Round-Up: Terminator Salvation, Drag Me to Hell, Up, The Girlfriend Experience
By Fernando F. Croce

Following his gubernatorial stint, Arnold Schwarzenegger should now be readier than ever to portray a rampaging humanoid. Except for a digitally grafted cameo, however, his Mack-truck mug is absent from Terminator Salvation; instead, you have Transformers rejects ducking it out, green-screens sprayed with battery acid, and Christian Bale, who, slogging through as futuristic savior John Connor, seems to have missed the Luddite joke of James Cameron’s 1984 original. The year is 2018, humanity has been reduced to a band of warriors (led by JC -- yeah, he’s a messiah) trying not get crushed by the predatory machines that rule the world. People are thrown into cattle wagons and carted away to concentration camps, which has the unfortunate effect of making one of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 wiseasses whisper "After the Robot Holocaust..." in my ear. In between explosions, John Connor must watch over the young time-traveler (Anton Yelchin) who will get Sarah Connor preggers back in the medieval Eighties, and, as if that weren’t identity confusion enough, there’s also a mysterious survivor (Sam Worthington) whose big cyborgal secret I guess is supposed to peg him as some Tragic Mulatto of the post-apocalyptic set. You know, when zero-budget Italian Mad Max rip-offs used to envision wastelands in gravel pits, they at least did it with humor. Alas, Terminator Salvation is solemn and ash-hued: "We are not machines. And if we behave like them, then what’s the point," Bale barks in one of the film’s Dark Knight-risible attempts at "relevance." McG, the director, fumbles action and emotion alike, succeeding only in flattening the franchise’s imagery (the glowing-eyed titanium skull, once an arresting icon of technological terror, has turned as boring as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask). The best review is by Godard, who in For Ever Mozart prophesied about viewers ditching art films to catch "Terminator 4." Now that’s futuristic.

*

What the Beelzebub has Sam Raimi been doing polishing Spider-Man puppies when he could have been whelping rabid wolves like the rollicking Drag Me to Hell? Perpetually wan Alison Lohman is no Jamie Lee Curtis, but she shrieks just fine as her character endures Raimi’s zesty typhoon of maggots, blood, and phlegm. A loan officer in a Los Angeles bank, she sees the vacant assistant-manager spot dangling tantalizingly close; trying to toughen up for her boss (and apparently having never read Stephen King’s Thinner), she turns down an extension of a Gypsy crone’s (Lorna Raver) mortgage. Big mistake. The old woman, whose shamanic tones (she points to her blank peeper: "The seeeeckness took my eye!") would rattle Lugosi’s crypt, sics a demon on the ingénue, who’s given three days of torment before she’s dragged... to Hell! Despite the prescient plot (Lohman is framed against a "Saving for retirement" banner as she cries for security to remove the begging crone), Raimi just grazes the notion of moral-spiritual conflict during an economic crisis. For him, Drag Me to Hell is mainly a séance for the ghosts of low-budget ‘80s horror (The Evil Dead, of course, but also Re-Animator, Basket Case, Night of the Creeps...), a subgenre of anxiety and craftsmanship that looks positively classical next to the so-called "torture porn" of modern horror. Back is the demonically possessed camera that throws people across rooms and zooms into screaming mouths, the corpses that won’t stay in their coffins, the mix of Greg Nicotero’s gooey FX and Tom & Jerry-style anvils. The tone of escalating ghoulish farce is beautifully sustained all the way to the final punchline. Had Raimi dug deeper into the zeitgeist (or perhaps made Lohman more of a bitch), this would have been a classic. But it’s great to see him still able to spit out insects in the middle of fancy blockbuster dinners.

*

Incidentally, the Reaper in Up is a cell phone-wielding real estate honcho, silently razing the land around the elderly protagonist’s house in Pixar’s latest animated film. Said protagonist, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), is a widowed septuagenarian, a dreamer for adventure whose life has largely passed him by. About to be shunted off to a retirement home, he makes use of his resources as a former balloon-seller and, with a gazillion helium orbs tied to the roof of his house, takes off into the skies. Heading to the Venezuelan jungle to realize a dream he shared with his wife, Carl finds an overeager scout (Jordan Nagai), a rainbow-plumed rare bird, and an army of talking dogs lorded over by his childhood hero, a disgraced explorer (Christopher Plummer). Directed by Peter Docter and Bob Peterson, this has to be the studio’s weirdest project yet -- gags (literal aerial dogfights, chocolate-eating goonies, a Doberman stuck with a chipmunk’s voice) are virtually free-associative. At the same time, Up is Pixar at its most ambitious: It takes the regretful-old-man routine from Ikiru and Wild Strawberries, and the image of a character wandering an abstract desert while tied to his parade float of disappointments from Beckett. It’s very pretty (Carl’s balloons are like translucent gumballs, sunlight shines through them midflight and suffuses a little girl’s room with color), and also surprisingly contemplative of death and loss. (The already celebrated 5-minute montage that follows Carl and his wife from youthful ebullience to geriatric disenchantment is indeed moving, even if it seems imagined by people who never met a real married couple.) Then things fall apart. The action is manically cranked up, lame jokes are repeated, a promising critique of idol-worship gets thrown away. A film that opens daringly ends with a shout-out to Star Wars. Business as usual for Pixar, I’m afraid.

*

Predictably unpredictable, Steven Soderbergh follows the mammoth Che with the bite-sized The Girlfriend Experience. The evocative verdure of the previous film has been replaced by inhumanly smooth surfaces, glassy windows in a loft and the polished façades of high-class Manhattan, objects and people are hard and opaque. The protagonist (Sasha Grey) is a two grand-an-hour escort who receives business advice from clients (it’s set in late 2008, so "maverick" and "bailout" are buzzwords) and narrates her appointments in disembodied diary entries. Her boyfriend (Chris Santos) is a fitness instructor, a different kind of body-rental; Soderbergh cuts back and forth between the call-girl going through a quasi-emotional crisis ("There was definitely something there," she flatly says of feelings towards a client) and her beau with some mooks in a Vegas-bound private jet. Any prurience is cooled by the director’s quizzical intellectualism. Grey, a hardcore porn star, is lithe, feline, and blank as a sheet of paper, at times kept in silhouette or hidden behind a couch; men around her pitch, flail and manipulate, all trying to penetrate this neurasthenic object of desire. (Critic Glenn Kenny contributes a single-take gig as an "erotic connoisseur" reviewer, an internet-age Laird Cregar.) It’s an universe of lounges, warehouses and gyms, "public" is imprinted on a glass door and photographed backwards as a running joke -- oh, for the maker of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Sex is acting, it’s a product, but Soderbergh’s film can’t illuminate its commoditization; despite the constant changes in camera angle, it’s a bizarrely static work. It builds to the saddest, loneliest ejaculation in cinema, though a more telling image finds Grey fruitlessly mimicking distress, with Soderbergh trying to squeeze tears out of a performer who has better luck with other fluids.


Reviewed June 2, 2009.

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