New Releases for the Week of June 24, 2016


Independence Day ResurgenceINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

(20th Century Fox) Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Viveca A. Fox, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Sela Ward, Maika Monroe, Joey King, Grace Huang, Brett Spiner. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Twenty years have passed since the events of Independence Day and in twenty years, the human race has rebuilt their shattered planet, utilizing the technology left behind by the would-be invaders. We’ve spent two decades getting ready for what we’re sure is an inevitable return – only to discover that they’ve also had 20 years to prepare, and this time we might not be able to beat them.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and for some language)

Free State of Jones

(STX Entertainment) Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali. During the Civil War, a Mississippi farmer – convinced he’s fighting for the wrong side of history and also convinced that the South must eventually fall – leads a rebellion at home to secede from the Confederacy – and incredibly, managed to convince slaves and ex-slaves to fight alongside him. This is based on actual events.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images)

The Music of Strangers

(Broad Green) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato. Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Neville turned his cameras on Ma, perhaps the greatest classical cellist of all time, and the acclaimed musicians of the Silk Road Project as they rehearse for a collaborative project. They look at their philosophies of music, their cultures and how the world is changing.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)

The Neon Demon

(Broad Green) Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. A beautiful young woman, what they call in the modeling industry “a natural,” moves to Los Angeles to start off her career. There she runs into a group of women who are obsessed with aging and beauty. They begin to devour her vitality and beauty and will let nothing stop them until they get everything that she has.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Most of the Larger Multiplexes in Central Florida

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Eli Roth, John Rhys-Davies. 35 years ago, a trio of intrepid 11-year-old Mississippi boys saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and like so many of us back then, were completely dazzled, enraptured even. They decided to make a movie of their own but not just any movie – they decided to remake Raiders shot for shot. Over a seven year period, they worked on it diligently at great cost. When they ceased filming, they had the entire movie in the can – save one scene. Now, they reunite to finish what they started, not realizing the impact their film has had on the fans  everywhere out there – and on those who worked on the original movie itself.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Septembers of Shiraz

(Momentum) Salma Hayek, Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Gabriella Wright. A secular Jewish family living in Iran in 1979 is caught up in the events of the 1979 revolution that brought fundamentalist Islamic clerics into power. The family is forced to fight for their lives in a home that is growing increasingly unrecognizable to them – and more dangerous by the day.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content involving interrogation, brutality and disturbing images, and for some partial nudity and brief strong language)

The Shallows

(Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge. A secluded, breathtaking beach. A beautiful blonde surfer alone with the waves. Paradise, right? Sure…until the Great White Shark shows up. Cue the theme from Jaws.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)

Trumbo (2015)


Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, John Getz, Madison Wolfe, James DuMont, J.D. Evermore, Allyson Guay. Directed by Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was once the highest paid in Hollywood; he wrote classic movies and was considered one of the most intelligent writers in the business and racked up a couple of Oscars to boot. However, even with all that he is better known for one thing; being a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo (Cranston) was one of the leading lefties in Tinseltown, espousing pro-Union an pro-Socialist causes. While he had joined the Communist party in 1943, he wasn’t what you’d call a hard-liner; he was always more of a Socialist than a Communist, but “socialist” was even worse at the time, as the Nazis stylized themselves as Socialists. When unions went out on strike, he would never ever cross a picket line.

But the times, they were a’changing. Soviet Russia was no longer a war ally and the Cold War was beginning in earnest. Washington was beginning to look at Communist elements in our midst and in Hollywood especially. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, took an interest in Trumbo because of his outspoken support for leftist causes and of course his membership in the Communist.Party also made him a target. The vitriol of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) who saw Trumbo as the embodiment of the enemy was leveled on Trumbo and she campaigned vigorously with the studio heads to get him fired, particularly Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) who is Trumbo’s boss. Once he is slapped with a contempt of Congress charge however, Mayer has the ammunition to let him go.

And thus begins the blacklist as Trumbo and nine other writers and directors who refuse to testify in front of HUAC are denied employment for any of the major studios. Trumbo scrapes ekes out a living by writing movies and then having non-blacklisted “front” for them; that is, putting his scripts under their name and taking a part of the compensation for it. It is in this way that he wrote Roman Holiday for which he received an Oscar, although it was Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who received credit and picked up the Oscar (a statuette was delivered to Trumbo’s widow posthumously).

