A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

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Review: ‘Cold in July’ 9.13.14

I’ve grown quite fond of director Jim Mickle over the past couple of years. Really only having very recently seen both his 2006 debut – “Mulberry Street” and last year’s “We Are What We Are” (a surprisingly better remake of the 2010 Spanish film of the same name). Though admittedly I was a little disappointed with his 2010 film – “Stake Land” it still had its moments. That and I knew we were being introduced to a new kind of genre director. Perhaps a new horror director but with something very different to say. His films up to this had focused on a decaying city being overrun by toxic rats, a vampire hunter, and a family of cannibals. Though there have been several genre pictures of this kind. Mickle seems to have more of his own vision and puts a personal stamp on everything he does. Like with many great directors, you would almost know it’s a Jim Mickle film even if you didn’t know so going in and had seen any of his prior work. He is an auteur. But rather than be pigeonholed to one specific genre, Mickle here steps outside of his comfort zone to delve into an entirely different genre. A sort of genre hybrid. One that contains elements of film noir, crime, suspense, and thriller tropes.

We are first introduced to Richard (Michael C. Hall from Showtime’s “Dexter”). Richard is a quiet, reserved family man. Who at the very beginning of the film has to make a rather difficult choice in order to defend his family. Someone winds up dead. And this someone’s father, a man who goes by the name of Russel (played ruthlessly by the great Sam Shephard) wants revenge on the family of the man who killed his son. Richard’s paranoia increases over his own family’s safety after several run in’s with Russel, and after one specific incident, they are put into a kind of pseudo-Witness Protection program. The first act was more or less standard fare. But then things really start to pick up. Richard witnesses an act of police corruption, believes his family was set up and used as bait, and tells Russel that he doesn’t think it was his son who he killed and that it was all part of a cover up involving both the police and local Texas mafia. Then about halfway in we meet a man by the name of Jim Duke (played by the legendary Don Johnson), an outside detective from Houston, who comes in to work on the case. Things also seem particularly shady to him as well, and the 3 central characters then band up together to go and seek out the truth. By whatever means necessary.

Mickle does a great job here of tackling a new genre, one that acts out as an almost hybrid of sorts. It’s a gritty piece of pulp noir crime thriller. He does a great job of making sure the audience is constantly second guessing at the twists and turns that come up constantly at almost each and every corner of the film. His ability to wrack up the amount of tension and suspense that he does without letting go is nothing short of amazing. It also has a incredible original score, one that’s heavy on the synthesizer and sounds like something from early John Carpenter films like “Assault on Precinct 13” with hints of the excellent Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) scores of recent years. The pulsating, thunderous, driving beats of the score accentuate the story’s suspense and drama. Mickle’s 3 central actors – Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson all come with the goods here. All three performances are particularly strong and none stand out above the other. What I can say too without hopefully giving too much away, is that its climax that had me gasping. The violence is someone restrained up to this point, but when the the end comes Mickle really brings the guns. I thought the last 15 minutes, which had elements of a great Western showdown, and reminiscient of something out of a Sam Peckinpah film, were some of the most tense, well shot and choreographed segments I have seen of any film this year. This one already has earned a spot on my top 20 films of the year so far. If this type of material sounds like something that you might be interested in I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: B+