2019

Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



Bad Education (2019, Cory Finley)

Bad Education is the story of a junior in high school (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovering the biggest school embezzlement case in United States history, something like $12 million dollars. Only it’s not Viswanathan’s movie. It’s Hugh Jackman’s movie, which makes sense because Hugh Jackman’s great in it. Not transcendent, but he’s really good. He can’t be transcendent because Finley’s direction and particularly Mike Makowsky’s script… it doesn’t let him be. Jackman’s got to be the star but can’t be the protagonist, can’t even be the main character, even though—in its final stumble—the film tries hard to force it for the postscript.

It’s disappointing, but the whole third act’s disappointing so, while maybe a surprise, not an unpredictable one.

Also a bigger star in the movie than Viswanathan is Allison Janney. She plays school district superintendent Jackman’s assistant superintendent. The one who handles all the money. Janney and Jackman are excellent together so it’s really too bad when they don’t get to have any more scenes together. Unlike everyone else Jackman plays off—school board president Ray Romano, accountant Jeremy Shamos, boyfriend (and former student, but we’ll get to this one in a bit) Rafael Casal, and then partner of thirty-three years Stephen Spinella, Jackman doesn’t bullshit Janney, so you get some insight into the character in their interactions. Because the rest of the time you’re just watching to see if Jackman’s going to turn out to be the sociopath he seems destined to turn out to be.

Plus… they make Janney sympathetic. She’s got genuine nice guy husband Ray Abruzzo looking out for her and if he loves her, she can’t be all bad. Right? Meanwhile, the film introduces Jackman being gay after him hooking up with former student Casal (who he coincidentally meets while at a conference). It makes Jackman look like a creepy closeted teacher—even giving him an apparently fake dead wife—when, in actuality, the Casal romance seems the most honest look we’re getting at Jackman. It’s humanizing, even as the movie presents manipulatively.

Compounding it being problematic is apparently it’s all fictitious; yes, the real guy was gay, yes, he had a long-term relationship, but he never hooked up with a student or faked having a dead wife. So… odd choice, bad choice, especially since when it doesn’t pan out at all it leaves Jackman’s only character development subplot unresolved.

Ditto some of the stuff about Jackman as educator, which might be hard to play—as it involves Viswanathan (Jackman’s encouragement is what gives her the self-confidence to dig as a school paper reporter)–and there’s a scene where Jackman kind of threatens Viswanathan and Finley doesn’t direct it well. Finley’s constantly showcasing Jackman when the attention should be somewhere else. It’s disappointing. Especially after it seems like Finley’s seemingly gotten past some of the problems and adjusted the narrative distance, only for him to fall back into the same techniques.

Good supporting performances from Shamos and Romano. Janney’s great. Not much of a part but she’s great. Hari Dhillon’s occasionally in it as Viswanathan’s dad. He’s good.

It’s simultaneously not creative enough and too creative while doing the docudrama thing. Finley gets good and better performances from the cast and his composition’s… fine, but his direction holds back the character development. And the script’s already got problems with it. Someone needs to be invested in the characters, not unfolding the story. Someone besides the actors.

Bad Education’s pretty good considering it’s all over the place.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cory Finley; screenplay by Mike Makowsky, based on an article by Robert Kolker; director of photography, Lyle Vincent; edited by Louise Ford; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Meredith Lippincott; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Makowsky, Oren Moverman, and Eddie Vaisman; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Frank Tassone), Allison Janney (Pam Gluckin), Ray Romano (Big Bob Spicer), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Bhargava), Alex Wolff (Nick Fleischman), Rafael Casal (Kyle Contreras), Annaleigh Ashford (Jenny Aquila), Hari Dhillon (David Bhargava), Ray Abruzzo (Howard Gluckin), Stephen Spinella (Tom Tuggiero), Jeremy Shamos (Phil Metzger), and Welker White (Mary Ann).


Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig)

Little Women has two parallel timelines. There’s the present, starting in post-Civil War New York City with teacher and pulp writer Saoirse Ronan living in boarding house (where she also teaches). Then it flashes back to Ronan’s life seven years earlier, at home in rural Massachusetts; she’s the second oldest of four sisters; oldest is Emma Watson, youngest is Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh is second-youngest. Pugh sees Ronan as an adversary for the world’s attention while Ronan might see Pugh as annoyance but often doesn’t see her at all. For the first half of the film, the flashbacks are steady. We meet mom Laura Dern, who volunteers all her time to help the war effort, the husband and father off in the (Union) Army, the girls fending for themselves as far as attention goes.

Ronan’s always been the writer—writing plays for them to act out—Watson’s the actor, Pugh’s the painter, Scanlen’s the musician. The flashbacks reveal how these talents flourished during the home front days. At a party, Ronan meets the new neighbor, similarly aged Timothée Chalamet, newly orphaned and now living with his grandfather, rich guy Chris Cooper. Chalamet and Ronan are both socially awkward wallflowers but extroverted ones, so they immediately hit it off. And through Chalamet, the families reconnect and become good friends, with Cooper opening his house to the sisters, offering to share in the intellectual wealth. There are books for Ronan, paintings for Pugh, a piano for Scanlen… and James Norton for Watson.

