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Screen Shots: ‘Terminator Salvation’

Stripping the science fiction series to its essentials and returning humanistic characters to its core, the latest Hollywood rehash—Terminator Salvation—succeeds on every level. Directed by McG (that’s his name), who directed the powerful sports drama, We Are Marshall, this movie’s an action-packed thriller about a band of rogue individualists uniting against a mechanical stand-in for a slave state.

They do it with brains, not brawn, with an emphasis on life—as against the nihilism underlying most movies in this horror-driven sci-fi genre. Humanity’s legendary savior, John Connor, is played by grim-faced Christian Bale, who is fine, though upstaged by Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, a man with a criminal past and a questionable future. In plot layer after layer, Terminator Salvation is his story.

As in We Are Marshall, McG is impeccable in using small, subtle details to show that man masters the machine and gives it meaning, featuring antiquated cassette tapes, keypads, and helicopters in post-apocalyptic 2018, when the faceless bureaucracy Skynet has destroyed civilization by misusing machines as a weapon against man. One by one, man, woman and child unite against mighty machines that imprison humans in mechanized camps intended for mass extermination.

Past Terminator pictures expressed an anti-technology theme. McG uses the fourth movie as a springboard for warning against tyranny, not against technology as such. In isolated moments of human connection—an old woman’s generosity; a man’s helping hand, contrasted with an independent woman’s soft landing; a radio broadcast urging listeners to fight that which targets the individual—with each representing the human spirit, McG sets the parts in motion. His Terminator never lets up.

This is predictable, and therefore somewhat anti-climactic, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Mrs. John Connor is woefully miscast, but there’s masterful filmmaking here in strong, fiercely American archetypes. When the humans first bond, Connor’s teen-aged father in tow, and escape the indestructibly motorized killing machines, the action moves breathtakingly toward a half-demolished bridge. In scene after scene, the thuds and creaks all but scoop you out of the seat into a sense of awe—not at the horror, for a change, but at the men and women who come at the bastards again and again and again.

They have simple names like Blair, Star, and Kyle and they bring passion to the cause of man. Testing and applying John Connor’s theory about disconnecting the enemy weak spot, the resistance infiltrates the enemy compound at San Francisco—teeming with enslaved humans and militarized to the hilt—until the movie sort of peters out with a return to series form in a factory with the usual one on one contest between man and machine—and a thoroughly foreseeable ending.

But with an excellent cast, especially Worthington and Eight Below’s Moon Bloodgood once again as a pilot, and McG’s lighting, overhead shots and juxtapositions—desert silence, the sound of a lone, buzzing rotor and a series of screams, no jerky cameras or indistinguishable action—Terminator Salvation posits an Iron Giant-like theme that, in times of desperation, when some people will believe anything they are told, man can be saved—all one has to do, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff, is think.

Slapstick Silent Films to Screen in New York

An interesting silent film series is being screened at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on West 53rd Street. The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford, presented at 4 p.m. on Monday, June 1, includes Lizzies of the Field (1924, directed by Del Lord, with Billy Bevan), His Bread and Butter (1916, directed by Edward Cline, with Hank Mann and Slim Summerville), Get Out and Get Under (1920, directed by Hal Roach, with Harold Lloyd), Squeaks and Squawks (1920, directed by Noel M. Smith, with Jimmy Aubrey and Oliver Hardy), and Neck and Neck (1924, directed by Fred Hibbard, with Lige Conley). Each movie is approximately 18 minutes and MOMA will provide piano accompaniment by film historian and pianist Ben Model.

Screen Shots: ‘Angels and Demons’

After seeing director Ron Howard’s sharp Frost/Nixon—and his Cinderella Man (a movie for these times)—I admit I had higher expectations for his new picture, Angels and Demons. I have not read the religious mystery novels by Dan Brown, and I do not plan to read them, upon which this sequel to Mr. Howard’s The Da Vinci Code is based.

Both pictures star Tom Hanks as Professor Robert Langdon, who apparently hasn’t learned much since he took on the Pope in tracing Jesus Christ’s ancestry in the first movie, a middling whodunit that made a mint. The plot here is more focused, notched to a time-sensitive conspiracy to destroy the Catholic city-state known as the Vatican. But Angels and Demons sounds more exciting than it is.

Adopting the same agnostic theme that essentially sanctions faith over reason in a Catholic-themed crime thriller, the Sony picture—opposed by the Vatican like the first movie—is another slog.

After the Pope dies, Dr. Langdon, an instantly forgettable female Italian scientist, and various Roman and Vatican policemen race against time to solve the puzzle—never mind why the perpetrator leaves a trail—save the most likely men to become Pope, and stop the supposedly secular villains from blowing up the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square and everything nearby. The powers that be call upon the professor to help amid shifty, cigarette-smoking cops and cardinals (this is Rome after all, where it seems like everyone smokes). By the time it’s over, the plot has had it every which way—going back and forth between condemning and condoning the Catholic Church, which has denounced and persecuted men of reason for centuries.

