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Column Fri May 30 2014

Maleficent, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Cold in July, Filth, The Dance of Reality & Chinese Puzzle

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Maleficent

I'm a bit confused as to why this film even exists, but it's not because I don't believe in retelling a classic animated fairy tale as live action works — albeit told from the perspective of its dark and mysterious villain. And I don't even mind that the writers of Maleficent gave the evil queen (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie, with more severe cheeks than she has in real life thanks to some subtle prosthetics) a backstory that explains why Maleficent had it out for Sleeping Beauty, her family and their kingdom. I guess the elements of this movie that kept me scratching my head was why they felt the need to surgically remove nearly all traces of Maleficent's evil nature and have her become something of a stepmother and role model for the pre-sleeping Aurora (Elle Fanning).

Clearly influenced by the Wicked template of taking a classic "evil" character and showing how she started out so loving and became so full of hate, Maleficent follows the life of the winged fairy (who has feathered wings, rather than the other fairy characters who sport insect-like wings), acting as something of the guardian of the woods in her younger years. Her magical kingdom sits adjacent to a human kingdom, from which a young man named Stefan comes to visit her, and the two seem to start something of a courtship. But when the king, is injured attempting to invade Maleficent's realm, he tells his soldiers that whoever kills her will become the new king. Still having feelings for Maleficent, Stefan drugs her and clips her wings, bringing them as proof of her death, thus making him the new king (played by Sharlto Copley as an adult).

When the new king and his wife have their first child, Maleficent comes out of hiding, fully bitter and enraged at the human world as a whole, particularly at King Stefan and his family, and the well-known sleeping curse is placed on baby Aurora — needle prick puts her in a death-like sleep, true love's kiss, the whole nine. The king then sends his still-infant daughter to a remote location with three fairies (played in miniaturized form by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) sworn to protect the girl. Naturally, Maleficent finds the girl, but rather than simply kill her or kidnap her, she secretly raises her and begins to realize (perhaps too late) that the girl is so hopelessly good and pure that to curse her in such a way would be cruel.

There's a line delivered by the film's unseen narrator (Janet McTeer) near the end of the movie that essentially says, "See, not everything you've heard about this story is true," which the filmmakers must have inserted as a means of excusing the radical plot and character changes that have been made. But when adjusting such a well known story, the question should be asked everything a significant deviation is written: Does this change make the story better? And without fail, the answer is consistently "No" in Maleficent. Still worse, these changes appear to have been made because they could, and not to improve an admittedly straight-forward, not-especially-original plot. I actually like some of the backstory ideas, but even they start to lose sense when Stefan simply turns against this exotic creature whom he has grown quite close to, as if a missing scene exists that would explain why he would suddenly care about being king.

There's no doubt that the film has been art directed and CGI'd to death, almost to the point where huge portions of what is shown on screen looks animated rather than photo-real. First-time feature director Robert Stromberg (the Oscar-winning art director of James Cameron's Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) is handy with a green screen, but seems utterly lost when it comes to instructing his actors on giving us some emotional substance to cling to. Most of the character development and personality traits seem to come to life almost accidentally in the hands of gifted actors like Jolie and Fanning. As far as her performance goes, Jolie mostly shifts between mean face and sinister smiley face, which really shows off her stunning teeth, but doesn't give us a whole lot to work with. Still, she occasionally lets loose with a few lines of well-delivered dialogue that gives us some idea of where he head and heart are at.

Once the "sleeping" part of the Sleeping Beauty legend kicks is, the filmmakers apparently felt the need to keep the surprises coming by changing up all sort of things unnecessarily. Don't be fooled by the third-act introduction of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), who may or may not be the answer to all of Aurora's problems. Nothing is quite as it seems where this movie is concerned, and that's rarely a good thing. One of Maleficent's few bright spots is the fleshing out (literally) of the character of Diaval, the evil queen's pet bird, who she transforms into a man (Sam Riley) whenever she needs someone to talk to, or into other animals depending on what the situation requires. While neither the dramatic nor comic (nor romantic) possibilities of Diaval aren't fully explored, at least Riley has a bit of fun playing the devoted pet.

A few random points: It felt like about 80 percent of Maleficent takes place in dark or shaded locations, so spending the extra money to watch it in 3-D would be a colossal waste of your money. Also, I had to double-check what the rating was on this film (it's PG), because there are a few moments in the film that are surprisingly shocking and scary — not gory, but still, having a young woman get her giant wings cut off while she's asleep is fairly devastating stuff, and her resulting screams could easily upset the PG set. Disney was handed a gift when they avoided a PG-13 rating on this one.

