(On TV, October 2017) I really didn’t expect much from Dracula 2000: Vampire movies are a hit-and-miss proposition even at the best of times, and this one had slipped under my radar back in 2000 even as I was seeing nearly everything else in theatres. More than a decade and a half later, the only thing that looks noteworthy about the movie is a cast that includes Johnny Lee Miller, pre-300 Gerard Butler and Christopher Plummer. The plot is a half-hearted contemporary update to Bram Stoker’s Dracula featuring professional thieves and an unexplainable New Orleans setting. Even looking at bits and pieces of the film are grounds for disappointment, as the film features very dated directing and editing. Still, I had more fun than I expected from this low-profile horror movie: It’s not Blade II, but it’s more enjoyable than Blade III. The contemporary update is almost interesting, the Dracula-as-Judas thing may not be fresh but it’s clever and I think that Dracula 2000 was one of the first movies to popularize it. Justine Waddell (looking a lot like Ashley Judd) isn’t particularly remarkable as the heroine, but Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Esposito and Jeri Ryan as Dracula’s three brides are a very good choice. Jonny Lee Miller plays close to his Elementary persona (minus the whole genius thing), while Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Dracula. There is, in other words, just enough in Dracula 2000 to surprise, even though the execution of those things may not be good enough to fully satisfy. Nonetheless, the film endures just a bit better than many B-grade movies of the time, and seventeen years later that’s not a bad claim at all.
(On TV, September 2016) I’m mildly surprised that it took me thirteen years to get to Timeline. After all, it’s a science-fiction film, it’s based on a Michael Crichton novel … and it’s not as if I’ve gone out of my way to avoid either watch SF or reading Crichton. But the reviews at the time were bad, and I must have been focusing on something else (yeah, I now see it came out in November 2003—I was obsessively writing a novel that month) because here we are, watching it for the first time in 2016. Much to my surprise, Timeline isn’t as bad as the reviews then suggested. It is, in science-fiction terms, irremediably basic: the time-travelling mechanics are arbitrary, the treatment of temporal paradoxes is entry-level (with an air of astonishment betraying the author’s deliberate lack of SF sophistication) and the plot lines can be seen converging long in advance. And yet, it does offer a mildly satisfying package, a bit of a window into history (as inaccurate as Hollywood history can be) and a conclusion that ties everything together. Gerard Butler takes centre stage as a romantic scholar more at ease in the Middle Ages than in modern times, with notable performances by Paul Walker, Billy Connolly (as a scientist!) and Anna Friel. Veteran director Richard Donner isn’t particularly daring in his choices, but he keeps things running until the end. As far as the relationship between the film and the Crichton adaptation goes, the Hollywood version simplifies things remarkably, gets rid of troublesome ambiguities and notably loses the power of the opening chapter despite re-creating it almost verbatim. For seasoned science-fiction fans, Timeline’s use of time-travelling plot devices may be less interesting than seeing modern characters rediscovering medieval times, and witnessing an assault on a castle. While Timeline isn’t a great film (already, it feels half-forgotten), it’s decent enough to be worth a look through the end.
(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 TV, June 2015) Few romantic dramas manage to straddle the unexpected line between creepy and romantic as thoroughly as P.S. I Love You. It’s the kind of high-concept romantic premise (a dead man leaves a series of messages for his surviving spouse) that seems as horrifying as it could be sweet. While the film does manage a few nice surprises (such as a non-chronological structure and a conclusion that doesn’t rush to a romantic coupling), it’s still a bit off-putting, rather long and not entirely convincing in the details it uses to fill the blanks in its structure. Hilary Swank is, somehow, not particularly well-suited to a romantic lead role, and neither is Gerard Butler –despite generally likable performances, they don’t quite seem to click as well as they should. Lisa Kudrow and Harry Connick Jr. are also in the same boat: they do what they can with the material they’re given, but we know they’re capable of much more. Ultimately, though, much of P.S. I Love You feels heavily manipulated by the author/screenwriter’s whims, leading to plot points that don’t seem to happen organically. That’s sort-of-forgivable in romantic comedies, but not so much in attempted tearjerkers.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) For everyone who thought that overly patriotic high-concept action movies had gone out with the nineties, the good news is that Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t merely exist, but is the first of two “White House taken over by terrorists” films released in 2013. We’ve come a long way from 9/11 when such big-budget high-concept action movies can be released widely, and that’s a good thing. Whether the films are any good is another subject entirely, and watching Olympus Has Fallen, it’s clear that while it occasionally hits its mark, it doesn’t quite understand part of what made those 90s action movies so enjoyable. In a few words: PG-13 action over R-rated violence. Olympus Has Fallen, rated R, seems overly violent, profane and humorless for what is supposed to be popcorn entertainment in the Die Hard mold. It tries to be broadly amusing with funny quips and overdone action set-pieces, but then it plasters its dialogue with useless profanity and revels in showing gory violence (some of which perpetrated gleefully by the so-called hero). The result can’t very well be watched with the kind of carefree fun that PG-13 action films usually create: you’re always on guard for the next excursion in violence and gratuitous language. It doesn’t help that Olympus Has Fallen has little wit, charm or grace: Gerald Butler is merely OK as the lone operator chasing down the terrorists within the White House –anyone else could have done just as well. Morgan Freeman sleepwalks through another presidential role, and while it’s good to see Angela Bassett get another role, this one won’t leave any lasting impression. Director Antoine Fuqua is a seasoned veteran who knows how to put together an action scene, but he seems hampered by sub-standard CGI work (some of the C-130 gunship sequences look unfinished) and a script that never exceeds the perfunctory and seems to forget how to tie up (or even acknowledge) loose ends. Olympus Has Fallen is watchable, but it’s not hard to complain about various elements that could have been improved to produce a better film. Now let’s see if White House Down does any better… [January 2014: Yes, White House Down is quite a bit better.]
(In theatres, September 2009) It goes without saying that I’m about twice the age of Gamer’s intended audience of XBox-addicted teens who would think that a real-life FPS with remote-controlled convicts is a cool idea. Nonetheless, even the most enthusiastic gamers will have no trouble recognizing a lousy film when they see one. Light on SF ideas and just as disappointing in strict action-movie terms, Gamer pushes the lightning-quick editing craze as far as it goes until it shreds to tatters. The irony, of course, is that gaming usually takes place within a long continuous shot that allows players to build a strong mental landscape of their surroundings: Chopping up an action scene in a flurry of split-second shots is the exact opposite of that kind of aesthetics. But this is starting to sound like old-guy complaining, so let’s focus on Gamer’s more substantial failings: the cookie-cutter plot that feels like a re-thread of so many other “real game” movies (I don’t usually bring up Death Race in conversation, but there’s an exception to everything), the wasted thematic foundations of a film using gaming as a metaphor about control, the sheer weirdness of -say- a dance number confrontation between hero and villain… Gamer is a bit of a mess, really, but it doesn’t even have what it takes to become an enjoyable mess. Aside from Gerard Butler’s credible presence as an action hero and the pedigree of writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor, there’s little, in fact, to distinguish Gamer from so many dull straight-to-video SF thrillers. Why don’t you fire up the console instead?