A Wrench In Time (The Terminator, 1984)

The_Terminator_PosterIn 1984, James Cameron was a genre vet, but not quite the guy we think of.  He had no mega-hits…yet. Cameron came up out of the Corman school and made his names with technical and special effects….especially stretching the low budget effects.

His one theatrical film before the Terminator is Piranha II: the Spawning, and then his next film is…

In 1984 a mysterious massive stranger appears in a crackle of lightning in an alley.  He has a singular aim and will.

Elsewhere, another man appears in an alley (less gracefully). Disoriented he asked when he is. He, like the more ominous stranger has a goal…in fact they are both here to locate Sarah Conner, a young woman of immense importance to the future.

Both men are from the future, one where there is a war between man and machine. When the machines realize they are about to lose, they send back a Terminator, a large massive robot covered in human flesh to allow them to infiltrate human encampments and kill a target. The Terminator’s target is the mother of the man who will rally humanity together to defeat the robot oppressors.

Kyle Reese has been sent back to protect young Sarah Conner from the Terminator.

The Terminator is a shockingly good second film, showing that Cameron had a real vision as he made the film.  It is a sci-fi horror film that keeps everything simple.  By the team it ends, we have a perfect circle of time, so it is not confusing or asking you to make any bigger stretch than accepting time travel.

Cameron is as committed to his characters as much as effects and action.  Sarah is believable and sympathetic as an everyman finding herself in an impossible situation and rising to occasion.  Considering the biggest ask is that we believe she falls in love with Reese overnight, and Hamilton and Biehn have enough chemistry to make it work.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had already made a mark as Conan, but this time he has a real menacing charisma that sells the notion that a massive cyborg is walking the city.

The effects remain an outstanding achievement. Sure, you can see the stop motion models and the rubber heads…but they are such well crafted effects, you do not mind and they are downright pleasing to watch.

The Terminator is a film that has withstood the test of time and such an incredibly impressive effort for someone’s second film.

In Their Prime (Tombstone, 1993)

Tombstone_Movie_PosterWyatt Earp arrives with his wife Mattie in the town of Tombstone during the silver boom.  He meets with his brothers Virgil and Morgan and their wives.  Shortly after taking over work in the local saloon running the poker table, his friend Doc Holliday shows up.

The town has an uneasy relationship with the gang known as the Cowboys.  Things escalate when Cowboy leader Curly Bill shoots the Sheriff Fred White.  As much as Wyatt pushes against going back into the law business, he gives in when Virgil and Morgan feel they just cannot turn their backs on the town.  In fact, Virgil feels that making money off a fearful and oppressed citizenry is pretty awful.

Things mount between the Earps and the Cowboys, culminating in a bloody ride.

Tombstone has a stellar cast.  I mean, if you tell me you have a movie with Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton, I am ready to hand you my money.  But this film has Val Kilmer, Powers Booth and Terry O’Quinn.  It features early performances from Billy Bob Thorton, Stephen Lang and Michael Rooker.

Although credited to George P. Cosmatos (Leviathan, Cobra) as director, the majority of the film was directed by Russell after writer and original director Kevin Jarre was fired. This is, of course, according to Russell. If this is the end result, one wonders why Russell has not tried his hand at directing since.

Now, Tombstone is not a historical document.  The film ignores Earp’s legal troubles, and glosses over the fact that his wife Josephine and he were not star crossed lovers (she having a gambling problem and he having affairs).  The film also ignore aspects of Mattie’s history, only noting that she eventually died of a drug overdose.

But Tombstone is, admittedly, much more a love letter to the traditional western than Unforgiven only a year before.  While violence begets violence here, it is made to feel far more justified.  In real life, Curly Bill was not merely freed on a technicality. He claimed it was accidental and Earp even testified to this. So, in the film, it seems to lean more towards flat out murder by Curly Bill. The good guys are good, through and through. The bad guys are largely unredeemable.  But if you are able to look past the loose play with history, Tombstone is full of rewards.

Round and Round (The Circle, 2017)

Circle_PosterThe Circle asks the question: What if Google Were an Evil All Seeing Corporation?

(And somebody responds… “IF??”)

Emma Watson is Mae, a young woman who dreams of being more than another faceless customer service rep.  Her friend gets her an interview with the Tech Company “The Circle”.  She is overwhelmed at first, they seem to know things about her life that she had not informed them of.  But as her star rises, she becomes drawn in by the very likeable and charismatic Bailey.  Bailey is the “ideal” CEO.  Personable, treats everyone as equally important, regardless of status in the company…he charms Mae into overlooking her concerns as the Circle’s influence grows.

It cannot last, of course.  There are people, even within the company, who believe there is a darker and seedier underside (unsurprisingly, they are correct).  After a tragedy, Mae finds herself at a crossroads.

The Circle is established very well early on as “This could be the coolest place to work!”  But it early on starts to drop hints of creepiness.  Mae’s transition from sweet but overwhelmed to complicit in the organization’s overreach is well handled.  And Hanks just turns on his “I Am Tom Hanks” charm to make Bailey someone you cannot help but like.

The problem for the film is that it spends so much time on build up, it feels like it gets resolved in about six minutes.  They beat the corruption in a sentence.  It feels like the final act should have been developed a bit more.


The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 8 (Predator 2, 1990)

Predator_2_posterDirected by Stephen Hopkins (Lost In Space, Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Race), Predator 2 is an attempt at being very different.  Instead of a jungle, we are in “the Concrete Jungle”.  Instead of a heavily muscled soldier, we have have a team of police.  The film tries to be different by being very opposite.  There are vicious gang wars that are tearing up the street.  Captain Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his team are the cops on the front line.  They start to find dead and mutilated gang members.  Soon the cops find themselves as much targets as the gang members.

This sort of works well, and the film acknowledges the first film with Gary Busey as head of a task force trying to capture the Predator explaining it all to Harrigan.  The film also establishes what draws a Predator to a location.  Extremely hot weather in volatile areas.  It also expands the previous film’s rule that Predators do not hunt and kill the unarmed to not killing pregnant women (even if they are armed).

Predator 2 is competently made, but Hopkins is not as strong as McTiernan.  It has it’s charms (such as a very late 80’s action cast including Bill Paxton, Maria Conchito Alonzo, Robert Davi and Ruben Blades) but does not rise to the entertaining levels of it’s predecessor.

There is a throw away moment towards the end where Glover’s Harrigan is on the Predator ship and looking at the trophies on a wall…one is clearly a xenomorph skull from the Alien films.  Although just a “wouldn’t this be fun” gag, it set fire in the imaginations of fan who soon wanted a crossover between the franchise.  For a long time, this only occurred in the comics.  It took fourteen years (seven from Alien Resurrection) to get to the Alien vs Predator films.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 2 (Aliens, 1986)

Aliens_PosterAbout seven years after Alien, hotshot director James Cameron brought the franchise roaring back to life.  Rather than make a generic sequel, Cameron made a bold choice.  The first film was a haunted house movie, Cameron opted to make a war movie.

Ripley is awakened 50 years after the first film to find everything she knew is gone.  On top of that she is plagued by nightmares of the alien creature.  Ripley joins a mission at the request of the corporation to check on a colony that is on the same planet they found the eggs with the alien xenomorph.  It is promised to Ripley this is a search and destroy mission.

She is joined by a platoon of Space Marines.  They don’t believe her claims of an alien monster, but of course, they soon find out she is neither crazy nor a liar.  And then things get bad.  And then?  They get worse.

Aliens is one of those rare sequels that manages to rival it’s predecessor.  Ripley is angry and aimless at the film’s beginning.  When she discovers a young girl named Newt hiding in the remains of the colony she starts to see beyond merely destroying the aliens.  In the extended cut of the film, it is revealed that Ripley had a daughter on earth who grew up and died in the time Ripley floated through space.  This gives an added dimension to Ripley and her dedication to Newt throughout the film.

The marines are a hearty and confident lot.  Their banter feels natural as they trade insults and yet fight to protect each other when it all comes crashing down.  They are a compelling group.  And then there is Bishop.  A synthetic or android, Ripley does not trust him, due to the fact that the android on her ship tried to murder her.  Bishop represents the other side of that coin.  He is kind and polite.  He is also willing to risk himself.  At one point, after volunteering for a risky mission he states, “Believe me, I’d prefer not to. I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.”  How much of this is programming that compels him, versus a certain human quality is unclear.  He notes his programming prevents him from causing harm to a person, but does that programming extend to risking himself to save a person from outside threat?

This is a near perfect action film, with thrills and twists and turns.  It manages to expand upon the mythology of the first film’s animal without being a tired retread of information.  The performances are compelling and the visual effects have withstood the test of time.  On top of that, in spite of being a sequel, you could go into Aliens never having seen Ridley Scott’s film and follow the story with few, if any, questions.


We Belong To The Night (Nightcrawler, 2014)

nightcrawler-posterJake Gyllenhaal is lowlife Louis Bloom.  He makes his living stealing and pawning stuff.  He is also not above harming people to get out of situations.  One night he discovers Joe Loder…a camera man who patrols the night for accidents, murders and other tragedies so he can sell the footage to television news.  This ends up to be a perfect job for Louis.

A lot of films are about an arc…a good character being corrupted…a corrupt character finding redemption.  That is not this film.  Louis is soulless, lacking any compassion.  This serves him well as he starts excelling at the exploitation of people’s pain and suffering.  Gyllenhaal is intense and frightening in the role.  He is a sociopath, filming the suffering of even people in his own life.  The footage is what matters, not the people.

In spite of the darkness of Louis, this film makes it hard to look away and draws you in, hoping for that moment where Louis might show a spark of humanity.  But Louis is cruelly satisfied with who he is.  Nightcrawler is a good and effective film, but also unrelentingly dark.

Science Gone Mad Part 2 (Wierd Science, 1985)

weird_science_posterJohn Hughes’ juvenile take on Mary Poppins and genies should really be more problematic than it often is.

Released in 1985, the film pandered to boyish nerd fantasies.  It focuses on downtrodden super nerds Wyatt and Gary.  Both are obsessed with girls while being relentless humiliated by bullies.  It is, of course a common trope meant to garner sympathy.  Anthony Michael Hall had not yet broken free of the nerd role established in Sixteen Candles.  The same year Weird Science was released, Hall was in Hughes’ the Breakfast Club with a bit more thoughtful approach to this type of character.  But his Gary is in the Nerd Who Wants to Be Popular vein.

So when so when his best friend Wyatt’s family is out of town for a weekend, the hijinks begin.  Truthfully, Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s Wyatt is more sympathetic.  He is steamrolled by everyone.  He is less concerned about being popular than just succeeding and getting the girl.

To try and figure out their problems with girls, they decide to put their genius to use and create a girl to question on their computer.  It all gets out of hand and somehow they manage to create a real woman.  Kind of.  Kelly LeBrock’s Lisa is a teen boy’s fantasy woman in every sense.  Forward, sexy and she has magic powers.  Somehow, they created a genie.  And she is eager to please her masters.  And this is where it should get tremendously troubling.  Except, they are not confident of their role.  Instead, Lisa takes over and starts making their decisions for them.  She takes the stands they are scared to take.  She takes them out on the town.  She throws a party.  She is protective of Gary and Wyatt, but wants to push them to be more assertive and not run away from adversity to cower in the bathroom.

The film certainly has it’s fun moments, and it has a good cast that help make it easier to ignore just how absurd the plot is.  Bill Paxton as Wyatt’s jerk big brother Chet is especially memorable, including his comeuppance.  But it also has some dull stretches.  The jokes are often hit or miss.  The party sequence is just bizarre, with an endless parade of absurd ideas for showing off effects.

All in all, this one of Hughes weaker efforts.  It is mindless fun, but the heart that should be there is missing.

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