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 Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games - Catching FireReleased: November 22, 2013. Directed by: Francis Lawrence. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth. Runtime: 146 min.

If you don’t feel like reading this 11-paragraph review, the most hyperbolic sentence is probably: “This is immensely enjoyable and one of the year’s strongest films.”

It’s impressive when big blockbuster sequels can improve over their predecessor in significant ways. What’s even more impressive is that the writers manage to make a great adaptation of a decent book. The film opens up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting, something that used to give her more solace than it does now. When she hunts and kills a turkey, she gets flashbacks to killing Marvel in the Hunger Games arena; which is something that creatively compelled me right away. One can tell from her eyes that she is saddened, and is suffering from guilt.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) meets with the young victor to try to prevent an uprising within the Districts of Panem. Katniss has convinced most of the people of the Districts of the love shared between her and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but she hasn’t convinced Snow. As seen in the film’s trailers, the 75th annual Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell to remind a new generation of those who fell within the Rebellion seventy-five years ago. This time, President Snow is also using it as a way to remind the people of Panem that no one is invincible – and to that, the names for the Reaping will be drawn from the existing pool of victors; thus saying, Katniss and Peeta or Haymitch will have to fight in the games once again, this time against trained killers.

There are many new characters introduced, but I’ll only discuss a few. Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is the gamemaker that replaces Senecca Crane (Wes Bentley) – and he’s far more interesting. There only a few tributes remembering, and they are the District 3 tribute Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), a technology wizard; Wiress (Amanda Plummer) of District 3; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “Snow White and the Huntsman“) of District 4; Mags (Lynn Cohen) of District 4; and the tough-as-nails Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) of District 7. The returning characters are basically everyone who didn’t get killed off in the 74th Hunger Games. I’ll just move onto the performances because you already know the characters’ names.

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss, giving an even stronger performance than the first time around. This is because the character now realizes that she won’t have any privacy; and she doesn’t yet know what to do – love Peeta, which all people in the Capitol expect, or love Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her hunting buddy. I wish she could just play a game of Eenie-Meenie Miney-Mo, but it’s not that easy. The character is now suffering from post-traumatic stress, it seems to me, because she had to kill many people to survive in that arena last year. It is never really clear if she’s in love with Peeta or not, because she claims it’s just for the camera – but sometimes it seems real; so what the hell does her heart want? Lawrence is great at displaying all of her complicated emotions as the cheeky Everdeen. She is a great character, regardless, and she’s a real fighter – especially for those she loves. She’s always emotionally touching.

Josh Hutcherson is strong as Peeta, because he’s hurt because he realizes Katniss’ love for him was just for the cameras – but like I said, it’s kind-of in between the two of being real and fake at times. Woody Harrelson is very funny as Haymitch and great at being serious. Sam Claflin is likeable as Finnick Odair, and he acts decently throughout. Lynn Cohen’s role of Mags isn’t a talking one, and I can’t recall if she was a mute in the novel; but she is a real sweetheart. Stanley Tucci is still awesome and eccentric as Caesar Flickerman, the eccentric talk-show host of everyone’s dreams.

The plot is strong because it has spectacular pacing for a 146-minute feature. Much like the first film, the Games themselves are only a part of this story. The concept of this dysoptian future fascinates me; and I like how it marries this futuristic culture with the bread en circuses of Ancient Roman culture. This is where the government gives food and entertainment to the people to keep them happy, so they won’t revolt against the government. In this case, the government is the Capitol, they give enough food to the people to keep the districts from starving, and the actual people of the Capitol have so much food, they drink an elixir that makes them throw up so they can stuff more in. The entertainment is of course, the Games. Suzanne Collins, the book’s author, must be fascinated with Ancient cultures – since she borrows that from Rome, and since a main tribute (Finnick) has a trident, used by the Greek god Poseidon.

I like the world Collins has created a lot because it’s hauntingly like our own in some ways; at least the entertainment way. These people actually watch a legitimate fight to the death, which would be morally wrong in this time to have that, but for cinema, it’s a great premise. I love movies like this (“The Condemned” is a guilty pleasure of mine), but this one is definitely not all about the killing. Half the time, the kills happen so fast that it’s to tell exactly who dies. Perhaps many of the tributes’ names aren’t revealed to us, because they just don’t have any identity that way – and they’re not that critical to the story in a few ways, so we won’t really care too much that they die. But when the villains die, I’d just like to see a bit more of the violence.

An unrealistic part of this all is the lack of blood during practically all of the kills. It is a PG-13 rated film, but realism should take precedence over ratings. A problem with the film is that, even with characters we know, when they die we just shrug it off with many because, we know only one person can survive, but it’s also because we don’t get much bonding time with them. That is a problem with one character Katniss befriends in the first film, when that person dies. (I’m trying not to spoil it too much!)

I like the iminent threats of the arena in this film, because they’re creative and happen at inconvenient times. It seems that there are more natural threats created by the gamemakers this time around than the previous film; and it keeps the action exciting. This story’s also strong because the film can just focus on the government politics of the potential uprising and trying to stop it by using fear and constant floggings to destroy the people’s spirit; and it can also focus on the Games.

The glamour of the Capitol people isn’t so in our face this time, but that’s because we were introduced to it in the first – and by now it just seems normal. The make-up and costume design is even better, especially a jaw-dropping piece for Katniss “created” by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). One thing that is way better is the cinematography because the new director, Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), doesn’t feel the need to move the camera around when people are just simply talking. Gary Ross did that, even when no action was occuring – and he did it a lot more when action was happening. No shaky cam makes me a happy camper, and I am sure it will please others, too.

There isn’t a lot of this film I don’t like, even if there are certain aspects it can improve on – but it has to appeal to the target audience. It’s still an immensely enjoyable movie and one of the year’s strongest films. I’ve seen this twice already, and that’s a rare occurence for me. (It’s great in both IMAX and 2D.) One more thing: The scenery is simply stunning. Reading the book is one thing, but to see this all come to life through its creative settings and beautiful landscapes, is just another whole spectacular feeling.

Score90/100

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror

Release Date: March 30, 2012

Director: Tarsem Singh

Stars: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer

Runtime: 106 min

Tagline: One Bad Apple

An evil Queen (Julia Roberts) steals power of a kingdom and then hides the true fairest of them all, Snow White (Lily Collins), in the castle. That is until Snow is exiled and she must fight for her birthright with the help of seven resourceful dwarfs.

Out of so many remakes of a classic tale, this does not stand out.  This is simply inferior to a fairly good Snow White adaptation, Snow White and the Huntsman.

Mirror Mirror remains in my mind as a boring experience made better by the stunning Lily Collins. It’s easy to believe that she’s the fairest in all the land. Roberts isn’t, especially those eerie mirror or old hag versions of her. The dwarfs are rather unappealing, with one being that little Yoda-looking nerd from The Benchwarmers. Armie Hammer is just okay, but he’s a star I don’t thoroughly enjoy. Hopefully, my opinion of him changes with next year’s The Lone Ranger.

Anyway, back to the movie in the judgement chair. The only other good thing about this film is the fresh idea it brings to the table. It’s the first adaptation to have the Prince be romantically interested in both Snow White and the Queen. For a film that only has two redeeming qualities, this is still branded a waste of time and effort.

In a nutshell: Mirror Mirror may offer a nice action experience for the kiddies, but they’re the only ones who will enjoy this. Granted, it’s tailored for them, but it should be bearable for the parents who have to take the little tykes. For anyone of an older audience who has seen the original 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will realize this is no worthy substitution.

40/100

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and the Huntsman

Release Date: June 1, 2012

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron

Runtime: 127 min

Snow White, the daughter of the late King, escapes from the clutches of the wicked Queen Ravenna after years of imprisonment. She has just escaped when the Magic Mirror informs Ravenna that Snow is the only one who could defeat her, because of her innocence and purity. If the Queen obtains and eats Snow’s heart, she won’t have to feed on any being’s life source ever again, and she will achieve immortality. The Queen sends a squad of men, led by the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), into the dark forest to get her back. When the Huntsman learns he is being played like a fiddle, he turns against the Queen’s men and teams up with Snow in the process. Meanwhile, Snow’s childhood friend, William, learns that she is alive and he sets off on the road to find her and offer some assistance to the situation.

Ah, Snow White and the Huntsmen, you fulfill your purpose, and you do it well. Snow White’s purpose is to offer a nice twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and it does just that. Almost so well, that I forgot what happened in the general source material (but that may because I haven’t seen it for a while), and this became a film of its own. It’s so convincing, that this may as well be the source material itself.

The character of the Huntsman is okay, because one could understand his motivations, but he wasn’t anything special. He was pretty sweet in war, and he’s likeable enough that one would be upset if he died. Hemsworth offers an okay performance at the same time, and says, “Hey! Forget Thor’s hammer, I’m pretty good with an axe, too!”

Ughck, why couldn’t the filmmakers have found a better person to cast as Snow White? Oh yeah, that’s right, Sanders wanted a good candidate to sleep with after the film finished. Seriously, Stewart is such a boring screen presence. As for the looks, she’s pretty fitting as Snow, but as for the acting skills and presence, not so much. What happened to her potential flare in 2002’s Panic Room? She has gotten so boring since that time, and she really should not have had the chance to be in another potential teen franchise. Please, Bella, stop it, and no one believed that phony accent (whatever the Hell it was) for a second. It’s sad that I liked her best when she was sleeping. Two battles were being fought in this one: the obvious one, Ravenna’s forces vs. King Magnus’ forces; but, there was also a not-so-obvious battle between Kristen Stewart and Sam Claflin (William), entitled “Who’s Going to End up Being more Boring?”[.] I think Claflin won, but not by much. That one scene where it was just those two, I almost fell asleep. The real person who truly shines through is the always-fantastic Charlize Theron. She’s just great and sometimes truly eerie as the wicked Queen Ravenna.

Most of the characters are just okay for me, Ravenna is the best. Snow White in the source material is great, but she isn’t as good now, mostly because Stewart is the face of her. The dwarfs were pretty great. There’s a number of known actors as the little people (like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, the great comedic presence Nick Frost, and Toby Jones). It was sort of cool how they made them look so small, too. I like the characters of the dwarfs, but I wasn’t a fan of the appearances. I just couldn’t help but pick on their hair. As a kid, their parents must have given each of them a bad haircut. And to add onto that, they went to Kindergarden class and a class bully took safety scissors and thought they were a hairdresser, and he made the hair even worse, and it never grew back. At least, that’s my theory.

Snow knows where it’s going, but at times it feels like it’s a struggle getting there. It does get there, but after some effort. I must add, the finale was great. It’s a little better than that battle scene of Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it pales in comparison to any battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The make-up is great, the finale is great, and the characters were just okay. The action, when it comes, is purely great, and the human Mirror thing was actually very cool. Charlize Theron steals the show, and at times, she’s almost as ugly as she was in 2003’s Monster.

70/100