Sunday, May 31, 2009

Terminator: Salvation. A Review (Review #7)


When It Is OK to Reject Salvation...

This is the thing you must remember about Terminator: Salvation. This is NOT about John Connor (Christian Bale). It isn't even about The Terminator. It's about a hybrid, normally a good thing nowadays but in this case, it's a bad thing. Actually, the whole movie is a bad thing. Pity it didn't stop them.

I confess to not having watched Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. How could ANYTHING top Terminator 2: Judgment Day? That was the Godfather Part II of Terminator films (a film that was the equal or better than the original in Aragonesque). That might have helped in following all the goings-on, but I doubt it would have. After watching this film, a line from American Gangster came to mind. "Quitting while you're ahead is not the same thing as quitting", if memory serves right. Advise that should have been heeded.

The film really is about Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington. He agrees to sign his body over to science after his execution. Jump a few years later and we're deep within the war between humans and Skynet. Marcus wanders in, meets a young Kyle Reese (who in the future will be sent into the past to protect John Connor's mother Sarah--but who will end up being John's makes sense in the first film). Marcus helps Kyle and they meet up with members of the Resistance and while saving another member we discover...SPOILER ALERT...Marcus is a MACHINE!!! He still thinks he's human, and he and John join forces to rescue Kyle (who he knows is his father via cassettes left by his mother) along with other humans from a Skynet prison in post-apocalyptic San Francisco. The Resistance is planning to destroy the machines but that will cause the deaths of those humans trapped in the prison. Are you either bored or confused by now?

The film is loud but remarkably uninteresting. Bale brings his Batman intensity (occasionally along with his Batman voice), but he's almost an afterthought, as if he had to be included because the mythology demands it. Worthington does a slightly better job, but on at least one occasion his Australian accent slipped out.  The fact that Worthington (who goes out of his way to show he cannot act) can do better than someone who can is a sad and sorry sight.

Anton Yelchin (who did a good job as Chekov in Star Trek), also does a credible job as Kyle, but I'm confused. If memory serves correct, Kyle and John were about the same age when he was first sent to protect Sarah. How then can John know Kyle is his father?

Worse is the abuse of Jane Alexander. You have one of the most respected actress of her generation, and I was surprised to see was in the film. I expected her to play a wise elder or something, but all she did was look frightened and I don't think had more than twenty words of dialogue. Is that a way to treat the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts?

The effects drown out whatever story you have. You end up not caring what happens to anyone here. It's wildly inconsistent: at one point Reese reacts to music coming from a car radio as if the phonograph had just been invented, but a little later Connor is blaring You Could Be Mine from T2 to attract a machine. Which is it?

Try not to put a little inside joke.  It just makes things worse.

The worse is when Bale in a voice-over talks about how this battle is won but the war goes on.

This is when the film violates one of the Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. This shows either great confidence or great contempt on the part of the filmmakers. Confidence that your story is so great people will demand to know more. Contempt that your movie is so bad people won't care and will pay more to watch something equally bad or even worse. If the public rejects the work, the makers only end up looking foolish. They end up with not a movie but, to quote a review for Cleopatra, a series of coming attractions for something that will never come.

A good movie will stand on its own. A bad movie will die. A bad movie that suggests there will be a Part II will die twice. Think of truly horrible films like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Matrix Reloaded. Part of the reason they failed was because there was no ending, just a 'to be continued' tease. The Godfather, Spider-Man, Toy Story, or the original The Terminator, conversely, work both as films in their own right AND the first part of a longer story. The difference: there was no obvious attempt to include a suggestion of a sequel.

Ultimately, at first I thought it might be worth a rental. However, on reflection I thought, 'Since I've gone through life without watching Terminator 3, I could have gone without seeing Terminator: Salvation. I sure hope Christian Bale goes on to make a silly romantic comedy. Too much of this intensity will leave all of us asking him, "What don't you %#$@*^ understand?"


Monday, May 18, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A Review


Origins Sin...

