Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


Ol' red eyes is back.

Ol’ red eyes is back.

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, Claire Danes, David Andrews, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Boen, Moira Harris, Chopper Bernet, Chris Lawford, Carolyn Hennesy, Jay Acovone, M.C. Gainey, Susan Merson, Elizabeth Morehead, Jimmy Snyder, Chris Hardwick, Brian Sites, Alana Curry, Rebecca Tilney, Helen Eigenberg. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Poor John Connor. He survived an unstoppable relentless killing machine from the future, but could he survive a movie without director James Cameron or actress Linda Hamilton as his mother Sarah? At least for the third go-round in the franchise he had Arnold back.

This time around, Connor (Stahl) is fully grown and he’s a mess. A loner who never really got over the events of his past, he’s further shut himself out from society after the death of his mother. He lives on the streets, for the most part shunning the city where he was born, although he comes back from time to time — like for example when he has a motorcycle accident and needs to steal some drugs from a deserted veterinary hospital to help dull the pain and stop the terrible dreams of Judgment Day that continue to plague him, even though he and his mom, along with the Good Terminator, stopped the machine-driven Armageddon from occurring, right?

Unfortunately for Connor, wrong. Also unfortunately for Connor, the veterinary clinic isn’t quite deserted. Kate Brewster (Danes), the vet who runs the clinic, shows up unexpectedly to handle a pet emergency. So does the T-X (Loken), a cyborg from the future which wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. This one is supposedly even more lethal than the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and she looks like she’s going to have her way with the trapped Connor when who should bust in but Arnold the Terminator. From there on in, it’s non-stop action leading to a wickedly twisted ending.

T3 did decent box office, enough to warrant a T4. Its critical reception, even within the action film addicts community, was more chilly. I have a few basic problems with T3. For one thing, one of the main action movie bugaboos: too many coincidences. Kate Brewster happens to be an old crush who gave Connor his first kiss as a young lad, and is the daughter of the general who heads the Skynet project for the government? I mean, really.

Secondly, Loken, while gorgeous, doesn’t really project the air of invincibility Robert Patrick did in T2. You got the impression that the Sarah, John and Arnie were overmatched and could get wiped out at any time by the T-1000. Not so here. Although the new Terminatrix has some built-in weapons and the ability to remote-control any machine she interfaces with, one gets the feeling that Arnie could lay the smack-down on her without dropping his cigar if he had half a mind to. I didn’t buy the menace that Loken was selling, and it did affect how I viewed the movie.

My other problem is with the whole idea of a Terminator coming to assassinate Connor. He is far too accepting of another set of androids from the future, almost seeming to expect them. Shouldn’t he be trying to figure out how Judgment Day could be back on the clock even after he had ended any chance of it taking place?

To the good side, the writing is a cut above the average action fare, and the twist at the movie’s end is a stunner. In fact, a number of conventions of the Terminator universe are turned on their heads in this movie, including the issue of Connor’s survival. Arnold has the terminator thing down to a “T” and could play the part in his sleep (and essentially would in Terminator Salvation). You get the feeling he really enjoyed himself making this movie, although, of course, he remains fairly emotionless onscreen. At the time this was made, the Awesome Austrian was on a roll, delivering some surprisingly strong acting performances (The Sixth Day and End of Days) that while not entirely deflecting the naysayers who said that the soon-to-be Governator couldn’t act, at least making the din of that accusation a bit less loud.

Director Jonathan Mostow had some pretty impressive shoes to fill in Cameron’s absence, but he is given a good template from which to work, and acquits himself nicely. The action sequences are well done, and the byplay between Connor and the Terminator is snappy. The only quibble I have here is a lack of spectacle; T3 seems in places more like a TV movie than anything else, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad entertainment.

This would be his last starring role before embarking on the political career that would take him to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. There had been talk when this film was released that a fourth Terminator film would star Schwarzenegger and would continue directly where this one left off but those plans had to be scrapped. He has since announced that he would return to the role for a fifth Terminator film to be released in 2015 after appearing in Salvation through footage from the first Terminator.

