Monday, June 2, 2014

The Cinema File #356: "Maleficent" Review

Funny story, I actually had no intention whatsoever of seeing this movie when I did. Oh, I would have probably seen it eventually, most likely on DVD, but as it turns out, "Maleficent" sounded enough like "A Million Ways To Die In The West" to my distracted cashier that I found myself walking into a family friendly trap. As it slowly began to dawn on me that all these Disney trailers and families with small children seemed out of place for an R rated Seth MacFarlane comedy, I decided to settle in rather than try to find the movie I wanted to see, no doubt already in progress, making a silent promise to myself to always double check my stub and look up at the little placard above the theater door from now on. In retrospect, I probably should of made a break for it.

If you'll allow me a momentary indulgence, I think I know how this movie came about from a studio perspective. It was probably something like "Hey, wouldn't it be great if Angelina Jolie and her amazing cheekbones played a morally ambiguous live action Maleficent?" Cut to: the weekend before shooting starts - "Hey, turns out we need more to make a movie than a casting choice and half a log line, who do we know who can bang out a script on a Saturday?" Cut to: the presumably coke-fueled writers' room - "Hey, what do any of us remember about Sleeping Beauty?" "I think there was a lady and a dragon, and some faeries, and wait, if Maleficent was a fairy, why didn't she have wings?" "Stop right there, we got it. Now, would you please pass me some more of that delicious cocaine?" Okay, to be fair, I don't do coke, so I don't know if "delicious" is the appropriate adjective, but I'm pretty sure the rest is solid.

In this re-imagining of the classic story, Maleficent was once a good fairy until she was seduced and betrayed by a human, a mistake that cost her both her wings and her innocence, which you know is happening in real time because the obtrusive narrator tells you so, and because she starts wearing all back. This leads her to take revenge on the man after he becomes king, cursing his infant daughter so hard even she can't break it, which becomes complicated when she inadvertently becomes the little girl's fairy godmother and unexpectedly develops a maternal bond with her just on the eve of the magic taking effect. If I didn't know for certain that this movie was already in production before last year's Frozen became such a surprise cultural phenomenon, I might have thought that this was a shameless attempt to ride the band wagon of classic Disney deconstruction, but except for a shockingly similar ending, that's where the comparisons end, at least in regards to relative quality.

As every trailer likely suggested to you, Maleficent is one great performance desperately in search of a good movie. Jolie is one of those actresses who is such an institution at this point that she wouldn't ever have to work again if she didn't want to, so whenever she chooses to, you have to assume there's something to it. Watching her slink around in horns and black leather, its easy to see why she would have been interested in lending her talent to this dark bundle of over-the-top bi-polar anti-heroism, but unfortunately she seems to be the only one enjoying herself, and the only one who showed up to work with any intention of trying to make this mess of a movie any good. She revels in comic book villainy and shines as a redemptive figure in equal measure, even if the story that's supposed to take her from point A to point C is so cloying and awful.

If the film accomplishes anything, it is in finally providing that valuable second example of a movie with Sharlto Copley in it as a bad guy not directed by Neil Blomcamp, proving once and for all that this guy should not be allowed outside of Neil Blomcamp movies. Though not quite as obviously terrible as his character in Spike Lee's Old Boy, his apparent type casting into the bad ass mold is inexplicable and almost laughable. Less offensive is the only other male lead, a shapeshifting lackey of Maleficent played by Byzantium's Sam Riley, but he rarely pops up anywhere without Jolie around, so he's never used to elevate any of the scenes without her. Most of those are regrettably occupied by three painfully annoying fairy sisters and Sleeping Beauty herself, who I guess is supposed to be awake for most of the film, though you could have fooled me.

Given the official Disney brand attached to it, one could not have reasonably expected a fairy tale universe as dark and morbid as the last few bites of this poisonous apple like Snow White And The Huntsmen, Hansel And Gretal: Witch Hunters, or Jack The Giant Slayer, but I had hoped for a little bit of majesty and wonder at least. The mysterious and mystical world of Whocaresia barely meets the standard set by last year's Epic, a movie you've almost certainly forgotten was a thing by now, and if you can believe it, the CGI is even worse. It feels less like an authentic magical realm out of a fairytale then a smattering of creatures taken directly out of the Forest Dwelling section of the Dungeons And Dragons Monster Manual thrown together in the woods to provide set dressing for the one character we care about and all of her boring friends.

And that's what this movie is in a nutshell, positively boring, without the part about it being in any way a positive. One great actress let loose upon the scenery with intent to chew voraciously is not enough to save this movie from its many flaws, and no one else seems particularly enthusiastic about jumping in to pick up the slack. The fact that it technically isn't an outright cash in of Frozen doesn't make it any less shallow or exploitative, banking on the nostalgia of its premise and main character and hoping enough people really wanted to see this famous witch realized in the flesh so much that they didn't care what, if anything, came along with it. Not much as it turns out, and what is there is not worth the trouble. Oh well, maybe Melissa McCarthy's Mad Madame Mim will pull it off next time.

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