Woeful Maleficent sequel curses Jolie’s acting skills

In this round-up our reviewers critique movies released this week; from blockbuster to local, foreign and sometimes obscure films that deserve the spotlight. Which ones are worth the cost of a ticket?

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil ★ ½

Disney's Maleficent returns with stars Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales director Joachim Ronning has taken over from original director Robert Stromberg. The starting point was the studio's 1959 cartoon adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, which gave the name "Maleficent" to the wicked fairy who cursed the heroine and caused her to fall asleep for a hundred years. But in line with its other live-action films Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror, the fairytale got reshaped. Yet "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil feels less like a comeback than a contractual obligation, brought into being by the Disney studio's determination to wring every last dollar from any piece of intellectual property on hand," writes reviewer Jake Wilson.

"The first Maleficent film made the case that this supposed villainess, played by Jolie, was merely misunderstood (an approach surely derived from the stage musical Wicked, a similar revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz).

Keeping it in the family: Elle Fanning as Aurora, Angelina Jolie as Maleficent and Sam Riley as the raven Diaval in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.Credit:Disney

Nonetheless, the frisson of the story relied on keeping the character at least somewhat morally ambiguous – and since she was unequivocally redeemed at the end it's not immediately clear where a sequel could go.

Among those tasked with solving the problem are screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who previously worked together on four seasons of Transparent. Unsurprisingly, they've arrived at a stock sitcom solution: a big wedding that forces a bunch of ill-assorted characters together.

In the enchanted forest kingdom known as the Moors, former sleeping beauty Princess Aurora (Fanning, girlish as ever) finally coaxes a proposal out of the handsome if regrettably named Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, spectacularly feeble). Maleficent – Aurora's adoptive mother in this timeline – reluctantly consents to the match. But Aurora still has one challenge to overcome: introducing Maleficent to her future in-laws.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith and David Gyasi as Percival in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.Credit:Disney

Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the film's true representative of evil, plotting a war between her kingdom and the Moors – and while Pfeiffer's performance is more campy than alarming, the film's initial flippancy soon gives way to relatively earnest melodrama, possibly under the influence of Game of Thrones.

From start to finish, however, this is one of those effects-heavy blockbusters.

You might assume that Jolie's own looks are striking enough not to need digital modification. But as in the first Maleficent, she too is made over into a cartoon of herself: face of pure white, cheekbones that could cut diamonds, eyes of green or bronze depending on whether she's sunk in hostility or roused to fury.

Maleficent is defined by her refusal to fit into the human world, and the film itself has trouble knowing what to do with her: for a supposed protagonist, she spends a remarkable amount of time offscreen. In turn, Jolie seems utterly trapped by the narrow conception of the role, which requires her to speak in a clipped British accent and keep emotional display to a minimum.

Sometimes her stiffness is played for laughs, sometimes she's just stiff, cursed to remain a frozen symbol of defiance as if she were just another special effect.

Read Jake Wilson’s full review here.

Slam ★★★★

Slam is the work of Partho Sen-Gupta, a Sydney-based Indian director who has worked in Bollywood as an art director, lived in Paris and scored a success on the festival circuit with two earlier films. According to reviewer Sandra Hall, he’s a confident talent with a finely tuned instinct for the mechanics of plot and character. His latest film centres on the brother of a missing Palestinian woman. Tariq is played by rising star Adam Bakri, who is Palestinian and made his feature film debut in Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, which won the Cannes jury prize in 2013 and was nominated for a foreign language film Oscar. "Both films tell claustrophobic tales of people born into lives constricted by events beyond their control. There’s a lot going on in this film and although the conclusion it reaches is pretty predictable, the trajectory it takes is not," writes Hall.

Adam Bakri stars as Tariq in Australian film Slam.

"Slam is named for a forceful piece of slam poetry delivered by Ameena (Danielle Horvat), a young Palestinian who wears the hijab and holds uncompromising views about the way to deal with white supremacists.

The poem goes down well at the community centre in south-western Sydney, where Ameena regularly takes the stage. But when she finishes and starts walking home, the mood shifts and a sense of dread enters the picture. As all moviegoers know dark, empty streets inevitably mean trouble.

Our fears are soon realised. Before dawn Ameena’s brother, Tariq (Adam Bakri), is awoken by a phone call from their mother, Rana (Darina Al Joundi), to tell him that his sister has not returned. And over the next few hours his frantic search yields little beyond the fact she’s fallen out with her best friend, whom she had tried to call after leaving the club.

