Sunday, June 15, 2014

Maleficent


In addition to being terribly written at almost every turn, Maleficent is an ill-conceived project. Re-imaginings don't have free reign to violate the ground rules established by the source material; Disney's 1959 film, Sleeping Beauty, establishes that Maleficent is evil. It begs no question as to why she's evil, but if we assume that the leaping-off point for Linda Woolverton's 2014 script is that question, we're still on solid enough footing. The trailers seemed to suggest a story along those lines, i.e. an origin tale. But it seems Angelina Jolie and Linda Woolverton want us to walk out thinking their Maleficent is a big spectacle movie about regaining one's femininity after horrible abuse. It is certainly that (if you accept the film's definition of "feminine"), but that's not the story at the heart of an iconic character like Maleficent. She is, like it or not, folks, a Disney villain, and villains have certain reputations to uphold in Disney properties, namely being villainous. And so Maleficent, not at all that villainous or frightening (whoops), is, first and foremost, a miscalculated re-imagining. Its aims are smaller than tragedy, which might have been the best, grandest, and most sympathetic re-imagining of the character.

The movie's worst offense, by far, is its misguided attempt to make some kind of post-feminist statement about maternity and femininity; unfortunately, it ultimately suggests that the only valid woman is a woman adept at handling babies. In this, it's flat-out anti-feminist and reductive, though it thinks it's something else entirely. The proof of this is in its treatment of the three fairies who take Aurora into the woods to raise her. Their depiction here is deplorable; each is a terrible caricature of the big three sins a woman can commit: being old, being dumb, and being pretty. If the screenwriter actually subverted these stereotypes and made them effective characters, that would be something, but she doesn't. As written, they're stupid and offensive. What purpose their mistreatment by the writer serves I can't fathom. In Sleeping Beauty, these three are, arguably, the heroines of the tale, saving the princess from Maleficent's designs. Here, they're responsible for nothing but cheap laughs (and they're not the least bit funny, as they're not the least bit true to any portrait of real women; if Maleficent deserves our respect as a woman-fairy, why don't they?). 

The men in the film are almost all just as offensively monstrous or stupid, even more so when you consider that the king, Stefan, was known as "Good King Stefan" in the source material. In his character, perhaps, the screenwriter's offense is greatest: the "rape" of Maleficent is handled with such fetishistic nastiness (a chain!) that it feels horribly out of place in a Disney film. It's jarring, and while jarring is sometimes a prized effect, it only serves to remind us, here, in the most inelegant fashion, that men are selfish bastards. Only the crow, Diaval, Maleficent's servant, seems to have a conscience, to know the right thing to do, and what is his reward, as a man? He spends the entire movie enslaved by the title character (an act for which she is never called to account).  In the end, Maleficent forces him to assume the form of a dragon in order to save herself, using him as a kind of male shield against the soldiers' spears and chains.  This is how she treats the one male character who's been more than generous to her throughout the film. Is this suggesting that it's perfectly acceptable to manipulate men, if one's motives are selfish enough? What, also, is the death of King Stefan meant to satisfy? Maleficent, at least, doesn't kill him, but she doesn't save him either. So men deserve what they get? And Aurora's just okay with this?

Do you know the term "misandrist"? I had to look it up. My Google search went something like this: "opposite of chauvinist." Of course, we all know what a chauvinist is: it's when a man hates and mistreats women because he's a stupid male asshole. But what do we call it when women hate men? It's not a term very many of us are familiar with, and for good reason: men have, traditionally, been the ones in power, and it's not a common conversation that starts with, "Boy, men are so oppressed!" Still, this doesn't mean all men are natural impediments to women, but I think, ultimately, this is the narrow-minded point of view of Maleficent.

Bringing it back to the idea of this as a re-imagining of the source material: who is this movie for? If you're a fan of the original animated Sleeping Beauty, it's going to disappoint you profoundly. If you're a young boy, you're going to have a hard time finding any character you can identify with, unless you're a burgeoning psychopath. If you're a young girl, well, you may wonder why this feels nothing like any other Disney movie you've ever seen, and I do hope, sincerely, that someone makes a strong argument on the film's behalf and delineates, very clearly, just what's happening with that chain and potion. Or maybe you get that on every level it's meant to be gotten.  But what I'm trying to say here is that Maleficent is far too clunky, as written, too unwieldy, to shoulder such heavy burdens as these. Its ambition exceeds its grasp, and its grasp is painfully weak. It eschews beauty and timelessness for complexity and timeliness, and in doing so collapses under its own dismal weight.  

NO BANANAS
Written by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Robert Stromberg
2014


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014)


There's a grandeur to Gareth Edwards' Godzilla that summer movies − or American movies in general, really − haven't seen in quite a while. It's moody, atmospheric, and masterfully directed. Or at least very nearly: my only complaint is that I would have liked a sharper lead than Aaron Taylor-Johnson. A grinner, a thinker. A winker. A young Richard Dreyfuss, since Edwards is so keen on JAWS. Hooper, in this case, would have been a much finer template for a lead. That said, Mr. Edwards has secured his place in American cinema as one its brightest new lights (like so many good American things these days, he's British). His Monsters is magnificent, too, and to have two such films, now, under his belt, I imagine the sky's the limit for his future. Or maybe the limits reach far past the sky: here's hoping someone gives the boy a Star Wars film to direct. A New Hope is, after all, his favorite movie.

4 BANANAS
Written by Max Borenstein
Directed by Gareth Edwards
2014

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


I believe it's good and necessary that comic book movies be not geared toward die-hard fans but the general masses; fandom, I'm rapidly starting to think, may be ruining American cinema. And so my gripes, these days, have nothing to do with how characters are born on screen vs. the page or whether that's the right costume design for the character. More often than not, I only want good, solid storytelling. Laziness or hackneyed writing I can spot a mile off. These days I measure the success of a superhero movie by the number of times I wince or grunt when something patently sloppy or lazy happens. I think it's a fair test, the grunt-o-meter, given that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these things. Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man 2 never caused me to grunt or wince when it came to special effects or the chemistry of its two, yes, amazing leads, but there were a number of grunts, all the same. Why, for instance, are there three endings to this film? Could it be because there are two three villains? Other questions: How did Harry Osborn learn to use his new glider, or his new nifty Goblin knife? When, exactly, did Max Dillon think to start calling himself Electro; is this what imprisoned super-villains think about all the livelong day, what to call themselves? And why would a mother have her small child anywhere near a rampaging maniac in rhinoceros armor? Or better yet: why cast Dane DeHaan in your tent-pole movie and give him so little to do, character-wise? It all comes down to bloat, overstuffedness, the very thing, ironically, that sunk Spider-Man 3. The writers (all seven of them) work pretty hard to make a lot of stuff happen, and in doing so, they take the laziest short-cuts to the never-ending climax, sacrificing character, logic, and story along the way. That said, I'm starting to shrug at this genre more than I care about it. Its offenses are smaller because its relevance is diluted. So, at the end of two-plus hours, I can actually say, yeah, okay, I enjoyed that, despite its failures. And it just occurs to me, now, that maybe that's the emptiest, most damning praise of all.

2 BANANAS
Written by seven people (I wasn't kidding)
Directed by Marc Webb
2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I


Lars Von Trier's last two movies have been humorless affairs, but in Nymphomaniac he seems to have discovered a more playful side of himself, a way to grapple with Serious Ideas while, occasionally, smiling or even laughing. Americans tend to accept graphic violence in films without much protest (sometimes even get all feverish for it, a la Passion of the Christ), but graphic sex? That's a no-no (and a whole other conversation). Which is why it amuses me that Nymphomaniac is populated with famous American actors (some used to great effect, others to less effect). This is, in other words, the movie's best joke. And, of course, there's Von Trier's European Von Trierian sensibility toward the subject matter. Unsurprisingly: it's not happy, hearty sex on parade here. It's painful, addictive sex. Sex as drug, sex as emptiness. The unfolding dialogue between Joe and Seligman, moving nimbly from chapter to chapter, tells the story of a woman desperate to discover her worth as a human being. I haven't seen God's Not Dead, but based on the trailer alone, it's no stretch to say that Nymphomaniac Vol. I is a probably a far more spiritual film.

3 BANANAS
Written and directed by Lars Von Trier
2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)


Despite what 99% of fans may think, Veronica Mars (2004-2007) had the perfect ending. Thomas crafted a nice noir finish by having Veronica walk away in the rain, having cast her vote for a compromised father. It ended with the heart of the show intact, the relationship between father and daughter. For this, the show's assertion that fathers can be good, as well as bad, I always thought Veronica Mars was top-notch. Because sometimes girls deserve a better hero than Buffy Summers, and Rob Thomas gave her to them. That said, the 2014 movie is a disappointment. It recycles the Logan-is-a-killer plot from season 2, tacks on a clumsy opening prologue to explain who Veronica is (as if anyone who doesn't know would actually wander into one of the 272 theaters screening it; there were Kickstarters present in the showing we went to on a Saturday afternoon in Morrow, Georgia), and it forgets the heart of the series by sidelining Keith Mars to a hospital bed and then creating no dramatic tension from this. Add to these sins a mystery that involves little jeopardy for its heroine and a minimal amount of sleuthing before the villain spills all in an overlong monologue, and the script adds up to lazy and poorly thought out. Of course, all the old faces are here, and yeah, they make us smile and feel nostalgic, but nostalgia is a lie, and that's the movie's ultimate failing: it doesn't seem to realize this. It's an odd misfire. I hate to say it, but maybe it's the price you pay for Kickstarting movies with fan money; you end up bowing to the lesser, more soapish elements (Team Logan or Team Piz?) and forget to tell the story that really matters. Also, as much as I love Kristen Bell, the Kristen Bell I see here is only Veronica Mars in fits and starts. The movie's greatest misstep, it turns out, is failing to understand what happens when you move on from high school, when you grow up. You don't go back. Veronica makes wrong choices in this film. She did that in the series, too, but the series understood those choices were wrong, even when she didn't. Her ultimate choice here, to remain in Neptune as Logan's sometimes squeeze, I don't think Thomas realizes how unsatisfying that really is.

2 BANANAS
Written by Rob Thomas and Dianne Ruggiero
Directed by Rob Thomas
2014

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Lego Movie


Every now and then, a movie comes along that critics and the American movie-going public seem to agree upon. Everyone likes it, everyone thinks it's swell, and no one's too quick to offer much in the way of a thoughtful opinion about the ideas at work. I don't want to be the nay-sayer on this one, as I, admittedly, loved about 80% of what I saw. The humor is spot-on, the performances fantastic, and the animation is beyond belief.

That said, I have to point out two tiny, teensy, itty-bitty, minor, insignificant little tenants of good storytelling: 1) stories have to operate according to the internal logic they establish, and 2) stories must be honest in order to ring true. (And before I get started, don't say, hey, monkey, wait a minute, aren't you forgetting, it's a kids' movie! The target audience may be children, but it wasn't made by children  though, if you believe later plot developments, an eleven-year-old would make a great Hollywood director of tentpole feature animation projects; besides, who says kids' movies get a pass on good storytelling?).

Anyway.

Regarding logic, a story's internal logic must be established, generally, from the outset and followed in order for the story to be effective and coherent. Take Toy Story, for example. In that movie, we know, right away, that toys can walk and talk − but only when humans are absent. This basic rule, once established in the first five minutes of the movie, is obeyed throughout by the storytellers, and the result is a series of escalating crises that keep us, the audience, emotionally involved in the story. Now, this doesn't mean a movie can't break its own rules, but the rule-breakage has to be earned and honest. Again, in Toy Story, when the toys finally do reveal their agency to a human, it's to scare the bejeezus out of him, which, let's face it, is what would really happen if your toys started talking (see item 2 above: honesty).

Near the end of The Lego Movie's second act, we learn that "The Man Upstairs" is actually a disappointing dad, a live-action Will Ferrell obsessed with ordering his world, gluing it together, and daring anyone − including his son − to touch it. Until this point, of course, we've simply bought into the premise that our favorite Lego pieces are walking and talking and living in a fully established Lego world that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with reality. I was on board for that, but the odd attempt at merging the Lego World and the real world is jarring. Why? Because the movie did not, from the very beginning, establish any basic internal logic about the co-existence of these two worlds. And, regarding the honesty of this sub-plot, well, it's pap. I don't believe the resolution for a second. Because any man weird enough to super-glue his Legos together wouldn't see the error of his ways so quickly and hug his boy and say he's sorry. No, he'd probably yell at the kid and then crack the kid upside the head, and then the boy's mother would take her son and go to her mother's and call a lawyer and file for divorce. This, weirdly, would have been a more honest route for the storytellers to take; they were the ones, after all, who decided to introduce the notion of a disappointing, overbearing father but then didn't take it seriously. Judging from what I've read in praise of the film from critics and movie-goers alike, not very many people did.

All that said, let me reiterate my praise from above: humor was awesome, voice-cast was awesome, animation was awesome, but everything? Everything, unfortunately, was not.

3 BANANAS
Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Office (U.S.): 9 Seasons


It's not uncommon these days for a series to be extended past eight seasons, but The Office, despite its longevity and its British roots, is, in fact, an uncommon series. My initial dislike of the show's first season stemmed from the fact that it was weirdly slavish to the UK series, which was and still is, I believe, a touchstone in the history of television. About a year or so ago, I watched a few episodes of Season 2 of the US version on Netflix, and while the parallels to what Gervais and Merchant had done remained, I was hooked. Characters were becoming their own people, far removed from Tim and Dawn and the Brent-Meister General. Crystal joined the fun around episode 4. We kept going and found we had a new favorite thing. The show is funny on the order of Arrested Development, which is very funny, but unlike the Bluths, its characters are you and me and every other person in America who's ever held a job they can't quite find joy in. Joy, the show seems to suggest, is something we find in our connections to other people: spouses, coworkers, friends, family. The work we do is, in many ways, incidental. As the series progresses, year after year, it manages to stay fresh and interesting, to weather even the hardest of knocks; when Steve Carrell leaves the show, the characters that sweep in to take Michael's place are large and memorable. And Dwight Schrute, for my money, is one of the great characters in the history of American television, idiotic but never dumb, big-hearted and wise (eventually), his own man by the end, not a lackey.  And then there's Pam and Jim. Their love is the great love some of us are lucky enough to see play out in our own lives, but the writers never take that love for granted; they trouble it constantly. In the end, what makes the show great is the accumulated wisdom of near ten years. Andy Bernard, of all people, says it best, in what for me is one of the show's most touching moments: I wish, he says, you could know you were living in the good old days, so you'd know to cherish them that much more.




5 BANANAS
2005-2013