A few times in these pages I’ve criticized the marketing departments of film studios for advertising films as the opposite of what they really are. There was 50/50, a movie about cancer that was sold as a comedy because Seth Rogan is in it and says a few funny things. August: Osage County was marketed as a dramatic comedy; it’s a tragedy that is occasionally funny and not always deliberately so. Those are relatively low budget bait-and-switches, however. I think the advertising campaign for expensive Disney blockbuster Maleficent is the biggest lie in quite some time. The billboards have all featured Angelina Jolie dressed as one of the most iconic screen villains of the last century – the evil fairy Maleficent from Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty – and the commercials and trailers feature her sneering, battling armored armies, swooping through the sky with creepy wings. And Jolie is perfectly cast as an evil demoness. Her beauty is otherworldly, and her most famous roles, from her Oscar win as the dangerously crazy Lisa in Girl, Interrupted to the assassin in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, are fierce, violent antiheroes. Maleficent was sold to us as Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the villain, with Jolie vamping about and camping it up. It’s not: It’s a complete rewrite of the fairy tale, in which our villain becomes the hero.

If you have fond childhood memories of Sleeping Beauty, forget them. In Maleficent, the story is structured by two neighboring kingdoms, one human ruled by a nasty king, the other peaceful and communal full of happy, magical creatures. One day, in the latter, a teen boy is caught trying to steal a jewel from the fairy kingdom, and a winged and horned teen girl save him from the anger of some tree creatures. The girl is Maleficent, and the boy is Stefan. They fall into a teen love before Stefan grows up to become an ambitious, vicious lapdog (crazy-eyed Sharlto Copley) to the king. One day, the king inexplicably decides to invade the fairy kingdom. Maleficent is now an adult and the protector of the realm. She and the tree warriors handily beat back the human army.

The king says that anyone who defeats her will be made his successor, so Stefan rekindles his romance with Maleficent as a trick. He drugs her and cuts off her wings and is made king. She’d not pleased and in her anger becomes, for about 20 minutes, the villain we were promised. She forcefully becomes queen of the other fairies and then, per Sleeping Beauty, curses Stefan’s baby daughter Aurora (an uncharacteristically vapid Elle Fanning): she will be pricked by a spindle on her 16th birthday and fall into a sleep that she can only be woken from by the kiss of true love. Stefan has three good fairies hide Aurora in the forest, but Maleficent and her werecrow henchman Diaval (Sam Riley) find them immediately.

And here’s where it all goes sideways. Spoiler: While spying on Aurora, Maleficent becomes enamored with the beautiful, sweet girl. She tries and fails to remove her own curse, and the final third of the film is a reformed Maleficent trying to save Aurora while battling the vengeful forces of Stefan. The plot hole is gaping here. If Maleficent just told Stefan she was trying to save his daughter from the curse, the whole final confrontation would have been moot.

I expected a great deal more from screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who also wrote the impeccable Beauty & the Beast and problematically racist but perfectly structured Lion King. Jolie only has a few snarky lines, and nothing really for even a low-rent drag queen to work with. I appreciate the feminist reconstruction of the story, making the central bond about mothering and sisterhood and not about a mythically perfect prince. But this was done much better in Brave and Frozen, and not at the expense of drama. Director Robert Stromberg, who won Oscars for the production design of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, does a passable job with the action and a brilliant job with the visuals, even if the fairy kingdom does look a little too much like a magical Pandora.

Directed by Robert Stromberg
Written by Linda Woolverton
Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, and Sharlto Copley
Rated PG
At your local multiplex
Unnecessarily in 3D


It doesn’t look like my review of John Carter ran in this week’s issue, so here it is in its entirety. Make your weekend movie choice wisely, my friends.

When you cast someone’s whose last name is Kitsch in a bound-to-be-cheesy sci-fi action film, you’re begging for a review that says that the movie is “kitschy.” And that would be perfect description of John Carter, since the film is “a worthless imitation of art of recognized value.” (Thank you, Wikipedia, for that apt definition.) In some ways, I thought I was watching some weird mash-up of two other kitsch touchstones, Flash Gordon and Stargate. Yet, I think the director Andrew Stanton, who gave us the Oscar-winning Wall-E, and the film’s original screenwriter Michael Chabon, who won a Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, were trying for populist high art, something along the lines of Avatar or Star Wars. But the film, despite its technical achievements and good, silly fun, is just two hours and 12 minutes of kitsch.

John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars, the 100-year-old novel that was the first of Edgar Rice Burrough’s enormously popular Barsoom novels. In these books, the people who live on Mars call their planet Barsoom, and John Carter is a Civil War veteran from Virginia who is mysteriously transported from a cave in Arizona to the dusty deserts of the red planet, where he falls in love with a Martian princess, befriends some green tribesmen, and gets into a lot of fights. The eleven novels in the series were credited as major influences of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Michael Crichton, and even the work of NASA. Burroughs, who also gave us Tarzan, is arguably the greatest pulp fiction writer of the 20th century. While his work was certainly not kitsch, and it was certainly wildly imaginative, it was certainly not high art. So maybe John Carter is an apt representation of Burroughs’ work.

After a brief prologue on Mars, the film begins with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) dying at a young age and leaving his massive estate to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among John’s belongings is a diary, which tells the story of John’s accidental teleportation from a strange cave to Barsoom, where he is at first taken captive by the Tharks, a tribe of giant, six-armed, two-tusked green men. John befriends both the tribe’s chief Tars (Willem Defoe) and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) before he inserts himself into a battle between warring humanoid Martians that occurs in the skies over the Tharks’ city. John rescues Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, playing a feminist revision of Burroughs’ damsel in distress) of the city of Helium from the evil Sab Than of the city Zodanga, and, of course, Carter and Dejah fall in love. Sab Than has been given a strange, all-powerful blue zapper from some god-like beings and is out to destroy Helium – unless Deja marries him. There are sword fights, explosions, impressive special effects, a little romance, and a dialogue as wooden as anything James Cameron has ever written.

It should also be noted that on Mars, all humans speak with English accents. And they’re all played by actors best known for their roles on HBO shows like Rome, The Wire, and True Blood. And they all do the worst work of their careers, which isn’t terribly surprising since they’re acting on green screens and speaking words that would sound absurd coming out of Meryl Streep’s and Laurence Olivier’s mouths. Kitsch, in the first of his two mega-budget sci-fi action films that arrive this spring (the next is Battleship) and mark his transition from Friday Night Lights brooder to hopeful movie star, is fine – handsome, fierce, charming. But he is not very much of any of these things, and like Collins and the whole movie, while not worthless,  he is mostly forgettable.

John Carter
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Dominic West
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex