Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Paper Towns

John Green has carved out a nice little niche for himself in the teen lit genre and it's nice to see that his books are making their way to the big screen, if only to get a break from all the dystopia and teenage rock stars that have plagued the genre as of late. The first of his books to hit cinemas was The Fault in Our Stars, which I enjoyed immensely for the ugly cry movie it was. Following that film's massive success last summer comes the decidedly lighter Paper Towns, based on the novel of the same name.

Quentin (played by Nat Wolff) has had an unrequited crush on the girl across the street, Margo (played by Cara Delevingne), ever since she moved in when they were both young kids. They were friends up until high school and then their paths began to diverge. She hung out with the popular kids, he hung out with his two friends, Ben (played by Austin Abrams) and Radar (played by Justice Smith). One night, she appears at his bedroom window and tells him she needs his help with nine things. He quickly agrees, first driving to get supplies and then setting out on Margo's mission. Turns out her now ex-boyfriend has been cheating on her and her targets are said boyfriend, her best friend he was cheating with and his best friend who knew the entire time. As they move from stop to stop, Quentin can't help but feel his affections for Margo start to rev up again after he felt like he was finally getting over her. They finish out the night playfully dancing together on the top floor of an office building to the muzak playing over the loud speakers. 

However, the next morning at school, Quentin is surprised to discover that Margo is nowhere to be found. She has vanished into thin air. This isn't the first time she's run away either, having adventures across the country, but always returning home. Quentin starts to notice small clues Margo left behind. Putting the clues together, he figures out that she was headed to a paper town in upstate New York (a paper town in a fake town that cartographers would chart on their maps as a way of copyrighting them and if anyone copied it they would be able to instantly tell). Intrigued by this mystery, Quentin heads out with Ben, Radar, Radar's girlfriend Angela (played by Jaz Sinclair) and Margo's friend Lacey (played by Halston Sage) in his tan 2000 Honda Odyssey to find Margo and bring her home.

There's something inherently charming about this film that made me like it. The story itself is an intriguing one and takes it's own unique spin on the well worn territory of unrequited love and coming of age tales. While the central mystery of the film, where Margo went, is a compelling one, equal weight is given to that time in one's life when your high school years come to a close and college is right around the corner. While it does give focus to those moments, it doesn't have the emotional weight one would hope for with this sort of subject matter. They have all realized they only have a few months left together and are going to make the most of it while they can and have accepted that going off to different colleges to start a new chapter in their lives in inevitable. While that's all fine and dandy, it would've maybe added more to the story if they hadn't started there already at the beginning of the film. 

The acting is nice, especially by Nat Wolff, who has a unique everyman quality about him that makes him perfectly suited to this type of role. Cara Delevingne does a good job as well as Margo, creating a character that is mysterious and intriguing enough to make it plausible for Quentin and Co. to go looking for her, but yet she doesn't spill over into the dreaded Magic Pixie Dream Girl trope. It's a balancing act, but she nails it.

Overall, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking or new about Paper Towns. It doesn't reach the teen film heights of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or Perks of Being a Wallflower, but then again it never entirely set out with such high ambition.  While the film never quite reaches the heights of the genre, it works in it's own low key sort of way. I just can't help but wish it had a little more to it at the same time. It winds itself up nicely, but is missing the home run at the end to truly make it memorable.    

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Black Stallion Returns

Since I reviewed The Black Stallion, I of course need to review it's sequel as well. Unfairly dismissed as a bad movie, The Black Stallion Returns is actually a decent and satisfyingly rousing adventure in it's own right. The biggest problem is that it has the misfortune of being the follow-up to The Black Stallion, a film that is admittingly a very tough act to follow. 

We catch up with Alec Ramsey (played by Kelly Reno) sometime after the events of the first film. Him and his Mom (played by Teri Garr) have moved from the suburbs to their own farm so they would have more room for The Black (played again primarily by Cass Ole). One night though, The Black is kidnapped by Ishak (played by Ferdy Mayne) as the horse originally belonged to him and in his view he is simply reclaiming his property. Once Alec discovers that they are taking The Black back to Morocco, he stows away on a plane (barely pausing to call home to his poor, distraught mother first), and heads off in hot pursuit of his beloved horse. 

Upon arriving in Morocco, Alec has a difficult time trying to get help to find his beloved horse until he meets Raj (played by Vincent Spano), who begrudgingly agrees to help Alec. The two journey across the desert to locate Ishak's tribe and with it, Alec's Black. Once they are reunited, Alec finds himself smack dab in a power struggle between Ishak's tribe and another. It is to be settled with an annual horse race that is run every five years. The victorious tribe gets their choice of the losers horses as well a prestige, wealth and power over the desert (eh, I guess it beats just going to war). Alec pleads his case to Ishak, who is sympathetic but needs The Black to run and hopefully win the race, with his daughter Tabari (played by Jodi Thelen) as the intended jockey. But there is one small problem, The Black won't let her ride him, only Alec. So, once again Alec faces having to ride in another horse race, only this time around the stakes are much, much higher.

