A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 549 – Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko – August 31st, 2011

Gee whiz am I glad that I didn’t see this movie when it came out. Not because it’s a bad movie. On the contrary. But at the time it came out I was still dealing with some pretty nasty depression and let me tell you! This movie would not have inspired me to look on the bright side of life. In fact, at the end of it I watched the credits and thought “Well. What a great movie to convince people the exact opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life!” Maybe that wasn’t the outright intent, but it’s certainly a large chunk of what I got out of it.

The movie revolves around a young man named Donnie. He’s had some troubled times in the past year or so. Or maybe longer. I got the impression that it wasn’t more than a year, but not much less either. The movie doesn’t bother to make it clear and that’s okay, because ultimately it doesn’t matter how long he’s been having trouble. What’s important is that just recently he’s started sleepwalking and having hallucinations of a giant grey rabbit. Or a man in a giant grey rabbit suit. Either way. The rabbit’s name is Frank and Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end soon. In 28 days. And he has things he needs to do. And so Donnie does them. The prior troubles Donnie’s had involved setting an abandoned house on fire and getting suspended and having to see a psychiatrist and take medication, which he doesn’t want to take. And it would be one thing for this movie to be about a teenage boy having a psychotic break and not knowing what’s real or not. It’s an entirely different thing when his sleepwalking and hallucinations keep him out of the house when a jet engine appears out of nowhere and falls right through his bedroom ceiling, crushing where he would have been.

It’s an event like that which lends credence to a paranoid mind’s obsessions. With Frank’s encouragement Donnie floods the school and sets fire to another house. He worries his parents and fights with his sister. At home he seems to be a typical teenage guy. I knew plenty of teenage guys who fought with their parents and acted out. Most of them did not go on to perpetrate enormous property damage. They also weren’t hallucinating and starting to believe in time travel. So, that’s where they and Donnie differ. Anyhow, Donnie’s kind of obsessed with this whole idea of time travel and that he’s seeing things like trails showing the paths people will take. He’s still seeing Frank and Frank is still incredibly creepy. His psychiatrist is growing alarmed at his talk about Frank and the end of the world and his parents are perplexed, unsure of just what to do. Meanwhile, Donnie’s leading sort of a double life. He hangs out with his friends and gets himself a girlfriend – the new-to-town Gretchen Ross – and when he’s not seeing paths or Frank or causing destruction he appears “normal.”

It’s an odd movie, really. Because one could take it as a commentary on the nature of teen angst. It’s full of things like unrequited crushes and bullies and school officials being pressured to fire staff members for their reading list choices. It’s got a smarmy self-help guru the gym teacher’s bought into and Donnie’s a middle child with a cool older sister who’s going to Harvard and a cute younger sister who’s a dance team champ. And there’s Donnie, who had to miss some school and see a shrink and take pills. Of course he’s angry and angsty. And through it all the movie has an almost dream-like quality. It’s early autumn and school’s just starting for the year and Donnie’s not quite entirely present in reality 100% of the time. Thinking back on it now I have this impression that many things happened in slow motion even though I know it can’t be as much of the movie as I’m thinking.

The movie’s ending, which is where the time travel really comes in, is one of those endings that one could take in several different ways. It could be a time paradox, or it could be an alternate reality or it could have been imaginary or it could be all three. I know for a fact Andy interpreted it differently than I did and I hadn’t really considered his interpretation and it’s entirely possible that had I not spoken during the credits he wouldn’t have considered mine. On one hand, that sort of writing can come off as hopelessly pretentious. On the other, if handled well I think it can work without making the viewer feel baffled. And I think this movie handles it well largely because there’s enough material in the movie to work with. And that says to me that the people making the movie considered what people might interpret it as, instead of just being mysterious and hoping people made up their own meanings.

