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Terminator Salvation (2009) June 19, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , add a comment

Directed by: McG

The pop culture embedded Terminator franchise has spent the last twenty five years slowly moving from sci-fi spectacle to action spectacular, cumulating in the uneven T2 rehash, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.  But say what you will about this mostly mediocre third outing, the film still has one hell of an ending; a perfectly pitched moment of reality in an otherwise fantasy construct.  It also neatly places a question mark at the end of the series’ mantra “No fate but what we make”, which, if true, suggests that the newly released Terminator Salvation is a product of human conception, and not of predetermined destiny.  In a nutshell: we only have ourselves to blame.

The year is now 2018, and unlikely rogue John Connor has become a commander in the Resistance; groups of humans who fight to save their race from the onslaught of Terminator robots controlled by Skynet.  Amidst the war, Connor is searching for Kyle Reese, the boy who will grow up, be sent back in time, and become Connor’s father during the events that took place back in 1984.  Meanwhile, a death row convict by the name of Marcus Wright suddenly wakes up in the middle of this post-apocalyptic world.  Having been apparently sentenced in 2003, he now stumbles into the path of Kyle Reese, who is living a defensive life amongst the Los Angeles ruins.  Together, they travel to join up with the Resistance, fighting off a robotic onslaught along the way.  Only Wright, mysteriously revived and stronger than ever, feels misplaced.  His choice of side in this future war might not yet be decided.

For many, this is the Terminator story we’ve all been waiting for.  A savage future only glimpsed at in previous instalments finally gets its big screen curtain call, and even at this early stage of Terminator development, we are handed frames full of killer cybernetic organisms, deadly airborne Hunter Killers, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and wild action sequences.  Which makes it even more disappointing to say that Salvation is by far the dullest of all its predecessors, tied to a plot that resembles a slow trudge through its own deserted wastelands.

And where the story fails the characters follow suit, playing like depressed puppets on the path to an all-action conclusion.  This is especially true of series regular John Connor, who comes off incredibly hollow this time around, only summoning breath to growl the plot or bark some orders to his equally 2D comrades.  In both previous incarnations Connor at least had passion, in Salvation he is the most blank character on the screen, and that includes the cyborgs.  Christian Bale’s performance doesn’t help matters, his usually excellent judgement sorely off the mark here.  For fans of American Psycho, he could have used a little more Bateman and a lot less Batman to bring Resistance-era Connor to life.

It therefore falls to Sam Worthington, as second lead Marcus Wright and the newest major character, to inject some much needed humanity into the proceedings, a feat which he manages admirably despite turgid material.  It is clear that inside this mangled mess of a film is a better story that’s fighting to get out - one that pitches Marcus Wright as the centre of the movie and casts Connor off to one side where he belongs.  In this imagined alternate narrative, Marcus would come to terms with his semi-bionic transition and wrestle his own conciousness over which side he should rightly side with.  Man or Machine?  As an evil-doer given an unfair second chance, he finds his salvation in giving the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the future of the Resistance.  In fairness, the A to B remains essentially the same, but all the interesting character details are lost while director McG is servicing Connor, and a perceived fanbase expectation.

While on the subject of McG, his presence in the franchise has brought with it some fervent backlash, with many bemoaning the rather silly Charlie’s Angels and its ridiculous sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle as exactly the kind of influence Terminator should be moving away from.  In actual fact, Salvation takes none of the comic book jesting of the Angels movies and probably suffers for it.  Terminators 2 & 3 understood that there’s room for humour, even if its execution was far from inspired.  Here, there are no laughs, a possible implication that jocularity was the first thing to be annihilated on Judgement Day.  In its defence, the tone rarely calls for light relief, and the film hasn’t entirely forgotten its roots, making a concerted effort to drop tidy references that link things nicely into the original Terminator.

Then there’s the action, which is suitably pumped up, but also lacks punch especially during early sequences.  The classic Terminator robots - those frighteningly persistent killing machines from previous outings - are mostly absent this time round, removing much of the seat-gripping threat they present.  And it’s the little omissions like this that make the movie such a drag.  No, we didn’t want to see just another “eliminate John Connor” chase story, but neither did we need a tale that takes ninety of its 115 minutes to get going.  The film can always fall back on its CG, of course, and where the terminator / human hybrid models and their feeling of weight really shine through, in a post-Transformers world every large-scale set piece can only play second fiddle to Michael Bay’s ludicrously over the top robotic spectacle.