Any sequel to a film like The Black Stallion was going to have a bit of an uphill battle ahead of it. Aside from some nitpicks here and there (Mickey Rooney is sorely missed here, for example), Returns does make for a decent follow-up. There was no way they were going to recapture some of the more magical moments from the first film and I'm actually glad they didn't try. The cinematography is still quite impressive, with plenty of great desert scenery as a backdrop for the film. The story requires a bit more suspension of disbelief this time and does seem a bit more convoluted, but as a straight forward adventure tale it works well, largely due to Kelly Reno's understated and endearing performance that keeps his role from being just another stereotypical movie kid. I also have to give credit to Georges Delerue's score for the film that is some of the most gorgeous and moving music I've heard in a film. It's a much more traditional score than what Carmine Coppola did for the first film, but I just fell in love with it and have since downloaded it on my iPod. 

Overall, The Black Stallion Returns, is a decent (but not perfect) follow up if taken on it's own merits. If you're fond of the original film, you'll probably enjoy the sequel as well. I know I did, and even found myself wishing there had been a third one too, but that may just be me.   

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Black Stallion

There are certain movies I saw as a kid that immediately connected with me and left an indelible remark. The Black Stallion was not one of those movies. I know I had seen it, but it just didn't connect with me at the time. Over the intervening years, I would catch bits and pieces of it here and there, always meaning to get around to giving it another try. It wasn't until I heard it was being released on a special edition Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection that I made myself sit down and watch it again from start to finish. I have to say what I saw made my jaw drop in awe. At the risk of overselling it, this film is simply magical.  

Alec Ramsey (played by Kelly Reno), is traveling by steamer ship with his father (played by Hoyt Axton) off the coast of North Africa. While wandering the ship, he catches the sight of several men trying to deal with a temperamental, but beautiful Arabian stallion horse we will come to know as The Black (played by several horses, but primarily Cass Ole) on the deck of the ship. They are finally able to get the horse back in it's hold and Alec runs off to tell his Dad. Dad, however, is more interested in the poker game he's playing with what has to be an interesting assortment of shady characters, playing with whatever of value they have, including gold chains, assorted jewels, coins and paper money. Alec watches the game for a little while before grabbing some sugar cubes off a nearby table and returns to check out The Black. He watches the horse through an open port window and lines up the sugar cubes along the sill of the window to try and entice the horse over. It works as the horse comes over and devours the sugar cubes. Alec is excited until the horse's owner catches him and runs him off. Later, his Dad returns to the state room with his assorted poker winnings. Among those is a small statue of Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. His Dad tells him the story of Alexander and Bucephalus, setting up a nice parallel with Alec and The Black. 

Later that night, both Alec and his Dad are awoken suddenly by the severely rocking ship. The two struggle to get to the door, Alec only managing to grab his pocket knife and the small Bucephalus statue as they leave. When they emerge on the deck, they find parts of the ship are in flames and the ship is sinking. In the chaos, Alec and his Dad get separated. The Black manages to get free of his hold and leaps overboard. Pretty soon, Alec is knocked overboard as well and surfaces to watch in horror as the ship sinks, his father and the other passengers still on board. Alec is about to drown too when The Black swims by and Alec is able to grab ahold of him and keep himself afloat. The next morning, Alec awakes on a sandy beach of a deserted island, the horse nowhere in sight. After exploring the island a bit, he finds The Black stuck, the ropes that had tied him up on the ship still attached and snagged on a couple of rocks. Alec cuts the ropes and reins loose, freeing the horse. From there, a tentative friendship slowly builds between the two over the course of their time on the island until they are completely inseparable. This culminates in one of the best scenes in the movie when Alec coaxes The Black into the surf and then swims right onto the horses back in order to ride him. He falls off a couple times, but eventually gets the hang of it, riding bareback and holding on until he no longer needs to, throwing his arms out taking in the complete freedom they both feel on their own little island.

