The greatest actress of my generation, Angelina Jolie, graces the silver screen this week in Maleficent, a Disney flick about the villain from the classic story of Sleeping Beauty (because everyone was hoping to get that side of the story right?).
Over the years Angelina Jolie has firmly planted her puckered-lip perfection across most of the Hollywood genres: she introduced us to the Internet in the cyber-thrilller Hackers, Tomb Raider set the standard for video-game action franchises, she feminized the shoot-em-up with Wanted and Salt, mastered hard drama in A Mighty Heart and Changeling and she laid down the high-water mark of lesbian sex scenes in Gia. Truly, as diverse an actress as she is smolderingly gorgeous, Angie has dabbled in the CGI swords and sorcery arena before (Beowulf, Alexander) but Maleficent puts the world's most beautiful woman front and centre with the best visual effects Hollywood can muster.
At 97 minutes, Maleficent's plot is a bit uneven, rushed even. The world is divided into two kingdoms — the human realm and Malificent's magical forest setting, the Moors. Maleficent begins the tale as a lovely fairy princess, until a human Stefan (Sharlto Copely from District 9) breaks her heart, betrays her and cuts off her wings in order to be king of the humans. As war rises, Maleficent smolders in dark pain (understandably) and plots the most hurtful revenge she can come up with. In a scene quite perfectly recreated from the old Disney cartoon, Maleficent goes after Stefan's infant daughter, Aurora, and curses the child to prick her finger on her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep. (It's starting to sound familiar right?) For the rest of the flick, Malificent lurks and lingers and rethinks her curse, spending much of the film trying to make amends as Aurora grows into the girl who could save both kingdoms.
First time director Robert Stromberg has extensive experience in art direction (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful) so the look of Maleficent is unparalleled. The twisting woods and transforming CGI ravens meld perfectly with Jolie's incredible costume and bang-on-perfect make-up prosthetics (from American Werewolf in London master Rick Baker). There might not be a more beautiful looking film this summer.
But Stromberg has some learning to do with pacing and storytelling. Jolie's talent and solar-nuclear hotness carry the film but one can't help wonder where this tale and talent could have taken us with a director unafraid (or perhaps allowed, this is Disney after all) to go darker or campier. Maleficent is saved by Angie, (it's great to see a female hero/villain carrying a summer blockbuster) and kids will undoubtedly dig it... but it could have been scarier, or more fun, or both.
A Million Ways to Die in The West also opens this week. Family Guy and Ted director Seth MacFarlane rustles up a revisionist Western comedy-farce that aims for Blazing Saddles but comes out more like Posse.
There are a lot of jokes that hit the mark as we follow MacFarlane's transformation from sheep farmer to gunslinger under the tutelage of only-getting-better-with-age Charlize Theron, but there are a lot of misses too. MacFarlane and his writing crew attempt to insert contemporary ideas, banter and comedy into an old west scenario and the result is not as witty as you'd expect. For a 22-minute Family Guy episode this would work, as a116-minute feature film, A Million Ways to Die in the West is gonna leave more than a few fans disappointed. (I still kind of love it though.)