I’m writing for Threat Quality Press as well now. I’ll be focusing on articles that deal with politics and social critique. Obviously, I write a lot about film, but I’ve also worked as a campaign manager, PAC fundraiser, poll model consultant, and legislative aide.
I like considering the implications of many kinds of storytelling, and too often we use polls to develop inaccurate storylines that are nothing but fables. These can be harmful and can train voters to look at politics from inauthentic angles. To me, that’s a danger. I explain why in my piece for Threat Quality Press.
Hey, you! Stop believing polls. Stop it! Stop using them to argue for your candidate or against another. Stop using them to create underdog narratives about a candidate getting 20% of the vote, or stories about an insurmountable lead by a candidate getting 20% of the vote.
Why harp on creating narratives from polls when you could be talking about the issues your candidate supports instead?
Why should you ignore the polls? Because until it starts to matter, and actual voting is around the corner, polls don’t gauge any true reflection of reality. If they did, we’d be talking about the successor to President Herman Cain right now.
Increasingly, pollsters have created a cottage industry of building narratives for the publications and news networks to which they’re attached. Those publications and news networks ignore what’s…
Recently, I wrote a piece at Article Cats about the burgeoning popularity of nation simulation. This takes a number of different forms. Some of it involves YouTube videos where users predict the future borders of countries as they break apart and assimilate each other.
A far more organized version takes place around strategy games, where game A.I.s will compete as different countries and cultures and fans will argue over who will eventually win. By now, this comes with leagues, play-by-play analysis, and color commentaries by analysts. It’s a sport, but it’s also a clash of cultural fandom. Read my full article at AC:
Over at Glamour, Jillian Kramer wrote an advice column called “13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You.” Obviously, it’s chock full of wonderful advice, and I had so many thoughts in response to it that I can’t help but share them. I’ll list her thoughts in bold, and then mine:
Glamour: “1. Stocking the fridge with his favorite drinks. Bonus points: Bring him back to his fraternity days by handing him a cold one as he steps out of the shower.”
Great, now I have to put this beer back in the fridge. I’ll get the floor all wet if I do it now before I dry off, but if I don’t, then I’ll forget it in the bathroom and have warm, bathroom beer that nobody wants because it’ll be known from now on as that bottle of warm beer that got left in the bathroom.
Glamour: “2. Making him a snack after sex. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal – a simple grilled cheese or milk and cookies will do.”
Omelettes with cheese and peas are the best…but everyone except for me (and LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea) is brainwashed into thinking that you have to add milk when you scramble your eggs, which makes no sense whatsoever and cuts the taste of the eggs themselves. And don’t steam the peas because that’s going to make them release water when you bite into them, and nobody wants a watery omelette. Sautee them in butter with just a little bit of browning – in fact, go back to bed, relax, and find a good show you enjoy. I’ll deliver you a late night snack in bed in 10 minutes.
Glamour: “3. Emailing him the latest online gossip about his favorite TV show. You don’t have to have a BFF at HBO. Just share applicable links from your Twitter feed and pat yourself on the back.”
No. God no. My job is as a critic. That’s why I have researchers and editors and cowriters.
E-mail me about the things that interest you, because you know what I don’t know about? Those shows I never watch that you think I should. Convince my ass to watch them. Or be like, “Here’s the latest online gossip about this hike that we should go on instead of watching TV all the time. If you forget the bug spray, I’ll kill you.” That’s hot.
Glamour: “4. Bragging about him to your friends, family, the stranger on the street corner – whomever. Proclamations of pride will make his chest puff out and his heart swell.”
This would get weird fast. Especially the stranger on the street corner; why are you giving out personal information about me to people on street corners?
Everyone likes to have good things said about them, but if it’s not natural or it’s one-sided or you’re sitting up late at night to come up with new wonderful things to say about me like it’s homework, then I have officially become school and you saying nice things about me has turned into your having to handwrite the Preamble to the Constitution 20 times because a teacher heard you say a cuss word and all of a sudden our relationship is essentially a form of 7th-grade social studies and you’re the student looking at the clock all day and I’m only sticking with this gig because I don’t want to lose my union benefits.
Glamour: “5. Answering the door in a negligee – or, better yet, naked.”
I mean, like, for the mailman? That wouldn’t make me happy. That wouldn’t make me happy at all. How long have you been seeing the mailman? Were you going to tell me about this? Were you – oh god no – were you going to send me a letter about it? Was he going to deliver it? Was he going to deliver the letter wearing a negligee in order to make me happy? WHY HAVE YOU CO-OPTED THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE AGAINST ME?!?
Glamour: “6. Being open to what he wants to try in the bedroom and out. An open mind is attractive no matter your playground.”
Well, sure, but that should go both ways. Like, if you’re all like, “Let’s try this crazy thing,” and I’m all like, “Oh god, no, hide the butter!” then let’s talk about it first. And if you’re like, “I’m not in the mood, let’s watch Netflix,” and I’m like, “Oh god no whyyyyy?” isn’t it keeping an open mind on my part if I respect what you want just as much as you respect what I want, and we watch one of the things you’ve been e-mailing me about instead. Wait…why are we watching The Postman Always Rings Twice ???
Glamour: “7. Letting him help solve your petty work problem. Many men don’t do gossip, but they do like to fix things.”
Yeah, news flash – men gossip. We’re just societally trained to gossip about sports and TV shows instead of, say, the interpersonal relationships that effect your life and career on a daily basis. You’re trained to call such important things “petty” when you write advice columns. But yeah, learn to enable my not dealing with emotion by asking me to solve problems that are part of your life while pretending the ones in mine all revolve around football. That’s sure the recipe for something healthy. Awesome segue:
Glamour: “8. Spitting out sports stats for his favorite team. Showing an interest in his favorite players will earn you points on and off the field.”
Oh, you know about Person X? Awesome, let me use your moment of rote memorization as an excuse to monologue at you for the next 30 minutes about all the things you’ve heard me say about sports 20 times before but that you’ll politely listen to me say again while you imagine tearing your hair out by the roots and shoving it down my throat. By the way, have you heard of our lord and savior Tom Brady?
Glamour: “9. Making a big deal of his favorite meal. Does he like hot dogs cut up into his boxed mac-and-cheese? Serve it on a fancy tray in bed to really see him smile.”
Boxed mac-and-cheese is a pristine experience. Maybe if it’s Annie’s Mexican, you cut up some fresh avocado into it, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I mean, I’m willing to experiment, but this is Macaroni and Cheese we’re talking about, have some respect. Plus…hot dogs. Cut up? In bed? Is that like a metaphor or something? Oh god, find 5 exits and rank them according to likelihood of escape in case she comes back with a knife. Freud was right about everything! Dear Tom Brady, I know I haven’t prayed to you in three days, but…
Glamour: “10. Treating his friends as well as you treat your own. If you win their affections, you’ll win his heart.”
As opposed to what, treating his friends worse than you treat your own? Is this how to “Make a Man Fall Hard for You” or is this “Not Being Keith Olbermann on a Daily Basis?”
Glamour: “11. Sitting side-by-side while he watches his favorite TV. It may not feel like quality time to you, but it’s the best time to him.”
No, it’s not. Look, if I’m not capable of watching TV on my own without feeling like I’m being ignored, then I’m probably not old enough to be dating. Let’s find something we both like watching – there are only 8 million TV shows on, or we can watch one thing you like and one thing I like, or I’ll leave the light on while I watch this so you can knit or play video games or study or do your lifting regimen.
Glamour: “12. Giving him a massage – happy ending completely optional. In fact, a foot rub works just fine.”
Hi, I’m the magazine Glamour, and this week in our “Things to do in a relationship” column, we’re going to recommend – listen closely now: sex. You may have heard of it, but we’re pretending the column is educational this week, so instead we’ll be coy and use language to tell women what to do that’s often reserved to describe brothels! How exciting. Next week, we’ll tell you what a good hourly rate is. Listen to all our good advice!
