A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 482 – Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll – June 25th, 2011

I know I’ve mentioned my video store experience in the past. It’s one of those things that figures into this whole project since it figures into our love of movies of a wide variety of genres and quality levels. After all, when you have access to a huge number of movies for free, you become willing to pick up a lot of things you otherwise would have passed over. And believe me, I was thrilled to have the run of the anime section at the store I worked at in college. The store I’d worked at in high school had a total of maybe thirty cassettes of anime, and over half of those were Ranma ½ episodes. And this was not in among the non-Ranma tapes. So I ended up not seeing this until college, when Andy brought it back from work one day so I could see a classic.

He did warn me at the time that there was a moment in the movie where a snake slid out of a woman’s crotch. And that right there is the thing I think of when I think of this movie. And I do think of it. It’s still strange to think back to a time before I was at all familiar with anime, when this was brand new to me. But strangely enough I didn’t see this until college. I’d seen some of what I’m fairly sure was the original Macross series when I was a kid, up early enough in the morning on Saturdays to get away with watching something not on PBS. And I’d seen Vampire Hunter D (which we don’t have yet!) during my high school years when I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two every night. There was a smattering of other stuff I’d seen with friends or caught on television, but this had escaped me. And it was a title everyone seemed to know. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see on the screen, because by the time I sat down to watch it I’d seen a variety of other things. Enough to know that anime isn’t so much a genre as a medium with a number of common themes that show up but certainly not limited to them.

This movie falls solidly into the supernatural feudal Japan theme. It follows swordsman for hire, Jubei, as he is drawn into a plot to use stolen gold to start a civil war. A mysterious old man poisons him in order to force him to help in return for the antidote. Turns out Jubei has history with the man responsible for the whole plot, Gemma, and I’ve got thoughts on the poison plot and all that but I’ll get there in a moment. As far as the main plot goes, Jubei ends up having to fight off a number of warriors with supernatural powers who are working for Gemma in hopes of stopping Gemma from getting the gold and using it to start a super army. Their history together is a little complicated but suffice it to say that they’re rivals and Jubei killed Gemma but Gemma found a way to reincarnate himself and make himself immortal. Immortal enemies are always a pain in the ass, aren’t they? Yeah, Jubei agrees and gets kind of pissed that all his earlier hard work is more than undone.

Alongside him in his mission to stop Gemma is a young woman named Kagero who is usually employed as a poison taster for the head of the Mochizuki clan. She’s also a ninja, and since her poison tasting skills aren’t needed at the moment she goes with a team of ninja to investigate a town that’s been wiped out by a plague. Her team is wiped out by the supernatural warriors sent by Gemma, since the town wasn’t killed by a plague but by poison so Gemma’s men could retrieve the gold. And you know, the specifics of where the gold is and getting it and sneaking it through the area and all? Yeah, it’s important to the overall scheme of things, since without that impetus there wouldn’t be all that much reason for the movie to happen, but I glaze over when I try to explain it. There’s an evil dude who wants power and in the course of his attempt to get it he kills people and the hero and heroine try to stop him. There. Done.

Because what I take away from this movie isn’t the political maneuverings of Gemma or the clan he’s latched onto to get his dirty work done. I don’t really care about the clan leader Kagero works for. What I care about are the fights between Jubei and the warriors Gemma sends after him. Known as the Devils of Kimon, we’ve got the aforementioned snake woman, a woman who can make things explode, a man who has a wasp nest in his back, a man who can turn his skin rock hard, a man who can slip in and out of shadows, a blind swordsman and then Gemma himself and his immediate second who can control everyone else with invisible threads (which he can also kill them with). It’s implied that the last one there has a thing for Gemma and that the explosive woman wants the thread dude and they’re all jockeying for position and don’t trust each other or much like each other and I’m kind of fascinated by them. I do wonder if their powers are based on anything in particular or if they’re just a random collection of potentially useful powers. I like that they don’t all work on a theme, like all be animal related or something. It makes them more interesting.

It also makes for a wider variety of fights for Jubei. He has to deal with the snake woman more than once and the wasp man is a far different sort of fight than the swordsman is. And he doesn’t even kill all of them himself! Which I also like. The snake woman is killed by her superior for failing and Jubei wouldn’t have been able to take down the stone man without Kagero having weakened him. Which brings us to Kagero being awesome in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with. Because she’s a poison taster she’s immune to all sorts of poisons herself, but she’s also taken in so many over the years that she secretes poison. She’s saturated with it. Which means she kills anyone who touches her too much. Which is how the stone guy got weak enough that Jubei could take him out, since he’d tried to rape Kagero earlier. Which is what started to make me uncomfortable. Later on we find out that the cure for the poison the old man gave Jubei is, surprise surprise, to sleep with Kagero. Which is when I start glaring.

I like Kagero. She’s strong and smart and she’s clearly good both at what she does most of the time and at her side job of kickass ninja. She’s able to use her poison powers to hold off an attack from the wasps at one point and she’s clearly an excellent fighter. But her major contribution to the plot is her deadly sexin’. There’s something distinctly unpleasant about that to me and it makes me unhappy because she is so strong otherwise and I do like her and I do like the rest of the movie. To reduce her importance to sex just irks me and due to Jubei’s history with Gemma the poison wasn’t even really necessary and given how much the old man knew and planned you’d think he could have figured that out. Which means he was trying to hook Jubei and Kagero up for kicks. Fortunately for Jubei, he declines to actually use her like that, giving her a friendly hug instead, which makes me like him a lot more as a character. Unfortunately for Kagero, she’s doomed to die so Jubei can walk off alone like he walked in.

