Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION

** SPOILERS **

The Living Manifestation of Destiny

Nine years ago, I disavowed Mission: Impossible. Today, I believe in Ethan Hunt more than ever. Tom Cruise returns for his fifth Mission in 19 years as the ageless, indomitable secret agent Ethan Hunt in writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, a slam-bang, globe-trotting tour de force about friendship, loyalty, and the elevation of Ethan Hunt to mythical status. Like Roger Moore's James Bond in the 1970s, Ethan Hunt is the most famous secret agent in the world, a rock star among spies. "There are stories," a fetching young female agent says to the legend himself upon meeting him. Young lady, you wouldn't believe the half of it, Hunt's wry smile seems to say. By now, Ethan Hunt simply can't be stopped, and McQuarrie's Mission smartly weaves Hunt's forehead-slapping invincibility into the narrative. This is never more apparent when one of Hunt's greatest detractors, Alec Baldwin, the new head of the CIA who seeks to dismantle the Impossible Missions Force, is forced to sing Hunt's praises to the British Prime Minister whom Hunt is about to abduct: "He's a gambler... He can become anyone. He's immune to all counter measures. He is the living manifestation of Destiny." Even 007 can't claim such laurels.

Hunt, of course, doesn't quite see himself as others see him. Or if he does, he's simply too modest to say. There are times when it seems like he forces himself to be the superhero everyone believes him to be, in spite of himself. Once again, Ethan is reunited with his IMF besties, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner, all of whom he gave Ethan's Special IMF Besties iPhones to at the conclusion of the previous Mission, Ghost Protocol. (Paula Patton, who received the fourth Bestie iPhone, is never mentioned.) All three of Ethan's besties spend much of Rogue Nation debating Ethan's motives and even his sanity at times - Ethan has never quite been so obsessed and occasionally unhinged as he is in Rogue Nation - but one thing they never question is Ethan's ability. Ethan can do anything; Pegg is so certain of it he doesn't for a moment believe Ethan can't hold his breath for over three minutes to perform an "impossible" mission inside a water tank. "Difficult, yeah, but not impossible." Ethan's closest allies see him as an action figure that can weather any abuse, to Ethan's chagrin. But he still does it all unquestioningly. After nearly drowning and being resuscitated, Ethan is never quite as endearing as he is all punch drunk but still not hesitating for a second to engage in a car chase and motorcycle chase. Unlike Bond or Jason Bourne, who primarily work solo, Ethan is reliant on his team, and looks out for them. When he recruits Pegg into his schemes and tries to give him an out after things go FUBAR, Pegg rejects the very idea of abandoning Ethan on the sole basis of his unwavering friendship. Ethan is genuinely touched. 

In Rogue Nation, Ethan and the IMF are once more disavowed and on the hunt (pun unintended) for the Syndicate, which was introduced in the closing seconds of Ghost Protocol. The Syndicate, led by thin-lipped British mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are a covert black ops terrorist organization, "a rogue nation, an anti-IMF." (We get it. Easy on the sell job, fellas.)  The CIA believes the Syndicate are a figment of Ethan's imagination, but the IMF know better, because the IMF always knows better. Rogue Nation weaves in recent tragedies like missing Malaysian flights and nuclear meltdowns and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Syndicate. They're always one step ahead of Ethan Hunt, which drives Ethan as crazy as we've ever seen him. A direct sequel to Ghost Protocol referencing the nuclear missile attack on San Francisco the IMF foiled, Rogue Nation also pleasantly calls back to previous Missions, with a blatant flaunting of a rabbit's foot and Baldwin referring to Ethan's theft of the NOC list in the original Mission as occurring in his first year in the CIA. Rogue Nation also introduces the most formidable and intriguing female character in franchise history, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a show-stealing, ass-kicking disavowed British Secret Service agent who alternates from Syndicate operative to Ethan's ally. There's never really a question who's side she's ultimately on, and it takes a tremendous contortion of logic why the Syndicate never kills her considering how consistently she betrays them in favor of Ethan, but Ferguson is magnetic, more than a match for Ethan Hunt.

McQuarrie delivers the awesome international spectacle Mission: Impossible demands, from a bravura opening airplane heist in Belarus, with Cruise seemingly hanging onto the outside of a cargo plane taking off by his fingertips, a virtuoso, acrobatic action set piece involving three assassins in an opera in Vienna, to a relentless, next-level motorcycle chase in Casablanca outdoing the tremendous car chase in McQuarrie and Cruise's previous collaboration, Jack Reacher. Surprisingly, instead of upping the ante by going balls-out in the London-based third act, McQuarrie takes the opposite tack, going smaller and making the resolution of Rogue Nation about the characters and the personal vendetta between Ethan Hunt and Solomon Lane, literally concluding in a glass box. Ethan doesn't even climb and jump off of any ridiculously tall buildings in this movie! On the line isn't so much the fate of the world as the fates of Pegg, Ethan's best friend, and Ferguson, a woman caught in an impossible situation. More than anything, loyalty and friendship drives Ethan Hunt in Rogue Nation. When it comes to his friends, Ethan Hunt admirably proves nothing is impossible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Southpaw

SOUTHPAW

** SPOILERS **

"The Great White Dope" reads a headline about Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, who lost his fortune, his career, and the care of his young daughter when his wife (Rachel McAdams) was (accidentally?) murdered. That headline is on point. Southpaw is a grizzled rehash of the first five Rocky movies, centering around Gyllenhaal's fighter, a Hell's Kitchen, NY-born orphan who came up through the system and became a world champion, despite his general lack of intelligence and crippling anger management issues. Billy Hope even fights like Rocky Balboa, leading with his face until he gets mad and knocks out his opponents in the late rounds of his fights. In an incident similar to how Mr. T provoked the death of Mickey in Rocky III, a cocky challenger insults Gyllenhaal's manhood and implies carnal relations with his wife. In the ensuing melee that involves of both of their entourages, a gun goes off and McAdams is shot to death. Stricken with grief and wholly unprepared to meet his parental and financial obligations, Gyllenhaal behaves erratically and violently until child services interferes, taking custody of his daughter while Gyllenhaal loses all of his worldly possessions to auction. It couldn't have happened to a dumber guy.

The main thrust of Southpaw is Gyllenhaal's fumbling attempts to regain custody of his daughter who (rightly) blames him for the death of her mother. Going back to basics, Gyllenhaal gets a custodial job at a low rent gym owned by Forest Whitaker, who only trains amateur fighters, mainly disadvantaged kids, to keep them off the streets. Against his better judgment, Whitaker agrees to train Gyllenhaal for an eventual comeback, teaching him the revolutionary art of defense, i.e. not spending ten rounds getting punched in the face. Of course, the big redemption fight happens, thanks to fight promoter 50 Cent, playing a low key version of Don King. The movie can't decide if he's a villain or not. The movie doesn't even decide how Gyllenhaal lost his fortune; the script is unsure whether Gyllenhaal's accountant stole all his money. If the script doesn't know, then we certainly don't know. Speaking of the script, all conversation between Gyllenhaal and his family ends with them calling each other "baby," as if Final Draft just kept adding "baby" at the end of all the dialogue and the writer was too lazy to delete it, baby. Southpaw also seems to feel all the philosophical conversations about boxing between Rocky, Mickey, and Apollo Creed were too eloquent, because Southpaw careens in the opposite direction. When Whitaker tries to explain his boxing philosophy and life lessons to Gyllenhaal, "incoherent" doesn't quite cover it.

To his credit, Gyllenhaal physically transforms into a credible fighter, and he holds Southpaw together by sheer force of his talent, even as the movie stumbles around him like a punch drunk fighter on the ropes. Whitaker also does interesting stuff with his mentor character, trying to find and convey a depth that's lacking on the page. The most interesting moments of Southpaw are Gyllenhaal's fleeting relationship with a young black kid at the gym; their few scenes together are more compelling than all of Gyllenhaal's attempts to reconnect with his daughter. Director Antoine Fuqua brings his A-game to the fight scenes, which are as visceral, bloody, and rousing as boxing movies get. Southpaw wants us to believe, among other things, that light heavyweight boxing is the hottest ticket in sports, and that Gyllenhaal can lose his title, his wife, his fortune, his daughter, go into poverty, and mount a comeback where he regains his championship and his family in the span of a few weeks. It sure was a tough financial quarter for Billy "The Great" Hope, but he came through it all right. Until the next time he loses his shit and loses everything as a result, baby.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Justice League: Gods and Monsters

JUSTICE LEAGUE: GODS AND MONSTERS

** SPOILERS **

The DC Comics Multiverse more often than not allows for alternate realities that can be more interesting than the mainstream "core" DC Universe. Justice League: Gods and Monsters, a brand new tale created for DC Animation (with spin off comics based on this universe, naturally), introduces us to one such alternate reality, and it's got a lot of potential. In Gods and Monsters, the Justice League is boiled down to the so-called Trinity: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, in a wholly original, violent, and fascinating take on the three icons unlike any we've seen before. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Princess Diana, where for art thou? Apparently, in this reality, nowhere, that's where. It's not a bad thing at all.

Superman (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) is the son of Lara and General Zod(!), who imbued his DNA into the Kryptonian birthing matrix instead of Jor-El just before the Last Son of Krypton was rocketed to Earth. The baby Superman was found not by the Kents but by a Mexican migrant couple and was raised with the name Hernan Guerra. Dios mio! The Batman (voiced by Michael C. Hall) is Kirk Langstrom, who is a half-man/half-bat villain named Man-Bat (naturally) in the main DC Universe, but here, he is our Dark Knight -- and he's a vampire, to boot! Wonder Woman (voiced by Tamara Taylor) is a princess of sorts, but she's no Amazon. She is Bekka from New Genesis, a power sword-wielding granddaughter of Highfather of the New Gods (voiced by Richard Chamberlain!). Best of all, this Wonder Woman's history is a cracking good Game of Thrones-style spin on the New Gods: She was engaged to Darkseid's son Orion as a consummation of a peace treaty between Apokolips and New Genesis, but it was all a sinister plot by a surprisingly sinister Highfather to "Red Wedding" Darkseid and his forces -- and it worked! 

Gods and Monsters limits the superheroes to the Trinity and doesn't explain how they came together as the Justice League, but all three get plenty of exploration of their origins. We literally watch Superman born from a zygote into an infant child on his journey to Earth. Batman's origin plays an integral part in the main plot: Langstrom went to college with Will Magnus, the robotics genius who creates the Metal Men in the main DC Universe. In Gods and Monsters, Magnus is a nanotech expert (with deep seeded feelings of jealousy and inadequacy). Magnus' nanotech seemed to hold the key to Langstrom's life's work, but ingesting his own bat serum transformed Langstrom into a vampire. How this vampire became the crimefighting Batman is a tale for another day. 

If you're a DC nerd really into the various brilliant and mad scientists of the DC Universe (guilty), God and Monsters is a veritable Who's Who: Victor Fries, Ray Palmer, John Henry Irons, Thaddeus Sivana, Kimiyo Hoshi, T.O. Morrow, Michael Holt, Silas Stone, and more -- they're all here, but not in their superheroic or villainous guises. Something called "Project Fair Play" is the impetus for the main plot, in which the Justice League is framed for the systematic murders of these scientists by robot assassins, all of whom were proteges of the mysterious Lex Luthor (voiced by Jason Isaacs). There are greater issues at play as well: the ultra violent nature of the Justice League is constantly under public scrutiny in the media, mainly by fearless reporter Lois Lane (voiced by Paget Brewster), who is far from Superman's biggest fan. The League's official status as government operatives turns sour with these murders, and they become public enemies under orders from President Amanda Waller (Penny Johnson Jerald). 

Justice League: Gods and Monsters takes DC Animation's "not necessarily, if at all, for kids" style and pushes it even further. With the League basically remorseless killing machines, the violence level is higher than ever. Wholesale slaughter is the League's M.O., but their mysterious enemies are even worse. Gods and Monsters doesn't shy away from depicting animals and even children gruesomely massacred. And yet, when all is said and done, Gods and Monsters takes on a surprisingly hopeful tone as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the most powerful and feared beings on Earth, choose to take up a position against killing in the future. It turns out gods and monsters can learn, grow, and change in Gods and Monsters. Maybe that S on Superman's belt buckle does mean "hope" after all.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man

ANT-MAN

** SPOILERS **

Leave it to Marvel to mix one of their least well-known C-list superheroes with a heist film in the vein of Ocean's Eleven and the Thomas Crown Affair and knock it out of the park. Ant-Man continues Marvel Studios' incredible track record. Ant-Man is a jolly superhero tome about an underdog who gains the use of some of the strangest superpowers in the Marvel Universe. The Ant-Man is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, getting full use of his real life superpower: likeability), a down on his luck cat burglar who spent three years in prison for stealing from an evil corporation stomping on the little guy. Despite his Masters degree in electrical engineering, there's not much of a future for an ex-con, not even at Baskin-Robbins. Lang yearns to be reunited with his young daughter, and the chance to be all that he could be falls into his lap when he burgles the San Francisco home of an eccentric old billionaire scientist. Inside the scientist's vault, Lang finds not money or jewels but an "old motorcycle suit" and helmet from the 1970s. Donning the suit in the bathroom of his flophouse hotel room, Lang experiences probably the best kind of shrinkage a guy could hope for.

The billionaire owner of the Ant-Man suit is Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant inventor who once worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. decades ago but quit when he saw S.H.I.E.L.D. looking to exploit his greatest creation, the Pym Particles, which can breach the space between atoms and allow people to shrink, even to a subatomic level. S.H.I.E.L.D., and later his protege the devious Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), intend to weaponize the Pym Particles to create an army of shrinking super soldiers. Pym engineers the events of Lang burgling his home as a test; he intends Lang to become the new Ant-Man and "break into [Cross' company] and steal a bunch of shit." Ant-Man does a hell of a job convincing the viewer that this seemingly silly shrinking tech is indeed incredibly dangerous and that an army of tiny soldiers and saboteurs you can't see coming could destabilize world peace if it falls into the wrong hands. When wearing the Ant-Man suit, Pym in the 1970s and Lang today actually has awesome power: the super strength of an ant where a 200 lb man even in ant-size can strike a normal sized human with the impact of a bullet. Plus, the Ant-Man has the means to communicate with ants, making these industrious, loyal creatures do his bidding. Ant-Man manages to convince that ants are actually kind of cool. 

Along with being a fun heist film, Ant-Man is about fathers and daughters. Mirroring Lang's quest to earn his daughter's love, Pym must reconnect with his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who spies on Cross for him while nursing a lifelong resentment over the death of her mother Janet Van Dyne. Hope takes a withering view of Lang as her father's new protege, and it naturally takes the characters a lot longer than it takes the audience to realize that Hope and Lang are meant for each other. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come from Lang interjecting himself in the Pym-Van Dyne father daughter drama, especially when he ruins their big moment of tearful reconciliation. For his part, Lang is a quick learner, be it learning how to take a punch from Hope or mirroring her cool flying head scissors takedown moves when he's in battle as the Ant-Man. Darren Cross harbors his own deep seeded anger at Pym for years of lying to him about the existence of the Ant-Man tech. Cross developed his own imperfect shrinking suit, the Yellowjacket, but use of the tech without Pym's special helmet can cause the wearer to go insane. Go insane Cross does; he's quick to murder by zapping enemies into a tiny pile of goo with his shrink ray, and he can't wait to try to kill Lang's daughter when Lang foils his scheme to sell the Yellowjacket tech to Hydra.

Speaking of Hydra, Ant-Man is steeped in Marvel Universe lore, but elegantly juggles its connections to previous Marvel films while still barreling full speed ahead as a tidy superhero adventure. When we first meet Hank Pym, it's in 1989, and we gasp in astonishment at a de-aged Michael Douglas meeting with Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) at the under-construction Triskelion, the S.H.I.E.L.D. fortress we saw destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Pym couldn't have known, but perhaps suspected, that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big wigs (Martin Donovan) was secretly a member of Hydra, as we learn many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were. The big secret Pym kept from Hope all these years was that her mother was his partner in shrinkage, the Wasp, who saved the world from a nuclear missile by shrinking to the sub-atomic level and becoming lost forever in "the quantum field." And of course, the Avengers loom large over Ant-Man, with Lang not only outright suggesting calling the Avengers but actually winning a patented Marvel superhero brawl with an Avenger, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and "not dying." We learn during the closing credits that the Avengers will come calling for the Ant-Man's help in the upcoming Civil War sooner than later.

More than anything, Ant-Man is just entertainingly weird and fun. Director Peyton Reed, helming a screenplay by former director Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish and rewritten by Rudd and Adam McKay, keeps the action energetic and the goofy laughs coming. Lang's heists are accompanied by his three scene stealing goofball partners, Michael Pena (who kills in every moment he opens his mouth), David Dastmalcian, and T.I. Ant-Man manages to make Lang's flying ant, who he named "Anthony," the most lovable pet in the Marvel Universe. In Ant-Man, superhero vs. super villain battles taking place inside a briefcase inside a plummeting helicopter while an iPhone 6 plays "Plainsong" by The Cure or a climactic showdown on a Thomas The Tank Engine train set are perfectly normal. Ant-Man inherits the wit and zip of the very first Iron Man movie, melding the more bizarre aspects of last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy, and brings it all down to Earth, in a teeny, tiny fashion. As the finale of Marvel's cinematic Phase 2, it's a definitive statement of the successful Marvel formula, that Marvel can take one of the strangest things in their comics and make a crowd-pleasing superhero movie. Things can only get bigger for Ant-Man in Phase 3 if and when he assembles with the Avengers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED?

** SPOILERS **

In 1998, no one at Warner Brothers Pictures really believed a man could fly. Writer-director Jon Schnepp's documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? investigates the events that lead to the kiboshing of one of superhero cinema's most intriguing and legendary movies that was never made: Superman Lives, which was to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. On a personal note, as someone who dreaded an idiosyncratic Tim Burton interpretation of Superman and was always glad Superman Lives never got off the ground, I went into watching The Death of Superman Lives under the impression this would be a mockumentary celebrating the folly of the creative types who were en route to making a Super debacle that ultimately was foiled by the wise executives at Warner Bros. This was the impression I held of this failed project for over a decade. Instead, Schnepp's documentary earnestly explores the creative vision behind Superman Lives (Schnepp announces on the outset he'd been honestly intrigued by Superman Lives from the minute he'd heard about it) and argues effectively that Superman Lives' demise, however the movie might have turned out, was ultimately everyone's loss.

The Death of Superman Lives takes us on the Way Back Machine to the go-go '90's: following the failure of the final Christopher Reeve Superman movie in 1987 and the blockbuster successes of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the best-selling 1992 DC Comics series "The Death of Superman," Warner Bros. sought to use the comics' story to revitalize the Superman movie franchise. Enter controversial Batman producer Jon Peters, who rather brilliantly acquired the rights to produce a Superman movie, and writer-director-fanboy Kevin Smith. Smith would go on to a very successful public speaking career reiterating the stories of his involvement in Superman Lives: how he crafted a comic geek's dream "fan fiction"-like screenplay with cameos from Batman and the appearance of a "Thanagarian snare beast" (nee a giant spider) to appease the creative demands of Peters. When director Burton came on board to helm the project, Smith and his screenplay were the first to go, as Burton brought in his own people, including writer Wesley Strick and later writer Dan Gilroy, to execute his uniquely personal vision for Superman: that the Man of Steel was an alien outsider riddled by anxiety and questions about his abilities and his place in the world. All the creatives involved seemed to be excited that Nicolas Cage, then a recent Best Actor Oscar-winner for Leaving Las Vegas, was the unlikely choice cast as Superman, citing that the controversial casting of Michael Keaton as Batman in 1988 worked wonders, hence lightning would strike twice again with weary audiences. (All are also glad that the Internet and today's culture of instant online hating was nascent or non-existent at the time.)

Schnepp manages to interview all the major players involved with Superman Lives, save Cage, who appears in archival interviews and fascinating footage of costume fittings where he wears the various Super suits as he and Burton verbally work out their takes on the Superman and Clark Kent characters. Schnepp secured plenty of quality time interviewing producer Peters and director Burton, who are both eccentric in their own unique ways. Whatever fault one finds with their visions for Superman, Burton and Peters, however, were both passionate champions of this project and both were ultimately hurt and terribly disappointed when the movie didn't go forward after millions were spent on pre-production. Talks of casting lead to some interesting discrepancies: Chris Rock was a unanimous choice to play Jimmy Olsen, Burton favored Christopher Walken over Jim Carrey as Brainiac, and Burton openly scoffed at Peters' preference of Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane. Some terrific animation gives us the sense of what key scenes might have looked like, including a Lois and Clark date and a confrontation between Superman and the villain Brainiac's rather cool-looking Skull Ship in space. 

With no actors to interview, Schnepp instead spends a great deal of time speaking to the visual effects artists and wizards who came on board early in the process to design the look, props, and costumes of Superman Lives. The running time of the documentary is padded with a terrific amount of detail regarding how the various Superman suits were designed and constructed, what Krypton would have looked like visually, and an intriguing character called "K," which would have served as a major character in the movie: a guardian of sorts for Cage's Superman that would become his new, very 90's-style, sleek black Superman suit after Superman is resurrected. Late in the documentary come the money visuals: concept art of Superman battling Doomsday. It's fascinating to see the multiple versions of Doomsday and also Brainiac the various artists designed, taking their cues from Burton's "crude," in his own words, early drawings. For some reason, spiders were simply vitally, vitally important in Superman Lives. (Later, to Kevin Smith's chagrin, Peters would indeed get his giant spider in the box office failure Wild Wild West.) 

What killed Superman Lives? Ultimately, the conclusion reached, it was money and fear. Warner Bros. was mired in a disastrous slate of bombs at that point in the late 90s (including expensive stinkers like Sphere). Tim Burton's Superman Lives, with its way, way out there visual aesthetics and a ballooning $300-million price tag, was a frightening proposition to the executives at Warner Bros. To their credit, Burton and Peters seemed to have fought hard to keep their green light. (This dispels another personal belief I held for some reason, that Burton didn't really want to make Superman Lives. Turns out he still, to this day, desires to see his Superman vision on the big screen, even if he never has quite figured Superman out.) One could argue that the team Peters and Burton assembled didn't really understand Superman; unlike today, where verisimilitude to the comic book source material has proven to reap dividends of money and public acclaim, in the late 1990's, it was a source of pride to not be associated with comic books and to try to "reinvent" comic book superheroes for the big screen. However, by spending quality time with the talented and ultimately well-meaning filmmakers who spent months designing Superman Lives, The Death of Superman Lives' greatest superpower turns out to be changing the mind of someone like me, who was long glad Superman Lives never saw the light of day. Now, I wish Superman Lives got made. As many in the documentary said, it might have been an epic failure, but it could have been an interesting failure. It could also have been a Superman for all seasons.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Terminator Genisys

TERMINATOR GENISYS

** SPOILERS **

For a weird but still good time at the movies, call Kyle, Sarah and Pops. Since 1991, every Terminator sequel has jockeyed for the title of "Third Best Terminator Movie" and all have fallen short... until now. We finally have a definitive Third Best Terminator Movie. Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor's Terminator Genisys rejiggers the Terminator franchise the way the title rejiggers the spelling of the word "genesis," with explosive, entertaining, and bewildering results. 

In Genisys, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as the T-800 model Terminator we know and love, proudly declaring that he's "old, not obsolete." The Future War circa 2029 we know and dread takes place as we were told 30 plus years ago: the human resistance lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) does indeed defeat the murderous machine hordes of Skynet, the artificial intelligence that used our own nuclear arsenal to wipe out humanity on August 29, 1997 - Judgment Day. In desperation, Skynet uses a time machine to send a Terminator (model T-800) back in time to May 12, 1984. Its target: Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke, no relation to Jason Clarke) a 19 year old waitress unaware she is destined to give birth to the leader of the resistance and savior of humanity. John Connor in turn sends back his most trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), whom Connor knows is destined to do the nasty-in-the-past-y with Sarah and become his father. But as Kyle ascends into the time bubble, he sees Skynet, in the body of a Terminator, attack John Connor and things go cuckoo bananas.

At first a loving homage to James Cameron's seminal original Terminator movie rife with attention to detail and callbacks galore (really only missing young Bill Paxton as a punk at the Griffith Observatory), Genisys suddenly takes what Bugs Bunny would call a left turn at Albuquerque and piles on head-spinning time paradoxes and robot-on-robot action. When the Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles, suddenly an older model of that same T-800 is there waiting to terminate it. So is Sarah Connor, not the helpless damsel we recall, but a hardened soldier. Also, there are liquid metal, shape shifting T-1000s in 1984, a full 7 years before they're supposed to arrive in the past in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which now apparently happened in a different reality altogether. Sarah and "Pops" (her pet name for her old Terminator) are quick to explain to a terribly confused Kyle (and audience) that Sarah's older Terminator arrived to save her as a 9 year old from being terminated by a T-1000 in 1973 (complete with a flashback shot of the Terminator carrying young Sarah reminiscent of Arnold carrying young Alyssa Milano in Commando). The past Kyle was told about and we remember from the movies James Cameron helmed no longer exists. As explained by Pops in his Exposition Mode, we are now in an alternate timeline.

It only gets weirder from there. Sarah and Pops conveniently having a time machine of their own allows them to travel to the future, not just theirs but ours, to 2017. There, an even older Pops, is waiting for them, weapons stockpiled for the final assault on Cyberdyne, now a San Francisco-based tech company owned by Miles Bennett Dyson (Courtney B. Vance, no relation to Jai Courtney) and his son. Cyberdyne is about to launch a worldwide networked artificial intelligence called Genisys. While in the time bubble traveling to 1984, Kyle began having flashbacks of a happy, non-apocalyptic childhood he never had, including the phrase "Genisys is Skynet." Indeed, much of the character interplay between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in Genisys is them withholding key plot points from the first Terminator movie from each other (mainly that Kyle dies at the end). Kyle and Sarah take turns confusing and stunning each other by reciting platitudes and dialogue the other couldn't have known or uttered in timelines that no longer exist but they still remember. (James Cameron's classic line "The future is not set. There is no fate but that which we make for ourselves." is just one; Genisys manufactures a few more.) While all that's going on, Kyle and Pops take turns not trusting the other, with Pops telling some blatant dick jokes about Kyle, since he and Sarah (to her chagrin) are well aware Kyle is meant to impregnate Sarah to give birth to John.

When the current Terminator braintrust mapped out the future of the franchise, at some point they decided the problem with the Terminator saga is John Connor. Genisys' solution is to make Connor the bad guy. Not just bad, but the worst guy of all. Gone for good is the plucky, hopeful boy Edward Furlong played in Terminator 2. In Genisys, Jason Clarke's John Connor has become that which Connor has always fought against; a new kind of Terminator, "not man, not machine, but more." Basically, Connor can shapeshift like a T-1000 and he "absolutely will not stop until machines rule the Earth." Making Connor the villain wipes out the one constant hope the Terminator story always built towards no matter how many times cyborgs traveled to the past to try to terminate his parents. It creates a wide open horizon of possibilities, which is both interesting and a little daunting. No matter what, Skynet is meant to be built and the threat of Judgment Day is just pushed back. Genisys doesn't make it clear that John Connor is now meant to be born. It's easy to forget the first Terminator movie was R-rated and included a torrid sex scene between Kyle and Sarah. Genisys strips the sex, even the possibility of it, right out of the story. Clarke and Courtney's Sarah and Kyle may not ever get together, especially now having faced and battled the monster Skynet turned their future son into.

It does becomes clear, as 1984 Sarah and apocalyptic future-survivor Kyle come face to face with our current society of smart phones, the Internet, social media and the like, that our heroes are actually ill-equipped to tackle the threat of Skynet. All they know how to do is "blow Skynet up" with bombs -- analog solutions to digital problems (the post credits tag indicates they didn't succeed). Luckily, they still have Pops, who spends Genisys being pounded and stripped to his metal endoskeleton while trying to protect his human friends. Pops at long last receives a well-deserved upgrade into a T-1000 after his climactic battle with John Connor, because there is no fate for a future Terminator franchise with just Kyle Reese and Sarah but without Arnold. (Strangely, Pops decided to continue looking like an older Arnold Schwarzenegger despite now being able to shapeshift.) Genisys concludes and sets up the ongoing saga with the confounding math of 1 Terminator, 1 Sarah Connor, 2 Kyle Reeses, 0 John Connors, and the possibility of 1 Skynet down the line.