Personally, while I’m not about to tell anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong, my initial interpretation of the movie’s end is rather bleak. Well, bleak for Donnie. I meant what I said about the movie feeling like an anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. With the engine falling on Donnie instead of Donnie being out with Frank when his bedroom is crushed, it changes everything. But instead of seeing what the world would be like without Donnie, we see what it’s like with him. Sure, at least one person gets what’s coming to him, but other innocent people get hurt. Without Donnie around causing trouble the school wouldn’t flood. People wouldn’t die. So Donnie dies. And when he does the ripples through the timeline are felt by all the people affected.

It does leave the question of Frank’s identity and importance and just how he came to be Donnie’s hallucination rather up in the air. But then most interpretations probably would. Certainly the real Frank seems affected by Donnie’s death, but up until the end he didn’t seem to have much of any connection with Donnie. He was just an artist, making a twisted mask for Halloween. Who is he? Who was he? Why did Donnie see him? I don’t know. And to be honest, I prefer not knowing. I like the idea that there’s something supernatural and mysterious at work in this movie. I like the idea that regardless of the science discussed and the technical aspects of time travel, there’s something unknowable at work. For much the same reason I love that the movie is set in the 1980s. Why is it set in the 80s? Who cares? It just is. And it suits the movie. It’s not an overt stereotype of a movie. It’s a sci-fi supernatural period piece. Which works. And apparently it works for people in vastly different ways. And I like that too.

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donnie Darko

August 31, 2011

Donnie Darko

I bought this movie because I was reassured by a wide range of people how unbelievably messed up it was. And, yes, it is a strange, what with its dreamlike daze state, time travel and visions of the future. It’s more than just random weirdness though. It’s probably the quintessential movie about teen angst – and I have to admit that I absolutely love it even though I was in my thirties when I first saw it.

Donnie is a troubled teen. There’s nothing in particular wrong with his life – his family is a typical eighties yuppie clan. He goes to a clean looking school with your typical mix of wasters, pretty people and rejects. He’s prone to sleepwalking. He’s in therapy and medicated because of a senseless act of arson he committed a couple years ago. For some reason he finds himself compelled to do things and he doesn’t know why.

Then things start to get weird.

An extremely creepy rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie and tells him that the end of the world is just 28 days away. The detached engine from a jet airliner crashes through the roof of his house and into his bedroom while he is out sleepwalking. Donnie proceeds to drift farther and farther out of touch with the world, while at the same time he finds himself caught up in some kind of time-travel paradox. There’s a sense that some of his actions are predestined – he can almost see what people are going to do before they do it, and his own actions feel like something he has no control over.

On the one hand he’s being forced by the voice of Frank to do some things that are dangerous and destructive. Such as flooding the school by smashing a water pipe with an axe or burning down the palatial estate of a loathsome self-help guru. He finds himself getting his father’s gun from his closet. He takes a knife to the bathroom to try to break through an invisible wall to reach Fred.

At school Donnie becomes prone to outbursts. He talks back to his gym teacher during an insipid ethics class based on the work of a self made guru named Jim Cunningham who offers thin platitudes and sells advice about the eternal battle between love and fear. Strangely only Donnie seems to realize that Jim is a scam artist who is lining his pockets by selling his courses and lectures to the school.

Everything builds to the climactic moment where it is revealed why Frank has been haunting Donnie and why he has the bunny suit. There’s time-travel involved and a convergence of multiple plot lines in an instant that has been pre-destined since the beginning of the movie. Which is cool and all, but it’s not really the point of the movie for me.

Okay – some spoilers now. Donnie dies at the end of the film, which wraps back around to the beginning so that all the events of the movie are shown to be an alternative universe. My interpretation of the movie is that what we get to see of Donnie’s life is a sort of idealised wish fulfilment. Before he dies he gets to see what life would be like if he came out of his shell and did the sorts of things that teenaged boys wish they could get away with doing. he floods the school. He talks back to teachers. He gets the girl. he knows the answers. It’s sort of one last hurrah for him because everything comes crashing down and he has to accept his fate.

This movie is so layered and complex that it necessitates multiple viewings. It could be read as Donnie coming to grips with his fear of death and accepting that death is not such a dreadful fate. Or you could view it as wish fulfilment as I do. Of you could see it as an exploration of multiple parallel universes. I enjoy the fact that it’s ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation.

No matter how you chose to understand the film it cannot be denied that it’s wonderfully made. Richard Kelly, who went on to direct that utterly impossible to describe Southland Tales, directs here with flare and panache. This movie combines a fever-dream feel accomplished with muted sounds, cool digital effects, and lots of manipulation of the film speed with a more normal feel at times. There are lots of scenes that are very slickly edited together with intercut views of different unrelated events which heighten the tension. There are parts of the movie that feel almost like a horror film (one of my favorite moments is when Donnie is hypnotised by his therapist and is describing his terror at the impending end of the world and he looks up and sees Frank right there in the room with them. “I see him right now!” he exclaims and chills run down my spine.)

There’s a great cast of talented actors from Drew Barrymore to Mary McDonnell to Patrick Swayze. Jake Gyllenhaal really steals the show though as Donnie himself. he’s so sinister and sullen, so dangerously hard to read. You get a sense that his family and therapist don’t just not understand him – they fear him a little. It’s a fantastic performance full of desperation and pain.

Add to all that an absolutely astonishing soundtrack. Every song here is so perfectly suited for the tone and feel of the movie – even more impressive given that some of the music is apparently last minute replacements for temp tracks that the producers couldn’t secure the rights to. It makes me want to download the soundtrack right now (although in truth I don’t tend to buy compilation albums – I’m more likely to buy all the original albums the songs came from. I need more Tears for Fears and Duran Duran on my iPhone.)

The world needs more slick, inscrutable, inspired movies like this. Any movie that forces you to think about it as much as this one does for me it a big plus in my book. And of course the creepy bunny mask that Frank wears will be forever burnt into your mind once you have seen this. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 531 – The Jacket

The Jacket – August 13th, 2011

Prior to putting this movie in, I had no idea what it was about. Not a clue. I don’t know what I expected, but the funny thing is that I know I looked it up at one point and saw that it starred Adrien Brody and that got me interested. What can I say? I like Brody. But then it slipped away from me and I totally forgot what I’d read about it, which wasn’t much aside from the cast, and it was gone from my mind. There’s a book by the same title in my collection at work, and somehow I think I’d come to the conclusion that while it wasn’t an adaptation of that book, it had some vague similarity to it. Boy, was I wrong there. This isn’t even remotely a realistic fiction story about stolen clothing. What the hell was I thinking?

What this is, is a story about a man who is living slightly outside his timeline. And what that is, is a story I’m up for poking at. If one was going to poke too hard, I think the story might unravel, and in some science fiction that would be a flaw. Of course, time travel stories always have flaws. I’ve just accepted that as part and parcel of the genre. But here I don’t so much see flaws as intentional imperfections. The nature of the time travel, the mechanism by which it’s achieved, the changes made to the timeline and the eventual ending are all left to interpretation. And I’m good with that. It suits the movie just fine.

A man named Jack Starks is injured while serving in the US military in Afghanistan. He has a head wound and is thought dead until his eyes open. After returning to the US, his thoughts aren’t quite all complete. He doesn’t remember everything he thinks he should. He reacts slowly and in some cases oddly. But he’s also quite rational and self-sufficient. While walking down a road on his way somewhere he helps a little girl and her mother, whose truck has broken down. The little girl asks him questions while her mother is sick at the side of the road. He fixes the truck and they go on their way, his dog tags in the little girl’s hand as a gift. A young man picks him up later on and something happens. A police officer gets shot and Jack can’t answer the questions after. He can’t explain and he can’t give names and so he’s convicted and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. And I would say that this is where the movie starts, except it started with that head wound in Afghanistan and it started again with the little girl and her mother.

The hospital is where the time travel takes place, but I would say it’s up to the viewer to decide if it actually happens or if it’s something slightly different or if it’s a series of lucky guesses on Jack’s part as he brings information back from the future. Personally, I side with actual time travel, but I don’t much care what the mechanism for it is. That’s the part I’m not bothering to poke too hard. The point is that through experimental and frankly illegal treatment, Jack finds a way to access a future version of his own timeline. He pulls himself into the future by several years, except it’s a future where he died years before. He meets people he knew: Doctors from the hospital, the little girl who’s now all grown up. And each time he’s treated, he learns more and does more and puts more together. And each time he comes back he’s more desperate to figure it all out before he dies.

Now, where it gets really interesting for me is the changing of the future. Just by his presence alone Jack makes the future a different one than it would otherwise have been. He’s not supposed to be there, but there he is, the same age he was at the time he supposedly died, healthy and whole and far more clear-headed than he is in the hospital, pumped full of drugs. So he’s able to affect the future, and in doing so he gains what he needs to change things in the past. And when the inevitable happens and he finds himself dying (again) his efforts pay off.

How does it all work? Why does he end up where he ends up? Was it real? What happened to him in the past? Did he really die? Did he die again? And again? Those are all questions the movie doesn’t really concern itself with. They aren’t the important part of the movie. The important part of the movie is that Jack has this opportunity to change not only the life he’ll eventually lead, but the lives of other people. And he does it by learning about those people and finding out what they need. What’s apparent through the course of the movie is that Jack is intrinsically a good person. He just wants to help the people around him. Even when he’s making a bit of mischief, which he does in the hospital and I don’t blame him one bit, he makes it in order to cheer up a fellow patient. And the things he changes for the girl he met and the woman he meets later on are things he didn’t have to change. It wouldn’t have made her less inclined to help him later on since she’d already helped him. But he does help her and he helps her mother and in doing so everything changes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie in a way I hadn’t expected when we put it in. I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting much of anything when we put it in, let alone a movie I found interesting and entertaining. The cast was fascinating, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kris Kristofferson as doctors at the hospital (Stephen Mackintosh too – he keeps popping up where I don’t expect him), Daniel Craig almost unrecognizable as another patient and Kiera Knightly as the grown up girl. Every one of them gave an excellent performance that only served to make Adrien Brody’s Jack a more solid character in a bizarre situation that none of them can explain. It feels like it should be a complicated movie, what with the time line changes and all, but it didn’t feel complicated to me. I didn’t have a hard time following it. I didn’t need to make any diagrams to keep track of it. Yes, it has unanswered questions, but you can answer them yourself, or leave them be, which is what I plan on doing. The movie is fine regardless.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jacket

August 13, 2011

The Jacket

I had been somewhat reluctant to watch this. Reluctant because although I had some vague notion of the plot from repeated viewings of the preview I wasn’t sure how it was as a movie. It’s always a risk when you buy a movie based only on the previews, and especially so when it is such a strange and unsettling preview. I’m glad I picked it up, though, because the movie turned out to be one of those unexpected delights we’ve discovered in our collection from time to time.

In many ways this movie reminds me of one of my favorite films of all time: Twelve Monkeys. It also deals with issues of insanity and time travel. This movie also involves a hero who is moving between times and who appears crazy to those he interacts with because of it. Unlike James Cole, however, Jack Starks is moving forward in time, so he knows how things are going to end up – he just doesn’t know how they get there.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. At the start of this movie Jack isn’t traveling through time. He’s dying from a gunshot wound to the head. He’s a soldier in the first Gulf War who is discharged after being so gravely wounded that the doctors assumed that he was dead. His memory is badly damaged, however and he begins to lose his grip on time and reality. Then he runs into trouble. One winter afternoon as he is hitchhiking in the woods he comes across a young girl and her drunken mother who are stranded because their truck won’t start. He is able to get the truck running, and forms a kind of friendship with the young girl, but the mother shoos him off. Instead of getting a ride with them he gets a ride with a shifty individual driving towards Canada. Very soon he and his new companion are pulled over by the police and then… something happens. What exactly is not immediately clear, but Jack is in very short order convicted of the killing of that unfortunate police officer and sentenced to be treated in a mental hospital for his amnesia and post traumatic stress. He has only very vague recollections of that night and the woman and her daughter seem to have vanished.

That’s the set-up. The meat of the movie is a sort of mystery. There’s a fairly less-than-ethical doctor working in the asylum who has been using unorthodox treatments on some of the patients. Dr. Becker is dragging his subjects out of bed in the middle of the night, shooting them full of drugs, putting them in a heavy straight-jacket and locking them in a morgue drawer. He seems to think that this will help to break down mental barriers in his patients. And he’s a bit of a control freak and sadist as well. When Jack is in the jacket however he somehow escapes.

At first it’s not clear in the movie if he enters a dream or if it’s a flashback or a lost memory, but Jack finds himself waiting outside a diner. A young woman comes out and, as a Christmas Eve act of charity offers him a lift. He has no particular place to go, and the woman Jackie is clearly lonely and somewhat unhinged herself, so he ends up at her apartment. He attempts to make friends with her, and things seem to be going well until he makes an unnerving discovery: a pair of dog tags with his own name on them in Jackie’s apartment. Dog tags that he had given to the girl in the woods before the events that landed him in the hospital.

When he confronts Jackie about the dog tags he discovers that she actually is that girl, that he is somehow fifteen years in the future, and that he, Jack Starks, died almost fifteen years ago just after New Years. So now he has to somehow convince Jackie that he actually is that man from her childhood who gave her the dog tags, and he needs to find out how he is going to have died.

Soon Jack finds himself back in the mental hospital. His whole time with Jackie might only have been a delusion or a dream, but he now believes that he’s going to die in just a few days and he needs to get back into the future to find out how – and the only way to do that is to get back in the jacket. Each time Dr. Becker inflicts his treatment on Jack he discovers a little more about his future and about Jackie and her mother and what happens to other people in the asylum. Slowly he comes to accept that his strange trips are real visions of the future and he desperately tries to find a way to alter what is going to happen, even as most everyone around him becomes more and more convinced of his insanity.

What makes this movie exceptional is the high level of the acting and direction. Adrien Brody as Jack was part of the reason I bought the movie in the first place. He’s such a fantastic actor and I was curious to see what he had lent his talents to here. What I had not expected was the high caliber of the entire cast. Particularly note-worthy are Daniel Craig as one of the inmates – he has completely transformed himself with all the nervous twitches and desperate looks from the familiar steely action hero I’m more used to seeing him portray. Dr. Becker is played by Kris Kristofferson with a mad passion in the scenes involving him in the hospital and with a quiet despair when jack meets him in the future. And, oh, what an amazing actress Keira Knightly has proven herself to be. As Jackie she’s quiet, desperate, and broken. She’s so effortlessly able to create this entire character from just a few furtive glances at Jack.

The direction by John Maybury and stellar editing by Emma E. Hickox take these amazing performances and this great tension filled story and make it all into a strange kind of dream. We as viewers are drawn into the story by a sense of disorientation akin to that which Jack himself is feeling. Everything initially feels very disjointed and out of sync. In the same way that Jack questions his own sanity we have to question what exactly is going on. As the movie progresses Jack slowly becomes less catatonic, jolted into action by his impending demise and as he starts to take action the film slowly becomes more coherent and less fragmented.

I was so pleasantly surprised as we watched this. I hadn’t known what to expect and what I got was a treat. A supernatural thriller involving time travel and insanity. A story about broken people taking control of their own lives. An unexpected core of tenderness underneath all the angst. I had braced myself for something rough and confusing, but what I got was a polished gem of a movie that perfectly pushed every one of my buttons.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

July 26, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I haven’t watched all the Potter films yet. As of the writing of this review I’ve only seen the first five. This is by far my favorite of the ones I’ve seen though, and it has always been my favorite of the books. Alfonso Cuaron does something wonderful with this movie – he takes a Harry Potter book and rather than trying to simply capture all the most memorable moments on film he adapts it into something more cinematic, more cohesive, and altogether more watchable.

Plotwise this is where the Harry Potter series starts to morph from being a series of children’s books to something cooler and darker. The series grew up with its audience, really, and I appreciate that. In his third year at Hogwarts Harry is in almost constant peril. Right at the start of the movie, when he runs away from the unbearable Dursleys, he is menaced by a mysterious black dog that seems to be hunting him. He is rescued by the arrival of the night bus and whisked off to the Leaky Cauldron where he is warned by Ron’s father Arthur that a madman has escaped from the infamous wizarding prison of Azkaban – the first person ever to escape from there – and is bent on hunting down Harry Potter.

Things get even worse when the supernatural guards of Azkaban, the terrifying dementors, show up on the Hogwarts Express and start haunting the school, supposedly in their determination to re-capture the nefarious Sirius Black. Luckily, Harry has a new ally in the school this year – the mysterious and tortured Professor Lupin. Lupin takes it upon himself to try and teach harry how to defend himself from the dementors. At the same time there’s the seemingly empty-headed Professor Trelawney teaching divination who generally spouts complete nonsense, but sometimes seems to offer up real prognostications which do not bode well for Harry.

Part of the Harry Potter paradigm is that there are mysteries in the books, with clues throughout that hint at what’s really going on, but this book and this movie doe the best job with this. There are so many different mysteries going on simultaneously here and they all blend together so effortlessly. Why is the thing Lupin fears most in the world a full moon? Why is Serious Black so bent on breaking into Hogwarts in spite of the dementors and all the security of the castle? Just how many courses is Hermione taking? Who is Peter Pettigrew, and why, if he was killed trying to protect Harry’s parents, does Harry’s map show him as alive and in the corridors of Hogwarts?

The answers are all tied into the past, into a quartet of best friends at Hogwarts back when Harry’s father was there. Really this is some of the best world building in the series for me because everything in the later books is rooted in the events at Hogwarts when Harry’s parents were there.

It’s odd: I find it difficult to separate this movie from the book. I know that Amanda finds it frustrating that some things from the book that are integral to the plot are glossed over in the movie. As an example – she is irritated that although Messrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are mentioned in the movie it is never explicitly stated just who they are. For me, though, this movie is more a companion piece to the movie. That’s part of why it works so well, really. It is an interpretation of the book and not just a straight rote recital.

Which brings me to what Cuaron has done to make this work so well as a movie. He’s given it a wonderfully cinematic feel. He uses visual imagery to help tell the story in ways that Chris Columbus never did. For example there’s the enormous clock tower prominently featured which highlights the importance of time in the story. This is also re-inforced by the quirky and fun transitions through the seasons which are introduced through sort of vignettes with the whomping willow (which also act to keep that dangerous tree front of mind since it comes into play as we approach the finale of the movie.)

And oh, the climax of this movie! All the secrets are revealed and the truth comes out, and then there’s an extra twenty minutes of adventure as everything gets sorted out by Harry and Hermione. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much I love a well written and self contained time loop – and this fits perfectly into that. It’s just so much fun to watch it play out no matter how many times I see it.

As usual for the Potter franchise we get fantastic new actors bringing the characters from the books to life. Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is perfect of course, and I enjoy David Thewlis as Lupin, but for me there’s one thing that sticks out above all others: Crazy Gary Oldman! My God is he the most perfect casting ever. I only wish that he had a bigger part in the rest of the series because he’s just so much fun to watch.

This whole movie is just fun to watch. I think that’s what makes it so great. The earlier movies are pretty and introduce the world. The later movies are dark and powerful. This is the middle movie that is just pure cool. I’d watch it again any time.

July 26, 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

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