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The Dark Knaves Return
Jolie and McFarlane sell nihilism to kids in Maleficent and A Million Ways to Die in the West.


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But instead of teaching a lesson about greed and deprivation, grievance or forgiveness, or what it really means to be prone to evil, Jolie’s maudlin confession is a pacifist message that ignores the psychological basis of war — the historic reality and human propensity that fairy tales and myths were designed to explain.

By combining the concept of “hero” and “villain” into a new female deity, Maleficent/Jolie implies that audiences cease to identify enemies and opposites and commit to an all-are-one embrace. (This could have come straight from Jolie’s awful 2007 Daniel Pearl tearjerker A Mighty Heart: “I am not terrorized!”) Ms. Benetton doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing: How will she justify to her multicultural brood that the film’s one black character is meted stereotypical punishment? Or why Prince Philip, Aurora’s fated rescuer, is neutered into banality? Or how mythic totems of fear and malevolence (the arching horns, sharp cheeks, clawlike nails, baleful eyes) are upended into bland emblems of unconvincing benevolence?

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Despite attempts at transforming patriarchic fairytales into modern political correctness (is there no end to Shrek’s assault on popular imagination?), Maleficent lacks a necessary sense of enchantment. Director Robert Stromberg uses boilerplate F/X in which young winged Maleficent flies like a sinister Wonder Woman, her magical valley resembles planet Pandora in Avatar, the sprightly creatures look like rubber Ewoks, the tree-monster protectors recall Aronofsky’s Noah, and her dragon looks like all the other CGI dragons. Anyone who’s seen the recent visionary Chinese epics The Promise, Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero, The Sacrifice, The Forbidden Kingdom, Kung Fu Hustle, Journey to West will pity Hollywood’s imbecile notions of fantasy.
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There’s no imagination in this effort to rework Sleeping Beauty. The 3D is just a just a ticket-gouging ploy, and where Maleficent’s physical concept fails to make sense (is she based on a bat or a raven, a demon or a bicorn?), Jolie’s performance is as tired and humorless as Glenn Close’s clueless attempt at camp in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians reboot. Beneath her horns and cape, the once-sexy Jolie seems a dull schoolmarm. All that’s certain is Jolie and Disney’s intention to overturn fundamental moral precepts. They miss the point of the great Disney animation, where whimsy and dread were perfectly, elegantly stylized in unforgettable, sublimely non-realistic images. Instead, Maleficent repeats the trend of the most unoriginal contemporary fantasies and action movies from Harry Potter to Twilight. Its rehabilitation of evil isn’t alarming, just insipid. Maleficent is Dark because it is a modern vulgarization of enlightenment.

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Like most smart-alecks, Seth MacFarlane thinks more of himself than of his audience. After his animated TV show Family Guy trumped The Simpsons, forcing that earlier classic series to desperately imitate Family Guy’s brand of politically-partisan, anti-Christian tirades, MacFarlane sought feature-film domination — seemingly for the hell of it, to judge by his new movie A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Apparently MacFarlane only wants to pull down his smarty-pants. This parody Western shows no fondness for the venerable genre (the title sequence roaming Monument Valley neglects history, mythology, and nature — it’s second-unit soulless). The story of a craven sheepherder (MacFarlane) falling in love with an outlaw’s moll (Charlize Theron) and dealing with con men and gunslingers doesn’t even rival the standard Western satire Blazing Saddles. MacFarlane’s seeming ignorance of that rude, crude classic indicates downright indifference. He jokes about brothels, penises, slavery, gunplay, defecation, historical hypocrisy, and anachronism with the dullest class-clown motivation.

After the uproar caused by MacFarlane’s bold and brilliant Oscar-hosting stint (mainstream media couldn’t abide how he flaunted Hollywood disingenuousness), this failed Western homage wastes MacFarlane’s chance to make his satire stick. MacFarlane pulls down his pants but his standards go even lower. “I’m not a hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt,” he jests. No great movie comic was ever so self-defeating. It’s doubly embarrassing that he doesn’t use an actor (like either Mark Wahlberg or the Teddy Bear in Ted) but relies on himself. MacFarlane’s beady-eyed doll’s face and pale countenance seem untrustworthy and freaky — quirks that influenced his casting of the equally unlikable Theron, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, and Neil Patrick Harris (who unaccountably gets to sing about moustaches — parodying show tunes being MacFarlane’s personal specialty).