After a while on the island alone, Alec is rescued by some passing fishermen. He refuses to leave without The Black though and when they try to take Alec anyway, the horse literally swims after them. Having no choice, the fishermen take both of them and Alec eventually makes his way home, The Black in tow, to his mother (played by Teri Garr). Alec's mom isn't quite sure how to deal with this new development. She's overjoyed to have her son back, but isn't quite sure what to make of her son's new horse (although in a touching moment she thanks The Black for saving her son, but wishes he could've saved his father too).  However, the prospect of living out the remainder of his days in Alec's backyard doesn't much appeal to The Black so when the backyard gate is left open, he makes a bolt for it with Alec in hot pursuit. They wind up at a farm outside of town owned by Henry Dailey (played by Mickey Rooney). Henry is a former jockey and horse trainer. He offers Alec a stall in his barn to keep The Black in when it becomes clear the horse likes it there. After spending some time with Henry, Alec proposes the idea of training The Black as a racehorse. Henry isn't sure that would be possible as The Black is still too much of a wild desert horse without any papers to be able to run. Still, Henry takes Alec and The Black out to the local horse track and has them run it. Impressed by The Black's times, he uses his connections to fix a special climactic race between The Black and two of the reigning Champions. But the question is can they train The Black enough to be able to run the race? And how will they ever get Alec's Mom to agree to such a crazy scheme (although Teri Garr is pretty priceless when she finally finds out what Alec and Henry have been up to)?

The film is beautifully directed by Carroll Ballard from a script by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William Wittliff based on the classic children's novel by Walter Farley. The thing about the film is that even though it's second half is leading up to the climactic horse race, it is far more concerned throughout the unconditional love and friendship between Alec and The Black and later between Alec and Henry as well. It is this focus on the relationships that make it the film one such a memorable one. It helps that they had a great cast to back it up. Mickey Rooney had played several jockeys over his career and that lifetime of knowledge is condensed down into his performance here, which is surprisingly understated and grounded for someone whose most famous performances were always big and theatrical. It's no wonder he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here. The real find though was Kelly Reno as Alec. This was his first acting role and discovered in an open casting call. He didn't have much acting experience but he had grown up around horses his whole life and already an accomplished rider at that point, which no doubt made him a logical casting choice. But he also brought a unique tenderness and innocence to the role of Alec. There is a significant chunk of the movie that he carries alone with just him and the horse, largely without dialogue I might add, and it just works beautifully. The other element that needs to be singled out is Carmine Coppola's fantastic, if at times eclectic score. The bulk of the time island sequence is just his music and the images of Alec and The Black bonding and it ties everything together so perfectly that you probably wouldn't have noticed there was no dialogue if I hadn't pointed it out. 

Overall, The Black Stallion is a bonafide classic of a film, unique and beautiful (especially on the new Criterion Blu-Ray that spurned this review in the first place). I highly recommend it and it's well worth checking out.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Just when I was starting to get Superhero movie fatigue, and especially Marvel Superhero movie fatigue, along comes Ant-Man to break up the monotony and give us something we haven't quite seen before, the Marvel heist movie. 

Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is a reformed criminal just being released from prison. Without any other options, he crashes with a fellow criminal and friend Luis (played by Michael Pena), who is working on a robbery job and tries to recruit Scott to join their crew. Scott reminds him that he just got out of prison and does not really desire to go back.  He remains confident he can find a legitimate job since he has mechanical engineering skills, only to wind up working at Baskin Robbins, dealing with idiot customers than cannot grasp the fact that it is an Ice Cream shop. His boss finds out pretty quickly about Scott's past and regretfully has to fire him. Out of options and needing money to try and get his life back on track so he can try and gain visitation rights to see his daughter, Cassie (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), reluctantly joins Luis' crew. Cassie is currently in the custody of her mother, Maggie (played by Judy Greer) and stepfather Paxton (played by Bobby Cannavale), and understandably don't want her felon father anywhere near.

Turns out the robbery job is at a house in San Francisco that Luis was tipped off to that has a huge vault in the basement. Luis recounts how he got this information in a hilariously elaborate monologue that is one of the highlights of the film. Scott is able to break into the house easily and manages to break into the safe only to find a red bodysuit, helmet and not much else. Figuring it's valuable, he takes it with him and leaves. The next day, he decides to try on the suit and helmet to try and figure out what it does. When he hits a button on one of the gloves, he finds himself instantly shrunk to the size of an insect. Frightened by what he's discovered, he follows the directions from a voice he hears in the helmet and returns to the house he stole it from. Turns out the suit was invented by the owner of the house, inventor and scientist Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and the entire burglary was set up by Pym to try to recruit Scott. Hank's protege and successor in running his company, Darren Cross (played by Corey Stoll), has discovered Hank's research with the Ant-Man formula and is looking to replicate it and sell it as a weapon to the highest bidder. Hank, along with his daughter Hope (played by Evangeline Lilly), needs Scott to help him recover Cross's work and destroy all the records of his research so the Ant-Man technology doesn't fall into the wrong hands. 

Ant-Man does a great job breathing new life into into the Marvel Cinematic universe, which at this point was starting to run out of steam after The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Originally meant to be directed by Edgar Wright, he eventually left the project over creative differences with Peyton Reed taking over directorial duties. Still, the script Wright wrote with Joe Cornish remained largely in use, with additional re-writes by Adam McKay and Reed himself. The result was what has to be the funniest entry into the Marvel series. Paul Rudd in the title role brings with it his usual humorous idiosyncrasies that is a welcome change of pace for this type of film. Michael Douglas brings a nice twist to the older mentor role as someone who has made mistakes in his past and made choices that right or wrong has to live with. It's a nice performance and to see someone like him in a Marvel movie. I have to give special credit to Michael Pena as Luis though who just takes his character and runs with it, stealing every scene he is in with ease. Everything he did was priceless and just cracked me up to no end. In lesser hands, his character would have been extremely annoying, but Pena makes him quite endearing instead. Judy Greer once again shows up in a role rather similar to her role in Jurassic World. It's always nice to see her in movies, but sometimes I wish she was given more to do than just react to the madness and anarchy erupting around her. 

Overall, Ant-Man was a fun and inventive superhero film that used it's hero's ability to change size to it's maximum advantage ( for example, a good portion of the climax takes place on Cassie's train set). It reels in the overblown extravagance that has plagued some of the other Marvel films for better or worse and focuses instead on it's characters. I'd say it's easily the best Marvel movie of the summer, and one of their best ever.   

Monday, July 13, 2015

Time Lapse

Every so often, I will stumble upon a hidden gem while looking through the various movies available to rent online. Once such find was a little movie I found called Time Lapse. Now, I should preface this review by saying that I am such a sucker for movies like this that it's not even funny. I have loved films dealing with any variation of time travel since I was a little kid. This movie is a nice little twist on the genre adding some new thoughts on the idea of fate and predestination.

The film focuses on three friends and roommates, Finn (played by Matt O'Leary), Jasper (played by George Finn) and Callie (played by Danielle Panabaker). They all live together in a two bedroom apartment. Callie and Finn are together with Jasper as their roommate/proverbial third wheel. Finn is the apartment complex's on site manager and handyman as well as a struggling painter. After getting a call that their neighbor across the courtyard is late on his rent and noticing stacks of newspapers outside his door, they decided to check out his apartment and make sure he is alright. What they discover inside the apartment is certainly not what they expected. There is a giant camera, roughly the size of a sofa and emanating a weird green glow pointed directly at their apartment. Along one of the walls are rows and rows of Polaroid photos of their apartment (apparently they like living in a fishbowl because their curtains are never drawn). The camera takes another photo and spits out a new Polaroid. When it develops, they realize it doesn't match the way their living room is now. Before long, they figure out the camera somehow is able to take a picture of 24 hours in the future.  

Fascinated by the possibilities, Jasper immediately sees the camera as an opportunity to get rich quick. The other two are just curious to get a daily glimpse into the future, but making some extra dough appeals to them as well. Sure enough, when the next picture comes through the following day, it shows all three of them in front of their living room window and Jasper has helpfully taped up the days race results so his past self knows how to make his bets. Finn is surprised to see a finished painting as well since he had been blocked and unable to paint anything in months. Afraid of what might happen if the deviate from the events in the photo and commit to recreating it exactly each night at 8 o'clock when the timer on the camera goes off. This works well enough for a few weeks with Jasper knowing which bets to make and Finn getting a new painting to paint each day. Things take a turn for the worse when Jasper's shady bookie starts to get suspicious about how Jasper is suddenly getting so lucky (because the idiot never thought to fake a few losses to throw off suspicion), throwing all three roommates into danger. 

This was a tense little thriller with enough twists and turns to keep a viewer guessing. All three roommates are portrayed well and are suitably convincing as three friends who have been living together for quite awhile.  The script by Bradley King and BP Cooper was well done and tightly plotted. It stands up to the sort of scrutiny that time travel movies tend to get. The film has a couple of clear influences, mainly the Twilight Zone, specifically the episode "A Most Unusual Camera" and perhaps also "Nick of Time" with the aspect of how addicted the three roommates become on seeing the next days photo. As the film went along it also started to remind me a lot of Danny Boyle's 1994 thriller, Shallow Grave, in the way the roommates started to distrust one another and become more paranoid as the film went on. 

Overall, Time Lapse was a nifty little Indie time travel thriller. What it lacks in big budget action spectacle that dominates today's genre blockbusters it more than makes up for with some great storytelling that gripped me from beginning to end. If you're a fan of the Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits and are in the mood for something that has a similar flavor with those shows tendency towards dark irony, this is one worth checking out. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Terminator Genisys

"I'm old, not obsolete"

The same thing could be said for the Terminator franchise these days. This summer brings us the latest model, Terminator Genisys, which tries to add some fresh blood to the proceedings while also being a soft reboot of what came before. Of course, the problem with messing with what came before can come across as a slap across the face to loyal fans who stuck with the series through the good times (The Terminator, Terminator 2) and the bad (Terminator Salvation). 