Maleficent feels scattered, slapped together and not nearly as emotionally sound as it needs to be to successfully blend fantasy with the kind of family drama that it seems to aspire to become. There's no denying that the visuals are often rich and creative, but they are just as often flat and uninspired. Jolie doesn't work enough in a given year for us not to be a little extra disappointed that she's in a film that simply can't keep up with her effort. The film is an exercise in frustration because it's easy to see that there is something great just out of reach, and the closer they get, the more frustrating the experience of watching Maleficent becomes. In the end, people will talk about costumes and scenery when they discuss this work, and very little will be said about heart and soul.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

The film has a few laughs; let's make that perfectly clear. And anyone — critic or otherwise — who says that A Million Ways to Die in the West is trying to be Blazing Saddles wasn't paying attention when they watched either. If anything, the new film from director and star Seth MacFarlane (who also directed the very funny Ted) could probably have benefitted from being a little more like the Mel Brooks film, considered by many to be one of the funniest films ever made. Brooks actually loved Westerns and understood what made them tick beyond just the lovely desert photography.

MacFarlane never gets beyond the premise set forth in his title: the "American West" (as it's often referred to) is a place designed to kill people via other people, wild animals, terrible doctors or random acts of death. That alone is a workable premise, except the MacFarlane is so excited about showing us his Actor Face after years of voice work on "Family Guy," "American Dad," Hellboy 2 and Ted, that he makes that the centerpiece of the film and not a clear understanding about what makes the West so unique and strange.

MacFarlane plays a sheep farmer named Albert, who has a knack for talking his way out of dangerous situations rather than get involved in a fist or gun fight. After one such evasion, his long-time girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) starts to see him as not enough of man, so she leaves him and soon hooks up with a far manlier (you can tell because he has a mustache and is played by Neil Patrick Harris) and richer Foy. Dismayed, Albert loses himself in work until a stranger rides into town in the guise of the lovely Anna (Charlize Theron), who seems to be handy with a gun, making her tougher than Albert as well. What no one in town knows is that Anna is actually married to the dreaded outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson), who will arrive in town a couple weeks after Anna, and in that time period Anna teaches Albert how to shoot... and how to care about someone for the right reasons. She's also not above helping Albert make Louise a little jealous at the town fair.

While MacFarlane and crew aren't exactly dropping '80s references in their dialogue, their modern speak and sensibilities underscore the fact that this story could have taken place anytime, anywhere with just a few tweaks. The Average Joe trading one hot girlfriend for another is a storyline as old as the hills of Monument Valley. And then there are the elements which just plain don't work: MacFarlane saying "Holy shit!" as his go-to phrase anytime something even remotely surprising happens; not one but two drug-trip sequences, only one of which has any real payoff; or the running gag about Albert's best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his whore girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) saving themselves for marriage while she has sex with roughly 15 guys per day. It's funny maybe the first two times.

But like I said at the beginning, the film has some funny moments, depending on what you find funny. I thought the sequence in which NPH has violent diarrhea in a guy's hat really damn funny, while the repetitive jokes about a sheep on Albert's roof or a string of unexpected cameos just fall flat and lie dead collecting flies. Points to Theron for not only committing herself to the material but also for doing a better job than anyone even remotely connected to A Million Ways aat selling it and, in some cases, making it funnier than it was likely written.

Weirdly enough, the thought that kept popping into my head while watching A Million Ways to Die in the West was that MacFarlane hadn't taken the classic Western and spoofed it; he's taken the fix-him/her-up romantic comedy formula (i.e., Emma, Clueless) and turned it into a Western. Again, not the worst idea I've heard/seen all week, but certainly a strange workaround to get laughs. Whatever he's doing, it lands on the desert floor with a resounding "Thwap!"

Cold in July

Whenever I hear someone criticize any film for "tone" issues or for not being able to decide what type of film is wants to be, I start to pluck out my hair one strand at a time in frustration. Very often, a film that picks a single tone and never shifts from it is a fucking boring movie. And part of the fun of tonal shifts is that it makes things much less easy to predict. One of the most fascinating films I've seen so far in 2014 is director/co-writer Jim Mickle's Cold in July, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale. The film isn't afraid to go from domestic drama to violent thriller to comical commentary on the '80s to gripping story of fathers and sons, but it does so without being too jarring or confusing.

Set in 1989 Texas, the film stars a mulletted Michael C. Hall ("Dexter") as Richard Dane, a meek frame-store owner in a small town who accidentally shoots a man who has broken into his house in the middle of the night. Although he's considered a hero by those in the community and his wife (Vinessa Shaw), Dane is pretty shaken by the event, especially when the dead man's ex-con father, Ben (Sam Shepard) makes it fairly clear that he's got his sights set on Dane. But that's just where the film begins.

