Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

For F*** Magazine

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

Director : Burr Steers
Cast : Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 11 February 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

Something is rotten in the state of England – human flesh. It is the 19th Century and a plague has befallen the nation, resulting in zombie hordes. Country gentleman Mr. Bennet (Dance) has ensured that his five daughters are trained in martial arts and weaponry to defend themselves against zombies, while Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is more concerned that they marry well. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley (Booth) purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet sends her daughters to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane (Heathcote). Meanwhile, the second eldest daughter Elizabeth (James) clashes with Bingley’s friend, noted zombie slayer Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Riley). Meanwhile, local militia leader George Wickham (Huston), who had a falling out with Darcy, takes a shine to Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Darcy must overcome personal pride and societal prejudices to battle the zombie menace and discover their true love for each other.

            Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is based on the 2009 parody novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, who combined Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice with zombie fiction elements. A film adaptation has been in the works since even before the novel’s publication, with Natalie Portman set to star as Elizabeth and David O. Russell directing. Alas, the end result doesn’t have quite that level of pedigree, with 17 Again’s Burr Steers writing the adapted screenplay and directing. Portman remains as a producer. Across the development process, it ended up that Grahame-Smith’s follow-up novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got a film adaptation first.

            While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was criticised for being too self-serious, Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesacknowledges its inherent absurdity more readily. It’s not a dour affair and there is a great deal of winking self-awareness to be had, which led to this reviewer laughing more than he anticipated to. However, it’s quickly all too apparent that this is built on just one joke, that zombies are having their heads blown to bits amidst all the Jane Austen refinement. This is how the idea was conceived: an editor at Quirk books literally compared a list of “fanboy characters” like ninjas, pirates, zombies and monkeys with public domain classics like War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights. Sounds arbitrary, doesn’t it? This laziness comes through and the novelty factor proves insufficient in sustaining the film.



            We’ve had Charlize Theron with a bionic arm driving a giant oil tanker across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Emily Blunt in a mech suit fighting aliens, so kickass heroines are in vogue. In this film, the Bennet girls were trained in a Shaolin monastery and are proficient in various forms of combat. In one scene, two of the sisters engage in sparring practice while gushing over Mr. Bingley, speaking the original Austen dialogue. It’s pretty fun.



James makes for an adequate plucky, wilful protagonist and the actress demonstrates her awareness of the type of film she’s in. The Cinderella and Downton Abbeystar is perfectly convincing as an aristocratic 19th Century English woman fighting social norms, albeit a little less convincing as a formidable zombie killer. Riley’s Mr. Darcy is brusque and brooding, clad in a leather duster. Unfortunately, Riley and James share little chemistry and there’s no flow to the progression of their relationship. Matt Smith showcases good comic timing as the bumbling clergyman Mr. Collins, heir to the Bennet estate. In Austen’s original novel, George Wickham turned out to be a liar and conman, if not an out-and-out villain. Things end a little differently here. Huston’s pulchritude has a slight tinge of menace, which makes him suited to the role. Dance is a welcome presence as the kindly yet strict Bennet patriarch, but his Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey gets all too little screen time as the eyepatch-wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh.



Many readers have used charts and diagrams to follow the interwoven relationships in Pride and Prejudice. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trips up when it tries to get through the plot of the story as quickly as possible so it can get to the next zombie attack. The genre mashup isn’t as seamless and confident as it needs to be to fully sell the conceit. Furthermore, the action sequences aren’t particularly memorable. It’s also lacking the raw sex appeal of, uh, Colin Firth.

Summary: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not the unmitigated train-wreck it could’ve been, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that all the premise should sustain is a mock trailer on Funny or Die.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Maleficent

For F*** Magazine

MALEFICENT 

Director : Robert Stromberg
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Genre : Fantasy, Adventure
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes)

So much happened before Aurora dropped in. In Maleficent, we learn the untold story of the title character, hitherto thought of as just the dastardly villain from Sleeping Beauty. In her youth, Maleficent (Jolie) befriended and later fell in love with Stefan (Copley). But the gulf between Maleficent’s home, the enchanted forest kingdom of the Moors, and Stefan’s, the human kingdom, proves to be too wide. Stefan eventually becomes the king and betrays Maleficent. When King Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Fanning) is born, a scorned and heartbroken Maleficent casts a spell on her: if Aurora pricks her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel before her 16thbirthday, she will fall into a deep sleep and only true love’s kiss can wake her. As three fairies (Staunton, Temple, Manville) watch over Aurora, so does Maleficent – from a distance, and with the aid of her loyal raven Diaval (Riley). Slowly, Maleficent’s hate towards the child softens, just as King Stefan declares war.

