Monday 21 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #8

I posted another Weird Wednesday review to Apocalypse Later over the last week. Given that the world and its dog went to see the new Star Wars movie this week, I took on the arduous task of reviewing The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Here's a brief review of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Director: Alan Taylor
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Byung-hun Lee
I’ve been a Terminator fan since the first one, but the franchise ran on too long. I haven’t even got round to watching Terminator Salvation yet, but I was highly interested in this one, because it isn’t just another Terminator movie. I’ve been told that it’s an amalgam of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a few twists, but I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. It’s about time, no pun intended, to take a look myself.

It certainly begins very much as I know from those original films, strangely even down to the end of the world being 1997, though we see a little more of it than we might expect. Skynet comes alive, launches missiles worldwide and wipes out three billion people. Survivors call it Judgement Day. Our narrator, who was born after that point, in a world already ruled by the machines, is clearly Kyle Reese. In 2029, before John Connor destroys Skynet and wins the war, the machines send a terminator back to 1984, tasked to kill John’s mother Sarah and so erase him from existence. Reese volunteers to go after it and save her.

We all know this story, right? Well, not quite, because things change pretty quickly.

When the terminator, in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger (though really a body double by the name of Brett Azar), famously asks for clothes, he finds himself fighting another terminator who’s really played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is wildly new. What else is new is that when Reese arrives in 1984 and gets arrested, it’s Sarah Connor who shows up and shouts, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’

Everything has changed. Everything is new, however familiar it seems. The scenes that follow are mirrors of scenes from the first and second movies, but they’re in a different context and are sometimes merged together. Now we’re in a world where the Arnie terminator which protected John Connor in T2 grew up protecting Sarah Connor from the age of nine. She calls him Pops and he’s still around, doing his job. Her entire story has been replaced (‘I don’t need saving,’ she says), so Reese’s entire mission has changed. A new liquid metal T-1000 is hot on their trail, but the real story kicks in after they destroy it.

Just before Reese travelled back in time, he sees a terminator who shouldn’t exist attacking John Connor. At that moment, he begins to remember a different life, one in which he grew up with a family in a world without terminators, at least until something called Genisys became Skynet and sparked Judgement Day in 2017. So, now when Sarah Connor wants to travel forward in time to 1997 to destroy Skynet, he talks her into going forward to 2017 instead to destroy Genisys, which turns out to be a completely integrated system designed by Cyberdyne Systems. It’s sort of like the internet of things, making this reboot of an old franchise neatly ahead of its time again.

This is an interesting new setup and it feels good. It gives Schwarzenegger an interesting opportunity in a role that really hadn’t given him many opportunities in three previous movies. The terminator he plays here appears at three completely different times looking three different ages because, thanks to a neat suggestion by James Cameron, the skin that he wears is human and ages just like we do. After taking the long way round to 2017 he looks just like Arnie today, because that’s cheaper than CGI. It’s good to see an old terminator. A recurrent theme here is that he’s ‘old not obsolete’.

I can’t go any further into the story because that would venture into serious spoilers and there are more than just a few twists here. I’m sure that there are a whole bunch of sites out there that break down the entire thing into its constituent parts; I don’t need to be another one.

What I can say is that the actors are surprisingly good in iconic roles that aren’t easily filled. Of course, Arnie is Arnie, so he can clearly play a terminator in his sleep. In the first picture, his iconic stature was partly due to his lack of depth as an actor. He’s come a long way since then and films like Maggie have shown that he’s gained some surprising props on that front and he gets to use a little of that newfound skill here. Perhaps because her role in the various stories is so fundamental, Sarah Connor has become as iconic a character to we viewers as the terminator himself. Linda Hamilton isn’t easy to replace, but in an oddly synchronistic casting choice, given that her Game of Thrones co-star, Lena Headey, played the role in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on television, Emilia Clarke stamps her own authority onto it here, however small she is (and she looks smaller next to Schwarzenegger than she does next to a trio of dragons).

