Sunday, July 8, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #7: True Lies

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 54 (C+)
Loren’s Grade: B-

Loren Greenblatt: We just finished James Cameron’s James Bond movie. I get the feeling that he was a little worn out after Terminator 2.

Max O’Connell: Well T2 was sort of a wrap-up of all of the themes he explored throughout the 80s, and he handled it better than most of them (better than any, in terms of the nuclear material), so it’s understandable to see him go lightweight in terms of plot. He was also working on the Spider-Man movie that he ended up never making because he didn’t think the technology was up to speed. By the way…he wanted Michael Biehn to play Spider-Man, which I don’t think would have worked at all.

LG: Maybe for an older Peter Parker going for his doctorate…

MO: And at the same time he wrote Strange Days for Kathryn Bigelow, by this point his ex-wife who I think he has a healthy relationship with.

LG: But he basically made a Bond film, and a very good one, to a degree. It’s a remake of a French movie called La Totale!, which neither of us has seen unfortunately. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a superspy in the 007 mold, he goes around doing spy stuff, but he’s also married to a woman anmed Helen, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who knows nothing about his job. Also, he has Tom Arnold playing this really annoying partner…

MO: A comic-relief character who isn’t funny at all.


LG: And it’s not a bad premise for a film. He lies to his wife about his job (she thinks he’s a computer salesman), and then he realizes his wife was lying to him about something.

MO: It’s True Lies…a title that makes absolutely no sense.

LG: Just like most Bond films-perfect!. The opening sequence is fantastic: Arnold does everything James Bond ever did in a movie. There’s a gag ripped directly from Goldfinger, where he comes out of the water in a wetsuit (hey,  a trope!) and walks into a high class party in a tuxedo. There’s a number of other Bond-gags: witty banter, there’s an evil Bond girl he dances with that contrasts his wife, he fights with attack dogs, he escapes on a snowmobile…what kind of party has a snowmobile, by the way?

MO: What kind of parties are you going to?

LG: Well I’m not very popular I guess. But it culminates it a great chase where he skis down a mountain into a getaway car. At this point we already know James Cameron does action scenes better than anyone not named Spielberg. It honestly outdoes most of the Bond films, and part of the reason the film was a hit was the fact that we hadn’t had a Bond film in a long time. The series had stalled.

MO: Roger Moore got too goofy to the point where nobody could take them seriously anymore…and then there was Timothy Dalton.

LG: Plus legal disputes. Anyway, there hadn’t been a Bond film in five years and True Lies filled the gap very nicely, and it spoofs both James Bond films, Arnold’s action persona and 80s action movies in general.

MO: Here’s the thing with Arnold: he is not a normal person. He’s a big man, he’s got that thick Austrian accent, and he needs to find roles that fit with his larger-than-life persona. A lot of his best movies play with the fact that he’s not normal: the first Terminator and Conan the Barbarian turn him into a hulking monster. Commando turns him into this ridiculous super-soldier that’s basically Rambo with a sense of humor and less self-important jingoism. Terminator 2 was released after Arnold was a big goofy action star, so he becomes more likable and funnier. Total Recall plays with the idea that he’s not a normal person by sticking him in the real world, having him stick out like a sore thumb, and then telling us that he’s really a super-spy, which really helps that film.

LG: Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the most meta actors in Hollywood. It’s not just that a lot of his films are similar: he actively tries to work in references to his previous films. When he and Tom Arnold go into the superspy headquarters, we get a much better version of the X-ray vision from Total Recall.

MO: Well, the special effects are better because it’s four years later and this tops Terminator 2 as the most expensive movie ever made, around $102 million.

LG: The man has expensive tastes.

MO: Well, for Cameron’s process, it’s not a matter of “play around till we get what’s right for the film”. What he sees in his head is what is going to show up on the screen, and it doesn’t matter how much time it takes. He’s going to get it. It can make him difficult to work with (see: The Abyss, Titanic), but he makes some of the most striking action sequences ever. Pound for pound, True Lies almost tops Terminator 2 when it comes to eye-popping action sequences.

LG: In terms of visceral action beats, True Lies is a one-stop shop. But it’s a much lighter film, and ultimately, as fun as the action scenes are (and they really are a blast), they’re not as satisfying as something like Terminator 2, which had much stronger, relatable characters.

MO: Right. At the end of this film, Schwarzenegger and Curtis’ daughter is brought back after being taken hostage by the terrorists. We have not seen her for about an hour, maybe longer. She’s hostile towards her father, and that’s her character. Eliza Dushku plays it just fine, but she has no chance to make an impression.

LG: And to be fair, many years later she was excellent in Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse, but she has very little to do here.

MO: The emotional undercurrent is missing here. Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis have a surprising amount of chemistry in this film, but it’s pushed to the side. The first third of the film barely shows them together. The second third of the film is a catastrophe. The last third shows them together, and it makes me wish that that section was extended to a feature length film. We get to see her get used to him being a superspy, and she comes into her own as a strong female character. Jamie Lee Curtis is a fantastic actress with great comedic chops, and she showed this in earlier movies like Trading Places and especially A Fish Called Wanda. She’s very funny in a lot of this…

LG: Even in the worst scenes, she finds something to work with.

MO: She’s quite good, but as appealing as they are together, there’s not much emotion in their relationship.

LG: We should mention that Schwarzenegger is the light of this film.

MO: He’s great.

LG: He’s very funny, he’s very relatable. A lot of people knock his acting range, but he’s better than people give him credit.

MO: The man can do comedy. He can do comedy like no one gives him credit. It’s unfortunate that most of his straight comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, Jingle All the Way) are unfathomably awful, because he’s a great comedic presence. This film doesn’t just give him great one-liners (“here’s my invitation”, “you’re fired”). The way it lets him look at the camera, give a sarcastic line to the villains, have great chemistry with the evil Bond girl (played very well by Tia Carrere). Cameron and Schwarzenegger have a gift for comedy.

LG: I love Charlton Heston’s cameo as basically Nick Fury. He’s got the eye-patch and scars, and he’s the head of a superspy organization.

MO: The comedy and action is very strong, but the film has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that it’s less intellectually exploratory than his other films.

LG: The film gets into a battle of the sexes when Arnold realizes his wife is lying to him.

MO: In the second act, he learns his wife is possibly having an affair with Bill Paxton, a sleazy used car salesman posing as a spy.

LG: I do find it interesting that she lies to him with cover stories, just like him. It’s the essential metaphor of the film.

MO: Yeah, which could be interesting, but they don’t do enough with that. The thing is that the entire middle section is painfully misogynistic and mean-spirited. It’s nasty and it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. I found it depressing. Every time I watch the film, I feel my grade dropping when it hits the middle section.

LG: I don’t actively hate that section as much as you do, but it’s not good, and it drags the film down, every time Tom Arnold opens his mouth…

MO: He’s terrible.

LG: He calls all women “bitches”…

MO: I’ll actually rephrase that: he has comic timing, but his presence, his delivery, and his material is painfully unfunny.

LG: He’s very concerned with the sexual awakening of Schwarzenegger’s young teenage daughter in a very creepy way. He has a whole monologue about it. It’s clearly a subject he’s put a lot of thought into.

MO: Also, it’s worth noting that Cameron, at this point, is dating Linda Hamilton, so as far as we know he’s happy. Tom Arnold had just divorced Roseanne, and he puts in an anecdote from real life where “the sick bitch even took the ice cube trays”, which is not just unfunny, but it’s nasty towards women.

LG: Every time he opens his mouth, he says something terrible.

MO: “Women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em”.

LG: We could go through a list here, but it’d be depressing.

MO: And he’s not the only sexist character. Bill Paxton’s character is supposed to be, but it’s in the most tiresome way.

LG: Paxton is the sleaziest lothario ever, and he’s a cartoonishly evil car salesman…to an irritating extreme.

MO: He describes Jamie Lee Curtis as having “a pair of titties that make you scream for buttermilk and an ass like a ten-year-old boy”.

LG: “An ass like a ten-year-old boy.” We’ll let that sink in for a second.

MO: It’s supposed to be nasty, but it took me out of the movie completely. And it’s not the only awful bit in the second act. I lose sympathy for Schwarzenegger as the film goes on. We have to keep in mind that this was made pre-PATRIOT Act, but the way he follows Curtis around is just awful. This premise would have been rejected on the spot today.

LG: It’s a very different world, it’s post-Cold War, we’re looking for a new boogeyman, and Arab terrorists look like the big ones. But the film doesn’t treat them very seriously. Now to be fair, as ugly and stereotypical as the film’s depiction of Arabs are at times, the film’s main villain does have a legitimate beef with the West…

MO: Yeah, but it’s just thrown out in about a second.

LG: And quickly forgotten thereafter. He throws in one sentence in the middle of a speech, but he’s a psychotic Arab crazy man, so we ignore it.

MO: And he’s not a bad actor…

LG: No, he’s good.

MO: And the film isn’t trying to be offensive, but Cameron clearly didn’t take that into consideration. There is a good Arab character on Arnold’s team, but his part is so small it barely registers. In Cameron’s defense, though, he decided not to do his planned sequel to True Lies after September 11, because, in his words, “terrorism isn’t funny anymore”.

LG: There’s also that weird section where Arnold hijacks the generically named spy-organization he works for to follow his wife. It’s easy to understand his anger, but the actions he takes are extremely immature, and he learns very little from it, it doesn’t add to his character…

MO: And the tone is all wrong. It’s supposed to be funny. Oh, and how about the parts where they practically torture Bill Paxton till he pisses his pants (this happens twice).

