Sunday, August 20, 2017

#604: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Directed by: JAMES CAMERON
1991, TSPDT Rank #648

It's rare that I see a film that I feel truly doesn't belong on a list of the 1,000 Greatest Films, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of those films. It's not a bad film by any means - James Cameron is a consummate craftsman if nothing else - but its formulaic sense of humor and saccharine emotional core (a futuristic killing machine becomes a father figure to a troubled kid and learns what it means to be human as a result) do nothing to add to the interesting and terrifying concept that Cameron laid out in his original Terminator film. In fact, The Terminator is still the only Cameron film I've seen that has any sense of vitality or urgency - like Aliens, Terminator 2 is a sequel that successfully transforms its brilliantly tense and effective predecessor into a bloated, action-packed, and mind-numbing Hollywood product. It's been successful enough to earn a reputation as one of the best action films of all time, and even successful enough to earn a place on the 1,000 Greatest Films. But while this is a precisely-rendered film with cool and stylish visuals, beyond the spectacular, crowd-pleasing veneer, it's completely empty, devoid of any depth, resonance, or creative spark (except for the impressive special effects work). There's just not much to see here besides a finely-tuned action film, and its effectiveness in that arena has surely been dulled by the technological advances in the genre over the past 25 years. But as far as these types of soulless blockbusters go, Terminator 2 is probably still the gold standard.

#603: Heat

Directed by: MICHAEL MANN
1995, TSPDT Rank #368

Heat is a classic film noir updated for the age of blockbuster action thrillers. The setting is the same, Los Angeles, but the landscape is virtually unrecognizable. After fifty years of urban sprawl and population explosion, the city has now grown to an unmanageable size and even the blinding sunlight doesn't help to put anything in perspective. Michael Mann's style is one of cool hues and fluid motion, with editing so slick that scenes often blend together without the viewer noticing that one scene has given way to another. In the film's world, everyone is a liar, a cheat, a maniac, or a combination of the three - not because they want to be, but because they feel they have to be. Everyone acts according to their nature in the end - nothing is truly left to chance. Human nature is brought into the light - no one is innocent, this is not a world of hard-edged blacks and whites anymore.

Overall, Heat is an incredible piece of work. The narrative is masterfully handled, with a world-class cast, and a script that refuses to give in to easy answers. It's the epitome of neo-noir - noir brought into the light and made new. What once lurked in the shadows, just below the surface, has now taken over everyday life. No one is safe, no one is innocent, and there can be no apologies, regrets, or self-pity - just a full-fledged commitment to one's nature, and nothing else.

#602: Kings of the Road

Directed by: WIM WENDERS
1974, TSPDT Rank #289

After the warm-up provided by his previous two films (Alice in the Cities and Wrong Move), Wim Wenders set out to make the ultimate German road movie with Kings of the Road, and I doubt that any other film has as good of a claim to that title. Wenders perfectly conveys both the mood of 1970s West Germany and the feeling of being on a road to nowhere. While Alice in the Cities boasted a much more dynamic chemistry between its two main characters, and Wrong Move had a clearer geographic start and end point, the aimlessness and desolation of Kings of the Road is its greatest attribute and makes it feel like a step forward for Wenders. While the film can feel a bit disjointed at times, it's amazing that it coheres as well as it does when you consider that it was mostly improvised, with no script to follow whatsoever. Wenders and the two main actors (RĂ¼diger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) clearly had a knack for getting inside the characters' heads and coming up with situations and dialogue which fit the gradually developing mood of the film. Since the viewer spends so much time with these characters, becoming accustomed to their unusual relationship and their various eccentricities, the ending to this purely episodic film ultimately feels so fitting that it seems scripted - even if it wasn't. You could say that this film was a gamble that paid off, or a testament to the possibilities of improvisational filmmaking, but I think that for Wenders, the journey was the destination. He simply took the journey, and in return, he got the film that he wanted to make.