24: Live Another Day Review

Jack Bauer was supposed to be gone long before this. He was an answer to post-9/11 fear and vengeance, an American hero for the modern age who kicked terrorist’s ass and made us feel safer because he was always willing to go the extra mile, always willing to sacrifice more for his country. Knowing that people like him existed led us to believe that we could be kept safe even as wars broke out all over the world and extremists multiplied where we never dared imagine. Jack was there every Monday night to save us.

As concerns about terrorism (still a very real worry) ebbed towards issues about secret covert actions and government surveillance, 24 failed to adjust to the times and the show was cancelled in 2010. There were rumors of a film, but things never seemed to quite get out off the ground. The country’s love of Jack Bauer though was insatiable. He had become a cultural icon, a mix of Superman, James Bond and Rambo. Even as times change, his appeal doesn’t, and 24: Live Another Day promised to reintegrate Jack into our changing times for at least one more outing, this time in a 12-part series instead of the full 24.

Jack, the always perfectly intense Kiefer Sutherland, stationed this time in London, is attempting to save President Heller, William Devane, from the terrorist Margot Al-Harazi, Michelle Fairley. Along the way, he is helped by his ever trusty sidekick Chloe, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and newcomer CIA agent Kate Morgan, Yvonne Strahovski. This being 24, the plot constantly changes as we transition from Al-Harazi’s daughter to Al-Harazi to drones to Edward Snowden doppelganger Adrian Cross and finally to one of our favorite villains from 24’s past, Cheng Zi. Played by Tzi Ma, he is the perfect villain to bring 24 full-circle, a bridge character connecting Jack, Audrey and President Heller and this version of 24 to previous seasons. His mere presence raises the stakes for the characters as they must confront years of torture and anger at his expense.

There were moments during the season when the show strayed too much towards familiar territory, principally the coordination with a CIA station that does not trust Jack Bauer and their ineptitude costing Jack valuable time. With eight seasons, one mini-movie and now one television short series, the writers may just feel that some things are routine with 24 no matter how overused they are and an inept bureaucracy, unyielding terrorist mastermind and less interesting subplots involving characters we’ve just met are some of them. I could poke and prod the subplots of Kate Morgan, President Heller, Mark Boudreau and Steve Navarro for being unoriginal and contrite in the face of the action going on, but they are simply standards for the 24 series to keep the pace moving. In a way, it is almost a compliment to Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub for being so intense and so involving that it makes everything else seem like a distraction. Perhaps in some future iteration of the show, we will be given some breathing room to just focus on Jack and Chloe principally. The show would be stronger for it.

What this season of 24 did manage to pull off was the transforming of current fears into the narrative. With Edward Snowden, the expansion of spying programs, the carrying out of covert wars in faraway regions and resentment towards the United States globally for perceived war crimes carrying news broadcasts and headlines in recent months, 24 was able to present these issues while still maintaining its original premise. Chloe, Adrian Cross and all of their hacker comrades are disillusioned with a government they see as carrying out actions outside of the public eye that are criminal. They are working to reveal U.S. secrets in order to gain some transparency from a government they feel has breached too far, leading up to Cross’ decision to release the override to the world. The protests of Londoners against drone strikes is reflected all over the world as more and more covert actions replace actual war activities. Margot Al-Harazi is as much a terrorist as she is also a symbol of the fears we share about new technology such as drones ending up in the hands of the wrong people. As causes spread and social media allows cells to connect all over the world, the advancements in war robotics and their spread is cause for concern for all citizens. One of the interesting things about 24 is that it merely presents the issue rather than comments on it. Chloe and Cross are never portrayed as villains or heroes for attempting to reveal government secrets until Cross’ actions endanger people. The protests against drones and the antipathy towards the American government are never resolved so much as insinuated that something must be done. Jack simply stops Al-Harazi rather than makes any declarative statement about what we need to do with our military robotics. The writers are wise to defer judgment to us rather than attempt to write it into the narrative.

The conclusion of 24: Live Another Day reveals heartbreakingly the true soul of the show and its appeal all these years later. If Kate had saved Audrey, Jack had stopped Cheng and prevented the Russians from kidnapping Chloe in order to save himself from being handed over, the season would have ended on a false note, full of too much hope for the world we currently live in. Jack doesn’t get happy endings no matter how hard we may wish him to. Audrey’s death elevated this final episode and the entire season from being just one last go around for Jack to a persistent reminder of what he represents, a man who has to endure pain and suffering to keep us safe. It is what makes his character so compelling to watch after 9/11, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after covert drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Jack sacrifices everything, his wife, a relationship with his daughter, his sanity at times and even the respect of the government he protects, to keep us safe. In a world that scares us with new threats every day, an ever-changing environment of murderers and wars and destruction, knowing that there is someone out there who will give everything, literally everything, to keep us safe is comforting.

