Olympus Rising

OlympusHasFallenOnesheet3screamsTwo movies, both about terrorists taking over the White House, the first in theaters now (Olympus Has Fallen) and the second, White House Down, still to come. But if you count G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it’s three, since that plot involves evildoers replacing the president with a lookalike, assault from within. You can imagine the pitch, at least for the first two: “It’s Die Hard in the White House!”

Yes, it’s a live-action version of a first-person shooter video game, but I kind of like Olympus Has Fallen, despite its chest-thumping title.

The plot is simple. A wily North Korean terrorist successfully takes over the White House, making a hostage of the President and his inner circle and killing a lot of people along the way. The greatest nation in the world with the greatest military in the world is completely helpless, hopeless, and hapless. Well, maybe there’s one guy . . .

Enter disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning. The movie provides an interesting back-story for Banning that seems lifted from In the Line of Fire, but it still works, also providing a plausible excuse for why our hero would not have been mowed down in the first wave of the assault on the White House. As in the Clint Eastwood movie, the theme is redemption, a serious theme that lifts the movie somewhat. Compare this theme to the one announced in the G.I. Joe subtitle: Retaliation, a theme as thin as the celluloid the movie is not printed on.

Act Two is essentially target practice. What I hate about most movies like this is the way they ask for a willing suspension of disbelief instead of earning it. The solution is often obvious, but the characters have to be blind to it in order for the producers to reach their 96-minute run-time. But here, just when you’re thinking, “Well, why don’t they just . . . ,” they do just that, usually with disastrous results. Because this is America, baby, and no amount of soldiers, sharp-shooters, missiles, and metal-plated generals can prevail against Evil. What it takes is a rugged individual, a man with skills and with something to prove.

Gerard Butler, also the movie’s producer, establishes himself nicely as a gravelly-voiced action hero-with-a-past. In fact, for the first time since I can remember, he does a completely convincing American accent, with no trace of his native Scotland eking through. Aaron Eckhart, as the President, is a good actor mostly wasted. The wonderful Melissa Leo has several strong moments and smartly snaps off some good one-liners.

Rick Yune provides the movie with its monomaniacal villain, who seems to have worked out the assault with exquisite detail. People magazine may have dubbed him the sexiest villain, but there’s a bit of vacancy behind the eyes that makes him seem less menacing than he might have been. But maybe I’m still too fixated on the suave and sadistic over-the-top villain Alan Rickman played in Die Hard. I like my villains with a taste for classical music, claret, and, oh yes, cutlery.

Morgan Freeman plays the Speaker of the House who takes over as President. Most of these movies (e.g., Air Force One) depend not so much on dialogue as on barked commands and snarled threats (“Do it! Now!”). Watch Freeman order a cup of coffee in the Situation Room and you see both why he’s a great actor and also the strong contrast between what’s real and what’s cartoon.

There isn’t a move in Olympus Has Fallen that you can’t predict from across the street, but it’s all carried off with speed, efficiency, and a dash of style. In an age of bloated, over-long, over-budgeted movies that are less block-buster than block-blubber, that’s quite an accomplishment.


The Biddable Oscars

Oscar statuetteJulie Gray has an interesting entry in her always-interesting blog Just Effing Entertain Me about why she doesn’t watch the Oscars anymore. It kind of stops you in your tracks. Here’s a woman who runs a highly regarded screenwriting contest and who works in the industry. And she doesn’t watch the Oscars? Sacrilege! But I have to say that, after watching this year’s ceremony—every tedious minute from red carpet to good night—I see her point.

The Oscar ceremony has always been an overproduced and under-imagined affair—an extended promo for the industry. And that’s been all right because there were moments that caught you by surprise: Sasheen Littlefeather refusing Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather; the streaker running past David Niven, who opined that the man was showing off “all his shortcomings”; Jack Palance doing those one-armed push-ups; any minute of any of Billy Crystal’s performances as host. Yes, my friends, there was a time when it was still possible to be surprised. But that time has passed.

The most potentially surprising moment in last night’s ceremony was Melissa Leo’s dropping of the f-bomb, but that was neatly censored on the fly. And I have to say that, as much as I admire James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I can’t help thinking that actors were chosen to host this year because they’re more biddable than comedians. They’re trained to hit their marks and say their lines and not embarrass anyone.

My wife (and writing partner) and I sometimes print out ballots and compete to see who can guess the most wins. But this year we didn’t touch them. What’s the point? The winner would just be the person who’s best at identifying the predictable choices of mediocre minds. Am I saying Hollywood minds are mediocre? No, no, no! I mean, yes, yes, yes! But they’re no more mediocre and predictable than the minds of the rest of us. Any time a group of people are polled, you’re going to get the lowest common denominator. What was it Thoreau said? “Any man more right than his neighbor is a majority of one.”

Was The King’s Speech really the best movie of the year? Or is it just one more example of Oscar’s tendency to over-praise all things English? A high-born man overcomes his stutter to deliver an important speech without a hitch. Yes, Colin Firth is great at depicting the pain and embarrassment of such an affliction. But is there enough story there? And best director? Really? I mean, really?

While I enjoyed the performances of the best actor winners, especially Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, didn’t they seem over-the-top, especially Natalie Portman’s performance, which was all high school histrionics. It’s sad that Oscar always goes for the loud and over-determined performance instead of the solid, affecting, quieter, and more real performances of actors like Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), and Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine).

But there were at least two well-deserved Oscars of the night. The Social Network won for best editing. In case you haven’t seen it, The Social Network is a movie about typing. And here’s the twist: it’s about typing on a computer keyboard! The editors deserve the win for making typing look sexy and exciting. It’s not. The other deserving win came to Inception for best visual effects, a no-brainer. What’s it about? Visual effects. “No, no,” I hear you say, “it’s about dreams and reality and—“ Actually, it’s about visual effects. Period.

Maybe the Oscar ceremony was never more than one long infomercial for the movie industry, but wasn’t it once livelier, funnier, and more unpredictable? I’m with you, Julie. I’ll check the wins the day after. And I’ll watch whatever flubs and surprises are caught on Youtube. But Oscar, you and I are so done.