‘Maestro’ and ‘Rebel Moon,’ Netflix’s Yin and Yang
Plus: A nightmarish assignment!
TWO MOVIES ARE HITTING NETFLIX THIS WEEK after brief theatrical runs, and they represent the two extremes of Netflix’s business model.
Maestro is Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to A Star Is Born; he directs and stars as Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most famous American conductor of the twentieth century, perhaps ever. We know this because we are told this over and over again: after seeing Bernstein stumble out of bed with his male lover and onto the stage to conduct the New York Philharmonic, filling in on an emergency basis and earning waves of applause for doing so, we are told—not shown, but told—that Bernstein has done more to bring music to the masses than anyone else.
How has he done this? What programs has he put together? What lectures has he arranged? How has he spread the love of music out of the snooty salons and into the public saloons? Who can say; Maestro isn’t particularly interested in any of that. Indeed, if you don’t know much about Bernstein’s professional accomplishments—as, frankly, I do not; outside of his cartoonish appearance in Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” and Kingsley Amis’s thickly veiled portrait of him in Girl, 20, as well as some of his film composing, I know nothing of his greatness aside from its reputation—this movie won’t clue you in.
Maestro suffers badly coming on the heels of Tár, a movie that more successfully explains the mechanics and importance of conducting and how hidden sexual behavior can wreak professional disaster. Todd Fields’s film also, oddly, does a better job of explaining Bernstein’s influence than the actual biopic of Bernstein does. We see him, briefly, on a VHS that Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has saved of one of his public performances. Reflected in her tears we can see the way he inspired people to better themselves and their understanding of music.
I left the theater after having watched Maestro with no idea why he was being celebrated for waving the conductor’s baton in that first performance. I will grant that Cooper directs the hell out of this picture; it is a movie in motion, and never dull. Cooper and Carey Mulligan, who plays Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, are both marvelous in their roles; I believed in the complicated nature of their relationship. Mulligan’s eyes, in particular, told the story of her quiet suffering, the wrinkles and crinkles showing us all we need to see. Yet I stumbled into the midday sun unclear as to his influence on the world of music appreciation. All I really knew about him is that he was gay, and that his hidden bisexuality kinda destroyed his relationship with his family.
But even here, there’s no real sense of how living in the closet impacted his work, his music, his life beyond his lovers. And this is the biggest problem with Maestro: it flattens the man, reduces him to his desires. One can understand why Netflix might choose such a picture to anchor their awards-season slate—Cooper’s previous movie about music nabbed seven Oscar nominations and Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, another portrait of a complicated man tormented by the closet, pulled in 12 more—but Maestro’s a tremendous disappointment.
Rebel Moon is the yang to Maestro’s yin. A huge-budgeted sci-fi action opera, Rebel Moon is Star Wars by way of Seven Samurai. It is directed by Zack Snyder, who has inspired a cultish loyalty in his fans (including your humble narrator) and whose previous picture for the studio, Army of the Dead, made the network’s ten-most-watched list. Rebel Moon is not designed to rack up awards; it’s built for pleasure and hours-viewed. So does it deliver?
Well … kind of.
Following a brief voiceover by Anthony Hopkins in which we learn of galactic civil war on planets whose names we will not remember involving royals whose names we are unlikely to recall, we drift down to Veldt. It is independent, an outer planet. A Tatooine, if you will, but more like Norse farmland than Tunisian desert. Kora (Sofia Boutella) tills the fields in preparation for sowing that year’s crops until, literally out of the blue (sky), a massive warship carrying the 1930s-era Hugo Boss-wearing Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) and his men. They want the Veldt’s crops to feed their army, and the detachment of men Noble leaves behind wants to have a little “fun” with the local female populace.
Kora, a deserter from the Motherworld’s imperial army, wipes out this regiment of gang rapists and goes on a quest to round up warriors who will help the Veldt defend itself from the Motherworld’s aggression. Again: this is pure Seven Samurai (or, if you prefer, The Magnificent Seven), but it’s Seven Samurai that also borrows liberally from virtually every European mythology (Norse, Greek, Roman, Christian, etc) in addition to every nerd culture source rattling around in Snyder’s head. This is a movie where a Na’vi rider who looks like John Carter from Mars can coexist with a Shelob who looks a bit like the Borg queen that is being hunted by a lightsaber-wielding anime swordswoman all whilst a battalion of Battlefield Earth extras square off against Sardaukar warriors commanded by Skinny Tie Space Rommel.
