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Column Fri Mar 22 2013

Olympus Has Fallen, The Croods, Admission, Spring Breakers & War Witch

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Olympus Has Fallen

This movie is so crazy it just might work. Whether you enjoy this White House-takeover film from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Shooter) or don't is going to depend on how much the absurd appeals to you. The premise is certainly intriguing, so much so that two movies about terrorists storming the White House are coming out this year (White House Down is scheduled for a June release). But Olympus Has Fallen is the first out of the gate and features some action sequences that range from completely effective to moments worthy of grand fits of groaning and eye rolling.

The film opens with a solid set up. Gerard Butler plays Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, the man in charge of security for President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, which includes the first lady (Ashley Judd), who is killed in a nasty car accident. Banning blames himself for her death since his focus was on saving the president, but that's his job. Skip ahead two years, Banning now works a desk job for the Treasury Department, enjoys time with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and is still tortured by the first lady's death.

When the president is hosting a delegation from South Korea, a fully armed plane flies across the Washington, D.C., airspace aimed right at the White House, while a well-coordinated ground strike is executed that includes members of the delegation. Within less than 15 minutes, the White House is taken and the president and members of his cabinet are being help captive in an underground bunker. The ringleader of the mission is the radical North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune of Ninja Assassin and The Man with the Iron Fists). The film is weirdly careful not to blame the actual North Korean leadership for the attack.

It just so happens that Banning's office is near the White House and he fights his way into the building under heavy fire, making him the only American in the building not being held captive, and the only person with a remote possibility of saving the president. He establishes contact with those calling the shots on regaining the White House, including the speaker of the house (and current commander-in-chief) Morgan Freeman and the Secret Service director (Angela Bassett). Inside the bunker, the president is quietly advised by his secretary of defense (a particularly good Melissa Leo).

The film gets a little sidetracked with a storyline involving finding the president's young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who is hiding from Kang's men, who want to use the boy to get the president to give up certain military codes that would lead the country vulnerable to attack. But that element of the film doesn't really go anywhere once Banning finds the kid. Things pick up again when Banning goes head to head with the terrorists and finds ways to outsmart Kang, since there's not way he could possibly outgun him. The U.S. military response (as laid out by a general played by Robert Forrester) is cut down rather quickly and brutally.

In fact, Olympus Has Fallen is an especially violent and unflinching film when it comes to killing (in particular, headshots abound), so if that bothers you, stay far away. Fuqua does an outstanding job keeping the geography of the action clear so we always know where the good guys and bad guys are situated. I'll also admit it was kind of great to watch Butler really cut loose as an action star again. Banning is a man who feels he has something to make up for with this president, and it's clear that he's willing to sacrifice his own life to ensure the safety of Asher.

I also loved the pairing of Freeman and Bassett. In so many other films, they have become the voices of authority. But together, they're unstoppable. I was especially impressed by the screenplay's lack of a fuck-up character, on either side of this fight. I kept expecting someone to make a major mistake (Forrester comes the closest, but doesn't quite get there) and send the plot into an easy wrap-up. But that never happens. Everyone plays their roles as highly intelligent characters who have to find creative ways to outwit the other. Both sides score points in this battle of wits and weapons.

Olympus Has Fallen counts on its audience to buy into the basic premise that the most secure building in the world could fall the way it does here. If you can do that, you'll probably have a good time watching Die Hard in the White House. There are a couple of nice turns I wasn't anticipating as well as a few resolutions that should offer enough surprises for audiences sick of predictable action movies of late. If you can handle the elevated and never-ending barrage of shooting and stabbing, you'll likely find yourself entertained and maybe a little guilty at how Fuqua and company know exactly what buttons to push to get you there. We are a predictable people.

The Croods

Far more enjoyable than I'd guessed it would be from the trailer, the animated work The Croods works as both a story about an overprotective father during caveman times and as a silly, inventive comedy filled with wonderful prehistoric creatures and some great voice work from a talented group of actors. The story is simple. Grug (Nicolas Cage, refusing to dial back his Cage-ness just because we don't see his face) is the patriarch of a family of cave dwellers who have learned to be especially cautious about stepping out of their cave into the wild world outside. His wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke) and grandmother (Cloris Leachman) seem to understand his reasons for being so protective, but his formative daughter Eep (Emma Stone) wants to wander.

During one of her journeys outside the cave, Eep discovers a slightly more evolved human named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who has, among his many advanced possessions, fire. Suddenly her eyes are opened to the possibilities of what the world outside may hold. And when she brings Guy to meet her family, his advances (Gurg would say "less safe") ways become infectious. At around this time, the earth is going through some major shifting, and soon the Croods' cave is gone and they must search out a more stable and fruitful place to live. What they discover is a rich land filled with colorful creatures, plants and landscapes, but danger is still a part of their lives.

If I told you that repeated Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on The Croods, would that make you more likely to see it? Deakins' influence is all over the film's stunning visuals, from lighting a scene whose only light source is a torch to sprawling vistas. But I also loved the designs of the wildlife (plant and animal) in the world of The Croods, some of which is clearly based on nothing but imagination. I was also so impressed with the casual nature of the voice acting here. The delivery doesn't feel like joke, joke, joke; it's more of a conversational manner of talking that made it easier to accept these characters as people.

The film was co-directed by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and the great Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon), and their combined emphasis on this family story goes from fairly lighthearted at the beginning to an all-out action film and tale of self-sacrifice to keep those you love safe. The tonal switch is welcome and so different than the one-note delivery so many animated films hit.

Cage fans should pay particular attention because the man is just as on fire here as he is in just about any of his live-action works. But the real hero of The Croods is Emma Stone, who does hormonal teenager better than just about anyone — living or animated. She has such a wonderfully manic delivery, and while Eep may not look anything like Stone, there are things about her mannerisms that are clearly borrowed from the actress' arsenal. Even though she clearly has the upper-body strength to rip me in half, that didn't stop me from falling for Eep a little bit.

The Croods doesn't pander to younger audiences nearly as much as you might believe. I'm sure many younger kids will be slightly traumatized by some of the animal attacks, but probably twice as many will want stuffed versions of said animals to play with after they see the movie. Most of the films overt messages seem to be aimed more toward adults, asking them to let go of their growing kids a little bit so they can go out into the world and make their own mistakes (allowing them to become film critics, for example). I genuinely enjoyed this film, and while I'm not sure it will be one of my favorite animated films of 2013, it's miles better than that god-forsaken Escape from Planet Earth.

Admission

I'd suspected for a while that the trailers for the latest film from director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy, In Good Company) was a bit more of an emotional journey than the trailers were leading on, and I'm glad that turned out to be true. Based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz (and adapted by Karen Croner, One True Thing), Admission is the story of a woman who has spent so much of her life judging others that she has forgotten to turn a critical eye on the bland life she has built for herself. But the best news about the movie is that it treats its subject and characters seriously, even when the laughs are flowing.

Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, who is possibly in line to take over the department when her boss (Wallace Shawn) retires. She receives a call from an alternative high school run by a former classmate named John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who wants her to consider one of his students for Princeton. And while it is part of her job to visit schools where possible candidates might come from to prep them for the admissions process, John has gotten her there for another reason. He suspects that his prize student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is Portia's son, whom she gave up for adoption when she was in college.

The kid is gifted for sure, but his grades are terrible, even though he tests through the roof. Portia takes a special interest in both Jeremiah and in John, to whom she forms a romantic attachment (it's Paul Rudd, of course she does). The freedom she feels to be herself runs counter to the roles that have been assigned to her for her whole life by her smothering feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) and her long-term boyfriend (a very funny smaller part for Michael Sheen), who can't stop patting Portia's head and giving her reinforcement like a pet before he leaves her for a literature professor specializing in Virginia Woolf.

As it should be, Portia's unresolved feelings about giving up her child rise to the surface and cause her to make some unwise decisions in the hopes of getting Jeremiah into Princeton. And the idea of having a son to help out and a boyfriend who actually cares about her seems too perfect to be true.

A couple of issues I had with Admission have to do with its message, in that, I could never quite figure out what the message was. Fey narrates the film, so it has to have a message — them's the rules. I'm not sure what I'd learned about life from this story, and it left me feeling a bit empty or at least rudderless.

Not a criticism exactly, but Rudd is overqualified for this part. He's too funny for the comedy that is required here, but he's too good an actor to be playing someone who essentially just smiles and act roguishly charming. We know he can do this; he's been doing it since Clueless. There's surprisingly little depth to his character, nor is there any kind of arc. The person he ends up being by the end of the movies is pretty much the guy we met at the beginning. It's always great to see him work, but compare this role to what you'll see him do later in the year in David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, and you'll understand.

Still, Admission has its moments, and most of them are thanks to Fey, who refuses to simply let Portia be a variation of Liz Lemon. The insecurities may be similar, but Portia is a very different person whose ability to do her job is never a source of anxiety for her. Admission may leave you scratching your head about its themes, but that doesn't stop Fey and Rudd from being really strong partners in storytelling. Some may resent the lack of easy laughs, but I found it refreshing to be reminded that the two leads are also solid actors.

Spring Breakers

After years of watching a particular actor, you start to think you know what they're capable of, what their limits are, what they will and won't do. And that's pretty much where I was with James Franco, who tends to be pretty great even in bad movies, but with performance in everything from 127 Hours to this month's Oz the Great and Powerful, I thought I knew his range and limits. And then at SXSW recently, I saw him in writer-director Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and my mind was blown irreparably.

We'll get to the rest of the film in a minute, but let's talk Franco for a while. In the film, he plays a rapper named Alien, complete with cornrows in his hair, a gold grill covering his teeth, and a big dumb grin to go along with his. His accent is pure Cajun gangsta, and his mannerisms are a twisted amalgam of every hip-hop video he's ever seen. It's a masterful performance that deserves award after award from now until next year's Oscars. You'll be quoting Alien's lines for at least six months, but probably longer. It's pure hazardous electricity that had me terrified, exhilarated, and thrilled with the prospect that one of my favorite actors is still actively improving his craft.

As for the rest of the movie? Yeah, it's pretty incredible at times as Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely) puts forth a display of behavior that will both disgust and provoke audiences. And that's just from the actual spring breakers who Korine then throws his actors in the midst of. This is the tale of four college girls, who all seem to have different ideas of what spring break means to them. For some, it means bad behavior and no consequences, but for others (especially Selena Gomez's Faith), it's a time to escape the good-girl life she's been living since she was a child. When the girls realize they don't have enough money for their trip, they simply commit an armed robbery (with painted water pistols). Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine only seem to know how to escalate as they go from crimes with fake weapons to using Alien's cache of weapons to commit very real crimes with deadly consequences.

The entire film takes on the violent haze of a fever dream mixed with a party nightmare. There's a sequence in which Alien is attempting to talk Faith out of leaving their happy little band of misfits, and it's utterly terrifying. All Franco does is touch her face and stand way too close to her, but it's enough to completely shatter her illusion of what this "paradise" truly is. Even a sequence set in a beyond-nasty strip club is impossible to enjoy because the tension levels are amped up as far as they can go thanks to a territory beef between Alien and a rival drug dealer threatening to explode.

Spring Breakers is a mind-fuck art-house film cleverly disguised as an exercise in putting young flesh on display that still manages to do a fine job of putting said flesh on display. I wish I could be at every screening of this movie just so I could watch the reactions of young girls going into it thinking Disney princesses Hudgens and Gomez were doing a cutesy movie about going to Florida with their pals. If they don't flee the theater, they'll see the finest work of Franco and Korine's respective careers, and an impressive head-first dive in adult acting for Hudgens in particular, who goes for absolute broke here. Gomez gets off a little easier, but her scene with Franco probably emotionally scarred her for life.

