Olympus Has Fallen

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High-adrenaline, fast-paced intense action, a victimizing, threatening enemy, and a strong, heroic lead character – Olympus Has Fallen succeeds where A Good Day to Die Hard miserably, miserably failed. On the other hand, it can also be said that Olympus Has Fallen succeeds where the original Die Hard also succeeded. However one wants to look at it, if you like any form of Die Hard, you are sure to like Olympus Has Fallen.

While the title may lead one to suspect that this is an epic Greek battle of the gods, this “Olympus” refers to the “most heavily secured building in the world,” the White House. Yet within thirteen minutes, a grisly surprise attack by North Korea causes this “Olympus” to fall and fall hard! Disgraced presidential security operative, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself in serious John McClane territory as he becomes the only eyes and ears that Speaker of the House and acting president Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) has on a hostage situation that includes President Asher (Aaron Eckart), Secretary of Defence McMillan (Melissa Leo), Vice President Rodriguez, and South Korean Prime Minister Lee (Keong Sim).

Butler plays this role well. He’s tough but also sympathetic. Director Antoine Fuqua keeps the action fresh, moving, and increasingly relentless. He also keeps it dark, and not just figuratively. Much of the film takes place in a darkened White House at night, which results in some confusing and disorienting action scenes from time to time. Butler’s main objective is to infiltrate the presidential bunker where North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) menacingly tortures and executes hostages until his demands for the US to withdraw all resistive forces from Korean territory are met. Kang is an excellent villain and Yune plays his part to a cold and ominous effect.

Olympus’s greatest advantage is its pacing and relentless action. There is little character development, barring a short prologue at the beginning that reveals the rift between President Asher and Banning; thus, the characters are hardly memorable. Instead, it is shooting, killing, stabbing, kicking, and punching and lots of it. The film isn’t lazy about its action though, and it is for this reason that it is successful in rising above average action fare. It is doubtful, we will see Olympus Falls Again, but for a one and done “kicking ass and taking names” kind of movie, this one feels like Die Hard on a “Good Day.” B+

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Admission

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Towards the end of Admission, an English professor describes a performance he had just witnessed as, “Weird…but I liked it.” The same can be said about the film, Admission. While it’s probably not the movie you expected to see, it inspires some genuine curiosity as it moves along.

Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer for Princeton University. Daily, Portia avoids the wonton glare of prospective students who seek the secret to “getting in.” She spends most of her time weeding through application files with the hefty task of personally deciding which students are admitted and which students are denied. It’s a cute premise, but hardly one that can keep a film narrative afloat for long. Enter Paul Rudd as John Pressman. Pressman runs an unorthodox school that would rarely attract the attention of the likes of Princeton, except Pressman believes one of his students could be the son Portia gave up years ago. This news arrives precisely at the time when Portia finds out her boyfriend (Michael Sheen) has impregnated another woman and is leaving her.  To make matters more stressful, Portia learns that the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is retiring and is considering either Portia or her rival admissions officer Corinne (Gloria Reuben) as his replacement.

These complications allow Admission to explore some more interesting territory. The movie does have a bit of an uneven tone, however. On one hand, there is Rudd and Fey, two comedic talents working hard to downplay their goofy personas into something more serious, with mixed results. On the other hand, there is a drama trying to downplay its serious tone for something more comedic and romantic, with mixed results. What we end up with is something, for lack of a better term, “weird.” Lilly Tomlin works very well as Portia’s mother who raised her with tough love, but perhaps too tough, and it is charming to see a film bold enough to partially set its climax in an Office of Admissions meeting. However, the film does try to bite off a bit more than it can chew, especially in its commentary on how to live one’s life. Portia is constantly berated throughout the film for enjoying a simple life while Pressman is a firm believer that one should never stay too long in one place. Both philosophies are hollowed out and filled with stereotypes leaving director, Paul Weitz with little hope of giving the audience a satisfactory answer.

Admission is a surprisingly odd movie. It takes a few risks with its tone, style, and story, and not all of them pay off, but overall, Admission is worth the price of admission. B

 

 

Oz the Great and Powerful

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a triumph in entertainment longevity. Since L. Frank Baum’s novel was published in 1900, the story has found relevance in the lives of generations of fans and has undergone countless reimaginings from page to stage to its most recent screen makeover, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.  Oz is Disney’s second notable big budget update on a classic children’s tale after 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, and the comparisons are numerous, which may or may not excite you.

Like Alice, Oz is somewhat of a frame story where the first act takes place in the real world, and a set of circumstances launches the main character into a magical new world.  James Franco plays Oz, a traveling carnival illusionist with lofty goals but little ambition to put in the effort to reach them.  Franco does well as Oz.  His early scenes depicting Oz’s sleazy ethics and immoral ways with women ring true of a young Woody Allen.  This neurotic zeal and ironic self-confidence is very entertaining and it is some of the film’s best material.  However, Raimi does not waste his time getting Oz to…well, Oz.  Oz is transported to the Land of Oz by way of a fortuitous tornado, a way of transportation clearly not uncommon to early 20th century Kansas.

