Film and TV

Terminate, Already

For some reason, the local promotions firm putting on a preview screening of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines last week figured it would be a good idea to have several dozen middle-aged burnouts on motorcycles cruise up and down outside the theater in a menacing spectacle. Besides tying up the Arizona Mills parking lot traffic, the only purpose for the show seemed to be to promote a particular type of two-wheeled machine that makes only the briefest of appearances in the film itself.

The net result of this marketing brainstorm was that local comedian Jimmy Danelli almost couldn't find a seat in the theater, which was filled nearly to capacity with bikers.

"I don't know which I was more concerned about, the villains in the movie or the Hells Angels that were seated around me," Danelli later quipped.

It was good that Danelli had kept his sense of humor. Not only had he been forced to fight for a seat, he was then made to sit through 25 minutes of previews, setting some kind of record for preshow cinematic pimping. After about the eighth trailer, they all started to blend together.

To his credit, Danelli didn't let it faze him. He was still up for Arnold Schwarzenegger's big return as an assassination machine.

"It's the only time you'll see a politician doing his own killing," Danelli said with a knowing smile.

The former Angeleno keeps his eye on California's political fortunes, but he's been a Valley resident for two years now. The climate won him over, he claims, a statement that, in July, says something about this guy's sanity. But if he's got a screw loose, Danelli's still quick with a punch line and a grin. A veteran comic who's worked for years to land small parts in television, he reels off a list of appearances from Welcome Back, Kotter (leader of a rival gang to the Sweathogs) to Ellen (as Ellen DeGeneres' boyfriend -- "Now you know why she became a lesbian," Danelli cracks). But he's best known locally for his ringleader role in the Valley's standup comedy tournament, a competition he dreamed up and emcees every Friday night at The Sets in Tempe.

Since he birthed the concept a couple of years ago, Danelli's presented more than 300 comics in the weekly contests. Each Friday 20 funny men and women -- amateur and professional -- do their routines and are then judged by the audience. After nine weeks of qualifying, a championship night is arranged to anoint the "Funniest Person in the Valley." Ten times, such a champ has been named, winning a $1,000 prize each time.

The latest championship takes place this weekend, as 15 finalists appear at The Sets Friday at 8 p.m. But Danelli's even more excited about a television pilot that he's developing based on the concept. Two different networks, he says, are hot for the product. "An executive said to me, You are absolutely hilarious.' It floored me, because I didn't remember sleeping with him."

After the annoying parade of previews, and after the bikers had finally settled down and stopped yelling things at the screen, Arnold's big sequel finally got going. Very quickly -- maybe too quickly -- we were reminded about where this franchise left off 12 years ago.

In a rapid voice-over sequence, John Connor (Nick Stahl) reminds us that he's destined to grow up and lead a revolution against the murderous machines that will eventually take over the planet. Problem is, the pesky droids of the future keep sending nasty cyborgs back through time to kill Connor off as a youngster. To keep himself alive long enough for his date with destiny, Connor's got to remain as anonymous as possible in the present, living "off the grid," as he puts it, so that his enemies can't find him. And that means bumming around the gritty streets of downtown L.A., breaking into pharmacies, and talking complete gibberish when people ask him what he's up to.

"This is what happens when you live in L.A. too long," Danelli observed.

Soon enough, however, things take a kinky twist when Connor finds himself locked in an animal cage by Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), an old junior high school friend who had once swapped spit with him in a dark basement. Before these two can explore their SM fantasies any further, however, the latest model of Terminator, T-X (Kristinna Loken), arrives from the future to begin wreaking havoc. Like her predecessor, the liquidy T-1000, our Terminatrix can take all sorts of punishment and reassemble herself from a puddle of silvery goo. But in yet another advancement in assassination technology, sporty T-X is outfitted with a particularly adaptable arm, which variously deforms into a sword, laser cannon and rotary saw.

"I've heard of hand jobs, but that excelled even my expectations," said Danelli after the film had ended. "Her hand had more uses than a Swiss Army knife. The only thing it couldn't do was make the movie shorter."

Time after time, T-X is foiled in her attempts to julienne Connor and Brewster (who, we find out, is also a target because she'll end up playing a big part in Connor's future, uh, reproductory exploits). And that's because, yet again, the rebels of the future have done what they can to protect Connor by sending back in time a cyborg reprogrammed to look like Maria Shriver's husband.

Arnold makes his debut standing buck naked in what looks like Joshua Tree National Monument, and the guy appears as solid as ever. But Danelli wasn't buying it.

"It was typical Arnold. Restrict his dialogue and he'll do a good job. But if he has any more plastic surgery, he's going to start looking like Joan Rivers," Danelli cracked.

In the last movie, Arnold's terminator protected a young boy and his mother from a killing machine able to adapt itself to look like anyone. In this movie, Arnold's terminator protects a young man and his future wife from a killing machine able to adapt itself to look like anyone. But there are big differences, really. Last time, Connor rode a motorcycle while trying to evade a rampaging semi. This time, he's in a veterinarian's truck while being chased by a giant crane. You could almost see the excited studio execs at T3's story meetings -- "We'll throw in a fire truck! A hearse! A Winnebago!"

"I didn't fall asleep in the first Terminator," Danelli complained after fidgeting through nearly the entire film. "This movie was a chase. The entire film was based on a chase. It became boring and monotonous and I was praying for it to end."

The pursuit had begun so early and persisted for so long, he said, there was little reason to care about Connor, Brewster, or either of the machines. "You had to be familiar with the history of the characters. They didn't fill you in. If you didn't know the previous story," Danelli said, "you were guessing. I think that hurt the movie. There was no emotional investment in the characters."

At least the bikers in the audience seemed entertained by all the automotive chicanery. But even they seemed mystified by the movie's long, dreary ending, which rivaled Star Trek: The Motion Picture for its flaccid deflation. Kirk and Spock discovering that their dreaded nemesis was really the Voyager spacecraft was lame and may have set some sort of mark for most dimwitted science fiction surprise ending ever, but Connor and Brewster's "judgment day" revelation is nearly as much of a letdown.

Still, Danelli said the experience wasn't a complete waste of time.

"It did work out kind of nice. I wanted a bag of popcorn and a soda, and I ended up with a bag of weed and a biker babe. It made my evening worthwhile."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega