Monthly Archives: October 2019

Hot Wings

Angelina Jolie rises from the fairy-tale train wreck of new ‘Maleficent’ 

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Starring Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer & Elle Fanning
Directed by Joachim Rønning

It’s good to be bad—at least that’s what Disney is hoping as it sends Angelina Jolie into the air once again for the sequel to her 2014 twist on the legend of Sleeping Beauty.

But Jolie’s Maleficent—a sexpot flying sorceress with wings like a condor, towering antlers, gleaming fanged teeth, piercing, oversized green eyes and jutting, chiseled cheekbones—isn’t really evil, just tragically misunderstood. All that stuff about the deep-sleep death hex she put on Sleeping Beauty—well, see the first movie. That all got worked out and patched up.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.Now, several years later, things are hunky-dory in the magical fairy kingdom of the moors. Maleficent is the godmother of the former Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning), who’s now the fairy Queen Aurora, wide awake and getting ready for a big wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The prince is from the adjoining, over-the-river kingdom of Ulstead, where his father, peace-loving King John (Robert Lindsay), is excited about a union that will finally officially unite the kingdoms of fairies and humans.

But Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other ideas. A lifelong fairy hater, she has sinister plans to crush Maleficent and the fairies forever.

That’s what sets the story in motion, and there’s a lot of story—and other things—moving around. The screen is often teeming with flittering, skittering fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle), lumbering tree-like gnomes and magnificent “dark fae,” an ancient, proud race of bird-like fairies forced to live in exile due to human persecution. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein look pretty good with big ol’ sets of wings.

There’s a wedding going on, a war heating up, a genocide in the works and some other meaty issues swirling about—love, loyalty, prejudice, racism, exploitation, death and why it’s always better to sow seeds of kindness rather than fan the flames of hatred. As tribal drums set the beat and nighttime campfires illuminate a peaceful, idyllic scene, the movie asks us to ponder the (timely) idea of an advanced, heavily armed civilization invading a “primitive” country, pillaging its treasures, murdering its people. It challenges us to be defined “not by where we’re from, but by who we love.”

Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) deep dives into the special-effects toybox, putting CGI creatures and creations just about anywhere and everywhere. A huge slice of the movie’s budget had to be spent on the nearly wall-to-wall FX, which at times completely overwhelms the more human elements—especially in an extended, exhausting, bombastic battle sequence.


That white gold: MIchelle Pfeiffer

I wish the movie set aside some of the computer-generated hoo-hah for a few more scenes like the delicious dinner-table snark-fest between Ingrith and Maleficent. In a story about a “war of the worlds” between characters played by two world-class, veteran actresses like Jolie and Pfeiffer, what a waste—and a shame—to only give them one real opportunity to face off and play off against each other.

The sets, gizmos and getups feel like a pixie-dust smash-up of Shakespeare, steampunk and The CW—when the movie’s not recalling moments from other films, like Avatar or The Wizard of Oz. It’s all over the place, and it’s all just a bit too much. Maleficent the winged witch may not be bad, but her movie just isn’t very good. It’s a big, overwrought, hot-mess fairy-tale train wreck—but guess who rises, Phoenix-like, from the rubble?

Of course: Angelina Jolie. This is her flick, and she owns it. She’s the big bird, the hot wings, the OG witchy woman. In this revisionist, fem-forward fairy tale—part two—Jolie soars, rising regally above the overly fussy fairy-fray to remind fans of her secure place in the Disney pantheon of live-action superstars.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil won’t win any awards, and it won’t change the world. But it might inspire a lot of little girls for a super-cool Halloween costume this year.

In theaters Oct. 18, 2019

Double Bill Will

Will Smith faces off against himself in double-trouble mess of sci-fi thrillerGEMINI MAN

Gemini Man
Starring Will Smith, Clive Owen & Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by Ang Lee

You get two Wills for the price of one in Gemini Man, a sci-fi action-thriller about a hitman who becomes stalked by a younger version of himself.

Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin for a shady, CIA-like government-ops organization that deals in all sorts of underhanded global dirty tricks—kidnappings, torture, death-squad training. Whenever the “Defense Intelligence Agency” needs an undesirable taken “off-book,” removed from the record with one clean, untraceable shot, they call Henry.

But after 72 kills, Henry’s ready to call it quits and retire, trade his guns for a fishing pole and putter around in his motorboat. But not so fast—Henry knows too much.

So, of course, now it’s Henry’s turn to be taken “off-book.” And his diabolical DIA boss, Varris (a scenery-chewing Clive Owen), has just the man for the job—a younger, leaner, meaner version of Henry. The assassin Varris sends to kill Henry is, in fact, an exact duplicate of Henry himself, replicated years ago from his DNA by a secret cloning project.

The young assassin, code-named “Junior,” has been trained for one thing: to become a new breed of killer, a warrior without a conscience, remorse, emotion or a past.

The cloning project was called Gemini, as in the mythological twins.

Imagine Henry’s shock and surprise when he comes face-to-face with a younger version of himself. “I find myself avoiding mirrors lately,” Henry tells a fellow DIA defector (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). No kidding! Especially when the man in that mirror might be trying to murder you.


Smith with Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Benedict Wong plays Baron, a wisecracking pilot with connections to get just about any kind of airplane, anytime, anywhere. Baron comes in handy for jet-setting to Belgium, Colombia and Hungary. Why? Something about someone named Yuri.

Will Junior complete his seek-and-destroy mission? Can Henry not only survive, but convince his younger self that Junior’s been programmed for a hollowed-out, toxic nowhere life? Do Henry’s allergy to bees, and his lifelong fear of drowning, come back later in the movie as plot points? If you don’t know the answers to all those questions without even seeing the movie, well, I humbly suggest you need to see a few more movies.

That’s the story of Gemini Man, but the real story here is the back story. This film has been knocking around in development for more than 20 years, and it’s cycled through various directors and numerous other leading men—Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—who considered the starring role.

The challenge was the story’s central special effect: how to convincingly make one character interact with his much younger self. Finally technology caught up to the premise, and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee took up the gauntlet. (Lee, you may recall, made a very realistic, make-believe CGI tiger in The Life of Pi.)

Here, the two Wills talk, hug, fight, blast away at each other and have a gritty, dual-motorcycle duel. Junior is basically Smith’s computer-generated younger face—recreated from archives of his previous movies and TV show—digitally placed onto heads and torsos of body doubles. (So, yes, sometimes Henry is fighting the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Sometimes it looks pretty amazing, which is to say natural, but sometimes it looks pretty freaky and artificial, like something from a bargain-bin computer game.

Which is all the more surprising because the movie was made using super-sophisticated, high-tech camera gimmickry—a high-speed, high-definition innovation that renders images surgically crisp and super-sharp (but likely beyond the capacity of many theatre projectors to display). Ironically, it also shows the special-effect “seams” when trying to join things together, like the real Will and the fake Will.

GEMINI MANSmith, once a king of the box office with slam-bang, fan-boy blockbusters like Independence Day, the Men in Black franchise and I Am Legend, has in recent years marinated in more meditative fare (Seven Pounds, After Earth, Concussion, Collateral Beauty). Gemini Man might be seen as a combo platter, a bit of both—it’s got guns and explosions, but it also wants to explore ideas about the dogs of war, growing old, fatherhood, nature versus nurture and the ill-advised, age-old quest to play God.

But alas, the movie is a double-trouble mess with more than one problem. It’s a sub-par thriller with clunky dialog, an unwieldy, unoriginal plot, cheesy acting and special effects that don’t look so special. We’ve seen other—much better—movies about clones and cloning, and assassins who want to give up their guns, and there’ve been a bunch of Bonds, Bournes, John Wicks and even an Atomic Blonde to bring some real action-movie spark, spunk and sizzle to the screen while the idea for Gemini Man has been gathering dust on the shelf for more than two decades.

Two Wills for the price of one? “It’s not every day you get to see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents—by himself,” says Wong’s character, Barton, after Henry and Junior have beaten each other to a pulp in some catacombs underneath the streets of Budapest following a roustabout earlier in South America.

Gemini Man is something to see, all right—if you want to see Will Smith beating himself up in a movie, in perhaps more ways than one.

In theaters Oct. 11, 2019

Send in the Clowns

Joaquin Phoenix makes his mark as maestro of madness in ferocious new backstory saga. 

Joker 6 (72)Joker
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro & Zazie Beets
Directed by Todd Phillips

One of the top villains in the kingdom of the comics finally gets his solo spot in this dark spin on the backstory of the character who will eventually become—as we all know—Batman’s mortal enemy.

Various other actors have memorably played the Joker, including Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and (on TV) Cesar Romero. But those were all supporting roles, and Joaquin Phoenix breaks new ground as the star of director Todd Phillips’ twistedly artful urban nightmare about the genesis story of Arthur Fleck, whose mangled past and tortured present combine, collide and combust into something ferocious, ghoulish and terrifying.

When we meet Fleck, he’s working as a rent-a-clown in the DC Comics hub of Gotham City in the early 1980s. The place is a cesspool, in more ways than one; a strike by garbage workers has left the streets strewn with trash and overrun by rats, and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots has created an even greater strain on the roiling, restless underclass.

JKR_DAY005_091818_0168787.dngWe can tell the deck is stacked against Fleck from the get-go; he’s a mentally unstable, basket-case loser and outsider who lives with his frail mother (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under and American Horror Story) in a dingy apartment. He’s prone to outbursts of inappropriate laughter, uncontrollable spasms of jarring, hyena-like cackles. He carries a laminated card that explains, “I Have a Condition.” It doesn’t always help.

Arthur gets bullied, beat down and beat up. Then he finds out a budget slash is axing his social-services safety net, and he won’t receive any more medicine to keep the demons in his head at bay. He gets fired from his clowning job. Can things get any worse?

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his social caseworker (Sharon Washington).

It definitely gets crazier in Joker, as Arthur gets a handgun, bullets fly, bodies in a subway car fall, and Gotham’s anonymous “Killer Clown” becomes a vigilante hero, an icon of a surging, stick-it-to-the-rich rebellion. Rioters in the streets begin wearing clown masks.


Zazie Beetz

One of the richest is wealthy industrialist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who played Gerald Kindt on TV’s True Detective).He’s also the father of young Bruce, who’ll grow up to become you know Bat-who. Zazie Beetz (Emmy-nominated for her role as Van Keefer on the FX drama Atlanta) plays Fleck’s neighbor, Sophie, a single mom who seems to understand him—at least for a while.

But the whole of the movie revolves around a live TV show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a Johnny Carson-like late-night character who broadcasts every evening from downtown Gotham City. Fleck, who desperately wants to become a stand-up comedian, feeds his delusion by fantasizing of an appearance on the program.


Robert De Niro plays the host of a popular late-night television show.

In a bizarre twist that sets up the movie’s explosively violent climax, his fantasy becomes a reality.

Director Phillips’ previous films include the comedies Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover trilogy, all of which plumbed the “hilarity” of grown men behaving badly as they try to recapture the frivolities and frolics of youth. Joker is a much darker, much more unsettling descent into the maelstrom of bad behavior. There aren’t any real laughs in this movie about a clown who would become one of pop culture’s all-time favorite bad guys. And mental illness, as we know, is no laughing matter.

But Joaquin Phoenix is no joke as the Joker. The actor has always immersed himself in his roles, whether he’s playing a toady Roman emperor (Gladiator), country superstar Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or a lonely guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (Her). He reportedly lost some 50 pounds to play Arthur Fleck, and the extreme transformation adds to the scariness of his intense, grueling performance. His character is an emaciated time bomb that often looks like an angel of death seemingly living on cigarettes, fantasy and deprivation instead of food.

Cinema lovers will notice the movie’s nods to its inspirations, particularly Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and there’s a pivotal scene in a theater showing a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times—in which Chaplin’s character, a factory worker struggling in the “modern” industrial society, is believed to go mad and gets committed to a mental hospital.

JJKR_DAY005_091818_0168483.dngoker brings up plenty of things to think about—not the least of which are the warnings that were issued before it was even released about the possible violence it might unleash. Its narrative is, after all, hauntingly similar to other, real-world episodes in which disenfranchised white men have gone on to tragic shooting sprees. And it reminds us how easily someone—anyone—can slip through the cracks of an overburdened system and become lost…or worse.

But mostly it reminds us how, sometimes, a great actor finds a great role and just, well, kills it. In Joker, Phoenix makes his mark as a severely damaged man who becomes an insane monster, a maestro of madness who sinks to the bottom of society but moves to the top tier of the DC Villains Hall of Fame. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons them and treats them like trash?” he asks. “You get what you f—in’ deserve.”

And you get a movie like Joker. Send in the clowns—no, don’t bother, they’re here.

In theaters Friday, Oct. 4