Back to School #49: Dazed and Confused (dir by Richard Linklater)


Oh my God, I love this freaking movie.

First released in 1993, Dazed and Confused is a classic Texas film.  Taking place in 1976 and following a large and varied group of characters over the course of the last day of school, Dazed and Confused is like American Graffiti with a lot more weed.  In many ways, it’s a plotless film, though things do happen.  The students of Lee High School survive one final day of school before the start of summer.  (Interestingly enough, most of the characters here are incoming seniors and freshman, as opposed to the confused graduates who usually show up in films like this.  This may lower the stakes — none of the students are worrying about whether or not to go to college or anything like that — but it also gives the film a fun and laid back vibe.)  The incoming freshman are all hazed by the incoming seniors.  For the girls, this means being covered in ketchup and mustard and being forced to ask the seniors to marry them.  For the boys, the hazing is a lot more violent and disturbing as they are chased through the streets by paddle-wielding jocks.  A party is planned and then abruptly canceled when the kegs of beer are delivered before the parents leave town.  Another party is held out in the woods.  A high school quarterback tries to decide whether or not to sign an anti-drug pledge.

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No, not much happens but then again, plot is overrated.  Dazed and Confused is not about plot.  It’s about capturing a specific time and place and showing how different individuals define themselves within their environment.  It’s one of the best high school films ever made, perhaps the best.

Why do I so love Dazed and Confused?  Let me count the ways.

First off, it’s a true Texas film.  This isn’t just because it was directed by Texas’s greatest filmmaker, Richard Linklater.  It was also filmed in Texas, it’s full of Texas actors, and, as a native Texan, I can tell you that it’s one of the few films that gets my homestate right.  Even though the film takes place long before I was even born, there were still so many details that I recognized as being unique to Texas today.  I guess the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Perhaps the most Texas scene in the entire film was when quarterback Randy Floyd (Jason London) was talking to the old couple at the minor league baseball game.  Both the old man’s obsessive interest in the high school football team (“We’re countin’ on you boys next year…”) and Randy’s patiently polite answers, were, to me, the epitome of Texas.  And, of course, we can’t forget the store clerk advising the pregnant woman to eat a lot of “green things” while selling her a pack of cigarettes and the guy who reacts to the destruction of his mailbox by running around with a gun.  I suspect I might live a few blocks away from both of those guys.

But, beyond that, just the entire film’s laid back atmosphere epitomized everything that I love about my state.

Secondly, Dazed and Confused is an amateur historian’s dream!  Richard Linklater went to high school in the 70s and he recreates the decade with a lot of obvious care and love.  (It’s also somewhat obvious that both the characters of Randy and incoming freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) are meant to be autobiographical.)  Now, me, I’ve always been obsessive about history and I’ve always somewhat regretted that I was born long after the 70s ended.  Dazed and Confused is probably about as close as someone like me will ever get to having a time machine.

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I’m also something a political history junkie so how excited was I to see that, during one scene, all of the candidates for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination were listed on a bulletin board.  How many other movies have featured a reference to the Fred Harris presidential campaign?  Admittedly, I know nothing about that campaign.  I just think it’s neat that somebody with as common a name as Fred Harris once ran for President.

Finally, if you look really carefully, you’ll notice that Lee High School is located right next to a movie theater that, according to its marquee, is showing Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s final film.  Just imagine the fun that I could have had going to Lee High.  I could have skipped school and gone to a movie!

Third, this film has a great soundtrack!  The low rider gets a little higher … hey, I think there’s a double meaning there…

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But, really, the main reason I love this film is because I love great ensemble work and Dazed and Confused has a wonderful cast.  Some members of the cast went on to become famous and some did not, but all of them give great performances.  In fact, the entire cast is so great that it’s difficult to know who to single out so I’m just going to name a few of my favorites.

