Sunday, June 14, 2009

One sequel, one remake.

Given the convoluted timeline of the Terminator movies, I'm not sure if Terminator Salvation is a sequel or a prequel. I'm also not sure if "prequel" is even a real word. And why doesn't Terminator Salvation have a number and a colon in the title?

Oh. I just looked it up. According to, "prequel" is a real word, coined in the 1970s. One mystery solved.

In the past few years, I've noticed an increased obsession with backstory in popular movies. It's like, if we aren't told every last detail about the characters, we won't be able to relate to them or understand them. Never mind that The Dark Knight made tons of money, despite the fact that the Joker just shows up out of nowhere in that movie and starts wreaking havoc.

So it's no surprise that Terminator Salvation explains some of the backstory for characters that we've seen in previous Terminator movies, like John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the movie opens with a chunk of backstory for a new character, "Marcus," which I guess would be okay, except that it kind of gives away a big plot twist involving Marcus. The screenplay has some problems, and I'm not sure if all the problems are solvable, but lopping off the first five pages would be a good start.

Make that five and a half pages. After the unnecessary opening, we get one of those text crawls that explains more backstory, but it's redundant as the same information is revealed later the old-fashioned way. You know, through action and dialog.

The action tends to be better than the dialog. And there's too much dialog during the action. Somebody yells "hang on" in the middle of a crazy car chase. Really? Dude, if the passengers hadn't been hanging on for the duration of the chase, they wouldn't be in the car at this point.

The dialog also serves as an obvious reminder that this is the fourth Terminator movie. Callbacks to lines from previous movies wouldn't bug me so much if they didn't seem shoehorned in. When a character answers a question with "I'll be back," Stacey and I laughed out loud. That's laughing at the movie, not with it. Then, in the next scene, we hear "You Could Be Mine" (the Guns 'n Roses song from Terminator 2: Judgement Day) playing from a jam box.

At that point, I almost expected Linda Hamilton to show up and ask the Kyle character, "Hey, remember in that first Terminator movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger chased us around?"

Speaking of Arnie, he makes a cameo of sorts in one of the movie's cooler scenes. Yeah, I've been complaining for the majority of this review, but Terminator Salvation does have some cool bits. There's also a helicopter crash filmed from inside the copter--still haven't quite figured out how the filmmakers pulled off that one.

And the movie looks and sounds terrific. The cinematography, effects, and sound design are top-notch, even if they're not quite up to Star Trek standards. And there are some excellent practical effects courtesy of the late, great Stan Winston. From a craft standpoint, the summer was off to a shaky start with Wolverine, but that's looking to be the exception and not the rule. So far. Hope I didn't just jinx it.

I realize that this review isn't exactly focused. In my defense, neither is Terminator Salvation. Director McG (insert wow-that-is-a-stupid-name joke here) does a pretty good job managing the big chaotic action scenes, but the quieter parts seem tossed off. I noticed accents slipping in and out, actors who look like they're thinking about lunch plans instead of the scene at hand, flat line readings--stuff you shouldn't let slide when you're making a movie about what it means to be human.

I've never seen the original version of The Taking Of Pelham 123, but I enjoyed the heck out of Tony Scott's remake that hit theaters Friday. The story, like Die Hard, is of the "dude with a problem" variety. Denzel Washington plays an average joe transit authority worker who ends up as a hostage negotiator when some bad guys, led by John Travolta's "Ryder," hijack a New York City subway car and its passengers.

Watching Pelham, I was reminded why Washington is a movie star. He has charisma to spare, even when playing a slightly pudgy (prosthetic gut, or did he put on some weight, DeNiro-style?) everyman. Actually his character isn't quite an everyman (the part was written for a movie star, not a character actor), but I don't want to ruin the details of that reveal, which is one of the movie's many nice surprises.

Another surprise--this is a big summer movie that spends the majority of its running time in everyday locations (transit authority office, subway car) without a lot of action. The hostage situation creates plenty of tension, as does the over-the-radio sparring between Washington's and Travolta's characters. The action we do get tends to be of the fast and ugly variety, as, in the tradition of my favorite Sidney Lumet movies, nothing much goes according to plan for anybody, no matter which side of the law they're on.

Tony Scott is no Sidney Lumet--sometimes he seems to forget he's making a feature film and slips into over-the-top-music-video-director mode. But the solid cast (I haven't mentioned John Turturro yet--nice to see him in a big movie not directed by Michael Bay) and clever screenplay keep the movie grounded, regardless of any directorial indiscretions.

The Taking Of Pelham 123 ain't high art, but it is highly entertaining--a fine way to spend a summer afternoon at the multiplex.


Nick T said...

Thanks for all the movie reviews, Chance! I enjoy reading them.

Chance Shirley said...

Thanks for reading, Nick!