“Olympus Has Fallen” pushes all the right action-adventure buttons

Like his acting career, Gerard Butler’s work as a producer has been a mixed bag critically and commercially. “Olympus Has Fallen” is his sixth movie as a producer-star and of his four previous efforts, only one, “Law Abiding Citizen,” made a splash at the box office with $73 million. The other three, “Playing for Keeps,” “Chasing Mavericks” and “Machine Gun Preacher” fizzled, with the latter barely making $500,000.

“Olympus Has Fallen” did a healthy-for-springtime opening weekend take of $30 million, but with an $80 million price tag, it will have to stick around for a few weeks in theaters to make good before it starts hauling in the pay-TV, DVD-Blu Ray take.

Good word-of-mouth comments may help sustain “Olympus,” as it delivers in ways one would expect of an action thriller. Its director, Antoine Fuqua, has proven himself with other action movies as “Training Day,” “Shooter” and “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

Butler, who has taken critical hits for his romantic comedy efforts, goes back to his basics in “Olympus,” throwing himself heartily into the hero role of Mike Banning. The screenplay by the duo of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, the latter a native of Iceland, is an impressive work for a debut, trying to be nothing more than a good vs. evil epic. This script also was polished enough to attract an impressive cast joining Butler: Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Radha Mitchell, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd and Cole Hauser, as well as two Oscar winners in Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo.

The plot taps into an anxiety that haunts a modern world — the compromise of national defense and breakdown of leadership in a time of crisis, initiated by a clever, deadly adversary.

“Olympus” opens with a prelude in which President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) and his wife Margaret (Judd) and son Conner (Finley Jacobsen) are being transported by vehicle in a snowstorm to a fund-raiser. The head of the Secret Service detail is Banning, efficient and cool, with a special bond to Conner. But a tragic accident occurs and Banning and his detail find themselves unable to save lives.

Eighteen months pass and Banning now has been relegated to a desk assignment at the Justice Department, for emotional reasons than any doubts about competence. Meanwhile, President Asher is about to host a meeting with the South Korea leader regarding more aggressive posturing by North Korea.

With the meeting in progress, Washington, D.C. is attacked from the air and on ground in a brutal assault –  disturbing scenes of mass violence but well executed and a superb display of special effects. For all its defenses, the White House is seized while the president with top cabinet members and the South Korean contingent flee to the bunker. Meanwhile, Banning seems to be the only person effective in gunning down some of the attackers and manages to slip unnoticed into the now smoldering and body-strewn White House.

Meanwhile, the president and group learn they have been set up, as the chief of the Korean security actually is a terrorist, Kang (Rick Yune), a cocky, vicious man surrounded by coldly efficient and deadly people. Confined to the bunker, the president and his people are taken hostage

“Olympus” offers the usual scenes of high government officials, with all the power and intelligence at their disposal, rendered ineffective. Freeman as Speaker of the House Trumbull offers calm as the acting president while Forster is the typical military official, Gen. Edward Clegg, naturally overconfident in his assessment of the U.S. capabilities in ending this hostage crisis. Bassett as Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs is assigned to tell the bigwigs that Banning, once he links up communications with the brain trust and informs them he is in the White House, is the best they can hope for in this potentially disastrous event.

Naturally, demands are made by Kang while President Asher and his people try to maintain rigid resistance despite being overwhelmingly at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, Banning, barely armed but well trained and knowledgeable of inner workings of White House technology, begins picking off the bad guys.

“Olympus” does have its implausible details, such as how a well-trained unit of terrorists, packing so much hardware, could have gone undetected by a worldwide network of intelligence until this attack. There is also a vicious beating of Leo, who plays Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan, an act that just adds layers to the villainy of Kang, making one root even more for his demise.

Although fast-paced, “Olympus” does take pauses for some character development, particularly with the pivotal characters of Banning and Asher. The president is shown as a devoted father having to shuffle the enormous responsibilities of the office with being a parent and dealing with tragedy. Banning is seen as a soldier forced into world he finds too tranquil for his talents, distracted to the point of risking the stability of his marriage to an ER nurse, Leah (Mitchell).

Per usual in these action movies, the conclusion is pretty much a given. The mystery is how much of a punch it will pack. “Olympus” provides enough to get a positive audience response.

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Tension is high in “The Call”

There was a reason to be apprehensive about “The Call” as the opening credits rolled. When it came to “story by,” three writers were listed, although the screenplay was done by only one of them. Usually, multiple writers on a story/screenplay add up to trouble.

Those three writers, however, along with director Brad Anderson, came up with a fast-moving and tense thriller. Anderson, who has directed some episodes of “Fringe ,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Treme,” does not waste time in getting things going and never lets up.

The story, credited to Richard D’Ovidio, Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp, uses a familiar element that could be called The Maverick Syndrome — seen in the high-profile Tom Cruise-starrer “Top Gun.” This is where a person who is very skilled in his or her profession, almost to the point of cockiness, is involved in a tragedy in which this person may be partially to blame. There follows an erosion of confidence, withdrawal and self-pity (it looks from the trailers that this plot device also is being used in the upcoming “Olympus Has Fallen”) until circumstances force this person to set aside the doubts and embark on a path to redemption.

In “The Call,” it is Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) who is thrown into this fray. Jordan is a 911 operator for the Los Angeles Police Department, known for being cool under pressure with an ability to calm panicked callers and pass off the calls to first-responders and not dwell upon what happens. But one day when a teen girl calls to report someone is breaking into her home, a lapse of judgment by Jordan contributes to the girl’s abduction and subsequent brutal murder, believed to be perpetrated by a serial killer.

Jordan, who is romantically involved with an LAPD officer, Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut), is shaken to the core, and when the story jumps ahead six months, Jordan now is a teacher for pending 911 operators, having given up her seat at the communications console.

But one fateful day another teen girl, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin from “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Zombieland”) is abducted at a mall. Stuffed in a trunk and armed only with a disposable cell phone, which has no GPS chip, Casey calls 911.  When the new young operator, Brooke (Jenna Lamia) gets flustered, Jordan has to take over.

Thus follows a nail-biting race against time as Jordan tries to calm Casey down and get her to do things — like kick out one of the taillights — to help police track down the vehicle. Of course, some things work out and others do not, raising the tension. When Jordan gets a chance to talk to the abductor, he delivers a familiar phrase that reveals he is the serial killer she dealt with six months earlier.

Michael Eklund, who played Nick Ducet in the TV series “Shattered,” plays to abductor, Michael Foster, one of those scary characters whose life seems to be the kind of domestic normalcy that keeps him under the radar. The screenplay offers vague clues as to why he is abducting teens — it apparently involved a tragedy that claimed an older sister he appeared to have worshiped.

While police remain a few steps behind in the pursuit of Foster, it is Jordan who discovers a critical clue to the man’s whereabouts, leading to the final confrontation.

Berry is superb as Jordan, a woman who loses a grip but is forced to set aside her anxieties when another person’s life is at stake. Breslin spends most of the movie captive in the trunk of vehicles as Foster switches cars. She mostly wails in terror and has to be prodded verbally by Jordan to regain composure and do whatever is necessary to save her life. Foster, whose character remains mostly a mystery, has a look about him wherein he can seem normal but at a second appraisal can appear to be a little off.

“The Call” is a pleasant surprise, lifted by likable portrayals put together by Berry and Breslin. Viewers truly care about these two and the peril they face raises the tension.

‘Oz’: Following the yellow brick road to greatness?

It had to be a daunting task to put together a prequel to one of the most widely known and seen movies of all time, and Disney, along with such talents as director Sam Raimi  (“The Evil Dead” and the first round of “Spider-Man” films) and writers Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) gave it a good try.

But when you try to match up with a classic, expectations soar and the end product needs to be nearly perfect to just get a passing grade from many observers.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” seems to be hovering around a C+. It is pleasant enough, certainly visually appealing, and younger audiences will like it. Older people, especially those whose childhood included many viewings of “The Wizard of Oz,” may be more difficult to satisfy.

James Franco has been targeted by critics as being miscast as Oscar Diggs, a struggling traveling circus magician and con man who is literally blown from Kansas via a tornado to the land of Oz, where he is the reluctant hero that eventually becomes the Wizard of Oz. Here Franco seems to be channeling Johnny Depp, who could mail in this role of the likeable scoundrel (Capt. Jack Sparrow, anyone?).

Franco tries, but either the script throttled him or editing hammered any significant character development, but whatever, he fails to to find a core — his Oz is neither despicable enough to loath nor honorable enough to garner sympathy. He just seems too lightweight and ordinary to be thrust into the vital role of saving a kingdom from evil.

Mila Kunis also has been criticized for her portrayal of Theodora, at first a sweet naive witch who amidst perceived betrayals and a broken heart transforms into the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West. Once again a fast-track plot development — a real whirlwind romance between Oz and Theodora that is doomed — zips by without any real emotional punch.

Kunis gets upended by Rachel Weisz as Theodora’s conniving sister Evanora, who behind her hopeful demeanor has laid out the real blueprint of misery in Oz.

Franco, meanwhile, is upstaged by a porcelain china doll (voice of Joey King) and to a lesser extent by Finley the flying monkey (Zach Braff).

Coming off much better is Michelle Williams as Glinda, the outcast and falsely accused “wicked” witch who displays enormous perceptiveness and patience in trying to mold Oz into the wizard she firmly believes he will become.

The story is a familiar one of redemption: a person meandering along a path of underachievement while cultivating dreams of glory who is given an opportunity for greatness but has to be shoved repeatedly in that direction before responding.

It is a nice tale of good prevailing over evil amid a backdrop of superb visual effects with a few tender and funny moments thrown in.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” had a $200 million bankroll and likely will make money, if not in the U.S., certainly worldwide. Viewers should go in with modest expectations. This “Oz” is not a masterpiece, but it is functional as a visually gorgeous embellishment of a classic story.

‘The Last Exorcism’ just wants to go on and on

Producer Eli Roth has shown amusement at the contradictory title of his latest effort, “The Last Exorcism Part II.”  Just how long is this devil-possession story going to last?

Well, the devil has all the time in the world. Cast out the evil spirit and it can promise, “I’ll be back.”

The original “The Last Exorcism” was a low-budget — by today’s standards — $2 million film that grossed nearly $41 million, which is pretty good for a horror genre film. Thus the bad old devil gets another shot.

“The Last Exorcism” (2010) was set up as a documentary gone bad as a troubled evangelical minister, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), agrees to allow an exorcism to be videotaped. The victim was a sweet young lady named Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), and nothing makes the devil badder than when he goes after young innocent people.

Naturally, the spirit-evicting ritual is a deadly disaster, ripe for more exploration.

The best thing about of Part II is Bell reprising her Independent Spirit Award-nominated role as the traumatized Nell, a lone survivor now seen as a mental patient. She is put into a home with three other troubled young women, where under the guidance of the wise Frank Merle (Muse Watson) is convinced her “possession” was only in her mind.

She settles into the home, getting comfortable with her housemates, gets a job as a room cleaner at a hotel and even finds herself the object of attention of a fellow hotel employee, Chris (Spencer Treat Clark).

But the bad dreams that had faded for a while return. She is stalked by people in creepy Mardi Gras masks. She hears strange voices from the radio and gets visits by her father who warns her the demon is still in pursuit and needs to have her consummate a relationship to gain its power.

This is all standard stuff in the possession game and it leads to the inevitable confrontation between good and evil, a battle of wits amid the lit candles, symbols on the walls and chants.

Except for the cheap jump-in-your-seat moments, “The Last Exorcism Part II” is not all that scary. It is tragic, however, in its presentation of Nell, a decent, confused young woman, portrayed with masterful frailty by Bell, who is doomed to endure forces way beyond her control.

Nell once again faces gymnastic-style contortions and evolves from traumatized to hopeful to wary to weary and eventually fatalistic.

Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, who co-wrote the script with Damien Chazelle, “The Last Exorcism Part II” is exactly what you would expect from a sequel — a continuation of the story that really would have been better off left alone. Ashley Bell, a second-generation actress (her mother Victoria Carroll has had a long career as a guest star in many television series), is clearly talented and should move on into roles where she does not have to be stalked by a demon.

Days of dead ahead

For horror fans, Days of the Dead will be held April 4-6 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, preceding Monsterpalooza 2013 in Burbank by a week.

Panels, screenings and a  tattoo contest are among the events, along with some stars of horror films: Roddy Piper and Keith David from “They Live,” Sid Haig from “The Devil’s Rejects,” Bill Moseley from  “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Dick Miller from “Gremlins” and P.J. (“Totally”) Soles from “Halloween.”

Learn more at www.daysofthedead.net.