Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil


The Facts
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Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts
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Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil



Synopsis
: Explores the complex relationship between the horned fairy and the soon to be Queen as they form alliances and face new adversaries in their struggle to protect the moors and the magical creatures that reside within.

Release Date: October 18, 2019

Thoughts: Though it was inspired by an undying classic and received a prestige release from Disney in 2014, Maleficent still managed to defy some lofty expectations to become a sizable hit.  Retelling the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the supposedly evil protagonist (how very Wicked of them), the film had great visuals and a nice style but suffered from often being a word-for-word remake of the animated film.  It’s taken five years but the studio has enticed Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) back to play the titular character and expanded her tale in an original story.  This first teaser hints at some interesting new alliances and feels less like a plain cash-grab. Will new director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) help to elevate Maleficent: Mistress of Evil from being a sulky sequel?

Movie Review ~ Paddington (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t hold it against you if you took one look at the above poster for Paddington and wanted to run for the exit – with it’s on the nose tagline and been-there-seen-that antics you may write off this big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear as a kids-only affair.  That would be a mistake.

My history with Paddington goes way back to a local theater company in Minnesota.  My first theatrical experience was seeing a stage production of Paddington at the Children’s Theater Company and ever since then I’ve had an overwhelming fondness for the bear from darkest Peru that arrives in London looking for a family that will take him in.  As lovable as that other popular children’s bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, but faced with bigger city adventures, Paddington was a true bear of the world.

As this is (surprisingly) Paddington’s big-screen debut, we’re treated to a streamlined origin story that shows how our hero moves from living the wilds of Peru with his aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton, Maleficent, and Michael Gambon) to modern day London where he’s taken in by the Brown family.  When his arrival catches the eye of a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to outwit her and avoid getting stuffed.

Had Paddington been an American production, this whole set-up might have played like the also-ran story it is.  Under the helm of a British team, however, the movie is positively charming from its spirited performances to a colorfully gorgeous (not gaudy) production design.  Populated with richly strong primary colors that ground the movie in a kind of whimsical reality instead of the pure fantasy it actually is, there’s interesting detail around every corner.

Director Peter King keeps things moving at a brisk pace, never letting the 94 minutes feel slack.  True, that does mean some slight overuse of slapstick humor but it’s a good natured fun that’s well-mannered and veddy veddy British.

Though originally voiced by Colin Firth, the voice of Paddington comes courtesy of Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and it’s easy to see why Firth and the filmmakers parted ways.  Firth’s voice was perhaps too mature for the impish bear and Whishaw gives him a youth that rings true.  Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are nicely paired as the head of the Brown family.  She’s a free spirit and he’s a button-ed down businessman overly protective of their two children which leads to a nice subplot about the Browns that blends nicely with Paddington’s tale.

Even saddled with a platinum bob that appears to have gone through several iterations during filmmaking, Kidman is razor sharp as the villainess of the picture.  Even when she’s popping up in slight films, Kidman keeps things interesting so while her role may veer to the “too scary for young kids” side (you decide if you want to explain taxidermy to your youngins) she’s a statuesque ice queen that’s nicely menacing.

A true unexpected delight, it’s a shame the film wasn’t released in its original Christmas slot to attract the kind of family crowds it deserves but it was quite a busy time for holiday releases.  The humor may not be crass enough to keep U.S. audiences used to fart jokes appeased but I was downright charmed by the movie.  It’s sweet, quite funny, and exceedingly well made…did I mention the visual effects deserve a round of applause?  Paddington has taken a long time to get from Peru to movie screens…and the journey was worth the wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride

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Synopsis: UK gay and lesbian activists work to help miners during their lengthy strike of the National Union of Mineworkers in the summer of 1984

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: Ever since The Full Monty, working class comedies from the UK have been making their way over to our shores to varying degrees of success. All are pleasing, no doubt but some are lighter than air and ultimately pretty inconsequential. I’m thinking Pride will fall squarely in the middle of the road and am hoping that it hasn’t revealed all of its laughs in the arguably entertaining trailer. With an ace cast like Bill Nighy (About Time) and Imedla Staunton (Maleficent) leading a colorful looking ensemble, if Pride plays its cards right it could join the long list of UK indie sleeper hits.

Movie Review ~ Maleficent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A vindictive fairy is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child may be the only one who can restore peace.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville 

Director: Robert Stromberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like a hunter circling a hungry lion, I approached the screening of Maleficent with the greatest of quiet care.  See, I’ve been mauled before by revisionist fairy tales that promised big and delivered small so I was cautious to not get my hopes up that Walt Disney Studios would get it right.  Even after seeing the production photos and previews of Angelina Jolie as the horned titular character I wasn’t totally sold that this would be different than the others.

So perhaps the bar was reservedly low enough that Jolie and the team behind Maleficent could easily hop over it.  Actually, that sells the film shorter than it deserves because for the most part it’s a success thanks to a dedicated true star performance and a script that puts the humanity back into the fairy tale we all grew up with.

Not that the film doesn’t start out pretty rough, though.  The first 20 minutes or so had me worried as we were introduced to young Maleficent, a sylvan fairy with horns and a mighty wing span.  Though small of stature she easily keeps the peace in the moors that lie just beyond the realm of a neighboring kingdom.  Colorful but garish CGI creatures float by (and off the screen if you’re seeing it in 3D) as the script by Linda Woolverton (2010’s Alice in Wonderland) lays on a back story of love gone wrong between Maleficent and Stefan, a human who starts off very benign until his royal ambitions turns him very bad.

Betrayed by the man she loves, the adult Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) concocts a plan of revenge not toward Stefan (Sharlto Copley, Elysium) but to his newborn daughter, Aurora.  That brings us up to the point where Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty starts off and this new twist on an old classic liberally borrows from the animated film, sometimes verbatim.

