Darke Reviews – Maleficent (2014)

Probably one of Disney’s most anticipated films for some time in the live action genre. While some of their movies have been financially successful, critically they’ve been all but universally panned. Last years Lone Ranger was an abomination that cost them over a hundred million dollars (before marketing costs!!). Before that Prince of Persia, John Carter, three of the last four Pirates movies, I can go on. Some were good, some were garbage. Most of them cost Disney more money than they will ever see from them. Can the Mistress of Evil break the curse?

I don’t rightly know. Disney thinks it can with an aggressive marketing effort that doesn’t try to sell it on previous film “successes” and instead focuses on Angelina Jolie and her embrace of the titular character. Before we get into this too much, I want to point out that two of the people I saw this with have serious issues with the movie, far more than I did. They also had problems with Godzilla. Problems I did not have and appreciated from a film makers design decision. These reviews are my opinion and from my lens and my own tastes.

Where does that leave us for Maleficent?

Angelina is fantastic. Every moment on screen she has is spent acting her heart out.  She covers an excellent range of emotion and delivers a stunningly deep performance that develops her character into something more than is on the page or ever was on the page. She through the majority of the film dominates every single moment she on screen and makes it look effortless. Every choice she makes brings her character to life in a way that might annoy some who want her to be the monster from the original animated, but instead we have a fully realized post modernist Maleficent.

The rest of the cast cannot completely compete. Elle Fanning (Super 8, Twixt), little sister to Dakota, plays the sixteen year old Aurora. She doesn’t get a lot to work with, nature of the character I suppose, but she does sell it when on screen with Angelina. They surprisingly have a bit of chemistry and it makes it work. More on the surprisingly in a bit. Sharlto Copley (District 9, A Team) plays Stefan and was clearly hired for his ability to go dark in the blink of an eye and have some cultivated insanity. Everyone else is wasted in two dimensional undeveloped stereotypes. Some more annoying than others.

Ok, one exception. Newcomer Sam Riley as Diaval is the audiences eyes and window into the world. He’s everything he should be. When he stands in the shadow of Jolie he at least has a shape to himself and that is impressive.

That comes down to directing and story. Story first, Linda Woolverton is the written by credit with ten other based on credits, including the Brothers Grimm themselves. She has some movie credits to her name, but ultimately she has done a lot of TV and written for children, young children. None of her work has been solo until now. Sadly, she needs that help. Nothing here is ever fully fleshed out and the ideas are not developed as fully as they can be. I wish they had been as some of them were amazing. Others that were developed a touch, a touch were actually well done and they had the bravery to do some things. Just not enough.

Some of that goes to the director, Robert Stromberg. Don’t know the name? It’s ok. He is an oscar winner, but this is his directorial debut. What he has been is the production designer, that means he tells everyone else how pretty the setting will be, for Cameron’s Avatar, Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland. Well, for the first time since Avatar he got it right. Visually. Directorially, he needs work. His sense of pacing and care for the characters he is trying to develop is horrific. He spends no time on the character interactions in detail, barely showing the development of the characters. The only thing saving him is the cast and for me the visuals.

I find the movie gorgeous. I didn’t see it in 3D but wish that I had for the flight sequences. While the creature design is great and actually kind of unique they do look CGI for the most part. They look crafted with care, but there’s no way you buy them being “real”. I was able to overlook that for the beauty, colours, and whimsy of the world of the Faerie. Froud would be happy. The details in many other sequences were also present and not just glossed over. Magnificent transitions between shots and subtle details in others really made this work. The make up on Jolie and Riley was beyond perfect. Itwas flawless.

TL;DR?

The movie made me smile. The movie made me laugh. I felt joy and even teared up when I was supposed to. In all of this the movie works. I *enjoyed* myself during the film, even if those I saw it with did not. I let myself get wrapped into the world and taken for the ride they delivered. While I can’t say I enjoyed every minute, I can say that I enjoyed most of them.

I am a sentimentalist at heart. A true romantic (why am I single again?) and let the movie in. I didn’t think too hard. I let it bring the emotions in.

If you can do that, watch this movie.

Its absolutely for children of most ages. There is stuff for adults, but not nearly as strong as it should or could be. I do recommend the film and that when you sit down, its not about turning your brain off; but instead letting your own inner child sit back and watch the show.

Will Maleficent break the Disney live action curse? It might take all the powers of Hell, but it just might.

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Darke Reviews – X-Men Days of Future Past

I have to admit writing this I am a bit conflicted. I have not settled on an emotion right now as I start. I made it known at work today I was going in with fairly low expectations. I had a gut feeling from the way the marketing went. Too much product placement ads set my nerves on edge. It feels like the producers are trying too hard, especially when it’s something like Carls Jr. It creates a disconnect with me that I find unnerving and makes me doubt their faith in the movie on its own merits.

I think the other reason I am conflicted now is that I didn’t get the movie I thought I would. This is *not* a bad thing. It means I underestimated the film.

The movie returns original X-men and X-2 director Bryan Singer to the franchise. If you are not familiar with his best bodies of work, please look to the magnificent Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. Despite it’s many sins he also gave us Superman Returns. What do all of these films have in common, along with the first two X movies? Characters. They focus on the characters, sometimes at the sacrifice of a logical story. He brings you into the characters and really makes you get people you shouldn’t and helps bring perspective to everyones world.

The story this time has a three writer issue and the rule applies. It shows. Jane Goldman (Stardust, First Glass, Kick-Ass) has her sensibilities in film clearly shown. Simon Kingberg (X3, Jumper, XXX State of the Union) shows his as well – which may explain the weakest aspects of the movie. Matthew Vaughn, director of First Class, also has a writing credit who also has credits on Stardust and Kick Ass. His appreciation for the characters and the ‘verse that he created. Respect is given to history and with a lot of little nods to both comic and animated history through out.

The story has issues though. It’s pacing is off as hell. It runs over two hours and sometimes feels it. It falls prey to too many locations and too many events it wants to include. It was a fear I had from seeing the trailers, so I will admit I may be judging harshly here. It tries to do too much and doesn’t quite nail it. It tries to tie up too many loose ends from *all* the other films and only gets half way to the finish line. It does a fantastic job where it can, but the places where story fails – wow. I give you this warning, it will also be in the bottom – DO NOT THINK TOO HARD! By all the powers that be do not think too hard on any aspect of the movie. It falls apart. I think I will lay that on Kinsberg as the weakest writer in the bunch and well if you think about the McGuffin at all or can do basic math..yeah. Ugh

So what does work? The actors. They own. They sell it with all they have and aren’t phoning it in at all. McAvoy and Stewart play Xavier at different stages of life and both sell the life they’ve lived. I thought I would be more annoyed with McAvoy’s Xavier, but I understood. I appreciated it and it helped. Fassbender and McKellen also play young and old fantastically well. You can see the man that was and the man that is. You can see the man that we saw in the other films and where he’d come from. Fassbender has more charisma than should be legal in a man when he’s on screen and we thank him for it.

Jackman returns to the role he was apparently born to play. I do hope this will be one of his last outings and let someone else take up screen time. I can’t say he does bad here, but its too easy for him and while he plays all he needs to and it works, its just there. Apparently for Jennifer Lawrence, two oscar nominations and one Oscar win get you more screen time and development. I see a transition from focus on Wolverine to Mystique and I have to admit it pleases me. She, of course is fantastic. While not someone I’d want my daughter looking up to, if I could ever have one, she’s got aspects worth looking up to. She’s a good actress with a good and complex character.

Peter Dinklage dominates every scene in which he has a speaking line. This is no surprise to Game of Thrones fans. Just like the other characters, while all of them are somewhat thin, the development they do get is enough to make him decently complex and relatable. He works and I believe it’s Dinklage as to why.

