Stoker is Park's first American-made film, following an already legendary career in the Korean film world. Certainly, there was reason to be cautious about this one - would Park's unique sensibility - and his tendency towards extreme, psychological, intense filmmaking - get lost in translation? As it turns out, the answer is - hell no. Stoker is right up there with the most badass films that Park has yet made. It's visually stunning, disturbing, creepy, and just downright absorbing. Like all of Park's films, this one buries into your brain, gets you thinking, gets you talking.
STOKER is a story of innocence lost. Our main character is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a sullen, brooding teenage girl - only child to a wealthy family - who is an outcast at school, and who has a troubled relationship with her Stepford-esque mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). India's world is thrown into further tailspin when her father Richard (Durmot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident. While India's relationship with her mother was frosty, she spent a lot of time with her father - he even made her his unlikely hunting companion on many occasions. Things take another strange turn when India's long-absent uncle, Charles (Matthew Goode) comes in for his brother's funeral. Charles - who explains away his scarcity by claiming to be a world traveler, decides to stay with India and her mother, in their stately home, for an extended period.
I hesitate to say much about the plot, because this is a narrative that slowly and hypnotically unfolds and reveals itself, and part of the joy here is letting the various twists and turns shock and surprise you. Suffice it to say, uncle Charles is not exactly what he seems. He's a rather dark, twisted sort of person. And he's all too eager to take the lonely, tormented India under his wing - to see if his suspicion is correct, that she too shares some of his darker proclivities.
Crazily enough, Stoker's got a screenplay written by none other than former Prison Break TV series star, Wentworth Miller. And - who knew? - the man can write. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the screenplay's many layers, and with its thematic depth. There is a dreamlike/nightmarish quality to the storytelling that sees the narrative, at times, unfold in a nonlinear fashion. We also alternate between reality and the characters' psyches, at times having to parse out what's actually happening, versus what a character is imagining. It could have been clumsy, but it's all handled pretty elegantly. There's also a real sharpness to the dialogue - it's all delivered in a surreal, left-of-center manner - this is very stylized stuff - but it's memorable, striking, and effective.
And of course, the strong, twisty script is augmented immeasurably by Chan Wook-Park's fantastic direction. The guy does mood and atmosphere like few others, and here he creates gothic imagery that pops. He also adds to the film's haunting quality with a number of head-spinning shots and sequences that help to accentuate the film's feeling of danger, disorientation, and steadily-growing intensity. The film is nothing if not intense - both on a plot level (where *had* George been all of those years?), and on a psychological one. Park never shies away from using the story as a psycho-sexual coming-of-age allegory. George is the catalyst that jump-starts sullen-but-innocent India into her own twisted sort of awakening - one that mixes sex, violence, rebellion, and utter disillusion with the world around you. India begins realizing how dark and dangerous the world is - how filled with malice the people in her life (her mother, her classmates) really are - and so she decides to turn the tables, and become even worse, even darker.
Mia Wasikowska is terrific as India Stoker. She pulls off India's girlish innocence, but is just as believable (and intensely creepy) when her dormant darkness is unleashed. I had similar thoughts after her noteworthy turn in The Kids Are All Right, but this movie cemented it - Wasikowska is truly a young actress to watch. This is an amazing performance. Matthew Goode is also really great as creepy uncle Charles. It's almost funny - I always thought he was perhaps miscast in Watchmen ... but after seeing him in Stoker, I'm almost curious to see what he could do as Ozymandias now that he's got more experience under his belt. I say that because in Stoker, Goode is *very* Ozymandias-like. He's got "the voice" down pat - a chilling, cold, upper-crust dialect that makes his cool - almost snobby - exterior fairly chilling. He's smooth to the point of creepy, cool to the point of threatening. Definitely some Patrick Bateman in their as well. As for Nicole Kidman, I've always liked her when she's in these sorts of off-kilter, left-of-center, semi-creepy roles (To Die For, anyone?). And so it's no surprise that she really nails the part of Evelyn - a desperate housewife with some serious issues.
Stoker takes a little while to get going, but it really weaves a web as it goes that you can't help but get sucked into. From a narrative perspective, it all comes together fairly straightforwardly in the end - despite some of the storytelling tricks used by Miller and Park. But, like I said, there's a lot of depth here - symbolism, subtext, and some open-ended psychological questions that game me a lot to chew on once the film was over. I guarantee - there are certain sequences in the film - a piano duet scene, a certain shower scene - that will leave you breathless.
It's nice to know that, even in his first American film - an American Gothic with an Asian Extreme spin - the great Chan Wook-Park has not gone soft in the least. This is as extreme, as dark, as deep, and as badass as just about any movie he's yet made.
