Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin Poster

Director: Guy Ritchie

Screenwriters: John August and Guy Ritchie

Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, and Nasim Pedrad

The Summer of Disney continues. Given that Disney has now officially acquired 21st Century Fox, virtually every major film release this year falls under the Disney umbrella including Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Dumbo, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Lion King, Frozen 2, and Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. That’s a hell of year, and every damn one of them is a remake or a sequel.

Speaking of this synergy, check out the similarities of three of these films’ posters, all released within one month!

Avengers, Dark Phoenix and Aladdin posters.
Innovate much?

When it comes to the latest live-action remake of a beloved Disney animated classic – Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, I am of two minds. I have always said that my modus operandi as a critic is to rate films on the simple principle of if it’s worth your money. Films aimed at a family audience are generally the toughest to rank in this regard because the money factor in play can quickly get out of hand. Two adults, two kids, and even the most modest concessions will easily run you upwards of $70 in most multiplexes nowadays. For just a few bucks more, you can buy a ticket to the Magic Kingdom and meet Jasmine in person! So the money factor needs to satisfy the fact that such an outing is entertaining to the kids but also not just tolerable but substantially fun for adults beyond just waiting for Disney+ to stream it in November.

Disney has found the blueprint for these remakes at this point. Find an established director (or create your own in the case of Pete’s Dragon’s David Lowery), write a new song, and cast one mega-star to handle your built-in PR. See Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or Dumbo for evidence, and then just watch Lion King put a bow on top of all of them later this summer! Aladdin follows this design masterfully, and I will give my kid-stamp-of-approval right now without any haste. If your kids liked the previous remakes, your kids will like this movie. Even if they don’t know anything about Aladdin.

That being said, if you don’t know anything about Aladdin, here’s the gist. In the large kingdom of Agrabah, a young street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) has to steal to survive in the streets. His savvy wit and cunningness keep him out of trouble most days until a chance encounter with a woman he presumes is the princess’s handmaid is actually the actual Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). In classic Capulet/Montague fashion, there’s no future for a street rat and a princess, but when the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) offers Aladdin rich rewards if he retrieves a magic lamp for him from an enchanted cave. Aladdin reluctantly agrees, but is double-crossed by Jafar only to find himself trapped in the cave with only a magic carpet, his pet monkey Abu, and of course one magic lamp that happens to have a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to make his wishes come true!

If you are familiar with the Disney animated version from 1992, the first thing you need to do is separate your expectations. If you know anything about director, Guy Ritchie, you’d know that he’s a style above substance kind of guy. While he sticks to the script more or less, he will sacrifice some of the signature moments to add some of his own. This is not a critique, as a remake or reboot most certainly should innovate from its predecessor, but it’s a careful balance of familiar and new that must be maintained.

The most glaringly obvious example of this element is with the arrival of the Genie played by Will Smith. Unless you lived under a rock or really unless you were buried in the Cave of Wonders, you are familiar with the singularly exceptional performance Robin Williams gave as the Genie in the original film. Williams’s performance was on par with one of the best if not the best voice performances of all time, and sliding a new face (and voice) into the role is not without its risks. I am however, baffled and pleased to report that Smith does not just provide a serviceable performance here, but one that is both worthy of the role and perhaps his best in over a decade. Smith goes all-in as the Genie, harnessing all the charm and charisma he’s capable of, which is a lot! He also is key in the film’s most charming detail regarding the way the overall story of the film is delivered.

Ritchie wisely allows Smith to command his scenes with an immense amount of freedom, and those are the scenes that shine and are extremely memorable. He also invokes a touch of Bollywood style in the song and dance scenes, a lavish and welcomed addition to the visual palate. Ritchie’s inability to get out of his own way, however, does result in some corny use of slow-motion as well as a missed opportunity in terms of his treatment of Jafar. The biggest qualm I have with the film rests on Jafar’s cardboard development and Ritchie’s botching of the film’s climax, which also heavily involves Jafar. The climax is also unsettlingly and unnecessarily scary for little kids – a strange trait of recent Disney fare including Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, where 100 minutes mood establishment is suddenly shattered by uncharacteristically creepy atmosphere and plot design.

