Posts Tagged film criticism

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

They forgot to make the final boss fight the hardest and most dramatic one.

That’s the simplest way I can sum up why the movie feels “okay” instead of excellent. I loved the beginning of the movie, the way it set its own pace and tone very deliberately, with a long, dialogue-heavy Senate committee hearing — essentially a small one-act play at the start of the movie, carried entirely by the performance of long pages of dialogue. The director, Jon Favreau (whose cameo role extends to an extended brawl of a fistfight with an anonymous guard stooge at the climax of the movie), surprised me again in the middle of the first act by setting up a classic, static proscenium frame and letting Downey and Paltrow tear into their dialogue, uninterrupted by cutting.

So engaging is the well-paced dramedy of Tony Stark’s life that the Iron Man scenes feel like an interruption. It tends to make me think that this really needs to just become a television series. That way, relationship arcs can take a whole season to play out their twists and turns, rather than having to happen in the space of two hours.

It reminds me of a side thought, that I wonder why it is that some of these Marvel movies get propelled with A-list talent, and some of them have to make do with less than stellar actors and directors. For example, the Fantastic Four movies basically used television actors. The guy playing Victor Von Doom could have easily shown up as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 bad guy. And could easily go back to playing the equivalent now after having done those movies. Why does it seem like the FF always gets treated poorly when it should be the flagship, as it was originally, for the entire Marvel Universe?

Sam Rockwell, playing the corporate villain of this movie, busts out the Guy Fleegman goofball smarm, and at one point trots out the same dance moves he used when playing the villain of Charlie’s Angels. He manages a thing where we instantly know the character is the antagonist, but he’s also a cartoon, and doesn’t seem very threatening. Mickey Rourke is in there playing his role like he’s in an Oliver Stone prison movie, and Rockwell is acting like Daffy Duck. It kind of works because every once and a while in the same movie there’s a red and yellow suit with repulsor rays blowing things up and clanking. Scarlett Johansson is the only one definitely playing a comic book character. As an undercover shield agent, she gears up in a superspy catsuit (nice outfit, btw) and mows down a bunch of guys in melee combat, which I see has been perfected since The Matrix first pointed the way how to do it. The choreography of how she takes the bad guys out is smartly smack on, each move in it a superhero pose. I didn’t quite like the decision to use the Saving Private Ryan strobe-frame effect — in a way, it emphasizes the drawn-pose-ness I was just describing — because I found it distracting. I wanted to see the motion be fluid, not halted. It dampened the awesome for me, which was a little frustrating.

SPOILER WARNING. Spoilers for the end of Iron Man 2 follow.

Getting back to the ending, I thought that the script suddenly started skipping and dropping out, like a signal that was getting lost in noise. The script was good, it was fairly tight, it had a logic to it, and it had just the right sense of humor about when to wink at something preposterous it had just done to move things along. (“Well, that was easy.”) At the end, Iron Man has to deal with an army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of remote-drone iron men, as well as his friend in a bulked-up rogue suit, as well as the supervillain Mickey Rourke is playing (the final boss guy). The problem, script-wise, is that in the preceding scene, Sam Rockwell had just berated Mickey Rourke (who was building the fleet of drones for Rockwell) for not holding up his end of the bargain with the drones. But since there was a finished platoon of drones ready to go, I don’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, the end of the movie is 18 minutes of solid action. The problem is it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative. There’s also a little too much in the stew. There’s a lot of spatial confusion, with everything taking place in one Expo park. By the time Tony Stark says, “We gotta lead these things away from the expo park,” he’s been flying with them in chase long enough to be 300 miles away.

He dispatches the drones here and there, then there’s a fairly good fight with the two good guys against a ring of drones. This fight had imagination to it, was well thought-out. For example, they showed a couple of examples of the good guys trying to do the sensible thing and fly out of there, and they were each thwarted by an attack or a grapple. Then Tony busts out something cool, and just before I could mutter it to myself, his buddy Don Cheadle says, “Next time, my advice is use that first.” And then Tony has a response to that, one that videogamers are likely to follow the logic of. You don’t waste your super-bomb, you hold it until it can do the most damage, or a now-or-never moment when you’re overwhelmed.

Then you’re screwed, though, because now the boss guy is going to show up, and you won’t have it to use on him.

Videogames have a lot to teach the movie guys now about final boss fights. This fight should have taken the last 10 minutes of the last 18 minutes of action, with full choreography that told a story and had a beginning, middle, and end. And it should have been tied into the story and the plot and the character development. It has no resolution whatsoever for the character that Mickey Rourke has been playing. It has no resolution for that character vis-a-vis Tony Stark. I don’t know, did they write that and then cut it, or did they never write that?

And there’s always a trick to defeating the boss guy, because he’s just too tough to go down by ordinary means. They did come up with something along these lines, and it was okay. (This is why we leave the theater thinking, “That was okay.”) It just wasn’t really satisfying. It followed too much mess, and it was too short, and it was disconnected from the plot. Rourke should have first taken out Don Cheadle, raising the stakes for Tony Stark, because Cheadle is only there as a result of Stark’s stupid, selfish actions earlier in the movie. You know? And Tony should have figured out something clever to do in defense against those electro laser whips, having already encountered them once and seen how they work.

And, totally, totally, there should have been a deal where the new super power source Tony has created and installed in himself is the key to defeating the super bad guy, because it’s something the bad guy has not anticipated, and it means he’s less powerful than he thought. I mean, if you think about it, it’s weird that they didn’t do anything more with that.

Wait, I just thought of something even more weird. The scene in all the previews and trailers, where Gwyneth Paltrow kisses his helmet and then throws it out of the plane and he dives after it, isn’t in the movie! Bizarre. Instead, we get another scene of puffy Garry Shandling. (He’s good, but gosh he’s puffy these days.) Oh well.

There is an after-credits teaser. As you might guess from various hints along the way, it takes place in the New Mexico desert. I was so sure it was going to be a Hulk cameo (another set-up for the Avengers movie), but it wasn’t.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, and Mickey Rourke.

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Creativity Void: Terminator 4

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Directed by McG. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Helena Bonham Carter.

One of the movie critic blurbs for this latest Terminator movie called it “The perfect summer movie!” I suppose that I should consider this a matter of arguable opinion, but I feel more inclined to instigate a lawsuit claiming that it is factually false advertising. Star Trek is currently the one to beat in terms of delivering the summer movie goods, and while pointing out that movie’s minor flaws with friends was another rich vein of entertainment, at least it had a story to pick apart, characters who were fun to root for, and its numerous action scenes all had a reason in the story for existing. (Even the one that seems the most irritatingly arbitrary, the giant bug thing that chases Kirk on the ice world, ultimately serves to move the plot along.)

Whereas, Terminator Salvation cannot reasonably be considered a perfect summer movie because it has no coherent story to tell, is composed of abitrary and ear-crushingly noisy action scenes, spends a lot of time failing to be about interesting characters, and, to borrow a line from Annie Hall, is really superficial, has no ideas, and nothing interesting to say. A perfect summer movie can be superficial, but even audiences who want spectacular escapism like to escape into a story with characters that sustain their interest and do amusing things. A sense of humor or at least occasional comic relief also helps.

There’s one big overall problem with the movie, though; it is an utter creativity failure. Epic fail, as they say these days.

Most people will just think Terminator Salvation is boring, but it’s much more insidious than that for not being obvious in how void it is, for hiding its evil in banality and cliche. It is destroyingly atrocious. It is as if it were created by machines rather than human beings with organic minds. Its conception of salvation is also utterly wretched, as if evil itself, not comprehending what sacrifice and salvation even mean, tries to soullessly depict what it thinks it is.

Before I get into this, I want to take this opportunity to mention something that I meant to blog about back in March but didn’t get around to. It would have been titled “Creativity Fail,” and concerned a certain demo session I attended at the Game Developers Conference. The problem with what I saw and heard didn’t even occur to me until I thought about it later, but then it really bothered me. There was a videogame music competition: to write the background music for a post-apocalypse shooter game, with the following strict restriction: the only audio samples you could use had to be recordings of the human voice.

The four finalists introduced and played their tracks. They were all audio professionals working in the game industry, and very fond of the gear and equipment they had access to. Often their presentations involved them telling the audience, “If you guys aren’t using the [thousand-dollar audio gadget make and model number], you should be, because it’s awesome!” Lots of Langstrom 7-inch Gangley Wrench talk, to put it another way.

Guy #1, last year’s winner, did some reasonable sounding things. Guy #2 had music that sounded the most like a real game, very polished, like it came from Fallout 3 or something. Guy #3 had some shaky sounding things that didn’t have enough polish. Guy #4 was this dude from Australia whose true calling is being a salesman, and probably has the job he has because he sells himself and his work all the time. Practically jumping up and down with enthusiasm, he spoke very quickly and energetically and rousingly. A winner was decided by audience applause, and I think most of the people in the audience weren’t fooled by the charisma of the pitch, and it seemed to me that Guy #2 got the most applause. However, the panel moderator had a favorite, and said, “Sounds like Guy #4 wins!” and so it was.

That’s not the problem, though. What I realized later was that all four of them completely failed creatively, and in exactly the same way. Starting with the “human voice only” premise, all four of these guys immediately broke down the challenge into 1) digitally manipulating samples of voices so that they sounded like drum kits, strings, keyboards, and the other instrument samples they usually use, and then 2) composing the same old stuff they usually do. There was a way in which everyone in the audience, including me, started judging the results as a matter of how closely they managed to get the voice samples to sound like other things. “Wow, that really sounds like a high hat and a kick drum!” That shouldn’t have been the point of the exercise at all.

Starting from the rule that they “use the human voice,” all they could think of to do was make the voice sound like something else, so that they could work rotely and mechanically the way they always do, and make tracks that sound generically just like all videogame music sounds. Now, these were the finalists — I’m sure a lot of the rejects actually used human voices that sounded like human vioces, and these four were chosen because their output sounded like normal videogame music. Something about it seemed so bankrupt in terms of creativity, such an utter disregard for the opportunity to be creative, that I got very upset about it. Something can be slick and professional and polished and yet be completely mediocre, creatively empty, and worthless.

Which finally brings me back to McG and Terminator Salvation.

There are several problems I had with this movie, but they probably all boil down to a sense of creative emptiness. The film has the appearance of being imaginative, largely because it is a derivative work of an artist of genuine imagination. James Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers, and someday I’ll write a book about why that is. For now, though, it is enough to say that my interest in what is now the Terminator franchise ended with Terminator 2.

The Terminator was an imaginative and original science fiction time travel romance — a plot perhaps not completely unfamiliar to serious science fiction fans, but new to general movie audiences. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a marvelous, well-thought-out follow-up story by its original creator, and a better extrapolation on the characters and the central premise than anyone else could have come up with. They were delivered with the confident, fluid skill of a natural cinematician. When I think of film in terms of language, I find that Cameron speaks in long, flowing paragraphs of coherent thought, delivered with the confidence of a native speaker. There are plenty of movies I see that seem to be speaking fractured, pidgin dialects; the formalized stupidity of text messaging and its abbreviations and misspellings; if not complete gibberish.

Terminator 3 I didn’t bother seeing until parts of it rolled across my eyeballs on cable some afternoon. It added nothing to what had been done before, more or less repeating Terminator 2 and all of its gags “only it’s a chick.” It raises into relief Cameron’s great skill at integrating action set pieces into his overall story structure. As thrilling as Cameron’s action work always is, every action scene in the first two Terminator movies:

  • moves the plot forward
  • deepens the relationship between the characters
  • appears at the right time to give the audience a jolt of fun
  • escalates the speed, size, and stakes from one to the next
  • delivers the goods

It’s clear that the action scenes in Terminator 3 don’t do half of these things, and they all feel like action scenes we’ve seen before; minor variants at best, just like the movie as a whole. The most positive I can be about is: it’s watchable.

So now to Terminator Salvation, which reaches a new level of arbitrariness. Worse than that, though, is this sense that there is no sense. Something can have the surface appearance of being very shiny, fast, loud, cool, and inventive, and yet actually have not a single creative spark driving it. It’s not particularly watchable, in the sense that it doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to come up with a story, doesn’t seem to care very much about telling that story, doesn’t seem to care about its characters, and doesn’t even follow the right ones around for most of the time.

This McG character managed to make the first “Charlie’s Angels” entertaining, but it was largely a sketch comedy movie, and didn’t require storytelling skills. It seems like he could have a wonderful long career directing television ads, where he can play with all his toys and only has to give a shorthand version of cinema, which is what he knows how to do. He doesn’t seem to have any of the chops to be a feature filmmaker, at least not one you’d trust to tell a 90 to 120 minute story. Story just does not seem to be on the man’s mind at all, or he’d make a lot of different choices.

A central point comes back to me over and over again whenever I try to write this review. I know it’s long after the moment to strike on a review of this movie, but now I’m writing about something else — about the difference between genuine creativity and what seems to me not just bad creativity, but void creativity, something that creates a vacuum that leaves less creativity in the world for having been introduced. I guess that’s a fancy way of saying that it sucks, literally.

Which is a rather strong point to make, and was too much of a cannon barrage to inflict on this one poor little movie, which seems like it invites a certain amount of snarky remarks, but not that much annihilation. Thus, I went to see it again, and scrawled notes in real time as the movie unspooled. Fortunately, the Alamo Drafthouse theaters come equipped with a desk and sheets of loose paper, so I was all set.

My first note was about the first printed credits as the movie starts. “[Unknown name #1] and [unknown name #2] present” is what we get, followed on the next card by “A McG Film”. I went to IMDB just now to try to look up those unknown names, and the “Produced by” section of the full credits list has 16 names. So right away, the fact that this movie has 16 producers should tell you something. Mario Kassar, who used to own Carolco (which produced the original movie in 1984), is the only name I recognize.

I pause to make a big deal about this because I have to wonder about the ego of the two guys who put their names even above McG’s, because McG has no shortage of ego on his own. For example, his official “Directed by McG” credit comes a couple of minutes later, alone on a pure white field that fills the screen, stopping the movie in progress to appear. But these two guys with unmemorable names want us to know that they come first. Credits like these aren’t for the benefit of regular moviegoers, clearly, but they must have a lot to do with Hollywood jockeying and politics. Those names are there so that people who read the trade magazines and follow who’s up and who’s in and who’s rising see their names. Maybe it helps them get a table in a certain restaurant in a certain hotel. I don’t know. It bothers me because it’s all about things that have nothing to do with making movies, and everything to do with how Hollywood runs itself. Ah well.

Oh, brother. Look how long this review is and I’m still only 22 seconds into it. Here we go again.

The name “Michael Ironside” came up in the credits and my initial reaction, the first time I saw it, was “Aw yeah, Ironside!” If you use this guy right — I guess most people don’t, they just kind of plug-and-play him in generic villain roles — like in Starship Troopers, he can be a lot of fun in a movie. Alas, he’s mostly shafted to the side and used very generically as an angry obstacle character. He isn’t allowed to make the movie more fun, a wasted opportunity.

Jumping ahead now — to the completely unncessary Christ imagery. This death row prisoner named Marcus is strapped down for the lethal injection, his arms splayed like a cross, as the table is raised vertically for no reason other than to display him as crucified. My note says: “At least one hopes it’s unncessary. Good Lord, what if they meant it?” Which is to say, if McG thought it was necessary imagery to use for this character, then there really are deep problems here. I guess it is called Terminator Salvation for some reason.

Ok, then we get the white-out with the “directed by McG” credit. After the crucifixion comes the blinding white light with the director’s name on it. Oy vey.

Then, after that, we get a long text scroll explaining the plot of the backstory of this world, as once created by James Cameron, and now mulched through this mulching process that produces sequels. So there’s been a nuclear armageddon, launched by SkyNet, and then the machines arose to destroy all humans. We are told by this text summary (and how weak is this, that they feel like they have to write all this text for us to read before we watch the movie, instead of movie-ing the information to us?) that John Connor is thought by some to be a “false prophet.” Apparently Connor hasn’t been quiet about the fact that he’s known since he was a kid how the future would unfold. When the movie starts (laughably, the movie purports to take place in 2018, hardly far enough ahead to be plausible, especially when time travel needs to be invented a couple of years after this), Connor is close to running out of knowledge about how things will go and just living in the present.

Connor is revealed to be not the dynamic single rebel leader uniting humanity and leading the successful war against the machines we, the audience, have heard prophesied in Terminators 1 and 2, but just one more soldier working for some quasi-military organization run by an angry obstacle guy who lives in a submarine. They like to yell at him for disobeying orders and trying to inspire hope in the wasteland masses, when not sending him on dangerous missions.

The first shot in the movie that’s any fun at all to watch is basically a direct borrowing from a shot in The Empire Strikes Back, one of many filmic quotations that start to seem like someone copying from another guy’s test paper rather than knowing the answers himself. We’re looking out a windshield that’s skimming low over a blanched wasteland, rolling up and down over the topology.

And then, bang, boom, one explosion and a dead terminator, first thing. I have another note about this that explains why I call attention to it, but I’ll come back to that when I get to it.

We’re in the beginnings of the movie’s first action set-piece, where Connor and his unit infiltrate some machine outpost, which involves rappelling down into a large underground silo or something. There’s some dialogue here that’s an empty filler of space, comprising cliches and nothing more. “It’s almost too quiet,” for example, followed by, “It’s like they’re waiting for us.” You think? Maybe you could use those bits of dialogue to let us know who the characters are. Except that would mean that the characters were important, and they’re not. Even the writers don’t know who they are, and don’t care. That’s what’s especially lame, the writers don’t even care, and you can tell they don’t.

There’s a nice shot that, hello, I did like. Connor tries to flee this area in a helicopter, and the copter is shot down and crashes. This is handled in a (simulated, using digital effects) single long take, seen from a locked camera position inside the copter behind the pilot’s seat. After the crash landing, we are unaware that the copter has landed upside down until Connor releases his safety belt and falls upwards to the ceiling of the cab. I liked that.

I have a note here: “What was that mushroom cloud?” Apparently some atomic device was detonated, and after two viewings of this movie I have no idea what bomb went off or why, or whether the machines or humans were responsible. The movie itself never bothers to explain. Maybe it just “looked cool” so it went in.

Connor, after the crash landing, has a two-minute fight with a T-600 terminator. Two minutes, and he kills it, its little red eye lights going dark. These things used to take a whole movie to take down.

How can this movie work when the terminators are such a small threat compared to what they used to be? However, James Cameron himself dealt with the same creative challenge when he made Aliens, in which the single monstrous unstoppable threat became multiplied into an entire colony of the things, which had to be destroyed in great numbers at a greater frequency. There is a way to do it, but you have to grapple with it intelligently and find new creative avenues out of the new situation. I’ll get back to the Aliens factor at the end of the movie, too.

Note: “Like McG is still in film school. Can’t believe he used the ‘camera mounted on actor’ thing for Connor.” That was referring to an early scene, when Connor first walks into his home base. It’s that effect where the camera is bolted to the actor, so the background sways around with the slightest body movement but the actor is fixed in the frame, sort of giving a first-person perspective on the character’s delirium or confusion. There’s got to be a real point to using a shot like this, like the character being heavily drugged or having a psychotic episode. Here, as usual, there’s no reason for it, and it’s jarring because it’s wildly different than the rest of the sequence that it’s cut into.

Moving on, leaving Connnor behind, introducing new characters. My note says: “You know all those elaborate spring traps Will Smith had rigged up in that one movie? Kyle Reese has the exact same ones.” I was referring to I Am Legend, and not exaggerating.

A teenaged Kyle Reese (the same character Michael Biehn played in the original Terminator) has a small mousy mute child as a companion. Basically like Newt from Aliens, I guess, speaking of that movie. They meet this guy Marcus, who is the guy we saw getting lethally injected at the beginning of the movie. He’s dazed for some reason, or just stupid, not knowing to get out of the way when a metal endoskeleton starts tromping towards you firing a rotating mini-cannon.

There’s a moment between Kyle Reese and Marcus, where Reese points at the coat Marcus has borrowed from a dead resistance member, and says, “See this red?” What red? I said. The movie has been treated with that blanching process Spielberg liked in the late 90s and early 00s, so that saturated colors like red show up as brown or gray or something. Honestly, I couldn’t tell what red Reese was talking about. I know my color vision is a little tricky, but I can see red, and I couldn’t see red. Was it the whole coat? A band on the coat? A stain on the coat? His shirt? What was supposed to be red?

This is in the first of several scenes where Marcus acts like a total jerk to Kyle and Newt, and comes across as suspicious, villainous, dark, dangerous, crazy, untrustworthy, and vague. In other words, completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. I was okay with this (well, not really, I prefer it when I like all the characters, including the villains) the first time, until I realized that the movie thought that Marcus was the main character. I thought I was watching the adventures of John Connor in the age of the machines, that interesting world just hinted at in a brief flash-forward in the original movie, of a square-jawed, facially-scarred, super-soldier with a righteous bearing, the survivor of many hard-won battles for freedom. A movie about that would be a good place to start, and yet this movie isn’t that, in some sort of crappy bait and switch. It’s yet another indictment of its overall creative failure, I guess, but it’s like they weren’t up to extrapolating a movie out of that scenario and had to make up some whole other thing to fill out their threadbare ideas. And the whole other thing is just composed of bits they’d seen in other places.

At some point, I was moved to wonder: Is there, in fact, one single actual creative idea in this entire movie? Because I think the people making it thought they were being creative, yet I don’t see anything original at all. Creativity in its pure form is a brilliant white spark. I just see dull rocks when I look at this movie closely.

This is turning into that other essay anyway, it seems. Maybe I should take back what I said at the start about this movie not deserving the full treatment I was subjecting it to. It keeps inviting it every time I look at it again.

So after being a dick all night long, Marcus hotwires a jeep and says he’s leaving Los Angeles to head north. Kyle whines, “So you’re just gonna LEAVE US?” And this is after — oh brother. Why in the world would they want to go with him? They’ve got a whole existence they’re eking out just fine without him, and he’s clearly not friendly, and he’s pointed their own guns at them more than once, and he attracts bad machines to them, so — whatever. Where does the movie go if Kyle and Newt don’t go with him? Nowhere. So, okay, they whine about not going with him, even though they know that going towards San Francisco means going into the death nexus of SkyNet central.

Whatever. The writers don’t care, the director didn’t care, so screw it, I don’t care either.

Three more notes:

“Why is everything in San Francisco now?”

“Apparently it only takes 30 seconds to escape Los Angeles heading north from Griffith Observatory.”

And:

“Where the hell is the radiation?”

There’s not the slightest mention of radiation even though they’re living in the ruins of a city that was nuked. You’d have to actually think things through in order to have that pop into your head, so that probably explains why there’s no radiation in this movie.

The next action scene — oh, sorry. There was a perfunctory (my notes said “peremptory” — which maybe is what I meant, in an interesting way) motorcycle chase. Apparently there are terminator motorcycles. No robot, just a motorcycle that drives itself, and has that terminator-eye-view of the world.

The next action scene has more motorcycles, which shoot out of the legs of a giant 35 foot tall Transformer robot terminator.

“If they have 35 foot tall Transformers what is the point of humanoid robots? It’s ‘cool’ or whatever but a total misextrapolation that makes utterly no sense.”

I suppose when kids today (including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s children, I read) say that this movie is more awesome than the original two movies, they might be talking about the fact that there are giant robots in it. No, there’s no multilayered story about fate and characters with complexities, but there are giant robots. Yes, that is true.

Then there’s this truck chase. Marcus and Kyle and Newt get in a truck, and then motorcycles shoot out of the giant robot’s legs to chase the truck.

“Of course a truck chase, since there’s always one,” I wrote. Indeed, Terminators 1 through 3 all had a truck chase scene. It was the big chase at the end of the first movie, which had a small budget. It was merely the first warm-up chase of many in the second movie — oh wait, there was actually one at the end of the movie, too, mirroring the first movie’s climax. And there was one in the third movie, which was just a copy of the second movie, only instead of Robert Patrick there was tits and ass.

Where was I? “Since there’s always one. But why?” Does the truck chase actually add anything or do anything to the movie? Does it propel the story along? Is it interesting or thrilling or fun? Why are there only negative answers to these questions, when I answer them myself?

“And why the hell isn’t it John Connor in the truck chase, the guy we actually care about?”

It does kill me to think of Christian Bale, acting his little cheekbones off, trying to give a good performance in this movie, not having any idea, I don’t think, that McG was making a movie about this character Marcus and didn’t care about John Connor particularly, and had no idea what to do with Connor except grudgingly cut back to him now and then. For long stretches I’m wondering, where the hell is John Connor? The one character I have any chance of actually latching onto and emotionally identifying with.

Someone or another says the line, “They never come this deep — they’re looking for something!” I thought they were looking for Kyle Reese? Or what was that earlier exposition about? Ironside ended that early scene of chewing out Connor by saying that Kyle Reese was being hunted for, or they needed to find him, or — oh bother. Twice I watched this movie and twice I paid no attention to that dialogue. Or couldn’t pay attention to it even though I was trying to.

Moon Bloodgood, the movie’s hot babe (Megan Fox was busy elsewhere), appearing finally, more than a half hour in. Notes: “This jet fighter girl — why didn’t they introduce her earlier, when I would have cared? [She] should have been in scenes with Connor since the start. Dumb.” By this point in the movie, which has so many characters I don’t care about or are too generic to care about, I don’t really want another one, especially one that the movie force-feeds me. It says to me: YOU WILL LIKE HER. SHE IS SPUNKY AND TOUGH FISTED AND TOUGH TALKING AND IS REALLY HOT AND WEARS TIGHT CLOTHES WHICH SHE WILL UNZIP A LITTLE BIT AS A TEASE. YOU LIKE BEING TEASED DON’T YOU. HELL YEAH ME TOO.

“Soldiers in 2018 have access to top tooth whitening technology.” Moon Bloodgood came straight from the dentist to the set, apparently. White teeth are nice looking, yeah, but they can be so white that they’re a distraction, and downright wrong for the time and place the movie’s set. Unless you really don’t care about any of that, of course. Meaning she’s just there to be a hot chick.

Note: “Still don’t understand why people are being imprisoned instead of destroyed.” Yeah, since I thought the whole point of machines in this movie universe is that they want to eradicate all humans. That’s why they (once upon a time) invented terminators, to infiltrate hidden enclaves and destroy every living thing. But in this movie, when that sort of eradication should be at its height in the scheme of things, humans are being stockpiled in cages at SkyNet headquarters instead of killed.

The movie… sort of explains later that there’s an elaborate trap planned for John Connor. But when you think about it, it has little or nothing to do with caging people instead of killing them on sight. So I still think it’s unexplained. Nobody bothered to ask themselves the question when they were making it, I guess; or lacked the intellectual rigor to answer it satisfactorily.

“Still wondering why it’s all about this boring untrustworthy guy with attitude problems [Marcus] instead of John Connor.”

Oh, here’s a cogent note: “The movie presumes I care instead of engendering my caring instincts.” Yeah, that’s a big problem. A very big failure.

Here’s some snark: “The women characters seem to be written by guys who have heard of them, maybe read about them in comic books.” Ouch. Not exaggerating, either.

Someone just said, “We’ve never been this deep before.” Yep, that’s the second time they’ve used this line in the same movie. The first time, it was the machines that were never this deep, and this time the humans are deep…er…ish-ness-ing.

John Connor has Star Wars binoculars of course. You know the ones I mean, with the overlaid — yeah you got it.

Okay here’s a cute thing, and maybe is something original. The resistance uses hobo markings. That hobo pictograph language. Robo hobo signs.

Note: “Don’t get me started on Bryce Dallas Howard.” Seriously, don’t.

The movie says Marcus was born in 1975. So the prologue scene when he’s in jail happened when? Bah, never mind.

John Connor appears again, listening to a tape with a cameo appearance by the voice of his mother. Except what she says is, “When you’re unsure, just follow your heart.” GAG! That’s not a message from the Sarah Connor I know and love.

Heh, I’m not sure what this note was remarking on, but it’s funny: “Looks like someone’s watched Children of Men.”

Then Marcus does the motorcycle leap from The Great Escape, another of its many borrowings. Need an idea? Borrow an idea.

Moments later, there was a quote from Apocalypse Now. “The quotes keep coming,” I note, before wearily writing, “Another helicopter crash scene. How is that any fun? Have another truck chase while you’re at it.” Seriously, how is a second helicopter crash in the same movie going to provide any thrill we’re not numb to?

It occurs to me that I mentioned earlier that Terminator 2 had two truck chases in it. However, I have no complaints about that, but each one is different, and each one advances the story and deepens the character relationships. Characters in a James Cameron movie who are in a chase of some sort are forced by the situation to deepen their trust in each other as they confront the threat together. Good luck finding anything like that happening in this movie.

Notes:

“Lots of wet floors. Like soaking wet. Star Trek too — what’s with that?” Remember how Nero’s ship, where they were holding Pike, had like 2 inches of water on the floor? This movie has that, too, for some reason.

Ironside and Connor are fighting. They have this dialogue: “No! You stay the course!” “If we stay the course we’re all dead!” Stay the course, stay the course. E-gad. I’m led to wonder whether we could pinpoint the year — wait, perhaps even the month — when these lines were first written into the screenplay, back during the last presidential administration. I think they were hoping to get it in theaters when that was still au courant.

Note: “Earlier this cycle-bot calculated the trajectory of rolling vehicle debris precisely enough to avoid all collision, but it’s somehow dumb enough to fall for the old rope strung taut across the road trick.”

What’s happened at this point in the movie is that Marcus has promised to make a deal with John Connor, to get him inside SkyNet central so he can find Kyle Reese. I’m not sure what Marcus gets out of the deal, except for John Connor not to kill him. Marcus has now been revealed to be kind of like a Terminator robot, except he seems to have a beating human heart in his chest, and human memories (except that he has amnesia). So Connor lets Marcus go to get inside and figure out where Kyle Reese is being held, and then follows him there, which is why Connor wanted a motorcycle. Because, as we know, nobody’s ever been that deep before.

Wait, I just thought of something. The whole reason the rope-across-the-road trick works normally is that it whipsaws the human rider off the bike. That doesn’t work when the motorcycle is being driven by a robotic brain built into itself. You’d have to damage the machine itself so that its brain didn’t work, but would that leave a ridable functioning cycle? Not only that, but if it’s meant to be autonomous and riderless, why is it designed at all to support a human rider? Why would it have anything like handlebars, a seat, pedals, brakes, and other controls that a human would need to commandeer it? Geez, none of this stands up to the merest challenge, the barest application of thought to the process. Any of dozens of designers and effects planners, let alone the writers and the director, should have asked at least one of these questions months before they were even shooting. Maybe they were asked, but I really am at the point of believing they were not.

There’s about a half hour more of stuff that happens, but I shortly stopped bothering to write notes. Part of what an audience presumably is paying for is better ideas than they themselves could think of, and the climax of the movie is where the movie’s total lack of ideas at all becomes most glaringly apparent. Again, not bad ideas, but no ideas. Okay, they had one idea, which was to use a nude body double, and computer trickery on digitized scans of footage from the first (or first two?) movies to make it seem like an Arnold-model T-800 appears on screen for 30 seconds. Then it gets all its skin burned off and it’s the titanium Stan Winston (R.I.P. Stan) skeleton again. Everything else is just a copy of an idea we’ve seen before.

I’ll give you my last two notes then wrap this up with all the complaints I have left, which are numerous. And my ideas about what ideas they might have tried out, instead of not having any.

“Flame factory. Actually a factory for making terminators — and a more wasted opportunity I haven’t seen in this movie. Steal from Aliens as long as you’re at it. Nope, just one more terminator, but we’ve killed a dozen easily already, so not a very big deal or much of a threat, surprise, or thrill.”

They’ve been building up the idea throughout the movie that the Arnold-model terminator, the T-800, is a new piece of technology that SkyNet is about to roll out. The other ones we see stomping around are T-600s. In the original movie, Kyle Reese tries to fill in Sarah Connor by telling her that the first terminators “had rubber skin, we spotted them easy” — but the new ones had actual flesh and blood, making them disastrously good infiltrators.

“And the mastermind plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if you spell it out.”

This movie is not about Marcus being the first of these to successfully infiltrate human enclaves, he’s apparently just some special one-off model with a beating heart and a chip in his still-human brain, someone who was killed by the state and then “resurrected” with a special mission.

The mastermind plot seems to be that Marcus was created to be the one special machine that, by having no idea what he was doing or who he was except for a burning desire to get into SkyNet so he could confront “whoever did this to him” he would meet Kyle Reese by chance, drive him north until Reese was captured, randomly meet a parchutist who lived in the camp with John Connor, get inside the camp, be revealed to be mostly a terminator robot when he steps on a magnetic landmine, so that John Connor would not trust him and want to destroy him, so that the lady with the white teeth that SkyNet could not have predicted would be involved would let Marcus go free, so that Marcus could tell John Connor he could tell him where Kyle Reese was, while promising that he wasn’t out to kill Kyle Reese or John Connor because he would have done so already, when actually he was fulfilling the purpose he was designed for, to get to John Connor, earn his trust, and lure him into a special trap where no other machine could do this that he has now done, as Marcus learns when he gets John Connor into SkyNet and tells him where Kyle Reese is.

