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?

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Collateral Beauty

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Synopsis: When a successful New York ad executive suffers a personal tragedy and retreats from life, his friends devise a drastic plan to reach him before he loses everything.

Release Date: December 16, 2016

Thoughts: The last time Will Smith appeared in a movie with fantasy elements it was Winter’s Tale…so Collateral Beauty can only be an improvement, right?  One would hope.  With its roster of A-list leading players, I can see this holiday release from director David Frankel (Hope Springs) going one of two ways: it’ll end up a mawkish tear grabber or find itself a sentimental favorite eliciting the “happy tears” that may just equal good box office returns.  The trailer straddles that fence already, revealing a twist of whimsy that’s either going to draw you into its web or make you run for the nearest theater playing an Oscar-bait period drama set in the Congo during the Renaissance. Along with Smith (Suicide Squad), we have Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method), Kate Winslet (Triple 9), Edward Norton (Sausage Party), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), and Michael Peña (End of Watch).

Movie Review ~ Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara

Director: David Ayer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: About halfway through Suicide Squad, a dejected looking Deadshot (Will Smith) remarks “For a few seconds there, I had hope”…and he’s on to something. The pre-credit studio/production company logos have a dirty neon sheen to them and I felt the briefest tingle of excitement, some eager optimism that the last big film of the summer would be swooping in to save an otherwise lackluster season of good but not great entertainment. Instead of saving the day this stinker of a superhero film winds up burning down the house in a most spectacular fashion.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics continue to have a major identity problem, which is causing a sizable rift in their plans to build up a superhero universe franchise to rival Marvel Studios. Though they possess the most recognizable caped characters of them all (Batman and Superman) they haven’t yet been able to deliver a fully satisfying entry, or at least one that pleases both the critics and the audiences. Man of Steel was too dark, unwisely going the route of The Dark Knight’s gloom and doom and while I wasn’t as out for blood as the majority of critics were, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had such significant structure problems that it wound up collapsing under its own turgid weight.

It’s easy to imagine that with BvS underperforming all eyes turned to Suicide Squad to right a listing ship and it’s not hard to see that this film has been heavily fussed with…to the point where it’s plot is almost completely incomprehensible. I’ve no doubt that writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) had a plan going into production but wound up bowing down to the studio heads and compromising his vision for the sake of the franchise, not to mention watering down the violence/language to fit into an ill-advised PG-13 rating.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and the movie is a herky jerky stumble through of brief origin stories, none of which feel long enough or inspire any sort of investment of interest for the next two hours. Deadshot (Smith, Winter’s Tale) is shown as both a family man and top-priced assassin, captured by a cameo-ing crusader in front of his young daughter. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) turns to the dark side after playing head games with her former patient, The Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) while inner-city gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms) spews flames whenever his temper gets the better of him. Rounding out the group is Boomerang (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Trumbo), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns). The lone squad member given zero introduction is Slipknot (Adam Beach) in appearance so brief I’m shocked he wasn’t edited out completely.

All of these rogues were rounded up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Prisoners) a morally stunted government agent that sees using bad guys to do good as a way to get in front of the new meta-human uprising. It’s never clear why Waller is as hard-nosed as she is, Ayer gives her no backstory or even a kernel of a hint as to her motivation and Davis plays her with uncharacteristic vacancy. Assisting Waller in keeping the rag tag team in line is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), Lt. Edwards (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) and the ghost-blade wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Bringing the team together occupies the first hour while the second is filled with their first mission when they learn to stop thinking about escaping and start working together. When the Enchantress goes all magically evil, Waller sends the Suicide Squad in to stop her, leading to low stake fights on dark soundstages with poor CGI creations and terrible dialogue of quippy one-liners that fall flat. Throwing in some twists that lazily wriggle more than they interestingly tangle, the picture sputters through its overblown finale before giving up the ghost and paving the way to Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017.

Smith and Robbie are interesting enough in their roles, though to call Robbie a breakout star based on her performance here is not that accurate. Sure, she’s probably the flashiest thing about the film but when it’s based purely on sexuality instead of characterization you have to wonder who the role is ultimately in service to. Much has been made of Leto’s wild methods in his creation of a new Joker but he’s in so little of the film that whatever impression he was supposed to make is likely on the cutting room floor…which is fine because when he does show up he’s so terrible that the less you see him the better. It’s fitting that Delevingne and Kinnaman’s characters are linked by love because they’re both dreadful, with Delevingne working her eyebrows and lisp into a frenzy whenever she’s threatened. Courtney and Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely register while Hernandez is the only vaguely root-able character in the whole bunch.

Now that Suicide Squad is open and will likely make a killing at the box office this weekend, on Monday morning I’d expect some heads to roll over at Warner Brothers as a way to exorcise the demons that the studio simply can’t shake. There needs to be a bit of cleaning the slate if there is any hope of saving future installments in this DC Universe. Hopes are high that Wonder Woman can give critics and audiences what they want, a decently composed intelligent adventure that’s not so damn dark.

Movie Review ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suicide Squad

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Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Thoughts: One thing that’s always bothered me about the slate of Marvel movies released over the past several years is that they’ve all been so damn sunny. Sure, they’re fighting some pretty bad baddies and lives are certainly lost…but there’s a particular lack of edge that can sometimes result in the stakes being a little lowered. I’ve always leaned toward the darkness of the DC Comics world through outings with Batman and Superman…but next summer DC takes it a step further with Suicide Squad.

Our first look at the highly anticipated flick may clock in over three minutes but it seems to only skim the surface at director David Ayer’s vision of the bad side of justice. Ayer has delivered the goods in films like End of Watch and Fury so I’m especially excited to see him put those talents to work on this franchise starter. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) is getting the major press for his nightmare inducing take on The Joker but don’t forget that the film also stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Will Smith (Winter’s Tale), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and a few other not-so-surprise cameos that live within this universe.