“Maleficent” – Neither Malevolent Nor Magnificent

Maleficent

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)

The new Disney film that opens today, Maleficent, loosely based on the company’s very own Sleeping Beauty – which was, itself, based on stories by the 17th-century French author Charles Perrault – is not a particularly good movie. It starts well, but then descends into a mire of meaningless filler in its middle section which weighs down the entire enterprise, before coming back up for a vibrant (and feminist) breath of fresh air at the end. That the film succeeds at all is primarily due to the charms and magnetic presence of its star, Angelina Jolie (last seen on screen in 2010’s odd misfire The Tourist), who does her best with an uneven supporting cast and a lot of CGI. Ms. Jolie is both the reason to see the film and the reason to lament the weakness of so many of her co-stars and the lameness of that second act. She gives it her all, and takes us for a delightful ride, when she can.

Here’s as simple a summary as possible. It turns out that Maleficent is not a witch – as most of us with only a passing memory of the 1959 film might have thought – but a winged fairy (though she was apparently a fairy in the original tale). She presides (as protectress) over a magical land known as “The Moors,” which sits adjacent to a human kingdom filled with covetous folk who eye her treasures with greed and envy. When, one day, a young (human) thief, Stefan, tries to steal from “The Moors,” she befriends him, and little by little they fall in love. When the nearby king decides to attack and conquer The Moors, Stefan abandons Maleficent to join his fellow men. When he subsequently commits an act of horrific betrayal against Maleficent in order to achieve power for himself, he sets in motion the plot that we know from the original story and Disney film. For it his daughter who will become the “sleeping beauty” of legend, and it is Maleficent who will become the evil witch. However, since this time we see the story through her eyes, we are, perhaps, inclined to interpret matters differently. She is the wronged party; the king is evil.

It’s a nice twist, and reminiscent of the same kind of shift in perspective made popular by the hit Broadway musical Wicked. The story is not without interest, especially in the opening battle sequence between the men and the fairies (where the CGI serves the story, rather than threatening to overwhelm it). The problems begin, however, as soon as Stefan grows into a man, for he is then played by Sharlto Copley (District 9Elysium), who is bereft of charisma and therefore makes a most unworthy screen opponent for Jolie’s wicked charmer. And then we are treated to a dismal (and long) sequence where Aurora (who will grow into the cursed beauty, eventually to be played by a fine Elle Fanning, of Super 8 fame) slowly matures in the woods under the distracted gaze of three of the most annoying fairies ever to un-grace the screen. Once Aurora approaches 16 – the year of the curse – the movie picks up again, and ends with a climactic battle worthy of an epic, and a very fine twist on the original story. It’s as if the writer, Linda Woolverton (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), knew from the get-go how she was going to begin and end her story, but was at a complete loss how to connect the two parts. Still, the final wrap-up – feminist revisionism and all – almost makes it all worthwhile.

In spite of my story reservations, I would recommend it to all of your sons and, especially, daughters, but some of the violence is actually fairly dark (please note that the film is rated PG, and not G), so be forewarned. Oh, and one other final reason to consider seeing it is this marvelous adaptation of one of the songs from the 1959 film, “Once Upon a Dream” (based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s original Sleeping Beauty ballet), which plays over the end credits. Enjoy!

“Palo Alto” – Nepotism and Nihilism Have Never Looked So Lovely

Palo Alto

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2013)

There’s no way around the following conclusion: Palo Alto is Nepotism Central. Written and directed by Gia Coppola – granddaughter of Francis – the film stars Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val). Emma Roberts, at least, has been making films since Blow, in 2001 (in which she played Johnny Depp‘s daughter). But for Gia and Jack, this is Numero Uno, and no one can convince me that they haven’t benefited from trading on their respective family names. That said, Palo Alto is a lovely and lyrical paean to misspent childhoods and coming-of-age tales, and well worth seeing. If you’re going to reap the rewards of good connections, it’s better if you’re also blessed with talent, which everyone here has in spades.

Based on short stories written by actor/writer/director/etc. James FrancoPalo Alto the movie takes a collection of disparate tales and weaves them into a coherent and tight narrative about wayward youth, struggling to define themselves in a world with nary an adult in site. They’re at a crossroads: no longer children, but still tied to childish things (even as they drink, smoke and drug like hardened addicts). It’s a bleak vision, laid over what would – in another film – be a fairly conventional romantic dramedy where April (Roberts, terrific) and Teddy (Kilmer, also strong) meet cute and then spend the rest of the film overcoming the obstacles that keep them apart. It’s this through-line – clichéd though it may be – that gives the film hope, however, since we’re rooting for April and Teddy to come to their senses and get their lives in order, even as they engage in the kind of risky behavior that was absent from the John Hughes films of my own youth (including sex with a teacher and drunk driving). And all of it is seen through the gorgeous lens of cinematographer Autumn Durald (who worked on fashion videos with Gia Coppola prior to Palo Alto, but is otherwise not part of the nepotism circle), who bathes many of the sequences in a golden hue, as if to say that no matter what these kids do, they’re still kids.

Nevertheless, these are kids from a particular upper-middle-class milieu, with rich (though, again, absent) parents who provide them with the funds they need to buy alcohol and pot, and the freedom to wander the streets in their personal cars. James Franco – who grew up in the real Palo Alto – has loosely based these stories on his own experiences, but has allowed Coppola complete artistic carte blanche to adapt them as she sees fit (as we learn in the movie’s press kit). In some ways, who better to make such a movie than children of privilege? Palo Alto is rich in what feels like authentic detail, down to the girlish production design of the main female characters’ rooms (right before one of them has sex, we see her pink sheets and dolls). It may be a disturbing and nihilistic portrait of teenagers gone wrong, but it rings true.

James Franco, himself, appears in the film as a Mr. B, a sleazy girls’ soccer coach who may be hitting on more than one of his players at once, using his young son – always in need of a babysitter – as bait. He’s the only adult with whom we spend any significant time. As lost and nasty as the teens can be, they at least have some honor compared to Mr. B. It’s a good choice of role for Franco, as he uses his natural charm to portray the worst person in the film. Also good are Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin as Teddy’s volatile best friend and a girl (she of the pink room) who needs validation so badly that she’ll have sex with anyone, respectively.

We’ve seen some very fine – if dark – pictures of troubled youth in the last few years, including The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Spectacular Now and The Bling Ring (directed by Gia’s aunt Sofia). Palo Alto fits right in that mold, and announces the arrival of a number of excellent new artists. I recommend it highly.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” – Mutants Triumph in Spite of a Flawed Screenplay

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)

I was never a particular fan of the X-Men comic books growing up, and so when the first X-Men film came out, in 2000, I went to see it without any particular expectations, positive or negative. I enjoyed it – especially the Wolverine character played by Hugh Jackman – but started forgetting the plot details as soon as the credits rolled. It was fun, but nothing more. The two sequels that followed – X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand – lacked the narrative coherence of the first film, but were not without their bright spots. That is more than can be said for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which, in spite of the presence of two great actors – Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber – was a mess through and through.

And then, in 2011, Marvel Entertainment released a prequel, or origin story: X-Men: First Class. In that film, we met the two main protagonists/antagonists of the X-Men universe – Professor X and Magneto – as young men, before they fully developed their opposing views on mutant-human relations. Starring James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) and Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre) as the evenly matched frenemies – played by Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation“) and Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings) in the earlier films – X-Men: First Class did a bang-up job establishing the world of mutants, their powers, and their challenges. It also featured Kevin Bacon (“The Following) having the time of his life as the villain, and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) as a blue shape-shifter. Now this was an X-Men film to make even me excited.

For those of you unfamiliar with the X-Men, they are mutants: humans with special powers whose difference makes them both awesome and frightening to the rest of humanity. Charles Xavier (Professor X) is a telepath who can not only read minds but control them, and he espouse the philosophy that mutants should work with normal humans in harmony and peace. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) can control and manipulate all kinds of metal, and believes that mutants should aggressively push back – perhaps with violence – against humans’ attempts to contain/destroy them. Raven (the blue shape-shifter), also known as Mystique, flip-flops between the two ideologies, as do various other mutants. Some humans do, indeed, want to kill the mutants, while others believe in Professor X’s vision. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the X-Men as a metaphor for how humanity has handled difference throughout its history and, indeed, we learn in X-Men: First Class that Eric Lehnsherr is a lost child of the Nazi Holocaust (which explains why he is so suspicious of any attempts to contain the mutants). Still, that’s what science fiction does best: take us out of the exact circumstances of our own universe to help us better understand that universe from a different perspective.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is not as strong a movie as its predecessor. Bryan Singer, the director of X-Men and X-Men 2, is back at the helm. Perhaps he should have allowed Mathew Vaughn, the previous director, to return, as the first prequel had a narrative drive and energy that the new film doesn’t quite match. Still, it’s a fun ride. We start in the near future, and watch as the mutants we met in X-MenX-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand are nearly destroyed by “sentinels,” which appear to be invincible non-metallic robots that can absorb the powers of the mutants, making them impossible to stop. Patrick Stewart (whom we saw die in X-Men: The Last Stand, but I guess a certain final plot kicker at the end that implied his resurrection was meant to be taken seriously) and Ian McKellen are on hand to remind of us of the timeline, as is Hugh Jackman (whose Wolverine never ages). Just as all appears lost, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page of Juno fame) – a mutant who can project people’s consciousness back in time – manages to send Wolverine back to 1973 – 11 years after the end of X-Men: First Class. That year, we learn, is the year when the prototypes of the murderous sentinels were first developed by their creator, Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage, of “Game of Thrones“), using DNA from Raven/Mystique. Actually, to be more accurate, in 1973, Raven killed Dr. Trask, but was then captured, and it is her DNA that eventually allowed the sentinels to become invincible. So Wolverine must find Professor X and Magneto – friends in the future but enemies in 1973 – and convince them to stop Raven (a woman they each love, in their own way) before she can set the future on its deadly course.

