Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible' (1996)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

When I pulled up Mission: Impossible to watch on Netflix, I saw that I had apparently rated it two stars at some point in the past, which seemed odd to me because I remember having liked all the movies in the series when I first saw them. Regardless of what I actually thought of Mission: Impossible when I initially saw it in 1996, I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around, even with the convoluted plot and some less-than-convincing special effects in the helicopter-vs.-train finale. As producer and star of the series, Tom Cruise has done a great job of recruiting distinctive directors for each installment, and he started out by giving Brian De Palma one of his most high-profile gigs. It's the last big hit of De Palma's career, which is a shame because it proves that the director can do a great job with a Hollywood franchise if given the proper freedom. Sure, the plot makes no sense (it was constructed piecemeal during shooting, essentially, and built around the action sequences), but the set pieces are great and the visuals are striking. The pacing is so relentless that you hardly have time to stop and think about how nonsensical the plot is.

Although Mission: Impossible purists were apparently not happy with how this movie turned out, it's the closest movie in the series to the original TV show, with Jon Voight playing original IMF leader Jim Phelps and prominent use of the self-destructing mission assignments. De Palma brings a fun action-adventure style to the movie, even though the story is more blockbuster movie than TV procedural. Cruise brings every bit of his movie-star charm to the role of Ethan Hunt, who of course quickly eclipses familiar name Jim Phelps as the movie's actual main character (the purists might have been happier if Voight's character had just been given a different name). Although Ethan is just one part of the IMF team (which also includes short-lived characters played by Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas) at the beginning and then recruits his own team once he's on the run, he's more in the mold of the lone-wolf agent, especially since he spends the bulk of the movie being pursued by his own government (a theme that would get repeated throughout the series).

Cruise is a great action hero, and his charm and determination make Ethan easy to root for. Voight is a bit underwhelming as the mentor-turned-villain (a twist that annoyed fans of the TV show), and some of the other supporting players are underused. Henry Czerny, who went on to play a deliciously devious rich douchebag on Revenge, is highly entertaining as the weasely government agent trying to bring Ethan in, and it's actually a little disappointing when he turns out not to be the bad guy. Ethan and Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell went on to form the core of the franchise, but this movie isn't really about characters. It's about bravura set pieces, none better than the incredibly tense sequence in which Ethan is suspended from the ceiling in a CIA vault, determined not to set off any motion or heat sensors as he attempts to copy some sensitive files. The sequence combines humor, stunt work and some stunning deep focus shots to steadily build suspense until ending in a sudden rush of relief.

De Palma is a renowned visual stylist (sometimes to his detriment in the eyes of some critics, although I disagree), and his creative framing makes up for most of this movie's shortcomings. He relies heavily on the aforementioned deep focus, along with near-constant Dutch angles, frequently calling attention to the style for its own sake. It's a sort of pop-art approach to moviemaking, one that fits perfectly with the idea of making a ridiculous Hollywood blockbuster based on a decades-old brand. Mission: Impossible certainly is ridiculous, but it's also consistently entertaining, and it sets the tone for the installments to come, balancing auteurist style with large-scale action.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'Impastor'

In Las Vegas Weekly, I reviewed The Jim Gaffigan Show, one of two new TV Land comedies premiering tonight, along with Impastor. Gaffigan is the more traditional, old-fashioned sitcom, more in line with the retro-style comedies that TV Land has been relying on for the last several years. It's harmless and pleasant, a reasonable time-passer but nothing else. Impastor attempts to push the envelope much more strongly, with swearing and drug use and sexual situations and violence, even though at heart its premise is pretty standard sitcom material. The show comes off as trying way too hard, mixing self-consciously shocking elements with the kind of heartwarming sitcom storylines that have previously served TV Land well.

Michael Rosenbaum is sort of charming as a small-time criminal who escapes his pursuers by posing as the new gay pastor of a small-town congregation. The guy who has to hide his real identity and scramble to fit in with who people think he should be is an age-old sitcom convention, and the show probably could have just skated by on that, since Rosenbaum's womanizing atheist Buddy has to pretend to be a religious gay man. But even in the first three episodes, the crime elements get a disproportionate spotlight, as if the creators decided they needed serialization in order to qualify as edgy or sophisticated. I had no interest in whether some generic criminals tracked Buddy down or not, and any definitive resolution to that storyline threatens to destroy the show's entire premise anyway.

