Friday, June 27, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

It's Friday again! Of all of the Indiana Jones films, this is probably the one I've anticipated seeing the most. Despite my love of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie I've watched the most in this series is easily Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ever since I was little I remember wanting to be Indiana Jones, going on adventures around my parents' yard with my friends and getting into dangerous situations only to escape by the skin of my teeth at the last moment. All of my fandom primarily derives from this film, so I knew it would be a difficult one for me to critique. Despite my misgivings, I knew it was at least going to surpass my sub-par viewing experience with Temple of Doom last week.

Each one of these movies makes a point of giving us a memorable introductory scene, and right off the bat I felt much more comfortable in the world of Indiana Jones as this film opened. Maybe it has to do with the familiar setting of my home state, or perhaps it's just the resemblance it has to the first installment of the series. Either way, I loved seeing one of Indy's first exploits as he snatches the Cross of Coronado from a group of thugs and flees on horseback toward a speeding circus train. Some of the long takes of Indy jumping from car to car while evading the angry group of thugs are incredibly entertaining, and it was refreshing to see so many things filmed practically compared with the green screen/rear projection of the previous film. 

This opening scene does a great job of setting up some fundamental things about Indiana's character, with the introduction of his bull-whip (even Harrison Ford's real-life chin scar), his phobia of snakes, his desire to preserve archeological findings, the origins of his trademark hat, and most importantly his relationship with his father. It all culminates in a great flash-forward to an adult Indiana Jones aboard a storm-tossed ship, wearing a cheesy grin right before being punched in the face. Its a hilarious moment and a great opening, even giving Raiders a run for its money.

From there the movie takes us back to familiar territory with Dr. Jones addressing his archeology class providing exposition for things that will pay off comedically at a later point in the film. One of the few complaints I have about this movie is its somewhat over-reliance on the tropes of the first film. A lot of the story beats from Raiders make a reappearance in Last Crusade, making it somewhat difficult to remember which scenes happened in which films at times. Having said that, reminding me of the penultimate Indiana Jones film is hardly a problem in my book, particularly after the extreme deviation taken in the last film. Spielberg and Lucas seemed to have realized the error of their ways and have made a course-correction that definitely resulted in a more enjoyable if slightly formulaic effort.

Despite its obvious similarities to Raiders of the Lost Ark, I really appreciated some of the character exploration this film delves into, particularly between Indy and his father. Sean Connery breathes fresh life into this series, playing a bumbling, hard-nosed, yet oddly lovable figure who constantly irks and inspires our titular hero. Their incessant bickering can be a bit much at times, but the humorous interplay between the Jones boys is almost always a joy to watch as two screen legends chew up the scenery in the best way. It's fascinating to see Indiana's (or Henry Jones Jr.'s) origins, and the backstory actually makes sense.

This takes me back to something I said during my review of Raiders, where I mentioned Indy's character arc relating to his views of faith. Everything he may have learned in that film comes full circle in Last Crusade, where his beliefs are constantly called into question by friends and foes alike. As Marcus Brody puts it, "The search for the grail is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I've none to give you. At my age, I'm prepared to take a few things on faith." This seems to be one of the main themes of the movie, coming full circle when the duplicitous Donovan shoots Henry Jones Sr. in the stomach with the phrase, "The healing power of the grail is the only thing that can save your father now. It's time to ask yourself what you believe." In the end, it all comes down to a literal leap of faith that I personally found incredibly inspiring, both because of the great score accompanying the scene as well as the symbolism such an act underlines.

Another example of this series' return to form is the overall entertainment this third film offers. The entire movie is peppered with genuinely humorous moments, clever dialogue, and hilarious physical comedy. Much of this is thanks to Sean Connery's near perfect performance and his incredible chemistry with Harrison Ford (who has never been better in the role, I might add). They have wonderful interplay, and the differences between the two characters is not only relatable to many father-and-son relationships, but it's also immensely entertaining. There are too many funny father-son moments to possibly list in full, but one scene that makes me laugh out loud to this day is where Donovan snidely remarks on Marcus's inability to take care of himself in a foreign land. In a desperate attempt to inspire fear in the traitor, Indy boldly says the following (while Henry Sr. looks on in bemusement):

Love it! Though this may not be quite as strong as Raiders, it's probably the most fun and may also have the most powerful and fleshed-out subtext of any Indiana Jones movie. The father-son dynamic is a great extension of the character we all know and love, and the resemblance to Raiders actually ties this in as one of the great trilogies in movie history (barring that disappointing second entry). The macguffin in this movie might be kind of obvious, but it ties in those meaningful themes perfectly with the rest of the story. There's just enough attention paid to the plot of the film while also devoting the necessary time to action, humor, and suspense. It's a terrific blend of Indiana Jones iconography, and though many might think of it as a safe bet, I think it's a wonderful film. I was so close to four stars on this one, but I ended up giving it the highest possible three and a half stars. I love this movie!


**What do you think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Is it the best of the series, or is it a total rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark?**

Monday, June 23, 2014

Coming Soon - Transformers: Age of Extinction!

Release Date: June 27, 2014
Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, and Kelsey Grammer
Music by: Steve Jablonsky

This summer brings another installment of Michael Bay's explosive series with Transformers: Age of Extinction. While a lot of people tend to approach these films with a healthy dose of skepticism, these movies have been exceptional at the box office each year a sequel is released (taking second place in the box office in both 2009 and 2011). Despite the commercial success, a lot has changed with this fourth entry in the popular series, primarily with the casting. After a public melt-down and declining favor with the masses, Shia LeBeouf's character is nowhere to be seen in this new incarnation. So who have the filmmakers replaced the divisive figure with? One of Michael Bay's previous collaborators, Mark Wahlberg.

Still affectionately referred to as "Marky-Mark" by many, Wahlberg has had an illustrious career starring in many critically-acclaimed and blockbuster films alike. He's even been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the Martin Scorsese gangster epic, The Departed. He's also taken dramatic turns in beloved films like The Fighter, flexed his comedic muscles in movies like Ted, and even proven his action hero status in recent hits like Lone Survivor. Looking at his resume, it's clear why he would be a prime candidate for a starring role in such a big-budget, sci-fi action spectacular. But Michael Bay was actually attracted to Wahlberg's talents prior to casting him in his latest Transformers film.

Mark Wahlberg and Michael Bay at the "Pain and Gain" premiere

The two worked together in a film that came out just last year entitled Pain and Gain. It was one of the lowest budget films Michael Bay had ever worked on, a feat that was achieved when neither he, Dwayne Johnson, nor Mark Wahlberg took paychecks for their work on the film. Surely after seeing what a team player Wahlberg was (not to mention his terrific acting talent), it comes at no surprise that Bay would want to repeat the experience of the two working together. Given the wide array of talent that Michael Bay typically attracts for his projects, it's definitely telling that he would bring Wahlberg back for Transformers: Age of Extinction.

This new film seems to focus on a struggling single father who gets wrapped up in a Cybertronian battle against his will. Clearly Bay wanted to cast someone who could adequately carry the human story through all of the effects and spectacle, which Wahlberg is certainly capable of doing. Working with familiar faces and returning to a franchise on its fourth leg, perhaps this will be the perfect dynamic to bring everyone the Transformers movie that they're hoping to get.

Optimus Prime riding Grimlock into battle

Of course, the inclusion of fan-favorite Dinobots certainly doesn't hurt the situation. It's long been speculated if and when Michael Bay would finally translate the robots in disguise as prehistoric creatures to the big screen, and a title like Age of Extinction sets the stage perfectly for such an introduction. The trailer alone gives a kind of nostalgic thrill at seeing Grimlock stomping around and breathing fire, particularly when ridden by Optimus Prime (as pictured above). The long-awaited Dinobot story is not only genius from a merchandising standpoint, but it seems like it could breathe fresh life into a series that seemed to have ended rather conclusively back with Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

One thing is certain - this is going to be one of the biggest films of the summer. Fans of the first three films will not be disappointed, and even some skeptics could be won over by this new iteration of the beloved series. Perhaps this latest film will end up being more than meets the eye...? (Sorry, I had to do it at least once.)

Transformers: Age of Extinction opens nationwide on Friday, June 27th in IMAX and 3D!

**Are you excited for the new Transformers movie! Let me know in the comments section below!**

Friday, June 20, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

It's FlashBack Friday again! Last weekend was busy with sports events and family get-togethers, so I had to skip a week on sharing my reflections of my childhood favorite films. Though I adore this series as a whole, I knew there was going to be at least one bump in the road (and possibly two) as I continued on with the Indiana Jones movies. If you've read my gushing review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, then you know I absolutely love this franchise and its lead character. What you probably wouldn't be able to guess, however, is that this was actually my first time sitting through the entirety of the divisive second installment of the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I'd seen little bits and pieces as a kid, particularly the opening scene in Shanghai, but perhaps the general darkness (which I'll get into) of Indy's second adventure kept my parents from encouraging me to consume this one compared to the others.

The opening scene of the movie is fairly well-known, with Dr. Jones walking coolly into a fancy night club where the blonde bombshell Willie Scott is performing for a group of dangerous men (as we come to find out). Already my defenses are raised by this scene, however, as the opening number really overstays its welcome with a choreographed dance routine that apparently wasn't seen by any of the patrons. Though Indiana Jones's white tux is really cool, there's just something a little less exciting about the action in this intro. It's a bit less connected with reality, and it would only get more cartoonish as the film progressed. I could kind of get into the poisoning scene, but the Kate Capshaw hijinks make everything a little harder to swallow. She's hardly the worst thing about this movie, but I just don't understand why Steven Spielberg felt the need to infuse every action scene with nudge-you-in-the-ribs physical comedy that just doesn't jive with the rest of the material.

If I could cut one major thing out of this movie, though, it would have to be... you guessed it, Short Round. It seems like there was a string of films where Spielberg couldn't resist making annoying kids the co-stars of movies that would be much better without their inclusion. Also, the fact that this is a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark only makes the Chinese orphan's absence in future films all the more confusing. Does he stay in India at the end of the film? Does he die on some later adventure that was never filmed? Introducing a child sidekick into the mix when we know that Indiana Jones works alone to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant the following year doesn't exactly bode well for little Shorty.

Apart from the constantly annoying presence of both Short Round and Willie, there are some fairly iconic moments in this film... if not always for the right reasons. Everyone remembers Temple of Doom for the disgusting dinner scene where Indy and co. are served monkey brains and where a giant python is sliced open and slimy black fish flop onto the table from the incision. The way I heard my friends talk about this scene as a kid totally gave me the impression that it was a much bigger part of the story. On the contrary, this and almost innumerable scenes like it are total non-sequiturs. Spielberg's over-reliance on gut-wrenching gags like this give me the distinct impression that he knew the script of this film was weak and he was trying to distract the audience from thinking about it.

This brings me to the plot of the film. Unlike Raiders, this film devotes about ten minutes of its running time to the actual storyline of Indy's struggles to retrieve a stone that will save a starving village from further subjugation and slavery. Everything else is a completely useless detour in order to push this into a reasonable length. I might go so far as to say that this premise seems less developed than the far more engaging "Temple of the Forbidden Eye" attraction at DisneyLand (though there are quite a few similarities). It's almost like Spielberg took an idea for an Indiana Jones short film and extended it to feature-length with a bunch of unnecessary action and gross-out moments.

Having said that, there are some things that are forever burned into the pop-culture that were introduced in this film: pulling a beating heart from a man's chest, eating monkey brains, riding on mine carts (you're welcome Donkey Kong Country), and mind-controlling blood. Some of the imagery is also well designed and executed on screen, but the problem is that none of this really feels like Indiana Jones to me. Perhaps that has to do with my lack of childhood familiarity with this particular installment, but I really think it comes down to the writing. Having just gone through a divorce, George Lucas was perhaps not in the right frame of mind to be telling an Indy story, as the extreme darkness in this movie clearly demonstrates. Had the screenwriter from the last film, Lawrence Kasdan, even done a script polish on this film, it could have been much closer to the original classic that was Raiders of the Lost Ark (Kasdan also wrote the amazing Empire Strikes Back, incidentally, as well as next year's Star Wars Episode VII).

In closing, I wasn't really impressed with Indy's second theatrical outing. The action scenes are ludicrous (skydiving out of an inflatable raft...), the plot is muddled, and the technical prowess just isn't there like it was before. The effects aren't as good as they have been, and even the sound mixing was unforgivably poor with many lines of dialogue not matching the lip movements of the actors saying them. But beyond all of that, perhaps the most damaging thing to this film is its lack of adventure and fun that made Raiders so great! It's dark, dour, and a little depressing at times, which is a far cry from the heroic character we've all come to know and love. One clear indication of its deviant tone is the almost criminal absence of Indy's famous theme music, which is a staple of any Indiana Jones adventure. Though there are a few subtle nods to the previous film (which make less sense given that its a prequel), the villains' motivations and the macguffin of the movie are severely lacking in depth or even general appeal. It's a very disappointing film for Indy fans, but I'm going to give it a generous two and a half stars for what it did do right.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is rated PG (but probably could have been R)

**What do you think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Am I too harsh on it, or do you want to drop this film into a crater of boiling lava?**

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

Yet another film from my most anticipated list, and I have to say that I was expecting fairly big things from this animated sequel. How to Train Your Dragon is not only my favorite DreamWorks film, but one of my favorite animated films period. When I heard that a sequel had been announced, I admit that I was both excited and a little nervous about it. While the animation studio has done fairly well with its sequels in my opinion (Shrek 2, Kung Fu Panda 2), recent animated sequels have unfortunately clouded my view of whether there's even merit in revisiting an animated film series (Cars 2, Monsters University, and even Despicable Me 2 to an extent). However, the creative team behind the first film all seemed on board, and with positive buzz going into my screening, I allowed myself to have some pretty high expectations.

Five years have passed since Hiccup has converted his Viking village to the merits of dragon-training, and his father Stoic is even preparing him to take over as the new chief. However, he's too preoccupied with the new-found freedom his dragon/best friend Toothless provides to think about ruling his village, and the pair frequently sneak off to discover uncharted lands. On one such adventure, however, Hiccup comes across dragon hunters, who are apparently gathering the fire breathers to become part of a dragon army, led by the monstrous Drago Bludvist. Though Hiccup is optimistic that he can change Drago's mind, Stoic is adamant that his son should focus on protecting his people from the coming war rather than attempt to solve the issue through misguided diplomacy. All of this changes, however, when Hiccup comes across another dragon trainer with whom he shares a mysterious connection.

From the opening shot of this film I started to get excited to be back in this world. First off, I have to explain what is probably my biggest reason for loving the original film so much - the music! Anyone who hasn't heard John Powell's incredible Oscar-nominated score for How to Train Your Dragon, please enjoy the following clip (it's just the music and the visuals, but it's still amazing).

It's a masterful display of creativity and sweeping emotion that absolutely captures the feeling of soaring through the air. The combination of the magnificent score and the astounding visuals almost make me tear up every time Hiccup and Toothless take flight. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, The Shawshank Redemption, Wall-E, etc.) was a visual consultant on both the first film and HTTYD 2, and I have to say that this movie may have some of the most beautiful shots in any animated film I've ever seen. For pure spectacle, there's nothing like seeing this film on a big screen to capitalize on the experience.

There's more to this film than pure sensation, however, as the second film in this series takes Hiccup's character to new and interesting places. For one thing, it takes place five years after the events of the original movie, and our main character's age reflects that. He's much more confident in himself, and the respect he receives from his fellow citizens of Birk makes us far more confident in him as well. In fact, during one tense moment where a character voices concern over who will be able to save them, I even overheard my six year-old nephew whisper to himself "Hiccup can!" This movie is perfect for kids, giving them a hero they can relate with as well as an understandable struggle for him to overcome. While some of the humor may be a bit juvenile for older moviegoers, I found myself channeling my inner six year-old and actually enjoying it.

Some sequels tend to rest on the laurels of its predecessor's success, and while that's true for some of this movie, it also takes it in original and even daring directions. There are a lot of surprises in this film, and some of them are even pretty weighty and dramatic, which I definitely appreciated. True, the villain doesn't get a whole lot of dimension, but the movie's emotions are omnipresent throughout and I found myself a little teary-eyed on numerous occasions. As an animal lover, I completely fell in love with the dragons in this film (particularly the adorable Toothless), and having any of them in peril is a guaranteed method for investing me and probably most audiences in the conflict.

Though I have a few problems with the movie's final act, I have to say that I really enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon 2! It's a worthy follow-up story, even if it may not soar to the heights of the original in my opinion. Do yourself a favor and see it in a theater with the tremendous score filling the room and let the sweeping visuals take you for a ride. I seriously considered giving this one four stars, but I eventually settled  on dubbing this my favorite three and a half star movie of the year.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

Friday, June 6, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Raiders of the Lost Ark

It's Friday, and for a while I've been meaning to revisit some old favorites by introducing my weekly "FlashBack Friday" feature! I thought about beginning this series with the Spider-Man or the X-Men series to coincide with the new installments of their respective franchises, but each of those releases came and went before I could get around to acting on my desire to review them. So why am I doing an Indiana Jones retrospective when there's not another film in the foreseeable future? Well, it's not just because that it's one of my favorite film series of all time (I dress up as him for Halloween almost every year), but my wife and I also just returned from Disneyland a few weeks ago. I've had some bad luck with the Indiana Jones Adventure being closed during my previous visits, but this year we took full advantage of the attraction, riding it as many times as we possibly could. When we got back home I still had the Indiana Jones bug and immediately watched Raiders of the Lost Ark just for the heck of it.

I'll forego my usual plot summary on this one, since I'm pretty sure anyone who's reading this post will have already seen the film. If not, I have to ask... what is wrong with you?! We know Indiana Jones as one of the most recognizable icons in film history, but it's interesting to think of what the public perception of this film was before it was released. Sure, it combines the selling power of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (as you can see on the poster above), but I'm sure it wasn't a guarantee that this movie was going to be a hit, let alone a cultural touchstone. Thankfully, audiences embraced the film and it's been not only commercially successful, but has also won several Academy Awards and was featured on numerous lists of the best films ever made.

I get giddy from the opening shot of the Paramount logo turning into a real-life mountain in Peru where we see the iconic silhouette of everyone's favorite archaeologist. The slow, deliberate pace leading up to the booby-trapped cavern he's about to enter is tremendous, with John Williams' mysterious score perfectly complementing our excitement to see Indiana Jones in action. It's just a masterful opening, with Indy casually brushing off massive tarantulas from his guide's back and perfectly anticipating each death trap he comes against.

We know from this first scene that Indiana Jones is the man, and that there's a reason people will later try to recruit him for their secret mission. I can't tell you how excited I got when Indy thinks he's getting away with the idol and the bag of sand slowly sinks into the pedestal, causing all hell to break loose. Throwing caution to the winds, he sprints through the chamber with arrows flying past him, then he jumps over a pit and barely manages to roll beneath a stone door as it slides to the ground. Just when he thinks the worst is behind him, however, Indy hears an ominous rumble and turns to see a massive boulder rolling towards him. It might be the most iconic shot of any Indiana Jones film, and possibly of any movie in general.

This review could get incredibly lengthy if I try to go through Raiders of the Lost Ark scene-by-scene, so I'll shut that down for now. It's just so easy for me to completely geek out about every awesome moment in this film. Each time the hero appears on screen I get a huge grin on my face. I love the use of shadows throughout the movie, which only adds to Indy's iconography by creating an instantly recognizable silhouette. Not only is his wardrobe one of the coolest (and admittedly most sparse) in film history, but it also helps that everything around him lives up to the high standards of its main character. Indiana Jones is hired to find the Ark of the Covenant, one of the best macguffins in film history, before the Nazis can recover the artifact and use it to take over the world.

Raiders is a tremendously fun and campy adventure, but perhaps the most important ingredient in this movie is John Williams' score, which allows us to take this fantastical plot seriously while also enjoying the entire experience. While most people will point to the Indiana Jones march, I think my favorite musical aspect of the film might be the insanely ominous and creepy tune any time the Ark is mentioned or when Indy is coming closer to discovering its location (you can see what I'm talking about here). It just sets such a great mood, and I wasn't at all surprised to hear how much it was used on the Indiana Jones attraction as well.

Another trademark of Indiana Jones films are the action set pieces, of which there are many in this opening installment. From an awesome bar-fight in Nepal, a great kidnapping scene in Cairo, a tense fist-fight next to a airplane propeller, to an exhilarating car chase on a dusty cliff-side, this movie never fails to excite its audience. Some of the special effects are obviously dated, but the action is no less enjoyable throughout these spectacular antics as Indy attempts to regain control of the Ark.

I love the way this movie builds and builds, with subtle hints at the cataclysmic ending the movie will eventually reach. One of my favorite visual representations of this is a scene where the Ark is sitting in a storage compartment of a ship. The wooden box containing it is marked with the Nazi swastika, which is slowly scorched as the power of the Ark appears to be bubbling to the surface. We know that something big is coming and this is a perfect way to convey the dangerous forces the Nazis are meddling with. It's also just innately satisfying to see Nazis get their butts handed to them in any way possible, whether it be Indy punching them in the face or simply the visual of a charred Nazi symbol.

There's also a subtle character arc (no pun intended) for Indiana Jones in this film, for though he has great respect for historical artifacts, he tends to dismiss religion as mysticism when he's first recruited by the CIA. As the movie progresses, however, he definitely starts taking it more seriously, risking his life to prevent this power from getting into the wrong hands. Though he may not attend his local church, some could see him as a sort of defender of all that is holy, as we'll see again in a future Indy adventure. But I'll come back to that topic in a couple of weeks.

Eventually everything comes together and culminates at an island in the Aegean Sea, where the Nazis plan to unveil the divine power they've unearthed before presenting it to their leader. A vast group of soldiers gather around the casket, some recording the momentous occasion while others simply look on in anticipation. Indy and Marion are tied up, but refrain from looking as the Ark is opened to reveal the remains of the ten commandments turned to dust. Initially stunned with disappointment, the Nazi leaders are awestruck when ghostly beings begin to emerge from the Ark and horizontal bolts of lightning impale the onlookers for their Tower of Babel-like disrespect for the power of God. The main villains either have their faces melted with a gloriously old-school effect, and one's head even explodes (or has his mind blown... am I right?) by what they're seeing. One of the coolest practical effects of the film is the lid of the Ark twisting down to the earth before landing with a thud on the dormant casket. It's one of those images that has always stuck with me, and Spielberg has a knack for creating memorable visuals like this in almost every frame.

I don't know how I've gone this long without mentioning the star of the film. Perhaps it's because I don't really think of the character as being played by an actor, but as a separate person entirely. Whenever Harrison Ford is in costume as Dr. Jones I get completely lost in the adventure, which is something he was also able to do with his performance as Han Solo in the Star Wars films (which I might love even more than his performance here). He's so charismatic that nobody questions the decision to make him both Indiana Jones AND Han Solo within the span of two years. Perhaps only he could have done such a thing, and it's that innate likability that makes him perhaps my all-time favorite actor.

This is one of the strongest recommends I've ever given, and for a film that I don't watch nearly often enough. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a ground-breaking achievement and a cinematic phenomenon that would serve as a template for future adventure blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Not only might this be my favorite Indy film, but it may even be my favorite Spielberg film. I'll revisit that question at the end of this series, but suffice it to say that I freaking love this movie and give it an extremely strong four stars.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is rated PG (though it should probably be PG-13 by today's standards)

**How much do you love Raiders of the Lost Ark? Is it your favorite in the series or do you think it's overrated? Let me know in the comments section below!**

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


2014 has been a strange year for movies, particularly with big-budget Hollywood films. It seems that the typical blockbusters have either been great like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or pretty disappointing such as Divergent and Transcendence. Unlike a lot of films I've been looking forward to, I had certain expectations for Maleficent. No, I wasn't thinking this would be a game-changing oscar contender, despite my inclusion of it on my oft-referenced list of most anticipated films. My expectations were simply for a passably entertaining retelling of a beloved Disney animated feature with creative visual effects and a unique take on a familiar villain. Unlike most other films this year, Maleficent exactly met my expectations.

As an adolescent fairy named Maleficent is blissfully enjoying her morning in the magical realm known as The Moors, a young boy from the neighboring kingdom of humans is caught attempting to steal a seemingly priceless stone from the riverside. Though the menacing tree guardians clearly want a greater punishment, Maleficent convinces them to settle for the boy returning the stone from where it was taken. Once the wrong had been righted, the two teenagers establish an unlikely friendship that, as these things tend to do, eventually grows into something more. The two even share what the boy named Stefan calls "true love's kiss", though they realize that the iron ring he is wearing causes the winged Maleficent pain when she touches it. Years pass and the two gradually drift apart as Stefan's ambition increases, culminating in a devastating reunion when the dying king promises to bequeath his kingdom to whoever slays the powerful "creature" that has caused him such grief.

There isn't a natural cutting off point when going into the plot summary, so I apologize if I've given away more than you wanted to know. Admittedly this is only the first 15-20 minutes, though I think it's telling that Disney has placed almost no emphasis in their marketing efforts to set up the story for this film. Luckily it's a pre-established franchise that has built-in audience appeal, not to mention the uncanny resemblance Angelina Jolie has to the title character. Knowing that such an A-list star as Jolie is playing this classic Disney villain is pretty much an instant sell for most people (myself included), so I don't necessarily blame them for marketing the film in such an ambiguous manner.

Though I did have problems with this movie, the casting is not one of them. Jolie is electric as Maleficent, not only the personification of the animated character, but also bringing emotions and nuances that I wasn't necessarily expecting. She makes me feel for her struggles, as well as her unusual relationship with the cursed Aurora. There are some genuinely funny moments in this film too, but even most of the touching moments worked really well. The ending is a satisfying culmination of the events leading up to it (I think that's about as vague as I can be), even if it does take some story elements from recent Disney films. I also appreciated the age-appropriate casting of Elle Fanning as the "Sleeping Beauty", even if I didn't think she was given a whole lot to do. She's a talented enough actress to make us connect with her despite the brief time we have with the character, and I actually bought her ultimate purpose (which actually differs quite a bit from the original animated film).

They do a pretty good job of setting up the diverging story points from the tale we knew, but there is one huge exception that I feel really hinders my enjoyment of the movie. In the original Sleeping Beauty, King Stefan was kind of an aloof figure, a little bumbling but certainly not a threatening psychotic maniac. Here they take the character so far into the villainous realm that I failed to even understand his motivations after a certain point. He's a character defined by his ambitions and greed, but from the moment we're introduced to him on screen to the christening of his child, he comes across as a person making difficult moral compromises in order to accomplish his goals. After Maleficent's dramatic reappearance, however, he seems to completely lose his mind as well as any redeeming qualities in the blink of an eye. I wish they would have made him more of a conflicted character that we could actually relate with rather than a madman we can only despise.

A lot of the other problems I had can be chalked up to this being a movie made more for children than adults. There's plenty of obvious dialogue and silly humor, but I actually kind of appreciated the child-like innocence of some of those scenes, particularly when hearing the adorable laughter of the kids in our theatre. I can already tell this will be a big hit with little girls (particularly come Halloween season), and I definitely like the fact that Disney has been evolving their depiction of women in their films. No longer are the female heroes risking everything for their man, but they have their own strength that isn't reliant on a trite love story.

In short, I don't anticipate Maleficent cracking my top ten list at the end of the year, but I do appreciate the general enjoyment this movie delivered. Pretty much everyone is going to find something to like here, and I think particularly young girls are going to really love the movie. It's a pretty solid recommend from me, even if I did have some problems with it as a whole. A good film for the family in a summer mainly devoid of kid-friendly entertainment (despite the handful of slightly scare moments), I give Maleficent three stars.

MALEFICENT is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images

**What did you think of Maleficent? Were you rankled by the changes from the source material, or were you bewitched by Angelina Jolie's powerhouse performance?**