Friday Flicks October 18: “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” & “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel”

M.V. MoorheadOctober 18, 2019
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In wide release:

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil—Not really evil, exactly. In her live-action star vehicle from 2014, the horned sorceress from Sleeping Beauty, here played by Angelina Jolie, got both a backstory and a whitewash. She placed the curse of perpetual sleep on poor innocent Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), sure, but she was driven to it when Aurora’s jerk father did her wrong, and she later repented her spite and became the girl’s doting godmother.

It’s the sort of thing that makes conservative cultural critics howl about revisionism and moral relativism and the like. And even those of us sympathetic to such narrative explorations had to admit that maybe Mal, and her movie, were diminished a little, dramatically, by being softened up. But Jolie’s mesmerizing poise and her brittle line readings more than made up for any such loss.

The same is true for this sequel, directed by the Norwegian Joachim Ronning. Jolie is in fine form, maybe even better than she was the first time; inhumanly beautiful and chic and sexy and insouciant. Yet her razor-cheekboned face also shows an otherworldly quality of dispassion, troubled by unfamiliar emotion, that’s surprisingly touching.

This time Aurora wants to marry a dull but honorable Prince (Harris Dickinson) from a neighboring kingdom. Maleficent doesn’t approve, but the boy’s icy mom Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfieffer) is very welcoming, because she sees an opportunity to provoke a war with the fairies, and she’s eager to make her kingdom great again.

As with the first movie, there’s plenty of ersatz, Ren-Faire Disney kitsch to Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, especially toward the beginning when we’re among the frolicking fairies and sprites. But there’s fine high-fantasy spectacle as well, like when Mal’s sidekick Diaval (the amusing Sam Riley) shape-shifts into a sort of bear-crow hybrid. And once the battles get going, the film is really pretty exciting.

The story this time is less straightforward than that of the 2014 film, but in some respects I preferred the new movie, because it offered Maleficent a worthy adversary who really is evil; it could be argued that Pfieffer’s Ingrith is the other half of the title. It’s her best phony scheming mom since 2007’s Hairspray. She’ll be ready for Baby Jane-type horror pictures any time now.

At Harkins Shea:

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel—This slickly made and briskly paced documentary traces the unexpectedly splendid trajectory of the team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Dubbed the “Jamaican Bobsled Team of Baseball” by some sportswriters, the boys were actually a bunch of pros, many with MLB experience, all but one American, many not observant Jews but all eligible for Israeli citizenship by lineage—the same eligibility, the GM anxiously notes, by which the Nazis would have regarded them as enemies.

They’re a funny, sheepish bunch, and we follow them as they visit Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, The Wailing Wall. They practice at a shabby Israeli ballpark and seem startled (and delighted) at how starstruck their young fans are. There’s a wistful moment when they interact with a couple of Palestinian guys at a T-shirt stall.

Then, accompanied by their mascot “The Mensch on the Bench,” they head to Seoul for the tournament, and the rest you should see for yourself. It’s a charming film, moving at times without being pushy, and it has a great subject: Jewish ambivalence about sports; deep and passionate fandom coupled with an equally deep lack of confidence about Jewish athletic prowess. Like the team it depicts, Heading Home may help to dispel this entirely groundless stereotype about the race that produced Sandy Koufax.