Olympus Has Fallen

olympus_has_fallen_posterThe first of two ‘White House-taken-over-by-terrorists’ flicks this year, Olympus Has Fallen, looks, sounds, and feels exactly like an action-picture relic from 1995, right down to the obvious dialogue and dated special effects.  It borrows heavily from genre staples like Die Hard and Air Force One, without ever providing a winning homage to either.

Olympus, from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (who has spent the last 12 years of his career reminding us he made that movie), is heavy on loud banging, but devoid of any and all smarts.  Had this movie been made 20 years ago with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, it might be one of my classic go-to actioners, or at least a passable two hours of commercial-broken cable TV programming.  But instead, we are brought to a silly 2013 setting in which North Korean invaders savagely attack the most secure building in the world—and do so rather easily by cinema standards.  At least the film is unintentionally timely.

Aaron Eckhart plays the U.S. President whose staff majority and himself are locked away in the lower bunker of the White House with a group of baddies who want to start some good old nuclear war.  Cue the always reliable Morgan Freeman as the new ‘Acting President’ in negotiation with the terrorists, and Gerard ‘This is Sparta!’ Butler as the one ex-special forces Secret Service agent, Mike Banning, who escapes Korean detection and runs amok killing off henchman in the blown-up and barricaded war zone of the Executive Mansion.

Olympus-Has-Fallen-GI’m actually shocked this idea hadn’t made it to the big screen before now.  Soon Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) will bring his brand of Armageddon-ography to the proceedings with Channing Tatum protecting Jamie Foxx.  But for we now we get Fuqua’s efforts which rely heavily on insanely stupid plotting under the guise of enormous and unnecessarily gratuitous action salted with some awkward patriotic propaganda.  I wanted to like his movie, but his ‘Die Hard-in-the-White-House’ extravaganza doesn’t hold a candle to the action classics of yore.  Butler is serviceable but not great.  Freeman is always a plus in any movie.  But the rest of the cast is wasted, especially Melissa Leo (who is beaten to a pulp and dragged away saying the Pledge of Allegiance—an awkward scene) and Ashley Judd as the first lady who is only given the most uninspired dialogue in her precious screen time.

Not to mention every single scene in the film has been done with far more skill and assurance in cinema past.  Fuqua’s movie carbon copies some great Die Hard, Speed, Air Force One, etc. moments and can’t up the ante.  It can only dumb it down incredibly, ultimately becoming one of the year’s dopiest films as it marches decades past its expiration date.  I say skip Olympus and wait to see what Emmerich brings to the table.

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Machine Gun Preacher

This is one film that has already had an impact in the real world, if only because it has suddenly made it cool again for Facebookers to lament the actions of child killer Joseph Kony, and send around anti-Kony Slogans that you are supposed to “like” and “share.” Machine Gun Preacher is a movie laden with violence, swearing and some sensuality, so kids shouldn’t see it, but, to be fair, it’s actually rather mild compared to the way it could have been. It portrays southern Sudan and northern Uganda in a realistic light. It confronts the politically incorrect, but very real fact that African Christians, and other non-muslims, are being persecuted and killed by Muslim jihadis, and have been for a long time.  But it focuses primarily on the menace of Kony, who leads his cult under a weird mix of Islam, Christianity and witchcraft, and kidnaps children, forcing them to kill for his army or be killed by it.

But we get another story first. In Pennsylvania, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. Childers has spent his life on the street, learning to use, deal, and fight. He has made his living as hired muscle for drug runners, and has hurt and killed more people than the law will ever uncover. Butler was an excellent choice to portray Childers. He’s taller and slimmer than the man he plays, but otherwise looks very similar. He has the build for the action part of the roll, and his acting in this picture is tour-de-force. Incidentally, he did this film for one thirtieth of his normal rate. Childers’ wife, Lynn, (Michelle Monaghan) picks him up and drives him home. Believing that she is still working as a stripper, he asks her what time she has to work that night. She tells him that she has given that up because it “isn’t right in the eyes of God.” He derisively asks “Oh, you found God?” She replies “He found me. And He helped me change.” At first Sam is angry that she’s left a profitable job, but he soon starts to realize that his old habits are coming back with a vengeance, and that he is on a fast track to be back in prison or dead. One day, Lynn catches him in the bathroom, trying to wash blood off of himself. All he can say is “help me.”

From left: Marco, unknown, Childers, Deng.

The following Sunday, Sam goes with Lynn and their daughter Paige to church. This movie was played in theaters all over America. I rejoiced when I saw that, not only was the portrayal of a Christian church fair and respectful, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ was accurately communicated. At the end of the service, Childers answers the pastor’s call to get wet in the baptismal font. A lot of serious Christians have legitimately argued that spur-of-the-moment alter calls such as the one depicted send more people to Hell than they save from it. But history does show us that Childers, at least, was a changed man afterword, and when watching a Hollywood movie, I don’t see any point in getting greedy. So there you have it: a conversion story from Hollywood. A rushed and watered-down conversion story to be sure, but a conversion story nonetheless.