It’s now clear that MacFarlane is a knave, not necessarily a satirist but a nihilist comic: he destroys genres, morality, and faith. (“Hate can move mountains” his coward advises.) Bloody death scenes replace wit — which is where Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western parody Django Unchained has this movie beat. McFarlane’s take on the Old West has no real politics, but his complaint “Everything that isn’t you wants to kill you” is as fair a definition of nihilism as present-day movie culture has confessed. “We should all just wear coffins,” his hero says. McFarlane’s title is too prophetic.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.


Movie Preview: Maleficent
Disney delves into the darker chapters of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie as the Mistress of All Evil. The film opens in theaters May 30. Here’s a look at the visually stunning reboot and some early reviews.
“Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it,” begins Maleficent, a reimagining of the story behind Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villainess, played by Jolie.
Maleficent as she appeared in the 1959 Disney animated version. Only a minor character in that original, she takes center stage in the new film.
Jolie as Maleficent. The new story fleshes out the character's origins, why she turned to evil, and why her hatred for the king burns to strongly.Jolie as Maleficent. The new story fleshes out the character's origins, why she turned to evil, and why her hatred for the king burns so strongly.
As the film opens, Maleficent is a young fairy girl who lives in the moors and falls in love with a human boy, Stefan, who later betrays her. Jolie plays the older Maleficent.
Sharlto Copley stars as the older Stefan, now ruling as king, a throne he obtained by committing an act of cruelty on the young Maleficent.
Elle Fanning plays Princess Aurora, a.k.a. “Sleeping Beauty,” whom Maleficent puts under a spell that will doom her to eternal rest at age 16.
Young Prince Philip visits the sleeping Princess Aurora in a scene familiar to fans of the original film.
Despite being the daughter of the human king, Aurora has an affinity for the creatures of the forest kingdom ruled by Maleficent.
Some of the other creatures of the enchanted forest.
But all is not sweetness and light in the forest realm, which is also inhabited by the menacing mud creatures.
Stefan is a man on a mission that incurs a heavy price.
Maleficent confers with Diaval (Sam Riley), her shape-shifting sidekick and right-hand man.
From left: Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Flittle (Lesley Manville) are pixies assigned by Stefan to look after the infant Aurora.
Knotgrass and Flittle visit with the infant Aurora.
WITCHY WOMAN: Early reviews of Maleficent have been mixed to somewhat positive, with all eyes naturally turned to Jolie’s turn in the title role. Here’s a sampling of reactions.
Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly: “Jolie's at her best when she's curling her claws and elongating her vowels like a black-sabbath Tallulah Bankhead.”
Joe Neumaier, NY Daily News: “Jolie, in her exquisite ink-black horns, nails every note perfectly. She’s playing here with her split pop-culture identity: Earth mother and temptress, altruist and agitator. Maleficent proves that no performer is more adept at controlling her image. When Jolie sneers or cocks an eyebrow, she knows exactly the spell she’s casting.”
Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter: “Angelina Jolie doesn’t chew the estimable scenery in Maleficent — she infuses it, wielding a magnetic and effortless power as the magnificently malevolent fairy who places a curse on a newborn princess.”
Andrew Barker, Variety: “When Jolie is let loose to really bare her fangs, such as her nearly word-for-word re-creation of Maleficent’s first scene from the Disney original, she strips the paint from the walls.”
Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly: “Jolie carries her embittered witch with the dignity of Nefertiti. She rarely speaks, preferring to sulk and scream. Stromberg and his effects team have enhanced the actress's otherworldly beauty to monstrous perfection … For a children's movie, Maleficent makes one hell of a Vogue pictorial.”
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “If you're expecting Jolie to deliver purring sarcasm in the pursed-lipped, raised-eyebrow mold of Agnes Moorehead on Bewitched, fear not — she absolutely does. Rest assured, however, that she offers up this character in many moods and modes, turning what was a striking but fairly single-minded villain into a fully fleshed-out woman.”
Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Jolie is at her best in vicious mode. When she appears at Aurora's christening and curses her, she is mesmerizing in her ability to strike terror. But too much of her time is spent skulking about, glowering and pouting.”
Updated: May. 29, 2014

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