Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 80 books in 2019 (81 if I can finish the one I'm currently on before midnight).  On the whole I'd say this year's reading was solid but not amazing--which feels very much of a piece with my cultural consumption all around (see also my list of favorite TV shows at Lawyers, Guns & Money).  Of course, there are so many 2019 books that I still haven't gotten around to, that it may turn out I had a great reading year, I just didn't know it until long after it was over.  For now, however, my favorite books of the year are below.

Best Books:
  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

    Every year has to have at least one superlative short story collection, and Adjei-Brenyah's debut was it for 2019.  And what a debut it is.  Taking obvious inspiration from George Saunders, the stories here straddle the line between realism and parody, naturalism and science fiction.  A store clerk on Black Friday learns to understand the language of the feral shoppers after being bitten by one.  A black man works in a theme park that allows white visitors to simulate the experience of shooting a belligerent black person.  Adjei-Brenyah's language is spare and ruthlessly effective, and his ideas are shocking but also terrifyingly believable and thoughtfully worked-out.  The concluding story, "Into the Flash", is an out-and-out science fiction piece that should have appeared on this year's awards shortlists, a wonderful riff on familiar tropes that takes them in a direction all its own.

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

    I watched both the 1975 movie and the 2018 miniseries versions of this story before finally getting around to reading Lindsay's 1967 novel, and though both adaptations are good, neither of them do justice to the novel's breadth, intelligence, and strangeness.  What's most surprising--and, ultimately, most rewarding--about the original Picnic is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls is so much less central to it than it is in the movie or the miniseries.  It's an inciting event, but around it, Lindsay weaves a portrait of a community, examining people of different classes, races, and social situations, and observing the ways that the girls' disappearance upends their lives, in some cases opening new opportunities for them, and in others closing them off.  It's still a strange, hallucinatory work, and I can see why it has been classed as horror or supernatural fiction rather than a social novel, but it was that aspect of it that left me fascinated, far more than the mystery which Lindsay (wisely, except in an ancillary chapter which also doesn't give a lot of answers) doesn't resolve.

  • Berlin by Jason Lutes (review)

    A quarter-century in the making, Lutes's opus, which charts the fortunes of several characters--artists, free-thinkers, journalists, communists, and children--during the early years of the Nazis' rise to power went from historical document to something vitally, terrifyingly relevant over the span of its creation.  Lutes's art is stunning, using orderly panels and detailed pen-and-ink drawings to give us a sense of the city, and of how it is being transformed and disrupted by the forces operating within it.  Though Lutes observes the rise of the Nazis, and follows several characters who are won over by their creed, the bulk of his attention is paid to liberals, leftists, and free-thinkers, all of whom spin ideas about how to build a better world, but can't come up with ways to stop it from descending into horror.  It's a monumental work that feels incredibly important in this present moment, even if it doesn't offer solutions to its characters' dilemma--merely a warning of what might happen if we fail in the same way they did.

  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews

    This is a slim novel that packs a tremendous punch, which feels appropriate to its unassuming but strong-willed heroines.  In a South American Mennonite community, several men have been arrested for drugging and raping women.  While the men of the community have gone to try to post bail for the accused, the women gather together to decide what, if anything, they are going to do about being expected to live with, and even forgive, their rapists.  Though the situation she describes is extreme, Toews uses it to address questions that will be familiar to any feminist--chiefly, how do you live in a world in which you are fundamentally unsafe?  Though it might seem that reasoned debate is a strange method by which to work out this issue, especially given the extremes of the characters' situation, Toews's characters come to life through their conversation, slowly working their way towards an understanding of what they want--and more importantly, the recognition that what they want matters.

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

    Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's novel follows an eccentric old woman over the course of a year in her remote house on the Polish-Czech border.  As she tramps back and forth across the scenery, the narrator introduces us to characters, locations, and even animals.  It takes a while to tease out what's happening in the background--the fact that various people in the surrounding area have started turning up dead--and even longer to realize where Tokarczuk is going with this scheme.  Once you grasp it, however, it's brilliant--a meditation on what it's like to live in a country that is slowly turning against you, and against the values you hold dear, wrapped up in a mystery that doesn't even let on that it's a mystery until the very last minute.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

    It was a tall order, following up a book as revelatory and imaginative as The Underground Railroad.  If The Nickel Boys isn't quite as stunning as that novel, it's mostly because Whitehead has wisely chosen to go a completely different route with it.  Instead of freewheeling invention that cuts across time and space, he has delivered a very simple story, contained to a single, horrifying location--the Nickel School for boys, where black teenager Elwood is remanded for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and where he has to struggle to survive.  But The Nickel Boys is not simply a dramatization of yet another horrifying chapter in the history of America's abuse of African-Americans.  At its heart, it is a novel that asks how one reacts to dehumanization--with hope, or cynicism?  With brazen defiance, or the drive towards excellence?  Whitehead doesn't have an answer to offer, obviously, but by juxtaposing the question with this portion of history, he finds new notes in it, and gives it added urgency.

Honorable Mentions:
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - It took me a few years to get around to this much-loved fantasy novel, but I see that everyone who adored it was right.  A brilliant novel of manners that asks how an abused person, granted tremendous power, can use that power to make a better world for himself and for others.

  • Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - A standalone novel in the world of Seraphina and Shadow-Scale, Tess follows a damaged heroine on a journey of healing and self-discovery.  It's the most perfectly-constructed of Hartman's three novels, and makes tremendous use of her detailed, imaginative worldbuilding.

  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads - Now that this praised-to-high-heavens comic run is finally available in trade paperback, we can all see that the people praising it weren't kidding. A brilliant meditation on trauma and recovery that moves back and forth between a cosmic war over the fate of the galaxy, and the travails of a couple as they debate renovating their apartment and starting a family. It shouldn't work, but in King's hands (and with Gerads' brilliant art), it absolutely does, delivering surprises all the way to the last page.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

One interesting aspect of our current era of cinematic universes and mega-franchises is that the stories behind the scenes often feel more interesting, and more dramatic, than the ones on screen. I like most MCU movies, but I'd pay a lot more than a movie ticket's price to know the answers to questions such as why Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor: The Dark World, or what the creative differences were that led to Ava DuVernay leaving Black Panther. And when it comes to Star Wars in the Disney era, these questions feel even more urgent, because the decisions being made are so much more baffling. Is it really possible that one of the hottest IPs of the century, the potential cornerstone of an empire of spin-offs and merchandising opportunities, was written in a method not unlike the party game where everyone writes a sentence in a story, folds the page down, and then hands it to the next person? I'd give a lot for a record of what went on in the meetings where the shape of Disney's Star Wars movies—and particularly the sequel trilogy—was decided on. And frankly, I think such a record would be a great deal more illuminating, not to mention entertaining, than The Rise of Skywalker.

From a distance of thirty thousand feet, you could make an argument for how Disney handled the new Star Wars trilogy. Let J.J. Abrams, elevated fanboy extraordinaire, bring the series back to life, combining his obsessive fannishness with his unerring eye for casting and genuine interest in depicting complex, winning female heroes, and thus take the franchise into the twenty-first century without losing sight of what it was. Then bring in Rian Johnson, who has never met a genre convention he didn't immediately want to examine and dismantle, to take the whole thing forward, establishing new parameters for what Star Wars can and should be. Finally, bring Abrams back to soothe fans' hurt feelings and give them the triumphant ending a Star Wars story ultimately needs.[1]

Move closer in, however, and the problems with this approach become clearer. Someone should perhaps have remembered what happens when you give Abrams a second crack at a beloved science fiction franchise, how his worst fanboy tendencies, his desire to write to the audience rather than the characters, have a history of overwhelming anything resembling coherent or compelling storytelling. Someone should also have remembered that he's a great guy for setup, but simply a disaster at paying it off. Not that Abrams shoulders all the blame here, of course. The Last Jedi gets better and richer the longer it has lingered in my mind, but it must be acknowledged that it moves the overall plot of the sequel trilogy not even an inch, and in fact dismantles some of the scaffolding built by The Force Awakens, which Abrams was presumably relying on to finish the story. I say again: it is simply bonkers that writers working on different chapters in the same story were allowed to do this to one another. There's been far too much vitriol directed at Kathleen Kennedy, much of it clearly misogynistic, over her stewardship of the franchise under Disney, but it has to be acknowledged that many of her decisions in that capacity have been simply inexplicable.

Not least among those decisions—and another question I would dearly love to have answered is whether it's Kennedy or Abrams who is more at fault here, though ultimately they both shoulder the blame—is how The Rise of Skywalker scurries away from nearly all the interesting, progressive choices made by The Last Jedi, kowtowing to the hysterical baying of violent, racist so-called fans. These are the people who drove Kelly Marie Tran off social media because they hated Rose so much—for daring to be a woman of color in "their" Star Wars movie. So The Rise of Skywalker sidelines Rose in a way that feels openly contemptuous not only of the character, but of the people to whom she meant so much. A main character in The Last Jedi, she gets a measly 76 seconds of screentime in Rise, and only one character interaction that could conceivably be called meaningful.[2] Along the same lines, fans who have spent the last four years caterwauling about how "unrealistic" it was for Rey to defeat Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat have gotten their reward in a duel in which he thoroughly trounces her. Even the fact that everyone keeps calling Kylo "Ren"—which is  the equivalent of calling Darth Vader "Darth"—feels like a capitulation to an inattentive yet outraged fandom's inability to grasp that Ren is a title, not a name.

But the more glaring walkbacks in Rise cut to the very heart of what The Last Jedi was trying to do with Star Wars, and how it was trying to take it forward. Johnson purposefully made Rey the daughter of nobodies, rebelling against the franchise's obsession with dynasties and with making every Force user the progeny (or ancestor) of another major character. Rise, through an incredibly tortured bit of sophistry, not only reveals that she is actually the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine (whose return as the new trilogy's ultimate villain was presumably imposed by Jedi's disinterested killing-off of Supreme Leader Snoke), but that she and Kylo Ren are a "Force dyad" (and that Luke and Leia were one as well), thus cementing the franchise's preoccupation with a single, convoluted family tree. The fact that Rey adopts the surname "Skywalker" at the film's end is presumably intended as a wholesome, uplifting moment, but given everything that comes before it—including a kiss between her and Kylo—it also feels more than a bit incestuous.

The Last Jedi seemed to close the book on the matter of Kylo Ren's capacity for redemption by having him make the active choice to embrace evil and a lust for power, even after Rey helps him free himself from the malign influence of Snoke. But Rise not only gives him a second bite at the apple—along the way revealing that Leia, who in Jedi pronounced her son "lost", was always planning to make one last stab at saving him—it completely rewrites his character. In the film's final scenes, the person on screen is not a repentant Kylo Ren trying to make amends for his many horrific crimes—which include, I will remind you, mass-murder, genocide, and the enslavement of children; I mention this because both the films and the fandom like to pretend that the worst thing Kylo has ever done is kill his father, when really it barely even scratches the top one hundred. Instead, it is Ben Solo that we're watching, and the film works hard to make him seem human and down to earth—pulling a Han Solo-ish face when he realizes how outnumbered he is as he rushes to Rey's rescue, breaking out in a relieved smile when she kisses him. It's notable, though, that he gets virtually no dialogue in these scenes, as if speaking would break the spell and remind us who this character is and what he's done. And then he dies—which, to be fair, I find more satisfying than the alternative, but is also clearly a copout, a way of trying to appease Kylo's haters as well as his fans.

Still, if you pull back from the disappointment of how Rise refuses all the interesting avenues offered it by Jedi, there's something fitting about the whole affair. It's easy to miss this, because Rise is such a busy, overstuffed movie[3], following Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo as they criss-cross the galaxy in search of various plot tokens that will lead them to Palpatine's hideout, where he has amassed a vast fleet armed with planet-killing weapons that will permanently shift the tide of war against the rebellion. But just as he recapitulated A New Hope when he made The Force Awakens, Abrams follows the general contours of Return of the Jedi with this movie. So we have Palpatine as an ultimate villain, a visit to Endor[4], and a plot that hinges on the unconvincing, last-minute redemption of a dyed-in-the-wool villain and a lot of Force woo-woo. It completes a familiar template: one film that is frothy and fun and raises expectations of a great ride ahead; one film that is darker and more cerebral and makes you think the entire enterprise might actually be saying something as well as being fun to watch; and one film that squanders all that promise by trying to repeat the lighter first chapter, and only succeeds in delivering a mish-mash of tones and an ending that feels cobbled-together and unearned. If you didn't know better, you'd think Kennedy and Disney had planned it like this from the beginning.

And the truth is, in some respects Abrams outdoes Lucas. This is chiefly down to the fact that Daisy Ridley is an infinitely better actor than Mark Hamill. In her performance as Rey, Ridley is playing essentially the same combination of good-hearted naiveté and reflexive heroism as Hamill's Luke. But she never fails to find greater depth, and interesting little notes, in her version of the character. Her Rey is matter-of-fact and self-contained, but also vulnerable and querulous and angry. Throughout the film there are moments—when she verbally spars with Poe after he brings the Millennium Falcon back to the resistance base battered; when she sadly but firmly informs Leia that though she wants her blessing to halt her Jedi training and go off in pursuit of Palpatine, she will do it either way; when she shrieks in horror at having seemingly caused Chewie's death with her Force powers—where Ridley's choices take what should have been trite, over-familiar beats and make them feel human and specific to her character.

Most importantly, Ridley can believably convey anger and darkness. When The Rise of Skywalker tells us that Rey's anger at Kylo and Palpatine is putting her in genuine moral peril, it's convincing in a way that it never was for Luke, because Luke never actually seemed that angry at Vader or the Emperor, no matter how much they hurt him or his friends. In the film's climactic scene, Rey attacks Kylo, driven by anger into an undisciplined barrage which he quickly turns to his advantage. She is saved by Leia reaching out to her son in the last minute, staying his hand by reminding him of who he used to be. In that moment, Rey takes advantage of Kylo's distraction and fatally stabs him. There's a part of me that still thinks Kylo's story should have ended there—if nothing else, it would have been wonderfully cathartic for a character to whom the films keep offering second chances he doesn't deserve to think that he's been given another one, only for it to turn out to be a trick by two women who have had all they can stand of his bullshit. But at the same time, Ridley makes it clear that in killing Kylo, Rey has crossed a moral event horizon that she may not be able to live with. When she chooses to save him (through a Force-healing technique that the film introduces a scene or two earlier), it's annoying, but also feels earned—a genuine moral choice that Rey has to make if she's to remain true to who she is and what she wants to be—in a way that Luke's refusal to kill Vader never did.

By the same token, Rise edges a little closer to selling Kylo's "redemption" than Return ever did with Vader. Not all the way, to be clear—as I've said, the film has to ignore most of Kylo's sins, and rewrite his personality, for the idea to even come close to seeming plausible (it also trots out Harrison Ford as a Force ghost to offer Kylo unearned absolution, and opine—against all available evidence—that he is strong enough to shoulder the burden of fighting Palpatine). But when Rey saves Kylo's life, it's an act of unearned compassion and greatness of spirit that feels like the sort of thing that might shake an entitled person out of their whiny self-absorption. That Kylo's shock over Rey's choice is what pushes him to renounce the dark side is much more convincing, and more moving, than the idea that Darth Vader is suddenly a good guy because he saved his own son's life.

In the end, though, it's all for nothing. Like Return of the Jedi before it, The Rise of Skywalker runs aground on the shoals of its fuzzy, poorly-defined conception of what the Force is, what the light and dark sides are, and what, in the end, good and evil are. As he did to Luke, Palpatine insists to Rey that by hating him and acting on that hatred, she is giving herself to the dark side, and that killing him will only cause her to become the new dark lord. The fact that in Rey's case this is emotionally convincing—again, Ridley is great at conveying Rey's anger and how it edges her closer to darkness—doesn't make the catch-22 of it any less annoying. If you're going to insist that anger and violence in response to evil and injustice can only lead to evil themselves, you need to offer a counter-strategy that is not only convincing, but resonant and thematically satisfying. Rise, like Return, can only offer lawyerly quibbling, with a side of special-effects extravaganzas. By killing him, Palpatine explains, Rey will be making herself a vessel for the spirits of all the Sith lords who came before them. So Rey, instead, becomes a vessel for all the Jedi. How does she do this? What does it mean? The film doesn't tell us, presumably because it has no idea—it just sounded neat. And then Rey, with the force of the Jedi behind her, kills Palpatine anyway, which is now not a dark and morally corrupting act for... reasons, I suppose.[5]

It's a particular shame because, waiting in the wings, there was a character and a plotline that could have cracked this entire trilogy wide open, made it something special and new and taken the franchise forward, and which instead was completely squandered and ignored. I am talking, of course, of the one new thing The Force Awakens brought to the franchise, the idea that stormtroopers are brainwashed child soldiers, and that some of them might choose to rebel. Abrams himself did very little with this idea once he'd introduced it, and Rian Johnson, though obliquely referencing Finn's past in a storyline that saw him embracing a global morality as well as a personal one, left the broader implications of stormtrooper rebellion untouched. Nevertheless, The Rise of Skywalker was perfectly positioned to take this idea forward. Rey can't kill Palpatine without giving in to the dark side? The rebellion can't hope to overcome the enormous fleet he's built? Then why not subvert the people without whom that fleet is so much space junk? Why not use Rey's powers, and Finn's intimate knowledge of the stormtrooper psyche, to reach out to people whom this series has always treated like canon-fodder, despite the fact that we now know they were kidnapped and enslaved? Isn't that the essence of what Rose tried to teach Finn in The Last Jedi—winning not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love? Wouldn't offering that as an answer to the dilemma Palpatine poses to Rey be infinitely more satisfying than some heretofore-unheard-of Force power?

There's the slightest hint that Rise might be moving in this direction when it introduces the character of Jannah (Naomi Ackie), herself a former stormtrooper who rebelled with her entire battalion.[6] But just like Finn, she is completely indifferent to the lives of the stormtroopers who are still under the First Order's sway, enthusiastically joining the rebellion's side in a final battle in which entire ships are destroyed. What's more, Jannah is the vector through which the film reveals that she, Finn, and all the other rebelling stormtroopers are Force-sensitive. Fans have been hoping for this revelation about Finn for a while, so at first glance it might seem like a way of elevating the character's importance. But upon further reflection, it's an idea that just gets more and more ugly. If only Force-sensitive stormtroopers are capable of rejecting the First Order's brainwashing, doesn't that make all the others inherently killable? Doesn't it negate the significance of Finn's moral choice? And is that, perhaps, the point? Fans—myself very much included—have been pointing out for a while the perversity of the films focusing on Kylo Ren's putative redemption in the same story in which another character, who was raised with none of the advantages and protections that Ben Solo enjoyed, simply chose—at great personal risk—not to hurt helpless people. But if Finn only rebelled because the Force compelled him to (Jannah even says "it was like we didn't have a choice" when describing how her battalion refused to slaughter civilians), then he's not actually morally superior, just lucky. And, implicitly, Kylo can't be blamed for all the evil he committed, because he was being pulled to do evil by the Force, just as Finn was pulled to do good.

It's a sterile, offensive take on morality that overwrites what should have been the heart of these movies. But perhaps that choice was inevitable. There's no room for Kylo Ren, after all, in a story about Rey and Finn reaching out to the stormtroopers[7]. And the new Star Wars movies—at least the ones created by Abrams—remain obsessed with dynasties. Hence this last one's title, and the revelation of Rey's ancestry, and her connection with Kylo, which also ties them both to Luke and Leia. A story about Rey using the Force to reach out to the faceless slaves who make up the First Order would have been a different sort of Star Wars—the kind I thought The Last Jedi was promising us. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Abrams and Disney, in their terror of alienating "fans" who can't stand to see this series change and progress, turned away from that story, and gave us one with a hollow, corroded heart.

[1] Though of course, this was not the original plan. Rise was supposed to have been directed by Colin Trevorrow, who as far as I know has yet to establish an identity as a director, and who is still credited on the film's story.

[2] Anyone hoping for friendship between Rey and Rose in this movie will be sorely disappointed. Rise isn't quite a Bechdel fail, because Rey develops a bond with Leia, who becomes her Jedi master. But these scenes are limited to leftover lines recorded by Carrie Fisher for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi before her death, and the resulting interactions are thus stilted and strained. And Leia's death means that Rey ends the movie with no female relationships.

[3] Again, this is partly Johnson's fault for doing so little heavy lifting on the plot front.

[4] Though only the briefest glimpse of ewoks, which seems positively cowardly, yet another capitulation to the tastes of fans who are still, thirty-six years later, terrified that someone might think that they enjoy kid stuff.

[5] Among other things, this is yet another reminder, after Frozen II last month, that a lot of people in Hollywood have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, but none of them have figured out what made it such a great, satisfying story.

[6] One wonders whether Abrams thinks that introducing Jannah makes up for the appalling misuse of Rose, as if women of color were interchangeable, and anyway there can only be one of them at any given time.

[7] Remember, Kylo has been Supreme Leader since the end of The Last Jedi, a period during which, we're told in Rise, the First Order has stepped up its campaign of child abductions. So far from being the person who could reach out to the stormtroopers, he's the ultimate cause of their suffering and dehumanization.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Notes From the Streamapocalypse

Until last month, 2019 felt like a year in which popular culture was winding itself down.  What seems like an abnormal number of shows, including juggernauts like Game of Thrones, wrapped up their stories, while others were cancelled.  Collaborations like the Netflix MCU were brought to an abrupt end.  Everywhere there was a feeling of holding one's breath, clearing the decks in preparation for the coming onslaught.  And then, a few weeks ago, that deluge arrived with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+, two new streaming platforms seeking to directly challenge Netflix and Amazon for primacy in a field that already feels hopelessly crowded and balkanized.  Scripted TV is only one front in that fight (Disney+, for example, can afford to launch with only one original scripted series because it has such an enormous back-catalog to boast of, whereas Apple+ is scrambling to measure up with four new scripted series, and more to come).  But it's the one I find most interesting.  Overall, my verdict is that all of these shows are ambitious, and a few are interesting, but none of them are truly great (and all suffer from the besetting flaw of streaming TV, of working better at a binge, which obscures annoying tics and makes the plot seem to flow better, than in weekly installments).  If this is the future of television, my reaction to it is decidedly qualified, with a few sprinklings of hope.
  • See - You have to respect a series that realizes its premise requires some major suspension of disbelief, and, instead of trying to ease the audience into it, just throws them over a cliff.  After a title card informing us that a virus has decimated the Earth's population and left the survivors blind--an affliction that has been passed down a dozen generations, until the very concept of sight seems fantastical--See immediately drops us into a battle scene, between two armies that can only sense each other using sound, smell, touch, and taste.  It's never entirely convincing--you can believe that human society would survive the loss of the sense of sight, but not in the standard form of post-industrial tribes conducting quasi-medieval battles.  But you can't help but respect the show's commitment to its high concept, and the obvious thought that has gone into imagining how a society like this would function.  So yes, there are questions the show won't address--such as who laid out the neat and orderly rows of the village in which our hero, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), lives, or how everyone could be wearing animals products like wool and leather.  But if you accept that as the buy-in--if you accept, in other words, that being sightless is the norm for these characters, and that like any other living being they have adjusted their way of life to the senses they have--then it is quite neat to see the tricks the show's writers have come up with to make that life seem practical and possible.  These range from the simple (probably variations on techniques that blind people today use) like characters snapping their fingers or making some vocalization to announce their presence, or writing on one another's palms as a form of silent communication, to invented social structures and roles, such as the revelation that some people are so skilled at moving soundlessly that they become hired spies, able to eavesdrop on anyone simply by standing next to them undectected.

    That cognitive dissonance is one of See's chief pleasures, but also one of its challenges.  It can be hard to put yourself in the characters' heads--you are, after all, watching a visual presentation about people for whom the visual plays no role in their lives.  When Baba Voss, for example, enters a room where his son is being held captive, the audience will momentarily assume that he knows his quest has succeeded, before being reminded that the son has to vocally announce his presence to his father.  Before long, however, the characters themselves begin to develop an awareness of this gap.  The show opens with Baba Voss's wife Maghra (Hera Hilmar) giving birth to twins, whom the viewer can see are sighted.  Maghra came to the village already pregnant, and the twins' father, the fugitive Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry), stuns Baba Voss and the village wisewoman Paris (Alfre Woodard) by committing feats such as building a bridge across a ravine, or killing a bear with a bow and arrow, achievements that to them seem magical.  As the twins grow older, the show's scheme becomes clearer--this is a superhero story in which nobody has superpowers.  It's just that in a world constructed without any consideration of vision, the sighted Kofun (Archie Madekwe) and Haniwa (Nesta Cooper) can cut through the established rules of their society without even thinking about it--the kidnapped Kofun, for example, writes a message for Haniwa when his captors stop for a rest, knowing that only she will see and understand it.

    Whereas most superhero shows implicitly treat the audience like normies, awed by the hero's powers, See has us identify with the superpowered beings, for whom remarkable feats are so natural that they can't help committing them.  By the same token, though the villains of the show, the evil Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) and her witchfinder, Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), insist that they are pursuing Jerlamarel and his children for spreading the heretical notion of sight, it only takes a few instances of Kofun and Haniwa easily evading their grasp to make the point that their real concern is much more prosaic.  Sight represents an existential threat to the power structures of the show's world--a point that other superhero stories have made in the past, but which here is understood much more viscerally because we share the same superpower.

