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.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteen Chairs' (1969)

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

I'm sort of surprised that The Thirteen Chairs (also known as 12 + 1) isn't more well-known, or at least more widely available, since it features Sharon Tate's final onscreen performance before her death, plus a small role for a hammy Orson Welles as a hammy stage actor. The movie itself is a pretty dreadful slapstick comedy, based very loosely on the same novel that inspired the Mel Brooks movie The Twelve Chairs. Vitorio Gassman plays Italian-American barber Mario, who inherits a dilapidated house in England from his late aunt. The only assets left in the estate are the titular 13 chairs, which he promptly sells to an antique store to attempt to recover some of his expenses. Immediately thereafter, he discovers a note from his aunt saying that her actual fortune is hidden in one of the chairs. 

So he recruits Pam (Tate), the bubbly antique-store clerk, to help him track down the chairs in the hands of their various buyers all across Europe. They encounter a whole range of crazy situations, including the aforementioned Welles, playing a theater impresario who buys some of the chairs to use in his stage production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gassman mugs like crazy as he attempts to slash open each chair (the chairs make an exaggerated "sproing!" noise when they're cut open), but Tate is a little more subdued. Mario and Pam inexplicably fall in love, and their romance starts with an extremely rapey scene in which Pam hides the info about the chairs' buyers in her bra, and Mario basically sexually assaults her to get at it. The whole movie has a very sexual vibe, with plenty of nudity and various women jumping into bed with the apparently irresistible Mario.

As is common with international productions like this, the cast is a hodgepodge of accents and backgrounds, including legendary Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica as an Italian count who purchases some of the chairs (and then seduces Pam, apparently, because everything in this movie ends up being sexual). The humor is mostly belabored and unfunny, including the old chestnut of the fast-motion chase scene set to wacky music (there is a lot of wacky music). As the chairs keep getting split up and sent to new buyers before Mario and Pam can track them down, the plot becomes more and more tedious. The movie ends with a shrug and a totally random windfall for the hapless Mario, but he's such a smug douchebag that it's hard to feel good about his getting the riches he's been chasing.

So maybe it's not all that surprising that this movie is so obscure (I managed to watch it in nine parts posted on YouTube). For Tate or Welles obsessives, it might be worth tracking down for the sake of completism, but otherwise it's a forgettable little oddity, a comedy that attempts to combine various cultural sensibilities and just ends up an indistinct mush.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Summer School: 'Jurassic Park III' (2001)

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

The opening credits of Jurassic Park III, in which the roman numeral is slashed across the title by apparent dinosaur claws, declare the movie's cheesy B-movie intentions pretty clearly. My memory of seeing Jurassic Park III in theaters is one of massive disappointment, and I think that failing to recognize its B-movie status is key to that disappointment. Jurassic Park was a huge spectacle with some smart ideas, and The Lost World was a messy attempt to follow up on that spectacle and those ideas. Jurassic Park III is just a dumb movie about people running from dinosaurs, and in that sense it manages to succeed from time to time (at least as often as The Lost World does, in my opinion). Watching it again years later, I didn't exactly enjoy it, but I did find it sort of amusing in its low ambitions.

The movie offers up the thinnest of pretexts to get Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) onto Isla Sorna, the "Site B" island from The Lost World where dinosaurs roam free. Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm is completely absent in this installment (aside from a derogatory reference to his book that could also be a dig at Michael Crichton's original novel), and Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler makes only brief appearances at the beginning and end of the movie. So Grant is saddled with some useless new companions, mainly divorced parents Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Tea Leoni), who are surprisingly effective at hoodwinking him into accompanying them to the island, where their son has gone missing.

While the first two movies at least had the pretense of scientific exploration and advancement underpinning their stories, there's no scientific inquiry involved in Jurassic Park III. Grant is introduced giving a lecture and then overseeing a dig, but his scientific interests are essentially irrelevant. And no one is trying to study or modify the dinosaurs this time; they're just hoping not to get eaten. As a monster movie, Jurassic Park III is marginally effective at best, and its characters are dumb and annoying enough that it's easy to root for them to die. Macy and Leoni get stuck with some dreadful comedy-of-remarriage material, and Neill mostly has to act flustered. The requisite annoying kid, the Kirbys' stranded son, is the least annoying kid in the whole franchise, and is actually more resourceful than most of the adults.

