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Column Fri May 22 2009

Terminator Salvation, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Brothers Bloom, The Girlfriend Experience, Outrage and Adoration

First off, some exciting news for those of you in town over the holiday weekend concerning one of the films reviewed this week, The Brothers Bloom. Writer-director Rian Johnson will be doing a post-screening Q&A (with yours truly) on Saturday night, May 23 after the 7pm showing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema (Clark/Diversey); as a bonus, Rian will be sticking around to introduce the 10:10pm showing as well. Rian's a fantastic talker, and the evening promises to be an entertaining both during and after the film. I'm expecting a capacity crowd for the 7pm show, so get your tickets early if you can; this is not a free screening, but tickets will probably sell out. Hope to see you there.

Terminator Salvation

This fourth installment in the end-of-the-world franchise is not really science fiction at all. Nope, this is director McG's big, loud, gritty, steely-gray war epic. Gone is the philosophy and metaphors about time travel, the dangers of letting machines and computers take over our lives, the loss of innocence, motherhood. With this new film, the other thing that has officially vanished from the Terminator universe is heart — ironic since the human heart is a major plot point in Terminator Salvation. What we're left with is a collection of hardened bad-asses battling some of the meanest fucking robots I've ever seen. In any other movie, I might be less bothered by this. But one of the things I always loved about Cameron's first two films, and even the subpar third movie and the "Sarah Connor Chronicles" TV show (which I contend got progressively better as it went on), is that not everybody in each story was supposed to be a grizzled soldier. Sarah Connor was an unremarkable woman when we met her; she became remarkable to protect her son, who in turn grew into a little shit who had to learn to fight from a friendly Terminator sent back to protect him.

Since Salvation opens after Judgment Day (when the machines preemptively strike against humans with nuclear attacks around the world), there are no "ordinary" people left in the world, so perhaps my search for normal folks is foolish. And that's all valid. Then just don't call it this movie Terminator; call it Post-Apocalyptic War, Part 79. This "everyman" quality always separated the Terminator films from all of the other end-of-the-world movies. Instead we get a war picture complete with big elaborate battle sequences, concentration camps, submarines, helicopters, bullets zipping by, flares lighting up the night sky, you name it. There's even a Great Escape-style great escape.

When we meet Christian Bale's John Connor, he's already in CAPS LOCK!!! mode. Every line is belted out like an order or an injured animal (by the way, I thought the cinematography looked really nice here). Gone is the sassy, good-natured teen and young man; make way for super-soldier John. We also meet Marcus Wright (Australian newcomer Sam Worthington), a one-time death row prisoner who was executed but somehow wakes up a couple decades later having no idea the turn for the worse the world has made. He's determined to make his way to San Francisco, where he wants to find someone who he lost touch with. He stumbles upon Kyle Reese (the man who will be sent back in time by John Connor to have sex with his mother and father him; got it?), played as a young man by Anton Yelchin (the new Star Trek's Chekov). Kyle decides to follow this mysterious stranger because the alternative is to not follow him. That's about the level of logic that permeates this movie, sorry folks.

The biggest problem for me is that the film's big "mystery" is hardly a mystery — it's revealed in the trailer that the human rebellion has an infiltrator in their midst, and it doesn't take a PhD to figure out who it is. I'm not even 100 percent it qualifies as a secret at this point, but for that infinitesimal number of you who don't know, I won't spoil it here.

I grew increasingly frustrated with the truly abysmal state of the screenplay for Terminator Salvation. It's disjointed, aimless, front-loaded with cliched dialogue and scenarios, and sadly lacking in any emotion outside of rage. Again, I get that, in a way, the collective human population is suffering from global post-traumatic stress disorder and displaying anything other than hardened, solider-like personalities might be asking too much. But that doesn't make for compelling screen acting. Speaking of which, as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still about on Sam Worthington as a force on film. I'll reserve me judgment until I see what he pulls off in James Cameron's Avatar, but his performance here seems to consist of a combination of wide-eyed bafflement or narrow-eyed anger. Grrrrrr. And I tend to hate people that focus on whether or not an actor can hold onto an accent, but I can't wait to play the drinking game where you take a sip everytime Worthington's Australian accent slips out. I'm going to one drunk mother when this movie comes out on DVD.

