Tag Archives: sequel

Movie review:Terminator–Rise of the McG

25 May

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Terminator: Salvation,2009, (PG-13), 116 min.

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After abstaining from blockbuster fever for the better part of this long weekend, my wife and I, with both sets of parents in tow, finally got a chance to check out Terminator: Salvation yesterday afternoon. There has been a dark cloud looming over this movie for awhile, and most of the fingers have been pointing at the film’s director McG, who constantly gripes about the attention his name brings and then allows it be featured not once, but twice, in the opening credits. Given that I didn’t see this one on Thursday, I got a chance to watch the reviews roll in and the critical consensus wasn’t good. Then I began to hear from visitors to this site, and from friends, that the film was just fine and worthy of the Terminator name. Now, having seen it, I’m ready to weigh-in. But first, a confession.

I really dig The Terminator films. Not just one, but all of them. The original is easily the best; a dark and thrilling triple-decker action film that blends time-traveling sci-fi paradoxes with a killer-stalks-girl horror motif, both being used to prop up the central speculative fiction that posits a world where the machines are the masters and they won’t give up their hold. The sequel is one of the greatest popcorn entertainments I have ever seen, and having just re-watched it this weekend, I can attest  to the fact it still holds up.  Arnold gives, allowing his limited range, what amounts to a great performance with plenty of humor and authority mixed in; I bought the fact he was a machine. Everything about the sequel is trumped-up but it works because the movie provides a heart. Enough of a heart, in fact, that it carried over to Terminator 3.

Rise of the Machines is the one I’m not supposed to like, but am actually quite fond of. Arnold more or less slept-walk through the role, but given the character, it was often hard to tell. I wasn’t a huge fan of the female Terminator, but the action scenes were terrific fun and the interplay between Claire Danes and Nick Stahl, including a fantastic ending, endeared me to it. It was a little too much like what had preceded it, but it got the job done. And now we have McG’s version in Terminator: Salvation, chronicling that long impending future-war.

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Turns out that not only does the film evade suckitude, it’s also a solid bit of summer sci-fi goodness that really captures that post-apocalyptic energy of many a forgotten 80s film. In the Terminator cannon, it can’t compete with Cameron’s work but is well above Mostow’s entry. I was entertained from beginning to end, and for the first forty minutes I was completely enthralled. Visually, the movie looks great. A gritty grimy filter covers everything, but instead of murky night scenery or dreary camera work , there is a hard-edged clarity to both the expansive desert and the movie’s extraordinary special effects. Without a doubt, the machines and terminators in the series have never looked this good. The sky is filled with menacing Hunter-Killers who patrol looking for human captives, giant Harvester robots crash and crunch across the California desert and creepy robo-cycles careen down the abandoned highways. In only a scant few years(the movie is set in 2018 and SkyNet went operational in 2003) the machines have appropriated the world their human creators once owned. And yet, with all of their resources and cold calculating logic they have failed to destroy the human beings. Enter John Connor and the resistance.

Christian Bale may be the epitome of professionalism, but he brings absolutely nothing else to this role at all. There isn’t a hint of shading or variation to John. He literally growls his way through the movie like he just wants it to be over. Granted, since he is playing the hardened leader of a resistance who has been hunted by robots since he was 12 and is now facing the possibility that the humans might actually win, maybe that actually qualifies it as a great performance.

 Bryce Dallas Howard, as his wife, manages to suggest that she is the same person that Claire Danes played in the third film, but the movie gives her so little to do that it makes Story the Narf look like a complex role. It doesn’t matter though, because John Connor is not the focal point of this movie. He isn’t even the prophesied full-fledged leader yet–that would be Michael Ironside,  playing General Ironside, I think.

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No, the spotlight this time out goes to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convict from 2003, sentenced to death by lethal injection, who sells his body to Helena Bonham Carter (representing Cyberdine) for a kiss. She’s dying of cancer and he tells her “So that’s what death tastes like”. Classy.

After that, he wakes up in the wasteland of 2018, wandering across the burned out cinder of Earth and runs into a spunky young resistance fighter and a mute child. The young man is  Kyle Reese and when he hears the voice of John Connor coming across a busted radio he knows he must meet the man. Anton Yechtin gives the best performance in the movie, channeling the essence of Reese from the original film but giving him nuances that clearly didn’t exist in the script itself. Yechtin, who has been nothing less than great in everything I have seem him in from Hearts in Atlantis on up, is definitely an actor to keep an eye on. If his Kyle Reese had been the focus of the story, Salvation might have been something more than just a couple hours of summer fun.

Worthington, as Wright, is just fine but his role is clearly designed to sort of echo Arnold. He’s a tough but compassionate warrior, fighting against his nature to be something more than what he is. He doesn’t understand this new world, or the fact that while his heart beats human, the stuff under his flesh and blood is all metal panels and circuitry. If Arnold had played this role, it would have had more impact, and made more sense. Marcus is the latest and greatest from Sky Net but when Connor comes up against the newest model later in the movie, it bears not the visage of Sam, but Arnold–looking buff and imposing despite the fact he’s pretty much just flawless CGI. So, at some level, it feels like the script was written with someone like Schwarzenegger in mind for Wright. When Worthington fails to mine it for subtlety or variation, thats probably more a fault of the writing than his acting.

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The script is the weakest aspect of Salvation, and really brings the picture down. There is a revelation late in the game involving Sky Net and their knowledge that Kyle Reese is Connor’s father. Instead of killing him, they hold him hostage for Connor and the Resistance. Maybe I was just operating in a post-lunch haze, but I couldn’t figure why they didn’t just cap him right there unless the Machines are covering their bases and decide that killing Connor and his father would be  like an insurance policy. More importantly, it fails to truly humanize any character in the movie with writing alone. Some of the actors manage to find sparks of individuality on their own, but none of it exists in the writing which feels like a cold exercise in franchise building.

Which is why the credit for this film rests primarily on the shoulders of one individual: McG. Terminator: Salvation would be a wet-rag of a movie if he wasn’t at the helm. He pulls all the pieces together and delivers some really exciting action scenes while building the world after Judgement Day with a realistic and not overly cluttered sense of the desolate. I enjoyed a scene where Bale uses an old boombox and the Guns N’ Roses T2 anthem “You Could Be Mine” to bring down one of the machines.

The movie is fast-paced and exciting even when it isn’t giving us any in-depth human drama. In this way, McG is borrowing an important page from the Cameron playbook. Emotional responses aren’t elicited solely from character depth or dramatic interaction, but can be sparked too by well-structured action that is both clear and dynamic. There is no shaky cam in this film and the battles between the humans and robots don’t have that feel of being heavily edited so we never see the blows and the movie gets a PG-13. There is a strong sense of the craftsman at work in this pic, and yea, maybe it doesn’t get to the heart of the Terminator franchise but that isn’t because McG hasn’t given the film his all. His Terminator film is perhaps the most spare of the three, and the one with the darkest tone but in its own way, and despite its flaws, it adds to the series without detracting. So in the end, McG came through just fine.

Mark my words. He’ll be back.

Bartleby Abroad: Ong Bak 2 raises the bar for martial arts action

23 May

 

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Let’s start simple. Ong Bak 2 kicks ALL kinds of butt. Crocodile, elephant, pirate, ninja, crow-sorcerer–if you are in Thailand and possess a posterior it probably has Tony Jaa’s footprint on it. This is one of the most kinetic, ambitious martial arts films I’ve ever seen. Jaa not only eclipses his previous efforts, but he proves himself to be a very gifted action director.

All of the bizarre stories involving Jaa hiding out in a cave and nearly going crazy cease to matter when basked in the energizing glow of Ong Bak 2’s lush, aggressive vision. I don’t hold any of it against Tony. I nearly lost my mind just watching the freakin’ thing; he’s excused if he lost his making it. By changing the time period, and ramping up the mythological aspects of his Thai setting and his mysterious hero, Jaa has done something unexpected: He’s made the greatest Conan movie we can probably ever expect to see on film.

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The first Ong Bak was a great audience movie; perfect for friendly gatherings, conventions, bar mitzvahs, you name it. The story wasn’t important. We watched as a new action hero was born and we reveled in every obstacle leapt over, every cranium busted by an elbow, and every flaming leg kick connecting with its target. There was, however, plenty of room to grow. The budgetary constraints were obvious. Replaying each action scene from different angles grew tiresome. Jaa was a silent, strong hero, but when he wasn’t in fight mode he had all his scenes stolen by his sidekick, Dirty Balls.

I like that first film a lot, but feel it functions better as a demo reel for what Jaa is capable of than as an actual movie. I’m a bigger fan of The Protector, which was sillier but had more heart. Jaa fighting for his elephant seemed awkward at first, but it gave the movie a center. The elephant added one more shade to Tony’s stoic ass-kicker, and we like our heroes to have layers, even thin ones. Now, there’s Ong Bak 2 which has as much connection to the original film as Protector had, but brings with it a greater technical prowess and a more layered story. 

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The most significant difference that separates Ong Bak 2 from its predecessors is the overall scale of the production. The film takes place in 15th century Thailand and all the money spent shows up on screen. This is one of the most sumptuous looking movies I’ve seen this year. There is a sense of perfectionism in each shot. Every temple, every town, and every river is captured in gorgeous golden-green hues. 

The battles are filmed in a way where we understand the geography and position of the fighters and the punches and kicks they are throwing. The action is breath-taking. Warriors on horseback  ride through fields of flying arrows, and Jaa’s character, Tieng is captured in his childhood by raiders who throw him into a crocodile pit where he must fight his way out to freedom. Both sequences utilize practical fx, and as a result the scenes are almost seamless. I’m not convinced they didn’t let a kid in Thailand wrestle a real crocodile.

 Early in the film, adult Tieng runs across the backs of an elephant herd, making his way to their leader. After sparring on the ground with this elephant, he swings himself up on it, swats it on the head, and forces it to its knees in submission. As Tieng stands there on the elephant, with his dark hair flowing in the wind, we see the rest of the herd bowing down before him. The entire thing has a certain comic-book majesty to it. 

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There is overall, less action in this film than the original Ong Bak. For a long time, Jaa is building this world and the back-story for Tieng. It’s a simple revenge tale, like the original Conan the Barbarian. Tieng’s parents are brutally murdered and he is rescued by pirates whose leader raises him as if he were his own son. When Tieng comes of age, he is placed through a series of trials where he must master different facets and styles of martial arts. The early action scenes display this training and allow Jaa to show us that his skills extend far beyond the world of muy-thai. The later passages follow him as he pursues revenge against the growing forces responsible for his parent’s death.

The tension mounts slowly, until we arrive at the film’s final half hour, which is an extraordinary piece of action filmmaking. There’s a new standard thrown down here. We don’t mind that we have seen maybe one knee to a forehead since the film’s opening. This time, Tony Jaa uses a SWORD. We aren’t talking, parry, parry, thrust. Imagine balletic, complex moves mixed with slashing, clanging metal weapons. I’ve never seen swordfights as exciting as these.  What this man can do with a blade is frightening and astonishing.

Jaa himself is also a trained khon mask dancer, so it isn’t surprising that he brings this into the film as a significant part of Tieng’s background. It’s the one thing that helps soften him. When he returns to find the girl he lost as a youth, he discovers her dancing for his enemy. He joins in too, wearing a mask to hide his identity, and the entire sequence slows down the film’s pace but builds the drama and tension. Then he releases this tension in a fury of kicks, knee-smashes, spear chucking, rope swinging, elephant gymnastics and blade throwing. The adrenaline cherry topping this action sundae is a fight scene atop an elephant with  Tieng battling  a dark shaman-like creature. It’s impressive and I’d wonder how they did it, if I weren’t too engrossed in the film to care.

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There is much I haven’t said about the movie, because primarily, it’s an experience. Ong Bak 2 is a full fledged adventure; its pacing is strong and  its hero possesses enough complexities to keep him central in our focus. As a purely visual experience it has no other live action equal so far this year.

So, what’s the catch? What’s the flaw? Well, it seems like it’s only half a movie. Ong Bak 2 just  ends after only a 111 minutes. Our hero is in a seriously dire straight and just like an old serial, we are told that’s it. More next time. We see him older and bearded, much like a certain Cimmerian, but what happens to him in in his current trial we never see.

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To give you an idea of what’s done in Ong Bak, imagine if Conan the Barbarian ended with Ahnuld finishing his speech to Crom, the warriors of Thulsa Doom bearing down on him, and then it went to black, the narrator stepped in, and asked you to send all your positive thoughts out to Conan, that he might be able to survive this trial. And then we see him there on the throne. No, really. That’s essentially what happens here. It’s kind of frustrating, but it isn’t crippling to the film. After all that has come before, how can it be?

 The ending reflects Buddhist philosophy better than most anything I’ve seen, and it’s a clever strategy for Jaa. Guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have made movies for years where the stories didn’t matter. They were just showcases. Jaa has made himself a serialized franchise here. He can tell a little bit of this epic story each time, build a character with some depth, and still keep it down to a brisk film that delivers the action fans want. The ending is a sticker at first, but when your singular complaint for a movie is that you want to see more of it, that’s not a terrible thing. Me, I’m ready for Ong Bak 3 right now.

Hey, who am I kidding. I’m ready for Ong Bak 2 again. Get lost Star Wars; Tony Jaa is the only Thai-fighter we need.

Movie Review: S. Darko, take off that stupid bunny suit…

11 May

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S. Darko (2009), rated R, 104 minutes. Director: Chris Fisher, Screenwriter: Nathan Atkins, Cast: Daveigh Chase, Ed Westwick, Briana Evigan, Elizabeth Berkley, James Lafferty.

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Ahhh, sequels. A few weeks into Summer 2009 and this is the third one I’ve seen. Within the next two weeks we get another pair, with several more on the way all season long. I’d ask why, but I think we all already know the reason. The studios want a sense of assurity and comfort; audiences paid before, and rewarded the original, so naturally if you can recreate the same experience with familiar elements the sense of “risk” is lessened. For audiences, if you’ve loved a certain film or franchise, it’s likely that “good” or “necessary” won’t be factors that need to be met before you plop down cash to check out the next one; you simply have to see it. After all, where’s your loyalty? 

This goes double for sequels to cult classics. If you raved about it for years, you’re going to find a way to see what they did to “your” movie, even if you deny watching it later.  The folks behind S. Darko are counting on the original film’s fans to adopt this mindset. But don’t buy it(the movie or their crap). This latest ‘Donnie Darko Tale’ is a complete disaster; an amorphous blob of half-cooked ideas, appropriated imagery and mind-numbing boredom.

The original  Darko seemed to resonate most strongly with the college crowd; it’s characters were all teenagers and it’s time period was the 1980s and these elements created a familiar and nostalgic vibe for an audience in the waiting room of adult life. It was quirky, sarcastic, creepy, sometimes theological and a little existential.  The odd mix of a Philosophy 101 lecture and a sunday school lesson run through the filter of John Hughes and Sam Raimi was intoxicating. Good or bad, it was something new. Richard Kelly’s energizing little tale lived in the valley between It’s A Wonderful Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey and for a certain cross-section of people it was just as well loved.

You can’t really come up with a more self-contained film than the original Donnie Darko. Donnie’s experience is like the opposite of George Bailey’s. George gets to see what the world would have been like without him, and why his life was important. Donnie, a troubled teen who has started to wonder if there is something grander going on in the univserse than what he sees in his hometown of Middlesex Virginia, is given the opportunity to cheat his own death and see what the world would be like if he stayed around longer than he was meant to. For Donnie, it has the same affect as George: it makes him see his life has purpose and that he fits into a greater design.

The God of the universe gives this messed-up kid the chance to peek behind the curtain, to be  a hero, experience first love, reconnect with his family, and gain free will in the face of his own death. Donnie himself makes the choice that ends the film, and as he does he reflects that “there will be so much to look forward to.” Donnie hasn’t garnered a new lease on life as much as he has eschewed his fear of death and his uncertainty about the existence of God. At the end he hands his life over to the machinations of something bigger than himself and in the process saves his family, friends, and his entire town from destruction. Ultimately, it’s as if his adventure never happened at all, at least to those who knew him;his is a silent sacrifice.

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So, whats the complex plot at the heart of S Darko? Well, Samantha wanders off from Middlesex with her friend Corey (Briana Evigan) and they are on their way to L.A. when their car breaks down in the barren small town of Conejo Springs. Samantha petulantly walks around town, meets a few of the locals like Elizabeth  Berkley’s creepy christian lady and James Lafferty’s Iraq Jack, a messed-in-the-head war veteran who lives on the outskirts and may or may not be a killer. And then Sam decides that this isn’t her path, parts ways with Corey, and presumably goes back to her parents. The end.

As far as Sam is concerned, those are the events of the movie. More does happen, but honestly it’s nearly incomprehensible and it all seems designed to just mark off moments from the first movie.  And Sam, the titular character doesn’t really experience any of it because by the end everything has been re-set by someone else. Samantha Darko never interacts with the supernatural or time-travel elements of the story. The writers leave that to other, odder and less interesting characters. Not that Sam, as presented here, is very interesting. She is a vague concept and bears almost no relationship to the quirky little girl who was Donnie’s sister. sdarkochase

Meteorites fall from the sky, children go missing, Iraq Jack starts seeing a ghostly version of Sam who instructs him that the world is going to end and then we have that always helpful title card that informs us how many days are left. But then, one character makes a Donnie-like sacrifice half-way through the film and re-sets the timeline. The next time we see the title card it’s gone from 4 days left to 6. Why utilize a title card if it’s very presence is rendered obsolete? Easy, because the first Darko did it. That seems to be the only reason behind anything happening in this film. Why have one sacrificial event when we can have two? Why stop with a suspicious guru who makes kiddie porn when you can have one that might be actually killing children? Burned down someone’s house? Lets burn down a church this time! And don’t forget Frank the Bunny! We gotta get him, he’s the most recognizable image! Isn’t he like the Freddy or Jason of this franchise?

The movie’s biggest misstep, at least from a continuity perspective, is that adding in things like Frank and The Philsophy of Time Travel book don’t make any sense. Part of Frank’s appeal is that he is specific to Donnie and the events of Donnie’s journey. There is a mystery to Frank, revealed in the final third. In this movie Sam tells Iraq Jack about Frank and gives him a picture. Where did she get the picture? Why is Roberta Sparrow’s book in her backpack? If Donnie succeeded at all, then those items shouldn’t even BE in Sam’s posession and she should have no knowledge of them. Wasn’t there anyone working on this movie that actually saw the first film?

It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but thats not the case. At the technical level S Darko is accomplished enough but it doesn’t have anything of it’s own to be proud of. The odd, creepy score, the wormhole visual effects and that hulking bunny menace have just been lifted wholesale, and they don’t even make it over in the same shape. The Frank mask in this film has been hammered together in a garage and it looks like a fanmade costume of the original.

S. Darko isn’t a failure just because it’s an inferior sequel. Even divorced from the original, S Darko would be a turkey. It doesn’t make any kind of logical sense and it doesn’t have any central storyline tying together it’s events. Things happen at such a random clip that it eventually becomes disorienting. I was no longer certain what day it was, who the characters were to each other, whether the little boy was actually missing or not, and what exactly the ghostly Sam was trying to save everybody from.

S Darko is a dim bulb of a movie, a cut and paste hackjob of an original vision. No one has any idea why the first movie worked, and they labor here like color blind children trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with crayons and tracing paper. If all you require in a sequel is that it remind you fondly of the original, S Darko still fails. It only manages to evoke Donnie just enough that we become eager to turn it off and watch the original instead. And that, I’m in favor of. You just don’t need to suffer through this experience to do it.

S Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale releases on DVD and Bluray on May 12th, 2009.