IR Film Review: MALEFICENT – MISTRESS OF EVIL [Disney]

The essence of what evil complies to in modern times sometimes directly involves correlation to way of life but also what it means to rule and protect. While the sequel “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” addresses this idea, it does so almost in a superficial way, both to appeal to wide audiences, have a distinctive female empowerment theme but also to build the texture of the Maleficent myth without really changing. The weird irony bakes in the idea of conventional happiness. The idea here revolves around what Aurora (played by Elle Fanning) actually wants. She wants to fall in love but must understand as Queen Of The Moors, she has a responsibility to protect them. She seems concerned but there is never any dire loss on her part that feels at all real. At one point, the possibility could verge on a sort of genocide but it is glossed over in a way, albeit this has to be cohesive for all audiences from the Disney perspective.

Angelina Jolie is radiant as Maleficent but most of the time it is very hard for her to emote from behind the altered make up and the contact lenses. There is so much more possibility and as the film progresses her, as expected, through a sense of rage. You can see the sadness in the character but it is never inexplicably brought out, which is not Jolie’s fault, it is the nature of the character. Maleficent, as a character, is undeniably defensive and hot headed which may cause her to act out of terms of fear when she has all the power. Like Captain Marvel, it at times can be hard to root for a character who almost cannot lose. That is why part of the progression here works but doesn’t take it to the nth degree possible.

The other side of the coin is brought the Queen character as played by Michelle Pfieffer. This is the most brazen character she has played in years but despite some deliciousness that brings to mind “Batman Returns”, it is not nuanced enough or motivated with enough concrete factors. This is likely not Pfieffer’s fault but an overall problem in terms perhaps of direction and a light script built to showcase effects. Something like Endgame or even Alice In Wonderland can pull at the heartstrings. That effort is surprisingly empty here. There is no sense of loss or bewilderment. The CG actually takes away when the base story is solid enough but become periphery when it is trying to handle too much else. Pfieffer’s character says she acts the way she does for the good of the kingdom but many times it simply comes off as vengeful and not strategic. If the standard sets true to do an action for the love of family, her motivations simply becomes a selfish act, and it belies any important value is under it.

As the lead per se in Elle Fanning, the diversity that she showed in something like “The Neon Demon”( granted this movie is utterly different and 180 tone) is missing here. Again this might be more just a script or direction problem but the essence of a Disney princess in the modern times is to be reflective both of old and new. And while Aurora voices her displeasure at conforming to norms, she easily leaves her people which is something Maleficent also does so the progression of thought seems a bit skewed.

There is also a subplot about Maleficent’s kind and her place in their mythology. This plays nice and well but is more set up to be the flash point of a later plot specific device. Chiwetel Ejiofor in a sense is the only character both on the Moor and human side who relays the texture of what is being fought for. He, likely on purpose, tries to underplay it. Jolie, at times, tries to play back but it is hard within the make up. The most telling of all the scenes is when Maleficent is alone and vulnerable not knowing what she is without the regal robes. Jolie’s styled black hair looks more like a siren hanging off of Elfin ears and it really gives a distinct different impression and a different view into the character. However, this is short lived.

Ultimately, “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” is keying into a powerful IP but also trying to keep itself within a certain confine of plot structure, effects, pliability and other textures without either offending or going too dark in worry of losing the audience. What ends up happening is characters in a fantastical world who are not quite archetypal but are also not fully fleshed out to the potential of their possible luminosity and dimension.

C-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: FRACTURED [Netflix]

The idea of what memory constitutes or the idea of trauma reflects in the psychology of a person and their experiences. This is the basis of “Fractured”. The beauty is some of the Netflix original films, whether acquired or not, is that they explore sometimes more character driven pieces that are based in a simple genre structures that don’t need a lot of set pieces but definitely reflect in production value and a proven actor. Sam Worthington, undeniably known as the lead in “Avatar” and its upcoming sequels, has leaned into these types of psychological genre thrillers on Netflix and found a nice niche in well written and well directed tomes that might have ended up with no distribution simply because they exist in the mid-range.

Directed by Brad Anderson, who made a more bleak but similar “Session 9” with David Caruso many years ago, the film “Fractured” exists in a realm of misperception where Worthington’s lead character arrives with his wife and daughter after an accident. However, after said wife and daughter are taken back for a CAT scan, they seemingly disappear. Worthington has always had a knack of playing paranoia as his film “Man On A Ledge” interpreted. “Fractured” at times plays more like a Hitchcock film or a “Twilight Zone” episode with a little less dread. The threads are fairly easy to follow and the violence not too overwhelming which makes for an interesting evening watch that is not too overcome by any ideals that it is trying to present.