It’s a good set-up, but if your head hurts from reading it, then you’ll understand some of the problems with the film. It’s just a little too dense and too wild. It’s also plagued by conflicting tonal shifts: we get fine comedic moments, including a marvelously entertaining scene where Magneto is rescued from a high-security prison at the Pentagon, which then run smack up against self-serious dialogue about the fate of the world. Leavening the latter with the former is a fine idea, in theory, but here it just feels clumsy. As does the final set piece, in which Magneto destroys half of Washington, DC, in anger. In addition, the cutting back and forth between the past and the future doesn’t quite work as well on screen as it might have on paper, especially since – even if Wolverine fails to prevent the sentinels’ creation – that future is altered as soon as Wolverine returns to the path. This kind of issue is always a problem in time-travel films, but it’s exacerbated, here, by the editing.

Still, what we get is a number of fine performances – from McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Dinklage and many others – and some mostly very good action sequences. And even if the expositional passages about mutant-human cohabitation are not as deftly written as they were in X-Men: First Class, the main ideas – of peace and harmony vs. war and violence – still resonate. For a summer superhero film, it’s a lot of fun.

Need a Magical Negro? “Blended” Has Many to Spare!

Blended

Blended (Frank Coraci, 2014)

So, you may ask, what was I doing at a preview screening of the latest Adam Sandler film? Well, possibly because the only two films in which I have liked Adam Sandler both had Drew Barrymore as his co-star. When I saw that she was along for the ride again, I figured that Blended might just have some of the charm and chemistry of The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates. To top it off, Frank Coraci – the directed of Blended – also directed The Wedding Singer. Of course, he also directed The Waterboy and Click, neither of which I liked, so maybe I should have considered that before nearly killing myself in rush-hour traffic to make it down to the cinema (far, far away).

You may have gathered from that opening paragraph that I did not like the film. You are correct. I did not. I did laugh a few times, however – even out loud – and I did, in fact, enjoy Drew Barrymore. Then again, I usually do, even in bad movies. I hated Sandler’s shuffling, mumbling boy-man – like “the waterboy” all grown up and somehow having convinced a woman to breed with him – and couldn’t get over the fact that his opening disrespectful treatment of Barrymore (he takes her to Hooters and then ignores her) was somehow put on an equal footing with her desire to have everything in her life be organized (she’s rigid! she’s OCD! what man would want that?). It’s a false equivalency, and I am getting really tired of films that portray women who are smart and neat as somehow in need of a comeuppance (see last year’s The Heat and The To Do List). Add to that some cloyingly sentimental scenes with children who miss the absent parent  – she’s divorced and he’s widowed – and you get a recipe for “blech.” But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? Is it? Yes! It is! Something even more troubling: not one, not two, not three, but a whole nation’s worth of magical Negroes to help our protagonists find love.

Barrymore plays mother-of two divorcée Lauren; Sandler plays father-of-three widower Jim. She’s got boys; he’s got girls. They meet on a blind date, and it’s loathing at first site (and who can blame her?). But fate keeps throwing them together, and Lauren’s obligatory best friend (who is not part of the “magical Negro” equation, though Jim’s own best bud is) provides an inadvertent opportunity for both single-parent families to head to South Africa, the one oblivious to the other’s intentions. And so the 7 of them find themselves in a resort for “blended” families, and the mayhem truly begins. Since this is a romantic comedy, we already know how it will end. What’s unexpected is that, in 2014, we probably didn’t count on the use of a worn and tired trope of the tireless efforts of people of color to save whites from danger or, in this case, from themselves.

The film does have a few clever moments, such as a funny musical sequence involving different characters’ points of view as they see a previously frumpy woman (of course) transformed from ugly duckling to swan. It’s one of the best jokes … and the director uses it twice (and both times it is, to be fair, funny). Also, the audience I was with went crazy when muscular Terry Crews (Bridesmaids, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine“) appeared on screen, and even crazier when he started flexing his pecs. Other than that and some occasionally chuckle-worthy slapstick, there’s not much to save the film from its misguided and offensive premise. You have been warned.

A Beauteous “Belle”

Belle

Belle (Amma Asante, 2013)

If you are partial to the novels of Jane Austen, chances are you will enjoy Belle, a new film set in the late 18th century, directed by actress-turned-director Amma Assante and written by doctor-turned-screenwriter Misan Sagay. It is Ms. Sagay (or, I should write, Dr. Sagay) who, years ago, while studying medicine in Scotland, found herself looking at a painting of two young women of the Georgian era – one white, one black, and apparently on relatively equal footing – and was intrigued enough to eventually research the painting’s subjects and write the script that became Belle. Little is known of the actual lives of Dido Elizabeth Belle (the woman of color) and Elizabeth Murray (the white woman), but from what scant details are in the public record Misan Sagay has fashioned a compelling and uplifting story of the challenges and opportunities of race, gender and class in a white male aristocratic world. In spite of the excessive formalism and unnecessary exposition of some of the scenes, the film is a rousing narrative success, filled with great performances and beautiful cinematography. Think Persuasion meets Mansfield Park, with a little bit of Emma thrown in, add a dash of 21st-century sensibilities, and you’ll get the idea. It works, it’s fun, and I highly recommend.

The story begins with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who fathered a daughter – Dido Elizabeth – with an African slave woman he rescued from a Spanish ship, taking that daughter from the slums where she’s been living with her mother – now deceased – to the grand estate owned by his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, excellent as always), who just happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England. Neither Lord Mansfield nor his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson, also excellent, also as always), is particularly happy with the addition to their household. Not only is Dido black (something the good nephew failed to mention before his arrival), but they are already raising the child of another nephew, Sir David Murray, a widower who has remarried and apparently wants nothing to do with his daughter. Still, they are decent people, and as Sir Lindsay now legally claims Dido as his descendent and heir, and as young Elizabeth Murray needs a playmate, they acquiesce, allowing the sea captain to depart on his imminent voyage with his mind and heart at ease. And so Dido begins a new life – one of great splendor – and is raised as an equal in the family . . .

. . . not so fast. The Mansfields may be portrayed here as progressive folk, but they are still of their time. Though Dido and her cousin play together, study together, eat together and sleep in the same room together – they are, effectively, sisters – Dido is not allowed to eat at the dinner table whenever there are guests (though she is allowed to greet those guests afterwards in the drawing room). Since the Mansfields otherwise treat her with love, she grows into a confident and bright young woman, but one who nevertheless is primed to question the system that keeps her constantly feeling like an outsider. We’re still in the 1770s and ’80s, remember, and slavery was not abolished in England until 1833. And so Sagay and Asante (both British women of color) use Dido’s story – that of a singular young woman finding her place in the world – as a metaphor for a nation’s moral awakening. Since this is a movie clearly modeled on the Austenian code, we know that Dido’s road to self-actualization and romantic happiness will be rocky, but that she will triumph. In this case, so will England. For Sagay’s script posits that it was Dido’s presence in the Mansfield house that led Lord Mansfield – who, as a matter of the historical record, issued rulings in a number of cases that paved the way to abolition – to alter his views on slavery. Whether this is true or not is impossible to know, but it makes for a great story.

What helps make the film work so well is the great depth in the casting, starting with the lead. Gugu Mbatha-Raw may not be well known in the States, but she has been acting since she was a child in her native U.K., and carries the weight of the entire movie on her slender, but very strong, shoulders. She would be the perfect Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She is assisted, with aplomb, by fine supporting performances from Wilkinson and Watson, as well as from Sarah Gadon, who plays her cousin, and Sam Reid, who plays her love interest, to name just some of the steady work from the rest of the cast.

In a world where summer blockbusters are about to start exploding right and left, treat yourself to a preemptive and lovely respite from the fiery mess ahead, and go see Belle.

 

“Million Dollar Arm” Throws Strikes and Balls in Equal Measure

Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm (Craig Gillespie, 2014)

If you don’t mind films that traffic in ethnic and cultural stereotypes, then you might enjoy Million Dollar Arm, the new film from the director of Lars and the Real Girl (now that’s a switch … sort of). I’m half French, and there are certainly plenty of American movies out there that find so many different ways to make fun of my maternal land that I’ve lost count. Usually, however, I don’t have to endure seeing France portrayed as a third-world backwater. I’m curious to know what my Indian friends would think of Million Dollar Arm. Since it’s from Disney, the studio that’s given us The Jungle BookLady and the Tramp (“We are Siamese, if you please”) and Aladdin, to name just a few of their cute-yet-insulting-to-non-Western-nations films, it’s hardly surprising that there should be any kind of issue here. Just think of Rinku and Dinesh, the two young Indian men at the center of this dramedy, as Mowgli 1 and Mowgli 2. However, what most Disney films have going for them is a genuine sweetness of spirit and mission to portray flawed protagonists who earn to do the right thing, and Million Dollar Arm is no exception. It has a good heart, some fine performances and a touching romance, all of which help raise it above its shortcomings. That, and it’s based on a true story, so we know that in spite of its occasionally saccharine charms, at least some of what is on screen might actually have happened.