The first two X-Men films are among the greatest comic book adaptations ever made (The Dark Knight be damned). They were entertaining and intelligent with great action scenes. You knew the characters and motivations: Magneto's hatred for humans and Professor X's hope for human/mutant coexistence. None of them were perfect, and that's what made them believable. You could relate to them.

Now we have X-Mens Origins: Wolverine, which purports to tell how our angry mutant came to be. How it all ties with the X-Men films is a little beyond me, and moreover, which watching it, I could only think one thing: I was unaware that Wolverine is older than Magneto. True enough, it may be accurate in terms of what the comics say. However, it just didn't make sense to me, and that is just one of the problems the film couldn't overcome.

We start in 1840s Canada, where our hero Wolverine aka Logan (Hugh Jackman) discovers his mutation in a moment of fury (there's a shocker). Joined by his brother (also a mutant) Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber), they run away...all the way to the American Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, and Vietnam (it is true: Korea IS the Forgotten War). They are recruited by General Stryker (Danny Huston) to join an elite team (more killing). It was one mission too many, for after a massacre of innocent villagers Logan (aka James) walks away from them and heads back to Canada. He finds a beautiful woman to love, but then someone starts killing members of his former team, and after his beloved is killed he vows revenge. As part of his revenge, his metal claws are bestowed upon him. From there, he goes after his man.

The main problem is that this ISN'T an origin story in the same way Batman Begins or Iron Man are. It's just a routine action film, right down to the clichés.

When the elite team is heading up in an elevator to assassinate someone while listening to Muzak--cliché.
When Logan finds his girlfriend's body and he screams out while the camera pans up and away--cliché.
When he walks away slowly from an exploding helicopter--you guessed it: cliché.

I kept saying, "cliché, cliché, cliché" while watching the film.

If anything, Wolverine is following in the sorry steps of X-Men: The Last Stand. You have characters introduced and then killed with no real reason. I figure that with this film, The Lord of the Rings, and Lost, Dominic Monaghan is assuring his career at Comic-Con-style conventions. He reminded me of James Marsden's Cyclops (a character who also appears in the movie for no discernable reason except script padding) in X3--he's killed off before being allowed to do anything. Taylor Kitsch's Gambit (always one of my favorites from the animated show) is on screen for approximately eight to ten minutes and added nothing to the plot except name recognition.
Liev Schreiber obviously had fun playing Sabertooth (whom I was unaware was Wolverine's brother, though I'm still confused if they're full or half). My friend Fidel Gomez & I disagree about him: I think he's a competent actor while he insists he's wooden in every performance he's given. In fact, he was not looking forward to Wolverine precisely because of him. However, his performance showed he was in on the joke, not bringing anything to his role of Sabertooth except the..wait for it...clichéd villain. Hugh Jackman looks great (and makes all of us under 40, or 30, or 20, feel bad about not going to the gym), and while he was all right he didn't have that fury mixed with sorrow that he had in the first two X-Men.

Only Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool brought any sense of fun and action to the film, though I question whether being a master swordsman is a true mutation.  However, the decision to silence a character best known for his acerbic wit is yet another bad, bad decision.

Of course, there are fights a plenty: three between Sabertooth and Wolverine alone. Wolverine fights Stryker. Wolverine fights Deadpool. Wolverine fights (fill in the blank). When he does fight, it looks fake. In fact, everything looks fake. The effects looked cheap and unconvincing. For example, when he first examines his new claws, they looked animated onto the screen. When he walks away from the exploding helicopter, it looks like his body is superimposed on the screen. Even Patrick Stewart in a cameo looked...odd.
Ultimately, this movie failed to tell an interesting backstory to one of the most memorable characters from the X-Men comic book series. Instead, it was mindless action. You just think how much better it would have been if instead of putting so much emphasis on the explosions (or Jackman's physique) they would have tightened the story to where A.) you end with him where you first found him in X-Men (even if you had to get Anna Paquin back for a quick cameo), and B.) the other mutants actually had SOMETHING to do with the story.

If there are to be more Origins stories, I'd prefer Gambit or Deadpool (though for the latter, it should end when he joins Stryker's team). Now that I think of it, Deadpool reminds me of Darth Maul: the best character in the film killed off by the end when a movie about HIM would have been better/more interesting.

