Ford V. Ferrari(11/14/2019)

This is going to seem really off topic but bear with me.  There’s this video game called Mass Effect set in a science fiction universe and in that universe there’s this war-like alien species called the Krogan who were genetically altered after a war of make much of their population infertile.  Again, bear with me.  So there’s a conversation with one of these aliens in the game where he says that, in addition to the obvious reasons he thinks this is awful, he also worries that this genetic warfare is additionally making the species soft because every child that is born is treated as a miracle and gets more pampered than it normally would in their culture and this keeps them from gaining the toughness the species was known for.  I mention this because, in many ways, I think a similar thing happens whenever Hollywood puts some money behind a non-franchise film intended for adults.  We’re so accustomed to bitching about Hollywood only making franchise movies for teenagers that anytime they do give us what we supposedly want we get so damn grateful that we treat the movie with kid gloves even if it maybe doesn’t actually stack up.  Case in point, the new film Ford V. Ferrari has been welcomed with open arms seemingly less for its own qualities than for simply what it is: a $97 million dollar 20th Century Fox film with no sequel potential and with subject matter that no one under 25 will naturally gravitate toward.

Ford V. Ferrari focuses primarily on a man named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (driving for Aston Martin) before being forced into retiring from professional racecar driving because of a heart issue and transitioning into behind the scenes roles in the automotive world.  As he’s getting his footing in that role things are shifting the industry.  At Ford they’re trying to break into the world of international motorsport out of a desire to give their cars a sexier sporty image and Shelby is the first person they go to for assistance.  Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) promises Shelby that he’ll be given unlimited resources and that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is going to give him full autonomy.  Shelby hesitantly agrees and seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled but down on his luck British racer who lives in American and often has trouble getting sponsors because of his “difficult” personality.  Together they begin work on the car that would become the Ford GT40 but whether or not it will be able to beat perennial winner Ferrari at this storied race remains unclear.

In various foreign markets this film is being released under the title Le Mans ’66, a title that implies that this is mostly just about racing, but its domestic title is telling.  Firstly it joins Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice in an odd trend of having movies follow the naming conventions of Supreme Court cases, but primarily it signals this as a movie about an American motor company going head to head with an elitist European rival.  And yet you won’t really see a whole lot of Ferrari in the movie, they largely exist as a specter on the periphery of the film and it’s not entirely clear how invested they really are in this little rivalry.  The film also doesn’t really do much to make a case for why Ford winning this fight would actually be a good thing outside of blind patriotism.  Really, the film seems to have a rather unusual understanding about who the Goliath is in this situation and who the David is.  It would seem to me that Enzo Ferrari is the one who put his blood sweat and tears into sport of auto racing and the craft of making quality vehicles while Ford is a giant corporation who get the notion to buy its way into victory against him on a marketing whim so that they could then sell exploding Pintos to unsuspecting consumers for the next decade.  Shouldn’t Ford be the bad guy here?

So this isn’t much of an underdog sports movie but is it a good sports movie generally?  Well, the racing certainly looks good.  There isn’t a ton of it really but the crash scenes certainly look impactful when they occur and the movie does a reasonably good job of showing the strategy involved in endurance racing.  I was not, however, all that enamored with the film’s characters, who seemed to skew a bit too close to cliché for my taste.  Matt Damon is essentially playing a long suffering coach, an even tempered guy who nonetheless quarrels with higher-ups and also needs to tame the wild passions of his star athlete, or driver in this case.  As for that driver, well, he’s a character who would make more sense if he were about twenty years younger.  As a college football player his aimless rebellion would makes sense but this is supposed to be a forty six year old man and my patience with his “difficult” behavior only went so far.  I also didn’t care about his family like one bit.

But the character who really drove me crazy here was a Ford executive Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas.  This character is meant to sort of be a stand-in for all the dumbest ideas the team got from Ford executives who don’t know what they’re talking about.  He reminded me of something from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Die Hard where he says that the police chief from that movie was “in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.”  I do think Ebert slightly over-emphasized how much of a problem that side character was for that movie, but Josh Lucas is about as much of a lame screenplay contrivance.  Granted, some of my research suggests that a few of Beebe’s dumb decisions had some historical backing, but when you have an element like that in the story you’re adapting you really need to address it with some finesse and be careful not to exaggerate it and here they most certainly punch up the character’s idiocy rather than putting them in context and making them seem likely and plausible.

So I don’t exactly think this is anything special as a sports movie but I will say that if there’s anything that does make it potentially interesting it’s the fact that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for the process of Hollywood filmmaking.  In this reading Ford is a stand-in for major studios of the 20th Century Fox variety who ultimately care more about the bottom line than craftsmanship but will occasionally indulge the creation of something a bit finer as a goodwill gesture.  This would then make Shelby a stand-in for a high profile director that needs to wrangle everything together and stay in the good graces of the studio while pushing back on the meddling of all their executives.  And then that would make Ken Miles a stand-in for a “difficult” actor that a director needs to find, fight to get cast, and then direct into using their talent correctly for the project at hand.  It’s an interesting meta-level, and I do think this is an intentional element rather than something I’m generously reading into the film, but it’s also perhaps a bit of a double edged sword because there’s a certain ego involved in making your main character that much of a self-insert.  James Mangold clearly views himself as the Carroll Shelby in all this, but from where I sit the movie he’s made is less of a Ford GT40 and more of a Ford Fusion: a perfectly functional product but not something you should be bragging about as if it were some exemplar of what automaking can be at the highest levels.

*** out of Five

Doctor Sleep(11/7/2019)

Of all the movies to come out this year Doctor Sleep isn’t necessarily the movie I was most excited to see but it was the film I was one of the films I was the most curious about.  The film is a delayed sequel to The Shining, an all-masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps more accurately an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel novel to the original novel of “The Shining” upon which Kubrick’s film is based.  Stephen King famously isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s The Shining but I certainly think that movie is a masterpiece and making a sequel to it certainly takes balls.  I would normally be kind of offended at the very thought of doing something like that and would dismiss such a project as I would with that 2010: The Year We Made Contact movie from back in the 80s, but I can’t deny that Stephen King does still have some ownership over this story and that he has the rights to write his own sequel and that it would be foolish to ignore Kubrick’s film when making an adaptation of that sequel, so I was mostly willing to give this a chance.

Ironically I think the aspect of the movie that play around with Kubrick’s imagery are probably its most successful.  There was something oddly refreshing about the way Mike Flanagan is able to recreating Kubrick’s sets and imagery in a rather low-fi way.  I imagine that there was some temptation to dump a bunch of money into an elaborate CGI set like the one in Ready Player One with the original actors somehow recreated in a computer but Flanagan instead just cast a bunch of people who look a lot like the original actors and put them into physical sets that have been carefully fussed over and it mostly works.  The problem is that there really isn’t all that much of this in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people complain that the movie has too much Kubrick fan service in it, but from where I sit that stuff is a clear minority of the film’s runtime and it pretty much the only part that really delivers on what the film is being sold as.  The rest of the film is largely beholden to Stephen King’s own new story which in some ways seems to have been constructed in such a way as to be the opposite of what people would want out of a sequel to Kubrick’s film.

A lot of ink has been spilled about why Stephen King hates the movie version of The Shining but one of this quotes about it that has always baffled me is his contention that the film is supposedly a failure because Kubrick looked down on horror genre, which never really made sense because most of the things Kubrick added to the story were freaky supernatural elements and most of what he took out were endless bits of back story that over explained everything.  Granted, I haven’t actually read King’s book so I might not be in the best position to diagnose that but I’ve looked into the differences pretty extensively and that seems to be the case.  That complaint is all the more strange given that this King approved sequel doesn’t even seem to be trying to be anywhere near as horror inflected as Kubrick’s movie.  Kubrick’s movie is essentially a haunted house story mixed with a psychological thriller that boils over in violent ways.  In that movie The Overlook Hotel and the various ghosts inside of it are the real stars while Danny Torrence’s psychic powers are heavily de-emphasized.  This sequel instead focuses mainly on Danny’s psychic powers and does a lot of world building on top of them and turns things into a sort of YA fantasy story about other people who “shine” fighting against another group of psychics who hunt and kill people who “shine” to feed off their power like vampires.  That’s not the worst idea in the world but it’s not what people want out of a sequel to The Shining and I don’t think it’s overly well executed in and of itself.