Though it does add some interesting layers to the oft-told tale and tosses an ample amount of sympathy toward Maleficent, too often the film loses its focus and retreats into a CGI world of fantasy to distract audiences that nothing really new is happening.  The long prologue and extended ending both are disappointingly CGI heavy…a remnant perhaps of when director Tim Burton was attached to the project around 2010.

What gets the film a recommendation from this critic is Jolie’s lip smacking turn as the not so misunderstood villainess of the title.  While it does take a page from Wicked, the novel turned Broadway smash about the Wicked Witch of the West, it doesn’t weaken her when it shows that there’s a wounded heart underneath the snakeskin wrapped horns and skintight leather ensemble.  Jolie revels in every moment she’s onscreen, letting her blood red lips part to reveal a menacing grin of blindingly white teeth whenever possible.  She’s at her best, though, when she allows the “evil” fairy moments of vulnerability, thanks to Woolverton’s reimagining of Maleficent being seen by Aurora as a fairy godmother, not the conjuror that puts a deadly spell on her.

Copley, on the other hand, would be a reason to stay far away from the film.  Though Stefan and Maleficent are supposedly the same age onscreen, Copley looks like a recently roused Rip Van Winkle and sports the kind of overemphasized Scottish burr usually reserved for animated dogs.  Copley seems to think too hard about his performance, compensating with ACTING so violently that it’s puzzling to know what he wanted to accomplish.  The trio of familiar fairies assigned to protect Aurora suggests more of the dim witches in Hocus Pocus than the loveably dotty ones of the original.  And Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo) as Aurora does her best with an accent learned from, no doubt, Downtown Abbey but is found often with a blank stare suggesting she was in the middle of figuring out an algebra equation.

No, it’s Jolie that’s all over the film and deservedly so.   Working with Oscar winning production designer turned director Robert Stromberg, Jolie is instrumental to the success of the film.  Where Mirror Mirror was too much zany comedy and Snow White and the Huntsman was too darkly violent, Maleficent strikes the right balance between the two.  With moments of humor that fit in nicely with its darker edge, the PG rated film is way too scary for young children but is solid family entertainment for children a tad young to take in the latest X-Men adventure or watch Godzilla wreak havoc.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent

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Synopsis: The Sleeping Beauty tale is told from the perspective of the villainous Maleficent and looks at the events that hardened her heart and drove her to curse young Princess Aurora.

Release Date:  May 30, 2014

Thoughts: In this age of the update, there’s many who feel that this update to Sleeping Beauty isn’t needed.  I’m not usually one to be in favor of revisiting proven classics but there’s something about this first teaser for Maleficent that’s quite encouraging.  First off, I think Angelina Jolie is the perfect choice for the role of the villainess who puts a curse on an innocent princess that only true love’s kiss can break.  I’m hoping the film steers clear from making her too redeemable and instead focuses on just what makes her so dang mean.  With Disney having an update to Cinderella arriving in 2015, Maleficent will be a telling sign of just what the studio has in store for its new takes on old classics.  One can only hope they can avoid the same fate of the Snow White updates of 2012…the heinous Mirror, Mirror and the so-so Snow White and the Huntsman.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

Stars: Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven

Director: Peter Lord

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Still a kid at heart, I secretly love being able to see animated films and enjoy them through the eyes of an adult.  I’ve no problem finding time to see a PIXAR film with the same verve that I have for the newest R-rated action blockbuster because there’s the same great escapist entertainment to be had in the world of animation.  The animators at Aardman have long been a favorite of mine thanks to their pioneering work with stop-motion animation and their creation of the Wallace and Gromit characters.

This year when the Oscars were announced I found there was only one film among the five films selected as Best Animated film nominees that I hadn’t seen and it just happened to be Aardman’s latest effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  I missed this one on several occasions in the theater and after seeing the film I regret not taking advantage of seeing the movie on the big screen with the added bonus of 3D technology.  It’s one of the strongest nominees and could just find itself with the Oscar when the big night rolls around.

The film starts off in a fairly standard way and I was just settling in for what I thought would be a familiar story when the movie pulled a nice switcheroo and turned a standard plot line on its head.  What begins as a tale of a dippy Pirate Captain and his rag-tag crew entering the Pirate of the Year Awards quickly veers into creative territory involving exotic animals, adventure on the high seas, and a few run ins with a very disagreeable Queen Victoria.  Along the way there are ample amounts of laughs and superior displays of creativity that have become the standard calling card of the folks at Aardman.

As the Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) doesn’t rely on his proper stutter and stammer but instead uses a light air to suggest that our hero isn’t as aware as he should be.  This Pirate Captain is lovably clueless, making for a winning combination when teamed up with his faithful band of misfit pirates with great names like The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout, The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and The Pirate with a Scarf voiced nicely by Freeman (the current Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). 

A few historic characters pop up as supporting players like Charles Darwin who is reinvented as a lovesick dweeb with a thing for Vicki (that’s Queen Victoria to you commoners) who won’t give him the time of day.  It’s the Queen Victoria character that made me laugh the most — given new life by Aardman as a scheming villainess and voiced with prim steeliness by Staunton.  This Queen is no slouch — director Lord and screenwriter Gideon Defoe (who wrote the source book) make her nice and nasty without ever utilizing any truly mean jabs.

Like the other nominees (Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Wreck-It Ralph), The Pirates! Band of Misfits has a lot of heart in its themes of loyalty and friendship that won’t be lost on youngsters and grown-ups that view it.  The blend of stop-motion and computer animation is seamless and beautifully detailed…showing that Aardman gets better with each film they produce.  A worthy nominee for Oscar glory, this is an easy-going fantasy adventure with enough visual gags for kids and laughs for adults.