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 The only familiar face is Arnold Schwarzenegger who returns as the outdated but tough T-800 Terminator.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: “The Water Diviner”

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Russell Crowe has long been one of film’s most reliable actors. His work has earned him the reputation for giving strong and steady performances. This has allowed him to dabble in a number of different movie types and genres. But the 51-year old Oscar-winning Australian has watched his career truly flourish in period pieces covering everything from the Roman Empire to 1950s Los Angeles. Regardless of the time period or setting, Crowe always seems perfectly cast.

“The Water Diviner” places Crowe in 1919 following the end of World War I. He plays Joshua Connor, a farmer and water diviner living on the rugged Australian Outback. I knew practically nothing about the practice of water ‘divining’ but the film takes care of that in a fine opening sequence. From there we learn that recently Joshua’s life has been as hard as the ground he works. His three sons were presumed killed during the Battle of Gallipoli and his emotionally fractured wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) found it impossible to cope with the loss.

The grieving yet determined Joshua sets out to keep a promise to his wife – to find his sons and bring their bodies back home for burial. Along the way he is tortured by painful flashbacks, but his search is also assisted by guiding visions. He also encounters several key people along the way. He meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a war widow raising her son and running a hotel in Constantinople. Jai Courtney shows up playing an Australian officer tasked with finding lost Australian soldiers left on the battlefields. But the greatest help comes from an unexpected source, Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), a Turkish officer deeply sympathetic to Joshua’s plight.

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Crowe not only stars in the film but makes his directorial debut. His direction may not instantly mirror that of an auteur, but it’s clear he is no novice and he understands the craft. In many ways Crowe’s approach hearkens back to a classic form of directing. We see it in much of his structural and camera decisions but also in the simplicity of the direction. I also think Crowe should be commended for giving the film a grand, near epic look and feel despite having a less than epic budget. The budget restrictions show themselves in the handful of action sequences but overall it feels like a sweeping, expansive story.

“The Water Diviner” is an entertaining and emotionally satisfying drama but it has sparked some intense controversy. Many people were offended by the film’s failure to address the Armenian genocide. Some pretty heavy allegations were hurled at Crowe and boycotts were called for. But were those feelings justified? Is this the type of film that demands the genocide be addressed? While offering the utmost respect for those effected by the slaughter, I would argue the answer to both questions is no.

“The Water Diviner” doesn’t aim to be a historically thorough film. The story takes place after the war and the central focus is on a father’s loss of his three sons. In many ways the film highlights the futility of war and the devastating personal costs that follow. Crowe shows the post-war through several different perspectives while never taking a side or forming any conclusion. But all of that serves as a backdrop. It’s truly a story of loss and a father coping the best way he can while also struggling with his complicity in his son’s fate. That is the emotional current that drives the film which is why I think the controversy is unwarranted.

Crowe’s direction is solid but even more could be said about his performance. I feel Crowe is sometimes overlooked because we know he is always going to give a strong performance. In this film he is the linchpin and the emotion center. I always enjoy Kurylenko and she is good here. Unfortunately her character is restricted to a fairly obvious side story. Not so for Yılmaz Erdoğan. The Turkish actor and filmmaker gives us an incredibly compelling character and he tells so much through his tired, war-weary eyes.

Some may consider “The Water Diviner” to be a bit too melodramatic and some may struggle with the film’s shifts in tone. Others may get caught up in the well-publicized controversy. Instead I found myself caught up in the story that lies at the heart of the film and I was completely invested in the central character. Russell Crowe has given us a fine movie that once again spotlights his talents as an actor while also introducing us to his talents as a director. It definitely impressed me and he has certainly earned more opportunities behind the camera.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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“A Good Day to Die Hard” – 2 STARS

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Going into “A Good Day to Die Hard” (a.k.a. “Die Hard 5”), I knew that I would be the guy that would take a stand against the barrage of negative reviews from critics and fellow movie blogging buddies. I was prepared to respond to those who have berated the film or labeled it a major disappointment. I was ready to let everyone know why the current 16% Rotten Tomatoes score was misguided and wrong. But I ran into a problem. I was ready and prepared to defend this film. Unfortunately I can’t. If it weren’t for the title I would have never known this was a “Die Hard” picture. “A Good Day to Die Hard” is missing almost ever signature feature and clever nuance that has made this franchise great.

There are several things that have set this franchise apart from other action films. You have the fiery personality of its wisecracking lead character. You have strong, well-defined, charismatic villains. You have solid side characters that fit perfectly in John McClane’s chaotic world. You’ll have a hard time finding a trace of any of these things in “A Good Day to Die Hard” and for me the problems all start with the writing and direction. Skip Woods wrote the screenplay which explains a lot. His last two writing credits were for the terrible “X-Men Orgins: Wolverine” and the even bigger train wreck “The A-Team”. John Moore directs and while he’s received some box office success, his resume is filled with forgettable films. Put these two together and apparently this is what we get.

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The story is simple and pretty generic. John McClane (Willis) heads to Moscow after receiving news that his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) has been put in prison. John finds out that his son is a CIA field operative and they both find themselves in the middle of a deadly terrorist plot. A lot of the movie is spent with Willis and Courtney bouncing lazy, ham-fisted lines off each other. I grew tired of Jack’s constant whining and John is now a self-reflecting softie. This gets into one of my biggest problems with this movie. This isn’t the John McClane of the other “Die Hard” pictures. We see very little of his signature spunk and in-your-face attitude. I kept waiting for him to go off on one of the bad guys McClane style but it never happened. In fact, the closest we get to seeing that is when he punches out a motorist for getting in his face. Not one of the terrorists – a civilian!

For me, if you take away McClane’s charisma and attitude you’ve already lost a lot. Apparently Moore thought that having Willis yell and scream here and there would be enough. Not even close! But to make matters worse, McClane’s great smart-alecky humor is decimated by Woods’ poor dialogue. So many times the one-liners land with a thud and they feel cheap and artificial. He does deliver a handful of lines that did make me laugh, but nothing close to the number of great quotes from the previous movies.

It also doesn’t help that he lacks a clear and present villain to go back and forth with. Instead of showing us the bad guy and then allowing McClane to fight his way to him, this film tries to play out like a thriller by throwing several twists in along the way. That’s fine except this is “Die Hard” and this is a significant departure from the structure of the other films. The story itself isn’t terrible and they do try and make some pretty cool historical connections. But it all plays out to be pretty basic stuff and doesn’t stick nearly as well as the other movies, even 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard”.

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But what about the action? I mean the action is the franchise’s bread and butter right? Does it manage to save the movie. Well, yes and no. There are a couple of unbelievable action set pieces even though they seem to grow more and more unimpressive as the film moves on. Perhaps the greatest scene in the film involves a huge car chase through the heavy traffic in Moscow. The sequence has some amazing stunts but it also has an unforgivable problem. It features some of the most frustrating camerawork and editing that I have ever seen in an action film. I am not a fan of the herky-jerky handheld camera craze. Here it’s amplified x10! It’s a long scene but the quick edits rarely leave the camera on a shot for more than a second. And the few times the camera does follow a shot it’s constantly shaking or moving from one place to another. Not only does it make things indecipherable but it basically ruined the scene for me.

I know this may be simplistic thinking especially from a pseudo-critic like me, but how can you mess up when you have such a tried and true formula to use? It may not sound like it but I did find some entertainment in “A Good Day to Die Hard”. I did think there were elements to the story that were pretty cool and there were some good action moments. I also can’t help but feel a little nostalgic when it comes to John McClane. But that’s also why this one stings. This film doesn’t do the movie or the character justice. The tag team of bad writing and bad direction sink this ship and it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Some are saying it’s time to bury this franchise. No way! I want McClane to go out right. So I hope they do another movie. Just don’t let Skip Woods and John Moore anywhere near it!

Interested in another 80’s action star’s comeback? Check out my review of Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand”.