While in nearly every way possible the third installment didn’t measure up to the first two films in the franchise, it is nonetheless entertaining enough to warrant a look and it is certainly much better than Salvation. This is essentially the role most associated with Schwarzenegger during his acting career, and the robot has always overshadowed the messianic John Conner figure in the imagination of the moviegoing audience. Our fascination with that character of the unstoppable robot has kept this franchise alive and active for well over 25 years. Not every movie franchise can say that, but as long as that fascination remains and they keep making Terminator movies as the Terminator himself might say, “Ah’ll be bahck.”

WHY RENT THIS: Arnold in his signature role. Stunning twist. Some nifty action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: T-X not nearly as impressive as one would hope. Too many action movie cliches.

FAMILY MATTERS: A good deal of sci-fi action and violence, some foul language and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Other than Schwarzenegger, the only actor to appear in the first three Terminator films is Boen as Dr. Peter Silberman. Boen has not appeared onscreen since, confining himself mainly to voice-over work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD came in a two-disc edition packed with promotional features along with a Gag Reel and an odd two minute scene that seems to explain why the Terminator has an accent. There are also some features on the making of the T3 video game and the action figures that the movie spawned.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $433.4M on a $200M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Think Like a Man

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Meskada


It's the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

It’s the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

(2010) Mystery (Red Flag) Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Tucker, Grace Gummer, Laura Benanti, James McCaffrey, Michael Cerveris, David Aaron Baker, Michael Sirow, Kerry Bishe, Rebecca Henderson, Kathy Searle, Charlie Tahan, Max Antisell, J.D. Rosen, Johnny Hopkins, Rachel Heller. Directed by Josh Sternfeld

In 21st century America, the difference between haves and have-nots is like night and day. In rural Meskada county in the Appalachians, the difference is even greater.

Noah Cordin (Stahl) is a cop in upscale Hilliard. The people who live there are the well-to-do of the county. Noah himself hails from Caswell, the proverbial other side of the tracks. Blue collar and proud of it, Caswell has been hard hit by the recession; work is hard to come by although trouble is not.

During a home burglary in Hilliard, a young boy is killed. The boy’s mother, Alison Connor (Benanti), sits on the county planning commission and she is putting a whole load of pressure on Noah and his partner Leslie Spencer (Nichols) to crack the case quickly and bring her son’s killer to justice. The school of thought is that the killer must hail from Caswell and signs are definitely pointing in that direction.

In truth, the killer does hail from Caswell – a couple of low-life losers named Eddie (Lutz) and Shane (Tucker) did the robbery. They didn’t intend to kill the boy, it was just a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing. The case soon pits town against town and Noah is forced to call into question his own loyalties – to the place he came from, or the place he’s making a life in.

This is a movie that had enormous potential – a nice socio-economic premise wrapped in a murder mystery (although it’s not much of a mystery – for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to let us in on the identity of the killers from the get-go so any tension was blown right out of the water). Given the current political climate that has our country increasingly turning into class warfare, there is a certain amount of resonance in the idea.

Unfortunately it isn’t executed as well as it might be. Sternfeld has assembled a pretty impressive cast, many of them unknowns or barely-knowns when it was filmed but were shortly to gain prominence in their craft. Stahl is probably the best-known in the cast at the time of filming although Reedus, who played Noah’s roommate who briefly comes under suspicion for the crime and knows a lot more than he lets on, has probably surpassed him due to his involvement in Walking Dead – and not undeservedly so as Reedus is a big reason for that show’s popularity.

The cast does a fine job but the framework they’re in is almost damaged. The editing is almost choppy, as if someone had gouged out great hunks of celluloid with an Exacto knife. It feels like there are some important expository scenes missing and some of that exposition is done rather clumsily with one character basically saying “tell me about so and so” and another dutifully doing so. There is a certain artlessness here that can be charming in certain films but here it feels like I’m watching a rough cut rather than a finished product.

However, it must be said that the rough cut I watched was better than a lot of finished products. Stahl is one of those actors who seems to never fail to give an outstanding performance but never seems to get a role that will really get him the notice he deserves. Noah’s anguish is palpable as he knows what desperation can drive people to but observes the ugly side of privilege as well. Along with Stahl and Reedus, Gummer as Eddie’s barmaid/girlfriend, Nichols and Kerry Bishe as Noah’s wife all do some fine work.

