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?

 

Hasta La Vista…Summer (August)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta
We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

August

Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins.  It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off.  I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!

                                                Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie
shaun_the_sheep_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home.
Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate
Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
Rated: PG
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again.  Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes.  Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation.  The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.

 

                                                            Movie Review ~ Dark Places
dark_placesThe Facts
:
Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night.
Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl and seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path.  Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation.  Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make.  Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed.  It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey.  Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes.  The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four
fantastic_four_ver3The Facts
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Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey
Director: Josh Trank
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already?  Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects.  If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money.  Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry.  Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even.  It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start.  They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home.  I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash
ricki_and_the_flashThe Facts
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Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 102 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong.  You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on.  From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment.  It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild.  She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to.  The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband.  A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of.  It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.

 

                                             Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
man_from_uncle_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin.  While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design.  And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin.  So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge.  Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin.  The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby).  The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.

 

                                                         Movie Review ~ End of the Tour
end_of_the_tourThe Facts
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Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there.  Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest.  Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of.  Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory.  It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor.  One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette.  Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent.  Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.

                                             Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl
diary_of_a_teenage_girl_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig
Director: Marielle Heller
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured.  I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways.  The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery.  While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based.  It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed.  I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved.  It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.

The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.

I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.  The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy.  Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning.  It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.

I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America.  Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again.  That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind.  Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.

Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor.  While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend.  I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!  THE SUMMER OF 2015!

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE & JULY