That being said, what Aladdin does well highly outweighs what it does not. The music and songs famously scored and written by Alan Menken are all present and delivered amicably. A notable delight is Naomi Scott as Jasmine who not only embodies a “princess” for today’s day and age, but also is a tremendously talented singer who not only delivers on “A Whole New World,” but also impresses on “Speechless,” a catchy, empowering solo-song for Jasmine, and the only entirely new song in the film. My daughter and son already know all the words and sing it endlessly.

Aladdin represents yet another overall success with this Disney experiment of remaking their beloved animated films in live-action.  While it’s not the best of the bunch, it’s not the worst by any stretch. Audiences of all ages will find something to enjoy, especially the performances by Will Smith and Naomi Scott. B

My daughter at the movies
Proof that I understand the cost of family trips to the movies!

Aladdin is rated PG and has a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes.

An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Monolith
Image credit: Taste of Cinema

In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick thematically expresses that there is a cyclical evolution of man where his intelligence will continually evolve in order to survive in the hostile environment in which he exists until he reaches a state of perfection.  To signify moments of man’s evolutionary intelligence, Kubrick uses a mysterious black monolithic figure that appears or is mentioned in each of the film’s four separate segments, and Kubrick’s theme of an evolutionary cycle is present in each of the four segments as well. 

The first of the four segments is subtitled “The Dawn of Man.”  In this segment, Kubrick explores his evolutionary theme in the prehistoric past where the human race was born from apes.  Kubrick begins this evolutionary process by immediately indicating the hostility of the man-ape environment as well as the their inability to defend themselves in it.  This is shown five minutes into the film when a leopard leaps from a rock and easily slays a man-ape.  Thus, it is obvious that the man-apes live in fear and are scavengers.  Kubrick represents the first shift in evolution when a black rectangular monolith materializes in the man-apes’ den.  This attracts the curiosity of the apes and they all embrace the foreign object.  Following the encounter with the monolith, Kubrick illustrates that the man-apes are evolving in order to survive in their hostile environment.  This is exemplified in the scene during the afternoon after the monolith arrived. 

Ape using bone as tool
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

In this scene, a man-ape is seen looking for food.  He begins to play with a bone found on the ground from an animal’s skeleton.  A quick shot of the monolith appears indicating that it has inspired a new step in the evolution of the man-apes.  In a montage of shots set to Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the man-ape begins to smash at and shatter the skeleton on the ground symbolizing the discovery that the bone can be used as a weapon.  Kubrick includes in this montage a shot of an animal falling to the ground further symbolizing that the man-apes have learned to hunt for food as well as to protect themselves from danger.  In a later scene, the man-apes, with their newfound discovery, war with other weaponless tool-less tribes easily overcoming their adversaries.  This symbolizes that man has become capable of survival in their hostile environment, however more importantly, the environment has remained hostile.          

Satellite from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The Dawn of Man segment of the film quickly transitions into the film’s second segment.  This segment is untitled illustrating that mankind is in a new setting but he is essentially the same aggressive man from the dawn of time who must again struggle to survive in another hostile environment, thus continuing Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme.  In the previous segment, an ape-man throws a bone into the air in slow motion and the camera follows it upwards.  Then, in a brilliant transition, the bone dissolves into the image of a space satellite in the year 2000.  This dissolve from a tool/weapon of the man-apes to a satellite of 21st Century man connects the satellite as a distant evolutional and intellectual development from the first tool/weapon.  Here, technology is quite advanced and is relied upon for almost everything from guiding ships in to dock to talking to family members.  The reliance upon technology in this segment foreshadows the hostility technology will cause in the third segment. At the end of this segment, man once again finds the monolith, this time on the moon.  This uncovering of the monolith once again signals that man is about to reach another more improved level of intelligence. 

