Monday, 22 April 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

‘“Die Hard” in the White House’ was presumably the six-word pitch for Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” a brawny action blockbuster which, given how piss-poor John McClane’s 2013 Russian vacation turned out, can pride itself as the best darn “Die Hard” movie of the year so far. Standing in for Nakatomi Plaza, 1600 Penn is under siege: following a devastating airborne assault on D.C. that results in the legs-crossing destruction of the famously phallic Washington Monument, North Korean goons armed with guns and grenades storm the White House and take hunky President Asher (Aaron Eckhart, “Rabbit Hole”) hostage in the building’s impenetrable underground bunker.

Their goal: get the US government to order the retreat of Western forces in Korea while extracting nuclear launch codes from the President and his staff. If the government fails to comply, Mr President gets it in the back of the head. Enter Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, “Playing for Keeps”), an ex-Secret Service agent who sneaks in through the front door unnoticed during the initial attack and whose very particular set of skills sure come in handy: one by one, he takes out the terrorist scumbags like an unstoppable cross between John McClane and Jack Bauer, albeit with a Scottish brogue dancing merrily on the tip of his supposedly all-American tongue.

Watching “Olympus Has Fallen," one can’t help but recall just how great John McTiernan’s ‘88 action masterpiece really was: not just thrilling Friday-night entertainment, it boasted a bravura, star-making performance from Bruce Willis and was particularly impressive in how it maintained a perfect balance between McClane’s cocky heroics, Cali’s clueless police force and Alan Rickman’s smarmy villainy. Fuqua’s film doesn’t quite nail that balance, with Banning’s butt-kicking not as prominent as it should be, and frankly, Butler’s no Brucie. Yet the film is enjoyable, with the action refreshingly brutal and bloody, Rick Yune (“Die Another Day”) making for a coldly sinister villain and Butler getting in some memorable wise-ass cracks: “How about we play a game of fuck off?” he snaps at Yune’s terrorist mastermind via walkie talkie. “You go first.” Fuqua, meanwhile, keeps the action tough, tense and pleasingly preposterous, though it’s often let down by crummy VFX — considering the $70 million budget, you’d think Fuqua and his crew could afford digital effects rendered after the turn of the century.

Coincidentally, another ‘“Die Hard” in the White House’ flick is coming in September: Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,” which, in a bold move, dresses leading man Channing Tatum in McClane’s iconic muddied wife-beater. Beating “Olympus Has Fallen” in the fun department would be a fair, if not extraordinary feat, but topping its corny, flag-waving jingoism will be tough: count the number of times Old Glory is seen fluttering majestically in the wind while a drum-martial score thunders triumphantly in the background. Oh, and there’s a scene in the Oval Office where Butler bashes a badguy’s brains in with an iron bust of Abraham Lincoln. God bless America.


Friday, 19 April 2013


American commercials director Joseph Kosinski made an ambitious feature debut in 2010 with Disney’s “TRON: Legacy,” the anticipated sequel to the game-changing 1982 cult sci-fi flick “TRON” which, both in spite of and because of the hype, proved a disappointment for many: though visually dazzling, it was emotionally vacant and featured a leading performance so wooden it could be boxed up and sold at IKEA. Kosinski’s follow-up, a $120-million sci-fi thriller adapted from his unpublished graphic novel “Oblivion,” is a minor upgrade, flaunting big ideas, an intriguing plot and a leading actor who isn’t Garrett Hedlund. But for the second time in a row, Kosinski has directed a film that, while pleasingly designed and technically impressive, lacks the necessary spark to bring it to life — the result, once again, is a stunning spectacle, but a sterile one.

Set in the year 2077, “Oblivion” imagines a future Earth reduced to a nigh-uninhabitable, post-apocalyptic wasteland following a thwarted but catastrophic attack by alien invaders. What’s left of civilisation now hovers above the globe in a giant, upside-down pyramid while our planet’s last remaining resources are carefully extracted. Tom Cruise (“Jack Reacher”) is Jack Harper, a former astronaut tasked with repairing the unmanned drones that hunt down hostile alien life forms in the desolate American East Coast, as monitored from a palace in the sky by communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, “W.E.”) and overseen via video link by the chilly, disembodied voice of commander Sally (Melissa Leo, playing a perky, Southern-twanged HAL).

In two weeks, Jack and Victoria’s mission will be over and they will go join the rest of mankind on their new home, Saturn moon Titan. But when a spacecraft comes crashing down to Earth and from its fiery wreckage emerges the mysterious woman who for years has haunted Jack’s dreams (Olga Kurylenko, “To the Wonder”), Jack is forced to question the reality with which he has been presented and, to his horror, comes to realise that all is not as it seems.

There’s plenty to like in “Oblivion:” the future-tech design is neat, the techno score from M83 surges with a pulsating energy, and the tumultuous love triangle shared between Cruise, Riseborough and Kurylenko provides a brief but appreciated human element that crucially was missing from “TRON: Legacy." Unfortunately, glacial pacing means that the film drags considerably in its lengthy, world-building set-up, the story first gaining momentum well over an hour into the overstretched 120-minute runtime — by the time Morgan Freeman turns up, chomping on a cigar in a thankless supporting role as a goggled, all-knowing resistance leader, boredom has settled in, and the high-octane action that follows doesn't quite compensate.

Plus, the film is shrouded in an thick fog of eerie familiarity, far too derivative of other, better sci-fi movies: constantly borrowed, recycled and outright thieved are elements from enduring classics such as “Brazil,” “Planet of the Apes,” “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” along with newer, superior genre entries such as “Wall-E," “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" and “Moon" — even the grand, explosive finale is a clone of that of “Independence Day," if without the goofy sense of humour and the unashamed sense of fun. As always, Cruise makes for a breezily charming action-hero and wanders the ruined Earth with the same troubled look of wistful longing recently sported by Will Smith in Francis Lawrence’s last-man-on-Earth pic “I Am Legend.” But in the realm of high-concept sci-fi blockbusters starring Mr Cruise, this is hardly “Minority Report” — still, Kosinski gives it a good go, and the barren landscapes sure are pretty.


Friday, 12 April 2013

Evil Dead

It almost sounds like the premise for a horror movie: 34 years ago, in the winter of ‘79, a couple of college pals ventured deep into the dark woods of Morristown, Tennessee to make a low-budget splatter-shocker called “The Evil Dead.” The result, made with $90,000 and bathed in gallons of red karo syrup, was a cult classic of its genre: though its unwavering commitment to graphic grotesquery saw it initially branded by newspaper headlines as “obscene” and labelled in the UK as a “video nasty," writer-director Sam Raimi’s outrageous feature debut went on to become a roaring global success, topping the rental charts when released on video in 1983, transforming its star Bruce Campbell into a beloved cult icon, rightly hailed as a masterpiece of modern horror and going on to spawn two worthy, and increasingly comedic, sequels (1987’s “Evil Dead II” and 1993's “Army of Darkness”).

And, to complete the ritual with which Hollywood has recently bestowed the genre, now comes the inevitable remake, which flaunts the glossy visual flair and impossibly attractive leads that have come to represent the big-budget horror recycle. Yet it would be wrong to lump Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez’s lovingly crafted modern-day revival in with the vacuous, Michael Bay-produced, 21st century updates of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," “Friday the 13th" and “A Nightmare on Elm Street," or, god forbid, the infamously ham-handed “Wicker Man" hack-job featuring a gurning, career-torching Nicolas Cage. Given the stamp of approval by producers Raimi and Campbell, the “Evil Dead” of 2013 is an infinitely superior work to those dead-eyed imitations, springing with life and helmed by a director armed with a genuine care for the film he’s making and a heartfelt affection for the one he’s remaking.

The basic premise is unchanged: once again, a group of five doomed twentysomethings drive to a secluded cabin in the woods, and once again, demonic forces come out from the trees to ruin their vacation. There is, however, a neat twist this time round: heroin addict Mia (an excellent Jane Levy) vows upon arrival to put a stop her drug-taking, emptying her baggie of white powder into a nearby well and preparing herself for the familiar horrors of going cold turkey. This lends the group an intriguing dynamic once the evil is unleashed and Mia begins acting “strange,” but any sense of ambiguity as to her apparently fast-dwindling mental state — are these symptoms of withdrawal or signs of a possession? — is quickly thrown out the cabin window and left to die in the woods when an ominous warning from a crazed, shotgun-wielding Mia starts to be fulfilled: “You are all going to die tonight.”

Alvarez's reverence for Raimi's original is clear as he infuses his update with visual nods and winks — be it the camera gliding hurriedly through the woods in pursuit of our heroes, or the beady eyes of a “Deadite” staring out from under the chained-up cellar door — and daringly recreates iconic moments from the trilogy: the infamous tree-rape scene is given a legs-crossing, parasitic spin, while a scene of demon-ridding self-amputation evokes a similar life-saving act by trilogy hero Ash, if shown in more graphic detail and without the sly pay-off of a wickedly funny Ernest Hemingway gag. Of course, with unavoidable and nigh-unfair comparison, Raimi’s film always comes out on top, but it’s impressive how sturdily Alvarez’s version stands on its own two feet, thanks in part to his dauntless direction and the infectious verve with which he depicts the grisly carnage.

Speaking of which, the film is certainly not to be viewed by the squeamish: once that Candarian incantation from the Book of the Dead is ill-advisedly read aloud, nary a minute goes by where the screen isn’t dripping with blood and guts and piss and vomit. To say that the film is gory is to say that the Atlantic Ocean is watery: indeed, so bloody is it that at one point in the nail-biting (and hand-lopping) climax, bucket-loads of blood literally pour from the night sky, a gloriously gruesome and utterly surreal sight shockingly topped moments later with the swing of a chainsaw — never before has the decimation of a human skull wielded such lurid beauty.

However, in amongst all the gratuitous mayhem, an error is made: screenwriters Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues and Diablo Cody (“Juno”) aim for both straight-faced sentimentality and sadistic glee in the same breath, a trick Raimi’s original pulled off thanks to a (reportedly unintentional) campiness that Alvarez's version, scared of being cheesy, deliberately avoids (“We can’t bury Shelly, s-she’s a friend of ours!” shrieked Ashley J. Williams in 1981, and oh how we laughed). Plus, for a film that boldly purports in its poster to be “the most terrifying film you will ever experience,” it comes up curiously short in the frights department: the scariest it gets is in its multitude of jump scares, while its moments of pulse-pounding suspense are, save for the 10-minute finale, all too brief, faltering in comparison with the overwhelming intensity of Raimi’s original.

Still, “Evil Dead” marks a mightily impressive debut from Alvarez, whose first film is an eye-popping technical marvel that champions old-school effects and which can pride itself as one of the finest horror remakes of recent years. Leave your skepticism at the cabin door, folks: “Evil Dead” is a rollicking, blood-splattered roller-coaster ride. Oh, and make sure you sit through the credits: there’s a stinger at the end guaranteed to put a grin on any fan’s face.