My Grade: A-
Monday, March 11, 2013
OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Review:
- I grew up with OZ. There was the classic film, there was the 1980's Disney pseudo-sequel, Return to Oz. But most of all, there were the books. I've talked about this a lot recently, but I grew up with the Oz books because my grandparents actually had original prints of every book in the series - the originals by L. Frank Baum, as well as the later canonical entries in the series written after his passing. The Oz books were my grandmother's most treasured items - she (along with my mom) shared a love for all things Oz, and my grandmother knew the world and mythology of Oz inside and out. She often spoke of seeing the original movie in the theaters when it was released - about how the film's transition from black and white to color was, at the time, a jaw-dropping revelation. But while I liked the film, I loved the books. Part of it was how my grandmother read them to us - with her distinct, measured reading style and her never-wavering enthusiasm for the material, she transported us to the land of Oz. But I also just loved the books in and of themselves, and the weird and whimsical style that Baum (who claimed to be transcribing actual events, as related to him by Dorothy and others) wrote them in. To me, Oz was every bit as epic and as captivating a place as the other fantasy worlds I loved - Narnia, Prydain, and Middle Earth. Sure, the film had the witches and the flying monkeys - but it was, ultimately, a musical - not the epic adventure I pictured in my mind. Where was Ozma, the Nome King, Tik Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead? Many of the Oz series' cooler elements made it into Return to Oz, but that film saw success only as a cult classic, not as a franchise-starter. But now, in an era where Lord of the Rings and Narnia had been turned into big-budget, multi-part adventure series, I wondered if the same could finally be true for OZ. Now, the pieces were in place - Sam Raimi was at the helm, the full weight of the Disney machine was there, and Oz finally seemed poised to go big on the big screen.
The new OZ has some of the elements I was looking for in a new Oz flick. First and foremost, it's visually stunning. Sam Raimi once again proves himself to be a true wizard when it comes to creating stylized worlds and roller-coaster-like sequences that are a thrill to just sit back and let yourself get immersed in. OZ is a 100% must-see in 3D, and even better in IMAX. It looks awesome. Hyper-realized fantasy worlds and landscapes and cities, massive battles, eye-melting landscapes, visceral set-piece sequences - Raimi makes OZ into a film that practically bleeds color from the screen. He also just plain has fun with the toys at his disposal. This being Raimi, he tries every trick in the book to wow you from a visual perspective. The opening of the film is in black and white, old-school 1930's aspect ratio - but then expands and colorizes as the Wizard makes his way to Oz. The 3D sees spears hurled at the audience, and all sorts of little instances of things popping off the screen. In terms of visuals, OZ is indeed a marvel.
In terms of story, OZ is less of a marvel, and a little more by-the-numbers. The film functions as a surprisingly reverent prequel - and homage to - the original 1939 classic. In fact, the movie almost seems designed to fit into the world of the original film nearly seamlessly. I have to admit, I was sort of surprised by this. In a way, it reminded me slightly of how Superman Returns felt like an overly reverent homage to the original Donner film. So this new Oz has many moments that are designed to be crowd-pleasing call backs to the 1939 film, and many plot points that are the "secret origins," of sorts, for some of the iconic aspects of that film. Given how the overall tone of the film is so different from the 1939 film (it's not a musical, for one thing), and given that that film is from, well, 1939, I wouldn't have minded if this new movie carved its own path, and/or stuck more to the tone of L. Frank Baum. There are, certainly, moments that seek to make things feel quasi-LOTR epic. Glimpses of the sprawling world-map of Oz, gleaned from the books. Large-scale battles and mammoth flying-monkey attacks. Witch-on-Wizard showdowns. All of that stuff is great fun, which makes the callbacks to the conceits of the 1939 film feel especially quaint and out of place. Did we really need, for example, the extended black-and-white intro in which we meet regular Kansas folks who will later manifest as denizens of Oz?
There are other visual cues that feel forced. The pains taken to make this film's wicked witch resemble Margaret Hamilton's iconic portrayal in the 1939 movie seem strained, and make this new witch look unnecessarily awkward. There are a couple of other examples in this vein.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, for those not in the know, tells the story of how The Wizard first arrived in Oz, and how he became the great and powerful leader that Dorothy and friends eventually encounter. The Wizard (James Franco) begins the story as a huckster and a womanizer who works as a carnival illusionist. While being chased by some angry colleagues, he jumps into a hot air balloon to escape, but gets caught up in tornado that whisks him away from Kansas to Oz. In Oz, The Wizard finds a land besieged by a wicked witch, and finds that he is the long-expected and foretold-by-legend savior, destined to save the people from their oppressor (it can be debated to what extent there may or may not be an anti-feminist message here, but I didn't really find that). In conjunction with Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), as well as a slew of other companions, The Wizard must contend with the evil witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her conflicted sister Theadora (Mila Kunis), and, of course, their army of evil flying monkeys. How to counter the witch's magic, when The Wizard is not really a wizard, but simply a trickster? Franco attempts to use modern tricks and tech to go Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court on the wicked witches.