First off, there’s the jocks.  Some of them, like Jason London’s Randy “Pink” Floyd are surprisingly sensitive.  Some of them, like Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson), remind me of the type of guys that I, despite my better judgment, would have totally been crushing on back in high school.  And then the others are just scary, running around with their cars full of beer and obsessively paddling freshman.  Benny (Cole Hauser), for instance, really does seem like he has some issues.  (Perhaps it’s because he lives in Texas but still has such a strong Boston accent…)

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However, the scariest of the jocks is, without a doubt, Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck). A complete and total moron who has actually managed to fail his senior year,  (“He’s a joke,” says Randy, “but he’s not a bad guy to have blocking for you…”)  O’Bannion is such a total idiot that, not only is it fun to see him eventually get humiliated, but it’s even more fun to watch him and think, “That’s Ben Affleck!”  And, it must be said, Affleck is totally convincing playing a complete and total dumbass.  That’s not meant to be an insult, by the way.  Future multiple-Oscar winner  Affleck does a really good job.

And then there’s the three self-styled intellectuals, Tony (Anthony Rapp), Mike (Adam Goldberg), and red-headed Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who spend the whole day driving around and discussing what it all means.  These are actually three of my favorite characters in the entire film, just because I’ve known (and, I must admit, loved) the type.  Plus, Cynthia has red hair and we redheads have to stay united!

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There’s the two incoming freshman who get to spend a night hanging out with the older kids — Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa).  Mitch is adorable while Sabrina gets to ask Tony to marry her.  Of course, Sabrina is covered in ketchup, mustard, and flour at the time.  (“She probably looks really good once you get all the shit off her,” Mike offers.)

And, of course, you can’t forget Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).  In many ways, Wooderson is a truly creepy character.  He’s the older guy who still hangs out with the high school kids.  When he asks Mitch what the incoming freshman girls look like, you get the disturbing feeling that he’s not joking.  (“I get older but they stay the same age,” Wooderson says about his underage girlfriends, “yes, they do.”)  And yet McConaughey gives such a charismatic performance that Wooderson becomes the heart and soul of the entire film.  In the end, you’re happy that Randy has a friend like Wooderson.

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And there’s so many other characters that I love.  There’s the hilarious stoner Slater (Rory Cochrane).  There’s Mitch’s older sister, Jodi (Michelle Burke), who is the type of cool older sister that I would have liked to have been if I actually had a brother and wasn’t the youngest of four.  There’s Randy’s girlfriend, Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) and Don’s occasional girlfriend, Shavonne (Deena Martin) who, at one point, refers to Don as being “Mr. Premature Ejaculation.”  Even the characters that you’re supposed to hate are so well-played and so well-written that it’s a pleasure to see them.  Parker Posey is hilarious as head mean girl Darla.  In the role of car-obsessed Clint, Nicky Katt is dangerously hot — even if he does eventually end up kicking Mike’s ass.  (“You wouldn’t say I got my ass kicked, would you?” Mike says.  Sorry, sweetie, you did. But everyone watching the movie totally loved you!)

(And let’s not forget that future Oscar winner Renee Zellweger shows up for a split-second, walking past Wooderson during his “that’s why I love high school girls” monologue.)

Dazed and Confused is a great film.  If you haven’t seen it, see it.  And if you have seen it, see it again.

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Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


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For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

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* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

In Memory of Robin Williams #4: Good Will Hunting (dir by Gus Van Sant)


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After being nominated three times, Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for his performance as Dr. Sean McGuire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting.  The first time I ever watched Good Will Hunting, I was 16 years old and I loved it.  12 years later, I rewatched it for this review and, oddly enough, I did not love it.  In fact, I barely even liked it.  However, one thing that I did better appreciate the second time around was the performance of Robin Williams.

Good Will Hunting was, of course, written by its two stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a self-taught math genius who, as a result of being abused as a child, is full of anger and refuses to allow anyone to get close to him.  His only true friend is Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), a construction worker.  Will works as a janitor at MIT and, when he’s caught secretly solving a complex math problem, he’s taken under the wing of Prof. Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard).  While Will pursues a volatile romance with a med student named Skylar (Minnie Driver, who is good in an underwritten role), Lambeau arranges for Will to become a patient of psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams).  The recently widowed Sean helps Will to come to terms with his abusive childhood and deal with his anger issues.  When Skylar tells Will that she’s moving to California, Will is forced to decide whether to follow her or to just push her away like he does with everyone else.