The third segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later,” and it is here that man’s hostile environment is once again realized.  The second segment ended with the monolith emitting a loud radio signal toward Jupiter.  The Jupiter mission is a nine-month expedition to search for the destination of that signal.  Kubrick again reminds the viewer that the crew of the Jupiter Mission spacecraft Discovery are completely reliant upon technology and are in fact using technology to follow a radio signal from a different alien form of technology.  It is in this segment that Kubrick introduces the film’s protagonists Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as the ultimate realization of man’s reliance upon technology, a “thinking” and “feeling” super computer named HAL-9000.  The HAL-9000 computer maintains the systems of the spaceship, thus putting Dave and Frank at the complete mercy of technology. 

HAL 9000
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The HAL-9000 is introduced on a BBC television program that Dave and Frank are watching and is said to be “capable of virtually all functions of the human brain, [including insanity and homicidal qualities].”  Thus, the monolith’s unearthing eighteen months earlier yielded another jump in man’s evolutionary intelligence, the ability to virtually recreate the human brain in computer form.  However, with this intelligence comes the possibility and realization of a new level of hostility in man’s environment.  Only HAL-9000 knows the actual purpose of the Jupiter Mission.  The computer has been designed to withhold this information from Dave and Frank until they are to Jupiter; therefore, man has in fact created an artificial intelligence that knows more than the men who control it.  Thus, a false trust is put into HAL because the computer is not ever supposed to make an error or malfunction.  The computer does malfunction creating a hostile conflict between the astronauts and HAL who ironically justifies his behavior by saying the astronauts “jeopardize the mission,” a mission they do not completely understand anyway.  HAL proceeds to murder Frank by ejecting him into space while he was outside the ship replacing a part HAL had misdiagnosed as faulty allowing the audience to realize HAL had planned this murder.  Dave is now alone and Kubrick brilliantly creates a sequence where man must improvise a non-rational solution to survive much like the man-ape that discovered weapons in the first segment.  In a failed attempt to retrieve Frank’s body from space, Dave exits the ship in a space pod leaving his space helmet on the ship.  HAL locks Dave out of the ship allowing no way back in except through a small air lock, but without a helmet, Dave can not leave the space pod.  Dave devises a complex and creative solution using his “human tool” of intelligence that ejects him from the pod and into the air lock.  Dave deactivates HAL and once HAL’s voice is silenced, the ship enters into Jupiter space triggering the announcement of the discovery of the monolith and the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.  This message symbolizes Dave’s intellectual triumph over HAL by mentioning the monolith and revealing the one piece of information previously known only by HAL.      

Monolith
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The final segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  In this sequence Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme is fully realized.  Dave completes the flight to Jupiter without any dependence upon the ship’s computer.  Dave then partakes in a transcendental journey through time and space activated somehow by the monolith that floats by his pod.  This journey is symbolic of a final transformation into an eventual higher form of intelligence of evolutionary life.  This transformation is further completed in the ingenious sequence after Dave arrives at his destination.  In this scene, Dave arrives at some obscure white bedroom decorated in a luxurious style. Kubrick shows Dave transitioning through four different stages of his natural human life.  In the final stage of his life, Dave is a dying old man lying on a bed.  At the foot of the bed, the monolith towers over him.  Dave is then transformed into a fetus in utero, evolved, and reborn as an innocent, intelligent, superhuman being orbiting through a non-hostile universe without any dependence on technology.  The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to perfect superhuman is complete. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick expresses an evolutionary theme that man will constantly evolve in order to survive in his hostile environment.  He illustrates, with the use of a cyclical evolutionary theory, a rather hopeful and confident future for mankind and leaves open what future stages of evolution the superhuman creature is capable.  

Book Review: Room to Dream

Beautiful is the best word to describe Room to Dream, the hybrid biography/memoir written by David Lynch in collaboration with journalist, Kristine McKenna. Lynch uses the word beautiful often to describe various moments of his life, and somehow even though he uses it often, each time the term is invoked, he adds a special layer of singular majesty to what he’s describing.

David Lynch is one of my favorite artists. I say artists because while he’s most well-known for his filmmaking, he’s an accomplished actor, musician, writer, painter, furniture builder; the list goes on. Room to Dream is unsurprisingly not your typical memoir. McKenna provides expert, researched, and detailed accounts of the chronology of Lynch’s life, and after each “account” (I hesitate to call them chapters), Lynch delivers what would be best described as a “companion story” that in essence filters McKenna’s account through the Lynchian lens. This system is instantly endearing, and I found myself looking forward to each writer’s sections for entirely different but equally fascinating reasons.

David Lynch 2008 – Used with permission under CC-BY-SA

More than once, McKenna and Lynch warn you that there’s no summing up the life and stories of David Lynch in any one book. A book could be written on any one of these stories alone, therefore, the best way to take this book is as an extended conversation more or less through the life and times of Lynch with no time to waste. We get a little of everything here, and it satisfies. As a deeply enthusiastic Twin Peaks devotee, there is quite a bit to enjoy in Lynch’s discussion of the original series, the follow-up prequel film Fire Walk with Me, and the 2017 reboot, Twin Peaks: The Return, for Showtime. Twin Peaks clearly holds a special place in Lynch’s heart and the series solidified life-long relationships between Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost as well as musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. An accessibly delivered thread through his entire filmography is also crafted brilliantly in that the reader can truly follow each step in Lynch’s career and how that forged a path to his next endeavor. McKenna punctuates many of the stories in the book with quotes from many of the people who worked with Lynch or knew him including Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Sheryl Lee, and countless others.

Lynch comes across as the artist we all know he is: dedicated to creativity, desirous of the artist lifestyle, uncompromising (except for his time with Dune, which only reaffirmed his decision to be uncompromising), and passionate. The book has no low-lights, but some highlights for me were the stories about Harry Dean Stanton, Marlon Brando, and the insanity that lead to Mulholland Drive finally becoming what we know it to be today.

Lynch also spends time championing his foundation and the importance of transcendental meditation. The book allows him to expound a bit more on this topic and not be relegated to sound bites in terms of the importance this practice has had on his art form and his career. While Room to Dream is an enjoyable review of Lynch’s famous works, the book also is the most concise synopsis of his lesser-known works perhaps ever assembled. Lynch and McKenna provide discourse on the inspirations behind Lynch’s artwork, short films, and commercials. I have been a fan of Lynch’s for years, but I have never been inclined to look into his minor works, of which there are many. I missed the DavidLynch.com era, which is nicely documented in this book, but I have since done a deep dive and have really enjoyed the experience of viewing his short films, especially after reading the stories behind them. The biggest revelation for me is seeing the humorous and comedic material Lynch made. Humor has always been a part of Lynch’s persona and his work, but I had no idea that he had ideas for full-feature slapstick comedies like One Saliva Bubble, which was a vehicle for Steve Martin and Martin Short that never happened, or that he created hilarious short pieces like The Anacin Commercial or The Cowboy and the Frenchman, both of which bear Lynch’s signature style, but involve so much more levity than I’m used to seeing in his works! This ice-bucket challenge from 2014 is an easy example to illustrate what I mean!

Room to Dream is a wonderful collection of stories and insight on a brilliant man who is always evolving and always learning. Read the bit about his discovery of the program Photoshop, and you’ll see the spirit that lives inside him. Where many of us would see Photoshop as useful or perhaps even intimidating, Lynch saw it as a monolithic step to create art, beyond anything many of us can fathom.

If you can’t tell, I just loved this book. I loved it so much in fact, that when I heard for the audio version, Lynch did not read his sections but rather just used them as talking points, I went and got that version as well. The audio book works very well as a companion to the print book itself. Where in the book, Lynch is much more organized in his thought process and story points, the audio version (spoken by Lynch, of course) offers a more conversational and alive rendition of his stories providing a separate experience to enjoy.

This book is a must for any fan of David Lynch or his work, but I also recommend it to even the casual fan of his. I do think for one to get the full impact of this book there is some expectation in being familiar with his work to some degree. He rarely takes time to provide context for the discussions of his films, and he references elements of them without explanation from time to time seemingly assuming the audience has some idea of what he’s talking about. However, many of his stories are relatable and enjoyable for anyone who can appreciate the life of an artist who loves what he does.

Room to Dream by David Lynch & Kristine McKenna. Canongate Books, 592 pp., 2018. Hardcover: $32.00

Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  

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