I don't think any of the supporting cast of Terminator Salvation stands out in my mind. From Helena Bonham Carter (playing the worst kind of Dr. Exposition near the end of the film) to the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by Jane Alexander, Common, Bryce Dallas Howard and Michael Ironside, who probably fares better than most in making the most of his limited screen time, although the motivation for his character's impatient behavior makes no damn sense. I've only ever seen the striking Moon Bloodgood in a couple of films, most of them terrible (Street Fighter, Pathfinder), but her Blair character comes the closest to displaying the characteristics of a warm-blooded human being in these proceedings. She's compassionate and seems to understand Worthington's unique set of complications better than anyone.

I'm maybe spending too much time on the negatives, and the fact is, there are some pretty cool elements to Terminator Salvation, but most of them are limited to the actions scenes and special effects. I mentioned earlier that the movie is director McG's war film, and I stick by that. But it's a hell of a war film. There's a sequence near the beginning where John Connor and a small squadron are going after a robot stronghold. The mission turns into a rescue effort when they find a small number of humans at the location being held captive. Part of the sequence involves Connor exiting the hole in the ground where the stonghold is, getting into a helicopter to chase an enemy ship, getting shot down, crash landing, and getting out of the wreckage to continue fighting... all in one take (or so it seems). I've got no idea how they pulled the sequence off, but it's damned impressive. Most of the action sequences are top notch, from an attack at a gas station where we see the full range of Terminator variations (I really like the ones that look like motorcycles) to the climactic battle set at a Terminator production facility. Since so much of the film revolves around some pretty powerful, well-staged action set pieces, if that's all you care about, you should have a pretty great time watching this movie. I was certainly a lot happier when the bullets were flying and people were getting snatched up by giant Terminator robots that looked and acted way too much like Transformers for my tastes. I got a particular kick out of the older-model Terminator that looked sort of like pirate zombies.

The fact that this installment of Terminator was PG-13 didn't even phase me. The violence allowed in PG-13 films these days is almost equal to what Cameron was getting away with in the first two works. If you're going to hate this movie before you even see it, don't do so because of the rating. Terminator Salvation will undoubtedly be the most divisive film in the franchise. Hell, it's the most divisive film of all the summer releases so far in my brain right now, and will probably continue to be so for quite some time. I suspect that when I revisit this film, I'll either see it for the action-oriented masterpiece that is might be, or I'll be so frustrated with the lack of character development and solid storytelling that I'll abandon it forever. This is half a recommendation, as you can probably tell, and whether you enjoy the film will have everything to do with your expectations of a new Terminator film are. Mine were clearly different that McG's, but that doesn't mean he's made an unwatchable film by an stretch. If you're OK with a focus on the hardware, that's cool. I remember when these movies were about people and machines finding a middle ground amidst a whole lot of bloodshed. There's some of that in Salvation, but it gets sadly lost early on, as did I.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

I think Ben Stiller proved with Tropic Thunder that he can get any actor to do pretty much anything in one of his movies. So imagine that pretense combined with some of the greatest comic actors working today — people like Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, Robin Williams, Jonah Hill, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Jay Baruchel, and various cast members of "The Office," "The State," (including returning screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) and "SNL." Throw in a healthy dash of one of my favorite actresses working today, Amy Adams, who can do no wrong at this point, and what do you get? You get Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a film that relies far too much on fairly standard-issue special effects and doesn't give nearly enough time or room to let these great comic minds simply do their stuff. Sure, each cast member gets a laugh or two; some even get a whole scene to really take off (Jonah Hill's one scene as a Smithsonian security guard is very funny, but it seemed clear to me that Hill was improvising 75 percent of his lines). But really what the film amounts to is one missed opportunity after another.