The Land of Oz looks  great and there are some incredible details woven into its fabric, and with a visionary director like Sam Raimi, this is to be expected.  However, the film does lose some of its freshness upon its shift to Oz.  The film is actually at its best when it is developing Oz’s character at the beginning.  Once the film actually moves to the Land of Oz, it gets a bit convoluted.  The Land of Oz is being terrorized by a wicked witch, and far too much time is wasted pretending that the audience doesn’t know which of the film’s three witches is the bad one.  Eventually Oz allies himself with Glinda (Michelle Williams) against Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz).  Weisz is especially effective and it is unfortunate that at some point down the line, we know a house is going to land on her.  To add to the already bloated storyline, Oz also befriends a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and an orphaned enchanted china doll (Joey King), both of whom refer to characters and events set up in the film’s opening act. As the film goes on, it certainly begins to fizzle, but it is not without its charm and is incredibly respectful of the reputation Oz’s legacy has established.

A well-known film critic gave a favorable review to Oz the Great and Powerful partially because he said it, “does not rest or fall back on formula.”  This is a movie that begins in a real-world setting (in black and white), magically transforms to brilliant color upon the main character landing in a fantasy world where he then meets three odd “friends in need” who all team up to defeat a wicked witch.  What part of this is not formulaic?  Additionally, what part of this is not 2010’s Alice in Wonderland?  It’s not that the film is a bad film, but let’s be honest – we’ve seen this before.  What Oz has going for it is visual charm, a good story, and a feel-good tone; all of this working to create an effective movie experience.  Oz the Great and Powerful was released in both 3-D and IMAX and it is The People’s Critic’s recommendation that it be seen in 2-D, but in IMAX if possible.  The 3-D is not worth the surcharge since most of its effect is gimmick based, although the kids will get a kick out of the flying arrows or the water being spit at the screen.  IMAX screens, on the other hand, definitely enhance the fullness of the world that Raimi and everyone else “behind the curtain” created.  B-

Jack the Giant Slayer

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The story of Jack and his magical beanstalk dates back to Viking times and over the past 1400 years, we have yet to be sick of it.  Countless versions of this story exist in virtually every format of entertainment imaginable.  The story is a good one though and in the hands of the talented director Bryan Singer, this version is certainly one of the best. 

Jack the Giant Slayer stars Nicholas Hoult whose star is on the rise.  Fresh off of his other starring role as R in Warm Bodies, Hoult functions well as the underestimated, romantic hero.  The main story is mostly familiar.  Jack is trusted with a task to sell items for money, but he returns home with no money and a handful of “magic beans.”  The magical properties of the beans are unleashed when they become wet in a rainstorm sending Jack’s house, and inadvertently the King’s daughter Isabelle, up to a legendary land of giants via a massive beanstalk.  King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) organizes a team to rescue his daughter lead by his trusted knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack as well as the plotting Roderick (Stanley Tucci) who the princess has been promised to for marriage. 

The giants are truly spectacular.  They are easily 20 feet tall and have a very clever form of motivation based on a previous war between man and giant, which resulted in them being magically enslaved by a magic crown.  Nonetheless, they are vengeful and dangerous, bringing a real threat of danger and excitement to the story.  Furthermore, Singer allows several opportunities for tongue-in-cheek humor to permeate the already clever adventure story that takes place up the beanstalk.  Simply put, a strong case is made for Stanley Tucci to have a part in every movie.

The only issue the film has going against it lies in its first act.  Singer’s film begins a bit slowly with terse voice-over narration of parallel backstories for young Jack and young Isabelle.  The children playing these parts deliver excruciatingly clichéd performances, and it was at this point that I admit I was worried.

Consequently, I must pause here to mention that this review comes with a brief stipulation.  When it comes to re-making a fairy-tale, there are many pitfalls that can occur; a major one is choosing the right audience.  Aside from this tepid opening segment, Bryan Singer actually has made a film that would exist more comfortably in Middle Earth than in Disney World.  It embraces its world of man-eating giants and has fun with it.  This decision certainly enhances the film’s entertainment value, but it also takes a familiar children’s tale and puts it just out of reach for children to enjoy. Creating an opening scene so clearly not in congruence with the rest of the film sets the incorrect initial mood that is hard to shake once the movie gets good.  However, if you can make the leap, this film definitely functions much better as a romantic action film than as a cute and safe children’s tale.        

That being said, I liked Jack the Giant Slayer.  I also recommend seeing it in 3-D, which is a recommendation I can honestly say I would give to no more than five films.  This is a fun, entertaining, funny, and good looking film that is easy to enjoy once the film figures out what it is and who it’s aimed at.   B