I can still remember that the first time I ever saw Good Will Hunting, I had such a crush on Will Hunting.  After all, he looked like Matt Damon.  He was smart but he could still stand up for himself.  He was a jerk but that was just because he needed the right girl in his life.  When he finally talked about being abused by his foster father, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to be there for him while he cried.  When he drove off to see Skylar in that beat-up car of his, I thought it was such a romantic moment.  Like, seriously — Oh.  My.  God.

That was the first time I saw the movie.

However, when I recently rewatched the film for this review, I had a totally different reaction to Will Hunting.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve had to do deal with real-life versions of the character but this time, I actually found myself very much not charmed by Will Hunting and his condescending verbosity.  Whereas originally it seemed like he pushed the away the world as a defensive mechanism, it now seemed like Will was basically just a sociopath.  People in both the audience and the movie assumed that, because he was so smart, there had to be something more to Will than just bitter negativity but actually, there was less.  And even Will’s intelligence seemed to be more the result of the fact that director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters Damon and Affleck were kind enough to surround Will with less-than-articulate characters to humiliate.  It’s easy to be the smartest person in the room when you’re surrounded by strawmen.  I got the feeling that we were supposed to impressed because Will cites Howard Zinn at one point but, really, Howard Zinn is pretty much the historian of choice for phony intellectuals everywhere.

(In the interest of fairness, I guess I should admit that I may be biased because I once dated a phony intellectual who was always citing Howard Zinn, despite having not read anything that Zinn had ever written.  Don’t get me wrong.  He owned a copy of A People’s History of the United States and he always made sure it was sitting somewhere where visitors could see it but he had never actually opened it.  I imagine he has since moved on to Thomas Piketty.)

Instead, I found myself reacting far more positively to the character of Chuckie Sullivan.  Chuckie may not have been a genius but at least he was capable of holding down a job, actually cared about his friends, and was capable of communicating with people without trying to destroy their self-esteem.  If I had been Skylar, I would have dumped Will and spent my last few months in Boston enjoying the working class pleasures of Chuckie Sullivan.

But here’s the thing — the main reason that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is good inside of Will Hunting is because Sean Maguire tells us that there is.  As I rewatched Good Will Hunting, I was surprised by just how good Robin Williams’s performance really was.  The compassionate psychologist has become such a stock character that there’s something truly enjoyable about watching an actor manage to find nuance and individuality in the familiar role.   Sean is such a kind and likable character (and Robin Williams gives such an empathetic performance) that we’re willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt as long as he is.  In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams once again had the beard that gave him gravitas in Awakenings.  But he also had the saddest eyes.  It’s the eyes that you remember as you watch the film because it’s those eyes that tell us that Sean has had to overcome the type of pain that Will Hunting will never be capable of understanding.

It’s those eyes, more than anything, that convince us that there might be some good in Will Hunting.

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Guilty Pleasure No. 8: Paparazzi


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I once got into an argument with a friend of mine about whether or not a film could actually be so bad that it was good.

His argument was that bad, by its very definition, was the opposite of good and therefore, nothing bad could be good and vice versa.

My argument was Paparazzi.

First released back in 2004, Paparazzi tells the story of Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser).  Bo is an up-and-coming super star.  As the film begins, we’re told — by a breathless correspondent from E! News — that Bo has arrived.  He’s starring in what promises to be “the world’s biggest action franchise.”  Bo has a wife (Robin Tunney), a son, and a beautiful house on the beach.  Whenever he goes jogging, huge groups of women magically materialize so that they can giggle as he runs by.

However, not everything is perfect in the world of Bo Laramie.  Like far too many defenseless celebrities, he’s being harassed by the paparazzi.  At first, Bo attempts to be polite.  However, a demonic photographer named Rex (Tom Sizemore) refuses to stop trying to take pictures of Bo at his son’s soccer game.  Things escalate until eventually, Bo’s son is in a coma and Bo is coming up with ludicrously elaborate ways to kill all of Rex’s colleagues.

