Author Archives: Alex Good

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

*. I know I’m in for a good time when I see Technicolor announced. I love these early Technicolor movies, and in fact Dr. Cyclops was the first American horror film made in three-strip Technicolor. Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum had been made using the two-strip process.
*. I hope you enjoy, with me, that glowing green lab, looking like something Mario Bava was making notes on for future use. What with the weird spangle of lights we might as well be in an aquarium — a feeling that’s only deepened when Dr. Thorkel puts on his radium suit, which looks like some kind of Victorian diving apparatus.
*. Alas, despite this promising opening, which includes the usual warning directed to Thorkel about how “You are tampering with powers reserved to God!”, I have to rate Dr. Cyclops a disappointment.
*. The one part of the movie that gets a lot of praise is the performance of Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel. He’s certainly weird, but I’m not sure it’s a great performance. It’s more a case of a strange character with a striking appearance (a large man with a shaved head and small, thick-lensed glasses that make him look like a demented jeweler).
*. Thorkel is a mad scientist, sure. And, like all mad scientists, when people call him mad it only makes him angry. But is he a sadist? There I’m not so sure. His cruelty is inextricably bound up with his curiosity in the outcome of his experiment. This makes his cheery demeanour all the more disturbing.
*. However you want to read him, Dekker is the only member of the cast who holds our attention. The rest of the film is just waiting to see what sort of visual trickery they’re going to come up with next. Dr. Thorkel, you see, has discovered a way to (temporarily) shrink other living creatures, making this yet another movie about tiny people wandering through giant sets. Not that far removed from the explorers of Skull Island in King Kong, which is no surprise given that Ernest B. Schoedsack had a hand in both films.

*. Unfortunately, there’s a strange energy deficiency noticeable in the proceedings. When we first meet the character Stockton he’s reclining in a chair with flies crawling over him. His indolence strikes what will be a recurring note. Dr. Thorkel later proves to be a real sleepyhead. Upon discovering that he can now control life absolutely he immediately nods off. The later plan to kill him will involve rigging his shotgun to shoot him while he sleeps.
*. I think there might also be something related to this in the lack of urgency shown by the little people when they first escape. What do they do when they get out of Thorkel’s clutches? Remarkably they’re discovered in the next room, setting up a commune. Eating. Reading. Sewing new clothes. Apparently getting away was not a high priority.
*. Why do people keep cats? Every time we have one of these movies about people being shrunk the cats show their true stripes and try to kill their now tiny owners. That’s what your cat would do to you too, if they had the chance! They’d eat you! Dogs meanwhile, can be counted on to show a certain residual loyalty.
*. Sticking with the cat, could they not have found something in the sound library that sounded more like a cat? Even before the group shrinks its growls sound like a guy doing a very bad imitation of a cat. Which doesn’t sound like a cat at all.
*. So I like the Technicolor. Even more than the effects, which I don’t think are all that good. And Dekker’s Dr. Thorkel is a uniquely creepy mad scientist. The story here though is a waste of time, and something about it feels off in an uncomfortable way. It’s not just the air of laziness, but things like the casual way Dr. Bullfinch is disposed of. I usually give credit to a movie that gets under my skin, but in this case it’s a feeling I didn’t appreciate.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

*. As these things go, the Cloverfield universe (or “Cloververse”) is a small place. It’s also a surprisingly slapdash construction.
*. The first film, 2008’s Cloverfield was crap: a late entry in the shaky-cam sweepstakes with a bunch of unlikeable characters running around New York City as it’s being attacked by aliens. Who said we needed more of that?
*. But there would be more to the Cloververse, coming by way of random instalments. Next up would be 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was an unrelated script (titled The Cellar) tweaked to line-up, vaguely, with Cloverfield. A Quiet Place was apparently first conceived as another Cloverfield picture but later developed independently. Then we have this movie, which was based on a spec script (titled God Particle) that, as with The Cellar, was retrofitted to be part of the Cloververse. But again the connecting links are slight, to the point where if “Cloverfield” hadn’t been put in the title I’m not sure many people would have made the connection.
*. Even without this background you’d be forgiven for thinking The Cloverfield Paradox slapdash. It went way over budget, the release was pushed back on a couple of occasions, and Paramount was so pessimistic of its chances that it was sold to Netflix, who released it on demand after a surprise reveal in a Super Bowl commercial.
*. Critics were hostile and ratings underwhelming. It is not, however, a terrible movie. The premise held promise. A space station operating a particle accelerator in orbit accidentally rips a hole in spacetime, leading to the chaotic intrusion of one universe into another.
*. Unfortunately, aside from giving us the captain’s wonderful line “This dimension is eating us alive,” the story never goes anywhere. It is also wrapped up in a farfetched way that brings us back to the Cloverfield Earth, now under attack by ginormous monsters. I had supposed that returning to the original universe would not be as simple as turning the particle accelerator back on, but the film was running out of time.
*. So it’s not that bad. It’s just not that good. Despite nods to various SF-horror tropes there are no standout scenes of suspense or horror, nor any of the loopiness of Event Horizon or Pandorum to bail it out. The laugh lines all fall flat. The twist is so obvious it doesn’t deserve the name. It’s clear they didn’t know where they wanted to go with this and so ended up nowhere. The lack of confidence Paramount showed in it was deserved, but given the looseness of the franchise it’s hard to see this episode as being much of a setback. In addition to all its different media platforms, the Cloververse would now have multiple dimensions to expand into.

Pandorum (2009)

*. In my initial notes on Pandorum I scribbled something about how it seemed like Event Horizon except that it actually made sense. Yes it’s a contrived plot, but if you grant the basic premise I thought it held together pretty well.
*. Re-watching the film and then listening to the commentary with director Christian Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt I started to have a few doubts on this score. Little holes started showing up. For example, I was wondering how Bower got away from the first Hunter. He’s clearly captured and dragged off unconscious, but the next time we see him he’s escaped. Was a scene cut? There’s no mention of this on the commentary and it confused me. [Note: Christian Alvart wrote to correct me in the comments below.]
*. But I had bigger surprises in store. I was wrong about a lot of what was going on in this movie the first time I saw it. For example, I always figured “Payton” knew what was going on and wasn’t suffering from the same memory loss Bower was. Had I not been paying attention, or was it that confusing? Probably a bit of both. In my defence, the explanation provided by Leland is pretty loopy and Dennis Quaid’s character is too erratic to follow at times (was he just crazy, or did he have some rational motivation?). Even now I can only say I have a general idea of what’s going on, and I’m less sure it all makes sense. It did, however, keep me interested, which is something few such movies do. And it was never as downright ridiculous as Event Horizon.
*. For some reason there was a big gap between the critical response (they hated it) and audience ratings (which were decent, though the box office was disappointing). I’m a little surprised by the poor critical reception. It seems a lot of reviewers found it overly derivative. But while all of the individual elements are familiar, I thought they were well put together in an interesting story that had a few exciting moments. It’s not a great movie, but I think it’s better than average for its genre.
*. The poster (and DVD box cover) is quite striking, with tubes and cables going into a guy’s mouth and eye sockets. But I wasn’t sure what it had to do with the movie. When the crew members are in hypersleep they’re hooked up to IVs and wear masks, but that’s it. I felt cheated.
*. The Hunters are OK though, and I liked their back story. It was also fun to have a couple of good fight scenes with them, even if they’re edited all to hell. It’s a very dark movie, which normally bugs me but I didn’t mind so much in this case.
*. There were plans for a prequel and sequel but nothing has materialized yet, probably because of the disappointing box office I mentioned. That’s fine by me. I think it works well as a standalone. It’s not a movie I’d run out and recommend, but at the same time it deserves to be a bit better known.

Event Horizon (1997)

*. A lot of movies have scripts that are stupid. This is certainly the case with Event Horizon, but I would characterize its sort of stupidity more precisely. It is juvenile. It has the feel of a script written by a twelve-year-old. It posits a black hole opening a doorway to hell in the skies above Neptune, but hell is just an orgy of gothic sadism while advanced physics gets explained using language borrowed from A Wrinkle in Time. Nevertheless, it is all presented as being very serious stuff, as evidenced by lines like “A black hole. The most destructive force in the universe. And you’ve created one?” or “You break all the laws of physics and you seriously think there wouldn’t be a price?”
*. That said, what charm Event Horizon has comes from this same silliness. You can’t take it seriously for a second, at least after one of the crewmen of the rescue vessel turns out to know what is, I am told, incorrect Latin (a language that apparently nobody on Earth had been able to figure out).
*. But like I say, this silliness is charming. Take as another example the fact that the ghost ship Event Horizon isn’t actually in orbit over Neptune but is somehow stationary in its atmosphere. This, I am again told, is impossible, but it allows for the fact that the film’s action takes place on a dark and stormy night with lots of thunder and lightning outside. That thunder and lightning, in turn, ties in to the fact that director Paul Anderson wanted this to be a haunted house movie set in space, echoing everything from The Haunting to The Shining.
*. Actually, the entire movie is a vast echo chamber of other films. In addition to the two I just mentioned there’s also, of course, a lot of Alien. From the sleep pods to the banter among the burnt-out crew right down to everyone wearing the same regulation underwear. Then there’s Solaris and its alien force messing with the crew’s minds and the main character being haunted by his wife’s suicide. Or Hellraiser, with the whips-and-chains vision of hell and the gravity drive that’s like a puzzle box solving itself and summoning demons. Anderson really wanted that medieval look, to the point where he wanted the ship’s interior to look like Notre Dame cathedral and the spacesuits to seem like suits of armour.

*. There are also homages built in to individual scenes. When Peters goes looking for her lost son it plays out like the climax of Don’t Look Now. And this too was deliberate, as the commentary makes clear. Does it make much sense, given that Peters knows her son isn’t on board the ship and that she’s chasing after an illusion? Not much. But then, it’s all very silly.
*. Equally silly — meaning nonsensical but charming — are all the antique touches. Miller (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of the rescue vessel, wears a WW2-style leather jacket. The crew members smoke and drink coffee. Despite the fact that they carry around touch pads, they have pictures of sexy women cut out of magazines stuck to their quarters. This is all silly too.
*. Oh the steps we have to take to avoid showing gasp! genitals. I mean, few people wear underwear in a bath. Note also how Neill’s evil doppelganger at the end is in a full body latex suit with all his precious scars: no clothes but no genitals either (you can see this clearest in a rough cut on the documentary included with the DVD, there’s just a sort of bulge down there).
*. I don’t know if there’s any point trying to understand where it is the Event Horizon has gone or where the doorway it opens leads to. This is a type of horror that was very popular at the time, where the scary stuff all basically comes by way of psychological states or hallucinations being made real. This is also why the vision of hell we get is presented in such generic terms. These aren’t alien tortures but images drawn out of the collective human unconscious.
*. Of course, such an interpretation torpedoes the idea of the ship being somehow alive or sentient. It doesn’t even have an AI personality to be corrupted. But looking for some kind of consistency in the plot here is a fool’s errand.

*. I am sure there’s no point trying to figure out how Sam Neil gets super powers. He just does. Or what the “really strange readings” are that the rescue team pick up during their scan for life forms. Maybe they’re ghosts.
*. One thing that does make me wonder though is to what extent Dr. Weir(d) (Neill) knows what’s going on. He did design the ship after all, and he seems to be in some kind of psychic contact with it even before setting out on the mission. As with Peters chasing after her son, however, it isn’t clear why Weir is in such a rush to go to hell. Penance? Where is the lure here that draws these people to their destruction?
*. It was criticized for being too talky, but that in itself isn’t fair. I like talk. The problem is that the talk here is dumb. There are even a couple of scenes where people are asked for straight talk and when they get it they immediately ask for things to be dumbed down or for someone to speak in English.
*. A box office bomb, it’s gone on to gain a minor cult following, helped in part by being seen as a sort of ruined movie, with Anderson never permitted by the studio to bring his full (130 minute) vision to screen. I don’t buy it. This would never have been a good movie. Though it may have made more sense if given more time and money. But I doubt even that would have helped, since what I’ve heard is that most of the cuts involved getting rid of excess gore.
*. While a bad movie, I do enjoy it. It may be stupid, but it’s not dull, and I like all the gothic design elements. Like those giant spikes sticking out of the gravity drive room. The whole ship is a giant torture chamber even before they go to hell. All part of the silliness, and the fun.

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

*. A young couple lose their child in a tragic accident. Later, they learn of a secret temple where the line between the living and the dead is thin. They are warned of the dangers: “No matter what you do, you must not open the door.” They open the door. This “upsets the balance between life and death.” Shit happens.
*. No, it’s not Pet Sematary. Or really any one of a number of horror movies with the same plot going back to “The Monkey’s Paw.” But it’s something very similar.
*. At this point you may be expecting me to write The Other Side of the Door off as just another horror film mining various other horror films, from classics to J-horror and the neo-haunted house genre. This it is, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Now I’ll admit I went in with very low expectations, but still.
*. The main wrinkle to the story this time out is that it’s set in Mumbai, and the door is located in this spooky abandoned temple. When Maria opens the door (oh yes she does!) she not only gets her dead kid back from the underworld but also unleashes a god of the dead known as Myrtu.
*. I wish there were more to Myrtu, but he or she (I missed the gender) is just the usual disjointed, clattering figure we saw crawling up and down the stairs in such films as The Grudge. He’s even played by Javier Botet, who was the emaciated Medeiros at the end of Rec and the Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2. He has what has become a very popular look.
*. Critics complained about the stereotypical depiction of modern India, and that is a problem. The film almost seems set in nineteenth-century Bombay, and it’s sad the only local we meet is the wise woman Piki. This, in turn, is another conventional horror role: the ethnic figure who has a special knowledge of black magic, voodoo, or some other exotic belief system that threatens the bourgeois domesticity of the White World.
*. Not that she is recognized as such. Maria believes Piki’s story about the temple that acts as a gateway to the land of the dead, and later has this verified when Oliver comes back, but when she starts seeing demons and other bad things happening she brushes off Piki’s advice about what she has to do as so much crazy talk. Huh?
*. Of course it’s Piki who has to pay the ultimate price for Maria’s pigheadedness. And of course that is racist. But it’s a racist convention. Like the black guy always gets it. Or those coloured people I mention who always seem to know what’s going on but whose knowledge doesn’t help them in the slightest.
*. So, no, there isn’t much new going on here. The ghost moves things around the house. It plays piano by itself. The family dog knows something is wrong but is about as good at communicating this as the Hindi help. Still, it’s not a bad little ghost story in the usual vein. Director Alexandre Aja is a competent genre technician even at his least inspired (which I think he was here). And Sofia Rosinsky is excellent as Lucy, singlehandedly taking the whole film up a notch. My advice: keep your expectations low, don’t expect any surprises, and you should find it adequate.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

*. A Fistful of Dollars is Sergio Leone’s Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and it stays quite close to the original, copying certain scenes and plot elements nearly verbatim. Despite this, upon being sued by Kurosawa Leone tried to argue that he was actually going back to earlier sources (including Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, a source also touted for Yojimbo, and an 18th-century Italian play called The Servant of Two Masters). He could not have been serious, and the defence was properly rejected.
*. To take just the most obvious example of borrowing, when Eastwood’s Man With No Name asks the coffin maker to prepare three coffins and returns to apologize for his mistake and to make it four, he is only slightly inflating the identical scene in Yojimbo where Sanjuro asks for two coffins and then asks for three.
*. It’s a movie we have to see in hindsight today knowing its importance in introducing the spaghetti Western and what Eastwood would go on to do, not only in rounding out Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (this movie would be quickly followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but on his own. Given all that, we have to then note that Eastwood was not Leone’s first or even second choice to play the part (Henry Fonda was tops, followed by Charles Bronson, who didn’t like the script).

*. As fate would have it, Eastwood was perfect. Why? Because like most great action stars he understood the value of minimalism. As another of his iconic characters would put it, a man has to know his limitations, and Eastwood knew his. Meanwhile, Leone (who didn’t know English) wasn’t expecting much. “More than an actor, I needed a mask, and Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.”
*. For the role, that was enough. Sanjuro would have a shrug and a habit of stroking his chin. Eastwood would squint and chew on a cigar. Neither character would even have a proper name, though the hotelkeeper here does call Eastwood Joe.
*. It’s a performance that also might say something about the evolution of cool. The Man here is borderline autistic, but violent. And also very much alone. Marisol may catch his eye, but because he’s attracted to her? Because he wants to help her? Or just because she’s connected to the gang he wants to take down and he thinks she’ll be useful?
*. Speaking of unconvincing, this movie came out during the pre-squib days of gun battles, which gets us the truly laughable slaughter of the Mexican Federales by the psychopathic Ramón Rojo. I mean, how do they manage to not kill all the horses? In a quick gunfight, like the Man specializes in, we don’t mind not seeing blood. But when you see so many extras all dying in the throes of the same ludicrous ballet gestures it’s ridiculous.
*. Is this some of the most unconvincing day-for-night photography you’ve ever seen? It is for me. Which only really matters in the graveyard shootout, but does matter there. Things are very mixed up. If you accept that they can’t see that the two men are already dead, how can they see well enough to shoot at each other?

*. In some ways it’s an even more fanciful and abstract movie than Yojimbo. In that movie we at least saw some shots of townspeople hiding in their homes. San Miguel, on the other hand, seems truly deserted. How does the hotelkeeper stay in business? There’s literally no one here but him and the coffin maker.
*. Stephen Prince’s DVD commentary sees in Yojimbo an allegory for the decline of a noble old order due to commercial capitalism. This explains Kurosawa’s motives, but leaves Sanjuro’s a blank. In this film business is even more soulless and destructive, but I don’t get the sense that Leone cares much. Meanwhile, the Man doesn’t even have a samurai code to honour. He’s on the side of women and children and old men, which is nice, but as far as it goes. It’s interesting that when this movie was shown on TV they added a prologue giving the Man some back story (he’s been released from prison so he can go clean up San Miguel). Obviously somebody thought audiences needed more to go on. But they didn’t. Less was always more.
*. It’s an important movie, and a good one too. I don’t usually get too excited by restorations, but the 4K version of this film is stunning, with the tracks in the characters faces looking like desert gullies in satellite photographs. Seeing it like this is a revelation, and really drives home how visual a movie it is. That same reliance on visuals, however, also makes it less interesting on repeated viewings. I find there’s just not very much going on here, and I say this as a fan. Leone was building up to greater things though.

Yojimbo (1961)

*. In his commentary for the Criterion release of Yojimbo, Stephen Price presents a particular reading of the film that didn’t immediately suggest itself to me. Basically Price sees Yojimbo as an allegory for the emergence of modern corporate capitalism. The samurai “Sanjuro” (he gives himself the made-up name) represents an older, vaguely feudal code of values. He wants to destroy the new world order, represented by the competition between the silk and sake merchants and their yakuza. This he does in an apocalyptic final battle that leaves the town a smoking ruin littered with corpses. “It’ll be quiet in this town now,” is the laconic epitaph he bestows upon it.
*. Such a reading helps Price explain the character of Sanjuro. In particular, the question of his motivation. As the film makes clear, Sanjuro’s not in the game for money or women. Indeed, he seems to despise both. And despite often being invoked by critics, I don’t really see where he has much of a code, whether that of the samurai or one involving any other moral compass. As Roger Ebert observes, “His amorality is so complete that we are a little startled when he performs a good deed.”
*. For Price this allows us to read him as a vehicle for Kurosawa’s message, his role being to punish the corrupt and greedy politicians and gangsters. Which is a fair reading on one level, but leaves the more basic question of his character unresolved.

*. I can get on board with some of this, as Sanjuro is otherwise an enigmatic figure. On the most literal level what he seems to be driven by is a desire to be entertained. He delights in stage-managing the big showdown between the gangs, and is clearly enjoying things immensely as he looks down from the tower. Then when he’s being carried to safety in the coffin he puts himself at huge risk when he perversely insists on being dropped in the middle of the street so he can see the destruction of Seibei’s clan. If there’s violence happening, he wants to watch.

*. Is there some commentary in this on our own fascination with violence, given that we are watching a violent movie? I think there has to be some of that going on. Though the presentation of violence, while at times quite explicit and even shocking for the time (the severed hands, the arterial spurts), is complicated by a couple of factors.
*. In the first place, it’s quick. Kurosawa here is the anti-Peckinpah, giving us a climactic battle that lasts all of ten seconds. The swift movements of Toshiro Mifune combined with the effect of the telephoto lens and what may have been an undercranked camera in some scenes, make it so that if you blink you’re likely to miss a lot of the action.
*. “An intense scene feels very long,” Kurosawa says in the documentary included in the Criterion package. The final battle “is very short but it feels longer.” Yes, but I think only when we recollect it in tranquility. At the time it has quite an effect, startling in its suddenness and realism. But it doesn’t feel long, at least in the way a short suspenseful scene will.

*. The second factor complicating our appreciation of the film’s violence is its sense of humour. That dog with the hand in its mouth is a funny bit, but it’s shocking as well. What I think grounds that humour in something real is the expression on Sanjuro’s face, which is hard to see now without also thinking of the solid impregnability of Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
*. Does this diminish the violence in some way though? I think it does. As with The Man With No Name, Sanjuro is the only one who experiences real violence. We are made to feel his suffering, especially in his long crawl to freedom. Everybody else is just a mook to be shredded into sashimi.
*. It’s a Western movie. That’s not to pinpoint any particular influence, though you can certainly feel the presence of the Western tradition with its dusty main-street showdown. But there are also references to various gangster films, starting with The Glass Key. All I really mean by calling it a Western is that it’s a movie in the Western film vernacular. This is why its progeny are as well known as its sources. But for all this embeddedness, it also deserves a lot of credit for the way it bent various genre arcs. It not only reinvented the samurai picture but created the spaghetti Western, with its dirty, morally ambiguous antihero.

*. That anti-hero, Sanjuro, is, in my opinion, one of film’s great original creations, a fictional character that can stand alongside Falstaff on stage and Quixote in the novel in terms of his popularity and individual standing in the global canon. These comparisons also underline his mass appeal. Naturally audiences wanted more of him (like they wanted more Falstaff, or a second part of Don Quixote), and would be obliged in a sequel, Sanjuro.
*. The curious thing I find about Yojimbo is that it’s an entertaining movie — deliberately so, and not surprisingly a box office smash — that I wasn’t impressed all that much by the first time I saw it but which grows on me with every re-viewing. The technical expertise and attention to detail really stand out. I’m still not sure it’s a personal favourite — for one thing, I can never get the town politics straight in my head — but I do find I appreciate it now more than ever.

Angel Has Fallen (2019)

*. The Mike Banning movies, identified less readily by their hero’s generic, forgettable name than by the increasingly strained presence of Has Fallen in their titles, constitute one of those unanticipated if not accidental franchises where they had to keep repeating themselves because they never had much to say in the first place. Reminiscent, in other words, of the Pitch Black and Taken trilogies. And since I actually thought Riddick and Taken 3 to be he best entries in those two series (a minority view), I thought that perhaps Angel Has Fallen would be OK.
*. It’s not, though it’s not a disastrous drop off from Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen. It’s really just more of the same (as if you were expecting something different). Apparently Vice-President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) has inherited Aaron Eckhart’s job as president, as well as Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) as his all-star Secret Service hero. Banning is the kind of burly bro who grits his teeth and growls “fuck” a lot. He’s also suffering the fallout from too many concussions and is popping a lot of pills as things get started. A condition one can only imagine getting worse as the series continues.
*. Anyhow, the story here has Banning getting framed for an assassination attempt on Trumbull. The rest of the movie then has him trying to clear himself, save the president, and kill the bad guys.
*. There really are no surprises. We start off with Mike fighting his way out of a bad situation that you can tell right away is a training simulation. Then when the head of the private security company shows up and it’s Danny Huston, and the name of the company is revealed to be Salient Global . . . well, there’s your bad guys. And one sight of the creepy Veep (Tim Blake Nelson) and you know he’s the one behind it all. None of this was hard to figure out.
*. About five minutes in I was saying to myself that it looked like it had been directed by an ex-stunt man. It was. I’m not saying this, by the way, to pat myself on the back but just to point out how generic it is. Also to note how, for movies of this nature, ex-stunt men are obvious choices to direct. Chad Stahelski’s management of the John Wick franchise comes to mind.
*. What’s to like? There’s a drone strike sequence that plays as something a bit fresh and different, though it’s hard to believe. Also Nick Nolte shows up as Banning’s cantankerous dad, living off-the-grid on Booby Trap Mountain, which is somewhere in West Virginia. He’s fun, though not funny.
*. I’d like to say this was the end of the line, but plans were immediately announced not just for a sequel, but for a fourth, fifth, and sixth film as well as a television spin-off. I don’t see the point though in my watching any more. It’s not often that I give up on a franchise, but I’ve had enough of this stocky, charmless Bond (or Bourne, or John Wick). This is a series that doesn’t introduce any original ideas, or have anything much to say or new way to say it. So I’m signing off.

London Has Fallen (2016)

*. Olympus Has Fallen was a dumb action film with lots of fist fights and knife fights and gun fights and explosions. It was an obvious Die Hard clone but was reasonably well done and well received. London Has Fallen is more of the same but was not well received at all. Critics hated it and audiences were slightly cooler too. Why? Did they miss the Die Hard formula that much?
*. Well, for one thing, if Olympus Has Fallen was dumb than London Has Fallen is dumberer. An intro shows an American missile strike taking out the wedding of a promiment Pakistani arms dealer’s daughter. This means it’s personal. And, as the arms dealer (his name is Barkawi) has already told his sons, “Vengeance must always be profound and absolute.” So a plan is hatched to kill the British Prime Minister and then, with all the most powerful heads of state gathered together in London for the funeral, kill all of them too.
*. If you thought the terrorists launching a frontal assault on the White House was stupid, well you hadn’t seen anything yet. Apparently the terrorists here have assembled a crack team of several hundred individuals to blow up a bunch of famous landmarks, shut the City down, and kill the various world leaders in a sequence that had me thinking of Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? The Italian president is actually named Antonio Gusto, and he’s making out with his young mistress when he gets taken out. Forza Italia!
*. There’s a great moment when the American president is being escorted to safety by his burly bodyguard Mike Banning (Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler, respectively) and he remarks that the terrorists must have someone inside. Someone? They haven’t just infiltrated, they’ve taken over the entire London police force, and even the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace as well. All in just a couple of years!
*. In my notes on Olympus Has Fallen I didn’t mention the names of Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett. He plays the Speaker of the House who becomes acting president during the kidnapping but he’s advanced (is that the right word?) to being Vice President here. She’s the head of the Secret Service and gets killed in the initial attack. So Freeman gets to man the war room, again, and face off with the terrorist heads floating on the big screen, again, while Bassett provides a bit of extra sauce for Butler’s profound and absolute revenge.
*. Melissa Leo is also back as the Secretary of Defense, after getting the crap beaten out of her in the first film. Does she even have any lines though? Or is she just here for continuity?
*. Antoine Fuqua didn’t come back to direct because he apparently didn’t care for the script. Let that sink in.
*. I get that Butler’s Banning is the typical hard target in an action film. Meaning he can walk through a hail of bullets and not be hit. But he also walks away from a helicopter crash, along with the president. Just before they crash he manages to yell out “Brace yourselves!” Advice which does not include putting on a seatbelt. I guess they just got lucky.
*. Because once again all the players are in contact with each other via cellphones (or whatever they’re using) they get to talk smack at each other. This isn’t very witty or a lot of fun. One feels things weighing down with hyperbole. When Barkawi is identified as being the brains behind the London operation Freeman says that he’s “killed more people than the plague.” I was just pondering that, and figuring it couldn’t be literally true, when Banning kills a fake policeman and, finding him armed with an automatic weapon, a grenade, and a smoke bomb, declares that he has “more ammunition than the entire U.S. Army.” Which made even less sense, but it’s the kind of thing that people say in this movie.
*. Most of the plot is just an excuse to drag us through a bunch of different action scenes, which I thought were reasonably well done but nothing original. There were a lot of complaints about the CGI, but at this point I feel like if I’ve seen one city being destroyed I’ve seen them all. The depopulated London (which doesn’t make a lot of sense) reminded me of 28 Days Later, as did thee descent into the subway (which I think used the same location). Terrorists, zombies . . . it’s all pretty much the same.
*. The jingoism, which was already pretty heavy in Olympus Has Fallen, is dialed up even louder here. The ridiculous scene in the earlier film where Leo recites the pledge of allegiance while being beaten is returned to here with the president reciting his oath of office as he’s about to be killed. Then Butler gets to deliver a rah-rah speech about the indestructibility of the American spirit as he beats one of the chief terrorists around a room. Boo-yah.
*. The wrap-up is exactly what you’d expect. Everyone watching the rescue of the president (apparently being streamed live, preposterously, around the world, including in Times Square) gets to cheer. That’s the cue for the audience to cheer as well. The mole is discovered, and he’s exactly who you thought he was the first time he appeared on screen. His execution is a formality. Banning decides to delete his resignation letter and continue to make the world safe . . . for the children. A third film was soon announced.

White House Down (2013)

*. I spent a lot of time in my notes on Olympus Has Fallen talking about how that film was basically one of a long line of Die Hard clones. Since White House Down is nearly the same movie with a different title the best way to start may be to just compare it to Olympus Has Fallen.
*. The balance sheets make an interesting study in Hollywood accounting. White House Down cost twice as much to make ($150 million to $70 million), but also did slightly better in terms of box office ($205 million to $170 million). Despite this, Olympus Has Fallen was considered a hit and spawned an immediate sequel while White House Down was written off as a bomb for Sony.
*. It was reported that the script alone for White House Down cost $3 million, which was a waste since it is total garbage. All it had was the proverbial high concept, but in the wake of Olympus Has Fallen even that became a drag. Hadn’t we just seen all this?
*. On balance, and it is a close call, I think I prefer Olympus Has Fallen. It moves at a sprightlier pace and has a goofier attitude toward the material. I don’t want to be mistaken as saying that White House Down is any more realistic though. Sure a frontal assault on the White House by a bunch of terrorists was dumb, but at least the guys in that movie had a plan. I’m not sure what was going on here. There’s a loose alliance of types involved who seem to have different agendas. How they all managed to work together is beyond me. I wasn’t even sure who was supposed to be in charge of the conspiracy.
*. Chyrons and talking heads have become our new spinning newspaper headlines for advancing the plot and giving the audience information. They do heavy duty filling in the background here. It seems the president (Jamie Foxx) is behind a peace initiative that the usual suspects are up against. Cue the coup.
*. Christopher Orr found something incongruous in director Roland Emmerich’s “peculiar blend of pacifistic piety and wanton violence.” I think it would be more jarring if the piety weren’t so overplayed. As it is, it’s hard to credit that part of the script as being serious.
*. Channing Tatum as the Hero and Foxx as the president both play well. James Woods doesn’t even seem to be trying at this point, but in such a role he doesn’t have to do more than the bare minimum. The real weak links are the characters played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Joey King (a Secret Service agent and Tatum’s daughter respectively). It’s been noted before that Emmerich doesn’t have much time for female characters, but these two are so annoying they’re positively damaging.
*. What was the point of Gyllenhaal even calling Cale (Tatum) in for an interview anyway when it’s clear right from the get-go that he’s not going to get the job based on his record? I mean, that wasn’t a real job interview, was it? Still, it lets his final plea to “Just give me a chance!” hang in the air. Oh, he’ll get his chance. Just like that Lincoln pocketwatch will come back into play.
*. As for Emily (King), are we supposed to feel good that her YouTube channel is now going to go viral? Is that what all her flag-waving was really about?
*. Things blow up and many rounds of ammunition are expended. There are lots of fights. The rescue attempt, a helicopter attack identical to that in Olympus Has Fallen, suffers the identical fate. At the end of the movie the live and television/Internet audience erupts into cheers. Truth, justice, family, the flag, and the American way of life are triumphantly affirmed.
*. I mentioned earlier how the heavy-handed messaging is undercut by the fact that it’s so hard to take seriously. I had the same feeling watching Olympus Had Fallen, where the more jingoistic scenes seemed to me as though they must have been intended tongue-in-cheek or as a joke. But I don’t think satire is ever the intent. You can be cynical about such matters but you’re not allowed to laugh.