Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: "Maleficent"

Director: Robert Stromberg
Runtime: 97 minutes

I'm sure there are loads of think pieces out there blasting Hollywood for repeatedly giving cinematographers, visual effects supervisors, and the like the director's chair for big budget tentpoles. I'm sure those think pieces make many valid points, and I'm sure they make them quite well. Yet this review only has room to target one such person inexplicably charged with directing ("directing") a major star vehicle. His name is Robert Stromberg, and he deserves to be verbally tarred and feathered for the visually bloated disaster that is Disney's Maleficent.

The latest in a line of live action re-imaginings of classic Disney fairy tales (next up: Brannagh does Cinderella! No, really. It's a thing.), Maleficent easily deserves to go down as the worst of the lot. What should be an enjoyable, even if generic, showcase for a brilliantly cast Angelina Jolie, is a sluggish, ineptly-handled attempt at summer entertainment.

As much as the camera loves Jolie as the iconic Sleeping Beauty villain (now a tragic antihero), even she can't overcome Linda Woolverton's abysmal script and Stromberg's unbearably hack-y directing. Small moments here and there work (Jolie's handling of baby Aurora's christening scene is dynamite), but they're nothing more than drops in the ocean. 

And even though Maleficent is bad, it's shocking how baffling its badness truly is on all fronts. Despite a visual effects supervisor in the director's chair, there are a distracting number of scenes with jarring, shoddy green screen work. Not helping matters are the plastic-y CGI creations, which look like rejects from 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman

Just as bad is the editing, which is somehow the work of two people, and not a single, overeager film student. When the cutting isn't merely getting the job done, it goes of in puzzling, risible ways. There are artificial snap zooms, "dramatic" blurry effects, as well as other trademarks of the "more is better" school of editing. 

Before I become as big of a mess as Maleficent, I must return to Ms. Woolverton and her writing. There are cliches, and there are painful cliches. Maleficent is overflowing with the latter. Worst of all is the painfully forced comic relief, which puts wonderful actresses like Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple in some truly embarrassing situations. I can't remember the last time I felt so, so bad for a group of actors working with bottom-of-the-barrel material. May they all find their way into a Mike Leigh movie as soon as possible. 

Alas, I'm losing focus. Elle Fanning is in this movie too, though her radiant self shows up far too late to undo any of the damage wrought by Stromberg, Woolverton, and their merry band of fools. The only thing done remotely right is the reworking of Sleeping Beauty's waking from true love's kiss. It's a genuinely nice touch (albeit eye-rollingly foreshadowed) that subverts the outdated love-at-first-sight ideology of the animated film. If only it were put to use in a story that was being told with some semblance of intelligence or care (I'd say "and," but I think I'd be setting the bar a bit too high). 

In fact, Maleficent is such a wreck that I don't even want to see it remade by more capable hands. Hollywood had its chance for a Maleficent-centric fairy tale for this generation, and it has failed spectacularly. I have enjoyed all of the film's major actors on multiple occasions (I'll overlook Oldboy, Sharlto Copley), yet there's no room to give any praise that's more than half-hearted. Jolie's devilish grin is nice and all, but even all of her star wattage is suffocated by the excess of visual effects and miserable craftsmanship. 

Jolie and company are lucky that their film opened on the same weekend as Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. By being put up against that would-be comedy, they have, by the grace of God, been made to look like the lesser of two evils. Yet the lesser of two evils remains an evil, and not even of the so-bad-it's-good variety. Millions upon millions were spent upon this soul-less mess of a movie. Do your part and make sure that Maleficent struggles to recoup its considerable costs. The actors' careers will remain unscathed, and hopefully Mr. Stromberg's will meet a swift end. 

Grade: D- 

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