Aladdin Review

I’ve found Disney’s live action adaptations of their animated movies to run from mediocre to downright bad. Still, I somehow find myself going to see them. The advertising around Aladdin did not do it any favors, so I went in to see it not expecting much. That is despite my love of Guy Ritchie movies and me thinking that Aladdin is one of the absolute best of Disney’s animated movies. The 2019 version of Aladdin was a pleasant surprise, because it turns out it is actually pretty great.

There is no getting around this fact; the animated version is the superior movie. It is nimbler and more energetic. While there are improvements to this version, like having more than one woman with a speaking role, it loses a little of the light on its feet snappiness of the original. However, if you can accept that this is a somewhat lesser version of the movie, there is still a lot of fun to be had.

The part of the movie that is drawing the greatest criticism online is Will Smith as the genie. The two apparently objectionable parts of his portrayal are the look and simply an unfavorable comparison to Robin Williams. I kind of agree that the movie never quite gets the look of the genie right. I don’t know what they could have done better, I think the mind just rejects a real live blue person. There is nothing really wrong with it, it just doesn’t look great. The performance is something else entirely. I like it, when they let Will Smith be Will Smith. WHen he is copying Williams, it doesn’t really work, when he has more freedom to do his own thing, Smith’s charm shines through. Fortunately, the movie has a lot more of the latter.

While they do slow things down a little bit, most of the rest of the changes are for the good, narratively. The Sultan’s character has been given a near complete overhaul. He was essentially a child in the animated movie, both small of stature and small of mind. Here, he has been reimagined as a scared old man. It adds a layer to his dealings with Princess Jasmine. He is trying to marry her because he is afraid of leaving her alone. His fear allows him to be led by Jafar, at least in some things. Jasmine is made a stronger character, with more to her than just that desire to see life outside of the palace. She has studied and made herself capable of being a strong ruler should the opportunity present itself. Jafar has been changed pretty significantly, and for the better in my book. They made him, like Aladdin, a former “street rat.” He is a man that was born with nothing and has risen to be the second most powerful man in Agrabah. It creates a strong parallel between him and Aladdin that deepens Aladdin’s struggles with the power the genie gives him and the conflict between the two of them.

This is a still a musical, and while the musical numbers do not quite match the original, they are solid, with one exception. “Friend Like Me” is a dud in this version. It is still a fun song, but this version has none of the magic of the original. Still, “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World” are still really good. The new song’s heart is in the right place, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially the second time it shows up.

While Aladdin may lack the energy of the original, it is one of the few of these adaptations that feels like it has any at all. Many of the rest fell somewhat perfunctory; this one at least feels like it is trying. Like the animated version, it is a crowd pleasing delight.

****1/2

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Captain Marvel Review

Captain Marvel hits a lot of familiar notes. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, it is a period piece origin story. Like Iron Man it is a movie that works largely due to the charisma of its star. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it frequently leans on popular music. Captain Marvel tries to blend all of this together, but the movie ends up a lot like its heroine; searching for an identity. The movie is solidly good. It has the highly polished sheen that all Marvel movies seem to have. But it ends up being less the start of a bold new era, instead settling in as merely the bridge between Infinity War and Endgame.

There is a lot to like about Captain Marvel. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who somehow ended up in space, with amnesia working to the Kree as the superpowered Vers. After a mission goes awry and she ends up stranded on Earth, her attempts to complete her mission are derailed by her discovering her past. Larson makes the movie work, showing both Carol’s natural headstrong exuberance and the more subdued persona she is urged to take on with the Kree. She manages to be both vulnerable and a super strong badass. Likewise, Samuel L Jackson appears to be having an enormous amount of fun playing a digitally de-aged version of Nick Fury. The two of them make a great combo and it is fun to see Jackson’s usual intimidating persona become essentially the comic relief. The action is solid as well, both the more grounded stuff and the superpowered fights closer to the end. Nothing mind-blowing or really anything you haven’t seen in other movies, but it is executed well enough.

It also has some flaws. The ones that stand out are how it uses the 90’s period setting. All of the events in the movie happen in the mid-90s. The movie uses this for window dressing, with Radio Shacks and Blockbusters around, along with some 90’s fashion and music. Some have complained about the soundtrack not being exactly period appropriate, but it is not as if the music is diegetic, so that is a nonsense complaint. My problem is that the 90’s setting doesn’t seem to inform any part of the movie. It is just a ploy for nostalgia. That in itself is not that big of a problem, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. Also, the movie spends a lot of time trying to plaster over cracks, real, imagined or created by this movie, in the Marvel Cinematic backstory. Do you want to know how Fury lost an eye? Why they are called Avengers? Any of another half dozen pointless questions? This movie has answers. Not interesting answers, but answers nonetheless.

Captain Marvel does not reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther. It never does manage to carve out its own identity, like even movies like Ant-Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming do. Its various ingredients do not blend into a solid of a whole as it could have. It just feels like a Marvel movie. I feel like I’ve been very negative in this review, when my thoughts on the movie are largely positive. I guess I do think Captain Marvel is a bit of a missed opportunity, but only because it is very good and not quite great.

****

Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2

Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines is the kind of movie that comes along every few years; a completely excellent sci-fi or fantasy adventure that loses a lot of money and is dismissed by almost everyone despite being exactly what I want to see. A blu-ray copy of Mortal Engines will sit next to Willow and John Carter on my shelf and I will drive people crazy going on and on about how great it is. Because I loved Mortal Engines. The plot lacks any semblance of originality, but it just such a breathless adventure that I couldn’t help but love it anyway.

The opening exposition explains the concept of this movie. After an apocalypse, people built cities on tank treads and they roam the countryside devouring smaller cities for replacement parts and fuel. It is, of course, pure nonsense, but if you can simply buy into this initial premise the movie is sticks with its internal logic and is a heap of fun. It starts with a scarred young woman, Hester Shaw, sneaking aboard London to assassinate Valentine, an important official in the city. She is stopped, however, by a young historian named Tom. After Hester falls from the ship, Valentine throws Tom off as well. The two end up working together to get back to London, for their own reasons.

The plot is mostly Star Wars. Tom and Hester find themselves in many predicaments and eventually start to become an effective team. Hester learns to trust Tom and Tom learns how to survive as Hester has. Eventually they are joined by Fang, a mysterious woman with a bright red airship. She is essentially Han Solo, except she is the one with ties to those who oppose London and the superweapon Valentine is building. The trio are chased by Shrike, a undead cyborg who is after Hester for unknown reasons.

The movie just moves, never settling in one place for long. It does an amazing job of just keeping building. The problems and obligations faced by Tom and Hester mount and mount as they meet more and more colorful characters and learn more and more about what Valentine is up to.

It is a well put together movie. CHaracters have clear motivations and arcs, and are mostly well played by a cast of not precisely newcomers but also not big names. The visuals are amazing. The movie is filled with things that have never been seen in a live action movie before. The fanciful city and airship designs are delightful. Each place our heroes visit is strikingly different from the others. It all looks really good.

It is not shocking that this movie has not been successful. The only name in the cast is Hugo Weaving, and as good as he is, I doubt he is moving the needle much for a blockbuster movie. The books are not obscure, but they are also not extraordinarily well known. It is a big gamble on something original when original things really do not sell. It is also earnest and sincere in a time that is not particularly receptive to sincerity. I hope, however, that this movie manages to find its audience anyway. The movie is too much fun not to. I know I am going to be singing it praises to any faintly sympathetic ear for years to come.

****1/2

Robin Hood Review

The people behind this movie were clearly big fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, as this movie is essentially The Dark Knight: Medieval Edition. That might be setting the bar too high, it isn’t really in the same league as any in that trilogy. Instead, it is a mildly competent take on the Robin Hood legend that is all the more disappointing for the better movie that seems to be just beneath the surface.

Comparing Robin Hood to The Dark Knight is easy, and not a new observation. Batman’s connection to Robin Hood has been noted before, though no movie I can think of has made the comparison so blatant. But this version of Robin Hood doesn’t stop there. It opens with Robin’s adventures during the crusades, with a plot points that are right out of Prince of Thieves. But the battles scenes in the Middle East are shot like a modern war movie, they look like something out of Saving Private Ryan with bows and arrows in place of guns. There are other moments evocative of other films and genres. The whole thing becomes kind of a mishmash of other popular things that doesn’t really find an identity of its own.

The plot is Robin Hood. As noted above, there is a stronger Batman influence here, but the story is the Robin Hood story as you have heard it. Robin of Locksley returns from the Crusades to find Nottingham in shambles. The Sheriff has had him declared dead and seized his lands in the name of the crown. He uses the war effort to continually raise the taxes. Robin conceals his identity with a hood and begins to fight the Sheriff, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

The best descriptor of the Robin Hood’s execution of it plot is competent. It is rarely as exciting as it wants to be, but neither does it fall down completely. It just sort of is. Jamie Foxx as Little John is fun and no one currently plays a villain better than Ben Mendelsohn. It all works, but barely. It manages to be both engaging and disappointing at the same time. This seems destined to be one of those forgotten blockbusters that in two or three years people will be surprised to hear that this movie came out.

To its credit, Robin Hood does try to make something current and comprehensible from the progressive nature of the Robin Hood story, building on the robs from the rich to give to the poor to make a movie that at least tries to say something about the growing inequality of the modern day. It doesn’t do a lot to mask other failures, but an action movie at least attempting to have something to say is at least a good sign.

Robin Hood is not very good, but if it becomes a TNT regular in a few years it will be worth catching at least once.

**1/2

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an unfortunate misstep for this Harry Potter spin off series. It is absolutely stuffed with plot, which leaves little room for any sort of humanity. The first movie in this series balanced the episodic charm of its protagonist dealing with magical creatures with its portentous undergirding excellently. It was mostly about the fantastic beasts from the title, with the other stuff happening in the background. That balance is flipped in the sequel, which is significantly less satisfying. It is all deep Harry Potter lore and the rise of fascism, with shockingly little magical wonder. That is not unlike the rest of the Harry Potter series, but it is definitely playing to a weakness rather than a strength.

The first act of the movie mostly works to unwind the ending of the first. Grindelwald, imprisoned at the end of the first movie, escapes in the opening scene. An apparently dead character is suddenly alive again; other characters are simply reset. It isn’t exactly clumsy, but it takes up a lot of time in a movie that ends up being rather heavy on plot. Soon after Grindelwald escapes prison, Newt and his old buddy Jacob are on their way to Paris on a mission that is not as unrelated as it initially appears. They are also looking for their respective love interests.

It is hard to talk about this movie because it is all plot. Everything is a spoiler. There are a few encounters with magical beasts, each of which holds just enough wonder to make you wish they were the focus of the movie. When the movie tries to show human emotion, it generally succeeds. When Newt’s brother Theseus attempts to hug him and Newt has no idea how to react it is perfectly heartbreaking. That is followed up by a later attempt by Newt to return the hug that is its equal. To its credit, the movie looks great. All of the performers acquit themselves well. It is just doing way too much, so none of it has the impact it should. Honestly, it feels like the worst parts of the movies that were adapting books, which I could more easily forgive because I knew the explanation and impact from the book. Here, the movie is all there is and it is simultaneously too much and not enough.

The movie is trying to deal with some pretty heavy subjects, and its ending leaves things in the air. Grindelwald is some kind of magical albino Hitler and he manages to sway many people to his side with his transparently self serving speeches. It is timely, what with nationalism and fascism on the rise again, but the movie’s depiction of things manages to be both heavy handed and muddled. It is obvious what Grindelwald represents, but Newt is such a withdrawn character that he isn’t much of a counterpoint. The magical governments are compromised. The would be good guys are lead by a young Dumbledore, but he is completely passive for reasons that are not clear for most of the runtime. Hopefully the sequel manages to successfully answer this movie’s questions.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald really seems to want to be the Empire Strikes Back of Harry Potter movies, but in the end it is the series’ equivalent of The Matrix Reloaded. The question is what does the next movie look like. A strong finish or next chapter could make this simply the slightly clunky middle chapter. A disaster would make this look even worse in comparison.

**1/2

Bohemian Rhapsody

There are times when Bohemian Rhapsody lures the viewer in with its adherence to the rock and roll story formula and the genuinely great music, but it mostly fall flat in its widely varying tone and its twisting of events to fit the desired narrative. It is a largely unsatisfying mix of excellent and dreadful.

Leading up the good side is the performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He captures the look almost perfectly, as well as the mannerisms during performances. It is an astounding performance that has to be astounding for the movie to work at all. Everyone else is fine. They are perfectly good, but this is Malek’s movie. The only other person who stands out is Mike Myers, who in a bit of stunt casting plays a studio executive that hates Bohemian Rhapsody.

That stunt casting hits on one of the flaws of the movie. Not that Myers is bad, it is in fact great to see him again. But the movie does a lot of little stunt bits. They vary from mildly amusing, like Myers, to frustrating, like the weird focus the movie uses during a hackneyed media appearance meltdown. The movie is just full of these little bits that mostly serve to change the tone for a few minutes in weird ways and distract from the story being told.

That story is another problem, mostly because the movie changes fact to fit a very tired rock and roll story arc. A big part of the last act is the band breaking up, something that never really happened. In the movie they get back together to perform at Live Aid, even though they had really spent most of the year before on a world tour. I will give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that the framing of Freddie’s sexuality as the root of his problems, that he lost his way by leaving his heterosexual relationship, was an inadvertent implication during the rote rise and fall story they wanted tell. I think part of the problem is focusing on Mercury’s personal life while also trying to keep things PG-13, so the movie has to show what is going on by implication, but it is not very careful about what implications it is giving rise to. I realize the struggle that any biopic has in telling the story within the time allotted, but the telling here feels really sloppy.

What the movie does well, though, is the music. The movie shines when it is showing Queen being Queen; when they are performing or creating music. That is the good stuff, and it feels unfortunately underserved. There could and should have been more of the how they made their music. The movie does have the good sense to end with an extended recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which is enthralling. The making of Bohemian Rhapsody is likewise very entertaining.

That is the problem with Bohemian Rhapsody; quite a few of the pieces are excellent, but the whole is less than satisfying. It stumbles whenever it isn’t directly focusing on the music, which is what everyone came to see. I can’t really recommend anyone go see this, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone either.

**1/2

Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot of fun. Perhaps a touch too long and lacking the punch it needed to push it over the top, but still it is mostly a ton of fun to watch as it goes along. It ends up feeling a touch like a discount Tarantino movie, but that is still better than most movies.

The El Royale is a hotel that sits on the state line between California and Nevada. Half of the hotel is in one state and one half in the other; the hotel concierge has an extended presentation on the set up. One night, four guests arrive at the El Royale; salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan(Jon Hamm), priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet(Cynthia Erivo), and the abrasive Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Each of them has their own story and the movie shows each story in sequence, but they all happen simultaneously. All of them have secrets. Even the hotel and its concierge have secrets. All of them smash together and none of the guests leave unscathed.

Seeing all of these separate stories come together is the fun of the movie. Two of the characters are not who they say they are, two are hiding dangerous secrets. Poor Darlene is just trying to find a quiet place to practice for a gig she has the next morning. One character’s secret brings the dangerous Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like figure who runs something of cult. None of the stories naturally intersect; the characters could have easily shown up on different days and been in and out with no trouble.

The problem is that the movie sets up all these interesting characters and stories, but ends up cutting off some interesting avenues early. I don’t mean to critique what I wish the movie was and not what it is, but I would have liked to see more of at least one or two characters that end up dead fairly early in the film. Other stories get disappointingly anticlimactic conclusions. That is also kind of the point, but in the end it leaves the movie feeling like it lacks a little punch.

Even minor characters make an impact thanks to the cast. Nick Offerman plays a character who dies during the opening credits, but he still makes an impact. The same goes for Shea Whigham as a prison doctor in a scene or two. The big one is Chris Hemsworth, who shows up in the back half as Billy Lee and infuses him with an unforgettable dangerous swagger. The main cast is great as well. Hamm has a special amount of smarm as the unctuous Laramie. Bridges is his usual excellence. The relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, who plays the concierge Miles, are highlights of the movie; they are the heart. Cynthia’s Darlene is determined despite all the crap that her life has flung at her, and is also capable of thinking on her feet; she is no damsel or rube to be taken in by the various characters. Miles is that sort of rube; he buys it all. He seems pathetic and things proceed to get worse and worse for him, but he never loses the kindness that he alone seems to possess.

Most of this movie is delightful, but there is a little something that is missing. It reminds me of the Hateful Eight, which also sees a group of unrelated people thrown together with deadly results. But that movie has some surprises in the last act that ramp up the drama. This movie spends most of its surprised early and at the end it plays out just like it seems like it will. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end of an otherwise very entertaining film.

****1/2

A Star is Born

A Star is Born is one of the most earnest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It is a big showbiz tragedy done without any irony. It isn’t a new story, this is the fourth version of A Star is Born, but it is incredibly well told.

Bradley Cooper directs and stars as Jackson Maine, an aging alcoholic rock star. One night after a gig he stops at the nearest open bar, which just so happens to be where Ally, a struggling singer played by Lady Gaga, is performing. The two of them spend the night together and Maine invites Ally on the road with him. At one of his concerts, he brings her onstage to sing with him, jump starting her career. But as her career takes off, his starts to come down. This is accelerated by his drinking. Still, they love each other and get married. But eventually, Maine’s demons catch up with him, leading to a tragic end.

I don’t really feel like I’m spoiling the story much, as this is the fourth version of this movie and they all follow the same arc. This movie is just incredibly well made. Gaga is fantastic as Ally. Her performance feels very natural. Cooper is likewise excellent as Maine. He is doing something with his voice that really shouldn’t work, but it somehow does. The supporting cast, namely Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay (!?!), are great as well. Elliot, playing Maine’s much older brother, is especially good.

This is a movie about two musicians, so for the movie to work the songs they sing have to up to snuff. With one exception, that is a real strength of the movie. The big number is “Shallow,” a duet the two of them sing the first time Ally is on stage, but there are several other memorable songs spread throughout.

There are really only two things in the movie that come up short for me. The first is that it seems like Cooper’s character gets the bulk of the attention. The movie is called A Star is Born, but we see more of one fading than of the other being born. It’s not that the middle section of the movie, when this is happening, is bad; it just makes her feel like a secondary concern rather than a driving force in the movie. The other is that the ending song is kind of bad. There are a lot of good songs on this soundtrack, but the one Ally sings at the end is easily the worst. That moment needed to land and the song really didn’t work for me.

I’m not going to lie, I teared up during this movie. It wasn’t during any of the Ally/Maine stuff though. It was the last interaction between Cooper and Elliott as Cooper tells him that he’s always looked up to him and Elliott desperately backs his car out of the driveway fighting back tears. Stuff with brothers always works on me and this was good stuff.

****1/2

BlacKkKlansman Review

Spike Lee comes in the with final great movie of the summer with BlacKkKlansman. It is an interesting mixture of tones and subjects that manages to be both entertaining and enlightening. The movie has powerful performances and still sadly relevant subject matter for a movie set 40+ years in the past. There is some unevenness, but the whole thing is an unforgettable experience.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is at first relegated to the files room, but soon they need him to lead an undercover operation into a black student activist group. From there he gets promoted and ends up in the intelligence division. In his new job he cold calls the KKK to start looking into their activities. He is successful, but he used his real name. That starts a new undercover operation with Flip (Adam Driver) playing Stallworth in public while Ron keeps up his connection over the phone. They work together to infiltrate the group and stop a bombing the KKK has planned.

There is a lot more going on than just the plot. Lee sets up parallels between the black student union activities, and black power movement, and the KKK, showing the surface similarities and more crucially the deep differences. There are the comparisons between the two cops central to this investigation as Flip is Jewish and Ron black. It is also just delightfully entertaining, with some 70’s style on top of what is, outside of its heavy themes, as delightfully fun cop movie. Driver shows once again how great an actor he is. Topher Grace is good as a delightfully contemptible David Duke. John David Washington gives what should be a star making performance; we will see more of him. The movie also has one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen, as it punctures the fun the movie had built up and cements connections to the problems the country is currently facing. It ends the movie with a hammer blow that left me in tears.

The only note that rings sour in the film is the scene where all of the good cops catch the bad cop in a sting operation. It just doesn’t work, especially with the captain, who has shown himself in the movie to be at best a tentative ally of the protagonists participating. The scene doesn’t work in the context of the film; it comes out of nowhere and I don’t know why it is there, knowing that that sort of cop is even today rarely punished in any way for that sort of behavior. Still, that is one short scene in a movie that is otherwise excellent.

This year has had quite a run of racially conscious movies, from Black Panther to Sorry to Bother You to Blindspotting to BlacKkKlansman. Other than Black Panther, they are not movies that were on my radar coming into this year, but all of them have turned out to be some of the best I’ve seen this year. I hope this is not a blip but the start of a trend.

****1/2