Glamour: “13. Taking him back to third grade-”
OK, wait, stop- what? Did you just read what you recommended in #12? And you’re going to start the next tip with “Taking him back to third grade.” OK. Sure. Let’s see where this goes:
“13. Taking him back to third grade with a gentle tease over anything from how you’ll dominate him on the basketball court to the weird way he just styled his hair.”
Hi, I’m the magazine Glamour, and this week in our “Ways to Flirt” column, we’re going to recommend flirting. You may have heard that flirting is a key component to flirting, but when flirting, please remember that flirting is involved in flirting.
The other way to take this is that they’re recommending that women start negging, which isn’t really equalizing as much as the suggestion that men stop negging might be.
Also, if you can dominate him on the basketball court, then please do it so that stupid articles like this thing from Glamour can stop reinforcing gender stereotypes that demand women hide their physicality, minds, and emotions behind trained behavior that makes everybody more dependent, less honest, and less interesting.
None of this is to call out Jillian Kramer as a writer. Looking at her articles at Glamour, she sneaks meaningful ones into the relationship listicles she’s required to write. That’s just the nature of the modern writer. My problem is with the perspective offered in her article, not with the writer herself, because that perspective is backwards, harmful, and needs to disappear.
Ant-Man is not the best Marvel movie by a long shot, but it does contain the best Marvel superhero yet. In a universe that prizes heroes who hit things really hard with a mechanical suit, hit things really hard with a magic hammer, and turn green to hit things even harder, we have a superhero whose abilities are shrinking to the size of a flea and communicating with ants.
This still involves hitting things a whole lot, but it also involves seeing two ways to tackle every problem – full-size and nearly microscopic. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently released burglar. With a felony on his record, he can’t seem to find work, and he needs a job in order to convince his ex-wife to let him see his daughter. Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before he returns to a life of crime.
Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has hidden a secret for decades – the science behind extreme miniaturization. He used to suit up as Ant-Man, a superhero who used this science to infiltrate military bases around the world. Since retired, he needs someone skilled in thievery to take on the mantle of Ant-Man and steal back the secret now that it’s in danger of falling into the wrong hands. Pym chooses Lang, who has a history of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor – it sounds like a perfect fit.
Evangeline Lilly plays Hank’s daughter Hope van Dyne. Between an accomplished comedian in Rudd and a screen legend in Douglas, you’d forgive the former Lost actress for disappearing into the woodwork of the film. Yet that’s not what happens. She’s the one who really shines here, offering the film its most complete emotional journey and most complex character. She’s on the board at Hank’s company and, at first, her character seems similar to that of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire in Jurassic World. That worried me – the last thing I wanted to be told (again) is that women can only be good at business if they’re bad at everything else.
Luckily, Hope convinces Hank, Scott, and the audience that she’s a far better choice to suit up as Ant-Man. She’s the better fighter, she communicates with ants better, she understands the science, and she knows the company they’re breaking into. Hope’s abilities are superior, period. It’s Hank’s own protectiveness and fear – his shortcomings – that are posed as a weakness here.
Of course, this still means that Scott’s the one who gets to suit up. It creates the most intriguing character dynamic in a Marvel film yet. In some ways, it deals with the increasingly problematic treatment of women in Disney Marvel movies. It doesn’t offer a solution, but at least it acknowledges that there is a problem. What we’re really seeing is Hope’s origin story, one in which she never gets to suit up or be a superhero. She has to watch a man be given her job and get all the credit. The focus on Hope and this element of the story is intentional, but the metaphor is dulled by the film’s drive toward action and comedy. The idea’s there, but it never feels entirely explored. I’ll talk about this more in the Bechdel section in a moment.
Ant-Man excels at folding in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) without allowing it to encroach too far on its own story. This year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron could have learned a thing or two from Ant-Man, which manages to tell its own self-contained narrative while still riffing on the universe of the Avengers. It never feels overwhelmed by a need to be part of the larger brand the way Ultron did. With Ant-Man, I never felt like I was being sold a toy instead of being told a story.
