Whiplash

Film Review- ‘Terminator Genisys’ (*)

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He's been waiting for this moment.  He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.
He’s been waiting for this moment. He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.

 

Terminator Genisys  * (out of 5)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Dayo Okeniyi, and Courtney B. Vance

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd

Directed by: Alan Taylor

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Say what you want about the Terminator franchise (you surely could), but there exists an absolute earnestness to each film that elevates the “B” movie premise.  I love that about the first four films, how unabashedly sure they are about themselves.  That’s the glue that holds them together.  On the other hand, it is quite possibly the most milked of all the franchises, barely hanging on for relevance. So many have had the rights to the property, so many have tried to capitalize on the name, that I’m amazed anything is still left to present.  Terminator Genisys is the long-gestating culmination of an attempt to make new what many had seen as old, unappealing, and unnecessary.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the film is an astonishingly vile culmination.  The final product is far worse when considering the time and effort put in to resurrect this lifeless brand, as well as our time as the audience, shoveling in the drivel, waiting for the payoff.  Genisys is a clear indication that a new direction, whilst noble for creative purposes, is not always the best direction.

Describing the story of a Terminator film cannot happen without a prior understanding of the utter silliness.  We are, after all, talking about pseudo-science, killer robots, and time travel here.  The beginning of the film brings us up to speed on the eve of victory for John Connor (Jason Clarke) and the ‘Resistance’ against Skynet and the ‘machines’ in 2029.  Connor, his right hand man Kyle Reese (Courtney), and the remaining soldiers arrive at a typical ‘Deus Ex Machina’ inside Skynet headquarters.  Connor knows what happens next, and so do we- in a last-ditch effort to save itself, Skynet sends a terminator back through time to eliminate Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) before she gives birth to John.  He then sends Reese back to protect her.  This takes us up to the opening of the original film, and we’re in familiar territory.  So familiar, in fact, that the film even reproduces (as much as possible) the arrival of the original T-800 in 1984 Los Angeles.  Here’s the catch- another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is waiting for him, and a brief battle ensues.

Meanwhile, Reese has arrived in 1984, but there’s another catch; a T-1000 (the liquid metal version) has inexplicably shown up to dispose of him.  Sarah Connor appears out of nowhere and helps him escape.  What?  Come again?  I know, this all seems strange, and it is, even though we knew this from the surprisingly revelatory trailers.  According to the following expository scene, the future has been ‘reset’ due to the events of the first two films.  It’s the Star Trek ploy- once you reset the past, you can write whatever you want to fit the needs of a new franchise, based on a loose understanding of parallel universes.  Nevermind that we lack an explanation for how a T-1000 appeared, nor do we understand why his appearance is altered.  Nevermind that somehow, John and Kyle are the most clean-shaved post-apocalyptic soldiers to ever appear on-screen.  Nevermind that this entry blatantly ignores the events of the unpopular third and fourth films, despite audience investment in new characters and destinies.

Audiences have been trained by now to accept most time travel films on faith alone, for there is no basis for reference.  However, Genisys lacks the common decency to even follow the franchise’s rules.  Before, we knew that characters could never ‘return’ to the future, but here, it’s as simple as using material from 1984 to accomplish the goal.  Before, we understood this story’s timeline to be cyclical- Kyle Reese came back, fathered John Connor, died, Connor survived a second attempt, and it all led to an inevitable future war that Connor was to overcome.  Before, we understood the real threat of nuclear holocaust as the driving force behind our heroes’ actions.  Now, this film wants to tell us that “Genisys”, a “cloud” type of system invented by the Miles and Danny Dyson (remember them, Terminator 2 fans?), and our attachment to smart devices, will be our demise.  That’s how these writers brought social consequence to this film?  Give me a break.  By ignoring the third and fourth films, and thus creating an alternate timeline devoid of nuclear fear, Genisys has spat in the face if its’ own continuity, a bold statement to make for what amounted to an already flimsy timeline.  The film even creates a subplot about wanting to know who actually sent ‘Pops’ back to protect Sarah as a child, but then never resolves the matter.  In fact, that’s the whole onus for Skynet to find out that info, yet it isn’t resolved.  This film is simply not intelligent enough to coerce us into forgetting what came before.

Furthermore, what happened to these characters?  Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Conner was inept at first, but gracefully inept; then menacing and ruthless.  Hamilton made this role legendary for those very reasons.  This film fails Sarah Conner by writing, then portraying her, as a petulant brat.  Emilia Clarke bears a slight resemblance to Hamilton, and her vocal imitation is close enough, but that’s where the comparisons end.  She certainly lacks the grace and gravity of Hamilton’s performance, and it’s a befuddling choice.  Jason Clarke is unintentionally comical as John Connor, lacking the weariness and cautious optimism we’ve grown to understand from the role.  He opts for a plain delivery, and clearly doesn’t know the character like we do.  I say this knowing full well that the character isn’t the character we know for most of the film (no spoilers there, the trailer gave it away).  The worst offender, again, is Courtney.  Not only does he inexplicably react differently than the Kyle Reese we knew before, he offers the polar opposite performance to Michael Biehn’s in the original (even markedly different from Anton Yelchin in Salvation).  We’ve previously known that the man adores Sarah Connor, but somehow can’t manage to care much about her in this film.  I’m confused.  I can handle obvious needs to re-cast for a film 31 years later.  What I cannot accept is a bland, unaffected delivery from an actor playing a character that grew up in an apocalypse, yet clearly has no shortage of access to grooming products, weight training equipment, or protein-laden foods.

Not every performance is lacking, however.  If there is anything to take from Genisys, it is again the presence of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  For what little he offers in depth, we always love him in this role, for his limitations as an actor actually work for the character.  His choices have been curious and reasonably unsuccessful since his stint as governor, but the old reliable T-800 fits him so well.  He’s also the only main character that appears to understand he’s in a Terminator film.  He’s the franchise’s best asset, the constant amongst the changing of ownership, the bevy of different writers, and the re-casts.  He’s the one delivering the most honest performance, which is clearly ironic, as he’s the freaking robot.  I mean this with the greatest of affections for our most unlikely of screen legends, but when your film’s most professional moments come from Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’re doing it wrong.  I’m almost sympathetic to the man, for his earnestness deserves a better film.   J.K. Simmons, the recently minted Oscar winner, is also inexplicably in this movie.  He deserves a larger, more integral role as someone who actually watched the first four films, and appears to be the only human putting the pieces together.  The audience needs that character, yet we barely see him.  It’s another miss in a series of misses on character development.

The success of the previous films (even at their worst) relied on the effort put forth by the filmmakers to take a B-movie concept with mostly action stars and attempt science fiction or comment on society.  Genisys is neither honest nor successful in that venture.  The whole project appears to suffer from bad intentions, which appears to be the desire to proliferate a story once thought of as complete back in 1991.  It suffers from poor marketing decisions, such as the baffling choice to showcase the film’s one big twist in the theatrical trailer.  It suffers from a constant need to shed what we already knew (and loved) about the story just to get a new direction, and thus new films.  Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the films have progressively been worse, even as they’ve promised to take the material in newer, darker, and more exciting directions.  It’s a patchwork quilt of a franchise, constantly changing actors, scenarios, and stakes to fill whatever the plot needs.  Now, these new caretakers have made it a Transformers clone- unintelligible special effects, paper-thin characters, grand but dumb ideas, and “inconsequential consequences”.  You’ll find none of the tense, almost horror-film tendencies and tones of the early films here, none of the realistic, brutal, physics-accessible fight scenes we know and love.  In Genisys, you’ll get only easy, lazy moments meant for broad appeal.  That just sucks.

It would be silly of me to suggest that the Terminator franchise actually mattered beyond a reference to what James Cameron’s career has become, or the prescient undertones warning us about artificial intelligence.  They don’t matter- but like many, many others, I harbor an unreasonable, deep-rooted affection for this property.  The strong desire of Megan and David Ellison of Skydance Productions to ‘reboot’ or ‘reset’ this franchise’s timeline is wholly unnecessary, for even the weakest of the previous films (Salvation) attempted continuity of tone and character.  Genisys is the worst possible outcome, ignoring Rise of the Machines and Salvation for no reason other than lazily succumbing to popular opinion.  It stands to reason that if your story asks us to ignore the events of two entire films because of their supposed poor quality, yours should exceed that quality, or at least be replacement level.  That’s not the case here.  One of the most exciting, tense, groundbreaking, enjoyable franchises of the modern film era has been reduced to lazy cliches, substandard effects, inaccurate call backs to what we already experienced, and a clean PG-13 sheen.  It’s the apocalypse, sponsored by The Sharper Image.  How depressing is that?

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2015 Academy Awards Recap

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oscars

According to some lesser-known social media site called “Twitter”, the 2015 Academy Awards took place this past Sunday.  Host Neil Patrick Harris got in a few fine jabs at both the Academy and the audience, but his ‘prediction box’ bit fell flat.  The show was a mix of awkwardness and fine acceptance speeches, especially from Patricia Arquette, Common & John Legend, and screenwriter Graham Moore.

Aside from the severe lack of Gone Girl nominations, I suppose the show was interesting enough.  As for predictions, my Oscar ballot was awfully inaccurate, but I’d like to share what maybe should have won in the major categories:

 

Best Picture
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred Winner- Gone Girl
*Rationale- Birdman is a fine movie, and a worthy nominee. However, I counted 11 films I liked more this past year, most of all the absolute perfection that is Gone Girl. I’m bummed that Hollywood couldn’t help but honor a movie about itself. Go head and be narcissistic, Academy, but you got it wrong.

Best Actress
Actual winner- Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Preferred winner: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Still Alice, and I love Julianne Moore in most everything. There’s just no way that it’s better than the subtle psychopathy on display from Pike. It’s something I’ll remember for years.

Best Actor
Actual winner- Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Preferred winner- Michael Keaton in Birdman
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Redmayne’s performance, but too often the Academy awards the physical performance over the more resonant one. Keaton has been overlooked for decades now, and his brilliant turn as a has been seeking admiration is just right; despite what he says, I believe it’s easy to draw parallels between the man and his character.

Best Supporting Actress
Actual winner- Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Preferred winner- Emma Stone in Birdman
*Rationale- Arquette was excellent in Boyhood, but the little bit of Emma Stone we see in Birdman was the best supporting performance. One specific scene, an encounter with her father (Keaton), showcases her range. It’s truly brilliant, considering the lengthy shots this film has, being able to put that performance together without breaking.

Best Supporting Actor
Actual winner- J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Preferred winner- J.K. Simmons
*Rationale- In my estimation, there wasn’t a better performance all of last year. Simmons was the ultimate villain, full of fire, brimstone, cold calculation, deceit, and the belief that he was right. It’s the perfect formula. The idea that Whiplash was inspired by true events is frightening. Simmons gave the performance of a lifetime.

Best Animated Film
Actual winner- Big Hero 6
Preferred winner: How To Train Your Dragon 2
*Rationale- Big Hero 6 is not a bad movie, but its’ manga sensibilities dragged it down, resulting in a very underwhelming film. The marketing team did their jobs very, very well. HTTYD 2 is a superior film, in both scope, humor, and heart; how the Academy didn’t see that is beyond me. My guess is they shied away from a sequel title. One must wonder what they were doing here, especially with the omission of the popular Lego Movie.

Best Score
Actual winner- Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Preferred winner- Danny Bensi/Saunder Jurrians for Enemy and Mica Levi for Under the Skin
*Rationale- There is never anything special about the prolific Desplat’s work, nothing memorable, only distracting. It’s as if he cannot help but bore the listener. Some may dismiss this category, but to me, the score can make or break the film, and too often, Desplat’s music distracts. The tense, terse strings of Enemy and Under the Skin have cues that call to mind the best parts to Bernard Herrman’s brilliant Vertigo score, yet still maintain their own off-putting nature. The Academy often has no balls to nominate the right score, let alone choose the right winner. No exception here.

Best Original Song
Actual winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma 
Preferred winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma
*Rationale- For the first time in recent memory, there were a plethora of decent original songs, from the adult-contemporary tune from Begin Again to the hyper beats of “Everything Is Awesome”.  “Glory” deserves the win, however, for its’ power and quality.  John Legend’s pointed comments while accepting the award absolutely rang true.

Best Visual Effects
Actual winner- Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher for Interstellar
Preferred winner- Insterstellar
*Rationale- Complain all you want about Interstellar’s story- I don’t think complaints for the visual effects would hold up.  Aside from some impressive visuals in Guardians of the Galaxy, no film compared to Interstellar’s innovative designs, especially for the robots.

Best Original Screenplay
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred winner: The 4 writers of Birdman (based on the actual nominations; Damien Chazelle for Whiplash based on my preference)
*Rationale- Oscar basically got this one right based on the nominations, for it’s one of the more original, interesting ideas in recent memory. If Whiplash would have been in this category, I’d have chosen it; however, Oscar got lazy and placed it in the “adapted” category. Whiplash was an incredible battle of wills, begging the question “what price greatness”, and creating the most memorable villain in recent memory (J.K. Simmons).

Best Adapted Screenplay
Actual winner- Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Preferred winner- Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
*Rationale- No disrespect for Mr. Moore, whose acceptance speech was incredibly courageous and important. However, watching Inherent Vice was a complete trip, and there is no way I’m NOT quoting it five years from now. That’s the mark of brilliant writing, and what PTA adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel.

Best Foreign Language Film
Actual winner- Ida
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Ida, or any of the foreign language film nominees this year.  Ida is readily available on Netflix, however, and I’m keen to watch it.

Best Documentary
Actual winner- CitizenFour
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the nominated documentaries this year.  I did see a number of other excellent docs however, including the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. The acceptance speech given by Laura Poitras, CitizenFour’s director, was another poignant moment, warning us to always guard our freedoms.

Best Cinematography
Actual winner- Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman
Preferred winner- Bradford Young for Selma
*Rationale- Birdman was certainly a genius cinematic achievement, and the camera work was something special.  However, I understand cinematography as the film that truly looks the best.  To me, Bradford Young’s work on Selma was unmatched this year, cloaking the film in an almost sepia tone, taking us back 45 years into one of the United States’ darkest hours.  Nothing against Lubezki, a true master and Oscar winner from just last year, but Young’s work deserved more notice.

Best Production Design
Actual winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Preferred winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
*Rationale- I may not have enjoyed the film, but Stockhausen’s production design was a standout, for sure.  From the pink hotel to the red-lined elevators and postcard-esque exteriors, I admit that the clearly painstaking detail that was put into that production’s design was the high point of the film.

The Best of 2014- Year In Review

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SELMA WISH I WAS HEREgone girl

The Best of 2014

What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me.  From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.

It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do.  Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.

10. Inherent Vice The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own.  For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story.  Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax.  Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is.  Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them.  It really is that much fun.

9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection.  Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man.  Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice.  Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.

8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue.  The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level.  I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me.  Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.

7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills.  Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain.  What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind.  Is greatness truly derivative of madness?  You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.

6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most.  The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film.  It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well.  Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son.  It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.

5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film.  Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been.  It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.

4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of  American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure.  The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show.  Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable.  This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.

3. Wish I Was Here Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’.  It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another.  The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation.  I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.

2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller.  Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film.  It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me.  Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end.  Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING.  Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.

1. Gone Girl This is a flawless film.  How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece?  David Fincher, that’s how.  He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery.  It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things.  It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.

*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself