Martin McDonagh on the Making of ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh on the set of Seven Psychopaths

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012 when this screening took place.

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh dropped by Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood for a Q&A about his movie “Seven Psychopaths.” It features a terrific ensemble cast which includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Olga Kurylenko, and it follows the exploits of a writer who is desperate to finish his screenplay even as his friends inadvertently get him involved in the kidnapping of a gangster’s beloved dog.

“Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s follow up to his brilliant movie “In Bruges,” but it turns out he wrote the script for it after he finished writing “In Bruges.” He explained he made “In Bruges” first because the script for “Seven Psychopaths” had a “canvas that was way too big for a first-time filmmaker.” This movie certainly has a lot of layers as it deals with multiple characters and storylines, and many of the characters have more to reveal about themselves than we realize at first glance.

The evening’s moderator said she once heard how McDonagh had admired Christopher Walken as a child, and McDonagh said he felt we all did as much as we respected Harry Dean Stanton (who has a cameo in the movie) or Tom Waits. It also turns out this was not the first time McDonagh had worked with Walken on a project.

Martin McDonagh: I did a play in New York with Christopher and Sam Rockwell about three years ago (“A Behanding in Spokane”), so I had that in. It was a dream come true to have Chris on set and doing his stuff.

McDonagh recalled the atmosphere on the set of “Seven Psychopaths” as being “strangely a lot of fun,” and the audience at Arclight Hollywood could certainly sense all the fun this cast of actors had. When asked if there was any improvisation, he said everyone pretty much stuck to the screenplay despite some exceptions.

MD: There were some little bits at the end of the shootout sequence in the graveyard, but everything else was on the page. The actors were so good that they made every line seem like they had come up with it on the spot. I think that’s the secret of truthful acting; to make it seem like it’s all improvised.

The dog playing Bonny was a Shih Tzu who is also named Bonny in real life, and McDonagh was great in describing how this one got cast.

MD: There were four or five Shih Tzus that came in to the casting couch. Bonny seemed more kind of edgy and the others were all ribbons and shampooed. Bonny felt like early De Niro.

McDonagh also made it clear if he knew the possibility of all those puns which made it into the movie’s advertisements like “they won’t take any Shih Tzu,” he would have gone with a German Shepherd instead. But it came down to deciding what would be the most incongruous dog for Harrelson’s gangster character to have, and Shih Tzus are so irresistibly cute. Bonny was apparently very sweet to work with, and the cast, especially Walken, spoiled the dog like crazy.

The main character played by Farrell is a writer named Marty Faranan, and Faranan is McDonagh’s middle name. However, aside from the middle name and the alcoholism, McDonagh claimed there are no connections between him and this character. McDonagh did however say what Marty wanted to accomplish with his script is the same thing he wanted to accomplish with this movie.

MD: The speech that Marty has at the start about wanting to make a film called “Seven Psychopaths” but still wanting it to be about love and peace is kind of where I was coming from. It’s really about friendship and for searching for something beyond movies about guys with guns. At the same time, it was a crazy guys with guns violent movie.

One of the best things about “Seven Psychopaths” is how it satirizes action movies and the clichés which continue to overrun them. The moderator talked of how there are certain conventions in them which seem to imply how you cannot kill a dog but that you can kill a woman, and McDonagh freely admitted he is constantly rankled by them as much he is from the notes he gets from studio executives.

MD: When you have a character putting a gun to a dog’s head you get a thousand notes about that, but not one about shooting someone in the stomach. Not one.

In terms of his cinematic influences, McDonagh cited the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terence Malick as being major ones on his cinematic work. When it comes to “Seven Psychopaths” however, he admitted Peckinpah was definitely the bigger influence. Other filmmakers whom he looks up to include Akira Kurosawa who made the classic “Seven Samurai,” Martin Scorsese whose film “Mean Streets” was a big influence on this film, Preston Sturges who made screwball comedies like “The Lady Eve,” and Billy Wilder whose darkly comic and satirical films he admires. Clearly, McDonagh is more influenced by old school filmmaking than he is by current mainstream entertainment

Martin McDonagh has more than earned his place among the greatest and most inspired playwrights working today, and his work as a filmmaker keeps getting better and better. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very clever movie which deserves a big audience, and it was great to see him take the time to come down to Arclight Hollywood to talk about its making.

Advertisements

Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Playing a Recovering Alcoholic in ‘Smashed’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She charmed us in “Death Proof,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” but now Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets the most complex role of her character to date in “Smashed.” In the movie she plays Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher who is also a raging alcoholic. After one night where she even goes as far as to smoke crack, Kate finds she needs to turn her life around really quick. Her path to sobriety is not an easy one as it makes her question the relationships in her life, especially the one she has with her husband Charlie (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) which appears to revolve around their mutual love of getting drunk.

Winstead did a lot to prepare for this role as she visited many Alcoholic Anonymous group meetings and talked to the people there. She was also aided by one of the movie’s writers and a co-producer who were in recovery themselves, and they made her feel like she was not coming into this project dishonestly. Hearing Winstead talk about her research ends up illustrating the diversity of one particular city in California.

“L.A. is a great place to do it, because it’s such a big city, and every neighborhood is very specific as far as the different types of people who live there,” Winstead said. “So, every meeting I went to was completely different. I went to one that was like six people, and they were all men in their 60’s, totally working class, totally not L.A. Then I went to one in West Hollywood that was a lot of industry people, and I went to a huge women’s meeting where everyone was hugging and laughing. And it was great just seeing people share and talk about themselves and talking about their darkest moments in front of bunch of people and having it be totally accepted. It was an honor for me to be a part of that and to see that and it was a big first step for me into realizing how much I related to their struggle, and how much of a universal struggle it is.”

Among the most challenging scenes for Winstead comes when her character is drunk. Now playing drunk may look easy for an actor to do, but it is actually quite the opposite. The trick is to make the act of drunkenness believable to the audience you are presenting it to, but it can be easily overdone to where you can look utterly foolish. Winstead admitted she had never played drunk onscreen before, and she was terrified that she would look terrible doing it. She and James Ponsoldt (the director of “Smashed”) ended up consulting an acting coach in order to get it down right.

“Together we found this coach named Ivana Chubbuck who has this book called ‘The Power of the Actor’ and she has a chapter specifically dedicated to playing drunk,” Winstead said. “We sat in a couple of classes, and we did one of the scenes in her class as well, so we used her method a lot for that. And that was really helpful because we just didn’t want it to feel like acting. How do you not act drunk, but not really be drunk? That’s a difficult thing to pull off.”

One thing which makes “Smashed” really unique in the annals of addiction movies is how Kate is not the usual face of onscreen addiction. Winstead described Kate as being a full character and one she could really relate to despite her ongoing problems.

“What was great about it was that this was one of the only roles that I have ever read in a script where the female lead character is such a full person. You get to see so many sides of her personality,” Winstead said. “For me, I can be all of those types of people. I have a lot of different traits to my personality, depending on who I’m around, and what the dynamic in the situation is. So, to get to play a character where you get to see every single shade of who she is, is very rare. That was really exciting to me. So, I always felt as though I was her, just different sides of her.”

What also aided Winstead in this role was how Ponsoldt made the actors feel very free on set to where it almost seems like they are not even working with a script. Winstead made clear how much of what we see in “Smashed” is in fact scripted, but there were some unscripted moments which did make it into the final cut.

“I think part of the reason it feels so real is that it felt like the camera was always rolling,” Winstead said. “We were always in character and we were always going off script and back on and off and back on. So, it never felt like: ‘Cut! We’re ourselves now.’ It didn’t have that break: ‘We’re going to go back to our trailer, see you later.’ It was never like that. We were always on set, we were always in character, and we were always working toward making it authentic.”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead admits she has struggled long and hard to find roles which are as good as the one she plays in “Smashed.” Coming out of it, she wonders if she will ever find a role like this ever again, and this is very understandable considering what a highly competitive arena show business is. Her performance as Kate Hannah, however, earned her serious Oscar buzz ever since the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and it is highly unlikely people will forget Winstead’s revelatory turn once they have left the theater.

SOURCES:

Kevin Jagernauth, “‘Smashed’ Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead On How She Learned To Play Drunk, The Emotional Rollercoaster Of The Role & More,” Indiewire, October 11, 2012.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mary Elizabeth Winstead on ‘Smashed,’” We Got This Covered, October 9, 2012.

Christopher Rosen, “Mary Elizabeth Winstead, ‘Smashed’ Star, On The Lack Of Female Roles In Hollywood & ‘Die Hard 5,’” Huffington Post, October 10, 2012.

The Grindhouse Film Festival Pays Tribute to Russ Meyer and Tura Satana

Faster Pussycat Kill Kill movie poster

Back in May of 2011, the Grindhouse Film Festival paid tribute to director Russ Meyer and the late actress Tura Satana, both of whom are best known for having worked together on the exploitation classic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.” This film screened at New Beverly Cinema along with “The Doll Squad” which Tura co-starred in, and in attendance were two actresses from the 1965 cult film: Haji and Susan Bernard. Both said if Satana were still with us, she would have been very pleased by the large turnout.

Satana starred as Varla, the leader of a trio of thrill-seeking go-go dancers. Her contribution to the 1965 movie was she added karate scenes and even choreographed them with the stunt director. Satana died in February of 2011 from heart failure, and Haji burst into tears confessing just how much she misses her and her pot roast. Bernard said Satana had a very big heart. She was 72 when she passed away, but we came out of this screening feeling like she left us way too soon.

In talking about Meyer, both ladies described him as a “good hearted man” who always visited his mother on Christmas Day. They described his editing and photography on his movies as being consistently top notch, and he always worked with the same five men crew which became a “tight knit” family. Bernard also remarked how he had a natural instinct about actors in what they could do without direction. It got to where he went up to the cast and said, “Here’s your scripts, do your thing.”

Bernard recalled her big driving scene where she got into the truck and of how she told Russ she had never drove a stick shift before. To this, Meyer replied, “You’ll figure it out.”

Both actresses made it very clear Meyer always took care of the girls and made sure they were well rested and that he ensured they did not have sex during filming as he always wanted them to look horny onscreen. Working with Meyer also made them both understand what he stood for: freedom of expression, anti-prejudice, equal rights for everyone and, along with the late Hugh Hefner anti-censorship.

Haji further remarked if you went into Meyer’s movies a complete wimp, you came out a toughened and changed person. He had the cast sleeping in tents out in the desert with scorpions, snakes and tarantulas threatening them when they least expected it. After doing one film with Meyer, Haji said she came out if it “rugged,” but they remained very good friends all the way up to his death.

“Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” is considered the cinematic origin of girl power and female empowerment. Unlike the endless number of films which came afterwards, it had no cursing and no nudity. Haji even said you could take your kids to see it. Whether or not taking kids to this movie is a good idea, there is no doubt of how much influence it has had on movies and popular culture. This cult classic still draws quite the crowd for good reason: women have the upper hand against those against them, and they are never ever weak. When you think about it, this was not always the case with movies back in the 1960’s.

‘The Blob’ 1988 Movie and Blu-ray Review

The-Blob-blu-ray-shout-factory-cover

The following article was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

If you are a fan of 1980’s horror films, you know Shout Factory/Scream Factory gives them the proper treatment each and every single time as they are like the Criterion Collection for horror fans.  They go above and beyond the call of duty with their commitment to the audio and visual aspects of cult classic horror films, and they supply their Blu-rays with tons of special features.  They understand you want to know as much as possible about your favorite horror films, and they have done it once again with their collector’s edition of “The Blob,” a remake of the original film which starred Steve McQueen back in 1958.

With this version of “The Blob,” it shows the advancements made at the time in gore and special effects. I don’t think it is fair to necessarily compare the two films since they were released thirty-years apart.   One thing they both have in common is they are very enjoyable to watch.  I own both of them.  I have the Criterion Collection version of the 1958 film, and I am thrilled to add the remake to my collection from Scream Factory/Shout Factory.  The gore is also taken up a notch here, and it is sticky, gooey, bloody and completely over the top in the best possible way.

“The Blob” is, of course, a film about a disgusting life-form which comes to a town by the name of Arborville.  It is your normal town with a football team, local diner, police and cheerleaders, some of which you would just love to date.   Shawnee Smith plays Meg Penny, the local cheerleader who is your girl-next-door type.  Her father works at the pharmacy, and she is going on a date with football star Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch Jr.) when they notice something terrible happening all around them. The character blamed for all of this is Brian Flagg who is played by Kevin Dillon, brother of Matt Dillon, and from “Entourage.”  He is the bad boy with a motorcycle, and he has a total kickass 80’s haircut. The police can’t wait to put the blame on him, but he is completely and totally innocent.

The blob will eat and destroy anything that gets in its way. You never know when it is going to appear or when it will strike.  It is part of a political experiment being overseen by shady scientists with their own agenda, and they are not concerned about the people.  The blob started by attaching itself to an old man’s arm, and from there the devastation only increased.  It is self-aware enough to have a running time of 95 minutes so the pace is right on point, the kills are interesting and disgusting, and it never feels boring.

Major props go out to Shawnee Smith as she gives a truly committed performance which should remind you of her work as Amanda from the “Saw” franchise.  Kevin Dillon is solid as well because he knows how to make this character likable but with an edge. He is someone you would want on your side when the blob hits the fan, if you catch my drift.  The effects are also terrific considering the time period this film was released in. The only time the green screen is very, very noticeable is near the end, but even then, it is campy fun.

This was my first time seeing the remake of “The Blob,” and I love both movies.  It is great when they get a second home on Blu-ray as well as the proper treatment courtesy of Shout/Scream Factory. There is also just the right amount of humor when the moment calls for it as well.  Fun fact: The screenplay was co-written by Frank Darabont of “The Green Mile,” “The Walking Dead,” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” This flick is able to gross you out while keeping you entertained and laughing as well, and this is not an easy accomplishment to pull off.  However, everyone stepped up their game on this film, and it shows in the final product.  I cannot recommend this movie enough if you have not seen it in the past, or if you have seen it and want to own it in this tremendous format.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Special Features:

Audio commentary with director Chuck Russell, special effects artist Tony Gardner and cinematographer Mark Irwin, moderated by filmmaker Joe Lynch

Audio commentary with actress Shawnee Smith

“It Fell From the Sky!” – an interview with director Chuck Russell

“We Have Work to Do” – an interview with actor Jeffrey DeMunn

“Minding the Dinner” – an interview with actress Candy Clark

“They Call Me Mellow Purple” – an interview with actor Donovan Leitch Jr.

“Try to Scream!” – an interview with actor Bill Moseley

“Shot Him!” – an interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin

“The Incredible Melting Man” – an interview with special effects artist Tony Gardner

“Monster Math” – an interview with special effects supervisor Christopher Gilman

“Haddonfield to Arborville” – an interview with production designer Craig Stearns

“The Secret of the Ooze” – an interview with mechanical designer Mark Setrakian

I Want that Organism Alive! – an interview with Blob mechanic Peter Abrahamson

“Gardner’s Grue Crew” – behind-the-scenes footage of Tony Gardner and his team

Audio Commentary with director Chuck Russell, moderated by film producer Ryan Turek

Theatrical Trailers

TV Spot

Still Gallery

Blu-Ray Info: “The Blob (1988)” is released on a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray from Shout Factory/Scream Factory.  The film is rated R and has a running time of 95 minutes.

Audio Info: The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.  For a film that is thirty-one years old, it sounds terrific.  All of the dialogue between the actors is easy to understand without any issues whatsoever.  When the gory scenes come up, they also have a real sizzle to them as well. Subtitles are in English.

Video Info: The 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is out of this world.  There are no signs of grain, dust, or dirt when watching this film.  It is incredibly clear and vibrant on screen.

Should You Buy It?

With so many special features on this wildly fun flick, it’s a no brainer when it comes to buying “The Blob (1988).”  I wish I had seen this movie sooner, but to be honest, I didn’t even know there was a remake of the original until recently.  I’m glad there is and that Shout/Scream Factory is there to make it available for purchase for hardcore horror fans such as myself and so many others out there.   The film is a gory ride which has a very satisfying and fun conclusion. You always get your money’s worth and then some with Shout Factory/Scream Factory titles, so you will not be disappointed when you pick this one up.  As a matter of fact, it would make a great double feature with the original flick.

 

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

‘Terminator Genisys’ is, at the Very Least, an Interesting Reboot

Terminator Genisys movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written back in 2015.

I walked into this fifth “Terminator” movie with mixed emotions. The series started in 1984 and has shown an amazing amount of stamina considering we are getting this latest sequel 31 years later. Still, nothing has been quite the same since James Cameron departed the franchise following “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and I say this even though I liked “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which he had nothing to do with. But then came “Terminator Salvation” which had me wondering where the salvation was among other things like an interesting story or a strong villain.

When it comes to action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has always been about giving moviegoers what he believes they want, so it seems only natural that he would return to this long running franchise even after a 12-year absence with “Terminator Genisys.” On one hand this particular sequel had me missing a lot of the franchise’s original stars like Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, composer Brad Fiedel, Edward Furlong and the R rating these movies usually get (this one is PG-13). But once I got past my misgivings, I found “Terminator Genisys” to be an entertaining summer blockbuster even if it is nowhere as good as the first two movies in the franchise.

The movie begins with John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading his merry band of troops in a battle to destroy Skynet’s main defense grid and that pesky time machine they have hidden underground. But of course, one of the T-800 cyborgs has already been sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back in time and stop the cyborg from eliminating Sarah, and we are put right back into the events of the first movie.

Once the T-800 and Kyle Reese arrive in 1984, we get a largely faithful reconstruction of the first few minutes of “The Terminator.” But things change very quickly as the T-800 is suddenly confronted by another T-800 which had been sent back even further in time to protect Sarah Connor and who takes out the original cyborg with extreme prejudice. As for Kyle, he arrives in 1984 like he did before but is met by a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) who differs greatly from the average LAPD officer. Once he is inside the convenience store getting clothes and shoes, he gets saved by Sarah Connor who comes crashing in. From there, everything we know about “The Terminator” franchise is turned upside down as our heroic characters find themselves on a different path than the one they traveled down previously.

“Terminator Genisys” is essentially a reboot along the lines of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” as it plays around with the timeline we grew up on and works around it to give us something which is, quite thankfully, not the usual prequel. Just when I thought I knew where this movie was going, it took a different turn which I did not see coming. Of course, this also results in the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier having a few plot holes which will not survive logical scrutiny. Then again, the movie whisks by so quickly to where I didn’t care too much about logistics.

Now on one hand, Schwarzenegger has played the Terminator many times to the point where it seems like he should have retired from this role long ago. Regardless, it is still great to see him back in his most famous role as it has provided him with a long and interesting career. In the first movie Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was the bad guy, in the second he was the good guy, in the third he was both, and he was barely in “Terminator Salvation” so let’s not even go there. In “Terminator Genisys,” he becomes the one thing we never thought he could be for Sarah Connor, a father figure to look up to.

The other thing “Terminator Genisys” wisely acknowledges is the fact Schwarzenegger is not a young man anymore. For once we have a T-800 which actually ages, and this was interesting to witness. While the character may be a cyborg, the skin covering his body ages as it would on any human being. We see him struggle as his body goes through a few malfunctions like his hand shaking uncontrollably or his knee going out on him. But as he points out throughout the movie, he is old but not obsolete.

A lot of people still see Schwarzenegger as a non-actor, but I still think he’s better than most people give him credit for. In “Terminator Genisys” he manages to imbue his character with a humanity a cyborg would not have by design, and he makes you feel for a character that is, in his own way, eager for Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor to get it on.

Emilia Clarke succeeds in making the role of Sarah Connor her own as she starts off the movie in furious ass-kicking mode and never lets up. Jai Courtney gives a good if not great performance as Kyle Reese, and Jason Clarke makes John Connor into the military leader I impatiently waited for him to become ever since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The movie also features a scene-stealing performance from Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as Detective O’Brien, a cop who has more history with these iconic characters than we realize at first. It is a shame, however, we do not see more of Simmons as the movie goes on.

Helming this “Terminator” sequel is Alan Taylor who previously directed “Thor: The Dark World” and also directed episodes of two of my favorite televisions shows, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.” I was surprised to see what a good job he did in making this sequel feel like a James Cameron movie in a way previous directors were unable to. Taylor is not able to wow us the way Cameron did and continues to do, but then again few filmmakers can. What he does do is keep the action moving at a steady pace and gives us the fun time we usually expect from a summer movie.

Regardless of how “Terminator Genisys” ends up doing at the box office, this is clearly not the last time we will see Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role. But a further sequel also means Skynet will find yet another way to strike back at the human resistance. It’s like Skynet is Wile E. Coyote and the Terminator is the Road Runner. Skynet keeps searching for new ways to achieve victory, but they are somehow effortlessly defeated by humans and a rogue T-800. Perhaps effortlessly is the wrong word to use in this case, but who wants Skynet to win? Well, I guess we will have to see what nefarious method they will use next because, like it or not, the Terminator will be back.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Terminator Salvation’ Does Not Have Much in the Way of Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009 when the movie was released.

Remember how a while back the number three proved to be an unlucky number for sequels? There was “Shrek The Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and, most infamously, “Spider-Man 3” all turning out to be tremendous disappointments. Those sequels left a sour taste in my mouth which still won’t go away (“Spider-Man 3” still eats away at me furiously).

In the summer of 2009, it looked like the fourth movie in a franchise was having the worst luck of all. We got “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the fourth X-Men film, landing with a resounding thud. Now, we have “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth in the Terminator series and the first without Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a franchise which surprisingly found enough energy and excitement for a third movie (I don’t care what anyone says, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was good), but now it has run out of gas. This sequel brings nothing new to the story of John Connor and his fight against Skynet, and I came out of it feeling unfulfilled which has never been the case with any “Terminator” movie before.

This is the first “Terminator” movie to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R, but this is no excuse. “Live Free or Die Hard” was the first in its series to get a PG-13 and proved to be even more exciting than anyone expected. The ratings for movies like these are pretty much irrelevant these days anyway, so why wonder if “Terminator Salvation” would have been better if it had been rated R?

In a time of endless sequels and prequels, “Terminator Salvation” is actually both. It starts off some time after the third movie and takes place in the year 2018, but it also comes before the events which set off James Cameron’s original. John Connor (“The Dark Knight’s” Christian Bale) has now fully accepted his role as the leader in the resistance against the machines, and he is no longer the whiny little bitch he was previously. I know this aspect really drove fans crazy in part three, so they will be relieved if and when they ever get around to seeing this movie.

It soon comes to John’s attention that Skynet is kidnapping humans, and one of them turns out to be Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his father who must later travel back in time to get all hot and heavy with Sarah Connor or else he will not exist. Also, John meets a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is not all he appears to be. Soon all these characters will come together to fight against the evil which is Skynet.

One of my big problems with “Terminator Salvation” is it does not have much of a plot. It feels like it exists more for the explosions being set off every other minute more than anything else. The “Terminator” movies were never just about action and special effects, but of great stories and memorable characters which gave these particular films a lot heart and soul which the genre does not always allow for. This fourth “Terminator” movie, however, does not have much of a pulse, and all the loud explosions become tiring after a while. You don’t feel for the characters in the way you should, and some of them get short shrift and are simply there to maintain some sort of continuity in the franchise’s timeline. Lord knows with movies like this and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” timelines are getting a hell of a workout!

Bale is the third actor, or fourth if you count the guy in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s” prologue) to play John Connor. While he remains one of the best actors working in movies today, his performance as this titular character is shockingly one-note. Part of the problem lies with the screenplay as it does not endow John with the humanity which makes him the great leader we are told he is. Bale plays him as stripped of all feeling, and much of his screen time is spent yelling and screaming at others. Watching him portray this iconic character as a real sour puss made me wonder why John Connor bothered fighting the machines in the first place.

But other actors in the movie end up getting even shorter shrift thanks to the underwritten screenplay. One of the chief victims is Bryce Dallas Howard who portrays Kathryn Brewster, a character previously portrayed by Claire Danes in “Terminator 3.” Howard is more or less reduced to walking around pregnant, working on patients and showing a constant face of worry whenever John goes off into battle. This is a character who should have been utilized more and could have provided this movie with its strongest female protagonist. Howard is a wonderful actress, but she is wasted in a movie which fails to make better use of her talents.

Another character who is ultimately given little to do is Blair Williams, a fighter pilot in the resistance played by Moon Bloodgood. She gets a memorable introduction, figures in some of the most exciting action scenes, and there is no denying she is infinitely sexy. But in the end, Blair basically exists for the sake of the other characters here, and realizing this makes things all the more frustrating.

Helena Bonham Carter’s character of Dr. Serena Kogan could have been a great villain, but she appears only at the very beginning and end of “Terminator Salvation.” A great actress in her own right, she is also wasted in a practically non-existent role. The machines by themselves do not make much of an antagonist here, and they need that one face which can hold them all at attention. Carter’s character could have been this, but it proves not to be the case.

The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris also contains a serious plot hole when compared to the other “Terminator” movies. At one point, the resistance discovers Skynet has a list of targets which includes John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the thing is Skynet could not have been aware of Kyle’s existence at this point in the series. If they were that aware of his existence, he would have never been able to go back in time to rescue Sarah Connor. The Terminator would have spotted Reese before he could have spotted the Terminator if this were the case. I know we are busy reinventing timelines right now, but this plot hole is completely inexcusable.

Even though John Connor appears to be main character, “Terminator Salvation” really belongs to Sam Worthington who plays Marcus Wright. Of everyone here, his character is the most fully realized as we follow Marcus on a road to redemption which takes him to a desolate future he could never have imagined. Worthington delves deeply into his character’s complex nature. Marcus Wright is not exactly a good guy, but he is not a bad guy either, and Worthington plays him as a character caught up in circumstances not of his own making. Without Worthington’s performance, “Terminator Salvation” could have been a lot worse.

One really good performance to be found here is from Anton Yelchin who plays a young Kyle Reese. Yelchin succeeds in giving Reese an energetic feel whic is almost completely different from what we have seen before with this character. Basically, we are seeing Kyle Reese in an unrefined state before he becomes the man who travels back in time to be John Connor’s daddy.

As for Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger, he is and is not in “Terminator Salvation.” With the help of CGI magic, his face was digitally placed on another actor’s buff body, and it makes it look like he never left the franchise. The audience I saw the movie with at Grauman’s Chinese applauded his appearance loudly, and it gave us all an ecstatic sense of joy to see him onscreen. However, it also proves my theory of how you can make a “Terminator” movie without James Cameron, but you cannot make one without Schwarzenegger.

And yet the most ironic thing about Schwarzenegger’s appearance is how it illustrates the movie’s biggest problem; It is missing a strong and intense sense of menace the other “Terminator” films benefited from. Realizing this makes “Terminator Salvation” an especially depressing experience as it is unable to replicate the success of its predecessors.

In all fairness, McG, best known for directing the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, does a good job with the action scenes, and the movie is never truly boring. He makes the action look like it was all done in one shot, and his handling of it is terrific. What he needs to keep in mind is how the characters need to be the ones driving the action and not the other way around. If you do not have strong characters to relate to, the special effects will not mean very much.

“Terminator Salvation” feels like it exists more for the special effects than for the story and its characters, and it makes this long running franchise feel like it has hit a dead end. Maybe it should have stopped after the third one. Considering the talent involved, I cannot help but feel like this could have been so much better. I came out of it feeling empty as if I had just seen something which went in and out of my system like a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This could have been a fresh reinvention of the franchise which thrives on imagination, but there is nothing new brought here. The Terminator will be back whether we like it or not, but will Hollywood’s thirst for franchises allow them the insight to give us a more effective follow-up? Well, here’s hoping.

* * out of * * * *

NOTE: “Terminator Salvation” was dedicated to Stan Winston, the special effects wizard who was an amazing creative force in movies like these. He will be missed.

‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ Shout Factory Blu-ray Review

Halloween III blu ray cover

It took several decades, but “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” did eventually get the special edition release it has long deserved. To date, it is the only movie in the “Halloween” franchise which does not feature Michael Myers, and it was lambasted by both critics and fans for the same reason upon its release in 1982. Over the years, however, this sequel has been re-evaluated by many and has since gained a strong cult following. This makes the special edition release of “Halloween III” all the more joyous as it comes with a plethora of extras which tell you everything you need to know about this movie’s making.

This special edition release of “Halloween III” came to us from the good folks at Shout Factory who are released it simultaneously with their equally special edition of “Halloween II.” To say this is the best digital edition ever of this particular film would be a severe understatement as “Halloween III” has never gotten much respect in any of its previous DVD incarnations. It is no surprise to say this movie has never looked and sounded this good since it first came out, and the colors look so vivid in this high definition release.

There are two audio commentaries on this disc, and the first one is with director Tommy Lee Wallace who is interviewed by “Icons of Fright’s” Rob G and “Horror Hound’s” Sean Clark. Wallace made it clear that his intention was not to make a slasher movie like the first two “Halloween” movies, but instead a “pod” movie in the vein of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He also talked about how the assassins dressed in suits represented his fear of the corporate world, and the movie proved to be something of a commentary on American consumerism (a theme which was expanded on in “They Live“).

The other commentary track is with actor Tom Atkins who plays Dr. Dan Challis, and he is interviewed by Michael Felsher. This proves to be the most entertaining of the two tracks and this is even though Atkins goes off topic a number of times. The actor reflects on working with Frank Sinatra on “The Detective,” meeting with John Carpenter and Shane Black, and he also talks extensively about William Peter Blatty’s movie “The Ninth Configuration” which apparently was a disaster. Whether he is talking about “Halloween III” or not, Atkins sounds like he’s having a blast and is endlessly entertaining throughout.

The behind the scenes documentary “Stand Alone: The Making of ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch” does a great job of looking at the movie’s creation, its initial failure when it opened, and of how it has gained a second life on video and DVD. Carpenter and the late Debra Hill made it clear they were steering clear of the mask-wearing psychopath from the previous films with this entry as they wanted to turn the franchise into a series of anthology films which dealt with the holiday of Halloween. Universal Pictures, however, did not do nearly enough to prepare audiences for this shift in direction.

Executive Producer Irwin Yablans makes it no secret in the documentary of how he thought it was a huge mistake to make a “Halloween” movie without Michael Myers in it, and his only satisfaction from this sequel came in the form of a nice paycheck. Others like Atkins, Stacey Nelkin who played Ellie and stunt coordinator Dick Warlock state they always thought the movie was good despite its initial reception.

Other special features include an episode of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” which has host Sean Clark touring the original shooting locations of “Halloween III” with Wallace, and it proves to be a lot of fun watching these two go down memory lane to see what these locations look like today. There’s also the movie’s teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, and there’s even a commercial for its debut on network television. The latter is proof of how the producers of this special edition left no stone unturned.

For years, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has been treated as if it were the bastard stepchild of the “Halloween” movie franchise, but with the passing of time it has been reassessed as a clever horror movie which stands on its own merits. The Shout Factory Blu-ray release was done with a lot of love and care, and this especially shows in the brilliant artwork on the cover illustrated by Nathan Thomas Milliner. After all these years it is worth revisiting this sequel, and that is even if it you have to endure the “Silver Shamrock” commercial jingle just one more time.

‘Halloween II’ Shout Factory Blu-ray Review

Halloween II Shout Factory blu ray cover

Universal Pictures first released 1981’s “Halloween II” on Blu-ray, and it was a release many horror fans had long awaited. But a year later, Shout Factory gave us another edition of this sequel, and it contained a lot of extras which were sorely missing from the Universal release: audio commentaries, a documentary on its making, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, trailers and TV spots among other goodies. This release also includes what the previous Universal Blu-ray controversially, and unforgivably, left out of the opening credits: “Moustapha Akkad Presents.”

Great care has been taken in this release’s packaging as it contains an excellent cover created by artist Nathan Thomas Milliner. This illustration has Michael Myers walking with that scalpel of his and crying tears of blood, Donald Pleasance holding out his hand which has Myers’ blood on it, and Jamie Lee Curtis looking as fierce as she did in the first “Halloween” movie. Looking at this cover should everyone an idea of just how big a cult following this sequel has more than 30 years after its theatrical release.

When comparing the look and sound of Shout Factory’s release to Universal’s, it’s hard to see much, if any, of a difference between them. Both versions make this sequel look better than it has in ages even though there is a bit of grain in certain scenes. But what this version does have which the Universal release lacked are two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks which include a 5.1 remix and a stereo mix.

This edition also contains two audio commentaries, and the first one is with “Halloween II’s” director Rick Rosenthal who is joined by actor Leo Rossi who played the chauvinistic ambulance driver Budd Scarlotti. Now this is an audio commentary fans have been dying to hear for the longest time, and Rosenthal provides a number of interesting tidbits throughout. Rossi himself is a delight as he talks about how Rosenthal went to bat for him when the late Debra Hill did not even want him in the movie. Hill was instead looking for Midwestern actors as the movie took place in Illinois, but Rosenthal managed to wear her down and get Rossi cast even though he looks and sounds like a New York native.

The other audio commentary is with stunt coordinator Dick Warlock who also played Michael Myers. Of the two commentary tracks, this one proved to be the most entertaining. There are a number of spots in the Rosenthal/Rossi where they both went silent and seemed unsure of what to say, but Warlock is full of details on how he went about playing Michael Myers and of how he handled some of the more dangerous stunts in the sequel.

We do also get a documentary entitled “The Nightmare Isn’t Over: The Making of ‘Halloween II'” which features interviews with Rosenthal, Warlock, Lance Guest, Rossi, Nancy Stephens and many others who were in front of or behind the camera. Like Rosenthal’s commentary, this is another special feature fans have been waiting for endlessly, and it does not disappoint. Some of the best anecdotes come from Rossi who explains how and why he changed the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” when he sang it, and Warlock makes clear why metal zippers do not belong on insulated clothing when you have been set on fire.

There is an additional DVD disc which contains the TV version of “Halloween II” on it, and this is the same version which has been shown on the A&E network. It features additional scenes not found in the theatrical cut as well as an alternate ending which shows one character to still be very much alive.

Other special features include an episode of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” which has host Sean Clark revisiting the original shooting locations of “Halloween II.” It’s surprising to see some of them still intact 30 years later. There’s also the theatrical trailer, television and radio spots, and deleted scenes with commentary from Rosenthal.

For those of you who still own the Universal Blu-ray release of “Halloween II,” you may not want to get rid of it just yet. The documentary “Terror in the Aisles” did not transfer over to the Shout Factory release, and it is unlikely you will see it available in its own release in the near future.

When Universal Pictures released its Blu-ray of “Halloween II,” it looked like we would never get a better version of it and had to be happy with what we got. Shout Factory, however, has given us a 2-disc set which has just about every special feature fans of this sequel could ever want, and it will certainly keep them busy for hours.

While it was ill-received upon its release in 1981 and considered a pale imitation of the original, “Halloween II” has long since gained a cult following as there are actually many things about it worth admiring. The look and feel of this sequel mirrors the original, and this was something the sequels which followed it could only dream of capturing.

‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Finds Another Chapter Worth Exploring

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster

What life has taught me is that doing a series finale to an acclaimed television show, let alone any television show, can be a truly thankless task. Wrapping up everything in a nice bow after years of following a group of characters throughout their lives typically leaves fans infinitely frustrated as they always expect something far more epic than they are given. Seriously, just ask the fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter,” as the utter disappointment from those finales remains never ending. With “Breaking Bad,” however, Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) criminal saga in a way which seemed perfect and totally fulfilling to everyone. No need to go any further with the story, right?

Well, Gilligan has continued to tap into the “Breaking Bad” well with “Better Call Saul” which started off as a prequel, but which may eventually turn into a sequel. And now Netflix has just dropped “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” which follows the show’s other main character, Jesse Pinkman, who is once again played by Aaron Paul. It turns out there is a bit more story than what we were led to believe, and while the end result might seem unnecessary to some, it results in an exciting motion picture which proves to be as good as the average “Breaking Bad” episode.

“El Camino” starts at the exact point “Breaking Bad” ended, with Jesse driving like hell in the car this movie takes its title from. While reveling in having escaped from his cruel and sadistic Neo-Nazi captors, he also realizes he is not out of the woods just yet as the police are looking for him here, there and everywhere. After meeting up with his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) to get some rest and gather his thoughts, he plots his next move which will hopefully lead him away from the long arm of the law.

The movie’s opening scene serves as a flashback to what is about to transpire, and it sets down the gauntlet Jesse wonders if he can pull off. During a friendly conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Jesse asks him where he will go once he gets out of the drug dealing business. Mike says he will go to Alaska as he sees it as “the final frontier” and a place where one can do anything. Jesse sees the appeal to Mike’s plan, but he also wonders if he can get out of the drug game and manage to make things right for those he has hurt or wronged. Mike tells him he can never make things right, but with this scene, Gilligan leaves us wondering if Jesse can do both as the look on his face shows a wealth of guilt which needs to be dealt with.

There have been countless movies which deal with characters who are caught up in the drug trade and looking to retire from it, or they are trying to atone for a brutal past which continues to hover over them despite their best efforts to go straight. The ones which quickly come to mind include “Carlito’s Way” and “Light Sleeper,” and those two had their main characters facing consequences which karma was not done with them yet. Gilligan plays around with our knowledge of these movies as we wonder if Jesse will ever be able to escape his crimes and atone for them in some way, or if karma has something in store for him which he cannot see coming.

Having a “Breaking Bad” movie centered around Jesse Pinkman feels more than appropriate as Paul has proven to be every bit the actor Cranston had been on the show. Jesse was not even supposed to survive the first season, and it is a testament to Paul’s portrayal that he made it all the way to the end as he gave us a character who was not necessarily a bad person, but one who had made foolish decisions in life and was now being thrust into devilish situations he never intended to get into. When we meet up with Jesse again in “El Camino,” he is a broken man, picking up the pieces of a life which has been forever shattered while living in fear of being apprehended by the law. And in today’s technologically driven society, one can only hide from the law for so long, if at all.

Paul is outstanding as always as he continues to take Jesse from one extreme to the next. His attempts to escape his scary predicament result in him enduring a tremendous level of unease and anxiety as he puts in Jesse’s shoes to where we feel as helpless as he does. The world is on his tail, and one can only be so lucky in escaping their past deeds. Paul is superb in portraying Jesse’s mindset without ever having to overdo it, and his performance is another example of an actor who inhabits their character instead of acting it.

Gilligan returns to write and direct “El Camino,” and he has melded it into a non-linear journey as it shifts from past to present. What results adds more weight to what we have already seen previously, and it makes Jesse’s predicament all the rawer and more unsettling. He also reminds you of how, when it comes to “Breaking Bad,” you need to expect the unexpected. The show was always about playing with your expectations to where you had no idea of what would come next. This movie keeps this tradition going as Jesse tries various methods to make it out of New Mexico in one piece even as some nasty road bumps are constantly being placed in his path.

Now I am writing this review of “El Camino” some time after its release, so many of you may already know about the various cameos by “Breaking Bad” characters who appear here. All the same, I will not spoil any of them for you as audiences deserve to discover them on their own. Still, I have to point out the one made by Robert Forster as the actor, in a sad and cruel irony, passed away on the day this movie was released. Forster returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner salesman who also relocates people who are running from the law and gives them new identities, and his performance is a reminder of what a priceless character actor he was. His inscrutable poker face shows how close Ed keeps his cards to his chest as he is not about to expose himself to outsiders. Forster was always great at taking every character he ever played and gave them an added dimension which may or may not have been in the screenplay. The same goes with his performance here as he shows Ed to have just a bit of vulnerability in him to give the character a conscience we were never sure he had.

Does Jesse escape his fate and make things right? Well, “El Camino” keeps you wondering about this all the way up to its closing credits, and it proves to be an engrossing ride for “Breaking Bad” fans who still get enough of what Gilligan has up in that head of his. While seeing Jesse burn rubber in the series finale as he escaped his imprisonment served as an excellent end for the character, there were still many who wondered where he could have gone from there. Whether or not you believe “El Camino” ranks alongside “Breaking Bad’s” best episodes, it is a thrilling ride which kept me engaged right to its final moments, and it is a fitting epilogue for a character who proved to be more complex than we initially realized.

* * * ½ out of * * * *