Archive for May, 2009

No Saving This Terminator

Posted in Reviews - Film on May 25, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

 

A fairly typical reaction to Terminator Salvation.

 

(Potential spoilers)

Roger Ebert wrote in one of his recent blogs “There’s a difference between caring what happens in a movie, and merely waiting to see what will happen.”  TERMINATOR SALVATION is a waiting room for action scenes, though in keeping with its tone, it’s a suitably withered locale.  It’s a factory line of set-pieces from beginning to end, one big crashing ride after another.  Some of them are even impressive – or would be, if the director, McG, bothered to spend a few seconds on deepening his characters.    I understand that summer movies are supposed to be graded with leniency, like they can’t help but be idiotic, but a bad movie is a bad movie.

What an ugly, noisy mess this is, devoid of any semblance of humanity as much as its barren matte paintings lack colour.  Dystopian visions are often striking, and TERMINATOR SALVATION is blessed with some exceptional sights, but the best shots — a battered electrical tower springs to mind — are buried in its furious rush to excite.  The thing about dystopian visions is that they’re intrinsically depressing, which can be a real bummer if your bleak tale lacks a strong story and interesting characters.  TERMINATOR SALVATION doesn’t just suffer from such a condition; it’s terminally ill.

Consider the script, which lays waste to plot, character, and logic with astonishing boldness.  Calling it a script is a kindness; it’s a conveyor belt shuttling us along from one fight to the next.  It is a film designed to Entertain, only to think that it actually does so is an insult to real, thrilling entertainments.

Witness the misuse of good actors: Christian Bale struggles in a role that feels simultaneously inflated and underwritten.  For a character that spends his free time urging his compatriots to remember that the heart is what separates humans from robots, Bale’s sullen Connor is remarkably heartless.  In one scene, his men die while pursuing a quarry that he sets free not five minutes later.  The senseless waste of his men’s lives, of which he bears full responsibility, doesn’t register on him.  In a smarter film, I’d be inclined to see this as a commentary on the nature of leadership in warfare, but TERMINATOR SALVATION is far too concerned with purposeless pyrotechnics to warrant such a reading.  If there are Ideas in this film (and there are, despite the writers’ efforts), the editing process has made sure to starve them into submission to the greater cause of pointless kinetics.

Equally frustrating is the sheer idiocy of this future world.  Why does SkyNet’s main base feature well-lit corridors?  Why did they build a big, shiny tower?  Why do the machines bother having computer terminals?  SkyNet may be self-aware, but not of how stupid it is.  The best visionary films create a world that makes sense on their own terms.  TERMINATOR SALVATION doesn’t even bother with terms, let alone sense.  The inanity extends to the characters, in brief, and astonishing moments.  Why does John Connor, safely ensconced in his home base, need to yell “evasive maneuvers!” at his embattled pilots, especially when they’re clearly in the thick of a dogfight?  Why does a technician have to demonstrate what a robot snake will do when such-and-such happens, instead of just telling Connor?  She almost takes his face off by “showing” him.  I wanted to throw something at the screen.

There is nothing – not one moment – that succeeded in facilitating an emotional bond between its characters and myself, save for Anton Yelchin’s earnest and winning turn as a young Kyle Reese.  In a film full of across-the-board robotic acting, I’m not sure how Yelchin was able to sneak a lively performance past his director, but he did.  He accomplishes the same task as some of his comrades in STAR TREK  (and he, as Chekhov, kind of failed to do); he recalls the performance of the role’s originator without aping it.  It’s fitting that the franchise’s original protagonist comes off as the most human and vital presence in the film.

The film touches ever so briefly on questions of human identity, not so much because there’s an attempt to explore such concepts, but because they are baggage brought along by plot developments.  It sniffs at territory covered by the recently ended television series, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which often packed more substance into its pre-credit openings than TERMINATOR SALVATION does in 115 minutes.

McG deploys a few moments of homage (single-handed shotgun loading; a motorcycle leaping off a bridge) with dexterity, and drives the rest home with a sledgehammer.  It’s enough to make you wish that fans had never popularized catchphrases, the way they’re bandied about here with a wink and a nudge.  Perhaps these moments are irritating because their very presence and tone of execution reveals their purpose: to build cachet between McG and the skeptical fanbase.  If he can make enough inside references, he’ll be embraced as a serious filmmaker and we’ll all forget about CHARLIE’S ANGELS.  Instead, the clumsy implementation of classic lines and images reinforces a sense of insecurity.  Revealing the Arnold-skinned T-800 isn’t enough; it has to be accompanied by a tonally intrusive use of Brad Fiedel’s original theme.  It’s supposed to be exciting; instead it’s a jarring aural shift that screams “Look!  It’s an homage!”

By the time the film winds up on its knees, strangled by the chain of homage in its duller-than-dull factory climax, catatonia has set in.  Ever valiant, McG ensures we understand his geek cred by making a Terminator be simultaneously burned by molten metal and frozen by liquid nitrogen, a neat little combination of T2’s climax.  It’s the slavishly devoted icing on a cake of unoriginality, but it functions as a visual summary of the film itself: caught between the fire of fans’ expectations and paralyzed by the grip of its predecessors’ legacies, it winds up as a totally inconsequential piece of work.  I have never seen a film set up such high stakes and then brush aside supposedly massive consequences with a simple voice-over (Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS springs to mind, but it had a sense of finality about it).  The roots for yet another trilogy are being laid, but at the expense of the individual impact.  In the rush for moneymaking franchises, Hollywood is forgetting why people go to sequels: because they liked the original.  Having spent two hours watching humongous things happen for no apparent reason, I’m not eager to see that experience replicated again and again before a supposedly satisfying conclusion.

A day after seeing TERMINATOR SALVATION, I watched John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.  The two films have nothing in common, except for running times and a lack of colour in the image.  Ford’s film is a great work, full of warmth, life, tragedy, pain, love, death, and maybe most of all, humanity.  It touched me deeply; more than I realized at the time, and even now as I reflect on it, I sense it is one of those films that travels with you for life, like an old friend.  In the same amount of time spent on robot chases and heartless set-pieces, Ford’s film reached into my own experiences of family and small-town life and increased its presence.  It is something of a masterpiece. 

I mention this to demonstrate the power that a 115 minute film can contain, for good or for ill.  But I also want to mention how, like Ford’s film, the TERMINATOR franchise once had life and humanity and vitality.  Those days ended with the departure of James Cameron.  T3 clung to life enough to deliver an emotionally resonant conclusion, but it was all for naught.  McG and his writers have beaten all life from this story, and in doing so, destroyed any enthusiasm I have for future TERMINATOR projects.  In crafting the most mechanical, lifeless entry of this series, all they have left to look forward to is the inevitable academic paper arguing the brilliance of a TERMINATOR film that is more machine than human.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I won’t be back.

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All Along The Watch(men) Tower

Posted in Reviews - Film on May 19, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

watchmen-final-imax-poster-full

 

It’s been written and said elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Watchmen the film is about five years too late, and that’s being generous.  Wikipedia and countless geek websites inform me that the comic was groundbreaking when it was published in the 1980s, not least because it shook up comic book conventions approaching characters and morality.

The ideal window for Watchmen would have been 2003 to 2006, when comic book movies began to exhibit deeper scripts and more complex characters.  Up until X2 (2003), the comic book film was squarely for geeks; X2 was the vanguard of a movement in comic filmdom that brought Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005), two films that blew the doors off of what comic book movies were capable of, especially in their richly layered characterizations and balance of thrills and emotion.  Post 2006, comic book movies began saturating the movie market, and deconstruction began in earnest.

In a post-Dark Knight world, deconstruction past this point is becoming less and less fresh an approach.  Upon its release, much was made about The Dark Knight’s maturation of the comic book genre.  It is perhaps considered the most realistic of the comic book movies for several reasons: its stripped down visual aesthetic, its deeply conflicted characters, the unglamorous use of a city as a setting.  Christopher Nolan’s characters ventured into morally grayer territories than any other previous comic book film, and the weight of those forays was a major part of The Dark Knight’s overall impact.  As a comic-book film, The Dark Knight accomplished a great deal of stylistic and characteristic deconstruction on a sub-level, even while engaging the genre’s hallmarks of outlandish action, costumes, and plots. 

Watchmen’s characters are all morally gray in some way, and while that may have been a new development in the 80s’ comic industry, it’s nothing new in film, or comic book film.  If Watchmen had been released pre-July 2008, its moral quandaries and conflicted characters may have had a greater impact on filmgoers’ psyches.  But it wasn’t, and unfortunately, a great deal of Watchmen’s potential impact as a deconstructive piece has been blunted.  Its long awaited thunder hasn’t been stolen so much as siphoned while waiting through those long years of torturous development.

I have read the graphic novel, and spent months digesting it.  I enjoyed my read through, and I was surprised at how engrossing the story became as it moved along, though in hindsight, it doesn’t add up to much more than a collection of episodes ranging from the extremely compelling to yawn inducing.  Watchmen the film is about as faithful an adaptation of the source material as can be made (despite the changes to the ending), and so it too doesn’t add up to much more than a collection of episodes ranging from the extremely compelling to the yawn inducing.  Zack Snyder loves Watchmen the comic so much, he kept most of it painstakingly intact while transferring to celluloid; so much that he forgot that movies, like any kind of storytelling, benefit from unifying threads.  The film plays in an episodic manner both in plots and themes, but lacks that overarching structure to tie it together.

In the end, the greatest irony (and failure) of Watchmen is its transformation into a true cartoon; perhaps in the hands of a more documentary-oriented stylist, the material would have retained the weight found in the original comic.  Instead, Zack Snyder’s sensibilities render the proceedings into an escalating array of over-the-top fight scenes, and while Snyder’s slo-mo obsession saw more use in 300, it is no stranger to Watchmen.  After a while, all of that deconstruction and soul searching and moaning and real-life problems gets shunted aside so we can enjoy wire-suspended bodies kicking ass.  The comic was hailed as groundbreaking for the way it broke with comic-book traditions in its presentation of complex, morally questionable characters, and for it’s unusual depth for a medium widely viewed as shallow.  In that sense, it’s disconcerting that the long-awaited film adaptation of Watchmen is neither groundbreaking nor very deep in a meaningful way. 

Perhaps it is this realization of ideological impotence that caused Snyder to amplify the comic’s most violent moments into even greater displays of savagery.  I’m not sure what is gained by having Rorschach embed a meat cleaver in a criminal’s head; the novel’s less-graphic portrayal is actually more cruel and chilling, and a more effective summation of Rorschach’s character.  It is in moments like these where Snyder shows his true colours: he doesn’t have anything new to bring to the table, and what he does bring is just unnecessary grotesquerie.  Consider also the attempted rape of Sally Jupiter: a valid argument may be made for its inclusion (in order to set-up the horror of Sally’s revelation later on), but the amount to which Snyder subjects his audience smacks of a little boy trying to get away with as much as he can without being paddled.

In addition to its descent into irrelevance, Watchmen fails as a document of the passage of time, save for one chapter: the history of Dr. Manhattan.  Scored with Philip Glass’ music from Koyaanisqatsi, it is a stunningly beautiful mini-film that imparts a true sense of the movement of time around an individual.  Nostalgia runs rampant through the whole film, but it finds its best place within the framework of Manhattan’s ruminations.  I was astonished by the simple poetic nature of this sequence, a satisfying tonic of anguish, hope, and sorrow.  A month after viewing the film, it is this scene that stands out most in my mind, and the one portion that I would gladly see again and again. 

Despite that sequence, the rest of Watchmen fails to capitalize on its decades-spanning potential.  Part of the reason for this might lie with the large roster of characters; it’s easier to convey a sense of time-passage and its accompanying emotions when focused around a single individual.  Truly rewarding character growth takes time, of course, and Watchmen divides its attentions amongst many individuals.  I don’t think that’s the real problem though; the real issue lies with the broad characterizations.  God bless Patrick Wilson for doing a good job with Nite Owl, but he can’t overcome his character’s tedious range: when he isn’t in action, he’s dumpy and nostalgic; when he is in action, he’s alive and vital.  It doesn’t get more complicated or interesting than that.  The Comedian was a bastard for the vast majority of his life; the revelation of his tear-stained retirement and remorse doesn’t have as much impact as it should.  Laurie Juspecyk spends the whole film in various states of drifting.  Rorschach remains a mostly one-note cipher until his final moments.  There is no cumulative effect over its 163 minutes to match the opening credits or Manhattan sequence for their respective impacts.

The implementation of classic tunes is puzzling, and more often than not, unsuccessful.  The happy exceptional moments are truly inspired: the opening credit montage gets a major boost from “The Times They Are A-Changein;” while the aforementioned use of Phillip Glass’ work provides a deeply meditative backdrop for Dr. Manhattan’s back-story.  The rest of the soundtrack ranges from uncompelling to downright inappropriate; by the time “All Along The Watchtower” was clanging away over windswept Antarctica (inserted, I presume, because of two lines from that song quoted in the comic), it became clear that Snyder left his iPod on shuffle in the audio suite.  I won’t say the appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s original “Hallelujah” was necessarily inappropriate to its respective scene (if a bit over-the-top, but then everything in the scene was), but I do wish they’d left it alone, if only to save me the memory of frantic thrusting every time I listen to that song.

Reading back over what I have written, it seems as though I did not enjoy the film.  This is false; I enjoyed my experience of watching it.  For a film of its length, it hurtles along at an admirable speed, commanding attention.  It is rarely boring, though having read the book, I had a bit more invested in the outcome than a Watchmen virgin.  It goes without saying that Zack Snyder knows how to manipulate visuals to their full potential, and he makes Watchmen easy on the eyes (at least, aesthetically); though really we won’t know for certain how much of a visual genius he is until he produces something without already existing art to reference.  While I don’t think it particularly succeeds, I do think it’s a significant film that bears discussion.  It is a victim of mis-timing, but that doesn’t preclude its rise as a noteworthy film and text for future viewings. 

My immediate reaction to the film was mixed, and after a month of reflection, I still find myself conflicted.  This is infinitely preferable to a disposable entertainment, and while I would not call Watchmen a good film, it is indeed important.  I will say that its inherent nihilism prevents it from becoming a “great” film in my eyes, but I will save that piece for another day.  I sense that Watchmen — a failure, yes, but a fascinating one — will bear more useful fruit from its flawed self than if it were a perfect work.

-Nathan Douglas

Cannes and Sad Cemeteries and Speed Racers, Oh My!

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

1. Cannes is in full swing, and some of the best coverage can be found via Roger Ebert and Mike D’Angelo.

2. Devan Scott and Will Ross have launched a new film blog, Sad Hill Cemetery.  Devan and I got to know each other a bit while taking a film history class this past semester, and he’s easily one of the best film conversationalists I’ve had the privilege to bandy words with.  I haven’t met Will, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy too.  Looking forward to seeing what you guys have to say!

3. Just for kicks, and to get the revival going so that my future kids and their friends will regard it as a classic: Dennis Cozzalio’s year-old essay on the Wachowski’s Speed Racer.  Even if you hated the film, it’s a brilliant read.