Friday 24 May 2013

[Review] Olympus Has Fallen

Stars; Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo
Screenplay; Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benidikt
Director; Antoine Fuqua
Cert 15; Running Time 120 mins

When highly organised terrorists invade American soil, and take over the White House holding the US President hostage, it's up to disgraced former secret service agent Mike Banning to save the day. Time is not on his side however as the terrorists demand the removal of US military from South Korean waters but have a far more insidious plan to implement.

The first of two movies in which terrorists invade and decimate the White House  (the second being Roland Emmerich's unimaginatively titled White House Down), Olympus Has Fallen is a beefcake action extravaganza with tongue firmly in cheek but played out very straight laced. It is not so much a parody, yet woe betide anyone who takes it seriously, but a homage to the numerous films of 80's and 90's in which one man is pitted against a group of highly trained and deadly terrorists. The trend of course started with Die Hard in 1988 which launched Bruce Willis' cinema career not to mention numerous sequels that have at times proven divisive in debate yet on same scale hugely entertaining with bigger & badder explosive fun but less engaging villains. Let's face it Alan Rickman's European baddie set the bar so high that only Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance came close enough to match or even set the new standard. 

The success of Die Hard prompted numerous "copies" whilst so blatantly a Die Hard rip off one wonders why the courts were not awash with copyright infringement lawsuits. That said however, the likes of Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a rock face), Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat), and Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane) are sufficiently distinct in that they never quite match up to the one that started it all but were packed with thrill rides in their own right. Thankfully the trend died down being relegated to the direct to video/DVD market. Olympus Has Fallen brings the trend back to the big screen with a bang.

If there is an absence of fundamental aspect that made these films the blockbuster financial and critical successes of their day it the lack of decent bad guys and kick arse one liners. Rick Yune does his best to be menacing as Kang, the leader of the North Korean invasion force. Sadly however he ends up a pale imitation of his far more worthy villainous performance as the diamond encrusted albino Bond baddie Zhao from Die Another Day, but still excels in the action and fight sequences. The script is also devoid of the genre's quintessential one liners that made Die Hard and its compatriots the legends they are. In particular Gerard Butler's secret service agent Mike Banning's utterance of a poorly scripted line (Let's play a game of "go fuck yourself, you go first) was cringeworthy at best. 

From start to finish all the little homages to the far fetched action flicks of  yesteryear (or even decades) are evident, and writers Rothenberger & Benidikt pull out all the stops. Mike Banning is a combination of Steven Segal's Casey Ryback from Under Siege (a secret service agent who's more than he seems) and Stallone's guilt ridden rock jock hero Gabe Walker from Cliffhanger. The similarities risk bordering on the ridiculous where at one point it was anticipated Butler would turn to the camera and say "Yeah well I am also a secret service agent." The humour and explosive action save the film from the pit of absurdity. Any avid film buff will not only spot similarities to Die Hard-eque films mentioned earlier but also more obscure 80's action fare such as Invasion USA and even Red Dawn. It also casts Dylan McDermott, who played a secret service agent in 1993's In the Line of Fire as, you guessed it, a secret service agent. As much fun can be had spotting the references as simply watching the events unfold with plenty of entertaining shock and awe action.

Butler is excellent as Mike Banning, the former head of US President  Aaron Eckhart's protection detail engaged in self directed angst ridden guilt over the death of his boss' wife. He seemless transform into a one man counter invasion force and it is in the action that Butler truly shines giving Bruce Willis and Daniel Craig serious runs for their money, oozing charisma, spot on delivery & timing, and handling the action as easy as making an omelette  Eckhart's President Benjamin Asher is sadly lacking in depth and whilst the star of The Dark Knight and Battle; Los Angeles turns in a well executed performance it is too reminiscent of Harvey Dent his most noted role to date. Amiable support is provided courtesy of McDermott making a welcome return to the big screen but the supporting stars of the show are Angela Bassett as the Secret Service Director standing up for Banning's abilities, and Morgan Freeman once again taking the presidential seat as the reluctant POTUS with some difficult decisions to make.

