Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Terminator Salvation

Written at the time of the film's release...as one can tell. I've written about the first two Terminator movies, and the last one Terminator: Genysis, and tomorrow (God willing and I don't get spiked by a T-1000), we'll post about Terminator: Dark Fate

"MOVE ON. (CYB)ORG"

"Everyone deserves a second chance," is the lesson of Terminator Salvation.

They didn't, however, say anything about a fourth.The Terminator, of course, was the first low-budget, high-concept success of James Cameron. It launched Cameron's career, and made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The sequel—Terminator 2: Judgment Day was an amazing recapitulation and expansion of themes, offered amazing stunt-work, cutting edge computer effects and was, if anything, even more entertaining than the first film. At the time, the most expensive film ever made, it still managed to make a healthy profit for its makers.You couldn't kill these Terminator things.

But while Cameron expanded his horizons and Schwarzenegger became a super-star, no more "Terminator" movies were made. Cameron seemed no longer interested (although he and Schwarzenegger teamed up for the clunky spy flick True Lies).

I didn't see Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (which featured Schwarzenegger's final Termination before launching his political career), but the current one is helmed by the worst director extant—McG—who, like a lot of today's directors would be hard-pressed to direct a movie if his camera couldn't move, and whose "Charlie's Angels" movies were not-very-funny bimbo-fications that barely held together (actually they didn't hold together). Surprisingly, he manages to maintain a fairly straight tone for this fourth "Terminator" film, which focuses on the humans' battles against Skynet with an adult John Connor (Christian Bale).
Terminator Salvation. They should have called it "Terminator Salvage," as most of the good ideas have been used and are recycled into a feature length version of every visualization of those battles (complete with requisite skull-crushing underfoot) seen in the previous films.*
But, look at the cast, like Cameron's original design a mix of A-list and B-movie actors: Bale,** Michael Ironside, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anton Yelchin (the new "Star Trek" Chekhov plays a teen-age Kyle Reese, the character originally played by Michael Biehn), even Jane Alexander and Helena Bonham Carter (in a brief but effectively creepy role). Also Sam Worthington—who started filming James Cameron's Avatar awhile ago (quite awhile ago).
Wish they had something better to do. The plot is a demolition derby of past "Terminator" hits mixed with The Road Warrior and a "Transformers" movie. One expected to see Hasbro in the producing credits, as the only thing new in this are toy-exploitable "Terminator" creations: Terminator motorcycles, mighty-morphin' prison ships with separate pilots (why would robot-ships need pilots?), and underwater T's, I guess you could call them "Termi-gators." Plus, there's an older model that makes a computer-generated "guest" appearance. There's some plot-holes you could transport T-800's through over why some things, like explosions, will bring on Skynet attention, but a major fire-fight (with flares) amongst humans does not. And for all the technical wizardry on display, you can see the cinematic seams showing when cutting away from a post-apocalyptic setting to the green-screened CG expansion.
Things blow up "real good," the usual things are not what they seem, and, as per usual, the whole thing climaxes in a claustrophobic industrial setting.*** It's the same elements as before, just re-assembled in another order...if that. An entirely superfluous "further adventure" is hinted at, but one hopes they don't bother and just scrap this franchise.
James Cameron has moved on—to Titanic and the upcoming Avatar. And Arnold Schwarzenegger has moved on, as well.

Maybe we should, too.



* Well, you could say the original was recycled, as well. A court ordered that a sum be paid and that acknowledgement be made to Harlan Ellison as "Terminator" more than resembled his "Outer Limits" episodes "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand." I didn't see him mentioned in the credits for this movie. Hopefully, he saw some cash (Come to think of it, I didn't see Cameron's name, either).

"Salvation" does introduce a new angle to its franchise—but it, too, is a well-worn cliche of science fiction and super-hero magazines.

** Bale uses a variation of his deep-Batman voice throughout, which I thought was just an affectation when I realized that Michael Ironside—and practically everybody—is talking in a husky rasp.

*** After 30 minutes, I began thinking "Hey! Where's the requisite beating-up of dirt-bags?"
Patience, patience...it showed up half an hour later.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Zombieland: Doubletap

You Might Want To Put Down Your Milk-Duds For This One...
or
"If You Love Someone, You Should Shoot 'Em in the Face So They Don't Become a Flesh-Eating Monster."

"Hey! Welcome to Zombieland: Chapter Two!" Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) chirps at the beginning of Zombieland: Doubletap, the sequel to the hit Zombieland from way back in 2009. "Thanks for waiting!"

Sure thing, Jess.' Sorry what happened to your career in the meantime.


It's great he came back, so that everyone could appreciate what an eccentric live-wire performer he is, given the right part, and how he can energize a movie just by being in it. But, then, Z:D in an exercise in precise nostalgia. 


Precise because the things that were established in the first go-'round are repeated: Columbus' "Rules" with their accompanying intrusive 3-D graphics, the credit-scattering Main Title montage, the "Bill Murray" cameo—wait until the very last frame on this one—the splintering of the group and the third act brightly lit night-time zombie-splatter orgy are all in place, just like you remember. That's some comfort food among the grisly fare.
But, also the Zombieland teams are back, the ones both in front of* and behind the camera. That Emma Stone (again playing "Wichita") turned down a big movie to return to the franchise says a lot about her affection for the filmmakers and the actors involved, as her star has risen considerably since that time, even winning an Oscar for La La Land. That says something.
My own reaction to the first Zombieland was an admiration for its fresh take on the well-chewed zombie concept. It helped that the characters in the film are a bizarre family of out-casts who probably wouldn't have anything to do with each other if the world hadn't gone to dead people who want a piece of your mind. 
Things haven't changed that much since the zombie apocalypse, other than that Darwin's theory seems to keep working on walking corpses. Either that or the winnowing of zombies makes typing the remaining ones that much easier. What is most troubling is that there are some strata that are tougher to kill, making them tougher to knock down than, say, Star Wars storm-troopers. There aren't many, but it would seem that late-model zombies need more than a simple double-tap to take them down. It doesn't make logical sense, but it does have a tendency to stretch out some of the splatter-fests to be more marathons than short sprints. It's all well and good to increase the challenges to the main characters, but it kind of goes off the proverbial cliff in the third act when the numbers start to increase. 
For the four main characters, the issue centers around the wishes of  Columbus to impart some stability on their rag-tag band of zomb-busters. He wants to establish a home, as the four—Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus, Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)—have already established a loose-knit family and their identities (they're still following the "no names" rule) are based on their home-towns. So, where's home when society has completely broken down? Well, in the United States, they set up shop at The White House (or "Casablanca" as Tallahassee calls it).That's good for awhile, and everybody gives it a shot. But, we're talking about four alpha-wolves trying to live together in peace and harmony: Tallahassee tries to be a father-figure, Wichita and Columbus try to be a couple—even if she's leery of settling down—and Little Rock is just tired of being around old people and wants to find friends (non-dead kind) her own age.
So, as in the first film, the group splinters—it's not like any of the members can't take care of themselves—sisters Wichita and Little Rock, feeling trapped and wanting freedom, take off, leaving "the boys" to their own devices, if both hurt by their desertion. Tallahassee also starts to feel a bit of wanderlust, wanting to go to Graceland, and Columbus, bitter over Wichita's leaving, runs into another survivor, Madison (a hilarious Zoey Deutsch), who is just as pink and girly-girl as can be. And...well, any port in the zombie-storm. She moves into the White House with Columbus and his "father" (as she calls Tallahassee, to his annoyance), and so, it's a little embarrassing when Wichita comes back to arm up, as Little Rock has run off with a namaste Berkeley pacifist (Avan Jogia)—this enrages Tallahassee ("It's not that I hate pacifists, I just wanna beat the shit outta them!").
So, the dynamic changes a lot. Wichita loathes Madison and despises Columbus for his quick rebound dalliance with somebody else...so..."Madison" after his previous matrimonial-bound devotion ("Wow...just...wow") and the four set off to find Little Rock as there is no way that she can defend herself with a pacifist in tow. With a little difficulty finding the proper vehicle to do their road-trip, they start to track down Little Rock by following the lead where she wants to go—that being Graceland, former domicile of Elvis "The King" Presley
When they get there, they are disappointed—Graceland is in ruins. But, nearby, they find the stolen Tallahassee-mobile, the Beast, parked outside an Elvis-themed shrine called the Hounddog Hotel. Little Rock had been there. But, exploring the place, they find that though they were there, they've left. But, they're not alone. Fearing they're about to be overrun by zombies, they find themselves assaulted by the Hotel's caretaker, Nevada (Rosario Dawson) to whom Tallahassee is instantly attracted. 
It's reciprocated, but then, maybe Nevada is reminded of somebody else—like her current squeeze, a western ruffian named Albuquerque (Luke Wilson), who...kinda...reminds you of Tallahassee and, actually, reminds everybody of Tallahassee, except for (of course) Tallahassee, who takes an instant dislike to the man. And—to make the conceit even more precious, Albs (please don't make me spell it again!) has a nervous, nerdish compadre named Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), who Columbus thinks is a really-together guy...with his commandments instead of rules and his unlikely skills at zombie-dispatching. As if knowing they've gone a little too far with the doppelganger bit, the two get eliminated fairly quickly. 
There's nowhere the two could go, anyway, it's a silly conceit and the jokes wear out their welcome pretty quickly...plus it eliminates a rival for Nevada's affections and she's pretty necessary to the plot, as everybody moves on to find Little Rock, who has been persuaded by "Berkeley" to find a mythical place called "Babylon," an oasis in the zombie-desert, where there is nothing but peace and harmony and hacky-sack, and no weapons—you just know that that is where the last confrontations in the movie are going to take place, like the big amusement park set-piece in the first one: it raises the stakes for the heroes and gives them a handicap, as well. But, it provides little suspense and hardly any danger. You know that everybody's going to come out of it alright, no matter how much danger is pretended.
Yes, it's fun, more in the smaller moments than in the large ones: you have a lot of really good actors who are enjoying playing their characters, even if they all could be playing better roles, and their idiosyncratic performances are always a pleasure to watch. They manage to evoke pleasure out of recycled materials and make fresh conceits that are beyond their sell-by date. If another Zombieland is made, one knows where it will go—splintering the group again and reforming them with a third act action set-piece. And, no doubt, they'll be just as good even though the vehicle itself will have become as charmless as an animated corpse.

* Zombieland: Doubletap's trailer makes comedic hay of the fact that Harrelson, Eisenberg and Breslin are all Oscar nominees and that Stone is an Oscar winner, juxtaposed with shots of them firing all sorts of weaponry. Hey, Helen Mirren rocks a machine-gun.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): The Diary of Anne Frank

It takes a lot of time to do the "Don't Make a Scene" feature that I put up every Sunday (all those screen-caps!), so while I'm preparing a bunch more, I'm going to take a break and re-post the ones that have gotten the most "hits," and others that I think are exceptional—it is no surprise to me that they couldn't be more different. 

I planned on putting this up after Hallowe'en, anyway—a way of lighting a candle in the darkness. But, after the last couple weeks, I found it imperative to put this up, now more than ever.

The Story: The economy of the images is key.

Director George Stevens had made his mark with light comedies and period dramas before World War II. Entertainments. Afterwards, his films changed. They became more formal and mannered. Thought out and psychological.  Contemplations on good and evil and how they affect and shape our lives. Diverse in subject matter—A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant—they all seemed to beg the question: how did we get there? How could human beings turn so evil, capable of such accomplishments and yet capable of atrocities, as well.

The Diary of Anne Frank was his direct statement on that war, which he'd covered as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he'd photographed the Normandy invasion, the German surrender, and the opening of the Dachau concentration camp. Given such assignments, how could one not come away changed?

But, look at these images, very, very carefully composed and spare in their effects: the last carefully composed shot of the cast awaiting their moment of discovery; the haunting shot of Anne, prefiguring her short life in the camps, looking ghost-like and moving away, seemingly on the same breeze the ruffles the pages of her diary; the stark image of the broken window with its limited field of sky, a mocking glimpse of freedom; looking back through that window as Otto Frank tells his story; the disquieting edit to his close-up that begins with him staring out that window, then at us, as if accusing, before he returns to his story; the final, processed shot (courtesy of L.B. Abbott) of seagulls cast against a sky...like crying souls.

I think about this scene and movie—a lot—especially when dealing with the public. Yes, there is evil in the world, and given the opportunity, people can sink to their lowest level. But, for the most part... For the most part....

She puts me to shame, too.


The Set Up: After years of hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, the collection of Jews, including the Frank family, have been discovered. Otto Frank, the only one surviving, returns to the scene...where he has been given something left behind—his daughter Anne's diary.

Action.
ANNE (VO): And so it seems our stay here is over. They've given us just a moment to get our things.
ANNE (VO): We can each take a bag...and whatever it will hold of clothing.
ANNE (VO): Nothing else.
ANNE (VO): So, dear diary...that means I must leave you behind.
ANNE (VO): Good-bye for awhile. P.S. Please, please, anyone, if you should find this diary...will you please keep it safe for me. Because someday I hope that—
FRANK: No more.
MIEP: I had gone to the country to try and find food. When I got back the police were in the building.
KRALER: We made it our business to learn how they knew. It was the thief who told them.
KRALER: We know the thief. He was...
FRANK: It seems strange to me now. But we were so full of hope in the camp in Holland where they first took us. The news of the war was good. The British and Americans were sweeping through France. We felt sure they would get to us in time to--
FRANK: But--
FRANK: In September we were shipped to Poland. The men to one camp. The women to another. From there, they were sent to Belsen. I stayed in Auschwitz. In January, we were freed, the few of us who were left.
FRANK: The war was not yet over, no. It took us a long time to get home. Each time the train would stop, we'd all get out, you know, at a siding or a crossing, and...walk from group to group.
FRANK: "Where were you?""Were you at Belsen?" "At Buchenwald?" "At Mauthausen? Where?
FRANK: "Is it possible that you ever knew my wife? Did you ever see my husband, my son?" "My daughter?"
FRANK: That's how I found out about my wife's death...Margot's, Van Daans, Peter, Dussel.
FRANK: But...
FRANK: Anne...
FRANK: I still hoped.
FRANK: Yesterday I was in Rotterdam. I met a woman there. She'd been in Belsen...with Anne.
FRANK: I know now.
ANNE (VO): In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
FRANK: She puts me to shame.

The Diary of Anne Frank

Words by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (and Anne Frank)

Pictures by William C. Mellor, Jack Cardiff, L.B. Abbott, and George Stevens

The Diary of Anne Frank is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.