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.

Movie Review ~ Oldboy (2013)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, James Ransone, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’m always amazed when a director with an impressive list of credits lines up a remake as their next project.  Some directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, remade their OWN films and that practice still happens occasionally today with a foreign director helming an American version of the film they popularized on their home soil.  Then there are the directors that take on Hollywood studio adaptations of foreign products for American audiences.

For me, I get the impression that these US directors choose these foreign films to remake as a way to say “This was good but I can do it better”– though they very rarely can.  If anything, they wind up creating a film that’s just as good but can exist in the same universe as their overseas counterpart as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  That film was a tremendous success in Sweden and had David Fincher as a director when it jumped shores…both films are impressive and I’d watch them back to back if the spirit moved me to do so.

It’s strange, then, that Oldboy even happened at all.  Nearly a decade old when discussions for the remake began, it’s easy I suppose to see why it attracted the attention of Hollywood and director Spike Lee.  The 2003 original, Oldeuboi, had amassed a certain fervent fan base in America thanks to an impressively twisted narrative, strong performances, and skilled direction from Park Chan-wook (Stoker) which bumped it to a level of sophistication that set it apart from its more minor peers.

Lee has been a troublesome director as of late, known more for his ranting outbursts toward fellow filmmakers than he was for making some important films in the early 90’s.  With a flagging career and a penchant for taking forever to finish his work, the revenge thriller Oldboy seemed almost too easily commercial for the director to latch onto.

If Lee had done something, anything, of interest with the material then I could maybe get behind an argument for this remake moving forward.  Though the film does have some classic Lee elements on the technical side, it’s lacking the depth that he’s brought to his earlier efforts like Do the Right Thing and more recent work like documentaries surrounding the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  His work in Oldboy winds up feeling like a director-for-hire and it permeates every level of the film.

It’s a shame, then, that Josh Brolin (Labor Day, Men in Black III) is so good in the leading role of a man without scruples that’s abducted and held in confinement for twenty years by an unseen captor.  It’s within these shoddy walls that he watches a television news report where he finds himself the number one suspect in his wife’s death.  With his young daughter in foster care and his life seemingly over, there’s not much more for him to do but wait to die…until he awakes one day in a field, free.  Or so it seems.

Up until the man is released the film follows the original quite closely.  It’s after Brolin is let loose that the film takes an approach that favors more explanation than necessary and less of the ominous mystery surrounding a menacing caller employed to good effect in the original.  In Brolin’s quest for answers to why he was held, there’s still a plethora of well staged fight sequences with one of the central passages of the original being recreated, Spike Lee-style, with sweeping cranes that allow little to no cuts in action.

The violence is way more visceral in the remake and that’s where Lee lets down the film a bit.  It’s as if Lee needed to justify Brolin’s revenge by allowing him to enact sadistic acts of violence toward anyone/everyone that may have been involved only remotely.  That didn’t work for me…especially when Brolin is cutting sliver sized chunks of flesh from the neck of an Oscar nominated actor in a wacky cameo role.

A Florence Nightgale-like nurse played by a sleepy-looking Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) is an unlikely ally for Brolin and her involvement with him never makes a whole lot of sense.  He’s bad news and she can tell but either she loves a charity case or chunks of her storyline were excised in order to speed the film along.  (Side note: the 105 minute film was cut down from a reported three hours, perhaps a director’s cut will give the film more shape).  Sharlto Copley’s role is one I can’t go into much detail on but Copley (Elysium, Europa Report) winds up doing a great disservice with a cartoony performance in what could have been a much more engaging role.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich gets points for largely keeping this remake in alignment with the events of the original film…including its controversial dénouement.  I’d also say that while the ending winds up looking poles apart than its inspiration, what Protosevich lands on could arguably be called the very same ending just under different circumstances.

If you’ve never seen the original film Oldboy is based on, I’d guess you’d find yourself mostly engaged in this revenge crime drama which, faults aside, is quite well made and executed.  Fans of the original also shouldn’t be concerned that their precious film has been tarnished nor should they riot at some of the changes employed here.  Still…it’s a remake that didn’t need to happen.

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Movie Review ~ Europa Report

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon.

Stars: Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca

Director: Sebastian Cordero

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For all the big budget sturm und drang blockbusters coming out of Hollywood nowadays, it’s nice to be reminded that good films can still be made on smaller budgets.  Now, we all know that an indie comedy or drama could be produced for next to nothing but what about a science fiction film taking place in a galaxy far from earth?

That’s the first question I had when I saw the preview for Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero’s thoughtfully meditative sci-fi morsel, back in early 2013.  I’d recently come off of a run of impressive space set features (like the exquisitely designed and audience dividing Alien prequel Prometheus) so even though my interest was piqued my eyebrow was raised in a most questioning manner.

Ten minutes into the film and I knew Cordero had a winner on his hands, a film with the dramatic thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hidden unknown of The Abyss, and the threat of danger of the aforementioned Prometheus.  Though small in scope the film is an impressive achievement considering the budget was less than 10 million dollars, didn’t boast any big name stars, and was released during the busy summer months when films like Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6 were ruling the charts.

The set-up is mostly hum-drum with a crew of six traveling to a moon of Jupiter to investigate any signs of life.  As these missions often go, the crew encounters as many troubles getting there as they do when they arrive including damaged equipment, sensory deprivation, in-fighting, and arguing over who drank the last serving of Tang (OK, that last one doesn’t happen but I can’t imagine after a year in space something similar wouldn’t occur).

What makes the film come to life is how Cordero works with his resources to make his movie not just another C-grade space set adventure.  There’s a consideration for savvy moviegoers who don’t necessarily want their sci-fi with lasers and slimy slimeballs but would appreciate an esoteric space journey that has mysteries of its own.  Revealing more would damage the impact so let’s just say not everyone onboard gets a chance to marvel at Jupiter’s vistas with their colleagues.

A gathering of international actors like Sharlto Copley (Open Grave, Elysium), Michael Nyqvist (Disconnect, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), Embeth Davidtz (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Amazing Spider-Man), and others gives the film a believably United Nations feel with each actor making the most out of their finely drawn characterizations.

When it starts to deal less with the unknown and more of the known the film loses a bit of its built up steam but the majority of its trim 90 minutes keeps you invested in the mission and the fates of the crew.  The production design is rich, whether the audience is watching the actors on earth, in their shuttle, or venturing out into the black darkness and it’s compounded nicely by just right special effects from several VFX studios (Phosphene, Method Studios, Look Effects, Perception, Quadratic Digital).

This is a film with a brain and one that may turn off those looking for a more action-packed outer space adventure (for that, make sure to see Gravity in 3D) instead of a smaller, slower-paced film that takes its time arriving at the final destination.

After a small release in theaters and OnDemand, Europa Report is available on most streaming services.  It’s one you’ll want to add to your queue if you like your sci-fi without a bunch of spiny aliens gnashing their gooey teeth at Sigourney Weaver (which, incidentally, I’m always a fan of).

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The Silver Bullet ~ Open Grave

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Synopsis: A man wakes up in the wilderness, in a pit full of dead bodies, with no memory and must determine if the murderer is one of the strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.

Release Date:  January 3, 2014

Thoughts:  For the sake of good will in the new year I’m trying to squelch this feeling I have inside that Open Grave is another routine thriller amped up with a well edited trailer.  Starring Sharlto Copley (Elysium, Maleficent) as an amnesiac that wakes up to a nightmare, the film appears to have a nice coating of grim grime to keep things menacing as our lead character must unravel a mystery concerning his own identity while staying one step ahead of a killer on the hunt.  I’ve seen so many similarly designed films that have cop out endings with twists that make no sense so my fingers are crossed that  Open Grave keeps those silly plot devices buried.  I’m cautiously interested.

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 ~ Oldboy (2013)

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Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked up into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Release Date:  November 27, 2013

Thoughts: The first trailer for Spike Lee’s remake of a gritty (and highly praised) 2003 Korean film shows some promise.  If his latest work follows in the steps of the original, expect a brutally twisted tale of revenge that takes no prisoners.  It looks to be a well cast outing for Lee who has become known lately more for the feuds he gets into with fellow filmmakers than for the quality of his movies.  I’ve always been on the fence with his films, finding that they range from the excellent to the excessive with not a lot of middle ground to be found.  I’m intrigued at the presence of Josh Brolin (Men in Black III, Labor Day), Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) and Samuel L. Jackson (Marvel’s The Avengers), all risk taking actors that might just be the perfect fit for what Lee has planned.  We shall see.

Movie Review ~ Elysium

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Achieving a minor miracle of a success with 2009’s District 9 (which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), it’s interesting that it took director Neill Blomkamp several years to release his follow-up film.  Laboring long and hard on a film that, like District 9, is not merely a science fiction stunner but a thinly veiled allegory about something bigger the wait was (mostly) worth it with Elysium.

Now I know this film has some problems.  Its storyline is a bit fractured with holes that are wide and frequent but it’s the intense focus on the superior visual design of the movie that earns high marks from this reviewer.  Surely housing the best looking effects of any film released in 2013, Elysium sometimes becomes too enamored of its own shine and flash and that’s why it’s class warfare parable doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as Blomkamp’s apartheid statement hiding under the wiry guts of District 9’s plot.

That being said, you have to hand it to Blomkamp for aspiring to something greater than just delivering straight-forward science fiction with a message that doesn’t seem force-fed or totally obvious.  I’ve mentioned in my review of the trailer for Elysium that Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster (Carnage) are notoriously choosy about their films and it isn’t hard to see why both actors eyeballed this project.  Though I don’t feel either broke any new ground, it winds up providing solid fodder for Damon to continue his flawed hero character he’s been honing since the Good Will Hunting days and for Foster to fashion another ice queen so brittle she might break if she bumped into a wall.  Foster adopts a strange accent that sounds like it was both an afterthought and extensively fixed in post production dubbing…it just felt off and a rare misstep for the actress.  The most satisfying performance comes from Sharlto Copley’s (Europa Report) wicked wicked contract killer, a rough and tumble movie villain from a movie era long since obliterated.

Blomkamp’s script has its fair share of twists and interesting commentary about future society until it pares back the bigger ideas for bigger action sequences.  These aren’t necessarily unwelcome bits of action but it feels like Blomkamp was a servant to two masters…his own ideology of what he could say with this film and a movie studio that supports the director but also sees the bottom line of a summer action film.

I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would and found it a wonder to look at, if not always to follow along with.  I’m hoping that Blomkamp gets back to what made his first US splash such a smash and find a way to achieve more balance with what he’s saying and what he’s showing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Europa Report

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Synopsis: A crew of international astronauts are sent on a private mission to Jupiter’s fourth moon.

Release Date:  August 2, 2013

Thoughts: OK…it’s long been established that I have a weak spot for futuristic sci-fi films that explore some distance realms of space.  So far this year we’ve had Oblivion, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and by the end of the year we’ll see how Gravity and Elysium stack up.  I’m cautiously interested in this indie flick with an impressive trailer that feels like it might be better than the final product (I’m looking at you Apollo 11).  I’m such a sucker that I know I’ll seek this one out when it’s released OnDemand in June and in limited release in August.

The Silver Bullet ~ Elysium

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Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his first film, 2009’s District 9, a sci-fi action film set in the future that was a very thin veiled statement on the horrors of apartheid.  With his newest film, he seems to be taking on a bit of class warfare in the quest of equality.  Attracting the notoriously picky Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster bodes well for the quality of the picture, and this first trailer shows the August release has impressive visuals to go along with its action roots.  We’ve had a healthy run of futuristic pictures in the last few years and it will be interesting to see how Elysium fits into the genre.