The future sequences give us a handful of our favourite mutants doing what they do and as per my rules no spoilers. I was stupidly ecstatic to see Blink though. Just a geek girl thing.

From a technical aspect, wow. Overall nice work. Some effects are rough. Rougher than they should be, but when they do work, WOW. I would point to raw entertainment whenever a speedster I didn’t expect to like was on screen. Also, they BUILT A SENTINEL. There was a real, physical sentinel that was built. Brilliant choice. Editing, well, again it runs longer than it shoud. I do not think 3D will add anything so no need for the extra ticket price.

Alright, TL;DR?

The movie still leaves me conflicted. I think its ok, a good character study. If I think too hard most of it falls apart. It had moments of entertainment, but not enough. The entire movie is heavy. Not dark, just heavy. There is no where near the fun or levity of some previous installments in the franchise. It does one thing I can’t say without spoilers, but it made me happy beyond words.

Overall, if you were going to see it nothing I say will stop you. Enjoy.

If you weren’t planning on it, you don’t need your mind changed. This certainly will only reinforce your decisions.

If you were on the fence, see it, but its absolute matinee.

I am seeing it tomorrow with another friend, hopefully I can have ANY emotion on this one after I am done, but I don’t think so. Stay for the end of the credits for your tease to the next movie.

Next week, I am watching the Mistress of all Evil. Maleficent.

Darke Reviews – Godzilla (2014)

I have to say the movies are certainly making it harder for me to write these reviews and keep to my rules of no spoilers. The trailers did a good job of keeping *most* of the spoilers from the audience. Until recently movie spoiler/insider sites have been keeping one under wraps. Why? No clue. These places pay a lot of attention to every detail in trailers and if they missed it and I saw it – I need to get paid to do this. I also debated doing an old vs. new segment on this comparing the Broderick 1998 version to the 2014. I debated it long enough to realize I can’t give a single point in favor of Broderick. Not. One.

So what does 2014 bring?

A plot. A cohesive plot. We get to thank the writers Max Borenstein (who has done nothing you’ve seen) and Dave Callaham (Expendables, Doom) for part of that. Some of you by now are going – why is there a plot? Well truth be told, we need one these days. We demand it. If there wasn’t a plot (Pacific Rim) the movie gets torn apart by critics and movie goers alike. Even thin plots (any Roland Emmerich film) fare better and at least get a laugh for their pitiful attempts. If you try and fail with ridiculousness (1998 Godzilla) you are eviscerated. As an audience we have trouble making up our mind. In the end its safer to have one that makes sense – which they did. Mostly.

Gareth Edwards, our director who brought us the visionary film Monsters. It was far more subtle than District 9 was in its plot. He was a good choice for this movie as he appreciates the sense of scale and how to insert characters into stories bigger than them. Its an important talent and was needed for this picture. You can tell that he loved the original movies and wanted to bring some of that beautiful flavor back into the genre.
This leads to one of the potential problems with the film as well.

The characters are irrelevant. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass and the upcoming Avengers 2) and Elizabeth Olsen (OldBoy and…the upcoming Avengers 2) are always interesting to watch and very human. I think fandom’s will have a field day that Quicksilver and Wanda play a couple in this movie. I also have to make a call out that the family name Brody appears to be a call out to Jaws. Especially as Olsen’s character is named Elle (Ellen was the wife in Jaws). Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Rock of Ages) and Ken watanabe (Last Samurai, Inception) are always watchable. Even if Watanabe is mostly staring off into space the entire movie, muttering yoda like words of wisdom that will ultimately go unheeded.

These characters all have stories and these stories are intertwined with that which we came to see – The monster. It also highlights the problem. Their stories don’t matter. They are observers in their own lives. They think they are active but they are brought along for the same ride the rest of us are. Taylor-Johnson even gets a few painful, eye rolling character moments that hurt to watch, but they didn’t last too long. At least, unlike Man of Steel, he has a reason to continue with the story and while the reason is relatively thin, it works better than so many other “you look trustworthy or useful, come along!”

