- 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.
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.