Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Terminator Salvation (2009)

I don’t know about you but, from the moment I saw the original “Terminator” movie, I dreamed about an entire movie set in the future, during the war with the machines. Comics and video games tried to fill this desire but none of them truly scratch that itch. Because I’m a bitchy nerd who can never be pleased, the eventual announcement of a Future Wars movie did not excite me. To say the movie didn’t live up to my expectations for a future-set “Terminator” would be misleading. The trailers and reviews were so uninspiring that I hadn’t even planned to see the movie in theaters originally. I’d probably just now be getting around to it if a girl, the same girl I saw “Coraline” with, hadn’t wanted to see it. Anyway, “Terminator Salvation” was so underwhelming that it even raced past the divisive “Terminator 3” for the title of worst film in the series. Naturally, a new reboot has risen from the ashes of this attempted one, because franchises never die. On the eve of a new “Terminator” movie, let’s look back on “Salvation.”

Judgement Day has happened. The Earth has been bombed into an inhospitable ball of ash. Skynet and its army of killer machines seek out the remnants of humanity to exterminate them once and for all. Leading the resistance, as prophesied, is John Connor. The fate John thinks he knows is interrupted when a new face enters the arena. Marcus, a mysterious stranger, wanders into the human base, seeking to protect the teenage Kyle Reese. Marcus hides a secret that even he is unaware of that will cause John to question the destiny he thinks he knows.

Though the film is only six years old, “Terminator Salvation” feels like an ancient artifact from 2009. The presence of a giant robot in the film feels like an attempt to ride the coattails of the “Transformers” series. The improbably named McG was still a viable blockbuster maker at the time. Hell, even Moon Bloodgood has vanished from cinemas. But the biggest indicator that “Salvation” was made in a different climate is that it stars Sam Worthington. The film was released before “Avatar” was supposed to make him a huge star. Instead, it just made everyone realize what a complete void of charisma Worthington is. “Salvation,” despite everyone and Arnold saying so, doesn’t really suck. Instead, it’s aggressively mediocre. This is almost solely Worthington’s fault. Whenever the film focuses on him, it feels like a long, dull, digression from the shit we care about. Marcus isn’t interesting and Worthington plays him as a blank. The film’s insistence on focusing on such a boring character is its main downfall.

Think back to the two “Terminator” movies James Cameron directed, to the war sequences. Think about how evocative and intriguing those scenes were. Needless to say, McG is not James Cameron. “Terminator Salvation” is characterized by grey skies and a relentlessly dour mood. I guess a post-nuclear apocalypse Earth wouldn’t be a very interesting place to be. Contributing to “Salvation’s” grim tone is the very serious performances. Christian Bale brings the same gravelly intensity to part that he brought to everything in 2009. He even slips into his infamous Batman growl a few times. Totally underserved by the material is Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate, the part previously essayed by Claire Danes. Howard is non-distinct not because she’s a bad actor but because the part is hopelessly underwritten. Helena Bonham Carter is twitchy and ridiculous as the face of Skynet. Anton Yelchin is no Michael Biehn as the whiny teenage Kyle Reese. Even Michael Ironside seems overly severe, playing the important role of some asshole.

Something in “Salvation’s” favor is its action sequences, which are huge. Here’s an example: A giant robot tears through a building and grabs some people. Marcus chases after on a vehicle, which leads to a bridge. A Hunter-Killer, one of the flying killbots from the original, corners them, which the heroes successfully destroy. Yet the chase scene doesn’t end there, as another giant machine appears to grab Kyle. Marcus fights off the machine, surviving shit a human could never live through, which is none-too-subtle foreshadowing. The scene goes on, eventually ending up in a lake. It’s an impressive moment and one the film never tops. None of the other action beats, which include an explosion-filled run through a field and a wrestling match with an aquatic terminator, are even remotely compelling.

And about those robots. Something cool “Salvation” does is it gives us a first-person look at the Machine Wars. We get to see stuff we’ve only heard about or briefly glimpsed in previous films. Here’s the T-600, the predecessor to Arnold’s T-800 with the bad breath and the obviously fake skin. We see the Hunter-Killers in action, hunting and killing. There’s even call-backs to the last “Terminator” movie in the form of the T-1 tanks. However, sometimes the movie is a little too impressed with its own creations. How about the little drone like robots? Okay, that’s natural. How about the giant robots that gather people? I’m not sure what the purpose of that is, in the long run. Why is Skynet collecting people? The underwater Terminators probably don’t get used that much, do they? The most gimmicky of all are the robots that resemble motorcycles. With a little rewiring, John Connor can even leap on one and drive it like a motorcycle. Um, why? Why would the robot overlords build a machine like that?

When sequels make extended call-backs to the original, the results usually do not endear themselves to viewers. Weirdly, “Terminator Salvation” actually gains some momentum when it references those earlier movies we actually liked. In the final act, John Connor rides into Skynet HQ to rescue his teenage father. (The movie awkwardly justifies Skynet not immediately killing Kyle with a lame twist.) In the factory, he comes face-to-face with the original T-800. Since Arnold was busy governing California at the time, the movie CGI’d Schwarzenegger’s face onto a look-alike’s body. This is fairly awkward and the movie doesn’t successfully overcome it. However, the presence of a familiar face invigorates “Salvation.” Suddenly, the story has a concrete threat, instead of merely the nebulous Skynet. The final battle with the Terminator, who somehow seems harder to kill then his 1984 predecessor, is relatively exciting, involving punches to the heart and molten steel. Marcus even makes himself useful! Naturally, the movie includes the trademark quotes that are in every “Terminator” movie. Christian Bale’s delivery of “I’ll be back” actually injects some humor into the dour film.

One reason “Salvation” was not greeted with immediate enthusiasm by fans is because the movie had a troubled production. The movie’s original ending involved John Connor dying, with his skin being stretched over Marcus’ robot skeleton, in order to keep the hope of the human resistance alive. When this fairly terrible ending leaked to the internet, it required a last minute re-write. Marcus donates his human heart to the dying Connor, the improbable heart surgery occurring off-screen. This is only marginally less terrible and unlikely then the original ending. The movie is trying to make a point about the generosity of humanity, even when that human is part-robot. It also provides some weighty dramatic irony, what with a Terminator actually saving John Connor’s life. It doesn’t satisfy, feeling like another belabored attempt to get us to like this lame new character the movie is about for some reason.

“Terminator Salvation” was intended as the start of a new trilogy. It even ends with a monologue from Bale, basically promising that the adventure will continue. Originally, the movie was going to have the franchise-friendly, hilariously wordy title “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins,” which might explain the lack of a colon in the final title. These future plans would prove presumptuous. The movie underperformed at the box office, suffering the indignity of opening behind “Night at the Museum 2.” Eventually, legal issues ensued and the rights to the “Terminator” series would change hands again. This would lead to a new film that has Arnie back and will disregard “Salvation.” Ultimately, the attempt to continue to series will only be remembered only for Christian Bale’s on-set temper-tantrum and the surprisingly catchy techno remix that followed. [5/10]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2009)

11. Avatar

History repeats itself. Even before finishing “Titanic,” James Cameron was talking up “Avatar.” A science-fiction epic heavily influenced by turn-of-the-century pulp writing, the director promised that the film would revolutionize special effects and blow everyone’s minds. That was back in 1996. The project was shelved, as Cameron waiting for the technology to catch up with his imagination. Production on the film began again in 2005, Cameron working for years with artists and language designers. By the time “Avatar” starting rolling in front of cameras, the budget had reportedly risen to over 300 million dollars.

Once again, the naysayers rolled their eyes. How could any movie, much less a risky project based on an original idea, ever become successful? Once again, they were wrong. “Avatar” broke the box office records set by Cameron’s “Titanic,” making over 2 billion dollars worldwide, and becoming the highest grossing film of all time. The movie was a hit with audiences, as they returned to see it again and again, keeping it atop the box office for weeks. Some where so taken in by the world of Pandora, that they expressed depression about it not being real. Internet subcultures were spawned. The movie had all the hallmarks of being a lasting pop culture phenomenon. It hasn’t been. The movie has receded from people’s mind so much that now we’re wondering if those three sequels and that Disneyland theme park are such sure things.

Why was “Avatar” such an enormous hit in 2009? Does James Cameron really have his finger on the pop culture zeitgeist’s main vein? Or was it just the right movie at the right time? Cameron had been championing 3-D technology for some time, having filmed his last two documentaries in the style. “Avatar” hit theaters just as the revival of 3-D was reaching its peak. I’ve never seen “Avatar” in 3-D. I saw it in a flea-bitten second-run theater with a girl I was hopelessly in love with. Even then, it’s obvious “Avatar” made fantastic use of the technology. Cameron’s camera is dynamic, sweeping through a beautifully created fantasy world. As the movie was hitting home video, Blu-Ray was just starting to be widely accepted. 4K televisions would soon become available. The movie’s success is so tied in with the rise of Blu-Ray that I used to joke that the players should’ve come packaged with the film. How does “Avatar” hold up as a story? Is it more then just a movie designed to sell 3-D glasses and HD TVs?

I should probably mention the movie’s plot. One hundred and fifty years into the future, man has started to explore other planets. One such place is Pandora, a lush jungle world inhabited by a primitive humanoid species called the Na’vi. Man does not come in piece. Instead, humans are there to take the planet’s resources. Jake Sully, a wheelchair bound former marine, is summoned by the military after his twin brother’s death. Sully, due to his genetic similarities to his brother, will transfer his mind into an avatar, a lab created Na’vi body, and infiltrate the local population. Jake, however, has second thoughts, after falling in love with Na’vi culture and seeing the cruelty of the corporation. He is soon leading a rebellion against his own species.

Upon release, “Avatar” was praised for its visuals. It was also criticized for its derivative story. The movie was derisively called “Dances with Wolves… In Space!” “South Park” did a whole episode about it. “Avatar’s” “going native” storyline belongs to a very old tradition. It’s at least as old as James Fenimore Cooper. The archetype has woven its way through hundreds of westerns, “Lawrence of Arabia,” Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books, “The Last Samurai,” and countless other stories. Jake Sully is rejected by the alien culture at first. In time, he learns to respects them and falls in love with a Na’vi woman. Soon, he begins to feel more at home in his avatar then his human skin. The movie doesn’t even patch over the uncomfortable racial subtext. A white man/Earthling does a better job at being an Indian/Na’vi then the actual Na’vi do. Perhaps “Avatar” owes part of its success to its archetypal storyline. After all, “Dances with Wolves” made a lot of money too.

“Avatar” also resembles movies James Cameron has made in the past. Jake and Neytiri fall in love, despite being from different worlds (literally), just like Jack and Rose in “Titanic.” The themes of dangerous exploration, ecology, and morally superior aliens recalls “The Abyss.” Mostly, “Avatar” reminds me of “Aliens.” Both movies heavily feature space marines. (For an example of Cameron’s shifting politics: In “Aliens,” the marines are the heroes, albeit humbled ones. In “Avatar,” the marines are straight-up villains with little ambiguity.) The Power Lifter has been traded out for AMPS, powered exo-suits. As in “Aliens,” the robot armor was probably taken from Robert E. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” an influence on both movies. Both films also feature an evil corporation, attempting to exploit the extraterrestrial characters. Giovanni Ribisi’s Selfridge is practically the same character as Paul Raiser’s Burke. The movies are so similar that some fans theorize they both take place in the same universe. The biggest difference is the obvious one. “Aliens” was an action/horror film. “Avatar” is a epic fantasy/adventure. Though the goals are clearly different, Cameron is obviously mining and referencing his past success.

For all the criticism “Avatar” received for its obviously derivative story, one thing is for certain: Pandora sure is purty. It’s more then just the special effects. Pandora is a fully realized world. It’s ecosystem is complex and plausible. The jungles are lush with life, full of shimmering planets and voracious animals. Mysterious mountains float above the lands. Giant psychic trees connect clans all over the planet. The world resembles are own but is bigger and bolder. When glowing seeds from one of the planet’s giant trees land all over Jake’s avatar, the audience’s eyes just about pop out of their heads. “Avatar” is perhaps the closest cinema has ever come to realizing the far-out visions of hundreds of sci-fi authors. The story may be nothing new but “Avatar” does something special anyway: It creates a fantasy world we’ve never seen before.

Another example of the way the movie combines familiar ideas with mind-blowing details is in the planet’s animal life. The Na’vi are essentially twelve-feet tall blue cat-people, which led to many jokes about Thundercats and the furry community. Pandora’s wildlife is seemingly composed solely of chimeras. Tigers are combined with insects, rhinos with hammerhead sharks, and wolves with panthers. Some times, the movie doesn’t even go that far. The Na’vi ride on creatures that are basically horses. The skies are full of pterodactyl/dragon style critters, some of them as big as the human drop ships. My favorite are the little lizards that spin through the air with glowing, biological helicopters that grow from their backs. None of this is especially clever. Yet it all looks amazing, thanks to the ludicrously detailed CGI effects that still look amazing five years after the movie’s release.

More over, Cameron is able to captured fully formed performances through motion capture technology. Hollywood had been trying to make mo-cap a thing for a long time. “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” showed that the public wasn’t ready for the technology back in 2001. Robert Zemeckis filled three movies full of plastic-y, dead-eyed dolls that off-put and disturb viewers the world over. “Avatar” uses the same technology but has none of these problems. The CGI character’s have vivid, life-like faces. Their movements are never stiff. Instead, they are perfectly natural. By populating its CGI cast with inhuman aliens, Cameron skip his stone right over the Uncanny Valley.

Since the movie plays its “westerners among the natives” narrative so straight, it maintains many of the story type’s unfortunate implications. The Na’vi obviously recall American Indians. They are led by chiefs and live in clans. Their spiritual beliefs are deeply tied in with nature and the natural world. The obvious connection is confirmed when the movie cast Wes Studi, Hollywood’s favorite Indian, as the Na’vi chief. The movie also throws some African aspects into the mix too. The Na’vi language is patterned after African languages. Their bead-covered and burgundy clothing recalls African culture as well. The religious frenzy the aliens enter during their shamanistic sermons are similar to Gospel gatherings. This blend of stereotypes includes some touchy feel-y new age religion, with talks of energy and Earth spirits. The Na’vi’s spiritual life-style is shown as obviously superior to the vulgar, greedy humans. The combination leads to a slightly offensive, reductive message: Natives are superior not because of any higher moral standing but because their culture is just better.

The movie’s overly simplistic politics is evident in other ways too. Some times it is obviously that “Avatar” was written back in the nineties. The jungles of Pandora are obviously patterned after the rain forest of South America. The exploitation of the rain forest was a hot button topic back in the day, leading to hundreds of “Save the Rain Forest!” stickers and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.” Trees are good in this movie. The corporation tear them down, so they’re the bad guys. The anti-corporation theme is ham-fisted and obvious. The bad guys are cartoonishly evil, joyfully gunning down the heroes and making lame jokes about. The military doesn’t make it out unscathed either. They don’t just take orders, they seem to actively enjoy destroying another world’s culture. The movie’s “back-to-nature types good, corporations bad” politics are so obvious, a child could understand it.

There’s another reason why the “Avatar” backlash hit so hard. This is the movie that foisted Sam Worthington onto the world. Based on his casting in this soon-to-be mega-buster, Worthington got cast in other would-be franchises, like “Terminator Salvation” and the “Clash of the Titans” remake. Until Jai Courtney came along, Worthington was the poster child for ready-made movie stars: Generic buff dudes with shaved heads and Australian accents. He came out of nowhere, the studios determined to make him a star. But despite starring in the biggest movie of all time, Worthington didn’t become a movie star. Worthington is given multiple monologues over “Avatar’s” two hour and forty minute run time. Not a single one sounds convincing in his mouth. Worthington’s delivery is bored and uninteresting. Even being replaced throughout most of the movie by a CGI creation, Worthington can’t generate any charisma or charm.

Worthington’s lack of charm makes another aspect of the plot problematic. “Avatar” is supposed to be a love story. Like in a thousand buddy cop movies, Jake Sully and Neytiri hate each other at first. She calls him an idiot and seems to despise everything he does. As she trains him, and Sully learns more about the culture, the two fall in love, consummating their relationship beneath the giant spirit tree. The bulk of the two’s love affair happens during a montage. There’s no investment in their relationship. None of this is the fault of Zoe Saldana. Saldana has way more talent then the wooden Worthington. She naturally inhabits the part of Neytiri, making her an emotional, compelling character. There’s simply not enough meat in the script for her to chew on.

Cameron continues to fill his supporting cast with colorful names. Sigourney Weaver, collaborating with her “Aliens” director for the first time in twenty years, plays Dr. Grace. Weaver chain smokes, swears, and belittles everyone around her without loosing sight of her character’s heart. Michelle Rodriguez plays a very Michelle Rodriguez-style part as Trudy, a tough female pilot. The character is reminiscent of “Aliens’” Vasquez, though Rodriguez brings more humor and humanity to the part. Stephen Lang, despite playing the cartoonish Colonel Quaritch, chews up the scenery, seeming to have a blast. Joel David Moore and CCH Pounder round out the cast as science-informin’ sidekick and Neytiri’s spiritualist mom.

“Avatar” was sold to the public firstly as a mind-blowing visual experience and secondly as an action movie. This is odd as “Avatar” is low on action for its first two hours. Its only in the last third, when the forces of Pandora and the Earth military face off, that the action truly becomes explosive. It’s impressive too. Jake, flying on his friggin’ dragon, swings drop ships around like toys. Decked out like Rambo, he tosses grenades into vents, leads into cargo bays, and fires a machine gun into the air. Giant arrows blast through the glass of helicopters. The robot suits face off with legions of giant blue cat people along with fleet of hammerhead rhinos. The action climaxes with an absurd duel between Jake and Quaritch, the alien swinging one of the giant’s rifle around like a spear. It’s silly but cool. The action is beautifully choreographed and filmed, making a clear impression on the audience.

The fact that “Avatar” faded so quickly from the public’s consciousness shouldn’t be surprising. The movie is an amazing visual experience that initially impresses. The world is beautifully created and detailed enough to be rewatched multiple times. However, the cliched, simplistic story lacks depth. The world may resonate but the characters and plot do not. But it’s not so bad. “Avatar” is fine as a popcorn flick, entertaining in a light and fluffy manner. It’s incredible effects and visuals carried it to box office supremacy. Who’s to say if anyone will much care in another five years? Cameron’s strengths may have softened over the years but he still knows how to make a crowd-pleaser, even if its pleasures are destined to be ephemeral. [Grade: B]

James Cameron has been attached to a number of future projects over the years. An adaption of the novel "The Informationist" is being prepped for him. He's expressed interest in the life story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who survived the bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And he still talks about making "Battle Angel" every once in a while. For the time being though, Cameron's attention is focused on a trilogy of "Avatar" sequels. I'm not especially excited for Cameron's return to Pandora. I don't hate the first one but I don't see the strongest foundation for a sequel there, much less three. It is disappointing that he's focusing so much time on his blue cat people movies. Some people have given up hope that James Cameron will ever make anything really cool again. I hold out hope that "Battle Angel" will be awesome, should it ever be made. As the cliche goes, only time will tell. At least we still have "Aliens" and "The Terminator."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2005)

10. Aliens of the Deep

“Ghosts of the Abyss” was theatrically released as an exclusive to 3-D IMAX theaters. Considering such a limited release, I have no idea if the movie was successful. Apparently, it worked out of James Cameron and Disney. The studio would fund Cameron’s next undersea documentary, which would also be released as an hour long short into IMAX 3-D auditoriums. “Aliens of the Deep” concludes the director’s trilogy of deep sea exploration documentaries. As opposed to the first two entries into the genre, this one isn’t about ship wrecks. Instead, Cameron expands his interest in the deep sea into a different, more far-out territory.

For the third time, James Cameron teams up with the Russian scientists behind the MIR submersibles. Instead of sticking their video cameras into some decaying ships, Cameron teams up with a group of young scientists to examine exotic deep sea life and the harsh environments that they live in. The scientists undergo the journey to prepare for hypothetical journeys to alien worlds and theorize about the strange life they may encounter there.

About five minutes into “Aliens of the Deep,” James Cameron steps in front of his own camera and provides his own voice-over narration. He mentions how, on his previous two documentaries, the accompanying scientists encouraged him to steer away from shipwrecks and just make a doc about deep sea life. This is, naturally, a brilliant idea, as the deep dark heart of the ocean is full of fascinating, terrifying things. “Aliens of the Deep” does talk about this for a while. However, its priorities switches soon. “Aliens of the Deep” is actually about using deep sea exploration to prepare scientists for exploring outer space. The movie makes the not-ridiculous assumption that the extreme depths of the sea are as intense a location as the surface of an alien world. Okay, this is interesting too, I guess. Yet I sort of wonder if the film would have been more focused on just the unbelievable environments and crazy creatures that live in the deepest, darkest parts of the seas.

“Aliens of the Deep” also concerns itself with some far-out sci-fi ideas. A scientist throws around the fact that water once existed on Mars. This extends to the theory that life might have existed on Mars. The film goes a little further, suggesting that an asteroid from Mars might have ended up on Earth. And with it, some extremophiles – the most enduring microscopic organisms – might have survived the fall. Perhaps leading to life on Earth? That’s a crazy idea. The movie acknowledges the difficulty and unlikelihood of alien life ever contacting us. However, it considers the theory that life might exist in the seas beneath the frozen surface of Europa. “Aliens of the Deep” even contains some CGI imagery of what such alien life might possibly look like. So the film extrapolates some odd, unexpected ideas from its primary place. It’s interesting but sometimes makes me wonder if the film strays too far from actually plausible science.

“Aliens of the Deep” is not only James Cameron’s third underwater documentary, it’s his third teaming with the same group of scientists and technicians. James’ brother Mike is in all three movies. Many of the same Russian scientists appear across all three docs. The robotic probes, nicknamed Jake and Elwood, are a constant presence. By now, I’m sort of glad to see them again. Like the previous two flicks, the film explores the difficulty and dangers of deep sea exploration. At one point, the lights go out inside Cameron’s submarine, bathing the crew in darkness deep within the ocean. At another time, a sub has to make an emergency escape to the surface, their battery running low. By now, it’s standard but it’s still fairly compelling stuff.

As always, the underwater footage is the most exciting thing about the film. The film spends a lot of time studying hydrothermal vents, better known as black smokers. These are hot plumes of smoke at the ocean’s surface, geothermal heat contrasting against the bone-cold chill of the deep seas. Cameron and his crew are fascinated by a cloud of white bacteria. At one point, a robotic hand sticks itself into the mossy depths of the sea bed, bringing some rocks and dirt to the surface with them.

The best parts are devoted to the weird animals that live at those depths, in those extreme environments. Early on, we see a funny grey fish with odd feelers on his bottom. A transparent cuttlefish with fluttering tentacles, that James Cameron calls a “Dumbo,” flaps by. A tiny, albino octopus seemingly shakes hands with the camera. Hordes of black-and-white shrimp horde around the smoke vents and a few attached themselves to the camera lens. There are crabs and mussels below, all thriving in the harshest environment imaginable. These are rare sights and its fascinating to see them, on-screen or anywhere else.

“Aliens of the Deep” is less dry then “Expedition: Bismarck” but not as exciting as “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Mostly because it lacks a centralizing protagonists, in the form of a friendly Bill Paxton. Instead, “Aliens of the Deep” follows a number of young scientists, going on an expedition like this for the first time. One such young lady is followed throughout, providing narration for many portions of the film. The writing is unusually cutesy, emphasizing how “cool” these event are and how fun it is for someone to take this journey. The film is a Disney production. Focusing on young people and using light-hearted dialogue or overly obvious character arcs makes “Aliens of the Deep” seem less sophisticated, and more kid-friendly and soft, then Cameron’s previous docs.

