Maleficent

Maleficent (2014) by Robert Stromberg

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Let’s talk about Angelina Jolie for a moment. I have my problems with reviewing any of her movies, to be honest, even though I’ve watched most of them at the movies. It’s just incredibly difficult for me to look beyond her iconic status and see her work outside of it. I’ve been a fan since February 2001 when I first saw the Tomb Raider-trailer and that’s probably also around the time she became this iconic figure so I’ve rarely seen her without it. But we all know that she is a talented, incredibly able and dedicated actress. And I want to stress this point because Maleficent is probably her most iconic role to date – and it could have been a disaster if anyone but Jolie had played it.maleficent1

What happens:

An old tale with a new twist – Maleficent is a fairy living in a kingdom with other fairies and magical creatures just next to a kingdom where envious men dream of conquering that neigboring world they don’t understand. When a king (Kenneth Cranham) finally tries, he and his army are defeated and it is Maleficent as protector of her kingdom who is responsible for the defeat and the humiliation the king suffers. As he lies dying, he promises the kingdom to the man that kills Maleficent.

Stefan (Michael Higgins, Sharlto Copley)  who has been Maleficent’s childhood friend and first love reconnects with her but then betrays her. But since he is unable to kill her he cuts off her wings and takes them to the king – and becomes king in return. Maleficent swears revenge and makes herself queen of the beforehand leaderless fairy kingdom – a dark queen. She curses Stefan’s first (and only) child, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to fall into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday from which she shall not awake unless it’s by true love’s kiss (since Maleficent does not believe in true love anymore because it’s what Stefan had vowed to her it’s a mute point that Aurora will never wake).

maleficent4Aurora is send away by her father to live with three fairies (Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville) who show such negligent care of the child that Maleficent feels the need to intervene just so that Aurora will live to see her sixteenth birthday. She unwillingly befriends the girl who thinks that Maleficent is her fairy godmother and as she grows attached to the girl she tries to take back the curse. She fails and has to watch as Aurora falls victim to it. She brings Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) to the castle – a young man who has met Aurora once and was enchanted by her – but his kiss does not wake Aurora. Only when Maleficent kisses the unconscious girl – grief-stricken over the fact that she couldn’t save her – Aurora wakes.

There’s loads of battle and awesomeness and Maleficent finally gets her wings back. In the end, Maleficent and Aurora unite the kingdom in what can best be described as a gay marriage ceremony (that’s open for interpretation and discussion). The Happy Ending.

Now, there have been a number of fairy tales lately who tried and failed at maleficent-poster2giving the old tales a feminist spin – Maleficent is not one of those. It’s also not a lighthearted, musical color-explosion that’s been ejaculated onto the screen. It’s not flashy, it’s not distastefully pointing fingers at mythical creatures in a ‘look how different they are’-kind of metaphorical way. It is what it is:

A tale about people. People who are flawed, who are cruel, who are obsessed, who are kind, who are trying so hard at being better. There is a wide range of human frailties at work here and most of them are displayed in Maleficent – the ‘villain’ of the tale – but they’re all displayed on the remarkable body of Angelina Jolie’s talent. She’s a playful fairy, a scary avenger, a violated woman, an action-hero, and a tender lover.

I don’t even have words for how magnificent Angelina Jolie is in this role. It’s the kind of role meets actor that you would wish for all of your favorite movies, the kind of combination of talents that comes along far too rarely. This is an epic movie, a movie that sets standards, a movie you will want to watch again and again because its pieces fit perfectly into a well-told story, a powerful drama, an exciting action movie, a love story that is rarely told in such a way (and yes, I’m talking about the love between Maleficent and Aurora and I’m not going to put a label on it). This is the movie you should watch if you were only going to watch one movie this year – you won’t regret it.