The thing that distinguishes Paparazzi is not that it’s a revenge film.  What distinguishes Paparazzi is that it seems to seriously be arguing that celebrities have the right to kill people who annoy them.  Rex and his colleagues are portrayed as being pure evil (one even laughs maniacally after snapping a picture) while Bo is the victim who has to deal with the issues that come from being a multimillionaire.  Even the homicide detective played by Dennis Farina seems to be continually on the verge of saying, “Right on!” while looking over the results of Bo’s handiwork.

It’s so ludicrous and stupid and over-the-top that it can’t help but also be a lot of fun.

Don’t get me wrong.  Paparazzi is a terrible film.  In fact, it’s so terrible that, if a group of aliens ever somehow saw Paparazzi, they would probably hop in their spaceship and come to Earth specifically to wipe out the human race.  However, as bad as the film is, it’s also one of those films that you simply cannot look away from.  Watching this film is like witnessing a tornado of pure mediocrity coming straight at you.  You know that you should just stop watching and get to safety but it’s such an unexpectedly odd sight that you can’t look away.  Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it and it becomes impossible not to become fascinated by the fact that such a terrible film could actually exist.

Consider the following:

1) When he’s not busy killing photographers, Bo Laramie is filming a movie called Adrenaline Force 2.  Seriously, that title is so generic that I couldn’t help but smile every time it was mentioned.  Can you imagine anyone saying, “I want to see that new movie, what’s it called, uhmm… Adrenaline Force 2?”

2) Speaking of generic, do you think that anyone named Bo Laramie could ever possibly become the biggest film star in the world?

3) In the role of Bo Laramie, Cole Hauser seems like he’s as confused by this movie as everyone else.  However, towards the end of the film, he starts to flash a psychotic little grin and the contrast between that grin and Laramie’s previously stoic facade is oddly charming.

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4) You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Tom Sizemore play the world’s sleaziest photographer.

5) Vince Vaughn has a cameo as himself!  He’s co-starring in Adrenaline Force 2.

6) Mel Gibson has a cameo as himself!  He’s seen sitting in a psychologist’s office.  (No, seriously…)

7) Matthew McConaughey has a cameo as himself!  He shows up out-of-nowhere, tells Bo that it’s a pleasure to meet him, and then goes, “Alright, alright…”

8) Chris Rock has a cameo as a …. pizza deliveryman!  At first, I assumed that Chris Rock was playing himself and I kept waiting for him to explain why he was delivering a pizza to Bo Laramie’s house.  However, according to the end credits, Vaughn, McConaughey, and Gibson were playing themselves while Rock was playing the role of “Pizza Guy.”

9) Plotwise, this film invites the viewer to play a game of, “What if everyone in this film wasn’t a total and complete idiot?”  For all the effort that Bo puts into plotting his revenge, it’s hard not to feel that he just got extremely lucky.

10) The film manages to be both silly and completely humorless at the same time.  As a result, it’s a good for more than a few laughs.

11) There’s a scene where, out of nowhere, Bo recites an inner monologue about the price of fame that will remind observant viewers of Tony Bennett’s classic narration from The Oscar.

12) At one point, Tom Sizemore says, “I am going to destroy your life and eat your soul. And I can’t wait to do it.”

13) The film’s director used to be Mel Gibson’s hairdresser.

14) Finally, the film was produced by Mel Gibson and that probably means that the film actually is making a sincere case for murdering members of the paparazzi.

If ever a film has deserved the description of being so bad that it’s good, it is Paparazzi.  Between the sense of entitlement, the feverish fantasies of revenge, and the out-of-nowhere celebrity cameos, Paparazzi is a film that has earned the title of guilty pleasure.

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Quickie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (dir. by Antoine Fuqua)


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“The most protected building on Earth has fallen.”

Die Hard has become it’s very own subgenre of action films since it was first released in 1988. It was a simple enough story that combined the “one against many” type of story with the “siege tale”. It was a perfect combination that has since been copied, imitated, but truly never duplicated to the highest level of success the original film had upon release. There’s been a few films that added their own unique take on this action film template. There was “Die Hard on a boat” with the underappreciated Under Siege. Then we have Air Force One which was “Die Hard on a plane”. The latest action film to try and put a new spin on the Willias-McTiernan classic is Antoine Fuqua’s latest film, Olympus Has Fallen.