At the conclusion of the mini-series, President Heller is just waiting for his Alzheimer’s to advance so he can forget about his life, Kate turns in her badge and in so doing her honor after failing to keep the President’s daughter safe and Chloe is left in remorse after her best friend gives himself up for her. In a way, all of these characters have suffered so much that the audience can forgive them for just trying to move on with their lives. Jack, however, we know deep down, will still lay it on the line, sacrificing everything we hold dear to keep us safe. There is a line in season four where then Secretary of Defense Heller tells Audrey, “The world needs people like Jack.” This has summed up the show for all these years. Until we reach that apex where we are free from fear whether it be from terrorists, foreign governments or covert spies, we will need to believe in people like Jack Bauer. I hope that we get to see him again. He makes us sleep better at night.

The Lego Movie Review

The Lego Movie (2014) may initially seem like a corporate ploy to sell toys, and in a way it still is. Infused into that commercial scheme however is an hysterical narrative about potential and imagination. There is literally a laugh a minute, and the humor is spread out evenly amongst all age groups.

Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, the most ordinary character without imagination you will ever see, is seemingly “the special”, a being who will stop the evil plotting of Lord Business, Will Ferrell, who wishes to destroy all creativity and playtime in the world of the Legos. With Vitruvius, Morgan Freeman, as his mentor and Wyldstyle, Elizabeth Banks, and Batman, a hilarious Will Arnett, as sidekicks among others, Emmet engages in a daring quest that caravans through pirates, cowboys, superheroes, fantasy lands and a little boy’s basement. There is never a strong sense of danger involved in the events of the story, but that does not make it less compelling, instead adding a level of carefree fun absent in so many films.

While Emmet and Vitruvius have compelling characters and strong narratives, Batman steals the show in just a few scenes just because he is Batman. For fans of the character, they will not be disappointed with the Dark Knight.

Humor drives the narrative through its weaker points so the audience is always entertained. The end of act two and the beginning of act three do drag a little bit and some might have issues with the conclusion and its diverting focus, but it is where the film’s heart lies and makes the movie truly memorable.

 

SPOILERS

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Protagonist: Emmet

Antagonist: Lord Business

Desire: Prove his worth

Value: Self-esteem

Inciting Incident: Emmet finds the Piece of Resistance, igniting a prophecy that he will save the realm

Act One Climax: Emmet is rescued by Wyldstyle who takes him to Vitruvius where he agrees to be trained as The Special

Midpoint: After Cloud Cuckooland is destroyed, Emmet is forced to lead the team to Lord Business’ layer in a last desperate attempt to save the realm

Act Two Climax: After Vitruvius is killed, Emmet sacrifices himself to save the Master Builders from Lord Business, giving Wyldstyle the command to stop his plan

Act Three Climax: Returning back to Legoland, Emmet uses his skills as a Master Builder to save his friends and uses his power as The Special to turn Lord Business towards the light with the knowledge he has learned

 

The film stresses a belief in the power of imagination. Finn is a boy who just wants to let his mind take him places and explore, but his father believes that things must be done according to a set of rigid instructions. While this may seem a flimsy premise for an entire film, it actually pits two contrasting views on creativity and the value of imagination against each other: one that values venturing out and attempting to create something unafraid of criticism, another that believes in strict interpretation and the achievement of perfection above all else. There is no doubt that the film is biased towards a belief in venturing out, but it is an interesting dynamic to consider. These two differing philosophies clash, symbolized by Lord Business’ incessant desire to create order and Emmet’s need to prove himself as “the special”.

Emmet’s journey is interesting in how he needs to prove himself to so many: Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, Batman, Lord Business, his friends who have all forgotten him and all of the Master Builders. This is very similar to the pressures put on to the boy representing him, Finn. As all children of that age, he is trying to prove himself to the world, trying to define himself for the first time in his life and terrified of failure. He needs a haven of escapism, somewhere where he is free to make mistakes and experiment with different things. The stories he invents with his Legos give him an avenue of freedom difficult to find in the adult world, something that his father has lost through his years in an environment that demands exacting interpretation. Only when Lord Business sees the value of pure creation, without the need to acquiesce to other people’s notions of perfection, can he appreciate the beauty of the freedom of youth that he has lost.

At the center of this conflict is the belief in the special, a made-up prophecy that aspires to everyone. As Emmet explains at the end of the film, the special can be anyone who sees the value in creation and expressing one’s thoughts. It is not limited to individuals of greatness (Emmett indeed is incredibly ordinary), but by those who learn to not be afraid of expressing themselves, especially to those of authority as Finn does with his father.

The Lego Movie will indeed sell toys and merchandise as it is intended to do. It is a corporate money-grab not that different from the Transformers (2007-present) movies or Space Jam (1996) or Battleship (2012). But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have created their own imaginative romp that explores the value of youthful expression inside what could have been another stale appeal to the masses. The film contains all the joy and humor that modern audiences may have forgotten about in dark times and gives us a glimpse back into the wonderment of a child’s eyes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Review

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) combines so many genre elements from drama to comedy to murder mystery to prison escape film it’s amazing that it doesn’t fall apart at some point. Instead it seems to thrive on how many themes it can represent.

The star of the story undoubtedly is Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. He very much embodies the smooth, congenial and self-obsessed hotel concierge and captivates in every scene he is in. With Mr. Fiennes leading the action, all the other Anderson familiar crew follow suit, including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman along with newcomers F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel and Tony Revolori. It’s an impressive cast to be sure and they are almost all given adequate screen time and story presence.

What does present somewhat of an issue however is tone. The audience will be laughing at one moment, depressed at another and disgusted at another (a certain scene involving four fingers). Sometimes these contradict each other and are hard to digest emotionally.

Wes Anderson has also maintained a very unique and rigid visual style and if you can not stand it (as I know some people can not), they would be best to avoid this film as it continues the pans, center framing and pastel-like visual palette. If you are a fan of his work, this fits right into his cannon as one of his greatest stories, not quite as strong as Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but still offering profound lessons on hospitality in the modern world, the treatment of all social classes and a reflection on a time period of war that destroyed so much for so many.

SPOILERS

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The marketing behind the film is slightly misleading. I went to the movie after seeing the trailer believing this to be a murder mystery with a wrongly accused man. What the film is actually about are the class differences between the elite who attempt to control everything and the lower class that is just trying to survive.

M. Gustave is revered by the elite for his manners and hospitality. He seems to control them and in a way views himself as one of them, sleeping with all of the old ladies and believing in a just world of politeness. When one of the old ladies he had been schmoozing leaves a rare, priceless painting to him after her death, the remaining elite of her family, epitomized by Dmitri played by Adrien Brody, go berserk and refuse to stop at anything to discredit and eliminate the perceived lesser individual. Through all of this, M. Gustave is then put in jail for her murder while the henchman Jopling, played by Willem Dafoe, goes on a killing rampage to make sure that the missing painting is found and all those who stand before the family are eliminated.

The trials that M. Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero, have to endure epitomize the plight of the lower class as the elite attempt to force their way on the masses. The actions of the antagonists, Dmitri and Jopling, drive the action. The film frames them as totally unsympathetic, further pushing the audience towards M. Gustave and Zero if they weren’t already likable enough. Zero in particular is presented as a rather shy, naïve and tepid boy, completely overwhelmed by the situation around him while M. Gustave is so charismatic and genial. What the film lacks in complex characters however it makes up for in a constantly moving plot, never allowing the audience to sit complacent for too long as it switches from murder mystery to prison escape to ski chase to hotel shoot out. So much happens so quickly, and it is all very fun to watch.

Anderson’s sets are always very lavish in a homespun kind of way, and this film is no exception. With the characters nearly always in the center of the frame, this allows the filmmakers to design elaborate vignettes around them, highlighting certain aspects of the story (such as Dmitir’s evil home symbolized as a throne with dark hanging objects and low light or Gustave’s hotel lobby as his sanctuary with bright chandeliers). The color palette is also very interesting in the warm hues of the Grand Budapest Hotel, making it very inviting, the dullness of prison, symbolizing lifelessness and the soft white tint of the snow, characteristic of a struggle to see through as Zero and Gustave cross paths with Jopling. If you pay close attention, you will also notice the aspect ratio of the film change several times depending on what time period we are in. This creates several distinct feelings for each era.

Perhaps the most fun aspect that tickles the brain is just how the story is told. We start with a young girl reading a book that cuts to an author writing a book that cuts to a fictional author finding a man who becomes the narrator to another man’s story. In a way then, this film is about a girl reading a book by an author writing about an author who meets an old man who tells us about a hotel concierge. We are then peering through a narrative that has gone through many voices and has become a story for the masses, symbolizing The Grand Budapest Hotel’s message of common bond between man beyond social class.

