Looking for Mr. Goodbot

Terminator Salvation and The Girlfriend Experience can't save themselves, and Summer Hours doesn't need to.

Akira Kurosawa once described his Seven Samurai as being as rich as a buttered steak topped with broiled eels. By that standard, Terminator Salvation is about as nourishing as a piece of genetically modified parsley on a Trader Joe’s flaxseed tortilla chip. But it has one or two small saving graces.

The problem is familiar. In 2018, Los Angeles is home to the Human Resistance movement, while Northern California belongs to the Skynet machines trying to annihilate the human race and take over the world. We follow two parallel character arcs: time-traveling designated savior of the human race John Connor (Christian Bale) and his never-ending battle against the machines, and the plight of one Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a Resistance soldier who may or may not be a robot disguised as human. Marcus is plagued by bad memories of prison and a puzzling doctor (Helena Bonham Carter); Connor, as usual, is plagued only by robots. Evil giant whatzits are rounding up humans and storing them in pens in downtown San Francisco, searching for Connor’s father, the teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). The big revelation in this fourth installment (not counting the TV series) is that the machines have an “Off” switch. Now they tell us.

Director McG (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) owes a major debt to George Miller and Stanley Kubrick, the former for numerous Mad Max lifts, the latter for the battle scenes. Lots of boom-boom and bang-bang, but the procedural aspect is negligible. Where’s the electricity coming from? And who is manufacturing all that ammo they’re wasting? Like most sci-fi, it isn’t realistic, but the air of hopeless doom that pervaded earlier episodes has by now been worn down to a dull pyrotechnic display of firefights. The robot gators, however, are pretty cool.

Bale is overshadowed a bit by Worthington’s renegade Mr. Goodbot, and they’re both upstaged by Moon Bloodgood’s sexy pilot, one of the requisite female freedom fighters. Terminator Salvation may be slightly better than anticipated, but it doesn’t amount to a hill of screws. Late in the movie, someone asks rhetorically: “What is it that makes us human?” Could it be the willingness to sit through the same story over and over again and never reach a conclusion?

Years earlier in a galaxy far, far away, there lived an old lady named Hélène in a splendid, art-filled home in the French countryside. The widowed Hélène (played by Edith Scob) is the surviving niece of a famous painter, Paul Berthier, whose works and collections, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, litter the rambling house, and as Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) opens she is entertaining her grown children and their families with a day playing and lunching at the green, wooded, hillside estate.

Hélène’s three offspring are a study in contrasts. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is a Parisian university economics professor with a sentimental streak. His sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a fashion designer in New York, strives hard to be youthfully capricious despite her encroaching middle age. The third sibling, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), lives with his wife and kids in Shanghai, where he’s in the athletic shoe business. Not long after the lovely summer afternoon, word comes that mother Hélène has died, and the siblings are faced with a decision: what to do with the house full of artwork, the cultural “residue” of the now-dispersed family.

Jérémie and Adrienne want to sell the art and cash out. Frédéric sees the art as Paul Berthier’s heritage, and wants to preserve the house and its treasures as a sort of museum where the family could get together and celebrate — in other words, he’s a hopeless dreamer as well as an economist. But even he sees that dream is hopeless. Hélène’s true legacy, aside from the artworks, is that she was her renowned uncle Paul’s inamorata, his “last great passion.” The person who knew Hélène best is the old family retainer, Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), a down-to-earth villager who was fond of putting flowers in a rare Braquemonde vase. This amuses the art dealers and experts from the Musée d’Orsay, who are soon going through the house cataloging the Majorelle furniture, Odilon Redon panels, and so forth. It’s the end of an era.

The writer-director, Olivier Assayas, is trying to tell us something about mercantilism, tradition, and memory, in addition to spinning a short story about a dissolving family. Summer Hours has the feel, if not the look, of an old man’s film (Assayas is 54 years old), a meditation on the passing of time and how the most important things in a person’s life fade away and become an anecdote, or less.

In his press notes Assayas (Boarding Gate, Clean, Irma Vep) claims that it’s a tribute to Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. It does have a bit of Hou’s cold-mountain wistfulness, but the essence of Summer Hours is in its Jean-Renoir-ish final scene, in which Frédéric’s daughter invites a bunch of her young friends to the estate for one last summer party before it’s sold. Assayas can’t help tagging the party with a song by the 1960s psychedelic folk group the Incredible String Band, “Little Cloud” — a happy, mindless ditty about floating free in the universe. Nice touch.

Steven Soderbergh deserves an award for sticking to his principles, no matter how uncommercial they may be. His last box-office dud was Che, the dispiriting two-part bio of revolutionary Che Guevara. That reward project grossed just slightly over $1.7 million in the US box office, or roughly what Next Day Air made in its first afternoon. Undaunted, Soderbergh is back with The Girlfriend Experience, the putative story of an executive-grade Manhattan escort played by porno star Sasha Grey.

Didn’t anyone tell Soderbergh that if you’re going to make a movie about a prostitute, 1) you’re going to have to show some skin, or, failing that, 2) she’s going to have to fall in love with a sympathetic rich guy? Heedless Soderbergh ignores all that and veers toward Jean-Luc Godard’s chilly study of whores and urban redevelopment, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, in detailing the life and times of Chelsea (Grey), a lithe brunette poule de luxe who charges $10,000 per session while her gym trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos) rents himself out to Las Vegas junketeers.

Her clients are hideous and Chelsea is no charmer — a sex reviewer cites her flat voice, uneducated manner, and lack of affect — but she gets to the heart of the economic meltdown. People were overpaying for just about everything. It’s a critique of capitalism by the Ocean’s auteur, no less. If only Grey weren’t such a robot as the commodified Chelsea. But what did we expect from the star of Anal Acrobats 3 and Cum Buckets 8?


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