That said, I'm not outright dismissing the film. It's far better, both in concept and as an adventure, than the first film. I love the idea of a museum coming to life, and having grown up in the Washington, DC area, I practically lived at the many museums that make up the Smithsonian. I'll admit, when Stiller enters the Air and Space Museum, my heart skipped a beat. I have been to that museum more than any other, and I wanted nothing more as a kid to watch those exhibits come to life. At the very least, I'll give the filmmakers credit for picking the right venue.

The best thing in the movie is Amy Adams, who plays Amelia Earhart as I believe she would play her if she were making a biopic about the legendary female pilot and not as some exaggerated caricature. Also, Adams' ass looks great in her flying pants (I'm not sure what else to call them; they look kind of like horse-riding pants). I don't mean to be crass, heaven forbid, but director Shawn Levy seems to go out of his way to really highlight just how great those pants hug her hips. She spends half the film with her back to the camera, for Christ's sake! Stop judging me! She's a beautiful, talented woman; leave it at that.

The plot of Battle of the Smithsonian is just an excuse to get from New York, where Stiller's Larry Daley has become a successful inventor and only visits his museum friends in frequently, to DC, where some of the New York museum's exhibits are shipped, placing a few of Larry's old friends in danger. Azaria does a noble but waaaaaay over-the-top job playing Kahmunrah, an evil Egyptian being who wants to use the same ancient tablet that allows museum exhibits to come to life to open up a portal to a dark world where his evil minions await his calling to take over the world. Azaria gives Kahmunrah Boris Karloff's deep voice, complete with slight lisp, and he looks good in the tunic, but I can't say much more than that. The returning Coogan as the miniature Roman soldier Octavius gets a nice handful of moments to really pop, while his tiny partner in crime — Owen Wilson's cowboy Jedediah — isn't funny even once. I also liked seeing Hader's Gen. George Custer, who wants to take on the role as leader against Kahmunrah's evil forces, but then remembers what happened the last time he led a cavalry charge. Ooops! And if I ever see an Albert Einstein bobblehead with voice of Eugene Levy (featured here in said role), I'm buying it. But if I catch wind of cherub figurines with the voices of the Jonas Brothers (also featured here in said roles), I'll seek them out and smash them with a sledgehammer.

The honest truth is, I laughed more than once during Battle of the Smithsonian, certainly more than I did watching the first Night at the Museum outing. And I'm not just saying that because a young Al Capone is one of the characters in the film. Still, for as many times as I laughed during this film, I sat in a field of awkwardly loud crickets for three times as long. Maybe when Larry and his friends invade the Hermitage Museum in Russia, they'll concentrate more on the funny and less on CGI. There are two or three Rubens paintings I'd love to see come to life, and the potential for Fabergé egg jokes are limitless. Next time, fellas.

The Brothers Bloom

Movies about "the big con" are so tough to get right, nearly impossible in my estimation. For many years after seeing The Sting, I didn't think any filmmaker could ever make a decent film about con artists, let along a better one that that masterpiece. But then David Mamet's House of Games came along, and I actually had to watch that one three times just to make certain my initial reactions were sound. Mamet combined a low-key, but still wildly interesting bit of trickery and combined it with dialogue that like it was written by aliens who had managed to capture human speech patterns to perfection without filtering that knowledge through a screenwriting/playwriting class. I treasure both of those films, as well as the other films in Mamet's con collection, including The Spanish Prisoner. But so few of these kinds of films work because you're always looking for the old switcheroo. Still, every so often, a stray film bursts through and surprises. Look at the phenomenal Argentina film Nine Queens; hell, you could even look to Tony Gilroy's Duplicity from a few weeks ago. Or you find works like The Grifters or Matchstick Men, which doesn't feature a particularly great con, but the characters are so interesting that it makes up for any shortcomings in the story.

