February 2020 Round-Up

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)(2/12/2020)

I’m not really sure how savvy general audiences are to these things but I could smell weakness coming off the “Birds of Prey” movie.  The studio was certainly treating it like it was going to be bad; it had a noticeably light advertising budget and reviews were embargoed on it right up until the day before release, something studios only do when they know they’ve got a bust on their hands, but when those reviews did start streaming in they were surprisingly positive.  You can envision a world where this could have become a hit if it had been finessed a little better.  I think part of the problem with the film in general is that it’s sort of a sequel to Suicide Squad in that it’s using the Harley Quinn character from that movie but neither the studio nor the filmmakers are really sure if anyone liked that movie given that it made a lot of money but it’s sort of reviled by the chattering class so they weren’t sure whether to advertise it as a follow up to that or to sell it as a spin-off, or as a new franchise altogether.  The result is a movie that does basically honor the continuity introduced by Suicide Squad but has a completely different tone and creative team.

After the film was released the studio, in a desperate grab to salvage the film’s prospect, changed its title to “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” (the original title is still there in the actual movie so I’ll be sticking with it here).  That is a bad title too but in a way it’s more accurate: this is basically a Harley Quinn solo movie, the Birds of Prey are barely in it and when they are in it they kind of suck.  The Renee Montoya character is alright but the other two are thinly drawn and just kind of seem lame as action heroines in the first place.  This is at its best when it’s functioning as a Harley Quinn solo movie pure and simple but even as that it’s a little bit of a mixed bag.  Despite being a Suicide Squad sequel what this movie desperately wants to be is Deadpool.  It has a similar sort of R-rated profane irreverence and operates with a voice-over which bends, but doesn’t entirely break, the fourth wall.  There’s a bit of a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality to the whole thing.  Some of the film’s jokes are legitimately clever, some of them are just kind of obnoxious, and the movie is also never really sure who much of an anti-heroine it wants Harley Quinn to be.  This also extends to the action scenes, some of which are quite well choreographed and executed and some of which are just kind of messy, like the finale where the heroes are fighting through a bunch of mysteriously unarmed henchmen.  The whole movie is just messy and not really to my taste, but it’s hardly the disaster that the studio seemed to think it was and there’s some good stuff in there.

**1/2 out of Five

 

Beanpole(2/23/2020)

Beanpole was widely predicted to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard award but it lost last minute to Invisible Life, and having now seen both films I think the jury made the right call.  Beanpole is set in St. Petersburg in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 and concerns a woman named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) who everyone calls “Beanpole” because she’s very tall and skinny.  Iya has been left slightly mentally handicapped by a head injury sustained while serving on the front.  She’s returned home with a the three year old child of a friend but child is killed in an accident caused by that mental handicap and when the mother of the child, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), returns she initially seems understanding but over time she sort of goes mad and starts taking out her frustrations on Iya.  Now, I’m usually the last person to complain about a movie being “depressing.”  Movies get made for a lot of reason and not all of them are supposed to be entertaining per se and some stories are supposed to make you feel bad, and to some extent this is probably one of them, but there are limits to that and this is a story that borders into what they call “misery porn.”  The film is meant to about the way veterans came back from the war broken inside and to depict this in an unconventional way but the story they come up with feels fictional enough to be removed from any real experience and in many ways just kind of seems like a cruel story that puts its innocent protagonist through the ringer to no real end.  In this sense it almost reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (not a movie I like) except it isn’t being made by an infamous provocateur and instead just kind of feels like a really miscalculated movie played sincerely.  There is some clear talent on the screen; I liked the performances and thought it conjured the world efficiently and I would be interested to see what Kantemir Balagov can do with different material, but this one did not sit right with me at all.

** out of Five

January 2020 Round-Up – Part 2

Part 2 of my (ridiculously late) January Round-Up will focus on films I consider to be 2020 films rather than the 2019 films I looked at in part 1.

Weathering With You(1/19/2020)

Weathering With You is the follow-up to the film Your Name, which was a major hit at the international (though not domestic) box office and is probably the best recieved non-Ghibli anime film since the death of Satoshi Kon.  That’s a tough act to follow and Makoto Shinkai seems to have opted to remain very much in the same lane as his success and has made another supernaturally tinged story about teenagers with really big emotions.  The film focuses on a sixteen year old who has run away from home and found his way to Tokyo right as an unprecedented string of rainy days has hit the city.  Eventually he meets a girl who has a mystical power to stop the rainfall for a short period of time and let the sun come in but there is a price for using this power which becomes increasingly clear as time moves on. Now, the think about Makoto Shinkai’s movies is that they tend to be aimed at and are tapping into the mentality of audiences of a very specific age, namely that of a young person of about 11-15 and they are in many ways kind of expressions of the really big emotions that young people of that age tend to experience and you sort of need to let yourself go with that sort of emo mindset in order to enjoy them.  Here we rather specifically have the weather reflecting the emotions of everyone involved and it’s all depicted rather vividly through Shinkai’s animation.  The film was clearly made for a higher budget than your average anime outing and can indulge in some really detailed drawings of modern urban life but the film is not as removed from modern anime tropes as the Ghibli movies.  This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, but if you liked Your Name and can watch the movie within the spirit it was intended this is well worth a look.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Les Misérables(1/20/2020)

Lest the title confuse you, Les Misérables is not an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name and of course has nothing to do with the musical of the same title and instead joins a strange little trend of movies like Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation which jack the title of an earlier work in order to sort of respond to it.  I think the film is set in the same neighborhood that Hugo’s novel was but in modern times and both works sort of focus on overly diligent police officers and the poor and downtrodden, otherwise there aren’t really overt similarities.  Instead this actually has more in common with Training Day of all things as it’s about someone’s first day on the force in a tougher area than they’re used to and they end up embedded with people who are semi-corrupt and use varying degrees of excessive force throughout the film.  This was France’s selection to compete in the Best International Film category at the Oscars, which was a controversial choice given that it beat out Portrait of a Lady on Fire and I suspect that this choice was made because Les Misérables spoke more directly to contemporary French society and from a French perspective spoke more for an unheard voice in society.

I can respect that but I must say that coming from the perspective of an American that’s spent much of the last half-decade following the discourse around the interactions between black people and police this all feels a little… lightweight.  Like, most activists in this country wish the local police were only as bad as the ones in this movie because the ones they have to deal with are even worse.  And looked at simply as a crime movie this also only succeeds within certain limits.  Ladj Ly feels rather accomplished for a first time director and certainly helms the film with skill.  He also seems to have some feel for the Parisian streets and the various subcultures that inhabit them and I kind of wish he had just made a movie about those people without the police butting into everything because I’m not sure he has much more of a grip on the psychology of law enforcement than your average TV procedural writer does. All that having been said, I don’t want to be too negative about the film.  Scene to scene and moment to moment it is a nicely gritty addition to the cop movie genre and it shouldn’t be docked too many points just because I’ve grown so suspicious of that genre as a whole.

***1/2 out of Five

January 2020 Round-Up – Part 1

Part 1 of my January Round-Up will focus on films I consider to be 2019 films despite seeing them in January 2020.

Honeyland(1/4/2019)

Honeyland is a documentary which follows a woman named Hatidze Muratova who lives in a remote section of Macedonia and keeps wild bees using traditional methods.  Muratova certainly lives a life I wouldn’t want, she’s out in the middle of nowhere in this frankly Borat-like section of the world without electricity or running water, but there is something kind of idyllic about the image and her bee-keeping techniques are interesting to watch.  The real conflict of the film comes when another family moves in next to her with seven kids and less of what you’d call a “connection to the land” and basically proceed to make Muratova’s life miserable while messing up the area for everyone.  The whole thing could be said to be a bit of an environmental parable given that it’s about irresponsible people ruining the land to everyone’s disadvantage, but the film does not necessarily vilify that family and does represent the pressures they’re under as well.  The film captures all this in a very “direct cinema” way which I sort of respect but on some level I might have actually wanted the filmmakers to step in on this one a little more to provide some more context as to where they found this lady and how they convinced her and her neighbor to let them film all of this as the filmmakers are a bit of a variable in this story that goes unaddressed.  I also wouldn’t have minded a bit more of an explanation in the film about just how much of a permanent effect that all of this would have on Muratova’s life and home.
***1/2 out of Five

 

Invisible Life(1/12/2020)

Invisible Life is a movie that was not really on my radar until it was announced that it hadn’t made the shortlist for the Academy Awards’ Best International Film category and a lot of people were really angry about that so when it came to town I figured I better make a point of catching it.  The film is based on a novel, which you can kind of tell, and follows a pair of sisters in 1950s Brazil.  In defiance of conventional birth-order conceptions the elder sister is a bit flighty and the younger sister is the responsible one, a fact which ends up changing both their lives when the elder sister runs out on the marriage that their father had arranged for her to marry a Greek sailor, leaving the younger sister to more or less take her place.  The elder sister returns to Rio and is shunned by the father, who lies and tells her the younger sister moved away and that she is never to return.  The two then spend years separated and not knowing the fate of the other.  The life stories that follow outline two forms of societal oppression.  The elder sister is forced to make her own way and experiences favela poverty and while the younger sister remains middle class she has her every hope and dream undercut by a lack of basic sex ed and family planning.  Beyond any political messaging the film tells a pretty engrossing yarn about two interesting people.  If there’s any weakness it’s probably that it never quite makes the life of the elder sister as interesting as the life of the younger sister after a certain point, also the movie has some really uncomfortable sex scenes which might take some audiences by surprise.  Outside of that it’s a pretty solid movie that I would generally recommend.
**** out of Five

December 2019 Round-Up

Queen & Slim(12/8/2019)

It feels like yesterday but apparently it was almost a decade ago when the name “Melina Matsoukas” first caught my attention when the music video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” captured my attention and I felt compelled to look up who directed it and she has gone on to even bigger heights in that medium by directing some of Beyonce’s more viral music videos.  Now she’s finally made her feature film debut in the form of a sort of Thelma and Louise for the Black Lives Matter movement called Queen & Slim, which is about a couple who find themselves on the run after their first date is cut short by a police stop which ends with one of them having to shoot and kill said cop in self-defense.  On some level it’s easy to be impressed that this kind of movie even exists.  Selling a movie that sympathizes with cop killers probably isn’t easy regardless of how clearly they’re actions are justified but on another level I might have liked the movie to focus on the complexity of character who have to do that in a less clear-cut case of self-defense like in the aforementioned Thelma and Louise.  Beyond that I think the movie just has some tonal problems.  Aspects of it like the costumes the characters end up in and the car they end up driving harken back to the exploitation movies of the 70s but it isn’t really fun like those movies are and doesn’t have that sense of danger that they had.  It’s trying to be a more serious Black Lives Matter issue movie in its tone but I’m not sure it really makes a lot of terribly original or unique points about police violence in that regard.  I guess I wanted the movie to either be trashier or more realistic, but it instead takes a sort of middle route that doesn’t entirely work.  Still, I do think there’s going to be an audience for it that’s going to find catharsis in there simply being a movie that brings this sort of thing to the screen.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Richard Jewell(12/13/2019)

Richard Jewell tells the true story of a security guard who was working at a satellite event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he found a bomb that had been planted and seemingly saved a lot of people by starting an evacuation but who then sort of had his life derailed when the FBI started to suspect that he planted the bomb himself in order to be a hero.  This project has been floating around Hollywood for a while now and at one point even had Jonah Hill and Leonardo Di Caprio attached to star and people like Paul Greengrass and David O. Russell being considered to direct.  It’s now being brought to screen in a slightly more scaled back form with the character actor Paul Walter Hauser starring and Clint Eastwood directing.  But having seen the film I really don’t get why so many people have thought that a movie about this story would be such a winner because I’ve got to say it’s really not that interesting of a story.  In the annals of people oppressed by the FBI Richard Jewell really isn’t very high on the list.  He was never put in jail, never arrested, and it seems like he never even had his career affected.  The full extent of his “oppression” was that he found himself in the center of a news cycle in which he was being reported as a suspect in the bombing (which he was) which no one remembers or cares about anymore.

