With two blockbusters in a single week — Terminator Salvation, alias T4, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — the summer sequels would appear to have leaped over the prequels. (Siding with, to recap the blockbusters to date, Angels and Demons against Star Trek and X-Men Origins.) On closer inspection, the time-travel convolutions of T4 tend to confuse the issue. True, its 2003 prologue, wherein a Death Row inmate agrees to donate his body to a “noble” cause, picks up more or less from where T3 left off, or anyway from where it came out, but the future year in which the rest of the action is set — 2018 — is not so far into the future as the 2029 from which the cyborg assassin emigrated in the 1984 original. Or to say it differently, yes, the embryo in the original has here become a full-grown man, but the begetter is still eleven years younger than at the point of conception. Either way, sequel or prequel, the newest addition to the franchise (with a new director, McG, the Charlie’s Angels man) is decidedly unoriginal, about as exciting as the grand opening of another Starbucks.
If, as an exercise in nostalgia, you can recollect the delectable feeling at the end of T1 (as it was not yet known) — a storm on the horizon, a bun in the oven — you would be hard put to look upon its three successors as anything but a redundancy, a prosaic elucidation of the better-left-unsaid, an undermining of the original concept, an overplaying of the dealt hand, an extraneous climax overextended into an anticlimax, nothing to do with aesthetics, only economics. That probably won’t trouble the army of thrill-seekers, immune to nostalgia, who can content themselves with thunderous sound effects, video-game action, music-video atmospherics (desaturated color, clouds of smoke, sheets of rain, showers of sparks), comic-book dialogue (“Point a gun at someone, you better be ready to pull the trigger”), and a hodgepodge of robots more “primitive” in design, but not in FX technology, than the Arnold Schwarzenegger model: a towering Transformer-bot, roadworthy motorcycle-bots, amphibious alligator-bots, airborne Stealth-bots, metal skeleton-bots. (And although we get no actual Arnold, who these days has his hands full with the California budget, we get a computer-generated facsimile, more reliable than plastic surgery as an antidote to age.)
The knotty storyline — the now thirty-something John Connor (savior or false prophet?) has to rescue his captive father from the clutches of the machines in order that he, the father, may later sire the son who is currently older than the father — hardly bears thinking about. Nor will it help sort things out that Anton Yelchin, just about the cutest guy in movies, looks nothing like Michael Biehn of T1 and that Christian Bale looks nothing like Edward Furlong of T2 or Nick Stahl of T3. Bale, the ostensible star, starts out at such a pitch of intensity that there’s nowhere for him to go but into stridency. And he comes off poorly alongside the stoical Sam Worthington as the conflicted half-human and half-robot whom we met in the Death Row prologue as all-human and yet inhuman. This little-known Australian actor has doubtless given his career a big boost, and we can cordially look forward to seeing him again. Preferably not in another Terminator installment.
The second Night at the Museum, directed again by Shawn Levy, likewise offers an economic as opposed to aesthetic experience. A chance to get in on the second floor of a booming franchise. A cash cow. A safe bet. More of the same. The locale shifts from N.Y. to D.C., which opens the door to some new characters and creatures (e.g., Albert Einstein bobblehead dolls, which, when brought to life in the gift shop, inconceivably contain Einstein’s actual brain), along with some old ones packed up at the Natural History Museum for storage in the Smithsonian archives, while the human hero, Ben Stiller, backtracks from a lucrative career as an infomercial huckster (the glow-in-the-dark flashlight) to reclaim his true niche as a night watchman. Of the new, Amy Adams as a dashing Amelia Earhart and Hank Azaria as a lisping nefarious pharaoh — or more accurately, animated wax figures of these — earn high marks for indefatigable professionalism in hopeless circumstances. Kind of like playing for the Padres.
In Summer Hours, three French siblings scattered around the globe (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, in order of prominence on screen) must dispose of the valuable family estate, including a couple of Corots and Redons, after the sudden death of their seventy-five-year-old mother (Edith Scob, still elegant even if a long way from the dainty angel of prime Franju, Eyes without a Face, Judex, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thomas the Imposter). The filmmaker, Olivier Assayas, is a critical darling in some quarters, not so dear in mine, but not persona non grata either. Although the development may be talky and slow, it approximates the flow of life, and it noses around a substantial subject and theme, the severing of roots, the dissipation of family, the detachment from tradition. The emotional payoff, not just the final scene but at least the final three, while gentle and muted, is distinctly felt. It can still be felt the following day.
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Duly noted: FilmOut San Diego, the eleventh annual LGBT film festival, runs three full days of features and shorts at the Birch North Park Theater, Friday the 29th through Sunday the 31st, with an opening-night kickoff of Rob Williams’s Make the Yuletide Gay on Thursday the 28th. For the complete schedule, make your way to filmoutsandiego.com.
And the Reading Gaslamp in mid-May inaugurated something it calls “Cinema 21” (not to be confused with the demolished Mann theater in Mission Valley), indicating the availability of alcoholic beverages to persons of age as a supplement to the usual snack-bar menu. How very Continental! The availability for starters was to be restricted to Saturday evenings, but a single complaint to Alcoholic Beverage Control by the proverbial “anonymous party” (or maybe better, anonymous party-pooper) has put the plan on temporary hold. Civilization only advances slowly.