MALEFICENT: WOMAN EMPOWERED


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MALEFICIENT IS MAGNIFICENT.

It’s a clever pre-quel that gives us the ‘true’ story of the wicked witch and the curse she placed upon the princess. It was, you may recall, a curse that doomed the princess Aurora to unending sleep, pricked as she was fated to on her sixteenth birthday, from the needle of a spinning-wheel, and only to be awoken by the kiss of a handsome prince.

That’s the story we got back in 1959 when Disney spun its Grimm fairy tale of an evil witch bent on revenge, and foiled by true love.

Back then, all it took was one kiss from a handsome (and rich) man to awaken a dormant beauty. And that wicked witch was all bad all the time.

But Disney 2014 begs to differ that we (and they) got it all wrong. Actually, Maleficent was a wonderful, kind, winged faery, loved by all in her magical kingdom… until she fell in love with a stranger – a human – who had wondered, innocent and unprotected, into her realm. He, it would turn out was just another grasping, overly ambitious lout (Sharlto Copely of “District 9” and “Elysium”), who, to please a dying king and win his crown, was prepared to feign love and lull a naive Maleficent into a defenceless and drugged sleep. He had his way with this other sleeping beauty by lopping off her wings, thereby ridding her of her freedom… and her trusting, loving heart.

But Maleficent, clipped but unbowed and aided by the wings of a shape-shifting raven, learns that the lout has become king and a father. And it is on his sweet innocent child that, braving the bristling defences of the castle, all aglow and festive with the celebration of the birth, she brings down the curse of everlasting sleep.

This is Angelina Jolie’s movie. She plays the part without any hint of campness or self-irony; and offers us a woman made bitter by deception. She dominates the story and the screen as a towering figure of cold imperious hauteur. With eyes like icy lasers and with prosthetically enhanced cheekbones, Angelina’s face offers us a “don’t fuck with me” look that can (and does) wither plants and make grown soldiers pause before summoning up the temerity to attack. (Apparently, she looked so fearsome in her make-up that none of the children chosen for the part of the baby princess could bear to be near to her without crying. The only one who could still snuggle up to witch Angelina was her own daughter, upon whom was thrust a starring role) But she also offers us the other side of Maleficent: the one who cries in despair and agony when she awakens to find herself shorn of her wings; and the one whose heart softens as she warms to the sweet innocence of the hiding princess Aurora (a wimpy Elle Fanning of “Super 8” and “We Bought a Zoo”).

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Ms. Jolie is absolutely one of two very good reasons why this is a movie worth seeing. The other is the stunning production design. Director Robert Stromberg is an old hand at creating fabulous fantasy worlds – as he did with his production designs of “Avatar” (and there are certainly strong echoes of that design here) and “Alice in Wonderland”. He hews close to the original Disney movie designs, and there are moments when we see the towering horned Maleficent in her flowing black robes with curling tongues of green fire licking the air around her, that seem to slip effortlessly from the original animation. But whereas the Disney movie had the usual Disney froth of singing animals, this one has a wonderful variety of strange creatures that ooze both charm and menace.

To all the hordes of children who will see this movie, it’s a simple story of a woman who lost her heart and, in the end regained it, so that all could end happily after. Love will out.

But there’s another narrative at work:

Maleficent, is quite clearly, the ‘woman wronged’. She is all women who have ever been deceived by men and by a male power structure. When her wings are ripped off her (an act of symbolic rape), she is forced to be earth bound; and can no longer soar above the realm of men. Her kingdom is, by its very nature (a peaceful diverse place of evergreen abundance run by a woman) a threat to the warlike feudal society of the rapacious humans (who we know tend to destroy worlds). But after this initial lapse of trust, men can no longer penetrate her strong defenses, though she remains unafraid to penetrate theirs. As we saw in Frozen, the kiss of revitalizing love cannot be trivialized to the kiss of some pimply prince upon a (defenceless) sleeping beauty, but demands real, earned love and honest emotions. When Maleficent regains her full powers toward the end, she literally breaks thru a glass ceiling, to champion the unification of the two, once warring kingdoms into one diverse and harmonious place under the tender reign of a woman (Princess Aurora).

Maybe the meta-narrative is a prescient red-carpet roll out for the ascent of Hillary to the American throne

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X-Men: Days of Future Past. Mutant Back to the Future


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The “X-Men” franchise (there are now six of them, including the Wolverine bunch) is clearly becoming one of those ‘movie events’ where established and wannabe movie stars must be haranguing their agents to get them a part in. It’s the sure-fire route to A-list status. This new version, “Days of Future Past” is a galaxy of glittering stars: the oldies Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page along with, relative newbies, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and even, fresh from King’s Landing, Peter Dinklage. How soon before we see John Travolta, in search of another come-back, Benedict Cumberbatch, who, by law, has to appear in anything important and popular, and Felicity Jones, who is too beautiful to be left out?

Since we’ve done the pre-quels already with “First Class” and the Wolverines, “Days of Future Past” is director Brian Singer’s clever pre-pre-quel, married to both this present and a present in a parallel universe. Be ye not confused grasshopper, it’s all quite simple: Wolverine (Hugh looking earnest and buff) has to go back in time via the incredible skills of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who helps channel his brain waves into his past (don’t ask) to stop Raven (a fightingly fit Jennifer Lawrence en route to morphing into Mystique) from killing sinister Dr. Bolivar Trask (the effortlessly engaging Peter Dinklage). Trask has developed warrior-killing machines, the Sentinels, intent on wiping out not only the mutants, but everyone else.

The story (sort of) traces the arc of the relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto (from mutual distrust and hatred to a sense of a shared mission). Seems that the enmity began over a woman: Lawrence’s Raven, loved by both men. And entirely understandable that is too.

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It is Wolverine’s less than admirable task of convincing the earlier versions of Xavier and Magneto that he’s been sent from the future by their future selves to convince them to join forces to defeat the evil Bolivar Trask by not killing him. A Herculean task if ever there was one. En route to the final – wonderfully visualized -denouement, we’re treated to an increasingly menacing Magneto (Fassbender) lift an entire football stadium off from its moorings and plonk it down around an embattled White House, in which a sleazy Nixon is bunkered.

We also zip through rips in the time/space continuum, marvel at the speed of Quicksilver – so quick that he can outrun bullets – and, pulled along by a series of set-piece fights, dazzling effects and the charisma of the principals, we’re allowed to ignore the impossible complexities of the plot so as to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

X-Men takes itself very seriously; and this works. There’s no irony, no inner joke coyness, no attempt at self-mockery. As a result, the audience, for the two hours of its existence on screen, are asked also to take it seriously too. It’s a delicate task; and Brian Singer (the original director of the franchise) pulls it off marvelously.

So far it hasn’t been a bad year of blockbusters: Captain America’s Winter Soldier was better than expected. Spider-Man’s second iteration in this second iteration was engaging and exciting; and now X-Men’s seventh go-around is a fun way to spend some time in the cinema.

 

The Two Faces of January: Look Away


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“THE TWO FACES of January” is a nonsensical B movie non-thriller that at least lives up to its name: one face displays the style and period clothes (it’s set in 1962) of a high concept mystery. The other reveals its truer self: a badly written made-for-video movie with brand name stars (Viggo Mortensen as con-man Chester; Kirsten Dunst as Colette, his clueless wife and Oscar Isaac, so good as Llewin Davis as Rydal, an American drifter and part time tourist guide)

The said two faces refer to Viggo’s Chester and Llewin’s Rydal. Chester we discover is on the run (somewhere in sun-drenched Greece) having fleeced gullible investors back in the US. By chance he encounters Rydal – another American and as the story labours to point out, a mini version of himself, engaged in small-time hustles of unsuspecting tourists.

They’re two sides of the same coin. Get it?

It’s when a private investigator turns up at his hotel and is accidentally killed by Chester that on the run turns into sweaty flight.

Chester and Colette leave the hotel hurriedly without first reclaiming their passports (Huh? Why not simply check out?). Thank goodness they have the assistance of Rydal who, though he doesn’t know them, helps Chester stash the dead PI (who he thinks is just a drunk that Chester is simply helping like any Good Samaritan would). He then locates a friend who happens to make forged passports. (Hey anyone would do that for a passing stranger. No questions asked.) As for wife, Colette, she’s just too oh so full of bubbly spirit, to actually either notice or care what’s happening until the penny finally drops half way through the movie, after which point her expression shifts from giddy delight to perplexity.

But these are important expressions, call them facial tics. They won the heart of Rydal. Who’d have thunk it? This callow hustler dumped a beautiful and wealthy ‘find’, sourced the forged passports and decided to go on the lam with her and Chester because he’d fallen in love. How touching.

Now maybe I’ve seen too many B movies, but the first rule of running from the law is to change your look. Especially when your face is front-page news. But Chester is as dumb a blonde as his wife and he insists on wearing the same cream-coloured I-am-a-foreigner-on-holiday suit throughout.

Which leads to various chases in dark alleys accompanied by the quivering violins of composer Alberto Iglesias (a famous name who’s composed for some famous movies such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardner”).

At least we can be thankful that the movie’s short: it comes in at just 90 minutes or so.

Seems director Hossein Amini himself (writer of other masterworks such as “Snow White and the Huntsman” “47 Ronin” and “Drive”) realized, like his characters, he too needed to cut bait and run.