Maleficent – Spotlight Podcast 5:21

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.


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Maleficent review

Maleficent (2014) horizontal art

The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.

Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?

The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
maleficent_dragon2Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.

The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.
The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.

At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
SPOILERS
The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script:
Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else?
END SPOILERS

[rating=1]
Avoid at all cost.
Maleficent (2014) poster
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Radio Film Review

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own solution to the Vietnam conflict in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own solution to the Vietnam conflict in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.

Time is, time was, time’s X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. There were clearly commercial reasons why the latest chapter in the X-MEN franchise had to be a time travel tale: Having previously flubbed the introduction of a new, younger Professor X and Magneto  (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the producers clearly wanted to recover a bit of the franchise’s mojo by bringing back the old band — namely Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen under the direction of Bryan Singer (plus Hugh Jackman) — while also trying to finesse the audience into a better appreciation for their replacements. The side benefit is that the time period decided upon for this film has interesting significance for the themes explored in the X-MEN universe. After my quick review of the surprisingly decent MALEFICENT, I turn my attention to what Singer has wrought. Click on the player to hear the review.

Right-click to download: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

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Lara Croft Origin Film?

tomb_raider_underworldAccording to The Hollywood Reporter, the new owners of the TOMB RAIDER video game film rights may be planning to do an origin film of the Lara Croft character.
The two TOMB RAIDER feature films starred Angelina Jolie as the mature version of the female Indiana Jones-type archeologist-adventurer.
However, new rights holder GK Films, headed by Graham King (THE TOURIST), apparently wants to “create daring new adventures for the young and dynamic Lara Croft.”
 Original game delveloper Eidos, now part of the Square Enix group, also seems intents on making a new game that explores Corft’s origins, via its active game company Crystal Dynamics.  
 
No script ot writer is in place as of yet.

Angelina Jolie drawn by Gravity

NYMag.com reports that actress Angelina Jolie has passed on appearing in  WANTED 2, a proposed sequel to the 2008 action hit, for Universal Pictures. Apparently, she preferred another project that Universal had developed for her, but the studio put it into turaround – and she decided to follow it to Warner Brothers, when that studio eagerly snatched it up. The project is a science fiction effort titled GRAVITY, which will be directed by Alfono Cuaron (CHILDREN OF MEN). The space thriller, written by Cuarón and his 28-year-old son Jonás, will cast Jolie as “the sole surviving human member of a space mission, desperately trying to return home to Earth and her daughter.”
Apparently, Universal’s problem with the story is that it would feature Jolie alone on screen for most of the running time, rather like Sam Rockwell in MOON. No matter. David Heyman (HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS) will produce GRAVITY under the Legendary Films banner for WB.

Wanted: an adrenalin-fueled fantasy – Borderland Film Review

angelina_jolie_wanted_movie_image.jpg

Let’s not get too serious about this film. It’s just supposed to be a fun movie, but the idea of assassinating one person to save thousands is very interesting…”—Angelina Jolie

As the summer movie-going season enters full swing, you sometimes feel a bit jaded by the plethora of action pictures that make their dominance so overwhelming felt at multiplex theaters until the fall. Which is why it is quite astonishing that this summer’s third major comic book movie adaptation, WANTED, delivers the goods in such a big way. It is an absolutely superb fantasy adventure that has the kind of vividly staged action sequences that made THE FUGITIVE such a thrill-ride! And because WANTED is a science-fiction fantasy, it can go even further than THE FUGITIVE in stretching it’s action scenes beyond the normal boundaries of audience acceptance. Plus, given the unique way Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has filmed these scenes, the result is a real adrenalin-fueled rush which leaves audiences totally spellbound. Thankfully, the movie avoids the fatal mistake of overloading us with too many thrills, so viewers have sufficient time to catch their breath between the action set pieces.
Interestingly enough, WANTED is opening a week after MONGOL, another fine film from a Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, about the young Genghis Khan. However, it appears that WANTED could actually be the first American made film by a Russian director since Sergei Eisenstein came to Hollywood in the early 30’s!


The basic idea of the picture concerns an ordinary young Chicago office worker, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), whose humdrum existence takes a dramatic turn when he is recruited into a secret society of assassins known as “The Fraternity.” All the Fraternity members have extra-sensory powers that make them lethal killers and their noble aim is to preserve balance in the world by eliminating evildoers who the “Loom of Fate” predicts will cause widespread death and destruction. (Presumably this might include several world leaders from nations dubbed by America’s current President as members of “the axis of evil.”) Of course, while The Fraternity has a noble purpose – their motto is “Kill one, to save a thousand” – it’s also a system that could easily turn into a neo-fascist organization if a rogue agent should gain control. And it seems that is exactly what may be about to happen, as Wesley’s father, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) whom Wes thinks is dead, is actually very much alive and is just such a rogue agent. He is also the most powerful assassin in The Fraternity. Which is why a senior Fraternity member named Fox (Angelina Jolie), is sent to recruit Wesley and train him so he can match his genetically inherited skills against those of his father.
Obviously, this kind of heightened fantasy can easily be dismissed by critics with a predisposition towards realistic dramas (See the review by the N. Y. Times current out of touch, Bosley Crowther-like reviewer), but Russian director Timur Bekmambetov brings such an exciting stylistic approach to the story, many of the more absurd aspects of the script are easy to overlook, particularly since it has a far more coherent screenplay than Bekmambetov’s previous low-budget Russian movies, NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH. It also has quite a surprise twist that comes just when you begin to think the picture might be turning into the typical formulaic summer action movie.
Since much of the film’s success is due to the realistic performances delivered by the actors, it would be interesting to know if director Bekmambetov is a disciple of Constantin Stanislavski’s method acting, as adapted by America’s best stage actors of the thirties, such as Morris Carnovsky and Sanford Meisner at the Group Theater and then later expounded upon by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s studio in the fifties. Whether Bekmambetov is a Stanislavski disciple or not, he certainly gets terrific performances from all of his actors, starting with James McAvoy as Wesley, followed by Angelina Jolie as Fox, (Wes’ mentor and teacher), and of course, Morgan Freeman as Sloan, the head of The Fraternity. While I don’t believe Morgan Freeman is a “method actor,” it’s interesting that he found some of the minute details Bekmambetov gave him to study to be so helpful. “Something that really impressed me,” exclaimed Freeman, “was the depth and detail that Timur has provided. There is a whole history of the Fraternity, an actual handbook with their philosophies, their codes, their legacy as weavers, weaponry, abilities and hierarchy—hardly any of which the audience will be privy to, but as actors, and for the crew, it’s a great tool for us to use when we’re building our characters and creating this world. Something like that is a luxury that doesn’t come along all that often when you accept a film role.”
Amplifying on why Freeman was such a pivotal role to cast in the film, producer Marc Platt explains, “Morgan Freeman, as both a human being and as an actor, possesses such integrity, such a strength of character that you’d believe anything he would tell you. He’s someone you would want to be your father, which in our story is very important. There is a strength and force that emanates from Morgan without him even trying and we needed someone who could articulate the mythology of the Fraternity in such a way that the audience would follow and accept it.”
For the leading role, Scottish actor James McAvoy gives us a worthy follow-up to his breakthrough performance in last years best picture nominee, ATONEMENT. Now we know that McAvoy is a truly versatile actor who can bring a great deal of depth to any kind of role, even an action hero. It appears he is now headed on a career path, not unlike that charted by Daniel Day-Lewis, where he will be in demand for both serious dramatic roles, art house movies and bigger budgeted action and science-fiction pictures.
Director Bekmambetov noted that he cast McAvoy as his lead because he wanted a “different kind of actor for Wesley… a real actor. We needed someone people would identify with, who kind of looks like an everybody. Wes changes a lot, on the inside, on the outside and James can do that—we believe in his changes. I also wanted somebody to bring humor to the story, because I think it’s impossible to create a believable fantasy world without humor. At first, Wes is skeptical and ironic, so later when he believes, the audience believes.”
Bekmanbetov also points out that McAvoy proved to be quite adept at going through the transformation from an ordinary person to a super assassin, without any overt changes in his appearance. “Early on we were trying to find some ways to make the change in Wesley, like hair or costume,” says Bekmambetov. “Then, we had a test in London before shooting and suddenly, without costume or makeup or anything, James did it himself, right in front of us. First, he was this silly boy and then, a totally different character, almost like a superman. It was unbelievable. Then we understood that we didn’t have to do anything, that James could do it himself.”
After her role in MR. AND MRS. SMITH it’s not much of surprise to see Angelina Jolie in the role of Fox, a deadly killer. Producer Marc Platt calls Jolie his “dream choice for the role,” while also noting “Fox is an incredibly powerful, strong-minded person who has overcome many obstacles in her life to become this great assassin. She becomes Wes’ mentor who watches him, trains him and helps him through the difficulties of accepting and understanding what’s happening to him.” Fox also saves Wes from death several times, arriving in her turbo-charged red Viper, just in the nick of time, as Wes is about to be run over by a big truck. She then leads Wes on a wild car chase through the streets of downtown Chicago.
Commenting on her role as Fox, Jolie says, “I like the fact that she’s quite flat, in a way; she just believes in getting on with it and doesn’t really show any emotion. However, let’s not get too serious about this film—it’s just supposed to be a fun movie—but the idea of assassinating one person to save thousands is very interesting.”
Jolie, who in real life already has several tattoos, apparently enjoyed getting even more tattoos added to her arm for the movie. “Fox has binary codes on her arm,” explains Jolie, “which is part of a reading of the fabric from the Loom of Fate. She has ‘know your rights’ in different languages and ‘toil and tears,’ which is from a Churchill speech. It’s things like that that the audience won’t notice, but giving Fox all these tattoos is symbolic of somebody who lives by a certain code of honor.”
As much of the delight in WANTED comes from it’s several surprising twists and turns, I hesitate to go into any detail about them and destroy the novelty for viewers, as no doubt many others will do, so suffice it to say, WANTED is easily this summer’s most enthralling film. At the packed screening I attended the audience applauded louder and longer than they did for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL and were way more impressed than the tepid response that greeted WALL*E.
What is even stranger is that WANTED should be opening against Pixar’s WALL*E, which many people, including myself, presumed might be one of the summer’s best movies. Unfortunately, despite it’s fabulous production design and animation, this is simply not the case. WALL* E turns out to be one of Pixar’s first major stumbles, as despite it’s outstanding animation and design, it is quite a derivative script, which is rather surprising given the level of originality Pixar has managed to achieve in it’s previous movies.
So, given the choice between the edgy and exciting WANTED, or the sentimental and child-like WALL*E, without a doubt, go to see WANTED!
WANTED (Universal Pictures, 2008, 110 minutes). Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Screenplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Story by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and J. G. Jones. Produced by Marc Platt, Jim Lemley, Jason Netter and Iain Smith. Cinematography by Mitchell Amundsen. Film editor: David Brenner. Music by Danny Elfman. Production designer: John Myhre. CAST: James McAvoy (Wesley Gibson); Angelina Jolie (Fox): Morgan Freeman (Sloan): Terence Stamp (Pekwarsky); Thomas Kretschmann (Cross).