Muppets Most Wanted Review

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) highlights a Kermit look-a-like that infiltrates the Muppets on their European tour while Kermit wallows in a Siberian gulag. If it sounds silly, it is, and that’s the way it should be. The film takes together everything that you want in a Muppet movie and then adds Tina Fey, Ty Burrell and Ricky Gervais. Naturally, this just makes things better. While the emotional arc is not as prevalent as in The Muppets (2011), the film is still a delight to watch with jokes that suit every age and characters we all know and love.

The film is full of guest appearances, wacky gags and memorable songs (sometimes too memorable). It is a bit too long though, stretching a good twenty minutes longer than it needs, and it also seems to be more a collection of gags and sequences strung together from country to country rather than an arcing plot. The villain Constantine and the Interpol agent played by Ty Burrell may be too interesting and fun for their own good, stealing the show. The plot weighs down without their screen presence during intervals of the story. As opposed to the previous film as well, nostalgia for the past and towards a simpler time is lacking and the story suffers for it, laughter compensating for heartstring pulling. The thing about the Muppets though, is that sometimes just being in their presence and laughing at their jokes does not make a lack of strong as much of a problem as with other films. The fact that they are the Muppets does compensate for a wish-wash story in a way because it still is fun.

While the story nor the heart is as strong as in the previous revival film, there is more than enough Muppet-mania to keep the viewer distracted and keep the fun going.

SPOILERS

Muppets Most Wanted

The true bright spot of the film is Constantine, a crooked take on Kermit the Frog. We are all aware of our favorite it-ain’t-easy-being-green-amphibian, and it is fun to see a criminal mastermind attempt to embody the same traits throughout the film. This is best with his interactions with Miss Piggy, including his song to her that contains a strangely creepy sex vibe.

His attempts to locate the crown jewels of England do not make that much sense when you think about it, but for a Muppet movie they suffice. His number two, Ricky Gervais, also handles himself extremely well as the Lemur, a ridiculous name for a ridiculous buffoon.

Some of the issues of the film result from having no real human character to empathize with. In other Muppet films such as The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) with Tim Curry as Long John Silver, the human characters balance out the crazy Muppet antics (for reference, also think back on Orlando Bloom’s role in the Pirates of the Carribean (2003-2007) films as emotional attachment rather than the bizarre Jack Sparrow). It is hard for an audience  to feel an emotional connection with something that it essentially a parody and with Constantine and Kermit given co-protagonist storylines, there is no human figure to latch onto.

Also somewhat bothersome is that the role of Miss Piggy during the last two films has been underutilized. She has always been the most vocal, most charismatic and iconic of Muppets, but she is reduced here to the “female” role- not sure of what is going on around her, doubting herself and needing to be rescued until the end where she finally takes control and pummels Constantine. As a hard-charging, take-what-you-can pig, the character should be more fully developed and instrumental to the plot.

The character of Walter, so integral to the previous film, is given practically nothing in this story, surprising since with his previous storyline in The Muppets, he seems to be the logical choice of protagonist for this story. Without him having a real role, there is a slight disconnect between this film and its predecessor. While the story is fine without this connection, a stronger follow-through for Walter’s character would add a deepening emotional level to the story.

Perhaps after restoring the Muppets to glory in the previous film, Muppets Most Wanted becomes an investigation into how to keep the Muppets together and for them to understand their importance to each other. Perhaps Constantine works to pit the Muppets against each other with various schemes, Gonzo against Rizzo, Miss Piggy against Fozzie, Dr. Teeth against Animal. It would then be up to Walter to bring the together again and expose Constantine as an imposter. Kermit’s role in the film is fine as is, with him wondering about his importance to the Muppet troop, stuck in a gulag and then finding his importance once again. They would all then grow closer together as a family through dealing with each of these plots.

Muppets Most Wanted succeeds as a film that’s fun, first and foremost. All other issues aside, fun is the priority and fun is what we get.

X-Men: Days of Future Past Review

Expectations were sky-high for this film. You have a blending of the young and old cast, a beloved comic book storyline, the first encounter with some of the best villains in the Sentinels, a director returning to the film franchise that practically launched the superhero industry and a pressing need to breathe new life into a franchise weakened by mediocre entries. In the end, the film presented to us gives us everything we could possibly want in a summer movie: action, drama, comedy and fun. It is the best X-Men film ever made and pushes its way into discussion of best superhero film ever made along with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012).

What’s most striking about this big-budget, special-effects driven ensemble is its insistence on story in today’s summers of blowing stuff up for the sake of blowing stuff up. The characters are clearly loved by the filmmakers and cast and this rubs off on the viewer. While there are certainly many sequences of action and destruction, they supplement rather than subvert the story of Charles Xavier trying to convince his younger self of finding hope during dark times. Every character has a purpose and their own emotional arc (Wolverine to save the future, Beast to save Charles, Charles to save himself, Magneto to save mutantkind, Mystique to exact vengeance) and they all converge in the film’s epic conclusion to give the viewer an emotionally satisfying finale that not only wraps up the story of this film, but serves as a springboard for other X-Men films to further explore an ever widening universe of mutants that delve into themes of violence, acceptance, bigotry and compassion for one another.

It may be harder for some viewers to follow along with the story if they are not knowledgeable about the previous X-Men films, but if you are interested in having a fun afternoon with action and heart, there’s really not a better choice out there this summer.

 

SPOILER SECTION

Sentinel

At the heart of the film is a belief in the ability to change one’s fate. Intrinsically, we all relatively know where our destinies are headed, but the film examines whether or not we have the ability to change it, especially if our future selves told us what would happen to us and presented us with unvarnished truth, direct proof that we will endure suffering. Charles Xavier of the future understands the mistakes of his youth that led to the cataclysmic events of his present, most notably his failure with his adopted “sister” Raven aka Mystique. I am not much of a fan of X-Men: First Class (2011) (Mystique and Xavier growing up, Beast inventing Cerebro, Kevin Bacon as a one-dimensional villain and a straying from the relationship of Xavier and Magneto have always irked me). But in this film, the relationship between Mystique and Xavier finally makes sense thematically. By failing her and sending her on a path of destruction and pain aided by his former friend, Magneto, he has ultimately set in motion the destruction of all that he cares about. We can all think of our pasts and wish that we had done something differently and wondered how our lives would be different because of it. Xavier’s failure with Mystique before the time travel probably initiated his desire to form the X-Men to make up psychologically with his failing, but the appearance of the herald Wolverine allows a complete representation of Xavier as a man full of regret, pain and hope. If given the opportunity to change our fate, could we do so?

The younger Xavier is a man torn apart by failings and without hope. He has been betrayed by his best friend, abandoned by the woman he grew up with and decimated by a war that stole his students. At this point of rock bottom, his failures are represented rather obviously by a drug habit that gives him the ability to walk, but in the process removes his powers. He is not being true to himself, rejecting who he is, a mutant, and hides from his need to help others. Upon receiving news from the future that what will transpire is a global apocalypse, there really is nowhere to go but to further despair. There is an interesting dynamic in that young Xavier has no hope in himself, but old Xavier does. Older Xavier understands his pain better than anyone else and knows that it can indeed be overcome because he has done it before. The film implies that belief in yourself despite your failures and the pain of living is necessary for any hope for the future. Younger Xavier bears a tremendous burden as a telepath because he takes in all of the fears, pains and emotions of others. Only by overcoming his fears, accepting his destiny as a teacher and believing that he can make a difference can he help those around him and give the world a chance. By confronting Raven at the film’s conclusion, he gives in to the hope that he can indeed change the future by instructing his first of many students towards the right path and gives hope to all of us as well.

The role Wolverine plays here is not only as Herald of Xavier’s journey, but also Mentor as well. Wolverine teaches Xavier about the value he will have on so many lives including his own. In a way, he is a symbol of the good that Xavier will accomplish with his life, a rogue animal changed to a better human being through the X-Men. His quest to save Xavier is not only to save the future, but his own life as well. Just as Xavier gave Logan a stronger belief in life, he must give Xavier the same so that in the future he can learn from him.

The X-Men films have always been an examination into the role of prejudice of racism in the world. In this film, this theme is taken further with an exploration into how violence develops out of hate and then grows until it consumes everything. The film is set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam in the past and the war against the Sentinels in the future, conflicts exacerbated by hatred of the other and a need to match violence with violence. The Sentinels are representative of that hatred, blind to compassion, symbols of mankind’s inhumanity and how hatred blinds us until the killing from it consumes everything. Magneto has always used violence because he is beyond hope for peace and this violence overtakes him. By drafting Mystique into the Brotherhood, he has influenced her towards his methods of conflict and away from Xavier’s teachings. The film constitutes a battle for her soul between the two men and their competing philosophies, Xavier’s that offers peace a chance and Magneto’s that will only escalate into a war that will destroy all. The dedication that Magneto and Bolivar Trask, inventor of the Sentinels, put into their beliefs assures each of destruction, a theme that can be echoed in many conflicts around the globe to this day. They are motivated by hate (even though Trask states he is not) and even though they believe themselves justified, their methods against peace doom the future for everyone. By helping Mystique choose to accept a less violent path, Xavier gives hope for the future of the X-Men universe and for our current times as well.

While you may drive yourself silly thinking about all the plot intricacies (How did Magneto escape the Pentagon in the first place? What is going on with Wolverine’s consciousness?), X-Men: Days of Future Past succeeds as not only a good popcorn film, but also a meditation on prejudice and its accompanying violence, the endless cycle of which burdens our past, present and future. It is refreshing to see a Hollywood film go to such emotional depths.

 

 

Maleficent Review

With fantasy re-imaginings being so popular at the moment, it was only a matter of time before one of the most iconic Disney villainesses was given a new starring role. A blending of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the Broadway show Wicked, Maleficent achieves little in the way or originality or emotional involvement, but sure is pretty to look at.

Angelina Jolie seems like she was born to play the role, stepping into the malice of Maleficent with flair and confidence, her cheekbones stretched into a wicked grin. She gives off a superstar glow that the rest of the film lacks, all other characters one-dimensional, especially the villain of the film, King Stefan, nothing more than a paranoid irritant. Aurora is the only other character to generate sympathy throughout the story, but does not appear until the midpoint while her relationship with Maleficent is the crux of the narrative.

While it is also gorgeous to look at, you also get the sense that many of these visuals were inserted to make up for a lack of engaging story. The audience becomes wrapped up in the grandeur while not realizing that they have no emotional stake in what is happening to the characters onscreen. When the film is over, it is easily forgotten for a kind of emotive journey and remembered purely as an aesthetic one. This is a true shame because it could have been so much stronger.

 

SPOILERS

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How could this story have been stronger? At first thought, I thought the film needed to be less ‘Disney-fied’, with a darker tone and edge that would justify its protagonist’s grimmer journey. Thinking back on it, that was not inherently the issue with the story as much as the interactions between the characters and proper placement of the main relationship between Maleficent and Aurora.

For instance, the film should have started with the major scene of Maleficent placing the curse on baby Aurora. The audience would see Maleficent as they have always interpreted her, as the villain, condemning an innocent child to a terrible fate. Throughout the course of the narrative, we would go deeper and deeper into her backstory through flashbacks and see just how she came to be her evil self and come to understand her.

As it is now, she gives in to evil rather easily without a great justification (think Revenge of the Sith (2005)). A bad romance seems just too easy a motivation for Maleficent. In my opinion, perhaps she is not an orphan, but has at least one parent or guardian who attempts to guide her and raise her according to a set of sacred principles instilled for all fairies. This mentor teaches her about the paths of righteousness and using her magical powers for good and how to look after the woodland creatures. She meets young Stefan just as before and saves him from a magical accident, striking up a friendship beyond her guardian’s knowledge, a sacred love if we were to go so far. The boy’s father however is a greedy king who learns about the boy’s infatuation and has wanted to take over the woodland realm. He convinces the boy to tell him how to get into the realm and they invade, starting a war. Maleficent is horrified with her home under attack and her guardian learns of her foolishness, condemning her before he or she dies. Maleficent then learns that Stefan told the army the realm’s secrets and hates him. With her home in ruins, she is forced to the faraway regions with what remains of her magical friends. She breaks the vows of her ancestors, forsaking her good teachings and learns dark magic, intent on destroying the invaders. After years of building strength and hate and gathering dark magical powers, she returns to the kingdom where Stefan is now king, lord over all the realm and places her curse intended to do the upmost harm to his legacy, believing that true love is a mirage based on her experience with him.

This backstory would be revealed piece by piece as Aurora first meets Maleficent in the woods, believes her to be her fairy godmother and comes to admire her. Currently in the film, there is not much motivation for Maleficent to take Aurora under her wing. Indeed she seems genuinely annoyed by her. Perhaps she would spy on her, but come to recognize certain characteristics of herself in the young girl. Not just a bumbling blonde, Aurora could assist woodland creatures as Maleficent has done and stand up to the authority of her guardian fairies and venture out looking for a better life. There is no need for the three fairies looking after Aurora to be annoying and incompetent. What they can be are voices of reason, urging Aurora not to wander out into the woods whenever she feels like and not displaying the carefree attitude that could get her in trouble, the same attitude Maleficent showed with Stefan when she was in love. These traits could attract Maleficent to Aurora and start to make her regret her decision. When she does save her life after she almost stumbles over the edge of a cliff, Maleficent becomes attached to the girl.

Maleficent then serves as a mentor to Aurora as her mentor served to her. Perhaps Aurora has heard of the evil Maleficent, not realizing that the evil fairy is right in front of her, and tells Maleficent the tales she has learnt of her. Maleficent then realizes how she is perceived, regretful. She teaches Aurora about the creatures of the woods and taking care of them. Throughout all of this interaction in the second act, the crow that helps Maleficent in the film acts as a conscience, urging Maleficent to let go of her hate and revoke her evil magic. Perhaps there is also another creature that encourages her evil in a contradictory manner, each playing ying and yang with Maleficent’s journey. Eventually, the dark magic of Maleficent frightens Aurora and makes her question her bond with the older woman. She discovers that she is indeed Maleficent and runs away.

Aurora then finds Prince Charming and falls for him. Maleficent learns of this attraction and plans to kill the boy, saving Aurora from suffering the same pain she suffered. The crow convinces her otherwise and Maleficent learns that good still indeed lives inside of her. Aurora is raced to the castle for protection as her birthday approaches, but in a trance she wanders towards the spinning wheels. Maleficent races to try and stop the curse from taking place, but has to navigate through Stefan’s guards. Stefan, convinced of Maleficent’s hatred for him, personally tries to engage her when she is caught. Maleficent pleads with him, but to no avail. Aurora pricks her finger and falls to sleep.

Maleficent escapes to wonder what she has done, angry at her acceptance of dark magic. The crow serves as a pep coach to convince her to bring Prince Charming to Aurora in one last desperate attempt to save her. She solicits the help of the three little fairies, convincing them of her change of heart. Just as with the film then, Prince Charming’s kiss fails, sending all the company into despair. Maleficent laments her foolish ways and kisses Aurora in apology which then wakes her up. This is the most interesting aspect of the film and the true masterstroke of the writing. Everything should have built up to this moment.

Aurora forgives Maleficent, but then Stefan’s guards attack. Aurora is injured while they attempt to kill Maleficent to which she transforms into her dragon. Fighting Stefan’s men, she at last is given her opportunity to kill Stefan and does not do it, transforming into her regular self and forgoing her magic before all the realm. She gives all of her magical powers to Aurora, uniting the two kingdoms, men and fairies, who will live as one under Aurora’s reign.

Think it should end different? How should Maleficent’s story be told?

Godzilla Review

Everyone knows Godzilla pretty well. The question is what can you do with him. In the past few years, audiences have seen Pacific Rim (2013), Cloverfield (2008), Super 8 (2011), a remake of King Kong (2005) the Jurassic Park trilogy (1993-2001) and pretty much the Transformers movies (2005-present) if you think about it. They’re giant robots, but they accomplish pretty much the same destruction and panic. City-wide apocalyptic destruction seems to be the norm for big-budget blockbusters these days. Can you even think of one huge release that didn’t feature some building falling to pieces? With destruction being Hollywood’s mojo, the rightful question to ask is what can a new Godzilla movie add that has not been done to death recently? He is after the all the original building-smashing, fire-breathing, colossal destructive force of nature that threatens to destroy mankind. So what can he add? The answer, sadly, is not much.

Much of the focus on the Gareth Edwards film is not even on Godzilla. The film is really more other monsters taking the lead with Godzilla as a side character. When we do get to see our beastie hero, he is magnificent, terrifying and finally realized correctly in the digital age, not a corny man in a suit, but actually the Godzilla you’ve always wanted to see. It just would have been nice to have seen more of him.

For the human element of the film, stock characters out of a horror film are utilized mostly. The only one remotely interesting is Bryan Cranston, whose paranoia and shouting really drive the film. His son is the good guy army lieutenant just trying to do the right thing, his wife is the worrying pretty thing and their son is just kind of there. Ken Watanabe sparks a bit of interest as a researcher-type character, but I’m still not exactly sure what kind of emotion his character should invoke in us: is he guilty, terrified or angry? All in all, not a lot to get emotionally invested in.

Overall it is nerve-wracking nearly from the first frame to the last frame. There is almost an excessive amount of buildup to the chaos and destruction. Several of the action scenes are handled particularly well and the film looks great, probably the best looking out of the recent monster flicks. If you just want to see giant monsters clobber each other in the middle of San Francisco, I suggest you show up halfway through the film, and you’ll get your money’s worth.

