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No dozing under Jolie's spell

Actress's star power -- and those cheekbones -- carry Maleficent's muddled mess

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Angelina Jolie as Maleficient

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Angelina Jolie as Maleficient

Maleficent is a muddled, murky, fatally mediocre movie. But as the titular villainess/heroine/misunderstood baby-curser in this revisionist Sleeping Beauty tale, Angelina Jolie casts an unbreakable spell. I couldn't take my eyes off her.

I'm not the only one. In its opening weekend, Maleficent pulled in $70 million at the North American box office, along with $100 million overseas. This is a triumph of female star power and a much-needed corrective to the entrenched Hollywood belief that women can't open movies.

Jolie's performance carries the film. Actually, you could be even more specific and say that her cheekbones carry the film. And yes, I know that those impossibly angular ridges are in fact special effects. (Prosthetics? CGI? Adamantium implants?) But no other actress could handle them. On a lesser mortal, Maleficent's outrageous face accessories would look cartoony. On Jolie, they seem like logical extensions of her extraordinary, unearthly, slightly scary beauty.

Lacking any kind of coherent story, the movie comes down to Jolie's face: The pallor of that skin against that ebony hood; those green, glittering eyes; those blood-red lips, improbably but convincingly big. This is the Jolie we love, larger than life and absolutely unapproachable. Maleficant is a name that suggests malevolence and magnificence, and Jolie is both.

I mean, this is a woman who looks good in horns.

Jolie has always been a Hollywood star of a very particular kind. Her performances are uneven, and when you start to list off her oeuvre, you realize she's made lots of lousy films and not a single great one. Not one. (Her average career score on the Metacritic website is 50, her highest mark of 74 being for A Mighty Heart, a well-intentioned but ultimately underwhelming work.)

We crave her anyway.

We don't look to Jolie for technical facility. Her British accent wanders all over the place in Maleficent, from mock cockney to the Queen's Christmas message. Who cares? If we want perfect accents, we'll call Meryl Streep.

We don't expect her to disappear into a character or to subsume her ego into a larger ensemble. Jolie's best work (like her Oscar-winning, scene-stealing turn in Girl, Interrupted) always feels like the triumphant imposition of her individual will. In Maleficent, she spends a lot of time declaiming dialogue that's either banal or preposterous, and she utters it all with unchallengeable regal authority, practically daring us not to go along. She's an unrepentant, attention-seeking screen dictator.

And we don't certainly don't want realism. When Jolie tries to pass as an average, everyday woman (as in The Bone Collector or Beyond Borders), she seems to be grimly labouring against her own fabulousness, and it's exhausting for everyone concerned. Jolie is much better when she embraces artifice, especially the exaggerated, gorgeously embellished glamour of evil. With her performance in Maleficent, Jolie could be channelling late-career Joan Crawford. Maybe even a drag-queen impersonation of late-career Joan Crawford.

So, what do we want from Jolie? We love the way she looks, of course. In another reproach to received Hollywood wisdom, her beauty has become even more formidable as she's gotten older, her youthful lusciousness stripped down to its essential components.

There's Jolie's sex-bomb side, though that sometimes fizzles, her abundance of raw attributes inexplicably translating into inert, chemistry-free performances. (Remember The Tourist?) When it comes to pure physicality, Jolie probably does better as an action star, bringing a fierce kinetic energy to rappelling down buildings and jumping onto moving trains. In Maleficent, Jolie pulls off some swoopy flying scenes and brings campy conviction to the overwrought battle sequences.

But maybe the best moments in Maleficent come when she's absolutely still, just radiating Angelina Jolie-ness. In the end, what we really need from Jolie is her sheer, unadulterated screen presence, her old-school movie-star aura.

As a film, Maleficent shouldn't work at all. Too nasty for children and too silly for adults, it spends half its time in an unbearably twee fairyland and the other half at King Stefan's Scottish castle, where everyone seems to be re-enacting the last 30 minutes of Polanski's Macbeth. It's a mess, but Jolie somehow holds it together with the unstoppable force of her movie starness. And with her unforgettable face.

Maleficent is a character who knows a thing or two about curses. It could be that it is Jolie's peculiar fate never to give a good performance in a good movie. But even in a bad movie, Jolie is still something to see.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 D12

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