Okay, so the most obvious thing in the world for the trap to be, leaving aside the fact that the plan to get John Connor inside SkyNet is complete unreliable random nonsense as far as plans go — is that John Connor shows up looking for Kyle Reese, and surprise, it’s a factory full of the new 800 model terminators, dozens of them, all bearing down on him at once!

Ha ha, yeah, isn’t that obvious? That’s so obvious. Especially since terminators in this movie aren’t that hard to kill, the only way to make the climax big enough is to have a lot of them, just like Cameron did when he extrapolated from the one alien threat in Alien to the colony full of them — and a queen! — in order to beef up the thrills and action of Aliens. As long as the only ideas you have are just lame copies of Cameron’s seminal ideas, steal that one, too, because it’ll get you over the hump even if you can’t plot out an action scene to save, uh, John Connor’s life. Mentioning the idea of a queen alien now makes me think, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have minded a 35-foot tall giant transformer terminator robot if it had been saved as a surprise for the end, a threat one ramp up from having to deal with dozens of regular terminators all bearing down on you. You know, build, build, build. One of the reasons James Cameron is a great artist in the medium of action movies is that he knows how to make every action scene seem huge and fantastic and thrilling and yet deliver another one that tops it, and another one that tops that one, all the way up to the end, where he saves his biggest ideas.

After I came home feeling empty and somewhat poisoned by this movie, I turned on the TV and Cameron’s True Lies was on, and it was a thorough refreshment. It turns out I wrote a thorough review of that movie once upon a time, and it’s worth reading as an antidote to this review, which I know isn’t that much fun.

But none of that. It’s just one more terminator, no more powerful or crafty than any of the other terminators. At one point, John Connor falls into a roomful of terminator skulls, ready to be welded onto terminator bodies, but it’s just this one robot. Which of course they melt with molten metal and freeze with liquid nitrogen, because those are the ideas they saw used before, and use them again.

Oh wait, there is one last hilarious thing. Marcus gets into a fistfight with the terminator, determined to be a free man (he tore the chip out of the back of his head with his bare hands and came to help John Connor). The terminator uses its terminator-o-vision on Marcus and its readout goes “vulnerability sighted” or something, keying on Marcus’s beating heart. So the terminator punches him so hard in the chest that Marcus drops dead. That’s not the funny part.

The funny part is that John Connor crawls over to him a few minutes later and, screaming, “Live! Live!” in a cliche taken from medical dramas, he attempts to resuscitate him. Guess how?

My very last note: “Punching a guy who died by being punched in the chest — in the chest.” He whales on Marcus’s chest, beating it for all he’s worth. I mean, you have to assume there’s some kind of cardiac tissue damage already.

This is even funnier when you realize that John Connor is injured in the escape and is going to need a heart transplant from guess who. Maybe you want to look for a different donor, eh?

You know, I didn’t want to get into the tabloid story that went along with the making of this movie, but I almost wonder now, sympathetically, if Christian Bale’s explosion of temper on the set was in large part due to pent-up frustrations about how shitty the movie they were making was to what he thought he’d signed on to do. It would make sense to me if that were the case.

Okay.

The obvious plot of this movie, even if you’re not being original, you’re just following the pattern of the other movies in the series.

My goodness, it’s so obvious. Here it is.

The machines attempt to erase John Connor, their greatest enemy threat, by sending a terminator to kill Kyle Reese as a teenager, long before he can ever grow up to become John Connor’s father. John Connor must therefore risk life and limb to find and protect Reese, just like Reese once protected his mother Sarah.

Ta-da, there. That’s the least it should have been. Then you expand that with whatever new inspiration you get that expands on the formula and takes it into fresh places that derive from the environment the characters are trapped in, and all the threats and dangers and sanctuaries and help and obstacles they might find in it.

They’re called ideas. Movie directors and screenwriters are supposed to have them. It’s part of the job.

Or so I used to think.

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Thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A tangential introduction concerning credit size

I’ve been reviewing a lot of movies from the 80s that I liked then, to see if I still like them. One thing I’ve observed that I hadn’t realized before is that credits were enormous in screen size in 1980s. If the current style of title typography for acting and production credits is something like a 24 point font, in the 80s they were using a beefy 60 or 72 point font. The name of the movie maxes out in width, and the starring actors get similar status.

The style now, of course, is also to have no credits until the movie is over, something that used to be disallowed by Guild rules. George Lucas had to pay an enormous fine for the Star Wars credits to be at the end of the movie, and it led to his dropping out of the Directors Guild. This prevented Steven Spielberg from directing Return of the Jedi or any other Star Wars film, because as a DGA member he is barred from working on a non-union movie.

I actually wanted to bring up the subject of Lucas and Spielberg, whom I hate apologizing for, even though I end up doing so a lot of the time. These strange two cursed talents, found in the perplexing situation of making movies that millions upon millions go to see, but that apparently “everybody hates.”

I recently heard a friend of mine describe them both as “hacks,” which is a dreadfully ignorant caricature. Knowing their careers and lives in some detail, I suppose I regard their output firstly from a position of respect instead of with contempt.

These two guys have utter creative freedom like no one else in the movie business, and a century or more of filmmaking experience between them. Then they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

This movie has got a number of inherent flaws.

Okay, first of all, this is an even-numbered Indy film. That means, primarily, it’s about paganism instead of Judeo-Christian mythos. Not going to be as resonant or captivating right off the bat. And now it’s set in the 1950s. Indiana Jones is a pulp hero, and some of those original pulp figures started having their published adventures in the 1930s, and continued through the 1950s, requiring the plotlines to adapt to current fantasies. Okay, so we can talk about the atomic bomb and, maybe, UFO relics. And yet, somehow, the ending of the movie which [spoiler] reveals aliens is a stupid letdown, as well as being corny and done-to-death.

