REVIEW: “Terminator: Genisys”

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Since its inception way back in 1984, the Terminator franchise has made a name for itself. The first film was an unexpected success but it was the first sequel, “Judgement Day” which arrived seven years later, that launched the series into the upper stratosphere of pop culture. “Terminator Salvation” came out in 2009 and unlike most I thought it was a fun and unique perspective on the series. The film wasn’t as profitable as normal leaving the direction of the franchise uncertain.

But fear not, now we have a fifth installment in the form of “Terminator: Genisys”. It offers up a new  story angle with a completely new set of people playing the same franchise characters. The only familiar face is Arnold Schwarzenegger who returns as the outdated but tough T-800 Terminator. While it does try to do several interesting things ultimately it rehashes too much from its predecessors and nearly all of its attempts at originality fall flat.

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To be honest laying out a story introduction is easier said than done. In the future John Connor (this time played by Jason Clarke) leads a big final assault on Skynet. As victory looks certain it is discovered that Skynet has sent a T-800 back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (remember the first film?). John Connor sends his most trusted man Kyle Reese (this time played by Jai Courtney) back in time to protect his mother but during the process the timeline is disrupted. Basically this flubs up everything from the past movies which grants the writers a new canvas to work on.

Once Kyle arrives in 1984 he is attacked by a liquid metal T-1000 Terminator. He is rescued by a young Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and her pet…err guardian Pops. Pops (Schwarzenegger) is a T-800 sent back years earlier to protect her. Follow me so far? The rest of the film features the trio setting out to destroy Skynet before it destroys humanity. Skynet is hiding under the guise of Genisys, a popular worldwide operating system nearing its global launch. Infiltrate Genisys, blow it up, save the world. But of course that is easier said than done.

The time traveling hopscotch does offer some intriguing possibilities and the tie-ins with previous films at first are pretty great. But eventually the time element grows convoluted and most of the tie-ins feel more like crutches than attempts at any meaningful continuity. The further the movie went the more disconnected I became. In the end I kept saying to myself “This doesn’t feel like a Terminator movie”. Sure it is playing in the same sandbox, but nearly everything new it offers feels generic. There are some funny moments where they capture some of the charm that first surfaced in “T2”. There just aren’t enough of them.

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And then there is the casting. Arnie is entertaining playing the cold, dry terminator (a mirror to his usual acting ability). He is given more fun things to do than anyone else and he has a blast with it. One the other end there is Emilia Clarke who never offers up a convincing Sarah Connor. Perhaps comparing her to Linda Hamilton is grossly unfair, but she doesn’t come across as genuinely tough or tenacious. Sometimes her performance is just bad. And it doesn’t help that she and Courtney have practically no chemistry. Even Jason Clarke’s scar-faced John Connor felt a bit off.

My problems with the cast could also be due to fatigue. It could be I’m just tired of seeing the same characters constantly being portrayed by new faces. The series has often addressed this issue with age gaps. But now we have had Clarke and Christian Bale as older John Connor; Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl as younger John Connor; Courtney, Michael Biehn and Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese; Clarke and Hamilton as Sarah, etc. It may be an unavoidable dilemma but if so it stresses the importance of casting the right people.

“Genisys” does have a couple of cool action sequences, some good laughs, and an occasional fun nostalgic nod. And on its own it does make for decent, lightweight science fiction. The problem lies in its connection to a major popular franchise. A ‘Terminator’ film brings with it certain high expectations (from some audiences) and “Genisys” doesn’t meet them. As I said, it doesn’t feel like a ‘Terminator’ movie which in the end is a pretty bad thing.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

 

REVIEW: “Maggie”

MAGGIE POSTER

One could make the argument that the cinema landscape has been saturated with zombie movies. There have been numerous interpretations of zombie horror. We have had zombie comedies. We’ve even had a weird zombie romance flick. Yet with so many variations of zombie movies, I’ve seen nothing quite like “Maggie”. Writer John Scott 3 pens a story that pulls the focus off of the normal zombie movie machinations and tropes. Instead he shoots for a more personal approach by spotlighting intimacies rarely considered in these types of films.