Childers and Butler at the premier.

Childers eventually travels to Uganda as a construction worker, to help a mission. He hears about Kony and the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and sees a woman who’s face has been mutilated by them. Knowing that he can take care of himself, he leaves the beaten path and sees the aftermath of an LRA attack on a village. The last shot is of him howling in grief over a dead child. He returns home and eventually tells his wife God has told him to build two things: the last thing America needs (one more church building) and the first thing the Sudan needs (one more orphanage, only this one will be near Kony’s territory).

In reality, this orphanage is now the largest in Southern Sudan and has fed and housed over 1,000 children. Today, more than 200 children are being raised and educated there. Most of the staff is composed of orphans that grew up there themselves. And while this is never mentioned in the movie, Lynn works closely with Sam on the ministry, and they have a group called Angles of East Africa that they founded together.

The two “rescue vehicles” of Childer’s mission.

The strange thing is, you would usually expect a movie that is based on a true story to sensationalize and make it bigger. From what I’ve read, this movie seems to do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action, but the story seems blunted, almost as if the director doesn’t really want us to see Childers as a hero. A lot of things are never explained. For example, we never see how Childers came to be giving orders to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but after a few scenes he’s leading a team of five men, including Deng (Souleymane Savane) and

The newly saved Lynn waits for her murderer husband to emerge from prison.

Marco (Mdudzi Mabaso), into life-or-death missions. We’re left to assume he simply inspired a few of them to follow him and do something about Kony. After a while, Childers starts treating his family like dirt. The movie eventually leads up to one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying non-endings I have ever seen. Perhaps worst of all, the last bit of spiritual dialogue we hear in the movie is Childers lashing  out at God for not saving some kids. I didn’t have a problem with it being there. After all, what Christian hasn’t wrestled with feelings like this? But I see no reason to finish the movie on that note, especially when the real Sam Childers doesn’t have that attitude today.

All in all, this movie brings plenty to the table: good visceral action, some hard questions to wrestle with, and a story that remained untold for far too long. Most of the problems it does have can be attributed to trying to tell an absolutely massive story, on two continents, in just over two hours. It’s far from being a perfect movie, or a perfect spiritual message. But it’s a darn good movie, and even as a spiritual message it has something to offer. This is a movie that needed to be made, and that you need to see.

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Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)

How to Train Your Dragon

“Iron Man 2” is about to blast off, but “How to Train Your Dragon” has sort of become the hottest topic at the box office so far this year.  Yes, “Alice in Wonderland,” took the world by storm, but “Dragon” started small and has been raking in viewers every weekend since, showing legs that are like  the second cousin-twice-removed of ‘Avatar.’  So it is in this light that I decide to review “How to Train Your Dragon,” which I went to see only curiously out of its sweeping success.
Somewhat disappointingly, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not the heralded classic its Tomatometer rating might suggest.  The Dreamworks Animation feature has to be experienced on a purely visceral and visual level.  The 3D factor really helps nudge this one a cut above the rest, making a stronger impression than “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens,” but still never reaching Pixar-level storytelling.

The plot involves a young blacksmith, Hiccup, born to the greatest viking in all the land.  Hiccup may be born of vikings, but he has little violence in his blood, as much as he tries to be the warrior his father is.  In an attempt to showcase some valor, Hiccup tries a shot at catching himself a dragon, and does so.  No one believes his story, but the young lad ends up training his newfound pet, Toothless, in secret, learning all the tricks and trades of the dragon population, which allows him to make 180-transition in his training simulations.  Over the course of the boy and dragon’s growing bond, Hiccup learns that the dragons really aren’t savage beasts, and decides he must try to stop the viking population from attacking these harmless creatures.

The story sounds as though it would appeal on an emotional level, but it never quite gets there.  The plot is very standard in the traditional sense of the animation universe, and I think the movie is best enjoyed as an entertaining 3D wallop, which it most certainly is.  Toothless, the dragon, is very cute, and the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is no more than cute.  Perhaps I’ve been getting used to movies like “Up” and “Wall-E” that have had the opportunity to hamper my judgment with animated movies, but simply put, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not quite up to that quality-level of filmmaking–and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Dreamworks provides another serviceable entry to their canon that provides eye-popping action sequences in 3D that make a good argument for that extra dimension.  Audiences should be thrilled, entertained, and will certainly enjoy themselves for the movie is certainly never boring, but I didn’t find it to be as emotionally resonant as it thinks it is.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (2 votes cast)