Tag Archives: Angelina Jolie

A Difference, but Not a Departure — “Eternals”

I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.

This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.

The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.

The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.

Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.

Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.

OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.

There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.

Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.

This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.

I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.

There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.

It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.

I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.

Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.

Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.

In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.

There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.

All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.

At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.

The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.

You can watch “Eternals” on Disney+.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

A-F*cking-Plus: “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the action movie I want more action movies to be. It’s practical, it’s personal, and it builds tension from detail. It’s about how small, tactical decisions made by two opposing forces change the situation in ways neither expect. The script is smart as hell, and makes a familiar premise feel unique and refreshingly different.

Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper crew boss who makes a terrible mistake. Smokejumpers are firefighters who work against wildland fires. They parachute into remote areas in order to contain those fires before they grow larger and unmanageable. Hannah misreads the wind, and loses one of her crew and a family of hikers. There wasn’t really anything she could do, but the blame has to be pinned somewhere and she’s happy to heap it on herself.

Unable to pass the psych evaluation, she won’t be jumping out of planes anymore. Instead, she’ll be on firewatch in a remote tower. She keeps an eye out for any signs of fire and radios them in. The premise from here on is familiar. Assassins are after a kid named Connor, and an action hero stranded in the wilderness is the only one who can save him.

If the set-up is familiar, what makes “Those Who Wish Me Dead” special? The rest of it feels unique. The dialogue isn’t what we hear in a thousand Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or superhero movies. No one’s dropping one-liners.

The assassins are practical, smart, and efficient, but they’re hamstrung by their employers failing to provide a second team. Played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), they make mistakes by trying to compensate and rush the job. The assassins aren’t some unbelievable cinematic team of unmatched evil. They’re not infallible in their choices. It’s their increasing desperation to finish the job and frustration with the situation that make them intimidating. They feel more human and that makes them more immediate and real.

One of the tensest moments involves the assassins instructing someone movement by movement how to throw his weapon away, kneel, fall forward, put his hands behind his back. It’s not played as a meeting of uber-badasses, or as a standoff where villains give someone 20 chances to growl about how they’ll rip their head off later. It’s not played with dramatic close-ups or emotional performances. It’s tense simply because it’s so practical, so matter-of-fact, because as viewers we understand how each step is a decreased chance of escape for the person being disarmed.

Hannah is creative, experienced, and trained to be decisive in life-or-death situations, but she doesn’t have the skills or equipment the assassins do. She knows the woods, but neither is she going full Rambo. She understands her environment and makes smart decisions in situations that soon involve lightning storms and a raging fire. She’s not making everything into a deadly weapon or doing anything superhuman. She’s mostly trying to hike out of the situation with Connor in tow, which is what any of us would do. This makes her feel more immediate and real, too.

It’s also easy to forget because she’s such an icon, but Angelina Jolie is one of the best actors in the medium’s history. She won an Oscar and Golden Globes three years in a row before most anyone knew her name. She’s delivered dramatic work as good as “Changeling”, and comedic work as capably as out-acting Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. It’s also easy to forget because “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is only the fifth live-action film she’s acted in across the last decade. (She’s written three and directed four films in that same span, though.)

She does superb work in a film that doesn’t focus heavily on emotional performance. There are no monologues, and the dialogue is terse and to the point. Nonetheless, her performance nails a sense of someone who’s not just traumatized, but who’s good at covering it up.

The moments of dissociation she has, she shifts into a thousand yard stare. These aren’t tearjerking emotional moments. They’re part of her day, every day, an interruption to the performance Hannah puts on for others and for herself.

Jolie’s had intermittent Bell’s palsy, so I can’t say whether slack features on one side of her face in some moments was an intentional decision she chose, or an element of her as an actress they kept. Either way, including it goes a long way to deepening the reality of a character. Hannah has worked one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and palsy can result from head injury or emotional trauma, among other factors. While I do think Jolie’s smudged make-up looks a little too designed after fist-fighting in forest fires, keeping this element helps the character feel more real. My understanding is that disability depends on the severity of the condition, but it’s great that someone who’s dealt with it sees it incorporated in a film. A lot of filmmakers would have edited those takes out or “corrected” it in post (which is a bullshit mentality). The character is more authentic, human, and representative for its inclusion.

I also like that the movie doesn’t make Hannah into a great mother figure. There’s no Ripley and Newt dynamic here. Hannah is shit with kids, and has zero interest in becoming a parental figure to Connor. She takes care of him as he needs, and protects him not out of some amazing emotional connection, but because it’s what the situation requires. It’s insulting when movies need to create these kinds of bonds to increase the tension of protecting a child. People don’t protect children because they create a one-on-one parental bond through extended dialogue in a high-stakes situation; they protect children because it’s what you fucking do. If you’re parenting a kid because it gives you a redemption arc, you probably shouldn’t be parenting that child. Hannah doesn’t always like communicating with Connor, and she doesn’t need to be good at it to risk her life protecting him. I’m glad to see the sudden mother redemption trope left out of the movie completely.

Others intersect with the assassins and Hannah, but not in the thoroughly useless or sacrificial roles where movies like this usually shove side characters. Most of them play an important part to what happens.

In fact, the cast is exceptionally deep. Finn Little delivers an incredibly strong performance as Connor. The usual child-panicking-in-a-movie notes aren’t hit because those notes are ridiculous. Connor is smart, traumatized, untrusting, scared, determined. He shuts off in some moments, he’s a kid in others, and sometimes he does what’s in front of him because it keeps him going. He’s erratic because that’s what happens in the midst of coping with trauma.

I’ve mentioned Gillen and Hoult as the assassins, and they land an odd-couple working dynamic. Gillen is the superior and more forthright, but also more emotional. Hoult doesn’t see the big picture as well, but he’s more reserved and less prone to drastic decision-making.

Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”) joins in a large role as a sheriff’s deputy, Ethan. Jake Weber (“Medium”) also shines in a supporting role. Yet its relative newcomer Medina Senghore who steals the show in several ways as Ethan’s resourceful, pregnant wife Allison. She’s one of the most awesome and unexpected characters I’ve seen in an action movie. As if that weren’t enough, even Tyler Perry, Tory Kittles, and James Jordan show up in bit parts.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a 90s action movie in style and pace, though I’d say it’s far superior to most of what the 90s had to offer. For one, you don’t have to put up with John Travolta. This is a film where situation, dialogue, performance, and patience between action scenes pays off.

Characters aren’t tumbling from one escalating set-piece to the next. They pause, reassess, make smart decisions, reverse old ones based on new information. When both sides make smart decisions, and those decisions go haywire because the other side isn’t standing still, we get to see an asymmetric cat-and-mouse game. A favorable firing position in one scene can turn into characters falling behind as they descend from it the next, and the movie translates these changing elements of give-and-take without ever having to say them out loud.

Nothing feels rushed here. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” takes its sweet time establishing the plot and how characters connect. It’s never complicated, but it is constantly evolving.

Intelligence often gets in the way of visual effects-heavy action movies. Genius is treated as kooky and explaining your plan as quickly and patronizingly as possible. Action screenplays tend to take one scene to insist someone’s intelligent, and then spend the next two hours with that character’s ego telling us the exact opposite.

There’s a dearth of action movies that treat intelligence as knowing how to fuse experience, patience, resilience, emotional maturity, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies that are constant colorful explosions featuring ever-quipping sides of human beef. At a certain point, I do want more personal action movies, with a more focused scope, featuring intelligent people facing intelligent people, where a character weighing a decision can be far more tense than whether our explosions out-explode their explosions.

That doesn’t mean “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is gritty – it’s not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t outlandish – it is. It’s just refreshing to have an action movie where the characters in it feel intelligent and experienced in ways that are actually useful and have real-world applications.

I loved this movie. Part of that is because it’s really good, and part of that is because it feeds a desire for action movies that possess a different mentality and respect the time its characters take to think and not just act. It’s what I want out of traditional (i.e. non-superhero) Western action movies. It’s practical, it focuses on performance without being overdramatic, and the situation and scope are personal rather than epic. Rescuing a single child can mean a lot more on-screen than saving the universe.

It also brings back the action hero we never fully got in Angelina Jolie. Hell, you want to be pissed, look up “Salt” where they rewrote the screenplay when she replaced a man because the studio didn’t think a woman could rescue her husband.

Sign me up for “Those Who Wish Me Deader”, “Those Who Wish Me Dead with a Vengeance”, “Live Free or Wish me Dead”, and “A Good Day to Wish Me Dead”. I’m in. I will forward you ticket money.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is available on HBO Max.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Immortality in Empathy — “Unbroken”

Unbroken train

by Gabriel Valdez

Unbroken is a film of tremendous beauty and rare elegance. It’s based on the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian who became a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. His bomber crashed in the Pacific and, after being lost at sea for more than a month, he became a Japanese prisoner of war, subject to a warden who was later sought for war crimes due to his brutality.

None of these details are spoilers – they’re all part of an historical account. I’m not sure one could spoil director Angelina Jolie’s movie either. Its profound effect isn’t simply due to the facts of its story. In fact, Jolie overcomes a surprisingly unremarkable script written in part by the Coen brothers, auteurs from whom I usually expect more.

What Jolie finds as a director are the details that shape a moment, that take a cinematic scene and turn it into a peek inside someone else’s memory. We see the sweeping wind across Louis’s hometown, seeming to echo his sense of being a loner. We hear the rustle of the palms in the tropical Pacific wind as Louis runs a time trial before a mission. We watch the glitter of the stars as Louis tries to sleep after a month in a lifeboat at sea.

Unbroken prayer

Few of us lead epic lives, but we all have epic memories, the kind where we can still see and smell and even taste the moment. Jolie uses the astounding cinematography of Roger Deakins to evoke a sense of texture that is both artful and personal. Much in Unbroken is left unsaid – themes aren’t debated in dialogue so much as hinted at in passing details. You get a sense how influenced Jolie’s been by directors she’s worked with as an actress, particularly the wry, spare, and evocative style of Clint Eastwood, where the most important words are always left unspoken.

Many critics have taken Unbroken to task for not being grand enough or for focusing on the brutal, wartime aspects of Louis’s life. Jolie’s aim here is to communicate a message of forgiveness and, rather than show a pained veteran dramatically learning how to offer it to those who wronged him, she focuses on Louis’s time as a prisoner-of-war. She tallies the moments that are unforgivable in order to build up how insurmountable a task forgiveness can be. In showing us Louis’s will to overcome life-or-death moments, she displays how understanding and forgiving your enemies is a similarly noble act of inner strength.

Unbroken camp

That can’t be communicated by dialogue or by beautiful cinematography. It’s communicated through empathy, and in Jolie’s hands that means finding the precise visuals and storytelling moments that create a memory: the shadows that fill the room while a father disciplines a child and the mother holds another. The look that mother gives when she knows her son is watching her cook from scratch, the simple, private pride of a humble moment. A photograph of Louis’s captor as a young boy, with his own strict father and impossible expectations. The glitter of bombers and fighters on the Tokyo horizon, signaling a war that’s drawing to a close. Jolie is not a perfect filmmaker here. She’s something more important – a storyteller who communicates with a powerful empathy that I believe audiences are understanding more than critics. The packed house I watched with gave the film a standing ovation. How rare is that?

If the goal of this movie is to inspire, Unbroken does that in spades. I walked out feeling uplifted and more determined in my own goals than when I’d went in. If the goal of the movie is to make me contemplate the brutality of war and torture, and to better ennoble and idealize the values in forgiveness, it does that, too.

Unbroken doesn’t set out to overwhelm you the way so many big-budget war films do. It doesn’t seek to redefine what makes a film either, instead choosing a very classic approach to storytelling. The effect it has is quiet, philosophical, and spiritual, but it’s not without its compelling moments and tense sequences. This is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. There are cliché moments, but you’re allowed to be cliché when you do it this well. O’Connell’s is a fully inhabited performance. You don’t get the sense that he’s acting, so much as living and breathing the hours of another man.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Unbroken have more than one woman in it?

No. Louis has both a mother and sisters, and a few women cheer him on from the stands during his races, but blink and you’ll miss all but his mother. She’s the only woman of any consequence in the film.

Questions 2 (Do they talk to each other?) and 3 (About something other than a man?) are void without passing Question 1.

This presents an interesting situation: one of the few women greenlit to direct a big-budget film makes one that doesn’t feature any female characters. Since our viewpoint is restricted to Louis’s own and the film focuses on his time spent in the military and as a prisoner of war, I can understand the choice. There aren’t many scenes here that would logically or historically include women. That said, including more women in any film isn’t difficult.

There’s something more important here, though, and that is – as a male critic – am I qualified to dictate to a female director how to better tell stories including women? One of the things that needs to change in criticism is for critics ourselves to recognize and admit when we don’t know something or are not qualified to critique a certain aspect of a film. There’s a terrible fear that if we ever admit something like this on any front, we’ll lose the trust of our audience, as if that audience expects us to know everything all the time. That feeds into the notion that a critic’s opinion is somehow more valuable or important than that of the person next to you. It isn’t. It never will be. At best, a critic is someone who can foster conversation and new understandings about a film, not someone who will tell you how to think.

The Bechdel section we’ve included functions so well because more than 90% of the major films out there are directed by men. Close to half the films that are made don’t pass the Bechdel Test, even though its qualifications are incredibly simple to meet. The argument has never been that all films need to pass it, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to tell stories that don’t pass it. The argument is simply to apply pressure that encourages more films to pass it.

The Bechdel Test is a tool. It’s informational. It helps, but it doesn’t define. Unbroken tells a male story from what many would refer to as a female perspective – one of emotion and memory. There’s an argument to be made that its empathy isn’t something you’ll find in most films because most films are directed from what we think of as a male perspective – one of facts and story. The delineation between these two perspectives is culturally ingrained – men are just as capable of empathy, women are just as capable of logic. The storytelling culture we live in reinforces a false separation that trains us to believe that this isn’t true. Women are trained to value different aspects in a story than men are. While those boundaries are weakening in some parts of American culture, they are still very present and they are still very ingrained.

Criticism is a male-driven industry and, no matter how much any individual male critic might like to think he exists outside that cultural training, he really doesn’t. That includes me. Now, I value empathy in storytelling, and I’m willing to forget the traditional landmarks of plot in favor of an empathetic connection. Might that allow me to prioritize aspects of a story differently from other critics? Yeah, absolutely. (I think that’s why many critics bounce off Unbroken. The industry values a more academic perspective on film, which is not how audiences watch movies. Audiences value emotional reaction.) Every critic values some particular aspect of storytelling more than the next one, and every critic is going to be able to speak to you about that aspect with more nuance and consideration than the next.

Simply because I value what we’re inaccurately trained to think of as a female value in storytelling does not, however, make me suddenly qualified to tell a woman how to direct better for women. One is a matter of perspective. The other is a matter of reality. They ultimately have nothing to do with each other. I’m qualified to discuss the empathy in Unbroken because it’s not a perspective exclusive to women, and it’s an aspect in storytelling I deeply value. I am not qualified to tell a woman how to change or not change her storytelling when it comes to including women. That may be an aspect of storytelling I value, but as a male critic, I don’t believe I have the right to take possession of that argument.

Trailers of the Week — True Stories

Nov. 14

Steve Carell’s often hinted at some deeper pathos in his comedy. It’s what makes characters like Michael Scott on The Office compelling. His asinine comedian of a boss spoke to Scott’s lack of confidence, his social maladjustment. He tried to correct this through behaving, through women, through spending every cent he had, and found in every iteration, he found no real comfort.

It was only when he started to grow up and become comfortable with himself that others became comfortable around him, started rooting for him rather than against him. That Carell may deliver one of the better performances of the year in Foxcatcher isn’t a surprise. It’s that it took so long for someone to put him in a dramatic role like this, playing an historical character, that’s the real surprise.

(This isn’t really the first trailer. It’s about the 7 millionth, but it is the first “official” trailer.)