Amidst the explosions occurring on a regular basis backed by the familiar and welcome Terminator theme music, there are pleasures to be had in Genisys. J.K. Simmons delights in a slightly undercooked role as a cop who encountered Kyle in 1984 Los Angeles, witnessed the T-1000 first hand, and spent 30 years as a huge Terminator fanboy. Behind his stoic facade and occasionally ghastly grins, Arnold seems especially pleased to be back as the Terminator. Although Sarah proudly declares early on that Pops "no longer kills humans," making Pops more of a general handyman who happens to also fight any robots that drop by, Arnold can't hide what a ball he he's having stepping into the skin of his greatest role. Director Taylor seemed more comfortable helming spot-on recreations of scenes from James Cameron's Terminator movies than staging his own memorable action scenes with all the CGI at his disposal or delivering a sensible through-line for the plot, but he coaxed a witty chemistry between Emilia Clarke, Courtney, and Arnold. They are an odd trio indeed - together again for the first time - but they remain all that stand in the way between us and robots crunching our skulls at their feet. Arnold, Clarke and Courtney can keep on fighting killer robots together as far as I'm concerned. Genisys never answered the question it raised of who sent Pops back to 1973 and who sent all those T-1000s to the past. "That data was erased," Pops states. "We will throw enough stuff at you to confuse you that you won't remember that plot point until you are in your car driving home." Oh well, there's always next Judgment Day.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Paige: The Jon Snow of WWE


** WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 5 OF GAME OF THRONES **

Watching the current plight of Paige in the WWE Divas division, one can draw some parallels to the trials and tragedy Jon Snow faced in the just-ended season 5 of Game of Thrones. On Game of Thrones, Jon Snow, one of the few truly heroic characters on the show and newly appointed Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, tried to do what his brothers in the Watch considered unthinkable: unite the Night's Watch with their arch enemies of a thousand years, the Wildlings, in the wake of the impending invasion by an unstoppable foe: the White Walkers. With the best of intentions, Snow tried his best, and he failed. Worse, the Night's Watch betrayed him and ended his watch brutally; in fact, the coup de grace, was delivered by Olly, Snow's steward.

In WWE, Paige, herself a raven-haired Brit who could be described accurately as "a pretty crow" like Snow often is, finds herself in a similar predicament. Since the retirement of Paige's frenemy but best partner AJ Lee, the Divas division has been completely controlled by the Bella Twins, Brie Bella and the reigning Divas Champion Nikki Bella. They're the White Walkers of this scenario, the unstoppable foe. Try as Paige has, regardless of her talent or desire, she has simply been unable to overcome the numbers and trickery of the Bellas and their Twin Magic.

This past week on RAW, Paige did something similar to what Jon Snow tried on episode 8 of Game of Thrones, "Hardhome": she tried to unite the other Divas to join her against the Bellas.

Like Jon Snow when he traveled to Hardhome north of the Wall to plead his case to the Wildlings, Paige faced ingrained hostility, mistrust, and disrespect. Like Jon Snow, despite a logical rationale and the best of intentions, Paige failed.




And like Jon Snow, who immediately faced the overwhelming onslaught of the White Walkers and lost a devastating battle, Paige immediately battled both Bella Twins on RAW. The two Bellas defeated the lone Paige. 

And just tonight on Smackdown, Paige, facing Brie Bella one-on-one, was defeated once again when she was betrayed by "her Olly" Alicia Fox, who as we've seen on Total Divas, is actually one of Paige's best friends.


Poor Paige deserves better. Just like poor Jon Snow deserved better. Luckily, Paige can live to fight another day. She can learn from Jon Snow's example and with luck (and maybe some help from someone or somewhere) find a way to defeat the Bellas once and for all and regain the Divas Championship*. Then no one will be able to say, "You know nothing, Paige."

*To be clear: I'm a huge fan of both Paige and the Bellas.

Followers