Monday, August 31, 2015

The Terminator (1984)

When I announced in my review of Terminator Genisys that I’d never seen the original Terminator, you’d think I was confessing that I hadn’t had my requisite vaccinations. Such was the public outcry that I pushed James Cameron’s 1984 original to the top of my list. My immediate reaction was one of surprise (at the subsequent direction of the franchise) and then satisfaction. I liked it, but then I hadn’t expected I wouldn’t.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the eponymous Terminator, sent from 2029 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in 1984 before she can become the mother of future resistance leader John Connor. Her best defense is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier with John Connor, also sent back in time, albeit to save Sarah from the Terminator.

There is something quite graceful about the simplicity of the plot, an art lost, I think, on today’s bigger-is-better cinematic culture. Having seen all the other installments in the franchise, there weren’t a lot of surprises to be had from The Terminator, but I was struck by the nimbleness of the film. I almost wish I’d seen this one first! It throws you into the plot without much exposition, allowing for a few nifty twists (like the presumed assumption that Kyle Reese is also a Terminator, until the film reveals that he’s not). Instead, the backstory comes in whispers and gaps, where Kyle gains Sarah’s trust during brief respites from the chase narrative.

This structure of the film led me to a feeling of surprise that The Terminator gave rise to a multi-picture science fiction franchise. In fact, I wouldn’t have expected that at all; I would have sooner assumed that The Terminator was a horror film than science fiction. Aside from the time travel element, which isn’t foregrounded at all, The Terminator has much more in common with John Carpenter’s Halloween than Terminator Genisys. There are all the tropes that were satirized in Wes Craven’s Scream – the relentless killer, the death of the sexually active, the one-last-scare in which said killer gets back up... all of which Cameron executes quite effectively. Indeed, as bored as I have been with Cameron’s more recent bloated material (e.g., Titanic, Avatar), I’m fascinated by what he can do with a much smaller scope/budget.

Going forward, it’s hard for me not to compare The Terminator to the recent Terminator Genisys, and I think the former certainly offers a few lessons as the franchise continues. First, keep it simple: the plotline of the original introduces only as many timelines as it needs to tell a coherent story. Next, keep it focused: the Terminator is terrifying because it’s relentless, not because there are a lot of them. Finally, keep it real: the Stan Winston robotics are much more chilling because they have weight, and there’s something genuinely creepy about the stilted movements as opposed to a smooth computer-generated Terminator. (This from a guy who thought the Cybermen were scarier before they could run.)

There is something very engaging about seeing Sarah Connor’s plot arc develop during the film, and Linda Hamilton does a compelling job going from naïve to tough. But maybe that’s the problem with the most recent films – we’ve covered this ground already, and it wasn’t bad the first few times. It might be sacrilege at this point (or just out of the question, depending on how many contracts have been signed), but maybe it’s time to be done with the Connors. Can the Terminators go after someone else? Can they go further back, maybe to the Old West? (Can there be a joke about Westworld in there somewhere?) Heck, I know they’ve faced Superman at least once.

Whatever the future of the Terminator franchise, it isn’t written yet, and we’d do well to look to the past for inspiration. But let it be a thematic inspiration, not a narrative one. This one was done well enough the first time around, and there are only so many diminishing returns until the well runs dry (and only so many clichés one can fit into a single sentence). As I remember, the second one entertained the heck out of my preteen self; stay tuned to see if it holds up on a rewatch.

The Terminator is rated R. Surprisingly, most of the blood in the film comes from The Terminator, whose flesh coating bleeds like a normal human’s, including a few gruesome moments of self-surgery on his arm and eye. Two men are seen nude from behind, and one of two sex scenes shows a woman topless (the second includes no visible nudity).

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

I think I missed a memo, because in the last few years, Ethan Hunt has managed to become the American James Bond (Jack Ryan might have had that title long ago, but I was one of only a few who liked his most recent appearance). It’s a bit of a surprise that a franchise which began nineteen years ago is having something of a resurgence in the last five years, but if the series continues to be as good as its latest outing, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise may end up giving 007 a run for his money. (He’s already played the part longer than anyone played Bond, besting Roger Moore’s 12 years.)

After a Senate hearing disbands the IMF, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself cut off in the middle of a global search for the invisible Syndicate, a network of terrorists whose existence is doubted by nearly everyone. With the scantest of leads, Hunt seeks help from his tech-savvy comrade Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) while continually crossing paths with the mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose true allegiance is perpetually in doubt.

The James Bond comparison is really and truly invited by Rogue Nation (perhaps more than its immediate predecessor, Ghost Protocol), which begins with a Bond-style opening sequence in which Ethan boards a plane mid-flight from the outside. This audacious stunt, which Cruise performed himself, sets a tone for the film that roots Rogue Nation in an era where action films tried to show moviegoers something they hadn’t seen before, rather than aim first to outdo the competition or just outthink the audience.

As I said of Ghost Protocol, the joy of these films is that they don’t focus so much on transcending the genre as they do on playing very well within the established conventions of the espionage narrative. What’s even more refreshing is the way the films recall the early Bond films’ one-and-done format, without baiting the audience back for a sequel or relying on their memory of a small detail from movies past. As someone who hasn’t seen the first three (but who now wants to, desperately), it’s striking how well the film introduces its main characters, some of whom have been around since 1996. I hadn’t met Ving Rhames’s Luther before, but I had a good sense of who he was and how he fit into the story because the film has a very acute sense of narrative integrity, respecting its audience enough to give us a complete experience.

Rogue Nation is spectacle cinema doing what it ought to do with neither pretension nor laziness. With each Mission Impossible film directed by a different person, I think there’s less of a burden to outdo oneself or someone else, and more room to focus on the quality of the experience itself. Director Christopher McQuarrie, reuniting with Cruise after the very compelling Jack Reacher, has a knack for stories told well without compromising clarity, and the surprising sense of humor from Edge of Tomorrow (which he cowrote) is present also in Rogue Nation, punctuating moments of tension with unexpected moments of delight.

I had gone to see Rogue Nation because an action film always looks better on the big screen, and I’d had such a good time with Ghost Protocol that I wanted to give the franchise another look. Now that Mission Impossible is two for two, it’s probably time for me to go to the back catalog, because now I have a brand that I trust. If nothing else, I have something to tide me over until Ethan Hunt’s British counterpart returns to theaters, and something to which I can look forward when the inevitable sixth Mission Impossible film debuts. That’s my mission, and I do choose to accept it.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is rated PG-13 for “sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity.” There are quite a few action set pieces with chasing and fighting, but it’s mostly bloodless; there’s a somewhat intense scene where a character is deprived of oxygen for minutes at a time. A woman removes her top, but it’s seen from behind with no visible nudity.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Monday at the Movies - August 17, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  We haven’t done one of these since May, but it seems worth commenting on the “director’s cut” of X-Men: Days of Future Past, dubbed “The Rogue Cut” for reasons that will become apparent.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut (2014/2015) – I’m not doing a full review of The Rogue Cut, which adds about fifteen minutes of unseen footage, because my original sentiment still stands. I called the theatrical release “one of the better outings in the series,” and The Rogue Cut doesn’t change that. If anything, it makes the film a stronger one, filling in what I had perceived to be a stumble before the third act begins, the beat when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) goes missing. Here, The Rogue Cut fills in the gap by 1) restoring Anna Paquin’s turn as Rogue in the dystopian future of the film, and 2) giving Mystique a wonderful moment with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) in 1973. While I concede that the theatrical cut isn’t less by omitting these sequences, the film is overall richer for having them. In fact, I got more of a sense that I was entering a world during The Rogue Cut, rather than the crossover event the theatrical release felt like. Although the changes are almost universally positive additions to Days of Future Past, I have a small complaint, which might not even be a negative. The Rogue Cut juxtaposes Magneto (Michael Fassbender) retrieving his helmet with Magneto (Ian McKellan) rescuing Rogue, and while I think the cross-cutting is a nifty formal trick, I can’t help but feel the former sequence was better served on its own, building more tension as we got inside the young Magneto’s head. But it’s a moment that only rings hollower if you’re familiar with the original incarnation, and everything else in The Rogue Cut is so well-crafted that it might now be my new favorite X-Men film. PS – Stay tuned for a new mid-credits sequence! (The original post-credits scene is still intact.)

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fant4stic (2015)

By now, the critical consensus is in – hovering in the high single digits on Rotten Tomatoes, Fant4stic is a fantastic flop (or, in a pun I wish I’d thought up, a fantastic bore). Entering the critical conversation on a Monday puts me in a weird position, with the benefit of hindsight beside my keyboard. I’ll try to nuance my stance on Fant4stic, but I’m closer to the 90% who didn’t like it than the ten or so who did; it’s an uneven and occasionally bizarre experience that seems to want its audience held at arm’s length.

Look, you know the story – super genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), his pal Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), and polar opposite siblings Sue and Johnny Storm (Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan) find themselves the bearers of incredible abilities after a teleportation to another dimension goes awry. In this version of the story, the abrasive Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), their future nemesis, joins them in the experiment but with only his own interests in mind.

Here’s the biggest problem with Fant4stic (and it’s not the clunky stylization of the title): there are the beginnings of enough good ideas in here to power what should have been a very engaging and unique superhero film. Instead, we have a movie that is substantially less than the sum of its parts, a collision of half-baked notions assaulted by an apparent disdain for the very existence of the superhero genre. The traditional superheroics comprise maybe eight minutes of the film, played off unconvincingly when the characters decide to become heroes purely out of generic conventions. That is, the characters only decide to become superheroes because they’re in a superhero film; in any other genre, I can’t believe these characters would have made that choice.

The thing is, I don’t think these characters are actually The Fantastic Four, as much as the movie hopes to convince us that they are by the time the credits roll. Teller is quite good at conveying the awkwardness that comes with Reed’s immense intellect, but I don’t sense the leadership skills that Reed ought to possess. Perhaps the best casting decision is Jordan’s Human Torch, whose natural showmanship suits the character quite well, and perhaps his confidence would have been played up more in the sequel that now may never come to pass.

The other two, Mara and Bell, are actually quite dull, which is really disappointing considering that the orange rock monster ought to be the most interesting part of any Fantastic Four film. (Michael Chiklis, we hardly knew ye.) And let’s not say much about the film’s handling of Doctor Doom because, again, this isn’t Doctor Doom. This Doom is a petulant demi-hacker who only nails the character’s signature ego after a bizarre attempt to explain away the fact that the comic book character wears a head-to-toe metallic suit.

There are, in fact, a few moments that induce whiplash in the audience as our heads collectively boggle at the inexplicable narrative shifts Fant4stic takes. The film actually gets off to a great start, getting it note-perfect when it introduces Reed as a boy genius who’s proud to be labeled “insane” by those who don’t understand him. But the film drags its feet en route to the superpowers, and once the team has acquired their dysmorphic abilities the movie jumps forward a year, presumably so director Josh Trank didn’t have to show us how the four mastered their abilities – in short, what makes them fantastic in the first place.

Even setting aside Trank’s peculiar tweet-then-delete casting shade on Fant4stic, one senses that he really wanted to make a different film here. I detect no passion in the film’s obligatory climactic battle (which seems ripped straight from the vastly superior Big Hero 6), but there’s a wonderful invocation of David Cronenberg’s The Fly during the moments of physical transformation. Kudos to Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm for conveying that blend of wonder and revulsion so central to the subgenre of body horror.

The film is at its most content – and most compelling – when it’s focusing on the horrible things that happen to these reclusive scientists. But when it comes to the superhero aspects of the story, the film absolutely fails to introduce Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, and The Thing. In fact, the final scene of the film is a real groaner in which the characters propose their superhero codenames with a perplexing self-loathing, as if Trank and company are legitimately embarrassed to have made a superhero film. If you want to do a body horror superhero film, I say fantastic! The best superhero films seem to be the ones that mash-up preexisting genres with the conventions of a superhero tale. Just don’t pull your punches and then cave in to the genre while wearing your utter contempt on your sleeve. Everyone comes out disappointed there.

In other words, make mine Marvel.

Fant4stic is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence, and language.” Some of the displays of the team’s respective superpowers are played first for fear, but audiences quickly become acclimated to them. Doom telekinetically explodes several heads, with surprisingly bloody results for a PG-13. Language consists mostly of a few uses of “the brown word.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)

I’ve been a little lukewarm about the recent animated output from DC Comics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for the world’s greatest superheroes, and it’s very hard to outright disappoint me when you have a film with Batman in it. But I’m somewhere between “devotion” and “obligation” when it comes to direct-to-DVD features like Batman vs. Robin, most recently. News that Bruce Timm, he of Batman: The Animated Series fame, was returning to the animated DC universe brought leaps of glee. I rushed to the store on its debut (shunning as I did its earlier digital release), and...?

It’s okay. It’s not Bruce Timm’s best work, but it is diverting enough; it’s far from DC’s recent disappointing work, but Gods and Monsters is disappointing in a different kind of way.