Days pass and the mystery deepens as the police investigate. At the same time a voracious media pack comes up with worrying theories about her whereabouts, spurred on by the fact she’s Muslim. And just to foment things further an Australian pilot in the Middle East has just been captured by ISIS.

Tariq runs a café with his Australian wife, Sally (Rebecca Breeds), and her family accept him – with certain reservations. To them he’s Ricky and their joviality is edged with wariness; as if they haven’t entirely surrendered the suspicion he could spring a nasty surprise at any time. Sensing this he hasn’t tried to interest them in Ameena, Rana or the suffering the family endured before coming to Australia, but these efforts at assimilation have cost him. Rana thinks he’s abandoned the family and with Ameena’s disappearance, he comes close to cracking.

So too does the police officer investigating the case. Played by a drawn-looking Rachael Blake, she’s grieving for her son – a soldier killed in Afghanistan – and her scepticism about the wisdom of Australia’s involvement in the war will eventually exert its own influence on events. It’s a portrait of a woman whose job is increasingly in conflict with her moral convictions. Her nemesis is her boss, played by Russell Dykstra, shrugging off the affability that has marked so many of his performances to give us a bully concerned only with protecting his own back.

All this may make the film sound overloaded and Gupta does take a couple of confusing missteps in trying to fold a series of dream sequences into his otherwise naturalistic narrative. Yet his skill in pacing the film’s revelations banishes any sense of bustle or strain. Each plot strand echoes and illuminates the rest, mirroring the heightened tensions that took hold in so many Muslim enclaves in the West post-9/11. It all adds up to a telling indictment of the tyrannous effect of the 24-hour news cycle.

Slam screens at the Dendy, Newtown, as part of the Palestinian Film Festival. It also has screenings at Melbourne's Cinema Nova, Perth's Luna Leederville and Dendy Canberra.

Read Sandra Hall’s full review here.

Strange But True ★★

When a heavily pregnant woman (played by Margaret Qualley) arrives at the door of a family rent apart over the death of son and brother Ronnie (Conner Jessup), questions arise over her story. The woman, Melissa, claims Ronnie is the father but since he died in an accident five years ago, his mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) suspects her ex-husband, a gynaecologist (Greg Kinnear), is involved. Richard is now shacked up with a new, younger woman in Miami. But he has been paying Melissa's rent. This American-noir thriller comes from British director Rowan Athale, who made the critically-acclaimed debut thriller Wasteland. But his "new movie might be clear evidence he has jumped the ditch too soon", according to reviewer Paul Byrnes.

"What's strange is that anyone thought this movie was worth making. It's a thriller with no thrills, almost no action and even less tension. What it does have is a strong cast, but who wants to see good actors going to waste?

Margaret Qualley plays the mysteriously pregnant Melissa in the disappointing Strange But True.

Even on the level of craft, it's a disappointment, with a rickety script that keeps dashing about in time and place without reason.

The movie is based on a novel by John Searles. The script by Eric Garcia never comes close to a solid structure, but that may be all down to the director, who cuts from scene to scene with more confidence than skill. Disjointed does not quite describe this mess. There is no rhythm, no flow, therefore no tension or involvement. We bounce around from one character to another with no obvious logic, often in the midst of an otherwise dramatic scene.

The result is that all the movie's meanings and speculations become academic: there's no point thinking about them when we're bobbing around like a cork in a bottle. Similarly, the performances become separated from reality. It doesn't matter that everyone is trying when the director treats his scenes like lengths of Lego, to be arranged in any order. By the time people start dying, it's over – except it's not."

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

Locusts ★★½

In this Aussie film, tech entrepreneur Ryan Black (Ben Geurens) is forced to return to his outback home after the death of his father. There he gets reacquainted with estranged brother Tyson (Nathaniel Dean), who has spent some time in prison, and his old girlfriend Izzy (Jessica McNamee), now a single mother who works nights as a stripper. He also learns his father had debts with a gang of local thugs hopped-up on methamphetamine. So Ryan and Izzy plan to rob the local strip club. But reviewer Jake Wilson isn't convinced: "Some developments strain disbelief … The resolution is too neat for its own good and a last-minute effort to inject topical significance into proceedings is less than convincing. While Geurens, too, makes a rather uncharismatic leading man."

"It’s one of the oldest stories in Australian cinema. A naive visitor arrives in the outback, finds himself at the mercy of the seemingly friendly locals and despite his best efforts is unable to leave.

Ben Geurens and Nathaniel Dean star in Locusts. 

It was done in Wake in Fright (and its recent miniseries remake), in The Cars That Ate Paris, in the still underrated Welcome to Woop Woop – and here it is again in Locusts, the third feature in four years from enterprising local director Heath Davis, following character study Broke and comedy Book Week.

To be sure Davis and writer Angus Watts (who also produced) put their own spin on the familiar premise. Ryan is a city slicker, but not exactly a stranger in the run-down former mining town of Serenity Crossing (“played” by Broken Hill, where the original Wake in Fright was also shot).

There are occasional moments of fish-out-of-water comedy (“You wouldn’t have an almond latte, would you?” Ryan asks hopefully at the general store). But for the most part Locusts is a dour affair, heavily dependent on the grizzled faces of character players (including Peter Phelps as a cop) and on wide shots of the no-less-hostile desert landscape, accompanied by the distorted riffs of Burkhard Dallwitz’s sometimes overblown score.

It is, in short, very much a B-movie and, on this level, it’s watchable though never especially inspired."

Read Jake Wilson’s full review here.

Maiden ★★★★

Thirty years ago, 24-year-old sailor Tracy Edwards put together the first all-female crew for the Whitbread, a gruelling 50,000 kilometre race around the world, held every three or four years since 1972. Preparations would take three years, the race itself 10 months. Edwards selected 12 women to go with her, but she had no money, no boat and no sponsors. Most entrants for the Whitbread would be in purpose-built new boats worth millions, with professional crews. Edwards mortgaged her house in England and bought a second-hand boat that was barely seaworthy. After the race, Edwards wrote a best-selling book about her experiences. "It's hard then to understand why it has taken 30 years to bring the story to the screen, given its supremely attractive elements: the sea, the drama, the 'journey'. Even so, director Alex Holmes has said it took four years to get it made and funding was a struggle," writes reviewer Paul Brynes.

Tracy Edwards at the helm of the Maiden in the 1989-90 Whitbread round-the-world race.

"The sailing correspondent for The Guardian called them "a tin full of tarts". The rest of the sailing press ran a book on how quickly they would fail. Of course, it was 1989 and sailing men were not used to the idea women could actually haul a rope, let alone compete in the Whitbread round-the-world race. Hopefully, some of these nautical blokes now remember the story of the Maiden with chagrin.

Maiden’s all-female crew defied expectations. Credit:Rialto

Edwards had gone as cook on a previous Whitbread boat full of men. That cured her of wanting to do it again. "I was treated like a servant," she says. Her duties were cooking and cleaning, but she also learnt how to navigate and skipper.

The women were from all over: seven British, others from the US, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Holland and Finland. The most experienced sailor was probably Marie-Claude Heys, from France, but Edwards fired her three weeks before the race after repeated clashes over authority. Edwards' childhood friend Jo Gooding, her closest ally on board, broke her wrist in a training run and had to pull out. Maiden made it to the starting line only after an old friend agreed to help. Edwards had met King Hussein of Jordan when he was a guest on the luxury yacht she was crewing. His personal sponsorship made the difference.

The 1989 race was the first in which crews were encouraged to take cameras. After her hand recovered, Gooding rejoined the boat and took responsibility for filming, and her footage pretty much makes the film. Holmes knows how to tell a story, but the sailing footage from the Southern Ocean, with sails full of ice and huge waves coming over the bow, puts us in the boat with them, feeling every crunch and groan. At this point, it becomes something more than an adventure: they are risking their lives to prove a point.

Edwards, interviewed 30 years later, is brutally honest about her flaws and insecurities at the time, but we can see it in her face in the old footage. Having to be navigator and skipper, she becomes withdrawn and isolated from the crew, perhaps in a state of depression. From Uruguay, she is determined to take the most southerly course to Western Australia, because it is the shortest and most direct route, but also the most dangerous, passing close to Antarctica. The story now becomes about whether Edwards' blind ambition might be endangering the whole expedition.

Maiden is simply riveting, a story of grandeur and sweep that's also moving and intimate because there are so many naked emotions in play. The young Tracy tells a reporter she hates that word "feminist", but there's something beautiful and energising about the way these women came together, with gritted teeth, to do something that had never been done by women before. And things just keep getting harder as they go, making the story richer.

Mothers, take your daughters. Better still, take your sons as well.

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

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