Monthly Archives: November 2019

The Irishman (2019)

In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.

Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.

Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.

The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.

There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.

There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Mike Flanagan has taken the mantle from Frank Darabont and become the best film adapter of Stephen King’s stories. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining but it’s a sequel to Kubrick’s movie version, which King notoriously hated for its alterations. We follow an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles with addiction in the wake of his family’s tragedy linked to the Overlook Hotel. He starts a new life for himself as a hospice worker, aiding the elderly into a peaceful demise (where he earns the titular nickname), and he takes it upon himself to mentor a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has the same “shining” powers that he has. Trouble is others are looking for these same gifted few, namely Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her gang of traveling undead mutant vampire people feeding off the “steam” or life force of the super-powered they kill. They’re after Abra and her abilities so Danny must rescue her and eventually head back to the source of all his nightmares. This is a relatively solid sequel that has enough intrigue and suspense to cover over the dull parts. It takes too long to get going and then finishes things up too quickly, especially with a climax at the reawakened Overlook that is beginning to hit a groove with nasty ghostly suspense. It felt like I was watching Stephen King’s X-Men with his assortment of super powered people banding together and tracking each other down. The gypsy-like caravan of villains are pretty disposable and lacking strong personality or menace. Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is fun to watch even if she doesn’t feel that threatening. The rules and limitations feel vaguely defined and refined. The nods to the original Shining are selective and bring their own degree of power, as does seeing different actors portray these famous characters in flashback. Flanagan has reverence for both King’s source material and the beloved 1980 film, and bridging the two is a source of enjoyment. The characterization overall is pretty slack and there aren’t much in the way of genuine scares. It’s creepy, it’s occasionally atmospheric, and it’s also really long and drawn out, clocking in at 151 minutes, which is even longer than Kubrick’s movie. It’s an epilogue that gets by on the emotional investment and resolution it provides for Danny while setting up a larger universe of super “shining” psychics. If you don’t care about one, there’s at least some degree of the other to prove entertaining albeit also being underdeveloped. Doctor Sleep (a wasted title) is a workable balance between two masters of horror.

Nate’s Grade: B

Night Work (2019)

As I’ve been making a concerted effort to provide thoughtful film reviews for local Ohio projects, I’ve had to acknowledge my potential bias in several circumstances, having personal or professional connections to those behind and in front of the camera. Well, when it comes to the genre comedy Night Work, this is the most biased I may ever get for a project not carrying my name. Writer/director Kyle Rayburn cast a good friend of mine, Valerie Gilbert, in a key supporting role, and I was so inspired with her character’s unique situation that I went and wrote a 9-part rom-com Web series called The Spirit Inside Me exploring that dynamic in the context of a different genre. Gilbert co-starred in my production, served as my co-creator, and Kyle not only gave us his blessing for our own independent project, he offered constant encouragement and assistance, opening his home to us to film one of the episodes (our lead actress threatened to kidnap his sweetheart of a dog). If it wasn’t for Kyle’s creativity, and later his generosity, there would be no Spirit Inside Me, and I’m very grateful for that outcome (look for the first batch of Spirit episodes in late 2019?). Now I get to review the man’s finished film that he made throughout the fall of 2018 in central Ohio and instead of just blaring, “It’s awesome, go see it,” I feel like I can better serve the filmmakers by providing as objective and professional a review as I can especially for a fun movie that deserves to be seen on the festival circuit and later on home video release.

It’s a world of monsters and men living side-by-side. The Night Work team operate as a for-hire crew to bust some ghosts, keep some creepy crawlies in line, and handle the many supernatural beasties hassling the common folk. Frank Rooker (Scott Wood) is the grizzled, hard-drinking, punch-first-ask-questions-later partner with a tragic past. His young daughter Elizabeth was possessed by a spirit and she has been missing for years. Mysterious clues start to emerge pointing toward Elizabeth being alive, and Frank enlists the help of his magic-oriented, irritable Night Work partner Chase Hardy (Virgil Schnell) and Val (Gilbert), a strong-armed bartender who offers handjobs for a fee (she’s also shares her body with a lesbian samurai). Together, this motley crew will shake down creeps and fakes to find out what really happened to Elizabeth.