Before the movie started there was a trailer for the movie Just Mercy which is about a guy who spent six years on death row based on a wildly unfair trial, compared to that this really doesn’t strike me as all that notable of an injustice.  This matters because the film really doesn’t have that much dramatic interest outside of its righteous anger about the Richard Jewell case.  The performances are generally quite good but I kind of hate what they did with Olivia Wilde’s character, who is depicted as a vapid bimbo motivated entirely by greed.  The criticism this film has received for depicting this real life journalist exchanging sex for a lead is entirely valid and even if (big “if”) this sort of thing could be forgiven as dramatic license in other movies it is an unworkable hypocrisy here given that this is supposed to be a movie about the evils of character assassination and of misrepresenting people and yet it’s doing exactly that with this woman.  Beyond that I guess there’s not a whole lot to say.  The movie certainly isn’t unwatchable, the dialogue is mostly good and the acting is fine, I guess I just fundamentally don’t see why this needed to be a feature film with this level of talent behind it.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Bombshell(12/21/2019)

Director Jay Roach has had a strange little career where he began as a maker of commercial star vehicle comedies like the Austin Powers movies and the Meet the Parents movies and then transitioned into making serviceable but not overly inspired political docudramas like Recount and Game Change for HBO but he’s had less luck bringing that side of his career to the big screen.  His most high profile political film for theaters is his latest film Bombshell, which details the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News and how it came to be national prominence before the advent of #MeToo.  Roach’s political movies have always been pretty effective at making famous people look and sound like political figures from the recent past and this is not really an exception.  Charlize Theron certainly looks a lot like Megyn Kelly (though I’m not sure she sounds quite right) and Nicole Kidman looks a lot like Gretchen Carlson and the film is generally populated by a strong cast of supporting players portraying other side personalities.  The film also seems to recreate the Fox Newsroom plausibly and the script is generally written with a requisite degree of wit and clarity.  People looking for another of Jay Roach’s HBO productions should be satisfied on that level, but this is a theatrical film and it never quite achieves that cinematic quality which would elevate it beyond that.

However, I think the bigger problem with this is that it’s a movie that requires its viewer to sympathize with Fox News anchors on some level and view them as remotely admirable people, and that is something that I don’t think I’m entirely capable of.  Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are in fact terrible people.  They knowingly worked for and helped advance a propaganda outlet that has coarsened out political discourse and has spread untold chaos and suffering across the country.  Now let me be entirely clear, I am not in any way saying that this means they deserved to be sexually harassed, but there is something galling about people who spend their days advocating for hatred against people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community, and women who don’t work for Fox News suddenly deciding to care about this toxicity when it hurts them personally.  There are ways a movie about this topic could have reckoned with that that and found ways to explore this conflict, but this movie never really finds a way to do that and can’t really find a way to make these people feel like anything other than heroic whistleblowers.  If that doesn’t bother you, then this is a passable movie with reasonably good production values, but it does bother me.
**1/2 out of Five

 

The Cave(12/29/2019)

The Cave is one of two major documentaries from this year about the conflict in Syria, the other one being For Sama and having now seen both of them it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.  This one was directed by Feras Fayyad, who had previously directed Last Man in Aleppo, which focused on the “White Helmets” and this one looks at another group of humanitarians trying to do the best they can, namely a group of doctors working at the last remaining hospital in the city which is a makeshift operation in underground tunnels that can’t be as easily bombed.  The focus is on the hospital’s manager Amani Ballor who seems like a fairly impressive person.  It takes a while to get going but toward the second half it really starts to get dramatic and features some sad if exciting moments like when the hospital staff has to treat a bunch of people caught in a chemical weapon attack.  It’s generally more professionally made than For Sama but can get a little pretentious in its construction in the way that the personal For Sama does not.  On the other hand while both films have their rough moments For Sama has more graphic imagery in it so people sensitive about that sort of thing might be better served by The Cave.  Looking past the comparison though this is still a strong look at life during a modern war and it makes you really really mad at Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
*** out of Five