Jon Hamm (he of Don Draper fame) plays J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who pulled a Jerry Maguire a few years back and started his own firm with his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi, very funny, especially when he goes to India, since his character “no hablo” Indian), but who now finds himself with a crumbling business, unable to compete with the big agencies. One night, bored and a little drunk, he watches Indian cricket matches on cable and hits upon the idea to travel to India to recruit the next great baseball stars. It’s the only major country that hasn’t sent anyone to the major leagues, and just as basketball (and China) has Yao Ming, he thinks India, baseball and, of course, J.B Bernstein, should have their own superstars. So off he goes to India with financing from a local businessman. And the (ethnic!) fun begins.

Bernstein sets up a nationwide contest – “Million Dollar Arm” – with cash prizes for the top two finishers, and travels through India with his (oh-so-funny-because-mildly-incompetent-by-Western-standards) entourage to supervise the proceedings. Since much of rural is, in fact, fairly poor, the prize money ($100,000 for first place and $10,000 for second) attracts a lot of contestants. Along for the ride, and a lot of genuine laughs, is cynical stalwart Alan Arkin as a retired baseball scout. Meanwhile, from back home, J.B.’s lovely tenant, medical-student Brenda (Lake Bell, most recently of In a World, and one of my new favorite screen presences), starts to regularly call her landlord on Skype (initially because of a broken washing machine, but later just to chat), and even though J.B. only dates models, a spark ignites between them. When, after the contest is over, J.B. prepares to head back home with the two winners, it’s clear he’s thinking of Brenda as more than just the person who lives in his pool house.

Ah, but there are obstacles still to be overcome. First, J.B. must set Rinku (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, the older Salim from Slumdog Millionaire) up with a trainer, and chooses the USC baseball coach Tom House (incarnated with casual grace by Bill Paxton, doing his thing). They’re not particularly good at baseball, at first, but start to improve … slowly. The only problem is that J.B. has promised his financial backer that he’ll have the boys ready in a year. Will he succeed? Even more importantly, will they succeed? And will J.B. stop being a self-centered jerk for long enough to think of other people’s welfare (and win the love of Brenda)? As I said, this is a Disney film, so you can guess how it ends. Still, in spite of its flaws, the film has genuine pep, and when we see the final credit-sequence footage of the real Rinku and Dinesh, that adds a moving real-world dimension to the scripted and sometimes pat conclusion we have just watched. It’s a feel-good movie, if you choose to feel good about it.

“Godzilla” Is a Lumbering and Ludicrous Leviathan

Godzilla

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Last summer, I saw one of the dumbest and most incoherent movies I have ever seen: Pacific Rim. Who knew that a film about humans sitting inside the brain centers of Transformers-style robots and battling giant dinosaurs from another dimension could be so inane? Really, who knew? At the time, I wondered why anyone would want to combine Transformers and Godzilla. It sounds appealing to a young boy, but is there really a market for that kind of idiocy beyond the tweener set?

Well, on a budget of almost $200,000,000, the film made over $400,000,000 worldwide (but only $100,000,000 in the States), so what do I know (thank you, my fellow Americans, however, for not flocking to see it)? I guess I underestimated the appeal of the movie to diehard fans of Japanese “kaijū eiga.” But then, since I had never heard of that genre before doing research for my Midday with Dan Rodricks show on Godzilla, how could I have known?

All of this is to say that I am probably not the target demographic for a film that is being touted as a corrective to the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla (which fans of the famous monster hated, as did most critics), bringing the series back to its traditional roots, as director Gareth Edwards has claimed in interviews. It’s quite a long-running series, with almost 30 Japanese films and a number of American versions, too. If you want to learn all about the many screen incarnations of Godzilla and his brethren, I recommend William Tsutsui’s amusing and highly informative memoir, Godzilla on My Mind. I do not, however, recommend this new movie. At all. I see a lot of films, many of them crap, yet rarely do I feel like leaving. Halfway through the 2014 Godzilla, I wanted out. It was just that excruciating. How this film has managed to rack up a high critic rating on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator site, I do not know. It should be pointed out at this time that production company Legendary Pictures is responsible for both Pacific Rim and Godzilla. Hmmmmmm … Then again, they also do all of Christopher Nolan‘s work, so I won’t judge them too harshly.

Which is too bad, because I absolutely loved Edwards’s debut feature, Monsters. Now there was a terrific character-based dramatic thriller, with intelligent creature design, about aliens (the “monsters” of the title) walking the earth five years after a somewhat botched invasion. It may not have made much money (though it made back its costs, and then some), but it was a gripping story, well told, and you can watch it right now on Netflix instant viewing. Save yourself a trip to the theater, stay home and see how good Edwards can be.

So what’s wrong with the new movie? Where do I start? For one thing, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-AssAnna Karenina), who plays what passes for a main human character, cannot handle the burden of leading-man status. Whether he is hampered by the poor script, poor direction, or his own limitations, he comes across as dim and highly uninteresting. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), as Taylor-Johnson’s, fares worse, but in her case it’s clear that it’s because the writer and director just don’t care about her character. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are around for a bit to add talent and gravitas to the proceedings, but once they’re gone, we’re left with a hammy Ken Watanabe (Inception, and usually he’s so good …) – a Godzilla film always seems to need one Japanese guy to look at the camera and say “Gojira!” – and a struggling David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, and also usually much better).

The real problem is the script. Written for fanboys, the screenplay takes for granted that what the audience wants is to see monsters duke it on screen. So that’s what we get. While the first half-hour promised something special (thank you, Bryan Cranston), when the first monster finally appeared, my heart sank. For one thing, it looked like a poorly designed knockoff of an H.R. Giger (Alien) creature; secondly, it turned out that said monster wasn’t even Godzilla, and that all of the postulating about causes and effects of various earlier disasters had nothing to do with Godzilla, but with a M.U.T.O. That’s right. A “moo-tow” (that’s how it’s pronounced, and it gets pronounced frequently). That stands for “massive unidentified terrestrial object.” There are two of them. They like nuclear power. They are nasty. They kill people. They seem resistant to humanity’s weapons. Oh, no. What shall we do?

We need do very little, for Godzilla – for no reason other than some Ken Watanabe-uttered mystical rubbish about “restoring balance to the universe” – is on hand to kick some monster butt. If you’re familiar with the Godzilla canon, then you’ll know that many earlier films featured Godzilla-as-savior just as often as Godzilla-as-destroyer. But it would be nice to have some narrative coherency and consistency within the world of the movie we’re watching, rather than relying on collective “kaijū eiga” memory. Instead, what we get is a large monster who shows up for no reason to do battle with two other monsters – sorry “moo-tows” – who appear to have been unleashed because of some kind of human error (maybe, I’m still not sure of the details). That echoes the original 1954 film’s nuclear-hubris origin story for the monster, but only faintly. Nothing gels, nothing makes sense – notice that I am not even attempting a plot summary – and the wooden performances from all involved leave one profoundly unmoved when lives are threatened. At one point, because of the clunky sound design, I mistakenly believed that the monsters were chuckling in mock-cartoonish belly laughs – “Ha–Ha-Ha” – and that seemed like the perfect complement to the mess within. The fact that I was wrong about that sound was one of my biggest disappointments of the screening.

One sequence stands out for the visual brilliance of its execution, and that is the H.A.L.O. jump into the city (and it’s actually nice to see San Francisco destroyed, rather than New York), during which Edwards uses the same Ligeti music as Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey every time the monolith appeared. It was beautiful, and genuinely scary. Of course, you can see it in the movie’s trailer (which, like last year’s trailer for Man of Steel, promises a far better film than the one delivered, and is worth watching for its own sake), so maybe you should just stick to that.

Midday on 60 Years of Godzilla, Friday, May 16

[NOTE: If you missed the show, here is the link to the podcast]

Godzilla 1954

In 1954, Toho Studios, in Japan, released the first Godzilla movie, entitled Gojira in Japanese, the first in what would become the longest ever-running film franchise, which has produced, as of 2014, over 28 entries, and that’s not even counting the Hollywood versions (on this blog, I have previously called the James Bond films the “longest running film series ever created”, and while that is technically incorrect, the Bond films present a more consistently unified storytelling universe than do the Godzilla films, so perhaps I can be forgiven for prioritizing the one over the other even if I am – ahem – wrong). In 1956, Raymond Burr headlined the first American Godzilla production – essentially a recut and dubbed version of the Japanese original, with additional scenes of Burr, as a journalist, traveling through Japan, witnessing the monster’s destruction – rebranded as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (William Tsutsui, in his masterful memoir, Godzilla on My Mind, explains that the name change is really nothing more than a standard 1950s transliteration of the “ji” for “dzi” and the “ra” for “la”). While Gojira was a somber tale of nuclear hubris leading to disaster (in particular, American nuclear hubris), the 1956 Hollywood film weakened the moral lessons in favor of greater monster-movie thrills. And so it has gone since then, with most of the Godzilla films focused more on campy battles between monsters – sometimes with Godzilla as a hero, saving humanity, and sometimes with Godzilla wreaking all kinds of destructive havoc – than on the ethics of scientific testing and nuclear annihilation.

The 1998 Roland Emmerich-helmed Godzilla was a critical disaster – if a box-office success – and never led to the originally-proposed sequels, yet now, in 2014, 60 years after Gojira, Warner Bros. is releasing a new Godzilla, on May 16, directed by Monsters director Gareth Edwards. Will it prove to be the American Godzilla film that fans have long awaited? Join host Dan Rodricks and me on WYPR’s Midday this Friday, in the first hour, starting around 12:25, when we’ll discuss Godzilla’s legacy, the new film, plus review two other films coming out that day, Belle and Million Dollar Arm. If you can’t listen live on radio, on 88.1FM in Maryland, then you can stream it or check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. Should be great fun!

One final note – if you’ve never seen the 1954 original, it is currently traveling throughout the U.S. in a new digital print, and the Charles Theater Revival Series, here in Baltimore, has just booked it for the following dates/times:  

  • Saturday, May 31 @ 11:30am
  • Monday, June 2 @ 7pm
  • Thursday, June 5 @ 9pm

You should definitely go and check it out. It’s a wonderful restoration, and well worth watching!

Maryland Film Festival 2014 Final Recap (Sunday)

Many thanks to the crew of the 2014 Maryland Film Festival for putting together another interesting program. I may not have liked everything I saw in equal measure, but I was, overall, more than excited by the offerings.

Sunday, May 11:

On the final day of the festival, I once more saw three films – 1 documentary and 2 narrative features. As with most of the films this year, they all had something to recommend them.

Who Took Johnny

Who Took Johnny (David Beilinson/Michael Galinsky/Suki Hawley, 2013)

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley – two of the three directors – were on hand to present their harrowing documentary about a young boy, Johnny Gosch, who was kidnapped in 1982, and subsequently never found. The film centers on the trials and tribulations of Johnny’s mother, Noreen, who has had to contend with police and FBI indifference – bordering on criminal negligence – and the continued lack of answers and resolution over the years. Johnny would be about my age right now, so I found the film particularly resonant. I remember the early 1980s, and the growing use of the faces of missing kids on milk cartons, but at the time (and until seeing this film), was unaware of the Johnny Gosch case. It’s a terrifying story. Well-made, fast-paced and gripping, Who Took Johnny uses archival footage and interviews, contemporary talking heads, and some reenactments to draw us into a sordid tale of pedophilia, government corruption and the inexcusable victimization of innocents. A must-see, but not for the faint of heart.

Kumiko

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)

Oh, I so wanted to love this film. The premise, of a young Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with finding the money hidden by Steve Buscemi at the end of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film Fargo, is apparently based on an urban legend of a real Japanese woman who purportedly came to Minnesota in 2001 to do just that, having mistakenly believed the opening text of that film, which claims that the events therein are based on a true story. Crazy or deluded protagonists can make great subjects, and I love Fargo, so I sat down and waited for the magic to happen.

On the one hand, the film is beautiful and mysterious. Director David Zellner, cinematographer Sean Porter and production designers Chad Keith and Kikuo Ohta have created a series of carefully crafted scenes, meticulously designed and shot, that draw us in to the increasingly demented vision of the main character, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). Unfortunately, that character is also increasingly terminally depressed, and as her reason breaks down, so does the film. Even after she leaves Japan and comes to the American Midwest, no amount of surreal mise-en-scène can make up for the void at the center of the film that is Kumiko. Kikuchi (Babel) is an actress of real gifts, yet here they are used in service of a role that the script forgets to develop. She’s lost, she’s lonely, she’s … sad. So she fixates on an elusive treasure to give her life meaning, and while the journey is occasionally cinematic, the destination is just more of the same despair. A gorgeous wasteland. If that’s your thing, then enjoy.

little_accidents

Little Accidents (Sara Colangelo, 2014)

On Saturday, my students and I were able to meet privately with director Sara Colangelo and learn how she made her film with help from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Maryland Film Fellowship. Little Accidents is her debut feature, and while she needed all the help she could get in terms of financing and producing, she clearly required no help on the directing side of things. I particularly liked her frequent use of audio overlaps – also known as split edits – from scene to scene, where the sound of a conversation continues into the next scene, informing what we see even as the visuals move on. The film is an assured tour-de-force, with great performances and great shots, and we should be looking for more amazing work from Ms. Colangelo in the future.

Little Accidents tells the story of a coal-mining town in West Virginia that is struggling to recover from a mine accident that killed 10 men. Amos (relative unknown Boyd Holbrook, terrific) – the lone survivor – along with Owen (Jacob Lofland from Mud, here equally as strong) – a boy who has lost his father – and Diane (Elizabeth Banks, quite fine) – the wife of the mine manager – form the three main characters around whom swirls the town’s drama. The film analyzes the moral consequences of actions large and small, and how hard it can be to earn redemption. Filled with subtle moments and raw emotion, the movie will move you and keep you on the edge of your seat until its poignant final shot. I highly recommend.

Maryland Film Festival 2014 Recap #3 (Saturday)

Saturday, May 9:

I made it to three films again today – two narratives and one experimental documentary/animation hybrid – all of them worth watching, to varying degrees and for different reasons.

Club Sandwich

Club Sándwich (Fernando Eimbcke, 2013)

This is a charming coming-of-age story by a Mexican director with whose work I was completely unfamiliar. Hector is a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who is on vacation – in the off-season – at a hotel with his single mom. They have a close – almost incestuously so – relationship that is about to change radically, even if neither of them realizes it, for Hector is helpless in the face of the powerful new sexual stirrings that rock his body and obsess his mind. When he meets Jazmin – also at the hotel, with her much older (and infirm) father and his new nursemaid wife – a girl just slightly older than he, he shifts his attention and desires onto her. It’s a healthy development, but not one that his mother greets gracefully. Don’t worry, though, for in this sweet-natured and gentle comedy, no one really gets hurt and nothing bad happens to good people. They change, they grow, and we laugh in recognition of our own foibles. A good time is had by all.

Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Jessica Oreck, 2013)

Jessica Oreck – another filmmaker whose previous work had escaped me – has created a fascinating hybrid experimental documentary that weaves poetry, philosophy, folklore, animation and observational footage into a mesmerizing meditation on nature and civilization. I’m still not sure that all of the disparate elements come together into a cohesive whole, but part of me doesn’t care. Many of her images are so lovely that it doesn’t matter. And  at the heart of the picture is a lovely retelling of the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga, complete with beautiful hand-painted pictures of the story. The film opens with a line written by Oreck and spoken in Polish or Ukrainian (2 of the 3 languages in the film, the third being Russian) – “Culture imagines an advantage over the wild” (I may be misremembering) – and then proceeds to fill it’s 72 minutes with carefully considered juxtapositions of cities and nature, people and animals, ruined buildings and glorious architectural triumphs. Shot in Ukraine, Poland and Russia – according to Oreck, who was at the screening – the film also incorporates the poetry of the region in both voiceovers and on-screen text.

What purpose does the story of Baba Yaga serve in all of this? After the children who would be her victims escape back to their village, they discover that it is overrun with soldiers, and then flee back into the woods, where they discover their parents, living in harmony with nature. This evokes earlier documentary footage of Russian villagers gathering mushrooms, and seems to indicate that what we traditionally have seen as wild may, in fact, be where our culture lies. If one has seen any films by Sergei Parajanov or Andrei Tarkovsky, this kind of lyrical approach to nature will be familiar. The film is filled with juxtapositions and resonances like this, and ultimately I’m not sure whether it all works as intended. I do know, however, that I felt transported into a fairytale landscape, myself, while watching, and emerged with Oreck’s words and images seared indelibly into my brain. So something must have been working.

The film plays again on Sunday, and I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

Faults

Faults (Riley Stearns, 2014)

This debut feature from Riley Stearns, director of the short film The Cub, which played at the 2013 Maryland Film Festival, is a comedic – yet very dark and, ultimately, violent – thriller starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who just happens to be Mr. Stearns’s wife). Both Stearns and Winstead were at the screening, and stayed for the Q&A. The film is not without interest, but does have trouble finding a consistent tone: how funny should it be when people are getting killed is a question it never quite resolves. Stearns cites the Coen Brothers as an influence, and you can see some of their twisted comic brio here, but he doesn’t quite master the greatness of a Fargo (but hey, it’s his first feature, so let’s give him a break).

Leland Orser (terrific) plays Ansel, a down-on-his-luck (as in, completely plummeted into a pit of despair) anti-cult crusader who is hired by a father and mother desperately trying to save their daughter, Claire (Winstead), from a shadowy group calling itself “Faults.” Since Ansel needs money immediately, to pay off a debt for funds borrowed from his now-angry manager, he jumps at the chance to both get out of town and earn some (hopefully) easy cash. He kidnaps Claire and brings her to a remote motel for “deprogramming.” And that’s when the fun begins. Who is manipulating whom? And what do the parents really want?

I loved all of the scenes with Orser (which is most of them) – particularly when he feels most at wits’ end – and he and Winstead have a great on-screen chemistry. Winstead nicely plays off of her nice-girl looks and demeanor – as she did in Smashed – but neither she nor Orser are well served by the script when the plot takes a turn for the nasty. The brutality of some of the final moments doesn’t mesh well with the lightness of earlier ones. Still, the film works in many places, even if it is a bit too clever by half and relies too much on exposition-heavy dialogue towards the end. It offers a nice twist at its conclusion, which some viewers may not see coming. Well shot, with smart production design, the film is definitely good enough to make me want to see what Stearns comes up with next (hopefully with Winstead on board again).