Friday, 29 November 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Even reuniting Linda Hamilton and Arnold couldn't save Terminator: Dark Fate from (undeserved) disaster

Director: Tim Miller
Cast: Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani Ramos), Gabriel Luna (Rev-9), Diego Boneta (Diego Ramos), Tristan Ulloa (Felipe Gandal)
It should have been a hit. The third attempt in the last ten years to restart the Terminator franchise, after no less than two cancelled planned trilogies, this one bought back James Cameron in a producing and story capacity, pulled in Linda Hamilton to return as Sarah Connor for the first time in nearly thirty years and finally seemed to be the “true” Terminator 3. But it bombed anyway, worse than either Salvation or Genysis and finally put paid (probably) once and all for the franchise. How did it come to this? 

In 1998 a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – one of a number sent back in time by Skynet before erased from history by our heroes in Terminator 2 – finally succeeds in killing John Connor (a CGI recreation of Edward Furlong from T2), leaving Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) distraught. Twenty-two years later and a new artificial intelligence from the future, Legion, has sent back a Terminator (Gabriel Luna) to wipe out a pivotal future figure for the human resistance Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), with the resistance once again sending back its own champion Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an artificially enhanced human. The inevitable combat between man and machine is on again, with Grace and Dani joining forces with Sarah Connor, as well as other unexpected allies.

That paragraph probably gives you a sense of what’s good and what’s bad about the film. Starting with a twist that seems to finally try and send the franchise off in a new direction – the eradication of John Connor, the person every film has been about protecting – is a brave decision. The confirmation that eternal enemy Skynet has indeed been erased from history finally changes the enemy. Arnie’s T-800 is confirmed as literally the last in existence – a killer sent from a future that now no longer exists. It looks like we are set for something entirely different.

And then of course we aren’t. Because it seems man’s reach will inevitably exceed his grasp, just as would-be Terminator film producers will always overreach themselves. Even with Skynet gone, there must always be some artificial intelligence super-computer that destroys the future, there must always be some sort of special one who must be protected at all costs, always a hero sent from the future who knows more than they can say and always an Arnie Terminator on hand for good or bad. Just as Genysis tried to re-set the table, but only reminded us what a small world is, this film tries to shake up the pieces but then replaces most of them with like-for-like and throws us into a film that has effectively exactly the same structure as the first two films.

So, after that opening scene twist, we get the arrival and meet up of the two future warriors, a scrap at an everyday setting for her hero, a series of shocked reveals about the future, some gonzo chases (this one does at least up the anti – literally – by setting one of them in a plane), a lull in proceedings while our on-the-run heroes work out whether they can trust each other, then a final smackdown in a factory where self-sacrifice is all the rage. For a film that tries to do something new, it is remarkably conservative and shows that for all the time-travel inspired gymnastics of the universe it operates in, the series is strictly tied to a set number of rules and plot mechanics.

But it’s all really confidently told. That’s almost the tragedy. This is a pretty good film. Easily the third best Terminator film made. I actually pretty enjoyed it. It has a simple narrative drive to it, an old-fashioned world where the characters throw each other about and punch each other really hard into things rather than engage in balletic, choreographed fight scenes. Tim Miller directs the whole thing with a pace and drive and if Cameron feels like he may have only really been happy to attach his name to the whole thing in return for a few story ideas and a paycheque, at least it can boast it has his definite seal of approval. 

The acting is also pretty good. Linda Hamilton is a welcome return, getting some fascinating beats of intense drive mixed with deep grief. It’s a great to see an action film like this front-and-centre female characters so much. It’s a shame that this is such a franchise with such a masculine reputation, as this realignment has probably not had the impact it could have had in bringing new people in. Mackenzie Davis is impressive as Grace, Natalie Reyes growing in confidence and strength as the new messiah. Even Arnie gets to do something very different with his T-800 characterisation (after 22 years of living as human, the robot has changed beyond all recognition from the remorseless killer), not least seeing him successfully terminate a target for the first time in the franchise. 

It’s just a shame that this energetic re-telling of an old story probably suffered above all from franchise exhaustion. After reboots and restarts from Salvation to Genysis have seen their plotlines, developments and future sequels sent to the scrap heap (certainly the last two) it really seems a case that once bitten, twice bitten makes us not just shy, but running scared. At the end of the day any interest and affection the franchise had from the first two films has been burned up beyond all recognition – and this film, in the end, doesn’t reinvent the wheel enough to encourage you to come back and see what’s different. It’s a shame that this sprightly entertaining film has been terminated not by its future, but by its weary, error-strewn, past.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Fisher King (1991)

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges go on a quest in Terry Gilliam's decent but overlong The Fisher King

Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Robin Williams (Parry), Jeff Bridges (Jack Lucas), Mercedes Ruehl (Anne Napolitano), Amanda Plummer (Lydia Sinclair), Michael Jeter (Homeless Cabaret Singer), David Hyde Pierce (Lou Rosen), Lara Harris (Sondra), Harry Shearer (Sitcom actor), John de Lancie (TV Executive), Tom Waits (Veteran)

In 1991 Terry Gilliam was seriously worried he might be unemployable. After the famous feud with his producers over the editing of Brazil, his follow-up The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had flown over budget and bombed at the box-office. For Hollywood Gilliam was the worst kind of maverick – trouble with no record of financial success to give him the licence to do what he wanted. So he was thrilled to be offered the chance to direct The Fisher King, his first ever “for hire” job, a sentimental but surreal romantic buddy movie. It’s financial and critical success almost certainly saved his career.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a New York radio shock jock, whose show accidentally provokes a lonely and confused man to massacre the customers at a late night bar. Three years later and Jack’s career is over and he is working as a co-owner of a video rental star (and live-in lover) with Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl). One day – drunken and suicidal – he is saved from a gang of young thugs by eccentric homeless man Parry (Robin Williams). Jack discovers three years ago that Parry was a respected professor of English literature, whose life fell apart after his wife was killed in the same bar massacre that ruined Jack’s career. The two men are drawn together – but can they save each other?

The film is based on the myth of the Fisher King, the king charged with finding the Holy Grail but could not find it for years – only for a fool to present it to the king full of water to drink, revealing it was there in the King’s possession the whole time. The fool helps because he is “purer” than those more worldly around him. The idea that Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is leaning on is that these two characters – Jack and Parry – alternate between them the roles of Fisher King and Fool, both slowly doing things for each other that change their personalities and allow them to adjust back into the world and become comfortable with the people they are.

Reading that it should become clear that this is a sentimental film – and it certainly is. It’s also hellishly overlong for such a slight story of tragedy leading to overcoming personal crisis. We know watching the film from the start that Jack Lucas is a bad guy – and Gilliam shoots his opening scenes of Radio presenting with great skill, using high angles, extreme close-ups and shots that prevent us getting any real sight of Jack, making him as impersonal and contemptable as possible in his shallowness, pride and thoughtless cruelty. It’s not a mystery to expect that we are due to watch a triumph of the human spirit film, in which Jack becomes a better man. The film takes a very long time making this simplistic point.

The catalyst is Robin Williams, in a role tailor made for him as a hyper-active, manic personality mixed with tragedy and depression. To be honest Williams is frequently over indulged in the role – despite his Oscar nomination – heading over the top too often, and often over-egging the pudding both in Parry’s energetic enthusiasm and also in his moments of tragic depression. Parry is given a romantic sub plot with Amanda Plummer’s nervous office worker (a character who is little more than a collection of quirks than a personality, and it’s a shame it’s led to Plummer being typecast in such eccentric roles) that is almost insultingly slight and one-sided (he comes across a bit like a stalker) and lacks any of the charm needed for the story to work.

Parry is used to tie the film into further Arthurian flourishes with his obsessions with the legend. Parry visualises a sinister Red Knight – a mental expression of his grief and horror at his wife’s death, which takes the form of the appearance of his wife’s blood splattered face – which chases him through the city. Parry is also obsessed with the discovery of the Holy Grail, which he claims can be found in a millionaire’s faux medieval castle in the centre of Manhattan. This Arthurian stuff is often rather crow-barred in, but holds more interest than traditional plot-lines of people rediscovering their humanity and capability of bonding with others.

Jeff Bridges actually takes on the far harder role as Jack Lucas, a character who has to go on a firm development from start to finish. While Parry is a deliberately eccentric figure, Jack is the one who must journey from arrogance and pride to selflessness and humanity. Bridges does it very well, with a neat line in under playing and an ability to suggest the warmth, shame and self-disgust that Jack works hard to cover up. He’s also blessed to share scenes with Mercedes Ruehl who is outstanding (and Oscar winning) as his girlfriend, the most humane, engaging and real character in the film, a woman who seems at first blowsy and cheap (Jack clearly believes she is beneath him) but reveals more and more depths and capacity for honesty, love and generosity.

Gilliam has a sharp eye for the huge gap between wealth in poverty in 90's New York, and how the two worlds are geographically only a width of a piece of paper, despite being worlds apart. His direction uses many of his flourishes with great effect. Fish eyed lens POV shots, low angles, stylistic dream sequences, a dream sequence where Grand Central station is full of dancing travellers like a mighty ballroom – many of the sort of things you see in his films are here. To be honest, I found some of the flourishes a bit overwhelming in a story that is so slight and so grounded in just four people’s interactions and quests for salvations. But it works, and Gilliam gets some moments of romantic and platonic love that really work. But it’s still a slight film that goes on far too long, and it eventually loses the viewer in its time-consuming journey towards expected heart-warming moments.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Missing (1982)

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are on a quest for the Missing

Director: Costa-Gravas
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Edmund Horman), Sissy Spacey (Beth Horman), John Shea (Charles Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), Charles Cioffi (Captain Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (US Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Colonel Sean Patrick), Janice Rule (Kate Newman), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock)

Politically motivated American films are few and far between, especially ones that take such a starkly critical view of American foreign policy. So it’s a testament to the respect given to Greek director Costa-Gravas that his first American film is an angry denunciation of America’s attitude towards Latin and South America and a criticism of the cosy assumption of so many of its citizens that the very fact of their being American will open all doors and make them invulnerable to harm. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 (although for various legal reasons Chile itself is never named), young American journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman (John Shea) goes missing. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is left alone in the increasingly dangerous city, while his father Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) flies into the country. Ed assumes his government will swiftly work with him to solve the mystery, and that his son must have been wrapped up in some dodgy dealings to have gone missing. He is to be brutally disabused of both notions with a painful swiftness, as he finds he and his son are insignificant factors in America’s geopolitical interests.

Costa-Gravas’ film wisely avoids focusing too much on the details of Chilean politics, or the causes of the coup, or even really concentrating on the left-wing politics of many of the American citizens wrapped up in the coup. Instead it zeroes in on the human impact of loss and pain, and by focusing less on the politics of a coup but on the impact of it, it places the audience attention instead on the atrocities that military revolutions bring. Alongside this, Costa-Gravas places front-and-centre of the story not a firebrand liberal, or a left-wing polemicist, but a character who could not be more of a strait-laced conservative, a quintessential American who firmly believes his country is the greatest in the world and heads into a foreign land anticipating doors will be opened for him and his government is here to help. 

It’s vital for the film’s success that it’s the experience of Ed Horman that drives the film narrative. First appearing 25 minutes into the film, the rest of the narrative charts Ed’s growing shocked realisation that his government doesn’t give a damn about his son and, even worse, is more than happy to lie to his face about the level of their involvement. While Ed believes America to be the font of all goodness in the world, he is horrified to discover that it is at the centre of a far more shady world of realpolitik. And that his own complacent belief in the country, and unquestioning assumption that it can do no wrong, is part of what empowers its representatives to back murderous regimes. “If you hadn't been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you'd be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this” the Ambassador haughtily tells Ed, after the frantic father has angrily denounced America’s policies. And, from what we saw of Ed at the start, he’s right.

It’s a superb role of growing disillusionment and a stunned realisation that his own home-grown principles and believe in truth, justice and the American Way turn out to be just words. And Jack Lemmon is just about the perfect actor for it. This might be Lemmon’s finest performance, superb from start to finish, a perfect emobodiment of All-American principles that disintegrates into someone angry, bitter and disillusioned. But at its heart as well – and the films – is the very real grief of a father who has lost his son. Worse, a father who only feels he grows close to – and understanding of – his son after losing him. Lemmon’s performances mines every ounce of empathetic sympathy from the role, in a series of heartbreaking moments as Ed begins to realise just how much he has lost in a son he begins to feel he never gave a chance.

This very personal story is at the centre of the film, but Costa-Gravas never for one moment allows us to forget – or avert our eyes – from the horrors coups like this bring. By not naming Chile, it manages to make this the face of all brutal revolutions. As characters move through the streets, or squares, in controlled, carefully framed long-shots and takes we see all around, uncommented on by the camera, unfocused on by the director, the signs of brutality. Throughout the film the background action sees casual arrests, violence, assaults, book burnings, bodies being left in the street or thrown into trucks… All around ordinary people keep their heads down or run for terror. Curfews leave people trapped outside – Sissy Spacek (very impressive) as Beth is caught out and is forced to spend a night hiding in the porch of a hotel, while gun shots ring out around the city (a regular soundtrack for every scene).

The investigation into Charles’ disappearance is pushed forward not the embassy – which presents a series of acceptable faces of the new regime and a smiling reassurance that every thing is being done – but by harried and scared survivors and asylum seekers in European embassies, who tell snippets of the events they have seen, the deaths they have seen glimpses off, the horrors of detention centres. It’s finally dragged home to Ed and Beth as they are taken to an office block with every room containing executed corpses, some identified some not, the bodies piled on every floor of the building. 

In all this America – and shady military and industrial interests – are complicit, and the executions and deaths of citizens of this country (and a few Americans who unwisely mixed themselves up in it) are seen as acceptable collateral damage, the price of doing business to protect American financial interests. The Government is happy bed fellows with murderers and crooked officials, and the idea that the death of one American citizen is going to matter at all is nonsense. Costa-Gravas’ film has a firm point to make – but it makes it within the context of a very human and personal story. “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!” are Charlie’s final (on-screen) words: in this attitude he’s as na├»ve as his father, and he clearly believes just as much in the divine goodness and special status of his homeland. America has no special or outstanding moral character: it’s as mired in dirty world realities as anyone else. This rude awakening will cost the son his life and cause untold grief to his father as well as shattering all his cosy greatest generation idealism.