The film starts at the beginning with the original mission that resulted in Kyle Reese (played by Jai Courtney) being sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (played by Emilia Clarke) from a Terminator by her son John Connor (played by Jason Clarke). While in the process of being sent back, Reese sees John being attacked and then is flooded with a series of new memories from when he was a child he doesn't remember. He lands in 1984 and much like the original film, he finds himself scrambling to elude the police. Except this time, he also has a T-1000 (played by Byung-hun Lee) on his tail as well. He is saved at the last minute by Sarah who not only knows who Kyle is but also all about the Terminators. To say he is disoriented by this new information would be an understatement.  

It turns out another Terminator was sent back even further into Sarah's past to take her out at that point, but was stopped by a good terminator sent back to stop it and rescue her. This new Terminator has stuck with her through childhood and she has even affectionately named it Pops. Since the Terminators are covered by living human tissue, the Terminators age as well, which is admittingly a pretty clever way to explain Schwarzenegger's age in this one. While they were waiting for both Kyle and the original Terminator to show up, Sarah and Pops passed the time building their own time machine. All they needed was the advanced chip from the original T-800 and the machine is now complete. Sarah wants to jump ahead to August 29th, 1997, the date Judgement Day is supposed to occur. Except the new memories Kyle has makes him realize Judgement Day has been delayed to 2017 and is tied to the release of a new computer operating system called Genisys that is designed to tie all computers together. Kyle convinces Sarah and Pops to trust him and they jump ahead to 2017 in an attempt to stop Judgement Day once and for all. 

Terminator Genisys was actually a pretty decent entry in the series once I got over the fact that the film was overwriting everything that came before it and it also completely ignores the fourth film, for better or worse. Probably mostly better. Schwarzenegger remains pretty much the best thing about the film and Emilia Clarke slips into the shoes left by Linda Hamilton with ease. JK Simmons also pops up for a couple scenes, which he steals with ease, as a cop who witnessed Kyle Reese fighting the T-1000 back in 1984. Sadly, his character functions more as a plot device to get our characters out of scrapes with the law than anything else. Still he's a hoot in the couple scenes he has and I found myself wishing they had given him more to do. As for Jai Courtney? Well, I'm going to need a separate paragraph for that diatribe all dedicated to the legacy of one Kyle Reese. 

Kyle Reese is one of my all time favorite characters in the Terminator Series. Hell he may even be my favorite, tied with Sarah Connor. The reason for this rests solely on the shoulders of Michael Biehn's performance as Kyle in the first film. He was a beaten down, tired, worn soldier who had been through hell. Rail thin and suffering from some serious PTSD. All he had to keep him going was his love for Sarah Connor, developed from a picture of her that he had given to him by John Connor. Biehn's portrayal of Kyle brought so much humanity to the role, making his character one of the most beloved in the franchise. Kyle was tired, scared and alone when he first arrived in 1984, a world completely foreign to him, someone who was born after Judgement Day. Likewise, Anton Yelchin brought similar characteristics to his performance in Terminator Salvation, although Reese was much younger in that film, just beginning to join the resistance at that point. All of this made him infinitely more relatable as a character. Then in this film, we have Jai Courtney filling the same role except Courtney has none of the talent to pull off the character and subsequently fails to convince as someone who has been through a lengthy war and seen the horrors of war on numerous occasions. Courtney brings nothing of that to the role, coming off as his usual bland self that he is in most films. At least he's tolerable here, unlike in A Good Day to Die Hard, where I just flat out hated his character in that one. 

Still, Terminator Genisys isn't a complete wash. It does craft a fairly entertaining story with plenty of twists and turns (at least if you haven't seen the trailers, which give away damn near the entire movie). It's not as good as the first two films, but then again I'm not sure any ever will be as good. It is better than Terminator Salvation at least, so it occupies that middle ground with the third film. It's pretty entertaining and you get the feeling they were trying to craft a decent new entry in the series. At the same time, the series is starting to show it's age. It's not quite obsolete but, much like Pops, it's getting there. 

Terminator Salvation

Much like the third film, I have similarly mixed feelings about Terminator Salvation. On one hand, it has a lot going for it that works, chiefly that we for the first time get to really become immersed in the world post Judgement Day and see the state of the Human resistance in their war against the machines. It also attempts to explore the line that has been created between what is a man and what is a machine and how the line can get blurred. The frustrating part of the film is it never seems to strike deeper than the surface level. 

As the film opens in 2003, we meet Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington). Marcus is currently sitting on Death Row awaiting his execution by lethal injection when he is visited by Dr. Serena Kogan (played by Helena Bonham Carter), who is hoping Marcus will agree to sign over his body to science to the Cyberdyne Corporation. He signs the forms in exchange for a kiss. We then jump ahead to 2018 and are re-introduced to John Connor (played by Christian Bale), who is part of the resistance, but not yet the leader of it. He leads a group of men and is often arrogant in battle and this leads to most of his team being wiped out in one such battle towards the beginning of the film. However, as he departs the battlefield, from the wreckage of the base emerges Marcus Wright, seemingly unaware of what all has been happening since he was apparently executed in 2003.

John Connor meets up with the current Resistance command and discovers they have found a signal that can be sent out that causes the machines in the area to immediately power down. This appears to be the break the resistance was needing to defeat the machines. He is anxious to test it out and it is quickly determined it works even on the digger Hunter Destroyer machines. The Command is enthused and wants to use it to launch a strike on the main hub of Skynet. Connor requests permission to infiltrate the headquarters ahead of the attack and attempt to free the human prisoners, but his request is turned down.  Meanwhile, Marcus Wright stumbles across a decimated Los Angeles and crosses paths with a young Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin). Reese fills Marcus in on what happened to humanity in the spanning years and after hearing a transmission from John Connor decide to head out to find him. Things get complicated when they are intercepted by one of the Hunter Destroyer machines and Kyle, along with several others, are taken by the machine and transported to the Skynet headquarters.  When John finds Marcus and discovers what has happened to Reese, he mounts a desperate mission to rescue him along with everyone else imprisoned there. 

There are several problems with Terminator Salvation. The biggest one is that it is missing the emotional core and heart that made the first two films so memorable for so many people. It has a few moments here and there, most centered on the character of Marcus Wright and his character's secrets (which I won't spoil, even if the trailer famously did). Much of the criticism can be leveled on the director, McG and the screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris. The film is overly concerned and focused on the action and spectacle that the characters barely get a second thought. Christian Bale in particular is left adrift with very little to work with and as a result gives a rather one note performance. Sam Worthington is given more to work with in his role, as is Yelchin as Reese and the interplay between the two of them are some of the film's best moments. 

Terminator Salvation is certainly a curious entry in the ongoing saga. It was refreshing to have a film that took place entirely post-Judgement Day. It had plenty of big ideas to explore but the execution was all wrong, leaving a jumbled mess of a movie with only few genuinely interesting scenes. It's not a terrible film, but rather a disappointing one. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a bit more of a mixed bag of a movie than the first two entries in the series. On one hand, it's an absolute freight train of an action movie moving almost non-stop from beginning to the end that makes it suitably thrilling. On the other hand, for the bulk of it's run time it is pretty much copying the formula of the second film with only a few notable changes. 

We catch up again with John Connor (played by Nick Stahl), quietly living off the grid and not entirely convinced that Judgement Day was prevented. One night, he wipes out on his motorcycle and breaks into a nearby Animal Hospital to patch himself up. Responding to a call is one of the Hospital doctors, Kate Brewster (played by Claire Danes). It turns out that Kate and John knew each other as kids. Kate, thinking John has become a broken down junkie, quickly overpowers him and locks him in one of the kennels. Before she has a chance to call the police, the incredibly lethal T-X (played by Kristanna Loken) shows up on the scene. This Terminator, under the guise of a blond haired female, has been sent back to take out the future John Connor's top lieutenants in the resistance, which includes Kate. It is to the T-X's surprise that it finds John Connor there as well. Before she can execute Kate and John, a new T-800 (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) shows up to rescue them. 

From there, the chase is on with the T-X in hot pursuit of John, Kate and the T-800. It is only when John discovers who Kate's father is does everything he knows about his future fall into place. Kate's father, Robert (played by David Andrews), is an Air Force General in charge of the Skynet global network defense system. Robert is being pressured by the President to bring Skynet online to wipe out a computer virus that has been infecting the nation's major systems. Realizing what is about to happen, John, Kate and the T-800 make their way to Robert's base to try and stop them before Skynet is brought on line. 

