Maleficent – A Review

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I had two main takeaways after seeing Maleficent:

  1. That wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be
  2. They REALLY want you to focus on Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones.

One of the reasons that I had anxiously anticipated the release of Maleficent was because I really do enjoy the retelling of fairy tales, especially when they are told from a different character’s perspective. One of my early encouragements as a writer came when my short story retelling Jack and the Beanstalk from the Giant’s perspective was selected to be published in my high school’s literary magazine. I think I liked the idea of an unreliable narrator and messing around with the point of view; I’m sure that it helps that I don’t really have any special affinity for fairy tales and therefore don’t have any reservations about altering the story. As we’ve established, I didn’t grow up watching Disney movies and have a rudimentary knowledge at best of most fairy tales. So you are less likely to hear me argue “that’s not the way it’s supposed to go” about any fairy tale reboot because there is a very likely chance that I don’t even know how it’s supposed to go.

This is particularly true for the story of Sleeping Beauty; while I’ve caught up on a lot of the Disney films of my childhood that I never saw, I have never seen Sleeping Beauty. I don’t think I’ve read Sleeping Beauty either, since I had no idea what her real name was until very recently when one of my friend’s children took me to task for unfamiliarity with Aurora.; the only Auroras that I knew where aurora borealis and the character on Bewitched. I certainly didn’t know anything about Maleficent until I heard that Angelina Jolie would be playing her. How little do I know about Sleeping Beauty? Let’s put it this way – when the spinning wheel turned up in Maleficent, I internally debated for five minutes as to whether or not Rumpelstiltskin was somehow involved in this whole mess. I really had no idea if he was part of the story or not. So to say that I was going into Maleficent blind is kind of an understatement.

Based on the trailers that I had seen for the film, I was expecting Maleficent to be an origin story for a famous-to-everyone-but-me villain (which it was) that would be dark and kind of bad ass (which it was not). I had forgotten that this was not simply the re-telling of a familiar story, but that it was Disney re-telling the story; had I remembered that fact, my expectations for a darker and more exciting film would have potentially been checked. There is only so dark and twisty that Disney is going to get. Still, I can’t say that I’m completely at fault – the promotional campaign for Maleficent certainly spliced together scenes to give a very different impression of the film than it was in actuality. There was far less action and vengeance than advertised and the result was a fairly uneven story.

Maleficent gives a different spin on Sleeping Beauty by focusing on the supposed villain and what caused her to act the way that she does in the tale. Some of the basic plot points are the same: Maleficent does indeed crash Aurora’s christening and puts a spell on her that will leave the young princess in a sleeplike trance for eternity unless she is awoken by true love’s kiss. What Maleficent attempts to do is fill in some of the back story – why is Maleficent so mean? In this version of the tale, the argument is made that Maleficent had some just cause to want vengeance. Turns out the King – Aurora’s father – is kind of a douche that did some unspeakable things to Maleficent. So while her actions might be a little extreme, they don’t just come out of left field.

I’ll certainly give credit where credit is due: Angelina Jolie is excellent as Maleficent. She really inhabits the character and the story does much the shadowy villainess a three-dimensional and fully realized character. Jolie is no slouch as an actress, though her movie choices lately have been a little hit or miss, and she really rises to the occasion in this film. She can be scary one minute and sympathetic in the next and Jolie provides more depth for Maleficent than I’m guessing was actually on the page of the script. It’s a solid performance. You just can’t take your eyes off Jolie whenever she is on screen, partially because of the aforementioned cheekbones. Jolie has a pretty angular face these days to begin with, but through movie magic they manage to exasperate her facial structure to the point where I am pretty sure that you could cut on her cheekbones. It’s almost distracting; the sharpness of her face was all that I could think about at some points, which perhaps means that they overdid it. It certainly ups the scariness quotient for the character. If they had gotten any sharper, she would have looked like this:

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It’s no wonder that they had to have Angelina’s real daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt play the young Aurora – she was the only kid that wasn’t scared of Jolie.

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Angelina Jolie and Vivienne Jolie-Pill

I’ll also give credit to the visual artists involved with Maleficent; they have created a visually appealing and stunning world in which these characters inhabit. It really is gorgeous, especially in the scenes prior to darkness taking over. My only complaint is that there are scenes that rely too heavily on the CGI, perhaps to mask the weakness of the overall story.

I really like the idea behind Maleficent, but I wasn’t overly impressed with the execution. Jolie is so good that she sucks up all the oxygen in the room and none of the other characters or the story are capable of competing with her. The writing is a little clunky – in order to get from point A to point B, the story takes a lot of shortcuts without a lot of emphasis on the journey. People make questionable decisions all over the place and while I know that these are fairy tales and that you have to check logic somewhat at the door, the story that they are trying to tell is hindered by its poor development. Maleficent is such a larger than life character that the writers appeared to put all their energy into her, to the detriment of all the other people and creatures that she interacts with. To say that some of the other characters are one-dimensional would be to give them more depth than they deserve. Even Maleficent, the most fully realized person on screen, makes some erratic changes in behavior that would have been more believable if they were given some moments to breathe or were structured in a more organic moment. If you are going to go from “I want you dead” to “hey – you’re not so bad,” you’d better show some of the steps in between. The movie just doesn’t do that.

Some of this would be a bit more forgivable if there was more going on to distract you from these erratic choices, but there really isn’t. There was a lot of downtime in Maleficent, especially since I was expecting a hell of a lot more action from the film. There are some fight scenes, but in the interim we spend WAY too much time with the three fairy godmothers who are tasked with raising Sleeping Beauty. I know that this is a kid’s movie – well, I know that now – but man oh man are those characters annoying. Comic relief is one thing, but I just couldn’t stand that trio. Every time that they were on screen, I lost complete interest in the film; it was during these moments that I contemplated my theories about Rumpelstiltskin. Perhaps my expectations prior to the film exasperated the problem, but I just found a lot of Maleficent kind of boring. The film has a promising premise, but it squanders it with a poorly structured story and the failure to develop any of the other characters. It doesn’t appear that much thought was put into the story beyond “Maleficent isn’t so bad.” Jolie is simply starring in a film that isn’t worthy of her.

Some other thoughts:

  • This film completely wastes Sharlto Copley as Stefan. He was so good in District 9 that I know he could have done way more than was asked of him.
  • If you have seen Frozen, you won’t be too surprised by parts of Maleficent. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that if they thought a key scene was a twist in Maleficent, they are sorely mistaken.
  • Two of Jolie’s other children – Zahara and Pax – also have brief cameos in the film during the christening scene. I actually did spot Zahara, but that’s mostly because a) I knew that she was in the movie and b) even in modern fairy tale interpretations, the skin color of the actors involved tends toward the Snow White end of the spectrum. So Zahara was easy to find.
  • I’ll give them some credit – they have added some modern sensibilities to the tale of Sleeping Beauty. The boy at least expresses some concern over kissing a girl that isn’t conscious and cannot consent.
  • Since I’m not familiar with the character, I practiced saying Maleficent so I wouldn’t say it wrong when I got my ticket. Handy trick for pronunciation – rhymes with magnificent. And yes, I worry about not looking foolish in front of the teenager that gives me my movie pass.
  • I may very well be in the minority on my views of Maleficent; when the movie ended, several people in the theater clapped and I overheard one guy say as we were filing out that this was the best movie that he’s seen in a while. I humbly recommend that guy sees more movies.
  • In case you are wondering – no Rumpelstiltskin.

I’d say that Maleficent is worth seeing simply to see Angelina Jolie’s turn as the title character; the film isn’t terrible, but I found it ultimately disappointing. It had such a promising premise and the right actress in the starring role, but failed to fully take advantage of either. It certainly wasn’t the dark, action-packed film that I thought I was getting. I could have overcome that if the film provided something more entertaining in its place, which it just didn’t do. Good work by Jolie but she alone can’t make this a great movie, no matter how hard she tries.

 

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Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Short Week Edition

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable Memorial Day weekend; I am a big fan of any holiday that results in me having a short work week. This has been a good week for me not only because of the bonus day off, but because this week is the lull when a lot of shows have ended and summer series haven’t begun yet. The Tonight Show, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are all in re-runs this week as well, so I have a legitimate chance at catching up on programs that I’ve fallen behind on and cleaning out the old DVR. I really need the chance to get current on some programs – I have the entire second season of The Americans waiting for me to devour and I just caught up on Mad Men over the weekend, in time for the mid-eason finale.. I guess an alternative would be to watch less television in general, but that sounds like kooky talk to me. Who wants to live like that? I am, however, a little concerned about the withdrawal symptoms that I am exhibiting after no new episode of Game of Thrones this week. It is quite possible that I have developed an unhealthy attachment to that show.

I’m still beta testing the pop culture roundup as a weekly feature; so far the limited feedback that I’ve received (thanks Ang!) has been positive and I’m digging it so far, so I think this will stick. So while I relish all my brief freedom from being a slave to television programming, check out what’s been going on the last week in the world of pop.

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  • Seth Rogen and Snoop Dogg got high and recapped Game of Thrones (spoilers, obvs):

THIS NEEDS TO BE A REGULAR THING! HBO – get on that!

 

  • What does Morgan Freeman sound like after inhaling helium?

 

  • The New York Post wrote perhaps the greatest wedding announcement:

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  • I did less well on this quiz on Drew Barrymore’s dating life on-screen and off.
  • The kids at the University of Delaware recreated the Friends intro:

 

  • More celebrity commencement speeches: Jim Carrey and Ed Helms (the latter at Cornell, naturally).
  • Congratulations to Happy Ending’s Casey Wilson, who got married Memorial Day weekend

Dreams. 💜

A post shared by Casey Wilson (@caseyrosewilson) on

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John Mayer covers Beyoncé:

 

Time for some trailers…..

  • Disney’s Big Hero 6:

 

  • The first trailer for Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert:

 

  • A trailer for a new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I need to catch up!

 

  • Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the play Venus in Fur:

 

  • River Phoenix in Dark Blood:

 

  • Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria:

 

  • The Cannes Film Festival winner, Winter Sleep:

 

  • Denzel Washington in The Equalizer:

 

  • Here’s the cover of Amy Poehler’s new book:

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As always, we end with the supercuts and mashups:

  • This week – the previous roles of the actors on Mad Men:

 

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  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin, re-cut as a psychological horror film:

 

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  • MTV CribsStar Wars edition:

 

  • The Smashmouth Redemption:

 

  • Beyoncé meet Godzilla in the parody trailer:

 

  • Halo and Minecraft, mashed up together:

 

  • System of a Down and Elton John go surprisingly well together:

 

  • H Jon Benjamin voices HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

 

  • Disney villains get their own musical:

 

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  • Hannibal re-cut as a cooking show:

 

  • And finally….Game of Thrones meets Perfect Strangers:

Jack Johnson – Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Saratoga Springs, NY), 5/24/14

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In the Capital Region, one of the signs that summer has officially arrived is the first concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, more commonly referred to as SPAC. Because it is an open amphitheater and there is seating on the lawn, the concert season at SPAC is a fairly limited one that usually runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with the occasional outlier scheduled later in September. In between, the venue offers a diverse slate of programming that tends to be heavier on country music and classic rock performers, but also usually includes stops by the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and more current performers. It’s a nice place to see a show, though it can get crowded on the lawn; I grew up less than two miles from SPAC and have been going to see shows there for years. On a really clear night, we could hear the faint din of concerts from my backyard. I have very vivid memories from my childhood of when the Grateful Dead would come to town and my fascination with the Deadheads that would be floating around town in the days preceding the show. To a five year old, all that tie-dye was exotic and beautiful. Back when I was in high school, lawn tickets were so cheap that my friends and I would sometimes decide to go to a show the day of simply because we were bored and didn’t have anything else to do. I even walked across the stage at SPAC when I graduated high school – yet another legend that has shared the same stage as the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Paul Simon. 🙂

My frequency of going to SPAC has ebbed and flowed over the years, depending on their programming slate for the summer. SPAC is a regular stop for a lot of performers, but that also means that I’ve often already seen an act from a previous visit. While there are some bands that I will see over and over, the majority of the time I want to see someone that I haven’t seen before. So depending on who they book, some summers I’m at SPAC a lot, while others I may not make a summer pilgrimage at all. This summer looks to be a boon year, as I already have five shows scheduled at SPAC with the potential for at least two more. I’m going to be spending a fair amount of time in Saratoga.

The first show of the year was Jack Johnson, a performer that I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I have always found his music very relaxing; when I hear one of his songs, it just makes me think of sitting outside in the sunshine. This may or may not be because I listened to a lot of Jack Johnson when I was out in the Bay Area of California ten years ago for my best friend’s wedding. As amid of honor, I had flown out early to help with wedding prep and was home alone at my friend’s apartment. I wasn’t 100% sure how to work their sound system, so I just listened to whatever was already in there on repeat – which just so happened to be Jack Johnson. So while I know that folk singer-songwriter isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, he always makes me smile and I was looking forward to a chill night out with friends.

In retrospect, it’s kind of ironic that I think of words like “sunshine” and “chill” when it comes to Johnson, because while there wasn’t a lot of sunshine at my show it most certainly was chill – and not in the laid back relaxing sense, but in the rainy and cold sense.

One of the perils of sitting on the lawn at SPAC is of course the weather; there isn’t a lot of cover available, so if the elements aren’t in your favor it can be kind of messy. I have been extremely fortunate that in all my years going to shows at SPAC, I have never been caught in the rain out on the lawn. The few times that the weather has been less than optimal, I’ve always been inside the amphitheater, feeling sorry for the poor bastards out on the lawn who were getting rained on. Even those instances have been very few and far between; generally, Mother Nature has shown favor to the scheduling department and has provided sunny concert days. This may not be everyone’s experience, but it has been mine, though it was probably inevitable that my luck would eventually run out. After 20 plus years, I guess I was due for a little rain on my SPAC concert parade. Unfortunately, having lived such a charmed weather experience up to this point meant that I had gotten a little cocky in my concert prep so I wasn’t necessarily all that prepared to handle the elements. The only thing that I had thought to bring in with me was a hoodie; I had hemmed and hawed about bringing in an umbrella and ultimately decided to leave it in the car because I didn’t want to have to worry about carrying it – a ridiculous bit of logic since I had a bag that I could have easily put the umbrella in. I was clearly off my game, lulled into complacency.

The evening started off fine enough – the sun was out and we were able to secure a nice spot on the lawn where we could see the stage as well as the giant screens scattered about the pavilion. We set up our chairs and enjoyed the opening act, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – a band that I knew but wasn’t super familiar with. They were enjoyable – even if my friend Tom could never remember their name – and kept us entertained for their hour-long set. SPAC is always good for people watching, so we were easily able to kill some time while we waited the thirty minutes before Jack Johnson took the stage. As the sun set, it started to get a little cool – apparently this had been predicted in the forecast, but I had not dressed for this possibility. My friends had questioned my attire when I arrived, but I was adamant that I wouldn’t be cold. I was lying and had already slipped my hoodie on before the sun had even set.

Jack Johnson took the stage at 9 on the dot and the crowd all jumped up and went wild. I was honestly a little surprised by this enthusiasm – I had expected his fan base to be much more laid back, but this was really no different than any other concert I’ve been to. People were standing and dancing for the duration of the show and hooting and hollering. Not what I expected, but I appreciated that they were showing their support. I was content to just relax in my chair and watch the show on the giant screens – Jack Johnson doesn’t have the kind of stage show that necessitates paying close attention; there is no spectacle or crazy pyro, so I could have just closed my eyes and enjoyed the music just as much. Jackson stumbled a bit in “Brushfire Fairytales” when he forgot the words, but the audience was forgiving and he quickly recovered. Everyone was singing along and dancing and having a grand old time.

It was about 20 minutes into his set when I felt the first raindrop; I turned to my friend to see if she had experienced that as well, hoping that I had hallucinated it, but she too had felt the rain. It started off as a light sprinkle at first, but eventually morphed into a pretty steady, if light, rain. I pulled up the hood of my hoodie, but it didn’t take very long for all my clothes to get very damp. This wouldn’t have been very problematic if the weather had been ten degrees warmer, but with it hovering somewhere in the fifties it was a less than pleasurable experience. My friend Dana graciously shared her rain poncho with me, so at least part of us was sheltered from the rain, but the rest of my clothes were pretty wet and I was shaking a bit from the temperature. I even joked that this would be how I caught pneumonia again.

Now normally, I probably would have been much more agitated about this uncomfortable spot, but because I was listening to Jack Johnson I remained pretty calm and cool as the rain began to fall. I don’t know – maybe he has some Zen power over me, but I just sat back and listened to the music while quietly praying for a break in the rain. He did a great set that focused primarily on his older music but that was peppered with some songs from his new album as well. A few people left when the rain started, but most stuck it out and didn’t let it dampen (ha!) their enthusiasm for the performance. He hit a lot of my favorite songs and as very efficient in his presentation; there wasn’t a lot of banter or storytelling – he just went from one song into the next during his nearly two hour set. We occasionally got some reprieve from the rain and the show was certainly slightly more enjoyable when that happened, but even when it was less than ideal it never fully detracted from my enjoyment of the show. And I have no idea the psychology behind it, but whenever Johnson sings about banana pancakes, I immediately crave them despite the fact that I am neither a huge fan of pancakes or bananas. Again – Jack Johnson may have some weird mental hold over me.

We did sneak out during the encore to beat the traffic and warm up a bit; we actually had the heat on for the ride home and I wasn’t truly warm until I got home and changed out of my wet clothes and was under a blanket. But I still had a great time thanks to the soundtrack presented by Jack Johnson and the excellent company. It was a good reminder that I can’t get lackadaisical about my concert game; I need to be better prepared for future shows. Despite the minor bumps, it was a nice official kickoff to the summer concert season and I can finally cross off a performer that I’ve always wanted to see off my dwindling list. It wasn’t an ideal concert experience, but it was good enough. In the words of Johnson “staple it together and call it bad weather,” but don’t call it a bad show. Jack Johnson was a good time.

The From Here To Now To You Tour continues over the summer. Check out his website for upcoming dates in your neck of the woods.