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

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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)

The Legend of Hercules


If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen...

If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen…

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Summit) Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre, Rade Serbedzija, Jonathan Schaech, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham, Mariah Gale, Sarai Givaty, Dimiter Dochinov, Nikolai Sotirov, Radoslav Parvanov, Spencer Wilding, Bashar Rahal, Vladimir Mihailov. Directed by Renny Harlin

I don’t know what it is about movies about the Greek demigod Hercules that they are almost uniformly awful, going back to the Steve Reeves epics of the 60s (which were actually the best of them and could only be classified as mediocre) to the godawful Schwarzenegger version Hercules in New York to even the Disney animated feature which remains one of their weakest ever. However, just when you thought they couldn’t get any lower…

When Queen Alcimene (McKee) of Greece realizes her tyrant of a husband, King Amphitryon (Adkins) wages war not for gain but out of sheer bloodlust, she knows he must be stopped. She prays to the goddess Hera for deliverance and the goddess appears, promising a son who would be the downfall of the father. She allows her husband, the God Zeus to lie with her and father her bouncing new baby boy whom will be named Heracles…er, Hercules which translates to Gift of Hera although the boy will be called Alcides as her hubby ain’t too keen on being reminded of the boy’s divine parentage. Instead, he showers favors on his mean-spirited elder son Iphicles (Garrigan).

Hercules (Lutz) grows to manhood and falls for the Cretan princess Hebe (Weiss) whose last name I’m certain is Jebe. She’s a comely girl but she is promised to Iphicles who is heir to the throne. She of course would rather have the buff Hercules and conspires to run off with him. Unfortunately they are caught and Hercules is banished to Egypt to take on a rebellious city-state on an expedition led by Sotiris (McIntyre) who knows they are in for a rough ride when the number of soldiers assigned to him is cut in half. The whole thing is a set-up of course and Sotiris and Hercules are the sole survivors and are sold into slavery to be gladiators in a mud pit – think of it as a combination of MMA and female mud wrestling. Can Hercules win his freedom and get back home in time to prevent his true love’s marriage to his brother?

There are just so many problems with this movie I don’t know where to begin. The script might be a good spot – the dialogue is so cringeworthy that you spend the entire 99 minutes (which seemed like 199) in a permanent twitch rendering the audience in a kind of perpetual seizure throughout the film.

I haven’t seen so many slo-mo action shots in which regular speed stunt sequences are slowed down and then returned to normal speed. It happens so often that it becomes tedious and actually caused me to twitch further. In fact something tells me that it may well have been more entertaining to watch surveillance camera footage of the audience than to watch the actual film. Where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you need them?

Kellan Lutz. Ah, Kellan Lutz. He is a good looking lad with an easy-going demeanor and an engaging grin but at least at this point he doesn’t have the charisma needed to carry a movie like this. In fact, the best performances here were Adkins as the frothing-at-the-mouth King and distinguished character actor Serbedzija as Herc’s tutor. The rest of the cast…aieee!

Even the CGI isn’t up-to-snuff – an early sequence in which Hercules battles the Nemean Lion is so bad that the audience is yanked right out of the movie, which might not be a bad thing. This isn’t a movie you should get lost in.

It gives me no joy to write a review like this. Director Renny Harlin has some pretty good flicks to his credit although admittedly it’s been awhile since I can remember one of his movies fondly. Lutz seems to be a nice enough guy but this is a really, really bad film and I’d be doing my readers a disservice by sugarcoating it. There are really very few redeeming factors other than the very buff Lutz is shirtless for virtually the entire movie which may be appealing to those who find that sort of thing appealing. Otherwise, just keep in mind that this may well be the leading contender for worst movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Bored out of your skull.

REASONS TO STAY: Self-respect.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a great deal of combat action and violence and a couple of scenes of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To maintain his physique, Lutz did more than a thousand push-ups and abdominal crunches every day on set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 3% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: August: Osage County

Closed Circuit (2013)


Furtive Looks 101 will be taught this term by Professor Eric Bana.

Furtive Looks 101 will be taught this term by Professor Eric Bana.

(2013) Thriller (Focus) Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Jim Broadbent, Kenneth Cranham, Jemma Powell, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Julia Stiles, Anne-Marie Duff, Barbora Bobulova, Luing Andrews, Neil D’Souza, Doug Allen, James Lowe, John Humphreys, David Sibley, Angus Wright, Adam Tedder, Denis Moschitto, Pinar Ogun, Hasancan Cifci, Leila Wong. Directed by John Crowley

The task of a British barrister is to represent the interests of the client to the best of his or her ability. When that task is rendered impossible due to the interference of outside sources, what is a barrister to do?

London’s ancient Borough Market has been bombed and a Turkish national named Farroukh Erdogan (Moschitto) has been arrested for the crime. Martin Rose (Bana) has been appointed to defend him after his original barrister Simon Fellowes (Lowe) commits suicide. Because some of the evidence in the case is of a sensitive nature, a second barrister is appointed to handle that aspect of the case as a judge has been given the task of determining if the classified information can be used in open court or if it is too risky to allow the information to become public knowledge. That barrister is Claudia Simmons-Howe (Hall) who at one time had an affair with Martin which ended up wrecking his marriage. Martin is still in the midst of an ugly custody fight stemming from that.

Both Martin and Claudia have no great desire to work together but as this is an extremely high-profile case that could do wonders for both their careers, they both agree to keep their past relationship past. The two of them are told that they may have no contact whatsoever for fear of the knowledge that Claudia has  been given be transmitted to Martin who might then use it in court anyway. Of course, you know THAT’S not going to last long.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that both of them are under surveillance and that Sinister Forces are at work. Sinister Forces of course are at work because there are Dark Secrets that the Government doesn’t want to get out. In movies like this, these sorts of terms are always capitalized. Soon the two discover independently of each other that they are both in danger as is the family of the accused and that the secrets that aren’t connected to the information that Claudia has been given are far more serious and far-reaching in consequence than they could have imagined.

The British are normally exceedingly good at these sorts of thrillers – look to John Le Carre if you don’t believe me. There is a good deal of moral ambiguity and a dearth of action. Those are the sorts of things that are poison to the general American market who tend to prefer their heroes to act first and think after.

Bana is usually an actor whose films I look forward to seeing but here his character is cold and emotionally shut off. There’s an upper class arrogance to him that makes him unpleasant – not to mention the knowledge that he cheated on his wife, even if she’s been bitchy to him since he’s clearly earned it. Hall’s character Claudia has a bit of a stick up her bottom, and it never becomes clear to me what attracted these two characters to one another in the first place although it must be said sex often does strange things to people.

The opening sequence is quite marvelous – we are shown footage from closed circuit cameras, one morphing into two, then four, then eight. We get a variety of views of people going about their day and we know something awful is about to occur. We are briefly shown where that is going to happen (a truck parked in a place where it shouldn’t be) and then there is a flash and smoke and then nothing. It’s very effective and gets ones hopes sky-high.

Sadly, they don’t use the conceit again and most of the rest of the film is shot in standard style. It’s the one place where Crowley goes outside the box and it works beautifully. One gets the sense that Crowley – whose directing experience is mostly in the theater – didn’t have the confidence to continue that kind of thinking. I hope he acquires it because that sequence shows a great deal of confidence as a director.

The story relies a good deal on the minutiae of English law. I’m obviously unfamiliar with British law but two separate barristers to handle different aspects of the case? Why would that be necessary? Why not just submit the sensitive material directly to the judge and let him/her rule on whether or not it was admissible in open court?

Hinds, a reliable actor, gets a cup of coffee as Martin’s assistant and Stiles is incongruous as an American journalist whose sole function is to be used to force Martin into realizing that there’s an Evil Conspiracy afoot. You know, the Sinister Forces I alluded to earlier. I also thought Bobulova was fine as a government functionary who’s not what she seems and Broadbent jovial as the British Attorney General whose threats are veiled within friendly banter.

I have to say that the movie isn’t bad, it’s just okay – but JUST okay. It didn’t really possess enough substance to engage me much beyond the closing credits but there was enough there to be maddening that a better film couldn’t have been made.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent opening sequence. Urbane.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Lots of plot holes. Love affair is unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is a bit salty in places and there’s some violence as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Borough Market, setting of the first scenes in the movie, also has played host to such films as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaway Jury

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Truly, Madly, Deeply

Made in Dagenham


Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins finds out that diamonds aren't always a girl's best friend.

