I love this time of year, between summer blockbusters and holiday schmaltz. We are creeping into the very early days of Hollywood’s illustrious award season, and the fertile crescent of indie releases that happens between the Toronto Film Festival and Sundance. A lot of interesting movies are in theaters right now: non-traditional feature films that deliver something markedly different from mediocre, formulaic slop.
Look, party people, I’m not a film snob, even though I agree with veterans like Martin Scorsese who find Marvel movies to be more like theme park rides than high art. Yes, I think it’s ridiculous when people start saying “Avengers: Endgame” deserves an Oscar for Best Picture. I think there is a huge disparity between the artistic goals of a movie intended to engage viewers and one engineered to make a whole bunch of money. This week I take a look at an example from each column.
“The Lighthouse” is the very definition of an artistic cinematic endeavor. Director Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) has delivered a riveting atmospheric examination of a deteriorating psyche, with lush black-and-white visuals, exceptional performances and a healthy dose of lunacy that resonates long after the credits roll.
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) has taken a job working at a lighthouse alongside Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), the world’s saltiest sea dog. The job is a toxic cocktail of claustrophobia, isolation and tedious tasks that begin to put some strain on Winslow’s psyche. As his mind wanders into uncharted waters, the nature of his reality is called into question.
There are so many perfect aspects of “The Lighthouse.” The amazing real-world setting makes every moment seem harsh and dehumanizing. Spectacular cinematography wonderfully encapsulates the small story, and it contains two of the best performances of the year. Robert Pattinson excels as a tortured soul twisting in the tides; Willem Dafoe was born to play this role. “The Lighthouse” is a product of passion that pours from every frame.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” is a different cinematic experience, using a once popular franchise to rake in enough profit to justify its existence. There may be some artistic goals buried somewhere underneath the formulaic exoskeleton used to build this monster, but they’re much harder to find. That’s not to say the movie is bad, but high art it ain’t.
Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is living a blue-collar existence in New Mexico when she’s targeted by a robot from the future tasked with killing her before she one day leads a human resistance to victory over her robot oppressors. Sound familiar? Because this is franchise fare, the plot has to adhere to specific standards which limits its ability to be surprising and/or interesting. Every “Terminator” movie needs a hero; “Dark Fate” provides two: a new cybernetically enhanced human savior, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), and back for the first time since the franchise’s second installment, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The vast majority of the movie involves action sequences as our out-gunned heroes try to survive the emotionless onslaught of a robot assassin.
The franchise has been an unappealing sack filled with doorknobs for decades, but Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) delivers a surprisingly effective action movie. It’s the first “Terminator” worth admission since 1991. Though “Dark Fate” is a dumb action movie, it’s well executed. The performances are solid, the pacing is tight, and the action scenes are excellently staged. Perhaps it’s the product of ridiculously low expectations, but I enjoyed the hell out of it in spite of the familiar formula.
“The Lighthouse” shows what cinema is capable of when artists, unshackled from formulaic franchise expectations, are able to create something unique and challenging. While there is little artistry in “Dark Fate,” it’s a fine example of how the right filmmaker can make something entertaining without a shred of originality.