I have a bit of mixed feelings about Terminator 3. On the whole, I enjoyed it a lot but there are a few things that annoyed me about the film. There are entire sequences in this film that are strikingly similar to ones from Terminator 2. The biggest one of these is an almost carbon copy of the T-800's arrival in the present to the previous film. He walks into a rowdy bar as he did in the last film, only this time it's lady's night and the crowd of ladies are cheering on a leather clad stripper. The T-800 makes his way to the stripper, who is quickly revealed to be a stereotypical gay man (*groan*). After taking the man's clothes, the T-800 leaves the bar and pulls the stripper's sunglasses out of the jacket pocket and they are of course Elton John sunglasses (*louder groan*). It's such a cheesy moment that needlessly parodies the second film. Oh, and the T-800 also picks up the phrase "Talk to the hand" from the stripper, which was already horribly dated back in 2003 when this film came out and gets trotted out again by the T-800 later in the film in a joke that similarly doesn't land. Although, to be fair, this scene is quickly followed by one of my favorite gags in the entire movie. The T-800 breaks into a pick-up truck to steal it and looks under the sun visor for the keys, much like they  did in Terminator 2 with consistent success, only to find a wrist watch instead. We even get a shot of the T-800's point of view, with his digital readout helpfully letting us know it's keeping accurate time. The reason I found this so funny is because damn near every car they broke into in Terminator 2 had the spare keys on the sun visor and I have never met a single person, ever, who does that and it subsequently was always something that annoyed me about the second film.

The film does move at a nice, brisk pace and certainly picks up once our crew of heroes get to the Air Force base, with the T-X there as well for the climax of the film as the film begins to live up to it's subtitle with the rise of the machines and they start laying waste to the place and the workers there, including an early appearance by Nerdist and @Midnight host Chris Hardwick. There is a no holds barred, beat down drag out fight between the T-800 and the T-X that is certainly a highlight of the film as the two of them lay waste to the better part of one of the Air Force base buildings in the process. That, coupled with an epic car chase that involves several police cars, an ambulance and giant crane truck earlier in the film, makes the new and improved T-X certainly a worthy adversary for this film. Much like her earlier counter-part, this new Terminator has the same liquid metal morphing abilities, but is over a solid exoskeleton that allows her arm to turn into such weapons as a plasma cannon or a flame thrower. She also has the ability to remote access and control other machines, such as cars and other vehicles with on-board computers. 

As much as Terminator 3 seems content to more or less re-hash the second film, I do have to give it points for having quite possibly the ballsiest ending for a major summer blockbuster ever. I won't spoil it for the people who haven't seen it, but I remember seeing the film in the theater back in 2003 and my jaw literally dropping when we got to the end. I genuinely couldn't believe it was ending that way. It is certainly the part of the film that has stuck with me the most over the years. 

Jonathan Mostow took over directing duties for this entry after James Cameron passed on the project, working from a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Aside from my few grumbles above, Mostow did a good job keeping the action moving forward at a brisk and hard hitting pace with the film clocking in at a tight hour and forty nine minutes. Schwarzenegger does a good job resurrecting his trademark character for the third go around, especially since no secret was really made of the fact that his participation in the film was largely a monetary motivation. Claire Danes and Nick Stahl do reasonably well in their roles as well, especially Danes who finds her inner warrior woman late in the film, taking out a flying drone with an AK-47 in a move that John can't help but admit reminded him of his mother. 

Overall, Terminator 3 is not a perfect film but it is one that it's positives outweigh it's negatives for me. It certainly pales in comparison to what came before it, but taken on it's own it remains a reasonably satisfying thrill ride with a doozy of an ending. 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

"No fate but what we make"

I can still remember the anticipation surrounding the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day prior to it's release in the Summer of 1991. Unlike the original film, whose reputation was built mostly by word of mouth over the years, this one had a powerhouse of promotion behind it along with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to one of his most iconic roles, albeit with a bit of a twist. Unlike some films, this one delivered on it's promise in a big way creating not only a superior sci-fi action film, but a bonafide pop culture landmark that would in many ways overshadow it's predecessor. 

Picking up ten years after the first film, John Connor (played by Edward Furlong) is a young boy living with foster parents. His mother, Sarah (played by Linda Hamilton), is committed to a mental hospital due to her repeated warnings about Judgement Day being mistaken for mental illness. John is an angry little juvenile delinquent, using the survival techniques he picked up from his mom to rip money off of stolen ATM cards so he can go play video games at the local arcade. He's accepted the fact that his mother is crazy and thinks she made up all the stuff about the Terminators. He's in for a big surprise when he encounters not one but two Terminators, both trying to find him. One, the T-800 (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), has been programmed to protect him. The other, the newer T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick), has been sent there to kill him.  

After escaping the clutches of the T-1000, John insists they break into the Mental Hospital and break out his mother, despite the fact that the T-800 advises John that the T-1000 would likely be headed there as well with the goal of re-acquiring John there. Of course, the T-800 turns out to be right, but they are able to rescue Sarah and get free of the T-1000, along with several Hospital guards and doctors. Sarah is understandably shocked at the sight of the T-800, which looks exactly like the Terminator that tried to kill her a decade prior. Once she accepts that it is there to protect her, she starts inquiring about the cause of Judgement Day and who started it. The T-800 is able to easily provide this information, pointing her to a company called Cyberdyne Systems and the creation of Skynet by a man named Miles Dyson (played by Joe Morton). She decides the only way to stop Judgement Day from happening is to take out Dyson. John and the T-800 stop her at the last minute but talk to Dyson and explains what he creations do. 

