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Die, robot scum! Bale in Terminator Salvation.

They, Robots

By Ann Morrow

Terminator Salvation

Directed by McG

In the year 2018, Skynet dominates the planet, using laser-eyed robots to hunt down those humans who survived nuclear war. One of them is John Connor (Christian Bale), who has his mother’s taped messages to warn him of the coming Year of Darkness, glimpsed in flashes of the future in The Terminator in 1984. But it’s hard to imagine a darker place than the America in which Connor and his following of resistance fighters inhabit. Gargantuan robots stomp out any signs of life, dispensing killer motorcycles to run down any cars fast enough to escape them. There aren’t any cyborgs, though, not yet, and it’s Connor’s mission to try to prevent Skynet from producing any. Little does he know that a proto-cyborg already exists.

Terminator Salvation, the third sequel, is the bleakest, most action-packed, and least involving of the series. Directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall), the film lacks the mind-bending internal logic of James Cameron’s two Terminators, as well as the efficient reboot of T3 (directed by Jonathan Mostow). What it does have is robots in an inventive variety of deadliness; bone-crunching collisions; an ear-cracking soundtrack; and a half-baked concept (regarding the proto-cyborg) that fails to further the back-from-the-future shock of Cameron’s original vision. Salvation opens with a creepy sequence regarding a death-row inmate, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who donates his body to science. Forward to 2018: Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin in the Michael Biehn role) is barely out of his teens and has no idea that he must survive long enough to time-travel to 1984 if he wants to sire the hero he’s never met. John knows who Kyle is, and must become, but he doesn’t know where he is—or that his radio messages are inspiring the young soldier. The connection between the two is explained in blunt, barking manifestos from John that sound like outtakes from the previous movies.

As one of the commanders of the resistance, Connor is viewed as a nearly messianic leader, which weights the film more than the seemingly invincible infestation of robots. Bale plays him with two notes: seething with rage, or exploding with rage. The crap dialogue doesn’t help, and neither does Yelchin’s amateurish teeth gritting. Moon Bloodgood as a tough-chick fighter pilot manages to hold her own in a clichéd role meant to underscore the thin line between man and machine, and Worthington almost makes up for the (physical) absence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the plot is weakened by the lack of a definable villain (a sinister Skynet monitor doesn’t qualify), and there aren’t any human interactions that even come close to the touchingly human appeal of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and (the three previous incarnations) of her son. Connor, Reese, and Wright never really connect—it’s noticeable that the script went through numerous rewrites—even when they finally meet-up in the dangerous laboratory of Skynet.

To add atmosphere to all the heavy-metal carnage, McG brushstrokes the dreary landscape with evocative visuals such as nighttime flare rockets reminiscent of Vietnam, oil-drum fires that could’ve come from Kuwait, and incongruously enough, Nazi-like cattle-car roundups. It’s more than distracting, as part of the film’s appeal should’ve been a feature-length travelogue to the dehumanized, machine-made apocalypse of Earth in the year 2029. Problem is, Terminator Salvation is so lacking in human interest that the machines have already won.

They Are Here

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Directed by Shawn Levy

At first I felt stupid, buying one adult ticket to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. “I’m a reviewer!” I wanted to stress to the uninterested cashier, “And my oldest hates to be seen with me, the next one has baseball, the third is glued to the Mets-Bosox game, and the toddler’s due for a nap. . . .” All this went unsaid, of course, and I slouched into the darkened theatre feeling a little sorry for myself. This was seconds before realizing that everybody else in the small audience was about my age. Somehow, Night at the Museum became not so much a missed opportunity to see a movie with the boys, as a chance to get the heck outta Dodge for a few hours of mindless entertainment.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what I got. I have to say, the so-called charms of the original Night at the Museum eluded me. It strikes me as odd that an actor like Ben Stiller, who evokes as much neuroses and hostility as he might belly laughs, is beloved by the kids who made the first installment such a big hit. His night guard, Larry Daley, comes across as exactly the kind of tightly wound, “Don’t-touch-my-flashlight” kind of dad that most children would dread. The sequel begins with Larry, now a successful entrepreneur, doing an infomercial for his glow-in-the-dark flashlight with George Forman. When the former boxing champ ad libs, to uproarious audience approval, you can sense Larry’s intense annoyance, and I half expected him to take a swing at the pugilist. Never fear, however, as soon after we see that success hasn’t led Larry to forsake his son or his old friends down at the Museum of Natural History. Enter, too, the film’s central conflict: The museum is shipping the gang to permanent storage at the Smithsonian!

Before one can say “diorama,” Larry is off to D.C. to rescue miniature cowboy Jed (Owen Wilson) and Roman soldier Octavius (Steve Coogan), and the rest, only to find that impish capuchin Dexter has stolen the golden tablet that makes the exhibits come to life, and Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), a lisping King Tut wannabe, wants it in order to call to life all of mankind’s evil spirits. I’ll give the movie credit for the efficient way in which it dispatches plot details like Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams delightfully channeling Irene Dunne) helping Larry or General Custer (Bill Hader) bemoaning his big blunder. Some of the insanity works beautifully, such as when Kahmunrah has to explain his apparel (“It’s a tunic, not a dreth!”) to his triumvirate of co-conspirators, Napoleon (Alain Chabot), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and a black-and-white Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). There’s a great moment in which Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader try out for Kahmunrah’s hit squad, only to be turned down; and how cool is it that the Tuskegee Airmen get to rumble with history’s villains?

The use of art and history, of actual museum exhibits, is at times exhilarating—but then again, I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to things like that. The target audience of Night at the Museum is surely the kids and tweeners out there who will glory in the special effects and the Three Stooges-type humor that permeate the movie. For the most part, the writing is a mess, with gaping, unexplained plot holes and a completely uninspired challenge to the protagonist. In fact, in almost all ways, Night at the Museum is a mess, and yet, its individual gifts give audiences something to really enjoy.

—Laura Leon

How Coy They Are

Shall We Kiss?

Directed by Emmanuel Mouret

“Oh, those French,” you say. “They know all about l’amour.”

To which I reply, “applesauce”—at least regarding the fellow behind Shall We Kiss?, who also provides himself a starring role.

An attractive woman (Julie Gayet) meets a tall, dark stranger (Michaël Cohen) in a strange town. She asks directions; he offers her a lift in his delivery van. (He works for a clearly upscale boutique company that restores “ancien” paintings.) They have dinner, and talk. They have a drink in the bar at her hotel, and talk. After closing time, they repair to her room for a nightcap, and talk. What do they discuss? Why she won’t kiss him.

She relates why, telling the story of her married friend Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), and Judith’s coupled-up best friend Nicolas (writer-director Emmanuel Mouret), who fall into an affair. Don’t get all hot-and-bothered, dear cinephile; Judith and Nicolas damn near talk each other to death before there’s any sex.

The flashback structure and the film’s central mystery will put you on your guard: Is the woman a reliable narrator? The bland chic of the world Judith and Nicolas jaw and romp about in suggests no—Judith’s almost always wearing the same generic-looking, cream-colored blouse and skirt, and the same demure string of pearls. What seems like an interesting visual strategy proves to be pure artifice, sadly.

Ledoyen is superb (as usual), a mix of doe-eyed innocence and, in quiet moments, brooding cunning. Filmmaker Mouret is as likable and unremarkable as a mop-topped stick figure. The film has its charms, then turns brooding and melodramatic at the end.

This mix of talk and sex can’t help but make old-timers think of the films of the now-retired Eric Rohmer. Though Rohmer was a Roman Catholic whose talky screen lovers rarely tumbled into bed, their chatter—and vivid body language—created more heat than any of the various couplings in Shall We Kiss?

—Shawn Stone

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