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            After one John Carter/Lone Ranger too many, one hopes that Disney will realise that this is the direction in which their live-action blockbusters should proceed. In telling a villain’s back-story, there’s always the danger of the mystique and menace of said villain being stripped away – just look at Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. It’s handled far better here and Maleficent makes the ideal candidate for a “perspective flip” retelling because Aurora is just about the most boring Disney princess of them all, and it was always Maleficent who was more fascinating. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton and an uncredited Paul Dini has an appealing fairy-tale logic to it; imps, fairies and enchanted forests existing in the same story as a protagonist who cannot be squarely categorised as either “hero” or “villain”. We live in a post-Loki world, and as a sympathetic character whose path towards the dark side makes sense, Maleficent is very much like Loki – right down to the trickster streak and those horns.

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            Robert Stromberg, production designer on Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful makes his feature directorial debut with Maleficent. Many design touches from those three films are evident here and while the aesthetic may not be unique, it is undeniably beautiful. Yes, the film is heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery, but there’s still life and soul to the CGI (especially the character animation on Diaval the shape-shifting raven) and the backdrops do not dissolve into generic digital mucilage. Anna B. Sheppard’s costume design work is impeccable; the translation of Maleficent’s animated look into a live-action context particularly effective. It’s at once immediately recognisable and also inventive; how she has different coverings for her horns depending on the seasons is a nice touch. And of course, Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker’s work completes Angelina Jolie’s transformation into the character, horns, severe cheekbones and all.

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            We don’t throw the word “perfect” around here too often, so believe us when we say Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast. She’s proven that she’s great at vamping it up, that she has the dramatic chops and that she can command the screen, all skills she calls upon for Maleficent. From the way she intones lines such as “a grand celebration, for a baby. How wonderful” to her calm, steely gaze to the way she tilts her head back at just the right angle, it proves to be quite the casting coup. The way the character is made sympathetic might not sit well with those who love Maleficent for being “the Mistress of All Evil” but this reviewer likes the layers Jolie brings to the part, in addition to how much she is enjoying herself as Maleficent. Elle Fanning doesn’t have to do much as Aurora because this really isn’t her story, but her wide-eyed naïveté is believable. Angelina Jolie’s real-life daughter Vivienne plays Young Aurora; the scene in which Maleficent interacts with her disdainfully is even cuter once you realise that’s just a toddler playing with her mother.

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            South African actor Sharlto Copley is deservedly climbing the A-list, and he’s good here as well, playing a king who gradually descends into madness and who is consumed by an obsession with the menacing winged creature he once loved. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville provide the comic relief as the three bickering guardian fairies – they’re amusing if not slightly grating and the CGI versions of them do teeter over the uncanny valley. Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Phillip is pretty much an afterthought but hey, he’s handsome. Sam Riley handily steals the show as mighty morphin’ bird Diaval (known as Diablo in the 1959 film). He may not look it, but Diaval is easily the most adorable an “evil minion” can get without being a yellow, overalls-clad, goggles-wearing capsule.

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            Hardcore Disney animation fans will be pleased to know that the late Marc Davis, one of the revered “nine old men” and the supervising animator for Maleficent, Aurora, Diablo and other characters in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, is thanked in the credits. Darker, “Grimmified” takes on fairy tales have become something of an eye roll-inducing Hollywood trend, but Maleficent manages to soar above the pack thanks to a compelling turn from its wonderfully-cast lead. Sweeping classical imagery that includes Maleficent breaking through the clouds to bask in the sun’s glow and Diaval in horse mode rearing up on his hind legs as the sun sets behind the castle enriches the experience too. In many ways, the film is much like Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream” that plays over the end credits: an effective reinvention of something familiar but one that lovers of the old-fashioned approach might not necessarily enjoy completely.

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Summary: Those tired of blockbuster re-imaginings of time-worn fairy tales might not be won over by Maleficent, but Angelina Jolie’s stunning performance, in addition to some lush, awe-inspiring visuals, make this one worthwhile.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong