“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

maleficent-angelina-jolie-costume-snakeskin-horns-ring

article-2639388-1E36B31400000578-1000_634x388

maleficent009stefan

I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.

Advertisements

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

 

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.

“THE TOURIST” (2010) Review

“THE TOURIST” (2010) Review

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck directed this remake of the 2005 French film, ”ANTHONY ZIMMER” about an American schoolteacher on vacation in Europe, who is mistaken for a British accountant who had embezzled a great deal of funds from a gangster. The movie stars Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and Paul Bettany. 

Jolie portrayed a British woman named Elise Clifton-Ward, who was being trailed in Paris by a number of men who work for Scotland Yard. At a cafe, she received a letter from Alexander Pearce, a former lover who is wanted by various police forces in Europe and a ruthless gangster. The letter provided explicit directions from Pearce to board a train to Venice, pick out a man who resembles him and make the police believe that this man is him. After Elise burned the letter, she boarded a train for Venice and took a seat besides an American tourist named Frank Tupelo, who became instant attracted to her. And the police, led by a Scotland Yard investigator named John Acheson, instantly began to believe that Frank is the mysterious Alexander Pearce.

One would think that a romantic thriller starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and set in the romantic cities of Paris and Venice would be a bona fide winner . . . at least with me. And God knows I tried to like this movie. I really did. But in the end, ”THE TOURIST” failed to win my favor. It turned out to be one of the most disappointing movies I have ever seen in the past five years. Mind you, the screenplay adaptation written by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes was not terrible. The plot seemed a bit implausible, but it ended with a surprisingly well-written twist. And good direction and good acting could have overcome it. Unfortunately, von Donnersmarck’s direction hampered the movie a great deal. I found it rather dull and uninspiring. Especially the action sequences, which featured a very dull chase throughout some of Venice’s canals. And I found the pedantic dialogue – especially that spoken by the two leads, Depp and Jolie – rather hard to bear.

Speaking of the leads, both Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie received Golden Globe nominations for their performance. How on earth did that happen? I am not questioning their talent. Both have given superb performances in past movies. But neither could overcome von Donnersmarck’s tepid direction and the God awful dialogue in the script. And having both actors spend a good amount of time staring into space or at each other, while posing in an iconic manner did not help their performances. Paul Bettany fared a better as the relentless and ruthless Scotland Yard inspector, John Acheson, who is bent upon arresting the real Alexander Pearce or acquiring the money the latter had stolen. He probably gave the most energetic performance in the movie. The movie also featured an intense performance by Steven Berkhoff as Reginald Shaw, the ruthless gangster who also sought out Pearce. His character’s villainy seemed a lot more subtle than his role in the James Bond movie, ”OCTOPUSSY”. Speaking of James Bond, I must admit that former Bond actor Timothy Dalton made an effective head of Scotland Yard. It seemed a pity that his role was not as large as it could have been.

Aside from Bettany, Dalton and Berkhoff’s performances, there were other aspects of “THE TOURIST” I enjoyed. One, I was impressed by the lush costumes designed by Colleen Atwood; and worn by Depp, Berkhoff and Jolie. I never knew that Steven Berkhoff looked so impressive in a turtleneck sweater. And cinematographer John Seale took advantage of the Paris and Venice settings and provided beautiful photography for the movie. Those aspects of “THE TOURIST” are the best things I can say about this film.

I tried very hard to like ”THE TOURIST”. I really did. It had the potential to be an entertaining film. But Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s flaccid direction, Depp and Jolie’s dull performances and the tepid dialogue and action sequences featured in the movie prevented this from happening. And looking back, I now find the movie’s three Golden Globe nominations something of a joke.

“SALT” (2010) Review

 

“SALT” (2010) Review

It has been a while since I last saw a movie directed by Philip Noyce. In fact, the last one I can recall was 2002’s ”THE QUIET AMERICAN”. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he had been chosen to direct Angelina Jolie’s new action thriller called”SALT”

The movie told the story of a CIA agent named Evelyn Salt, who is accused of being a KGB sleeper agent. She eventually goes on the run to try to clear her name. At the order of her supervisor, Ted Winters, Salt interrogates a Russian defector named Orlov, who tells her about an operation organized by a powerful Russian since the Cold War; which will lead to the destruction of the United States. Orlov mentions that at the funeral of the late Vice President in New York City, the visiting Russian President will be killed by Russian spy – Evelyn Salt. Shaken at the accusation, Salt attempts to contact her husband Mike, a German arachnologist, fearing for his safety. Meanwhile, Orlov escapes, which prompts Salt to escape. This causes Winters and a counterintelligence agent named Peabody to believe she is a spy. After finding her husband missing at their apartment, Salt grabs a few essentials and continues her flight. After barely escaping a highway pursuit, Salt takes a bus to New York City to deal with the threat of the Russian president being assassinated.

