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X-Men: Days Of Future Past Maleficent

May 29, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (***) PG-13

Fans, and nonfans, alike, are certain to find many reasons to embrace the latest installment—seven and counting—of the X-Men franchise. For one thing, it manages to incorporate both the original cast of X-Men mutants, introduced cinematically fourteen years ago, and the younger incarnation of the characters from director Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men prequel from three years past.

If that’s not enough, Bryan Singer, the man who helmed the first two installments of the series, is back behind the camera this time around and his guiding hand definitely brings something to the proceedings that’s been missing for far too long. Though it must be noted that, X-Men: DOFP, might register more with rabid comic book fanatics, there’s still much on hand for the average moviegoer to savor as well. Either way, the latest installment is a nice breath of fresh air in a franchise that was getting dangerously close to stagnating.

The plot is a simple albeit inspired work of cinematic storytelling. I suppose you can partially credit that to the writing team of Matthew Vaughn, John Byrne, Simon Kinberg, and Jane Goldman but a good chunk of the credit must also go the 1981 comic The Uncanny X-Men, which serves as the story template.

Scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past

The timeframe is a few years down the road (2023) where the all powerful beings known as the Sentinels are bent on destroying both the mutants and any human being brave enough to try and stop them from accomplishing their task. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), the mutant who has the power to send a person’s consciousness back in to the past, all decide someone needs to be sent back fifty years in order to alter the course of history. The hope is that by going back in time and correcting things, mutants and humans will be able to coexist peacefully in a future world. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), with his self-healing abilities is chosen for the task. Therein lies the plot.

Of course, it’s fun watching the Wolverine character interact with the younger versions of the X-Men gang, all of whom were introduced in the X-Men: First Class film. Most of that film’s cast—Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, etc.—return as well and it proves to be an exemplary way of bridging the gap between that film’s cast and the earlier incarnation.

One of the most brilliant decisions on the part of the writers is to incorporate real history into the film’s story, which works perfectly here. For example, Richard Nixon becomes a supporting character along the way and there are digs at both Watergate and the JFK assassination thrown in for good measure. These are the kinds of inspired choices that make X-Men: DOFP a cut above the crop of recent super hero films, Captain America not withstanding, and are likely to please audiences looking for the kind of escapism that X-Men is sure to provide.

(Now playing everywhere.)
 
Maleficent (**1/2) PG

Jocelyn Noveck

AP National Writer

Maybe it’s too soon to say the tide has shifted definitively. But it’s certainly been a unique time for fairy-tale villains.
After hundreds of years of moral clarity, suddenly we’re getting a new look at these evil creatures, who are actually turning out to be complex beings, and not that bad at all. Really, they’ve just been misunderstood. (And, by the way, those charming princes? Highly overrated.)

The most obvious recent example is Frozen, the animated Disney blockbuster that showed us how the Snow Queen, long portrayed as an icy-hearted villain, was actually a tragic victim of circumstance, with a pure and loving heart. And now we have Maleficent, which tells us that one of the most evil characters in all of pop culture is equally vulnerable and misunderstood.

Plus, she’s gorgeous. Duh. She’s Angelina Jolie.

All this is a rather seismic development in fairytale-dom. There are numerous versions of Sleeping Beauty, stemming back even before Charles Perrault’s from 1697, but the fairy who casts an angry spell on the baby princess, dooming her to prick her finger, has always been, well, just nasty.

But now, 55 years after Disney introduced the character named Maleficent in its 1959 classic film- and colored her skin an eerie green - the studio is back with a live-action (not to mention 3D) Maleficent who’s more superheroine than evil fairy. Think Maleficent by way of Lara Croft.

And though Maleficent is no longer green-skinned, it’s hard not to think of another green-skinned villainess who’s also been rehabilitated, by means of the durable Broadway hit Wicked: the witch Elphaba from The Wizard of Oz, who, it turns out, we just didn’t know enough about.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

And so it is in Maleficent, in which director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton take us back to the fairy’s youth to better understand her. She’s a plucky young thing with lovely wings and bright pink lipstick, which will turn blood-red when she becomes an adult (the fairy world clearly isn’t lacking for cosmetics.)

One day she meets a young man from that other, darker world, where humans live. The two form a strong bond. But the ugliest human emotions - jealousy and ambition - will intervene. Young Stefan will grow into the power-hungry older Stefan (the wild-eyed South African actor Sharlto Copley.) And his stunning betrayal of Maleficent will instantly harden her, turning her into the villainess we recognize.

Alas, the story’s still all about a guy, in the end. But we digress.

Maleficent is surely targeted to the same audience - young and female - which has so lovingly embraced Frozen and its appealing message of female solidarity and empowerment. But Frozen felt clever, charming, and fresh. Maleficent, less so.

Part of this is due, paradoxically, to Jolie’s star wattage. Don’t get us wrong: she’s the best thing about the movie, and always worth watching. But it blunts the effectiveness of the narrative if we can never quite believe Maleficent is bad. That’s because we know she’s essentially good, and she seems to know that we know it; you can see it in the upturned wrinkle of her mouth.

And frankly, the other characters are simply not that interesting - Stefan, but also Elle Fanning’s Aurora, or Sleeping Beauty. The best scenes Aurora has, in fact, are when she’s a gurgling baby and then, adorably, a toddler, played by none other than 5-year-old Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. (In the movie’s one laugh-out-loud moment, Maleficent tells Aurora: “I don’t like children.”)

But Fanning as Aurora is too boringly sweet - especially compared to the fabulous-in-every-way Maleficent, with her blazing lips, fashionable black headgear and exaggerated cheekbones, not to mention her way around a quip.

In the end, Maleficent is fun for its appealing visuals - especially in the forest - and for watching Jolie. But that’s not enough to make the whole film interesting. As the minutes tick by, you might even start feeling a bit like Sleeping Beauty herself comes to feel: Drowsy.

Two and a half stars out of four.

Maleficent opens Friday, May 30th, everywhere.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

 

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