Skip to main content

What have you done to my beautiful self?

Maleficent
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Probably the most charitable thing one can say about Maleficent is that it’s inoffensive. Except to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent that is, who would likely take great exception to being thoroughly debased as a sentimentalist with a warmest of hearts beneath the cruelty and darkness. Whatever next, a cuddly Shere Khan? It might be its bland innocuousness that explains Maleficent’s unlikely success (it’s 2014’s third most popular movie worldwide), that and an evident (hitherto untapped) appetite for female-led fantasy movies. Parents probably didn’t mind taking their kids to a picture that wasn’t especially scary, didn’t last all that long, and had an easily graspable moral wedged in there (and, “It’s a love story between a mother and daughter”). But looking for reasons for its success can’t explain away that this is another empty big budget fantasy among a glut of late. There isn’t an ounce of filmmaking verve or passion, not a jot of storytelling drive, not a mote of genuine drama or conflict, or even any decent comic relief (a Disney failsafe).  The case for the defence? The cinematography is quite nice (if generic) and Angelina Jolie at least looks the part.


Ah yes, the look. I was surprised to hear that Maleficent was in development prior to Jolie’s involvement. Throughout (what seems like) a long period of development hell the one thing that seemed evident more than anything else was this was a classic example of wrong-footed reverse engineering. Some suits saw Jolie’s perfect bone structure, connected it to the Sleeping Beauty villainess, and bingo, there’s a movie. It didn’t matter that there was no story, less still that the character was evil. Maleficent looks cool. So the only option, once you wade into the pool of basing movie-making decisions on iconography alone, is that she becomes a good gal wronged. There’s the lesson to anyone hoping to see a Boba Fett movie. Even when there is back-story, delving into it tends to be doomed to failure. Didn’t anyone see what happened when they tried to explain Darth Vader?


That’s not to say there aren’t strong themes or isn't memorable imagery in the picture, but they fall flat where they aren’t relying on Sleeping Beauty itself. The evil Maleficent is basically sandwich filler, the wherefores and whys usurping what Jolie rightly references as a “deliciously evil” character. If she likes the character that much, she surely wouldn’t have become interested in “What on Earth happened to her that she would be so angry that she would curse an innocent?” 


The clear-cut fairy tale transforms into a rocky yarn about a winged faerie living in an idyllic realm who is cruelly violated by her former human beau, gets thunderous and moody for a bit (but not really all that), and then makes up with everyone. It’s ironic that Jolie wanted to retain the crucial curse dialogue from the 1959 film when its tangent is oppositional to the current telling. After all, therein Maleficent dies when a man (a dashing prince) pierces her heart with his mighty sword (if you’re looking for sexual metaphors).


Here Sharlto Copley makes for a one-note King Stefan (like his District 9 director, he becomes less impressive the more exposure he gets), served with utterly incoherent motivation. Suffice to say he becomes a materialist and the childhood attraction he felt towards Maleficent fizzles. We know this because the narration (Janet McTeer doing a commanding job; she almost makes it feel classical and worthwhile at times, but only almost) keeps stopping us to fill in the gaps. I almost have a grudging admiration for the how overtly the picture relies on telling rather than showing, and how utterly reliant it is on McTeer’s older Aurora to make sense of the story.


 So, to impress his father (to prove he is a man), he cuts off Maleficent’s wings and so inspires her turn to darkness. Metaphorically, as a number of critics have noted, Stefan rapes Maleficent. However, I'm not overly persuaded by arguments for the picture's merits on the basis on of one scene's subtext. Not when the rest of the movie is so lacking. Later, Maleficent's lost wings miraculously reattachment themselves without so much as a roll of double sided sticky tape. If we're looking for unvarnished metaphors, the humans live in a Tolkien-Mordor-esque industrialised and despoiled world, and a patriarchal one to boot, whereas the bounteous land of the Moor is presided over by feminine energy.


Short of getting Neil Jordan in to pep this up thematically and content-wise, I doubt anything could have saved Maleficent. Yet the picture clearly connected with families on some level. I mean to say, I couldn’t even accuse it of being overtly maudlin or sentimental. Jolie occasionally gets behind the menace of her character, and her cut glass English accent matches her cheekbones, but even as she gets behind her character’s regret for her deeds she laudably resists amping up the sympathy. Elle Fanning is irritatingly chirpy throughout as Aurora. She just can’t quit with that nauseating smiling, which may mean she’s playing for wholesomeness or it may mean her character is a metaphor for over-prescription of mood altering pharmaceuticals to teenagers.


The comic relief of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple as feckless fairies falls flat, and their character design, big heads on small bodies, borrows some of the least attractive design characteristics of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Sam Riley is solid as the well-meaning crow-come-human Diaval. The moment where Maleficent first transforms him, and he swells from bird to man beneath a hunter’s net, is one of the very few moments in the picture that is creepy, imaginative and unsettling; the way a good fairy tale should be (metamorphoses into different creatures - including a dragon - ought to be thrilling, but they're disappointingly flat)


Dean Semler’s cinematography is fine, but this is yet another CGI world of shiny pixels and no substance (like Alice, like Oz). Debut director Robert Stromberg may have made an impression as production designer on Avatar, Alice and Oz, but he has been imbued with none of the craft and energy of those filmmakers. Maleficent maintains a deathly torpor. It has no zest (the laughs aren’t funny) and no excitement (more pixels attacking each other). Stromberg likes his widescreen, but he doesn’t inhabit it; we’re treated to little more than a series of vistas between McTeer informing us what happens next. As for James Newton Howard’s score, it’s forgettable when it isn’t insisting on a sub-Danny Elfman choral ethereality. Rick Baker’s make up for Jolie is fine, but just about everything else is familiar and forgettable.


Linda Woolverton, who slew another great children’s story with Burton’s Alice, repeats the trick here. Hollywood seems to like her though, so she’s sequelising Alice next. Just what was required. Apparently she went through 15 drafts of the Maleficent script, so God knows how bad it was initially. The only memorable dialogue comes from the original Disney animation; how undernourished is a screenplay when the protagonist/antagonist warns, “It’s over” to the villain, straight out of a contemporary action movie? 


The occasional reversal works; for example, having true love’s kiss come from Aurora’s surrogate mother rather than Brendan Thwaites’ sub-boy band prince. But the emotional beats are undeveloped so none of them play; why Stefan is such a bastard, why Maleficent develops affection for Aurora, why Aurora develops affection for Maleficent. It is so because McTeer tells us it is so.


If Maleficent comes across as a truncated and diced-up affair, that may be because it is. Hence the narration. Yet there’s little sense that we’ve lost vital parts of the story, as nothing therein feels vital. Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi were excised as the fairy queen and king of the Moors, which on the one hand is a shame as the picture desperately needed some good meaty thesping. On the other it would have extended a lifeless picture’s running time further.


It isn’t difficult to see why Brad Bird, Tim Burton and David Yates all passed on the project. There’s no meat on Maleficent’s bones, no emotional pulse and absolutely nothing that is deliciously cruel. What we have is the latest in a line of sub-par fairy and fantasy retellings, Last year’s Oz and Jack the Giant Slayer were as inert as this is, but didn’t do nearly as well (Jolie at least has presence; the leads in those two were nigh on inconspicuous). Snow White and the Hunstman was as misconceived as Maleficent, but at least benefited from some strong supporting actors and a first time director who, unlike here, came across as if he had something to prove. The worst aspect of Maleficent is that its success rivals Alice in Wonderland in the “That’ll do” stakes. Someone really needs to try harder, but the only place where this is happening is in animated features. At least Disney fairy tales can still be trusted in their natural habitat.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…