What’s the entertainment value of “Ghosts of the Abyss?” Being a science documentary instead of a historical one, the movie does not feature any hokey re-inactments or CGI recreations, which is nice. You will learn something, for sure, as the film goes deep into information about the ocean’s depths and how scientists are using this knowledge towards other goals. I suspect “Aliens of the Deep” has play in many high school science class. The movie even seems to target that audience, with its youth-oriented tone. However, the movie is not as touching as “Ghosts of the Abyss.” The film is also a few minutes longer then that one and noticeably drags at times.

“Aliens of the Deep” was co-directed by Steven Quale, a frequent production assistant and second unit director on Cameron’s other films. Weirdly, Quale has not made another documentary. Instead, he’s made low-brow 3D flicks like (the awesome) “Final Destination 5” or (last year’s already forgotten) “Into the Storm.” James Cameron has continued to be associated with documentaries since “Aliens of the Deep.” He executive produced the controversial archeology doc “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and contributed voice-over work to the similarly themed “Exodus Decoded.” Cameron hasn’t sworn off his creepy obsession with the ocean. He piloted a tiny submarine to the bottom of the Marianna Trench in 2012. Someone else made a movie for that one, which suggest to me that Jim’s vacation in documentary-land is over for now. It was an interesting trip but I’m okay with it concluding. [Grade: B-]

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Recent Watches: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

The “Terminator” saga James Cameron started in his original movie seemed to be concluded in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” Cyberdyne had been destroyed. Skynet’s rise to power was stopped. Judgement Day was averted. The Terminators lost. Humanity won. Yet the huge box office returns for “T2” and the series’ continued place of honor in the annals of pop culture showed demand for a third movie. The ownership rights to the “Terminator” series being such a tangled mess, and James Cameron’s obvious lack of interest, prevented “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” from coming out until 2003. I was part of the problem. When the teaser trailer appeared, I got hyped. It was the first R-rated movie I ever saw in the theater. I was pumped for a new “Terminator” adventure. And you know what? I liked it then. I like it now.

Ten years after the events of “Terminator 2,” John Connor is living a life on the run. Judgement Day was seemingly prevented. Yet images of Terminators and the apocalypse still haunt him. These nightmares come true when another pair of Terminators are sent back in time. The familiar T-800 confronts John and tells him Judgement Day is still coming. The female-modeled Terminatrix seemingly speeds doomsday along, all while pursuing John and his suddenly introduced love interest.

“Rise of the Machines” can charitably be called the goofy “Terminator” movie. Part two had humor in it, compared to the grim original. Three seems to actively be going for comedy in parts. Arnold’s Terminator steals his biker gear outfit from a male stripper. The stripper’s camp gay instruction to “talk to the hand!” is taken literally. Afterwards, Arnold puts a pair of pink star glasses on his face. Later, he also instructs someone to “talk to the hand.” The female Terminator inflates her breasts in hopes of distracting a cop. The movie is full of jokey call-backs to the previous films, the most groan-worthy of which has to be “She’ll be back.” Even the movie’s sound design seems exaggerated and comedic, with small objects making loud, silly noises.

The movie’s goofy streak is at odds with its grim content. Though less viscerally violent then previous films, “T3” has easily the highest body count of any of the series. The movie communicates openly with the apocalyptic concepts the series is founded on. Let’s look at John Connor’s character arc, for example. With Judgement Day seemingly stopped, John has never lived up to his great destiny. He wanders from town to town, taking odd jobs, running from the nightmares of his past and the fear they may still come true. Nick Stahl – remember when Nick Stahl was going to become the next big thing? – plays John as a depressed guy, struggling with the wages of his life. By film’s end, he’s accepted his fate, which has renewed his life in an odd way. Keep in mind, for this to happen, the world has to end.

A question that truly must always be asked: What about Arnold Schwarzenegger? “Rise of the Machines” would, infamously, be Arnold’s last starring role before his stint as the governor of California. Reportedly, he was even receiving political offers while on set. Schwarzenegger, however, is always a professional. The script does not give Arnold as much to work with as the previous Terminator movies. The character is made into a comedic straight man, put into silly situation. He’s given lots of action. The character croaks some exposition too, such as the bit about his exploding battery pack which will, naturally, become important later. Arnie’s best moments are when he’s talking about serious issue in that flat Terminator voice, such as his relationship with John and Kate in the future. More dramatic moments, such as the robot violently defying conflicting orders, are less effective.

“Terminator 3” blatantly follows the formula laid down in the second movie. Arnold’s good Terminator is sent back to protect the humans. A second, evil Terminator is sent back to kill them. The movie is unable to top the liquid metal mechanics that made Robert Patrick’s T-1000 so memorable. Instead, this Terminator’s gimmick is that it’s a woman. Why is the T-X model after a woman? Well, the movie doesn’t answer that question. Design wise, the robot is an awkward combination of the previous models. It’s liquid metal flesh over a robotic skeleton, one that looks a bit like an alien. The T-X is a Terminator made to terminate other Terminators. Thus, she also has the ability to control other machines, in an almost psychic fashion. This is a decent way to up the stakes. Kristanna Loken, though gorgeous, mostly copies what Patrick did. The T-X stares ahead intensely, runs a lot, and kills mercilessly. The character is probably the least interesting thing about the movie.

“Rise of the Machines” is uneven as an action movie. When focused on practical effects, it works quite well. A ludicrous car chase escalates nicely. The T-X controls police cars while the two robots end up behind the wheel of a crane truck. Arnold is swung through something like three buildings. One scene, mirroring the Cyberdine shoot-out in part two, has Schwarzenegger’s Terminator turning his guns on some police officers, pointedly not harming any of them. Memorably, he lugs a casket full of guns on his shoulder the whole time, a moment so cool they made an action figure of it. When the T-X makes it to the military base, she unleashes the original T-1 and Hunter-Killer models. The T-1 is an especially great effect and this scene works nicely. However, the Terminator-on-Terminator action is overly reliant on CGI. Schwarzenegger and Loken toss each other around, their bodies sailing through the air effortlessly. A brawl in a bathroom feels completely weightless, as the robots are lifts up and thrown through walls. The CGI effects have aged very poorly over the last decade.

Part three is a controversial film among “Terminator” fans. Some accept it as a moderately entertaining popcorn flick. Others deride its overly goofy tone… And the way it negates the last movie's ending. You know all that stuff about there being “no fate but what we make?” Not so much, it turns out. Judgement Day was only delayed, not stopped. Skynet still becomes self-aware, Earth is still nuked, and the machines still rise. John Connor can not escape his destiny as the leader of the resistance. Retconing away the ending of a beloved film is a ballsy move and one not well received by everyone. Considering “Terminator” is a franchise full of time paradoxes and stable time loops, Judgement Day sort of has to happen for any of this to make sense. Does it make the movie feel like an unnecessary stop-gap before an inevitable conclusion? Yeah. Is there something somewhat satisfying about finally seeing the much-foreshadowed apocalypse happen? Definitely.

Director Jonathan Mostow doesn’t have the visual nuance of James Cameron but he at least knows how to frame an action sequence clearly. Claire Danes works better during the quiet moments and, when lifting guns and blowing away robots, is not as convincing as Linda Hamilton. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is easily the weakest of the trilogy, paling in comparison to the first two. It’s silly fun with a number of memorable scenes, even if it adds little new or interesting aspects to the series. [7/10]

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2003)

9. Ghosts of the Abyss

As previously established, James Cameron really likes the ocean. Lots. In his ten year vacation from narrative film making, he made a trilogy of documentaries, each one focused on submarines exploring deep into the ocean. The first of this trilogy was the underwhelming “Expedition: Bismarck.” That movie went straight to the Discovery Channel. The second doc Cameron made got a better presentation. “Ghosts of the Abyss” was originally released in an abbreviated hour long version that screened in Imax 3-D theaters. A longer version, the one reviewed here, became available on DVD. Maybe this wider release is due to “Ghosts of the Abyss” sharing a direct connection with Cameron’s most popular film at the time. The documentary is about the Titanic. The real one, the massive shipwreck moldering at the ocean’s floor.

After visiting the Titanic’s final resting place during production on his fictional movie, James Cameron became fascinated with the shipwreck. Teaming again with the same exploration team he made “Expedition: Bismarck” with, Cameron returns to the ship. Accompanying him on this voyage is Bill Paxton. As the team explores the eerie beauty of the wreck, they reflect on the ghosts of the past, the events that happened, and the unusual way they lined-up with the modern events.

The biggest difference between “Expedition: Bismarck” and “Ghosts of the Abyss” is that the later film has a protagonist. Jim talked his favorite actor, Bill Paxton, into coming on this journey with him. Paxton is an outsider in this scenario. This is his first deep sea dive. Bill Paxton is a lovable actor, with a charming down-to-Earth affability few other character actors have. He provides the audience an entry into the high science, historical world of “Ghosts of the Abyss.” His narration is funny. He addresses the real world concerns of such a voyage. You have to make up a will before going down because things can go wrong. After his first trip back to the surface, Paxton gets sea sick and throws up. Paxton’s wonder and astonishment at the sights he sees and the trip he takes is the same kind anyone in that situation would have. Paxton’s weird everyman status makes “Ghosts of the Abyss” a more entertaining and relatable film then Cameron’s previous documentary.

It doesn’t hurt that the Titanic is a more visually impressive shipwreck then the Bismarck. There’s something oddly beautiful about the vessel’s remains. The outside of the ship is ruined. Green moss covers the entire surface of the Titanic. Paxton compares the huge, rotten sterns of the ship to the Sphinx, sentries buried with age, watching over the remains of the ship. The film spends its entire first act exploring the outside of the Titanic. The submarine lights shine down on the surface, casting an eeriness but also a crystal clear quality. The wreck site is rift with memories, of lives lost and worlds ended. Yet there’s something beautiful about it as well. The movie provides worth by giving us real footage that few eyes have seen.

“Expedition: Bismarck” was badly hampered by TV quality reenactments. With “Ghosts of the Abyss,” we already know the history behind the event. If you’re watching this movie, you probably saw that other movie Cameron made about the same events. Yet for some reason, “Ghosts of the Abyss” does throw in some reenactments. This movie was produced by Disney, while “Titanic” was produced by Paramount. So Cameron probably couldn’t use footage from his own movie. Sometimes, the new footage is so similar to stuff from the other film, that you believe “Ghosts of the Abyss” is using scenes from “Titanic.” We have some not-as-impressive recreations of the Titanic in its glory days. Frequently, the film will fuse the two different types of footage together, which is intermittently effective.

“Ghosts of the Abyss” also spends more time with the science team behind the dive then Cameron’s other documentary. There’s a Titanic expert on the team. My favorite is the woman who is an expert on rusticles, the pillars of rust dangling from inside the ship. Hearing someone really invested in something that isn’t especially interesting somehow makes that topic interesting. In general, we see Cameron and Paxton interacting with the Russian crew of the research ship. One crew member chatters with the cook, discussing borsch. Later, one of the Russian scientist sings a song about surfacing from a deep dive. There’s an intense discussion among the entire team about the implications of the crash. It adds more personality to a film that easily could have been very dry.

When the cameras go inside the Titanic, “Ghosts of the Abyss” gains another benefit. The inside of the ship is surreal. The world is brown and rusted, pillars of debris hanging from the ceiling. An amazing amount of detail survives inside the wreck. There are windows that are still visible. The grand staircase is partially intact. Wooden dressers and chair remain. Cameron and his crew search for a car inside the bowels of the ship. The same car inspired the scene where Jack and Rose consummate their relationship in “Titanic.” The crew wonders whether or not if they're actually seeing a car among the piles of rubble. My favorite moment comes near the end, when a bottle of brandy remains intact in its spot. These are the true ghosts of the abyss, the strange, long gone memories of lives and things that happened decades before.

While watching “Ghosts of the Abyss,” I wondered how creative the editing got. There are crystal clear shots of people looking out windows, contrasted with the gritty footage of the actual wreck. It’s fairly clear that some of the things Paxton and Cameron say on set were probably scripted. Real things did happen that the film cleverly constructs into a climatic scene. The robotic probes go inside the ship when the one’s battery goes dead. Cameron attempts to pilot the second probe into the ship wreck to rescue the first one. There’s some complications, involving tangled cords. Two trips are involved. At one point, it looks like both probes might be lost. Considering the excellent footage of the Titanic we got, it’s obvious both the robots made it back to the surface. In the context of the movie, it’s very effective though and a clever way to create a climax for a non-fiction film.

In the final minutes of “Ghosts of the Abyss,” the movie throws a real curve ball at the audience that was unavoidable. The final days of filming the documentary coincides with September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, what the team is doing down there doesn’t seem as important anymore. Slowly, a parallel of some sort forms between the two tragedies. The movie doesn’t belabor the point, understanding that going any further would be tasteless. Cameron allows the audience to consider how sudden tragedy affects people and events reverberate through history to personally touch us.

“Ghost of the Abyss” is a pretty good documentary. The footage is incredible. The film allows the average viewer into its unique world with smart filmic devices. It’s easy to watch, interesting, and educational. The film wrings some unexpected pathos out of the situation. Going in, I wondered if “Ghosts of the Abyss” was going to be little more then a supplementary feature to Cameron’s “Titanic.” It definitely stands as its own movie, a strangely touching and visually gorgeous experience. [Grade: B]

Monday, June 22, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2002)

8. Expedition: Bismarck

After making the highest grossing movie of all time and crowning himself king of the world, James Cameron decided to take a break. His next project, a long-developing and R-rated version of “Spider-Man,” eventually circled out of Cameron’s hands amidst complex legal issues. His dream project, an adaptation of the manga “Battle Angel Alita,” was put to the side because special effects hadn’t caught up with Cameron’s imagination. Even this little script for some goofy sci-fi movie called “Avatar” was too ambitious for the day. Cameron, instead, turned his attention to other interests. While researching “Titanic,” he developed a love for deep-sea diving. The idea to make a documentary about another famous ship wreck, the German World War II battleship the Bismarck, came up. The film was co-directed by Gary Johnstone and would premier on the Discovery Channel.

In May of 1941, the Nazi battleship the Bismarck was sunk but not before terrorizing the British Navy and taking two British ships down as well. Sixty years later, the few survivors from both sides meet now as friends, to commiserate and consider the wages of war. At the same time, a expedition to the ocean floor, featuring Mr. James Cameron, explores the famous ship wreck. The scientist, historians, and filmmakers attempt to see where common knowledge, history, and physical evidence line up.

“Expedition: Bismarck” is, to be perfectly frank, dry. To World War II buffs, the movie is probably fascinating. Those of us with only a passing interest in the era are likely to be lulled into a peaceful slumber by the end of its run time. The movie goes over all the details of the Bismarck’s sinking. It discusses the competing theories about whether or not the ship was brought down by enemy fire or internal sabotage. We learn about the building of the war ship and the specifics of its armaments. Hey, did you know that the giant cannon torrents were not actually affixed to the ship and instead rested inside the hull? After watching “Expedition: Bismarck,” you will.

The exact historical details sound like they’re read out of a text book, even when delivered in Lance Henriksen’s gravelly baritone. The movie is most compelling when it focuses on the survivors, the men that were actually there. The German soldiers discuss what it was like growing up as Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany, how the dictator’s propaganda programmed little boys into willing soldiers. They talk about the time on the ship, of living in the military. Most touching is their reflections on war. They remember looking into the ocean, seeing men from the other side floating there, realizing they are not that different. Sometimes, the men discuss their experiences via talking head interviews. Other times, they are taken out to sea, their memories playing in voice-over. It’s during these moments that “Expedition: Bismarck” feels like its communicating with history in a thoughtful, interesting way.

“Expedition: Bismarck” was produced for the Discovery Channel. These days, Discovery and its’ sister networks like History, Animal Planet, and the network formally known as the Learning Channel are devoted to the absolute lowest-common-denominator “reality” shows, about pawn shops, made-up ghosts, and stupid redneck tricks. Back when “Expedition: Bismarck” was made, the network still broadcasted genuinely educational programs. Many of those shows featured cheesy re-enactments and CGI recreations of historical events. “Expedition: Bismarck” features these things too. I can’t imagine James Cameron was responsible for the re-enactments, as they feature bored looking actors in loose fitting period clothes, parading around cheap sets. The CGI re-creation, of how the Bismarck fell apart when it sank, were considered cutting edge at the time. They are mildly diverting but, as I previously mentioned, will probably be of the most interest to history buffs.