Out in select markets, expanding soon

Whiplash has been engineering one of those frustrating holiday releasing strategies. Is it in limited markets? In previews? Expanding? Yes, yes, and is molasses a releasing strategy? Technically, it’s already out, but it better start expanding far more if it wants to capitalize on the buzz that’s been going around about it. All I know is it looks brilliant. I know a very few folks who have seen it already and describe it as the defining role of J.K. Simmons’s exceptional career.

March 13

I’m not sold on Chris Hemsworth yet. He’s fun to watch as Thor, but his other projects really haven’t launched.

I should be sold on director Ron Howard by now, but I always have reservations going into his movies. With the exception of Apollo 13, his films that aren’t designed to be hits (The Missing, Frost/Nixon, Rush) tend to be better than the ones that are (Ransom, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code).

It’s ironic that Rush is one of Howard’s better films. Hemsworth was fine in it, but the role wasn’t exactly a stretch for him. He played it in very broad strokes and it never felt like he reached the level of his costars. Personally, I’d rather see his Rush-costar Daniel Bruhl in a role like this.

It also makes me wary that this isn’t a Moby Dick adaptation. It’s based on the “true events” that inspired Moby Dick. In fact, a youthful Herman Melville is one of the characters here, played by Ben Whishaw. That’s always dangerous territory. It’s also off-putting that the whale in the trailer is some flame breath or an EMP-burst away from being a Pacific Rim kaiju.

Actually, Ron Howard’s “Pacific Rim: Colonial Edition”…I’m beginning to get the Chris Hemsworth casting now.

Do I have a whole host of worries about In the Heart of the Sea? Absolutely. Does it look good anyway. Yep.

Dec. 26

This isn’t Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, but for the vast majority of viewers, it will be. That alone leaves me rooting for it. Since most women filmmakers don’t enjoy the ability to step into a fully-financed studio film, if she’s successful, she may change Hollywood’s minds on backing female directors.

All of that is immaterial to the film itself, however, and the film looks damn good. All its trailers have come across as a bit schmaltzy, but coming out in the holiday season, that’s how they’ve got to appeal. It doesn’t look like the film itself will subscribe to that. Instead, this looks like an old-fashioned, rousing, biographical picture. That’s exactly my cup of tea. It is based on a true story, and is probably going to stick to the facts of that story a little more closely than Ron Howard’s Whaleformers above.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for Unbroken for a lot of reasons.

No date set

Yakuza send-up gone mad, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? follows a gangster who wants his gang war revenge on film, starring his daughter, and done before his wife gets out of prison. Because why not?

Japan might have the best film industry in terms of skewering its own genre standards. That’s a fancy way of saying they make the best comedies. This doesn’t mean every one is a hit, but I’ve heard good things about Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and the trailer hints at a movie that knows precisely the overbloodied gangster movie tropes it wants to lampoon.

December 5

When you click on a trailer with Nicolas Cage’s name attached, you’re already thinking “Worst Trailer of the Week.” And Dying of the Light certainly starts out with that potential. As it develops, though, you start to see where it could go and it’s another Nicolas (Nicolas Winding Refn, in this case) that makes me view the trailer through another filter. The writer-director of Drive and Only God Forgives is producing, with hit-or-miss writer-director Paul Schrader, well, writing and directing this time out.

His last film was the execrable The Canyons, a movie so wretched I broke out the word ‘execrable’ to describe it. A Bret Easton Ellis performance art project starring Lindsay Lohan, porn star James Deen, and in which the movie itself was secondary, Schrader was the hapless director used in a Producers-like plot to create the perfect modern train wreck. Ellis’s success was contingent on Schrader’s failure, but that doesn’t mean Schrader should be forgiven his directorial decisions on The Canyons.

All this is a way of saying Dying of the Light is a high-risk, moderate-reward kind of venture. I have more confidence in Winding Refn to get something good out of Schrader than Ellis, and the trailer surprised me by looking like something I’d watch. Given the amount of crap I give Nicolas Cage (despite honestly liking him in many roles), it’s nice to highlight a performance of his with true potential.

Worst Trailer of the Week:

Haley Joel Osment! Jokes about this Internet thing! Crappy comedies about lazy-ass guys whose lazy-assitude is rewarded with beautiful women just because that’s the way the world works, right?

It’s like the early 2000s all over again.

He gets drunk and throws up on someone! I’ve never seen that before! Look, when even Steve Zahn moved past this stuff, it really should’ve signaled the end, guys. Please don’t make Haley Joel Osment our new Steve Zahn.

Here’s some Chris Hemsworth to wash the taste of whatever that was out. I might start pretending he’s really Thor stripped of his powers in every film. It already makes Red Dawn a much better film.

Chris Hemsworth In the Heart of the Sea

A Timely Allegory, a Unique Opportunity — “Maleficent”

Maleficent lead

A man wants the respect of the other men around him. Acquiring that respect means he has to display his worth. This display becomes a grotesque act of violence against a woman. This is the broad allegory at work in Maleficent, defined in its first 20 minutes. After the Isla Vista shootings, I don’t know that there’s a more appropriate 20 minutes of film we need to see.

The film is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. We’re introduced to Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as a child. A fairy from a fantastical land, she falls in love with a human boy, whose thirst for respect and power causes him to betray her and cut off her wings. The power of allegory is that this can all be accomplished with a PG rating. Children will marvel at the film’s fantasy land and understand the tale of vengeance at the film’s heart. They will comprehend the allegory at face value, but they thankfully won’t have the experience to be able to apply it. Adults will recognize the trademarks of scenes we’re used to seeing in other genres. When Maleficent wakes up after being drugged and finds her wings have been cut from her, it’s not a hard metaphor to grasp. Unfortunately, too many adults in the audience will have had the experience to be able to apply it.

After her betrayer is named king, Maleficent curses his daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning) – she will prick her finger on a spinning needle at the age of 16 and fall into a “sleep like death.” I won’t give anything away beyond these basics, but Maleficent is filled with metaphors of social shaming, divorce, and abuse. Like the best fairy tales, these darker meanings are only hinted at, giving the tale greater relevance and more value in being retold.

Maleficent Elle Fanning

As an allegorical reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is powerful and more timely than its filmmakers could ever have imagined. As a film, it suffers from some dodgy craftsmanship. There are very beautiful moments – its creature, costume, and set design are brilliant. Little details, from the filigree on the king’s armor to the embroidery of the pillows on which Aurora rests, fill out the world with the texture of unspoken history. Some very overlooked technical elements take away from this, though – the sound design is thin and the musical score feels recycled. The visual effects can range from breathtaking to amateurish, and they have a markedly different tone from dialogue scenes. The 3-D is strained and muddies a great deal of detail – opt for 2-D showings. Maleficent doesn’t feel like a finished film. It feels like a very promising rough cut.

Only a few actors in the world are dynamic enough to command our attention through such a litany of technical dilemmas. Foremost among them is Angelina Jolie. There is dialogue here no actor can pull off, and yet she grounds it with a regal bearing that is at once overacted and tender. Director Robert Stromberg often focuses exclusively on her eyes, putting the rest of her face in shadow, and she has the ability to convey so many emotions in quick succession it leaves you reeling. Every time a slapstick scene clunks or an action scene only half-works, we return to Jolie’s performance and the film recovers almost entirely.

Maleficent link

That scene in which Maleficent wakes up to discover her wings are gone – it’s not filmed well. The set’s beautiful, but the shot choices take away from the moment. None of that matters – Jolie’s performance in that scene is so wrenching and haunting that she could’ve filmed it on a bare stage free from the context of the plot, and we’d still understand its every nuance. Fanning also deserves credit for her bright turn as Aurora, as does Sharlto Copley for his nasty, emotionally lean performance as the betrayer-turned-king, Stefan.

Maleficent is more important for its values and performances than its cinematic accomplishments, but this may make it a better film than something less ambitious and more polished. It joins a growing trend in summer entertainment of discussing issues we as a society are often too slow to address. Add to this the rarity of a performance as outlandish and commanding as Jolie’s, and Maleficent is a very solid recommendation, especially as family entertainment. It hits some heavy issues that – like it or not – children have to be prepared for as they grow up. It’s up to you how much you’d like to discuss afterward. Maleficent leaves the door open to those discussions in a unique and comfortable way.

Maleficent cap