But other than that, this movie is really pretty impressive. The animation is lovely and the villains are interesting. It’s a wonderful example of a fairly dark animated film and I really do like the vast majority of it. I think the political plot is a little ambitious and not given enough time for the details it’s supposed to have and there’s the Kagero issue, but I like Jubei and I like the overall mood of the film and I think it’s a great accomplishment. Certainly worthy of its status as a classic.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ninja Scroll

June 25, 2011

Ninja Scroll

This review is going to make me feel old. I can sense it. It’s a “you kids today” review. You kids today with your handheld video games and your internets and your smart phones – you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was growing up in the days before VHS and cable television there was almost no anime available to sate my desire for strange, non-American animation that was not necessarily intended for children. Of course I obsessed over the few tantalising glimpses I was able to find on UHF TV hidden between the mind-numbing Saturday morning fare. Like the intriguing Battle of the Planets (severely edited for American audiences from Gatchaman) or Force Five (which was actually five different shows, a different one for each day of the week) or Robotech, which made no sense to me because I kept missing episodes – and because it was adapted from four different anime shows and re-dubbed into a single non-sensicle time line – or the awesome space soap opera that was Star Blazers. I remember how disappointed I’d be when I tuned in to Force Five and it wasn’t a Grandiser episode, for example.

Anyhow, my point is that I spent my youth intrigued and fascinated by these awesome cartoons which were so completely unlike anything else on TV. Only when I was in college in the early nineties did I start to find original anime in Japanese so I could enjoy it in its unadulterated form. At that time the big sensation of course was Akira, which had only come out a couple years prior and was far from as ubiquitous as it is today. Naturally I saw other classics like Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair. This movie, however, had not even come out yet. Years later when I was working at TLA and Amanda was in college in Pennsylvania anime was beginning to gain a more significant foothold in America. People who didn’t live entirely in dark rooms lit by computer screens had heard of it. It was at this time that Ninja Scroll became required viewing for anybody new to the genre. The reason why is clear as we watch this again tonight: this movie exemplifies everything awesome about Japanese animation that isn’t present in the pap created for American audiences.

What this movie is is a classic Japanese samurai movie but more magical and extreme. It takes place in feudal Japan, but includes unearthly magical powers. Three unlikely companions, each for reasons of their own, do battle with an upstart clan that is trying to oust the Tokugawa warlord that currently rules the country. Opposing them are the shadow clan, who have retained the help of eight legendary ninjas – the Devils of Kimon. Each of the eight Devils has his or her own deadly power. One can turn his skin to impervious stone and hurl a devastating spinning boomerang sword, one can fill corpses with explosives and re-animate them under her own control, one commands hordes of snakes, another hordes of wasps and so on. Leading the devils is the immortal warrior Gemma whom our hero Jubei had thought dead after they fought years ago while in the service of a different master.

The basic plot, of Jubei the wandering ronin teaming up with the last survivor of a ninja strike team sent by a local leader to investigate the doings of the Devils and a wise old manipulative government spy, doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s pretty much the story of the three of them reluctantly uniting and one by one defeating the unimaginably powerful foes they face, leading up to a climactic confrontation between Gemma and Jubei in a burning boat full of stolen gold bars. Kagero, the ninja woman whose kiss brings death because of her years as a poison taster for her clan, is bitter and cold. Jubei is your classic lone wolf, who has no interest in political conflicts like this but is manipulated by the government spy Dakuan. Even together they have no hope of defeating their supernatural foes, but they do battle with them nonetheless.

That’s not really the point of the movie though, at least not to my eyes. The point of the movie is to have a never-ending series of brutal action scenes that are the absolute pinnacle of extreme Japanese animation. This movie is absolutely packed with nudity, sex, severed limbs and geysers of blood. Right from the beginning when Kagero’s ninja team are destroyed by the giant stone-skinned Tessai, raining blood and body parts from the trees to the ground below you know exactly what this movie is all about. It’s a thrilling action adventure with a pulsing soundtrack and awesome fight scene after awesome fight scene. It also manages to encompass many of the tropes of the entire anime genre.

In the late nineties if you wanted to introduce somebody to anime as a genre there were three films they were required to watch: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. All three, for an American audience raised on Disney films, were shocking, awesome and left an indelible impression. Animation as a whole is not limited to childrens’ films about talking animals – it can be dark, violent, bloody, and sexy. It can be a whole lot more as well (as evidenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but this movie is part of an important revelation for American audiences. I love it for that. And for being unbelievably cool too.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 481 – Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation – June 24th, 2011

There is something to be said for going into movies with low expectations. I mean, I didn’t really think this movie would be worth my time. When we put it in we found that it had something hideous: Unskippable previews. But then it turned out the previews were for awesome things, like Sherlock Holmes and the videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum. And I mentioned to some friends that it was as if the DVD was trying to tell us to go do something better with our time than watch the movie on it. Put in a different movie or play a game. Anything but this. Turns out? I was wrong.

I’d heard bad things about this movie. The only thing I was looking forward to was seeing Christian Bale be a badass. But I was also curious about the cast, because there were names I recognized and liked, so that seemed a tiny bit promising. And this was going to be the first Terminator movie that didn’t involve someone or something coming back from the future to the “present day” of the time the movie was released. But since the last movie ended with the war, well, that wasn’t going to happen. The timeline of the movie has passed us by. So, set entirely in the future, without the time travel gimmick that made the franchise. And no Arnold (though his digital likeness does make an appearance), so this is definitely a departure. I was led to believe this would be a failed departure, but I was wrong.

Now, I won’t say that I think anyone who disliked this movie was wrong. I’m sure people have their reasons and said reasons are good ones. But for me personally, it holds up. Better than it has any right to, given the number of people involved in writing the damn thing. This is a movie not written by committee, but apparently passed around like a basketball. There is simply no way it should be as coherent and cohesive as it is, and yet. The story splits between two groups, then comes together and that can be a risky thing. I’ve criticized it in other movies before because when it fails it fails spectacularly and makes a movie painful to watch. But for one, this movie actually links the two leads from the outset and for two, it keeps them in contact for a good chunk of time.

It’s half past the future and John Connor is an adult. He’s one of the Human Resistance’s military commanders, leading a group of men and women in strikes against Skynet’s forces. But he’s not up in the top ranks. The actual Command staff are all professional military, or seem that way, and send their orders remotely. When a strike on an underground facility leaves Connor’s team dead he demands to know what’s so important and it turns out to be this magic radio signal that can disrupt the machines and whatever, that’s not the important bit. The important bit is that down in that facility there was a cybernetic organism and John knows it but can’t go find it. And that organism is actually a man named Marcus, sentenced to death before the war and then resurrected by Cyberdyne’s genetics lab after donating his body to science. He has no idea what’s going on or when or where he is. Or what he is, which it turns out is half machine.

So now we’ve got two people to follow: John and Marcus. John is waging a battle with Command after finding out that Skynet has human prisoners – lots of them – in the facility they’re aiming to attack. He’s also sending out periodic broadcasts to the pockets of militia-level resistance fighters and they hang on his every word. The movie makes a good case for him being a great potential leader who hasn’t come fully into his own yet and still has a lot to learn. Which I like a hell of a lot better than last night’s whiny twerp. On the other hand we’ve got Marcus, who I hadn’t expected to care much about but who actually carries a lot of the movie. What he knows of himself isn’t great. He was a murderer and he’s very aware of his crimes. He wasn’t looking for redemption when Cyberdyne asked for his body. So waking up in a post-apocalyptic world was a little startling to him, to say the least. And his path through the movie is to find out not just what he is but why he is. And along the way he meets a young Kyle Reece, hiding out in what’s left of Los Angeles and taking down T-600s with traps.

It’s a nice little bit of storytelling there. Because Marcus isn’t a character we know and he’s not a Terminator as we recognize them. He’s not all machine. He’s not a shape-shifter. He’s not an unstoppable villain. He’s an enigma, and having the father of the hero of this world’s story under the protection of an enigma is very interesting indeed. So once Kyle is in peril – of course – and Marcus and Connor come together there’s going to be conflict. Connor doesn’t trust machines and he has good reason not to. I was nervous about the whole prophet angle going on with John Connor, but it wasn’t nearly as heavy-handed as I’d feared. Instead it’s not universal. People aren’t sure what to believe from him. And I like that. I like that he’s still dealing with the effects of his whole life being determined by time travel. I like that whenever he faces off with Skynet tech he knows that they’re developing the T-800 and the T-1000 and the T-X. Every model he fights is already obsolete in his experience. And I think this movie works that in, which is very cool.

Truth be told, I expected to watch this movie for Christian Bale and I ended up watching it more for everyone else. Oh, he’s fine in his role and there were certainly some moments when he was kicking ass and being every bit the paranoid leader I expected him to be. But Sam Worthington as Marcus, Anton Yelchin as Kyle and oh my fucking god, Moon Bloodgood as the kickass pilot, Blair? They were all fantastic. I would have liked more Blair, but hey, every second she got was fantastic, so I’ll take it. I liked that they all got moments. Kyle gets to both learn new tricks we’ve seen his adult self use in the first movie and know enough old tricks to have kept himself and another survivor alive for a while now on their own. Blair is certainly the most kickass female character the franchise has had since Sarah Connor herself. And Marcus has a character arc I hadn’t expected but ended up fully believing. Which, along with the fact that the split plots come together over and over, makes the movie.

I’m laughing at myself while writing this review. Here I am praising this movie and giving it the most loving of tongue baths. And it’s been panned by more than a few. But I’m honestly just so shocked that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It doesn’t spend too much time talking at us. It’s got strong lead characters and a good sense of its own history and mythology. It’s got a good cast who give good performances. And I felt like the action scenes were well done and purposeful instead of just in there for visual kicks. It’s got an aim – to bring Kyle Reece to John Connor, get Connor into a high level of the Resistance leadership and deal with a new threat from Skynet. It’s not the same sort of chase movie the first one was, and it doesn’t have the amazing Sarah Connor to drive it like the second one. But it’s definitely not the aimless mess that the third one was. It manages to both introduce a new threat that’s believable and different, and explain why it wasn’t a threat in the earlier movies. For that alone I’d applaud it. But it’s also fun. I can’t believe I’m saying this after last night – when I thought the franchise was dead – but now I’m looking forward to seeing what the next movie has in store.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator Salvation

June 24, 2011

Terminator Salvation

Well this is an appropriately titled movie. After yesterday’s disappointing mess I was ready to give up on Terminator movies for good. The second movie was fun but didn’t hold to the spirit of the first as much as I would have liked. The third was a re-hash that desperately wanted to revive the franchise but instead completely destroyed it in my mind. This movie is the salvation of the series, no doubt about that.

This is one of those movies, from a pre-production and writing standpoint, that should not have worked. Anything with this many people brought in to polish and adapt the script before it starts filming is almost guaranteed to be awful. Neither was I much excited by the “from the director of Charlie’s Angels” pedigree. Add to that the negative press from Christian Bale’s infamous on-set tirade and you have all the ingredients of a film that is doomed before it’s even in the can. So how on Earth does it work so well?

I think this movie succeeds on two essential and contradictory levels. It manages to take the series in a new direction while still paying homage to its roots. The new direction is into the post apocalyptic future. This movie follows the adventures of John Connor after the bombs have already fallen. Judgement Day is now the past and the war between the machines and man is well under way. This movie takes place ten years before the first time travel that sends a terminator and a human back in time to attempt to kill John’s mother before he is conceived. Connor is not leader of the resistance, he’s just a lieutenant, but he is a strong voice and respected throughout the organization. During a raid on a Skynet facility the resistance comes across a potential tool that may help them gain an edge on the machines – they have discovered what they believe is a signal that can disrupt Skynet’s controlling signals so effectively that they may be able to actually remotely shut down the H.K.s and other threats that endanger human kind. Naturally John wants to be a part of testing this new weapon.

At the same time John is concerned because he has not yet met the young man who he knows he will one day send back in time to defend his mother. Kyle Reese – when he grows up – will be John Connor’s father in the past. Somehow Skynet knows this (the movie never makes it clear how) and the machines are bent upon finding both John and Kyle because they fear that if they don’t stop John soon he will turn the tide in the war. The machines know that if they can find and kill Kyle while he is young and inexperienced and before he goes back in time that will eliminate John Connor as well – thus altering the course of the entire war. It’s a twisted kind of logic but I suppose it works.

