Terminator Salvation

Stars: **1/2 out of Four

Summary:  Though it feels like a forced fan production at times, ‘Salvation’ manages to provide solid action sequences and some decent character development.  All in all, a good prequel/sequel, but a bad stand-alone film.

This could either be a really good or a really really bad thing.

This could either be a really good or a really really bad thing.

Review:  It seems like the ‘Terminator’ franchise has taken a huge dive off a cliff.  Going from the visionary James Cameron to whoever-it-was that did ‘T3’ to McG (and no Arnold in the starring role) seems like it should doom the series.

Well, maybe not, because ‘TS’ isn’t half-bad, it’s just a little bit under 3/4 good.  It thrives on familiarity — as with all films made without taking creative risks — but doesn’t let the trappings of the past keep it down too long.  The beginning, meaning, oh, say, Act 1, feels lazy, forced, pedestrian.  Once a critical character — Marcus Wright, this time, holding the titular role — is revealed to have a very fascinating, and, at this point in the franchise, unexplored nature, it starts to pick up.  Christian Bale as John Conner starts emoting, things get more complicated, the action feels fresher, and it finally feels more like The Sequel We’ve All Been Waiting For.  Really, it manages to strike a tone (in the latter half) that feels very, very much like T2, which is commonly hailed as the best movie in the series, so it’s got that goin’ for it.  Oh, and Arnold is actually in this movie, but digitally composited — very, very convincingly I might, and do, add — onto a double’s body.  His brief role as a freshly built (and naked) T-800 seemed to make the more rambunctious folks in the theater sit up and pay attention, and with pretty good reason.  Since he’s digital, he looks very much like the T-800 from the first one, and we get a couple great close-ups of his face in all its stoic awesomeness.  Seeing adult John Conner ambushed by this badass effigy of the past was surreal, though not really the most nostalgic thing I’m seen (the entirety of ‘Star Trek’ takes that cake and bakes it for me).  The biggest weakness McG’s received baton has is a lack of focus and freshness in the writing.  The creators were playing it safe, like an aging football team that doesn’t want to break some bones on the road to victory.  That’s my most, I don’t know, obvious criticism.  I just needed to see ’em break some bones, take some risks, put more heart and emotion into the characters.  I understand, it’s post-apocalyptic, but does everybody need to stay so… flat?  Not everybody is, you understand, and it’s not like there’s no humor, it’s just… especially after seeing ‘Star Trek’, I needed to see more humanity, more dimension.  ‘Star Trek’ made me hopeful, its characters were full of vitality.  I guess it’s unfair to expect the same from ‘TS’, but it would’ve been cool.  The writing in ‘T2’ was much more vibrant.  Maybe the next time around, we’ll see some of that.  Anyway, another thing that would’ve been cool is if, against all studio wishes, it had been rated R.  Warner Brothers was really hesitant to release another R-rated blockbuster after ‘Watchmen’ failed to meet their best hopes, but that film was ridiculous.  And it’s not like R-rated action movies haven’t been successful in the past, heck, Warner’s own ‘300’ proves that!  All the previous ‘Terminator’ turns have been given the ol’ roughsound as well.  ‘Terminator’ isn’t ‘Transformers’, it isn’t fun for all ages, it’s a very adult franchise, gritty sci-fi pulp.  When you establish a tone, you should follow it through with the next installments, to stay true to the spirit of the original idea.  ‘TS’ stayed true, but barely.  There were some very obvious cuts of scenes that would’ve made it more like T2, and it would’ve felt more… hmm, post-apocalyptic.  And there’s this one other scene I heard they cut that…

Well, where were we?  At the end of the movie, the emotions do seem to come through.  Connor’s stoicism is broken by Marcus’ efforts to save him, and Marcus himself becomes a Truly Good Guy.  It ends on a cliffhanger for the next film, which caused me to (mentally) facepalm.  I thought they didn’t want to take risks?  First you keep it from moving creatively into completely unknown territory, next you make it PG-13, and then… your ending banks on a sequel that may never come!?  Whaaaaat!?  Can’t they see IT’S A TRAP!? Ah, hazelnut.  At least they finished Marcus’ character arc — and since this is an, er, interesting prequel, they can just let it end here, I guess.  But we still haven’t seen the full breadth and depth of John Connor’s supposed awesome-coolness of excellence, which we DID! get a glimpse of this time.  You know what my ideal ‘Terminator’ finale would be?  Showing John Connor save the world, by making peace with the machines, which offer to give humanity comfort in the absence of the green, living world they knew… by plugging them into ‘The Matrix’.

Until next week, syanara.  And don’t unbuckle your seat belt just yet, I’m getting ready to introduce y’all to… The Silver Mirror: The Beginning.  (With an all new cast! Well, okay, I’m casting myself and Patrick.  And no one else.  But we’re new at heart.  Yeah!)

Not-So-Classic Review: Batman Returns

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★1/2☆☆

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Let’s be fair here, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one.  You felt good when you finished watching it—or at least I did.  Coming off of that movie, I decided to check out Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’, believing that it would be like the first movie: Not great but at least entertaining.  I was wrong on that second part.

The movie again sets us in the gothic metropolis of Gotham City.  However, it looks and feels vastly different from the first movie.  Evidently, all of the previous sets and even the matinee paintings had been scrapped, and we are introduced to a redesigned Gotham that looks nothing like the old one.  This is a rather disappointing aspect, as it takes away all sense of familiarity.  Also, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season, so everything is drizzled in wet, cold snow. Why do I say all of this now?  Because this sense of unfamiliarity and, frankly, depression that we get from the Gotham landscape sets the tone remarkably well for the rest of the movie.

We are again introduced to Batman, played again by Michael Keaton.  Evidently, his relationship with Vicky Vale didn’t last and he is again the lone (and single) guardian of the city.  On the villain’s side, we have three, well two and a half at least: The Penguin, The Catwoman, and a greedy industrialist named Max Schreck.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), we learn is in fact a deformed and oddly carnivorous child (one of his first actions out of birth is to eat the family cat) who was dumped into the sewer by his seemingly un-loving parents.  Don’t worry though; he was raised by a group of lost penguins that live in the sewer, before joining the circus and returning as the leader of a gang of homicidal clowns.  Wow.  That really sounds as ridiculous as I thought it did.  Yes, Tim Burton took a substantial amount of liberty here on the character of the Penguin.  Originally in the comics, he was just a rather stout yet intelligent businessman, named more for his suit than anything else.  Unfortunately, Burton seems to live in a world inhabited by problem children, so he had to “re-invent” the character (although corrupt might be more fitting).  Max Schreck played by Christopher Walken is a self-centered businessman with many skeletons in his closet.  He eventually comes into contact with the Penguin and works as a sort of partner with him, often influencing the Penguin’s actions for the worst.  Lastly there is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer).  Again, Tim Burton was weird here.  Catwoman is created when Schreck pushes his secretary, Selina Kyle, suspicious of his activities, out a multi-story, falling to what we believe is her death.  But is she dead?  It doesn’t matter, because a group of rogue cats come by, repeatedly biting her, and our secretary is resurrected as a Catwoman, but not before she destroys everything in her apartment to purge herself of—something (?).  Out for revenge and thrills, Catwoman trades sides to her liking in the conflict between Batman and the Penguin.

If you don’t like the way the characters are introduced, you’re not going to like the story.  The Penguin manifests himself to the people of Gotham as a rejected misfit and gains enough popular sentiment to run for mayor.  The movie portrays him as incredibly conflicted as he struggles between the desire for power and crime (with support from Shreck), and the idea of being a legitimately good person.  To his credit, though not up to par with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s performance is a good one and shows a lot of enthusiasm for the character, especially under heavy make-up.  Meanwhile, Batman struggles to combat this potential threat along with romancing Selina Kyle, not knowing that she is the Catwoman.  This sounds like a decent enough plot, but it’s all very muddled and confusing.  The acting is good, but its simply not compelling enough.  Michael Keaton’s performance is up to par, but he doesn’t have enough lines.  Michelle Pfiefer is interesting as Catwoman, but she tends to overact.  Even Christopher Walken has too bland a character to really shine.  What further compromises the story is the level of bizarreness in this movie, and it’s not just limited to the nature of the characters themselves.  For example, there is a scene where the Penguin gives a Patton-Style speech to an army of penguins with rocket launchers on their back, and the filmmakers treat it seriously.  I’m sorry, but no—that is unacceptable.  At times, it doesn’t even really feel like this movie is about Batman.  It feels more about the Penguin.  Unfortunately this undermines his role as a villain to an unnecessary degree, and it ultimately doesn’t feel natural.  The ending though is the killing blow for this plot.  A general rule about superhero movies is that somehow, even if the hero loses, they manages to do something or cause something that allows them to win at least in spirit.  ‘Batman Returns’ manages to do just the opposite.  Even though he has managed to beat all of the villains in this movie and save Gotham, our hero finds himself depressed and challenged at then end, and the audience feels that he has truly lost.  Batman, by essence, is a symbol of hope, and this movie denies us the ability to experience that.

The other aspects of the movie go the way of the plot.  The sets and setup are interesting to look at but end up coming across as too melancholy.  I don’t like movies that take place during Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Okay, just ‘Die Hard’).  But somehow, when Christmas serves as a backdrop, it is often distracting or, worse, depressing.  Danny Elfman’s score, which was so lively and powerful in Batman, has been reduced to depression and sadness in this movie, and despite a few interesting “diddies” here and there, is overall weak and unfulfilling.

In short, ‘Batman Returns’ represents the problem with giving someone like Tim Burton too much creative freedom.  Burton must have been dissatisfied with ‘Batman’, and in the sequel he just tried to do too many things too differently.  To his credit, the story is interesting, but it simply isn’t handled well in the context of this movie.  Perhaps it would have worked better if this movie were not a Batman film.  Had he made a cult-gothic thriller about the plight of a deformed-man in a city of crime, this movie may have turned out better.  But as a Batman movie, it’s just a disappointment.

Classic Review: Batman (1989)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★1/2☆


Review:  Let’s take a brief look at the Batman saga leading up to the 1989 Batman movie.  The character had first introduced in the 1930’s in Detective Comics, and was revolutionary for its time.  Drawing influence from horror movies and classic myths like Zorro, creator Bob Kane created the prototypical “dark” superhero (characters like Spawn and The Darkness owe much to Batman) and a pop culture phenomenon that still is thriving today.  Kids of the 1930’s must have been thrilled to read of the exploits of famed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, then known as the Bat-Man, in all of its action, grit, and surprising depth-of-story.  Unfortunately, starting in the 1940’s, the character of Batman was softened up to become more kid-friendly, especially with the inclusion of Robin.  This softening reached its apex in the 1960’s with the infamous Adam West Batman television show (de ne nu nu nu nu nu nu Batman!).  This series was drenched in camp and comic value, and little of the darkness and complexity that had originally permeated the character remained.  However, beginning in the 1970’s, a movement grew amongst comic book writers to return Batman back to his darker origins.  Most notable of these efforts was the fabled 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, considered to be a masterpiece among graphic novels. Following up on this renewed interest in a darker Batman, Warner Brothers commissioned the making of a feature length Batman movie, and dark visionary Tim Burton was put at the helm.  What we get is one of the most interesting and yet oddly flawed interpretations of Batman.

The plot in Batman is interesting in the sense that, unlike many superhero movies, this one really is not an origin story.  We are introduced to Batman (Michael Keaton) on a dark, drizzly night in Gotham City, terrorizing two crooks.  It is almost surprising about how liberal this approach is. In fact, an important and unique message of the movie is revealed in one of Batman’s first lines.  Holding a terrified criminal over the edge of a building, he simply says, “I’m Batman,” before disappearing into the night.  Take note of this, because what Burton will show us is a Batman who has virtually no conflict.  He has already decided before the movie what he will be, leaving the audience to miss out on the fun it must have been to see the character make this choice.  In this movie, Batman is dark, violent, and resolute; we the audience must simply take it from there.

What else of the plot?  The rest of the movie is spent showing Batman battling the nefarious Joker (Jack Nicholson).  In fact, this movie almost feels more about the rise and fall of the Joker than Batman.  He is actually given a back-story—we see him change from common criminal to clown prince of crime.  That said, there is nothing particularly special for most of the movie, as it boils down to our hero foiling various plans—sometimes-silly ones– by the Joker to “…run this city into the ground.”  Apart from a small plot twist at the end though, it is pretty average, albeit entertaining.  There is also a sub-plot, some semblance of one anyway.  Bruce Wayne begins dating a reporter named Vicky Vale, who is very interested in discovering the identity of the Batman.  Soon however, Bruce Wayne finds he can’t balance love and crime fighting.  However he really isn’t given the choice of giving up the Batman role—sure there are a few scenes of him debating whether or not to tell Vicky about his alter ego, but one of the beauties of Batman is why he chooses to do these things and if he really should.  Burton’s movie simply doesn’t deliver on that.

It is a shame that the story was simply sub-par.  Not that the audience needs a complex story, but Batman does.  A character as intricate and dark as him deserves to have a story of the same caliber.  What Burton gives us is the darkness, but never really the intricacy.  It’s also a shame because the acting in this movie is exceptionally good.  Michael Keaton gives a great performance as Batman despite him being an odd choice for the part.  The former comic captures a more powerful and mysterious portrait of Batman, an obvious contrast to Adam West’s silly version.  Jack Nicholson as the Joker is equally impressive, delivering a mixture of psychotic violence and corny gags.  Even Kim Basinger gives a surprisingly good performance as Vicky Vale.  All of these actors are great at showing that their characters are suppressing motion, that all of them are hiding thoughts and feelings that would normally be released at a great emotional climax.  Unfortunately, Tim Burton gives us no such emotional climax here either, and all that acting, especially from Keaton and Basinger goes to waste for the most part.

Despite the plot, this movie more than excels in other areas.  Burton’s dark visionary style led to what were then the most elaborate and gothic sets ever created.  He succeeds very much in making Gotham City a sinister and dirty place, very well representing the crime that takes place there.  Combined with detailed miniature models and well-done matinee paintings, Burton succeeds in making the city a real and living, if also creepy, place.  Also of note are the Batmobile and Batwing vehicles, both of which are highly stylized and fun to watch in action during the film.

Perhaps most worthy of note though is Danny Elfman’s score.  Building on dark themes and classic orchestration, Elfman creates a powerful and evil sort of music, one that can invigorate just as easily as it can scare, perfectly fitting the character it describes.  However, it is somewhat compromised by the inclusion of not one but two Prince songs, I suppose as some sort of marketing tie-in.  They both suck, and I would do your best to ignore them.
So what are my final thoughts on Batman?  It represents the triumph of style over substance, image over quality.  It’s a fun movie to look at, and its entertaining as a popcorn movie, but Batman is a character who is capable of so much more, and it wouldn’t be for about another fifteen years before the Batman character was featured in a movie deserving of his complexity.  That said, this film does deserve credit for many things.  It at least ends the right way, with Batman as a symbol of hope for Gotham, something I can’t say about all subsequent Batman movies.  It is also responsible for re-igniting mainstream interest in Batman, and subsequent triumphs like Batman: the Animated Series would not have existed if not for this movie.  Also, I think that it serves well as a stepping-stone between the campy Batman of the 1960’s and the truly gritty Batman of today.  Indeed, even the Christopher Nolan films owe something to the original Burton film.

In short, Batman is what can be called a flawed masterpiece, full of its own errors, and yet having an overall positive effect on the hero it portrayed.  It’s worth a watch, but it won’t fully get you your Batman fix.