The film pretty much takes what worked with the three films before it that’s been mentioned above and combines them to make a film. We have a lone, highly skilled operative in the form of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning in the role that made Bruce Willis famous and, for a time, resuscitated Steven Seagal’s career. Then we have the Presidential angle but instead of Air Force One it’s the White House this time around. The plot of the film is simple enough that even a person not well-versed in film could follow it. A group of dedicated and highly-trained North Korean terrorists do a surprise attack on the White House as the President of the United States and his South Korean counterpart try to find a way to defuse a situation that’s been growing in the DMZ between the two Koreas. It’s now up to Agent Banning, on his own, to try and stop whatever plans the terrorists have brewing with the President as hostage while also dealing with an inept group of higher-ups trying to deal with it far from the action.

Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t break new ground with the way it’s story unfolds and it’s characters develop. The film was pretty much beat-for-beat and scene for scene lifted from the three other films mentioned above. The characters may be different and the circumstances they find themselves in somewhat different, but the screenwriters played everything safe except the action sequences part of the film. It’s these action scenes which brings Olympus Has Fallen to a new level of violent artistry that the previously mentioned films never reached.

To say that this film was violent would be an understatement. Where other films of this type a certain cartoonish tone to it’s violence this time around Fuqua goes for a much more serious and, at times, disturbingly difficult to watch level of violence to make the film stand out from the rest of it’s kind. The assault on the White House itself and the surrounding area has less a look of a fun action film and more of a war film. People die in droves and it doesn’t matter whether they’re Secret Service, police, terrorists or innocent civilians. All were fair game in this film.

Even the action once we get to Banning playing the Willis role looked more brutal than what Willis and even Seagal ever got to do. Gerard Butler may not have had the charisma and wit of Willis in the same role, but he convincingly played his role as more Jack Bauer than Officer McClane. Butler as Banning was all business and efficiency while Willis as McClane was more the witty, smartass who just keeps finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Olympus Has Fallen won’t be hailed as one of the best films of 2013. It won’t even be talked about as one of the top action films this year, but despite the story being a derivative of every Die Hard and it’s clones before it the film does succeed in being a very enjoyable piece of popcorn flick. It was full of tension and big action setpieces (though the CG effects looked very cheap at times) that Fuqua has gradually become known for. The characters in the film were just a step above being one-dimensional and the story itself becomes less eye-rolling and more worrisome considering the real tensions coming out of the Korean Peninsula at this very moment.

One thing I’m sure of is that of the two “Die Hard-in-the-White-House” films this year (there’s the bigger-budgeted White House Down later this summer from Roland Emmerich) I have a feeling that Olympus Has Fallen might be the more fun. It’s probably going to be the more violent of the two and that’s an assumption I’m willing to make without even seeing how Emmerich’s film turns out.

Trailer: Olympus Has Fallen


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I’ve always wondered why Gerard Butler hasn’t been tapped to be an action hero star since his turn as Leonidas in 300. He definitely has the looks and physicality to pull off such films and do so without being snarky about it. He has instead been stuck doing romantic comedies and the brooding anti-hero roles. This pattern may just change depending on how well his next film does.

Olympus Has Fallen is the next film from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter) and looks like a new take on the Die Hard template of “one against many” that’s worked well with some films and turned out bad with others. This time around the film looks to be “Die Hard in the White House” type of story with Gerard Butler in the role of Bruce Willis. Though from some of the dialogue shown in the trailer it also sounds like a version of Under Siege (one of the better Die Hard clones)

The White House used as a setting for a siege has rarely been used (though the tv series 24 did it in it’s later seasons). The trailer show’s a bit of back story to Butler’s Secret Service character and what brings him back to the fold after a tragedy in his professional past puts him on ice.

Olympus Has Fallen is set for a March 22, 2013 release date.