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New films: Maleficent Mistress of Evil, The Addams Family, Zombieland Double Tap, Gemini Man

Will Smith x2 in Gemini Man

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Directed by Joachim Rønning

Angelina Jolie is back as Maleficent in this surprisingly dark and not especially kid-friendly sequel to the 2014 film. Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Prince Philip (recast with Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”) are due to be married, in a celebration that ought to unite their two disparate realms. Instead, it’s primarily an opportunity for Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) to get all the folks she despises into one place so she can kill them.

And this is the basic problem with the film, especially if it’s assumed to be for small children: It’s a less than delightful tale of weapons of mass destruction and attempted genocide. Ingrith has a captive mutilated fairy, Lickspittle (Warwick Davis, who played “Willow” and Wicket the Ewok), who discovers it’s possible to weaponize iron filings for Ingrith’s merciless war, by first desecrating a fairy burial ground in order to harvest sacred flowers that harbor the spirits of the dead. What fun!

Meanwhile Maleficent is injured and then saved by a creature that looks mysteriously like her, only to discover an entire island of flying, horned, multi-cultural lookalikes, in hiding from the humans but itching for a final showdown. Which leads to another problem – we’re not previously aware of Ingrith knowing about the existence of the island or its inhabitants, other than a single witness who saw the one Maleficentesque savior who carried her away over the ocean. And yet she moves very quickly to an elaborate and extensive defensive perimeter around the castle, aimed primarily at masses of airborne enemies, especially those that might approach from the water.

It’s one of those films where the action is sufficiently chaotic and the death and destruction sufficiently widespread that it’s remarkable how many survive it all – and how little mourning there appears to be. Apparently wanton slaughter is OK in a kids fantasy adventure, as long as it’s not dwelt on for too long. It’s also a film where you can watch the same two guards run away from the same scene twice and other small inconsistencies. And where genocide is set to music and dragged out in a manner that opens the door to salvation but seems to run counter to the tone of Ingrith’s intent.

You’re also likely to think of other films as you watch this – the island lair from the “How to Train Your Dragon” series, for example, and even the “Avengers” films during a scene in which Maleficent returns to fight looking more like Captain Marveleficent.

I’m sure this is a film that kids will enjoy, but it’s still awkwardly dark and violent. And some of those same kids will grow up, look back, and write about the twisted stuff they were exposed to when they were younger, just as some of us do about the darker characters in films like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” But most of them will giggle and shout and leave marginally more desensitized to violence and ethnic cleansing, as they plan their horned Halloween costumes. Again, what fun!

Moviebriefs

Zombieland: Double Tap” is another sequel that does little to add anything to its predecessor. It’s not terrible, it’s just a weak, repetitive film that relies a little too heavily on too few ideas. Our basic crew of zombie apocalypse survivors (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin) are back, living in the White House, and having their boring and repetitive lives narrated by Eisenberg’s nerdy Columbus. Until the two female characters bail, in search of something more interesting or perhaps a better screenplay, and more survivors show up. In a film like this, you’ve either got to be willing to kill off leading cast members, or the band’s got to stay together to maintain the formula in case you want to do it all over again – and here’s it’s the latter. So it becomes an exercise in introducing new people and then finding ways to leave them behind again to avoid complications. In one scene, Columbus reads a copy of “The Walking Dead,” in it’s original comic book form, and declares it unrealistic – but the dynamics and the problems are the same, you’ve got to find new and interesting ways of encountering and killing zombies and, in this case, making it funny. And the joke’s wearing a little thin.

At risk of sounding a little Grinchy, I also wasn’t enjoying the latest retelling of “The Addams Family” that much at first. It’s probably fun for first time viewers but it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table for those who’ve seen earlier version or who grew up with Charles Addams’ single panel cartoons – the macabre “Far Side” of his day (although the main characters are remarkably faithful to those original drawings). But then I realized that the crazily haired real estate tycoon Margaux was like a stand-in for Donald Trump. And if you think of the extended Addams family members like the press and the townspeople like the GOP, it takes on a whole different level of interpretation. At which point I actually started to enjoy it again, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Oddly, one of the films I’ve enjoyed most recently (given the low bar) was the much maligned “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith and Will Smith (best onscreen couple at this year’s Razzies?). In it, an excellent but tired assassin is confronted by a younger, cloned version of himself as, presumably, the only person with the right skillset and instincts to take him out of the game. It’s a very simple and effective premise with enough action to keep things interesting. The younger character is presented with an enormous amount of de-aging and skin smoothing CGI, most of which works reasonably well, although the facial expressions look a little too botoxy much of the time, especially in the final scene of the movie, which leaves an unfortunate last impression. But the film could also prompt some interesting debates, perhaps in college classrooms, on the question of nature versus nurture: In one scene, the older character confronts the younger, and tries to convince him that they’re the same person by describing traits they both have. But the list seems inconsistent and dubious at times, as it switches from things they’re both good at to things they both have nightmares about – things that seem innate to things that seem dependent on individual past experiences. But even without becoming a homework assignment, it works reasonably well as a straightforward action film.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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