There is a large nuclear warhead that promises instant annihilation in Godzilla. You don’t have to be a warhead expert to know for whom it’s intended. But its presence feels archaic, almost an ode to its protagonist’s movie history than a critique of any real present catastrophe anxiety. Godzilla has always been a stand-in to combat the population’s technological hubris, a reptilian reminder that man shall not subvert nature. A scientist (Ken Watanabe) loosely mentions this longstanding myth but it seems intended towards a current planet not filled with militaristic pride, but parasitic laziness. Nuclear warheads may still be around, but global warming, overpopulation, and famine, among others, seem to be more relevant human punishments.
But Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is not a complete throwback, as evidenced in his monsters’ fluid CGI and larger belly. The atomic bomb is just a last resort. We begin in 1999 where Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play scientist husband and wife with a young son in Japan. The earth starts rumbling, but only Cranston realizes it’s not an earthquake. The power plant where he works implodes and takes his wife with it. Fast-forward fifteen years and the son is now a military bomb expert in the guise of Aaron Taylor Johnson, returning to San Francisco to his own wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son. Cranston meanwhile has become a mad man at this point, his theories and papers plastered on his walls, still in Japan, still not convinced about that earthquake.
Eventually he meets Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, who work for a company called Monarch that has been keeping a mysterious life form hidden underground for years. They’ve been the source of those electro magnetic pulses. Soon these creatures erupt as Pacific Rim looking Kaijus, winged beasts called Mosura, feeding off radioactivity causing island chaos. One emerges from Japan, the other in Nevada, and they plan to use San Francisco to spawn. David Strathairn as a Navy general is out of options. Enter Godzilla as unlikely savior into the ring.
Edwards doesn’t linger on the combat, instead aligning our sympathies with militarized troops and the scattering victimized tenants whose buildings have all but disintegrated with one scaled tail swoop. It makes for somewhat more compelling drama. The joys of this movie come in the eerie silences and the predatory fog, forcing bus drivers and policeman to synonymously squeak away their clouded windows and binoculars. The city turns dark, rainy and molten. You don’t necessarily feel for these screaming people but you’re equal to them, which is quite fitting and impressive in a calamity like this. Maybe you don’t care for the person next to you, but in collective terror those transient states subside to communal, survivalist cooperation.
Only a few of the people we invest in die, while most of the others get intimate close-ups or become unflattering statistics. A scene in Honolulu instantly recalls the tsunami scene in The Impossible while the skyscraper demolition between monsters evokes Chicago’s destruction in Transformers. The puzzle pieces to effective emotional responses are planned accordingly. But Edwards still wants the mythos in tact. Godzilla is given its Hollywood shot, and roar, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio’s exaggerated introduction in The Great Gatsby. This portrait is a reward for your patience. Godzilla’s esteem after all is not its blatant presence, but its sparing spectacle.
That was the basis behind Cloverfield, the shaky first person cam Godzilla movie not starring Godzilla. You don’t have the same investment in stern-faced Taylor Johnson (his name is the all-American Ford Brody) and Olsen as you did to those hopeless teenagers. They’re mostly props to ground the story from becoming all monsters, all the time. What you appreciate is the subtlety. Like how Edwards films a young Ford dragging a birthday poster for his dad the same way he captures Godzilla slithering through the Pacific. He suggests this monster may hide underwater, but he’s always at the surface of our subconscious.
John Favreau could have probably directed Godzilla. He’s done two Iron Mans and a summer dud Cowboys and Aliens, all of which relied on a varying cocktail of explosions, computer imagery, and mega-sized budgets. He doesn’t need any of that here. The spectacle instead is all organic. It’s in the spices, the herbs, the sizzle and boil. Here, the kitchen is Favreau’s demolition site.
In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Casper, head cook at a burgeoning L.A. restaurant owned by Riva, played by a territorial Dustin Hoffman. We get a tasty montage at the film’s beginning to show off Favreau’s cooking abilities dicing up vegetables and searing meat. It’s the thesis of his story, seducing with food, yielding power to its transformative ability, on his palette and with his relationships.
The smaller drama that stirs and whips forward is the arrival of the town’s infamous food critic (Oliver Platt), a harbinger of culinary frenzy once he announces he’ll be critiquing Carl’s latest dishes. Carl decides to mix up the menu, barks orders at line cooks Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and shepherds his hostess (Scarlett Johansson) with wine pairing options. But Riva silences this innovation and forces Carl to stick with the house regulars. The next morning’s Food section column is not so kind.
In fact it’s pretty personal. The review dampens morale but also fuels Carl to regain his passionate touch, this time with his menu. He feverishly and naively attacks the critic on his newly created Twitter account, set up by his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and receives thousands of followers in the feuding process. This eventually leads to a shouting match in the restaurant when Carl eagerly berates his once virtual life opponent. It feels like something more personal though. Favreau unleashes quips like, “You don’t know how hard I work!” and you feel like he’s cathartically shouting at movie critics who might have panned one of those blockbusters he put hours of sweat into.
The real foundation for this anger is Carl’s inability to provide any kind for Percy. Recently separated from his financially independent wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl does the bare minimum of fatherly duties. It’s deftly demonstrated in a series of quick cuts of “fun.” Pick-up. Movies. Roller coaster. Drop off. “Busy” with work, he neglects his son’s emotional maturity and decides to substitute engagement with zombie activities. He treats his son like first-date material.
But Carl’s desire to fire back at his critic foe spawns some unaccounted father-son bonding with Percy, already a master of social media propagating. He provides courses on how to Tweet properly and quickly establishes a whole network of followers for a dad finally emerging into the 21st century. In a lesser movie, this would seem like an unfortunately in-depth commercial for Twitter, product placement ripe for the plucking. But Favreau, who also wrote the script, knows when to lean on the technological subplot and when to break its shackles.
That mainly occurs on a trip to Miami to watch Percy as Inez tends to her father. On shaky ground from his job, he follows through on his wife’s idea to start his own business with a food truck and thanks to a funny cameo, rehabs a cluttered carriage into a Cuban sandwich-making machine with help from Spanish-speaking Martin. It’s a redemptive vehicle suggesting that when the love is there, the relationships right, the food’s quality will naturally rise to the occasion.
The movie finds its flavor in this latter half, seasoned with colorful performances and a bouncy soundtrack infused with salsa and Latin mixes. Favreau embraces this multi-cultural experience much like the social media that aids a post card road trip back home. The frustration that inhabited the gloomy metallic counters finds its match in the open-air oven and cashier stand. Favreau doesn’t want to work behind the scenes. He wants to engage with his customers face-to-face or network-to-network. If the first dish (movie) doesn’t succeed, try again.
Angelina Jolie hasn’t been in a movie since The Tourist. That was 2011. Her return to the big screen as an (formerly perceived) evil fairy queen is unusual but graciously welcomed. She has always been regal but with a violent chip on her shoulder. Her vanity has usually been attached to holding a pistol or some form of masculinity-kicking weaponry (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith). That doesn’t necessarily change in Maleficent, based on the villainess in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, but it’s less noticeable. Unlike those kinetic roles, here she remains still. You can’t look away.
Part of that reason is her enhanced cheekbones, spiraling horns, and mighty wings that flap her miles above earth and forcefully knock down opponents. The origins of her being are carefully laid out in the film’s beginning which delineate two kingdoms, one of medieval people tied to a greedy king and the other her sanctuary, a land of moors in bright pastels and obscure creatures. Robert Stromberg, making his directing debut, was the production designer for Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz: The Great and Powerful and it shows. His fairy-tale forest is enough reason to buy a ticket, if not for Jolie.
Maleficent’s younger self finds love in a peasant boy named Stefan one day, which over the years grows into an unfulfilling long-distance relationship. But as Stefan grows into actor Sharlto Copley, so does his desire to ascend the throne. The current King repeatedly attacks the moors but Maleficent thwarts every effort. That’s until Stefan’s greed supersedes his former relationship. He steals her wings, marries a new queen, and has a newborn daughter Aurora. Thanks to a helpful indentured raven, Maleficent finds out the news and seethes with anger. The baby girl should have been hers.
Then the film goes dark, tonally and aesthetically as if matching last year’s Aesop reboot Snow White and the Huntsman. That evil queen played by Charlize Theron was equally terrifying and seductive, but garnered no sympathy. That’s the twist here. Maleficent turns into evil and rains down the familiar curse upon Aurora when she crashes the girl’s christening, imprisoning her to sleep upon pricking her finger on a spindle at the prime age of 16. It’s cruel, but we understand the anger.
King Stefan promises continual war and enlists three dingbat pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) to shield his daughter from danger in a wooded cottage. But it’s Maleficent that does all the baby-sitting, playing practical jokes on her three caregivers while they neglect Aurora’s growing needs. Aurora grows into a blonde Elle Fanning, forever smiling regardless of her parentless situation or new deeply shadowed world. She warms to Maleficent, gazing at the moonlit pale Jolie as we do. Maleficent is the maternal figure she always hoped she’d become.
There is not a lot of drama in this midsection, and there are several silly scenes that don’t have the strength of their protagonist. But the third act takes a surprising turn. It becomes a small feminist revision of a paternalistic fable, a weirdly placed yet still redeeming change of course. Copley, who continues to find new ways of portraying ugliness, is possessed to torture his former love. But it’s his daughter that finds a last minute elixir.
I’m not sure what’s in store for these adulterated fairy tales whose big budgeted expenses seem more concentrated on recreating visionary lands than anything else. But it’s nice to see Jolie back, especially playing a powerful mother that so clearly reflects her current identity. Earlier in the film when her wings are taken, she awakes with a screeching scream of pain and sadness. It’s a wake-up call. It’s like she’s making up for three years of invisibility. The scream is supposed to play as tortured but it sounds like frustration. What she’s really shouting is, “I’M BACK ALREADY!”