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 Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Runtime: 140 min

When one thinks of an epic, they might think Titanic, Braveheart or maybe Avatar. Even though this doesn’t have huge sinking boats, large wars or stunning visual effects; this truly deserves to be called an epic.

Derek Cianfrance (of Blue Valentine fame) brings us an small-town epic called The Place Beyond the Pines; a thought-provoking and realistic tale of generational feuds, fathers and sons, and corruption. It’s set in the small town of Schenectady, New York, that follows two families over a period of fifteen years. It’s essentially a trilogy of tales, going from chapter to chapter.

Glanton is a stunt motorcycle rider who, after finding out he has a son named Jason, begins to rob banks as a way to provide for his son and his lover, Romina (Eva Mendes). He does with the assistance of his employer, an auto repair shop owner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), and his superior motorcycle riding skills. His motivation for this is easy to understand as he wants to provide his son and he sees this as the best way fit. He’s a guy who has his priorities in order, even if it implies reckless behaviour and breaking the law time and time again.

Cross’s motivations are harder to comprehend. He’s an ambitious young cop who wants to make his way up in the police force in as little time as possible, as he’s following in his father’s footsteps. The corruption of the police force itself poses enticing decisions for the young rookie.

The strong third act is difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but there are a few things that can be said. It’s admirably carried by young, up and coming stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Cohen plays a character that is an irritating kind-of Eminem-esque wannabe  but he is portrayed adequately and his character is essential to the film.

The third tale explores the idea of legacies and how one split-second decision can send incidental shockwaves through generations. It also explores fatherly influences in a beautiful way; which is a theme that is also highlighted with Glanton and Cross, where Cross has a father figure, and Glanton is the opposite. Corruption and personal gain is best explored in the middle act involving Bradley Cooper’s haunted character. Finally, the bond between fathers and sons and the lengths they’d go to in order to protect their young is very well explored. One of the most prominent themes is, though, is there are (usually) consequences for your actions, admirably said in the movie’s most memorable quote, “If you ride like lightning; you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

The epic crime drama shifts focus a lot, and since it is a trilogy of intertwining stories, it really feels like it could end at any point. In this way, it might work better as a book – but the narrative feels fresh. It’s still one of the lengthy film’s main faults, that the film feels like it’s just coming around the bend to its climax. Thankfully, the ambiguous and hopeful ending at the place beyond the pines is more than pleasing. Some of the characters’ motivations can be also hard to comprehend, but despite the movie’s faults, it’s engaging and it packs a mighty, emotional one-two punch.

The large and talented cast carries the movie extremely well. Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Rose Byrne, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan (Am I the only one who thinks he’ll, at least, be an Oscar nominee someday?), Bruce Greenwood and Emory Cohen are among the cast, and they help carry the film and they make one heck of an ensemble. The tatted-up Gosling is by far the best of them all. The movie’s at its most booming and usually the most intense when he’s on-screen. He is most deserving of an Oscar nomination, and his powerful performance will remain one of the year’s most memorable. His character is as great and as mysterious as The Driver in Drive, and his performance is as good, if not better; he better not be overlooked by the Academy this time around. Even when he isn’t on-screen, his impact and legacy is felt. Other than Cooper and Gosling, DeHaan and Mendelsohn are the most notable. The score is also very memorable; with Mike Patton’s “The Snow Angel” playing in the background of some of the movie’s strongest and most emotionally sweeping scenes. Who woulda thunk one tune could be so haunting, but filled with such poignancy?

Gosling’s tale is by the far the strongest act of the three, Cooper’s sandwiched between in terms of quality, and DeHaan’s is the weakest, but saved by a fantastic ending. With an epic and beautiful drama like this, “weak” is used lightly – because it is by no means a bad act. They all just happen to pale in comparison to the act where Glanton is the focus. The intense crime drama is riddled with great performances, impressive writing, amazing emotional moments; and no matter how much the film may shift focus from story to story, all in a very lengthy flick, it all intertwines admirably in the end and Cianfrance never loses sight of his stunning and beautiful vision.

88/100

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi

Release Date: November 21, 2012

Director: Ang Lee

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Runtime: 127 min

If 1997’s Titanic won eleven Oscars, this should get twelve.

Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, this is an incredible story of adventure and discovery, centering on Pi Patel, the curious son of a zoo keeper. He and his family hail from Pondicherry, India, but they want to move to Canada to seek a better life. They hitch a ride on a large cargo ship that is destined to sink. After a shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift on a 26-foot lifeboat accompanied by an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a fearsome Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.

The film starts out with a beautiful opening sequence with multiple animals running all over the screen, as if they are running off of Noah’s Ark. Then from there, it gets right into the story.

An older Pi tells his life story to a writer through flashbacks and reflection. Since an older Pi is telling the story, there’s no question of whether or not he survives or not. The story is not about that question, it is about how he survives. Irfan Khan (that one Indian guy from Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man) portrays the older Pi, while the younger Pi is portrayed magnificently by acting newcomer Suraj Sharma. Like Dev Patel’s film debut in Slumdog Millionaire, this is a great and promising start to a career. We, the audience, have the pleasure to watch a star being born. The only other really known actor (to the Western World, at least) is Rafe Spall (Anonymous, Prometheus, Hot Fuzz), who portrays the writer who may just sell Pi’s life story.

Pi’s story is a very interesting one. We see him grow up as a very curious boy that gets mocked at school because of his name (he gets called Pissing for a short period of time because his real name is Piscine). He is also a young boy of self-discovery who is interested in Hinduism, Catholicism and Muslim beliefs. He doesn’t know who he is quite yet, a feeling all of us experience when we are young. When Pi and his animal friends set adrift to the center of the Pacific Ocean because of the unfortunate shipwreck, the majority of the animals don’t last very long. They say their hello’s, and then soon enough the quick good bye’s come around and Pi and Richard Parker are the two remaining beings. They start off as sort of how an only child might feel if an adopted child is brought home, they both are skeptical of each other, and because of that they must keep their distance. Over time, the bond grows, and Pi and Parker become beings that must rely on each other. This transition is quite beautiful. Who said a man’s best friend can only be a dog?

The measure of faith that Pi possesses is inspirational, and brings some great themes of religion and hope to the feature. The CGI effects are great and the visuals are magnificent. The hailing of this being the next Avatar is quite accurate (in regards to the visual beauty, only). The story is about as great as Slumdog Millionaire, and the shipwreck sequence is both thrilling and terrifying, comparable to both White Squall and Titanic.

This film is not fit for the faint of heart. The shipwreck sequence is exciting and terrifying and very intense. There are also many sequences involving the tiger and other aspects. The viewer knows that the tiger is in the lifeboat, but we do not know where exactly he is, or when he will jump out and roar. This really brings on the conflict of man vs. carnivore. Other conflicts are: man vs. nature, and man vs. self (oh, and man vs. CGI; ha, ha). Both Pi and Richard must fight against waves and crazy storms. Pi struggles with his own faith and wicked hunger.

Life of Pi is a near-perfect film that gets its pacing thrown off at the ending. The ending raises questions of all the events that have preceeded it, and it adds a great sense of ambiguity. Nonetheless, it is very thought-provoking.

Life of Pi is a visually beautiful film, it’s surprisingly funny, it has a great story, great direction, wonderful cinematography, great conflicts and relationships, and it has many aspects of it that can be magnificent, terrifying, thought-provoking and saddening. The actors bring it all to the table, and short list of performers carry the film very well. This is one of the best films of the year that will be a large Oscar contender. If you’re going to see this, see it in its full 3D glory.

90/100