Overall the movie isn't particularly suspenseful, but there is one standout sequence set in a fog-filled aviary with pteranodons attacking the characters with sudden ferocity. It could have easily been airlifted into one of the previous movies (it's actually based on a scene from the original novel), which highlights how inessential this movie's storyline really is. The abrupt ending also feels like the filmmakers just kind of gave up (the movie is half an hour shorter than the previous installments), although it's not quite as abrupt as I had remembered. Being less terrible than my memory of it is about the highest praise I can give this movie.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Summer School: 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' (1997)

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

Apart from the Indiana Jones movies, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the only sequel Steven Spielberg has directed, but his presence behind the camera doesn't do much to enliven the inconsistent material. Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter David Koepp (working very loosely from Michael Crichton's sequel novel) seems to have any idea of how to move the story forward and recapture the wonder of the first movie. The idea of a dinosaur-filled theme park gives way to an island on which dinosaurs roam free, an homage to the Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name but not a particularly successful expansion on this franchise's main hook.

The premise is built on a whole bunch of retcons and newly revealed back story. It turns out that there were actually two islands, one with the theme park and one as sort of a nature preserve full of dinosaurs. It turns out that John Hammond has an unscrupulous nephew trying to take over his company. It turns out that Ian Malcolm has an annoyingly precocious tween daughter and a girlfriend who conveniently happens to be a paleontologist. And it turns out that a bunch of people, including Malcolm himself, who should really know better, are willing to travel to an island full of free-range dinosaurs despite what happened to the people on the supposedly controlled island with the theme park.

Jeff Goldblum was a great supporting player in the first movie, but here he becomes the main character, and Malcolm basically turns into an action hero, with lots of snappy one-liners and both a daughter and a girlfriend to save. Goldblum is still fun to watch, but Malcolm was better in a supporting role, and the new characters played by Julianne Moore (as Malcolm's paleontologist girlfriend Dr. Sarah Harding) and Vince Vaughn (as nature videographer Nick Van Owen) aren't nearly as memorable. From a plot standpoint, the movie is seriously disjointed, starting as a mission to study the dinosaurs on the second island, then turning into a stand-off between the scientists and a team of mercenaries led by Pete Postlethwaite's single-minded hunter, then eventually turning into a Godzilla riff as a T. rex gets loose in the middle of San Diego.

The only part that's particularly interesting is the idea of dinosaurs as the ultimate game to hunt, but that falls by the wayside pretty quickly once the scientists and the mercenaries have to team up to avoid being eaten. Malcolm's daughter is the most annoying kid character in a series full of annoying kid characters, and the scene in which she uses her gymnastics skills to defeat a velociraptor is as laughably bad as anything in Gymkata. The third-act T. rex rampage is similarly silly, representing both the lopsided plotting and the tonal inconsistency. Spielberg has admitted that he basically checked out at some point during production of this movie, and it suffers from his lack of engagement. Without the masterful control he brought to the first movie, it's just a cash-in sequel that never justifies its own existence.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Summer School: 'Jurassic Park' (1993)

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

I'm pretty sure the last time I saw Jurassic Park was when it was in theaters in 1993, but so many of the iconic images and lines were still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch it again all these years later. It's become such a huge corporate product that it's easy to forget how effective and entertaining the original is, still one of Steven Spielberg's most purely enjoyable movies. Spielberg beautifully captures the wonder and menace of dinosaurs, and the groundbreaking special effects are still awe-inspiring more than 20 years later (really, they look better than a lot of CGI in current blockbusters).