Then there’s the third player in this film. There’s a convicted criminal who was put to death by lethal injection back before the war. A murderer named Marcus Wright who had donated his body for medical research to Cyberdyne. At the start of this movie he inexplicably wakes up in the wasteland. Clearly he is a terminator, but he’s a strange new kind. One with human organs who actually believes that he’s not a machine. The mystery, and what really sets this movie apart from its predecessors, is just what purpose he serves. Why did Skynet build a terminator that thinks it is a man?

I enjoy all the little nods to the earlier films. Even the third movie, awful pile of stupidity that it was, becomes more bearable in hindsight when Connor’s wife Kate appears, linking this movie to that one. The movie manages to acknowledge the earlier films with little in-jokes like the repeated lines “I’ll be back” and “come with me if you want to live” without descending to the level of camp that Rise of the Machines sank to. It even has a young Schwarzenegger doppelganger for Connor to do battle with – which is pretty awesome.

What a great cast too. I’m still not convinced that Christian Bale was the perfect casting for John Connor as he rises to meet his destiny, but he surely is fun to watch in the part. He’s able to wonderfully portray the angst and uneasiness that comes of knowing his entire life that he will somehow lead humankind to victory in this war but not knowing how. At the same time he’s a capable action star, taking the fight to the machines and proving that his lifetime of training was effective. Sam Worthington is the actual heart of the film as Marcus Wright, the tortured man who discovers that he is a machine. In supporting roles there’s Anton Yelchin as young Kyle, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate and the awesomely named Moon Bloodgood as Blaire Williams, a resistance fighter who befriends Marcus. I even got Tim Burton flashbacks with Helena Bonham Carter’s cameo role and Danny Elfman’s score.

This movie works surprisingly well on so many levels. It’s got some fairly heavy-handed stuff about what makes us human (which feels layered on a little thick but works with the tone of the movie.) It’s got plenty of action and car chases and shoot-outs and explosions. It actually shows a part of the story of John Connor’s life that hasn’t been done to death completely already. I’d say that in just about every respect it is my favorite terminator movie since the first one, and now I’m actually looking forwarded with guarded optimism to the next movie in 2014.

McG – I apologize most of all to you for underestimating your action film-making talent.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 480 – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – June 23rd, 2011

So we’ve gotten past the first two movies which means we’re out of the ones I knew and into the ones I never got around to bothering with. I remember when this one came out and I fully intended on seeing it because I do like Claire Danes and all. And then I didn’t. Largely because I heard the word “Terminatrix” and hit the brakes so hard I gave myself metaphorical whiplash. What a downright ridiculous term. And I had hoped, as the movie began and no one said it, that it would turn out that I was remembering something wrong and it was more a term used by people who’d seen the movie than something used in the movie. Alas, I was wrong. Oh, movie.

The really sad part here is that I can see a good deal of potential in this movie. It continues on with some of the paradox stuff from the last movie and the whole thing is a direct lead-up to the very war that’s been hanging over each movie since we first saw Arnold’s bare butt. And I’ll say it right now: I liked the ending. I liked it a lot. It’s just a damn shame that almost everything leading up to it is sloppy and pointless and poorly pieced together. Because if the rest of the movie had actually led up to the ending in a more meaningful way it could have been a far more interesting story to watch. As it was, I was tempted to pull out my DS and work on that last level of Lego Pirates of the Caribbean. I didn’t, but I was tempted and there were wide swaths of this movie that I could have played a video game through and not had my experience lessened.

The problem, I think, lies in that the end is the whole point of the movie. When the new Terminator shows up and our old pal, the T-800, shows up, we know pretty much how this movie is going to go. T-X is going to hunt down John Connor or someone important to him and T-800 is going to try and protect him. There will be explosions and car chases and people shooting big guns and fancy special effects for the robo-characters. It’s all pretty predictable and standard.

But what’s the plot here? Is it at all different from either of the others? Only by a few degrees, really. Where the second one introduced John Connor and had the twist of showing just how much knowledge of the future had changed Sarah, this one can’t play that card as a surprise. John’s been on his own for a while, living off the grid since even though they seemed to have averted the war he just can’t settle down. And I get that and I like it, but it’s not unexpected. And the movie spends relatively little time on it and he doesn’t get to show it off. This isn’t a transformation like his mother’s. He went from being a pubescent punk who could hack ATMs to being a 20-something punk who can wire explosives that never go off. I’m ever so impressed. And the same goes for pretty much everything here. New Terminator is smaller, sneakier, with more tools at her disposal than the T-800 but she’s really just a T-1000 with a built-in gun and breasts that she can inflate on command. The only real change here is the introduction of the character of Kate Brewster.

Now, Kate is played by Claire Danes, and I do like Claire Danes so I was willing to give her a chance. And the fact of the matter is that she’s not a bad character. She’s just given very little to do or work with. And this is part of the grander problem with the whole movie, which is that it’s trying very hard to set the stage for something epic that is never going to happen, while never going quite far enough in that stage setting because it’s mired in rehashing the basic premise of the previous movies. Kate is a young woman who went to junior high with John and who, in the future, is is wife and second in command. That’s pretty cool, except that in the present she barely remembers him and is engaged to another guy. And I kind of like the idea that John’s off-the-grid lifestyle threw the T-X and Skynet for a loop in the future, so they went with the Plan B of killing off his associates. The T-X tracking down an assortment of teens and taking them out without warning? That’s some unpleasant and grim stuff right there and it could have been so much better if the movie had given it more time. But she only gets to take out three people before going after Kate and those people get about two minutes of screen time, tops. So it turns into a non-event. Kate then gets grabbed by the T-800 and John and off they go on a road trip to visit Sarah Connor’s grave/armory.