Don't go into Spring Breakers worried too much about plot. There is one; don't misunderstand. But really this is a film that assaults all five of your senses (if you can't smell and taste how nasty this place is, you aren't watching it right) and leaves you begging for more. The film doesn't hold back on the violence, nudity (mainly with the extras), or music overload. I loved the experience even as I dreaded what was coming next at almost every turn. It's tough to explain, so just grow a pair and go see it. I predict this film will show up on a few end-of-year lists and rightfully so. You've never seen anything quite like it, and that's probably a good thing.

War Wtich

We immediately recognize that something about War Wtich (which played at festivals and opened in certain countries as Rebelle) is both special and dangerous. Our narrator is a pregnant 14-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who is talking to her as-yet-unborn baby, and she's questioning whether she'll ever be able to love this child once it's born or whether she should simply let it die out in the middle of war-torn Sub-Saharan Africa, where the film takes place. Komona tells the child inside about her life for the previous two years, and it's as harrowing and terrifying tale as you are like to see.

At the age of 12, Komona was kidnapped from her village after being forced to execute her parents, thus beginning her young life as a child soldier for a band of rebels under the command of a man known as the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), a man who believes as much in magic to win his war as he does weapons and strategy. When it is discovered that Komona can see ghosts of the recently deceased (including her parents), and that these specters are giving her warnings about nearby government troop positions, she becomes a valuable asset to Great Tiger, who elevates her to the esteemed position of "War Witch."

Komona finds kindness and even love in a fellow young soldier named Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), who is also believed to have special powers, and the two eventually run off together to start a life without violence (they even go through a self-created marriage ceremony). But neither the past nor the Great Tiger give up that easily. I won't go into detail, but the child Komona speaks to was not fathered by her "husband."

Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (this is a French-language Canadian production), War Wtich may simply be too shocking and blunt for some viewers. The sight of these young children gunning down or hacking away at their enemies may be more than our sense of right and wrong can handle. But writer-director Kim Nguyen (City of Shadows, Truffe) has built a difficult story about rebuilding one's soul after it has been savaged by outside forces. There is a section of the movie where Komona and Magicien live with his uncle (Ralph Prosper) in relative peace and serenity, and in those moments we see her true spirit, which makes what happens next all the more devastating.

Most of the film is told in flashback, but director Nguyen makes it feel more like a dreamlike vision (and occasionally a vivid nightmare) with sometimes hazy visuals and exaggerated reality. What is most fascinating are the ghosts that appear and sometimes speak to Komona. They are simply people covered head to tow in what looks like flour; there are no special effects are work here, which makes them no less eerie. And of course, this is what this young girl would think ghosts look like. Are they real? Does she truly have the gift of second sight? In the end, these questions don't matter because Komona is convinced they are real and capable of being both frightening and helpful.

As much as War Wtich is a film that incorporates the belief in magic, it is also a raw, unflinching look at a continuing situation throughout parts of Africa: the practice of turning children into ruthless killing machines. As much as audiences will likely enjoy the moments involving Komona escaping the rebels, it feels like fantasy, like something she imagined in her mind so as not to have to cope with the reality of her situation. Nguyen puts a face on this tragedy and brings out the reality of kids training to be vicious murderers and handed an AK-47 or a machete. After one particularly important victory, the rebels celebrate in an alcohol-fueled party complete with machine guns shot in the air and a nasty, threatening vibe in the air.

The final act of War Wtich primarily focuses on Komona's pregnancy and brutal birthing method. As bleak as the film is for much of its running time, it is also a work that is held together my brief but significant moments of hope and kindness. Our young heroine is driven to return to her village to properly honor her parents' death in order to set her damaged heart right and also to let their ghosts rest and stop haunting her. The film features a powerful and provocative story and several of the finest, most natural performances I've seen in quite a while by first-time actors, including young Mwanza, whose work earned her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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