This is an interesting week with a slew of new releases, all of which are from directors with track records that include better work than we’re getting now. Given the number of films this week, I’ll keep the reviews and commentary relatively short. —Tony Sheppard
Olympus Has Fallen Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Antione Fuqua is building a steady record of crime and action films, probably still most notably “Training Day” with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. In “Olympus Has Fallen,” he gives us what is essentially “Die Hard: The White House” only with Bruce Willis being played by Gerard Butler. That said, it’s a far more enjoyable film and also closer to the original “Die Hard” model than the latest entry in that series and Willis could do a lot worse than go to Fuqua if he wants to keep going as John McClane (although Fuqua’s dance card seems pretty full for the next couple of years – with four films in production or pre-production according to imdb.com).
In serendipitous timing for the producers, given recent headlines and developments coming out of the Korean peninsula, the action in “Olympus Has Fallen” is based on the idea of the White House and President being taken by a team of North Koreans intent on forcing a U.S. pullout from that area of the world. The action sequences are well put together and, at times, realistically low tech – in the sense that a lot can be accomplished with radicals who are simply willing to die and with converted, everyday and unremarkable vehicles like sanitation trucks. But the film still relies on one of those key plot points that always seems a bit silly (a computer process with no override capability) and plays upon the idea that government officials are always vulnerable if they have loved ones who can be captured. You’re likely to walk away from a film like this thinking that politicians should have their families locked away in a military installation at all times or that the qualifying characteristics for President of the United States should read like a vintage Pony Express recruiting poster – no family or attachments, “orphans preferred.” As with almost any film of this kind, it’s far better as a low-thought action film than as a civics lesson.
Admission Directed by Paul Weitz
Paul Weitz has a record that includes the original “American Pie,” the excellent “About a Boy” (that launched the film career of current it guy Nicholas Hoult), and the visually interesting “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” – any of which carry more appeal than “Admission.” Which isn’t to say that “Admission” is especially bad, just that it’s rather flat. I think the fact that I enjoyed it even as much as I did probably stems more from it being about college admissions and me being a college professor than from the quality of the production. It stars Tina Fey as a Princeton admissions officer and Paul Rudd as a teacher at a small, alternative school, trying to champion the cause of one of his students. Fey just seems underused here, delivering lines that would probably have been funnier if she had written them herself. Rudd, by comparison, seems quite appealing and comes across better than he often does (and I’m not implying that I don’t like him as an actor) in a role that appears more tightly scripted than some of his performances. Lily Tomlin plays Fey’s eccentric mother, and is fun to watch but it’s a role that is remarkably similar to Jane Fonda as Catherine Keener’s eccentric mother in 2011’s “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” – they have been reduced to cranky, senior comic relief. The only relatively fresh parts of all of this are those that are focused on admissions decisions, and there are only enough of those to sustain a short film rather than an almost two hour feature.
The Croods Written & Directed by Chris Sanders & Kirk De Micco
Kirk De Micco’s only prior directing credit is 2008’s “Space Chimps” but Chris Sanders is half of the directing team that brought us 2002’s much loved “Lilo and Stitch” and 2010’s excellent “How to Train Your Dragon.” The most surprising part of “The Croods” is that it was only written and directed by two people, because it feels like the work of a committee and is one of the most formulaic and bland (albeit pretty) animated features of the last few years. As with so many films these days, the preview packs in many of the highpoints and even that is formulaic and bland – which doesn’t leave much to look forward to. It’s like some kind of cross between the original “One Million Years B.C.” and the latest in the tired “Ice Age” franchise, with humans from two distinct stages of evolution desperately trying to escape the effects of continental drift. As with many of these types of film, the most appealing character is a cute anthropomorphized critter rather than one of the main cast, reinforcing the notion that animated films don’t need A-list voiceover talent (and would be much cheaper without it).
Stoker Directed by Chan-wook Park
Chan-wook Park has a following of his own, probably being best known for 2003’s “Oldboy,” and is highly regarded for the visual elements in his films. And in that sense, “Stoker” is phenomenal – I sat wishing I could capture stills from what often seems more like a photography exhibit than a movie. Unfortunately, the storytelling doesn’t live up to the imagery. It’s well acted by Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode, and the basic story idea behind the film is intriguing – it simply isn’t well realized as a whole.
Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a high school loner whose closest companion has been her father, and who meets her mysterious uncle (Goode) for the first time at her father’s funeral. India is somewhat unusual herself, with extremely acute hearing for example, and Uncle Charles seems equally odd and out of place. As Charles insinuates himself into India and her (Kidman) mother’s lives, it becomes increasingly clear that all is not well in the Stoker family. But the film fails to fill in some of the causal links between characters and traits and provides moments that don’t fit what we’ve already been shown – like India dropping a letter onto a hard staircase and not hearing it, despite the impression given throughout the film that she most likely would have heard it dropped somewhere else in the house. This is a beautiful film that is likely to make you wish that some of the time spent caring about the appearance had been directed more towards the content.
Spring Breakers Written & Directed by Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine came into the film scene in the 90’s as the writer of Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids” and “Ken Park,” and as writer and director of his own equally polarizing “Gummo.” His material tends to live at the edge of what many people would think of as either socially acceptable or, perhaps, a dividing line between art and porn. His first writing in “Kids” explored the harsh world of drugs and sex amongst a group of teenagers, especially the way some boys exploit girls for sex. It was harsh and raw and I remember a conversation with a colleague years ago in which he asked me “If you had daughters, would you let them watch it?” And I answered, “If I had daughters, I’d REQUIRE them to watch it every time they wanted to leave the house!” It’s a film that would seem far more extreme if we didn’t live in a world that brought us the current Steubenville rape trial.
“Spring Breakers” lives in that same world, focusing on the underbelly of a bad spring break week for four female college students. Much of the imagery here looks like it came from the outtakes bin at “Girls Gone Wild,” and there’s certainly no shortage of bare breasts and other bikini-oriented closeups. But the narrative focus, is more on violence and exploitation, as the girls find themselves caught in the web of a local drug dealer (James Franco). To some extent, it’s still reminiscent of “Kids” as he pulls them into his world, for his purposes, although with respect to at least a couple of the students, it’s not clear who is exploiting whom (and they have a violent past of their own). Franco hams it up as the white rapping drug dealer, as does Vanessa Hudgens as one of the girls, alongside Korine’s own wife Rachel. The best performance comes from Selena Gomez as the one of the four who is most clearly out of her depth and willing to admit it.
But this is not a film for teen fans of any of those actors to flock to unaware of Korine’s style and approach to filmmaking. This is not a film that would get played at a meeting of the Selena Gomez fanclub – except perhaps the mature adult male branch of the Selena Gomez fanclub. Korine also repeatedly uses much of the same video and audio for a slightly disorienting effect in a 94 minutes film that might only have about 70-75 minutes of material. It’s harsh, raw, and crude in both its content and its appearance and isn’t remotely kid friendly.