Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Elf

Year: 2003
Running time: 97 minutes
Certificate: PG

Language: English
Screenplay: David Berenbaum
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Dinklage


Every meal tastes better with sweets.
Most of people's favourite Christmas movies were made a number of years ago – when they were kids. These films, such as Scrooge, It's A Wonderful Life, the animated Snowman and the god-awful Santa Claus: The Movie, remain our favourites because of the nostalgia attached to them, and any Christmas film that comes along nowadays is (usually correctly) considered to be inferior. While it is unlikely to fully buck this trend in the general consciousness, Elf does feel more like one of our childhood favourites, despite being fairly recent.

Will Ferrell exudes a likable innocence as Buddy, the elf that is literally too big for his boots. When his size prevents him from fitting in any longer at the North Pole, his adoptive father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) reluctantly confirms that Buddy is human. The scene is set for a trip to the real world, particularly New York, to find his human father (James Caan), who (shock horror) is on the naughty list. There follows a not entirely original tale of the outsider struggling to fit it while making some friends and changing some lives along the way. The lack of originality is more than made up for by the well executed and perfectly timed series of jokes and set pieces, as well as a cast on fine form. Ferrell handles the lead role well, and a character that could have been frustrating is a cheerfully manic delight. The support cast are equal to Ferrell's performance - Hollywood great James Caan is clearly having a whale of a time playing the grump who learns the true meaning of Christmas (registered trademark of Moviecheese Industries, Inc.), and Peter Dinklage steals a stand out scene as a hot shot writer furious with Buddy's wide-eyed innocence as he's mistaken for an elf.

Most of the time Elf is pretty good, but when the criminally under-used Zooey Deschanel is onscreen as Jovie, Buddy's cynical love interest, it comes alive. The decision to focus on the relationship between Buddy and his father at the expense of time spent with Jovie is a misstep which costs the film the chance to be a fully fledged Christmas classic. Deschanel makes the prospect of seeing anything more interesting, and along with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Nathan Fillion is a paid up member of the 27%er club.

Jovie: One sassy, cynical elf.
The climax is, as you might expect, a very happy ending; when Santa's sleigh crashes in Buddy's new neighbourhood, the man-elf saves the day along with Jovie, who leads a mass singalong to increase belief in Santa Claus to help power his sleigh. It is complete cheese, but what did you expect from a Christmas movie?

Elf may feel like one of our beloved children's classics because there are clear similarities with Big (surely a favourite of everyone’s inner child) – a fully grown adult steadfastly refusing to act his age, and in so doing proving that the joyful innocence of a child’s point of view may be the very thing the cynical adult soul needs – sickeningly sweet, but feel good all the same.

Score: 7/10

Critically, Elf seems to have done rather well, as evidenced by this positive review by Greg and it even pleasantly surprised Mr. "Your Movie Sucks" Ebert.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Terminator

Year: 1984 (Terminator), 1991 (T2), 2003 (Terminator 3), 2009 (Salvation)
Running time: 107 minutes (Terminator), 137 minutes (T2), 109 minutes (Terminator 3), 115 minutes (Salvation)
Certificate: 15 (Terminator), (T2), 12A (Terminator 3), (Salvation)
Language: English
Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator), James Cameron, William Wisher Jr. (T2), John Brancato, Michael Ferris (Terminator 3), (Salvation)
Director: James Cameron (Terminator), (T2), Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3), McG (Salvation)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Dick Miller, Bill Paxton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken, Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard

"Absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
It’s a tough decision choosing a favourite between James Cameron’s early high water marks. I still switch between Aliens and Terminator & T2 depending on mood. It’s possible the Terminator films win out as unlike Aliens, which is a sequel set in an already somewhat established universe, they were conceived and developed by Cameron from the early stages of their inception. In a future war between killer machines and a remnant of the human race, John Connor is the human who is key to mankind's eventual victory. In an attempt to put an end to Connor, Skynet (the name of the sentient neural net-based artificial intelligence system running the machines) sends a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back through time to kill Connor's mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to him.  The human resistance succeeds in sending a protector for Sarah in Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn).

The plot of The Terminator is complex yet simple; all of the time-travelling brain-bending shenanigans are stripped down to a simple race between the machine and the human. The cast are convincing enough, with surprisingly the big man himself coming out on top – possibly something to do with playing a character that’s completely unemotional, therefore not being required to emote. Having said that, Biehn has the best line, Reece's monologue ending with “...will not stop, ever, until you are dead” trumping “I’ll be back” and sending a genuine shiver down your spine, as both the viewer and Connor are confronted with the magnitude of her situation and the true nature of her hunter. Unfortunately Cameron favourite Bill Paxton takes an early bath in this one, and every film is poorer for losing Bill Paxton.

Cameron has a much lower budget to work with than he would become used to, but makes every cent count ensuring the film looks great, although it is getting on a bit now so the effects aren’t quite as dazzling. Having said that, seeing Arnie cutting himself up to perform maintenance on his arm and eye was an astonishing thing to see and even now has a certain charm. The same cannot be said for Connor's dreadful 80s hair.
Sarah Connor: on a mission to terminate Miles Dyson.

Every beat is masterfully filmed, from the murder of Sarah's friends and the tense nightclub shootout filled with great uses of slow motion, to the iconic slaughter set in a police station, with the big man blowing cops apart left, right and centre while cutting an image that burned itself indelibly into cinema history. Although with Cameron, remarkably-filmed action is pretty much a given. Considering that this climaxes with a truck chase and the killing machine chasing our heroine through a hydraulic press despite already being blown apart, it’s truly saying something that next to the sequel the first film feels a little low key.

T2: Judgement Day pushed the boundaries of filming action beyond any previously imagined limits. Even by today’s standards, it is utterly breathless, and as mental as Connor has become. After failing in the Sarah Connor assassination attempt, Skynet tries again, sending a new and improved T-1000 terminator (Robert Patrick) to take out a teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong). It has a lighter tone, evidenced by Arnie’s comedic arrival, but the dramatic beats are still hard hitting; Sarah’s molestation at the hands of a perverted orderly and the vision of a playground full of children exposed to a nuclear blast among the most stay-with-you disturbing. It is packed full of fabulously choreographed insanity – pick almost any scene – Sarah coming face to face with a terminator again takes your breath away, the ridiculous truck chase with a motorcycle-riding Arnie reloading his shotgun one handed, the attempted assassination of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the fact that the T-1000 is liquid frickin’ metal, the helicopter chase, the explosion at Cyberdyne Systems seemingly big enough to blow up the world, it just keeps coming. As before, the cast are fine, but the standout here is Linda Hamilton; militant, hard as nails, and batshit insane. She is a one-woman force of nature, with the potential to be as iconic as Ripley ever was. The terminator being tamed by the young John Connor worked okay mostly, but the ending goes too far – “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do” and the thumbs up are cringe-worthy, but considering the sheer tour de force that has preceded it, you find yourself easily forgiving Cameron.
The most impressive new feature of the T-X: doing stunts
in those heels.
Like all great and successful movie franchises, they always make too many. Terminator 3 is unnecessary, underwhelming and a bit of a shame. The ‘sending a killer and a protector back through time’ is a plot device stretched too thin, and the action, while fine taken on its own merits (the truck chase (hey, a theme!) being a stand out), is limp beside the phenomenal T2. John Connor is in his 20s (Nick Stahl) and has to stop judgement day being triggered by another new terminator. Kristanna Loken as the T-X, able to control other machines is nowhere near as effective as Schwarzenegger's original killer or Patrick's T-1000, and you'll always watch it wondering why you’re not watching one of the first two. Still, it does score points for the surprisingly downbeat ending – I’m pretty sure this was the first time a big summer action tent-pole blockbuster ended with the nuclear annihilation of the world - a bold and brave move. It’s just a shame the movie that comes before is a bit, well, dull.

John Connor doesn't have much to smile about.
And years later, like a once-heavyweight champion coming back for one more shot at the title, the series is back with Terminator Salvation. Written by the same guys who penned Terminator 3 and directed by the man who made the Charlie's Angels films (so you know straight away you're in for a treat). The nightmarish visions that formed some of the most memorable parts of the first two films become the setting for the fourth. Mankind is on the brink, barely held together by an ineffective resistance. Christian Bale (stay out of his eye-line) is now John Connor, a soldier of the resistance, using his mother’s recordings to help fight back any way he can. Sam Worthington is Marcus Wright, a man without a memory, at least not after the point he remembers being executed, struggling to make sense of anything. A young Kyle Reece (Anton Yelchin) is struggling to survive, listening in awe to Connor’s radio broadcasts. Following that set up the plot is very predictable - the three of them go through some action beats before the mystery of Marcus is revealed (can you guess?  Yawn.) and they come together to rescue a now captured Reece and give those evil machines what for.

It’s not quite as bad as all that – some of the set pieces are remarkable (the in-cockpit helicopter crash, the gas station blown up by the massive building-sized terminator), and the new machines are a nice touch, but it just doesn’t come close to the first two, and I doubt it’s anything like Cameron would have come up with had he decided to make more. He didn’t, and to be honest, they shouldn’t have either.

Score:
The Terminator: 9/10
Terminator 2: Judgement Day: 9/10
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: 5/10
Terminator Salvation: 5/10

As you might expect, the first two films are treasured in most reviews, such as this review of The Terminator written by Bill and this one of T2, by John. Parts three and four get a rather more mixed reaction - Brandon in my opinion rather over-rates the third film and Peter at The Guardian is perhaps a little harsh on Salvation.