(Video on Demand, June 2016) Nobody asked for this sequel (Upon learning that it was coming, I thought, “they made a sequel to the wrong white-house-in-peril movie!”) but now that London has Fallen exists, what can we learn from the experience? Perhaps, surprisingly, that it actually improves upon the admittedly dismal first film in the series: Without Antoine Fuqua at the helm, London Has Fallen tones down the excessive violence, swearing and mean-spiritedness. The result still isn’t particularly inspiring (this is, after all, a film where—ethnic slurs aside—Americans are criticized for indiscriminate drone-bombing, to which they triumphantly respond with even more drone-bombing) but it’s potent in the way generic action thrillers can be enjoyable as long as you don’t ask too many questions about American hegemony. There isn’t a whole lot of plot to London has Fallen—just Gerard Butler killing terrorists with jingoistic bon mots, Aaron Eckhart looking presidential and stock footage of London with tons of smoke. The film occasionally shows signs of life—most notably during a G7 assassination festival earlier on, and a mock single-take assault on a building later on. Most of the time, though, it seems happy to go through the motions of an eighties action film with implausibly well-organized foes, a bulletproof hero and plenty of unanswered questions. As dumb and borderline unpalatable as it may be, though, London Has Fallen does manage to stay on this side of the unacceptability line, which is more than the first film did. I’m not at all convinced that a third entry in the series is needed, but at least it ends on a higher note than if the first film had been allowed to disappear without a follow-up.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) An intense impression of familiarity is what first emerges from expensive-but-generic action fantasy film I, Frankenstein. Seemingly built using the same pieces as the Underworld series, Van Helsing and so many other attempts at shoe-horning familiar characters into a generic template, this film has the generic east-European blandness of so many other forgettable urban-fantasy films. The Manichean mythology is dull, the poor lonely hero is dull, the visuals are dull and there are few surprises along the way to the Big Fight at The End. Still, I, Frankenstein isn’t a complete dud for a few reasons: The first is Aaron Eckhart, using his square jaw to good effect as the stoic patchwork hero. The second is writer/director Stuart Beattie, quite a bit better as a director of action sequences than as the screenwriter: While the script is bland, some of the fight sequences are handled with a decent amount of fluidity and lengthy takes. Bill Nighy does a little bit of scenery-nibbling as the villain, but not enough to become a memorable antagonist. While the film has thematic ambitions, most of those lose themselves in meaningless nonsense, especially whenever the film tries to claim that its hero is soulless. (What does that even mean?) The humorlessness of I, Frankenstein doesn’t contribute to any enjoyable campiness, leaving very little as a feature when the film can’t emerge from its downbeat muck. Too bad for Eckhart (who hasn’t really broken through as a big star despite a few great performances), but too bad for viewers as well, served reheated fantasy leftovers as if they were somehow important.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) The prototypical thriller follows a familiar formula, but that’s no excuse to make a film as immediately forgettable as Erased. From the get-go, we are served well-worn elements: the highly-competent hero with a shady past, the woman to protect, the betrayal that upends everything that the hero knows and sends him on the run… In a few minutes, Erased sets its expectations downward and keeps them there. The bland European scenery doesn’t add much, and the progression of the plot to the hero turning the tables against the conspirators isn’t handled with any wit or freshness. It’s not as if formula by itself is bad: there are countless examples of dull premises made interesting by competent execution. But Erased doesn’t have that. Aaron Eckhart (a much better actor than most of the roles he plays) is stuck without much to do except look tough and run fast. (His transformation from super-geek to ex-CIA operative is a bit abrupt, although it’s the kind of stuff allowed on principle in thrillers, otherwise the result would be far less interesting.) In a word, Erased is dull and (ironically) instantly forgettable. It’s not actively bad or unpleasant, but it quickly blurs between what seems to be a countless number of films all telling pretty much the same story.
(On DVD, May 2011) A number of Hollywood cookie-cutter romantic films work on two levels: First, the plot engine is based on tried-and-true formula, with few surprises to offer. Then there’s the wrapping in which the story takes place, which can focus on just about any area of human endeavour. So it is that No Reservations is far more interesting when it describes the world of restaurant chefs and the personality quirks that come with a certain kind of hard-driven cooking professional than in the familiar story it’s trying to tell. The dramatic and romantic entanglements are routine, but the glossy look behind the scenes of a kitchen is interesting, and the film doesn’t skimp on the small scenes that aim straight for the foodie audience. Which is just as well, because a lot of the film’s plotting is made of short narrative loops suddenly resolved (whenever it remembers to advance the plot forward rather than show some fine cooking). The main romantic conflict is late in coming and is over before we even realise it exists. But for those who like food, No Reservations isn’t without interest: pure Hollywood gloss can serve some purpose when it’s focused on something delicious. At least the actors do well: As a quasi-neurotic French cuisine perfectionist, Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing a somewhat different character than usual in one of her rare 2005-2011 roles, while Aaron Eckhart is pure charm as a quasi-slacker Italian cuisine chef. It doesn’t amount to much of a movie, but it’s pleasant enough as a Hollywood take on the romance of cooking. The DVD’s sole special feature is a TV special on the film that contains interesting material, but repeats itself often enough to grate and distract from the content.
(In theatres, March 2011) Some movies are difficult to appreciate on their own rather than as references to something else, and since Battle Los Angeles is so derivative, it feels natural to keep rubbing it against other movies to see how it compares. There’s such a glut of alien-invasion films at the moment that seeing marines fighting alien invaders in Los Angeles feels more redundant than interesting: Even in trying to blend the attitude of Independence Day with the aesthetics of Black Hawk Down, Battle Los Angeles basically becomes a hackneyed collection of war movie clichés with alien taking over the role of the unrepentant enemy. It certainly doesn’t qualify as serious Science Fiction: The film buries itself in nonsense every time it tries explaining what’s going on, from alien coming to Earth for its water to them having military tactics so naïve that they would get them kicked out of West Point freshman year. From a thematic point of view, it’s tempting to put Battle Los Angeles in a cultural zeitgeist in which Americans are realizing the limits of their imperial reach and transposing this fearful guilt against an enemy as powerful to them as they are to countries that they have invaded, but that subtext is lost in the film’s gung-ho hoo-rah attitude. The emphasis here is on the combat scenes, the shakycam feeling of being in a firefight and the nobility of its warrior-characters. Threadbare narrative arcs, largely indistinguishable characters, functional writing and incoherent editing don’t do much to make this film likable. Other than the end battle and an interesting freeway sequence, most of the action scenes are too grimy and disconnected to sustain interest: Like many contemporary action directors, Jonathan Liebesman needs to know when to calm down and provide sustained long shots. Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart is solid as the square-jawed hero, while Michelle Rodriguez does what Rodriguez does best –and there’s nothing wrong with that, even though it reinforces the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. On the other hand, especially measured against recent downbeat alien-invasion films such as Monsters and quasi-brethren Skyline, Battle Los Angeles has the considerable merit of ending on a triumphant note, and delivering much of the good old-fashioned heroics that we’d expect from this kind of film. It doesn’t make the film any good, but it makes it satisfying once the end credits start rolling.