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Raimi once made a film very much in this same spirit - Army of Darkness. Of course, that film involved a time-lost, chainsaw-wielding antihero named Ash fighting off an army of the undead in medieval times ... but hey, it's all pretty similar in a lot of ways. And that's why many are calling OZ Sam Raimi's Disneyfied Army of Darkness. And you can't deny a lot of the structural similarities. What's interesting though is that Raimi, for better or for worse, infuses OZ with a lot of the same madcap, living-cartoon vibe as AoD. Even the Wizard's wise-cracking, smart-alecky dialogue seems almost lifted from the classic Raimi playbook, and from iconic cult-hero Ash. Now, it's sort of cool to see that anarchic sort of subversiveness make its way into this film. But it also never 100% works, because Raimi is clearly being pulled in multiple directions here. On one level, you sense him wanting to do a really subversive, madcap take on Oz. His version of The Wizard is even very much in the Ash mold - a blue-collar hero who thinks on his feet and makes all of the women around him (even the goddess-like Glinda) swoon helplessly (and man, it would have been fun to see Raimi partner-in-crime Bruce Campbell - who has a small cameo here - take a crack at playing The Wizard). And yet, this is also a Disney movie and a major family-friendly franchise-starter, and so Raimi can't really go full throttle. You can tell that Raimi is perhaps less interested, for example, in really building up the cute sidekick characters all that much. And so the silly good-flying-monkey voiced by Zach Braff, or the uber-cute china-doll girl voiced by Joey King, or the jive-talkin' munchkin played by Tony Cox ... they all feel sort of one-dimensional and tacked on (though I will say, China Girl is one of the most amazingly-rendered digital characters I've yet seen in a film). And some, like that aforementioned jive-talkin' munchkin, are just plain out of place in this world (you wouldn't see that in Lord of the Rings, that's for sure).
In any case, OZ is tonally a bit all-over-the-place. There's a little LOTR-style epicness, a little Raimi madcap action and insanity, a little Disney fairy-tale magic and cutesiness, a little broad humor, a little darkness. a little Tim Burton-esque weirdness and hyper-stylization (and a super Burton-esque / Nightmare Before Christmas-esque score courtesy of Danny Elfman) ... somehow it holds together and basically works, but it also feels like a movie with a lot of cooks in the kitchen - like no one was sure what, exactly, this movie was supposed to be. That also means that a lot of the movie's most interesting concepts - Chinatown, for example (a town where all of the denizens are made of breakable china) - don't feel as fleshed-out as they could be.
That unevenness also extends to the casting. Some of the casting choices here are just effortless and fit like a glove. Rachel Weisz as Evanora - basically perfect, pretty much iconic. Michelle Williams as Glinda - also completely works and feels exceedingly right. Both actresses disappear into the roles, which is what you want in a movie like this. But James Franco ... he's still pretty much James Franco. I just am not sure that Franco has it in him to play a fantasy character like this convincingly - to lose all of his Franco-ness and be someone else entirely, to be The Wizard. Franco does a pretty good job here, overall. He elicits some big laughs and, mostly, sells the sweeter parts of the film. But he just seems ill-suited to this type of role. Same goes for Mila Kunis. Kunis gives it her all as Theadora, but throughout the film, she still seems like Mila Kunis. There wasn't that timeless sort of quality that a Rachel Weisz brings to the table. Even worse, I kept hearing Meg Griffin whenever Kunis voiced her character post-CGI transformation. Kunis is great in that she has such a girl-next-door, blue-collar quality to her that many actresses don't. But that's not what you need for OZ - you need larger-than-life. And neither Franco or Kunis brings that to the production, and the movie suffers for it.
Despite these complaints, there's still a likability to this new OZ movie that's hard to deny. The visuals are so overwhelmingly awesome that it tends to drown out everything else. And when the movie hits its big, go-for-broke beats in its third act ... man, it really nails 'em. Raimi knows more than most how to hit a home run with those big, crowd-pleasing moments. But as much as OZ was a fun, theme-park ride-esque theatrical experience, I have to wonder what legs it will have as time goes on. Perhaps future entries in the revitalized Oz franchise will ultimately cement this film's place in the larger Oz cannon. And perhaps its legacy will prove to be less about this movie's lasting impression, and more about serving as a gateway to the world of Oz that L. Frank Baum created. The original 1939 film is famous for overcoming a fraught production filled with mishaps, re-starts, and dozens of creative challenges to somehow emerge as a classic. This new OZ may not end up with such a notorious backstory, but it does, more so than The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz, feel more like the product of the Disney machine rather than a Peter Jackson-style labor of love. Raimi's visual inventiveness and subversive streak shines through, but it isn't quite enough to propel Oz to greatness. Funny, because the entire lesson of the film is that The Wizard must learn to strive less for greatness, and more for goodness. The movie seems to have had it slightly backwards in that regard. Still, there is enough goodness here to make the film worth checking out, and kids in particular will likely get caught up in Raimi's eye-popping adventure.
My Grade: B