(2010) True Life Story (Sony Classics) Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Nicola Duffett, Matt Aubrey, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Mays, Andrew Lincoln, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Rupert Graves, Richard Schiff. Directed by Nigel Cole

 

It is no secret that women in the workplace are not treated the same way as men are. Some of it is a biological necessity – after all, men don’t have to take off of work to have babies. However, when given equal work to do, women have never been paid equally to men.

In Britain that is as true as it is in the States. At the Ford plant in Dagenham, source of most of the Fords on the road in the UK, most of the women are involved with sewing the upholstery for the cars. They work in an industrial barn with no air conditioning that gets so hot that the women strip down to their bras and girdles in order not to faint while they are working at the sewing machines. This makes for some fairly awkward moments whenever any men walk into their domain.

One such man is Union rep Albert Passingham (Hoskins) who has to impart the bad news that their bid for being classified as “Skilled Labor” has been turned down by Ford’s executive leadership. This means they will continue to be classified as “Unskilled Labor” and thus make significantly less than their male counterparts.

This doesn’t sit well with the ladies or Albert and so they vote to authorize a one-day walkout to show management they mean business. Albert chooses young mother of two Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) – who is married to a line worker, Brian (Aubrey) to accompany himself, Union boss Monty Taylor (Cranham) and shop steward Connie (James) to a face-to-face meeting with management. However once they arrive it becomes clear that Monty not only doesn’t support equal pay for the workers, he is colluding with Ford to make sure it doesn’t happen. Incensed, Rita throws down some fabric and tells the execs that they are welcome to try to sew them into a car seat and leaves to tell her co-workers to walk.

Thus begins the story of a real-life 1968 labor action that would lead to Britain’s 1970 Equal Pay Act which was a landmark victory in the women’s rights struggle in Britain. Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of those actual events – Rita is actually an amalgam of several real women who were involved in the leadership of the strike – and a fine one at that.

The movie doesn’t just focus on the strike itself, although that’s definitely a focal point, but more on how it affected the workers and the community. Rita suffers from a good deal of vitriol because many townspeople are angry at the lost wages incurred during the strike (of course they change their tune once the strike is resolved). Her friends also have their own crosses to bear; Connie is dealing with a husband (Lloyd-Pack) who is suffering from battle fatigue and other psychological problems due to his involvement in the Second World War while Sandra (Winstone) dreams of being a model, which Ford uses against her to help try to turn the strikers back to work.

In the meantime the strike attracts the attention of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Richardson) who sympathizes with the strikers but is under  enormous pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson and from Ford’s legal consul (Schiff) to bring the strike to a speedy conclusion or risk having Ford pull out of Britain entirely, something that would pretty much doom Wilson’s party in the next elections.

Hawkins does fine work as Rita. She’s shown her plucky and cheerful side in Happy-Go-Lucky and here adds a core of steel to that pluck. She begins on the mousy side but ends up a leader and the transformation is very organic. Hawkins gives the character flesh and blood.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters in the movie get the same kind of attention, particularly the male ones. They are mostly either sympathetic or antagonistic to Rita’s cause and rarely are they given much more context than that. The women fare a bit better, but often take a back seat to the flash fashions they are given to wear which are colorful and mod (in stark contrast to what the real strikers wore which was more drab and utilitarian – but then the women who worked at Dagenham at the time were a good sight older than they were portrayed here). The era is captured nicely on the soundtrack as well.

Dagenham works as a history lesson and gives us reason to understand that the fight still has a long way to go – women in the United States make about 77% of what men earn, for example – but films like this remind us that it just takes a willingness to stand up for what you believe in and the courage to stay standing when adversity is thrown at you to effect any sort of change.

WHY RENT THIS: A lively and plucky look at a group of women who helped change the British workplace permanently. Hawkins gives a marvelous performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the characters could have used some fleshing out.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of bad language as well as some fairly sexual scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sandie Shaw, who sings the film’s title song, once worked as a punched card operator at the Ford Dagenham plant, although years before the events of this film took place..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a moneymaker unless I miss my guess.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mars Needs Moms