31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.

Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Ah…remakes.  They’re a funny thing, aren’t they?  Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work.  Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well.  What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column?  These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review.  To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order.  Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective.  The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical.  It’s a doozy.  Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix.  With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.

First…let’s talk plot.  Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo.  Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment.  Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.

The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone.  More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts.  With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth.  Then, a body is found nearby.

It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way).  I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been.  Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center.  Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director).  Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design.  What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.

Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees.  Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable.  Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period).  First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing.  Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure.  Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.

I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh.  That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley.  I think this new version acquits itself nicely.  It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.

Movie Review ~ Radioactive


The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of pioneering scientist Marie Curie through her extraordinary life and her enduring legacies – the passionate partnerships, her shining scientific breakthroughs, and the darker consequences that followed.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Aris

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  With the increasing convenience of streaming services available to the general public, it has become much easier to tell stories at a pace that’s entirely up to the filmmaker.  Gone are the days where writers, directors, and stars are tied to having to decide between a two-and-a-half-hour movie or a two night miniseries.  Now there’s the limited series that can run anywhere between three and twelve episodes, giving the space that’s needed if a life, a legacy, an event won’t fit into the same old standard package.

Releasing on Amazon Prime after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Radioactive is an odd case of a film recounting a life that feels shortchanged.  Though it has an admirable cast, a talented director, and focuses on a source and subject that hasn’t been explored in this kind of narrative detail before, you leave the movie without any deeper understanding.  Sure, you may glean some Jeopardy! factoids about the advances Marie Curie brought forth but it’s nothing that speaks to any kind of emotional resonance it appears the filmmakers were attempting to uncover.

Before watching Radioactive it’s sad to say my only exposure to Marie Curie on film was in the much-maligned but cult favorite Young Einstein from 1988.  Aside from that supporting role, Curie was a brief topic in my history classes with the Polish scientist living in Paris being given credit for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium and her development of the theory of radioactivity alongside her husband Pierre.  Her work earned her not one but two Nobel prizes, the first woman to ever win the award and the only female to ever win it a second time.  Modern medicine and general science effectively owes its practice to her pioneering efforts.

Much of director Marjane Satrapi’s film covers these breakthroughs and even flashes forward decades in time to the lasting effects (good and bad) of Curie’s work.  Basing the film off of Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, screenwriter Jack Thorne (How I Live Now) hits all the necessary milestones with a workmanlike efficiency and a kind of rote necessity.  This has the effect of shading some of the make or break moments as less urgent and more like another day at the office for the Curies instead of the gigantic scientific innovations they were.  Surely the Curies were more multi-dimensional than Thorne’s screenplay makes them out to be and not the drones going through the emotional touchstones of the ups and downs of being married partners that also worked together.

Things get even more rocky when the action shifts from science to Marie’s personal life.  As Marie, Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) is the right choice for the role, I think, but isn’t served well by Thorne’s sedate dialogue.  You can sometimes feel Pike itching to roll her eyes at the words she has to utter, especially when Curie moves from celebrated physicist to pariah almost overnight thanks to a relationship scandal.  Viewed now, you almost want to throw something at the screen for the way the brilliant woman is thrown to the wolves but then again the historical context bears remembering.  It’s once Marie starts to suffer the effects from being so close to the radium that Pike gets down to her acting business and Satrapi lets her leading lady be looser with the material.  Working with a fine but not memorable Sam Reilly (Sometimes Always Never) as her husband, Pike starts to take control of the movie rather forcefully, so much so that the last forty minutes of Radioactive are downright compelling.  It only makes you wish the previous sixty minutes were as good as the final act when Marie was tackling her last battle alongside her daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split) who would soon after have a Nobel Prize of her own.

In the end, I was left wondering if Radioactive wouldn’t have worked better like the recent Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.  In four episodes totaling a little over three hours, the history of another important female was told and felt like a thorough examination that didn’t cut corners.  Clocking in at barely over ninety minutes, Radioactive feels like it needed more time to get under Marie’s skin and certainly with the cast and creative team Satrapi assembled (the haunting music from Evgueni & Sacha Galperine who also worked on the score for 2019 Oscar nominee Corpus Christi is right on the money) it would have truly glowed bright.

Movie Review ~ Sometimes Always Never


The Facts
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Synopsis: A stylish tailor who has spent years searching tirelessly for his missing son must repair the relationship with his youngest son while solving a mystery of an online Scrabble player so he can finally move on and reunite his family.

Stars: Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny

Director: Carl Hunter

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 Minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As much as the next person, I’ve been spending the last few months staring out my living room window waiting for the chance to escape.  This has lead to a number of daydreaming flights of fancy that are often eventually nicely satisfied by a healthy dose of television and theatrical options that lets me do my travelling virtually while I wait for another new adventure.  What’s really caught my attention are the quirky and idiosyncratic, think the boundless creativity of Wes Anderson or the bold off-the-wall offerings of Tina Fey.  This is programming that helps you step out of your daily grind and takes you someplace else while still engaging you with storytelling.

It’s hard to know where to put Sometimes Always Never because it doesn’t quite fit anywhere specific.  Part family drama and part droll comedy, it never fully commits to anything for too long and that winds up leaving the viewer unable to acquaint themselves with the characters.  Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce has supplied the screenplay for movies in multiple genres and that journeyman pen could be seen as a hindrance in nailing down any kind of tone director Carl Hunter was going for.  It’s either that or Hunter was too preoccupied with the overly cinematic production design to realize the plot was coming up short.

The plot?  It’s a doozy and I’m still not quite sure I totally understood what was going on.  From what I could gather, Bill Nighy (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) plays widower Alan that has been looking for his missing adult son ever since he walked out in the middle of a heated game of Scrabble. (And I thought my Hungry Hungry Hippos meltdown of 1987 was bad.)  His other son Peter (Sam Riley, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) watches over his dad, partly to make sure he is safe and partly because he’s known to be a bit of a hustler – something we see early on when he cons a grieving couple (Jenny Agutter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, & Tim McInnerny) out of some cash.

The bulk of the film takes place when Alan comes to stay with Peter and his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) as he’s tracking down another lead on his vanished son.  He thinks he has a lead in an online Scrabble player and as much as Peter discourages Alan from getting his hopes up, it’s a small lifeline after a long stretch of doubt.  There’s a half-hearted attempt to introduce a parallel set of lessons to be learned between Peter and his own son but Boyce’s script and the 91-minute run time don’t allow for much expansion of those ideas.  What’s there is Nighy trying to hold the movie up on his spindly shoulders and doing the best he can with little support from Riley but nice performances from Lowe and Agutter.

The frustrating thing about a film like Sometimes Always Never is that you can see it struggle to be its own thing and sacrifice valuable assets along the way.  While it’s plot lacks the meat that would make this a filling meal, it does have its moments of looking like a nice feast.  Hunter has a nice eye for the visual at times, but then he follows it up with sequences shot on cheap looking sets or traveling shots deliberately made to look homemade.  As much as he wants his film to feel like Wes Anderson, its distinct imbalance keeps it from finding a captivating foothold.

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.

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 ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

Director: Burr Steers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Let’s just get something out of the way right from the start, shall we?  If you’re willing to pony up the cash to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies you simply must be prepared to check your brain at the door.  Not just because the walking dead that populate the film would love to snack on it, but because the premise is so absurd that to take any of it at all seriously would be your fault, not the movies.

Based on Seth Graeme-Smith’s wildly bold in concept (but stilted by its one joke premise in execution) 2009 book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies marries Jane Austen’s much loved 1813 novel with Walking Dead-style zombies preying upon the upper crust ladies that just want to find a husband and the men that fight off the advances of both.  Adapted and directed by Burr Steers after being bandied about Hollywood for half a decade, the long-awaited (I just said that but I don’t really believe it) page to screen journey of the zombie fighting Bennet sisters is complete and sad to say it’s a maudlin, bloodless romp that’s neither comedy nor horror.  Like the living dead, it’s trapped in a sort of genre purgatory of which it can’t ever escape.

After a brief prologue of zombie hunting and a credit sequence of the history of their rise from the grave that’s beautiful if overstimulating, Austen’s story kicks in with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Cinderella), Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows) and their sisters being pushed by their meddling mother (X) to get married off right quick.  While Jane falls for the handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, Noah), Elizabeth is pursued by the goofy Parson Collins (Matt Smith, Terminator Genisys) while fighting with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, Maleficent) and a parade of zombies that infest the countryside.

Fans of Austen will either get a kick out of the memorable text being interlaced with references to decapitations and brain gnoshing or be horrified that their favorite heroines now train in their basement to eviscerate the undead and store daggers in their garters.  Like I said before, you just have to prepare yourself to go along with it or find another movie to see that won’t be nearly as frustrating.

Still, even if you do see it you’re bound to be frustrated by the fact that the film never really goes all the way with its concept.  Bound by a financially friendly PG-13 rating, the bloody business is rendered with little red stuff to be seen.  Though heads roll and slashings slay, nary a drop of viscera sully the perfectly coiffed hair and period costumes of our players.  Had the filmmakers been ballsy enough to go for the R, I think there would have been more opportunities to have fun with the blood and guts that are sorely missed here.

Performance wise, you’re not going to find anyone here that will place higher than previous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  James fares the best as the headstrong Elizabeth, the only one that feels like she could ably handle the role as Austen intended or carry a picture where she’s a badass zombie slayer.  Smith is next in line, with his Parson Collins also being note-perfect in his delivery and timing of the comedic elements that don’t feel like they are stretching for laughs.  Riley is just not Mr. Darcy. At. All.  With his gravelly voice and brutish emo looks, he just isn’t even in the ballpark…and forget about any chemistry with Elizabeth.  Recasting Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a young eye-patch wearing gladiator zombie slayer may have seemed like a good idea, but Lena Headey (The Purge) and her campy performance leave much to be desired.

Though it fares better than Seth Graeme-Smith’s last novel adapted for the screen, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suffers from being too coquettish with it audiences that desire more blood and romance.  Possibly worth a rent down the line, but easily skippable in theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Release Date: February 5, 2016

Thoughts: Inspired by Jane Austen’s literary classic and Seth Grahame-Smith’s cheeky genre-bending spoof, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies aims to take full advantage of audiences love of period drama and the flesh hungry undead. This nifty first teaser opens like any number of Austen adaptations before seguing into more bodice/throat ripping action. I can’t tell how well the drama/comedy/horror will balance out but it’s sure to be funnier than 2013’s dismally dreary Austenland and scarier than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (also, by happenstance, adapted from Grahame-Smith’s novel). With a pleasant stable of young stars onboard like Lily James (Cindrella), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), Jack Huston (The Longest Ride), Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys), and Sam Riley (Maleficent) this one could be great fun…or a one-joke bit of tedium. I’m hoping for fun.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ On the Road

Synopsis: Dean and Sal are the portrait of the Beat Generation. Their search for “It” results in a fast paced, energetic roller coaster ride with highs and lows throughout the U.S.

Release Date:  December 21, 2012

Thoughts: It may be hard to believe, but I’ve made it nearly 33 years without picking up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel on which this is based.  I know it’s a staple of many an AP English program and the frequent item in backpacks across this great country – but I’ve yet to be taken in by it.  I’m trying to fit in a read before this long in gestation adaptation comes out but then again I don’t want to be one of the people that suffers through a disappointing big screen version of a book many are inspired by.  Life is full of decisions, indeed.  Packed with Hollywood up-and-comers and directed by Walter Salles I’d expect this one to be a popular choice in the art-house cinemas this holiday season.