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Posts tagged “james cameron

True Lies (1994)

True LiesIt sounds odd that I had never seen True Lies until just a few months ago.  I always had a little tinge of interest in it, but until recently, I just never capitalized upon it.  I do think James Cameron has done some marvelous work over the years, and it’s nice to see that he did take the chance to do something more fun-filled after a lot of films of thematic heaviness.  While I didn’t love True Lies, it does have its great strengths and unfortunate weaknesses wrapped up in a very entertaining spy thriller.

Special agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top spy in the ultra-secret Omega Sector – although to his wife Helen (Jaime Lee Curtis), he’s just a boring computer salesman.  When Harry’s two lives unexpectedly collide, both he and Helen find themselves in the clutches of international terrorists, fighting to save not only their marriage, but their lives.

In what I believe is a rare occurrence, I actually agree with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert about this film, in most part.  The opening and ending are great, exciting, engaging action excellence, but the middle section is drawn out and throws the film off the rails a little.  This is in relation to the entire Bill Paxton segment where Harry Tasker learns that Helen has been seeing another man on the side who feeds her false stories of him being a secret agent.  Paxton’s character turns out to be a sleazy used car salesman conning women with his tales of international espionage and intrigue, and Harry proceeds to use his resources to pull one over on the guy while attempting to inject some excitement into his marriage via subterfuge.  This segment is not a bad idea, but the fact is that it is dragged out for over thirty minutes and runs through some overly long comedic bits.  There is so much that could have been done to chop this down considerably and make it far more snappy and to the point.

I hate to keep being proven right about my reservations about James Cameron’s lax storytelling post-The Terminator, but the evidence keeps surfacing with every film of his I see.  When he had a tight, restrictive budget forcing him to be innovative in a constrained run time, he put together a film of tight rhythm and energy.  Once he was given larger and larger budgets, and was allowed to indulge himself on screen, he began to slow down the pace of his films with extended second acts that could have definitely been tightened up for a more punchy experience.  The other problem with this divergence in focus is that the actual plot with our villains vanishes for the entire time the film is concerned with this marital infidelity plot.  With such a thrilling action chase scene to build up the film’s villain, the movie wholly shifts focus away from that plot, and a lot like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the actual villain is completely absent for most of the second act of the movie.  He only reappears when the movie realizes it needs another action sequence.  If Cameron could have found a way to keep both the action centric terrorist / secret agent and married life plots going by interweaving them, I believe that would have been great, but it’s ultimately much more compartmentalized until the third act arrives.

Regardless, Cameron is still able to direct some of the best action sequences to date.  The opening escape sequence is explosive and smart with the right amount of wit and sly humor.  Indeed, I was vastly impressed with the chase sequence that starts off with a public bathroom fight and shootout, and then, sees the film’s villain, Aziz, take off on a motorcycle and Harry pursues him on horseback.  They gallop and zoom through Washington, D.C. streets, stores, a shopping mall, elevators, and a high rise balcony.  Cameron pushes this sequence to the absolute most fun hilt, and it proves to be very original and imaginative.  The climax of the film with the helicopter rescue from the out of control limousine, and then, the fighter jet explosive awesomeness really makes this one of the biggest Schwarzenegger action spectacles ever.  These are some of the most incredible action sequences that either James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever been involved in, and they deserve to been seen by any serious action movie fan.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger really does seem to do some of his best, most dynamic work with James Cameron.  The two clearly work so perfectly together based on a very trusted friendship and collaboration.  This time out, Arnold gets to be more light hearted and fun.  Harry Tasker is a clever character who thinks on his feet, and improvises some tight scenarios with suave charisma.  By no doubt, there are some James Bond comparisons you could make, but that can be done with nearly any secret agent action movie.  Harry’s a light-hearted, caring family man who is not nearly as adept at his home life as he is in espionage.

Jamie Lee Curtis is really fun and solid as Harry’s wife.  We get to see her go from this simple, wholesome, innocent woman to a more empowered, assertive character.  Yeah, Helen has to liberate herself with a sexy striptease, but it’s really just done in good fun in the film’s context.  Helen is attracted to Bill Paxton’s character because he tells her exciting stories of peril and danger, and so, Harry chooses to give her an adventure of her own.  Curtis really embraces the role in all its facets giving us a sweet character that is able to rise to the task of danger and peril.

Now, it does seem to take the right director to craft Tom Arnold’s humor down the correct path.  Surely, many have found him annoying or obnoxious elsewhere, but he really hits all the comedy beats just right.  He never pushes it over the edge, and doesn’t come off like a buffoon, which would have been extremely easy to fall into.  Him and Schwarzenegger have very good chemistry playing off of one another lightly and naturally.

On the far more serious side, Art Malik has a great threatening look of intensity to him that perfectly aids him as the film’s villain, Salim Abu Aziz.  He’s an excellent fit for this ruthless, violent radical terrorist who consistently proves to be a major adversary to contend with.  He truly added the serious counterweight the film required to the light hearted tone it employs throughout.  His partner in crime is Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner, a slight femme fatale that catches Harry’s attention early on.  Surely, Carrere has never been a great actress, but she does quite good work under Cameron’s direction being charming and alluring when necessary as well as cutthroat and vile when the facades are dropped.

In some smaller roles, you’ve got Charlton Heston in a solid, brief appearance as the head of Omega Sector baring a nasty scar and eye patch.  This sort of shows that True Lies is not taking itself too seriously.  It’s allowing a little satire and jokiness to seep into the flavor of the picture.  Also, Eliza Dushku appears in an early role as Dana Tasker, Harry and Helen’s daughter, and she does a great job showcasing a lot of tough attitude and dimension she would come to be known for.  Everyone in this cast really does a fine, respectable job with Cameron’s material.  It’s both a fact of good casting and solid directing.

This was James Cameron’s follow-up to Terminator 2 after he took a few years off, and in that time, visual effects continued to evolve a little.  Largely, the digital effects work is very subtle not requiring anything so innovative as a liquid metal cyborg assassin.  Yet, it’s interesting to see that today, you’d like see those Harrier fighter jets done mostly as CGI in most shots, but here, we get the real thing on film and it looks exponentially superior to any digital effect.   The green screen shots are about as good as they get, and Cameron uses as many practical elements to give the action set pieces a very realistic weight.  This is just how digital effects should be used – to aid and enhance the practicals in addition to achieving what little practicals cannot achieve.  The use of practical effects adds more realistic weight to everything that I immensely appreciate.

True Lies is a very entertaining film with a fun mixture of concepts that is much lighter than your typical James Cameron fare.  I think every idea he had here is solid and when it clicks, it excels beyond expectations.  That is essentially the action-centric plot aspects, and while the humor is greatly well done, it dragged down the middle of the film.  I honestly feel that humor works best when it’s snappy, sharp, and punctuated correctly.  The comedy segments of True Lies are drawn out too long, and diverge the film away from its more exciting aspects.  I believe the script could have been tightened up in that second act by shortening some of these sequences, and resulting in a sharper and more to the point second act.  I do like the idea of showing the light-hearted suburban home life of this international secret agent, and the fun marital twists and turns that Harry and Helen take.  However, I feel the film eventually forgets to meld its ideas together for a long period, and diverges away from the action film aspects for too long.  Just when the secret agent plot was getting interesting and truly exciting, it ditches it for a good half an hour.

Regardless, I would still recommend True Lies.  As I said, the action sequences are spectacular on every level showcasing the best of what Arnold can do, and demonstrating that James Cameron is one of the best directors of action out there.  His dynamic visual style is wonderfully realized by Russell Carpenter’s exceptional cinematography.  He didn’t work with Cameron on any other picture, but that would be hard to tell because the film has all of Cameron’s visual signatures.  The blue, moody tones and great camera work with excellent close-up shots and push-ins all punctuate what you expect from James Cameron, and Carpenter truly hits it all dead on the mark.  There is plenty of entertainment value to gain from True Lies, but even despite the R rating, it’s fairly light on graphic violence.  So, in a way it appears more tame than previous Cameron or Schwarzenegger action films, but for the lighter tone used here, it seems more appropriate.  As I said, I feel the film could benefit greatly from a tightening up of its humor, or at least, allow the secret agent action plot and the family life comedy to interweave in that second act.  As it stands, the film veers off track for a good thirty minutes in the middle, and doesn’t get back on track until the terrorists burst back into the film in a rather unexplained fashion.  It’s all good stuff from start to finish, but I just feel it would have worked better in a tighter package.

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Strange Days (1995)

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!


Point Break (1991)

Point BreakThere are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time.  What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist.  It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film.  So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.

Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks.  Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles.  There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped.  Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.

Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin.  The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film.  That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers.  The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi.  The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well.  And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are.  It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years.  Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle.  It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.

Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi.  You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge.  Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse.  Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative.  Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny.  Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut.  Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end.  Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.

Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan.  A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit.  There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction.  This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler.  Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry.  Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny.  Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves.  Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride.  I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction.  Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions.  You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts.  Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge.  Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable.  Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass.  He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.

Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi.  He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality.  I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie.  Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies.  He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew.  Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character.  When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role.  I see Bodhi through and through.  Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us.  He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.

Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas.  He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments.  It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly.  Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp.  Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired.  Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.

The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic.  For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions.  It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially.  There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect.  The action cues are good, yet subtle.  Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.

The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt.  That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.

The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out.  The emotions hang on the razor’s edge.  For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him.  For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril.  Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue.  What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.

The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach.  Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is.  Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique.  All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me.  Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue.  It’s because of the culmination of this ending.  Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here.  It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves.  He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways.  This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.

Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel.  With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered.  She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film.  Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame.  I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days.  Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways.  Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2.  Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since.  I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgment DayTerminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made.  There was no equal in 1991.  I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it.  This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular.  Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did.  While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones.  A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.

Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form.  John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him.  Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable.  When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.

Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it.  It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style.  It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts.  While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out.  Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently.  This film is a vast improvement over that.  While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go.  The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.

Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator.  While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses.  For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film.  Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter.  It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800.  All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story.  Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.

It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first.  We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly.  Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original.  While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge.  It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats.  Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout.  Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well.  So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.

The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital.  Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience.  We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important.  The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.

Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay.  It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh.  Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas.  I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas.  Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher.  On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it.  That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture.  He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.

It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator.  He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for.  This is accomplished through so many elements.  From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off.  The shift in the character is entirely seamless.  In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity.  You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero.  The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end.  The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing.  It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional.  It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances.  He is exceptional throughout this movie.

Linda Hamilton is scary here.  She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly.  If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well.  Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you.  Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit.  She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision.  The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see.  Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge.  Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her.  They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet.  That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche.  She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope.  Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life.  Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.

Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role.  He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance.  His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800.  We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.  He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly.  I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film.  He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon.  Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one.  Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality.  He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities.  He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all.  Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.

The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny.  I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans.  Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie.  He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal.  Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center.  You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath.  His physical ability is incredible.  When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once.  He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout.  He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience.  It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role.  He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day.  His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.

And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson.  This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to.  He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways.  When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity.  He’s not a malevolent man.  He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done.  Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film.  Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive.  And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.

At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen.  I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done.  It was massively fascinating.  This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all.  The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles.  It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie.  The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today.  They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before.  I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them.  It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry.  Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios.  There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself.  This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator.  Pure awesomeness!

A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes.  The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed.  The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno.  It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming.  Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination.  Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust.  It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions.  Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story.  It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.

Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril.  There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama.  The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension.  The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team.  All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions.  Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen.  Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.

Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style.  Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on.  I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time.  This is terrific, gorgeous work all around.  The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout.  The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators.  Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.

Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film.  When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like.  There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty.  The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg.  There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout.  Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose.  Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story.  The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited.  The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting.  It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.

I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context.  The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions.  Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments.  I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling.  While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way.  In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience.  They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.

However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them.  There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex.  These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking.  For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be.  It feels like a retread of what we got the first time.  I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash.  I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences.  All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh.  The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot.  The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology.  It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now.  The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story.  He’s just there to kill and nothing more.  The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator.  The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether.  Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.

This is not to say the climax is not good.  The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great.  Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome.  It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat.  In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature.  The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic.  Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against.  If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities.  He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.

The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable.  Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined.  It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to.  I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie.  I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review.  However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again.  Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it.  So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time.  I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less.  This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.

Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review?  I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that.  It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters.  This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars.  Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Aliens (1986)

It was an ambitious prospect to develop a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien.  However, Twentieth Century Fox was highly pleased with what burgeoning filmmaker James Cameron was putting to paper that they waited until he finished production on The Terminator to have him complete that script.  It became a huge blockbuster hit in the summer of 1986, and earned several nominations and awards.  Unfortunately, for me, there has always been something about this film I never quite liked, something that made it nowhere near as great as people made it out to be.  Add to that the disdain I’ve developed in recent years for James Cameron.  I don’t think he makes films as good as he thinks he does, he has a huge unwarranted ego, and his pioneering of 3D digital technology really burns me.  I hate the trend, and I hate Cameron for igniting it.  I will truly brush these feelings aside, and critique this film as it is to pinpoint my issues with it.  There’s plenty for me to deconstruct here.

Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, is awakened by a salvage ship after drifting through space in cryo-sleep for fifty-seven years in her escape pod.  After her rescue, officials at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (regularly referred to as “The Company”) give her a cold reception by revoking her flight license.  Much to her horror, they reveal that planet LV-426, where her crew discovered the alien, has since been colonized without incident.  However, when communication with the colony is lost, Ripley initially refuses to help, but her recurring nightmares and coxing by a representative of the Company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), convince her to accompany a group of Colonial Marines to investigate the situation.  What awaits them all is a swarm of Xenomorphs that have infested the colony, the likes of which these marines are not prepared for, but Ripley will ultimately not be deterred from confronting and destroying the horror that haunts her.

I hate to start off on a bad note because there are highly admirable qualities to credit in this film, but this is an exploration of me understanding what I haven’t like about this film for so long.  Only now, by way of actually analyzing the film, can I pinpoint those reasons.  However, that doesn’t mean I have all bad things to say of it, but let me get the nagging issues out of the way first.

I feel Aliens is downgraded by its aesthetics.  Part of that problem was the choice of film stock used in the Kodak Eastman type that was only in use for a very brief period of time.  The reasons for that begin with excessive grain and ends with a difficulty in processing blue screen effects.  Aliens is a very grainy film, and in addition to that, has very bleached out colors.  The color palette is very flat.  Blacks aren’t black, and with a film of this sort, creating light and shadow contrast is very important.  This creates a rather visually bland presentation that fails to match the highly atmospheric quality of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original.  I believe that some of these problems have been rectified on the Blu Ray release which Cameron himself supervised.  I wish I could view that version so that, maybe, some of my gripes with the film would evaporate.  However, that’s not all, but I will cover those later when I address the visual effects.

I have to take issue with some of the characterizations in this film.  Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, & Michael Biehn are all excellent, and inhabit their roles well.  Their roles are also well written and well conceived.  Them, I have no issues with.  It’s the arrogant, chest pounding, and sometime weak-willed Colonial Marines.  Yes, they are big, colorful characters that are memorable and quotable.  That doesn’t mean they’re well conceived characters.  For example, let’s compare these marines to the elite team from Predator.  A group that is memorable, quotable, full of personality, but also, not a bunch of guys you’d ever want to cross.  They are not arrogant, just confident, but know how to respect a dangerous situation when they enter it.  They operate like a cohesive unit, follow orders, have great respect for one another, and keep their mission objective clearly in view.  They get the job done, and never flex any ego.  The marines from Aliens do nothing but talk tough and act as if they’re invincible bad asses.  I understand the intent of showing them as if they believe themselves to be so great that nothing can best them, and then, get dropped into a situation of a cold, hard reality check.  The same thing happens in Predator, and I think it’s done better in that film because you see how realistically capable these soldiers are.  They’re the real deal, and when you see that these seriously experienced, professional soldiers are afraid of what’s out there, it sells the situation even more.  As for that reality check shocking the marines down to size?  You still have Bill Paxton’s Hudson acting like a buffoon all the way through the film.  Someone of this weak will and lack of backbone would never make it into any military organization today, and Hudson does more to sell the incompetence of this team than anything else.  These marines also don’t follow orders when they’re given, and instead, subscribe to foolish, egotistical behavior to satisfy their own ignorant bravado.  It’s the character I have issue with, not Paxton.  I believe Bill Paxton to be a very good actor that eventually was given to chance to break out of this buffoonish stereotype, and that was a very thankful turns of events.

What really downgrade the quality of this film, for me, are the visual effects.  Keep in mind that James Cameron comes from a visual effects background as I point out these issues.  Firstly, and briefly, the use of rear screen projection backgrounds come off as low grade.  Even George Lucas tried using this in Star Wars, but when he saw how bad it looked, he swore it off never to be attempted again.  Cameron uses it here instead of blue screen effects, likely, because of the aforementioned crappy film stock he chose to use.  Again, this is from a filmmaker who started in visual effects.  Next up, the miniature vehicle photography is not convincing.  Miniatures are small and lightweight, but the photography of them is meant to fool you into perceiving them as full-sized versions that weigh, sometimes, thousands of pounds.  Filmmakers tend to shoot them at a higher frame rate that when transferred to 24 frames per second, create a slower moving object with a lot of mass to it to sell their realism.  Here, all the vehicles and ships move about with no realistic weight.  They fly around or drive across the planet’s surface with no gravity or mass about them.  The drop ship banks, lands, and takes off like a radio controlled toy.  The armored personnel carrier throttles around and bangs into corridors like a go-cart.  Something with a lot of mass, like these vehicles should have, would maneuver slower with bigger, wider movements.  More mass means more power is needed to propel them.  Think of how an eighteen wheeler, a humvee, or a helicopter move.  They maneuver slower than lighter weight vehicles, but that is not translated into this film.  I also have had this exact same problem with the future war sequences in Cameron’s Terminator films.  SkyNet’s huge Hunter-Killer gun ships flying through the air and making hair-point turns always looked incredibly awkward and unrealistic to me.

An extension of all this is the lack of visual atmosphere used to hide the limitations of sets, miniatures, and visual effects. Ridley Scott and his team achieved this visual disguise greatly with Alien using light, shadow, and smoke to disguise any budgetary limitations, or to blend miniatures, live action, and visual effects into a seamless whole. Clearly, something Scott continued on with in Blade Runner. The bonus of this in Alien is that it created a rock solid mysterious horror atmosphere that intensifies the overall unsettling nature of the movie.  Here, you can see the lack of depth and scope in the shot where you know it’s a soundstage set when it’s supposed to be a convincing alien planet landscape.  I’d expect that from an old episode of Star Trek that didn’t have the budget or technical knowledge to disguise these production shortcomings.  I would not expect that from a film that had an even BIGGER budget than Ridley Scott’s film which achieved better results on a smaller budget.  Again, James Cameron comes from a background of visual effects where he should know how to blur those lines, but what is displayed here would not at all reflect that experience.

James Horner’s score is somewhat mixed for me.  The cues he uses for the marines early on are very thin and weak.  His snare drum track sounds like a demo recording done in someone’s garage.  Again, I have to refer to Predator as Alan Silvestri really brought a powerful, meaty militaristic theme to that film.  Since Aliens really is more of a science fiction action picture than a horror genre creation, I can’t critique a lack of suspenseful cues, but it could’ve helped.  The score services the big action moments well, but despite what praise it has been given in decades past, I never found it all that compelling or exceptional.

Sigourney Weaver surely earned the respect and praise she received from her performance in this film.  The evolution of Ellen Ripley here is entirely on the mark.  Being the sole survivor of such a horrific experience, she would be a haunted woman waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and be determined to see this species wiped out of existence.  She’s traumatized, but is able to battle through that.  She takes her fear, and uses it to focus her eventual leadership skills.  You constantly see her battle against her intense fear in order to see her real world nightmare end.  Weaver also projects a warm, motherly sensibility while caring for the equally traumatized Newt.  The makeshift family they create with Hicks is rather brilliant.

Speaking of which, Michael Biehn brings his great, natural humanity to Corporal Hicks.  He shows the character to be a natural leader with confidence, decisiveness, and intelligence.  Hicks is definitely the guy that will have your back all the way.  Just as he was in The Terminator, Biehn shines through as a wonderfully dynamic and emotionally powerful actor.  His warmth and chemistry with Sigourney strikes the right, soft chord.  They work extremely well together with a mutual respect that penetrates through the screen.  I’m not sure that the original casting choice of James Remar would’ve embodied those qualities so strongly or naturally.  Michael Biehn was an amazing, fortunate happenstance in this instance.

Paul Reiser had some nice breakout roles in the 1980s including his appearances in the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies.  Here, I love his performance!  Burke is the textbook company man working his public relations angle with a compassionate façade while hiding a smarmy corporate mentality.  Reiser plays both ends of that spectrum well, and he allows them to mesh into a cowardly weasel who always seems a slight bit suspicious.  At first, he comes off as a genuinely decent fellow, but as the story unfolds, Reiser gradually peels that back as Burke gets closer to his goal.  It’s a nicely subtle piece of acting that rides a fine line,, but it surely is effective.

At this point in time, Lance Henriksen was making an impact with some unique, standout performances.  Bishop is a career highlight, indeed.  “Artificial person” so fits the description of him.  He has human qualities, but they are slightly off.  Again, subtlety enters the approach with an air of eerie creepiness to the droid Bishop.  Not in a malevolent way like Ian Holm’s Ash from the previous film, but as something just uneasy, unsettling about him.  At first, he doesn’t appear to be anything but human.  However, the more time an audience spends with him, the more these peculiar aspects nag your attention.  Because of Ripley’s own unease around a droid, an audience can also gain an uncertainty about him, but it’s great how the relationship between Ellen and Bishop builds towards a place of trust.

Now, James Cameron bringing in Stan Winston and his team was a brilliant, logic move.  You would need someone of Winston’s caliber to put together something impressive like the Alien Queen.  The improved designs of the egg, facehugger, and chesterburster are excellent bringing more articulation and realism to them all.  Now, I don’t have a preference between the original “smooth head” Alien from Ridley Scott’s film or the more “ridged head” Aliens featured here.  I think they both work fantastically, and surely suit the demands and lighting aesthetics for their respective films well.  Here, the more detailed and ridged craniums give the drones more character with a few little highlights here and there to make them standout more against the darker environments.   Stan Winston was a legend in this field, and his contributions made the industry what it is today.  He will be missed beyond words due to his passion, personality, skill, and artistry.  He left behind a legacy of respect and admiration.

I have zero problems with the story in Aliens.  It is a great progression and a smart direction for a sequel.  Following Ripley through this journey from a troubled woman trying to avoid her trauma to one who confronts it head on to defeat it with intense courage is a powerful story.  She finds her strength through the new emotional bonds she forges with Newt and Hicks.  The more action oriented approach is something I don’t have much of an issue with, but a little more suspense and terror could’ve gone a long way here.  There are those moments, but they’re more “jump out and scare you” bits instead of finely crafted suspense.  Aliens has some exciting sequences that are well conceived.  The climax has become a cinematic classic with Ripley squaring off with the Alien Queen in the powerloader.  It was a very original, massive crowd pleaser that put Ripley into a great, forceful position.

I’ve only ever watched the Special Edition of Aliens as it is James Cameron’s preferred version of the movie, and while it has all the substantive character depth and proper storytelling elements, it does feel too long at just over two and a half hours.  Cameron seems intent on making overly long films that lack the rhythm and pacing he so excellently captured in The Terminator.  Once he got a big budget, he started over-bloating his scripts and cutting down on storytelling innovations.  Sometimes, the restrictions of a smaller budget and limited resources force a filmmaker into creating a better, tighter product than when they are given access to all the tools with free rein to use them how they wish.  I feel that is the case with Jim Cameron.  As time went on, he seemed less interested in making compelling stories and more interested in flexing his budgetary ego.  I respect the innovations he has motivated in the realm of digital visual effects, but great special effects alone do not make for a great film.  However, all he seems interested in is pushing technology forward at the expense of quality storytelling.

All of this began here with Aliens.  He still was creating a quality story backed by a few strong, solid actors, but he surely could’ve tightened it up in areas during scripting.  Still, what irritates me when watching this film are many of the technical issues with visual effects, rear screen projection, the photography of the miniatures, and the poor choice of film stock.  Furthermore, the poorly conceived Colonial Marines, aside from Hicks, are cartoonish buffoons that like to stroke their own egos instead of getting serious in a serious situation.  These are all elements that make a substantial negative impact upon the film for me.  It has plenty of good qualities to it from the strong lead performances and practical creature effects, but with a film so long, the negatives inevitably linger to repeatedly damage my enjoyment of the movie.  Maybe, one day, I will watch the theatrical version and feel differently about that shorter cut, but if I was to judge this the way I intended, it had to be the director’s preferred version.  This is an off occasion where I didn’t review the film for the sake of opening people’s eyes or rousing anyone’s interest.  It really was just so I could deconstruct what always bothered me about this movie, and see the shortcomings that have prevented my full fledged enjoyment of it.  I’m sure many would not perceive these same issues, but if everyone had the same point of view on everything, it would be a very uninteresting world.