Imagine if you will a Justice League from a harsher world: Superman (Benjamin Bratt) is the son of General Zod, raised by Mexican laborers; Batman (Michael C. Hall) is actually the vampiric Kirk Langstrom, known to comics devotees as Man-Bat; and this world’s Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) is a warrior descended from the gods of New Genesis. The world fears them, and someone is murdering scientists in a bid to frame the Justice League.

I’ve often lamented the loss of Timm’s art style in DC’s animated films – in fact, I called out Flashpoint Paradox for its “choppy and bargain-bin” animation. Timm’s style has always seemed clean, perhaps because it’s quite literally the stuff on which I was raised, but he’s also in possession of an exceptional flair for design. This film’s trinity all have distinctive, original looks that convey difference while maintaining an echo with their counterparts. You’ll hear me throughout this review praise the character of Bekka, Gods and Monsters’ Wonder Woman analogue, but I must also say that I’d buy a vampiric Batman action figure in a heartbeat.

On the subject of Bekka, amid the dismal lack of female superheroes in the current renaissance, she’s far and away the most compelling character in the film. (Cinema King second-rates Batman? Say it ain’t so!) Visuals aside, Bekka’s character is intricately crafted, with a compelling personality, engaging snark in an otherwise gloomy film, and a backstory that’s worthy of Superman: Red Son in terms of alternate takes. But where Red Son had Superman’s rocket landing in Moscow rather than Smallville, Bekka hails from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga, the epic narrative of opposing god-planets. Timm’s visual style borrows from Kirby’s wheelhouse, but it’s Bekka’s flashback that embraces Kirby most directly, much to the glee of this reviewer. Each character gets a flashback sequence to fill out their origins, but it’s Bekka’s that I’ll be flocking to rewatch first.

Illutrating these points of difference is ostensibly a highlight of any divergent-timeline story, and director Sam Liu paces these out quite well, interspersing them throughout the film in a clear manner without frontloading all the backstory. (And don’t worry, you don’t need to have read the tie-in comics or seen the Machinima shorts, though the latter are strongly recommended.) In fact, in some ways, these are more interesting than the main plot itself, which is a bit underwhelming. Let’s say this – anyone who’s read a fair share of comics will crack the mystery almost immediately.

That brings me to my first qualm with the film (of which I have two) – who is this movie for? As all alternate takes usually do, Gods and Monsters fills itself out with a who’s-who of parallel universe versions of DC’s vast tapestry. In place of Lois Lane, we have ace reporter Lana Lang; Amanda Waller is president, Batman was the college roommate of Will Magnus, and micro-scientist Ray Palmer has a lab aide named Ryan. Now, if you’re steeped enough in DC lore to get the references, there’s a chuckle to be had – of course the power-savvy Waller would end up president – but in these moments the film doesn’t depart enough. The names are the same, and so too are the personalities, which makes this alternate-universe exercise seem a little too same old, same old. On the other hand, if you don’t know who Will Magnus is, that subplot doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything for you.

My second complaint about Gods and Monsters is that the movie never answers a central question about its team, one which could have made for a fascinating movie altogether – how did this Justice League assemble in the first place? Because Timm (a cowriter, with Alan Burnett) gave us such very engaging points of departure for the trinity, he in turn gave us characters that are monstrous mirrors of the Justice League proper – and by extension their path to collaboration was probably a bit rocky. They are, as the title tells us, both gods and monsters, and what drives three such individuals to work together? Gods and Monsters hops over the second act in favor of an underboiled third-act mystery, when I suspect the real meat was in what we didn’t see.

If it’s all addressed in the rumored sequel, spinoff comics, or second season of Machinima shorts, that’ll be fine when we get there, but as a standalone Gods and Monsters doesn’t stand enough apart to be another home run for Timm. It’s disappointing in a different way; where Son of Batman was disappointing because it never rose above the level of “generic Batman adventure,” Gods and Monsters is a bit of a letdown because it displays enough promise to remind us of what Bruce Timm is actually capable. At the end of the day, though, it is still a Bruce Timm product, which puts it at least shoulder-height above most of the other comics cartoons out there. But it does need to bear that qualifying adverb of “enough” – it is good enough, entertaining enough, and creative enough, but it isn’t transcendent in the way that I suspect most DC disciples expect.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters is rated PG-13 for “violence throughout and suggestive content including nudity.” This is somewhat bloody by DC’s animated standards, particularly because one character is a vampire. The nudity is actually an unclothed silver robot with a female body shape, though Wonder Woman makes several innuendoes as well.