Maleficent (2014)

Angelina Jolie, CGI, Disney, fairy tale, meh, review, rewriting, witch, women

Wicked has an awful lot to answer for these days. The novel that created a back-story for the Wicked Witch of the West and went on to become a runaway success as a stage show has started something of a trend in Hollywood. After last year’s disappointing Oz: the Great and Powerful attempted to explain the origin of the great wizard, Disney have set another much loved family film in their sights. Their big live-action blockbuster Maleficentis the long-awaited rewriting of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the perspective of the terrifying and terrible witch whose spell sent Aurora to her rest. 

It’s been 55 years since Disney first introduced audiences to the villainous Maleficent in their animated adaptation of Sleeping Beauty and apparently they have decided it was time to rewrite history. In their big live-action blockbuster, the company are willing to let us into the untold story of the fairy who quite probably dominated the nightmares of young children the world over. After all, until Frozen came out last year and blurred the lines, the distinction between good and evil was always crystal clear in the studio’s offerings. Maleficentcontinues the trend by recreating one of the ultimate forces for evil as a much more ambiguous being.
We first meet the titular fairy as a young girl (Ella Purnell) whose main concern is keeping the magical inhabitants of her home happy and safe from the humans who are intent on regaining their land. Unfortunately, Maleficent meets a boy and… well you can guess the rest.  Quickly Mal is swearing vengeance in a scene played out pretty identically to the original film. The new King’s (Sharlto Copely) first born daughter will, on her 16thbirthday, prick her finger and fall into an eternal sleep.
Aurora (Elle Fanning) is sent into hiding to be watched by three good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) but in the film’s big twist it is actually Maleficent herself who must protect the child to ensure she survives to the age at which the curse will strike. Quite frankly, the plot from this point is stupid, lazy and dull. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for the underlying feminist message at the core of Maleficentbut I have to admit that it feels pretty outrageous to take this character and make her a mothering presence in Aurora’s life.
I mean this is a character whose name literally means she is capable of producing evil and she is only ever seen doing one bad deed. This is not the original story being told from a different viewpoint this is a different and much less interesting tale. I can only assume that the main character’s name was bestowed upon her as some sort of ironic nickname (you know like really tall people called Tiny and stuff) because the fairy we see on screen is anything but malevolent.
She is, however, magnificent. This marks Angelina Jolie’s first appearance on screen in about four years and she cuts a striking figure thanks to her fetish horns, huge wings and Lady Gaga inspired cheekbones. Jolie is the perfect actress to bring Maleficent to life but the script doesn’t give her anywhere to take the character. No matter what you may have thought about his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland back in 2011, it’s easy to see that this actress, in this costume would have been better off in the strange and darker hands of Tim Burton. The script places its main character in a spectator role and gives her no spark, humour or intensity to make her anywhere near as memorable her animated predecessor. Quite frankly, it is only because the supporting characters are even less inspiring that Maleficent doesn’t disappear completely within her own film.
I understand what Linda Woolverton is attempting to do with the script and the character but there is just little to get excited about. Something that is most probably indebted to the likes of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is just a horrible imitation (and I didn’t even really enjoy reading TBC at uni). The narrative is patchy and full of contradictions and plot-holes. Woolverton also places too much importance on unnecessary references to the original story. If she were so intent on rewriting the tale as a whole then why bother shoehorning in Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) for a whole four minutes or whatever?
I also can’t help but feel that certain clichés just weaken the intended feminist message at its heart. I mean if you wanted to highlight the importance and strength of female relationships then why have every event hinge on the title character getting her heartbroken? I realise “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” but the image of a powerful woman threatening a child because a boy didn’t love her enough isn’t something I feel too comfortable with.
As someone who was really looking forward to this, I found almost everything about the film was disappointing. The cast just don’t have the energy or material to give the audience anything at all. Elle Fanning is horribly forgettable and Sharlto Copely has an insufferably terrible Scottish accent. There is the brief respite in the interaction between the good fairies but you will still have the unshakeable feeling that in the hands of better filmmakers even this could have been more joyous.
That’s not to say there is no fun to be found in Maleficent. Director Robert Stromberg is better known thanks to his production design on Alice in Wonderland and Oz: the Great and Powerful. This is his first time in the director’s chair and you can tell. Part of the reason the production doesn’t seem as slick as it could have is because Stromberg appears to be creating it from the viewpoint of a production designer. The magical world he has created is incredibly detailed and offers the same disappointing lifelessness that caused problems in Oz. There is so much going on visually that is feels as though you are sat starring into the sun and waiting for your eyes to adjust. I can’t say I was a complete fan of Stromberg’s reliance on CGI to create some wonder in his story, especially when it came as the expense of his characters and narrative. Even the positive themes that Copely is ultimately trying to convey are pushed to one side in order to sneak in another human/fairy showdown.
Stromberg owes an awful lot to Angelina Jolie for making this film such a success. It her resilience and sheer determination that ensure this otherwise flaccid representation of a well-known character is even the slightest bit memorable:  if only her role had been given even half the amount of planning as her costume had. If Maleficentis supposed to be the truth behind the lies at the heart of Sleeping Beauty then I for one would much prefer to continue living in ignorance. 