I conclude with this thought. In X-Men, they told Magneto's backstory in less than five minutes. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, they couldn't tell his in close to two hours.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek (2009): A Review (Review #5)

STAR TREK (2009)

It Should Be Called Star Trek: Resurrection...

There are four rules to be an Official Nerd. 1.) You must know a routine from a Monty Python film/program. 2.) You must be able to sing a song from The Simpsons. 3.) You must have read comic books on a regular basis. 4.) You must have followed a science-fiction television/film series. Since I didn't read comics as a child or teen, I do not qualify as a Nerd. (I will admit to experimenting briefly in my early 20s with the Blue Beetle comic book series, but since I still can't tell the difference between DC and Marvel I don't feel I've reached full Nerd status). For many, that sci-fi TV series was Star Trek (mine was/is Doctor Who, which is still running--take that, Trekkies!)

I start with a confession: I have never seen a complete episode of ANY version of Star Trek--not the original series, not Next Generation, not Deep Space Nine, not Voyager, not Enterprise (though I can sing the chorus to Enterprise's theme song). I've seen clips, but my only point of reference to the mythology has been the films. Ask me to name all ten actors who've played the Doctor: you got it. Ask me to describe the difference between the Prime Directive and the Prime Meridian, and I'm lost. All this time, I thought his name was Zulu, like in Shaka.

So far, I've seen seven Star Trek films (the first six and this one). While I can't say that Star Trek is the Citizen Kane of Trek films (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan holds that title), it does rank up in the Top Three, with only the former and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock ranking higher.

Call it a reboot.
Call it a remake.
Just call it good.

We start in space, when a previous version of the Enterprise is attacked. Among the passengers fleeing the ship is the mother of the future James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) (side note--I always thought Tiberius was a stupid name. Did they not know what a horrible Emperor he was?) We balance his early years with scenes of the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto), a being who is more cerebral than emotional but who struggles to find his place within either civilization.

Kirk is almost always all action, Spock is almost always thought. However, they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Both want away from their respective worlds, one where their abilities and talents can be used. In other words, they want to find their place in the galaxy. They come in conflict at Starfleet Academy, but an attack by Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan who blames the future (or alternate) Spock for the destruction of his home planet, forces them to work together.

For those people who have no idea who these characters are, what is great about Star Trek is that you WON'T be lost. You get introduced to our two leads, as well as the supporting cast: Dr. McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Scott--they all get their moment.

Simon Pegg as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, still speaks with a Scottish accent but adds a frenetic and comic manner to the character (side note: I've never had an answer as to WHY a character with the last name of Scott has a Scottish accent--it would be like having a Mr. Español speak with a Spanish accent). John Cho as Sulu made him what I never saw in the action hero. Karl Urban, already a Nerd Legend from The Lord of the Rings, brings a delightful comedic touch to Dr. McCoy. Zoe Saldaña honors Nichelle Nichols' interpretation by following her example of making Uhura both intelligent and beautiful. Even the smaller roles are cast with respected actors: Ben Cross as Spock's father, Sarek, and Winona Ryder as Spock's mother. Her role was so small that I didn't realize it was her until she literally falls off a cliff, but her brief appearance still left an impact.

Eric Bana, who has had a bad run in films (Troy, Lucky You, The Hulk), has finally found a role that shows he CAN act. His Nero is not a clichéd villain but a character with motivation for his rage. This Star Trek villain is the only one in recent memory to give Ricardo Montalban's Khan a run for his money.

The greatest praise should be reserved for the leads. Chris Pine remakes Captain Kirk as the cocky kid who still has a lot to learn. He doesn't do a parody of William Shatner but you can imagine the character of Kirk becoming what Shatner brought to the role: a man who has confidence in his abilities to lead. Zachary Quinto, who has assured himself a place at Comic-Con-type events as Sylar from Heroes, brings intelligence and vulnerability to his Spock. We think about how he struggled with his dual heritage.