I’m less sold on Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese and Jason Clarke as John Connor, though both are surprisingly good and both eventually engage me enough to put my investment in their characters from earlier films aside. Courtney felt wrong for a while because he’s so abrasive, but that’s actually pretty appropriate for a boy who grew up a soldier in a world run by machines. Clarke somehow didn’t fit my idea of what John Connor should look like, but surely that’s just a personal thing. I can’t complain about what he does.

What I can complain about is the unresolved web of time travel paradoxes. While many critics lambasted the complex reworking of the time travel aspects of the first two movies into one new one, I found that I had no problems with that. I liked the additional complexity, especially as it heightened the plot twists. However, once it’s done, there are unresolved questions for which I was waiting for answers that never came and that was an annoying way to leave the movie. For instance, someone sends Arnie’s old T-800 back in time from somewhere to protect the nine year old Sarah Connor, but even he doesn’t know who because the files were erased. That prompts who, when and how, among other questions.

If there are answers, they aren’t in this movie. Perhaps we’ll find out in the projected television series and/or the further two feature films in a new projected trilogy, but Hollywood accounting sees a $440m gross on a $155m budget as not breaking even, so they’re all on hold for the moment. If they don’t end up being made, I hope that the storylines are released to provide closure. I want to see what happens in the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese relationship now that we’re outside the original timeline. I want more Det O’Brien, who is a fascinating character in a unique position in the story. ‘Goddamn time travelling robots covering up their goddamn tracks,’ he says at one point, which is easily my favourite line of the movie. Surely we would expect to see more of Matt Smith, notching up another major sci-fi franchise after his run as the Doctor.

Critics seem to have given more negative reviews to Terminator Genisys than positive ones and I don’t see why. There are certainly flaws here and it’s not the classic that the first two movies were. However, it’s a much more thoughtful but still action-packed ride than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which opposes this in theory. If this is the story that happens after the bad guys win in the first two films, it’s also the story that happens when the third one is ignored entirely. I can buy into that. Now I guess that the fourth film, itself the first in a projected trilogy that never was, ought to move up my queue. Maybe that’s also better than the critics suggested.

Police Academy (1984)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, G W Bailey, Bubba Smith, Donovan Scott and George Gaynes
In 1984 when Police Academy was released, or more accurately, in 1985 or so when it made it to English television, I thought this was hilarious. OK, I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, but still. Of course, the sequels got progressively worse and worse, but I never got through all of them and the last one to date, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, features both Christopher Lee and Ron Perlman in supporting roles. Clearly I have to make it through the first six to get to that one. No, 2010’s Police Academy Gangbang isn’t part of the series but it may be better than the last one that was and I’m not into gay porn.

Talking of porn, I certainly didn’t know who Georgina Spelvin was back then. She’s the hooker who gives Commandant Lassard a memorably good time from inside a podium while he’s giving a presentation. It’s fair to say that I first encounted all these actors here, even more famous mainstream ones like Steve Guttenberg and Kim Cattrall. Of course, I only know some of them from Police Academy movies; it wasn’t the launchpad for everyone’s career that it was for some.

The story is pretty simple, but effective. The mayor controversially removes all restrictions to joining the police force, including height, weight and aptitude. Naturally, a whole slew of inappropriate candidates immediately apply to the Police Academy and hilarious chaos ensues as Lt Harris, an odd sort of villain given that he really cares about the police force and does what he does here in its best interest, tries to weed out the undesirables so that, while anyone can start at Police Academy, not everyone can finish.

Steve Guttenberg is a surprisingly weak lead, given that he became the biggest star of all of these for a while. He’s Carey Mahoney, a smartass parking lot attendant who gets fired at the beginning of the film and promptly sent to the Police Academy by the local police chief who’s fed up of his shenanigans. The deal he’s given to stay out of jail is 14 weeks of training without being able to quit. Naturally, he plans to get kicked out but, to spice it up before he does, he insists on taking the human sound effects machine he just met with him. That’s Larvell Jones, in the talented form of Michael Winslow, and he gets some of the best scenes of the movie.

Many of the rest immediately became regulars in the series which churned out a picture every year until movie number six. Eugene Tackleberry is a trigger happy security guard played by David Graf. Donovan Scott is the girly sounding Leslie Barbara, a nervous nelly working a photo booth who still gets bullied at age whatever. Doug Fackler, in the form of Bruce Mahler, is accident prone, leading to slapstick humour whenever he’s on screen. Moses Hightower, memorably played by the late Bubba Smith, is the massive 6’ 7” gentle giant. Marion Ramsey, wearing a fat suit, is Laverne Hooks, the weak voiced little lady who eventually finds her voice at just the right moment.

I remembered all of them, but I’d forgotten the fake Latin lover, George Martin, surprisingly as Andrew Rubin is particularly good in this film. I’d also forgotten Kim Cattrall as Karen Thompson, but probably because she didn’t really have a gimmick of her own. She merely wants to meet normal people outside the high powered circles her rich family walks in and is both nice and gorgeous enough to immediately become the love interest for Mahoney. Both Cattrall and Thompson deserved better.

What surprised me most is just how young everyone looks, except for George Gaynes, who looks exactly as I remember him as Commandant Lassard. Even G W Bailey seemed young as Lt Harris, who, from the perspective of thirty years of hindsight, steals this movie. Sure, he tasks the two bullies to weed out the ‘scumbuckets’ as his squad leaders, but he’s the only real character with depth and Bailey is hilarious in a whole slew of scenes, interacting with everyone else as they find humour in their one or two.

The film as a whole feels more relaxed than I remember but, of course, we’re still watching these actors establishing their routines. They’d hone them in this movie, repeat them in the next and keep on going until people stopped showing up to see yet another instance. Each movie in the series made less money than the previous one, mostly because the jokes were the same ones every time out. Mostly.

If Lt Harris is by far the strongest character to a fresh viewing, Mahoney is the weakest. He is given more to do than the rest of the regulars, but Guttenberg sleepwalks through the film apparently believing that a cheeky grin is all that’s needed to collect his salary. I remembered him as the everyman, the grounded character to whom we could all relate amongst the comic relief, but today he annoyed me nearly as much as he did the people he was actually trying to annoy. Nowadays I’m Harris’s on side, at least in this movie. Maybe I grew up.

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Michael Winslow, Bruce Mahler, Marion Ramsey, Colleen Camp, Art Metrano, Howard Hesseman and George Gaynes
I saw the first four or five Police Academy movies back in the eighties. They became something of an annual tradition, because the first half dozen were released one per year and generally made it to TV around the same time. I’m vaguely remembering the Christmas season, which suggests that, given that the first movie was released in 1984, my first exposure to this franchise was roughly thirty years ago. Holy crap, I’m getting old.

I remembered generally that the first movie was better than its sequels, but I was surprised to find from a double bill of the first two that it wasn’t even close. The first one was a fun, enjoyable, decent romp, even if it was fundamentally limited by what it was. The second one didn’t mark the beginning of a downward slope; it had already slid halfway down.

With the cadets graduating from the Police Academy in the first film, clearly they couldn’t just re-run the same plot again. They tried, but shifted the action to the 16th precinct, which is conveniently run by Pete Lassard, baby brother to Commandant Lassard of the Police Academy. Pete is Howard Hesseman, a good actor who is clearly embarrassed to find himself in this picture and thus fails to distinguish himself at all. He was asked back for sequels but he refused, claiming that he regretted doing this one. Given his lack of leadership, it’s believable when the police chief gets egged on the way into his precinct building, budget cuts or not. The only thing Captain Pete manages to do is to weedle a bunch of new recruits out of the chief to take on Zed, an odd gang leader played by Bob Goldthwait.

Yes, that abbreviated credit hides Bobcat Goldthwait, wild and crazy comedian who basically extrapolates his act into his character. Fans will see him as the best thing in the movie, while those who don’t like him won’t be converted. I’m somewhere between those sides as I found him annoyingly awful for most of the film but surprisingly funny towards the end, mostly because of some magical dialogue that I could easily believe he improvised.

You won’t be surprised to discover who those new recruits are going to be: Tackleberry, who’s working at a school; Maloney, who’s patrolling the beach; Hightower, Hooks, Fackler, Jones... everyone we expect. There’s no Kim Cattrall, but her character, Karen Thompson, wasn’t given a gimmick in the first movie so we don’t really miss her. There’s no Andrew Rubin either, which means that Tackleberry gets thrown the romance angle for the second film and it constitutes one of its weakest parts. Otherwise, they all do what they did in the first picture over again.

The oddest decision the filmmakers took was to ditch Lt Harris, who was clearly the best thing about the first film, and replace him with Art Metrano as Lt Mauser, Pete Lassard’s butt kissing Watch Commander. G W Bailey actually wanted to return to reprise his role as Harris, but he was left out, perhaps because time has shown that he was really the good guy in the first film and the producers wanted the equivalent role in the second to be a bad guy. While Harris did what he did for the sake of the police force, Mauser just wants the precinct for his own and thus doesn’t get any sympathy from us, even when the pranks against him get rather outrageous; they go too far to remain as funny as they’re supposed to be. In my opinion, Harris was the glue in the first film and, as decent as Metrano is, he’s not up to Bailey’s level and the picture suffers from his absence.

While the 16th precinct’s new recruits are familiar to us, they’re paired up with established officers who are new faces and none of them are really any good. Mahoney partners with a complete slob, Vinnie Schtulman; while he clearly has fans online, I’m far from one of them. Tackleberry is paired with a lady motorcycle cop called Kirkland, yet another police role for Colleen Camp; she’s only there as a prop for him. Hightower is given foot patrol and Hooks is stuck on the desk. None of this is inspired.

Beyond their standard routines, they don’t begin well. Mahoney sees an armed robbery in process at a store and the rest respond to the call. Between them, they completely destroy the place and tackle the owner to boot. 1,200 rounds of ammunition causes $76,813 of damage. The only good thing about this scene is that the merchant is Sweetchuck, who initially only had one scene but the director bulked it up when he saw how well it was going. While Mauser deserved abuse, he’s given too much so it isn’t funny; on the other hand, Sweetchuck doesn’t deserve any abuse but what he gets is funny, because he’s so gloriously up tight about it. He’ll return later in the series as a cadet.

Unfortunately he’s by far the best thing about the first half of the film and he’s just a bit part. Everything new is weak, from Zed’s fun but utterly pointless unhinged gang leader through Hesseman’s weak try at a police captain to Tackleberry’s distracting romance with Kirkland. They do get one great scene, as they undress and disarm, ably highlighting how much of an arsenal they carry between them, but that’s it.

Fortunately the gimmicks haven’t quite got old yet and, frankly, Michael Winslow’s Bruce Lee routine is priceless. It could have been shot better, but I loved it anyway. It’s by far the best scene in the movie; in fact it’s one of the best scenes of the series. If only it had shown up in a better picture, but this one alternates between weak and hopeless, eventually just fizzling out into nothing as if the story was never a priority. It’s just an excuse to run through a few established routines again and half heartedly throw a few new ones into the mix without any real effort. There is talent here, but mostly it’s wasted.

One Hour Photo (2002)

Director: Mark Romanek
Star: Robin Williams
Given that my better half has been on a Robin Williams kick with the grandkids, it seemed like a good time to get round to One Hour Photo. I often use Williams as a counter to Tom Hanks, two comedians who made me laugh for years but then got serious. I still have problems not laughing when I see Hanks, even if he plays someone dying of AIDS, but I never had that problem with Williams. I wonder if it’s because, as we know all too well today, he had a sadness in him that carries through into many of his serious roles.

Here he’s Seymour Parish, who works in the photo shop at a Savmart. He takes it seriously; to him it’s an art not merely a job. He seems lonely and sad, as friendly as he is to his customers, but we know that there’s more to him than that because the opening scene has him in custody, looking a lot more scary than sad. What did William Yorkin do to provoke him, asks the cop, who wants to understand what he did and why. What that was, we don’t know yet, but surely we’re about to find out.

We start when Nina Yorkin, William’s wife, brings in some films to develop of their son Jake’s birthday party. Initially, Seymour, or Sy the Photo Guy as they’ve come to know him, seems friendly and helpful, prioritising Nina’s photos because she’s a regular customer, upgrading her to larger prints at no extra cost and even giving Jake a free disposable camera. However, we then see that he developed an extra set for himself and he even passes the Yorkins off as his own family to his waitress that night at a diner. When he gets home, are those photos of the Yorkins on the counter rather than his own family? Oh yes. And there are more than a few plastered across the wall of his front room, taking it over one snapshot at a time. He’s clearly been obsessing for a very long while.

And so we proceed. We listen to him narrate the details of his job, calmly and politely. He only gets upset at the AGFA maintenance guy who doesn’t take the quality of his work quite as seriously as he does. And, in and amongst this, we watch his obsession progress. He loses himself completely in his copies of the Yorkins’ photos, imagining himself into them and the scenes they portray. He sits outside their house in his car, imagining himself inside. And he reaches out for deeper connections, watching Jake practice football at school and sitting near Nina in the food court and setting up conversations by reading the same books he sees her buy.

Creepy, huh? Well, you might imagine this as a standard psychological thriller, in which some deluded maniac gets just a little too crazy about his obsession and bad things happen. In a way that’s true, but assuming this is like your standard movie would be a mistake.

The primary reason this works is the nuanced performance of Robin Williams. In other hands, Seymour Parish could have been a routine psychopath from moment one, but Williams makes him very human indeed. Put simply, we care about him, even as we watch the things he should never have been doing and hope he finds a way to stop doing them.

We watch him struggle with his emotions, attempting to maintain a calm exterior as he churns away inside. We wonder about how he got this way, about how alone any one man can be, about how nobody saw into his mind and did something about it. We think about all the mass shooters out there nowadays and draw the obvious comparisons. If someone as nice as Sy the Photo Guy can be this out there, then what about our nice co-workers?

And, of course, we worry about what he’s going to do, what got him into the police station for that first scene, especially given two particular escalation points that I won’t spoil but which come right on top of each other and shake up both his real life and his fantasy one with the Yorkins. It’s no surprise that he’ll do something about it, but what?
From a cast perspective, Williams dominates this film utterly. The supporting players were appropriately cast and they do everything they need to do but, from their first moments on screen, they’re really just props for Williams to work from. He’s the only character with sufficient screen time and character depth to draw us into his story and Williams nails him absolutely.

His real support is from the crew rather than the cast. The score is slow and brooding electronica, which works well with the slow and brooding pace of the film. To accompany the focus on photos, a majority of the film is shot straight on like a still photograph. The camera does move but, when it does, it’s usually clinical and one directional to mimic Parrish’s tunnel vision and attention to detail. Only when it gets tense does it go subtly handheld. Even the colours are varied, with some scenes white and clinical, others saturated and emotional. There’s also a well edited dream sequence with solid effects.

And, of course, there’s a strong and unusual script, courtesy of the film’s director, Mark Romanek, which refuses to go where most psychological thrillers tend to go. We’re conditioned to expect certain sorts of progression in these films but this refuses to play ball. It’s not a police procedural, the cops only showing up towards the end and, even then, they just do their job like professionals, never getting cinematic on anyone’s ass. Nobody’s ever interested in body count. There’s almost no running around screaming in fear on anyone’s part, responses to revelations appropriately handled by adult human beings. The goals and results are not remotely what we’re used to.

And, above all, the role of victim isn’t clearly defined, because every one of the key players is a victim, including Seymour Parish. While he’s clearly the villain of the piece, in his own mind, he’s the hero too and that’s a wonderful and traumatic thing to realise. Bravo!


Miss Allen said...

One Hour Photo is the only Robin Williams movie I actually liked because he was properly directed and had a decently written script, which says more about Mark Romanek's skills than perhaps Mr. Williams'.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I must like Robin Williams more than you, but Mark Romanek was my big discovery from One Hour Photo. Based on this film, it's a real shame he's been mostly stuck directing music videos.