    None of this would matter, of course, if See wasn't also an entertaining story.  The plot moves along at a brisk clip, bouncing the characters from one peril to another as they evade Tamacti Jun's pursuit and travel towards Jerlamarel's promised land, with periodic fight scenes that are all the more effective for how they depict and take advantage of the characters' blindness.  But See also knows how to give the characters room to be themselves.  Momoa, in particular, is a delight precisely because of his willingness to cede the center stage.  Though a fearsome warrior and respected leader, his character is ultimately an enabler of other people's heroism (not just the children, but also Maghra, who turns out to have connection to the seat of power, and plans of her own).  He struggles with the knowledge that his children have so completely outstripped him that they can't help but condescend to him, and that for all that they love him, their biological father will always have a connection with and a hold on them that he never could.  It's a portrait of masculinity that one doesn't often see, especially in action storytelling--a hero who knows that he is outmatched, but who is determined to do his part nonetheless.  Kofun and Haniwa's stories are more conventional--they face the call to adventure, and worry about the power over others that their sightedness confers on them.  But the show is willing to take their stories to challenging places, such as Haniwa tearfully admitting to her parents that she's afraid of her own capacity for violence, even as she insists that she has to pursue her power and legacy. 

    Less successful are the show's villains--Kane, in particular, is a caricature of an evil, sexually voracious woman, and her actions in the second half of the season feel more like an excuse to let Hoeks vamp and chew scenery than a plausible plot development.  But this is made up for by the challenges the characters face, simply by living in the world.  See is at its best when it stresses its characters' vulnerability against the vast natural landscape, or in the bizarre structures that the various communities they encounter on their journey have constructed to allow themselves to survive.  If the show makes the audience feel like superheroes, it also makes us feel just how big its now-empty world is, and how even sight doesn't always give its heroes the ability to navigate it safely.

  • The Morning Show - Apple reportedly paid Jennifer Aniston a not-so-small fortune to star in this show, her first regular TV gig since Friends ended fifteen years ago.  It's tempting to snark at a wannabe streaming giant using yesterday's stars as a crutch, but the truth is, Aniston is the best (at some points, the only) reason to watch The Morning Show.  Her performance as Alex Levy, a co-presenter at a popular morning news show whose world is rocked when it's revealed that her partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, is a fascinating, complex portrait of a middle-aged woman who is at once beleaguered and breathtakingly privileged.  As the scandal breaks we watch Alex, who has clearly been operating on auto-pilot in both her professional career and personal life, realize that none of the people around her--not the other employees on the show, not the show's producer (Mark Duplass), not the head of the news division (Billy Crudup), and maybe not even her husband (Jack Davenport)--actually respect her, even though she's the only thing keeping their careers afloat.  It's a familiar scenario for many professional women, who find themselves expected to simply go along with things, because everyone else needs them to.

    Alex's reaction to this is gratifying to watch.  Whether she's calmly informing the network president that she's in charge now, because he needs her more than she needs him, or backing the show into a corner by publicly announcing her new co-host before anyone has had the chance to come up with a shortlist, she's content to burn it all down rather than continue to live with disrespect.  But Alex is by no means a feminist hero, and the show gleefully explores her many contradictions.  She's tough and hard-working, but also spoiled and self-absorbed.  Empathetic, but also vain and narcissistic.  Most importantly, as the season draws on it becomes increasingly clear that she knew, at least on some level, what Mitch was doing, but turned a blind eye because she needed him as a friend and a bulwark against the world.  She is, in short, exactly the sort of person you'd expect a rich, famous, self-made white woman to be, and the pleasure of watching her comes from not knowing, from one moment to the next, whether you want her to face some comeuppance, or stomp on the even more annoying people arrayed against her.

    Unfortunately, Alex is far from from The Morning Show's only focus.  It is, in fact, hard to pin down just what the show's focus is, whether it's a character study or a two-hander or an ensemble piece, and whether its interest is in the people it's depicting or the system they exist within.  But either way, everything around Alex is questionable at best, hard to watch at worst.  It is, for example, simply inexplicable that the show keeps Mitch around past the first few episodes.  At first, it seems that he is going to take the path of many exposed sexual predators in the #MeToo era, and become a right-wing commentator pandering to an anti-feminist audience.  But when Mitch veers off that path, it becomes clear that the show genuinely thinks it is using him to expose the grey area between obvious violators, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., and people who are simply long-term creeps.  But this is a point that is actually made far better by other characters, as in an interview with one of Mitch's victims, who insists that she was victimized as much by the other employees of the show, who treated her like damaged goods after she acquiesced to Mitch's advances, as by the man himself.  Or a subplot about the show's weatherman (Nestor Carbonell) and a much-younger PA (Bel Powley) who are in a serious relationship, but can't figure out how to distinguish their affair from what Mitch did.  Or, most intriguingly, an older producer (Karen Pittman), who had an affair with Mitch years ago that ended amicably, and who is now becoming aware of how that has soured attitudes towards her on the show.  Keeping Mitch around only focuses the story on his whiny insistence that he shouldn't experience any consequences for his actions, instead of castigating the culture that made those actions possible.  Other characters, such as Crudup's Cory Ellison, feel simply unreal.  Cory responds to every upheaval in his division with exclamations of excitement, clearly thrilled by the trainwreck his flagship show has become.  The intention is presumably to make him look like a savvy disruptor, but--leaving aside the fact that reality has given us more than enough reason to be wary of men who think disruption is the path to a better world--Crudup's dead-eyed performance makes Cory seem less like a cheerful imp, and more like a budding serial killer.

    But the biggest problem with The Morning Show, by some long way, is Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson, a local reporter who, based on a viral video in which she screams at an anti-environmentalist in a protest against a coal mine, lands the job as Alex's new co-host.  From her name, to her politics (she's an independent who finds Democrats and Republicans equally worthy of disdain), to her convoluted family history (she has a troubled mother, an addict brother, and a boatload of daddy issues), Bradley feels like a character sketched out by Aaron Sorkin, and then rejected for being too unrealistic and over the top.  Witherspoon does her best to humanize her, but she can't do much against the show's own incomprehension of her.  It's never clear, for example, why Bradley, an investigative journalist who likes to report challenging, hard-hitting fare, would be interested in presenting a soft-focus morning show where all her material is scripted and half the stories are feelgood pap.  The obvious answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind would pass up this sort of opportunity (especially not someone like Bradley, whose career was on the rocks before the viral video made her a star).  But the show seems unwilling to give Bradley any sort of careerist instincts.  She stays on The Morning Show because that's what everyone expects of her, futilely complaining when they won't run the more challenging material that she'd like to cover, and acting surprised when her pursuit of the Mitch story--including the question of what Alex knew and when--earns her enemies.  It's the exact opposite of the fascinating, self-contradictory yet also believable portrait that the show paints of Alex, and it makes the entire experience of watching The Morning Show supremely frustrating.  The further the season advances, the more time Alex and Bradley spend together, and the more obvious it becomes that only one of them has a story worth telling.

  • For All Mankind - Of the four inaugural Apple TV+ shows, this is the one that has garnered the least attention, which in a way feels appropriate.  The elevator pitch for the show is "an alternate history in which the space race never ended, and humanity--specifically, NASA--continued its expansion into the solar system".  But For All Mankind is being screened in a world where the space race did end, in part because people got bored of space, and the Apollo missions quickly lost their luster and became must-see television for only a small group of fanatics.  So it's not surprising that creator Ronald D. Moore hasn't been able to capture the imagination of a mass audience.  But to make this excuse is also to let For All Mankind off too easy, because for all that it is a niche taste, it's also a show that puts its very worst foot forward.  Far too much time is spent establishing just why the space program continued and expanded, along the way indulging in some of the worst habits of Apollo Program fannishness--chiefly, "what if we made this incredibly complicated and dangerous endeavor even more so in order to cut through the audience's awareness that it all worked out?"  It's not even enough for the show to posit that the Soviets won the race to put a man on the moon (in reality, the Soviet space program was plagued by mismanagement and infighting, and had effectively given up on a moon landing by the late 60s).  We also get a sequence in which the astronauts on the Apollo 11 lunar lander lose contact with mission control for hours and are presumed lost after a much rougher landing than the real one.

    Positing that the reason the space race continued is that the Russians stayed in it and remained competitive is obviously fraught with a lot of political and ideological subtext.  For All Mankind had the opportunity to comment on the role that jingoism and anti-communism played in driving the American space program and its employees.  But instead the show seems to buy into that worldview hook, line, and sinker.  It's not just the characters who view a Soviet on the moon with alarm, but the show itself, which seems to expect the audience to accept that an American on the moon is an uplifting moment for all humanity, whereas a Soviet moon landing is a belligerent act.  The show then goes from bad to worse with an absolutely bizarre redemption tour for, of all people, Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore).  Again, there was an opportunity here for a challenging conversation--far too many dramatizations of this period downplay or erase von Braun's role in the Apollo Program, which he ran until well after the moon landing.  But For All Mankind instead chooses to sugarcoat the man, having him lament the way the Nazis "corrupted" his V2 rocket design by using it to target civilian populations.  The series's second episode even pretends that nobody at NASA knew that von Braun had been a member of the SS and had used slave labor in his factories during WWII.

    Once it gets over the hump of explaining why the space race has continued, however, and gets about the business of speculating how that would look--a permanent lunar base in the early 70s, with plans for Mars and the rest of the solar system to come--For All Mankind becomes much more fun and engaging.  A lot of this has to do with how it diversifies the space program.  During the first two episodes, our point of view character for much of the dismay at NASA is astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, who is at least a head too tall to be an Apollo astronaut), an invented character who feels almost like an illustration of how the myth of the Right Stuff has become filtered through modern anxieties about masculinity.  Ed is taciturn and emotionally withdrawn, but also prone to insubordination and outbursts of anger, for which he never experiences any real consequences.  So it's a palpable relief when the show puts him on the back-burner in favor of a new program to train women astronauts.  This leads to the series's best episodes, in which the first of these candidates, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) ends up on Ed's mission, and has to confront not only his well-meaning condescension, but her own entirely earned suspicion of male authority figures.  The rest of the female candidates feel almost like a carefully-chosen array of social issues--one is black, one is gay, one is the wife of an astronaut who laments abandoning her own professional ambitions after marriage and childbirth--but it's still fun to watch women like this get to take part in the Apollo story.

    The crux of For All Mankind's alternate history is the suggestion that continuing the exploration of space would have required radical change on the ground as well, and that the program would have spurred important social advances in unexpected ways.  Some of these speculations feel silly and contrived--the hearings over NASA's failure to beat the Russians to the moon cause Ted Kennedy to cancel his getaway to Chappaquiddick, thus eventually leading to his presidency.  But others are intriguingly thorny, such as the revelation that President Kennedy got the ERA passed by moving a lucrative NASA contract to a Republican-controlled state, which ultimately leads to a fatal accident due to faulty Saturn V parts.  None of it, to be honest, bears much scrutiny, but at its best moments, when it drops the nostalgia and simply starts spinning a story, For All Mankind can be a genuinely exciting work of science fiction.

  • Dickinson - Unlike the other three Apple TV+ show, which dropped a few introductory episodes upon the platform's launch and then switched to a weekly schedule, Dickinson's entire first season was made available as a chunk.  You could read this as a sign of Apple's lack of confidence in the show, and if so it's hard to blame them for being anxious.  A deliberately anachronistic comedy about the teenage years of early modernist poet Emily Dickinson, whose story beats conspicuously echo those of modern teen soaps, doesn't exactly sound like it would have a broad appeal.  And yet, judging by my twitter feed, Dickinson has become Apple TV+'s most iconic foray.  Which may not mean anything, from a viewing numbers standpoint, but a wannabe entrant into the increasingly crowded field of scripted TV could do worse than to make a splash with something idiosyncratic and memorable.  This is not to say that Dickinson completely pulls off its mixture of tones, references, and period details.  There are as many misses as hits in the show's first season, and at times it feels as if creator Alena Smith hasn't quite landed on the story she wants to tell with it.  But when Dickinson works, it is simply marvelous, and even when it jars, it's so much more interesting, more itself, than more conventional fare like The Morning Show (or even For All Mankind and See) that one can't help being won over.

    Played by Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson imagines its heroine as both a proto-feminist and a spoiled brat.  Emily dreams of writing poetry that will rock the world (or, at least, the staid and comfortable corner of it that she lives in, as the daughter of one of Amherst, Massachusetts's most prominent families) but also chafes against the expectation that she help around the house, and runs roughshod over the feelings and wishes of the people closest to her, chiefly her younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt).  The early episodes of the season focus on Emily's shock that Sue has agreed to marry her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe).  Though her snide, incessant undermining of Sue's happiness is clearly rooted in romantic jealousy (the two have a relationship that the show doesn't try to put a label on, but which is both emotional and physical), it also stems from Emily's selfishness, her inability to grasp that Sue, who has lost her entire family to disease and has been left penniless, longs for security, and genuinely likes Austin.  In another episode, Emily feigns illness in order to gain some time for herself, to write and read and just do what she wants.  But in a period in which even minor illness can end fatally (as seen through the example of Sue's family, and in a storyline late in the season in which Emily falls for her father's clerk only for him to succumb to tuberculosis), this pretense deeply traumatizes her parents (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski). 

    As much as the show castigates Emily for her selfishness, however, it also wants us to see it as, in its own way, revolutionary.  By insisting on her right not just to an education and a creative outlet, but to her own time and privacy, Emily is demanding recognition of her humanity.  While her mother expects that every minute of Emily's time be spent in homemaking and husband-seeking, and her father views her every attempt to develop her mind and her craft as an affront to his own dignity, Emily struggles to balance what she owes to herself with basic decency and kindness towards others.  That she usually overcompensates in one direction or another is hardly surprising, and the show never fails to remind us what a tragedy it would be if she ever stopped trying.

    It's a heavy topic, and Dickinson lightens it not only through its constant use of humor (it's interesting to consider that this is the only one of the shows I'm writing about in this post that is explicitly a comedy) but through its consciously anachronistic storytelling.  Some of the best moments in the show come when it juxtaposes the norms and restrictions of 19th century life with storylines taken straight out of Beverly Hills 90210, as in a mid-season episode in which the Dickinson children, left alone in the house by their parents, decide to throw a party, or a later subplot in which Lavinia is dismayed that the handsome but shallow boy she's been making out with has shown everyone the nude self-portrait she gave him.  When this sort of alchemy works, it causes the entire show to click into place, its story both specific and timeless, realistic and heightened.  The fact that Emily's parents speak in an affected, faux-historical cadence, for example, while all the young characters talk like modern teenagers, is at once a reminder of the show's artifice, and a perfect metaphor for the generation gap.

    But Dickinson is also trying to do so many other things that the result can end up feeling scattershot and uncertain.  It is sometimes fantastical, as in a subplot in which Emily imagines that she is in a long-term flirtation with Death (Wiz Khalifa); occasionally historical, featuring guest appearances from Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) and Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), who are much more accurate to the real writers' personalities and preoccupations than the show's treatment of its own heroine; and every so often, genuinely horrifying, as when Austin and Emily's father behave violently towards her, or when Sue is sexually harassed (perhaps even raped) by her employer.  The constant tonal shift can make it hard to decide how to react to the show, what it wants us to feel and how seriously it wants us to take it.  This is particularly noticeable in the show's struggles to place its characters in their historical context.  It nails the well-meaning but vague liberalism of its privileged characters' social set, where support for abolitionism is taken for granted without any willingness to take concrete steps towards ending slavery (much less treating black people like equals).  But when it tries to address Emily's own clueless privilege, it often punts.  The family's black servant (Chinaza Uche) gently chides her when she tries to express solidarity with him, reminding her that their situations are entirely different.  But there's really no place to take this thread from that point, and the result feels perfunctory, as if Dickinson knows it needs to address this issue, but can't find anything meaningful to say about it.  The impression formed is of a show that hasn't settled on a tone or approach, and is simply trying them all on--perhaps because it's so much fun to do so, and so exciting to have the opportunity.  To be fair, this is consistent with Dickinson's heroine, who is as excited by the possibilities she sees before her as she is confused and overwhelmed by them.  If the show sometimes doesn't seem to know what it is from one scene to another, perhaps that's part of the point.  And for the moments in which Emily--and Dickinson--truly find themselves, a bit of confusion is worth enduring.

  • The Mandalorian - Watching the fan reaction to Disney+'s first scripted show, and the first live-action series set in the Star Wars universe, has felt a great deal like being gaslighted.  For the life of me, I can't understand what so many people see in a show that, four episodes in, feels thoroughly uninvolving.  That's not to say that there aren't things to praise about The Mandalorian.  It is, for one thing, absolutely gorgeous to look at, combining the stunning compositions of A New Hope with the detailed, tactile production design of the new movies, and featuring some excellent fight scenes that are all the more engaging for being small-scale--no space-battles and CGI extravaganzas here, just close-quarters combat with physical heft and palpable stakes.  And it has proven itself to be excellent meme-fodder, from the million GIFs and drawings of Baby Yoda, to the increasingly delightful pronouncements of director Werner Herzog, who appears on the show as a former officer of the Empire, and whose attitude towards the entire endeavor in interviews is wonderfully irreverent.  But as an actual viewing experience, The Mandalorian is--dare I say it--kind of boring.  In its worst moments, it feels not at all unlike watching someone else play a Star Wars-themed computer game--the same thin, barely-there storytelling concealing a structure that is nothing but a string of missions.  Some moments even feel like cut-scenes, in which the show's titular hero returns to his base after completing an objective to receive an upgrade to his armor and new weapons.

    The basic concept of The Mandalorian is obviously "a spaghetti Western in the Star Wars universe".  Set after the collapse of the Empire in Return of the Jedi (but before the sequel trilogy), it follows a bounty hunter who is recruited by some Imperial die-hards (led by Herzog's character) to retrieve an unspecified item, which turns out to be the aforementioned Baby Yoda (well, probably not actually baby Yoda but a baby of Yoda's species; which has caused everyone to realize that despite being one of the franchise's most iconic characters, we have never learned the name of Yoda's species).  This leads to a series of challenges and conflicts, as the Mandalorian must overcome teams of mercenaries, other bounty hunters, and even opportunistic scavengers who cannibalize his ship.  It's a solid enough concept, but the execution feels too flimsy to hang an entire series on.  The first three episodes, in which the Mandalorian receives his assignment, finds his quarry, delivers him to the client, and then decides that he isn't going to leave a baby with a bunch of space-Nazis and rescues him, should have been the first act of a movie.  As the opening salvo in a TV series, they drag, all the more so because of the show's central gimmick, the fact that the Mandalorian, in accordance with his culture's strictures, never takes off his helmet.  This is not only a criminal waste of actor Pedro Pascal, but it leaves the show with no emotional center.  Faceless characters may not be inherently unemotional, but the writing on The Mandalorian does nothing to compensate for the character's facelessness; to bring this back to computer games, he feels like the player character in one of them, just present enough for the audience to project themselves onto, but with no personality of his own.

    What fills that void instead is a cubic ton of fanservice.  The show's storytelling is awash in references, both well-known and obscure, to the series's canon.  So the Mandalorian uses carbonite to store his targets for transport, and the aliens who cannibalize his ship are Jawas.  Not to mention the Mandalorian himself, whose very existence is an acquiescence to fandom's decades-old (and, to me, inexplicable) infatuation with Boba Fett.  Some of the details are aimed at fans far more obsessive than I, referencing the computer games or little-read Wookieepedia pages.  But this sort of thing should be a garnish, not the main course, and it increasingly feels as The Mandalorian is substituting the momentary high of recognition for genuine emotion or drama.

    If the preamble structure of the first three episodes gives rise to the hope that, once the show has established its premise, it can start building an actual story on it, episode 4 dashes that hope.  It delivers an entirely standard Western story, in which the Mandalorian, seeking refuge for himself and his child, agrees to help some villagers fend off raiders in exchange for a place to stay (in accordance with the show's mandate never to let an opportunity for fanservice pass by, the raiders have gotten their hands on a leftover Imperial AT-ST).  Not only is there no depth to the episode's storytelling, which merely gives a familiar template a Star Wars-themed re-skin, but it seems to establish the rest of the season's structure--episodic adventures in which both the Mandalorian and his charge are merely blank slates to be acted upon, with no character arcs or themes to develop.  Around the margins of the show's storytelling, one can glimpse interesting ideas about how the world of the series looks in the aftermath of the original trilogy--the very fact that the remnants of the Empire are still up to no good; the appearance of Imperial weaponry in the hands of criminals; the suggestion that the rebellion hasn't really lived up to its promise, as in a guest appearance by Gina Carano as a former rebel soldier who left when things got "too political".  But this is rather thin gruel, and it's increasingly clear that this is not what the show is going to be about.  It's been a bit depressing hearing the voices calling The Mandalorian a return to "real" Star Wars.  There's a lot to be said against the new movies, but they at least try to push the franchise forwards, while The Mandalorian seems content to wallow in fanservice.  If this is the future of the franchise, well, I'm not even sure "future" is the right word for it.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 34

This will probably be the last recent movie roundup of 2019.  There are still several highly-lauded 2019 movies that I want to watch (and, of course, the looming giant that is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), but between travel later this month and Israeli release schedules, I probably won't get to them until 2020.  The last bunch of 2019 movies is a mixture of highbrow, lowbrow, and stuff in between, of established directors and franchises and more experimental stuff.   I didn't love all of them--in fact, I disliked a few--but I'm glad that a year that had seemed rather barren, movie-wise, in the spring and summer has blossomed into an interesting stew of genres and modes towards its end.
  • Terminator: Dark Fate - The latest film in the Terminator series--now with James Cameron back in a producer's capacity and with a story credit--isn't very good.  For a movie that works so hard to recall the first two, excellent films in this series (while also erasing its more derided entries, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys) it keeps falling short of the standard they set.  The script is plodding and uninspired, full of inelegant infodumps and what sounds like placeholder dialogue (except in those places where the characters awkwardly parrot some of the series's catchphrases, sounding as if even they would rather not).  Its twists are mostly telegraphed well in advance, not least because several of them--including the appearance of both Linda Hamilton as an older, grizzled Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a T-800 who has lived for decades among humans--were revealed already in the film's trailers.  Worst of all, for a film that pitches itself as a direct sequel to one of the finest action films in modern moviemaking, Dark Fate repeatedly falls flat in its actions scenes.  The best of them comes early, a sequence in which the protectee du jour, a young Mexican woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes), is carried along in a knock-down freeway car chase by time traveling badass Grace (Mackenzie Davies), an human enhanced with cyborg components, as they try to flee an even more dangerous version of the liquid metal terminator (Gabriel Luna).  But this is such an obvious reference to a similar chase scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and falls so short of that scene's poetry and wit, that it's hard to feel more than mildly entertained.  And subsequent action sequences don't even reach those heights--they are, to a one, murky, busy, and incoherent, substituting noise and high concepts (one bit involves the characters bouncing around in near-zero-g as the plane they're on plummets towards the ground) for genuinely inspired action moviemaking.

    Does this mean that Dark Fate isn't worth watching?  Not necessarily.  But it is a film more notable for its parts than its whole, and mainly because it's the first entry since the cancelled-too-soon TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to actually push against the franchise's established premise and central themes rather than simply reiterating them for easy fanservice points.  This is, for example, a film that realizes what should have been obvious already in 1991--that John Connor is by far the least interesting, least essential part of this story.  Dark Fate's method of acknowledging this truth is one of its few genuinely successful storytelling flourishes (though, like so much else about the film, one that it eventually runs into the ground) and it subsequently trots out a lot of other ideas that the TV show played with--the conclusion that humanity's fascination with AI means Judgment Day can only be delayed, not averted; the implication that removing John Connor from the timeline will merely lead to other leaders emerging within the resistance; the suggestion that the boundary between "human" and "machine" will ultimately become meaningless.  In addition, the film takes obvious inspiration from Logan in drawing deliberate connections between the looming threat of AI and the US's current obsession with the high-tech securitization of its borders.  It's darkly humorous--but also a very pointed statement--that the future savior of humanity is nearly killed because she can't cross the border into the US without being placed in a detainment facility, where her pursuer can easily catch up to her by imitating the agents of the state.

    Aside from this, what's pleasurable about Dark Fate is what the trailers promised us--Hamilton returning to her most iconic role, Schwarzenegger playing against type (he also gets some of the film's best gags, a reminder that he is an unheralded comic actor that we probably wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for Cameron's input), and Davies in a delightfully androgynous performance that carries forward some of the things that young women watching Judgement Day found so intriguing about Sarah's physicality and defiance of gender roles.  Even here, however, it's worth managing expectations.  Sarah and the T-800's character arcs recall the ones they had in Judgment Day--her profound ambivalence over the person her life has made her into, his growing understanding of human connection--without really adding anything new to them.  And while Grace's connection with Dani carries hints of both the romantic charge between young Sarah and Kyle Reese in The Terminator, and the parent-child bond between young John and the T-800 in Judgment Day, it doesn't achieve the depth of either relationship.  This is possibly because Dani herself is, like John Connor before her, a great deal less impressive and magnetic than the film needs her to be.  It's easy enough to guess the twist that Dark Fate puts on her story--that it is she, not her child, who will lead the human resistance in the future--but the character who shows up on screen is convincing as neither a great leader, nor an innocent girl who will grow into toughness in response to the needs of the collapsing world around her (this isn't a knock on Reyes's performance, which shows glimmers of both of these character types; it's just that the writing isn't there for her).  The result, then, is a mass of good ideas and compelling performances that don't so much move the franchise forward as suggest ways in which it could have moved forward, if better hands had been on the tiller.

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Writer-director Céline Sciamma's latest film sells itself on the high concept of its first act.  In the 18th century, portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at a remote country estate to paint a marriage portrait of the daughter of the house, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).  Because Héloïse, angry about her arranged marriage to a man she's never met, has refused to sit for previous painters, Marianne presents herself as a lady's companion, observing Héloïse in secret, and developing an attraction towards her even as her painting takes form.  But this is actually the least satisfying part of the movie, when the two women barely interact with one another, and Marianne's art feels mechanical and unspecific.  When Héloïse, told the truth about Marianne's purpose and invited to view her portrait, icily observes that it neither captures her essence, nor has anything of Marianne in it, the audience can't help but feel relieved.  Now the movie proper can start, as Marianne begins to paint a second portrait for which Héloïse agrees to sit, and the two women finally begin talking, and inching towards the realization that they have feelings for one another.

    Portrait won the best screenplay award at the most recent Cannes festival, which, after watching the film, feels more like political maneuvering on the part of the jury (who gave the grand prize award to this year's juggernaut, Parasite) than an earned award.  Though a moving and engrossing experience, it is probably weakest in its screenplay, which tends towards over-obvious dialogue and set-pieces.  Characters declare their feelings and impressions of one another in carefully-analyzed detail, even when they're meant to be sheltered teenagers recently brought home from a convent.  Central themes and ideas are baldly introduced and signposted.  A young woman undergoing an abortion has the procedure while lying on the midwife's bed next to a baby.  Marianne, painting a nude portrait of herself for Héloïse, studies her own face in a mirror balanced on the other woman's privates.  In one of the film's central scenes, the two soon-to-be lovers discuss the fable of Orpheus and Eurydice, and try to puzzle out Orpheus's decision to look back at the last minute, sending Eurydice back to the underworld.  Marianne suggests that Orpheus was thinking like an artist, making "a poet's choice, not a lover's"; Héloïse, who was thrust into the world of arranged marriages after the suicide of her older sister, wonders if Eurydice was the one who wanted to escape life, and who made Orpheus turn around.

    This is less a criticism than an observation--Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not a subtle movie, and this can occasionally be frustrating.  Its pleasures are found, instead, in its insistence on closely observing the story that it is telling in such bald, unmissable terms.  That story is both a romance and an examination of the artistic process, and of the way these two dynamics both parallel each other and run at cross-purposes.  In both its visuals, which are often locked closely on the actresses' faces, and its storytelling, what the film is concerned with is looking.  Marianne looks at Héloïse as both an artist and a lover.  Those purposes reinforce one another--it is by looking at Héloïse that Marianne falls in love, and by allowing herself to be looked at during sittings that she becomes an object of love.  But by looking at Héloïse and painting her, Marianne also creates the means of their separation.  This might have been a glib irony, but Portrait makes it clear that Marianne never surrenders her perspective as an artist, even as she becomes a lover.  Her career matters to her, and when Héloïse argues that Marianne prefers her as an object to be lost in pursuit of her art than as a woman to be held, both Marianne and we realize the truth of this, even as it clearly hurts her.

    Underlying all this is the unacknowledged but omnipresent fact that the characters are women in a man's world.  Marianne is a trailblazer--a single woman who is planning never to marry and to inherit her father's portrait-painting business, an artist who defies conventions with her gender, and who even illicitly paints male nudes--but she is also unthinkingly conventional in how she sees and depicts other women, packaging them up for a world that needs them to be only one type of thing.  Héloïse, meanwhile, can't articulate why she rebels against the life that has been forced on her, and which she ends up capitulating to.  But in her own way she's braver than Marianne, by being honest about the forces controlling her.  She even pushes Marianne forward in her art when she encourages her to paint the abortion she witnessed, a subject that male artists would never consider.  The entire film takes place in a sort of women's enclave--it begins when the ferryman who has delivered Marianne to Héloïse's home leaves her on the beach, and ends when he arrives to take her back, and in between there are only women on screen, not just Marianne and Héloïse but the other women of the household and the village.  But it's made clear to us that this is only an interlude.  Marianne and Héloïse's love story must end, and all they can take from it going forward is the knowledge of having been seen, of possessing a secret that the male society around them can't even imagine.

  • Frozen II - It's no surprise that we're getting this movie, seeing as the first Frozen was one of Disney's biggest successes this century (with the princess movie line, that is; not including films from Pixar, Marvel, or the Star Wars division).  But the first Frozen was also something of a mess thematically and as a piece of storytelling, so I was both curious and a bit hopeful when approaching its sequel.  The very flimsiness of the edifice Frozen had constructed meant that Frozen II could take its characters in many different directions.  This, as it turns out, is exactly the problem.  Frozen II is ambitious, expanding the world of the original movie to create what might almost be an epic fantasy setting (it also feels like an obvious lift from Avatar: The Last Airbender, though that's a comparison that does the film no favors at all).  But it also isn't entirely sure what it's saying.  The early parts of the movie find its characters worrying about change--Kristoff is trying to propose to Anna (whose bizarre misreading of his every attempt to do so raises some questions about their long-term suitability); Olaf is experiencing ennui over growing older and leaving his "childhood" behind; an almost hysterically effervescent Anna insists that despite the drama she and her friends have experienced, they've arrived at a safe harbor and have no more upheavals in store; and Elsa, who has been hearing the call of a mysterious voice, tries to ignore it, fearing the loss of her hard-earned happiness.  It only takes one song for her resolve to weaken, however, and the result is a series of supernatural disasters that strike the kingdom of Arendelle, sending our heroes on a quest to an enchanted forest in search of their cause.

    It's a solid premise--not least because of how it tips the hat to Into the Woods, the quintessential musical about what happens after happily ever after, whose characters embark on a transformative journey in an enchanted wood.  If Frozen II had satisfied itself with this concept, it might have been an effective, evocative film, and proof that Disney can expand its princess franchise into theater-quality sequels (and perhaps even crossovers).  But the film instead piles on a new plotline that delves into the history of Elsa and Anna's parents (alas, not in order to castigate them for years of emotional abuse; both parents are instead made to look loving and self-sacrificing) and their grandfather, as well as the entire family's fraught history with a tribe of elemental magic users who live in the forest.  It's a fairly convoluted plot that touches on generational guilt, the abuse and exploitation of indigenous people, and the need to make reparations for past wrongs.  Along the way it also gives Elsa yet another journey of self-discovery, which seems to exist in lieu of acknowledging the years-long cries from fandom to make the character gay (it's very hard to read the ending the film gives her as saying anything but that Elsa doesn't need a girlfriend, because she's just so awesome on her own).

    This is, quite frankly, too much for the film to handle, and most of its themes end up getting short shrift--Anna's inability to let Elsa face challenges on her own, for example, or Kristoff's feeling that he is constantly being abandoned when Anna runs off after her sister.  The heaviest material, about Elsa and Anna's troubled legacy and their need to set right the wrongs of the past, is especially harmed by this scattershot quality, finally building to a crescendo that is more effective for its well-animated bombast than any coherent moral argument (I wrote a bit more about the problems with this storyline on my tumblr).  What's left, then, is what you get from most direct-to-video princess movie sequels--a chance to spend more time with the characters, the expansion of the film's world, and some new songs (as in the first Frozen, these sound like they each came from a different musical, but some of them are quite good, and overall I'd say the quality of songs is higher even if there's no "Let It Go" or "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" in the bunch)--though with better production values and more impressive animation.  It's a fun way to spend a few hours, and by the end you'll feel moved and wrung out as only a Disney movie can make you feel.  But if you were hoping that Frozen II would build something more substantial on the premise provided by the first movie, it's best to temper those expectations.