I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the filmmakers wanted deliberately to create a movie in which the audience was put off-balance but it’s also possible that budget constraints reared their ugly head. Sternfeld’s only other directing job thus far was Winter Solstice, a very strong and moving film.  He can and has done better than this.

I’m all for leaving an audience to fill in the blanks off a basic framework, but that framework needs to at least support some meat on its bones. I shouldn’t leave a movie wondering what I missed, at least in terms of the information I’m being given to reach whatever conclusions that might be had. I liked some of the things that Meskada did and I liked a lot of the things that it attempted to do – I just wish I’d liked the movie overall just a bit more.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty good cast, many of whom were largely unknown at the time of filming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and choppy, as if large scenes were cut or went unfilmed.

FAMILY VALUES: Bad language and violence and plenty of both, with a scene of sexuality thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sternfeld teaches filmmaking at the NYU Film School and Tisch School of the Arts.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lantana

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Much Ado About Nothing

My One and Only


My One and Only

Renee Zellweger is courted by yet another unsuitable suitor.

(Freestyle Releasing) Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon, Chris Noth, Troy Garity, David Koechner, Eric McCormack, Steven Weber, Nick Stahl, Mark Rendall, Robin Weigert. Directed by Richard Loncraine

The road to growing up can often be a treacherous and confusing one, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes that road can take you to some really unexpected places and unexpected conclusions.

Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) is a willful, beautiful blonde Southern belle who is the trophy wife of bandleader Danny Devereaux (Bacon). He is best known for the hit song “My One and Only” (not the Gershwin song, for those who know the standards well). He is also a philanderer, the kind of guy who simply can’t help himself when it comes to women. When Ann comes home to Danny “entertaining” a young lady – in her bed – it’s the last straw. She cleans out the safety deposit box, buys a baby blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville and hits the road, her sons George (Lerman) and Robbie (Rendall) in tow.

Robbie is a closet homosexual who dreams of Hollywood; George is a bit more grounded and yearns to write. Ann’s only aspiration is to find a rich husband to support her and her boys in the manner in which they’ve been accustomed to.

This doesn’t go very well. Each stop brings another loser, from Wallace McAllister (Weber), a businessman who is nearly broke and who rifles through Ann’s wallet and runs off while she’s in the restroom. Then there’s Col. Harlan Williams (Noth), a rabid anti-Communist military sort who has a streak of violence in him that isn’t compatible with Ann’s gentrified soul. Old flame Charlie (McCormack) makes no bones about it – Ann’s shelf life as a bombshell has expired, and she is competing with younger women for the same scraps. This leads to a misunderstanding that gets Ann arrested.

Nonetheless, she perseveres, even though George outwardly doubts her decision making and making it clear he wants to go back to his dad, who is less than enthusiastic about taking him. Ann then determines to work for a living, but after disastrous attempts at waitressing and sales, Ann finally meets a paint retail tycoon named Bill Massey (Koechner) who looks to be the most promising suitor yet, but even that doesn’t work out as planned.

The movie is loosely based on the life of actor George Hamilton, who is as well known for his tan and his tango these days as he is for his acting career (he’s also the executive producer of the movie). While it doesn’t give you insight into his acting, the movie will at least give you some insight into the man.

The movie has a bit of a split personality, in a good way. The first part of the movie really belongs to Zellweger, and she carries it pretty well. Nobody does plucky, ditzy blonde quite as well as Zellweger (see the Bridget Jones movies, although Lisa Kudrow does nearly as well on “Friends”), and she captivates the screen throughout. Her Ann Devereaux is brave and terminally cheerful, but with a hint of diva in the background. It must have been a fun role to play and you can see Zellweger enjoying herself.

The second half is Lerman’s, and while his story is a bit more complex, he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge but neither does he fail utterly. Instead, he delivers a solid but unspectacular job that doesn’t measure up to the luminescent performance of Zellweger. Each of the suitors have their own charms, although Koechner surprisingly does the most memorable work here as the troubled tycoon. Some of his scenes have a poignancy that elevates the movie quite a bit, as well as the comic timing Koechner is better known for.

Loncraine does a really nice job of evoking the 50s; the setting lives and breathes in his capable hands instead of being something of a distraction as period pieces often are. This is an era that feels lived in, from the posh penthouses of Manhattan to the grubby motels on Route 66. While this is ostensibly a comedy (and there are some funny portions to it), the truth is the dramatic portions work better; you get the feeling Loncraine was going for a bit of a screwball feel (one review likened it to the work of Preston Sturges, which is a dead on observation).

This got a very limited release when it came out and largely flew under the radar. It deserves better; there are some very fine performances and some nice moments, enough to make this a solid recommendation. Check it out on cable or at your local home video emporium; you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Lerman does a credible job, while Koechner is surprisingly effective. The era is nicely evoked. Zellweger is excellent as the fading bombshell past her prime.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to be a screwball comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some sexuality here and there; nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a 13-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to Merv Griffith, who helped Hamilton develop the project and shepherded it through filming, but didn’t live to see it completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Lorna’s Silence

Sleepwalking


Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

(Overture) Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Anna-Sophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, Callum Keith Rennie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Matthew St. Patrick. Directed by Bill Maher

We are all, in a sense, damaged goods. None of us makes it through our lives unscathed by trauma and tragedy alike. Some of us emerge stronger for it, but far more of us bear deep, open wounds hidden away by the veneer of civility. Press too hard on the scab and our true nature emerges, oozing from the sore like pus.

Jolene (Theron) has horrible taste in men. When her boyfriend is arrested, she is forced out of her apartment along with Tara (Robb), her 11-year-old daughter. With nowhere left to turn, she shows up at the door of her brother James (Stahl), a soft-spoken, weak-willed young man who is an endless doormat for his family and his friends, like his stoner co-worker Randall (Harrelson).

It doesn’t take Jolene long to find another loser to hitch her wagon to, and after a night of passion she impulsively runs away with her new beau, leaving James holding the bag. Completely ill-equipped to handle the needs of a young girl, he soon loses his job trying to be a ketchup father (coz he’s playing catch-up in the role…get it?) and is evicted himself. He goes to lick his wounds over at Randall’s, while Tara is put into the foster care system.

Predictably, Tara is put in one of the least hospitable foster homes on record and is soon begging for James to take her away, anywhere but there. In true desperation, he runs away with his niece, the two of them taking assumed names. They eventually make their way to the ranch of James and Jolene’s father (Hopper), a rattlesnake of a man who’s mental and physical abuse tormented his two progeny into lives of abject inability to deal with life. While James has defense mechanisms that help him deal with the old man’s cruelty, the spirited Tara is slowly being broken by dear old Dad. James must soon figure out a way to get away from their place of temporary refuge before Tara winds up crushed the way he and Jolene were.

This is not the most upbeat movie you’ll ever run into. Not only are the main characters constantly doing the wrong thing, they are dealt incredibly bad hands to begin with. They are poster children for the aphorism “if it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck a’tall.” Director Maher compliments the grim mood with bleak landscapes; harsh winters, dry, dusty and lacking in color. Only Tara has any color to her, which is more or less a metaphor as far as I can tell.

Robb, so good in Bridge to Terabithia, proves herself a capable actress who could well wind up in the same stratum as Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Stahl, who has mostly played supporting roles throughout his career, is put in a position to carry this movie and for the most part, he handles it well, given that his character is a bit of a milksop as written.

What really drew me into the movie was the relationship between Tara and James. It defines the movie to a certain extent and is the best thing in it, the only aspect that generates any hope that their miserable lives will improve at all. Robb and Stahl make it believable and moving, two wounded creatures gravitating towards each other at first out of necessity and eventually out of true affection. The evolution of their relationship is the crux of Sleepwalking.

While the ending is a bit of Hollywood hokum, the truth is that there are lives that don’t get happy endings. Some people struggle and labor their entire lives only to get nowhere. Sometimes they are responsible for their own plight, other times it is just godawful luck. Observing a slice of their lives doesn’t necessarily make us feel superior; rather it makes us feel fortunate that we have what we do and reminds us that everything good in life comes with a price tag.

WHY RENT THIS: Robb and Stahl make a believable pair; their relationship is at the crux of the movie and provides all the rooting interest.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly bleak, and in a lot of ways, most of these characters are hard to relate to because of their many and varied faults.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language, a bit of sexuality and a scene where a child is emotionally and physically abused make this not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original working title for the movie was “Ferris Wheel.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Grace Is Gone