Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Maleficent

Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Produced by: Joe Roth

Screenplay by: Linda Woolverton

Based on: Disney's Sleeping Beauty
La Belle Au Bois Dormant by Charles Perrault

Starring: Angelina Jolie
Sharlto Copley
Elle Fanning
Sam Riley
Imelda Staunton
Juno Temple
Lesley Manville

Music by: James Newton Howard

Cinematography by: Dean Semler

Editing by: Chris Lebenzon
Richard Pearson

Studio(s): Walt Disney Pictures
Roth Films

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): May 28, 2014 (United Kingdom)
May 30, 2014 (United States)

Running time: 97 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $180 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $743, 781, 750

So, this will be my last film to review for the month of July. I've already given y'all enough excuses and reasons as to why everything has been belated this summer. This will be followed by a review of the July, and hopefully I'll get one, maybe two more reviews done before Thursday, because I'm on the road again for V Festival and for the next few weeks. I've already got ahead and seen Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Purge: Anarchy, and hopefully I'll see a couple of more before I head away. As ever, for all the latest and greatest about the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Maleficent, Disney's live-action re-imagining of the story of Sleeping Beauty, made previously by Walt Disney in 1959 as animated feature, only for this 2014 adaptation the story is portrayed from the perspective of the titular antagonist. Angelia Jolie, who stars as the main character and is the name on the marquee, has been attached to this project for a number of years, as Tim Burton was originally planning to direct the picture. When he opted to leave, Robert Stromberg, the production designer for Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Avatar (for which Stromberg won with Rick Carter my Dante Ferretti Award for Best Production Design) and Oz, The Great And Powerful, was drafted in to helm. While I think her work outside acting is perhaps even more commendable than her film work, I've been a fan of Angelina Jolie for some time (she won Best Female Actor in a Leading Role from me in 2008 for Changeling) and feel she's one of the most interesting female actors of the past ten-fifteen years, so I was interested enough going into this. So, story goes that Maleficent (Jolie) is a faerie living in the Moors, a magical realm bordering a human kingdom, who has over the years developed a friendship with a human peasant called Stefan (Sharlto Copley). However, his ambition to become king overshadows their mutual affection, and when the current king is defeated in battle by those of the faerie kingdom, he offers to name whoever kills Maleficent the successor to his throne. Stefan burns off Maleficent's wings, offering them as evidence of her death, and ascends to the throne. A little while later, Maleficent, the once humble and benevolent faery who has since become a cruel, wicked witch, is informed by her servant Diaval (Sam Riley) that Stefan and his queen are christening their daughter Aurora. Gate-crashing the ceremony, Maleficent takes her revenge on Stefan out on Aurora, who is cursed prick her finger on a spindle wheel on her sixteenth birthday to fall into a death-like sleep, from which she can only be awakened by true love's kiss. Fifteen years later, Aurora (Elle Fanning) becomes enamoured with faery world and develops an acquaintance of sorts with Maleficent, who she believes to be her fairy godmother, unwitting of the true scheme at work. Blah blah blah. That's just expository setup, so excuse me for the mouthfuls! Got it? Good!

Starting with the good, the film has four solid performances, nothing groundbreaking by any means, but still enough positive work to give the film some anchoring. Angelina Jolie absolutely revels in the opportunity to play the fairy tale 'good girl gone bad' Maleficent. Beginning the film as an earthy creature, after the much-discussed (and legitimately harrowing) scene in which Stefan drugs her and takes her wings (which Jolie plays brilliantly), Jolie's Maleficent transforms into every bit the pantomime Disney villain as much as Glenn Close's Cruella de Vil. It's a very theatrical part, but it's never over the top, with Jolie's vocal line delivery being deliberate and authoritative. Also, her expressive features mean that when moments of humour come along, we start to see the facade of callousness break. Jolie deserves the praise she's received for this textured performance. We also have Sharlto Copley in there as Stefan, who, though occasionally hammy, is reminiscent of Gary Oldman in that he does manage to bring credibility to the part. Same can be said for Sam Riley (the inaugural winner of my Kevin Spacey Award for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role for 2007's Control), who has strong onscreen chemistry with Jolie as Maleficent's confident Diaval. Finally, Elle Fanning, though in a less complex role than we've seen her in the past, continues her rise as one of Hollywood's most promising young talents with her charismatically likeable Princess Aurora. One of the other things to be praised about the film is the overall look of the mise-en-scene. Perhaps this is to be expected with director Robert Stromberg's history in various aspects of design, but Maleficent does have a distinctive and unique look about it. The visual effects and production design of the faerie kingdom in various stages (after Maleficent's evolution, it changes from a wondrously cute land of cute things and what have you to the proverbial "hillside desolate" Morrissey would sing about in a long forgotten song; nudge nudge, wink wink!) is simply splendid, and the goes for many of the other sets and design aspects involved. Also, the make-up/hair department and costume designers deserve credit for their collective efforts in bringing these characters to life. With the greatest of respect to Jolie's natural abilities, they've done a terrific job in making her look every bit the part, with her cheekbones elevated, jawline sunken in and red lips standing out as a contrast to the paleface make-up, and the headpiece and long black dress just adding more and more character to, well, this character. All of this is accentuated by the cinematography of Dean Semler. From the Mad Max sequels, Oscar-winning work on Dances With Wolves and the likes of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, Semler has a way of shooting unobtrusively in a way that the cinematographer and camera does not supersede but instead highlights and adds to the atmosphere made by the designers. The case is no different here; there's no gimmickry or shaky-cam buffoonery, just good old-fashioned photography. Finally, as far as directorial debuts go, Stromberg could do a lot worse than Maleficent. This is a good, enjoyable release from Disney, a welcome surprise and at just under one hundred minutes, it's a lot more immediately accessible than some of the more cumbersome releases of this blockbuster season. While Maleficent is not without issue, which I'll get to, it clearly hit home with its audience, and shows there is a market for this big-budget, Tim Burton-esque kind of picture when it's done well. Although judging by Burton's recent work, Stromberg has arguably out-Burtoned Burton, and needn't worry about having to establish himself outside of that director's looming dark shadow.

Now, as I said, Maleficent is not without issues, the issues laying in a few certain areas which, while not degrading the movie to the point that's of a bad quality, do deny it from being a great or a very good movie. The first thing at fault I found was the script. As you saw, there was a lot waffle to get through in my plot synopsis, and the same can be said for the movie, because it takes about thirty to forty minutes of screen-time to just establish the backstory. Realistically, all of the expository details there should have been done and dusted in ten to fifteen minutes, and the fact that it takes up approximately a third of the film's runtime does reveal a structural flaw. Secondly, although I was impressed with the characterisation of some of the principal's, many of the film's minor characters are simplistic tropes which just come across as filler. For instance, the three pixies are quite clearly just comic humour fodder, their existence merely serving to provide for stupid moments of levity amid the film's drama, and do not serve to do justice to Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville or Juno Temple, three female actors talented enough to hold lead roles in their own right. Also, the Prince Philip character, who like Aurora we're meant to realise is 'the one' who's going to break Maleficent's curse upon her, is so bland that I refused to buy into him in any way, shape or form. On another point of issue, though rather more minor than the script, although I like James Newton Howard, this is one of those films scores that is just phoned-in without any active participation or providing elevation of the material. Maybe it was studio-imposed impositions (this is, after all, $180 million-budgeted picture), but I just didn't have the feelings of inspiration I have got from Newton Howard's work in, say, Pretty Woman, The Fugitive, Primal Fear or The Sixth Sense. My final issue was with the editing, which I do have to say feels a bit scattershot. The film's two editors Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson are associated mostly with working on action movies, not that that is a problem for the film's occasional action scenes, but the same aesthetics do not apply to conversations, dialogues and some of the more serene moments involving the film's design. I feel that the editors needed to show a little more tact when it came to the bigger picture.

I will not deny Maleficent is a movie with it's flaws, most specifically in the departments involving the script, the score and the editing. I do feel that these elements hold the movie down from achieving the status of being among the great Disney fantasies that it could have been. That said, neither will I deny that even with these flaws, it still stands as a good, perfectly acceptable watch. I think that Angelina Jolie is terrific in the title role, completely relishing playing the part of playing the cold-hearted villainess, but not without an element of pathos. Also strong in the principal cast are Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning and Sam Riley. From a design standpoint, this is a well-realised picture, with director Robert Stromberg's background lending to the whole shebang. It's also shot by an atmospherically-intuned cinematographer in Dean Semler, whose work accentuates that of the designers and visual effects departments. At under one hundred minutes, this is a relatively brisk studio picture from Disney, and judging from the box-office (it has grossed over four times it's budget at $736 million worldwide), there have been some smart decisions in the archetypal boardroom meetings as regards to marketing and the film itself. Though by no means anything as special as the box-office figures would indicate, Maleficent is still a solid Disney fantasy with a terrific lead performance from Jolie and an enjoyably brisk flick.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.4/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Racked (with many things to do! V Festival coming up this weekend and still work to be done. Argh!)

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