It's been even longer since I read Michael Crichton's source novel, but I remember it being a lot more focused on chaos theory (which gets some rushed, condensed explanations from Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Iam Malcolm) and genetic engineering than the movie, which uses the scientific framework to tell a crackling suspense story. Thanks to the expense and novelty of the special effects, the dinosaurs don't get a ton of screen time, but Spielberg makes every second of it count, and whenever the dinosaurs are offscreen, the threat and anticipation of their presence is always palpable. Spielberg builds tension so effectively that by the time the T. rex shows up and starts wreaking havoc, it's almost a relief.

He's aided by some strong performances, including one of Goldblum's most endearingly creepy characters and Richard Attenborough bringing the proper amount of grandeur and hubris to park visionary John Hammond. Sam Neill and Laura Dern are less remarkable, but they do solid work as the level-headed protagonists who are called upon to save the day. I could have done without the cheesy subplot about Neill's Dr. Alan Grant learning to love children (note: I hate children, so I always hate storylines like this), but I have to admit that child actress Ariana Richards does a pretty amazing "scared shitless" face.

Although there are parts of the movie that are genuinely scary and a few nasty horror-movie moments (Dern's Dr. Ellie Sattler being grabbed by a severed arm is particularly old-school), Jurassic Park is more of a roller coaster than a horror show. Spielberg is interested in creating suspense, not horrifying the audience, and he keeps the body count low. Even though one of the most suspenseful sequences involves young Tim climbing a soon-to-be-electrified fence, there's no real sense that the boy might die. Spielberg is an expert at taking his audiences on a ride, and Jurassic Park is one of the most satisfying rides he's created.

Monday, June 01, 2015

White Elephant Blogathon: 'A Report on the Party and Guests' (1966)

My past assignments for the White Elephant Blogathon (Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts, Scorpion Thunderbolt, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Underground Aces) have all been terrible movies with some sort of camp/cult value, but this year I was assigned a movie that's considered an actual classic: Jan Němec's A Report on the Party and Guests, one of the cornerstones of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, a movie that was banned by the government in its native country when it was first released. I have to admit that I am probably not adequately equipped to comment on this movie, since I am mostly unfamiliar with the Czech New Wave and Czech cinema in general. The only other Czech New Wave movie I've seen is Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball, which similarly went over my head (although it's a bit more straightforward). So I apologize to whoever picked this movie and was maybe hoping for a more enthusiastic and/or sophisticated commentary.

Party is an extended allegory for the effects of communism and totalitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia, or at least that's what I learned from Google and reviews on Letterboxd, because I would not have gleaned that from watching the movie. On the surface, this is a surreal, mostly nonsensical story about a birthday party in the woods, with some Buñuel-esque (Buñuellian?) touches and some plot elements that reminded me of Michael Haneke's Funny Games. It starts out with a group of friends having a seemingly friendly picnic, although their dialogue is often full of non sequiturs. They head off into the woods, only to be accosted and sort of politely imprisoned (shades of Funny Games) by a group of nebbishy thugs and their childishly cruel leader (played with effectively cheery menace by Jan Klusák).

After being subjected to arbitrary punishments and persecutions, they're rescued by their tormentor's adoptive father, who invites them all to his birthday party, where guests are also subjected to nonsensical rules and rituals. I could sort of discern the social commentary in the movie's middle section, when the free-spirited, apparently non-conformist characters are derided for their actions and imprisoned without being told why. One member of the group attempts to appease their unhinged tormentor, and I suppose he represents the collaborators who capitulate to any sort of authority figure. But once the rich guy throwing the birthday party shows up, chastises his son for playing a cruel joke and invites everyone to his banquet, I completely lost the allegorical thread.

There's enough surreal humor to give the movie a certain amount of surface pleasure, but after a while it all kind of blended together for me. Without a clear sense of what the movie was trying to say, it was just a series of bizarre developments that didn't hold together. I liked Klusák's performance as the ostensible villain, and I appreciated the glimpse into an area of cinema about which I know very little. I think I got a better cultural and history lesson out of this movie than I did any entertainment or engagement, though.