The script is a fair first attempt from newcomers Rothenberger and Benidikt who have turned out a fun packed well paced action thriller. There are one or two lapses in realism, one wonders why the acting President and Joint Chiefs of Staff would easily acquiesce to terrorist demands  with so much more at stake. Saying that such trivialities are quickly forgotten with likeable characters and  a few plot twists whilst likely to be predictable do not disappoint. Direction courtesy of Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) keeps the proceedings moving along at just the right pace dispensing with the sub plots before getting down to the fun bits. The centre piece of Olympus Has Fallen, the explosive action is fun and over the top featuring giant aircraft unleashing a rain of ammunition from heavy calibre guns, gunfire and the obligatory close quarters hand to hand fisticuffs that look highly impressive. Action lovers will be left open jawed as some Washington DC's political landmarks are reduced to burning ruins, charred shells of their former glory. 

Olympus Has Fallen ticks many of the essential boxes for Saturday night popcorn flicks, which plot holes and underused characters aside, has all the thrills of speedy fairground ride. It has sent a high benchmark for Emmerich's White House Down. Until that arrives sit back, power down the brain and enjoy.

Image Credit; Marshalcover (C) All Rights Reserved

Sunday 12 May 2013

[Feature] Ray Harryhausen - Effects Guru 1920 - 2013

Many of us will pay good money to see a film at the multiplex that feature our favourite actors, or helmed by renowned directors. Yet very few of the creative genius' behind some of the most eye popping visual effects had eager viewers flocking to the cinema except for special effects pioneer and innovator Ray Harryhausen. Whilst the likes of Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Stan Lee had a strong following who would watch a film solely based on their work, none had the strength of following like Harryhausen whose body of work includes Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans. He passed away on 7th May 2013 aged 92 at his home in London.

Rise of a Pioneer

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, young Harryhausen (whose parents were  of German descent hence the name) had always been fascinated with prehistoric creatures and would indulge his love of clay pottery to create some of his favourites from that era. When he was 13 years old Harryhausen went to see RKO's epic monster movie King Kong and was in awe of the stop motion special effects used to bring dinosaurs to life. Inspired by this a young Harryhausein using a borrowed non capture camera began experimenting with his own creatures. Through a family friend Harryhausen was introduced to Willis O'Brien, the man who created the creatures featured in King Kong. O'Brien offered some constructive advice to Harryhausen who enrolled at the Los Angeles City College to study graphic arts and sculpture.

Poster for RKO Pictures epic King Kong - Click here for rights details

Harryhausen's first commercial work was for producer George Pal's Puppetoons a series of animated short films alongside his hero Willis O'Brien. The two worked well together sharing a dislike for the unjointed wooden figures used in filming. World War II erupted and Harryhausen was assigned to the US army's Special Services division where he worked alongside renowned film maker Frank Capra who was serving as a Colonel at the time. Harryhausen gained extensive first hand knowledge and experience in film making working as a loader, clapper boy, and camera assistant. After the war Harryhausen was hired as an assistant animator for his first feature length motion picture Mighty Joe Young, reuniting him with his friend and mentor Willis O'Brien. Although not a commercial success the film garnered O'Brien an Oscar win. 

Dynamation and The Schneer/Harryhausen Team

Harryhausen worked on various animation projects both commercial and personal before going on to work on The Beast from 20,000 fathoms (1953), based on a novel by his long time friend Ray Bradbury whom he met at college. It was on this high budget feature length production that Harryhausen developed his revolutionary technique that would go on to change the face of visual effects.