Trumbo also wrote B movies for the schlockmeister Frank King (Goodman) and his brother Hymie (Root) including The Brave One, written under a pseudonym and also an Oscar winner (this one he received while he was still alive). However, in order to keep up the sheer volume of work he needed in order to meet the demands of the King Brothers and of course keep his family fed and housed and clothed, he had to work an enormous amount of time, employing his family particularly daughter Chloe (Fanning) as a kind of personal assistant while his wife Cleo (Lane) held things together. The toll on his relationships within the family would become nearly intolerable. It also sundered friendships as his friend Arlen Hird (C.K.) disagreed strongly with Trumbo’s methods while actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) found that his own career had been torpedoed by allegations and was put in the horrible position of either naming friends to HUAC or risk seeing his career end in flames.

Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for the title role and I can tell you flat-out that the nomination was richly deserved – in fact I like his performance better than winner Leonardo di Caprio’s. He captures a lot of the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms from the clipped speech, the hunched over posture and the witticisms along with the look; his trademark moustache and cigarette holder. He looks the part and quite frankly, he dominates the screen here.

The script captures the paranoia and despair of the time. The conversations between Trumbo and Arlen Hird are really the heart of the picture, setting up the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism (again, Trumbo wasn’t really a true communist) and questioning the motives of his crusade. A speech near the end of the film is an emotional moment that underlines the true cost of the blacklist and of other events like it.

I have to admit though that I was extremely disappointed by some of the historical inaccuracies here. While I don’t mind using Hird as a fictitious amalgam of real people, I do object to writer John McNamara characterizing a particular character here as naming names to HUAC when historically he did not; there were plenty of real people who did supply names to the witch hunters and there’s no need to drag a person’s name through the mud unnecessarily. A fictitious character could even have been created to play the same role but the way that this was done is something I really don’t approve of. I don’t mind fudging history for the sake of dramatic impact, but I do mind tarnishing the reputation of someone who didn’t earn it. While Hopper who is portrayed here as a crude, egocentric and vindictive woman – all things that contemporary accounts support – and her descendents can’t complain of the narrative here, the family of that one character has grounds to object. Sometimes dramatic license shouldn’t trump sensitivity to those close to the people in question.

The movie looks pretty damn good, with some sweet locations (New Orleans substituting for golden age Hollywood) and some wonderfully framed shots (Trumbo’s first film credit reflected in the lens of his glasses near the end of the film). The ensemble cast is terrific head to toe. There are also some powerful moments like the aforementioned speech near the end and the funeral for one of the main characters. There is emotional resonance here as we see the price that people paid for the zealotry of others.

That this sort of witch hunting goes on today isn’t lost on this reviewer. We may not necessarily be singling out communists for discrimination, but there are certainly other groups we have become hysterical about (*cough* Muslims *cough*) to the point of ridiculousness, but I’m sure they don’t find it very ridiculous. Trumbo works as a look at a dark part of our past but it also serves as a warning about our present; we are either true to our principles or we aren’t. You may say what you want about Dalton Trumbo whether you agree with his politics or not, but he stood up for what he believed in because he genuinely felt that to not do so was to betray his country. I’m not going to judge anyone on their stance because in the end they all believed that they were right and were doing right by America. Maybe that’s the excuse of some who are doing the same exact thing; that doesn’t mean however we shouldn’t stand up to those who operate out of fear, rather than displaying strength.

REASONS TO GO: Bryan Cranston nails it. Captures the paranoia of the times.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary factual errors.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair share of profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first non-comedy film to be directed by Roach.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2007)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden

The Boxtrolls


I'll have some eggs with that.

I’ll have some eggs with that.

(2014) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, Laraine Newman, Brian George. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

We have a tendency to look down upon those who aren’t members of our economic and/or ethnic stratum. If we are rich, the poor receive our disdain. If we are middle-class, we hate the rich. If we are white, we mistrust those whose skin tones are darker. And of course, right back at the whites from the other ethnic groups.

We might paraphrase Tom Lehrer when talking about this film; “All the red hats hate the white hats, and the white hats hate the red hats…and everybody hates the Boxtrolls.” That’s because these underground dwellers who come to the surface each night to scavenge refuse and spare parts have stolen a baby and killed his father, which according to exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) was for a delectable Boxtroll delicacy. Snatcher, a red hat, has long coveted a white hat and sees the Boxtrolls as his ticket to le chapeau blanc. Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), whose main concern is cheese – the town of Cheesebridge is famous for their fromage – absently grants Snatcher his wish. Provided, of course, that he rids the town of every last one of the vermin.