The ultimate problem with this attempt at Godzilla may be that for all the tension and special effects, you are ultimately left with a joyless horror movie. At its core, a special part of the appeal of Godzilla is his inherent silliness. He is after all a giant dinosaur/lizard that levels towns and fights other monsters and it is obvious in the original films that it is just a guy in a suit smashing a set. It’s fun to watch and to judge. Yes, he deserves to be scary and a symbol of our foolish atomic ambitions and attempt to control nature, but he also appeals to the child in us. Audiences can forgive shallow characters and mindless action as long as they have some fun along the way. When you remove the intrinsic fun of giant monsters clobbering things, what you have left is exhilarating but unmemorable. So, how could this have gone?

 

SPOILER SECTION

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First of all, what everyone wanted with this film was Walter White versus Godzilla. No buts about it, but that’s what we expected. I was even behind his character throughout the film as a paranoid-stricken father out to prove the monster’s existence. He was our protagonist, not his rather boring one-dimensional son. When he was killed at the midpoint of the film, any emotional attachment to the story went with him. If we had stuck with him as the man who had been hunting Godzilla, learning about him, the government not believing him only to see him rise out of the depths and then have to assist the government in bringing him down, that would have been a natural arc. The son could still assist his father, and they could build off each other. Perhaps the death of the wife/mother put a real strain on their relationship that needed to be mended across the film.

Here’s how I see it going down. The father makes a critical mistake that lead to his wife’s death and the son has never forgiven him. This is hinted at in the film, but perhaps she dies due to a mistake that someone advised him against and he brushed off as unnecessary safety, opening up the theme of protecting family above all else. The father blames himself, but also knows something else was at fault, some force of nature that no one understands, but no one believes him. He searches for it by himself, as he does in the film, while his son grows distant. When Godzilla is proved to be the culprit, the son has to help the father help the army beat him back. With all his research into the creature, the government has no one to turn to except to him as they try to beat back a force they can not contain. Through this process father and son reconcile and learn to forgive each other. Perhaps they also learn they need to work together to save the son’s family now trapped in a monster’s wrestling ring and learn the true value of family. This would provide two distinct plots, one being the father and son trying to destroy the monsters with the government, the other being the son’s wife and son trapped with the monsters and seeing the chaos on the ground. We the audience would be terrified for the wife and daughter and root for the father and son to save them before it is too late, creating a ticking clock scenario. At the conclusion, the father devises a master plan to kill the monsters that the son has to be a part of to succeed before the monsters completely destroy the city and his family. At the film’s conclusion, it would be the son needing to listen to his father about making the ultimate sacrifice for family and learning from his father’s mistake to stop the monsters and save his wife and daughter. This builds some dynamic arc between all the characters and gives them some depth. The Ken Watanabe character can act as a beacon of the past, remembering when his ancestors were killed by the atomic blast and how they were trying to kill Godzilla years ago. His arc could serve as the caution tale of man trying to control nature (i.e. Godzilla, atomic energy) and how it is doomed to fail, dying at the end regretful of his meddling into forces beyond his control (a la Jurassic Park moral lessons). Bryan Cranston’s character may also die at the end after serving his mentor role to his son and serving as extra motivation for the final mission.

The other big change as you can probably guess from the description above is that this movie should be first and foremost about Godzilla. Instead of these mating weird creatures causing the havoc, it should be the title character front and center. Just like the human characters, this Godzilla can have an actual arc. He starts out as a fire-breathing monster that destroys everything in his path. He takes center focus of the film and serves as chief antagonist, building up to his reveal 45 minutes into the film and then leveling Tokyo on his way to Hawaii to San Francisco. Bryan Cranston’s character attempts to find weaknesses in him, but his repeated attempts are met with failure and only infuriate the monster. Then we learn about these other creatures that are based in Nevada and have awoken and discover that Godzilla is after them. Perhaps Bryan Cranston discovers some strange way of communicating with Godzilla (think about the music in Close Encounters) and are able to work together with him to defeat these creatures. Godzilla goes from destroying mankind to saving it and gives even this giant reptile an emotional arc as he learns about us, the army learns about him and they come to a mutual understanding at the end of the film, replete with plenty of alternatives for sequels that focus on the relationship between giant reptile as protector of man and us trying to control nature.

Agree or disagree? How should Godzilla be represented on screen?

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