Dynamation, as it was to later be named, enabled the combination of stop motion animation with live action footage using a split screen technique. The background and foreground of a pre-shot live action would be split into two separate images. The background was used as a miniature rear screen in front of which model would be animated using a special animation camera. All the elements would then be combined except for the foreground which would be blacked out. The film was then rewound and the foreground element re-filmed essentially sandwiching the models and live action shots. Harryhausen would carry out much of the work himself controlling the lighting both of the projector and on set using defused glass to soften the sharp lighting. This created a seamless blend of animation and live action shots that was to be the pinnacle of his most famous and cherished work to follow.

It Came From Beneath The Sea - Image Credit mononukleoza

It wasn't until the early 1950's  that Harryhausen met and befriended producer Charles H Schneer who was assigned to the B-picture unit of Columbia Pictures. They released their first picture, the classic It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) which featured the infamous giant octopus destroying San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The film was a commercial success primarily due to Harryhausen's high quality (for its time) visual effects and was repeated with Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) which inspired Tim Burton's 1997 hit Mars Attacks. Riding on the coattails from the success of these films Schneer and Harryhausen were about to embark on their most ambitious and revolutionary project, and the start of not only a fruitful partnership but also a lifelong friendship. 

Harryhausen did not share Schneer's enthusiasm for venturing into colour due to the challenges it posed to the Dynamation process. However after having developed systems to  achieve the necessary colour balances, Harryhausen changed his mind and began work on the highly successful 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). So groundbreaking were the effects that the fighting skeleton in the climactic battle was deemed to frightening for children.Nevertheless it was a box office and critical success. 

The Auteur's Finest

More work followed by way of a loose adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (the Three World of Gulliver - 1960) as well as Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (1961). His finest work however had to be the classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Jason was epic in every respect from the colossal statue of Talos the Titan to Poseidon holding back the clashing rocks to enable safe passage for the Argo. However by the far most famous scene, one that showcased Harryhausen's dynamation at its finest to date was the skeleton fight. It is still held with high regard and in 1993 Sam Raimi featured battling skeletons in Army of Darkness. Whilst all three were critically revered, although for the effects alone, sadly they performed disappointingly on their theatrical releases. The poor financial performance together with significant changes at Columbia Pictures resulted in Schneer and Harryhausen's contracts not being renewed. 

As a free agent Harryhausen was hired by Hammer Film Productions to produce the creature effects for the highly successful One Million Years BC (1966), and again with Schneer this time for Warner Brothers on The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Both were financial success but the demand for fantasy epics seemed to wane until the 1970's when Schneer approached Columbia Pictures with a proposal to revive the Sinbad films. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) re-established the duo's box office credentials.

Schneer and Harryhausen were given permission by MGM studios for a big budget monster epic with big name stars. Clash of the Titans (1981), which was to be the last feature film to showcase Harryhausen's talents, excelled in every respect, becoming a commercial success. Harryhausen's Medusa and Kraken drew much praise for the film setting the benchmark for visual effects so high that not even the 2010 remake was able to reach. Despite this however the rise of effects giants such as Industrial Light and Magic who pioneered digital effects, effectively killed the demand for this style of filming leaving both Schneer and Harryhausen to retire from film making. 


Given the expansive body of his work, Harryhausen was never nominated let alone awarded an Oscar unlike his mentor Willis O'Brien. This was possibly due to his decision in the 1960's to live and work in the UK. However after much campaigning by legions of next generation effects artists and film makers inspired by his work, the A.M.P.A.A.S in 1992 presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E Sawyer for technical contributions. Other accolades included a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and even Sony Digital Pictures naming their main screening theatre in his honour.

Ray Harryhausen (top left) 2006 at launch of Jules Verne Festival with organisers & some familiar faces

Harryhausen's work has influenced generations of film makers in the field of visual effects including Steven Spielberg, Nick Park, Tim Burton and James Cameron as well as Edgar Wright who described Harryhausen as the man "who made me believe in monsters". His numerous books on animation techniques and body of cinematic work, despite the advent of digital effects, are revered by the newest generation of pioneering effects creators. His passing is truly a loss to an industry that continues to bring fantasy worlds to breathtaking life.

Popular Posts