Monday, May 25, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Terminator Salvation (2009): In elementary school, there was a kid in my fourth grade class named Kyle. His middle name was Reese, and he proudly introduced me to his namesake in the first Terminator movie. There was intense action with lots of car chases; there were darkly complex characters in Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese; there was time travel and robots. I was hooked. While the first Terminator film played out like a sci-fi thriller, the second film defined the action genre as Arnold took on the T-1000 to protect John Connor. Both films had characters filled with heart, with Arnold playing both a father-figure for the teenage John Connor and sacrificing himself for the good of others. There is a beautiful mythology in the Terminator saga, an ongoing theme of asking the question, what truly makes us human? Tragically, the latest Terminator film sacrifices its heart on the altar of robotic fight scenes.

Now I'm not saying that this newest Terminator film is bad. It's not. It's actually quite entertaining. Director McG manages to capture the gritty landscape of a burned-out earth. Borrowing heavily from the Matrix and Mad Max films for its style, McG fills his film with a variety of mechanistic enemies for the human resistance. I was moved to awe, uttering a quiet "whoa..." when a giant harvesting robot appeared out of the midst of a burning fuel truck. The noises this thing makes...I could feel it in my bones. Then there are hydrobots, hunter-killers, a variety of terminators, and some motorcycles with guns. The action of Terminator Salvation gives any of the previous films a run for their money.

Yet Terminator Salvation ironically lacks heart. While I was familiar with the overall Terminator mythology and story, this film had an emotional void. I felt like I was attending a foreign religious ceremony; you know it's supposed to be engaging, but there's a sense of detachment because you just don't quite know why this is supposed to feel special. While the first films hailed John Connor (Christian Bale) as the messiah of the resistance, he's a mere military grunt who sends out inspirational radio transmissions. He honestly doesn't seem like much of an inspirational leader, not the savior Kyle Reese spoke of in the first film. Instead, much of the film focuses on newcomer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a condemned criminal given a second chance after waking up in a machine lab in the aftermath of judgment day. This guy is intriguing. Worthington is starring in James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar coming out later this year, and I'm excited to see his career progress.

Coincidentally meeting up with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and after a series of robotic battles, Marcus finally ends up face-to-face with Connor. They yell. They glare. Other characters look on. They decide to take down Skynet. More action. It feels a little bit like reading this sentence: you can stil udnresntad tihs, btu it is msisnig somthng vital. Maybe it was the editing, maybe it was the script, maybe it was Christian Bale's surprisingly wooden performance. I just couldn't connect with these characters the same way I connected with previous Terminator films.

The film had the greatest potential to continue the spiritual imagery of the first two films--a savior with the initials J.C., becoming fully human, judgment day, etc.--with its theme of "everyone deserves a second chance." There is a picture of grace as Marcus gives of himself to save others, choosing to fully embrace this second chance he's been given. Yet this beautiful truth is nearly lost in a hail of machine-gun fire and helicopter blades. It's there; it's just secondary to the action. So if you're pining for an exhilarating action flick this summer, this will satisfy your thirst. If you want a film that has a gripping story and a tender ethos beneath the thrills, you may need to look elsewhere. Much like Marcus, the heart of Terminator Salvation is hidden beneath a metallic exterior.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): Say what you will about Woody Allen, the man is a filmmaker at heart and one who can pull humor out of a dreary existential drama like Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film is a character study, a meditation on the concept of romantic love and all its follies. Like a Shakespearian tragedy, the characters find themselves driven to disaster by their passions and desires. Two American friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) on a summer trip to Spain become caught up with a charming painter (Javier Bardem) and his fiery wife (Penelope Cruz, in an Oscar-winning performance). Vicky is reasonable, intellectual, and committed; Cristina is passionate, self-destructive, and transient. The intertwining relationships between these four people create for a comedy that is sparse on laughs but filled with authentic performances that manage to transcend their stereotypes.

We've seen this story before: it's the summer romance in a foreign country that's filled with heartache and lessons learned. Yet Allen manages to pull some incredible performances from the actors. Combine the witty cerebral dialogue with the lush Spanish setting and you've got yourself a great movie. I was especially impressed with Rebecca Hall; her authenticity and allure were captivating, and I'd be excited to see more of her work. My biggest critique of the film is the use of narration. While the narrator can be insightful and informative, I found myself wishing he would shut up so I could just take in the beauty of the Spanish countryside. (By the way, this film will make you want to take a vacation to Barcelona. The lush wonders of the Spanish culture absolutely captivated me.)

The film is filled with characters making one mistake after the next in their sexual lives. To be honest, I would normally be filled with both pity and aversion to their behavior. I'm the kind of guy who looks at a difficult romance between a guy and girl and mutters, "well, just stop being idiots and you'll figure it out." Be logical and it'll all make sense. Yet I also know my own heart. I know that I struggle to love some days, that I'm imperfect and foolhardy. My own affections have both led me astray and driven me to the beautiful woman I married. I know that we cannot divorce the emotive from the cognitive, that our affections and our reasoning are intertwined and equally valuable in making us fully human. When we lean too far towards one or the other, we end up dissatisfied and hurt. 

This is Vicky and Cristina's problem. Cristina leads with her passions, yet her fleeting desires leave her unfulfilled and quickly searching elsewhere. Vicky in her desire for security and commitment finds herself bored with her romance to her dull fiance. There's no more mystery or excitment for Vicky, but no steadfastness or depth to Cristina. The third way eludes them. While I don't agree with nearly any of Woody Allen's conclusions about love, I do affirm the search that takes place on screen. I affirm that real love transcends both the heart and the head, that the Divine Love encompasses both. I affirm the search that Vicky and Cristina represent.


  1. The ending of Terminator kind of ruined it for me. I'm probably too picky but it was my least favorite of the big movies so far this month. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the sacrifice but just didn't buy it. Under those circumstances and in those conditions, I don't think so. And since I don't want to give anything away to people who haven't seen it, I'll shut up.

    There were some good action scenes though. But my high hopes were a bit disappointed.

  2. Lori, I didn't buy it either. It felt like it was supposed to be a powerful emotional moment, but I just didn't care. I believe the vast amounts of action anesthetized any potentially touching moments that the final scene could have evoked. That's why--possible spoiler alert!--I felt like the film ironically didn't have heart. With such a focus on the heart, both figuratively and literally, the power of the message got lost.

  3. I noticed your without heart line ... and really appreciated it. Jud and I got a good laugh.