Because the story takes place in an alternate universe, he is able to share the screen with one who was billed as Spock Prime. It may not make exact sense (how a person can meet his future/alternate self is open to debate). However, Leonard Nimoy's appearance wasn't just a clever cameo, but actually relevant to the plot (although I joked that when Nimoy and Pine's Kirk met, it was on Hoth--see the movie and you might understand).

The film also plays tribute to some of the traditions from the series: Kirk's notoriously long pauses before finishing his line, Dr. McCoy's infamous "I'm a doctor, Jim, not a..." lines, Chekov's inability to pronounce the letter "w" (side note: I wasn't bothered by Anton Yelchin's accent: given he is Russian, I'll cut him some slack) , even Kirk's predilection for bedding beautiful aliens. They are not done to make fun of the material, but to wink to the fan base.

That is one of the qualities of the film: it takes the material seriously. It cast good actors in their roles. It told an original story. It wasn't effect-heavy but managed to have them serve the story instead of overwhelm it. The only thing that I had bit of a problem with was the suggestion of a romance between Spock and Uhura. This might not exactly be blasphemy to the Trekkie faithful, but I do find it...odd. The most rational of the Enterprise's crew getting it on with anyone is, curious, to use a Vulcan phrase.

Overall, this Star Trek did take us where few Star Treks have taken us before: to a good film. Fans of the original series will be satisfied with how the material was handled: with respect and a bit of humor. Those unfamiliar with the series will be taken in by the story and the performances. May this regeneration (to use a Doctor Who term).

Live Long and Prosper.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A New Categorization Method

What do these two films have in common (besides a bearded fat man)? They also are considered the best examples of certain films: on the left (Citizen Kane) as the greatest film ever made, and on the right (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) as the worst.

I thought long and hard about my grading system. I decided that I have been unsatisfied with my rankings: Voted Up or Voted Down. I think I should be a little more expansive with how I rank films. I've been playing with a new system that I hope will be a more accurate manner of showing how good or bad a film is.

What I've come up with is a modified grading system: A, B, C, D, and F. Here's how it goes:

A.) MUST OWN (CRITERION-WORTHY). These are masterpieces, magnificent films. They should belong in everyone's personal collection. They deserve CRITERION COLLECTION, ie. all the special features money can buy. These films rank as the very best around.

B.) MUST WATCH. These are very good films, enjoyable ones. Somehow, they didn't quite make the mark to be ranked as among the greatest of all time. However, I enjoyed them and think they should be seen.

C.) MUST RENT (NETFLIX). Harmless, enjoyable, nothing to complain about. They met the standards they aimed for, didn't pretend to be anything other than what they ended up being, and as such, could be enjoyed, appreciated. You should rent them and decide if they are worth your cash but one can wait until they're on DVD to see.

D.) MUST SKIP (SAVE YOUR MONEY). For the most part, they aren't good films. Some are all right, but I wasn't overwhelmed with them. Your life will not be improved if you go through it without having seen them. However, if someone offers to lent it to you or asks if you want to watch it with them, go ahead.

F.) MUST AVOID (DO NOT WATCH). These are TERRIBLE. They are LOUSY. They are BORING. They are crimes against cinema. These are barbaric pieces of trash. No one should watch them. In fact, people should find every copy and burn them--and not onto a DVD.

There will be some oddities. For example, The Silence of the Lambs would rate CRITERION-WORTHY. There IS a Criterion version but it's out of print. There is a TWO-DISC which, curiously, has more features than Criterion save a commentary track by director Jonathan Demme and stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

Another oddity is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I thought it slow, pretentious in its own belief to be "art", andboring (I fell asleep at it), and it would rank an F. For this film, however, there is a Criterion edition, which I think is a result of the film's pretentiousness rather than its actual quality.Even though Silence of the Lambs has a two-disc and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a Criterion edition, it will not change my ratings of A and F for these films.

A., B., and C. are good, while D. is not good enough. F. is self-explanatory. The cut-off point between a good film and a bad film is C: a C+ is still good, while anything C- or lower has in my view failed. I hope this system will work better. All right, let's get started.