Dyson then takes Sarah, John and the T-800 to Cyberdyne systems. It turns out their company has been reverse engineering the destroyed Terminator's arm and microchip that remained from the first film. This sets up an interesting plot point in the series, if the original Terminator was never sent back by Skynet in the first film, it never would have existed in the first place. This also echoes the first film where if John had not sent Kyle Reese back to protect Sarah then he would not have existed either since Kyle winds up being John's father. It's a Predestination Paradox, that this how it was always supposed to go and ties into the theme of fate that runs through most of the series. Dyson, realizing what his research will bring about, agrees to help Sarah, John and the T-800 destroy all the research and the remaining bits of the original Terminator. Of course, that is easier said than done when not only the T-1000, but the bulk of the Los Angeles Police Department show up, responding to the alarms that were set off when Sarah, John, Dyson and the T-800 arrived at Cyberdyne in the middle of the night. 

Terminator 2 is in many ways the opposite of the first film. The first film was a much smaller and more intimate film whereas the second one is much larger in scope, with several car chases, explosions and thrills to spare. Don't get me wrong, I'm in no way complaining. James Cameron returned to write and direct this film a brought us a sequel that was at least as good as the first film, if not better. It does a great job of broadening the scope of the first film while also deftly building on what came before leading up to a climax that was awe inspiring, thrilling and in the end surprisingly moving. 

This film also had a gigantic pop culture impact, especially Robert Patrick as the liquid metal, shapeshifting T-1000 appearing in a couple other films, including Wayne's World and in Schwarzenegger's own Last Action Hero. T2 was also referenced in the latter film by Schwarzenegger himself, except in that film's context the Terminator was played by Sylvester Stallone, even showing the film's iconic poster with Stallone in the place of Schwarzenegger.  

Terminator 2 remains the benchmark that each film that comes after it is inevitably rated against. For me, I think it's the best in the series with the first film in a very close second. Of course, that could be nostalgia talking as I saw the second film before I saw the first one. Either way, one thing is certain and that is that Terminator 2 is a superior piece of sci-fi action entertainment. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Terminator

"I'll be back."

There's something about the original Terminator film that I can't help but love. I think a lot of that love comes from it's clever plot and efficient storytelling, anchored by three fantastic performances to create a film that captured audience imaginations and continues to live on thirty one years later. 

As the film opens, we witness the arrival of The Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg machine sent back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton). She is a hard working waitress, trying to make ends meet and seems like the last person who would make a lasting impact on the world. But, as it turns out, she's the future mother of John Connor, who will lead the human resistance in the future in a war against self aware machines, which the Terminators are part of. The Resistance discover the machine's plans and send back a resistance fighter named Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn). The Terminator, not knowing what Sarah Connor looks like, starts working his way through all the Sarah Connors listed in the phone book.

Reese has a bigger advantage having a picture of Sarah that John gave him in the future and locates her quickly. He tails her, keeping an eye on her and and eye out for the Terminator. Meanwhile, Sarah hears about the deaths of two other women and begins to notice Reese following her. Thinking he's the killer, she tries to get away from him and get help from the police.  She tries to evade Reese by heading into a nightclub and calls for help, first to the police and then home. In the process though, she winds up directly in the crosshairs of the Terminator. Reese is able to save her at the last moment and from there its a non-stop chase as the two try to evade a relentless and nearly unstoppable killing machine.  

Unlike the films that came after it, the original film was a decidedly low budget affair costing only roughly 6 million dollars to make. James Cameron, who both wrote and directed the film, stretches every dollar to make the film work and does so well that you hardly notice the budgetary limitations. He also found three fantastic actors to play the main characters. Arnold's performance as the Terminator is iconic and easily his most famous role. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn do quite well in their roles as Sarah and Reese, two people thrown together by circumstance and in the process slowly fall in love. In fact, their deepening affection towards one another in turn ups the suspense in the film as you really want to see these two get out of this mess alive. The film also features early turns by Lance Henrikson and Bill Paxton (who has the distinction, or misfortune perhaps, over the course of his career to have played characters who have been killed by a Terminator, an Alien and a Predator). 

The Terminator started out as an entertaining sci-fi action film that in turn launched an action franchise that is still going strong thirty one years later with this summer's release of Terminator Genisys. It's a testament to this original film that provided the building blocks of what would come later with an engrossing story backed by some fantastic performances. It's one of my favorites of the series for sure.