Movie Review ~ Aladdin (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A kindhearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true.

Stars: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid, Negahban, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Disney released their animated Aladdin in 1992 it was right around the time when I had passed over from being the target audience for their bright musical fare. I remember seeing it in the theaters, though, and finding it to be long and kind of…boring. Over the years it has been one I’ve regarded with some occasional interest but it’s never high on my list of re-watchable Disney Classics. To me, the movie will always be synonymous with two things: Robin Williams as the Genie and the song ‘A Whole New World’, both enduring classics no matter what you think about the film.

When Disney announced Aladdin would join their ever growing roster of live-action adaptations of animated classics, I could understand why they’d think this would be an eye-popping visual feast that would translate well but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they’d want to try and top the unforgettable work of Williams. It seemed like a losing battle. As the movie came together, there were more curious decisions from the studio. Tough-guy director Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) would be at the helm? No songs from the expensive Broadway musical of Aladdin would be utilized in the film? Will Smith would be taking over as the Genie? Early previews and set pictures didn’t do much to quell the fears that this was going seriously astray but I can honestly say when I walked into the screening on a rainy day I was looking forward to settling in for something special.

The short and easy review of the 2019 live-action Aladdin is say that it rubbed me the wrong way. Almost from the very beginning, I knew this wasn’t going to meet expectations on any level and I was proven right for the next 128 minutes. From the rushed opening third to its saggy middle and lackluster finale, it seems like almost everyone involved forgot what kind of movie they were making. When they were focusing on music, they forgot to make it sound good. When they were focusing on fantasy, there was no effort to be truly transporting. This is film that’s overly conscious and cautious, staying decidedly in a safe zone much of the time, only occasionally finding some magic.

An unnecessary framing device introduces Smith (Suicide Squad) as a mariner with two children asking him to sing them a story instead of just telling them one. Not known as a singer, when Smith opens his mouth to sing for the first time it’s a remarkably flat tone that rarely shows range. The big notes feel enhanced or are drowned out by a gigantic chorale delivering quite a few new lyrics written by Pasek/Paul (The Greatest Showman) and original composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast). Smith’s narrator relays the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Run This Town) a scrappy ragamuffin on the streets of Agrabah that has a meet cute with a Princess in disguise (Naomi Scott, The 33) and falls in love.

When Aladdin later sneaks into the palace to reconnect with Princess Jasmine, he’s caught by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, Murder on the Orient Express) the Sultan’s traitorous Vizier who needs to find a “diamond in the rough” to enter the Cave of Wonders and search for a magic lamp. When Aladdin accidentally releases a Genie (Smith) from the lamp and is granted three wishes, he uses one to become a visiting Prince to win the heart of Jasmine. It isn’t long before Jafar recognizes the Prince, putting all in Agrabah in danger when the Vizier schemes to get back the lamp at any cost.

The story of Aladdin stretches back to ‘The Arabian Nights’ from the 18th century and is an oft-told tale through the centuries. Surprising to me was that its original story differs quite a bit from the fairy tale we all grew up on, though it isn’t shocking how dark things get for Aladdin the way he was originally written. Screenwriter Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie) stay away from a total revisionist version of Aladdin (ala the stellar live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon from 2016) instead choosing to follow the structural outline from the animated film rather closely. This makes the film feel even more beholden to its hand-drawn predecessor and invites unfavorable comparisons off the bat.

For starters, there seems to be a need to speed through the introductory moments of the movie. The credits have barely ended and we’re on a bullet train to get to that magic lamp and Smith’s Genie – which is understandable because the Genie is supposed to be the most memorable thing in the movie. The trouble is Smith’s rather charmless Genie is kind of creepy, all buff torso and swirly cloud for legs. The ‘Friend Like Me’ number, such a mega-shot of adrenaline in the film and a literal showstopper on the Broadway stage, barely registers because Ritchie has the Genie zooming around the screen in such a frenzy we don’t know where to look or what to follow. Unconvincing CGI throughout doesn’t help matters when you are always keenly aware the desert-set movie was shot on a soundstage, even if some location shooting was done in Jordan.

While Kenzari sinks his teeth nicely into the scenery as Jafar, I questioned why they turned the character from a creepy older man in his fifties to a brooding mid-thirties guy that isn’t quite threatening until his true intentions are revealed. Massoud is just fine as Aladdin, as blandly interesting as the character has always been. He may be the titular character but he’s never been the star of his own movie…not with Williams (and now Smith) there to overshadow him. He develops some good chemistry with Scott, though, and that goes a long way in making him more memorable. The real find is Scott who gives Jasmine the kind of 2019 make-over the character was sorely needing. Though saddled with the worst song (Pasek/Paul/Menken’s woefully Glee-ish ‘Speechless’) she makes the scene directly after that truly come alive by delivering a very “woke” speech with conviction. For some reason, Billy Magnussen (Game Night) turns up as a doofus Prince also vying for Jasmine’s affection in a scene that should have been excised.

Flashy numbers like ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ are meant to be the crowd-pleasing ones but the most winning number in the movie and, ultimately, the best sequence in the film is the one that has always worked like a charm and that’s the ‘A Whole New World’ number. Flying through the skies on a magic carpet, Aladdin and Jasmine sing that beautiful music and lyrics and you remember, however briefly, why Aladdin became a classic in the first place. If only the filmmakers had used this simple and sweet sequence as a jumping off point maybe they would have dialed down some of the garish excess evident in the rest of the movie.

So far in 2019, Disney is 0 for 2 in live-action remakes. Dumbo didn’t fly back in March and while I think Aladdin will make more money, it won’t do the kind of business Disney is hoping for. That leaves The Lion King in July with a big question mark and an even bigger target on its back. Can that be the one to right this sinking adaptation ship?

 

Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: The anticipation is certainly building for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods, with Disney carefully releasing nice bits and pieces in recent days.  After dropping some dreamy looking pictures earlier this week of the star heavy ensemble all fairy-tale-d up, the first preview is finally at hand and it’s a nifty little teaser that pleasantly keeps some of the bigger names in shadows while  predictably avoiding any musical cues hinting that the film is largely sung.  No matter, with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Chris Pine (People Like Us) leading the cast the stage is set for a lovely transition from stage to screen.