Dark Shadows (2012)

Chloe Grace Moretz, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, reboot, review, television, Tim Burton, witch
“Hey, have you heard? Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did another film together.”
“Not again.  This bromance is getting out of control. If they like each other so much why don’t they finally just get it on and leave us all in peace.”
“I think he’s already married to that actress who always turns up in his movies.”
“Of course he bloody is. Who can even remember how many films the two of them have made together anymore?!”
Of course, dear reader, we all know that the number of Depp/Burton collaborations to date is, in fact, eight (the number he made starring his wife is a slightly less obsessive 6). The latest being Burton’s big screen version of the cult gothic soap opera of the 60s and 70s, Dark Shadows. I was incredibly excited to see this film (even if it did take me about 7 months to actually get round to it). Not because of the connection with the show (as a child of the 80s/90s I only became aware of it thanks to this film) but because I unashamedly adore Tim Burton. Yes that’s right, dear friends, I am Murdocal and I’m a Burton-holic. I’ve started to discover a growing number of people who are quick to criticise his gothic genius and I simply don’t understand it. I realise that some of his films have missed the mark of late but, like Woody Allen, I remain loyal and naively go into every new Burton film believing it will be his best. So, like a child heading to bed on Christmas Eve, I sat down to watch full of an innocent hope that a distinctively dressed man would deliver the present I’d been dreaming of.

And there was so much potential. The trailer suggested this would be a dark, vampire-based comedy with an amazing cast and fantastic Burton-esque visuals. He cites the television series as one his first major inspirations and the film is full of opportunities for Burton to work his magic and pay homage. Opening in 18th Century Maine where Barnabas Collins, the only son of a family of fishing tycoons, spurns the affection of Angelique (Eva Green) who, unfortunately, turns out to be not only pissed off but also a witch. Needless to say she vows revenge on Barnabas and sets about ruining his life. Once his parents are out of the way she brings about the demise of the true object of his affection, Josette (Bella Heathcote). As a final insult to injury she prevents Barnabas from following his love to the afterlife by turning him into a vampire and burying him in a crate for 200 years. As opening sequences go, this sets the audience up for a great ride. The gothic styling is perfect and the performances by Depp and Green are exaggerated but on target with the necessary sensibility.

The mood changes once a strange twist of fate releases Barnabas from his grave and into the bright and confusing world of the 1970s. Much of the humour depends on the oft seen ‘fish out of water’ trope as Barnabas gets used to his modern setting. For his part, Depp plays the vampire at odds with himself remarkably well. And who would expect anything else? If there’s one person who knows exactly how to bring the Burton it’s Depp. That he happens to be a fan of the original series also helps. His own Barnabas is a charming and often amusing creature who finds himself dealing with a world he could never have dreamed of.
As a central character you couldn’t really ask for better but it is still not enough to bring together the many plot strands that demand our attention. Unfortunately, it’s a simple case of too many plots spoil the broth: Barnabas’ mission to revitalise the family business; his romance with the new governess (significantly also played by Heathcote); bringing together his crumbling family; and his connection with their live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). All of these stories are given some time to introduce themselves before being dropped into cinematic oblivion. The mysterious governess who is set up to be a character of major significance is absent for much of the plot and is never given the chance to explore the part she has to play in the grand scheme of things. The remains of the Collins family are portrayed by an array of big names but, again, they are never given the chance to show off their collected talent. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the head of the family but, for the most part, you can’t help but feel that she is just going through the motion.  As are Johnny Lee Miller, in his role as her sleazy brother, and Helena Bonham Carter, playing the quirky Dr Hoffman, who both float through their roles in a truly forgettable manner.
 There is a slight ray of sunshine thanks to the Collins family’s very own wild-child daughter, played by one of the few teenagers I don’t automatically detest and fear, Chloë Grace Moretz. (Before I go on, I have to admit that I both love Moretz and am utterly jealous of her. At 9 years my junior, she is already better presented, more grown-up and has a greater understanding of how clothes work than I ever will. Bloody youths.) She very much embraces her 70s teenager with her dreamy/stoned demeanour being broken up by moments of rage and brattiness. She is funny in a dark, sarcastic and slightly emo way and is my favourite character in the whole film. Although once again, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script doesn’t give her, or the equally compelling Gulliver McGrath, the chance to get to grips with the character. They are awkwardly shoehorned into the action when it is necessary and then forgotten about when it all becomes a bit of a hassle.
What is worse than this hodgepodge of storylines, horribly edited down and squashed together to fit into a more audience friendly 113 minute running time, is the almost schizophrenic tone of the whole thing. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow in its gothic and, at times, gruesome brilliance but this is brushed aside to bring in a light-hearted comedic melodrama about a vampire from the 1700s failing to understand television and lava lamps (lol). Then we suddenly go back to a much more serious, dark film about killer vampires and murderous witches. It is a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be and the writer/director combo never quite tie together the comedy, horror, family drama and Gothic romance into a complete picture. This being the main problem with trying to edit down an entire television series into one 2 hour film: having to get across all of the information you need to and creating a complete and exciting story. It is never quite achieved but there are certain moments of brilliance within each of the separate factions.
A brilliance that is mirrored in the films visuals. The thing you can rely on with Tim Burton is to make a visually beautiful film. The sets are fantastically put together and the styling is mesmerising. The fantastic Collins manor has been lovingly created with great attention to detail and is worthy of all the praise that Barnabas includes in his return speech. The vampire himself is a triumph of costume and make-up. With Depp channelling his best Nosferatu complete with pale white face and nails with the handy ability to dig grooves in a wooden floor, Barnabas is in keeping with the traditional Burton style of quirky and partly creepy outsider. Also witnessed in the terrifying Angelique who is decently played by Eva Green, despite her ridiculous accent (unless I’m mistaken and that is actually a great example of an American accent). Green clearly had a great time whilst playing the witch scorned and provides a slight breath of fresh air in the midst of a group of actors who don’t really seem to realise they are in the middle of filming.
So this may not be the film that I had hoped for when I saw the trailer all those months ago but, you know what, it wasn’t bad. (To quote Peter Bradshaw, as I so often do nowadays, it was “whelming.”)  In no way does it come close to Burton at his best but, if you look hard enough, you can certainly find a great deal more in his repertoire that is inferior. There is a lot to like in this film but you can’t help but get the impression that, initially, there was a lot more. Are we viewing the director’s labour of love that simply got out of hand and suffered in order to see a release? I can understand completely. In my second year of university I wrote an essay that ended up being double the word limit. In a mad attempt to cut it down I’m pretty sure my sentences stopped making grammatical sense. So it’s ok Tim. I’ve been there… and do you know what? I still have faith.