This is how the whole movie feels. There’s something interesting presented, like the whole idea that the war is inevitable and that mucking around in the past has changed how the future will occur but not the larger events in it, and then it’s promptly ignored for lots of explosions and the T-X showing up to set people on fire. I like the new ideas here! I like Kate and I like seeing someone who’s never heard of all this Terminator stuff seeing it and coming to realize that it’s real. And like I said, I like the ending. I like John and Kate figuring out where they are and what that means. But it’s that ending that’s the point. It’s the war and what happens after that’s the grand and epic purpose for the movie. And set against that, no amount of T-X vs. T-800 was going to really matter. There’s no tension here, even when John is pulling a Shinji and getting cold feet about being the savior of mankind. What I wanted here was maybe the T-800 showing up to “get the band back together” as it were. Collecting the fragmented members of John’s future inner circle and insuring their survival. Or hell, they could have sent one of them back to round everyone up and made the T-800 the bad guy again. It just feels like there are a lot of cool ideas here buried under the safety and security of an action movie and that’s horribly disappointing.

June 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

June 23, 2011

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

I bought this when it first came out on DVD but never watched the whole thing. It’s not that it’s a bad movie – it’s just a pretty stupid movie. And a wholly unnecessary one. It’s full of ludicrous physics, convoluted plot machinations (necessary in order to force a sequel) and self-referential jokes based on the other two movies in the franchise.

This movie spends a lot of time feeling like a re-hash of the first two films. Once again a pair of warriors are sent back through time, one of them with the mission of killing the leaders of the future human resistance and one with the mission of defending them. John Connor in this movie is a wandering vagabond, living on the road and staying off the grid because he doesn’t really believe that Judgement Day has been averted (even though the movie takes place in 2004 and Judgement Day was supposed to happen in 1997.) Skynet doesn’t have an established location for him so it sends its new terminator (a T-X this time) to assassinate John’s lieutenants.

By amazing co-incidence one of those lieutenants is a mild mannered veterinarian who in her youth used to be in the same high school class as John, and he actually breaks into her clinic to steal medical supplies (since he’s all about staying out of hospitals and stuff) right before the T-X and T-101 show up to kill/save Kate Brewster. The movie makes some noise about how this meeting was “fated” to happen – in the same way that Judgement Day is inevitable and was only postponed when John, Sarah, Dyson and the T-101 blew up the research facility in the second movie. That’s just sloppy writing in my opinion. Part of what made the first movie so cool to me was that things weren’t fated to happen – they happened the way they did because it was a single coherent time loop – the future had already happened by the time Reese and the T-101 came back to set it into motion. John Connor is the savior of human kind because his mother raised him to be that, and she never would have raised him that way if she hadn’t been turned into a hardened warrior by her brush with the first terminator. I enjoy a self perpetuating future. I do not enjoy “fate” quite as much.

I didn’t finish writing this review last night before going to bed, meaning that I’ve had an extra twelve hours or so to ponder the movie after watching it, and the result is that I’ve found myself coming to a strange realization about this movie. It is a prequel. It is an origin story that explains how the war between man and machine came about. Like most prequels it thrives on references to the movies in the original time line and cameos. In some cases this is pretty annoying – such as when the naked T-101 goes in search of clothes after arriving in the past, or when Earl Boen reprises his role as Dr. Silberman from the first two films but mainly as comic relief and not as an actual character. In some cases it is kind of fun, such as when we see prototypes for the H.K.s of the future being developed by the human military. Ultimately, though, this movie has that big problem which is common to so many prequels, which is that is is more concerned with shoe-horning the origin story into the movie than with actually developing the characters we’re watching. (I will point here to the recent X-Men: First Class as an example of the exception that highlights the rule.) If the main reason your whole movie exists is to re-start a franchise, then it had better have something compelling to add to that franchise and not be, as this movie is, a loose collection of action scenes intended to lead up to one (admittedly kind of cool) twist at the end.

The movie had a pretty major hurdle to overcome right from the very start because Linda Hamilton had chosen not to return as Sarah Connor. Sarah was the best part of both of the first Terminator movies with her arc from unambitious waitress to female warrior and then her descent to near murder before her eventual redemption. Without Linda this movie suffers a great deal (and to add salt to the wound her character is relegated to an ignoble off-screen death.) I do appreciate the casting of Claire Danes as Kate, but although she does have a kind of similar evolution to Sarah (from veterinarian to machine-gun-toting bad-ass) the movie doesn’t give her enough motivation to really explain why. Sarah defeated a terminator and lost her true love – Kate just gets kidnapped and thrown around a lot.

I also felt absolutely no connection to Nick Stahl as John Connor. It’s not really his fault I suppose. The movie has a bad case of telling instead of showing and his character is introduced mostly through a couple voice over monologues that simply fill in what’s been up since the last movie. He spends the entire movie whining about not wanting to be the savior of the human race and not understanding why it’s his responsibility. The movie tries to answer that question to some degree, but mostly he comes across as an annoying twerp.

Then there’s the T-X. I suppose that if you’re going to follow the formula established by the first two movies you need to create a new and more dangerous terminator to do battle with, but the super powers of this one push the boundaries of credulity. I had issues with the way that the T-1000 in the second movie could supposedly copy anything it touched (such as when it copied a security guard in the asylum from having contact with the sole of his shoe.) It was an ability that didn’t make any sense, but since the whole point of that villain was to push the boundaries of modern special effects (because apparently that’s James Cameron’s thing) I was willing to overlook it. The magical ability of the T-X to convert police cars and ambulances into remote-control vehicles, however, completely threw me out of the movie. It’s not even remotely believable. I can buy a time-traveling killer robot with a meat disguise. I can even overlook a liquid metal machine that needs to touch something to morph into it. I can’t accept remote controlling a car without installing servos or anything.

So, yeah, this movie was sad and disappointing for me. It’s a big stupid action movie that feels cheaper than its predecessors (although it supposedly cost almost twice what the second movie cost.) It relies too heavily on being cute or funny and not enough on being cool. Most of the action has a very been-there-done-that feel to it, since they are re-hashes of better done action scenes in the first two movies. (Really, the graveyard escape is the same scene as the research lab escape except that it has fewer cops, no explosion and no helicopter. Why do I want to watch that?) There are a couple interesting ideas in here – such as the shocking revelation that the T-101 in this movie is the very one that killed John Connor in the future after he had already won the war – but they are buried in all this uninspiring and poorly written garbage.

June 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 479 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Terminator 2: Judgement Day – June 22nd, 2011

I fully recognize that this movie has flaws. It’s built on a paradox and it’s full of attempts to make a new catchphrase for Arnold Schwarzenegger and it goes on a good deal longer than it really needs to. But it has two things that make me love every bloated and marketing-directed moment of it: Robert Patrick and his role as the T-1000 and Linda Hamilton continuing her role as Sarah Connor. Mostly the latter, which I will get to, but the former is pretty damn awesome. I’ll take the rest of it just for those two. Okay, and when it came out I had a tiny celebrity crush on Edward Furlong. But that’s not important.

What’s important here is that this is a sequel, and it’s a sequel that had to somehow top the original. And it did that with a bigger budget and the return of Arnold and a new Terminator and new special effects and a bigger threat and in some cases it works for the movie. In other cases? Not so much. Which leads to the movie feeling overfull and overworked in places. I’m going to deal with things that bug me first because I want to save the things I love for the end.

First, there’s our old pal, Arnold. After the success of his “I’ll be back” line from the first movie they had to bring him back, right? And I do like the twist that he was a re-purposed T-800 and spends the whole movie guarding Sarah and John. That was nicely done and I’ll come back to it and to the T-1000 in a bit. The trouble is that in the first movie he works so well because he’s this cold hard killer who speaks a minimum of lines and you don’t need him to have a personality or background because that’s not the role he’s playing. Here, though, he’s not only supposed to be one of the good guys but he’s also given a lot more lines. And that seems to necessitate a little more in the way of character. And I’m down with that. Look at Brent Spiner’s performance of Data in Star Trek. That’s a great example for me of a machine with no emotion being performed with a fully developed character. The T-800, on the other hand, has no real character aside from being a hardass. So to give him a character the movie has the young John Connor attempt to teach his new Terminator buddy some new catchphrases like “Hasta la vista, baby” and oh, it just reeks of someone from marketing requesting something to put in clips they can sell to commercials for years to come. It makes me cringe and ruins a perfectly good twist on the original movie.

My other major issue with the movie is that the action is so incredibly huge. This could almost pass for a Michael Bay movie. I’m all for a good action movie. I do like me some explosions and fights and shootouts. And there is no doubt that this is an action movie. The thing is, last night’s movie is an action thriller that’s as much about the hunt and the chase as it is about the action that happens when the hunter finds his prey. So while I do find the T-1000 to be a fantastic villain, this movie cares more about the booms and guns than it does about the tension leading up to them and that’s a shame. There are scenes I genuinely like, where Sarah takes John and the T-800 down south to the border to some friends of hers who’ve got her weapon cache hidden on their property. And this background material for Sarah is great. But they hang out there for a good deal of time, despite the fact that the T-1000 is out there hunting them. Even the regular version of this movie clocks in at over two hours and the extended versions are another half hour or so. The timeline here just seems so sluggish and I blame that on the lack of tension and I blame that on the focus shift from the chase to the boom.

All that bloat and pandering aside, let’s talk about what I do like. And I very much like a couple of key things about this movie. For one, I do really like the new villain. Robert Patrick as the liquid metal T-1000? Terrifying. Whereas the original Terminator was a brute force sort of enemy, the T-1000 is more sinister. He can change his appearance and insinuate himself into any situation. He can make his own limbs into deadly weapons and tools. He can even hide as part of the environment around him. Patrick does a great job with him, making him blend in with the world he’s in and adapt to avoid drawing undue attention in places, then taking him from smiling cop to stone-faced machine in a split second. It’s a great performance and the potential for a fantastic villain, if only they’d really gone all in to exploit his possibilities. There’s some great work done with him, like when he walks through the bars and when he turns his arms into pry bars (an image that will always stay with me) but I feel like with the budget they had, I would have liked to see more done with him than just having him shot full of holes all the time. We get it. He can take a bullet and heal from it. Still, he makes for a very different type of threat and I like that he’s distinguishable from the T-800.

I also quite like the idea that the original Terminator’s salvaged parts are the basis for Cyberdyne to create the technology needed for Skynet, which in turn creates the Terminator that the technology came from. Sure, it’s a bit of “which came first” time trickery, but I think it was a good idea for this world. I could wish that Dyson, the engineer working on the project, got more to do, but I can live with the time he does get on screen, especially with the additional time he gets in the extended version. But it’s a fun little bit of plot and it’s built reasonably well. It’s just given a short amount of time given how important it seems to be.

Fortunately there’s one more thing I love about this movie and that is Linda Hamilton and her amazing arms. I admit it, I covet her arms from this movie. Not enough to spend three hours a day at the gym, but still. She is amazing here. The movie is set a good chunk of time after the first movie. Long enough that Sarah’s had time to immerse herself in the idea that she has to learn how to survive and fight and she has to be able to teach her son to do the same. She’s raised John with stories about the future and then she got herself arrested and locked up in a hospital for the criminally insane. And when we first see her? Oh, she is not at all the same feathered-hair waitress we met in the first movie. She’s doing chin-ups on her upturned bedframe in her cell and she is not in the mood for your bullshit. I love that she’s established not only as incredibly competent (she does break herself out, after all) but as so determined about what’s going to happen that she’s dispensed with any pretense at social niceties. This is a woman with a mission and it’s a mission that, to a regular uninformed person who doesn’t know they’re in a sci-fi movie, would sound like paranoid delusions. And Hamilton makes Sarah so utterly believable as this bad ass that I stand in awe of her. She makes this movie. She’s serious and flawed and desperate and strong all at once and it’s a wonderful performance.

I could do without the catchphrases and the voiceover plot exposition gets a little tired. I wish it was a tighter movie and less obvious in its pandering. But I will forgive it pretty much every single flaw for Linda Hamilton alone. Add in Robert Patrick and some great effects and a decent plot and I really can’t help but love this movie. It may not be as good a movie as the first one was, but it’s got Sarah Connor taking charge and I will be on board for that any time.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

June 22, 2011

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

I have to admit that I’ve never liked this movie as much as the first Terminator. I know it has more than five times the budget of the first movie and much better special effects and bigger action, but I’ve always felt that it lacked the edge of the first movie. It’s more of a summer blockbuster popcorn flick and less of a tightly wound sci-fi thriller. I was, in fact, pretty astonished when looking at the info for the movie as we watched it tonight and found that it was rated R – in my mind I remembered it as being a more family-friendly PG-13 type movie: ideal for drawing the maximum possible audience. It also irritates me that my favorite part of the forst movie – its circular and self fulfilling time line – had to be sacrificed to provide the motivation for the second act of this movie.

What this movie does have, and what mostly makes it worth watching for me, is Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor from the first movie. This movie picks up nine years after the first one. Sarah is in an insane asylum because she can’t stop ranting about the impending end of the world and the terminator that killed the father of her child. Even worse, her nine year old son John is living in foster care, un-protected out in the world with foster parents who are kind of dinks. Being raised by an apparent crazy woman who taught him his entire life about strategy, weapons, demolition and militias has left John somewhat mal-adjusted himself. For all his knowledge though he’s just a boy and he doesn’t really believe the fairy tales his mother told him in his youth about Skynet and the terminators and judgement day. He’s not prepared, therefore when a second terminator is sent through time to kill him.

This time it’s a more advanced machine – a living metal beast that can morph into any form and is even more indestructible and unstoppable than the old 101 model Terminator from the first movie. I think that the mimetic poly-alloy T-1000 is my first problem with the movie. It makes for a whole lot of very cool special effects, but it’s a little cartoonish when compared with the brutal and gritty first Terminator movie. Robert Patrick’s performance is creepy, but he never feels menacing in the way Arnold was in the first movie. Maybe it’s that he has eyebrows. I don’t know.

The corresponding problem is that now the T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is now the good guy. I love the concept of two terminators going toe-to-toe because it’s a great way to amp up the action of the series, but to make the implacable and emotionless foe of the first movie into a surrogate father figure and at the same time make him the obsolete and the under-dog really weakens the whole franchise in my opinion.

So I just ignore all that. I ignore the FX for FX sake. I ignore the now mortal terminator. I concentrate instead on the explosions and the action and on Linda Hamilton. This is her movie, as far as I am concerned. She is unbelievably buff. She is so invested in the character. The best moments in the entire film for me are when she knows that a second terminator is out there hunting her son and she is suddenly all determination and terror. She even is able to sell the notion that Sarah is practically a terminator herself. Once she and the terminator have managed to get John out of danger she hies off to attempt to change the future herself, trying to turn the tables on Skynet and prevent its birth in the way that it tried to stop John’s.

I might be giving the impression that I don’t like this movie, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a fantastic action movie. It has explosions and shoot outs and car chases and time travel, just like the first movie. It may have some problems that result in my not liking it quite as much as I like the first movie, but then again the first Terminator is one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time. This movie, well it’s just good fun. It’s better than most action movies and it’s one of those oft-lampooned iconic action milestones with all its digital effects, it’s just not as good as the first.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 478 – The Terminator

The Terminator – June 21st, 2011

When I was in grade school one of my classmates was an avid fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He even named his dog (a female sharpei) Arnold. I just couldn’t see the appeal. To be honest, I still can’t. But even so, I will admit that his presence in this movie is perfect for the role. I’ve read stuff about other actors being considered for the part and no. I just can’t see it. This role is Arnold’s. From the first moment you see him through the last bit of time he has on screen, he is iconic as the Terminator. And while that might not be the mark of a great actor, it is the mark of a perfectly cast role.

It took me a while to see this movie for just that reason. It seemed to be so very full of Arnold and I wasn’t big on Arnold and so why would I watch this movie? Well, because it’s one of the best time travel sci-fi action movies ever made. That’s why. I don’t expect everyone to love this movie and I can certainly see flaws in it, but there’s a reason it’s a so-called “modern classic” and it’s not just the title character. It’s the whole package. Personally, I really like the plot and how it all comes together.

It’s a time travel plot, which was apparently done out of necessity because there was no way the movie was going to get the budget it would have needed to be entirely in the future. But that time travel plot works. Got some holes? Sure! What time travel plot doesn’t? But it’s kept fairly simple for the most part. Way off in the future (which will obviously be the past eventually – that’s the trouble with anything set in the future) the world is a nightmare where mechanized tanks hunt people down and what’s left of humanity is fighting to survive against implacable foes. You know, your standard issue dystopia. As we learn later, the machines that have taken over the world are in danger thanks to a resistance force of humans led by a man named John Connor. To rid themselves of this man they send a super machine – a Terminator – back in time to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah, before he’s born. Why yes, that would create a paradox! But like I said, this is a time travel plot. That’s just how these things go. Let’s run with it. Resistance fighter Kyle Reece follows the Terminator back in time to find Sarah and protect her and so the stage is set.

Okay, I might have lied a little when I said that the Terminator itself isn’t why this movie is iconic. He is really important and I think with anyone else playing the role it just wouldn’t have been the same. Because the movie hinges on the threat from the Terminator. He has to be the serial killer in the slasher flick. He has to be the ultimate unsympathetic villain. You have to believe that this creature is willing and able and determined to kill not only Sarah but anyone between himself and her and you have to believe that there is no stopping him whatsoever. And Schwarzenegger delivers here. After the movie was over Andy mentioned to me that he thought the Terminator is a “single spine” character. That is, a character who can only really be performed with a single motivation. Most characters, if you really dig into them, will have a couple of possible motivations and the trick to playing them well is for the actor to choose the one that works for them. The Terminator, on the other hand, has one goal and one motivation: Kill Sarah Connor. But then, I don’t think he’s really a character. He has no personality and no background and no name. It’s not even a matter of not knowing who he is. It’s a matter of there not being anything to know. He’s a plot device, not a character.

All that being said, I think that’s perfect. He’s a cyborg from the future, bent on killing our heroine and as many extras as possible. It makes him horrifying and impossible to know and that in turn makes the humans in the story that much more sympathetic. When we meet Sarah she’s decently likable and all, but she’s not necessarily a deep character we want to root for. Until we see her sudden realization that with the deaths of two other Sarah Connors in the area, her life is in danger. Until we see Kyle Reece grab her and tell her “Come with me if you want to live.” Because suddenly we know that Sarah Connor is important. She might be a scattered waitress who gets stood up for dates right now, but she’s going to be crucial somehow. And she has no idea why.

While I’m never thrilled at female characters being built only on the fact that they have wombs, I don’t mind it here. Because not only do you know that Sarah Connor had a child who led a revolution, but you know that he lived to fight that revolution because his mother taught him how to survive. And I love seeing Sarah realize it all. That if she wants to live and if she wants her son to live and if she wants humanity to survive, she needs to learn all these skills and she needs to learn them fast. She is hands down one of my favorite characters in an action movie, ever, and not because she’s bad-ass (that would be tomorrow’s movie), but because she’s not. Not yet. But she has the potential. And that right there suggests that we all have that potential. That if we were told tomorrow that the future depended on us we could rise to the occasion. And that’s a good thought to have.

As an action movie it does its job nicely, with plenty of car chases and gun fights and speed holes and explosions. The Terminator even shoots up a police station, so that’s obviously going to make for some decent action. The climactic fight scene with the Terminator’s mechanical skeleton still coming after Sarah is as iconic as Schwarzenegger in a black leather jacket and those sunglasses and with good reason.

It’s easy to make fun of the movie’s fashion and dated technology (VHS tapes, cassette walkman with a shoulder strap, not to mention Linda Hamilton’s feathered hair) but really, the effects stand up to time. The future scenes are still pretty solid and the Terminator’s repair scenes are still as good as anything I’ve seen. The script isn’t brilliant but it’s got some great memorable lines and when the movie’s action scenes and character interaction work as well as they do, the script doesn’t have to be full of nuance and insight. Nuance and insight would be kind of silly here. So the movie delivers exactly what it should, Arnold and all.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Terminator

June 21, 2011

The Terminator

This is one of my favorite sci-fi action films of all time. I was way too young to see it when it came out in 1985 – I was a sensitive thirteen year old and the blood and gore of this movie would have been too much for me. When I finally did see this on VHA, probably about three years later, it was mind blowing for me. Oh, I was still pretty freaked out by some of the gore (such as when the Terminator cuts into its own arm and removes its eye) as this was probably only the third or fourth R-Rated movie I ever saw, but I simply couldn’t look away – the movie is so incredibly awesome.

This movie has everything a sixteen-year-old boy could want in an action movie. Explosions, gunfights, car chases, time travel, an apocalyptic future, and a sex scene. How could it not leave an indelible impression on me?

The plot of the movie is fairly straight forward. Two warriors have come back from a post-apocalyptic future where machines have been trying to wipe out humankind. One is a T-100 series Terminator – a machine built by Skynet to infiltrate human colonies and wipe them out. It has a flesh and blood exterior, but inside it’s an unstoppable killer with only one purpose: to kill Sarah Connor. Her unborn son John, you see, is the leader of the human resistance which is on the verge of wiping Skynet out once and for all after decades of war. The other time traveler is Kyle Reese, a fighter hand-picked by John Connor to protect his mother and preserve the future. That’s pretty much the whole movie right there (except for some cool time-travel stuff that is revealed at the very end.) A simple man trying to defend an unsuspecting waitress from the most single-minded killer of all time.

I think that part of what makes the movie work so well is that it’s so brilliantly simple. We get a little plot exposition here and there – a few glimpses into Reese’s past (which is in the future) – and there actually is some romance and connection between Kyle and Sarah – but it’s mostly just pure action. This is the movie that proved that James Cameron knew action blockbusters better than just about any other director in Hollywood. It’s amazing to think that this was his first big break-out hit. (Though we still have the first feature film he directed waiting in the stacks here to be reviewed.)

Cameron knows how to build to a crescendo. He knows how to do an action set-piece (like the iconic police station shootout.) He knows how to inject just the right amount of humor (the gun merchant for example) or pathos (Reese’s recollections of the future.) And of course the stubborn refusal of the Terminator to stay dead at the end of the movie is the very blueprint from which many future movies would be drawn, including Cameron’s own Aliens.

Amanda commented on how well the special effects in this movie have aged, and she’s right. This movie uses every trick in the effects grab bag of the pre-digital era including miniatures, animatronic puppets, fantastic make-up (Stan Winston of course) and stop-motion animation. Sure most of the time you can spot the tricks, but they still look good enough to be believable. Part of the charm of the movie for me is figuring out how it was done anyhow.

The script is extremely polished, with the time-travel aspects better handled than just about any other movie with the possible exception of 12 Monkeys. It’s just so perfectly put together, from the photograph of Sarah that Reese has in the future to the very concept of the terminators themselves, and the explanation for why no futuristic technology could come through. I love absolutely every performance in the movie too. Michael Biehn would of course work multiple times with Cameron again in the future. Arnold Schwarzenegger was already well known at this point of course for his iconic performances in Hercules in New York and Conan the Barbarian, but this was the movie that established him as an action super-star complete with catch phrase. And Linda Hamilton gave the movie a much needed human touch as the girl being hunted who has to figure out in a very short amount of time how to defend herself.

From Brad Fiedel’s percussive score to Arnold’s accented monotone to the above average special effects to the tightly written plot everything about this movie raises it above the average eighties action movie fare. No other action movie before or since in my experience has done everything so perfectly right. Though James Cameron sure has tried a few times. We’ll look at one of those attempts to replicate the success of this movie tomorrow.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment