Escapist Friday: The Terminator (1984)

1 07 2011

The early ’80s were a great time for blockbuster movies, perhaps the best time. With films like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, adventure movies were unique, occasionally dark, and just an overall thrill-ride. “The Terminator” continued this tradition of iconic lines and frantic action in one of the most pure sci-fi films ever made. The plot revolves around three individuals: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a young women who will mother a future freedom-fighter; Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Cyborg sent back in time to kill her before that can happen; and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the man from the future attempting to protect her. After the premise is very effectively set up, James Cameron directs “The Terminator” into an elaborate chase movie with high speeds and big explosions. In a sense, “The Terminator” may be the best science-fiction movie ever made. No, it isn’t better than “Star Wars”, or “2001: A Space Odyssey” or a number of others judged on the qualities of the film medium, but it has everything you could possibly want from the genre including killer robots, time travel, lasers, a post-apocalyptic world, explosions, and a little nudity didn’t hurt either. In fact all we need are some spaceships before hitting science-fiction bingo. The best part about “The Terminator” may be how well it manages all those elements, it would be very easy to lose focus or overwhelm the viewer, yet Cameron manages them exceptionally well into a streamlined experience than starts at a more timid pace but evolves into a high-flying action film.

“Are you saying it’s from the future?”

Atmosphere is perhaps the most important part to any science fiction film. The Director is changing the reality that we know so he or she must make the world believable, and James Cameron does an excellent job in this regard. The film splits it’s setting between the apocalyptic future where Kyle Reese is from and a Sarah Connor’s modern day (~1984). The future is predictably grim; full of ruins, misty wasteland, and an ongoing war between robots and the last of man. While it is effective in it’s own right, the future really helps to compliment the present day scenes. Aside from a couple minutes at the beginning, the whole film takes place at night so when we switch between the future and the present it feels much more seamless. The grim atmosphere carries over to Sarah’s world making her situation feel all that more dire. Another bit of credit needs to be given for Cameron avoiding, for the most part, the distinct ’80’s tinge that seems to infect many movies of the decade. Let’s be honest, the ’80s were a very distinct period in recent cultural history and most movies set in the present day 1980’s have a distinct feel. Most of that has to do with the music including synth-heavy scores and pop song infused scenes. “The Terminator” does have these moments but they are constructed exceptionally well, injecting them realistically into scenes as part of plot devices. This hampers the ’80s stamp, which although I don’t mind that much, can really put a distinct mark on a movie that can even be distracting now that we’ve moved so far past that time in history.

“Come with me if you want to live”

At it’s core, “The Terminator” is an action movie. It is full of gunfights and chases and explosions. Although many of these scenes highlight the film, I also found several close combat scenes poorly edited. Given the restrictions of the technology at the time I can understand how hard some of these scenes would have been to produce, nevertheless they are far removed from today’s standards and look quite shoddy in retrospect. Luckily, that cannot be said of the rest of the film. The explosions and chases are top notch and creates enormous amounts of tension.

“The Terminator” can only be described as a classic. It has several iconic lines and scenes as well as spawning a huge franchise that, while it has fallen since the second movie, is a enormous achievement in the science-fiction genre. It also holds up very well today, almost 30 years later, making it still and incredibly enjoyable film.

Score: 89/100


Escapist Friday: The Princess Bride (1987)

3 06 2011

Oh the days when Rob Reiner was making quality movies, how I long for thee. Here he gives us the swashbuckling tale of revenge, romance, true love, betrayal, and a dozen other descriptors  I won’t bother to list. There are so many twists and turns in “The Princess Bride” that it would be unjust of me to describe what happens with a fraction of the luster the film provides. To put it simply it is about Buttercup (Robin Wright), who is set to marry a man she does not love when she becomes kidnapped by a trio of thieves. From there the movie takes off and what we are left with is one of the most re-watchable, quotable, and enjoyable movies ever made.

“You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” 

As far as films go, “The Princess Bride” may be one of the finest examples of escapism, primarily because it never lets the viewer forget it. This isn’t a movie about a fairy tale, but about a grandfather reading his grandson a fairy tale and we are just going along for the ride with them. Films explore so many different genres that this small touch allows the viewer to remind themselves that they are entering a story and produces a dreamy atmosphere. Another big reason why “The Princess Bride” is such an effective fantasy film is the ambiguity. Everything in the movie feels very grounded yet every so often something completely foreign will pop up reminding us where we are; from giant rats and killer eels, to the ridiculous names of places and a small hint of mysticism. “The Princess Bride” is definitely a fantasy film but occasionally seems very realistic at the same time allowing the viewer to really get involved in what is happening.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” 

With any film that gets by on its wit and charm, the actors must all be up for the task which clearly everyone is in “The Princess Bride”. The two standouts of the cast have to be Cary Elwes as Westley and Mandy Patinkin an Inigo Montoya. Elwes seems to channel Errol Flynn to produce the perfect leading man for this adventure story (he would, appropriately, play Robin Hood later on as well) while Patinkin brings the conviction that Inigo Montoya couldn’t be without. To cap it off, Rob Reiner brings in an outstanding group to flesh out the rest of the cast including: Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Peter Cook, Carol Kane, Andre the Giant, Mel Smith, Chris Sarandon, and Peter Falk.

“The Princess Bride” isn’t a perfect film, in fact it is a fairly conventional story in a basic world. What makes it so good is everything else including the script and cast which are both top notch making it one of the most enjoyable movies to watch for people of all ages.

Score 90/100

Escapist Friday: Orpheus (1950)

27 05 2011

“Orpheus”, or “Orphee” in the original French, is the influential Jean Cocteau’s surreal take on the Greek legend. This is the middle part of his Orphic trilogy, one spanning 30 years between first and last film, but this film deals with the most famous part of the myth. It goes: Orpheus, the famous musician and poet, has a wife, Eurydice, who passes away from a snake bite. To get her back he travels to the underworld and convinces Hades and Persephone to let her come back to the living world with him. Of course there is one stipulation, he cannot look upon her until they both reach the mortal world, so he walks ahead of her and once he reaches the upper world he turns to embrace her yet she is still on the other side making her disappear forever. Jean Cocteau follows the myth fairly closely yet sets it in then-modern Paris and makes few other changes such as inserting a different love story and starting the movie out more like a mystery.

When a director attempts to do a movie about a classical myth they usually have one of two option: set it entirely in the classical context, or modernize it with metaphorical supernatural elements. Jean Cocteau decides to take it right down the middle; he sets it in modern Paris yet keeps the names (Orpheus, Eurydice, etc) and all the supernatural aspects. Despite this, he actually changes all but the skeleton of the original tale. The biggest of which is that Orpheus ends up falling in love with Death which conflicts with his happily married life to Eurydice. The strongest part of “Orpheus” has to be the surreal nature of it all. By setting it in the modern world and keeping the supernatural aspects the viewer is treated to a true fantasy film which we do not expect. The film also uses many interesting tricks in editing and cinematography to help produce a surreal atmosphere which makes “Orpheus” work very well as an adventure film. As Orpheus is working out what is happening the viewer is also taken to along for the ride as the movie produces scenes which I don’t think we could really expect.

The weakest part of “Orpheus” I believe aren’t the changes, but the development of those changes. We see Orpheus as a loving husband; he has never cheated on his wife despite being so famous, and has a couple parts of dialogue where those feelings really come through. Cocteau does a very good job showing the allure of Death allowing the viewer to understand why Orpheus is attracted to her but we never see the internal struggle that Orpheus must go through during this time. The character Heurtebise also falls in love with Eurydice but nothing really comes of it. “Orpheus” has many powerful themes of love and loss but few of them are fully realized by the characters, we are told more of their feelings than we actually see on screen which a problem when much of the movie revolves around love.

Although “Orpheus” feels underdeveloped, it is still quite a treat to watch. When the supernatural sections arrive it feels like a series of surrealist paintings come to life. I wasn’t blown away by “Orpheus” and it might have been better if Cocteau just sticked to the original myth, but it is hard to deny that the parts that work do so wonderfully.

Score: 85/100

Escapist Friday: E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

13 05 2011

Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic is a timeless tale of friendship, love and loss. It stars Henry Thomas as Elliot, a young boy picked on by his brother and annoyed by his little sister. Although his family is close, he still finds himself very alone. Enter E.T., an alien who had been collecting plants on Earth before being stranded here when his ship was forced take off in escape of the government. E.T. runs off and stumbles his way into Elliot’s yard where they soon become friends but it isn’t too long before E.T. has to go home and Elliot has to come to terms with what is best for E.T. will mean the loss of the closest friend. “E.T.” is a children’s film but the humor is never childish, it deals with very real themes that those in adolescence go through, and has a very magical feel to it thanks to John Williams’ score.

“The man from the moon”

Many film-makers have the downfall of giving the audience too much information. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but when dealing with the science-fiction or fantasy genre, the bare minimum will always be best. It allows the viewers own imagination to ignite and not only form our own opinions on the matter, but gives the movie a greater air of mystery and wonder. Spielberg takes this stance in “E.T.” and doesn’t tell us everything about our titular alien. By plopping the audience right in the middle of things, we never really have time to get our bearings on E.T. and his species. Slowly pieces are revealed about him but we never know the major points like where he is exactly from or what he was exactly doing on Earth among other things. This unknown gives E.T the sense of wonder that a science-fiction movie needs, especially one set in the modern suburbs. Of course John Williams once again produces a masterful score which aids tremendously in this area as well.

“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”

What truly separates E.T as a classic instead of one of many children’s movies are the characters, stakes, and dynamics. One thing I believe about E.T. is that none of the characters go through any character arcs, they are all roughly the same people at the end of the film as the beginning but with just different traits showing. Elliot doesn’t go from being scared to being brave and his brother doesn’t go from hating his him to wanting to help him, the circumstances they are put it allow us to see the different sides of these already fleshed out characters. I find this very appropriate since children of their age never go through epiphanies or drastically change as they are still just figuring the world out themselves. The fact the characters are so real make the drama that much more significant, especially at the climax.

“E.T.” is an example that family movies can still be great movies. There is humor (not to mention a few good movie references), lots of heart, and the wonder to make it one of the best in the genre.

Score 88/100

Escapist Friday: The Seventh Seal (1957)

6 05 2011

Hard week? Well, time to escape for the weekend as every Friday I will be doing “Escapist Friday” where I’ll look at one Fantasy, Science-Fiction, or just any film outside this world. This week: The Seventh Seal.

Growing up, Ingmar Bergman would have been surrounded by religion for most of his youth considering that his father was a minister. This, understandingly, has greatly impacted his work as a director and The Seventh Seal is no exception. Unlike other films with heavy religious themes, The Seventh Seal investigates a question universal to everyone despite their beliefs… death. The movie follows Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), a Crusader on his way home after an arduous journey along with his squire, the lighthearted Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand). Antonius soon runs into the personification of death, played by Bengt Ekerot, who has come to claim his life. Antonius still has questions he wishes to have answered in life and is not ready to die, so naturally he challenges Death to a game of chess where if he wins Death agrees to allow him to live. Over the course of their game Antonius and Jons continue to make their way back to his castle and meet several people along the way. The Seventh Seal is a movie about the inevitable death that awaits us all and how one comes to terms with their beliefs in regards to that frightening thought.

“My body is ready, but I am not.”

The two major themes of The Seventh Seal involve death and faith. Antonius Block is a religious man but doubts have entered his mind after the Crusades and in the, quite literal, face of death he wants answers. In a conversation with a priest we see Antonius spells out his feelings, and I can only assume the feelings of many, he states that he wants knowledge, not faith or assumptions, just knowledge. He compares God to loving someone in the darkness, who will never come to him despite his cries. He later goes as far as asking a witch to meet the devil because if someone has knowledge of God it would be him. When considering the idea of a Godless world, he calls that life would be a “preposterous horror” if nothingness awaited them afterwards. Through his journey he and his companions consider the universal questions of religion, the purpose of life, and what lies beyond death. This makes the characters of The Seventh Seal very relatable and the way Bergman presents these questions make the journey enlightening for the viewer as well.

 “I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk.”

Just as Antonius Block attempts to remember this serene scene while in a duel with death, many of the scenes of The Seventh Seal are ingrained into the viewers memory. Ingmar Bergman uses great shots of wide scenery that is reminiscent in scope of the landscape paintings by impressionist artists. Up close, Bergman reminds me of another great director in Carl Theodor Dreyer. The way he frames the very distinct faces of his cast, Sydow’s especially, makes for several memorable images. They bring power and gravity to a topic which deserves every bit of it while also allowing for many humorous scenes to be effective as well. Quite simply what makes the The Seventh Seal so great is that not only is the topic thought provoking, but the imagery is powerful as well.

Ingmar Bergman has created an absolute classic and is as effective today as it was in 1957. It is easy to see why so many contemporary directors have been influenced by Bergman and this movie making it an essential view for any lover of cinema

Score: 99/100