Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). This piece of fairy tale revisionism might be more affecting if it didn’t arrive on the heels of the same studio’s Frozen, which pulled off basically the same switcheroo (including the subversion of the “true love’s kiss” trope) with more spirit. Judging from what’s onscreen, not much thought went into this project after the dream casting of Angelina Jolie was secured. The certainty that her presence as one of the most iconic villains in the annals of Disney Animated Classics would be enough to make the film compelling comes tantalizing close to becoming a proven truth. It’s fun to watch her play around devilishly with the role, even if there’s also a prevailing sense that a turn like this is desperately easy for her, and she has only the slightest inclination to dig deeper. Problems abound elsewhere, especially with the cheaply precious comedy of three fairies charged with protecting the cursed princess (Elle Fanning, gamely beaming but with nothing much to do) and the drastically overheated performance by Sharlto Copley as the evil royalty who set Maleficent on her unpleasant course. Copley may be striving for the same sort of knowing parody that Jolie coolly suggests, but he comes across as shrill, manic, and amateurish. A first-time director, Stromberg merely holds on for dear life.
To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012). This delivers four different stories set in Rome, loosely bundled, which gives the film the feeling of paging back and forth between offerings in one of Allen’s old collections, like Without Feathers or Side Effects. Alternating between the different stories may be meant to give the film more cohesion, but it severely undercuts the effectiveness of the film, especially as it accentuates the wildly varying quality of the different segments. The most interesting by far is one that casts Alec Baldwin as a sort of one-man Greek chorus to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) as he ponders an affair. That’s the only piece that develops enough creative and structural wit to make it worthwhile. There’s also a surprisingly nice performance by Roberto Benigni in an otherwise drab one-joke segment about a man who gets sudden, unexplained fame. Allen’s late career has been desperately hit-or-miss. To Rome with Love at least has the efficiency to handle both extremes in a single film.
Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1977). The runaway success of Jaws led to a bevy of watery ripoffs. It would take a remarkable amount of effort to find one both cheaper and loopier than this tale of a powerful octopus, driven to murderous rage by the noises created by an underwater drilling company. Directed by Egyptian-born Assonitis (who later returned to the depths by co-writing James Cameron’s feature film debut, Piranha II: The Spawning), the movie is notably pedestrian, enlivened only by the combination of awkward European unknown actors and old movie stars picking up one of those sad late-career paychecks. The latter group includes two-time Academy Award-winner Shelley Winters, who caps off her first scene by making a Bloody Mary comprise of nothing more than vodka and room-temperature tomato juice. It’s far sadder to see Henry Fonda creaking his way through the film, looking miserable throughout.
The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel casts Gregory Peck as a hunter-for-hire in Kenya who is enlisted by a traveling couple (Joan Bennett and Robert Preston) on an excursion meant to mend their ailing marriage. Things go desperately wrong, sending the husband home in a body bag, and most of the film is the slow unfolding of how the ill turn came to pass. The performances are all solid enough, but Korda’s direction is a little too vanilla to pull out the florid melodrama of the work. Instead, the delusional machismo that represents the worst of Hemingway is presented as unquestioned fact, even as the story itself can be read as an exposure of the deadly folly of the mindset. The film ultimately has too much surface emotion and not enough nuance to be effective.
Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947). I can pay no higher compliment to this noirish detective drama than to say it plays like the seedling from which the vast garden of the Coen brothers oeuvre sprung. Pat O’Brien plays a private dick in Panama who is enlisted by multiple shady characters trying to retrieve a lost map, a tangle of allegiances that he largely surveys with lackadaisical amusement. The plot is incidental to pleasure of barbed dialogue and characters connecting like sparklers setting each other ablaze. Tetzlaff was making his directorial debut following a distinguished career as a cinematographer, including the previous year’s Alfred Hitchcock wonder Notorious. He brings that skill at shooting a movie to creating a stylish work that never lets technique swamp the necessity of clearly, smartly telling a story. It’s a terrific film that a smart filmmaker could use as the foundation for a stellar remake.