It was instructive to watch the DVD documentaries about how this movie came to be. Lucas proposed Indy-meets-aliens way back in the 80s, and Spielberg said, “No! No more aliens! I’m sick of aliens! We’ve both done aliens!” This was rather sensible of him. However, the tale goes, Lucas simply refused to let go of this idea. He kept bringing it up every time. Finally, he said, “They’re not extraterrestrials, they’re extra-dimensionals.” And somehow, Spielberg (as well as everyone else, like Harrison Ford, who also objected for years), possibly tired of fighting the idea so that they could get a script and make the movie, relented and said, “Okay, that’s more interesting.” Except functionally this makes no difference, and the aliens are still aliens. The thought goes through the audience’s collective mind: “Indiana Jones is not supposed to have aliens. There are no aliens in Indiana Jones’s reality. They do not fit.” And the audience is right.

It makes me wonder what was driving Lucas’s obsession with the idea. He wanted to do it so much that he didn’t see that it didn’t fit.

There are myths about crystal skulls that involve great mystery and magic and seem like they would have been a promising place to take Indiana Jones. When I heard the title, that’s what I thought of. Unfortunately, they thought of the title long after they’d already put the movie into the works.

The other problem with the aliens is that revealing them adds nothing and explains nothing. It just kind of dumbs things up right when we want a smart resolution.

So, conceding the point that the movie starts with this flawed notion as the starting inspiration, there are ways I can appreciate what happens in the movie — and, as per the Ebert formula — how it goes about doing it.

The upstream struggle to like anything about it

One of the problems I have with this movie is that everything I like is a qualified like.

I like Indy being in the predicament of being caught in an atomic test. There can be mushroom clouds in Indiana Jones’s world. But I don’t like the solution to the predicament, mostly because he’s shown to be thrown in a lead-lined refrigerator (which would have enormous mass) a distance and velocity that would shatter every one of his bones on impact, killing him instantly. The protection from radiation doesn’t enter into it. The man is nimble and can survive scrapes, but he’s never supposed to be superhuman. The appeal of his adventures in Raiders of the Lost Ark was that he was all too inexpertly human at times. He can’t survive things that would kill a normal person. That’s why he scrambles so hard for his life when he’s clambering around on that Nazi-driven truck, because falling off would kill him. The refrigerator solution to the atomic bomb makes him into a cartoon character that can just go “Boing!” after an incredible fall.

It’s like you can see them planning out the previsualization on the visual effects for the fridge gag and setting that in motion instead of having the conversation where they say, “That’s not realistic enough for Indy.” You know what would have been more plausible? He finds an atomic bunker in the backyard just in time. Just as suspenseful as climbing into the refrigerator. Do the same bit where he has trouble shutting the door because crap is in the way. Somethin’.

I like them going into the big government warehouse where the ark is stored. I like recognizing that this is that warehouse because John Williams reuses his musical cue from that scene at the end of the first movie. I don’t like the fact that this is “Area 51.” I hate to break this to you guys, but Area 51’s been done to death. Every single show with the slightest toe in sci-fi waters going back 25 years has done an Area 51 episode. Another thing about Indiana Jones is that he has his own mythology and his own stories. Area 51 comes with its own mythology by now. You had an original idea for a big government warehouse of secret stuff, that was great. That was mythic. Oh, but now it’s just Area 51? Weak. I mean, it’s so they can have Roswell aliens in there, even though that doesn’t make sense with the aliens at the end, which have been in suspended animation for millennia.

I also don’t like that Indy’s plan for how to find the right crate defies physics; or, having established these different physical properties, they make no attempt to apply this consistently. If you’re going to say the skull is so magnetic that it can attract gunpowder from dozens of yards away and pull the hanging lamps in its direction, then nobody in the building would be able to hold onto their machine guns, especially not when they’re standing around it, or not without fighting against the attraction every moment. The magnetism returns and fades and wanes later in the story, only for some individual whim of an effect as suits the mood of the director. I guess all these guys studied was movies, so all they know is movie-physics, but I find it puts me in a bad mood. It also probably has the effect of making me inured to any sense of peril, because apparently no rules apply and we are watching a cartoon.

As someone who has an artistic inclination, it disturbs me how one can remain completely ignorant as to the whole point of what it was that people liked about something you created.

The movie is ending now, with a giant whirl of wind carrying away the ruins of a pyramid. I was just thinking this isn’t so bad, and then you see a flying saucer. They do a spectacular thing with giant rocks floating in a dust-hazed sky with light streaming through the debris, but one fails to completely enjoy it because of the flying saucer in between the two nice looking bits.

Yes, I kind of get the idea behind it. 1950s pulp instead of 1930s pulp. There was some other way to do this that they didn’t do, and that’s what lingers for people, I think. It’s a tough job, competing against the imaginations of everyone in a very large audience, but supposedly that’s what we’re paying for, right? Better ideas than people can think of themselves? One feels like there are a range of Indiana Jones stories to tell that would be better than this one. I’ve got one, that I thought of about five years ago when I was in L.A.: Indiana Jones and the Garden of Eden. He finds it! I thought that was a cool idea. The big flaming sword guardian would have been cool. I remember I had just read at the time that George Lucas “had a really neat idea” that he wanted to use as the basis for another Indiana Jones film. I liked my idea; even though it was only a title, it was a title that promised an interesting archaelogical adventure into Judeo-Christian mythology, which sounded like a good start. I liked my idea so much I allowed myself the vanity of thinking, gee, I wonder if George Lucas is thinking of the same neat idea when he says he has a neat idea.

And on that note, the movie is over (technically, I was liveblogging it just now), and I’m out of here.

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