Ant-Man isn’t as well made as parts of Ultron, but it is much more consistent in quality. Ant-Man is thoroughly good. It doesn’t stand out as something special the way last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy both did, but it’s very enjoyable. When the action falters, the comedy takes over, and vice versa. It holds up to each of the other origin stories Marvel’s released on film.
Perhaps the best way to describe Ant-Man is this: it hits the spot. It reassures me that the Disney Marvel brand is still willing to aim for quirky genre films – like a heist movie – instead of simply being addicted to bigger and better explosions. The explosions take over at points, and they’re pretty creative, but costing only half as much as Avengers: Age of Ultron means that Ant-Man needs to find other ways of keeping your attention. It does this through story, character, and a lot of comedy. Lilly, Rudd, and Douglas also make one of the best sets of leads the MCU has enjoyed to-date.
Yes. Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, Judy Greer plays Maggie Lang, Abby Ryder Fortson plays Cassie Lang, and Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
The rarest way of failing the Bechdel Test is to pass question 2 and fail on question 3. Ant-Man boasts a wonderful character in Lilly’s Hope, but the only two women who speak to each other are Maggie and Cassie Lang. That mother-daughter dynamic entirely centers around ex-husband and father Scott.
While Hope is acknowledged by the film to be more capable than Scott and the film briefly touches on the issues Marvel has with women, it only makes one last-ditch effort to correct this. That last-ditch effort is pretty wonderful – remember to stay through the credits – but no solution to the problem is really offered. Hope voices her discontent, and Scott sticks up for her – he insists she’s more suited to be the superhero than he is. That’s refreshing, but it’s still not realized.
Corey Stoll is all right as the villain, but he’s ultimately one of the most forgettable the Marvel films have had. In a dozen MCU movies, we’ve yet to see a woman wield the power of a villain (Guardians of the Galaxy had an excellent henchwoman in Karen Gillan’s Nebula, but she was traded between two male villains and never actually gets to fight a man). Corey Stoll’s role couldn’t have gone to a woman? You’re going to tell me Corey “let me put you to sleep in ‘The Strain’” Stoll has box office draw that no woman can match?
I don’t know what to do with Marvel anymore. I like Ant-Man, I like it a lot, but…12 movies and they still can’t manage to even have women talk about themselves or each other, even when one of them is a lead? It’s ridiculous.
Where that leaves us, who knows? Evangeline Lilly pretty much steals the film from Rudd and Douglas, and it still doesn’t matter. The movie acknowledges Marvel’s problem with portraying women through Hank and Hope’s father-daughter relationship, and it still doesn’t matter. Ant-Man comes out and tells you straight-up who the better superhero would be – Hope – and it still doesn’t matter.
Marvel needs to grow up and they need to do it quickly. Period. Ant-Man is thoroughly enjoyable and Rudd does a workmanlike job, but superheroes in this franchise have now been played by Robert, Chris, Mark, Chris, Jeremy, Don, Aaron, Paul, Anthony, their boss Samuel L., and their space counterparts Chris, Dave, Vin, and Bradley. Now you’ve added Michael and a second Paul. I’m expecting them to start writing gospels soon. Women have gotten Scarlett, Elizabeth, and Zoe. That’s 16-to-3.
I want to be careful about assigning intention, but it feels like the filmmakers do as much as possible within Marvel’s constraints to say that their own film is getting the gender of its superhero wrong. It’s not necessarily the movie’s problem – Hope feels like a way of rebelling against Marvel’s dictate of another male superhero while still presenting another male superhero. It is Marvel’s problem, though. It is a growing problem, and it is one that is going to bite them in the ass. And no, Captain Marvel in 2018 as the 20th film in the MCU and first to center on a woman is not enough to solve it. It’s a good start, but that’s all it is. If 20 films in, all they’re doing is starting to solve this big a problem, they’ll bleed audience as the superhero competition at the theater gets a lot more crowded. Many already think Avengers: Age of Ultron left more than half a billion dollars on the table worldwide. Ant-Man has the lowest per-screen average of any MCU movie. It’s Marvel’s choice if they want to stay ahead of the curve they set, or if they want to fall behind it as others surpass them.
Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image of Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd comes from an Evangeline Lilly interview discussed on Geek Tyrant. All other images come from Collider.
Minions is completely critic-proof – you know exactly what you’re going to get going in, so we’ll counter-program with a new horror movie this week: The Gallows. Found footage horror (or point-of-view horror) sometimes hides gems like The Last Exorcism, As Above, So Below or this year’s Unfriended. Unfortunately, The Gallows is not one of these.
The Gallows follows four Nebraskan high-school students the night before putting on a play. The play is infamous because it resulted in a student named Charlie getting hanged 22 years before. The Gallows is interesting for a little while because of its weakest element – the character holding the camera most of the time, Ryan, is a complete sociopath. Ryan’s best friend is Reese, who’s only slightly sociopathic. Ryan convinces Reese to break into the school and destroy the play the night before it opens so that the the lead actress, Pfeifer, will be so sad that she’ll turn to Reese for consolation. Yes, that really is the plot.
When they break into the school with Ryan’s even more sociopathic girlfriend Cassidy, it turns out the place is haunted by the ghost of Charlie. Big shock, I know. Unlike the drip-feed of information present in other horror movies, only one detail of consequence is discovered as the characters run from one side of the high school to the other and back again. It’s as if they’re caught in an endless Breakfast Club montage. The school itself is filled with hidden basements, towering rafters, and some sort of nonsensical back alley. Nobody ever questions these things, they just trip into them, realize it’s the wrong completely inexplicable back alley, film a wall for 20 seconds, and then turn around.
What’s most frustrating about The Gallows isn’t its plot or setting, though. Nearly everyone with access to a good camera makes some version of this movie in high school. There’s something appealing about kids running around a high school at night, facing down their fears. The plot doesn’t get old. We just came to see models in their 20s pretending to be high schoolers who meet with bad ends – it’s really not a high bar to pass.
The frustration is all in the shoddy filmmaking. You want 30-second shots of a wooden floor while people argue in a much more interesting shot the audience doesn’t get to see? You got it. You want 30 seconds of staring at a dark screen with a red streak of light reflecting down a hallway while nothing at all happens? You’ve got that, too. In fact, if you love shaky shots of nothing while characters argue some place the camera isn’t pointing, this is your Citizen Kane. Walls, floors, walls that meet floors – The Gallows truly has it all.
It’s not helped by the editing. The four high schoolers seem to have special powers of growing more cameras at will. They start with two, but expand that number to four or five halfway through the film. There’s even a moment where the cell phone a character’s fixing is in the shot that’s being recorded by the cell phone that he’s supposed to be fixing. Figure that one out.
If you look at a successful POV horror film like As Above, So Below, what makes found footage effective is the staging and choreography that’s hidden within each scene. When characters themselves are holding the cameras, a single character taking a few steps can change the relation of every potential shot in the room. In a horror movie where everyone’s running around the whole time, the characters and their cameras change relation every second. When we switch between cameras, especially in darkly lit movies, we need to understand whose camera we’ve switched to and where everyone is in relation to her.
The audience can’t be struggling with whose perspective we’re witnessing. The editing needs to clearly imply whose view we’ve switched to and which characters are still in the scene. Without these two foundations, an audience is left shrugging at how certain characters come to be in certain sequences. “Wasn’t she just over there with her friend? Why’s she all alone now?” If you’re constantly asking these questions, something’s gone pretty wrong. As Above, So Below managed this expertly with eight characters in a crumbling ruin. The Gallows can’t manage it with only four in a pretty stationary high school.
What you’re left with as a viewer is the experience of shrugging your shoulders for 81 minutes. The characters run to and fro without a destination or a goal in mind. They’re never rewarded by the story for surviving long enough to discover something new. They’re never punished in a way that seems appropriate or deliciously ironic. There are long hallway shots that don’t even take advantage of having such a deep background for something to catch our eye. You can break any rule in horror you want, but you’ve got to understand the rules you’re breaking first. The Gallows has zero grasp on those rules. Even its supernatural beastie doesn’t seem to follow any particular logic outside of “Hey, I saw this in a scary movie once.”
The Gallows is a treasure trove of missed opportunities. The overall concept is decent. The ending is even smart, but it’s atrociously handled – no foreshadowing, no clues to excite or lead us to a moment, nothing to make the twist seem like it’s been earned. You can’t appreciate what little intelligence is in the film because it feels tacked on at the last second from some other movie, and then it’s filmed so badly that you start to miss those 30-second shots of floors.
My hope for a very long time was that the sociopaths in the group would stop screaming and start being sociopaths again. That would make an interesting movie: sociopaths trying to out-evil a supernatural horror that just isn’t prepared for how truly sociopathic these awful, awful kids are.
The Gallows also uses a prank war in its opening 20 minutes to pad out its brief, 81-minute length. It’s a useless B-plot, but for a long time, I also hoped that everything would be a giant prank – walls would pull back and reveal the entire cast, who were really teaching Ryan and Reese a lesson about the dangers of pranking. Everyone would freeze frame in a smile at the end as if they were in a Saved by the Bell episode.
Heck, I even hoped at the end that they’d just hire Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles to pop into the school with shotguns blazing. They could all pretend this was a subpar episode of Supernatural the whole time. I kept hoping for something, anything beyond what I was actually watching because the horror movie I saw felt like it was pulling my leg. Something in it had to be a joke. The punch line never came.
I’ll say two things in its favor. The whole movie was made for $100,000, and it’s hard to make anything that hits theater screens for that little. A $10 million opening may not seem like much, but it’s already made 100 times its budget.
The second thing? The actors do a job. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. The roles are thankless and the filmmakers aren’t giving them much to work with. Pfeifer Brown, who plays Pfeifer, is particularly solid and helps carry the film during stretches when it’s otherwise collapsing in on itself.
1. Does The Gallows have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer. Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Mostly, Pfeifer and Cassidy scream about how sociopathic the other one is, but that’s OK. That’s mostly what the men scream at each other, too. When men and women scream between the sexes, it’s equal opportunity sociopathy all around.
In fact, the ghost strangling people doesn’t get much mention. Mostly, these sociopaths really just want the other sociopaths to know how sociopathic they are before they get strangled.
It’s like watching four teenage Daniel Plainviews each drinking the others’ milkshakes and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!” For an hour and a half. Except half the time we’re staring at the floor.
Right, Bechdel Test. The Gallows does fine along these lines. Women are represented as well as the men here. No particular gender issues are reinforced, and none are undermined.
I ranked the 10 best movies of the year so far for Article Cats. I also snuck one big asterisk in, which if you’ve read my review for it, makes complete sense. It’s difficult to figure out where a great piece of art that wants to be a bad movie really fits. Take a look here:
When machines eventually network and become intelligent, they’ll face a resistance leader they just can’t beat – John Connor. In the first three Terminator movies, the machines tried to solve this by sending robot assassins back in time to kill John and his mother Sarah. Terminator Genisys (or as I’ll call it for the rest of this review, Terminator Spellcheck) is a narrative mash-up of the first two films.
When the basis of your plot is time travel, you can almost get away with anything you want. There’s only one rule: you have to be consistent about it. Kyle Reese is a future soldier sent back in time to help Sarah Connor. If you set up a guideline early on – that Sarah and Kyle have to stay alive in order to conceive John Connor in 1984 – you can’t just step all over it later. Midway through the film (in 2017, no less), both sides want to keep future John Connor alive, but a villain tells Sarah and Kyle that they can die. John Connor can still exist in the future without ever being conceived or born because – oh, look, a shiny new action scene!
Terminator Spellcheck moves the goalposts, throws its own internal rules out the window, offers zero explanation, and hopes nobody notices. This is the way it treats every instance of time travel – as a scene change rather than a plot element. I mention the most egregious oversight, but to name them all would take longer than the movie.
The movie also feels like it was edited by committee. One or two action scenes seem like they were added late in the game. Because of this, the editing sometimes skips those camera shots that connect action moments. For instance: the new Terminator that’s introduced has many abilities, but I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t spontaneously growing a helicopter from thin air. The helicopter chase that follows also looks incredibly cartoonish, in sharp contrast to the movie’s more grounded chase scenes. There’s a gumminess to many of the visual effects, but good acting and good pacing early on help us overlook this. When the film’s CGI eventually overwhelms the focus on its actors in the last half hour, the quality of Terminator Spellcheck dives off a cliff.
Those actors all help to keep the film afloat. Emilia Clarke does a great riff on Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor, finding that sweet spot in between the wide-eyed victim of Terminator and the gruff soldier of Terminator 2. Arnold Schwarzenegger has learned a thing or two about acting over the years. He communicates character in silent moments in a way he never used to. He’s not going to win an Oscar anytime soon, but films like Sabotage and Terminator Spellcheck do show us that he’s putting the effort into growing as an actor.
J.K. Simmons is the film’s comedic relief as the L.A. police department’s resident conspiracy theorist. He tracks Sarah and Kyle from one appearance in time to the next. His scenes are abrupt and serve as deus ex machinas, but Simmons is so good at being a hilariously scattered schmuck that he makes them work.
Jai Courtney plays Kyle Reese and Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) plays John Connor. Courtney is solid if unspectacular, and Jason Clarke is smarmier than I would’ve preferred. The movie relies on Emilia Clarke and Schwarzenegger to drag the film forward on their own strengths.
Is it good? Is it bad? It’s below average, but not terrible. It’s very watchable and it’s not without its charms or creative moments. It lacks any consistency whatsoever and the last half hour feels torn from a Resident Evil movie rather than part of a Terminator film.
It’s not a must-watch movie and it won’t lose much from waiting till it’s on DVD/streaming. I can’t recommend it over enjoying Inside Out again or seeing Jurassic World for the 50th time. Those are movies made to astonish and delight on the big screen. Terminator Spellcheck is made to get by. You don’t even have to look past this year to find movies where many of its ideas are done better, bigger, and cleaner. I enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it on that level of a B-grade film playing late at night when nothing else is on. Sadly, this still makes it the third best Terminator film out of five.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Ready why I’m including this section here.
1. Does Terminator Spellcheck have more than one woman in it?
Yes, barely. Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor. Sandrine Holt plays Detective Cheung.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes, barely. Cheung questions Sarah Connor briefly.
3. About something other than a man?
Yes, barely. Cheung questions her about a time portal that the LAPD thinks was a bomb explosion. Connor briefly helps a family escape a shootout in another sequence – she shouts a command at the family in general, including the mother and father.
Technically, this passes the Bechdel Test, but in spirit, it fails hard. It’s almost unthinkable – especially in a summer with so many women heroes as this one – that a film centered around a woman can’t manage to drum up one other woman for her to interact with in an extended manner. Every other main and side character is a man.
Terminator Spellcheck lists its credits more or less by screen-time: only two of the top 20 credits belong to women. I understand that the core cast has to include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kyle Reese, but the world itself – every other professional job save Cheung’s – is populated by men.
This doesn’t take away from the job Emilia Clarke does. She really is good, and she delivers a tough performance. She’s not a damsel in distress. She occasionally needs saving, but she occasionally saves her compatriots, too. She shoots and blows more things up than anyone else in the film, although it’s annoyingly left to the men to do any hand-to-hand combat. Watch Terminator 2 again – Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor beats a lot of people up and Arnold doesn’t really seem to mind the help.
What’s wrong with Terminator Spellcheck in terms of gender representation is more subtle than in most films. It does some things right, but not letting Sarah Connor throw a punch when everyone else is throwing down, and having a world populated inordinately by men undermines a great deal of the strength and command that Emilia Clarke delivers in her performance.