Thursday, May 29, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

Like the house built on sand, Maleficent can't stand up to its haphazard construction.  It's always reflecting, but never quite meshing, the random shards of Disney, cinematic and fairy-tale references from which it's made.

There are moments, long moments, when it comes agonizingly close, and every single one of those moments is anchored by the fully committed and sometimes stunning performance of Angelina Jolie as the title character.  This is one of the rare times when the "is" between the star's name and the title is justified: she becomes Maleficent.

Alas, the film itself can't live up to her centerpiece performance.  Jolie's towering efforts deserved a better, more thoughtful, more cohesive movie.

Throughout its relatively brief 97-minute running time, Maleficent is saddled by incessant, plodding narration.  The movie literally tells its story -- for the first 40 minutes or so, there is no character development, just one brief shot after another stitched together with the bland narration that propels the movie forward through sheer force of will.  The first half of the movie feels like a very long prologue.

Even Walt Disney was challenged to create an engrossing momentum for his 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty, which for all its exquisite, undeniable splendor lacked a beating heart at its center.  That movie is a visual feast whose 75-minute length feels padded.  And that's telling the story the "proper" way.

Maleficent wants to approach things differently, in a tone that feels more politically correct than revisionist.  It's a movie entirely fitting with the societal concept that bullying is an awful thing, that everyone deserves respect.  That's not a sentiment I necessarily disagree with -- unless the person being bullied is a mean, terrible, evil person, and let's face it, Maleficent is no sweetheart.  She places a curse on a little baby because she's vain, jealous and bitter.  Why?  I dunno.  She just is.

At least, that's the way I've always heard it.  Maleficent is the bad guy.  Simple as that.  Except nothing is so simple anymore, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who created two terrific villains herself (Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and Scar from The Lion King) wants to explain it all away, to show that Maleficent really is just misunderstood.  This is supposed to result in some type of empowerment, though I'm not sure how.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical end and some pretty awful revisionist history is justified; think of some of the most hateful, evil people who really existed, aren't just fairy-tale villains, and consider that if Maleficent can be seen as having good intentions, they should be due the same courtesy.  That doesn't lead to a pretty place.

So, Maleficent shows us that, despite her dark name (Magnificent + Malevolent = guess what?), Maleficent was just a good little girl living in a wondrous land made up of ideas thrown away during development of Avatar.  There she was, living her life, when she met a human boy, who grew up to be arrogant and greedy and wounded her both in body and soul.

Despite the enormous effort Maleficent makes to explain that wicked thoughts simply don't exist in her benign, fairy-encrusted world, Maleficent moves from being fair of heart to foul in the blink of an eye.

It's one of the more problematic moments in a problematic film (along with a ludicrously conceived climax that has Maleficent quite literally tiptoeing right into a heavily fortified castle).  Although Maleficent claims it will show us what made this good creature turn evil, it never does.  She just goes bad in the blink of an eye.  Though she's never before heard of revenge, it suddenly consumes her life.

The rest of the movie reverse-engineers its way, pretty clumsily, through the Disney version of the Perrault fairy tale.  It sidesteps (just like Maleficent does in that finale) the difficult stuff, like this question: Without spinning wheels how did the kingdom's veritable army of seamstresses make its clothes for 16 years?  And why is a spinning wheel conveniently sitting in the throne room during a royal ceremony?  Worse, it treats the historical "good guys" (the king, his subjects) like true nasties for the sole reason that if Maleficent is actually the heroine, then they must be the villains.  The film foregoes any nuance in favor of trite simplicity.  That may be fine for a kids' film, but isn't this supposed to be an examination of the source of evil?

There at the heart of all of that messiness is Angelina Jolie.

For a solid 20 minutes, despite the inanity around her, she grabs the movie, turns it upside down and shakes it until some genuinely good moments fall out.  She wants us to feel the complexity of this woman, who develops unexpected feelings.  Though I was momentarily confused about her rather convoluted motivations, Jolie does with her face, voice and body what the script can't do with its words: She makes them clear -- and brings authentic, genuine emotion to the role.  She almost had me.

