Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen: The Impossible to Not Mention Die Hard Review

   Maybe it's because a few weeks ago, after leaving the theater of the latest incarnation in the Die Hard franchise, the taste was so horrible and putrid in my mouth. Maybe it's because lately my interest in films has been minimal due to the useless dregs getting released into cinemas. Or maybe its because--considering the pretty unoriginal plot--Olympus Has Fallen has an extremely talented class of actors. Whatever the reason, I was pleasantly surprised by Olympus Has Fallen. Sure, it follows the script cliche of "Die Hard in a ____" (e.g. Speed: Die Hard on a boat...Passenger 57: Die Hard on a plane)--in this case, Die Hard in the White House. But it has just enough slickness, just enough entertainment, and a realistic (and sometimes extreme) sense of brutality that sets it apart from similar, more forgettable action films.
      "Olympus" is clearly the Secret Service code name for the White House, if you couldn't ascertain that from the title. In the film, the home's main tenant is President Asher, the young leader of the free world played by Aaron Eckhart. The charismatic actor portrays the President as an honorable man who has lost one thing in his life that he loved above all else. Tying into that story of loss, we have Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, in the lead role), a secret service agent who used to be assigned to the President but was demoted to a desk job after an incident went terribly wrong. Banning is a gruff man with a full set of one-liners from the book of Bruce Willis, and they come in plenty handy when the White House is overrun by North Korean terrorists hellbent on initiating a secret government protocol called "Cerberus". Banning, after he turns these bad guys' brains into mush, says things like, "Lets play a game of 'Go Fuck Yourself'. You go first!"
    One thing that sets Olympus Has Fallen apart (it's not particularly the script, if you could tell), is the way the North Korean stereotypes take over the White House: it's an exciting and tension-filled sequence involving air and ground assault with pretty shocking violence and enough firepower to empty out the bullet aisle of Cabela's. One could argue whether the over-the-top use of guns and gun-killing is something to praise in this day and age, but it surely fits in this fantasy of ultra American Jingoism. During the takeover, President Asher and his group of top advisers get taken hostage in the underground vault that houses all of the important technology one needs to rule the country. Through the chaos of the attack, Banning makes his way inside the White House, a place he knows extremely well due to his past job.
     Morgan Freeman, as the Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull, is now the acting President in the wake of the attack.  Any movie can benefit from that casting. Banning--who is also conveniently ex-Special Forces--is Trumbull's only contact inside the terrorist-filled White House and is the nation's only hope in stopping the devastating attack. Other actors round up the impressive cast: Dylan Mcdermott (who was great in the first season of FX's American Horror Story) is another ex-Secret Service agent who plays an important role. Melissa Leo is the Secretary of Defense who is trapped with the President and suffers brutal beatings to not give up important nuclear codes. And main North Korean leader/mastermind Kang is portrayed by Rick Yune, an actor I wasn't familiar with, but one who is charismatic and dangerous and absolutely lethal.
     Olympus Has Fallen was directed by Antoine Fuqua, and it is surely a solid technological achievement: every explosion of destruction, every Washington D.C. landmark that is shattered and broken, and every knife cutting into flesh feels and sounds real. Some of the CGI in the first third of the film may be a tad obvious, but it doesn't detract from the pretty-darn-exciting entertainment on display. In fact, Olympus is a better Die Hard movie than February's A Good Day to Die Hard. Far better. If you switched out Gerard Butler and inserted Bruce Willis and then changed a little of the script so it would relate to the first two Die Hard films, it could have easily passed as an acceptable entry into that franchise. Instead, it's just a sorta stellar stand-alone action film that will be mostly forgotten at the end of the year.     (B)

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Written Word Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

     "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is the first book that I read in the year 2013 (I'm up to #12 now), and throughout the thousands of pages and millions of letters, it's still the novel that has stuck with me the most  nearing the end of March. Written by "late bloomer" Ben Fountain--"Billy Lynn" is his first novel, and Fountain is 54 years old--the book will be one that's remembered years down the road: it's filled with insight, hilarious dead-on dialogue and an everlasting sense of melancholy.
     Billy Lynn, a 19-year old solider on the cusp of an intricate understanding about the American general public, and his Bravo company are heroes: after a Fox News crew (embedded with the company during a ferocious battle, which even got a specific title: "The Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal") filmed the group, specifically Billy's above-and-beyond actions, the average American citizen worships the ground they walk on.
     Billy and the 7 other soldiers, all with distinct personalities and eccentricities that are realistic, scary and sad, begin a two week "Victory Tour" across America, shaking fat southern hands, answering questions about God, "terrRists" and "nina leven", all culminating in a halftime show during the Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game at Cowboy stadium, complete with a cocky billionaire owner and Beyonce shaking her "jelly" during the flashy musical mid-game number.
     Plenty of books have been written about the Iraq War (the non-fiction "The Forever War" being one of my other favorites), but never--until this wonderful novel--has the Iraq War come to American shores. These men, battle-worn and primed to pull the trigger instead of gorge on all of the excesses that America (and, specifically, its football culture) offers on a daily basis, are rock-stars. But instead of putting their guitars in their cases and heading off to the next city down they road, these boys--after the "Victory Tour" is up--have to re-lock and reload and head back to battle.
     Fountain's descriptions, humor and over-arching sense of the feeling one gets when witnessing the gorging mass that is the consume!consume!consume! American culture is a picture to behold. I found myself occasionally shaking my head in incredible agreement. Tough to pin down feelings are put into words that were seemingly impossible, yet this Pulitzer-worthy novel is full of passages like that. Billy is incredibly developed: a man/boy who is constantly aware of the ever-changing American consciousness and their almost-God-like feelings toward Bravo company. Everyone wants a piece of them--whether it be a shake of the hand, a kiss, or a blowjob.
     One could spend endless paragraphs writing about why "Billy Lynn" is a novel worth reading. If you've made it this far in the review, then you're probably planning on checking it out anyway. It's really a book that can bring a smile to your face and goosebumps to your skin: you can relate to it, it's full of joy and humor, and it's incredibly smart and cutting in its depiction of American fandom and excess.