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From my DVD collection: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston

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Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same title. It certainly makes for good entertainment but there’s more to it than that:

Sam Spade (Bogart) gets hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor) to find her sister who is seeing some shady character named Thursby. Spade’s partner Archer (Jerome Cowan) jumps in to shadow Thursby but by early morning themaltesefalcon2they both turn up dead. As it turns out, Spade was seeing Archer’s wife on the side and thus becomes the police’s no. 1 suspect. But Spade isn’t a killer, he’s clever enough to find out that the whole plot of the damsel in distress is a decoy and everything really revolves around a black statuette of a falcon which is supposed to be of great value. Several parties want it but it turns up on Spade’s doorstep in the hands of a dying man. Plot is spun and the main players – besides Spade and O’Shaughnessy there are Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Gutman (Greenstreet) – finally meet in Spade’s apartment where they’re waiting for the falcon to arrive via Sam’s assistant Effie (Lee Patrick). It turns out the statuette is a fake and the parties part ways. But Spade is not one to be played with – as his new lady love has yet to discover.

themaltesefalcon5This is not exactly film noir. Yes, the plot lends itself to the genre but the finesse of the later murder mysteries is missing here. This is a solid story, the men talk tough, the women lie through their teeth but there’s no playing in the shadows. Bogart’s Spade is almost too upfront a character who does the detective work the old fashioned way: by foot and brain. He’s certainly not fancy but, as Gutman assures him repeatedly, he is a character.

I love old movies, yes, but this one is a rare pearl. It is very fast paced, changes location often and the dialogue is just as fast-paced as the plot. You have to pay attention to what is being said or you miss a point, miss what is happening. The themaltesefalcon3acting is spot on and the direction brings everything together for a surprising but necessary end. Yes, it is a character study of Spade, but the other characters don’t have to hide behind this larger-than-life figure and the plot just helps everything along nicely. It is a truly magnificent film to watch, never boring, never not entertaining. Go, watch.

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables (2012) by Tom Hooper

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Finally, Les Mis opened in Germany! Finally, I watched it!

You might think that this has been a livelong dream of mine, that I could think of nothing else while waiting for it to happen, that I was thrilled by the choices of actors – or devastated. But you would be wrong. I knew very little of Les Misßerables before, and I don’t feel that I know a lot more now. Sure, the plot is fairly clear now, some quotes that I may have heard before make sense – but I have never read the novel by Victor Hugo, I haven’t seen a version of the musical before now.

lesmis4And still, when people started talking about it on the blogosphere, I became intrigued and I wanted to see it – even more so when I heard that Helena Bonham Carter would be in it, singing once again as she had already done on Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Anne Hathaway? Can she sing? Russell Crowe? Can HE sing? Hugh Jackman? Awesome, he can sing! The list of cast just got better and better and then I waited, patiently. Until yesterday:

The year is 1815, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has spent 19 years in prison, five for stealing a loaf of bread, 14 more because he tried to escape. Now he’s on parole and he’s given the chance to better himself. But he can’t do that while still wearing the stigma of a con – so, he makes his former self disappear and builds a new identity. One, that becomes mayor of some city and a respected businessman. At his factory works a young woman by the name of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is dismissed by Valjean’s foreman after finding out that she has an illegitimate child.

Fantine takes to the street while Valjean has to face his past in the figure of lesmis2Javert (Russell Crowe) who was a guard at prison and recognizes the man. Valjean finds Fantine and takes her to the hospital where she dies after Valjean promises her to find her daughter, Cosette, and care for her. He does but has to flee with the small girl (Isabelle Allen) because Javert is after him again. Nine years later in Paris, Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) live in hiding. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionist, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Javert once again enters their lives. Trying to escape they are caught up in the machinisms of a revolution and everybody has choices to make, debts to pay.

The story isn’t the greatest part of it, and I’m not even sure if it’s Hugo’s doing or simply the script of even the musical version, but there are certainly a few questions that are left unanswered, a little too many coincidences happening. But these probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in the light of a fantastic cast lesmis3giving a breathtaking performance. Yes, they can all sing and they do. And while they’re all really wonderful, it is Anne Hathaway who blows everyone else out of the water. Oscar-worthy performance? Abso-fucking-lutely (pardon my French, and the pun)! There are no words to discribe her intensity. She makes the audience feel lost with her, makes everyone want to reach out and protect her. She is the face that has been ruined, not by her own doing but by others judging her. She should have lived where others died but she doesn’t. She dies and the audience cries for her.