  • The Irishman - Martin Scorsese's latest, epic-length mobster movie is interesting less for the story it tells than for the questions raised by how Scorsese chose to tell it.  Why, for example, did Scorsese choose to adapt a book based on interviews with Frank Sheeran, a low-level mobster whose claims to have been a hitman (and even to have killed Jimmy Hoffa) have been met with skepticism and even derision from experts?  Why was he so determined to cast actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to play characters whose tale spans four decades instead of using younger actors for the film's 50s- and 60s-set scenes?  (The de-aging technology the film uses to make this casting plausible is interesting from a technological standpoint, but its effect is mainly to make the characters look as if they spent thirty years being middle-aged.)  Why did he let the movie leave his hands with a bloated, self-indulgent running time of three-and-a-half hours, most of it made up of samey, repetitive conversations between greying men?  Every choice in The Irishman feels deliberate and considered, as suits a man who recently took to The New York Times to extol the value of auteurism, and to reserve the label of cinema only for films that represent the vision of a singular artist.  There can be no question that The Irishman is exactly the film that Scorsese wanted it to be.  Which still leaves the question of why he wanted that, and why we're expected to have any interest in it.

    We first meet De Niro's Frank as a truck driver who is skimming his haul of beef to supply mobsters in Philadelphia.  This brings him to the attention of Pesci's Russell Bufalino, a high-ranking mob boss who assigns Frank jobs of increasing violence, finally graduating him to assassinations.  Through it all, Frank remains utterly indifferent to the moral and psychological toll the work takes on him and on the people nearest to him.  Becoming a career criminal is necessary, he explains to us, because his family is growing and he needs to support them.  Assassinations are more or less complicated based on how public they need to be and how much security the target is likely to have around him.  Clearly, the fact that the film's protagonist and narrator is a remorseless psychopath is part of the point Scorsese is making.  I found myself wondering, in fact, whether Frank's irredeemable nature was a response to the criticism that Scorsese has (rightly) taken for how The Wolf of Wall Street glamorized Jordan Belfort and helped to spread his myth of being a savvy moneymaker.  The Irishman, in contrast, does everything it can to forestall the perception of Frank as cool or compelling.  The life he builds for himself on murder and graft is small and unimpressive--the closest he comes to luxury is a second-hand Lincoln.  His daughters grow up to fear and resent him.  And at the end of the movie he's left lonely and unloved, trying desperately to cadge absolution from a priest who is attempting, just as desperately, to wring some semblance of remorse from a man who clearly feels nothing but self-pity.  It's an effective portrait, but not, in any way, an interesting one.  The fact that Frank is a follower who did abhorrent things not out of ambition or a desire for wealth, but simply as a job and in order to appease stronger and more dangerous people might, in a shorter, tighter movie, have been an interesting commentary on the way that mob and crime films tend to glamorize a mundane and ugly reality.  At three-and-a-half hours, it is a punishing slog, accompanied by a man whose narrative becomes increasingly tedious and rambling.

    The third point in the film's central triangle--and the character who comes closest to making the entire experience worthwhile--is Pacino's Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters' union whose mob connections and 1975 disappearance have entered the realm of modern mythology.  Introduced by Russell, Hoffa becomes Frank's boss and eventually his friend, and one of the film's rare pleasures is the opportunity to watch these two actors play against each other, the taciturn, easily-led Frank quickly won over by the energetic, gregarious Hoffa.  But The Irishman had the opportunity to delve into Hoffa's many contradictions--a true believer in the cause of unions and their ability to act as a leveling force for working people (well, mainly men), he nevertheless lets greed rule his choices, allowing the mob access to the Teamsters' pension fund and using their strong-arm tactics to cement his power.  The film could have discussed how this paved the way to the public associating unions with corruption and excess, a mindset that we are only starting to emerge from decades later.  But instead it remains focused on the personal, on Hoffa's outsized personality and how his ego prevents him from accepting that his power is gone, and on Frank's conflicted (but not really) realization that he has to betray his friend in order to survive.  Again, in a shorter film this might have been a compelling dynamic, but The Irishman drags the story out past any reasonable length--we spend an hour waiting for Hoffa to die, then another 45 minutes letting the movie wrap up from that point.  For fans of Scorsese and his three leading men, The Irishman's excess will presumably be a delight.  Anyone else would probably be better served watching one of Scorsese's older, tighter mob movies.

  • Knives Out - Rian Johnson's follow-up to The Last Jedi is both a classic, Agatha Christie-esque mystery and a knowing, metafictional send-up of that form.  It's a fitting turn for Johnson, who broke out with the hardboiled pastiche Brick, but this time around he has the money and cachet to make his story sumptuous and star-studded, almost an Old Hollywood throwback--but with a twist.  Set mostly in a rambling, knickknack-strewn mansion, complete with secret passages and plenty of corners to eavesdrop around (one character describes the house as "a Clue board", only one of the film's many knowing mystery genre references), Knives Out charts the disarray after the death of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery author.  Harlan's family--grown-up children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), Linda's husband Richard (Don Johnson), and grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford), and Jacob (Jaeden Martell)--gather in the house to await the reading of the will.  But while the police (led by LaKeith Stanfield) are willing to close the case as a suicide, renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene insisting that there is more to be learned.  Caught in the middle of all this is Harlan's nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), whose supposedly close relationship with the family quickly begins to fracture as questions arise about Harlan's death, and his plans to alter his will right before it.

    Knives Out wears its genre savviness on its sleeve, most obviously in the character of Blanc, whom Craig plays as a deliberate cliché, affecting a ridiculous southern-fried accent and announcing that rather than investigate the case, he prefers to follow its "internal logic", in the belief this will lead him inevitably to the truth.  But even this character--who seems to have emerged out of one of the books that the film both parodies and presents as the stock-in-trade of its murder victim--doesn't prepare you for how the plot repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag.  The first act initially proceeds as expected, establishing a timeline for the night of the murder and introducing the cast of characters in a series of intercut interviews with the detectives, which reveal that almost all of them are lying, and had a reason to want Harlan dead.  But instead of continuing with the established template of this type of murder mystery, the film seems to immediately reveal the solution to the crime, and from that point it splits into two storylines--the detectives who are still pursuing the case, and the guilty party who is trying to outsmart them.

    Nor is this the last of Knives Out's twists.  The film keeps moving, barreling through plot and delivering new information at a breakneck pace.  Revelations are made, alliances are struck, and quite a few genuinely funny and bizarre sequences are presented with truly impressive panache and skill.  It can leave the film feeling a little breathless--in particular, some of the family, as well as supporting characters played by Riki Lindhome and Edi Patterson, end up getting short shrift.  I found myself thinking that the film might have worked better as a miniseries, in which the Thrombey family and its various dysfunctions and secrets could have had more time to breathe and develop.  But even as a movie, Knives Out never loses sight of its heart--Marta, and her increasingly bewildered witnessing of the chaos that erupts after Harlan's death.  de Armas has to field two-hander scenes with Plummer, Craig, and Evans (who plays beautifully against type as the family's most openly vicious member, and nearly steals the whole movie), and acquits herself admirably in all of them.  By the end of the movie, we have no idea what the right move might be for her, but we want her to come out on top.

    The conflict between Marta and the family is also how the film explores its central preoccupation with class and the corrupting power of wealth.  In her first scene, Marta is asked by a policeman whether she is "the help".  The cop is then chided by Meg, who insists that Marta is "part of the family", a sentiment echoed by the rest of the cast. But it doesn't take very long to realize that the Thrombeys are protesting too much, and that Marta's desire to be honest and decent with them is not reciprocated--or at least, not once it becomes clear that she threatens their wealth and position.  The power differential is only exacerbated by differences in race, and by the revelation that Marta's mother is undocumented, a fact that the family--despite proclaiming their liberalism--are happy to exploit.  It's interesting that, along with Parasite, two of 2019's most lauded movies have been dark comedies about the class struggle, which use the setting of a house to illustrate how the rich and poor can live side by side, but still be in different worlds.  Where I feel that Knives Out falls short of Parasite, however, is in its desire to have it cynical cake, but still end, as classical, Christie-esque mysteries often do, by assuring us that the wicked have been punished and the righteous rewarded.  Johnson's film repeatedly draws a contrast between "self-made", hard-working people like Harlan and Marta, and the rest of the Thrombey family, who have had wealth and privilege handed to them, and have become monsters as a result.  But what was missing from the story, to my mind, was any acknowledgment that Harlan himself is also a monster, made so by decades of wealth, and by the ability to command his family through his control of that wealth.  The film ends on a note of working class triumph, with Marta finally gaining power over people who have been content to order her around, manipulate her, and use her for their own ends.  But I'm not entirely convinced by Knives Out's closing argument--that Marta's background protects her from the corruption that has ruined the Thrombeys--to find that ending an entirely happy one.