The minimal locations and barrenness of the tundra that they are traveling across is completely reflective of the character’s mindset. The story is disjointed on purpose but the structural reflexivity does make the story move without bogging it down in too many mechanics. “Fractured” is a tight little genre thriller with understated performances but a steady idea of what it is and what it is trying to accomplish.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE GOLDFINCH [Warner Brothers]

Making a novel into a book is about understanding who the perception of the film is based towards. “The Goldfinch” is very clear about this and the hyperfocus of a boy who goes through a tragedy. The story is told with aplomb in many ways. The movie plods along with the essence of a late 70s movie but at times seems to forget what it is serving and, at others, seems laser focused. Director John Crowley, who also directed the rich “Brooklyn” which starred Domnhall Gleeson and Soarise Ronan, does an apt job here with reservations.

“Brooklyn”, like “The Goldfinch” does no feel the need to move to satisfy people’s current tastes. The movie is not so much a thriller or a mystery which some of the trailers might claim it to be. It is a basic character story…maybe one that would have been better served by a limited television series. But movies are meant to be seen in many ways on the big screen since certain actors can shine in ways that are different in other mediums.

This film is truly that of Oakes Fegley who plays the young Theo (played by Angel Elgort in the later scenes). Fegley conveys a sense of dread and lost childhood. His possession of a certain artifact after a tragedy is what connects the movie. While the grief and emotional pull of his acting is not overwhelming, it is palpable especially when he is inside the house of Nicole Kidman or hanging out with his Russian school friend on the edge of society in Las Vegas.

Nicole Kidman takes a small role as his caregiver and surrogate mother at two points in his life. Even though her character doesn’t have a whole ton to do, Kidman is undeniably effective as the mother who is in control and yet not, compassionate and yet poised, happy and yet sad. It reminds me in certain ways of Kidman in “The Hours” or Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven” though those are still better performances. But she is understated here.

The true waste of the film since she has a role that could been played by anyone is that of Sarah Paulson. As an audience member it is undeniable to know what she is capable of. Maybe she wanted to work with the director but her talent is just barely touched in this as the Las Vegas girlfriend of Theo’s dad (overplayed a bit by Luke Wilson).

The only one who seems to get a more fully formed structure is Geoffrey Wright as a antiques dealer who suffers a loss but also offers an unfettered kindness to the victims. Geoffrey hasn’t had a chance to play such soul in a long while. You can see the emotional hurt pouring through him.

Ansel Elgort as the older Theo takes on a quieter role than he is know for. The acting again is solid but not transcendent and while the movie undeniably has to move to its end with a certain determination, its resolution is simply satisfactory yet still fulfilling. The music adds just the right amount of melodrama without overstating and Robert Richardson’s cinematography is understated and yet luscious at the same time. John Crowley as with “Brooklyn” shows that he is an apt director but is not catering to anybody’s notion of pace. While that may make the movie slow, it does not make it any less of a well made movie. It is just not as greater as maybe it wants to be. It comes off as a effective adaptation of a book, one that is very cognizant of not losing its identity along the way.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: HUSTLERS [STX]


The vision of a movie like “Hustlers” connotates something epic, the essence of bad ass criminals making their time. But there is less glee in “Hustlers” and more pontification. Even in the superior “The Kitchen”, the girls look like they are having fun until they are not. The texture of “Hustlers” is in many ways lacks this because the film feels at times flat and the strippers in many ways are acting more like, well, actors. Jennifer Lopez sells her role as the stripper with an angle to take what she wants but one never gets past the idea that she is a music star playing a stripper. For all her ad-libbing (which is mostly random), Carli B seems much more genuine despite the fact that she doesn’t seem controlled in any way in the one scene she is in.

Constance Wu as Destiny seems to be living and acting in another movie. She is hustling to pay the bills to help support her grandmother, but there is no sense why or how she got to this point. The movie is lacking, along with more than passing degree of style, a backstory for many of the characters. Even the woman (Julia Stiles in a thankless role) who is interviewing Destiny [Lu] doesn’t speak to who she works for. The movie takes place a void in many ways. The story is set during the time of the housing crisis and the movie is based on an article about apparently how the strippers from Scores in NYC started hustling their marks by feeding them drugs and then shanghaiing their credit cards.

The movie could have had a “Boogie Nights” sensibility but didn’t quite get there or really at all. There is only one shot that truly feels cool in the whole movie which is a walking shot on a NY city street with Lopez set to Lorde’s “Royals” because it truly captures the themes and the world in a small way. STX took over releasing “Hustlers” from Annapurna who made the film. Annapurna made the exceptional movies “Booksmart” and “Where’d You Go Bernadette” this year but they must have known they had a critical stinker on their hands because they dropped this movie.