Of course, if you are reading this still, you want to know about Him.

He is everything he needs to be. He is large. He is in charge. He is the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. He even is able to emote, not bad for an animal. He is epic. All we needed was a mic drop and we’d be good. The roar was so worth it in the XD. He just LOOKS good. Yes, he is bigger and “fatter” than he has been before. Buildings have changed a bit since his original appearance and I am quite good with the scale. I am quite happy that in the end we are irrelevant to him. Ant, meet boot.

From an FX standpoint, the movie is actually really well done. 3D isnt needed, but if you can get higher quality sound and need to see it in 3D – do it. I was overall really impressed with the creature design and effects and their integration into the story. Seeing cities laid to waste in epic battles was also well done. You don’t get to see all the battles and its worth it to make the climax of the film what it needs to be.

TL;DR?

Godzilla absolutely met my expectations. It was appropriately epic. It is a really good modernization of a classic icon. Plenty of nods to the original films exist. I want you to ignore anyone who talks about the Godzilla cartoon of references Gadzooki, they weren’t paying attention.

Should you see it?

Well, yes. I am not as jazzed as I was walking out of Winter Soldier, but I am looking forward to seeing this again tomorrow night. Again if you have to see it, please see it with the best sound system you can. 3D still is not required. It is also surprisingly kid friendly. Not entirely sure how they manage it but they did.

This does rank as one of the better films this year and may hold the title in the top 5 for awhile.

Please enjoy Godzilla, but don’t go in expecting your Kaiju world to be blown.

Next week, another anticipated film. X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Darke Reviews – The Amazing Spiderman 2

Alright folks, so the summer blockbuster season has officially begun. It is May. For the next 4 weeks we will be inundated with some of the strongest contenders for box office gold. With June having a semi weak following in comparison just to gear up for the 4th of July and mid july stakes. August is the dump slot where all films studios aren’t sure about go to die or surprise people. Yes, that means even Guardians of the Galaxy, despite it’s budget is in that space. As we’ve discussed before this year has pretty much sucked overall. It’s had highlights (thank you Cap) but mostly been a bloody mess.

Now, I made no bones about it with the review of the first Amazing Spiderman (I really need a way to link to prior reviews…hmm) – I didn’t like it. There’s too much there that rubbed me wrong and took away from the film for me to really embrace it. It wasn’t even the too soon factor. Now, we have Amazing Spiderman 2; which from the trailers made it appear to fall prey to sequel syndrome with three apparent villains. Did it work? Keep reading. Were they too ambitious? Keep reading. Did I go in with low expectations? Not so much, they were low, but other things this year have been so much lower. Where did it finally land?

Well for one Mark Webb, the director who has music videos to his credit prior and (500) Days of Summer returns for this one. Consistency helps, but a lot of my complaints with the last movie came down to directorial decisions that were pretty bad. I think he learned. There are still some really bad decisions here. The pacing of the movie, which runs a full two and a half hours, is terrible. I was able to get up for a bio break during the midway part and feel confident I missed nothing important. I was right. He understands highs and lows in the plot and how to utilize them well enough, but there are just too many and the director should be able to have some control there and Webb did not. I am beating up here, but he does redeem himself. some of the blame in this area of pacing and storytelling comes down to the writers.

If I wasn’t counting repeats, the total count is seven. You may commence worrying now. When you do account for repeats, it still only drops it for four. Two of which I will blame nearly entirely for any flaws in execution of the story and those are Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. These two until recently are inseparable. They are the ones who gave us Transformers 2, Star Trek into Star Wars..er Darkness, Cowboys and Aliens, and so many other disasters of storytelling. They make GREAT producers, but as writers they leave a little to be desired. The movie also has Jeff Pinkner who worked with K/O on Fringe, Lost and Alias; and finally James Vanderbilt, who gave us the underrated Basic and Losers movies.

With this many writers, its no wonder the overall plot is a hot mess of trying too much and being too ambitious. Granted, it succeeds at a good portion of it, but not in every area. It does try to stuff three classic spiderman bad guys, their origins, their character development into a single film. While doing that it also tries to give a bit of the heroes journey narrative for your friendly neighborhood web head both in and out of costume. God, I want to get into spoilers here, but my promise is none. There is also a plot involving Peter’s parents again which I suppose if I followed the comics would make more sense, so Ill leave it as is. There really is a lot going on here, and it falls to the actors and director to try to make you care.

They succeed. This is where Webb shines. He has built a fantastic cast to work with and each of them really get a moment in the sun. Enough so that I was really able to see the world from their point of view. Jamie Foxx as Electro does a good job on what would otherwise be a fairly stereotypical caricature. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) channels mid 90’s Leonardo diCaprio and Cillian Murphy here to give his performance. He does make you feel for him and are able to follow his arc as Harry Osborn. Paul Giamatti is not used nearly enough in his role, but there are of course movies to come. Emma stone (zombieland) is an amazing woman who gives you a modern day Gwen Stacy. She is strong, she is independent, and she will not let someone else make decisions for her. I admire her, she’s someone people could look up to. We need her in more roles, more comic book and sci fi roles if possible. Actioners too. She is a really talented actress who brings a lot of fire into the role of a character who in the original run of the comics was little more than fridge bait and a victim. FOr this, I say thank you Ms. Stone. You were needed and you did a great job of being more than what she was drawn as.

The brunt of the praise, that Webb earned as well, comes down to Andrew Garfield. Our Peter Parker. Our Spiderman. He is everything that he needs to be and covers the range of emotions that he needs to. You can feel his despair, his confusion, his fear, his pain, and even his joy. He runs the gambit of the emotional rollercoaster through the film and you are with him the entire time. You really don’t question him (much) as he hits each beat. what he also delivers and delivers well is something we’ve been lacking in our superheroes of late. We have been in a rut of post modernism  in our heroes. This one wants to bring us hope, to bring smiles and that my friends is a nice change of pace and breath of fresh air. Is he moody? sure. Emo at times, yes, but with reason. Ultimately though he’s a comic book hero without too much deconstruction and we needed it. You may not know you needed it, but you did. Hope, light, and goodness are what we need more of in our heroes. So thank you. Thank you for doing it right here. Now do it again until people get off the dark and brooding kick.

The movie also boasts a fantastically executed soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Pharrel. I know right? It works. It isn’t memorable in the way that Star Wars or Superman is, but it is a strong soundtrack that elevates the film. You have moments of not being able to tell if you are dealing with effects or soundtrack at time and I consider this a good thing. Other musical choices in the film are just as relevant and just as well done.

It isn’t perfect though. Not by a long shot. As I said before the pacing is pretty bad. It runs about 30 minutes too long. Some of the visual effects are clearly animated and not blended well. Plot points are eye rollingly contrived at times with unnecessary threats and tension that only serves to distract. Editing errors are rampant; with confusing cuts and unusual beats with no explanation. Those moments serve to confuse rather than add. The visuals are a bit intense at times with motion and enough to be noticed, but not as bad as some have indicated.

TL;DR?

I feel good in recommending this one.

It’s a landmark improvement over the previous entries into the Spiderman franchises. There’s room for improvement in the next. It was solid, it was entertaining and just a good movie. I didn’t come out of it as excited as I did in Cap, but I won’t hold it against the movie as it does deliver all it tries to. Some parts better than others.

Spiderman is certainly an all ages film. I don’t think any beats get too dark for younger audiences, but I do think the story when it begins to drag will leave some kids *really* antsy.

3D? Isn’t necessary to enjoy it, but if you can afford the extra and don’t have anything that makes 3D bad on you. Try it. It does add to the film, which is the first time I’ve said that this year. Yay.

Final note: This movie is bright in the story sense, the character sense. Please Hollywood, when this one wins the box office this weekend pay attention. This is what we need in our heroes and for the love of the art form get back to this!!