And then comes the thudding CG-infused climax.  In many ways, this isn't a live-action remake of an animated film, it's modern computer animation with a few live-action elements.  It has roaring CG waterfalls, wispy CG flying creatures, towering CG mountains, freakishly unnatural CG fairies, marauding CG armies, impossible CG camera moves, and its soul feels, in the end, equally computer-generated.

But there are those few splendid, quiet, non-CG-enhanced moments when Maleficent gets to know Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), and everything quiets down and really, truly works.  For those moments, Maleficent is almost worth seeing.  Almost.

Viewed May 29, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, May 18, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

The poster for Godzilla features the namesake monster rising a thousand feet above the skyline of San Francisco, which for the umpteenth time in the movies is being destroyed, rather spectacularly.  The poster is missing something, though.  If it really wanted to accurately depict the movie, it would have featured those little boxes from disaster movie posters.

You know the boxes.  Roger Ebert described them perfectly in his famous glossary of movie terms. "Useful rule-of-thumb about movie advertisements that have a row of little boxes across the bottom … Automatically avoid such films."

I don't think you should automatically avoid Godzilla, though I'm not so sure the friends I went with would agree with me.  Godzilla stars Bryan Cranston as The Nuclear Scientist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as The Soldier, Ken Watanabe as The Monster Scientist, Sally Hemmings as The Other Monster Scientist and so forth.  Now, as you can see, these character descriptions aren't nearly as compelling as, for instance, "Paul Newman as The Architect," "Stella Stevens as The Hooker," "Dean Martin as The Pilot" or "Ava Gardner as The Spurned Wife Who Is Only Seven Years Younger Than Her Father."  But I suppose they'll do.

Godzilla follows much the same pattern as the great guilty-pleasure disaster movies of the 1970s.  We're introduced to a number of characters, including the one who knows what all the warning signs mean.  Of course, no one listens to him, and (spoiler alert) he's going to die before the end of the third reel just before the real action gets going.

Those warning signs, in the case of Godzilla, are some weird seismic activity and odd electro-magnetic pulses that lead to the destruction of a nuclear-power plant in Japan.  Fifteen years later … it's all happening again.  The Scientist is the father of The Soldier, and together they meet The Monster Scientist and The Other Monster Scientist just before the big revelation, which I hope you'll realize is not a Spoiler Alert since you are, after all, interested in seeing a movie called Godzilla.  Guess what?  Godzilla is about to make an appearance.

But it turns out that Godzilla is only one of three monsters in Godzilla, and before he shows up there are a couple of other creepy dragon-like creatures that start wreaking havoc across the globe.  Well, at least the United States.  Godzilla is really focused on the United States, even though there are, numerically speaking, more opportunities for these radiation-munching beasties to get their nuclear fixes in Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.  Aw, who cares about such things?  Those countries don't have San Francisco and Las Vegas to tear apart.

For about an hour, or half of its running time, Godzilla explains how and why these monsters came to be, even providing a questionable backstory that gives an alternate version of why so many nuclear "tests" were conducted in the South Pacific.

There are lots of scenes of male characters doing macho things and female characters looking alarmed.  The dialogue tends to lean toward lines like, "Current projections indicate they're heading toward the West Coast of the United States," while helpful on-screen graphics show the West Coast of the United States.

For reasons that are rather too complex to explain, one monster gets to tear the Vegas Strip to shreds, while the three of them converge on San Francisco.  I'd like to go on record here and now as asking filmmakers to stop destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.  It's not interesting anymore.

The visual effects in Godzilla are pretty good, especially when the monsters start stomping all over the place.  Sometimes, they seem intentionally cheesy, like they're recalling hand-drawn matte paintings and are daring us to think they look a little silly.  That's OK.

What's less OK is how many shots of the wreckage and destruction are deeply, directly informed by footage of the Sept. 11 attacks.  Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when cities got destroyed on screen, we saw lots of buildings fall over or crumble, and they all seemed a little fake, which was good.  Since then, visual-effects artists show billowing plumes of cement dust heading straight for the crowds who are running toward the camera.  The effect, to me at least, is a constant reminder of the very real pain and terror we experienced on that day.

I think the way Godzilla levels San Francisco bothered me a little less than, say, Star Trek plowing enormous spaceships into the City By the Bay, or The Avengers bringing down skyscrapers in Manhattan primarily because Godzilla is recalling the movies that inspired it.  Back then, of course, a man in a monster suit stepped on balsa-wood buildings and held toy trains in his hand, and nothing about it seemed real, though it was spectacular in its way.

Godzilla, for all of its verisimilitude, is not quite as spectacular.  It's so over-the-top and relentless in a three-way monster battle that seems to take forever that it becomes a little boring after a while.

Back in the 1950s, the first Godzilla movies were showing audiences things they had never seen.  It was the same with the capsizing boat, the bombed airliner, the massive earthquake and the burning building in the 1970s.  The makers of those films seemed like giddy kids experimenting with things no one had ever done.

Godzilla is showing us more of the same.  If it feels like we've seen this a hundred times before, it's because we have.  The CGI becomes a little ho-hum, despite its massive scale, especially since the human characters (such as they are) become relegated quite literally to the background.  In its final 30 minutes, Godzilla barely remembers to show us the wide-mouthed reactions on their faces.  It's all about monster-versus-monster.

All in all, Godzilla delivers exactly what it promises, no more and no less. Despite the ultra-serious, reverential tone it takes to its source material, Godzilla is mostly enjoyable as trashy camp.  It's an entirely stupid movie, rendered with great love and care.  That old master of disaster himself, Irwin Allen, would probably have been proud.  And he would have found a way to slip in a side story about a hooker, a crooked cop and a guy who just lost his job.  Something like that could, I think, have made Godzilla even better.  I would have had someone to root for other than the big monster, who (Not Actually a Spoiler Alert) wins in the end.  He had to.  There's got to be a sequel.

I can see the poster now: God2illa.  I hope they remember to include the little boxes.

Viewed May 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 10, 2014


 2 / 5 

It's entirely appropriate that so much of Neighbors involves marijuana. Most of the movie feels like hanging out with a friend who's high. It's not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, it's way too loud, but it's harmless and occasionally makes you laugh along.

Depending on your point of view, the poster either promises or threatens that Neighbors is "from the guys who brought you This Is the End," which was a movie that mostly befuddled me.  These people obviously have a great time making their movies, and they've become a stoner version of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, pulling together roughly the same group of friends for a cinematic venture, though in this case "cinematic" might be stretching it a bit.

But Neighbors mostly made me wonder what it could have been if the creators had laid off the bud and spent their time studying a few classic comedies instead.  They've got the ideas, they've got the ability to write good jokes, but their timing is all off and the movie moves in fits and starts, sometimes genuinely funny, other times moderately amusing, but a lot of the time completely confused by its own characters and situations.

There really aren't any characters here, just some basic outlines -- Mac and his wife (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) live on a quiet street lined with houses decorated by Pottery Barn, and when a moving van shows up next door the occupants aren't the gay couple they hoped but a raucous, noisy fraternity.  The fraternity has loud, pot-filled parties, and for a while it seems they all might find a way to get along, since Mac and his wife are sort of stunted adolescents, anyway, despite having just had a baby.  They smoke pot, too, and they can party right along with the frat boys.

But when Mac calls the police, frat president Teddy (Zac Efron) decides to seek revenge.  Some of the things he and his frat brothers do is funny, but mostly it's scattershot -- and not in the manner of, say, Mel Brooks or the ZAZ brothers and theis exquisitely timed, gag-filled frolics, but in the way of a stoned college kid who hasn't really thought things out.

A lot of Neighbors seems like it might have been improvised, like the script was really more of an outline than a tightly constructed bit of comedy.

Making people laugh isn't easy.  It requires more than sitting around and talking about penises, booze, vomiting and pot.  Talk about those things enough and you're going to elicit a giggle, it's inevitable.  It's also the lazy way out, and Neighbors is mostly lazy.  This is a "culture war" movie, in which the two sides shouldn't understand anything about each other, but Mac and his wife aren't strait-laced enough to sell that concept, and frat president Teddy's need for revenge doesn't feel grounded.  To be really great, comedy requires that kind of rooting in reality, and Neighbors just doesn't have it.  (An example: One whole scene is devoted to the couple learning they could never sell the house, and the screenwriters have thought through the dilemma enough to bring the real-estate agent into the picture -- but they never address the point of how a frat house could have been been sprung on residents in the first place.)

Neighbors is friendly and good-natured, offering more than few chuckles.  It's what passes for comedy to most of today's audiences, and delivers most of what it promises; it's just too bad its comedic aspirations weren't, ahem, higher.

Viewed May 10, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 3, 2014


 4 / 5 

Solo performances are nothing new on stage, but when movies try them they often seem like gimmicks.  

Steven Knight's Locke isn't a gimmick, and it never feels contrived, thanks to a remarkably calm and captivating performance by Tom Hardy, along with impeccable help from a handful of actors whose faces are never seen but who nonetheless manage to create sharply defined characters.

Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction supervisor who is getting ready for an enormous -- and enormously important -- project.  But as Locke begins, he leaves the construction site in Birmingham, England, and gets in his car with a lot on his mind.  Where he's going and why become clear quickly, along with the implications: By doing what he's doing, Ivan Locke is changing his life.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal the circumstances, but Locke is trying to rectify what he believes is a mistake.  For 90 minutes, he drives the M6 highway, juggling phone calls and working out his problem, both on the phone and in his own head.

Hardy is the only on-screen actor in Locke, and the only set is the inside of his BMW.  The car's high-tech dashboard helps tell the story, as the name of the caller appears on screen, though the script is so sharply drawn that after a while that assistance isn't needed.  There's his wife, Katrina, and his sons Sean and Eddie; there's his boss, Gareth, who is nicknamed "Bastard" in Locke's contact list; there's Locke's colleague Donal; and there's Bethan, a woman in London who Locke is driving to see.  Locke's father is along for the drive, too, though he is long-dead and exists only in Locke's mind, but they have a score to settle -- which is just one of many issues Locke has to resolve as he heads down the dark and lonely road.

Locke is a meticulous man, but his carefully, calmly managed life is coming undone.  He believes he can control the outcome, but the variables don't want to cooperate.  Locke cannot convince everyone else to see the situations as rationally, as thoughtfully as he does.

In his cool, controlled cadence (Hardy has a remarkable voice, and he uses it to full effect in Locke), he tries to explain to one of the callers that the mistake he made only happened once, and that its consequences can therefore be managed. Not so, comes the response. "The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad."

Over and over, Locke insists that what he's doing -- abandoning the project, driving away from his family -- is not at all like him.  He becomes so vocal about this that even he has to start to wonder if the Ivan Locke he thought he was is not actually who he really is.

Locke is a small, tight movie that never feels cramped or confined.  Hardy's fixed, cold gaze keeps us riveted for the film's brief 90-minute running time, and his predicaments -- which pile up and up and up -- become fascinating.  As the film starts, it's hard to know exactly what Locke does for a living; by the time it ends, viewers have become marginal experts on C6 concrete and the way 216 trucks have to line up to pour it just right.  Hardy's description of what would happen if one minor element went wrong, the way the concrete would crack and the building would begin to buckle and eventually come crashing down, not only lets us know what's at stake -- but gets us into his world in ways most movies struggle to do.

Locke begins the film with a job, an important project, a wife, a family, and ends the film, just 90 minutes later, with every one of those in doubt.  Driven by Hardy's mesmerizing performance, haunting cinematography, and sharp editing (along with the supporting voice cast, as well as a fine score by Dickon Hinchliffe), Locke is the kind of cinematic ride that comes along only rarely.  We've certainly been taken on wild rides by movies, and we've been inside cars of every shape and size -- but they've never been combined like this.

Locke isn't melodrama -- never once does a gunshot go off on the other line, for instance -- but it is wholly engrossing nevertheless.  Hardy takes us as deep into the mind of his character as is likely to be possible in a film, and even though he reveals some pretty unpleasant things, Locke the character is always as fully in control as Hardy the actor.

Locke is a gripping, captivating movie, and to its enormous credit never feels like a simple visual experiment.  Though it ends a bit abruptly (I could have spent another solid 15 or 20 minutes hearing things pan out fully), Locke manages the exceedingly rare feat of taking us on a complete emotional journey even while the character never leaves our view.  Locke is top-notch filmmaking and allows Tom Hardy to prove that he's one of the most formidable, and compelling, screen actors working today.

Viewed May 3, 2014 -- Arclight Hollywood