The problem is with the scenario is that the Trubshaw baby isn’t residing in the belly of a Boxtroll. Nor is he even dead. The kindly Boxtrolls have adopted the young orphan and given him a box of his own to hide in – the Boxtrolls are timid creatures who have learned to hide and run rather than stand and fight. True to their custom, they have named the boy Eggs after the product that was stored in the box that he wears and uses as a convenient hiding place. Therefore other Boxtrolls are named Fish, Shoe, Fragile and Oil Can.

Winnie (Fanning), the spoiled daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, is fascinated by the Boxtrolls and by blood, guts and grimness in general. She is further fascinated by them when she discovers that a young boy her age is with them, although nobody believes her tale. When Eggs (Wright) returns to the surface during a cheese festival to try and stop the humans from stealing his friends and releasing those who are imprisoned, he runs into Winnie. She of course doesn’t believe his assertion that the Boxtrolls are gentle and far from dangerous. They are builders, not destroyers.

As it turns out, Snatcher has a fiendish plan in mind which if his henchmen Trout (Frost) and Pickles (Ayoade) had known about they might have had a philosophical issue with. It would mean the extermination of every Boxtroll in town – including Eggs. And as Lord Portley-Rind obliviously chews his cheese, his daughter Winnie realize that it will be up to her and Eggs to save the day if the Boxtrolls are to survive.

Based on a lavishly illustrated almost 600 page children’s book by British author Alan Snow entitled Here Be Monsters, this is the third movie from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. Like those films there is definitely a supernatural bent to the movie. Like those films, the painstaking process includes a fantastically detailed background with meticulously crafted characters.

Kingsley’s normally mild voice is given a kind of over-the-top Cockney villain infusion, breathing life into a character who has allowed his dreams to warp him. He will achieve that goal no matter what it costs and the devil help whomever gets in his way because God surely won’t. Equal parts Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Monty Python, Archibald Snatcher is a memorable villain who will delight children and adults alike.

So too will the environment created both in the town, which is perched on a hill much like the Wedding Cake town of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy while the underground home of the Boxtrolls is filled with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, unexpected beauty and plenty of gross protein. The entrance into their world is through fun looking slides which would be a slam dunk if Universal ever decides to put a Boxtrolls-themed play area for children in one of its theme parks.

Although Laika is based in the Pacific Northwest, the movie has a definite British sensibility (the source material is, after all, English) not only in the accents but also in the humor; all it lacks is Graham Norton skulking about looking for celebrities to interview. Anglophobes, take note.

Also the story is a bit simplistic which of course comes with the territory when adapting children’s books. While there is plenty of subversive class conscious mockery going on, there are definite bad guys and good guys. Even Archibald Snatcher’s motivation isn’t too hard to understand; if this weren’t geared for kids I suspect they would have made the character a little less malevolent and more sympathetic. I would have liked that myself because, after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your situation. The issue comes when you give up your humanity in order to do so and perhaps that’s the point they’re making, but even so I think it would have been more poignant if they’d made Archibald a decent fellow to begin with.

But that might not have worked so well with little kids who need someone with a black hat to boo. There is nothing really scary about the Boxtrolls other than maybe a scene or two when one or more of the characters is in grave peril but there isn’t anything wrong with bringing your littlest tykes into this one. It’s fun, there’s a definite Halloween vibe to it and adults will be as enchanted as their rugrats at the movies and in a year of mediocre family entertainment at best, this one stands out as pure gold.

REASONS TO GO: Wacky and as enchanting for adults as it is for kids. Kingsley voices one of the greatest villains of recent animated films. Beautiful stop-motion animation.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too British for some. Plot can be simplistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of rude humor, some peril and a bit of animated action. Okay for most kiddies.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pegg and Frost, good friends in real life, didn’t find out until after they’d recorded their portions of the dialogue that they’d both lent their voices to the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trade

New Releases for the Week of September 26, 2014


The EqualizerTHE EQUALIZER

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Haley Bennett. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