“Maggie” is a movie full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest comes in the lead performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a dramatic departure from anything he has done before, Arnie plays a father whose daughter has been bitten and infected with a deadly, incurable virus. The majority of the story focuses on their time together between the onset of the virus and what looks like the inevitable outcome. Schwarzenegger dials it back and shows an understated side to his acting that is absolutely essential to his character, Wade Vogel. His bearded face is worn and weathered and he is clearly a man tormented by his new reality.

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Abigail Breslin plays his daughter Maggie. We first meet her making a phone call to her father telling him not to come looking for her. Soon after she is caught in town past the city curfew and it is revealed she has been bitten and infected by the fatal disease that has ravaged most of the world’s population. Wade is allowed to take Maggie home for her final days until the virus reaches a point where she must be sent to what is called Quarantine to be “processed”. Joely Richardson is very good as Maggie’s caring but nervous stepmother. She struggles to balance her support for Wade with her fears of Maggie’s condition.

In a way “Maggie” could be called a family tragedy. It just happens to take place during a zombie apocalypse. But zombies are never the focal point. Their threat lingers in the background occasionally showing itself. Director Henry Hobson keeps his film from becoming a ‘zombie movie’. He effectively uses that backdrop to energize the movie’s sad and hopeless setting, but whenever the film is potentially moving into conventional directions his restraint becomes obvious and he pulls us back to the primary focal point.

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As a whole, Hobson’s direction is yet another of the film’s surprises. It’s always nice to see a first time director throw aside a number of conventions and add a degree of style. This is clearly seen in the great job he does capturing mood and atmosphere. It’s well realized through Hobson’s camera, by his strategic use of David Wingo’s score, and through the telling expressions of his cast. Without the right tone the story would have fallen flat. I also like the deliberate pace of the story, something that Hobson and Scott clearly aim for. I can see where some may find it slow and even languid, but I never felt that at all. I fell right into the pacing and the story itself.

“Maggie” intrigued me from its first trailer, but the actual movie was even more enjoyable than I expected. It is such an interesting mix of subtle horror and emotional family drama. And even when it leans a little heavy on the melodrama, it feels surprisingly earned and acceptable. There is also an earnest sweetness at the heart of “Maggie”. The central father/daughter relationship is what drives the film and provides its satisfying emotional core. And that relationship is strengthened more by two very good performances particularly Schwarzenegger who shows us a side that I hope to see again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW : “The Expendables 3”

EXPEND POSTER

The entire Expendables franchise started as a nostalgic rekindling of the once prominent over-the-top action genre. It wasn’t afraid to parody itself or play with the familiar action cliches of the 1980s and early 90s. And half of the fun was just seeing these actors together hamming it up and shooting a ton of bullets. The first film was entertaining and it set the table for the second installment which I thought was funnier and more self-deprecating while clinging to the all-important nostalgia. Now we have an inevitable third film which tries to keep the ball rolling.

“The Expendables 3” is made for a PG-13 audience (at least so it says), but don’t be misled. The body count is still astronomical and bullets fly aplenty. But the blood is reined in just enough to somehow keep it from an R rating. Unfortunately its desire for a broader audience, while noble in purpose, is undermined by the fact that the movie simply isn’t as fun or nostalgic as either of the first two pictures.

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Sylvester Stallone and his action ensemble returns minus Bruce Willis who declined because he wanted more money (one of the film’s funnier jokes takes a shot at the publicized dispute). And in keeping with the franchise’s trend, several new stars are added into the mix. Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and action star extraordinaire (sarcasm absolutely intended) Kelsey Grammer. These are some interesting names and it would be fun to see what the movie would be like if they were all that was added to it.

But in an attempt to inject some youth and potentially pass the torch, a group of new Expendables are added to the group. This is one of the film’s major blunders because none of these youngsters are the slightest bit interesting. They are cardboard cutouts and sometimes their acting makes Stallone’s look good. In case you don’t know, that is no compliment. They are walking talking cliches and they zap the movie of its fun and playful energy.

But the film’s main dish is the action and as I mentioned there is plenty of it. The problem is it lacks the pop that we’ve seen in the other flicks. What I mean is the action scenes rarely energize the movie. In the earlier films regardless of whatever narrative problems they would be having you could count on the action to liven things up. Here it often feels generic and monotonous. There are moments when they do pull off one of those great over-the-top stunts that feels right at home in the 80s. There are other moments that just feel like a boring grind.

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Thankfully some of the old action veterans do save this from being a disaster. Mel Gibson is deliciously maniacal as the head baddie. While his grand scheme and ultimate motivations are murky, Gibson has a ball with the character and I loved every minute he was on screen. Harrison Ford was also a hoot as a grumpy hard-nosed CIA officer. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also fun and every line he has seems to be poking fun at himself. Same with Wesley Snipes. But many of the cast gets lost in the shuffle and rarely get their signature moment in the film. Too many characters and not enough screen time to go around.

In the end “The Expendables 3” lacks the fun, the excitement, and the charm that the franchise built itself on. The action isn’t good enough this time around to save the film from its clunky and paper-thin plot. And while some of the old guys are a lot of fun, namely Gibson and Ford, too many characters are shortchanged thanks to the introduction of an insipid younger crew. It’s unfortunate because I have always enjoyed these movies as entertaining nostalgic escapes. “The Expendables 3” has left me wondering if this ship has run its course.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Escape Plan”

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Ever since the release of “The Expendables” in 2010 there has been a resurgence of 80s styled action pictures. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the two biggest names from that once immensely popular genre, have returned to the big screen with a number of bullet-riddled movies. The two stars join together, bicep to bicep, to bring us the silly and implausible “Escape Plan”. But who would go to a Sly and Arnie movie looking for something with deeper meaning?

In many regards “Escape Plan” is big, dumb throwback fun. The entire premise is a bit goofy and writers Miles Chapman and Jason Keller trip over themselves in the telling of the story. But still, there is a nostalgic satisfaction that this movie provides. It hearkens back to ‘the good old days’ for these two stars. They have more gray hair, they’re slower, they need more camera trickery to make them appear like the big screen tough guys they once were. But both still have charisma and an air of confidence that makes this film fun even amid its occasional eye-rolling bad dialogue, gaping plot holes, and overall silly concept.

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The story goes like this: Stallone plays a fellow named Ray Breslin and he wrote the book on prison escapes and I mean that literally. He is the head of a security firm that evaluates the strengths of maximum security prisons. How does he do this? He develops a false identity, has himself placed in the prison, and then breaks out. Helping him in this odd but apparently lucrative business is his skittish business partner Lester (Vincent D’Onofrio), his trusted associate (and possible romantic interest) Abigail (Amy Ryan), and a computer hacker named Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

One day Breslin and company are approached by a CIA operative (Caitriona Balfe) who wants him to test a top secret prison built for the worst criminals. It’s the mother of all prison breaks that comes with a healthy $10 million payday attached. Breslin decides the money is too good to pass up so he throws aside his standard safety protocols and allows himself to be captured, drugged, and transported to “The Tomb” (play ominous location music here). Once there he quickly learns he’s been set up and it will take the help of a surly fellow inmate named Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) if he hopes to get out.

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Swedish director Mikael Håfström does a fairly good job of keeping things moving once it gets started and there are some interesting twists along the way. The Tomb itself is pretty neat with its honeycomb glass cells and intriguing secret. The guards wear black uniforms and cool futuristic masquerade ball masks (although I’m not sure why). Then there is Jim Caviezel who is a ton of fun as the soft speaking sadistic warden. His deliveries and mannerisms offer an entertaining variation of a fairly familiar character type. And while Stallone is in serious mode most of the time, Arnie gives the film some humor. Amid his sometimes corny dialogue and patented wooden line reading, he tosses out some pretty decent laughs.

All of that sounds good but unfortunately the problems I mentioned earlier do stand out. You’ll have to accept its absurdity and understand that there are several questions you’ll never get sufficient answers for. The storytelling is a little sloppy in places, the dialogue a bit cheesy, and it doesn’t have many of those big moments that we’re used to getting from these fellows. But I still give the film some credit. Stallone and Schwarzenegger aren’t spring chickens any more but the fact that they still have those big infectious action-packed personalities says something. And that’s a big reason they’re able to make this film work.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

The Public Movie Defender – “Terminator Salvation”

DEFENDER TERMINATOR

The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #2 – “TERMINATOR SALVATION”

TERM SALVFor some reason I’ve had this weird and unexplainable urge to write a review about a movie that I really like but most others don’t. Is it my pointless sense of duty to defend a film largely maligned by critics and my fellow movie fans? Is it some twisted pleasure I’ll take in the heat received from my fellow movie blogging pals? Whatever the reason I’m going to make my case for “Terminator Salvation”.

This 2009 sci-fi action flick was the fourth installment in the widely popular “Terminator” series. It was also a film of many firsts for the franchise. It’s the first “Terminator” picture that didn’t star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the first film in the franchise that received a PG-13 rating. It’s also the first film that takes place in the post-Judgement Day future. I suppose these things played into the disdain some people felt towards this film but it has also received a variety of other criticisms. It has been called soulless, humorless, joyless, and brainless. In fact the overwhelming consensus is that “Terminator Salvation” glaringly fails to capture any of the magic of the previous three movies. Obviously I disagree.

Now let me be clear, “Terminator Salvation” is not a 5 star movie. In fact it’s the third or fourth best film in the franchise. But I still found it to be a fun, action-fueled experience and a worthy installment to the series. The time travel element is gone making the entire ‘future versus present’ dynamic that was a big part of the other movies nonexistent. I have to admit that I missed that. That was one of the coolest things about this series. But that doesn’t mean that “Terminator Salvation” can’t stand on its own merit. It’s a grittier and more militaristic story and the humor, while definitely there, is much more restrained mainly due to the more serious tone of this film.

So the story goes like this, It’s 2018. Skynet has been activated and Judgement Day has wiped out a massive number of earth’s population. Christian Bale plays the third version of John Connor. This time he’s a key member of the human race’s resistance against the machines. Small pockets of the resistance are scattered everywhere including in the ruins of Los Angeles where Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) struggles to survive. Kyle and a young girl named Star (Jadagrace Perry) call themselves the L.A. branch of the resistance but they’re mainly just kids in hiding. They latch onto a mysterious stranger named Marcus (Sam Worthington) who knows nothing about the war with the machines.

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After hearing a radio message from John Connor, the three set out to find the resistance headquarters – Kyle in hopes of joining the fight and Marcus in hopes of finding answers. But things don’t workout that well and Kyle and Star and captured during an attack by the machines. Marcus makes his way to the resistance base with the help of downed pilot Blair (Moon Bloodgood) but his story takes a crazy turn after John Connor and company find out exactly who he is. This whole twist may not be all that surprising but I really liked what it added to the story and to Marcus’ character. There are some interesting moral questions that are tossed around and some tricky decisions that the characters have to make.

But those things are small pieces in a bigger puzzle put together by director McG (I roll my eyes every time I say his name). This is first and foremost a sci-fi action picture and McG frames some pretty spectacular action sequences. The special effects can be pretty stunning such as during an attack by a giant machine on a small group of survivors hiding at a gas station. It and the wild chase that follows was fantastic. McG also tries to throw in several little things to connect the movie to the previous ones. I admit that they can feel a little forced such as when the cool Guns n’ Roses tune “You Could Be Mine” from T2 pops up. But I also have to admit I responded to the nostalgic bits regardless of how cheap they may have felt. And when a certain familiar CGI face pops up later in the film, I still let out a child-like squeal.

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I also like the performances. There’s nothing award worthy from any of the performers but they all feel grounded in the world we see. Bale is as solid as always although he is asked to do a little more shouting than I would have liked. I also liked Yelchin as a young Kyle Reese. He certainly doesn’t look anything like Michael Biehn from the first “Terminator” flick but did Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl resemble at all? But I really liked Sam Worthington here. This is the first film I saw him in and here he’s one tough cookie. I know he hasn’t shown a bit of range since and his acting chops are in question, but I thought he was a perfect fit for this part.

“Terminator Salvation” is a very different movie in the Terminator catalog. It’s not about the future invading our present. It’s about the war the other three movies were trying to prevent. That jolt alone was too much for some people to take. I also understand the absence of Schwarzenegger is a big deal. I mean these were his movies. But for me, those things don’t make this a bad film. The humor is toned down because the times are bad but the action and special effects are mighty good. It has its share of conveniences and head-scratching moments but doesn’t every movie in this franchise? I liked “Terminator Salvation” and while it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I think it has a place in the series.

VERDICT : “TERMINATOR SALVATION” – 4 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Cemetery Scenes

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It’s funny how I happened upon this week’s Phenomenal 5 list. I was in somewhat of a funk, unable to come up with a list that felt fresh. Well sometimes simply looking out your car window can offer up inspiration. Such was the case this week as I list 5 phenomenal movie cemetery scenes. I passed a cemetery and I instantly started thinking on the great movie scenes that have taken place in them. In fact it’s more than you might think. Obviously there are loads of horror films that are right at home in a graveyard. But I’ve also come up with great scenes from other genres. And to make the list more intriguing, I’ve chosen scenes that DO NOT feature a funeral (you’ll read about those in the near future). So considering the plethora of great movie cemetery scenes I would be dead wrong to call this the definitive list. But I feel perfectly comfortable calling these 5 movie cemetery scenes absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE THIRD MAN”

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One of my all time favorite classic movies is 1949’s “The Third Man” from Carol Reed. In the film an American writer named Martins (Joseph Cotton) visits Vienna in the wake of World War 2 to find an old friend who has offered him a job. He finds out his friend has been killed in an accident but he begins to suspect murder. He befriends his buddy’s girlfriend named Anna but soon finds out that she and nearly everyone else he meets is involved in the mystery. I don’t want to spoil anything so lets just say the movie ends after a funeral. Now this isn’t a cheat because my scene of choice is the final shot of the movie. It’s a long shot of Anna walking towards the camera with Martins leaning on a cart waiting for her. She walks and walks, finally making it to us but continuing out out of the picture. Martins is left alone and the movie ends on that note. It’s the perfect ending.

#4 – “TERMINATOR 3”

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How can I talk about cemetery scenes and not include the ridiculously over-the-top but ridiculously fun scene from “Terminator 3”? This franchise is known for its monster action sequences and this is one of the biggest. Thinking he is visiting his mother’s tomb, the Terminator reveals to John Connor that the casket is actually full of weapons. Arnie then busts out of the mausoleum with the casket full of weapons on his shoulder and a mini gun on his hip. He throws the casket into a hearse and then sprays every police car within 3 miles full of lead. But it doesn’t stop there. The evil terminator then appears and a crazy chase through the cemetery follows. A rocket launcher to her chest and a few broken tombstones later, and we get a wilder ending to what is a great cemetery scene.

#3 – “ARMY OF DARKNESS”

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Call it a sentimental choice but I just had to include the wacky cemetery sequence from “Army of Darkness”. You know the story, our “Evil Dead” hero Ash has been sucked back to the medieval past where and the Necronomicon holds the secrets to getting him back home. The problem is the Necronomicon is hidden deep within a spooky old cemetery. Ash makes his way to the center of the graveyard where three books await, two are traps and one is the real book. After a painful process of elimination, Ash finds the real book. All he has to do is say the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” and he can safely remove it. Of course he completely botches it which triggers the rise of the army of darkness. It’s a hysterical cemetery scene from a great movie.

#2 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”

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I hate to keep including this movie in my Phenomenal 5 lists, but I can’t help it. George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” is such a great movie. Just think, the entire zombie craze as we know it today started in a rural Pennsylvania cemetery during this film’s wonderful opening scene. Barbra and her jerk of a brother Johnny have been making the long trip to visit their father’s grave for several years. But this year it’s a little different. As Johnny is teasing Barbra about her uneasiness in the cemetery they notice a man stumbling their way. As he approaches them he attacks. Johnny fights with the man only to have his head slammed against a rock in the struggle. The man then chases Barbra out of the cemetery which launches this classic horror story.

#1 – “THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY”

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Of all the Phenomenal 5 lists I’ve done none have had a more obvious #1 choice than this one. Sergio Leone had an unmatched knack for building up and executing great western showdowns. Perhaps his best takes place in his tasty 1966 spaghetti dish “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. In a scene destined to take place since the film’s brilliant opening, the good (Clint Eastwood), the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the ugly (Eli Wallach) come together in a Mexican showdown at Sad Hill Cemetery. With buried gold at stake the three square off in a three-way duel not knowing who can trust who. Leone masterfully soaks the scene in tension with his camera and with Ennio Morricone’s glorious music. And even after the shootout, Leone gives us a classic finale that seals its place at the top of the list.

There are several other fantastic cemetery scenes I hated to leave off. What are your favorites? Please take time to let me know what you agree or disagree with.