What writer-director Rian Johnson has done with his second film (after the astonishing high school noir Brick) has created a world both the con and the characters are equally fascinating, so much so that you're not always sure where one ends and the other begins. Is Adrian Brody's Bloom really all that interesting a guy, or is that part of a character that he must play to pull off a major con concocted and sketched out by his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) to rip off insanely rich heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz, who has never been better)? Johnson doesn't just want to make a bait-and-switch heist film, or a great character study movie (he does both, by the way), but he also wants to comment on the practice of being someone you are not all the time. When I first saw the film, I thought it was his sly way of poking fun at actors who often say they lose themselves in a role. Well, what if that's true? What if Bloom gets so involved in the false lives he's portraying that he completely forgets what it's like to live an unscripted life? Or does such a life even exist?

As much fun and adventure as these three seem to have pulling off cons together all over the world (with the help of a mute Japanese explosives expert named Bang Bang (Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi from Babel). As if The Brothers Bloom weren't enough of a good thing, the film also is a melancholy love story between Bloom and Penelope. Weisz plays Penelope as a woman without much of an identity either. She is a collector of other people's hobbies. She discovers a new hobby, learns it, perfects it, grows bored with it, and moves on. She lives in the castle-like mansion that seems more like a prison for a woman who seems capable of passion but rarely lets it free. Her character manages to be funny and sad at the same time, and I spent most of the film not only wanted to stare at her constantly but also give her a big hug.

But much like Brick, what impressed me most about The Brothers Bloom was the writing. Taking absolutely nothing away from Johnson's mood-inspiring visuals, but this script feels like it took years to write and more years to polish and perfect. While the dialogue is completely different than the Chandler-esque style of Brick, Johnson has crafted a work that is at various times breezy, emotional, tricky, passionate, terrifying and funny — sometimes all in the same scene. Brody's performance as Bloom seems ripped from Russian literature, filtered through a Marx Brothers movie. As the film progresses, the con aimed at Penelope closes in, but we assume that Bloom's feelings for her will overtake the brothers' plan to steal her money. And thus the drama kicks in and keeps us guessing long past the point where we think we've figured it out. Key supporting performances from Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell just make a great experience even better, without feeling like stunt casting. Schell is particularly stellar and reminds us that he can still be one menacing son of a bitch when he wants to be. In case you couldn't tell, I loved this movie because it does something that few films in any given year accomplish — it took me to a place and told a story that I have never been to or seen before on the big screen. It sounds so simple, yet so few filmmakers make it happen. The day Johnson shows the slightly signs of being derivative will indeed be a sad day for movie lovers. Until that day — and that day may never come — we'll just have to endure unique and stunning works of art like The Brothers Bloom. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interviews with The Brothers Bloom star Rachel Weisz and writer-director Rian Johnson.

The Girlfriend Experience

I've come to realize over the last few years that Steven Soderbergh is my favorite American director working today. He may not be the best one working today, but he's my favorite. The guy can deliver a commercially viable and highly successful film at one point during the year, and then turn around and make two or three films that he has to know will not make a dime. I wouldn't never go so far as to call him brave, but he is fearless (there is a big difference in my eyes). I don't always like his films, but I'll be damned if I'm not really happy that there is somebody out there making them, taking risks, experimenting, and more often than not creating works that mesmerize the eyes and captivate the brain. Perhaps more telling, I have yet to revisit one of his films and found it dated or less compelling — quite the opposite, in fact. I stumbled upon his remake of Solaris on cable the other day and couldn't tear my eyes from it. I was something of a fan of the film after my first viewing years ago, but seeing it again a couple weeks back, I recognized its strengths with far more clarity, even as a fan of Tarkovsky's original.

Soderbergh is also a machine, which doesn't make him a better filmmaker, but it does make it fun to see what this man who seems committed to not repeating himself (Ocean's 11, 12<.em> and 13 aside) has in store for us next. In one year, he put out the two-part Che epic, continues editing his Spalding Gray documentary (which he expects will hit the fall festival circuit this year, with a 2010 release date to follow), has scheduled an October release for the Matt Damon-starring The Informant, and is prepping his Cleopatra rock musical (called Cleo) and a new film with Brad Pit (Moneyball), both set for 2011 release. And then there's his low-budget latest work, The Girlfriend Experience, which was pulled together in a fashion similar to his excellent, sneaks-up-on-you 2005 work Bubble. Far less linear than that story of a small-town Ohio murder and more a snapshot of a woman's life and a time in very recent history, Girlfriend Experience<.em> follows the life of a high-priced call girl in Manhattan, played by the captivating adult film actress Sasha Grey.

Now, everything I know about Ms. Grey I've found out about her since seeing her strangely disconnected performance in this film. A recent profile in Rolling Stone filled in all the details, and it's almost impossible for me to synch up the woman in this movie to the career as a no holds (or holes) barred porn star. But I'm going to focus on what I've seen, which is a genuinely haunting performance by an actress I'd like to see make a clothed career for herself. She is occasionally naked in this film, although never performing a sex act, but the unexpected (on my part) result is watching an unclothed woman who looks so comfortable and natural (no implants on Sasha) naked that you feel like you're viewing a private moment in someone's home. The title of the film refers to a type of role Grey's Chelsea plays for some of her clients. Rather than simply sleep with them for an hour, they pay for her to play the role of a girlfriend — the go to dinner, converse on any and every subject, and head to a hotel room to complete an entire evening of intimate activities that go way beyond just sex. We get bits and pieces of Chelsea's professional work and her disintegrating personal life with her loving boyfriend (Chris Santos). These slices of Chelsea's world are given to us out of order, in a seemingly random pattern. But Soderbergh has ordered these scenes in such a way that Chelsea is revealed to us just at the right pace and the right measure, hitting beat after beat. A single statement from her might tell us all we need to know about her upbringing, her state of mind, her true feelings on love or sex. One sequence that Soderbergh keeps coming back to shows Chelsea being interviewed by a reporter, and it is revealed that there might be much she'll do sexually but certain things that are far too intimate to discuss in the light of day. Another sequence shows her meeting with an influential blogger who reviews and ranks call girls, who seems to care less about collecting comments on Chelsea and more about sampling the goods himself.

We also see her strikingly handsome, personal trainer boyfriend in the company of some Wall Street types attempting to take a quick trip to Vegas. He doesn't know these guys, but they want to bring him along because he's good looking, and they think he'll attract women to their roving band of Vince Vaughn wannabes. His relationship with Chelsea is clearly in trouble, as she meets a man she believes might be the real deal and more than just another wealthy client.

For the first half hour or so, I was trying to get my bearings and trying to figure out who was who and what came before and after what. But it became clear early on that most of that doesn't matter. Soderbergh and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Ocean's 13, The Illusionist, Rounders) aren't trying to tell a story. They're more interested in creating a rich and meaningful profile of a woman who appears confident and self-assuring in nearly every situation, while hiding and protecting her deep desires to find someone to be a positive influence in her life. She's certainly not a hooker with a heart of gold; her somewhat cruel treatment of her boyfriend after she meets this new man is proof of that. But that doesn't stop us from rooting for her and caring about where her life goes after the movie is over. The Girlfriend Experience is not simply a film about the life of a call girl. I'm a big fan of Showtime's "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," which covers every juicy detail about just such a character. Chelsea's story is about what happens between appointments, in that far less certain landscape she calls a life. A part of me hopes I never see Grey in a porno, because I'm guessing my illusion about her possibilities as an actress will be lessened. But what she puts forth in this film is outstanding stuff, and Soderbergh handles the material in a way that never feels seedy or gratuitous. Sometimes a buttload of T&A is a great move, but here it would have felt so out of place. Can't wait to see how Soderbergh dazzles me in a few months with something new. The Girlfriend Experience opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Outrage

It's nearly impossible to discuss the latest and angriest film by director Kirby Dick (Sick, Twist of Faith, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) without it turning into a discussion of the methods and intensions of those profiled. You may have heard Outrage is a film that exposes in-the-closet politicians and other policy makers (most of whom are Republicans); that is incorrect. In fact, Outrage profiles the men and women who run blogs and publications that do the outing, and justify it by saying that they only target those people who consistently vote against gay-rights issues while leading the lifestyle in private. Anyone they see as holding back the cause (whether the cause is same-sex marriage, health care/research, hate crime legislation, etc.) is thoroughly investigated (they hold themselves to the same standards as the New York Times in terms of checking sources), given a chance to out themselves before the news is released, and then outed in a very public manner.

If you weren't aware that some of these politicians were said to be gay, I guess this news would be new to you. But the film goes beyond simply naming names. It exposes how the media will rip a politician a new asshole (a la John Edwards) for having a straight affair, but largely ignores the often-blatant activities of closeting lawmakers, many of whom are married with children. Special attention is paid to Jim McGreevey, who is interviewed extensively here, and Congressman Barney Frank, both of whom came out on their own. But it feels strange and voyeuristic to hear details about Idaho Senator Larry Craig or former New York Mayor Ed Koch or current Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who has long been said to be living the gay life despite also being accused of being a womanizer.

More aggravating is hearing about closeted members of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations who steered the gay agenda away from forward-thinking policy. Dick really allows his subjects to tear into Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of the former vice president, who was very much involved in the gay rights movement until her father became a candidate. Her hypocrisy is legendary and appalling. But I'm not really reviewing the movie, am I? Dick's fury is palpable, and it's kind of intriguing to see a film that has such a clear viewpoint. Is this a form of propaganda? You bet, and most of those who go to see this film will be members of the choir anyway. But that doesn't make it any less compelling. Not much time is devoted to issues of right to privacy, which seem completely and totally violated by the practices on display in this film, but perhaps this behavior can be looked upon as a preemptive attack, which apparently America is OK with in certain circumstances. The gay community is feeling threatened, and it's fighting back. No matter who your opinion on any of the issues discussed in Outrage, I don't see how can leave the theater after seeing it feeling anything but, well, Outrage mixed with a great deal of enlightenment. It may not be ethical, but it's damn entertaining, and isn't that what's important? (It's spelled S-a-r-c-a-s-m, folks!) This film opens at the Music Box Theatre.

Adoration

And while I'm on a roll namedropping directors I like a great deal, let's talk about Atom Egoyan's latest, which I think is his comment on post-9/11 paranoia. But like most films from the Canadian master (The Sweet Hereafter, Calendar, Exotica, Felicia's Journey), there is never just one theme. He weaves into his story of high school student Simon (Devon Bostick), who invents a biography for his late father that casts him as a terrorist who was willing to sacrifice his pregnant wife by sneaking a bomb aboard a plane she was flying in. The idea to write this story and submit it to the internet for peer review (shown in a series of webcasts) comes from an assignment from the boy's French teacher (Egoyan regular/wife Arsinee Khanjian) who has the class translate a story similar to the one Simon comes up with about his dad. Simon's parents actually are dead, so he lives with his troubled uncle (Scott Speedman) who is unaware of both this fiction his nephew has created and the strange connection the teacher has with Simon.

Egoyan almost can't help but create a pallet onto which we project what we think are his subtle meanings and messages. And while I felt that the acting in the film is across-the-board solid, the deeper meaning is a bit fuzzy. Everyone in this film is damaged in multiple ways, some in much more interesting ways than others. But there are some exchanges and moments of silence where I'm pretty sure the writer-director wants us to contemplate what has just happened. As he often does, Egoyan mixes up his timelines; but thanks to Simon's story, he also tosses in sequences that never actually happened, simply to give us visuals to go along with the boy's written fiction. I don't think I was ever confused by what I was watching — Egoyan is simply to skilled a storyteller to allow that to happen — but who I did find perplexing is what he hoped the audience is going to take away from the experience of watching Adoration. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, which isn't a prerequisite for me recommending a movie, but I could have at least used a viable entry point into this story. The film carries with it Egoyan's usual lovely and atmospheric cinematography (courtesy of Paul Sarossy), but that wasn't quite enough for me to fully enjoy the experience of watching this disjointed, confused film. It was a close call for me, but more often than not I found myself wondering why I should care about these characters than I did actually enjoying their company. The film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theaters.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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