Very little about the shooting or the town is quite what it seems, and before long Dane, Ben and another sketchy character played quite effectively by Don Johnson are working together to bust up a nasty underground operation with horribly violent results. The reasons and means by which events escalate could all be traced back to Dane simply feeling like less than a man after the shooting, after a few in town find it hard to believe "someone like him" could kill someone else. Dane goes from being the town's most boring resident to being its most rattled and excitable. It's not that the shooting has unleashed a taste for blood in Richard, but he somehow wants to fix any wrong-doing it caused or revealed in the process.

Cold in July isn't a complicated story, but it deals with complex issues about manhood, family, and restitution in a seamlessly flowing style that Mickle has been perfecting over the course of his handful of films (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) with his writing partner (and actor in the film) Nick Damici. While Shepard and Johnson have been making something of a return to the big screen in recent years, it's often been as either comic relief (mostly for Johnson) or just for the folksy vibe. But Mickle is well aware that he also has two true acting talents at his disposal, and he takes full advantage of their presence by giving them substantive, meaty roles that they dig into and blow out of the water. At times, Cold in July is a nasty piece of work, but it's solidly made, defiantly acted and a perfect piece of subversive movie making. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Cold in July director Jim Mickle and star Michael C. Hall, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Filth

If the name of author Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) means anything to you, well, that still won't quite prepare you for how downright ugly and brutal the new film Filth gets at times. And I mean that in the best possible way. Your tolerance may be tested, but I believe a great number of you will come out the other side of this story of the most awful, corrupt, vulgar cop in all of the UK, Bruce Robertson, with your wits still about you. Robertson (played by James McAvoy of X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Last King of Scotland and Wanted) seems to be well on his way to getting promoted in his department if he can keep from messing up, which seems unlikely since his lifestyle consists of a constant intake of drugs and alcohol, combined with other terrible habits that put him in the middle solving a murder while keeping tabs on others in his department in line for the same promotion. It turns out it's tough being a detective while you're constantly trying to undermine and sabotage your co-workers, who include the likes of Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots and Eddie Marsan.

The film does a remarkable job of putting us squarely inside Robertson's drug-addled mind, which frequently indulges in fits of paranoia and delusions (including one that has his absentee wife waiting for him back home). Before long, the crime itself seems superfluous and secondary to his mental state. And while I'm not saying you'll ever go so far as to like or feel sorry for Robertson, there are moments where the idea might cross your mind, right around the time he lets loose with a string of foul insults aimed at no one in particular. McAvoy hasn't truly cut loose like this since his earliest works in Scottish cinema, and it's good to see him not worried too much about how his newfound fame will be impacted by taking on a role this hateful.

Filth is slightly exhausting to watch only because it never really lets up from its accelerated levels of depravity, but I found it a great deal of slimy fun, punctuated by some loopy performances, especially Jim Broadbent as Robertson's shrink, who may or may not be a real person. I also particularly liked the scenes between McAvoy and Poots, who balance each other nicely in terms of extremes. Writer-director Jon S. Baird (Cass) lights a substantial fire under his actors and doesn't spare us any of the gory details of Welsh's notorious novel, which I think is key to the film's success as a fever-dream narrative. If you're feeling like cinema (and the world) is playing it a bit too safe these days, Filth should cure you of that belief almost instantly.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Filth star James McAvoy.

The Dance of Reality

I'm going to keep this short, because if you don't know well enough to see Alejandro Jodorowsky's name on a new film and just show up at the theater to be first in line to see it, well, I have very little left to say to you. Arguably his most personal, autobiographical and mesmerizingly emotional, The Dance of Reality is about the Jodorowsky family, with the writer-director's son, Brontis, playing Alejandro's father Jaime, living on the Chilean coastal town of Tocopilla, while the director pops in from time to time as himself observing his younger self — not judging but not as a bystander either.

After a 23-year hiatus, Jodorowsky delivers a work that examines what made his family function, filtering these ideas through the eyes of the filmmaker as a child (Jeremias Herskovits). The boy both loved and feared his father (who admired Joseph Stalin immensely), while he heard his lovely mother (Pamela Flores) speak in operatic tones. The film gives us some clues as to how the filmmaker sees the world in all its harshness and poetry, and populated by surreal characters and moments.

While all of Jodorowsky's films (El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) have autobiographical elements to them, The Dance of Reality feels more accessible and direct in its approach to taking a serious look at the earliest memories of a person who grew up to make some of the most truly bewitching works in cinema. While the recently released documentary Jodorowsky's Dune opened a window into how he would have approached pure science fiction many decades ago, The Dance of Reality is lovely and reflective and absurd and intimate. It's a film where a child can converse with a corpse, and it doesn't seem that strange or out of step with the real world. By taking this (slightly) more straight-forward approach to storytelling, Jodorowsky does what he does best: continues to surprise us while stimulating our minds. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Chinese Puzzle

I don't know how French writer-director Cédric Klapisch (When the Cat's Away, Family Resemblances) has done it, but he has once again assembled the cast from his previous films, 2002's L'Auberge Espagnole and 2005's Russian Dolls, to continue the domestic dramas of a core group of characters that he's been following for nearly 15 years. Now all of his characters have or are about to have children, and all want to move to New York city to make a go of it. In the current timeline, mildly successful writer Xavier (Romain Duris) and his wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) break up, and soon she moves to New York from Paris, with Xavier in hot pursuit because he misses their two kids so much. But unlike Wendy, who immediately hooks up with a rich American (Peter Hermann), Xavier must begin the long and complicated process of becoming an American citizen so he can work and afford to stay in America.

Meanwhile, his best friend Isabelle (Cecile De France) is living with her lesbian lover Ju (Sandrine Holt), and they are trying to have a baby. Since Isabelle doesn't believe in anonymous donors, they enlist Xavier to help out while he crashes on their couch in search of money, a job and a place of his own. Not to be left out of the Big Apple experience, Xavier's ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) comes to New York on business (and later with her kids for vacation), and they end up in a very cramped bed together, because that's what single people do when they haven't had sex in a while.

At its core, Chinese Puzzle is a romantic comedy that deals with very real relationship issues and emotions. It's fun to watch this extremely talented, mostly European cast mingle with New Yorkers and even occasionally break out into English. A great deal of the film takes place in Chinatown (where Xavier finds a small apartment and a woman who will marry him so he can get his citizenship faster), so the European flavor is sprinkled with Chinese culture. It's a whimsical set of stories that have a bit more weight than a typical American comedy in this vein would. The film showcases a few New York locations that most films set in that city might not, and it makes the whole experience seem more authentic to foreigners living and working under these conditions.

Director Klapisch seems committed to making sure his characters end up better off by the end of these films than they are at the beginning, which isn't hard to do for some of them, but it makes for a little less suspense when it comes to the outcome of their lives. Still, after seeing these characters grow over the course of three films, we've started to get to know them, anticipated their paths, and be surprised when things don't quite turn out the way we think they will. The series continues to be enjoyable, witty, sexy and capable of throwing us a curve ball every now and then. Here's hoping they keep making these every few years, because clearly there is more story to tell. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 

Veronica H / May 30, 2014 5:23 PM

Not even going to finish reading your review. In the first paragraph you point out that Maleficent is a retelling; but, you backtrack immediately to pointing out that it is a different story entirely. Which one are you going with?

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Film Wed Oct 08 2014

Chicago International Film Festival's Mimi Plauché Talks About CIFF's 50th Anniversary & This Year's Films

By Steve Prokopy

Steve talks with CIFF Programming Director Mimi Plauché about the festival's anniversary, special programming, and her favorites from this year's lineup.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Oct 17 2014

Fury, Whiplash, The Good Lie, The Best of Me, The Book of Life, St. Vincent, Keep On Keepin' On & 20,000 Days on Earth

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Events

Fri Oct 24 2014
Project Recall: HCL @ Mana Contemporary

Fri Oct 24 2014
Englewood International Film Festival

Fri Oct 24 2014
53rd Ward: After Dark @ Hideout

Fri Oct 24 2014
Opening Reception: Andrew Barco & Eddie Breitweiser @ ThreeWalls

Fri Oct 24 2014
The City Lost & Found @ Art Institute

Fri Oct 24 2014
Opening Reception @ Aspect / Ratio

Fri Oct 24 2014
Sketchbook Swap Exhibition @ Jupiter Outpost

Sat Oct 25 2014
The Shit Show @ Collaboraction Theater

Sat Oct 25 2014
20x2 Chicago @ Schubas

Sat Oct 25 2014
Opening Reception: Thresh/hold @ Roman Susan ANNEX

Sat Oct 25 2014
Chicago Humanities Festival

Sat Oct 25 2014
Englewood International Film Festival

Sun Oct 26 2014
For Grace Premiere @ Portage Theater

Sun Oct 26 2014
Englewood International Film Festival

Sun Oct 26 2014
The Adventures of Danny & Mike @ Lincoln Hall

Sun Oct 26 2014
Opening Reception: Nicole Dyer & Matt Hilvers @ South of the Tracks

Sun Oct 26 2014
Opening Reception @ PEREGRINEPROGRAM

Sun Oct 26 2014
Beat Swap Meet @ Empty Bottle

Sun Oct 26 2014
Chicago Humanities Festival

Tue Oct 28 2014
The Moth StorySLAM @ Martyrs'

Tue Oct 28 2014
Robin Dluzen Artist Talk @ Lillstreet Loft


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