LG: Torture is hilarious! Well, there is a torture scene late in the film that is funny.

MO: But that’s in the last third of the film when the movie is good again when the action sequences start again. This includes an over-the-top one I like and you don’t involving an uzi falling down the stairs.

LG: It’s done in the most ridiculous way and it’s completely predictable.

MO: It’s done pretty cleverly.

LG: It’s done well, but that one gag goes a bit far for me. She drops an uzi, it spins in slow motion and shoots everyone but her even though she’s in the range of fire. I can forgive lapses in logic in film, but my brain couldn’t be turned off for it.

MO: That’s fair. Whereas I can overlook some of the questionable racial politics (very barely). You gotta love the balls it takes, even then, to attach a terrorist to a rocket, say “you’re fired”, and shoot him through a building into another helicopter full of terrorists.

LG: Today that image is a little queasy.

MO: Oh, it’s horrifying today.

LG: Put your brain into 1994 mode and you’ll be okay.

MO: Now, we have to talk about the striptease. Why don’t you talk a little bit about it so I can talk about why I hate it.

LG: There’s a scene right before the movie gets good again, Arnold realizes he’s been a terrible husband, and he wants to give his wife the excitement she’s been craving. She still doesn’t know he’s a spy or that he’s aware of her almost-affair with Paxton. He uses government resources to disguise himself, force her into a secret mission where she has to strip for a man in the shadows (really Arnold). It’s a good scene and she’s sexy in it. I can understand that the set-up is queasy, and the end is very ugly and creepy, but Jamie Lee Curtis is very funny in that scene.

MO:…she plays it about as well as anyone could. She has that moment during the striptease where she falls, which she really did but she played it off so well that Cameron kept it in. And she’s a very attractive woman, there’s no doubt about that. It’s not that the striptease itself isn’t sexy. Cameron directs it well: his use of shadows in that scene is fantastic. The context around it? Creepy and misogynistic.

LG: Yes.

MO: This kind of scene handled well can be both erotic and frightening, like a David Lynch film can do.

LG: I don’t think you need Lynch…

MO: Ok, but how about Paul Verhoeven, who would have made it so comically over-the-top and overtly satirical that it’d be hilarious.

LG: Over the top? Cameron pushes it pretty far…

MO: But it’s nasty and mean-spirited, like the rest of that section of the movie, and even when the film gets good again it never fully recovers.

LG: I agree with you on the context. But as a scene unto itself, it works.

MO: Maybe by itself, sure, but as part of a whole it doesn’t. It’s absolutely unjustified.

LG: It’s a very interesting shift for Cameron. His films up to this point all have some of the strongest female characters ever put on screen, and then he does this. We can understand Curtis’ actions, but she’s not a very strong woman for the vast majority of the movie.

MO: And it’s not like a fragile but resilient thing like Sarah Connor in the first Terminator.

LG: No, not at all. When she’s put in these male-dominant situations where she has little control, it’s an interesting shift from the lionesses of his previous work.

MO: You have to give this film credit for where it doesn’t go: it’s not a Michael Bay film. The action scenes are great. It’s not jingoistic, it’s not completely dunderheaded in its politics.

LG: It’s never Michael Bay-misogynistic.

MO: The sexism is pretty pervasive, but the women aren’t just guy-accessories, give Cameron that.

LG: Even though it doesn’t work, I think Cameron was trying to make a movie about a relationship that’s in a weird place and try to have the characters move past it. It’s handled badly, and it’s inadvertently sexist, but he’s trying to do something better than that.

MO: And there’s potential. Schwarzenegger and Curtis have a Cary Grant-Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest chemistry, but their relationship never quite gets there. At the end when Curtis becomes a spy and they tango, it’s great (all of the dance scenes in this movie are great), but it’s too little too late.

LG: Arnold did all of his own tangoes!

MO: And they did most of their own stunts! That part where Arnold rescues Curtis by picking her up and she hangs from a jet? That was real.

LG: When the movie is doing action, it’s great. That scene with Arnold chasing the terrorist on a horse is about as ridiculous as it sounds, but it’s goofy fun and works as a spoof of the kind of films Arnold does when working with people other than Cameron and Verhoeven.

MO: It’s a great scene, and a lot of the film is terrific, but that middle section is really a movie-killer.

LG: When I think about the film, I always only remember the good parts and forget the middle. And then I see the film and I go “oh…”. I didn’t mind it the first time around, but the more I watch it, the more dire it is for me. I’m going to have to give the film a B- overall.

MO: I’m giving it a C+. The way I’ve always looked at it, B-/C+ mean essentially the same thing. They’re equally flawed. But B- films narrowly get my recommendation, whereas C+ films don’t quite cut it. I can’t recommend this film. The middle is too dire.

LG: It’s very dire and very irritating in the middle, but the action scenes are mesmerizing for fans of the genre. If you want to learn about action filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see this.

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