Archive for December 2020

Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

The Year in Review

December 21, 2020


So, how’s your year been?

If anything can be universally agreed-upon these days, it’s that 2020 has been the crappiest year in living memory (and as I write this, it still has ten days left to mess with us). Particularly battered this holiday season are those who make, distribute and exhibit movies. Now, I know it’s hard for most of us to feel sorry for stars and executives who command and get seven- or eight-figure salaries. But the working folks, from the assistant focus puller to the stand-in to the ticket-takers at the local mall, are suffering. There are a lot of folks who never get mentioned on Oscar night who are the underpaid glue that holds the entire Hollywood contraption together. They’re hurting a lot more than Christopher Nolan is.

Nolan, of course, earned his envied position as the artistic rainmaker at Warner Brothers by delivering three insanely lucrative Batman movies, as well as a number of non-Batman movies that also made money. His latest film Tenet, now available on streaming and physical home media, was the first major motion picture to open in theaters exclusively during the pandemic and its attendant shutdowns. Nolan was very adamant about Tenet being the movie that would bring people back to theaters. Result: the movie ended up as #11 on 2020’s top box-office list, behind ten movies that came out pre-pandemic  — and, in some cases, were leftovers from December 2019. The latter explains why 1917, a 2019 latecomer that didn’t get a wide U.S. release until January 2020, wound up #2 on the list.

As it stands now, Warner announced it’s going to release its 2021 movie slate on streaming (HBO Max) as well as in theaters, and Nolan and other Warner directors responded with much finger-shaking disapproval. They don’t quite get that the experience of watching a movie has changed, is not going back any time soon, and was already headed for that change even before the pandemic. COVID just hastened the exit of the genie from that bottle. But I’ve written about the logistical aspect of this before. What about artistically? What will it do to movies as an art form?

The short answer is that movies that share the sort of virtues that we associate with classic or at least top-quality cinema are increasingly moving to streaming, leaving the theaters to the tried-and-true blockbusters. It was getting increasingly hard to find a year-end box-office top-ten list that had a single film not based on existing media or a sequel or aimed at kids. Last year’s top-ten list had Disney in seven of the top eight slots. Serious drama and top-rank comedy has largely gone to TV — cable, streaming, even network TV. You’re going to find the 2020s equivalent of The Godfather Part II as a limited-series event on HBO or Hulu or Prime before you’ll find it at the multiplex. (Wanna feel really bad? In 1974, Godfather II made $57 million. That’s $313 million in 2020 money, which would have placed it at #10 on last year’s list had it been released then. But of course it wouldn’t have made that much in 2019. But it did 45 years earlier. Were movies better then, or were we?)

But then look at this year’s top ten, and Disney only appears once, for a movie it released in 2019. Let’s not get optimistic: the number-one movie of the year is still a very-belated Bad Boys sequel, which would not have happened in a year that was supposed to bring us a new Bond and two new Marvels. And you know it’s been a scrawny year for box office when the notorious flop Dolittle still made it to #7 on the list. But Dolittle came in just ahead of Little Women, with its respectable $70 million gross. The Call of the Wild is also on there, and whether or not you felt it was a decent representation of the book, what was the last year-end list where you saw Jack London and Louisa May Alcott adaptations?

I think the saddest story in 2020’s top ten belongs to The Invisible Man, which did well but could have done gangbusters. It should’ve been a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller. And indeed it covered its small budget four times over on its opening weekend. But then COVID happened, and it was whisked from theaters and onto streaming. A movie like this really loses something when you watch it at home alone (though I still found it gripping) and not in a packed theater with the usual screamers and laughers around you making it a shared experience of dread and shock. That’s the kind of experience old-timers like me mourn about the old way of seeing movies. It might come back. But will we recognize it if it does?

The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

December 13, 2020


The movie formerly known as The Godfather Part III (1990) has always been substantially different from its two classic predecessors. Unlike them, it is informed by the deepest pain; it asks what you do after your child dies. And it has no answer, then and now, under its new title The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. As has been his wont the last few years, director Francis Ford Coppola has tinkered with the film, moving some scenes and trimming others; it’s shorter but doesn’t feel shorter — the pacing is still a bit stiff, the dialogue often stilted. Ironically, the subtitle is not literal; Coppola fades to black on the ruined face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), sparing us his unintentionally comical literal downfall. What we see now is more like the death of Michael’s light, his soul.

I kind of miss the sad way the movie used to start — leaves blowing around the old, desolate Corleone compound. We now kick off with Michael pursuing a deal with the head of the Vatican bank, which gets us onto the narrative on-ramp faster and makes what follows — a ceremony in which Michael is awarded a papal bauble — seem like more of a sly quid-pro-quo event. Michael wants to buy respectability for himself and his family; he wants to leave a clean legacy for his children, especially his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). It was fashionable in 1990 to bash Sofia, the director’s daughter and untrained as an actress, for ruining her father’s movie. But to me she comes across as authentic, unguarded, and finally poignant. Sofia later made great strides as a director herself, but there’s no shame in what she does here.

Coppola has left two major sequences alone, to these eyes — Michael’s halting confession to a cardinal who will be the next Pope, and the climax crosscutting between various murders with Cavalleria Rusticana as its voluptuous backdrop. In the latter, Coppola drops his guilt and grief and revels in the sheer play of being a filmmaker. Vengeance, rage, sorrow, broken faith — Coppola brings it all together. The movie-movieness of it all can seem a bit much, but the Godfather films were always opera, never life. To my knowledge, Coppola never ordered his own brother killed, but he did (and still does) contend with the accidental death, in 1986, of his son Gian-Carlo. This Godfather is more personal and vulnerable than the first two; it feels like an open wound, and I’d prefer not to rub salt in it. Godfather, Coda is not perfect by any means, and doesn’t share the cool intelligence of I and II, but it’s time to stop punishing it. It is its own movie. Cosmetically it resembles the first two, but its core is jagged and despairing. 

Even Michael seems like a completely different man than the frigid, calculating chessmaster of the other films. Pacino gives him more warmth; age and illness (Michael has diabetes) have made Michael more fragile, more nakedly lunging towards the acceptance and love of his family — his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), his loyal sister Connie (Talia Shire, putting some dark steel into her line readings; “Maybe they should fear you,” Michael tells Connie in one of the film’s funnier exchanges). The unstated horror of the third film is that everyone seems to know how Fredo died and is more or less all right with it — even Connie keeps up the pretense that Fredo drowned so that Michael can pretend Connie doesn’t know. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business. But Godfather, Coda is strictly personal. It’s about how you live with being a monster — a monster whose very existence imperils the innocence that manages to flower around you.

Coppola hasn’t fixed some of the stuff that still makes me cringe. Joe Mantegna has been terrific elsewhere, but as media darling Joey Zasa, a crude gangster who styles himself a dapper don, he’s pretty awful (to be fair, he gets handed the worst lines: “If anyone would say such a thing, they would not be a friend. They would be a dog”). The ease with which Zasa goes out of the film proves he adds little to it; Michael’s real adversary is elsewhere. Coppola has taken out some of Michael’s coffinside mourning for his father’s old friend Don Tommasino, whose presence in the first two films never struck me as large enough to justify stopping the film to note his passing. (In Godfather I he let Michael stay with his uncle in Sicily; in II he helped Vito get revenge on an ancient enemy.) Originally Michael wondered aloud why people loved Tommasino but fear Michael; now he just promises to be good, and we lose some of the spidery, dread-filled score that accompanied most of his monologue. 