Luckily, they bring Anne Hathaway back for the grand finale because by then you have missed her – not because it had all turned boring and lame by now but simply because she was THAT good.

Whoelse was good? Well, you guessed it: Helena Bonham Carter. It doesn’t really matter what she does, she does it all fabulously. And the weight of not letting the whole show drudge into misery and sorrow lay heavy on her and Sacha Baron Cohen’s shoulders and they pulled it off and making it look effortlessly.

I’m mentioning these two actresses but I should mention everyone involved. lesmis9The cast was fabulous. I think I was most surprised by the role of Javert. It would have been easy to have him being the villain, somebody who doesn’t care. But Javert does care. He really believes that Valjean belongs in prison, that he’s a dangerous man. He also believes in the system, in the law, and that’s exactly why he must fail in the end – because the system fails him. He is confronted with the question of right and wrong and must admit to himself that he has been wrong all along, because he has put himself on the wrong side. I feel, that his is really the most complex of roles, more so than Valjean’s, because Valjean has the opportunity to redeem himself – Javert doesn’t. And Crowe is really great at protraying this.

There’s another interpretation that lends itself to these two characters, of course. It feels a little like a love story between the two men. None of them seems to have any other romantic linkages but one is always following the other, watching for him. Yes, there’s antagonism but there’s also honor and a sense of one coin with two sides. One is Valjean, the other Javert (their names are eerily similar with the prominant Vj/Jv sounds in them). It’s really a kind of symbioses that binds them, they cannot let go, they cannot carry on.

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There is so much in the story, there’s so much in the songs, there are emotions and thoughts. I will watch it again and listen to the soundtrack and maybe even read the novel – hopefully it will all make sense at some point, or at least the things that I found a little lacking in the plot. It was the only thing that lacked anything really, as this was a brilliant movie. Now go see, if you haven’t already.

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Book vs. Film – The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (2012) by Gary Ross

It’s been awhile since I read the book and I read it in two days – the following two days I read the second book. Which is to say that my memory of these four days that happened sometime last August are vague at best. Also, these four days immediately followed me writing my bachelor thesis… wow, I just remembered that. I am amazed that I  remember reading The Hunger Games at all.

I loved the book – the first one, that is. It is well-paced, it is exciting, it is captivating. Katniss Everdeen is not a likely hero, sometimes she is not even likable. But she is practical, and I think this is one of her best characteristics. It is what makes her effective, leave it to Peeta to be likable.

The story is not simple: Thirteen districts fought against the Capital in a war  about 74 years ago and they lost. That is why “The Hunger Games” were invented. Each district – except 13, because 13 has been wiped off the map – sacrifices 2 of their children to these games where only one will survive. A cruel concept, kids killing each other off and this concept works much better in the book than it does in the movie.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12 volunteers to participate after her sister Prim has been chosen. She and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son, travel to the games. Katniss makes an impression with the judges when she shoots an arrow at a roasted pig they are about to eat while she is performing. She is considered to be a strong fighter but also a high risk by President Snow who fears an uprising of the 12 districts.

And he is right: Katniss’ behavior in the arena defies standards. She becomes a recognizable face who cares for others. She becomes the underdog everybody loves – including Peeta who has been in love with her since forever. It is this love that sponsors and audience crave and the organizers of the games use it to their advantage. But in the end it is Katniss who challenges everybody and wins – but the price for this victory might be high.

The movie follows the same storyline. Katniss Everdeen has been well cast with Jennifer Lawrence. The fighting is amazing, the supporting cast is great with young and older actors/actresses that show great performances. Still, I did not enjoy the movie half as much as those two dazed days I read the book.

Of course, there is always the premise that the book is considered better, more elaborate. The story has more space to reveal itself, we learn more about the characters, a new world opens infront of our eyes. But it is not only these undeniable truths that pretty much work for every literary adaptation. I felt that the movie lacked a lot of the warmth the book holds. Katniss is a loving person, even though she is not the most show-y when it comes to affections. She cares deeply. The movie shows very little of this. It seems the movie makers readily sacrifice the warmth of the book for the Twilight-look, as I would like to call it. Well, with vampires this might work but The Hunger Games is about human beings – even though some of them have a twisted sense as to the definition of entertainment.

A lot of the coldness of the movie derives from the sterile settings. From the book, I had the sense that everything in the Capital would be luscious, overly plushy, kitschy. But many of the settings were bare. The scenes in the training area are especially disappointing, metallic, and, yes, cold.

This, of course, does not a bad movie make. I am usually not someone who builds too many expectations but I was still disappointed. The movie in all was entertaining but not something out of the ordinary. The best aspects were the great cast, and seeing some of the more memorable scenes of the book unfold – though the whole storyline with Rue (Amandla Stenberg) was… again, disappointing.

I have already mentioned that the aspect of kids or young adults killing each other is more difficult to put into a movie than a book. Although the book was quite graphic, it was not visual. The killing of that small curly-haired boy (was he from District 5?), for example, was gruesome. The premise of The Hunger Games is, of course, this same cruelty, the unfairness, the paralysis of the parents but actually seeing these young people killing others their age (and some of them even enjoying it) is disturbing, especially considering that many among the audience are the same age as the youngest that are being killed here. I am not exactly a prude when it comes to violence in the movies (horror after all, is one of my favorite genres) but this was harsh… maybe because it felt real.

The love triangle is certainly something I could have done without – book and movie. Considering the book, I always hoped that the girl who gave Katniss the mokingjay-pin would reappear (she was the mayor’s daughter but I don’t remember her name) and I totally would have shipped them. But she was cut from the movie (which made for an awkward mokingjay-pin exchange with Prim as a token that was not really a lucky charm). Just like in the book, I found movie-Gail much more appealing than movie-Peeta, so, I guess, you can put me down for Team Gail (Liam Hemsworth).

On the whole, the movie was okay, entertaining, with a great cast. But make no mistake – the book was AWESOME.

Book vs. Film – Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go (2010) by Mark Romanek

Yes, I have written about this movie before but now I have also read the novel. And let me tell you: it is just as good. Actually book and movie are not that different. And this is quite an accomplishment if you consider that the book is written by I-narrator Kathy. Ishiguro has written the screenplay together with Alex Garland and they succeed in telling the same bittersweet, touching, and complex story.

Obviously, the novel takes a closer look at the feeling of the narrator, the reader learns more about the issues of the homes and the kids that are to donate.  But Kathy and her peers seem just as naive as they are in the movie. Miss Lucy tells Tommy that things are not explained enough and this holds true even in the novel. Sometimes it gets a little tiresome to have Kathy explain things repeatedly but it works well within the context of the story, Kathy’s wish to preserve memories.

I wrote in my former post that I read some subtext into Ruth’s feelings for Kathy. This also holds true for the novel. Ruth does not seem to care much for anybody, at least not romantically, yet she is bound to Kathy not only by acquaintance, or the coincidence that they grew up together. And one has the feeling that she always fights Kathy more than is necessary…

The book tells us more about Miss Lucy’s story. She is a key character in both versions but the book explores her more thoroughly, is giving her more time with the other characters – especially with Tommy. Tommy’s dilemma with his art and creativity is further elaborated on which is good because this aspect of the movie seemed rather confusing. In all, the novel fills the gaps that the movie cannot fill. It is also well-written. If you find the time, put it on your reading list, it certainly is worth your while.

Book vs. Film – The Wives of Bath vs. Lost and Delirious

The Wives of Bath (1993) by Susan Swan

Lost and Delirious (2001) by Léa Pool

I love films but, incidentally, literature has always been my more cherished first love. If there is a way to combine these two passions of mine, I am always already hooked to the idea. I am not sure when I first saw Lost and Delirious. Have I read about it somewhere and ordered the dvd hoping it was good? Have I accidently come across it on tv? Was it something somebody told me to watch? I don’t remember but I certainly do remember that the first time I watched it I read that it was based on the book The Wives of Bath – and yes, I am one of those weird people that read the credits, opening and closing. And I am saying “based on” here because the film says it is “based on” not “inspired by,” which would probably have been the better description. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

(that is the German dvd-cover, by the way, I like it)

I love the movie. Yes, I know it is not so easy to work through like a good lesbian comedy, but I still think it is worth our while. It tells the story of a shakespearean love, passionate love, a love lost becomes delirious. Strangely enought the narrator of the story is not one of the two lovers. It is Mouse Bedford (Mischa Barton), who has been shipped off to boarding school by her evil step-mother and rooms with Paulie (Piper Parabo) and Tori (Jessica Paré). Paulie and Tori are in love (they are not lesbians, they just love each other).

When some younger students, among them Tori’s little sister, surprise Tori and Paulie in bed with each other, Tori tells her sister that Paulie slipped into bed with her without her knowing and that Paulie has a crush on her but that she herself is totally into guys. She breaks up with Paulie and Paulie snaps. In the end we have another dead lesbian and the dignity of outrageous rightousness on our side, a bitter sweet ending that once again confirms that life is not fair.

(there is actually a different book by the same title out there, so make sure you get a copy of the book by Susan Swan)

The book is another matter. Mouse Bradford (yes, the movie makers changed the last names of the three main characters, although the German dvd-cover actually says Mary Bradford, not Bedford – probably just to say that we also know the book and not just the movie, we are snobbish that way) is shipped off to boarding school by her step-mother, but she is not evil, nor is her father quite the touchy kind that he is in the movie. And it is mostly her relationship to her father – or lack thereof – we are told of (the movie puts more emphasize on the mother-daughter relationship of both Mouse and Paulie). Morley is a doctor who works too much and Mouse worries about him but not enough as it turns out that Morley later dies of a heart attack.

Although Paulie and Tori do have a relationship, Paulie disguizes herself as Paulie’s brother Lewis to be with her beloved and it is not quite clear if Tori knows that Paulie and Lewis are the same person (I would argue that she knew but that it really did not matter to her much). The case of Paulie is more complicated as Paulie sees herself as a boy – and the fact that Lewis is working on the school’s premises as a caretaker proves that she is very good at passing. Tori’s brother Rick raises suspicion that Lewis might not be a boy and in order to prove that he is, Paulie kills the caretaker Sergeant to get his genitals. She is declared insane in court.

Although the names of the characters are quite consistent, the book and the film tell two completely different stories. The characters themselves are very different. Mary “Mouse,” for example, has a hump in the book, while Mary “Mouse” in the film is merely a little younger and very shy. The imagery is also completely different. While movie maker Léa Pool works with images of Shakespearean gallantry and nativism, which finally reasolves in Paulie’s rebirth as animal/bird, the book’s central image is the mighty “King Kong” and Tori substitutes for the white woman. Susan Swan paints the picture of a transgendered FTM, and in Mouse’s flashbacks to the trial she defies Freudian theory of penis envy and declares that one does not have to have a penis to make a woman happy, that only man think one has to have one. Swan does not merely draw a picture of a lesbian love that cannot survive heteronormative conventions but a picture of plurality within “lesbian” experience – or maybe “queer” would be the better word here.

The times the stories play out in are also completely different. The book takes place around the event of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, while the film seems to be located cosily in the 1990s. The disparity is great. But both book and movie are worth reading and re-reading, watching and re-watching.

Shattered Glass – on DVD

Shattered Glass (2003) by Billy Ray

More than once, I stood at the vid-shop and looked at the cover of this dvd and thought: hm, this looks interesting. And I actually like most of the actors. Unfortunately they also put the fallowing words on the cover: produced by Tom Cruise. And for years, really, that was the reason for me to not watch it. It seems idiotic, maybe, he merely produced the movie, why shouldn’t it be a good movie? So, this rational side of me finally won out and I watched the movie last night.

Stephen Glass was fired from “The New Republican” in 1998 because he had fabricated facts, and actually invented whole stories while he was writing for the magazine. The movie dramatizes the discovery of his lies by his editor Charles Lane.

While the story was probably well publisized and discussed in the U.S., I am pretty certain that in Germany very few people would know about the exploits of Glass. I am not even sure the movie made it to German theaters, so I had never heard about it, and I also did not read the dvd synopsis – because I like to be surprised every once in awhile.

It was a strange story from beginning to end as Glass (Hayden Christensen) is portrayed as the hero at the beginning. Well, it may be observed that there is something fishy about him, but it is nothing substantial, while Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), though he seems nice, seems also a little incompetent – or maybe merely not as shiny as Glass.

It becomes clear soon enough that Glass is not only fishy, but that he tends to lie, that he fabricates stories, that the little gestures he pays toward his co-workers seem more of an obsession than truly just small gestures to please someone.

His whole scam is detected when a reporter, Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), with forbes.com, a newly-developed internet magazine, tries to verify some of the facts in Glass’s article and finds himself unable to verify any of the given facts. He calls Lane who confronts Glass. Glass tries to cover his tracks but claims that he himself is the victim, that his sources lied etc. But Lane finds out that it is really Glass who made everything up and has put an intense amount of work into covering his tracks. Game over, so to speak.

As I have said, the feeling was strange. Usually I would have welcomed the plot scheme of making the hero the villain and vice versa, only it was too clumsily done. The placement of Lane’s family (wife and baby) pointed at a sensitive family man rather than an unscrupulous careerist who would do anything for a promotion. Christensen’s character meanwhile was from the beginning depicted as somebody who was altogether too eager to please. Still, his co-workers liked him a lot. I am not really surprised, though somehow disappointed that so much female acting skill has been wasted on small roles with little character and no character-development (unless one interpret’s the hero-worship look on Chloe Sivigny’s face at the end of the movie toward Sarsgaard’s character as development). We have not only Chloe Sivigny and Melanie Lynskey (an actress that is constantly playing too small roles for so big a talent) as Glass’s co-workers who are mainly there to adore him, but also Rosario Dawson as a rather more ambitious opponent of Penenberg.

There was someting else, though, that set my sensibilities on edge. And maybe this is only about my sensibilities and not even intentionally put into the movie, maybe I am overinterpreting (but then, that is my field of study). I felt that Glass was depicted as gay which in itself is not a bad thing (having had in mind that Tom Cruise produced the movie I found it sort of peculiar; I had rather expected the film to ignore the existence of gay altogether). Glass’s early exclamation that he was annoyed by everybody assuming he was gay and some colleague giving him tongue during a conversation about… I think it was health-care, wasn’t all that annoying although one (or I) could not shake the feeling that he was rather depicted as a homosexual in denial. And a short time later Glass is seen sitting in the break room when Lane comes in and he stares straight at his jean-covered… behind. I wonder, is it just me who saw that? I don’t think so since I was actally surprised by the shot. The problem is not with Glass being depicted as a gay man (I don’t know if Glass is/was gay but I saw an interview where he actually talked of having had a girlfriend at the time and even that doesn’t have to mean anything today), the problem is with him being gepicted as a rather neurotic, lying gay man – meaning that his lying and neurosis is somehow (though subtly) linked to, what is shown as closeted, homosexuality. Again, this interpretation is fairly subjective but it is after all what I study and I am trained to see things like this. So, maybe I am right, maybe I am wrong.

On the whole, this movie is a good movie. The acting is fantastic, you are never bored, I personally felt more with Glass than the conservatively depicted Lane (especially when I later also watched the interview that was on the dvd – I actually thought the interviewer annoying). All in all, I thought it rather funny what Glass did, I cheered him on, because it is such a wonderful metaphor on truth in journalism, how it is created, who gets to tell it. I am aware that people were affected by his lies and did not think them very funny, they found them hurtful. Still, he seems to me to be rather an anti-hero, not the spiteful person the movie tries to create.