Angelina Jolie in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

MALEFICENT: MISTRES OF EVIL

At my recent screening of The Addams Family, the film was preceded by a trailer for Disney's fairytale sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and after the preview ended, a little girl in the row ahead of me turned to her mother (I presume) and asked, “Why is Maleficent a bad guy now?”

What got me about the query was the heartbroken betrayal in the girl's voice: a total lack of comprehension that Angelina Jolie's horned, winged fairy – a character, let's remember, who was formerly a figure of Sleeping Beauty terror – could be anything other than a misunderstood victim of circumstance who learned to be a fiercely devoted mother. So in the hopes of quelling that child's fears, and the fears of Maleficent fans everywhere, let me state that, despite the title, this particular Mistress of Evil is not a bad guy. She is, however, a resoundingly bland guy, and perhaps the only amazing thing about this thoroughly blah follow-up is how often the movie appears to forget that Maleficent is even around.

I suppose I shouldn't complain too strenuously about her absence, considering that whenever Jolie isn't on-screen, Elle Fanning and/or Michelle Pfeiffer probably are. Taking place, appropriately enough, five years after the events of 2014's Maleficent, this continuation opens with Fanning's Aurora, now Queen of the Moors, accepting a marriage proposal from her earnest beau Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), the son of Robert Lindsay's benevolent King John and Pfeiffer's scheming Queen Ingrith. Maleficient, however, is none too happy about the news, warning her adopted daughter about humans' historic hatred of fairies before grudgingly agreeing to a dinner with Aurora's potential in-laws. That dinner, as one might expect, goes very badly, culminating in a perceived curse placed upon the now-comatose king. And before long it's full-scale storybook warfare, with the banished and attacked Maleficent taken under the literal wings of fellow fairies (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and an arresting Ed Skrein) who are plotting vengeance against the humans, and Ingrith planning a hostile takeover of every province not currently under royal control.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

And where does Maleficent herself fit into all of this? It's kind of hard to say. For Aurora, she's a vanished figure to be mourned, with most of Fanning's screen time spent tearfully wondering how and why her adoptive mother behaved so abominably. (In that regard, she's kind of like that poor little girl viewing the Mistress of Evil trailer.) For Ingrith, she's a largely forgotten inconvenience as the queen arranges for the kingdom's fairies, sprites, gnomes, and such to be lured to the palace and executed. And for Maleficent's fellow fairies, our title character's supernatural strength makes her an object of worship, but one treated almost solely as an object of worship; fight plans are made and rousing speeches are given, but being a visitor to this unfamiliar realm, Maleficent doesn't much participate. With her imposing presence, icy stares, glass-cutting (augmented) cheekbones, and alert comic timing, Jolie was the hands-down-best thing about the 2014 film. But between the competing narratives and frenzied overkill of the movie's manic, noisy action sequences, she's too frequently lost in the shuffle of director Joaquim Rønning's sequel. Heaven knows there are plenty of distractions, weak though most of them are: Warwick Davis as a tinkering troll in a dungeon; CGI critters popping their eyes and babbling incoherently; the return of those frighteningly digitized pixies played, if that's the right word for it, by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple. None of it, though, can hold a candle to even one of Jolie's withering asides or feral grins, and they're in such short supply here that not only does the “Mistress of Evil” of the title feel like a misnomer; the “Maleficent” does, too.

It's in that brief, exquisitely enjoyable dinner-party sequence, and the lead-up to it, that you get a taste of just how wonderful this movie might have been had it trusted itself to be a devilish spin on Meet the Parents rather than just the latest Disney-franchise blockbuster of the week. Maleficent and her coterie cross a river on a magical bridge of branches and promptly scare the bejeezus out of the citizenry. Ingrith the Passive-Aggressive serves squab for dinner and pretends not to enjoy the sight of one winged creature forced to feast on another. (She also gives Maleficent iron silverware – iron being deadly to fairies – and when her guest demurs at touching the cutlery, Ingrith smiles beatifically and says, “I'm sure you can use your hands.”) Aurora and Philip share awkward glances. John makes awkward attempts at benign small talk. The politely seething, unmistakable hatred between Maleficent and Ingrith is more delicious than any royal entrée could ever be. And prior to the dinner, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil hits its peak of humor and invention when its title character tries, continually in vain, to force out a smile of graciousness that's all the scarier, as her human-raven aide Diaval (Sam Riley) notes, for that facial expression showing off her fangs. Jolie is a comic marvel in this scene, as she frequently was in the 2014 film, and the movie's biggest blunder is its insistent ignoring of the performer's infrequently employed comic gifts. Fanning is touching and Pfeiffer is marvelous, and they're still not enough to make up for the fact that this is a Maleficent with little use for Maleficent.

Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, and Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland: Double Tap

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP

If five years between Maleficent films feels like an eternity in the Hollywood sequel-verse, it seems borderline-impossible that a full decade could have passed between the releases of director Ruben Fleischer's splatter comedy Zombieland and the new Zombieland: Double Tap. How young and innocent we must have been back when President Obama was only in the first year of his first term; when The Walking Dead had yet to debut on AMC; when no one in the world – as this follow-up hilariously reminds us – knew what the hell an Uber was. Consequently, one of the most pleasurable things about Double Tap is that, excepting the obvious maturing of then-13-year-old co-star Abigail Breslin, it feels like just yesterday that we were treated to watching Breslin, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, and Emma Stone annihilate hordes of brain-eaters while warily creating a makeshift, post-apocalyptic family. That “just yesterday” quality also feels like the movie's most significant failing. As they were 10 years ago, the quick-witted actors are engaging and the gore is copious and the pacing is speedy and the production design is spectacular. But as much as I (and every other zombie-comedy fan I know) enjoyed this routine in 2009, I can't see any earthly reason for a second helping, especially when what we're given is essentially more of the same that can't help feeling like less.

A number of early, getting-to-re-know-you scenes place our heroes in a decimated White House and establish running sub-plots involving the now-testy romance between Eisenberg's Columbus and Stone's Wichita and the smothering paternal affections of Harrelson's Tallahassee toward Breslin's Little Rock. A few new twists are subsequently introduced with hit-and-miss results. Our introduction to a pair of Tallahassee and Columbus doppelgängers in the forms of Luke Wilson's Albuquerque and Thomas Middleditch's Flagstaff is an ingenious bit nicely executed. (I could watch Eisenberg's and Middleditch's nerd-v.-nerd act all day.) But the arrival of Rosario Dawson as the owner of an Elvis-themed motel doesn't quite generate the fun that her always-welcome presence promises, nor does the threat of advanced super-zombies who are really just slightly tougher, faster versions of their predecessors and, oddly, just about as easy to kill.

Despite both the inspired and underwhelming additions, though, Fleischer's sequel is still familiar to a fault given Columbus' ceaseless voice-over narration and endless references to the rules of surviving Zombieland. The expanded meta-commentary, with Columbus fully aware that we're watching the movie version of his adventures, merely adds to the overall vibe of “Who cares?” As amusing as several of its wisecracks and executions are, the script by Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick is generally unsurprising and only sporadically funny. (The same, unfortunately, can be said for the mid- and post-credits segments featuring the return of the original film's MVP. You know who I'm talking about.) And with our heroes' fates never in doubt, the only source of suspense this time around comes from worrying about what's going to happen to Zoey Deutch's new character Madison – mostly because we don't want to see her go. Playing a pretty-in-pink airhead who has survived for years in a mall's frozen-yogurt shop, and whose brain appears to have similarly frozen, Deutch is so riotous and committed as this hoariest of comic stereotypes that she makes her every baby-voiced second a delight, with Madison's daffy radiance both a wonderful contrast to, and relief from, the sourness of her traveling companions. I don't know if the old gang will reunite for a Zombieland: Third Time's a Charm in 2029. But if Deutch – in whatever form she returns in – can be recruited, too, there's at least one reason to stay healthy for the next 10 years.

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas in The Laundromat

THE LAUNDROMAT

The Laundromat, directed by Steven Soderbergh, made its simultaneous debut this past Friday at Iowa City's FilmScene and on Netflix. Switch out the movie title and director's name and this likely won't be the last time you read that sentence over the next couple of months.

With the streaming service's lineup boasting Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name, and Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes, Netflix's fall/winter assault on home viewers, specialty-house patrons, and Oscar voters launches with Soderbergh's exploration into the 2016 scandal of the leaked Panama Papers – those 11.5 million financial documents detailing personal- and global-finance corruption beyond anyone's imagination. “Exploration,” though, might be the wrong word for what Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (adapting Jake Berstein's book) deliver here. A flagrantly tongue-in-cheek comedy that breaks the fourth wall with gleeful abandon, The Laundromat finds its filmmakers aiming for a tone similar to the one employed for 2009's The Informant!, Soderbergh's and Burns' sublime true-story comedy about the world's stupidest corporate whistle-blower. That film, though, had momentum and surprise; you couldn't believe the holes that our “hero” Mark Whitacre was digging for himself through his recklessness and hubris, and for 105 increasingly funny/horrifying minutes, he just kept digging. By contrast, the duo's latest tells us in its first minutes that high-powered money launderers and the creators of shell companies and offshore accounts are shit, and keeps telling us that over and over for an hour-and-a-half. The movie is too well-cast and stylistically adventurous to be boring, but it has exactly one thing to say – Rich People Suck – and says it so ceaselessly that you grow tired of hearing it.

Designed as a loose series of vignettes with accompanying commentary by nattily attired business partners Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), The Laundromat dips in and out of plotlines: a Midwestern widow (Meryl Streep) attempting to settle her late husband's insurance claim; the co-owner of a water-taxi service (David Schwimmer) discovering the fraudulence of his own insurance policy; a multi-millionaire (Nonso Anozie) bribing his daughter (Jessica Alain) with a purportedly $20 million shell company in exchange for her not revealing his affair; a British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) running afoul of his steely Chinese hostess (Rosalind Chao). That's a lot of parenthetical names, and they barely scratch the surface of Soderbergh's cast that also includes James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Robert Patrick, Larry Wilmore, and, for all of 30 seconds, Saturday Night Live vets Will Forte and Chris Parnell. It's great to see every single one of them, even though, given the narrative structure, you can't help wishing they were around more. (This is true even of Oldman, whose deliberately heavy German accent keeps his portrayal teetering between delightful and excruciating in ways that Oldman fans like me tend to enjoy.) Yet the film doesn't seem interested in its performers as people so much as chess pieces to be shifted about, and the individual stories – with the possible exception of Streep's – are more like throwaway anecdotes: enjoyable in the moment, but carrying no ultimate significance. While The Laundromat's blitheness makes it easy to sit through, the movie doesn't have nearly the resonance of Adam McKay's similarly themed The Big Short, which may have given us Margot Robbie explaining sub-primes in a bubble bath, but also had the nerve to treat its high jinks with gravity when necessary. Soderbergh's latest is all Margot Robbie in a bubble bath … but not as sexy, and not as funny. The film may suggest that the meek (a.k.a. the poor) shall never inherit the earth – or much of anything else, really. But excepting its final blistering monologue, all sense of true moral outrage is sadly scrubbed away.

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