Kay points out that, now that Michael is fixated on redemption, he’s more dangerous than ever — more desperate. He leaves the family in the hands of his illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), a hothead who, from what we see, doesn’t have the screen time to develop into a plausible new Don Corleone. Some critics took that as a flaw, but I suspect it’s intentional. Michael is so hung up on retiring from ordering hits on people that he’ll hand everything off to a violent mook. Garcia has flash and presence to burn, but as Vincent is supposed to mature, Garcia is left with less to work with. It’s not his movie, anyway, and it never becomes his movie. Godfather, Coda stays with Michael’s emptiness, which he attempts to fill with family and religion, apparently unaware he has irrevocably blasphemed against both. This third movie doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t have guessed from the end of Part II, but as a coda, now, it emphasizes that Michael was damned the minute he came out of that restaurant bathroom with the stashed gun. 


December 6, 2020

mank-1David Fincher’s Mank is a real Christmas-tree ball — shiny as hell and just as empty. The most human thing about it is that it derives from a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, although the son may have inadvertently shown up the father by mounting on a large scale a story that has been written to fit in a shot glass. And like a shot, the script is clear, bitter and numbing. It’s talky and weaves politics into its portrait of ‘30s-‘40s Hollywood; it’s acrid and unsentimental, and could have made a fine comedy. But it doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets from Fincher, who, it seems, knows only one way to deal with a given story: throw tons of technique and grim-faced style at it. Sometimes it has worked, but in a story about a stumble-drunk screenwriter?

Gary Oldman has rumpled humor to spare as Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, best remembered for co-writing (or writing solo, some say) Orson Welles’ directorial debut Citizen Kane. Oldman waddles into a scene, drawls some drunken bitter nonsense, and takes his swaying leave, sometimes not by choice. It’s a plum part, and Oldman relaxes into it, never asked to express much besides affable cynicism. He gives an entertaining, person-scaled performance in an enormous vacuum. Fincher frames this as a deathless Hollywood tragedy; the gleaming black-and-white (and pompously widescreen) compositions by Erik Messerschmidt create nothing so much as a coffee-table book of images of actors immaculately framed and lighted.

And for what? Even a scene between Mank and a suicidal friend who has Parkinson’s is curiously cold, as if directed by an android who had to extrapolate the emotional tone the scene was supposed to have. (The scene is contrived and false anyway, loosely based on a man who actually outlived Mank by over a decade.) At least Mank doesn’t look like a sickly green latrine, like Fincher’s last feature Gone Girl six years ago, but both films left me in a terrible mood. Fincher has in the past directed films I’ve enjoyed (Se7en, Zodiac), but I don’t trust him or his motives, and I wouldn’t trust him around anyone I care about. His work has become shifty and sleazy, and he tries to win us over not by appealing to our common humanity but by frigid razzle-dazzle. I had hoped that Mank was far enough outside his shadowy-thriller wheelhouse that it might surprise me, but as it is, Fincher does film-monk stuff like the cigarette burns that used to appear in the corner of the theater screen to signal a reel change, or sound design that even in exterior scenes makes everyone seem recorded on a soundstage.

The movie’s jumpy time scheme, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famously nonlinear Citizen Kane, which has a small amount of cool calculation in it, but also tremendous passion. This supposed hatchet job on William Randolph Hearst actually spends almost every second trying to understand him and humanize him. Charles Foster Kane’s great man of mystery is peeled layer by layer. But Mank is a different sort of movie, one that shows you a man and says that’s all there is to him. Mank drinks and occasionally writes (and engages in the writer cliché of lying amidst a clutter of crumpled script pages), and gets into mildly witty badinage with whoever he finds standing next to him, and that’s all. He has no shadows, no depths. Everyone else can read him better than he can read them.

Fincher’s deepest sin against the gods of cinema here: he actually shows us the girl with the white parasol. Yes, there’s a bit when Mank has his assistant (Lily Collins) read aloud Mr. Bernstein’s story, one of the great achievements in writing for the screen, in no small part because, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it invites you — no, compels you — to see it in your mind’s eye. Welles knew that no actual girl in a white dress with a white parasol that he could film would carry half as much imagistic weight as your own personal vision of that girl, that symbol of the things of this world that snag our attention and stay in our memory forever. And along comes David Fincher to kill the butterfly and pin it to a board, giving us a banal pretty image of that girl. Who asked him?