McCall is a man with a mysterious and violent past that he would much rather put behind him. He lives a quiet life doing a non-descript job. When he meets a beautiful and sweet young girl who is under the control of vicious, violent and sadistic Russian gangsters, he is bothered. When they beat her up and put her in the hospital, he knows this will only end in her demise. He sets out therefore to use his skills to get her out of their control, even if it means taking on overwhelming odds but that’s nothing new for McCall. If you have a problem, he’s the man who can fix anything. Based on the 80s TV hit that starred Edward Woodward in the same role.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references)

Believe Me

(Gravitas) Alex Russell, Nick Offerman, Johanna Braddy, Miles Fisher. Everyone knows that the cost for higher education is terrifying. When four seniors discover that their money has run out and in order to graduate they’ll have to come up with a semester’s worth of tuition, they are concerned. When they find out how much that is, they are in full-on panic mode. With no jobs, no money and no ideas, they hit upon the idea of establishing a fake charity. They become so successful at raising money that real charities begin to take notice – and want them on board. Except those real charities might not be quite so charitable as they might seem.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

The Boxtrolls

(Focus) Starring the voices of Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg. A community of mischievous but good-hearted creatures that live below the town discover an orphaned boy who has nobody to take care of him. Naming him Egg, they agree to raise him as best they can. Years later when the Boxtrolls are threatened by the townspeople, it will be Egg who must come to their rescue and get both sides to learn to live together.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for action, some peril and mild rude humor)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

(Weinstein) James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, William Hurt. A couple whose relationship is falling apart make a last ditch effort to rescue it. Originally made as two separate films – one from the viewpoint of each person in the relationship – Weinstein in their infinite wisdom or lack thereof has decided to combine both films into a single movie. I suppose we’ll never know if the two film thing was gimmicky or innovative.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

Field of Lost Shoes

(Bosch) Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, David Arquette, Keith David. As the Civil War progressed, it chewed up soldiers at a terrifying rate. Particularly in the South where they didn’t have the manpower reserves that the North had, young and elderly men alike were called upon in the latter stages of the war to defend their native soil. At the Virginia Military Institute, raw cadets were tasked with defending the monstrously important Shenandoah Valley. This is their story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence and some thematic elements)

The Notebook

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Thomsen, Ulrich Matthes, Laszlo Gyemant, Andres Gyemant. On the border of Hungary and Germany during the Second World War, a pair of 13-year-old twin boys are given a notebook by their father to chronicle their lives. Living with a terrifying grandmother, they train themselves to desensitize their bodies to the value of human life. Few films have ever captured the effects of war on the innocent as this one has.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War

Rating: R  (for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language)

The Skeleton Twins

(Roadside Attractions) Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell. A pair of twins, estranged for a number of years, are forced back together by economic circumstances. As they reacquaint themselves, they discover that the key to fixing their lives may just lie in repairing their relationship.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality and drug use)

The Song

(Goldwyn) Alan Powell, Ali Faulkner, Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Danny Vinson. An aspiring musician meets and marries the devout daughter of a vineyard owner. As musicians sometimes do, he writes a song for his new bride. However, he is unprepared for what happens when the song becomes a huge hit. Beset by pressures and temptations he’s ill-equipped to handle, his life and marriage slowly begin to crack at the seams.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some substance abuse, smoking and rude references)

New Releases for the Week of September 5, 2014


The IdenticalTHE IDENTICAL

(Freestyle Releasing) Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green, Brian Geraghty, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne, Amanda Crew, Erin Cottrell, Chris Mulkey. Directed by Dustin Marcellino

 

Identical twins born during the Depression are separated at birth for economic reasons. One stays with his birth parents in poverty and becomes a rock and roll legend; the other is given to an evangelical pastor and his wife who are unable to have kids. He lives a more stable upbringing but is torn between trying to please his adoptive father and following his own muse.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for thematic material and smoking)

Alive Inside

(Projector) Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Doug Thompson, Yvonne Russell. The founder of a non-profit organization that uses music to help patients with severe memory loss must fight against the medical establishment and a broken health care system to combat the affliction and restore the sense of self that is lost along with the memories.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Innocence

(JSC) Kelly Reilly, Sophie Curtis, Linus Roache, Graham Phillips. A young teenage girl whose mother’s death in a surfing accident haunts her moves to Manhattan with her novelist father and tries to start over at an exclusive prep school. However, her hopes for normalcy are shattered when she discovers that the women who run the academy may be witches who retain their youth and vitality by drinking the blood of virgins – and guess who’s been saving herself for marriage?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (self-applied)

The Last of Robin Hood

(Goldwyn) Kevin Kline, Elle Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Max Casella. The great Errol Flynn in the twilight of his career has become enamored of a young actress named Beverly Aadland. Her fame-obsessed mother enables the affair but when it goes public, it puts the young girl in a spotlight of intense pressure and only fuels her mother’s obsession further.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some sexuality and language)

Mary Kom

(Viacom 18) Priyanka Chopra, Darshaan Kumar, Sunil Thapa, Zachary Coffin. The true story of Kom, a female boxer in India whose dream was very nearly an impossible one. In a country where the perception of women doesn’t include strength and power, she took on the sports establishment to make her way into the boxing world – and defied the odds.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Biography

Rating: NR

The Remaining

(Sony Worldwide) Johnny Pacar, Shaun Sipos, Bryan Dechart, Alexa Vega. Don’t you just hate it when you go to a wedding and the Rapture occurs instead? That’s what happens to a group of friends who discover that salvation and damnation ride on the decisions they make – but that they might not necessarily be so easy to determine which is which.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror, violence and destruction throughout, and thematic elements)

Maleficent


Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

(2014) Fantasy (Disney) Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hannah New, Sarah Flind, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews, Angus Wright, Janet McTeer (voice), Oliver Maltman, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. Directed by Robert Stromberg

Little boys everywhere know this to be true: never mess with a Disney princess. That’s a war in which there is no winning. Of course, little boys grow up and forget the lessons they knew when they were young.

Most of us know the story of Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale in which Princes Aurora, daughter of a greedy king, is cursed by a wicked sorceress to sleep for eternity, only awakening with true love’s kiss. Of course, that’s just one side of the story.

Maleficent (Jolie) is the aforementioned wicked sorceress, but she wasn’t always that way. Once she was a young woman in the enchanted land known as the Moors, adjacent to a human kingdom ruled by a greedy king (but not the aforementioned one). Reacting to rumors of wealth in the Moors, the King (Cranham) brings his army to bear on the Moor. However, Maleficent isn’t just any ol’ young woman; she’s charismatic, a leader of the denizens of the Moor and she rallies her people to fight off the invasion, personally humiliating the King and sending him back to his castle with his tail between his legs (figuratively; the only tails in this war belong to the people of the Moor).

Furious, the King promises his daughter and the crown of the land to whoever kills Maleficent. Stefan (Copley), an ambitious pageboy in the service of the King, overhears this and realizes an opportunity is at hand. He alone of anyone in the Kingdom has the best chance of accomplishing this; that’s because he has had a relationship with Maleficent since boyhood and the fairy-born sorceress has feelings for him.

He steals out to the Moors and canoodles with Maleficent, slipping her a sleeping draught in the process. While she’s out, he can’t quite bring himself to kill her but still manages to do something dreadful, enough to win himself the throne and the princess as well as the enduring hatred of the sorceress and every big boy knows never to mess with a woman scorned.

She waits for Stefan to have a child of his own before leveling her terrible curse – that the newborn babe will live to her 16th year, growing in beauty and grace, beloved by all. Before sundown on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, never to awaken again. Only true love’s kiss will awaken her.

Horrified, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom collected and broken into pieces and then burned, their remains stored in the castle. He sends the infant to a remote corner of his kingdom, a bucolic cottage where she will be raised by three fairies in human form; Knotgrass (Staunton), Fittle (Manville) and Thistlewit (Temple).

The infant grows into a beautiful young girl (Fanning), beloved by the women she knows as her aunts but also observed by Maleficent and her minion, Diaval (Riley), a crow that Maleficent changes into human form from time to time (among other things). Maleficent, somewhat curious about the girl she has cursed, brings her into the Moor and soon becomes enchanted herself by the girl’s love and beauty. She slowly begins to regret her actions because Maleficent knows why her curse is so terrible – that there is no such thing as true love.

Stromberg made his name in Hollywood as the production designer for such films as Avatar and Oz, the Great and Powerful. This is his first feature film as a director and given his expertise, he was given the largest budget ever for a first-time director. To his credit, you can see every penny on the screen. This is a visually stunning movie and the Moors is as enchanting an environment as you’re likely to see at the movies this year.

But even given the gorgeous effects, the best thing about the movie is Angelina Jolie. I don’t know if she’d consider this an insult, but she was born to play this role. Her intimidating stare, her malevolent smile, her ice-cold eyes make for a perfect villain, and to make matters even better, she resembles facially the cartoon Maleficent quite closely (in fact, most of the actors were cast for their physical resemblance to the characters of the Sleeping Beauty animated feature).

Jolie gives the character depth, from the anguished cry when she is betrayed by Stefan to the evil grin as she throws soldiers around in the air like she’s juggling bowling pins and to the softening of her heart as she begins to fall under Aurora’s sway. This isn’t the kind of thing that wins Oscars but it is nonetheless one of the better acting performances that you’re going to find at the movies in 2014. She nails this role.

Which is where we come to the big question about the movie. Disney purists have howled that the new movie messes with Maleficent, turning her into a sympathetic character rather than the deliciously evil villain of the original 1959 film and of course they have a point. The movie takes a page from Wicked not only in looking at a classic story from the point of view of its villain, but in explaining the villain’s motivations for her actions and in the end, making other characters the true villain while making the original villain somewhat heroic. Wicked has been in film development for a decade and perhaps we’ll see it on the big screen someday but for now, Maleficent does the same thing for Sleeping Beauty. While some will find it intriguing, others may be less sanguine about seeing a beloved story messed with.

I liked Riley in the role of Maleficent’s flunky. He is courtly and occasionally sour; “Don’t change me into a dog. Dogs eat birds,” he grouses at his mistress at one point. He makes a fine foil for Jolie. Fanning’s role has been described as a “happy idiot” which isn’t far from the mark but her character doesn’t give Fanning, who has shown tremendous skill in meatier roles, much to work with. She’s mainly here to be cursed and the source of Maleficent’s regret and she does both solidly.

There are some logical lapses here. For example, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels destroyed and yet at the crucial time there’s a bunch of them (broken apart to be sure) sitting in the castle, waiting for Aurora to come and prick her finger on them. Why wouldn’t you burn them to ash and then bury the ashes to be sure? Nobody ever accused King Stefan of thinking clearly however.

In any case, I will say that Da Queen has always been a huge fan of the character – it is her favorite Disney villain – and she felt let down by the film. To both of our surprise, I wound up actually liking the movie more than she did and I’m not the Disney fan she is. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, if you don’t come in with expectations that this is going to be a live action version of Sleeping Beauty that sticks exactly with canon, you’ll find that this is another solidly entertaining summer movie that may not have a ton of substance (although there are some subtexts here that are intriguing, though not terribly developed) but will take you away and out of your lives for a couple of hours and that’s never a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Jolie is perfect for the role. Incredible production design and special effects. Well-cast.

REASONS TO STAY: May offend Disney purists. Maleficent not evil so much as throwing a tantrum. A few logical holes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action, battle violence and some pretty frightening images. The really little ones will probably be terrified of the dragon and of some of the Moor creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Jolie’s first film in four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Without a Face

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Copenhagen

New Releases for the Week of May 30, 2014


MaleficentMALEFICENT

(Disney) Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham. Directed by Robert Stromberg

A fairy with pure heart living in a peaceful forest kingdom has that peace disrupted by an invading army. She rises to become a fierce warrior for her people but an act of ultimate betrayal transforms her from a defender of good to an evil sorceress. She casts a curse on the invading king’s granddaughter Aurora but comes to realize that the girl may hold the key to peace in the kingdom and perhaps her own redemption. A live-action film based on the Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for sequences of fantasy action and violence including frightening images)

A Million Ways to Die in the West

(Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried.A cowardly sheep farmer in the old West becomes obsessed with how easy it is to buy the farm (not his sheep farm) in that place and time. Even his girlfriend has left him for another man because of his spineless behavior. When a mysterious woman comes to town, she helps him find that spine and the two begin to fall in love. However it turns out she’s married to a psychotic gunfighter who comes to town looking to kill somebody. Will the farmer’s new found courage help him stand up for his woman or will he be #263, 458 of a million ways to die in the West?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy/Western

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material)

Ida

(Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela. In communist Poland in the early 1960s, a novitiate prepares to take her vows as a nun when her Mother Superior sends her to spend time with her only living relative, a former judge for the Soviet courts with a reputation for harshness. From her the nun-to-be discovers that her past isn’t at all what she thought it was and that her future might not be either. This played at the Florida Film Festival this past April; read my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking)