Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Summer Movie Rundown - Old Wine In New Bottles

So let's say you've got an idea that gives an interesting twist to an old familiar tale.  How do you make it work?  Obviously you're counting on a certain amount of story recognition in your audience, so where do you draw the line between all the old things that people know and all the new things you want to let them know, which are all part of that interesting twist?  If we're talking television, then this would be a post about Penny Dreadful (which I will probably get to when it's over in a few weeks, which is when I figure I'll be able to round up enough superlative adjectives to describe Eva Green).  But if we're talking movies, then we're talking two currently-playing films which are well aware that viewers are going to come watch them with expectations in tow:  Godzilla and Maleficent.

Some movies deserve to be spoiled, because if you walk into them with your expectations intact, you are going to walk out feeling gypped.  Such a movie is Godzilla.   

To paraphrase WC Fields: don’t let the poster fool ya.  Or the trailer, for that matter.  If you go into this movie buying all the things that are implicit in that trailer, you are going to be wavering between mildly disappointed and extremely disappointed.  The movie’s entire marketing campaign is designed to make you think that (a) it’s us against Godzilla, (b) all the destruction is being caused by Godzilla, (c) all the destruction done by Godzilla will be seen in its entirety, and (d) Brian Cranston is our hero.  (No, no, frustratingly no, and unfortunately no.)    

What the trailer doesn’t tell you is that (a) it’s Godzilla against a couple of other monsters (b) who are causing destruction so they can spawn (c) in San Francisco, because New York is still being rebuilt after The Avengers, while (d) our hero is the guy who played Vronsky to Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina who (e) acts as a monster magnet, always managing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and (f) surviving every single time, probably because (g) his neck is the size of a fullback’s thigh.  And we really don't care.  At least there aren't two unfunny comic relief characters, like there are in most of the Godzilla sequels.

Structurally, the movie attempts the Jaws trick of never really giving us a money shot of the title character until the final confrontation.  Whether or not it succeeds is dependent on whether or not you feel gypped when the movie cuts away from a Honolulu monster mash to show TV footage of the aftermath, or when the movie cuts away from the potentially much cooler destruction of Las Vegas to the same kind of post-event footage.  While this does build up expectations for the final showdown between the good monster and the bad monsters, it also threatens to make you feel so frustrated that you’ll watch that climax with your arms firmly folded across your chest, muttering to yourself, “Sorry, Gareth Edwards.  You lost me at Las Vegas.”

And yes, I said good monsters versus bad monsters.  The original Godzilla is a movie about a monster that we created back in the 50’s with all those hydrogen bomb explosions.  This movie is about a monster that we attempted to destroy back in the 50’s with all those hydrogen bomb explosions, a monster that acts as what one character calls Nature’s “alpha predator” (a character who, to add insult to injury, has the same name as the Japanese scientist who brought Godzilla down in the original movie). Evidently the Alpha Predator job description is something like “Ensuring that all the beta and gamma predators don’t get out of line.” Which is Hollywood science for "There is an actual animal hierarchy in Nature, and Nature knows best, because Nature has a plan;" which pretty much puts the God in Godzilla.  Also: if it’s an Alpha Predator, how can it ever lose?  Which is what the last half hour is about; and if you can make it through the first 90 minutes, those last 30 minutes are fantastic.
Bottom line: if you go into this movie with no expectations at all, you will probably enjoy it for what it is.  But it’s not what the trailer seems to promise, and it’s a really bizarre version of a Godzilla movie. 

A much more interesting re-imagining of a traditional story is on display in Maleficent.  Narrated by Janet McTeer (whose identity is not revealed until the end of the film), we get the distaff side of the Sleeping Beauty legend, starring Angelina Jolie as the evil witch in a fun-house mirror version of the original story, a version which shows us how that evil witch got to be so bad.  So yes, you know the story and now you’re going to be told the real version, which means you’ve paid $15 to see Sleeping Beauty’s version of Wicked, as Maleficent takes center stage and travels her own fairy-tale voyage through vengeance to redemption. 

Does the revision work on its own terms?  Yes.  It makes emotional sense, and our title character’s back story has a couple of twists and moments that work quite well, and God knows work a lot better than the three good fairies, who are more annoying than comical, and seem to have been shoehorned into the movie to protect Disney’s intellectual property rights to the characters.  Nothing new is done with them; if anything, they are even dippier than their animated versions, and thankfully they disappear for large stretches of the movie’s middle, only to come annoyingly back into prominence towards the end.   

There could be a neat little allegory about the powerlessness of goodness here, but the script is not really that smart.  The script is actually not really that much of a script, in fact. It’s just a bunch of plot beats with dialogue, like spoken word balloons on a storyboard, and it doesn't play with or echo the original movie cleverly enough to approach what Wicked does to Wizard Of Oz.  Jolie does her best to make her lines snap, and it’s to her credit that she manages to make you think she’s being deep and clever, because she’s given precious little to work with.  She can put volumes into a sidelong glance.  And she has to.  A lot.  If only to prevent you from wondering why, if a witch can transform someone into a dragon, she chooses to make him a horse and not a giant eagle; or why Liam Neeson isn’t playing the bad guy instead of Sharlto Copley; or why anybody would name their little fairy kid Maleficent and think she WOULDN’T grow up to be a nasty piece of work.  (“What shall we name our daughter, dear?”  “Oh, something sweet and innocent, like Evil Spawn Of Satan.”)  

In the end, Jolie is the only reason to see the film.  She carries the whole thing on her black-clad shoulders, and the facial look of the character, with cheekbones like shoulder blades, makes her even more exotically gorgeous.  That’s what you’ll walk away humming, although the bleak Lana Del Rey cover of “Once Upon A Dream” is just as haunting.  Almost as haunting as the lost opportunity of this film, which an actual script could have rescued.


So to complete the wine/bottle analogy of this post's title, the makers of Godzilla did everything they could to make you think that the contents of this particular bottle were vintage Godzilla, instead of New Godzilla, and would up with a lot of people feeling (rightfully) gypped.

And meanwhile, the creators of Maleficent made no bones about making sure the bottle for this film said SLEEPING BEAUTY FROM THE EVIL WITCH'S POINT OF VIEW, but when you taste the contents, it has all the right ingredients but none of the flavor, it has thinness and no body, and it feels like it was bottled so quickly the grapes didn't have time to age properly.   Making it more juice than wine.

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