The fact that Rayburn and his company of first-time filmmakers threw themselves into the mix unabated and holding to their ambition to tell a funky indie version of True Blood meets Men in Black is impressive. They could have gone an introspective mumblecore route, or a teens-lost-in-the-woods genre slasher, but instead they went with a micro-budgeted fantasy/horror buddy film replete with monsters, vampires, and assorted lesbian samurai possessions. Given the budget, inexperience, and ambitions, I take my hat off to the entire Night Work cast and crew not just for going for broke with a twisted, silly comic vision but also seeing it through.

First and foremost, Night Work is a fun movie that seems to be bristling with weirdness and ideas. There are offhand statements that make me curious about additional stories within this universe of humans and the everyday supernatural. It feels like every scene has so much storytelling potential just around the edges, which may be one of the reasons I took a character concept on the peripheral (love story between two people in one body) and creatively ran with it, writing a whole project devoted simply to exploring that very concept. Each time we’re introduced to a new character with a special power or predicament, the world feels richer and more alive and lived in. That sense permeates the film and provides an enjoyment level no matter the scene. You’ll find something to smile about or to be intrigued over in just about every moment, and that’s because Rayburn and his collaborators have certainly given thought to this unusual world. I enjoyed that characters will make references we don’t fully comprehend (“I thought it was gonna be another Baton Rouge”) but point toward more lived-in experiences to unpack. This is a highly amusing and inherently interesting world open for deeper exploration, possibly in linked sequels, and I think that’s a strong necessity for any storyteller creating a setting different than our own.

Night Work is also a funny movie, borrowing from the likes of Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith. There’s a crude, juvenile humor to the movie, and even when characters are confronted with terrifying monsters and the unknown, they meet it with a devilish glee. If the movie could be condensed into a single expression it would be a mirthful smirk. I laughed out loud at a child getting punched in the face. There’s a playful camaraderie between the various players where they always seem on the cusp of cracking a joke. Rather than be annoying, it keeps things light even when we’re dealing with some pretty spooky stuff, allowing Night Work to maintain a ball-busting comedic tone. It’s the film’s way of telling its audience to enjoy the ride, soak up the characters, and not to be too troubled by the rest, even if there are certain implications that might be more troublesome like a diet of male phalluses. I laughed at several points but smiled even more consistently. Night Work didn’t quite have the budget to achieve affecting horror, so it dives headlong into slapstick, banter, and spunky mischievousness. This works well because clever doesn’t need a dollar amount, only a strong writer and a clearly articulated vision.

The performers are just as enjoyable as the funny banter they’re given. Scott Wood is so damn charismatic that it feels like he simply is Frank Rooker. His line readings have such spit and shine to them that the man can find jokes that I didn’t even know were in the lines; he discovers them with his sozzled, sarcastic nonchalance. He’s a presence that kept drawing me toward him and he serves as a terrific anchor for a movie. Wood needs more film work. His onscreen partner, Virgil Schnell, plays the straight man role growing more exasperated. They have a winning chemistry and, mysteriously, if you close your eyes and listen, Schnell’s voice sounds shockingly identical to Keegan Michael-Key. Gilbert (Pinheads, and, ahem, The Spirit Inside Me) is a welcomed addition and is cheerful and wry no matter what gets thrown at her. I wished she was in the movie even more. Gracie Hayes-Plazolles makes a strong impression as a late character who jostles back and forth between innocence and wickedness and has great fun playing those contrasts.

Because of its micro-budget nature, there are certain aspects of filmmaking you simply have to be charitable over as long as they don’t blunt the overall impact of the intent. There’s not much in the way of a sound mix or advanced lighting or set dressing, and I didn’t care, because this is a movie carried by the colorful characters, weird world, and spirited performances. The fact that Gilbert is splayed with what appears to be a blast of light from God (from an open car trunk in reality) doesn’t matter as much as the excellence with how she delivers an incredulous F-bomb after getting spat in the face as part of a protective ritual. The content of ideas, and the energy and commitment, overcome most of the production shortcomings and can provide their own homespun sense of lo-fi charm. There’s a later sequence where an entire conversation and fight inside a bar occurs through the use of silent movie-style inter-titles. I’m certain it was shot and/or edited this way from the realities of not being able to record good sound in a working bar at the time. However, it’s an unexpected and memorable moment that shows a silly and adaptable side at the ready.

With all that being said, there are some limitations that do affect the overall execution of Night Work and limit where the storytelling can go. For starters, this is a very heavily expositional movie. Going into a new world with monsters and magic requires a degree of expected world building which requires an expected degree of explanation. The trick is to make it seem as natural as possible and match it to the action on screen. Night Work follows a film noir-esque storyline where we follow our heroes from spot to spot, shaking down characters, following trails, picking up clues, and this also lends itself to monologues and interrogations. With Night Work, unfortunately there are too many moments of characters just talking and talking and unloading information about the world, its history, its differences, and it can feel like we just left one scene of characters talking to the audience and entered another scene of characters talking to the audience. Again, some of this is unavoidable, but the mission is to make exposition as invisible as possible and judiciously integrated, showing and not telling. It feels a bit like reading the game manual rather than playing the game. Some of this could have been mitigated by pairing it more through action, making the exposition more fluid. Instead of a character unloading information on what something does, we see it. Instead of learning what monsters exist, we see them, maybe even sitting pretty at a bar. I circle back to Men in Black and how it was able to slowly pull back and reveal more of its droll world and how it operated as needed.

The pacing can be strained at times and my theory is because of the effort to get the final product over the finish line of an 80-minute feature running time. Some scenes and shots feel like they go on longer than necessary to convey information or mood, and there are multiple scenes of watching people drive set to soundtrack music or watching people walk down the street, sometimes sped up, set to soundtrack music. It’s different later when we watch Frank and Chase slowly creep through an abandoned building because there’s tension and mystery, anticipation, but watching people drive while listening to music feels like mood setting at best and filler at worst. You can get away with some of this to establish a sense of style and place, but if you choose this route too often, it starts to feel like there just wasn’t enough material available.

Then this makes me think about what could have been added, namely more visual or demonstrative elements and general coverage. Val’s samurai ghost demands some form of visual insert to pair with her recounting of being visited in her dreams. Even if it was brief glimpses, something to show them “together.” Otherwise, this aspect only exists as a theoretical, with the exception of some Japanese words espoused (does the ghost assist with the handjobs?). The same goes with the tragic backstory with Frank’s family. We’re treated to a small moment of his daughter becoming possessed, but the rest is delivered via extended voice over while Frank trundles around his home. Moments that could be ten seconds are stretched to two minutes, to cover for the voice over, to cover for the running time, or simply because there weren’t other editing options. Rarely will sequences feel like there are more than two to three angles to select from, and this isn’t a problem by itself except when it comes to some edits. Without inserts or tighter shots (I can only recall a mere handful of close-ups) there aren’t opportunities to wipe clean edits, so occasionally the same shot will awkwardly dissolve to a different take of the same shot. It’s moments like that where the amateurism, which I find as a general badge of honor for the project, can become an unwanted interference.

Night Work is a fun, ribald little movie that has its own sense of charm, from its budgetary limitations to the expansive possibilities of its strange world. As soon as it was drawing to a close, with some life-changing circumstances and reunions, I was thinking, “Man, I almost wish that movie was starting right now.” It’s a great, drama-heavy starting point for a movie, and I’d be lying if part of me didn’t wish Night Work began at that point rather than ended there. However, what we do get with Night Work feels like the first step in a larger universe of monsters and mishaps, one I hope Rayburn’s promised next project, Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, will synch up with, further exploring the outer edges of this dark and demented playing field. The actors are committed and highly amusing with a special commendation for Wood’s efforts. Rayburn and his entire team, populated with friends, family, and amateur craftsmen, have aimed high and mostly hit their entertainment targets, using limitations mostly to their benefit. This is a charming movie with a strong sense of itself and the desire to entertain in a broad, goofy style. Even with adjusted expectations, there should be something for fans of genre cinema, unconventional comedies, and monsters to dig into. Night Work feels like a promising beginning, both for the filmmakers and its world. Rayburn did it, he made a movie on his own, and now with one movie under his belt, I hope he keeps cranking out more genre comedies happy to be genre comedies.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.

Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.

Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.

Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.

I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:

1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.

2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.

3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.

4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?

I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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