Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Published on InReviewOnline

Terminator Salvation is not not half bad. For those of you confused by a double negative, that means that it's half bad. Which is a shame, since in order accomplish that, director Joseph McGinty Nichol had to not not ruin what was one of the most promising new characters the summer blockbuster season has produced yet.

Franchise resurrection is no simple endeavor. In fact, over time, you might have expected Hollywood to have learned something about it, given the number of half-resurrected abominations they've unleashed on us. Yet you have to give it to them. Like a Terminator, they simply don't know when to quit.

Terminator Salvation takes place in the year 2018, and for anyone familiar with both the original Terminator films and the paradoxes of time travel, you'll know that we might find John Connor (played by Christian Bale) in one of three realities: #1 a future in which John Conner had no foreknowledge of Skynet yet had somehow managed to lead a resistance movement against them; #2 a future in which he had grown up listening to tapes of his mother telling him about the Terminator that had traveled back in time and had nearly destroyed her before he was even conceived; and #3, the future in which not only did he have tapes of his mother, but in which he himself had been both hunted and protected by dueling Terminators from the future. Terminator Salvation resides firmly in #2.

If the first Terminator (made in 1984) showed us anything about our society, it showed how scared shitless we were of computers. By that same logic, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, made only seven years later, reflected an America a bit more comfortable with the machines. Maybe they're not out to replace us! Computers are our friends! Or as Sarah Connor so poetically stated in the film's last voice-over, "The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

Now that we're living in a time when computer implants are giving the deaf hearing and performance artists are turning their bodies into Internet portals, it's only fitting that Terminator Salvation toy with both our fascination and revulsion of all that modern technology seems to portend. As the film begins in the year 2003, we're introduced to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate preparing for his final meal, seeking no reprieve and asking only to pay for the crimes he committed. Skipping forward to a post-nuclear-holocaust Los Angeles in the year 2018, we find that same Marcus miraculously crawling out of a hole that had just been atomized and which John Conner narrowly escaped. It's not long until we discover that (unbeknownst to him) Marcus's body has been replaced (save the heart and brain) by a cybernetic construct not unlike the original Terminators.

Christian Bale's dreadful, non-dimensional performance of future resistance leader John Conner surprised me almost as much as Australian Sam Worthington's magnetic role as the human terminator. In fact, given that John and Marcus's stories run parallel throughout the entire film, we could view the film not as a battle not between humanity and Skynet, but as a battle between compelling character development (Marcus) and a groan-inducing action-hero cliche (John). Can Marcus save the film from the overbearingly simplistic machinations of a John Conner reduced to gruff platitudes and slack-jawed stares? Or will the entire experience collapse beneath the weight of Hollywood's over-reliance on CG? At one point during the film, John Conner melodramatically asks, "If in the process of fighting this war we become as cold and calculating as the machines, then what's the point?" I might melodramatically add, "If in the process of unleashing the power of computer imagery in our films, we lose all that made film worthwhile, then what's the point?"

Final Thought: "I'll be back." Sigh.


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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer Hours (2009, dir. Olivier Assayas)

Published on InReviewOnline

It's the middle of the afternoon and I'm waiting in a theater sparsely populated with a dozen other strangers. Suddenly the lights dim, the curtains pull back, and the image of an old house partially concealed by a lush forest tentatively dances on the screen. As the opening credits roll, the house fades and flickers -- beautiful, ephemeral. Collectively, we try to will the shimmering mirage into existence, but it eludes us. Eventually the house fades into oblivion, replaced by a scene of children playing in the country. Did the image die of its own accord, or did we fail to sustain it, torn between our fascination with it and our expectations for narrative development?

Summer Hours, French writer/director Olivier Assayas' newest film, is a deceptively simple tale about the death of a matriarch that unexpectedly sends us into contemplative flights of fancy like the one I've described above. The matriarch Hélène, portrayed by veteran French actress Edith Scob, has spent the last third of her life devoting herself to the preservation of her uncle's art. Her small mansion in the country is a veritable shrine to his memory, filled with his own creations as well as the art he had loved and collected in his lifetime (much of it furniture). Yet unlike a museum, it's a living, breathing, organic space; when Hélène's children and grandchildren visit her in the beginning of the film, we discover the memories etched into the fabric of each piece. Priceless vases filled with flowers picked from the fields; rare art noveau furniture cluttered with knick-knacks and stuffed with toys.

Hélène's death early on in the film brings her three children and their families back together again, forcing the adults to decide on the fate of the house-as-shrine. While we might expect a Bergman-esque torrent of spiritual introspection, familial fighting, and personal revelation, we instead find an all too familiar acquiescence to life's incessant realities. A fractured narrative ensues, reinforcing the power of the banalities of existence over the larger questions of our lives.

Assayes tells his story without any obvious didacticism, and cinematographer Eric Gautier's camera captures the dynamic relationships in the family with a balletic grace. Weaving and spinning around larger gatherings, we sense the motion and movement of a family thrust forward, while he treats smaller confrontations with intimate closeups, revealing the depth and nuance of the relationships.

Summer Hours is the second film commissioned by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, the famous museum built inside of the former railway station Gare d'Orsay. The first was last year's art-house sensation Flight of the Red Balloon, and while the latter only nominally included the museum in the story, Summer Hours features it much more prominently, though not necessarily flatteringly. As much of the family's art ends up in the museum, we see it stripped bare for display. Crowds of onlookers pass it by with barely a glance; the art's significance fades, just like film's opening mirage.

Final Thought: A meditative tome on the relationship between life and art that offers abundant rewards, if few answers.


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Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009, dir. J.J. Abrams)

Published at InReviewOnline

If the classic science fiction films of the 1950's largely mirrored the paranoia and fear of an America in the grips of a cold war, Star Trek's debut in 1966 signaled a new era of hope for the future, a vision of racial equality and multiculturalism that avoided the cultural relativism that so often goes hand in hand. Gene Roddenberry, the shows original creator, saw a future in which Americans, Russians, Asians, blacks, and whites work together without prejudice, a future in which humankind has conquered the scourges of hunger, poverty, war, and religion. His utopia unleashed humanity's collective curiosity on the universe, creating an endless chain of adventures that we enjoy as much for their thoughtful dilemmas as for their suspenseful action. Star Trek embodied progressive notions of justice, civility, and liberty, while embracing the best of its sci-fi predecessors: the contrast between man's limitless potential and his utter insignificance.

Director J.J. Abrams' second feature film, Star Trek, almost universally hailed as the "Star Trek reboot", is better thought of as Star Trek's assimilation. It's not the end of a franchise, and it's certainly not the end of Star-Trek-as-commercial-endeavor. It's the end of Roddenberry's narrative ideal, an attempt to challenge our accepted mores as much as to satisfy our entertainment needs. Star Trek had reached a dead end; it was an anachronism in an entertainment world ruled by form, not content. It's no secret that Hollywood's ability to create intellectually stimulating entertainment has fallen in inverse proportion to it's ability to create stunningly realized worlds with CGI.

You'd be wrong to assume in reading all of this that I'm a die-hard "trekkie," or that I'm a cinematic snob, or even that I didn't enjoy Abrams' Star Trek. I did enjoy it. After twenty or thirty minutes of dangerously clumsy exposition (including a car chase scene whose only apparent purpose was to find a way to plug "Nokia" phones in a story set 380 years from the present), we're treated to one of Hollywood's better action blockbusters. Writers (and admitted "trekkies") Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have developed an alternate Star Trek universe. A black-hole enables a 130 year old Spock and some very angry Romulans to travel back in time to a point in space conveniently inhabited by James T. Kirk's father and mother (the latter of which is in the process of giving birth to James). The Romulans lay waste to the relatively tiny and ill equipped star ship, killing James' father and narrowly missing his mother.

The black-hole is essentially Hollywood's deus ex machina, freeing Abrams from the philosophical baggage that simultaneously bolstered Star Trek's narrative strength and sealed its commercial weakness. On top of this new canvas they've grafted a number of perfectly respectable formulas, including:
  1. Rebel without a cause (James T. Kirk, played by newest celebrity heartthrob Chris Pine)
  2. Freudian mother surrogate (Uhura, played by Guess Who co-star Zoe Saldana, who throws some surprising pity-sex at the young Spock)
  3. Man of two three worlds (Spock, played by Heroes star Zachary Quinto)
  4. Unrecognized genius (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, hilariously played by British actor/comedian Simon Pegg)
If Abrams' Star Trek is anything, it's the deft combination of several tried and true narrative arcs. And if Star Trek is the death of Star Trek, it's also the birth of Hollywood's newest cash cow. $75 million dollars in the opening weekend... Roddenberry who?

Final Thought: Resistance is futile. Just enjoy the damn thing.


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Originally published at InReviewOnline

X-Men Origins: Wolverine,
the opening salvo in 2009's battle for our expendable income, is both straightforward and efficient. Gone are the cunning stratagems and clever ambushes of yesterday's wars. Modern entertainment warfare, relying on technological superiority, is an all-out assault on our senses, hypnotizing us with an orgasmic array of carnage, sex, and spectacle. Our minds vainly struggle to process the avalanche of sensory data, leaving us few reserves for our intellectual and emotional counter-assaults.

The film begins with a short, confusing, overly melodramatic prelude, in which the young child Logan (that's Wolverine's real name for the uninitiated) impales his friend's father (who's actually his real father) in a fit of animal rage after realizing his real father (who's actually his fake father) died at his friend's father's hands. Confused? Don't worry, all that really matters is that we learn that his friend, Victor Creed (better known in the X-Men Universe as Sabretooth, Wolverine's arch-nemesis) is actually Logan's brother, thus paving the way for the familiar dialectic between sibling bonds and moral imperatives.

Immediately after the prelude, we witness the film's greatest cinematic achievement: the opening credits. No, I'm not joking. In the space of these credits, we watch the two brothers transform physically, emotionally, and psychologically as they fight their way through every major American war from the Civil War all the way to Vietnam. As each war grows more destructive, so do Victor's actions, culminating in an attempted rape scene in a Vietnamese village, with Logan torn between saving Victor from himself and protecting Victor from the criminal consequences of his actions. Few films have so efficiently charted a character's moral degradation, or so effectively set up the primary narrative dynamic.

Unfortunately, the film that follows fails to capitalize on this achievement; it proceeds more like a desperate race to the finish, and one that (perhaps intentionally) leaves us few chances for reflection. Characters rapidly grace the screen, slicing their way through the film, and exiting stage right just in time for the next characters to make their raucous entrance. We bounce back and forth between sets, locations. At the end, we're sweaty, out of breath, and a little light-headed (ironically, not unlike the film's protagonist). Even if we enjoyed the experience, we may not entirely remember it.

Though X-Men Origins: Wolverine can't measure up to some of the more admirable recent comic book adaptations like Spiderman, Iron Man, and Batman Begins, it also mercifully avoids any of the arrogant pretensions of one of it's more recent co-conspirators, Watchmen. And if its tragic, gritty tone may occasionally wobble, we can at least be thankful that the film never for a second pretends to be anything more than it is. Had it foolishly attempted to elevate itself from the ranks of frivolous diversion, we would have undoubtedly grown painfully aware of the lack of depth, narrative coherence, or witty repartee that a higher-caliber comic book film demands. We can endlessly debate the merits of escapist cinema, but there's no debating the inherent flaws of mindless entertainment that masquerades as real cinema.


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