Maleficent (2014)

Photo source: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2488531712/tt1587310?ref_=tt_ov_i

Maleficent (Source: IMDb)

Released: May 30, 2014. Directed by: Richard Stromberg. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley. Runtime: 93 min.

In the fairy tale re-imagining sub-genre, this is the best addition yet, and it seems that first-time director Richard Stromberg learns from the mistakes of the the previous two films in the sub-genre.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” was too generic, and this has a great narrative. “Snow White and the Huntsman” was too morbidly dark tonally, but this is only dark when it has to be.

The story re-imagines Disney’s 1959 cartoon “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of the film’s titular protagonist, Maleficent; the original story’s villain. After experiencing the ugly greed of man, Maleficent seeks revenge on King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and she takes her anger out on is his baby daughter, Aurora. Stefan learns that if you’re going to take a fairy’s wings, you should kill her instead. And not only because she could sue for airfare costs.

Aurora is cursed to enter a deep sleep on the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, and can only be awaken by true love’s kiss. The story is written intelligently by Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King” and 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”). The film’s sweetness and sincerity is a pleasant surprise. The film’s human and raw cinematic storytelling is also impressive. One of the film’s most realistic aspects is a teaching that anger is a curved blade.

Great performances and characterization help add emotional depth. Angelina Jolie is deliciously evil as the titular Maleficent. She handles the cruel grace and pain of Maleficent so well in one of her strongest performances in recent memory. In one adorable scene, Jolie’s real-life daughter Vivienne, as Aurora (5 Years Old),  goes up to her and hugs her around the waist and pulls at the prosthetic horns. It’s impressive that Jolie doesn’t break character.

Elle Fanning also bring layers to the character of Aurora. Fanning captures the kindness of the character because her smile and gentleness is radiant. The loving curiosity of the character is also appealing. Fanning was cast for her physical likeness to Aurora and for her capacity as an actress; and the fact that she gets to sleep on the job is definitely a pro of the role. I learn cast members were also cast for their physical likeness to the original characters. Some unimpressive stars include Sharlto Copley as King Stefan; he captures the depression of the character, but he’s boring. Sam Riley as Diaval is also not compelling, but that could be because of the boring character. He’s a lot better as a crow, acting as Maleficent’s eye in the sky.

There are many strange creatures in the film, many of which reside in the Mores (which is kind-of cruel as I thought it was S’mores at first), the bordering forest Maleficent rules. The creatures range from weird swamp creatures with ant-eater like noses to something that looks like Groot of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It gets so strange, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see those stone giants from “Noah.” Nonetheless, the visuals are great.

There are visuals reminiscent of other films, notably flying scenes (reminiscent of “Avatar”) and the visuals in a war scene that bring to mind “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Most of the time, the visual effects team make the visuals their own, except there are occasions where the visuals also look like “Oz the Great and Powerful” (mostly the colourful Mores creatures). It also seems that it is more difficult to differentiate style for director Robert Stromberg, because he is production designer on both “Avatar” and “Oz.”

Too creepy for my liking. (Source) http://www.awn.com/sites/default/files/styles/original/public/image/attached/1016753-bc1020ddlv1142.1104r-1200.jpg?itok=5g0b58kq

Too creepy for my liking. (Source

The three fairies that care for Aurora – Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) – get sidelined in this version of the fairy tale. Even though they do have sporadic, amusing banter, the three actresses aren’t used to their potential. They’re a funny trio with strong costume design, but their pixie selves are visually strange. This is the film’s only poor visual effect.

They’re often in human form to make sure people see them as three women raising their child in a humble cottage. The set design for that is fun. The film flows improves on exhausting and overlong runtimes of “Snow White” (2hr., 7 min.) and “Oz” (2hr., 10 min.) and ensures that this film runs at a strong pace. Surely, this breezes by at one hour and 37 minutes, a perfect run-time for this well-told fairy tale.

Score: 85/100

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The Boxtrolls (2014)

The BoxtrollsReleased: September 26, 2014. Directed by: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi. Starring: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Elle Fanning. Runtime: 96 min.

For the kids, The Boxtrolls is a colourful animated film that they will remember fondly for a crazy hermit who repeatedly says “Jelly!” For the adults, it’s a clever political satire of the power one man can have over a small populous by planting a single idea in their heads.

Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) convinces the townspeople of Cheesebridge that boxtrolls are a monstrous race that eat children and steal cheeses, and that’s not okay in a town called Cheesebridge. When a boy is stolen by the boxtrolls, a city-wide curfew is put in effect. Rumours fly that the boxtrolls ate the father’s bones. Snatcher uses this as an opportunity to spark a paranoia of the unknown.

In reality, they’re a misunderstood, harmless race that steal what they need, like tiny men from The Borrowers. Their appearance is reminiscent of the annoying Crazy Frog, and their timid personalities are much like turtles (the box is their shell). The logo on the box they wear is also their name. There’s a boxtroll called Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) boy who obviously doesn’t look like the rest of his people. When Snatcher is hired by the town’s mayor (Jared Harris), Eggs tries to stop the numbers of his people from dwindling.

Snatcher’s malicious intentions find reason in motivation: To get a white hat that indicates prestige and privilege. Ben Kingsley offers memorable moments as Snatcher, a creepy, embodiment of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s villainous Child Catcher. He is perhaps out-starred by his three amusing sidekicks who are trying to snatch the boxtrolls. Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost voice a pair who bicker about whether they’re on the good or bad side of the situation. Tracy Morgan portrays the other sidekick, a sadistic Mr. Gristle. The villains use a local heartthrob, Madame Frou Frou, as a channel for propaganda.

When we get to the human “good guys,” things get less interesting. The supporting Winnie (Elle Fanning trying her best) is an uninteresting and mild brat. Her father (the Mayor) is too obsessed with the town’s main export, cheese, to pay attention to her. Cheese’s prominence in the screenplay is strange, one character even compares it to a mother’s smile on a warm spring’s day.

The character of Eggs at the film’s heart isn’t captivating. He leads a story of finding belonging. He’s at his funniest when at a public and prestigious dance. Otherwise, much like minions in Despicable Me, the boxtrolls steal the spotlight with their creative language and antics. They’re diverse (one has a pair of dentures) and amusing, particularly Shoe and Eggs’ caretaker, Fish.

The Boxtrolls boasts detailed animation and a unique visual style. For all of its faults – it’s both sporadically gross and boring – it works just fine. It will keep children entertained and it’s clever enough for adults.

Score: 63/100

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Hercules (2014)

HerculesReleased: July 25, 2014. Directed by: Brett Ratner. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane. Runtime: 98 min.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is easily one of the biggest wrestler-turned-actor success stories to date.  He’s branched out of those mildly entertaining WWE films to bigger things, and even in roles where he’s more Dwayne Johnson than his The Rock persona; meaning he gives a more dramatically involved performance, rather than one where he is just the muscle.

This brings us to him playing the titular Hercules in Brett Ratner’s new film Hercules based on Steve Moore’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which is why it has a similar, but less tame, gruesome style to that of Frank Miller’s 300. I think it’s hard to not have a similar style when they are both graphic novels and similar bad-ass stories.

Overall, Hercules has a much weaker narrative. Basically, Hercules is a sword-for-hire (a bounty hunter) where he and his posse are promised their weight in gold if they can defeat a tyrannical war lord, a lacklustre character named Rhesus, for the King of Thrace (John Hurt) and his daughter.

The important people in Hercules’ friends group is a wise Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, who actually brings the most humour out of any of the characters); a lovely Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal); Autolycus (Rufus Sewell); the strange Tydeus (Askel Hennie), who seems to be more animal than man; and his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who never really gets in on the action and is instead a storyteller of all the great things his uncle has done.

And most of those things are great – and told with lavish style, especially his twelve labours. I would have loved to have seen another film about those, because they were just great scenes. Also great are two brief, but finely choreographed, war scenes that are plain to a fault.

The film’s final thirty minutes is the most compelling part of the film, because it’s actually when the narrative feels like it finds any coherence. Before that, it’s quite snooze-worthy save a few scenes, and it’s not a great film if it takes an hour to possess any meaty storytelling.

As for the performances, Johnson’s is the only notable one. Here, he is definitely more The Rock thanks to his intense training regimen prior to filming. And also due to Brett Ratner’s impulse to always show The Rock’s abs and never let him have a shirt. His character development, like the fact that he doesn’t know what actually happened the night his family died, is strong. The performance is easily his most dedicated to date.