As a science documentary, “Expedition: Bismarck” is slightly more interesting. The film goes into the details of the trip to the ocean’s floor. While the submarine is descending, a counter in the corner of the screen shows us how much time has progress and how far they’ve traveled. It’s a simple thing but gives the viewer a good idea of what goes into an extensive journey like this. We also spend some time with the scientists and divers involved. We see technical work being performed on the small robot probe. One of my favorite bits is devoted to the guys who wrangle the hooks onto the submarines as they surface, riding the small ships like rodeo bulls. It’s not brought to life in an especially exciting fashion but it does make you appreciate how difficult something like this is.

People without the most in-depth interests in these things usually watch science documentaries to see weird or amazing things. “Expedition: Bismarck” does deliver images like these, though sparingly. When the cameras actually get to the wreck site, it’s a real sight to behold. The massive ship lies on its back, turned a sludgy brown color from years of rust. A memorable sight is the massive cannons of the boat, covered in colorful anemones. The remote-controlled robot swims into the bowels, which look like an alien world. They’re entirely covered with debris and settlement. Beneath sixty years of discolorations, one can see the faint outline of desks and lockers. The camera pauses over a lone boot or torn fabric, wondering if these are the final resting places of men. During these all-too-brief moments, “Expedition: Bismarck” presents us with things rarely seen by any man.

So does “Expedition: Bismarck” hold any interest as a James Cameron movie? Being a documentary, little of the director’s technique is visible. There’s no cool blues contrasted with burning reds or tough female characters, for example. Lance Henriksen’s voice-over narration is another sign Jim directed this. However, there is a certain novelty to seeing the director on-screen, pursuing interests other then aliens and killer robots from the future. His enthusiasm and excitement for history and deep sea exploration is visibly evident. Seeing the guy interact with scientists and the survivors of the original wreck is sort of fun. It doesn’t make watching the whole movie necessarily worth it but does add some extra value for fans of the filmmaker.

Most of the documentaries of this sort that used to air on the Discovery Channel were an hour long. “Expedition: Bismarck” is ninety-five minutes and was probably two hours when aired with commercials. The movie clearly did not have enough material to fill out this run time. The film seems to stall getting down to the actual Bismarck as long as possible. When we are seeing the scientist exercising or playing basketball, you know “Expedition: Bismarck” has run out of things to say. As an hour-long doc, the film probably would have been interesting and compelling. As a 90-minute feature, it seriously drags in spots.

So who is “Expedition: Bismarck” for? Casual movie-goers will probably be bored by it. Cameron enthusiasts will find little to be interested in, unless they’re also interested in ship wrecks or World War II. Devotees to those topics will probably think “Expedition: Bismarck” is great, if they don’t already know everything it offers. It will likely even test the patience of documentary fans. Cameron would return to the genre soon and do better work in it. [Grade: C]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1997)

7. Titanic

James Cameron is a director of incredible ambition and those ambitions come with a price tag. His movies are notorious for going over-schedule and over-budget. Both “The Abyss” and “True Lies” broke records for being the most expensive movies ever made at the time. Both beat the odds by becoming successful. Cameron would continue to top himself. “Titanic,” a movie inspired by the most notorious nautical disaster in maritime history, went hideously off the rails. Shooting crawled on and the budget ballooned. Somehow, lightening struck a third time. “Titanic” became a genuine pop culture phenomenon, breaking all the box office records, and sweeping the Academy Awards. As it goes any time a movie becomes so huge, a backlash set in over time. “Titanic” was beloved upon release but, looking at it in the rear view mirror, its reputation is much more contentious.

In the present day, an expedition is made to the rusted wreckage of the Titanic at the ocean’s floor. Though the team is looking for a giant jewel called the Heart of the Ocean, they instead find a drawing of a young woman. Amazingly, that woman is still alive, at 101 years old. The treasure hunters meet with Rose, who proceeds to tell them her story. She talks about coming to the Titanic as a girl of privilege, meeting a young working class boy, falling in love, and surviving the ship’s terrifying crash.

Before discussing “Titanic: The Movie,” one really has to discuss “Titanic: The Phenomenon.” I was there, so I know. I remember the lines forming around the blocks. I remember the unlikelihood of a three hour-plus historical drama somehow becoming a monster blockbuster. I remember the race to the top of the box office all-time top ten. I remember it winning a shit-ton of Oscars and Cameron’s “I’m the king of the world!” acceptance speech. For that matter, I remember that line becoming an infectious catch-phrase and the movie being referenced and parodied all over the pop-culture-o-sphere. I watched Leo DiCaprio becomes the hottest teen heart throb in the world. I even remember props from the movie touring Paramount King’s Dominion and waiting way too long in line to see them. The point is “Titanic” was as massive a success as the boat was big.

The question has been asked many times before: Why did “Titanic,” of all things, become such a massive success? The movie should have bombed. Many predicted it would. The movie was over three hours long, limiting the number of screenings in a day. The film lacked any big name stars, as Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were up-and-comers at the time. The movie was so massively expensive, it should have been impossible for it to become profitable. The film wasn’t a crowd-pleasing action flick, like Cameron’s previous hits. It was a romantic period drama, hardly the most consistently profitable of genres. There’s no easy answer. Maybe “Titanic” was just the right movie at the right time. Maybe the nineties was calling out for its own “Gone with the Wind,” a long, glitzy, period piece romantic drama.

The reason I think “Titantic” succeeded in such an unprecedented manner is because it, arguably, had something for everybody. The romance appealed to woman. The casting of Leo especially appealed to teenage girls, who returned over and over again to the theater to see the film. Guys, meanwhile, had a massive ship wreck in the last act. “Titanic” is, in a way, one of the biggest disaster movies ever made. Finally, the drama, immaculate production design, and sense of historical irony pleased the critics and the grown-ups. I don’t think “Titantic” would be as big a hit if made today. I’m not even sure it would even get made today. The movie does owe its success to a certain degree of luck. But let’s not underestimate James Cameron’s ability to understand what a broad, wide audience wants to see.

At the center of the film are two performances. Leonardo DiCaprio was primed to be a break-out star, after buzz-worthy performances in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes?” and “The Basketball Diaries.” Even then, DiCaprio was widely dismissed as nothing but a pretty boy for a while after “Titanic.” History has proved that wrong, since Leo has become one of the most critically acclaimed modern day actors. “Titanic” does not feature DiCaprio’s best performance. Even back then though, he had a certain boyish charisma that was undeniably charming. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, had been praised as a brilliant actress right from her amazing debut role in “Heavenly Creatures.” Winslet is more self-assured then DiCaprio, bringing an already considerable amount of actorly chops to the part. She certainly has no problem navigating the script or the period trappings.

This is important since the romance central to the movie’s story is somewhat awkward. DiCaprio is somewhat insecure in the part. His boyishness is part of his appeal but it also makes him seem slightly out of place in a setting like this. The initial bonding between Jack and Rose is not cutting edge stuff. Their meet-cute, as she’s about to toss herself off the ship, is more tense then charming. Rose’s at-first rejection of her obvious romantic interest in Jack is hackneyed. The two bonding over spitting is weird and not in a natural way. As the movie goes on, their time together starts to feel more smooth. However, it can’t hide that these two really don’t have much in common. Jack and Rose’s affair is more like a teenage fling then a life-time defining love story for the ages. Maybe this is intentional. After all, awkward teenage romances tend to be elevated by nostalgia and memories. Or maybe James Cameron’s skills as a writer aren’t in the romance department.

Or maybe the details of the romance is what made the movie resonate so much? Like DiCaprio’s former role as Romeo, Jack and Rose are pushing against constraints. Not from dueling families but from class boundaries. Rose is a rich girl. Jack is a poor boy. The upper crust of the ship turn their noses up at the working class people in the floors below. Rose’s mom is especially antagonistic towards Jack. Infamously, during the crash, the lower decks are locked, preventing the poor passengers from getting to safety. Sometimes this works, such as the expected but funny scene where Jack sneaks into a fancy dinner, rubbing shoulders with the clueless rich people. More often, the class aspect of the plot comes off as melodramatic and contrived. If “Titanic” was trying to recall classic dramas of the thirties and forties, it does so in the worst way possible.

Another melodramatic aspect, which sometimes reaches hysterical levels, are the movie’s bad guys. Billy Zane’s crack at leading man stardom never really broke through. Maybe that’s because his smarmy sense of superiority makes him a better match for villains. Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley is a dick. As Rose’s fiance, he belittles Jack. He manipulates Rose. Not because he loves her but because he wants to own her and a rich man like him will not be denied something he wants. He frames Jack, basically cheating to get rid of his romantic rival. Zane even pulls a gun on DiCaprio and Winslet. (Cal’s valet, played by a thankless David Warner, also threatens to kill Jack, chaining him in the bowels of the ship as it starts to go down.) This is not sufficiently villainous for the movie though. Cal grabs a random kid so he can get on a life boat. He survives the boat’s crash but, we are informed in voice-over, killed himself after the on-set of the Great Depression. Jesus Christ, has a more ridiculously hatable, cartoonish movie bad guy ever existed? Probably. Cal seems worst though because his insertion into historical drama is especially pandering. Mr. William Zane is fine in the part, fun even. But being third billed in one of the highest grossing movies of all time still didn’t slow Zane’s descent towards direct-to-video schlock.

Cameron’s ability to get great actors for supporting roles continues here. Kathy Bates is nicely cast as the legendary Molly Brown. Bates’ dual talents for being relatable and earthy but always dignified and strong is well utilized. (Though one wonders what the seemingly perfectly cast Reba McEntire could have done in the part.) The funders and owners of the ship are portrayed by snotty British actors, many of them as one-dimensional as Zane. Yet Victor Garber stands out as the humble, thoughtful Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder. Of Cameron’s regular cast of actors, Bill Paxton and Jeanette Goldstein are present. Paxton is perfectly cast as the leader of the modern day explorers, bringing all the humor and charm you’ve come to expect from him. Goldstein, meanwhile, has a tiny role as an Irish mother, tucking her children into bed as the ship starts to go down.

I may not be all that impressed with “Titanic’s” romance. I’m not putting it down. “Titanic” is an extremely well orchestrated film. Despite its 194 minute run time, three hours and fourteen minutes in other words, the movie is incredibly well paced. It keeps moving and never drags. There are a few lyrical moments sprinkled throughout. Jack and Rose bumping around the upper-crust is funny and sweet. Afterwards, he takes her to a party down below, complete with Irish jigs and folk music. This is easily the movie’s breeziest, most laid-back moment. As widely mock as it’s been, the moment when Jack sketches a nude Rose is beautifully put together. (Though I have no idea how the movie earned a PG-13 rating, with Kate Winlets’ spectacular breasts being in full view.) It’s certainly a more touching, romantic moment then the couple’s overwrought love-making in the steamed-up car.

Maybe “Titanic” is so well paced because we know the ship is going to sink. We know there’s going to be a spectacular pay-off to everything that’s come before. The movie’s entire last ninety minutes is devoted to the ship’s failure. To the strike with the iceberg, the flooding, the fall-out, and the Titanic’s breaking apart. The build-up to the ship’s destruction are some of the best scenes in the movie. There’s something incredibly visceral about the huge waves of freezing water flooding into the ship. Characters racing through the bowels of the ship as it fills with water is also hugely exciting. However, it’s the small human moments during these sequences that truly elevates “Titanic.” An old couple hold each other on their bed as water seeps into the room. Captain Edward Smith makes the decision to go down with the ship, standing by the steering wheel as green water reflects from outside, calmly circling the room. As the ship goes down, the band plays on, an especially touching bit.

Of course, “Titanic” is compelling as a special effects flick. Cameron was an expert by this point of integrating CGI with practical effects. The massive sets made for the movie are genuine. They’re really filling with water. The movie makes the ship sinking beneath the water seem totally plausible. The money shot is when the Titanic rises into the air, people diving to their deaths, bouncing off the massive propeller. When the ship snaps in two, it’s a terrifying special effect. The scale is massive and the production is seamless. It’s hard to consider “Titanic” a historical movie, considering its massive liberties with history, but it certainly gives you an impression of how horrifying the legendary ship’s failure was.

Something else that gives “Titanic,” a movie equally impressive and silly, is its framing device. The story is told from the perspective of an old woman looking back at her life. Gloria Stewert plays Rose as an old woman. Stewert, a veteran actress from Hollywood’s golden age that I recognize from “The Invisible Man” and “The Old Dark House,” brings huge quantities of gravitas to the part. Rose is an old woman at the end of her life, nearing death. Stuart would actually live a decade after “Titanic” but she proves that actors are still the best special effect. Stuart’s age, her face, her delivery, imbues a thankless part with far more strength then it otherwise would have had.

“Titanic” plays a lot better separated from the hype then I expected. It’s not a great movie but it’s a decently good movie. You know what’s not good? That fucking Celine Dion song. “My Heart Will Go On” was as inescapable in 1997 as the movie it belonged to was. Every time you turned on the TV or the radio, you’d be bombarded by it. James Horner’s lovely score draws from the song’s melody, which is quite nice. However, Celine Dion’s voice is warbling, nasally, overdone to say the least, and grating to the ears. The lyrics are absolute treacle and Dion empowers them with as much unearned pretensions as possible. I may like the movie more now then I did when I first saw it. But that song still fucking sucks.

So what’s the verdict on “Titanic?” The romance still doesn’t entirely work, despite the efforts of an experienced cast. The movie’s script is often goofy and overblown. It’s as tightly edited and created as anything Cameron’s done. As pure spectacle, “Titanic” is hard to beat. The result is a movie that obviously didn’t deserve to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year. “Titanic” is a crowning achievement from a technical perspective but less so from a story perspective. Taken on its own merits, it’s an extremely well made movie, full of fantastic moments. Is it as entertaining as “Aliens” or “True Lies?” Nah. But I don’t hate it. I even kind of like it. [Grade: B]

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1994)

6. True Lies

James Cameron’s last four films were landmark science-fiction movies. They were movies that helped define the genre over the next few years, either through their stories, characters, or special effects. After “Terminator 2” was a massive world-wide success, James Cameron probably could have made any movie he wanted. Instead, he made a movie as a favor to his best buddy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold wanted to remake the French action/comedy “La Totale!,” a movie more-or-less forgotten outside of its connection to this film. When your leading man is the biggest star in the world, you listen to his ideas. “True Lies” was another massively expensive movie for Cameron and another huge hit for Arnold. It shows the star continuing to play with his image and the director lightening up a little.

Harry Tasker is a secret agent, working for the top secret Omega Sector. He jet-sets to exotic locations, killing terrorists, defusing international incidents, and saving the world. There’s just one problem: Harry’s wife doesn’t know about any of it. Helen Tasker thinks her husband is a humble computer salesman, an especially boring day job. Tasker’s latest mission is to hunt down a sect of Islamic terrorists who have gotten their hands on some nuclear bombs. That mission is slightly interrupted when Harry learns Helen may be cheating on him. She isn’t but the wife gets caught up in his adventure anyway.

As a scholar of all things Schwarzenegger, I divide his screen career up into roughly five acts. There’s the early days, when bit parts in “Stay Hungry” and “The Long Goodbye,” brought him to the public’s attention. This leads into the eighties golden age, when Arnold was the reigning king of action and starred in genuine masterpieces like “Commando” or “Conan the Barbarian.” As the nineties begin, we enter an experimental period, when Arnold started appearing in more comedies, stretching his acting chops and playing off his established image. It’s during this period that “True Lies” was made. (I won’t discuss his late nineties doldrums or his post-gubernatorial attempts to recapture the public’s love.) “True Lies” is an action movie but also a romantic/comedy, with the emphasis on the comedy. Yeah, Arnold kills lots of people in it. That comes second nature to him. It’s his chance to show off his excellent comedic chops and his ability to charm the ladies.

