Terminator 3 (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken

Something… is missing. When I look back on “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” that’s the first thing that comes to mind. There are many who were in the camp that felt it was best just to leave it alone after “Terminator 2,” and they’ve got a point. Storylines were wrapped up, Judgment Day was seemingly prevented. The bar had also been raised in terms of special effects and menacing villains, so anything that followed would have to be something very, very special. Yet, inevitably, as film series continue past their expiration date, highly significant pieces to the puzzle will start to go missing. Especially if you wait more than a decade in-between sequels. Even “The Godfather” is guilty of this, waiting 16 years in-between movies 2 and 3. “Terminator 3″ was released a dozen years after “Terminator 2,” and by the time 2003 rolled around, the following personnel had either opted out or were not asked back: James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Brad Fiedel. So the series would have to move on without its creator/director, lead actress, and composer. Their absence is noticeable, but it is not the only reason for the inferiority of “Terminator 3.”

In 2004, John Connor (Nick Stahl) is a man alone, directionless and homeless. Because he’s never been safe a day in his life, the homeless part is his idea. But after having seemingly prevented Judgment Day, along with his mother, Sarah, and the Terminator which his older self had reprogrammed and sent back in time to protect him, John’s future is unclear to him. Sarah raised her son to believe he would one day lead a human resistance to victory against their machine overlords, but how can that still be his fate if the cataclysmic event that precedes it never took place? August 29, 1997 came and went without incident, and yet John still feels uneasy.

Like Windows and Apple, SkyNet always seems to be dreaming up new pieces of technology. Now comes the T-X (Kristanna Loken), which takes on the appearance of a sexy blonde female and is capable of things her predecessors couldn’t do. It has a metal endoskeleton like the T-800 and can shapeshift like the T-1000, but the T-X can also form plasma cannons and flamethrowers with its arm, and can hook into other machines to control them remotely. This means that, in the case of car chases, the T-X doesn’t have to be right up on our heroes’ bumper to potentially run them off the road. Also, because SkyNet figured that the resistance would likely choose another reprogrammed killing machine to send back in time, fellow Terminators are part of the T-X’s hit list. The T-850 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), itself an enhanced version of the T-800, tells John this much during one of the many times they are trying to evade her.

Equally important to the T-850’s mission is Katherine Brewster (Claire Danes). Aside from being the daughter of a General, Kate is destined to become the wife of John Connor, and second-in-command of the Resistance. She’s the one who will reprogram the T-850 and send it back through time. As much as John must survive, so must Kate. Just like John’s mother was a lowly waitress before the Terminator began stalking her, Kate is a veterinarian. But it’s her family’s military background that lets us know that, although Terminators can still toss her around like a rag doll, Kate is strong-willed right from the start. Kate Brewster has been my favorite part of “Terminator 3″ since I saw it theatrically back in 2003. John is the first to point out, and I agree… she is very similar to his mother.

By this point, you may be asking, “If Judgment Day has been prevented, why do Terminators still exist?” Time travel paradoxes and all that. Well, that’s because it wasn’t prevented, this movie tells us, only postponed. In fact, it’s only hours away. Naturally, that’s not the best piece of news which John and Kate could have received, but it does provide a sense of urgency. Can Judgment Day be stopped? Not so, says the T-850, but John refuses to believe that. If he can prevent three billion human deaths, damnit, he’s going to try!

So far so good, but “Terminator 3″ does take a few missteps. The first is a nitpick, one that I don’t usually try to make but had to because we’re talking about a story which involves time travel. Can we please, for goodness sake, pay attention to dates and times established by the previous films? Overlooked/retconned is John’s age at the time of “Terminator 2.” In the opening monologue he mentions having been thirteen, and later references are made by Kate to having gone to school with him in junior high, until that one day (in T2) when he simply vanished. We’re expected to buy this, despite the previous films establishing the time of the first “Terminator” as 1984, and John’s date of birth being revealed in “Terminator 2″ as having been 2/28/85. For that to still jive AND for him to have been thirteen when the T-1000 tried to kill him, the year would have to have been 1998, one year after the original date of Judgment Day, which wasn’t “prevented” until the film’s climax. Long story short, I call bullshit.

My second gripe is the movie’s overall length. At 1 hour and 49 minutes, “Terminator 3″ stands as the shortest film in the series, and it shows. More than a half-hour shorter than its immediate predecessor,  the brisk pacing of “Terminator 3″ does not allow much room for the human story that was so vital to each of the first two “Terminators.” The T-X is also a casualty of the running time. In each of the previous installments, time was taken to carefully build the villain as an ominous threat. Here, the T-X is both powerful and unrelenting as a Terminator should be, but because the focus of the film is on the imminent Judgment Day and not on John and Kate surviving the T-X’s attack, she becomes less memorable as a result.

The other problem I have with this movie is the same one I had with “Terminator 2″: the humor. The difference here is that it’s moved to the foreground, at times turning what should be as much or more of a serious story than the others into an action-comedy. By this time, a pattern has formed in the way that “Terminator” movies play out. Action sequences, if not copied outright, are at least followed so closely as to make them recognizable. Worst of all are the one-liners. I hate when sequels repeat the favorite lines of the original out of context. But the “Terminator” franchise insists on keeping iterations of “I’ll be back,” “Get out” and “Come with me if you want to live” around all for the sake of a chuckle from members of the audience, including in the forthcoming “Terminator Genisys” if the trailers are any indication. *Sigh*

What would otherwise be a mediocre “Terminator” movie and an “okay” action movie is rescued somewhat by its ballsy ending. You have an indication all the way through that it’s headed in this direction, but it is nice to see the writers not getting squeamish, going for broke, and taking us all the way. So, this wasn’t the ultimate train wreck that certain other third entries have been (“Alien 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Spider-Man 3,” etc.), yet it had the potential to be so much more. We would have to wait another six years to see if the franchise would make any upgrades, or if we simply had another Windows Vista on our hands.

Terminator 2 (1991)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Edward Furlong

Foreknowledge of the end of the world would, I think, have to be among the more poisonous burdens for anyone to bear. Just look at what it has done to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). In 1995, eleven years after surviving an assassination attempt by a cybernetic killing machine from 2029, Sarah has been locked away in a mental institution, ranting and raving about August 29, 1997 being our forthcoming “Judgment Day.” She’s in the maximum security wing, both because no one believes her outlandish story and because she attempted to blow up the very computer factory she swears has covered up all the evidence. Hardly the innocent, bumbling waif that she was when we first met her in “The Terminator.”

What Sarah doesn’t know but is about to find out is that Cyberdyne Systems has not only done exactly as she has said, but is even making technological leaps and bounds, with the help of genius computer programmer Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), based on the remnants of the Terminator she destroyed. Worse yet, another more advanced Terminator is on its way to kill her ten year old son, John (Edward Furlong), destined one day to be our savior. Fortunately, as before, future John sent a protector for his present day self. This one’s a Terminator of the same model and design (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as the one which tried to kill his mother, and killed a number of other people in its path, including many of those dearest to Sarah. These factors and more led the Mother of the Future to seek out every like-minded Armageddon fetishist she could find to help prepare both herself and her son for the storm just over the horizon. Yet none could take the place of her one, true beloved: John’s father, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).

Sequels which opt for the “bigger is better” approach either succeed or fail based off of which path they take. The ones which fail generally do so because they forsake storytelling for lots of cool ‘splosions. The ones that succeed take the universe which the original created and expand upon it. If they can do this while also being revolutionary in the special effects department, well, that’s just a bonus. This describes “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” perfectly. Giving Arnold Schwarzenegger the heroic role, we are able to learn from him a lot more about just what it means to be a Terminator. We certainly aren’t going to learn these things from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), an abominable creation made of liquid metal. Unlike Arnold’s T-800, the T-1000 is more adept at blending in with his environment, both in choosing the default appearance of a mild-mannered cop and in his ability to transform into anyone he comes into contact with, even merging with the floor if need be. It took serious creativity to come up with the techniques used to bring the T-1000 to life. At the time, the special effects in “Terminator 2″ were state of the art, and are still an amazing achievement that holds up well almost 25 years later.

Like its predecessor, what really sells “Terminator 2″ is not the action sequences, the special effects or even the imposing villain, but its human story. You have the fatherless John Connor latching onto his new best friend, the Terminator, and teaching him how to be human. While these parts of the movie tend to get a bit too cutesy and take away from the Terminator’s intimidation factor, it still serves the narrative well, especially in the Extended Edition. Speaking of which, Sarah’s part of the story is better served by the extra scenes. For one thing, her stay at the institution is much longer, and there’s even a dream sequence which sees the brief return of Kyle Reese.

