Archive for May, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Monday, May 25th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sequels in lumbering, decades-old franchises slavishly obey the law of diminishing returns, and “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth feature in the series launched twenty-five years ago this October by James Cameron, is no exception. Painted in the dusty, dirty hues of gun-metal gray, McG’s addition to the venerable sci-fi/action behemoth takes itself far too seriously for audiences to have much fun, and the director’s vision is abetted by the humorless performance of Christian Bale, still switched deep into growling Batman mode. Bale’s John Connor is fundamentally less interesting than the Edward Furlong or Nick Stahl versions of the character, who at least behaved like human beings with feelings and emotions. The Connor of “Terminator Salvation” is the so-called “prophesized leader of the resistance,” and he believes his own messianic hype.

The time travel aspect of the “Terminator” movies has simultaneously been one of the storyline’s geeky intrigues and one of its central liabilities. Once salty, seasoned Connor meets his awkward and much younger father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) face to face, “Terminator Salvation” has bigger problems than the space-time continuum. And while it is hard to imagine the slight Yelchin morphing into Michael Biehn, the young actor provides much of the movie’s limited comic relief. Partnered with an adorable, resourceful mute urchin cloned from Newt in “Aliens,” Yelchin turns out to be the one actor in “Terminator Salvation” who manages the self-aware wink at the audience that gave the Schwarzenegger entries so much of their appeal.

Directorially speaking, McG propels the action forward in a workmanlike facsimile of a video game. McG’s “Charlie’s Angels” films were like gumball machines bursting with candy coated pop culture references from sources as disparate as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Flashdance” and “The Matrix,” not to mention “The Terminator” and several other Schwarzenegger movies. This time out, the swaggering filmmaker drains all the color from the screen, even though he retains several of his longstanding cinematic crushes via visual homage, most notably “The Great Escape.” McG’s nods to worthier film culture don’t really help his case, but they do offer movie buffs something to spot in between the carnage and mayhem.

Bale isn’t done any favors by being paired with Sam Worthington, who, along with a creepy, nude CG avatar of a youthful Arnold, turns out to be the movie’s real surprise. It only makes sense that Worthington’s soulful cyborg has more heart and humanity than the glowering Connor, since the robots are the very center of the Terminator universe. Needless to say, McG does not skimp on the machinery, and there are all kinds of new Skynet-spawned killers, from Transformer-esque T-1 and Harvester giants to snapping, snakelike horrors called Hydrobots. The humanoid T-600, T-700, and T-800 models wield machine guns along with their relentless drive to snuff out human life, but why some of them choose to wear grungy headbands is a mystery. Who knew that soulless, mechanical murderers developed a fashion sense when they attained sentience?

“Terminator Salvation” relies too often on the laziest action movie clichés: when faced with certain annihilation, the very thing needed to stop the marauding machine is miraculously, conveniently available. Along with recycled measures for halting Terminators, some of the signature lines of the cycle, including both “Come with me if you want to live” and the less welcome “I’ll be back,” are interjected presumably to remind audience members that they are watching another chapter in the Terminator saga. Those oft-imitated phrases, along with the teasing visage of the sitting governor of California, will remind many, however, that it is difficult to make a Terminator movie without Arnold.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/25/09.

Sin Nombre

Monday, May 18th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

While many tales of illegal immigration made for the American movie market focus on the drama generated from crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature film “Sin Nombre” finds its footing in the arduous, perilous legs of the south to north journeys that happen long before Texas is in sight. Intertwining two initially separate stories that merge into a single narrative, “Sin Nombre” will appeal to moviegoers intrigued by its director’s visual command, observational style, and interest in details of more than one subculture. “Sin Nombre” is by no means a perfect movie, but Fukunaga displays enough confidence and assuredness to strongly recommend a viewing.

Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) agrees to jump a northbound freight train with her uncle and her widower father, who has started a new family in New Jersey and wants his daughter to accompany him back to the States. Meanwhile, in Tapachula, Chiapas in the south of Mexico, the iron grip of the Mara Salvatrucha/La Mara/MS-13 gang tightens around young member Casper (Edgar Flores) and his protégé Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a preteen on the verge of being inducted into the ruthless organization. Fukunaga expertly negotiates the introductory segments of the film, revealing just enough information about the characters to intensify viewer interest. Especially seductive are the images of the communal structures of the MS-13 syndicate. Elaborate facial and body tattoos, special handshakes and greeting gestures, and unwavering loyalties and oaths serve as vivid symbols of a clan whose deadly lawlessness inspires a chilling fatalism in its youthful adherents.

Once the powerful exposition is out of the way, “Sin Nombre” slips a little bit. Given the numbers of small distribution and releasing companies owned or heavily subsidized by major studios and/or corporate parents, the heavily fractured American art house movement may no longer be fairly called an independent cinema. “Sin Nombre” was developed at the Sundance Institute’s labs, a pedigree that often engenders as many liabilities as assets in an emerging artist’s work. True, without the support of Sundance, a movie like “Sin Nombre” would not see a theatrical release, but many critics have expressed disappointment in the screenplay’s eagerness to smooth out rough edges that might otherwise depict Casper as less angelic and Sayra as less naïve.

Reviewer Scott Tobias recently wrote of the movie, “Then there’s the matter of the script, which is sadly endemic of the earnest, conventional, issue-oriented mediocrities produced and rewarded by Sundance nearly every year.” Tobias’ argument is most effectively applied to the last third of the movie, when events – however unexpected and often clever – rely too much on a layer of sentimentality and self-sacrifice that perhaps gives undue credit to each of the movie’s key protagonists.

Despite the flaws, however, “Sin Nombre” is filled with so many stirring railway visuals that the movie reinforces the adage that trains and cameras are a match made in filmmaking heaven. From “The General” and “Beggars of Life” to “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Days of Heaven,” not to mention several examples from Hitchcock, moviemakers have long embraced the kinetic, magnetic power of the locomotive on the big screen. Like the other films mentioned above, “Sin Nombre” appreciates the dynamism and beauty, as well as the possibilities of escape and transcendence, offered by the sight of a moving train.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/18/09.


Monday, May 11th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The subtitle of the American market translation of Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah” (just “Gomorra” in Italian) reads “a personal journey into the violent international empire of Naples’ organized crime system.” The description accurately explains the young journalist’s inside view of one of the world’s most corrupt regions, which Saviano claims is host to the largest open-air drug market on the planet. While Saviano, one of the movie version’s several credited screenwriters, personalized his written account, filmmaker Matteo Garrone erases all traces of first person subjectivity, opting instead for a sobering documentary style that chronicles the squalor, poverty, and hopelessness of the neighborhoods infected by the warring gangs that define and control essentially every aspect of the local economy.

Saviano’s book strings together a chain of bruising anecdotes illustrating over and over the toll exacted by the criminal enterprise known as the Camorra, a term that probably emerged from the blending of words for “boss” and “gang” that dates to at least the 19th century and which also provides the movie with its punning title. On the page, something is lost in the English translation by Virginia Jewiss, but Saviano’s use of repetition drives home the unyielding totality of the Camorra’s reach. Garrone’s movie version, which is in many ways more austere, heightens the sense of despair, since legitimate businesses don’t even appear to exist and the concrete housing developments of Scampia resemble prison blocks more than places someone would want to call home.

Significantly scaling back the various concerns identified in the book, Garrone weaves together five stories. Skinny thug wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) irk a local mobster by stealing a small arsenal of automatic weapons, including the fearful AK-47 (Saviano devotes an entire chapter to the legendary killing machine, but its impact is only hinted at in the film). Adolescent Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a quiet grocery delivery boy, finds the temptations of joining a gang too difficult to resist.

Apprentice Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) learns the ropes of illegal toxic waste dumping from Franco (Toni Servillo). Mid-level courier Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) distributes payouts to families who have experienced death or incarceration as a result of Camorra involvement, and handing out cash proves as dangerous as collecting it. Finally, tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) makes an arrangement to teach his skills to Chinese garment makers in direct competition with the Camorra.

Garrone shuttles among the various story strands, the majority of which result, sooner or later, in outbursts of fierce violence. The director drains the romanticism of Hollywood gangster movies from “Gomorrah,” even though the young men on the screen quote the 1983 version of “Scarface” chapter and verse. Unlike the book, the police and the top level Camorra leadership are figures left unexplored, a choice that will leave some viewers wondering about the extent of corruption and negligence within the Neapolitan legal system. To have included those things would have altered the fabric of the film, and their absence serves as an additional reminder that the poor have few choices outside the Camorra’s vampiric clutches.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/11/09.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Monday, May 4th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

On the pulpy pages of the Marvel comic books that have seen Wolverine evolve into one of the most popular characters in the medium, a thorough accounting of the irascible Canadian’s origins did not materialize until the person also known as Logan had been around for decades. Wolverine first showed up in “The Incredible Hulk” in 1974, and not too many months later he was a member of the X-Men, a relationship that developed into a lucrative partnership that reached beyond comics into TV cartoons, videogames, toys, collectible cards, tee shirts, posters, and other merchandise. In 2000, Wolverine transitioned to the big screen in Bryan Singer’s successful “X-Men” feature film, and Hugh Jackman’s interpretation pleased zealous, protective comic book fans and earned a legion of new admirers.

The latest installment of the big screen mutant saga is called “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and director Gavin Hood’s cold, businesslike style lacks everything that made Singer’s first two “X-Men” movies interesting even to non-fans. From commentary on discrimination to human rights and the notions of estrangement and otherness, Singer’s movies at least took stock of some of the themes that emerged from the comic series. None of that kind of material stands a chance in “Wolverine,” which thunders from action scene to action scene at the expense of any focus on the psyche of its title hero.

It is a given that film adaptations of superhero comics reconfigure all kinds of well established lore that has already morphed and transformed in countless retellings on the page, but “Wolverine” makes a hash of Logan’s childhood, never pausing to offer several explanations that would seem salient to a movie with the word origins in the title. Fundamentally, Wolverine is more compelling, more haunted, more tragic, and more exciting when shrouded almost completely in mystery. For many fans of a certain age, Wolverine’s “cool” factor went hand in hand with the idea that we knew little of his past. Hood’s movie does to Wolverine approximately what the “Star Wars” prequels did to Boba Fett.

Jackman captures many of the details that define Wolverine, from the submerged psychic scars to the cigar-chomping swagger. He continues to play Logan effectively, even though poor writing leaves the actor to skate by on the goodwill he developed in the three previous X-Men outings. Other personages from the comics are even less intriguing: Ryan Reynolds’ mouthy Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch’s cocky Gambit are employed foolishly and fleetingly. The development of Logan’s relationship with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) should be of central importance, given the not so surprising revelations in the last section of the movie.

Hood’s decision to avoid any intelligent risk-taking results in a lukewarm action movie brimming with all kinds of genre clichés. You get to see individuals walk calmly away from massive explosions and emerge from water in slow motion. There are also way too many overhead shots of characters clenching their fists, tilting their heads skyward and yelling “Noooooooo!” The movie’s final insult shows us how Wolverine lost his memory, a laughable reminder that this lame prequel has now caught us up to the point where, movie-wise, we met the protagonist. When Wolverine later turns his full attention to recovering his past and filling in the forgotten details of his life, couldn’t he have just asked any number of folks who were with him in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”?

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/4/09.