Movie Review: “Maleficent”

Starring
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Director
Robert Stromberg

“Maleficent” seems scared of itself. There is a dark beauty that occasionally escapes, only to be squashed by clumsy and completely unnecessary attempts at humor. This is not to say that the movie had no business trying to be funny, but rather that the tone of the jokes is all wrong. They went for slapstick, even though the material is screaming for a dry wit. There is a movie to be had here, but the film plays out like a teen Elsa locked up in her castle: it’s eager to please, but lacks the confidence to stand on its own. This is not the only thing “Maleficent” has in common with “Frozen,” but we’re not about the spoil the other one.

The story is “Sleeping Beauty” in a parallel universe. Maleficent is a fairy that lives in the enchanted moors with a wealth of fantastical creatures. One day she meets a boy named Stefan from the nearby kingdom. Though the humans and woodland creatures stay away from each other, they become friends, and ultimately more than that as they grow older, but Stefan (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley) thirsts for the throne and, knowing the king’s desire to conquer the moors and exploit its untold riches in gems, leverages his boyhood romance with Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) in order to betray her – he cuts off her wings – and succeeds the king upon his death. When Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, an embittered Maleficent exacts her revenge: she places a curse on the baby that will cause her to fall into an endless sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan entrusts three pixies (long story) to take care of daughter Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) and to hide her away until after she turns 16, thus outlasting Maleficent’s curse, but Maleficent finds her rather quickly, and watches her from the shadows. Before long, Maleficent finds herself serving as Aurora’s unofficial guardian (the pixies are idiots, basically), even saving her life on more than one occasion. Maleficent eventually grows fond of Aurora, and this, naturally, complicates things.

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Movie Review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

Starring
Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson
Director
Seth MacFarlane

There’s a reason why there aren’t many comedy Westerns, and even fewer that are actually any good, and that’s because the subgenre as a whole is very difficult to pull off. So you have to credit Seth MacFarlane for not only having the cojones to follow up “Ted” with such an offbeat genre hybrid film, but actually succeed where so many others have failed. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is probably his most ambitious project to date, and although that may sound strange for a man who made a movie about a talking teddy bear, it’s nice to see a filmmaker with that kind of confidence. Like most things in MacFarlane’s career, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is guaranteed to divide audiences, but it’s a really solid comedy with more than enough laughs to offset its minor shortcomings.

MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who’s astutely aware of just how horrible life is in 1882 Arizona. After weaseling his way out of a gun fight, Albert’s embarrassed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the arrogant owner of the local moustachery. While contemplating leaving town for a fresh start, Albert saves a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) and they immediately bond over their shared hatred of the Wild West. When Albert challenges Foy to a duel in the hope of winning back Louise, Anna agrees to help him become a better gunfighter, falling for the lovable loser in the process. But what Albert doesn’t realize is that Anna is married to a dangerous outlaw named Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who rides into town upon hearing of Anna’s infidelity to kill the man that stole his woman.

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Movie Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Starring
Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage
Director
Bryan Singer

Just when it seemed like Fox was engineering a smart reboot of its X-Men franchise with “First Class,” the series’ original director, Bryan Singer, has returned to combine the old with the new in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” That’s not exactly bad news for fans who appreciate the lengths that Singer has gone to in an attempt to fix the continuity issues within the X-movies, but by doing so, he’s tethered the prequels to the earlier films in a way that ensures they’ll never be able to exist on their own. And considering the potential of where the franchise was headed prior to this “sidequel,” it’s a little disappointing to see Singer turn his back on that initial vision. Granted, there’s still quite a bit to like about “Days of Future Past,” but it feels more like a step backward than the creative leap forward that Matthew Vaughn’s prequel pointed towards.

In the near future, mutants are being hunted down by advanced versions of Sentinel robots that can instantly adapt to any situation, making them impossible to defeat. With only a handful of X-Men remaining, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to his younger body circa 1973 in order to reunite Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for a single purpose: stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the creator of the Sentinel program, Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), in the hope that it will alter the course of history. Meanwhile, the X-Men from the future must hold off an impending Sentinel attack to provide Logan enough time to complete his mission, although that’s much easier said than done.

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Movie Review: “Blended”

Starring
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Bella Thorne, Terry Crews, Kevin Nealon, Wendy McLendon-Coven
Director
Frank Coraci

Adam Sandler hasn’t made that many good movies in his 20-year career, but the ones co-starring Drew Barrymore are some of his best, so it’s no surprise to see the duo teaming up again for a third romantic comedy with “Blended.” It couldn’t have been a very hard sell for Barrymore, who probably jumped at the chance for a free trip to Africa, even if it is their weakest collaboration yet. And while “Blended” isn’t as aggressively terrible as the actor’s recent crop of films, it’s not very funny either – a dumb and uneven rom-com that can’t seem to find a balance between Sandler’s typical man-child antics and his rarer, more grown-up side.

It’s been a long time since Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore) have been on a date, and their inexperience shows when they agree to be set up by some mutual friends. It doesn’t go very well (or about as well as you’d expect for any blind date that takes place at Hooters), and they vow to never see each other again. After all, their lives are already busy enough with their kids – Jim is a widowed father of three daughters and Lauren is a recently divorced mother of two boys – whom they’re having difficulty raising on their own. But when a unique opportunity arises to take their respective families on an incredible vacation getaway to Africa, Jim and Lauren can’t wait to tell their children, completely unaware that they’ve both landed the same deal. Worse yet, because of the nature of how they got the trip, all of their activities and meals at the resort are planned together, and you can pretty much guess what happens from there.

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Movie Review: “Million Dollar Arm”

Starring
Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Aasif Mandvi
Director
Craig Gillespie

For about seven years, Disney cornered the market on ‘true sports’ movies (“Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” etc.). Unfortunately, that seventh year was eight years ago, which makes “Million Dollar Arm” quite the fish out of water. Perhaps Disney thinks that this is the one that will start the next wave of true sports movies. They’d be mistaken, though: the movie is at least 20 minutes too long and spends too much time setting up the redemption of the lead character. It boasts solid performances from the supporting cast, and has heart and smarts to spare, but even this diehard baseball fan was looking at his watch before the credits rolled.

Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is running out of options. The upstart firm that he started with friend and colleague Aash (Aasif Mandvi) is nearly broke and has no roster to speak of. When his chance at reeling in a big fish goes south, J.B. realizes that he needs an angle, something no one else has considered in terms of global scouting. Inspired by Aash’s love of cricket, J.B. decides to head to India to hold a competition to find the next great baseball pitcher in a country rich with athletic talent. The two finalists are Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, who looks like an Indian Bruno Mars), and J.B. takes these two boys, who have never left the towns in which they were born, to Los Angeles, and expects that they will be fine on their own in a hotel. Hey, he’s a single guy, and he doesn’t have time to be an agent and a role model and a caretaker. He has deals to make and women to bed, people!

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