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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Heaven is for Real (2014)

Heaven is for RealReleased: April 16, 2014. Directed by: Randall Wallace. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church. Runtime: 99 min.

Each year in cinema, trends pop up. May they be post-apocalyptic films, last year’s McConaissance, and Young Adult adaptations that just aren’t going away – sometimes these trends are here to stay. One trend of 2014 is religious and faith-based films. This year has seen the release of Son of God and the controversial Noah. The latest faith-based film is called Heaven is for Real

It’s a film set in the town of Imperial, Nebraska; based on an event that occurred back in 2004. A four-year-old boy (Connor Corum) has a near-death experience and claims to have seen Heaven. His parents Todd (Greg Kinnear) and Sonja (Kelly Reilly, Flight) don’t know how to interpret it. They don’t want their kid to become a laughing stock or just a piece of controversy. He soon does find the courage to share his son’s life-changing experience with his parish and then the world six years later, when he wrote a novel about it.

This does seem like a life-changing experience; seeing Heaven could give someone a whole new perspective on life. The concept of Heaven being a concrete fact could frighten some people. I find that hard to understand because it’s an idea that gives me great comfort. They could be afraid to know if their loved ones are or are not in Heaven. Some people believe they see Heaven in the little things on Earth. Some of these ideas are portrayed through Margo Martindale’s character. One aspect of the film isn’t handled with the most realism. I could understand why non-religious people might be maddened by the controversy, but why do the religious folks of this town seem to be so disturbed by it? It’s not like he had a near-death experience and visited Hell instead, and spoke of Hitler being flogged.

I understand where Colton’s parents are coming from, because no one wants to see their kid be ridiculed or seen as vastly different. Colton goes from being an ordinary kid to a sorta ordinary kid with an incredible story. Conveniently, Colton isn’t in pre-school yet, so it’s his parents and older sister who receive the tame backlash of the people who bother to say something. Kinnear’s good in a few scenes and just adequate in others. He’s believable as a father figure and a pastor. I think Reilly is particularly great in two scenes and good the rest of the time. I felt their pain when they thought their son was going to die – it seems like a horrifying experience. Parents will really feel their pain.

Connor CorumConnor Corum is convincing in the way that we could believe he sees Heaven. Another notable aspect is his facial expressions during a rendition of “We Will Rock You,” which border on funny and downright creepy. Otherwise, his performance as Colton is quite distracting. After he halfheartedly delivers his line, he just vacantly looks at his scene partner. When he’s watching his father on stage at Church, he’s vacant with a “I want to be somewhere else” look on his face – the way I looked when I was a kid going to Church. He’s realistic in the way that he’s a kid and he just wants to play– but it’s going to take people out of the movie. Can’t Pierce Gagnon (Looper) portray every kid under the age of 10? Corum is surely cast for his cuteness and resemblance to the real-life Colton Burpo. By the way, you can tell Burpo isn’t a fictional last name because no one can make that shit up. No one’s that cruel! If that was a fictional last name, that would be more humour to accompany the flairs of lite comedy found throughout.

Your enjoyment of the film might depend on your personal faith and tolerance for films with no antagonists. The conflicts are largely man vs. self; people wrestling with their beliefs of this situation. There’s not one antagonist. The sometimes slack narrative could have benefited from one or two. I’m surprised this film is able to milk 99 minutes out of this material. The first twenty minutes is practically all filler. The father is a pastor who works a lot of jobs to make a living and improve his small church in any way he can. The film actually gets into the plot when Colton is rushed to the emergency room after a ruptured appendix that started on the way home from a trip in Denver. 

Without this filler the film would be quite short. Even at its length now, it feels slow, with only self-conflicts to keep the film going. Two sub-plots arise that don’t get consistent focus or a conclusion. They might have helped advance the story a bit. You cannot fault the film for staying focused on the story at-hand. One of the sub-plots is money troubles, where solutions are offered but then the sub-plot is dropped completely. 

Heaven is for Real does prove that films can still be mildly successful with no major antagonists. If screenwriters Randall Wallace and Chris Parker offered an adaptation with a few fictional antagonists, perhaps the narrative would be more compelling. We see so many films that take minor detours from true stories, so what would have been the harm in one more? God forbid the Burpo vision becomes tainted! 

All in all, this is a lovely little drama with a lot of meaning. It could have a more engaging story with some more substance, other than strictly thematic substance. Hey, at least the Nebraska settings make the film look nice. Granted, some people still are not going to believe the story at hand. Since so many sub-plots go unsolved, this still might have the same effect if some opinionated person just stood up and said before the end credits, “I still call bullshit on all of this.” Now, putting that in a Hollywood film would be brave and courageous.

Score65/100

 

Noah (2014)

NoahReleased: March 28, 2014. Directed by: Darren Aronofsky. Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins. Runtime: 138 min.

A film cloaked in controversy from the get go, Noah turns out to be a good, unique film. It’s controversial because it’s a largely different take on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis. It keeps the theme of cleansing the earth of its wickedness, but visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky furthers the moral battle to the titular Noah, which keeps the film going well past the flood. As a faithful adaptation, it’s not great – but as Aronofsky’s unique vision, it is. It just depends on how the viewer looks at it.

I choose to focus on the more positive aspects, so I look as it more as a fascinating vision of a great director. Major innovations to the story include protectors that are practically stone giants, which might just be the strangest thing about this film. In this world, there are two vastly different communities: one large and one quite small. Noah (Russell Crowe) leads his family who are taking care of duties on the ark, since he is chosen by the world’s leader to build the ark so the world can be rebuilt to cleanse the earth of its wickedness. This group represents good. The other group is a representation of the wickedness of men, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). The story raises the idea that all persons have the will to sin and give over to temptation.

These ideas make most of the characters have inner conflicts. These can sometimes be frustrating to the viewer. It gets an emotional reaction from the viewer, hatred or not, it works to effect. Amongst the most conflicted is of course Noah. It’s a crazy amount of responsibility, the task he’s been given by the Creator. It seems that this a different world, as if it’s made that we’re to assume this is God they’re talking about – but He’s only referred to as the Creator. That might just add on to the controversy, whether or not the film’s ignoring Him, or if Aronofsky only wants to call him Creator. It never feels like the film-makers have an anti-Christianity mindset. Anyway, Noah’s inner battles with himself are fascinating; as are the contrasts made between him and Tubal-cain. Russell Crowe carries the film well, assisted by the rest of the talented cast. One can begin to understand the character, despite some crazy decisions. Ray Winstone is also good as his character. My only complaint about both of them is that they have a bad habit of whispering dialogue.

It’s cool to see the extreme lengths Aronofsky go to in order to portray the wickedness of man. There’s a repetition of imagery of a Serpent, the Adam and Eve story, and the story of Cain and Abel throughout. This is another symbol of the temptation and sin of man. I also like the way Aronofsky portrays Noah’s visions. Some of his visions make this feel like a big-budget Take Shelter at times. There’s a cool sequence where Noah’s underwater and animals swim to the surface with him two by two. The visuals are magnificent, as is the Iceland scenery. Due to the scenery and variations of animals, the time setting of the film – biblical times or a futuristic setting, in the vein of After Earth – remains open to interpretation. Some visual effects are dizzying when they aren’t dazzling. It’s mostly when the passage of time is shown. The style used is fast-forwarded imagery. The way the story transitions to where the Ark , where two birds fly over several landscapes to get to the Ark, is like a short film in itself.

The film might as well be divided into three chapters: before the flood, when it strikes and during, and after. Seeing how this world works in the first chapter is fascinating. When it strikes, the visuals are phenomenal, and things on the Ark get a bit strange, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that. It flows all pretty well. It’s a character and cast-driven film. Jennifer Connelly is very good as Naameh. She captures the anxiety of the situation well. Anthony Hopkins is great as Noah’s great grandfather Methuselah, who craves berries, and gives Noah guidance. Logan Lerman is good as Ham, who is one of the film’s most frustrating character. Douglas Booth as Shem does his job. The youngest child, Japheth, portrayed by newcomer Leo McHugh Carroll, is given nothing to do here. He might have five lines of dialogue. A real impressive star in this film is Emma Watson. She’s believable in almost every way, and the character’s insecurities makes her relateable to audiences. I really can’t wait to see more from her.

It will be interesting to see what Aronofsky tackles next. From what I’ve seen of his, he directs character-driven films, which is an aspect that works well for this. The dark tone and epic scale suit this, as well. Noah might not be what you expect going into the film. Expect a different sort-of cinematic experience. Since the film is so different from the original story that’s extremely tame in comparison; a fair deal of it is unpredictable. Unpredictable means surprises, and this has them in spades.

Score75/100

March 28-30 Box Office Predictions: Swear words and Sabotage of biblical proportions

box office (1)Jason Bateman’s Bad Words is one of the new releases coming out this weekend, but it’s been in limited release since the 14th of March, and has grossed $837 thousand. It premiered at TIFF back in September, and it looks pretty awesome. Since one of the taglines is “suck my dictionary,” I’m really excited. I think it looks hilarious. I don’t think this will gross a lot this weekend; but I think $6.7 million is a good enough expectation.

Noah will be the winner this weekend. I think it’s more than guaranteed it’ll gross around $30 million this weekend, and $40 million is very likely, but I think it’ll be a huge surprise hit, much like last year’s World War Z. It’s of one of the three Biblical movies this weekend; it’s the second one after Son of God, and the next one will be Exodus. This stars Russell Crowe as the titular Noah; and it also stars Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman. It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky. I’m ecstatic to see this. The story of Noah fascinates me, and I’m excited to see a new film about it, and I love Aronofsky’s style. I’ve only seen his film Black Swan, but I’m excited to see more. Similar films open to $33.49 million. My prediction for this film is $56.5 million.

Sabotage is David Ayer’s newest film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Malin Akerman and Sam Worthington. I think this film looks promising. Movies similar to this open at $13.86 million. I’m curious to see if Schwarzenegger’s star power and Ayer’s direction will allow this to gross near End of Watch‘s $13.15 million. Both of Schwarzenegger’s starring vehicles since his comeback haven’t grossed double digits in its opening weekend (excluding The Expendables 2). The Last Stand was a fun movie that made $6.3 million in its opening, and Escape Plan made $9.9 million (so close). Since Arnie obviously doesn’t have as much star power as he once did, but I’m going to say this grosses $9.5 million in its opening weekend.

Here’s how I see the Top 10:

1. Noah: $56.5 million
2. Divergent: $28 million
3. Muppets Most Wanted: $10.883 million
4. Sabotage: $9.5 million
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel: $9 million
6. Bad Words: $6.7 million
7. Mr. Peabody & Sherman: $6.3 million
8. God’s Not Dead: $6 million
9. 300: Rise of An Empire: $4.2 million
10. Need for Speed: $3.8 million