“True Lies” is also a spy movie. Not a real spy movie, where people are actually going undercover and gathering information. Instead, “True Lies” is playing off the James Bond image, where the spy blows up buildings, wears tuxes, machine guns baddies, and seduces sexy ladies. The movie was made a year before “GoldenEye” came out, when the Bond series was hibernating, showing what Ian Fleming’s creation might look like in the self-aware nineties. Since he had no chance of ever actually playing Bond, Harry Tasker is the closest we get to seeing Schwarzenegger as fiction's greatest spy. And he does a pretty good job. A big joke of “True Lies” is that the super spy is a devoted husband, so Arnold doesn’t sleep around any. This is fine since Schwarzenegger has never been a convincing romantic lead anyway. Instead, the movie allows him plenty of opportunities to show his considerable comedic abilities. Arnold is hilarious, not just quipping but also showing a keen comedic timing.

Starring opposite Arnold is Jaime Lee Curtis. The part of Helen Tasker allows Curtis’ to deploy all her best skills as an actor. Jaime Lee’s attempts to parlay her status as a beloved scream queen into an action heroine never met with much success. Instead, she spent most of the late eighties and early nineties starring in comedies. Curtis is very funny in “True Lies.” She has considerable skills as a physical comedian and has no problem looking a little silly for the sake of a laugh. However, the movie allows her to be tough too. After hanging out in her husband’s world of crazy action for a few hours, Helen Tasker is firing machine guns and getting into fist fights. Basically, she starts out as a suburban housewife and transforms into a woman in a James Cameron movies. Thus, Curtis is both a hilarious comedic lead and a capable action heroine.

In “The Abyss,” Cameron explored themes of marriage, divorce, and long-term love. These ideas carry over to “True Lies.” Harry and Helen have been married for fifteen years but their passion has dulled. Helen is actually considering cheating on Harry, the energy is so low. Of course, Harry has been lying to her for years. This, in a weird way, refers to the little white lies we have to tell our loved ones over time, in order for a marriage to survive. The title of “True Lies” refers to this as well, in a way. In an unexpected way, Harry and Helen rediscover their passion, keeping their love alive. Considering Cameron’s relationship with Linda Hamilton was dissolving and Schwarzenegger would start soon an affair with the family maid, it’s not difficult to read into “True Lies” as an appropriate statement about both men’s lives.

“True Lies” is very funny throughout. Some of the best jokes happen in the film’s middle section, between machine gun fights. Tasker hunts down the guy his wife may be cheating on him with… A scumbag played by Bill Paxton at his greasiest. In an ironic twist, Paxton’s Simon is pretending to be a spy in order to draw Helen in. Watching Arnold’s strained interaction with Paxton, barely repressing his desire to kill, makes for some good laughs. An even better moment comes when Tasker turns the tables on Simon. The man’s fa├žade collapses immediately, as he’s admitting defeat and peeing his pants. Which is amazing. One of the silliest, most endearing gags in the movie comes when Curtis accidentally wipes out a whole room full of terrorists by dropping her gun. Or a last minute appearance from a seagull.

As an action movie, “True Lies” is spot-on too. Not long after it starts, Arnold is gunning down attackers. He manhandles a pair of dogs and slides down a snowy mountain while dual wielding pistols. An early high-light is an extended shoot-out in a public bathroom. Schwarzenegger disarms a group of terrorists, smashing their faces into walls and blowing them away. A good example of how the film balances humor and action occurs here, when an old man in a neighboring stall wonders what is going on. The sequence that follows is a laugh riot, as Tasker pursues the villain on horseback. The chase goes through the streets, into a hotel, up an elevator, and onto the roof. Amusingly, Arnie has to reprimand the horse when it disobeys him. All this stuff is great.

“True Lies” was well-liked in its day but one moment would become especially notorious. After taking Simon out of the plot, Harry sends Helen on a wild goose chase, pretending to bring her into his spying life. It’s all an excuse to sex up their relationship. And it works. Jaime Lee Curtis stripes down to her underwear and does a sexy dance across the bedroom. Well, it’s certainly a sexy moment. Curtis looks fantastic and seems fine with showing off. She even incorporates a little humor into the scene, when an attempted pole dance has her stumbling. Ah, but some people cried, is it sexist? “True Lies” does treat women in a somewhat reductive manner. Curtis is manipulated by the men in her life, when she isn’t stumbling around. The only other major female character is an evil bitch. Yet you can’t really call Curtis’ character arc sexist. She embraces her own sexuality, learns how to defend herself, and saves her marriage.

“True Lies” partakes freely of the conventions of nineties action movies. The action is over-the-top and stylized. Though far bloodier then modern action flicks, and still violent enough to earn an R-rating, there’s nothing mean-spirited about the blood shed in the film. Primarily, the movie’s comedic streak allows for a level of self-awareness. That’s the biggest difference between eighties action flicks and nineties action flicks. Eighties action was campy, goofy and ridiculous. Nineties action acknowledged that campiness and ridiculousness. Another convention the movie embraces, and a far more unsightly one, is casting Arabs as the villains. In the days before 9/11, it was fine for a light-hearted action/comedy like this to cast Islamic extremists as its villains. That threat was far-off, abstract, and poorly understood by Joe Movie-goer. “True Lies” was also accused of being slightly racist towards Middle Easterners. That accusation holds slightly more water then the shouts of sexism. There’s no positive portrayals of brown people in this movie. I’m not saying the filmmakers made an intentionally racist movie. I’m saying the film was heavily embroiled in the Hollywood conventions of the time.

After a long comedic middle section, “True Lies” gets back to the action. In action scenes likely influenced by John Woo, Arnold blazes a trail of destruction through the villain’s port-front lair. He swings Uzis and AK-47s around, gunning down whole hordes of terrorists. An especially inspired gag has him making an improvised flame-thrower, with a gas hose and some muzzle flash. The fantastic final act involves a chase between a car and a plane across the Seven Mile Bridge. Curtis and Tia Carrea wrestle in the car as it careens towards a shortened bridge, which is great. The scene is beautifully shot, ramps up some tension, and features some great big explosions.

Tasker rescues his wife. The two make out while a mushroom cloud goes off in the distance. That’s the end of the movie, right? “True Lies” instead includes a surprise fourth act. The Taskers’ daughter is suddenly, without much explanation, kidnapped by the lead bad guy. Harry leaps in a fighter jet, heads over the skyscraper where they’re at, and kills the hell out of the villains. Harry learning to fly the plane is great. The daughter and the bad guy climbing over the jet makes for some entertaining stunts. The whole thing concludes with a satisfyingly theatrics death for the villain and a cheesy Arnold one-liner. Yet it is odd that the movie would keep going like that, after it’s logical end point.

You know what else is odd? Tom Arnold is in “True Lies.” You know what’s odder? He’s funny! Before the rise of the reality TV pseudo-celebrity, Tom Arnold was always my choice for worst “actor” around. However, he plays off of Schwarzenegger well. He cultivates a lovable loser schtick that contrasts nicely with Harry’s happily married life. Also among the supporting cast is Tia Carrere as Juno Skinner, the femme fatale working with the villains. Carrere’s shockingly gorgeous in the part and gets to stretch pass the, indistinct girlfriend roles she usually played. Also notable is a very young Eliza Dushku as Arnold and Jaime Lee’s daughter. Amusingly, considering her future as a vampire slayer, Dushku was tough even as a little girl. She’s certainly believable as the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“True Lies” is utterly delightful from beginning to end. It’s light-weight, breezy, and massively entertaining throughout, packing in tons of laughs and action movie thrills. For a while, James Cameron and Arnold were serious about making a sequel, with a bigger role for Eliza Dushku following her growth spurt into an action heroine in her own right. Then September 11th happened and terrorism was nothing to joke about anymore. Though you still occasionally hear something about it, the time for “True Lies 2: Truer Lies” has passed. As a stand alone popcorn flick from the mid-nineties, “True Lies” may be one of the best. [Grade: A]