Lopez is the most edgy she has been in a while but sometimes she is acting and sometimes she is simply playing the bling of it without context. Even “Shades Of Blue” on NBC, her character had a heavy degree of context but I guess it also has to do with sparring partners. In “The Kitchen”, the girls were all different but there was a sense of belonging even in morally questionable situations. Here it seems, even though they shot the film in 29 days, that they spent too much time on some things and not on others. Also, not that it needs to be there, but the deliberate keeping of all the actress from stripping at least to a certain point gives the movie a lack of authenticity. Again Cardi B is the only one who gets close save for JLo’s opening dance number which is suitably impressive and shows her control of her presence but that is not enough to sustain the movie.

Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty on “Riverdale” on the CW, looks like a deer lost in headlights and grossly miscast. Her handlers might have told her it would be a good career move but it backfired because without a better script and a more nuanced director, the film just flails and never feels either truly cool or tragic. Her character is supposed to be a lost puppy who gets pulled in but she does not fill the role at all (despite how good she can be on “Riverdale”). The use of music overall also doesn’t stand out, except for the aforementioned Lorde song, which seemed out of place in the movie but truly belonged. Even some of the JLo’s older songs would have least added a degree of meta to it. All in, “Hustlers” is a misfire that had a great premise but not the follow through needed on the cylinders provided.

D

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: IT CHAPTER 2 [Warner Brothers]

The undeniably draw of the story of IT is the narrative of the community prevailing over the tyranny. The first chapter had a dexterous draw to the children of the 80s. The archetypal structures that had made “Stranger Things” a success were fully embodied by Stephen King many years before albeit in a different time. When the miniseries was made in the 90s, it used a different reference. But, as with this film, it used the innocence and naïveté of youth to propel the story. Now with the introduction of Chapter 2, it progresses the idea to modern times…and while it does not portray an essence of exactly today, it nonetheless feels now which sometimes can interrelate too closely for a sense of closure in a narrative. Pennywise in the first film was that aspect of the unknown, that personification of fear that cannot be contained. Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal in that film was a new way to see this permutation of fear that preys upon children’s misunderstanding of the unknown. While the adult actors reflect their characters well, it is not as key to the journey.

The first movie was a quest in a way, while the second film is more about placing the puzzle pieces together. The inherent structure of the book worked more in jumping in tandem between young psychology and mature thinking. That dynamic was not possible at first as it was not guaranteed the first film would be a hit. Its connection is what drew bigger actors like Jessica Chastain, who had worked with director Andy Muschetti on her early film “Mama” as well as her longtime friend and collaborator James McAvoy. Most of the rest of the kids save for Bill Hader as Richy are unknowns per se which allows the audience to buy into the belief of them returning more fully. The most effective element here is the transition in location between the young and old versions in key sequences. These are the segments of the film that truly work without seeming that it is rushing to tie up loose ends. Sequences like those in a funhouse which should illicit more dread don’t seem as powerful as they should be. Skarsgard as Pennywise, doesn’t have as much as a presence as in the first one, and is missed in many ways as the story, in adhering to King’s narrative, uses his continual use of Native American lore more as a central context. This idiom, which at times is overused in King’s narratives, is used perhaps to plug a narrative hole in comparison to perhaps “Pet Sematary” where it was more essential to the story. And at other times, like in “Dreamcatcher”, it can work quite well. Here however it is not explained enough to make full sense to the casual viewer, or even one familiar with the world.

The aspect of the subconscious especially involving the memory of the Losers, is adequately played but not as fulfilling as it should be. The best example of all cylinders working without the filmmakers worrying too overtly about the plot is when the gang comes back together at a Chinese restaurant in Derry (this was also the scene that was teased in the recent theater re-release of the first film). This scene paints the dread of Pennywise still apparent from the first film but also perfectly encapsulates the details of the grown characters as adults. Balancing these two worlds however is tricky while also keeping to audience expectations. “It Chapter 2” tries in many ways to live up to the original but it is a different construct. It is about how people understand aspects when they are older versus perceptions when they are young. While it does an admirable job of placing those story points in play, its delivery simply does not live up to the first film, through no fault of the actors or story but simply because of the trajectory placed against it.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE [Annapurna]

The idea of creative inspiration and the essence of responsibility are ideas that plague many high functioning visionaries. But the texture of social awkwardness and blending that into a sense of being is always tricky. This subtlety is very hard to capture on screen and much harder still to make entertaining and likable. While the tendencies of a director are very indicative to this, only a few actors can accomplish a balance while still pushing the boundaries.

With “Where’d You Go Bernadette?”, Annapurna, as a company, continues to take chances on original material. Very few major companies with money backing will focus on character structured mid-range films which used to be the focal point of the industry before the tent-pole franchises took over. While the large movies have their fun and importance of course, it makes it very hard for especially the under 10 million dollar indies to make a dent. Annapurna has had its troubles but with two of the more affecting films this year so far, the other being Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart”, the essence of original material pushes to the top.

While the strength of “Booksmart” was the story and the direction with effective performances, “Bernadette”, despite the steady hand of director Richard Linklater, is all about Cate Blanchett. Her belief and balance of what this woman is going through in terms of different ideas and motivations pulling her back and forth, especially involving her connection to her daughter, is palpable. Her ticks are believable although maybe at times overplayed but the comedy and heart comes through at the most specific moments, whether it is picking her daughter up at school, talking to her husband in a quiet restaurant or most specifically singing a song in the car again with her daughter.

Blanchett’s character is a highly regarded architect known for thinking out of the box who fell off the scene once she gave birth to her daughter. There were complications during the birth but it is interesting how that process diverted her psychological process. It feels very real and yet it is the progression towards the creative release that eludes her that threatens to tear her life and sanity apart. Blanchett, like when she played Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator” found these very distinct moments that were fleeting. An example from that film was when she was so enthralled when DiCaprio as Howard Hughes comes back and tells her of his jet fighter flight that one can see she wants to do it herself. One can see that sparkle when she speaks of the love she used to have for architecture in “Bernadette”.

The third act of “Bernadette” delivers to the point of what the character needs to be to transcend and the catalyst that helps motivate it. While it is built up effectively, the resolution almost seems too neatly wrapped up at the end as if the epilogue was what was needed to make the narrative work (which is not the case). The movie becomes more about the realization instead of the execution. While this is a small aspect, one hoped to see the entire process more. However the balance of nature vs. nuture, and theoretical idea vs. practical application is effective relayed.

“Where’d You Go Bernadette?” is a continuing rarity in the film world, an original mid-budget film with scope that examines the human condition but with a movie star perspective. Cate Blanchett is luminescent in the role simply because of the brilliance of layers she brings while the character-focused director Linklater continues to show his diversity yet his original style continues to melt into the background perhaps by design.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE LION KING [Disney]

The resolution of creating something updated out of something nostalgic reflects in the idea of what the abstract idea the original created. When it is an expansion, it can work to a point (think “Tron: Legacy”) or some slight distinction in between (think the remake of “Aladdin”). This is the structure that makes it palpable for the current audience.

The new “Lion King” works in the same ideal yet from a different point of view. The aspect of animation compounded in the original reflected in a certain color palette where not everything can be perfect. Edges were impressionistic and not personified human traits. Whereas some of the intentions of the human performers here can be perceived (specifically at times with Seth Rogen’s Pumba) in this retelling, many of the performances are simply in between because of the backdrop. There is nothing inherently wrong with the production of the film but it is a straight remake of the animated film but with photorealism. Director Jon Favreau showed his adeptness with “The Jungle Book” but again it was more of structured retelling on the Kipling story versus the more nuanced per se approach of Andy Serkis with “Mowgli” for Netflix. Granted the build of certain iconic imagery really comes to bear in certain sequences.

The stampede sequence is undeniably effective and emotional when needed and the lair of the hyenas plays much darker than the original. The assimilation of Simba into the vegetarian collective has a different connotation in a way than when the original came out mainly because of current social consciousness. The one tendency of the original is that it keyed to the times whereas the new telling in an ironic way seems like a throwback despite the very diverse casting.

While the themes are universal, there seems a lack of spontaneity in the performances which is the paradoxical approach of what is essentially a photorealistic animation film. Here it seems more about the fact of what they could achieve beyond the aspect of whether they should which keys into an irony (which is the “Jurassic Park” paradox). With this approach, there is not really a way to shake it up from the script.  One of the only times it happens is quite stark. It happens in a shot where the camera is placed way behind Timon, Pumba and Simba while they are walking away into their jungle hangout, Rogen gets a zinger or two in because the face didn’t need to be tracked.

The one steadying influence is that of James Earl Jones as Mufasa while Scar even though menacing doesn’t have the inherent irony of Jeremy Irons’ performance in the original. The climactic fire sequence plays well but the vision again has been perceived before. While certain remakes may work in terms of how they are captured live action (as with the aforementioned “Aladdin), this new iteration of “The Lion King” is both an achievement and yet feels normal.

B

By Tim Wassberg