This wouldn't be as frustrating or distracting if the main action were funnier or more engaging. The supporting cast, including Sara Rue, Episodes' Mircea Monroe and veteran character actor David Rasche, is appealing enough, but the character types are overly familiar, as are sitcom-style bits about shooing a secret lover out of the house or pretending to be knowledgeable about an unfamiliar topic. Impastor could easily have been retooled as one of TV Land's old-school multi-camera sitcoms; it probably wouldn't have been funnier, but at least it would have had a more consistent tone.

Premieres tonight at 10:30 on TV Land.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Man' (1937)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

Murder mystery The 13th Man was one of a reported 20 features that Monogram Pictures released in 1937 alone, and its rudimentary plot, acting and production values certainly mark it as a cheap quickie. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much in the way of sleazy B-movie appeal; instead it's mostly dry and dull, a straightforward mystery with cardboard characters and a tidy, quick ending. Even at just 70 minutes, it feels long, and it especially drags when focusing on the DOA romantic subplots. Star Weldon Heyburn brings occasional flashes of charm to his role as newspaper columnist and radio personality Swifty Taylor, but they mostly serve as reminders of how much more entertaining the movie would be with a more charismatic lead.

It would also help if the plot were at all interesting. The title refers to the forthcoming next target on the list of a crusading district attorney. After indicting 12 of what he believes are the city's worst criminals, he announces his plans to target a 13th, and he helpfully names a number of possible candidates in a radio address. Having given numerous people motives for his murder, he's then predictably killed (by poison dart!), and Swifty sets about investigating the murder (while the one cop on the case seemingly spends all his time sitting behind his desk). Although Swifty's reporter colleague ends up getting himself killed while searching out clues, Swifty remains a pretty flat character, speaking in essentially the same tone of voice whether he's rattling off his pun-filled radio segments or consoling his dead colleague's fiancee.

Swfity's romance with his devoted secretary is practically nonexistent; she spends the entire movie pining away for him, and then at literally the last moment he announces that he's going to marry her, despite the fact that they've never kissed or been on a date or even had a conversation about something other than work. At least Swifty's doomed co-worker and his fiancee seem to have some actual chemistry (and the poor guy gets killed on their wedding day). At the end, Swifty literally gathers all the murder suspects in a room and explains the process by which he discovered the guilty party, and somehow they all go along with this even though a number of them are noted underworld figures. It's a perfunctory, bland resolution to a perfunctory, bland film. The studio was probably on to producing the next one by the following week.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer School: 'Terminator Salvation' (2009)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Initially, the idea for Terminator Salvation seemed promising: After three movies in which agents of both sides in the human/machine war travel back in time to kill and/or save John Connor, it made sense to move forward and stop rehashing the same plot, to spend an entire movie in the future depicting the war itself. The conclusion of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, in which John and Kate Brewster fail to stop Judgment Day, afforded the perfect opportunity to do just that. Judgment Day has happened, there's no more stopping it, and now all that's left is for the humans to fight the machines directly.

Unfortunately, writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote T3) and director McG don't seem to have any idea how to make the future war interesting or exciting, and instead they fall back on re-creating the characters from the past movies in a new context. Salvation comes up with the least interesting versions of John Connor, Kyle Reese and the "good" Terminator, though, and the promising casting of Christian Bale as John turns out to be a complete misstep. It's hard to believe, but Bale's John is easily the worst in the series, a generic, shouty guerrilla commander who has none of the angst or inquisitiveness of the previous versions of the character. He could be pretty much anybody, and his interactions with the new human/Terminator hybrid (played by a typically wooden Sam Worthington) and determination to save Kyle (Anton Yelchin, also woefully miscast) carry no emotional weight from the previous movies.

Although saving Kyle so that he can fulfill his destiny to travel back in time is a key plot point, it doesn't have the same urgency as the prior races against time, partially because the characters' goals are often unclear. Really, this movie might have been better without Kyle or even John at all, since it's pretty much just a generic post-apocalyptic action movie. Not that Worthington's Marcus Wright makes for a worthwhile substitute protagonist, especially because his status as a human Terminator never really makes any sense. Worthington's bland performance doesn't do anything to elevate the material, and the movie ends up being a split between his soporific angst and Bale's apoplectic yelling. Poor Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Claire Danes as John's wife Kate Brewster, barely gets any lines, going from the awakened action hero of T3 to a hand-wringing baby incubator in this movie.

It's no surprise that the planned future-set trilogy that Salvation was meant to kick off never happened, and that the new movie in the series is returning to the time-travel concept and bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (his only appearance in Salvation is a brief scene in which his computer-generated face is superimposed on a stand-in). Still, the idea of a Terminator movie set in the future and depicting the battle against Skynet is not a bad one. It just needs a more involving story and distinctive vision than anything that the creators of Salvation can come up with.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer School: 'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' (2003)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

When Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out in 2003, I was probably the last person who'd be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, thanks to my strong attachment to Terminator 2. But I remember being pleasantly surprised with the third movie, enjoying it in spite of myself and writing a mostly positive review. Coming back to it all these years later, I once again had a pretty good time, even if the third entry doesn't come close to the heights of the first two movies in the series. The grand scope and deep resonance that James Cameron created in T2 is absent here, despite a story that once again focuses on the prevention of Judgment Day and features John Connor teamed with a reformed Terminator and a strong woman who is essential to his future development as a leader.

It's not until the very end that T3 packs anything close to the gut punch of T2, and I still marvel at the way such a bleak ending made its way into a huge mainstream Hollywood franchise blockbuster. (Of course, it then paved the way for the worst movie in the series, but let's table that for now.) Before that ending, T3 is mostly just a fun action movie, which is only disappointing in comparison with the movies that preceded it. It features the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, although unlike T2 it doesn't really offer a twist on his character (he's a different Terminator, but he's still programmed to protect John, just like last time). It's mainly an opportunity for Schwarzenegger to deliver one-liners and be an action badass, which he's very good at (although the one-liners are often lame).

Nick Stahl follows Edward Furlong's lead in making John whiny and petulant, and once again the woman in his life seems like a much better prospect for the savior of humanity. Since Linda Hamilton declined to return (Sarah is killed offscreen, of leukemia), that woman is Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), John's destined future wife. The fated romance is played down, though, in favor of the relentless action, as Kate quickly proves capable of keeping up with the chaos. Danes is a great actress, but this isn't her best work, and she's never really more than a second-rate Sarah Connor.

Also sort of second-rate is Kristanna Loken as the new evil Terminator, the T-X, which is not as much of a radical step forward as the T-1000, and basically behaves the same way. Loken, like Robert Patrick in T2, plays the T-X as a cold, relentless predator, but she's not quite as menacing. Making the character female opens up a lot of possibilities, but the filmmakers mostly opt for easy jokes instead. Still, the T-X is dangerous enough to feel like a real threat, especially as Schwarzenegger's T-800 is noted as an outdated model (a nod to Schwarzenegger's own aging, perhaps).

Director Jonathan Mostow is no James Cameron, but he does a good job of moving things along, and he stages one particularly awesome chase sequence that keeps getting crazier and crazier as it goes along. T3 is solid popcorn entertainment, and with the original series visionary gone, I think that's pretty much the most anyone can hope for out of a Terminator movie.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer School: 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

For a long time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was my favorite movie of all time. I've probably seen it more times than any other movie (because I rarely watch movies more than once), and while I worry that a lot of my childhood favorites wouldn't hold up if I watched them again today, T2 absolutely holds up. It's still one of my favorite movies of all time, and it's also one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, one of the best action movies ever made and a landmark in special-effects development that still looks remarkably impressive. Say what you will about James Cameron's spotty track record since (I loved True Lies, but that's one that I haven't watched since I was a teenager), but T2 is a huge success on almost every level.

It expertly builds on the groundwork laid by the first movie, even if Cameron didn't necessarily plan on making a sequel. The way that the story of Skynet, Judgment Day, John Connor and the rest of the mythology expands in this movie is remarkably fluid, with each development following from the basic structure of the first movie. Although the twist was ruined by the movie's pre-release marketing, there's still a measure of suspense in seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger show up again as the Terminator, the terrifying killing machine of the first movie, only to switch sides and start protecting John and Sarah Connor. Schwarzenegger has much more dialogue in this movie than he did in the first one, and he manages to infuse the Terminator's development, via friendship with John, with real emotion.

Of course Schwarzenegger's performance is nothing compared to Linda Hamilton's turn as Sarah Connor, which Cameron rightly argued should have garnered an Oscar nomination. The most obvious change is the way that Hamilton bulked up, but she changes everything about the way Sarah moves, speaks and acts, all in line with the trauma she endured in the first movie and the time she's spent since then on the run and later imprisoned. The look on Sarah's face when she sees the Terminator rounding the corner at the mental institution, right behind her son, is just an amazing piece of acting, perfectly encapsulating so much about Sarah in a single moment. Some people criticize Sarah's narration as cheesy, but to me it's a haunting and melancholy insight into the character's mix of maternal love, resigned bitterness and paradoxical optimism for the future.

Then there's Edward Furlong, who's obviously the movie's weakest link as John. While Schwarzenegger and Hamilton really rise to the challenge of expanding on their characters, Furlong mostly just whines petulantly, although much of that is true to the character. This is a kid whose entire life has been spent preparing for a massive tragedy he doesn't understand or even believe in, who has been deprived of the fun and freedom of childhood. So it makes sense that he's a little pissy. His transformation over the course of the movie is not entirely convincing, and even after everything he goes through it's a little tough to imagine him as the inspiring leader of the future (really, Sarah seems like a much better candidate). But overall Furlong fits with the story, and everyone around him is so good that it's easy to forgive his flaws. Robert Patrick has the least showy lead part as the cold, implacable T-1000, but he makes the character a genuinely unsettling villain, and in a different way than Schwarzenegger's Terminator was in the first movie.

The movie ends on an evocative note of optimism mixed with an undercurrent of dread, much better than the more definitive happy ending that Cameron had planned (although at least that might have made it more difficult to produce more sequels). I like certain aspects of the next movie, but as far as I'm concerned, it would have been better if the Terminator series had just ended here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer School: 'The Terminator' (1984)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Given how huge a Hollywood franchise the Terminator movies have become, it's easy to forget that the original The Terminator was a scrappy B-movie made by a writer-director whose only previous feature was a Piranha sequel. It's also hard to imagine (or remember, for those who experienced the movie in theaters firsthand) how the movie would have played without any preconceived notions about the characters and the storyline, being able to discover the basics of James Cameron's Terminator universe for the first time. Although the series is now known mainly for action sequences, special effects and (perhaps secondarily) sci-fi ideas, the original movie is a lean horror story for a good two-thirds, with the Terminator itself a perfect horror-movie villain.

Tracking down and brutally killing women with the same name (in this case, Sarah Connor) is a total horror-villain move, and Linda Hamilton's bubbly, oblivious Sarah is a total horror-movie heroine. I had forgotten about Ginger, Sarah's hapless roommate, and the relationship between Sarah and Ginger is natural and fun (it's also the only time in the entire series that Sarah has a connection with anyone who isn't part of the Skynet conspiracy/resistance). Without firm knowledge of what the Terminator is or why he's there, the attacks really are terrifying, and Schwarzenegger's minimalist performance makes them even scarier. Even Kyle Reese is an unknown factor at first, just as likely to kill Sarah as save her.

Eventually, of course, Cameron starts explaining things, Reese and Sarah fall for each other, and the movie turns into a more conventional chase narrative. Even that is handled well within limited resources, and Cameron continually builds suspense as the Terminator gets closer and closer. Later on the various Terminators will blow up everything in sight, but here the massacre in the police station really emphasizes how ruthless and amoral the Terminator is. Also, without the benefit of tons of later retcons, Sarah's life feels like it's really in danger. Looked at as the opening to a wide-ranging franchise, The Terminator sets up plenty of fascinating ideas and characters to explore later on. But on its own it remains a lean, propulsive thriller that grabs the audience and refuses to let go.