REVIEW: Maleficent


Directed by: Robert Stromberg
Written by: Linda Woolverton
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Lesley Manville

There’s a very disturbing scene in the first half of Maleficent; one of the most disturbing I can recall seeing in a modern movie rated PG.   (Spoilers ahead) The title character, embodied with regal menace by Angelina Jolie, is sitting in the woods with who, up until this point, has been her One True Love.  At the request of the king, who was wounded by the horned fairy in an earlier skirmish near the border of their two realms, this man drugs Maleficent on their date so he can chop off her wings.  For a movie that aims to rewrite the squeamish gender politics of the 1959 Disney cartoon, a scene like that becomes even more disturbing because of the kid-friendly rating.

Jolie dominates the movie from the moment she flies on screen.  Director Robert Stromberg gives her every opportunity to glare, smirk and otherwise chew through the mediocre screenplay.  This is a Disney-fied take on the Oz update Wicked, retelling the story of Sleeping Beauty so that the villain’s motives are sympathetic.  However, her screen presence clashes violently with the overly whimsical Elle Fanning, who plays Aurora.   This is even more noticeable because Maleficent and Aurora’s interactions are at the center of the story here.  There is a scene where Maleficent’s brooding by a forest pond at night while nearby, neon rainbow fairies dance around the cursed teen princess while she violently giggles.

Maleficent 2

In that crucial cursing scene, Stromberg creates an almost identical real-life staging of the cartoon.  Maleficent storms through the castle’s main hall as the “good” fairies bless the newborn princess.  Jolie is at her menacing, over-the-top best here, making her former flame (now the king) quake in his boots and beg for her not to curse his daughter.

As that king, Sharlto Copley isn’t in the same league as Jolie.  Her sinister inflections add an odd calm to the CGI overkill.  His obnoxious performance is only matched by the trio of young fairies that raise Aurora after the curse.  This was especially disheartening given that two of them are played by Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton, two incredible actresses who are given only tired, broad comedy scenes here.

Much like Wicked, perspective is this movie’s subject and knowledge of the original story (or in this case, the Disney cartoon of the original story) is key to appreciating it.   The many, varied contradictions further damper that appreciation. The boisterous performances of Copley, Fanning, et al don’t mesh with Jolie or the pensive, steady way Stromberg tries to tell much of Maleficent’s story.  Action sequences that bookend the movie competently illustrate the industrial patriarchy versus Mother Nature conflict, but also feel at odds with the tone of everything in between.  Maleficent rests on the horns of its star, and nearly every single other aspect undermines that.

Grade: C-

Short Takes: Saving Mr. Banks, Anchorman 2 and More


Saving Mr. Banks- A Disney propaganda film intent on making the definitive statement on how Walt came to pry the movie rights for Mary Poppins from the claws of its author, P.L. Travers.  It’s surprisingly nimble and entertaining propaganda, though, leaning heavily on the dry wit of Emma Thompson, who plays Travers, and the natural charm of Tom Hanks, whose casting as Disney is a huge indicator of the movie’s slanderous intentions.

Despite the sour taste the movie’s historical rewrite leaves, there are many funny and well-directed sequences involving Travers combating the Disney crew over the Poppins film adaptation.  I felt like I was being forced not to identify with her, though.  Like director John Lee Hancock did in The Blind Side, he overplays the fairly decent hand the story and actors gave him by suffocating it with Disney sugar.  Thompson is fantastic here, but the movie never misses an opportunity to make her seem like a shrew who needs taming. Grade: C-


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues- For a movie that tries desperately for two hours to elicit laughs at any cost, Anchorman 2 isn’t nearly funny enough.  Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) goes global on a CNN spinoff with the rest of his news team, played again by Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner, and their idiocy is a natural fit.

The script gets a few good jabs in about the ridiculousness of the 24-hour news cycle, but most of the jokes that don’t involve the comedic anarchy of Carell’s weather guy Brick are just stale.  It exists more as an SNL episode with a bunch of celebrity cameos than a movie.  Grade: D


Upstream Color- Shane Carruth’s second feature is a wondrous creation.  Unlike his first, Primer, it thrills more on a sensory level, and he surpasses what’s in the script instead of just presenting it.  The story focuses on a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is subjected to mind control and stripped of her identity, but he keeps the narrative in constant limbo by being more interested in examining the experience than stopping to explain it.

Kris meets a man (played by Carruth) who also seems to have undergone the same procedure as her, and the two fall in confused love, their identities and memories eventually clashing but not getting in the way.  Describing the movie’s story does little justice to the spontaneous beauty Carruth sustains throughout.  Its meaning unfolds for the audience at the same time as the characters, though to apply any concrete meaning trivializes the breadth of its power.  Grade: B+


Movie 43- I’m offended that this movie exists.  Grade: F


Directed by: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Written by:Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi (screenplay), Brenda Chapman (story)
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Julie Walters

Pixar has swept up diverse audiences of children, adults, film critics and casual movie watchers on fantastical journeys to their fully realized animated worlds.  That unparallelled run in quality, box office gross and awards has made them an unstoppably positive influence on modern movies.

Until now, men have dominated the spotlight in Pixar’s movies just as they often do in most others.  As the big studio “female” paradigm (very) gently shifts away from romantic comedies toward raunchier fare like Bridesmaids and action blockbusters like The Hunger Games, it only makes sense that the Mrs. Incredibles, the Jessies and the EVEs would start to occupy the center of Pixar’s spotlight.

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5 Manipulative Movie Deaths

When you watch a lot of movies, you tend to see a lot of characters meet unfortunate ends.  That’s just how it works.  Some characters come and go as quickly as a gunshot, but some directors like to linger on those deaths and really milk the tears.  Here are our picks for the 5 movie deaths that will either have you balling your eyes out, or rolling them up into your head.  (Note: Nicolas Sparks’ movies have been disqualified because they would take up the entire list.)

Marley and Me- This whole movie is ultimately built on the destruction of this dog.  It teaches the owners valuable life lessons, and then once they’ve learned them (and replaced the dog with kids) it’s time to die.  Owen Wilson takes Marley to the vet to be put down, and without skipping a beat we’re right there beside him for one of the most manipulative movie endings of the past 10 years.

Bambi- Perhaps the most definitive Disney Parent Death, you don’t actually get to see Bambi’s mother meet her end from a hunter’s gun.  Instead, you’re left with a fawn wandering through the woods completely uncertain of why his mom isn’t following him.  That is enough to hit it home, even before his father storms onto the screen to explain death to him.  Something tells me it doesn’t deter many hunters from going out anyway.

Armageddon- Michael Bay rarely stops for emotional moments in his movies, mostly because he’s not good at it.  Here, he milks Bruce Willis’ sacrifice for every melodramatic outburst.  He’s saving the world!  He’s replacing his son-in-law who he’s finally come to accept!  He… can’t cry very well.

Top Gun- As if Top Gun weren’t cliche ridden enough, throwing in an unwarranted character death to make an emotional appeal is the very definition of laying it on thick.  By the time Tom Cruise’s wingman Goose meets his unfortunate end, I was hoping there’d be a couple more flying errors just to make the movie end.

Titanic– I’m sure James Cameron had his reasons for why Jack and Rose couldn’t share the wooden door, but the only one I can think of is so he could kill one of them off.   Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet act this scene out beautifully, but it doesn’t change the fact that their romance could’ve kept going even if the ship sank.  It was one of the few times a modern movie romance had earned a happy ending with characters that had actually struggled, but I guess I’ll have to let that one go.

Five Awesome Movie Dads

As a mandatory companion piece to our “Five Awesome Movie Moms” from Mother’s Day, here we’re weighing in on the movie dads that are either all the way great, or show moments of greatness that redeems their other faults.

Atticus Finch- A single father and a brilliant lawyer, Atticus has time not only to teach his daughter Scout to stick to her moral guns in a time of deep-rooted racism, but he also practices what he preaches.  Gregory Peck delivers a series of brilliantly written monologues both in and out of the courtroom, which won him an Oscar as well as an endearing place in movie history.

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REVIEW: Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Written by: Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, and Michael Sheen

To satisfy every little boy’s and possibly girl’s dream of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” comes the film Tron Legacy. At one point or another, or maybe this applies more to Generations X and Y, the curiosity of what it would be like to be sucked inside a computer, video game or live in a digital battleground has crossed millions of minds, including the film’s star Jeff Bridges who admits taking on the role for these reasons. But Tron Legacy, for as zippy, fun and visually creative as it may be, seems to be a tad more analog than anything else.

Nearly three decades after the first Tron film caused financial fiasco for Disney, Tron Legacy returns as a little less of a gamble with a chance to pick up on the 3D dazzling sci-fi business set up by Avatar the same time last year. Continue reading

TRAILER: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush

The third film never exactly left the franchise concluded and satisfied. With a small cliffhanger, another billion in the bank and a chance to make swords swing out at audiences in 3D, Disney brings back the beloved peculiar swashbuckling pirate saga with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Whether there is an audience demand or a creative reason to refuel the franchise or not is not a concern to the studio that is likely to pocket another billion for the fourth installment after worldwide box office gets boosted by 3D. Taking the title from a the 1988 Tim Powers’ novel which shares plot elements with the film, Disney plucks Rob Marshall to take over the Gore Verbinski directed franchise. After coming off of last year’s overhyped flop Nine, Marshall uses his expertise in stylization and glamour seen in Chicagoand Memoirs of Geisha to add a splash to the series. Continue reading

REVIEW: Tangled

Directed by: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Written by: Dan Fogelman (screenplay), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (fairy tale)
Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, and Ron Perlman

You’ve seen this place before.  The polished forests, trickling streams, song birds chirping in a synchronized melody- you’re in Hell, only this time it looks more polished.

That may be a bit hyperbolic to describe Tangled, the latest Disney princess delusion to sweep children up on waves of fantasy and take them to a perfect world that will never exist.  The images are distinctly old school, reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.  These days, though, Pixar is the bulk of Disney animation, and their technical and story wizards work behind the scenes (the company’s John Lasseter serves as producer) to salvage this movie from destroying itself.  It’s not a bad pairing at times, with beautiful images and story-telling subversion that are well above this movie’s call.

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REVIEW: Secretariat

Directed by: Randall Wallace
Written by: Mike Rich (screenplay), William Nack (book)
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, and Margo Martindale

Apparently Seabiscuit and The Blind Side weren’t enough.  According to Disney, we needed at least one more historically sugar-coated “impossible true story.”  Something savory for the whole family, with perfectly timed and safe one-liners and plot points that the company has had on repeat since it started doing live action movies.

Of course, when this company has a lack of creativity and innovation, they simply write a check.  This gives them access to the best filmmaking tools at their disposal to make this pile of garbage.  The race footage in Secretariat is amazingly well-done and even a little bit exhilarating.  It’s too bad once the horses stop, the movie does too.

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Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon
Starring: Ben Burtt, Fred Willard, Sigourney Weaver

He might be one of most lovable animated movie characters of all-time. Sorry Simba, Dori and Shrek, but this bot was built to love.

Wall-E is a classic animated tale with a different, more mindful approach, telling the story of a lone robot performing the selfless duty of cleaning up the mess on Earth while the human population is away on a 700 or so year cruise. The first 30 minutes of the film are silent and all the talking is left to the amazing animated work done by the Pixar team. It’s all an ode to the silent, comical works of Charlie Chapin, add fantastic color palettes and unique imagery which make this one film that doesn’t need 3D to be a visual masterpiece. Continue reading