When I first learned about the plot for ”SALT”, the first thing that came to mind was that it was a female variation on the recent BOURNE trilogy, starring Matt Damon. And in a way, it is. After all, Jolie portrays a CIA agent, who finds herself pursued by her former colleagues. And her character performs stunts that would make Damon . . . or his stunt man rather proud. However, after the movie’s setting had switched to New York City, Kurt Wimmer and Oscar winner Brian Hegeland’s script took an unexpected turn that left me a little breathless. And if that was not enough, another plot twist awaited, once the movie shifted back to Washington D.C. and a plot to kill the U.S. president. Another aspect of ”SALT” that surprised me was that the movie was released on the heels of news about a real Russian spy ring that was recently discovered in the U.S.

Angelina Jolie has come a long way since her two LARA CROFT movies. In her portrayal of Jennifer Salt, she is more assured and matured. And thankfully, she has also dropped the poseur attitude that slightly marred her performances as Lara Croft. Not only did Jolie do a first-rate job with her action sequences, she skillfully guided the emotional turmoil that her character endures throughout the movie. Adding solid support is Liev Schreiber, who portrayed her supervisor, Ted Winters. Beneath the charm and intelligence, Schreiber did a great job in conveying Ted’s emotional reaction to the possibility that Salt might be a Russian deep-cover mole. And Chiwetel Ejiofor was effective as the intense and determined counterintelligence agent, Peabody, who genuinely believes that Salt is a mole. He managed to convey this without indulging in any hammy acting.

Daniel Olbrychski gave a fascinating performance as the Russian defector, Orlov, who accused Salt of being a Russian agent. August Diehl portrayed Salt’s husband, the soft-spoken arachnologist, Michael Krause. Although he hardly had any lines in the film, he quietly conveyed his role as Salt’s emotional center. I was surprised to see Hunt Block, who portrayed the U.S. president. I have not seen him since the 1980s nighttime drama, ”KNOT’S LANDING”. I was also surprised to see Andre Braugher in the movie. He portrayed one of the President’s aides, yet he only had one or two lines. At first, I thought his career had really taken a nose dive, until I remembered that he was on the TNT television series called ”MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE”. So, how did he get stuck in a role that called for only two lines?

Noyce worked well with cinematographer Robert Elswit and film editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy to create some very interesting action scenes . . . especially the fantastic sequence featuring the attempt to assassinate the Russian president in New York. Jolie contributed to these scenes with some of her own stunt work. Yes, I realize that some of the stunts seemed implausible – especially one that featured a jump by Salt from a Washington D.C. expressway to the top of a moving truck. But I have seen stunts in other movies that I found a lot more implausible. It seemed a pity that the movie was set either during the late fall or the winter. Although the cold season did not take any atmosphere away from the Manhattan sequences, I cannot say the same about the Washington D.C. exterior shots. I have always believed that the capital looked a lot better on film during the spring, summer and early fall seasons.

In the end, I enjoyed ”SALT” very much. I believe that it is one of the better summer movies this year. Director Philip Noyce did a first-class job with a solid script written by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Hegeland, and skillful performances from a cast led by Angelina Jolie. I noticed that the movie ended on a vague note that I would usually find annoying. But considering rumors that a sequel might follow, I can give it a pass.

“KILLERS” (2010) Review

 

 

“KILLERS” (2010) Review

Before the 2010 summer movie season had began, I saw the previews for two movies about an innocent blond woman that becomes entangled in the life of a super spy. One of them happened to be a movie that was released around the same time – ”KNIGHT AND DAY”, which starred Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. The other is the romantic action comedy that stars Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher called ”KILLERS”

Directed by Robert Luketic, ”KILLERS” is about an over cautious American woman named Jen Kornfeldt who meets a mysterious stranger, while vacationing with her parents in Nice, France. After a whirlwind romance, Jen and her new beau, Spencer Aimes, get married; despite her father’s reluctance. Three years later, Jen discovers two things – someone has placed a $20 million dollars contract on Spencer’s head and that he is a former spy/assassin. Apparently, Spencer had become disenchanted with his profession and gave it up after meeting Jen. Despite her anger over her husband’s deception, the pair spend a harrowing day trying to avoid the series of assassins after him and discover the identity of the person who had placed the bounty on Spencer’s head.

It is possible that I had been wrong to compare ”KILLERS” with the recently released Cruise/Diaz movie. I now realize that the film’s premise and plot bore a strong resemblance to the 2005 movie, ”MR. AND MRS. SMITH”. And as much as I hate to admit this, I believe that this is not a good thing. Despite being a first-rate movie, ”MR. AND MRS. SMITH” ended on a weak note. Unfortunately, ”KILLERS” suffered from the same fate – but on a bigger scale. In fact, I would probably say that the movie’s last twenty minutes managed to spiral into a weak and rather silly finale. Too bad.”KILLERS” had begun with such promise.

Screenwriters Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin did a solid job with the movie’s first half – which featured Jen and Spencer’s first meeting, the latter’s attempted hit on a target picked out by their boss, a look into their marriage after three years, and Spencer’s birthday party. It ended with an exciting sequence that featured Jen walking in on the first assassination attempt on Spencer inside their living room and her discovery of his past profession. But once other assassins (pretending to be neighbors and Spencer’s co-workers) began appearing one after the other, the movie became a parody of itself. It eventually took a serious nosedive and ended on a weak note when Jen and Spencer learned the identity of the person behind the hits.

There is one positive thing I can say about ”KILLERS” is that it has a top-notch cast. Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher made a pretty solid screen team. Mind you, I found their chemistry rather awkward during Jen and Spencer’s courtship phrase. But once the pair became more truthful with each other, the sparks began to fly and the chemistry between Heigl and Kutcher became a lot stronger. And judging from what I have seen on the screen, I believe that Kutcher should seriously consider working in more action movies.

Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara gave interesting performances as Jen’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kornfelt. Selleck was completely in character as a humorless and controlling man. And O’Hara provided plenty of humor as his long-suffering wife who not only loves him, but deals with his controlling personality with heavy drinking. Martin Mull shed his comic persona to portray Spencer’s intelligence boss, Holbrook. And he gave an impressive performance as a ruthless, manipulative and morally questionable man. To my utter surprise, my favorite performance belonged to a U.S.M.C. Reserve officer/comedian/actor named Rob Riggle. He gave a hilarious and first-rate performance as the Aimes’ witty and slightly crude neighbor, Henry.

I wish I could say that I loved ”KILLERS”. Honestly. It had a solid cast. The two leads – Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher seemed to have a solid chemistry. And the movie’s first half struck me as promising. But Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin’s screenplay ruined that promise with a second half that sank and ended with a great deal of silliness and on a weak note. Not even Heigl, Kutcher or Robert Luketic’s direction could save it in the end.

“THE CHANGELING” (2008) Review

”CHANGELING” (2008) Review

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1920s, ”CHANGELING” is based upon a true story about a single mother who realized that the boy returned to her after a kidnapping is not her son. After confronting the city authorities, they vilified her as delusional and an unfit mother. The movie’s events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, an infamous kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928. 

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the Award winning science-fiction television series, ”BABYLON 5”, had been tipped off by a contact at the Los Angeles City Hall about the case of Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. He wrote a screenplay based upon the case and submitted it Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Howard was slated to direct the film. But due to a scheduling conflict, Howard was unable to accept the assignment and it was offered to Clint Eastwood. Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie was cast as the anguished mother, Christine Collins. The cast also included John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, and Geoff Pierson.

I might as well say it. I really enjoyed ”CHANGELING”. I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. When I first learned about the movie, I thought it would end up as some missing child story with a science-fiction twist. After all, the movie had been scripted by Straczynski. I eventually discovered that the movie was simply based upon a true life crime that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. And since the movie, which happened to be two hours and 41 minutes long, was directed by Clint Eastwood . . . well, I feared that it would turn into another one of his slow-paced films that would leave me struggling to stay conscious. Thankfully, it did not happen. As he had done in ”FLAGS OF OUR FATHER”, Eastwood managed to forego his usual snail-like pacing and do Straczynski’s superb script justice with what I believe is one of his best works.

”CHANGELING” is a very engrossing story about single mother Christine Collins’ (Jolie) efforts to find her missing son Walter and deal with the antipathy and lack of interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins’ interactions with the LAPD and especially Police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) were especially fascinating. The story took an even darker tone when a more competent police officer named Detective Ybarra (Kelly) made a connection to the disappearance of Collins’ son to a possible case involving a serial killer of young boys. Judging from what I have read about Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Eastwood and Straczynski did a superb job of recapturing both the era and the actual case. Mind you, the movie is not completely accurate. After all, Jolie must be at least 15 years younger than the real Christine Collins was in 1928. But I am speaking of a Hollywood film, not a documentary.

Judging by the excellent performances in the film, it was easy for me to see that the cast really benefitted from Eastwood’s direction and Straczynski’s script. But to be honest, not even the best director or script could ever guarantee a good performance. Which is why I feel that ”CHANGELING” was very lucky in its cast . . . especially with its leading lady. Despite winning two Golden Globe awards, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar, Angelina Jolie has never really developed a reputation as a first-rate actress. Sometimes I wonder if the media and the public are so blinded by her looks and image that they fail to realize how truly talented she is. I would certainly rate Christine Collins as one of Jolie’s best performances. She managed to completely submerge into her role of the ladylike Mrs. Collins who has to overcome her natural reticence to resist the L.A.P.D.’s lie that the boy returned to her some five months after her son’s disappearance is the latter. Although most moviegoers and critics tend to be impressed by emotional and showy performances, I tend to be impressed by more subtle acting. And there are two scenes that featured Jolie at her subtle best – one featured an interview Collins had with an analyst inside a city psychiatric ward and the other centered around Captain Jones’ last efforts to convince her that the boy found in Illinois and delivered to her was her son Walter. I had feared that the Hollywood community would overlook her performance and fail to give her a nomination.  Thankfully, Jolie managed to earn a slew of acting nominations for her performance . . . including Academy Award and Golden Globe nods.

Jolie received strong support from four actors in particular – John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Malkovich gave a solid performance as a Los Angeles evangelist named Reverend Gustav Briegleb who has been outspoken against the Los Angeles Police Department’s incompetence and corruption. His soliloquy about the police department not only gave me chills, it also reminded me that not much in Los Angeles politics have not changed in eighty years. In his chilling performance as Police Captain J.J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan proved his versatility as an actor in a performance that bordered on subtle intimidation. Michael Kelly portrayed Detective Ybarra, the L.A. cop who discovered the link between Walter Collins and a serial killer . . . and he did so with a solid performance that matched Malkovich’s. The one actor who really impressed me was Jason Butler Harner, who gave a creepy performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott. The filmmakers had hired Harner due to the latter’s physical resemblance to the real Northcott. Physical resemblance aside, the actor’s performance could have easily become over-the-top. But Harner managed to inject a strong creepiness into the role without turning the character into a caricature.

I did have a few quibbles about ”CHANGELING”. Earlier I had marveled at the movie’s pacing despite Eastwood’s role as director and the 141 minute running time. And I stand by every word. But I must admit there was one point in the film in which it threatened to drag . . . namely the last fifteen or twenty minutes. One could suggest that the movie’s finale could have easily been deleted. But considering what had been revealed in those final moments, I doubt that would have been wise. One last quibble I had was Oscar nominee Amy Ryan’s role as a prostitute and fellow inmate of Collins’ at a city psychiatric ward. The filmmakers might as well have credited her appearance as a cameo. Despite Ryan’s excellent performance, her appearance in the film struck me nothing more than a waste of time.

No movie is perfect and as I had pointed out, ”CHANGELING” had a few imperfections. But in the end it turned out to be a fascinating look into a period in the history of Los Angeles. Thanks to Eastwood’s direction, Straczynski’s script, Angelina Jolie and a very talented supporting cast; ”CHANGELING” turned out to be an engrossing tale of crime and corruption that has already made my list of favorite movies for 2008.

“WANTED” (2008) Review

 

“WANTED” (2008) Review

Based upon the comic miniseries by Mark Millar, ”WANTED” is the story of Wesley Gibson, a meek Chicago accountant who discovers that the father he had never known was part of a thousand year-old secret society of assassins called The Fraternity. Upon being informed that his father had been murdered, and longing for a different life outside a hated job and unfaithful girlfriend, Gibson joins The Fraternity in order to find his father’s killer.

From what I had learned about the two versions of ”WANTED”, the movie version turned out to be quite different from the comic book version. In the former, The Fraternity consisted of assassins whose victims end up being selected by ”Fate” to be hunted and killed. Due to The Fraternity’s founders being a group of weavers, ”Fate” chose the order’s victims through a series of codes embedded in the material woven by The Fraternity members. This business of The Fraternity’s victims being chosen by ”Fate” never played a part in Millar’s comic story. This is because the assassins turned out to be out-and-out villains. Including Wesley.

There were positive and negative aspects of ”WANTED”. I was impressed by both James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson and Morgan Freeman as Sloan, The Fraternity’s leader. Angelina Jolie, as usual, displayed her strong screen presence as Fox, one of the order’s assassins. Unfortunately for Ms. Jolie, her character seemed to possess little depth, despite the small flashback about her childhood, provided by screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. As for the movie’s action, it strongly reminded me of ”THE MATRIX”, with its outrageous stunts occasionally shown in slow motion. But ”THE MATRIX” is now at least nine years old. And quite frankly, I am beginning to find it outdated.

In the end, ”WANTED” failed to appeal to me. Granted, the screenwriters tried to surprise the audience with plot twists. But I managed to spot these plot twists before they were even revealed. And I ended up spoiled and not taken by surprise. I also found the idea of The Fraternity’s method of choosing potential victims – that turned out to be so-called “bad guys” rather ludicrous. As far as I am concerned, the screenwriters, director Timur Bekmambetov and the producers should stuck to the more dangerous choice of adhering more closely to Millar’s comic book version. I suspect that this would have made a more interesting film.