November 2019 Round-Up

Knives Out(11/22/2019)

I’m going to keep this one pretty short because talking about this movie at any length without spoilers would probably be a pain in the ass, though I’m not sure I have much to add by spoiling it either.  This is not really a movie that was made to be analyzed so much as experienced.  The film is a modern take on the drawing room mystery from writer/director Rian Johnson, who has become a rather polarizing figure after the release of his Star Wars film The Last Jedi.  I wasn’t one of that film’s fans and had never really been won over by his previous films either; the guy is certainly a skilled technical filmmaker but he has a certain attitude and sense of humor that irks me.  He’s part of a post Joss Whedon generation of filmmakers who embrace a certain brand of snark and cynicism and who seem to make movies that riff on cinematic conventions like they’re above it all.  To some extent that’s still the problem here, but before we get into that let’s focus on the positive: the mystery at the center of this movie is very well constructed.  I won’t get into too many details on this but the movie does a fairly clever thing where it reveals things about the central murder earlier than you expect and sort of adjusts what you view as the film’s central question.  So there’s a sturdy skeleton holding the movie together but I’m a bit more mixed about how Johnson chooses to flesh things out from there.  Much of the film is over the top, and to some extent it should be as a slightly heightened tone is necessary in order to make audiences go along with some of the film’s more outlandish plot twists but some of these quirks annoyed me more than they charmed me.  In particular I really did not like Daniel Craig’s character or the ludicrous Southern accent he adopts.  I also thought that a character trait involving honestly through regurgitation was pretty stupid and other elements like the décor of the murder victim’s wacky house didn’t really work for me.  That said, some of Johnson’s jokes do land better than that and I don’t want to suggest that any of this was enough to completely wreck the movie for me as I did ultimately enjoy it quite a bit for what it does right and I suspect I’ll be in the minority about the bits I didn’t.

*** out of Five

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood(11/25/2019)

You know those magazine articles that are meant to be profiles of famous people but instead of just printing the Q and A from whatever interview was conducted for it the writer instead decides to pad the thing out by describing every detail of their meeting with said actual interesting person along with some other naval gazing nonsense about how said famous person’s work fits into the writer’s own life?  I hate that format.  The new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about the creation of one of those articles and in many ways it also plays out like one of them.  The film is being advertised as a movie about the famed children’s TV personality Fred Rogers as portrayed by Tom Hanks and I suspect many audiences are going to go into it expecting something along the line of a biopic but that’s not exactly what this movie is.  Rather than being a movie that was truly about Rogers the film is about an Esquire journalist with daddy issues who met with Rogers in 1998, skeptical about how interested he’d be in the man, only to find himself won over by Rogers as the TV host Mary Poppinsed his way into the reporters life to solve all his personal problems.

I do understand the instinct to go against a more traditional biopic format for this.  A movie that’s closer to a traditional biopic format would have probably fallen into cliché and the movie also probably would have fallen short of last year’s documentary about the same subject matter  Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which already provided a pretty ideal primer for Rogers’ life and philosophy for those who want it.  So I certainly didn’t want them to do that but the approach they did go with didn’t work for me either.  The reporter in question, played by Matthew Rhys, just did not interest me and I’m not sure that the scenes with Rogers work all that well either.  Tom Hanks would seem to be the natural choice to play Rogers given that he is himself a nationally beloved figure but he’s a bit young to be playing Rogers (who would have been 70 years old in 1998 and about four years away from death) and something about the way he imitates Rogers’ voice is… unsettling.  The audience is clearly supposed to be won over by Rogers’ pleasant ways but much of the film had a slightly opposite effect on me.  It sort of makes Rogers seem like a very strange person who would have been a real pain in the ass to actually try to speak with as an adult.  I’m sure some of that is intentional and meant to reflect the protagonist’s frustrations, but I’m not exactly sure where there’s supposed a switch where his demeanor is supposed to flip from being weird to being charming because it never really happened for me. Ultimately I’m not sure there was much of anything this movie could have done to work for me, last year’s documentary kind of hit the limit of my interest in this guy and a scripted movie on top of that just doesn’t seem necessary.

** 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