Norton is Chalamet’s tutor, penniless and just the right kind of dreamy for Watson.

Of course, seeing them meet and gently fall in love comes in a different context thanks to director (and screenwriter) Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative. We’ve seen their less than glamorous present—in fact, when they marry and move into the same house we’ve seen in the future… it’s a bittersweet moment. Watson’s the one sister with the express dream of having a family and while Ronan can still write, Pugh can still paint, Watson’s getting frustrated. So her flashbacks have the shadow of the future cast against them, which really neatly resolves in an echo in the third act, but still… it’s rough seeing her dreams stalling.

Pugh’s also giving up on her dreams in the present, deciding she’s only ever going to be an excellent painter and never a genius, even though she agrees with Chalamet the all-male academy in charge of assigning genius is severely wanting. The film’s got a lot of discussions about a woman’s potential, but the ones between Pugh and Chalamet are striking, maybe because the most we know abut Chalamet to start is Ronan’s going to turn down a marriage proposal someday. Even as the film—in the present—discusses events in the past, Gerwig never goes so far as to promise they’re going to get played out onscreen. So when the film actually does the marriage proposal flashback and it cuts through Chalamet and Ronan; even though we’ve spent most of the film with them past this trauma, it’s even sharper, even bloodier, for knowing the characters better. For having seen them develop to this point and then past it.

Little Women’s flashback device is fairly singular. It’s not a piece where the story is in the flashback (but it’s also not one where the story isn’t in the flashback), it’s not a piece where the protagonist drifts between; in fact, once you realize what’s going on in the present, the film checking in with anyone besides Ronan is mildly unwelcome. There’s nothing good waiting in the present for anyone it seems, whereas the past is full of laughter, music, dancing, celebration. But the flashbacks also aren’t for happy moments, the present for the sad. And even when the correspond with one another, even when Gerwig’s doing it for best effect, they’re not for echoing either. Gerwig’s an exceptionally “hands off” director as far as style goes, she never tries to show up the unfolding production; every choice furthers the film as a whole. The flashbacks and the present compliment one another for the film’s sake, which isn’t even the same thing as for the characters’ sake. Ronan and Pugh in the present get character studies while Watson gets some of one in the past, but Gerwig uses that approach to further things later on. Ronan and Pugh’s adversarial relationship exists mostly in the characters’ (and viewers’) perceptions. The tight focus on the actors in the first act and half means later on, when Gerwig’s got a lot more group-based, epical action to deal with, Ronan, Pugh, and Watson have a lot more inherent heft.

Meanwhile Scanlen, grown up watching her sisters and seeing their hopes and dreams rise and fall, has wisdom, just not the wisdom her sisters need (or know they need) because it’s all very messy. Of the four sisters, Scanlen is the one with the most obvious possibility for her talent. The stage isn’t in Watson’s cards because she’s too middle class, Pugh and Ronan have major obstacles in any pursuit to get paid for their artistic talents, but Scanlen’s piano playing seems within the realm of possibility. Not too lofty a dream for a young woman in the late nineteenth century.

All of the sisters, in one way or another, are acutely aware of their situations. Watson knows marrying penniless but dreamy Norton means hard work and a hard life. Ronan and Pugh both know a woman’s best potential from rich aunt Meryl Streep, who revels in crushing her nieces’ artistic dreams with the hard facts about what a woman can and cannot do. Well, she revels in it initially, but once Streep gets talking about the situation, the mean-spiritedness fades fast, as she hears the terrible words she’s speaking. The best any of the sisters can hope for is Pugh marrying a rich man who’ll let her take care of them all, including parents Dern and Bob Odenkirk. When we finally get to see Streep and Odenkirk together, after she’s spent the film running him down, is a fantastic moment; Gerwig’s able to get in emotional gut punches thanks to the flashback structure, but she’s also able reverse it and fill the moments with joy.

The film’s constant isn’t joy, however, not on its own. It’s anger. And maybe joy in spite of anger. Maybe at the start of the second act, in flashback, Dern has a talk with Ronan about how Dern—who we’ve seen as a homemaking saint to this point—has a secret no one has ever guessed. Well, except maybe Streep. She lives in a constant state of anger at the world, at the unfairness of it, the evil in it, and refuses to let it better her.

At this moment, Dern frankly becomes the most interesting performance in the entire film. She and Ronan are phenomenal together and Ronan’s great, Pugh’s great, Chalamet’s excellent, but when Dern’s in a scene, you watch Dern. You want to understand how Dern is getting through this moment. But also Ronan. Ronan’s inherited the blinding anger and works to quell it, which—again thanks to the structure—informs all her scenes previous to the conversation with Dern… including the present day ones. The flashbacks inform on the characters in the present, sort of bake in textures in real-time, but with Ronan, it’s like she gets an additional two layers of depth with the wave of a wand or flick of a fountain pen. It’s awesome.

Because even with—I think dazzling is the about the only appropriately enthusiastic adjective—even with dazzling performances from Pugh, Chalamet, Dern, Streep, and excellent ones from Watson, Scanlen, Cooper, it’s Ronan’s film. Gerwig gives her this big silent acting moment, when what plays across Ronan’s face is what Little Women leaves its audience with, it’s all about Ronan. And her anger and her joy. And what she does with both of them. It’s a breathtaking finale, with the film’s perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat) accompanying. Even though she’s adapting an oft-adapted novel, Gerwig pushes the ending until it’s right for the adaptation, collapsing flashback and flash forward, dream and reality, until it can hinge solely on Ronan’s expressions as she reacts to the culminating moment.

And Gerwig and Ronan nail it because of course they do. The last thirty minutes of Little Women, if it didn’t bombard the emotions, tugging and shoving between happy angry sobs and sad angry sobs—I’m not even sure why I was crying at the very end, though I know Desplat didn’t help—the last thirty minutes would be a victory lap. Just due to the nature of the plot, Gerwig’s hardest “sell” comes at the end of the second act, beginning of the third. So when she and the film are able to keep climbing instead of just sailing to the finish, it’s glorious. And sad. And joyous. And sad.

It’s spectacular work. Everything technical is outstanding—Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saux’s photography, Nick Houy’s editing, Desplat’s music, Jess Gonchor’s production design is breathtaking; Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superlative. Little Women looks—and sounds (not just the score, the sound editing is great)—amazing.

I mean, it’s capital, obviously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greta Gerwig; screenplay by Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; director of photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Nick Houy; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; produced by Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, and Robin Swicord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March).


The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)

The disconcerting part of The Irishman’s actually never-ending CGI isn’t the aging and de-aging, it’s star Robert De Niro’s creepy blue eyes. For the first half hour of the (three and a half hour runtime), I was trying to get used to De Niro’s CGI… makeup, but kept having problems with it, which didn’t make sense because Joe Pesci’s didn’t cause any similar consternation. Then I realized it wasn’t the aging or de-aging, it’s the eyes. De Niro’s got these piercing blue eyes and they just don’t look right on him and you can’t look away from them, which is kind of the point.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul… well, with The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro have figured out how to do a character study without ever letting anyone into the character. De Niro’s character, real-life teamster and confessed mob hitman Frank Sheeran, starts the film as an aimless, aging truck driver. He breaks down and happens to meet local mobster Joe Pesci, which pays off after De Niro’s gotten busted for stealing from his company—selling beef on the side to a fantastic Bobby Cannavale, apparently mid-level Philadelphia mob guy. De Niro keeps his mouth shut in court, impressing lawyer Ray Romano (also fantastic, clearly a lot of people wanted their chance to shine in the ultimate Scorsese mob picture), so Romano re-introduces him to Pesci and Pesci starts giving him work. Pesci’s playing older than De Niro (the real-life age difference was seventeen years), but the actors are the same age and so they’re in differing intensities of CGI de-aging. There is an onboarding period with The Irishman, when you’re wondering what it must have looked like on the set, with actors like Romano and Cannavale, seemingly just in some make-up, are acting opposite much older guys De Niro and Pesci, who don’t end up looking much older. Like, once it’s clear De Niro’s supposed to look like a tough Irish guy, explaining his stocky shoulders, it all just fits. All just works. It ceases being a concern and actually ends up being one of the film’s unintended pluses. The Irishman is all about aging. It’s all about the passage of time. Just not for the first act and then there’s this intentional avoiding of it for a lot of the second. It’s a long movie; Scorsese can take his time shifting the film’s tone.

But it’s also a multilevel narrative—De Niro, in a rest home, is telling his story, a very old man. Second level is De Niro telling the story of this time he and Pesci and their wives drove from Philadelphia to Detroit for a wedding. Along the way, sometimes because of visual cues, sometimes not, De Niro thinks about his story getting him to that point. We don’t find out the point of that point until much later in the film, after it’s transitioned from the middle-aged schlub (the main action starts when De Niro’s character is in his thirties but he looks much older) gets involved with the mob and tosses out wife Aleksa Palladino for cocktail waitress Stephanie Kurtzuba, which literally has no narrative impact because De Niro’s already estranged daughters immediately bond with the new wife. It ought not to work, but does because the film’s still establishing its narrative distance from De Niro. It’s not until about halfway through the movie you realize he’s not a protagonist. He’s an unreliable, willing but unenthusiastic narrator—it’s clear real quick these trips down memory lane aren’t pleasing to De Niro, at any level he’s narrating. Because once the film introduces Jimmy Hoffa everything changes. Al Pacino plays Hoffa; doing it like a comedy caricature, then making that real—the yelling finally pays off, thanks to Scorsese. The film’s already been this old mob men buddy picture between De Niro and Pesci moves on to be this De Niro and Pacino buddy flick. They hang out with their families, they have heart to heart talks, De Niro even sleeps in Pacino’s hotel suites so he’s not on the register because De Niro’s not just a teamster, he’s Pacino’s bodyguard.

The family thing is important because The Irishman’s only subplot is De Niro’s daughter, Lucy Gallina as a kid, Anna Paquin as an adult. Gallina figures out pretty quick once her dad goes from being a meat delivery truck driver to a mob hitman. It isn’t until he starts hanging out with Pacino does Gallina start liking anything about her dad’s life. She and Pacino are pals. He’s a dotting grandpa figure who buys her ice cream sundaes. Pacino and the ice cream sundaes becomes a nice detail fast.

The family thing gets important again in the third act, after the disappearance. Because at the end of all three levels of story are the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The third level, the main narrative, tracks De Niro basically babysitting Pacino through historical events, through the Kennedy administration’s persecution—causing a rift between the mob and the unions (the film does need some kind of a historical accuracy section in the credits just so people know how much of the completely whacked out corruption details are true), which eventually leads to Pacino’s feud with dipshit mobster and rival teamster boss Stephen Graham. Graham’s going to be Pacino’s downfall, no matter what Pesci, De Niro, or anyone else do about it. And it’s a long, drawn out, unpleasant downfall.

Because the closest thing The Irishman has to a hero is Pacino’s Hoffa. He’s far from perfect, but he does help people. If the sixties union speeches about the soulless corporations are accurate, well, would you believe things haven’t really improved in sixty years? Oh, right, we already know that.

Of course, he’s not a hero because there aren’t such a thing. There can’t be. If heroes were such a thing, guys like Pesci and De Niro wouldn’t know how to function. It would mean their world views were abjectly broken and, even if Pesci and De Niro aren’t great fans of the world… broken’s a lot.

That thread plays out later on when The Irishman ends on a starkly atheistic note, which makes perfect sense but is a little surprising. At one point, once it’s clear where they’re going, I actually thought, “we’re a long way from Last Temptation, aren’t we.” The Irishman is a perfectly aged film; it’s cumulative for its creators in all the right ways. Having Pacino do a character actor part is just the crowning achievement. For two hours and forty five minutes of the film, it’s very clearly not De Niro’s, which is weird. It seems like it’s De Niro’s. It’s literally got a Little Big Man bookend; The Irishman has got to be this great culmination. Then isn’t.

And it’s not De Niro’s movie for a long time either. It’s Pesci’s or Pacino’s or even Romano’s; De Niro costars in every one of his scenes, even the ones with Gallina and Paquin, which is something since neither of them talk for most of their scenes. De Niro’s the right hand man, even in his own story.

The last thirty minutes changes it all around and is where Irishman sort of ascends the stairs it wasn’t clear anyone was building. Once it’s clear how The Irishman’s going to go… it’s an ultimate trip.

The film goes from being a success to an achievement, with Scorsese’s direction this perfect mix of confident and enthusiastic. He takes his time establishing the filmmaking ground situation—how he, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (and whoever CGIed locations back in time), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer Robbie Robertson (doing some damn fine work, which turns out to be minimalist Morricone) are going to visualize this narrative—then starts branching out, using slow motion for sequences, using a direct exposition dump or two; it’s all very carefully executed and results in every shot being something of a surprise.

There’s a badass 2001 homage. The aforementioned “ultimate trip” is a reference to it but it deserves a callout. It’s really cool. The Irishman still manages to be really cool filmmaking, even after a 130 minutes. Scorsese’s got the juice.

Strong script from Steven Zaillian. He’s got a habit of dragging things out, which Scorsese and the actors are then able to cut lean and nimble, but it’s a questionable habit. Essential expository character development scenes are essential because of Pacino or Pesci or whatever. Not because of Zaillian.

Best performance is either Pesci or Pacino. It’s a toss-up. Pacino for turning a leading man biopic performance into a supporting part or Pesci for getting so much mileage out of a mundane bad guy. But it’s De Niro’s movie in the end. He gets that amazing finale and makes magic. With those creepy CGI blue eyes.

Supporting tier… Romano and Cannavale are the standouts; once Pacino comes in, they all become a lot less important. Sebastian Maniscalco has a great small part. Graham’s a perfect dipshit, which is good, I guess; don’t get typecast (or do). Domenick Lombardozzi’s got a significant supporting part and is unrecognizable to the point you wonder if there’s some CGI involved. He’s excellent in what’s basically the villain part. Harvey Keitel’s got an extended cameo, presumably just to bring a bunch of the gang back together.

Is The Irishman, which Scorsese would’ve preferred to title, I Heard You Paint Houses, but really should just be called Jimmy and Me (or Relating to a Sociopath), a culmination of all Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci’s mob pictures? Yes and no. It doesn’t make an informal trilogy or quartet, because it’s a do-over. It’s Scorsese figuring out what he wants to say about that thing of theirs, made with properly aged thoughtfulness.

The most striking part of the film is the buddy flick aspect, when it’s just old men De Niro and Pacino pretending to younger old men finding an unexpected friendship. It’s really comfortable work from all involved, even though it seems like where they’d have the most problem. Cracking Pacino and De Niro’s relationship is the film’s (first) big success; basically the first and second act can get away with anything thanks to it. And the second big success, the aforementioned achievement, that one’s the third act.

The Irishman is supplanting work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Robbie Robertson; production designer, Bob Shaw; costume designers, Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell; produced by Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Irwin Winkler; released by Netflix.

Starring Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Stephen Graham (Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano), Domenick Lombardozzi (Fat Tony Salerno), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Gary Basaraba (Frank ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons), Marin Ireland (Older Dolores Sheeran), Anna Paquin (Older Peggy Sheeran), Lucy Gallina (Young Peggy Sheeran), Louis Cancelmi (Sally Bugs), Sebastian Maniscalco (Crazy Joe Gallo), Jake Hoffman (Allen Dorfman), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Welker White (Josephine ‘Jo’ Hoffa), Kathrine Narducci (Carrie Bufalino), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), and Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno).


Gelateria (2019, Christian Serritiello and Arthur Patching)

Once it’s clear directors Patching and Serritiello are going to be able to keep Gelateria going, the question becomes how can they possibly end it. The film opens with a lone figure on a rocky beach, yelling into the sea. The water has sound, the yells don’t have sound. Given how the film ends… it’s possible the whole thing’s circular to that first scene, possible it’s not. Doesn’t matter. Probably.

The first half of Gelateria is an absurdist walking tour of art venues, starting with Serritiello going to old friend Jade Willis’s concert. Serritiello’s so good it’s weird to think of him as the director too. He’s what gets Gelateria the initial buy in. He’s just staring at the unseeable woman across from him as he narrates from a journal; Serritiello’s really good at the regarding for the camera bit, he’s taking it seriously, the film’s taking him seriously.

So, I guess it does make sense he’s one of the directors too.

Anyway. Serritiello is going to that Jade Willis concert. The film still hasn’t established how absurd it’s going to get, not until after Willis yells at Serritiello for abandoning him and the dialogue’s not great. Then all of a sudden the film breaks the established narrative distance and mixes it up on the floor and looks up from Serritiello’s position (on the literal floor) and the world is totally different. Willis, who’s quite good, is taunting Willis, egged on by onlookers, and the film begins to establish its boundaries.

Serritiello is going to run along in a bit and look into a barber shop, where there’s a great bit with two customers on the phone. It’s nonsensical but excellent because of the acting, which seems to set Gelateria on steady ground only to immediately go shaky again. Turns out Serritellio’s passing the film off to a third customer, Daniel Brunet. His phone call is about hiring someone to speak Italian during his party on a yacht.

Serritiello, Willis, the other phone actors, they were acting. Brunet is mugging. It’s an immediate problem.

Brunet’s party turns out to be a five person affair in what appears to be a double bed cabin. It’s silly and if Brunet weren’t exaggeratedly odious it might even be funny. Things immediately improve when Simone Spinazze shows up. He’s the Italian hired to speak Italian for the amusement of Brunet and his guests. Once he’s done being made spectacle for terrible WASPs, Spinazze goes to work waitstaff at an art show. That sequence, which is where it becomes clear the film can keep up this momentum, ends in singer Joulia Strauss shooting someone.

She then runs out, gets into a waiting getaway car and speeds off with accomplice (and the other director) Arthur Patching. If it were a different kind of film, there’d be something to look at with Strauss actually having used the art show as a cover to perform a hit.

Anyway.

After Patching stashes Strauss in a safe house with the requisite birds (go with it), he then runs into Carrie Getman, who’s out bird-calling at night, passing the film off to Getman. When then get Getman’s sequence, which is basically her life set to a terrible self-help tape.

Take a breath, only halfway in.

Though actually the second half, which starts with a phenomenal animated sequence is all about how an artist ships her paintings off to a gallery on a remote island and then the gallery never gets in touch so she goes to investigate. There’s bingo involved, a hamburger joint, and avant-garde community theater. It’s all fairly awesome as far as the “plot” goes, with some excellent supporting performances in this section.

Unfortunately, the artist protagonist is played by Patching and Serritiello in drag as a grey-haired British lady. They alternate, which doesn’t matter much as they don’t get any significant dialogue, with Patching probably doing it more? Though the character gets introduced with Serritiello.

I mean, it’s fine for the absurdist comedy thing and all but it might have been funnier if they’d played it, well, straight. Especially given the acting possibilities for the outrageous odyssey through this sleepy little town.

Gelateria looks great, moves great, sounds great (Jack Patching’s score is excellent). Given the directors wrote, edited, photographed, and starred, it’s definitely all thanks to Patching and Serritiello—with major props to Tiago Araújo’s animation; the animated sequence is just what it needs to be to bridge the sections of the film. The film—running just over an hour—is one hell of a sprint. It never slows down, never tires, always kept moving smooth thanks to the directors’ masterful editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, edited, photographed, and produced by Christian Serritiello and Arthur Patching.

Starring Carrie Getman (Eleanor), Tomas Spencer (PC George Hartree), Christian Serritiello (Zbigniew), Jade Willis (Tom Rigby), Simone Spinazze (Giovanni), Arthur Patching (Alfie Dunn), Daniel Brunet (Julius Row), Joulia Strauss (Joulia Strauss), Julie Trappett (Priscilla), and John Keogh (James Flannigan).


Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, Michael Dougherty)

I wonder if, much like that one immortal monkey divining Borges’s dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, one could assemble a list of all the action beats in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which are mostly from Aliens and Jurassic Park 1 and 2, and arrange them to figure out the story to this film. Once the film hits the second act, I think it’d be more—I’m forgetting the stuff with Vera Farmiga, which is more out of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond. I’m sure Borges’s immortal monkey could do it, but I guess there is something more to director Dougherty and Zach Shields’s script than just stringing together the action scenes, fitting in the right amount of product placement for the studio (turns out it’s a lot and then a lot times twelve), and making sure there enough possible toys. See, you don’t just get Godzilla merchandise from this one, there’s also the other monsters, plus the stupid giant-sized stealth bomber-thing the good guys fly around in because Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a desperately joyless adaptation of a crappy eighties Godzilla cartoon.

Complete with annoying teen Millie Bobby Brown running around. Brown’s not just a mechanical engineer and accomplice to premeditated omnicide, she also knows how to run a ballpark sound board, which is maybe her most impressive trait.

She’s daughter of mad scientist Vera Farmiga (hashtag feminism), who has betrayed Monarch—the good guys with the giant flying fortress who tell the governments of the world to eat it while they study giant monsters, called Titans because someone wanted a trademark and this Godzilla movie tries as much as it can to forget Japan exists so you know they’re not calling them kaiju—and teamed up with eco-terrorist Charles Dance to release all the giant monsters who will once again rule the Earth.

But Brown’s also daughter of Kyle Chandler, who left Farmiga and Brown because their other kid died in the first Godzilla—unseen and stepped on, confirming it did kill a bunch of civilians but whatever. Chandler lives a simple life with a nineties movies alpha male cottage on a lake where he studies wolves nearby. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Farmiga raising Brown in isolation at the giant monster facilities around the world.

As bad as you think Dougherty and Shields can get with the script, they somehow manage to go even lower. And not just when they’re reusing quotable lines from Alien and The Abyss. It’s all the time. They’ve got nothing good going on here. Nothing.

Obviously things don’t go well with Farmiga’s plan to give the world over to the monsters because it turns out they used frog DNA in the… sadly, no. Nothing quite so good. They really do just hinge it all on Farmiga’s ability to deliver a mad scientist speech and she fails at it utterly. She’s terrible, Brown’s terrible, Chandler’s pretty bad (his part is written as a Die Hard part for Bruce Willis, which would be amusing if Chandler were acting it that way, but he’s not), Ken Watanabe is downright hacky, Sally Hawkins somehow manages not to know how embarrassed she should look during her thankless scenes but someone doesn’t, which just makes it more embarrassing. Not to mention the stunt cameos.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, more than anything else, reminds of the first American attempt at a Godzilla, not because of plotting, but because of the film’s inability to tell an honest scene as well as the stunt casting. Zhang Ziyi gets… one hell of a thankless part, but she’s better than Hawkins for sure. Zhang’s as good as it gets in Monsters. Same goes for—shockingly because the part is so atrociously written—Bradley Whitford. He’s got the scientist slash medical doctor slash airplane pilot slash submarine pilot maybe part. It’s a really poorly written part, but Whitford manages not to be too bad. It’s the function of his part to make the film worse—kind of like how, in addition to being terrible, Thomas Middleditch literally has this recurring thing about making O’Shea Jackson Jr. seem either stupid or dickish. Jackson’s playing one of the soldiers, Middleditch is some useless company man (Monsters basically thinks Paul Reiser is the good guy in Aliens), Jackson’s Black, Middleditch’s White, Jackson’s likable, Middleditch’s a dipshit… it’s bad. And weird. Because Middleditch is apparently going to go on to become Chandler’s offscreen bro. They act like they’ve had a big bonding thing throughout, even though they never have any real scenes together because the script’s terrible and no one has any real scenes.

Unless you count the Joe Morton going and looking for someone scene. Joe Morton and David Straithairn somehow get through this one unscathed. And CCH Pounder. It’s very nice to see her in something… especially since she’s in the first scene so you could just turn it off after she’s done.

Also bad is Aisha Hinds. Not sure how much of it’s her fault but whatever her agent convinced her was going to happen because of this part… the agent was incorrect.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible music from Bear McCreary. There’s not even a lot of it. It’s sparse. But ungodly awful when it comes in. The movie ought to give some kind of warning so you can steel yourself.

Umm, what else. The editing’s not good, but Dougherty’s direction is awful so it’s not like there’s much the editors—all three of them—could do. Lawrence Sher’s photography is similarly not noteworthy. Monsters’s “mise-en-scène” is broke—Dougherty doesn’t know how to direct a single scene in the movie, giant monster or not—so what’s Sher going to do to fix it. What’s anyone going to do.

There are a handful of other things—okay, maybe a dozen but then like five things (plus the dozen)—I’d really like to enumerate but I can’t. If I list these silly, silly things, it might encourage someone to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it would seem like you couldn’t not have some kind of fun with the goofy things on the list. I don’t even want to tease them.

So instead I’ll just mention Doughterty’s “Brodie Bruce” type obsession with kaiju banging—Mothra and Godzilla are (apparently unrequited) soulmates but there’s a good chance Monsters is implying Ghidorah bangs Rodan. It comes up in a lousy attempt at a joke but then at the end the plot perturbs in just the right way for it to seem like a thing, even if it’s just the movie being cheap or expedient or whatever.

Once upon a time, Charles Dance wore a t-shirt with “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” on it, referring to his casting in a film. King of the Monsters—the entire production, the entire cast, the entire crew, everyone, everything, every frame—is wearing a “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” t-shirt.

It’s an astonishingly silly movie and it’s mortifying the filmmakers weren’t able to at least make a fun, astonishingly silly movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dougherty; screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on a story by Max Borenstein, Dougherty, and Shields; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, and Richard Pearson; music by Bear McCreary; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Ziyi Zhang (Dr. Ilene Chen), Thomas Middleditch (Sam Coleman), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Barnes), Anthony Ramos (Staff Sergeant Martinez), Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (First Lieutenant Griffin), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), CCH Pounder (Senator Williams), and Joe Morton (Dr. Houston Brooks).


Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, Tim Miller)

Terminator: Dark Fate is the fourth irrelevant Terminator 2 sequel. It’s not the worst of them, it’s not the best of them. But the poor rights owners just can’t seem to figure out how to franchise and Arnold Schwarzenegger just can’t say no. If there’s a Terminator 7 in a couple years… Arnold will be in it if they ask him. It’s not so much he’s shameless, though he’s obviously shameless, it’s about perspective. From Arnold’s perspective, Dark Fate might work. He’s funny in it. Not sure if he’s good. Not sure if Dark Fate would know what to do with actual acting, though there are hints at it occasionally. Well, in the first act. Other than Gabriel Luna doing a really good evil Terminator, none of the performances are really impressive in anyway. Many could be worse.

Even Linda Hamilton’s, even if I can’t imagine how. Not as a dig, just her obvious discomfort acting in the film and the clearly zero direction from Miller—who’s just does a really bad job; full stop, Dark Fate is stupid, but if Miller’s direction were better, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad.

Hamilton gets all these terribly written speeches—David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray do some putrid work (outside the opening in Mexico with Natalia Reyes, brother Diego Boneta, and their sick father, Enrique Arce, which is forced but at least there’s some effort involved)—and she can’t deliver them, partially because Miller can’t figure out how to compose the shot or pace the scene, much less block her. Watching Dark Fate—when it’s not over-homaging previous entries; the sequel slash relaunch slash reboot is positively bored as it rehashes something previously rehashed in three of the previous Terminator 3s. Dark Fate, technically, is rather disappointing. Miller’s bad, sure, but Ken Seng’s photography clashes on all the CG composite shots, making Dark Fate feel even more obviously over-produced. Hero Terminator (or Hero Terminator stand-in) Mackenzie Davis fights at high speed, so does Luna. Dark Fate leans in all the way with the CGI-assisted fight scenes, even though they’ve got no resonance, narrative or emotional. The script spreads out the reveals about the new doomed future—while it feels almost like they’re begging for a Matrix tie-in, it looks exactly like Edge of Tomorrow; Dark Fate’s nothing if not original. But the future stuff’s dumb and obvious. The way they get Hamilton back is stupid and sensational and then never pays off because she’s not good. Like, she’s bad. They needed to do something about the performance. It makes the movie seem desperate in additional to obvious in additional to silly. Dark Fate feels more thrown together than rushed.

What else… oh, Arnold. He’s fun. He’s funny. For about fifteen seconds as they homage Hamilton not being about to play well with others in Terminator 2, you can appreciate how well Arnold works with other actors, contrasting his megastar days. He’s comfortable sitting and playing out a scene with emotion. It’s a nice thing to see. Even if it took decades and the movie isn’t any good.

One funny thing about Dark Fate is how bad it tries to feign woke and gin up some controversy. There’s a whole thing about the Border Patrol, getting snuck in from Mexico, how “Thank You For Your Service” is a dangerous platitude, not to mention the movie having a nice working class Mexican family as protagonists and the first act mostly in Spanish with subtitles. Dark Fate, in all the wrong ways, tries to… I don’t know, strut. It tries to distinguish itself. Actually, thinking about the screenwriters… did they bring in Billy Ray to politicize it a little lefty. Though nothing about Dark Fate suggests anyone involved with the film at any stage of production actually focus tested the film. Dark Fate is very sure of itself, it’s very committed to itself, to its twists and its turns and its terrible third act.

It’s a bummer. Definite bummer. Definite, desperate bummer.

Worse served are Davis and Reyes, who could’ve had—if not a franchise—a good buddy flick. Then maybe Luna, who’s actually good but it makes absolutely no different. Then Arnold, who showed up ready to work and no one put him to work. And, finally, Hamilton, who didn’t need her career-defining role, no question about it, tarnished in such a blah effort.

Poorly plotted script and so on. It’s clearly an ill-advised production, but it could’ve been a far more entertaining and competent one with a different script but mostly a different director. Miller hasn’t got a single good instinct. The way he fades the expository talking head scenes is bewildering. He doesn’t want the movie to show the actors acting. Though

I mean, after all, there’s no Dark Fate but what we make for ourselves.

And the Junkie XL score is godawful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Miller; screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, based on a story by James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer, and Rhodes and characters created by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; director of photography, Ken Seng; edited by Julian Clarke; music by Junkie XL; production designer, Sonja Klaus; costume designer, Ngila Dickson; produced by Cameron and David Ellison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani), Linda Hamilton (Sarah), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Gabriel Luna (Gabriel), Diego Boneta (Diego), and Enrique Arce (Vicente).


A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019, Richard Phelan and Will Becher)

Farmageddon has so many sci-fi TV and movie references it’s hard to keep track. The whole thing feels like an homage to E.T. as far as the story—an alien (“voiced” by Amalia Vitale; voicing means making noises in Farmageddon, there’s no dialogue) gets stranded on Earth and makes friends with a local who helps them try to get home. In this case, that local is Shaun. The Sheep. He and the alien bond over pizza, which is a totally natural thing for a British sheep and a space alien to bond over, especially since the pizza allows for a lot of sight gags.

Since there’s no dialogue and since the noises the characters make rarely imply exposition—there are occasional newspaper headlines to get across the most impactful events (the nearby town, having sighted the alien spacecraft, is going alien-happy)—the film’s got to do everything visually. Yes, they get away with a lot of infographics. The opening has Shaun and the other sheep running afoul of their sheep dog, Bitzer, who has to put up signs forbidding their various modes of play. They can’t frisbee, they can’t suction cup bow and arrow, they can’t shoot each other out of cannons—Bitzer’s really pushing for no nonsense and it provides the film with its most antagonistic relationship—Bitzer is getting a little tired of Shaun.

Of course, Shaun could care less and thank goodness, because if he were worried about getting in trouble he and the alien wouldn’t set out on an odyssey to find the missing spacecraft and then the movie would be a lot less entertaining. Though, who knows. It’s entirely possible directors Phelan and Becher—and screenwriters Mark Burton and Jon Brown—could come up with enough fun around the farm, but then we wouldn’t get to go to the alien hunters’ secret base. With the exception of the boss, all of the (presumably) government alien hunters are in their yellow hazmat suits, which makes them entirely indistinguishable from one another and perfect for anonymous physical comedy. If it weren’t moving so briskly, one could slow and marvel at the artistry on display in Farmageddon’s stop-motion, but also how the filmmakers are able to so deftly toggle between popular sci-fi references and the physicality of the characters. The story itself is fairly simple. Once Shaun and the alien leave the farm, they’re simultaneously in danger from Bitzer—who’s in a middle of new mission of the Farmer (Farmer runs the farm, Bitzer is the good dog who manages the sheep, Shaun is one of the sheep, there I explained it) when he discovers his escaped charge in the wild—and the alien hunters. Only thanks to the Farmer’s scheme, which involves turning the farm into an amusement park with an alien theme (“Farmageddon,” they’re able to get away with the title because the Farmer obviously wouldn’t give it a good name), Bitzer’s in a spacesuit outfit and the alien hunters go after him too.

Burton and Brown introduce the eventual resolution about midway through the second act and keep reminding the audience. Farmageddon’s a family film without ever pandering to the kids or getting too dumb for the adults—they take such deep dives on the sci-fi references, it’s hard to imagine anyone, child or adult, getting all the references at first glance—it’s a simple narrative, smartly executed. The second act, which takes the heroes back to the alien hunters’ lair, does drag a little. The first act is all about entertaining, the third act is all about entertaining. The second act, which puts Shaun and the alien through various physical and emotional hardships—not to mention the alien hunter boss has got a very affecting origin story and one of the film’s bigger missteps is not addressing its treatment of her better. It does a little work at it, which, sure, can be enough, but there are definite missed opportunities and making the film’s only truly malevolent villain a career-minded woman has some optics to it.

Alien hunter boss has this little robot assistant who’s almost a significant supporting player then isn’t. It’s just a frequently utilized sight gag, though it does eventually serve to lighten the boss a little, which is good.

Farmageddon is always good. Even taking the difficult to describe with a pithy adjective second act and the alien hunter boss into account, it’s never like it’s not good. It’s always inventive, always imaginative. Seeing how they integrate digital effects with the stop-motion is cool; Sim Evan-Jones’s editing and Charles Copping’s photography are exquisite. They need to be to work with the stop-motion. Excellent direction.

The soundtrack could be better. It’s… too pragmatic. Likable but never charming and Shaun is nothing if not charming.

It’s a delight. Not a “insert well-chosen superlative” delight here, but a delight nonetheless. How can it not be. It’s Shaun the Sheep on an adventure with someone who cannot bleat (actually, the alien can; its mimicry power is constantly amusing), doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t miss a beat.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher; screenplay by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak and the character created by Nick Park; director of photography, Charles Copping; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Tom Howe; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun), John Sparkes (Bitzer), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La) and John Sparkes (The Farmer).


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