TERMINATOR: DARK FATE
You can nearly always pinpoint the precise moment in which a formerly serious – or at least mildly rational – film franchise turns inexorably into camp.
With the Batman series of the '80s and '90s, it was when, in 1997's Batman & Robin, director Joel Schumacher's camera gave us nice, juicy closeups of our hero's updated leather-fetish costume complete with Bat-nipples and Bat-ass. In Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 from 2007, all remaining hope was lost when apple-cheeked Tobey Maguire strutted down the street like the Travolta of Saturday Night Fever, promptly fulfilling Peter Parker's apparent life dream of becoming a hipster jazz pianist. And with the new Terminator: Dark Fate, I'm afraid, it might be time to bid adieu to whatever sanity may have been left in this 35-years-running series of sci-fi action adventures … though I can't yet tell if the franchise officially died when Linda Hamilton made a grim callback to Arnold Schwarzenegger's “I'll be back” catchphrase, or when Schwarzenegger himself gave the line a cornball spin with the sadly inevitable “I won't be back.” Either way, had I been holding a soda or a tub of popcorn, it would have taken all my restraint not to hurl my concession at the screen.
I take no pleasure in reporting this, given that, like most everyone I know, I love James Cameron's 1991 Terminator II: Judgment Day to death and was initially jazzed at the prospect of seeing its stars Hamilton (as the iconic world-saver Sarah Conner) and Schwarzenegger (as the titular monosyllabic cyborg) reunite for another tour of duty. But most everything that's wrong with director Tim Miller's Dark Fate is, unfortunately, wrong because of Hamilton's and Schwarzenegger's participation. Sixty-three-year-old Hamilton looks great, if understandably weathered, and her deep, husky voice ably suggests decades of residual grief and undiluted anger. That's why it's all the more baffling that this script – credited to no fewer than six screenwriters and/or “story by” contributors including James Cameron – turns Sarah into a figure of comic relief, always at the ready with a withering aside or a throaty punchline; the woman's every cynical utterance should be followed, Dorothy Parker-style, with Sarah taking a sip from her martini.
As for 72-year-old Schwarzenegger (who, let's remember, played Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin,), he entered the full-camp phase of his acting career ages ago. But even considering the laughs he intentionally and unintentionally generates, Schwarzenegger can't pull off the movie's ridiculous conceit that his T-800 assassin is now a contented family man with a drapery business and the nom de guerre “Carl,” nor adequately explain how even a futuristic cyborg is able to develop facial hair, wrinkles, and a conscience. The first five minutes here are somewhat reminiscent of the prelude to David Fincher's 1992 Alien3, which intentionally (and effectively) trashed whatever upbeat notes lingered after 1986's Aliens. Yet I was less bummed by the opener's revisionist history – a narrative gamble that might easily piss off admirers of the series – than by the film's bald acquiescence to presumed fan service. Yes, seeing T2 stars Hamilton and Schwarzenegger together again is a hoot. If only their returns didn't make me want to hoot with derision.
The rest of the film is … fine, I guess. Deadpool director Miller stages the action – particularly an early, extended chase that climaxes on a highway bridge – with a fair degree of style, and the famed “liquid metal” effects, though obviously less astonishing now than they were 27 years ago, still provide some giddy delight when employed by the new, improved cyborg REV-9 (a subtly charismatic Gabriel Luna). Mackenzie Davis delivers an empathetic, thrillingly physical performance as the “augmented” human Grace, sent from the future to protect Earth's latest hope for survival: the young Mexican Dani (a touching Natalia Reyes) who's as confounded by the time-travel intricacies as we are. And given that its storyline is really just a rehash of T2, complete with Schwarzenegger's need to turn his onetime robotic monster into an undisputed hero, Dark Fate at least boasts the first Terminator plot since 1991 that I could actually remember two days after seeing the movie. Yet despite its professionalism and occasionally witty fringe touches – among them Sarah's astonishment that Carl's wife hasn't noticed his presumed weight of 400 pounds – Terminator: Dark Fate feels like a huge missed opportunity. I don't know if Hamilton or Schwarzenegger, or the series itself, will ever “be back.” If they do come back, though, I'm praying they end up in a brand extension less embarrassing than this one.
This can only sound like a backhanded compliment, if not a direct insult. But between my weekend viewing of director Kasi Lemmons' Harriet Tubman bio-pic and my sitting down to review it, my opinion on Harriet has mellowed, and I'm now ready to concede that the film may actually be a terrific one – for kids. Not little kids, mind you, but certainly intelligent, curious middle- and high-schoolers interested in learning about one of the most legitimately heroic figures in American history. Despite lead Cynthia Erivo's forceful, sometimes lyrical title performance and a lot of solid supporting work, my initial reaction was largely unfavorable: too much on-the-nose exposition and overt speechifying; too much postcard-ready prettiness courtesy of cinematographer John Toll; wa-a-a-ay too much aural melodrama by the usually first-rate composer Terrence Blanchard. (For two hours, the score tells us exactly what to feel at every damned moment). Adding the film's frustrating adherence to traditional bio-pic, and even action-pic, formulas, the watering down of Tubman's harrowing experiences for PG-13 consumption, and some of the most fascinating elements of our heroine's life – such as her serving as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War – relegated to mere mentions in title cards at the finale, I left my screening sincerely disappointed. Upon reflection, however, it's hard to deny that this blunt, literal-minded, mostly unimaginative film wouldn't have considerable impact on young audiences new to the Harriet Tubman story who would, hopefully, be properly astounded by this historic saga of courage, tenacity, and unimaginable bravery. Is Harriet a good movie? Personally speaking, I don't think so. I also think, for the right viewers under the right circumstances, that couldn't possibly matter less.
Two words, or rather one hyphenated word, entered my brain when I first heard that Edward Norton was writing, directing, producing, and starring in a movie about a private detective with Tourette's syndrome: “Uh-oh.” Although he can be an incredibly subtle actor, Norton has only been Oscar-nominated for showing off (in Primal Fear, American History X, and Birdman), and if anything seemed to demand “For Your Consideration!” consideration, it was the grisly prospect of the man giving himself loads of flattering closeups and showy, stream-of-consciousness dialogue as he twitched, bleated, and cursed his way into our hearts. Consequently, my guard was up from the first minutes of Motherless Brooklyn, a 1950s noir (based on a 1999 Jonathan Lethem novel not set in the '50s) in which Norton's Lionel Essrog investigates the murder of his mentor and winds up uncovering unimagined torrents of political and personal corruption.
For a while, it's all a little hard to take. Norton does indeed act up a storm, though with minimal cursing, in his many closeups, and because this is a cigarettes-and-fedoras gumshoe tale, we also get him soliloquizing through voice-over narration on those rare occasions in which the visible Lionel is actually silent. There's also a curiously clean quality to Dick Pope's meant-to-be-gritty cinematography, and the peripheral characters we encounter early on – principally Bruce Willis' venerated P.I. and Lionel's office-mates played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, and Ethan Suplee – seem less like characters than one-note stereotypes pulled directly from the pages of Raymond Chandler. But Norton's movie is absolutely worth sticking with. Its twisty narrative grows in complexity as it progresses, delivering revealing, even insightful commentary on the dirty dealings of local and state bureaucracies and the continuing horror of institutionalized racism. Composer Daniel Pemberton supplies a moody, jazzy score that's as noir as you could ever want. Alec Baldwin, as a bullish city planner, turns in his strongest dramatic work in years, with excellent turns also provided by Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, and the lovely (if slightly sidelined) Gugu Mbatha-Raw. And while Norton, thank the gods, doesn't go for full-tilt lovable in his characterization of Lionel, he most certainly makes the guy appealing and memorable, with his many tics and mannerisms, in the end, feeling surprisingly organic. Written with panache and directed (if occasionally over-directed) with flair, Motherless Brooklyn is a pretty great achievement. Compared with 2016's Live by Night, writer/director/producer/star Ben Affleck's own cigarettes-and-fedoras vanity project, it's freaking Citizen Kane.
Only the second feature from the writer/director of 2016's modern classic of paranoid horror The Witch, Robert Eggers' similarly creepy The Lighthouse casts Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as 1890s lighthouse-keepers who spend weeks together (or do they?) on a remote, rocky island and slowly go insane (or do they?). Shot, by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, in black-and-white and in a boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Eggers' film is intentionally oppressive, suffocating, and bleak. It's also, on a first viewing, close to inscrutable, and I think the friend with whom I saw the film encapsulated the experience best after the lights came up and we walked toward the parking lot and he asked, “What the f--- was that?!?” I hasten to add, however, that this was said with a laugh and wasn't a complaint – at least not a major one. But if, like me, you make the mistake of taking the on-screen events at face value, and you're not wholly up-to-speed on your Greek mythology and nautical history, it's easy to see how The Lighthouse could leave you baffled. (Equally baffling is much of the dialogue, with the stars' – Scottish? Bostonian? – dialects so thick that I could barely comprehend almost half of the banter.) I urge you to give Eggers' latest a shot regardless, because with the exception of Jordan Peele's Us, no other 2019 movie has left me so antsy for a second (and third, and fourth ...) viewing.
Co-written by Robert's brother Max, the film's in-the-moment pleasures are copious and profound: the one-eyed seagull who terrorizes Pattinson and meets a shockingly grim fate; the visions (or are they?) of a beached mermaid; the evocative nightmare imagery involving floating logs and lobster traps; the ferocity of the shouting matches and drunken revelry; the extraordinary sound effects that amplify the loneliness and impending horror. And it would be hard to imagine better performances in this thing. Pattinson is a wonder whether meticulously slow-burning or exploding with Daniel Plainview intensity, while the craggy, ravaged, utterly commanding Dafoe doesn't create a character so much as an instant archetype: Captain Ahab with deeper fervor, more ornate language, and a greater propensity for farting. (He also cooks a grade-A lobster.) Still, I'm eager for additional Lighthouse viewings not only for extra exposure to what I loved, but continued exposure to what I haven't yet fully grasped that might enable me to figure out what could possibly connect the continued hauling of coal to the frenzied masturbation to the unreliable exposition to the shattering shot that's less figuratively than literally Promethean. Regarding my friend's “What the f--- was that?!?” question, I had no answer then and have no answer now. But I can't wait to start coming up with one.