Rebel Moon is also almost wholesomely earnest and utterly bereft of irony in a way that Snyder’s movies frequently are and which frequently gives his critics fits. I mean: this is a movie where a self-aware robot knight (Jimmy, voiced by Hopkins) who refuses to fight following the assassination of his king blushes—orange dots literally light up around his face below and around his blazing white eyes—when a fair maiden places a crown of daisies upon his head. It is a movie where people talk of honor and revolution and freedom in the broadest and bluntest of terms, and really mean it; there’s no text below the text here.
Writing about 300 following its initial theatrical release 16 years ago, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson noted that critics treated the film with disdain because it was “not sufficiently ironic” and because it was “campy … yet the filmmakers don’t show sufficient awareness of this.” One can imagine the same criticisms being leveled against Rebel Moon, though it has more pressing issues: the pacing is both languid and rushed, somehow, and it’s very much one half of a movie. Rather than a 200-plus minute epic in the vein of Seven Samurai that efficiently gathers its pieces and marches them into battle, we spend too much time on Veldt then kind of rush around getting people together and then there’s a small battle that engineers a break in the action so our heroes can return to Veldt in preparation for the final conflict and we can wait four months for Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver to drop on Netflix.
Wait and wonder with increasing annoyance why a bowdlerized, PG-13 version of this picture was released, that is. This is the film’s biggest sin: Rebel Moon has clearly been hacked apart in the editing bay to tone down the violence and remove any trace of sexuality from the proceedings, which leaves the action annoyingly choppy rather than sleekly fluid. On an artistic level, this is deeply weird given that Netflix has shown no compunction about releasing R-rated action movies in the past (including Snyder’s own Army of the Dead or the Extraction series) and there’s no need for Netflix to worry about the box office bump that comes with keeping movies to a teen-friendly MPAA rating. On a business level, though, it makes more sense: One hears persistent whispers that Netflix demanded this lesser cut of the film be released first and plans to debut the R-rated version at some point in the near future, thus increasing the overall number of eyeball hours captured and giving them two bites at the apple.
So instead of one coherent three-and-a-half hour, R-rated epic in the vein of Seven Samurai, Netflix winds up with two two-plus hour PG-13 movies that may each receive three-hour extended cuts. Instead of four hours of hashtag-content, Netflix gets 10. Sure, it muddies the artistic intent; fine, it annoys the audiences. But those hours, they add up.
And this is how empires win the war on sleep: despoiling one Rebel Moon at a time.
On this Friday’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we discussed why studios are hiding that Wonka, The Color Purple, and Mean Girls are musicals. Spoiler: judging by Wonka’s grosses, it seems to have been the right call.
Look, I think we all knew that Oppenheimer was going to top my top ten this year. But what else made the cut?
Prime Video’s Reacher is an enormous, enormous hit because if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s America’s dads showing up for a program about a large man who hits bad people very hard in ways that cause injury to the bad people. We Dads love big dudes hurting bad dudes. We’re simple people. And we show up when we’re given what we want.
I frankly don’t understand the world of finance well enough to credibly discuss the possibility of Warner Bros. buying Paramount. David Poland thinks it makes sense for both companies strategically, and his read on it sounds about right. I do … worry about putting Paramount and Warners under the same roof if only because I don’t particularly love what the folks running Warners have done with and to Warners, but still. Could see some consolidation coming. Who’s ready for Parmax?
Variety ranked the hundred greatest shows of all time. It’s a fine list, I guess. My only real thought is that it continues to be very funny to watch the same critics who declared Louie a masterpiece week after week, season after season, airbrush it out of the history of prestige TV completely as a result of Louis C.K.’s fall from grace.
Assigned Viewing: Nightmare Alley (2021), Hulu
If you only have time to see one movie in which Bradley Cooper plays a sexually conflicted performer who wows audiences this weekend, make it Guillermo del Toro’s update of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1947 novel.