Easily my favorite moment in “Terminator 2″ comes when Sarah has made her decision to drive to the home of Miles Dyson and murder him. She does manage to wound him, but stops short of completing the deed. She sees that her paranoia has led her to behave like the machines she has grown to both hate and fear. Unlike a Terminator, Sarah is not emotionless, and it is this difference which allows her to see the error of her ways. I absolutely love the way Linda Hamilton plays this scene. She’s spent the entire movie as this half-crazed, hardened woman who can think of almost nothing but the end of everything. As she stops herself from pulling the trigger, sparing Dyson’s life, you can see a spark of the woman she was before all of this shit rained down on her back in 1984.

“Terminator 2″ is often cited as one of, if not the best sequel of all-time. I can’t take it quite that far (“Godfather Part II” is still the champion of second entries), in part because of the domestication of Arnold’s Terminator and the lingo he’s taught to use, which is the one thing that dates this movie. Otherwise, it’s one hell of an accomplishment, one which James Cameron could never have topped. That’s probably one of the reasons why he has never returned to the franchise, the other being that “Terminator 2″ offered what at the time appeared to be a pretty definitive ending. Then again, so did Cameron’s “Aliens,” and we know how that turned out.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Director: Victor Heerman

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth

Anyone who says Black & White movies are irrelevant because they’re too old has never seen a Marx Brothers feature. I can still recall a time when my own perceptions of Golden Age comedy were colored by a growing apathy towards the slapstick routines of the Three Stooges and a sense that any topical humor would inevitably come off sounding rather dated. Then I sat down and watched “Animal Crackers,” the second feature film starring Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and, of course, Groucho. Apart from Zeppo’s everyman character (who often fades into the background), each of them brought something to the table that not only distinguished them individually, but would inspire countless comedians in the 80+ years that have passed since. Although many critics and fans favor either 1933’s “Duck Soup” or 1935’s “A Night at the Opera” (both of them outstanding in their own right), I was won over by “Animal Crackers” with four simple words: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!”

The plot of “Animal Crackers” is a very simple one. During a party held at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), three groups with their own separate agendas all form plots to steal a painting on display inside the home, intending to replace the more valuable original with a copy. This includes the con artist team of Signor Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his mute partner, The Professor (Harpo Marx). The whole reasoning for said party is the return from the African Jungle of Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), and the entrance he makes is one for the ages. Carried in by human caravan like royalty, Captain Spaulding immediately launches into a sequence of non-sequiturs which lets you know that this guy enjoys being the smartest/wittiest man in the room. He can start off by talking about art and then segue into pointing out how cranberries can be made to taste like prunes if stewed in just the right way, all without ever missing a beat. Also presented in these first ten minutes of the film are its two best songs: “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Though the former would later become his theme song, it is the latter which instantly made me a Groucho Marx fan. After repeatedly being interrupted by the song’s chorus, Captain Spaulding finally gives in, interrupts himself and then breaks the fourth wall, insisting “Well, somebody’s gotta do it!” Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen “Animal Crackers.” That scene always makes me laugh until my sides hurt.

This is not to say that Groucho is your only reason for watching “Animal Crackers.” Both Chico and Harpo have their time to shine, as well. As is their usual shtick, the two play bumbling thieves/con artists. There is the card game during which they are caught blatantly cheating with multiple copies of the various suits. Signor Ravelli, the dimwitted Italian, impresses no one while the Professor, silent but sneaky, irritates everyone at the same time as he is picking their pockets clean. Chico and Harpo both also put on display their musical talents. Signor Ravelli sits down at the piano, initially annoying Captain Spaulding with a repetitive number to which he cannot remember the finish, and then with a more beautiful tune. But it’s Harpo. as the Professor, playing the harp (a somewhat dying art nowadays) who really brings the house down.

As with “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers had first performed “Animal Crackers” as a stage play. Considering the way in which the movie’s narrative is structured, and keeping in mind the way in which Groucho often plays to the audience/camera, this comes as no surprise. Also like their first film, the brothers found themselves at odds with their director. Groucho, in particular, butted heads with Victor Heerman, often over his trademark appearance. Heerman didn’t believe that audiences would buy into Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows and moustache. Well I say, “horse feathers” (No, wait, that’s another Marx Bros. film, entirely!) and apparently so did Groucho.

Based on my thorough enjoyment of this film, I purchased two box sets of Marx Brothers movies on DVD, which includes all of the group’s twelve movies: five with Zeppo, and seven after Zeppo’s departure. Often, the supporting cast would include many of the same players. Margaret Dumont was a regular feature. Most of the time, though, they were mostly relegated to the background in favor of the brothers’ antics. Only once did a co-star ever manage to upstage Groucho, Harpo and Chico: a young Lucille Ball in 1938’s “Room Service,” whose own legacy is cemented by the TV series “I Love Lucy,” which has remained in syndication ever since the end of its original run more than sixty years ago. Though “Animal Crackers” was originally made with a pre-World War II audience in mind, it too never has and probably never will lose any of its potency.

james-horner

Part of growing up is learning how to say “goodbye.” Sometimes, that means having to bid farewell to friends and family alike. Composer James Horner was neither of these things to me. I never had the privilege of meeting the man. Even so, through the music he produced for dozens of movies in a period spanning nearly four decades, I have felt as though I’ve come to know him well. Most of my favorite film scores were his, and it is the knowledge that we’ve heard the last of his brilliant and beautiful creations that hits me the hardest.

Horner’s first major film score was for 1979’s “The Lady in Red,” when he was just 26 years old. His list of credits would grow to include “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” “48 Hrs.,” “Cocoon,” “Commando,” “Aliens,” “An American Tail,” “Willow,” “The Land Before Time,” ” Field of Dreams,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Glory,” “Patriot Games,” “Legends of the Fall,” Braveheart,” Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Avatar” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” among many others. There is even at least one key scene towards the end of “Die Hard” where that film’s composer, Michael Kamen, briefly hands over the reigns to Horner.

Looking over this list,  I see many films which I grew up with, whose soundtracks I know by heart. Whenever I went on an out-of-state field trip in both middle school and high school, I maintained a tradition of bringing along with me the soundtrack to “Apollo 13.” As soon as the bus would pull out of the school parking lot, I would immediately press “PLAY” on the Main Title theme. I’ve been listening to that one a lot since last night’s sad news first broke. Anybody who grew up in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s will doubtless recall the numerous movie trailers which made use of the track “Bishop’s Countdown” from Horner’s “Aliens” score. Epic stuff. But I keep going back to those soundtracks for “Star Trek II” and “Star Trek III.” A Trekker since the age of four, I’ve counted those two soundtracks as my absolute favorite of any movie to this very day. Although I have grown weary of the overuse of “Amazing Grace” at every single funeral I attend or see displayed on television, I count Horner’s rendition from “Star Trek II” as the only version I’ll never tire of hearing. Right now, though, I can’t bear to listen to it. The wound is still too fresh.

For me, it’s unusual for a celebrity’s demise to hit me the way James Horner’s has. Part of it is his young age of 61. Another factor is the manner in which he left us. The sudden, unexpected plane crash that claimed him, a man whose other passion beyond creating beautiful music was in soaring through the skies, only makes it harder to accept. Yet, here we are… living in a world without James Horner in it. 2015 has been an especially hard year to be a “Star Trek” fan. We had already lost “Star Trek: The Next Generation” producer/writer Maurice Hurley, Harve Bennett (executive producer of Star Trek II, III, IV and V), actress Grace Lee Whitney and Mr. Spock, himself: Leonard Nimoy. But even Nimoy has not had the impact on my life which Horner and his music did. The best way I can think of to find solace is the belief that he will never be truly dead as long as his life’s work continues to make similar impressions on others in the years to come.

Game of Thrones

So, here it comes: My first retraction of a prior statement on this blog. With my previous “Game of Thrones” editorial, I had noted that the ninth episode in a given season of this series seems to always bring (with the help of a single, powerful event) the biggest emotional wallop. As of last night’s airing of the Season 5 finale, entitled “Mother’s Mercy,” that’s simply no longer the case. Season 5, Episode 10 didn’t just top the one, horrifying aspect of Episode 9 (“The Dance of Dragons”). It threw cowpies at it, stabbed it repeatedly, and then burnt it to ashes with a seemingly endless barrage of doom and gloom. “Mother’s Mercy” was a brilliant title, in that it may have lulled some fans into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, those who watched received very little in the way of mercy. More than is typical for even this show, the overall theme for the final hour of Season 5 is the ruination of everyone’s best laid plans. Even more taxing, however, are the cliffhangers we’ve been left on. So. Many. Cliffhangers. Leave it to director David Nutter to once again make us lose sleep on a Sunday night.

If I’m to go any further on the subject, I’ll have to put forth the traditional spoiler warning. With that in mind….

****MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD****

Although “The Dance of Dragons” had sported a bloodbath in Meereen and also the burning of Shireen Baratheon with her own father’s consent, there were at least long periods when one could breathe. “Mother’s Mercy” offered very little opportunity for this, as the situations in Dorne, King’s Landing, Braavos, Winterfell and Castle Black each took sudden turns for the worse. Meereen got a mention also, but as I said, the bad had already happened, so when we rejoined Tyrion, Daario, and Jorah, they were still sorting out the mess left over from the attack by the Sons of the Harpy, which they would never have survived if not for Drogon, one of Daenerys’s three dragons. Tyrion was also reunited with Varys, he who had helped to smuggle his friend out of Westeros and to convince the rogue member of House Lannister to seek out Daenerys in the first place. Daenerys, having ridden on the back of her “child,” found herself back in Dothraki territory, where we first got to know her in Season 1. This is perhaps the most positive portion of the episode, and yet even Daenerys is finding that her best intentions have literally sent her right back to where she started from.

Stannis Baratheon, having now killed or allowed to be killed two members of his own family in a desperate attempt to seize the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, finds his efforts stalled in Winterfell when half of his forces desert him, with the other half being wiped out by House Bolton. There is no dog in that fight to root for, as both are despicable. One side is now gone, while the other lingers on. Stannis himself is dispatched (although it’s not definitively shown… hmm…) by a vengeful Brienne of Tarth, who was unable to protect Stannis’s brother Renly when Stannis killed him back in Season 2. Clearly, the Lord of Light was never truly backing this waste of human flesh. Good riddance.

In Dorne, Jaime Lannister has been attempting, at the behest of his sister Cersei, to secure the release of Myrcella, their daughter and one of three children by incest. It was feared her life might be in danger, and it was, thanks to Ellaria Sand, the still-grieving paramour of the late Oberyn Martell and mother to their three bastard daughters known as the Sand Snakes. After a scuffle and brief imprisonment, an agreement appeared to have been reached between them thanks to Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell. Sadly, someone conveniently forgot (for the second time) that the Martells are experts in deadly poisons, and that it might be more reasonable to have Ellaria say her goodbyes verbally rather than allow her to give Myrcella a parting kiss. Jaime has ultimately failed in his mission, now having helplessly watched two of his children succumb to death by poison. Worse still, if the prophecy we were shown in flashback at the season’s beginning holds any weight whatsoever, then the gentle King Tommen I won’t be far from joining his siblings in the great beyond.

Once Cersei learns of this latest tragedy, it will only add to her own woes, having been completely humiliated by the High Sparrow. Shorn of hair and forced to walk naked from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, with hundreds of angry citizens standing ready to throw objects and yell obscenities, this is Cersei at her lowest point. Whether or not you believe she deserves this level of punishment depends entirely upon your perspective. Among all the other horrible things she’s done, Cersei placed herself in this situation when, based on the aforementioned prophecy, she had taken careful, ruthless steps to consolidate power and at least attempted to provide protection for Tommen. She’s also had it in for Margarey Tyrell, whose own ambitions to be Queen led her to wed Cersei’s psychotic firstborn, King Joffrey I, and then later his brother when the former was assassinated at his own wedding. Though she did manage, with help from the High Sparrow, to get Margarey imprisoned, it only led to the same treatment for herself, and now all of King’s Landing is in shambles. Nice going, Cersei.

Of all the various family houses, though, none has more consistently been given the shaft despite being undeserving of it than House Stark. In Braavos, Arya Stark has been training to become a faceless assassin, but can’t let go of her vengeance wish list. She collects the first name on that list, brutally murdering Meryn Trant whom she’s wanted to see dead since Season 1. It’s a truly satisfying moment, but she is soon after punished with blindness (temporary, we hope) for the act. Her sister, Sansa, has been trying to figure a way out of her own messed up situation for several episodes now. Ever the helpless victim, Sansa is rescued by Reek (formerly Theon Greyjoy) from certain death/disfigurement. What is unclear is where they’ve gone to, as the last image we have of them is jumping from the castle walls.

Whatever I said about Shireen’s death last week being a near equal of the emotional impact of the Red Wedding, forget it! That was folly! The fate of Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow, which readers of the book series have been stewing about for going on four years, was finally revealed to fans of the TV series, and boy does it suck to be him! Jon’s reward for trying to play the role of peacemaker between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings is the same for most men who try to be revolutionaries. The assholes of the world who want to hold on to things the way that they are won’t allow change to stand in their way, and neither will the Night’s Watch as they mutinied against one of the show’s most beloved characters and appear to have Julius Caesar-ed his ass.

If Jon Snow is 100% dead, and it’s implied that he is, I am not certain where that leaves the show. Certainly, main character offings have become a “Game of Thrones” tradition, but Jon Snow was perceived as one of THE three main characters along with Tyrion and Daenerys (i.e. nigh untouchable). This gives back to the show the unpredictability it had been sorely missing, but it also leaves a void not easily filled. It would be strange, I think, to end his story now when there seems to have been a buildup to something more, which is why I’m not entirely convinced this is the end for him. Resurrection has been proven to be a real thing on “Game of Thrones.” With this precedent having been set long ago, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Jon Snow to perform a Christ-like rise. But no one who watches the show does or ever should come to expect such a reprieve. In any case, it’s going to be a full year (i.e. an excessively long wait) before we find out what happens, and now we no longer have book spoilers to help us plan for what to expect. Not since the Season 3 cliffhanger of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” a quarter-century ago have I been cursed with such anticipation.

Game of Thrones

Since I first started watching “Game of Thrones,” I have marveled at how completely it has captured my attention despite being filled with contemptible souls. Indeed, it may well be that no other TV series has ever had quite so many individual characters who routinely do things to make you hate them while simultaneously remaining a can’t-miss hour of programming. One thing that makes this show so compelling is its defiance of the fantasy/adventure formula. The hero does not always get the girl in the end, and in fact are lucky if they get to keep their heads. Indeed, the extent to which the bad guys win on this show is hardly the stuff of fairy tales. Viewers tuning in for the first time… unless they read George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books… may not have been expecting that, but surely they have come to anticipate it since the ninth episode of Season 1. That episode, entitled “Baelor,” left an empty feeling in the pits of many stomachs when *SPOILER* (?) the supposed series lead Sean Bean added another on-screen death to his already long list. Since that time, the penultimate episode in a season of “Game of Thrones” has been looked upon with a certain sense of dread, because that’s when something uniquely earth-shattering always occurs. Whether it be an adrenaline rush on a scale of epic proportions or a severe punch to the gut, it would appear that the ninth out of ten episodes in a given season of “Game of Thrones” is always destined to deliver the hardest blow.

While most any other TV show would be grateful to have a string of ten episodes like the current year of “Game of Thrones,” it is a sign of just how exceptional the series has been when it can be said that Season 5 has been the weakest of the lot, especially when compared to the magical fourth season. However, the last couple of weeks have really stepped things up a notch. As I said, Episode 9 always reveals something either epic or tragic. Seasons 2 and 4 each saw their ninth episodes focused on a single storyline (the only two times the show has done so), each resulting in major conflicts which were like something out a “Lord of the Rings” movie: intense yet immensely satisfying. Since last week’s “Hardhome” raised the bar in terms of jaw-dropping extended battle sequences, it was clear that whatever hack/slice/stab action was going to take place in last night’s “Dance of Dragons” was destined to take a backseat to a single moment of profound horror.

We should have known we were in for something terrible as soon as the opening credits had revealed its director to be David Nutter. Two years ago, Nutter tore viewers apart with the dreaded Red Wedding massacre in “The Rains of Castamere,” the ninth episode of Season 3. As much as “Hardhome” did to distinguish itself on one end of the spectrum, nothing in the time since the Red Wedding have we witnessed anything so singularly depressing. Last night’s episode came close, and it didn’t need a huge body count to do it.

Innocence, a regular staple of the fantasy genre, has been in short supply on “Game of Thrones” since its very beginning. Five years in, it’s essentially non-existent, and anyone who has displayed the slimmest shred of honor has not remained entirely unscathed. We’ve still one more episode left in this season, and indications are that all will not end well. But, then, you could say that of most any single hour of this series. Still the question remains: What will be left of our favorite characters after Sunday, June 14th, and what will become of them once the ninth episode of Season 6 runs them all through the wringer in 2016?

American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

I personally hate it when movies claim to be “based on a true story.” Starting off with an outright lie is a bad first impression to make on your audience. Then along comes “American Hustle.” While the plot does take certain inspirations from actual historical events, never is the dreaded phrase used. Instead, it is substituted by “Some of these events actually happened.” Emphasis on the word “some.” It’s one of those “names were changed” type of movies. So what if that’s technically a different way of saying the same thing? By admitting that only some of what they’re showing you should be regarded as an adaptation of fact, the filmmakers are treating you with the honesty that the main characters in the story likely never would.

It’s 1978. By this time. the United States as a country had been through some serious shit. Suffering through the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Richard Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal, is it any wonder why some of the Baby Boomer generation turned to heavy drugs, disco and questionable fashion choices? The lead character and narrator, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a talented con artist with a flabby belly and a comb-over hiding a receding hairline which Irving should have given up on a long time ago. Joining him in the game of scamming the gullible is Sydney Prosser, who adopts an English accent when posing as Lady Edith Greensly. Having fallen in love with Sydney, Irving finds himself in a bit of a pickle, because he’s also married to the unstable and accident-prone Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a bond he’d rather not break in particular because of her son, whom Irving has also adopted. He’s also not fond of the idea of Rosalyn going to the police to report his criminal activities, of which she is well aware, should he ever leave her.

But Irving and Sydney face bigger problems once they attempt to scam the wrong guy, who reveals himself to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie has in mind a scam of his own, a sting operation designed to take down corrupt New Jersey politicians. With Irving and Sydney’s cooperation in this plot, they are promised their freedom. One of his intended targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the beloved mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine almost walks out on their meeting when Richie tries to pressure him into accepting a briefcase full of money, all so he can get the moment recorded on a hidden FBI camera. Irving persuades Carmine not to walk away, softening the man up by confessing his very real disdain for the young, impulsive federal agent. This is a decision Irving will later come to regret after developing a friendship with the Mayor.

As the story progresses, the stakes get higher with Richie’s growing ambitions. A chance meeting with notorious mobster Victor Tellegio leads to Richie forming a strategy to take him down, as well. This draws ire from Irving, and from Richie’s FBI superior (Louis C.K.). Not to mention the fact that it puts everyone, even Rosalyn and her son, in mortal jeopardy. It’s a dangerous game that only the most devious among them can win.

Now, I’m an educated man, but even I can’t understand how an entertaining movie filled with a cast of immensely talented actors can be nominated for ten Oscars… including all four acting categories… and come away from Awards night with a big fat goose egg. But that’s the fate which befell “American Hustle.” C’est la vie. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Jennifer Lawrence in particular. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the fact that she is, for once, not the best thing about a movie she stars in. Instead, the standout performance of the film is delivered by Amy Adams. As Sydney, she often upstages Irving with her natural ability to scheme and plot. Sydney also stands out as the only character in the film with a keen fashion sense. Part of her game includes occasionally leading on the men she intends to dupe. Even as Richie is using her and Irving in his bid to achieve fame, Sydney in turn is playing on his growing infatuation with her.

For any movie to be truly memorable, you need to be able to point to certain scenes or key pieces of dialogue which stick with you long after it’s over. There are a few I could point to, such as the big reveal of the uncredited Robert De Niro as Victor Tellegio, or the moment when Sydney decides to reveal to Richie that she’s been faking the English accent the whole time. Richie’s reaction is priceless. But the part of the movie I think about most is when Carmine gives Irving a microwave oven as a token of friendship. He calls it the “science oven.” Comically, the gift doesn’t last very long. Despite being told not to, Rosalyn puts a tray wrapped in aluminum foil into the “science oven.” Oops. Sure, they can always get another one, but it wouldn’t mean as much to Irving as the one Carmine gave to him.

The movie is based in part on the FBI operation known as ABSCAM, which involved the investigation of some 31 political figures. Each of the main characters are based on participants in ABSCAM, with different names and other certain alterations for dramatic effect. Among the resulting convictions included six members of the House of Representatives and one U.S. Senator.

Director David O. Russell has really impressed the hell out of me so far. I like that he, as with most directors, has found a core group of actors he likes to work with and has stuck with them. Especially when it’s these people. The superhero fan in me can’t help but look at that movie poster and see (from left to right) Rocket Raccoon, Lois Lane, Batman, Mystique and Hawkeye. But the film enthusiast in me recognizes “American Hustle” as another work of art from the people who brought us “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”