The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

: 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?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Facts:

Synopsis: Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom

Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be entirely forgiven if you look askance at the arrival of the fifth entry in Disney’s impossibly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  After making a huge splash in 2003 with their surprise hit based on the ever-popular theme park ride, Disney quickly plotted filming back-to-back installments to capitalize on the public’s Pirates-fever.  Trouble was, these films made the unwise choice to focus less on furthering the story and more time on star Johnny Depp’s increasingly tedious portrayal of boozy Captain Jack Sparrow. Though Depp netted an Oscar nom for the first film, his subsequent appearances gave him a mile when he should have only been allowed an inch (or centimeter if we’re being honest).  One last try at keeping the Pirates franchise alive was attempted in 2011 but it too got lost in a sea of Depp shenanigans and an over-reliance on CGI action sequences.

Here we are in 2017 and while Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from many of the same barnacles that sunk previous installments, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have mostly reigned in their returning star while crafting a continuing tale on the high seas that’s more swashbuckling than shticky.

If you’re behind on the Pirates films, some of what comes next would be considered spoilers but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.

A long prologue introduces young Henry Turner, son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Troy) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) as he makes a moonlight voyage to the bottom of the ocean in search of his father.  Will’s been imprisoned by a curse on the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, and his young son pledges to find Jack Sparrow and get his father back on dry land where he belongs.  Flash forward nine years and Henry (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus) is laboring on a ship that runs afoul of a cursed vessel belonging to Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) and his cleverly CGI-ed crew.  Salazar also has an interest in finding Jack Sparrow seeing that he’s the one who cut his sailing days short in the first place and uses Henry to pass a message on to his old nemesis.

Meanwhile, back in warmer climates Sparrow attempts to pull off a bank heist that provides the film with its first extended action sequence.  Feeling like an old-School western that would have been filmed on a studio backlot, it’s a fun (if pointless) introduction back to Jack and his men with satisfyingly comedic results.  It at least dovetails nicely into introducing Kayla Scodelario (The Maze Runner) as Carina, a plucky lass in trouble with the law on suspicion of being a witch.  Turns out she’s just a bookworm with a penchant for telling anyone trying to man-splain something to her where to shove it and she’s got the same pluck Knightly exhibited in the original film.

Getting into how Henry, Jack, and Carina end up back on the Black Pearl with Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, Minions, letting the costume do most of the work for him) searching for the trident of Poseidon could occupy several pages and I have a deadline to make so just take my word for it that Nathanson doesn’t have to push too hard to intertwine the end goals of these three castaways.  It’s a fantasy film with little to no need for a ton of explanation.

Without question this entry is the second most enjoyable one to date.  It’s the shortest one of the bunch and uses its time and talents wisely without working bits down to the nub.  Depp (Dark Shadows) may not look rejuvenated but it feels like he actually showed up for this outing.  While Thwaites and Scodelario give spunky performances the two lack the kind of romantic chemistry the film desperately wants them to have.  Coming off more like squabbling siblings they both fare far better when they get to make some headway with their own story.  Rush is getting a bit on the campy side by now but the way he seems to relish drilling down into his pirate brogue is at the very least amusing.  I always get a kick out of Bardem’s take on villainous characters because somehow he manages to find the humanity below the hate and isn’t afraid to go to weird places to get there.  Most of his dialogue is purely expositional but he chews on his words as hard as he chews on the scenery as a once honorable man trying to rid the world of Pirates who now haunts the seas as a vengeful fright searching for Jack Sparrow (or, as Salazar would say, ‘Jah Spah-ro’.

Rønning and Espen keep things moving at a good pace and stage their big special effects sequences with some interesting flair.  A mid-movie chase by three zombie sharks could have gone SyFy Movie Channel wrong but wind up providing a few decent thrills matched up with seamless CGI.  My only complaint is that so much of the movie is staged in dark environments that you wind up losing the location details and it becomes just another overly CGI imagined world.  At the screening I attended, the 3D was askew which likely added to the visual fatigue but I’m sure had the effect been working properly more depth would have been added into the mix.

On two recent trips to Disney World, I had more fun waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride than I did at any of the previous three films.  Aside from the original, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a marked improvement in the Pirates series and if a post-credit stinger is any indication, Disney is hoping audiences get their sea legs again and demand more skull and crossbones fun.  As long as Depp is kept at bay and more focus is put on the lore behind any adventure embarked upon, I’d be willing to get my feet wet.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Kon-Tiki


The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic 4,300 miles crossing of the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947, in an effort prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Stars: Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jakob Oftebro, Odd Magnus Williamson, Tobias Santelmann, Agnes Kittelsen

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, think of Kon-Tiki as the other Oscar nominated film (after Life of Pi) set on a raft adrift in the ocean.  Kon-Tiki was one of the only films I wasn’t able to see before the Oscar ceremony this year so I was happy to get a chance to catch this historical adventure/drama at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  Hailing from Norway and telling the true-life tale of explorer Thor Heyerdal, it’s easy to see why this film rose to the top of the crop in yearend award nominees – it’s a handsomely made film with beautiful images, solid special effects, and a team of winning performances.

I wasn’t familiar with Heyerdal before I saw the film and only caught a small piece on him on one of those Sunday morning news programs.  Wanting to prove that it was South Americans that settled Polynesia, he assembled a crew (some experienced, some not) to construct a similar vessel that would have been used in the time period to make the treacherous journey across the Pacific Ocean to show that it was possible.  Laughed out the door by National Geographic, Heyerdal pulled up his bootstraps and flew by the seat of his pants to get the funding necessary for the 100+ day in 1947.

Directors Rønning and Sandberg keep things moving from the start as we meet Heyerdal and his wife Liv (Kittelsen, who looks like she stepped out the 1940’s) as they start out in Polynesia.  Over the next few years, the trip will become an obsession to Heyerdal and though it’s never expressed stated here, the movie hints that this took a toll on his marriage.  Soon Heyerdal has a crew of comrades building the raft and setting sail on this historically famous journey.

As you may guess, the sea is a harsh lady to these men and they battle all sorts of problems…though surprisingly none that give the audience the feeling that any real danger will come to them. Not even knowing the eventual outcome, I wasn’t ever truly concerned at the various challenges that come up on the open waters.

Considering Heyerdal couldn’t swim, you have to appreciate the moxie it took to undertake proving his theory and Hagen is ideally cast in this role. With a megawatt smile and rugged good looks, he cuts a great image as the determined theorist showing a tough exterior that may hide some internal self-doubt.  Equally good are the rest of the men on the raft, all stars in their own right in Norwegian films.

The cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen is epic in scope and very engrossing even without being shown on a mega size screen (oh, how well this would play at the OmniTheater or IMAX!) and the special effects from the team at Gimpville successfully render various sea creatures like sharks and whales with striking believability (hope Hollywood keeps them on speed dial if another Jaws sequel should come to fruition).  I was drawn in by Johan Söderqvist’s subdued orchestrations that spike at just the right times.

It may be a slight spoiler to reveal that Heyerdal survived the journey to win an Oscar of his own in 1950 for the documentary he crafted from footage filmed during the trip but that should give you another resource to visit if you, like me, are as taken with this winning historical adventure like I was.  It’s perhaps a bit too easy of a film to heap with a lot of praise, but it’s so well made and delivered that it makes for very worthwhile viewing.