A big part of the problem, I would argue the problem that kind of sinks the movie is that these evil psychics are kind of lousy as horror villains.  The film spends an unusual amount of time hanging out with them while they’re on the road searching for victims and almost seems to want to establish them as a personable band of misfits.  That is the exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to make your villain intimidating and scary, if I were making this I would have cut that stuff to a minimum and made these psychic vampires as simple and mysterious as possible.  Additionally, the film doesn’t do a whole lot to make them seem all that powerful either.  Their leader, Rose the Hat, is certainly well played by Rebecca Ferguson but our heroes seem to get the best of her at every turn and it’s eventually established that all you really need to do to take these bad guys down is shoot them so it seems a bit odd that by the end of the film we’re still supposed to view her as a threat that’s so intimidating that desperate measures and dangerous methods need to be taken to have a fighting chance against her.

So, what we have here is a movie that doesn’t really work, but the ways that it doesn’t work are kind of fascinating.  I almost want to give it a “thumbs up” just because there’s a certain entertainment value in watching Mike Flanagan desperately try to square the circle of making these competing visions work within a single movie.  However, I do empathize with anyone who walks into this movie unfamiliar with all this baggage expecting a sequel to The Shining or any kind of Stephen King horror movie for that matter and instead get this weird mishmash of visions.  In some ways I wonder if this kind of mess is exactly what King wanted when he wrote this book that doesn’t operate at all like Kubrick’s movie and then gave it a pretty terrible title on top of that.  So ultimately I think that hiring consummate Stephen King fanboy Mike Flanagan was a mistake as, at the end of the day, he was more interested in pleasing King than the film’s natural audience.  Part of me thinks they should have hired a guy who would have tossed out even more of King’s ideas and made a true sequel to Kubrick’s movie but as I outlined previously King’s partial ownership over the story is kind of the one thing that justifies making a sequel to a Kubrick film in the first place so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  I’ll give it this though, it’s better for a movie to have too many visions coursing through it than to have no vision at all.

**1/2 out of Five

Waves(10/26/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Major Spoilers

Before the autumn movie season started the one big film that really left me unsure what to expect out of was probably Trey Edward Shults’ Waves.  This might partly be because it wasn’t really a movie that could be easily summed up with a sentence long summery beyond “it’s about a family that stuff happens to or something.”  It might also be because, though he has a distinct style, Trey Edward Schults hasn’t quite become a brand yet and he isn’t exactly tied to any one kind of movie.  It may also be that the critics who’ve seen it have been respectful but haven’t exactly been unified in raving about it.  The film’s trailer is beautiful, but not overly plot oriented.  Its lingering shots of young African Americans on South Florida beaches would seem like an attempt to make it look like a sort of heterosexual Moonlight (a film released by the same studio).  That comparison isn’t entirely off but the actual similarities are somewhat superficial.  The film we did get is something a bit faster paced and more eventful in good ways and bad ways.

The film largely revolves around an upper middle-class Floridian family and specifically focuses on a teenage boy in this family named Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).  Tyler is on the high school wrestling team and his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) puts immense pressure on him to perform to his highest ability while seemingly neglecting his sister Emily (Taylor Russell).  Tyler is on edge already when he gets what seems like the worst news he could possibly receive: he has serious shoulder injuries and will likely need to give up on wrestling for a long time.  Being the impulsive teenager that he is he immediately goes into denial about this and continues wrestling.  On top of that he has just learned that his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is pregnant and he has no ideas how to handle this news.  Later on we meet one of Tyler’s teammates named Luke (Lucas Hedges) who begins a relationship with Emily.

Much of the first half of Waves is rooted in putting the audience in the head of a seventeen year old as he makes a series of increasingly disastrous seventeen year old mistakes, each one with bigger consequences than the last.  To show this Trey Edward Schults plays around with aspect ratios (a trick he’s done on other films as well) in order to emphasize what’s happening on screen.  He starts the film in a screen filling 1.85:1 and then letterboxes the image down as the situation on screen becomes more dire before then snapping into the Academy ratio at a key low point.  This pattern then reverses itself in the movie’s second half as people are given a chance to heal.  Outside of that little trick there’s a lot to like about the film visually.  Before he was directing his own films Schults worked as an intern for Terrence Malick and that influence shows more here than it did with his first two films.  The film doesn’t really take on Malick’s narrative style with voice-over and the like but it’s certainly interested in capturing modern life with a sort of ethereal beauty.  The film also has what is to my ears a really solid soundtrack of recent R&B, but this is perhaps an element where Trey Edward Schults kind of tips his hand as being a white millennial making a movie about black teenagers as this is a very Pitchfork approved vision of what urban music sounds like.  I think modern teenagers are on average more into Migos than Frank Ocean, is what I’m saying.  But maybe having a great soundscape trumps generational authenticity.

Where the movie starts to lose me is in the structure.  When you split a movie right down the middle into two halves like this you are in many ways courting trouble as the audience can’t help but look at the two halves and compare them directly and in this case that can lead to a very unflattering interpretation.  One half of the movie depicts something of a worst case scenario for how a teen relationship and the other half depicts something of a best case scenario… and given that the one that ends in violence involves a black male and the non-violent half involves a white male… well, you can see how that could be seen as a potentially problematic message that equates black men with violence and white men with gentleness.  I don’t for a minute think that that’s what Trey Edward Shults was intending to say with the film and there are elements of the film that work against that reading of the film like the apparent past violence of the Lucas Hedges character’s father but I do think that is a byproduct of a structure that so plainly invites the viewer to compare these two relationships one against the other and once that interpretation took hold in my mind it became a bit of a distraction.

Even beyond any paranoia around racial messaging, I think that second half could have been improved by simply adding some complicating factors to that relationship to make it something other than the absolute platonic ideal of a teen romance.  After all, the relationship in the first half wasn’t all bad so why should the relationship in the second half be all good?  The film’s title seems to imply a sort of dichotomy between peaks and valleys in life, but maybe he should have had smaller waves in mind rather than giant tidal waves.  But I don’t want to focus too much on the elements of the film I was uneasy about because there was a lot about it that definitely worked.  That first half is pretty great the whole way through and it’s doing some great things stylistically.  Part of me worries that this is going to get lost in the year end shuffle and that A24 isn’t going to be able to prioritize it over their other films for award consideration, but another part of me almost hopes that it doesn’t get so big that it needs to fight off the hot take writers of the world.  It’s a hard movie to describe and talk about in general, and also a hard movie to recommend to certain audiences given the gamut of different tones and emotions it goes through.  But it is a very interesting effort to be sure and people interested in modern indie cinema should give it a look.

***1/2 out of Five  

Parasite(10/25/2019)

Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan.  Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong.  Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me.  I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting.  I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either.  All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors.  In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me.  Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.

 The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts.  Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for.  The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials.  Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin).  So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.

So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated.  The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic.  For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue.  They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face.  Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people.  They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient.  Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.

This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it.  This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface.  In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor.  You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it.  Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences.  In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare.  But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.

****1/2 out of Five

October 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

Marriage Story(10/19/2019)

I’m not really the world’s biggest Noah Baumbach fan.  More often than not his movies either leave me cold (Frances Ha) or just sort of end up not being that memorable to me (While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories), but when he hits he hits and some of his films like The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America have impressed me, enough that I keep checking out his work but not enough that I really look forward to it.  Still, his latest movie Marriage Story promised to be one of his most probing and personal works and having seen it I can confirm that it is indeed shooting for something bigger and more memorable than a lot of his recent output and more often than not it succeeds.  The film concerns the marriage, or more specifically the divorce, of a New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his wife, an actress who stars in most of his plays (Scarlett Johansson).  The two have a young son and the wife has plans to move to Los Angeles with the son and could be staying there a while if the pilot she just shot becomes a series.  This bi-coastal setup will become a major point of contention but the bigger conflict here is deeper than that and is focused more on the differences that drew them apart in the first place.

The film is hardly the first movie to take a deep dive into the pain of the divorce process and it’s easy to make comparisons to the likes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, Scenes from a Marriage, and especially A Seperation but there is a particularly modern and Baumbachian spin to this one.  Like most of Baumbach’s films the focus here is on particular type of upper class urbanite and it’s hard not to imagine that he didn’t draw some inspiration from his own divorce with Jennifer Jason Lee, but the characters here do like distinct fictional creations rather than just thinly veiled versions of the writer and his ex.  The focus of the film is by and large on the Adam Driver character, who likely has the most screen time, but the film is definitely interested in the Johansson character’s perspective and sympathizes with her reasons for wanting the divorce.  If anything is vilified here it’s the legal system, or at least the way that the legal aspects of divorce (and high paid divorce attorneys) end up aggravating the separating couple and making things worse, but it also wisely points out here and there why the system works the way it does and isn’t naïve enough to believe there’s much of a way around it.

The film really does a great job of making you understand these two people and how they came apart without completely dumping exposition on you.  Occasionally the film indulges in having the characters monologue in a slightly theatrical way, but these moments largely fit in and the while the film is a bit more serious in tone than some of Baumbach’s other movies it’s not humorless at all and actually throws in some rather comical moments here and there.  Unfortunately I do think the movie stumbles a bit with its ending.  There’s a big heated argument between the main principles at something like the 100 minute mark which feels like something of a climax but then the movie just keeps on going after that and starts losing steam as it includes scenes and sequences that feel a bit indulgent and almost give it a bit of a Return of the King false endings problem.  This is what holds the movie back from greatness but it really is something special up to that point; an excellently written character study with keen insights into a common human experience today featuring two actors at close to the height of their careers.
**** out of Five

 

Pain and Glory(10/22/2019)

Pain and Glory has been heralded as a comeback film for the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, which is odd because he never really left.  His last film, Julieta, was quite strong so really this notion that he was going through a rough spot was only really derived from one poorly received film (I’m So Excited) in what is otherwise a pretty long streak of solid work.  This newest film is (to my knowledge) the first film in his career to be overtly autobiographical.  It stars frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas as a film director Salvador Mallo who is almost certainly a stand in for Almodóvar himself.  Like Almodóvar, Mallo is a successful filmmaker and he has had a roughly equivalent biography, but there are also definite differences between the two.  The character of Mallo is depicted as being rather lonely, unlike the real Almodóvar who has had a boyfriend since 2002 if Wikipedia is to be believed, and there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent character to his brother and business partner Agustín (unless that’s who his secretary in the film is supposed to be).  There’s also no mention of Almodóvar’s tangential involvement in the Panama Papers scandal and I certainly hope that all the health problems and drug addictions that Mallo is involved with are inventions as well.  Still I do think the film’s ruminations about the character’s childhood are legitimately drawn from his memories.

Almodóvar’s films have long rested on a certain brand of nuttiness and he’s at his best when he dilutes that nuttiness and mixes it with a bit of melodrama and some strong characters.  Occasionally he gets the formula a bit off and adds too much nuttiness but sometimes he doesn’t add enough nuttiness and plays things a little too straight and that is kind of what happened here.  Antonio Banderas certainly gives a strong performance and the spectacle of seeing Almodóvar creating an style alter-ego is interesting but I wish he had adopted a bit more of that movie’s energy and flair along the way.  In many ways I think Almodóvar’s heart was more in this movie’s flashbacks than it was in the modern scenes, but the modern scenes take up a lot more of the film’s runtime and are oddly episodic in nature leading up to a slightly abrupt ending.  Part of the problem may be that I’m not terribly familiar with Almodóvar’s personality outside of his films, he usually seems pretty down to earth in interviews despite his sometimes wild cinematic visions and seeing Banderas do an imitation of him only does so much.  But I don’t want to over-emphasize the negative here, there is plenty to like about the movie, I just don’t see it as this top-tier Almodóvar product that people are claiming it to be.
*** out of Five 

 

Terminator: Dark Fate(10/31/2019)

Few major franchises have been as mismanaged as the Terminator series, which came out of the gate like gangbusters with two straight classics of the action and sci-fi genres, but since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, but three different attempts at more or less rebooting the series that have either underwhelmed or completely and humiliatingly failed.  I didn’t even bother seeing the last two reboot attempts, so why did I find myself giving this one a chance?  I don’t know, maybe it was that James Cameron was on board as a producer (which didn’t help the forgettable Terminator 3) or maybe it was that it had serious money behind it (which didn’t help Terminator: Salvation) or maybe it was because I thought that if they had the audacity to try again so soon after the widely hated Terminator Genisys that they must have had something interesting up their sleeve.  Well, I’m not really sure that they did, because even though this is easily the most respectable Terminator film since 1991 it never quite manages to be anything overly inspired either.

There are a key handful of reasons why no one has managed to bring that Terminator magic back.  For one, Terminator 2 tied itself up way more than the second installment of any action movie ever would.  Cameron almost seemed to have intentionally written the series into a corner in an attempt to keep anyone else from following him.  On that front this reboot seems to have done a better job than some of its predecessors in that its script does a reasonably good job of explaining why the machines still rose even though Judgement Day was averted, it has to contrive a little (well, a lot really) to do it, but it does the best it probably could.  The second reason no one was able to follow up the first two movies is that that T-1000 was a hell of a villain and it was hard to come up with another machine that would be an even bigger threat than a bullet-proof morphing liquid metal guy.  For Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines they had the idea of having the liquid metal surround a more traditional robot endo-skeleton, but it was never exactly clear why that was supposed to be more intimidating, if you could just be pure liquid metal why would you want a crushable endoskeleton?  For the new movie’s villain they do more or less recycle that idea but do at least do a little more to establish why that might be an advantage.  It kind of lets him be in two places at once and can act as a bit of a backup plan.  It’s still not quite the inspired upgrade that the T-800 to T-1000 transition was but it does at least mostly work for the movie.

However, the film does run right into the third obstacle that’s been holding these Terminator sequels back: the hiring of second-rate jobber directors.  The last three Terminator sequels were directed by Jonathan Mostow, McG, and Alan Taylor who were respectively: a nobody who had just made a bad submarine movie, an infamous hack, and a TV director who had just made what is widely believed to be the worst MCU movie.  The guy they got to direct this one is Tim Miller, who to his credit does have a hit on his resume with Deadpool, but his hiring here seems to suggest a slight misunderstanding of why that movie was a hit.  Deadpool was popular for its comedy and general attitude but it most certainly wasn’t popular for its actions sequences, which were quite weak.  It is not a coincidence that they dumped Miller and got one of the John Wick creators to make the sequel.  The set-pieces here are reasonably well conceived but I don’t Miller shoots them particularly well.  He zooms in too close and the editing isn’t quite right.  That undermines the movie quite a bit but the bigger problem here is just the absence of interesting new ideas.  James Cameron may have retroactively hurt the film’s long term prospects by making two straight chase movies that kind of followed the same formula.  He was able to get away with that for Terminator 2 because he got his hands on some revolutionary special effects but there hasn’t been a comparable leap since, or at least not one that a Terminator movie is going to effectively show off.  So we keep getting movies like this which try to do that same thing but with ever so slightly different characters taking the place of the people who were there before.  There are a couple of neat ideas thrown into this one (I like what they did with Schwarzenegger’s character for example), and there are certainly worse movies out there but overall this still just feels like an imitation of a master’s work by a plainly inferior disciple.
*** out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies.  Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same.  2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it.  We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves).  Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised.  Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t.  But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.

After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse.  That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.  On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space.  As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).  Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light.  Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him.  Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.

The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking.  These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality.  You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away.  I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better.  This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level.  Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in.  Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.”  Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite.  The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.

But what does all of this mean?  I don’t know… does it need to mean something?  My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character.  Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about.  This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare.  Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway.  Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five