He is powerful in the film’s most iconic scene (one that demanded eight takes, in which he blacked out after each), but other times I couldn’t take him seriously. This is when he has a lion’s hyde on his head, accompanied with his beard made out of yak testicle hair. You read that right.

Score: 50/100

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Annabelle (2014)

AnnabelleReleased: October 3, 2014. Directed by: John R. Leonetti. Starring: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard. Runtime: 98 min.

Do viewers remember that creepy doll named Annabelle from 2013’s “The Conjuring?” Well, regardless of your enjoyment of her, she’s getting the origins treatment. The film opens with background that dolls can both be children’s toys and conduits for inhuman spirits.

The film, based before the account with Ed and Lorraine Warren’s case files, follows a young couple, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton). The couple, who are expecting a baby, are one’s average Church-attending folks, and John is training to become a doctor. As a present, John gives Mia a rare, vintage doll to finish her collection. It’s Annabelle – the creepy, rosy-cheeked porcelain doll in a white wedding dress. The next-door neighbours’ daughter, Annabelle Higgins (Tree O’Toole), ran away to join a cult, and one night she returns to slay her parents. In their brutal wake, Higgins and her boyfriend also invade Mia’s house and conjure a malevolent spirit, and use the Annabelle doll as a conduit.

The haunting starts out innocently – rocking chairs and sewing machines have minds of their own. The frequently absent husband John blames it on pregnancy hormones and the anxieties of the brutal attack. When things get worse after moving from Santa Monica to Pasadena, he suggests marriage counseling – even though priest blessings seem to do a better trick. As you can tell, he’s not smart.

Mia isn’t much smarter. At one point, she gets John to throw the doll in the trash early on – but when she finds Annabelle later in one of the boxes after moving, she doesn’t think to throw her back in the trash. What’s more bothersome about these characters is that they don’t pursue anything. In one instance, Mia and John find drawings that suggest a threat to Mia’s baby, which they assume were drawn by kids in the apartment building. They contemplate asking the young children’s parents about it, but never pursue. Also: The two kids are literally the only two tenants other than Mia, John and Evelyn (a great Alfre Woodard), we see in the apartment the entire film.

Unintelligent character decisions aside, the writing isn’t half-bad. It has a lot of demonic material and the tone feels like a mix between “Rosemary’s Baby” – perhaps the character name Mia is a nod to this film’s star, Mia Farrow – and “Insidious.” The expansion of the “Insidious” universe was great. Granted, the expansion of that universe made historical inaccuracies even more prevalent. The only truth about this film is that Annabelle is an inhuman spirit and that she’s a real doll. Otherwise, it’s a fictional but creative story. The inconsistency within the Warrens universe is confusing. In “The Conjuring,” Annabelle Higgins was murdered at seven years of age; in this film, she is a satanic cultist killed in her early twenties. It’s a more malevolent origin, but it suggests a lack of care from filmmakers.

There’s some poignancy in characterization, specifically found in the character of Evelyn. There’s also psychological horror thrown in for good measure. This doesn’t make “Annabelle” a creepy doll horror in the traditional sense. It has more layers, but it doesn’t have doll catch-phrases or the pitter-patter of doll feet in the apartment. The chills “Annabelle” musters are notable in eerie imagery and basement scenes. Before the Pasadena apartment, the film is only sporadically scary. The apartment building adds a creepier vibe.

Director John R. Leonetti brings his own style to the film and emulates James Wan’s style simultaneously. He uses a lot of bizarre zooms, even in conversations. The zooms exaggerate certain physical features like a comic strip might. The zooms are indicative of both his style and experience as a cinematographer. He rouses unease with these shots, but most are empty images of her doing absolutely nothing. The heightened unsettling score is designed to offer a sense of depth that isn’t there.

Score: 67/100

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The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Purge AnarchyReleased: July 18, 2014. Directed by: James DeMonaco. Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford. Runtime: 103 min.

After last year’s The Purge disappointed, my expectations were virtually non-existent for The Purge: Anarchy. The quick production of the sequel also contributed to my low expectations, because I appreciate a strong production value.

           The film opens with three different chapters that intersect within the first 30 minutes. The first chapter is an average working mother Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo), and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul). They represent the lower-class citizens, and they’re forced out onto the streets when a small army infiltrates their urban apartment building. Another chapter follows a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) who is out on purge night on his own accord, searching for vengeance. The third follows a middle-class couple (Liz and Shane, Kiele Sanchez and Zac Gilford respectively) whose car breaks down on the highway in downtown Los Angeles. When all of these characters intersect, a simplistic A to B plot is introduced.

     Writer/director James DeMonaco improves on the original in a lot of ways. Most notably, the high concept works better as an ultra-violent action flick, and the original’s horror aspirations just made it weaker. With a decreased amount of pop-up scares, this seems to aspire to be an action film with horror undertones – as it would be freaking scary to be out on purge night. It’s a high-concept from the mind of DeMonaco where annually each year, crimes – including murder – are completely legal for twelve hours. Of course, you can’t use weapons over Level 4 (rocket launchers would be out of the question) and you won’t legally be able to assassinate the President.

     The idea is designed to render the crime rate non-existent and to lower the unemployment rate. It’s a way for Americans to let off steam, or to “release the beast,” a right they are given by the new founding fathers of 2023. It’s also a way for the corrupt government to allow the murdering hunters to thin the herd by killing those who cannot defend themselves – the homeless and the poor. It’s also a way to control the American population, like hunters do to control the animal population.It’s also another way for Americans to be Number One in lowest unemployment rate and lowest crime rate.

     One unbelievable aspect is that people still won’t be imprisoned on non-Purge day. I don’t buy that there still won’t be money laundering or bank robberies. One thing that DeMonaco failed to take into consideration is the desperation of humans; because if they’re desperate enough, they’ll still steal or rape. Especially if they’re mentally ill, they’ll probably still kill because they could just snap. Even if they do wait until Purge day, it’s just not logical – because the justice system is what would be keeping that anger, or crazy urge to kill someone, in line.

     Never-mind one’s morals or anything. There’s a bit of a more moral argument brought into this film through certain characters. One is a young woman named Cali (Zoë Soul) who is fascinated by an activist’s beliefs in the immorality of the Purge. This man, Carmelo Johns (a great Michael K. Williams), wants to fight back – because it’s legal, baby! Cali’s brief lectures to another character about the immorality of it all makes it a bit more in your face than it should have been in an average horror movie, but it adds a layer that the original was missing.

     Another thing that is fascinating is the fact that some wealthy families actually purchase martyrs for Purge night. They go through sick and poor people, desperate enough to be bought out for a sum of $100k, which could help their families in great ways. It’s an intriguing little concept within the Purge mythology.

     The film has good pacing and a strong third act. The characters are underdeveloped, but that’s fine with everything else going on. Since DeMonaco brings his story onto the streets of the purge night, it has much more depth and possibility of events than the first had, which was a limited home-invasion thriller with long stretches of yawn-worthy cinema. He knows where to improve and that’s great for a young filmmaker. Perhaps I enjoyed this because my expectations were non-existent, but if this is the direction the low-budget franchise is headed, it’s looking pretty good.

Score: 75/100

Note: I apologize for the ugly block formatting. I can’t figure out how to change it.

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Get on Up (2014)

Get on UpReleased: August 1, 2014. Directed by: Tate Taylor. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd. Runtime: 139 min.

Timelines in biography films can be difficult to depict, especially when dealing with a 54-year timeline that the ambitious Tate Taylor tackles while depicting the life story of James Brown, the Godfather of soul.

Wow, though, Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth make this unnecessarily difficult to follow. A big problem with the timeline here is that it sporadically offers one event, goes to other events, and revisits the first event in 30 minutes’ time. That’s just one frustrating and bizarre way that the film displays its narrative. There’s also very little indication of the actual point in time between 1939 and 1993, other than cues for music buffs, like when Brown’s song he’s performing was released; or important events in time, most notably the Vietnam War or when Brown performs at The Garden in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The meandering order of events finds no groove and it just feels lazily formed. Within the 149-minute run-time, it feels like it jumps around in time more than Doctor Who and Mr. Peabody combined.

This year’s Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s music biopic depicting the story of the Four Seasons, also suffers from awful timeline issues – as the make-up department did not do a good job of successfully aging the actors – which is a problem Get on Up doesn’t possess. The film is, of course, about James Brown. It depicts his rise to fame from extreme poverty, and his road to be among music’s most influential artists.

Themes of extreme prejudice in 1950s Georgia are displayed by James getting five to 13 years in prison simply for stealing a man’s suit. This does put him on a course where he meets future band-mate Bobby Byrd (a grounded and memorable Nelsan Ellis). Byrd is a reasonable man, which seems to be a reason bandmates can tolerate Brown for so long, because even though he has a vibrant energy on-stage, his personality is quite arrogant. He could be soured by fame, which seems to be the case with a lot of big stars. Brown shows a preference to his black audience, and I think that’s well-highlighted by how well James seems to react to a “Let’s not make music for the white devil” spiel by a young singer named Little Richard (Brandon Smith). One jarring scene depicts his preference to black people, where he performs in front of a white crowd, and then breaks the fourth wall and is then performing in front of a black crowd. The imagined sequence just doesn’t have a strong transition.

There are scenes that do conduct their job marvelously. A scene in James’s childhood depicts him finding a hanged black man in the woods. James steals the dead man’s shoes. This told me his poverty is so extreme, in order to get a new pair of shoes he had to steal them from a dead man. This was the film’s most powerful scene.

The acting is fine all around. Octavia Spencer performs well in her brief screen time, and Viola Davis is great as James’ mother, Susie Brown. Up-and-coming star Chadwick Boseman gives it his all as the iconic James Brown with an energetic performance. He embodies Brown perfectly, down to the persona and vocal patterns. At least we can all take pleasure that both Tate Taylor and Boseman capture the essence of Brown in their film. However, Boseman gets so involved in the role that he might not realize he mumbles constantly. It’s difficult to hear him clearly and often enough, only every few words per sentence are caught. That’s the way Brown talks, but it makes for a truly frustrating experience if what is being said will make ask “What did he say?” every so often. Due to that irritating aspect, wait for the DVD and just watch this with subtitles.

Score: 55/100

 

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Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

Deliver Us From EvilReleased: July 2, 2014. Directed by: Scott Derrickson. Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn. Runtime: 118 min.

Director Scott Derrickson brings the same eerie style to his latest film “Deliver Us From Evil” as he did with “Sinister”, even though this is the more basic of the two, without the same heart-pounding effectiveness. Early on, the scares rely heavily on creepy crawlies and scares from hyperactive animals. This choice for atmosphere doesn’t enable any ability to differentiate itself from “The Silence of the Lambs”, until it gets into the story.

The competent mystery begins in Iraq with a small army group who find a cave with odd inscriptions. This leads to 1990s New York where the real-life Sergeant Ralph Sarchie resides. A passionate detective, Sarchie is deeply affected by the abuse of children – it is established early on. The mystery starts when a seemingly insane woman Jane (Olivia Horton) throws her two-year-old baby in the lion’s den at the local zoo. Sarchie is sent on an awry journey and first-hand encounters with malicious evil, and makes him want to find out why a woman with no previous criminal record just lost her mind.

Basic horror film scares can be found in this film: creepy crawlies, strange noises from the basement, weird static, children’s laughter, and children’s toys that come to life. Latin inscriptions might make you expect a basic exorcism film and the long-run, and that’s what is delivered. Some aspects of the mystery are intriguing, particularly the repetition of lyrics from a song by The Doors (“Shut the door, the damn door”). The film, running nearly two hours, is too long for something this basic and something that delivers only a few intense sequences and a creepy atmosphere.

What does set this apart is a sensitive performance from Eric Bana; as he truly captures the essence of Sarchie, who cares deeply for others, even if he is not the best at showing it. By being so dedicated to his community, he neglects to spend time with his family (Olivia Munn isn’t notable as his wife). This is an enjoyable aspect. This is a movie that’s about how people can be affected by secondary evil, and the effects it has on them. Sarchie has been deeply impacted by this kind-of evil, but is now experiencing a whole other type of evil, a primary evil that sometimes can’t be explained. Many of these concepts are brought up by a priest named Mendova (Edgar Ramirez), a heroin addict who found God.

One good thing about this film: This is Joel McHale’s first truly enjoyable film role. He’s been playing jerks since his days of TV’s “Community” and that’s the only place it has previously been effective. This time he plays a mildly likeable character, and perhaps action or horror films might be his calling in the movies.

Score: 63/100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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