Christian Bale is no match for the hardware in Terminator Salvation. Elsewhere, The Girlfriend Experience proves to be one of the best films of the year so far, and Kobe Bryant gets the Spike Lee treatment in Kobe Doin' Work.
I've yet to see a major blockbuster this summer that I've had strong feelings about one way or the other – sadly, the streak continues with Terminator Salvation. Hopefully Up will turn that around.
Terminator Salvation (Warner Bros.)
A movie with at least 1,000 things wrong with it – which include, in no order, the on-the-nose-dialogue, the overly-serious treatment of the we-are-losing-our-humanity! moralizing, and the casting of that wooden block of tough-guy bravado Common – Terminator Salvation should warrant little more than a sad shake of the head and a quick excretion from the memory banks. But I have to be honest: I came to enjoy its lunk-headed obviousness. Director McG has never had an interesting thing to say creatively, but the truth is, if he went by a normal name, his adrenalized, overkill style wouldn't seem nearly so stupid – it would just seem like every other second-tier action director's. And while the movie doesn't have a visual or thematic notion it hasn't swiped from somewhere else – The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, War of the Worlds, The Great Escape – the unapologetic nature of the thievery has its own charms. How are the performances? Secondary, like you'd expect – although I now understand completely why Christian Bale got caught flipping out on set. (Playing John Connor, the man is at the cusp of grizzled insanity from the word go.) Terminator Salvation is about big effects, big explosions, big hardware. I wouldn't call it big dumb fun because "fun" isn't the right complimentary adjective. Big dumb big is more like it.
The Girlfriend Experience (Magnolia Pictures)
Sasha Grey's notoriety works both for and against her with The Girlfriend Experience, her first "serious" role after years of being .... well, you know, a [whispers] porn star. On one level, casting her as a high-class call girl is a gimmick and a stunt – a way for Steven Soderbergh to sell his third quickie DV indie to an audience that might not care otherwise. (Lord knows they haven’t cared about his first two, Full Frontal and Bubble.) But that stunt casting also hurts Grey because, frankly, I don't think she's been given enough credit for the enormously accomplished performance she gives here. "She's just playing herself" is a particular favorite of the back-handed compliments I've heard about what she does in The Girlfriend Experience, although the comments tend to veer closer to the "boy, she seems pretty monotone" category, which you can get away with saying about a non-actor, whereas with a "real" actress that would be celebrated as a creative choice. Put simply, despite the many, many things Soderbergh does right with Girlfriend – which is his best film since his one-two-three punch of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven – it's Grey's movie. She pulls it all together, embodying Chelsea's friendly but distant relationship with her clients, her cold pragmatism about the nature of her work, and her hints of the scared little girl within the all-business exterior.
But she's just one of two gimmicks Soderbergh incorporates in this film – he wants you to think that he's selling a tawdry sex film. He’s not – instead, this is a dead-on examination of the eternal hustle you have to engage in to survive in America. What Chelsea does is "immoral," but, really, is it any worse than the behavior of some of her rich clients? Or the bankers and financial leaders whose unchecked greed caused the economic disaster that forms the anxious background of nearly every other scene? (The film is set in New York right before the 2008 presidential election, and it perfectly captures the gnawing worry that, seriously, the whole ship was about ready to go down.) Because Soderbergh is cold and brainy by nature, he does his patented time-shifting narrative tricks, but I don't think they've ever been utiltized better before – the uncertainty of where we are in the film works first as an intellectual mystery and second as an unbreakable mindset of having to find the next job, having to get ahead, having to keep moving. (The movie's structured not by time but by escalating anxiety.)
A friend said The Girlfriend Experience felt like a metaphor for surviving as an artist, but I think it works just as well as a metaphor for capitalism. In other words, the movie is about money not sex – which, let's face it, we actually obsess about more because it lasts longer. Easy Virtue (Sony Pictures Classics)
Noël Coward enthusiasts consider his play Easy Virtue to be a minor work, and what makes director Stephan Elliott’s adaptation so delightful is that he doesn’t try to inflate the proceedings. Just cheeky enough in its tone to be fun without being indulgent, just serious enough to be poignant without straining for significance, the film breezes along with its sprightly air. Jessica Biel has never been better, Colin Forth does what he does better than anyone (which is why he always gets cast in these parts), and Kristin Scott Thomas reminds us (as she did with last year’s I’ve Loved You So Long) that she really is one of our most underrated actresses. Plus, the movie’s very funny from beginning to end. It’s become fashionable to turn your nose up at these sorts of well-manicured British period pieces and to disparage their artful trappings, but when the results are this unmannered, well, we can all go for another movie set at some gorgeous pastoral estate, yes?
O’Horten (Sony Pictures Classics)
Norwegian director Bent Hamer doesn’t so much tell a story as present a state of mind with O’Horten, a tale of an older man (perfectly played by Bård Owe) whose retirement forces him to drift through his days … not quite sadly but not quite happily, either. Whether we want to admit it or not, movies give us clues into how to live, and I find that films about aging are instructive – not because they’re necessarily accurate, but because they get me pondering my own mortality. Plus, no two are the same – it would be fun to have this film’s Odd Horten become friends with Pierre Pruez, the aging gay gigolo of last year’s Before I Forget from French filmmaker Jacques Nolot. In both cases, the absence of plot is the point – it mirrors the characters’ rudderless existences. O’Horten has its share of deadpan, absurdist humor and some of it goes squish, but my lingering memory of the film is its wistful spirit and John Erik Kaada’s plaintive score.
Jerichow (Cinema Guild)
German writer-director Christian Petzold’s reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice shows its hand early – you know that as soon as the impoverished loner (Brenno Fürmann) meets the successful Turkish businessman (Hilmi Sözer) and his beautiful wife (Nina Hoss), their impromptu working relationship is going to end very badly. But as is so often the case, it’s the telling that makes the difference, and Jerichow’s slow, grim inevitability has a momentum to it that becomes gripping – we just want to know how badly things will go, and Petzold delays until the film’s very last moment to satisfy our curiosity. Fürmann is like a cross between Jason Statham’s taciturn machismo and Trent Reznor’s squint-eyed melancholy, but his character’s quiet bleakness is deeply empathetic. And his costars work to keep us unsure of whom we’re supposed to be rooting for in this romantic triangle. Jerichow sneaks up on you – the ending seems obvious, but it still comes as a surprise and leaves you a little jarred. It’s one of my favorite ways to walk out of a movie.
Kobe Doin’ Work (ESPN)
Kobe Doin’ Work is in my sweet spot – it was directed by Spike Lee and it features Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant during the course of one game, complete with after-the-fact commentary from Bryant. No one should confuse this documentary with one of Lee’s major films – it’s him indulging one of his passions, professional hoops – so you have to keep your expectations in check. Still, I found parts of this fascinating, and not just because I’m a Lakers fan. For those who think coach Phil Jackson doesn’t do that much, Kobe Doin’ Work certainly suggests that Bryant has sizable impact on the game plan during the middle of the contest. And because Lee’s cameras cover this particular game from every angle, especially up close, we get a very palpable sense of what it feels like to be an athlete in the center of all those spectators, working in the finite space of a basketball court crowded with nine other players. Bryant doesn’t offer a ton of insight into the game, which isn’t that surprising – the man has never come across as particularly deep. But like those old instructional IMAX movies, Kobe Doin’ Work is a fun look into another world that’s pleasant at the time and pretty forgettable once it’s over. But if that’s all that you require of it, you’ll be more than happy.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.