Review: ‘Maleficent’ (magnificent!)

You only think you know the story (but this one – in many ways – is so much better).

Once upon a time, a fairy girl and a human boy dared to breach the boundary separating their two worlds and became very close. As the human boy became a man, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grew ambitious and took to the service of his king; as the fairy girl became a woman, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) remained the protector of her fairy kin but longed for Stephan’s return to her world. After an unprovoked battle by the mortal kingdom against the fairy border, the human army is decimated and their king placed upon his deathbed at the command of Maleficent; when the dying king offers his throne in exchange for revenge, Stephan returns to his childhood friend but betrays her, leaving her devastated and abandoned. Maleficent reciprocates at the christening of King Stefan’s first-born, cursing the infant princess to a terrible fate that only a vague notion of love might undo. In the years waiting for the curse to be effected, Maleficent begins to question her revenge against the blossoming but innocent Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) while the man who truly deserves her ire prepares for the day he knows the dark fairy will come for him at last.

There were so many ways for this live-action retelling to go horribly wrong, and yet it remains surprisingly faithful to the original while recreating the title character as an infinitely more complex creature. Angelina Jolie proves her acting mettle in every glance, speaking volumes without saying a word; it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this part after seeing what Jolie brought to the role. Likewise, Aurora’s demotion from main character to supporting cast neither undermines her nor renders her irrelevant, re-purposing her through Elle Fanning’s portrayal as the instrument that unblackens a heavy heart. While it seems trivial considering how little screen time he really gets, Sharlto Copley plays the mad king well, a man obsessed with keeping his power received through betrayal. While the cast alone put the film on the right track, it was a combination of all the elements that brought everything into perfect focus.

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Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (just go with the awesome)

If you just think of each franchise X-Men film installment as a stand-alone alternative history, it will go easier for your brain.

It’s the future and we lost – not just mutant-kind but ALL of mankind. The Sentinels created by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in the 1970s evolve into machines that cease making the distinction between friend and foe since “normal” people can have mutant offspring and therefore must be destroyed. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) has discovered the power to send someone’s consciousness back in time to their own body to warn everyone of an impending attack, but only for a few days at a time. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) launch a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop shapechanger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Trask and beginning the Sentinel program…all the way back to 1973. Of course, when you’re trying to change the past to fix the future, what can go wrong WILL go wrong.

How to you fix a story chock-full of wish-we-hadn’t-written-that revelations like X-Men 3? The same way Star Trek and countless comic books have always done it: change up yesterday for a brighter tomorrow. Putting aside his personal activities and legal accusations for the purposes of this review, director Bryan Singer had his pulse on the X-Men franchise before he and Brett Ratner swapped directing assignments, Bryan taking the reigns of the ill-fated Superman Returns and pleasing no one with a nigh-impossible assignment. Days of Future Past is based on the classic X-Men comic storyline but repurposed to reset the timeline and allow future franchise films to continue for Fox – and wow, does it ever.

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Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2′ (Gwen drama good, villainy origins bad)

It’s like they took one good and one bad script and mashed them together.

After defeating the Lizard on his last outing, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) aka Spider-Man fails to keep the promise he made to Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) in staying away from his daughter, Gwen (Emma Stone). Their on-again/off-again relationship is a source of stress between them, but just because Pete can’t get over his overdeveloped sense of honor and heroism doesn’t mean the late police Captain was wrong to fear for her safety around Pete. Meanwhile, a mild-mannered Oscorp engineer named Max (Jamie Foxx) falls into vat (insert mandatory Joker joke here) of electric eels while Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) decides that no good relationship should go unpunished (insert mandatory Joss Whedon joke here). Never mind all that Rhino stuff with Paul Giamatti in the trailer; it happens… eventually.

In an effort to keep their Marvel licensing going, Sony hurried a new Spider-Man franchise into production before everyone forgot the Sam Raimi trilogy. While the first new film, The Amazing Spider-Man, managed to fix a few things missing from Raimi’s first outing as well as creating an interesting new back story for Pete’s parents, the sequel hints at much more while showing far less. While the second Raimi Spider-Man film with Doc Ock was arguably the best of the series, this sequel couldn’t make up its mind on the tone of the film, undercutting not only itself but the first film as well. Much like the weakest parts of first Captain America film spent too much time building up to The Avengers, there’s a pervasive feeling that setting up additional franchise installments is far more important that getting a second story to actually work. That’s sad, too, because while Andrew Garfield still doesn’t seem very much like Peter Parker, he absolutely nails being Spidey.

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Review: ‘Godzilla’ 2014 (now with 100% less Matthew Broderick)

When the audience is cheering, you know you got it right.

In 1999, scientists with an organization known as Monarch investigate a mine collapse in the Philippines. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) discovers the remains of an ancient alpha predator and two dormant spores, one of which seems to have tunneled off unseen. Hundreds of miles away at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, operations engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) witnesses the collapse of the entire facility with no reason as to why. Fifteen years later, the truth of what happened that day and what really went wrong comes to light… and it’s about to become a gargantuan problem.

It’s amazing what fans and audiences want from a Godzilla film. Originally Gojiri in Japanese, Godzilla was little more than a city-stomping monster, but the real popularity happened when it became a sort of protector to Japan… and later for the entire world. For a feature film, however, it just doesn’t make any sense to have 90-120 minutes of monster battle; there has to be reasons for it, which means you need a plot with relatable (read: human) characters. That means introducing mortal heroes and villains to go with our monstrous ones, or at least well-meaning yet misguided folks who manage to take a bad situation and make it worse. Isn’t it interesting when the scientists are the ones emoting all the “we must have faith” speeches?

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Review: ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ (mostly nostalgic Muppet mayhem)

While neither as complete nor compelling as the previous outing, it’s still a fun time with your favorite felt characters.

Picking up exactly where the last film left off, the newly re-assembled “Muppet Show” cast turns to Kermit the Frog for their next move; enter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) with a proposal for a world tour. Unbeknownst to the Muppets (but knownst to us), Dominic works for Constantine, a criminal mastermind who just happens to be a ringer for Kermit – except for a facial mole. Using a Muppet world tour to cover a series of museum thefts, Constantine replaces Kermit, banishing him to a Russian gulag under the obsessive eye of Warden Nadya (Tina Fey). After the first caper, CIA operative Sam Eagle is reluctantly teamed up with Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) to solve the crime, but will anyone other than superfan Walter ever believe Kermit isn’t really Kermit?

The original “Muppet Show” was a great format: a run-down vaudvillian theater run by slighty twisted but well-meaning puppets. At thirty minutes including commercials, it was just long enough, but the Muppet movies have often been self-consciously plagued with exactly how to fill ninety or more minutes. The Muppets did a great job in finding a balance between story and song, but the sequel starts slow after the first song before finding its stride. While not as well-rounded as The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted finds its footing as it goes along. Fans should be pleased enough, but while Jason Seigel and Amy Adams took up much of The Muppets screen time, that almost seems to have worked better than allowing the Muppets themselves to star center stage – who knew?

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Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (holidays are jollier with Mary)

If you’re familiar with Mary Poppins, you’re in for a treat. If you’re not, familiar you will be.

Practical British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is the writer of a best-selling children’s book, but the royalties are running out and she hasn’t written anything since. She has been relentlessly pursued by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for twenty years to make her book into a film, but she dreads having the theme park movie mogul “sanitize” her life’s work for happy pop audiences, especially for any elements to be animated. Will the two of them find common ground, or will Mary Poppins remain only on the written page? Spoiler: they make a movie.

There’s a feeling of recovering a lost childhood; Disney is seen by Travers as the boy who never grew up – Peter Pan reference FTW! – while Travers appears to be woman who forgot she was ever a little girl. The film suggests the two need to meet somewhere in the middle socially, connecting briefly before finally collaborating (not a spoiler). There’s also an issue with addiction and a bit of social commentary on those as well, so this isn’t exactly all family-friendly. While there are genuine fun moments in the film showing the influences of Mary Poppins songs and theatrical elements, this film seems like it would have been better suited as a Disney special or an extra on a Blu-ray release of Mary Poppins rather than a vehicle for awards season.

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