The Hanks character is reduced to spotting symbols without providing intelligible context and observing the obvious, such as a statue pointing east as the clue to head east. That he risks his own life without so much as a nickel—let alone access to the Vatican archives to finish his latest work—strains credulity and undermines his status. Without much of a protagonist, despite a thrilling church shootout, an exciting climax and good turns by Stellan Skarsgard, Ewan McGregor, and Pierfranceso Favino, Angels and Demons is in dire need of action and a reason to exist. Watching people, including the prof, preach that faith is a gift amid a string of interesting but unrelated facts—such as the secular origins of Christmas and English as the language of “radicals”—is ultimately neither angelic nor demonic enough to engage the imagination.

Disney’s Train Tour for Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Disney is getting the word out about its new, 40-city movie publicity campaign, Disney’s A Christmas Carol train tour, sponsored by Hewlett Packard. It begins in downtown Los Angeles (at our wonderfully Art Deco Union Station) on Memorial Day weekend (May 22). The tour, promoting the studio’s upcoming picture, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’ classic anti-capitalist Christmas story, will end at New York’s Grand Central Station the weekend of October 30. Disney’s computer-generated movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) and stars Jim Carrey (Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight).

Disney says the tour will include artifacts on loan from the Charles Dickens Museum of London, artwork, costumes and props from the film, demonstrations of the movie’s performance capture technology (used in Mr. Zemeckis’ previous pictures, Beowulf and The Polar Express) and a chance to morph into one of the film’s characters using Hewlett Packard’s TouchSmart PC. Carolers, decorations and surprises will also be featured. America’s government-run passenger rail monopoly, Amtrak, will provide the four-car train’s locomotives and engineers. Dolby Laboratories will be supplying its Dolby® 3D Digital Cinema technology for an on-site mobile theater showing 3D footage from the film. Each stop on the tour welcomes guests of all ages and is free to the public.

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook—who used to work on Disneyland’s Monorail—said in a company statement: “‘From Los Angeles to New York, and all points in between, guests are going to have a fabulous time discovering things about the making of this extraordinary film, participating in their own festive fantasies, and getting into the holiday spirit all year round.” Other stops include Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Indianapolis, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

It’s nice to see Disney doing something original and nostalgic, which, unlike its dreadful Disneyland and theme park campaigns, seems properly themed and integrated. It is a smart move to feature the original novel as a part of the exhibit, which Disney doesn’t do often enough (the studio’s 1996 animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes to mind). The Christmas Carol campaign seems to embrace the author’s voice.

Doing Dickens has its drawbacks. While A Christmas Carol is well-known and popular, it is also terribly dark and gloomy and I wonder whether that will play across America through November. Will cash-strapped audiences pay to see another heavy-handed attack on capitalism at a time when capitalism is being all but destroyed by government intervention? A lot depends on Jim Carrey, an often vulgar actor who can come across as unhinged, and how the multimillionaire actor plays Scrooge. Is Scrooge depicted as evil because he makes money and because he doesn’t sacrifice himself for others—or as merely missing out on the milk of human kindness? Disney describes A Christmas Carol as a “thrill ride” which captures the essence of the Dickens tale in 3D. It opens in theaters nationwide on November 6.

As for the train tour, I wonder if waiting in line to see a special effects showcase is worth a Saturday. People may walk in thrilled by the anticipation of experiencing the train only to be disappointed by what’s inside, especially if it’s merely another glorified video game or a perceptual assault of 3D toilet humor, in which case people may not be keen to see Disney’s A Christmas Carol by fall. The movie’s emotional pull must come through. Of course, it could be a terrific event for an anti-profit movie that makes piles of money.

New ‘Star Trek’ Movie is Bland, Not Bold

As a reset for Paramount’s popular series, the new Star Trek movie, opening this weekend and directed by J.J. Abrams, is disappointing. The original NBC television series was an intelligently written program which put highly individualized characters into often philosophically driven plots and this effort doesn’t come close to measuring up. That said, at least Star Trek has a coherent plot, which is rare. There are no major missteps.

The plot is formulaic, characters are too broad, and the conflict is the stuff of cable reruns. Playing in IMAX theaters (where I saw it), Star Trek contains the requisite action and plot progression but it doesn’t have what it takes for a franchise reboot.

Previous movies are mixed, but the TV series kept things simple, with the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as the focal point, her international crew poised for action in a clear hierarchy and conflict resolution as the primary plot purpose. Here, we get twin tracks of expository set-up—Kirk and Spock—and it takes too long, wanders too wide, and emphasizes personalities instead of developing dramatic tension. The Enterprise is an egalitarian gathering place where the crew stands around trying to rule by consensus.

Kirk is a playboy, Spock is tortured and everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script. The character Uhura is expanded at the expense of Bones. Sulu, Chekov and Scott are all there (Sulu fares best) and Bruce Greenwood is added as Kirk’s mentor. Some scenes, such as an elevator scene with Spock, are well done, but soon it’s back to the banal. Overbearing music, jerky camera shots, and a Jurassic Park rip-off burden the heavy load and it is hard to get excited about an evil Romulan—who, it is implied, has a point—on the warpath. Finally, Star Trek urges us to abandon reason and act on faith, a bad message you can get from any TV preacher or member of Congress (and, with both advocating religious statism, it’s hard to tell them apart). Many readers are going to see it anyway, but the new Star Trek, while not a bust, is, as I suspected, as blurry as its poster.