Terminator Salvation is a great example of a movie with all the elements, but a complete inability to combine them in a reactive manner on screen.  This film, and this period particularly, should have benefited from the gritty treatment.  Instead, it only adds to the weight of an already leaden and dull story.  Placing all the blame on McG might be unfair, but going with material that makes even seasoned actors like Bale look bad and plotting that increases your impatience by holding back Marcus’s big reveal (which you’ll know unless you skipped the trailer and slept through the first five minutes of the movie), the finger inevitably points his way.  Even a rousing helicopter crash, shot POV style from inside the cockpit, failed to raise the pulse due to its inclusion in such tedious surroundings.  “No fate but what we make” gets a cursory quotation at the end, but in a film that has little to do with fate or any of the Terminator themes, it feels desperate and perfunctory, much like the movie itself.

Terminator Salvation is currently on UK general release.

The Hangover (2009) June 12, 2009

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Directed by: Todd Phillips

For a period post-American Pie, we found college students running amok all over our screens with their tales of debauchery and seemingly endless wacky adventures.  Of these, Todd Phillips’ Road Trip was one of the more popular forays into youthful abandon.  But it was in taking these genre attributes and applying them to three irresponsible adults that provided him his directorial raison d’être, with 2003’s Old School.  After a couple of misfire comedies including the dire Starsky & Hutch update, Phillips returns to old ground, pushing his adult-olescent sensibilities to their natural extreme and letting them loose all over Sin City.

The Hangover takes us on a trip to the famous bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada, for Doug Billing’s bachelor party.  Along for the ride are his best friends Stu and Phil, as well as his oddball brother-in-law Alan.  As they book into their luxury suite and take shots on the hotel roof, Phil promises them a night they’ll never forget.  He’s wrong, of course.  Waking up the next morning, their elegant room lies in ruins; the mangled evidence of a wild night no-one can remember.  Worse still, Doug is missing, and his wedding is just a day away.  Alan, Stu and Phil band together in a desperate attempt to locate their friend, but as they scour Las Vegas for clues, the full extent of their reckless night becomes frighteningly clear.

As per its description the film is far from intellectual, and unlike the R-rated Apatow productions that have become popular recently, it has little emotional grounding.  But what it does benefit from is a gag rate that’s through-the-roof, and a group of comic actors who know how to land every one.  The characters themselves are pulled straight out of the comedy grab-bag: one cool guy, one nerdy guy, a stupid guy and the all-round nice guy.  It’s a tried and true formula that once again bounces these differing personalities off each other to create a whirlwind of comical situations.

Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have taken their archetypes and dropped them into a story that shows surprising restraint.  Rather than go for easy screwball laughs up front, the film skips straight over the booze-fuelled evening and dives head first into the fuzzy morning after.  This is by far the smarter play, and allows for much greater pay-offs as the camera stumbles around the hotel room in the same dazed and misinformed state as the characters.  Each turn brings with it a new problem, the cumulative effect of which leads the three friends out into the harsh Vegas daylight, wherein the movie really starts to pick up steam.

From here on out the story becomes a bunch of set-pieces, essentially jumping from one crazy situation to another with their search for Doug as a through-line.  Despite this by-the-numbers approach, each piece holds together effectively and it’s a credit to Lucas and Moore, whose previous works include the less than spectacular Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, that they managed to squeeze in such a wide range of ridiculous incidents.  Between the arrests, hospitalisations, weddings, gambling, and theft (of the car, animal and baby variety), the film still makes time to keep things light and funny, with the kind of profane banter you’d expect from a comedy in this age classification.

Much of the credit here must fall to the fantastic casting.  Just like Old School, which caught both Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell right on the cusp of going nuclear in Hollywood, it feels as if we’ll being seeing much more of these four male leads.  National Treasure’s Justin Bartha plays Doug, the misplaced glue of the friendship group, while Bradley Cooper steps smoothly into the easy-going Phil.  Meanwhile, former Daily Show correspondent and current Office worker Ed Helms gets the dorky role of Stu and plays it to a tee.  But it is Zach Galifianakis, as clueless loner Alan, for whom this film should open the most doors.  His pitch perfect physicality and dopey deliveries will make him the new must-have commodity.  Danny McBride had better watch his back.

In the end these high-concept, low-intelligence comedies live or die simply by how funny they are.  The Hangover has exploded in the US, not because it shatters its genre or presents us with anything drastically different, but because word got around that it’s the funniest ticket in town.  Even as the film lurches into excess for its third act - a neat dig at Rain Man and Vegas heist themed movies like 21 shifts the story from forgivably unlikely to laughably implausible - there’s never the feeling that this R-rated comedy is about to let up.  For Todd Phillips, the news that people aren’t calling this the lighter version of Very Bad Things, or ‘Old School in Las Vegas’, will be more than welcome.  Come the end of the movie you can practically hear the alkaseltsa fizzing away into water; the sound of an audience forgetting all about Starsky & Hutch.

The Hangover is on UK general release from today.

Ghost Town (2008) June 7, 2009

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Directed by: David Koepp

During Ricky Gervais’ rise to stardom on the small screen, the actor admits to being offered “loads” of movie opportunities, but chose to keep his commitments tightly controlled by declining almost everything.  His few big screen appearances to date have mainly been the result of cordial trade-offs, with parts in Night At the Museum [review] and Stardust, exchanged for guest appearances by stars Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro in Gervais’ Extras television series.  But here we find Ricky out of his usual habitat, in a film he has neither written nor directed.  The reason?  According to Gervais, it was a combination of New York, writer David Koepp and “the best script I’ve read”.  So imagine the surprise when we discover…

Ghost Town is a romantic comedy, set in New York, about a curmudgeonly dentist who gains the ability to see and talk to ghosts.  Bertram Pinkus has little in the way of people skills, but when he is admitted to hospital for a routine operation, a complication leaves him dead for seven minutes.  On revival, he discovers that he can communicate with spirits of the dead, and they’re a demanding bunch too.  It is recently deceased Frank Herlihy who gets to Pinkus first, asking him to help break up the relationship between his wife and her new man, in return for solitude from the other ghosts.  But during his attempts to separate the couple, Pinkus ignites his own feelings, and traps himself in a romantic entanglement with the newly widowed Gwen.

For many, the natural first thought on reading the synopsis or even watching the trailer was “Really? This is the best script?  The one with the bothersome ghosts and the unlikely romantic pairing?”.  But this assumption, like many made prematurely and without proper consideration, was to come back and bite those who formed it, as I’m happy to report that Ghost Town is not only very nicely written, but also a heartfelt piece of filmmaking that treads the precarious line of sentimentality with fine precision.

I have to admit that I was part of the assumptive group, believing that this could be a serious stumbling block for the British actor and comedian.  But maybe I should have trusted his judgement a little more, after all, his TV series have been some of the funniest and inventive in recent years.  The draw of David Koepp is not to be understated either.  As the writer of blockbusters Jurassic Park, Mission:Impossible and Spider-Man, he has already seen the top of the Hollywood ladder; while as a director he takes this chance to move away from previously helmed thrillers such as Stir of Echoes and Secret Window.  Here, he handles both roles with ease, letting his sharp scripting flow alongside a laid back directorial style.  He also proves unfazed by ad-libbing, a facet aided by the presence of a certain comic actor.

Truthfully, there’s more than a little hint that Gervais was drawn to the script because of his identification with Pinkus.  I’m sure he could see himself making the character his own, by which I mean, actually turning him into an exaggerated version of himself – the kind of role that Gervais always plays.  He gets away with it, because his trail-off deliveries and dumbfounded expressions are appropriate and regularly very funny when paired against an equally strong cast.  There’s always the underlying question of how far this self-imposed ‘character’ is going to take him, but if you accept the fact that you’re paying for Gervais as himself, rather than to embody somebody else, then you’ll have no complaints here.

The rest of the cast are well matched to play off Gervais’ individualism.  Greg Kinnear’s presence in a comedy is never unwelcome (see Little Miss Sunshine [review] and The Matador for more of his great work), while Téa Leoni has the most thankless task, playing object of affection, but doing it with charm.  Meanwhile, there are enjoyable supporting performances from The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, and from Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig, who pulls off the movie’s funniest improv scenes.  Also contributing heavily are the excellent music choices, with even the sentimental fluff tracks working quite effectively.  Extra kudos is given for negotiating the licensing quagmire and attaining the use of a Beatles track over the opening credits (the appropriately titled “I’m Looking Through You”).

As with most romantic comedies, however, Ghost Town still has its detractions.  Here, they come in the form of a slight lack of chemistry between Gervais and Leoni, while some of the plot twists are predictable and, in some cases, given away by the camera framing (in a film with so few special effects, you can pick out exactly when one is about to occur).  The strangest misjudgement though, comes from the under-explanation of the film’s concept surrounding ghosts.  Director David Koepp has a definite theory in mind, but only lets it slip out in a rather unconvincing speech towards the end of the film.  It’s an interesting idea, but many viewers will probably miss it.

On the release of Ghost Town, some commented that the film positioned Ricky Gervais as a quirky type of leading man.  In reality, this film doesn’t prove that he can carry the role, but rather that maybe the modern leading man isn’t what we all think it should be.  His very demeanour fits no pre-existing mould, but that’s exactly the reason it works.  The film is both sweet and funny, which is pretty much what you’d want in a romantic comedy, and in a genre overstocked with boring and turgid examples of how not to produce ninety minutes of entertaining buoyancy, Ghost Town is head and shoulders above its competition; a film in exactly the right spirit.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) June 1, 2009

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Directed by: Gavin Hood

Summer is Marvel’s playground right now.  When they’re not lining up characters for their upcoming Avengers blow-out, they’re building on existing franchises with blockbuster sequels that expand the universe, and budget, to new proportions.  X-Men Origins is the brand that turns this concept on its head, taking a closer look at the history of one character, rather than continuing the story of many.  Their choice for this first instalment?  Why it’s everyone’s favourite temperamental walking switch-blade: Wolverine.

Opening with a scene that sees Logan and his brother Victor run away from home in 1845, the first sequence is an impressive montage of the wars they would fight together during their exceptionally elongated middle-age.  When their invulnerability and eternal youth are finally noticed, they are recruited into a special team lead by military tearaway William Stryker.  This all-mutant unit run special operations for Stryker with little knowledge of the missions they are completing.  But as their tasks become increasingly violent in nature, Logan quits the group; something that Victor is unwilling to do given his growing ruthless anger.  Logan retires to a quiet life, working as a lumberjack and living with new girlfriend Kayla.  Six years pass until Victor mysteriously appears - now a murderous vigilante, he kills Kayla in cold blood.  Logan vows revenge, even if it means returning to Stryker for his mutant experimentation program.

With ninety percent of the screentime, this is Jackman’s movie through and through, and one in which all other characters pale in comparison to him.  That said, there is one new addition - a villain - who is clearly around to give the bad guys some much-needed cool.  The reveal of Deadpool will not be a surprise for most, but despite the merchandising-friendly nature of his inclusion, the character does significantly liven things up in the third act.  On a side note, it may also give Ryan Reynolds the spin-off movie he missed out on after the poor reception of Blade Trinity (or, as it could have been called, Nightstalkers: Origins).  Here, Deadpool’s remarkable hybrid of mutant powers makes him the only character to justifiably stand up to Wolverine, and comes as a welcome change from the lacklustre brothers-at-war story that drives most of the film. 

With this balance of power issue in mind, it’s worth mentioning that in a film where both the hero and main villain are close to invincible, it rather takes the fun and tension out of most of the action.  It’s true that superheroes are often too powerful, but we’re not just talking a simple strength advantage or web-slinging ability here.  Wolverine starts the film as a tough but vulnerable character, and then proceeds to ditch the latter aspect when he receives his indestructible metal skeleton.  While he is supposed to be avenging the death of his girlfriend (a rather flimsy conceit given their screen time together), as soon as he completes his transition into the Wolverine we know and love, he loses much of the humanity that kept him interesting in the later X-Men movies, where a fatherly pairing with Rogue tempered the character from being the a one-note animal we find here.

25th Hour [review] writer David Benioff and Swordfish writer Skip Woods have come up with a story that fits neatly around what previous X-Men movies have already revealed.  But where they fail is in trying to make it interesting or involving.  It’s not that there many things to outright hate about the film, but conversely there’s not much to love either.  Plot holes are ripe for the picking if you wish to, while the third act twist feels more like a distraction than a necessary narrative addition.  If you’re looking for true distraction, though, then special effects come top of the list, ranging from impressively spectacular to irritatingly amateur - wolverine’s claws posing a particularly inconsistent problem.

Director Gavin Hood takes responsibility for his first action movie, after making the Oscar winning drama Tsotsi [review] and then stepping up the pace with the politically-minded Rendition [review].  Even with the bigger budget and Hollywood resources, this film is notably less engaging than both his previous efforts.  Meanwhile, the cast are all rallied into position, including Liev Schreiber as Logan’s evil brother, Danny Huston playing the younger William Stryker, and Taylor Kitsch bringing a long-overdue Gambit to the screen.  Nobody in the cast really pops out though, encumbered by material that even in its best moments is linear and uninspired.

Regrettably, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as good as any of the X-Men movies.  And yes, that includes the much derided X-Men: The Last Stand [review].  If one character is to receive a stand-alone movie then they must be able to own it.  Wolverine is arguably the most popular, certainly the most marketable, and has the best history of the bunch, but we’ve been here already: it was called X2 and it was a brilliant comic book sequel that held together not just as an X-Men tale, but as an origin story that found Wolverine piecing together his broken memories.  Not only does this new, feature-length version only flesh out things we already know, but the pieces it uses as padding aren’t even that interesting.  Plus, the fact that it spoils the more interesting elements of X2 make it entirely skippable in the overall franchise.

As the flexible title suggests, this may only be the beginning.  Magneto is slated next for the Origins treatment - a much more daring and ambitious choice, and one that will need a careful hand to guide it.  More confusing is the planned possibility of a sequel to this movie (messily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2) which is redundant in two senses; both mocking the boundaries of the Origins concept, and proposing to use Wolverine’s exile stories in a way that barely impacts on his X-Men years.  If the idea is to better understand these characters, rather than to simply squeeze more money out of a popular franchise, then Marvel aren’t yet showing it.  But if they continue with these empty history lessons, expect the audience to come baring claws.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is currently on UK general release.

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