“If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” Disney’s Aladdin (2019)

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    “If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” – Aladdin
  • “Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman.” – Jafar
  • “We should only be as happy as our least happy subject.” – Princess Jasmine

(Taken together, all might as well be explaining the current state of world politics.)

I found Disney’s live action reimagining of Aladdin pretty delightful and a welcome, inclusive, and, dare I say, much-needed feminist update of the original. (Note: I liked this spring’s equally critically reviled Dumbo a LOT too, so fair warning.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, we all adored Robin Williams, but we forget that he is (arguably) the essential (sole?) reason the original animated film is held in such esteem. I think director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) rebalances the proceedings with a well-rounded and integrated effort in his live action remake. Does it occasionally suffer from some TV movie flatness (a la Disney’s own Once Upon a Time or The Descendants)? Maybe. Do the musical numbers look a bit like they were lifted from a 1980s cruise ship commercial? Probably. But on the whole, I thought it was a lot of fun. And don’t get me wrong. I was nuts about the original and saw it about five times in the cinema during my sophomore year of … college. So, yes, I’m a soft touch for this material, and also one who has a well-earned fondness for the original.

Disney’s storied 90s animated output was, on balance, comprised of big Broadway-esque musicals that made it ok for a sh*t-ton of Gen Xers and Millennials to like show tunes, fairy tales, AND cartoons again. The flicks earned oodles of money in process. Nowadays, since just about any movie can be viewed (legally or illegally) on an iPad via YouTube, the idea of Disney “re-releasing” the “classics” from the “vault” via DVD/VHS/carrier pigeon is a quaint memory. Consequently, the Mouse House has to find a new way to monetize their intellectual property for the children of the children of the children of all their original audiences. Hence, remade enterprises like the recent live action Dumbo, the upcoming Lion King, and this Aladdin.

Folks, it’s Disney. If they can wring a nickel out of a t-shirt or doll or knapsack featuring some obscure character from, say, The Aristocats, they sure as hell are going to get another billion dollars from one of their most popular animated flicks of all time: Aladdin.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The nice thing here is that Aladdin is actually pretty good, a pleasant early summer diversion, that leans into Will Smith’s estimable charms while putting a governor on his out-sized ego and that offers us a forward-thinking story line about people of color living as, you know, people and acquitting themselves with agency and wit and heart.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even villainous Jafar gets a makeover here. Describing the original animated version of Jafar as ethnic caricature would be … kind. In the hands of Marwan Kenzari, Jafar is still pretty despicable, but with a motivation that is more political than icky-for-icky’s sake and who isn’t as creepily fixated on marrying the unwilling Jasmine. The downside is live-action Jafar is, well, a little bland, not-to-mention kinda pretty, so his menace ends up more subtle than overt. That said, it’s a stronger performance than I think many will initially recognize. (His sidekick parrot Iago is toned down too – nary a squawking voice of Gilbert Godfried in earshot.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Our leads Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine respectively are, yes, Disney dreamy, but they also have grit and spark underlying all that glamor. Scott particularly approaches each scene with an unselfconscious irony and fiery whimsy that gives us a very un-princessy princess (blessed be). By the way, in this update, Jasmine is less interested in romance than in being named (rightfully) sultan. Yasss, queen!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday Night Live‘s Nasim Pedrad is great fun as Jasmine’s confidante and handmaiden, the newly created character Dalia, who suffers no fools gladly either. When Scott steps forth to deliver the score’s one new song, the anthemic “Speechless” (crafted by original composer Alan Menken with an assist from The Greatest Showman‘s/La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), a star is born, and the Disney princess merchandising machine gets a much-needed shot of #ImWithHer feminism:

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

‘Cause I’ll breathe when they try to suffocate me
Don’t you underestimate me
‘Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the end, though, Aladdin is still a rollicking fairy tale adventure, and Ritchie paces it as such. Musical numbers? Nah, not his forte, but he makes them work in an insular, oversaturated, Bollywood-lite sort-of-way. The marketplace shenanigans and palace intrigues, however, are all rock solid. Will Smith? Not a singer. But he can move and he lights up a screen like no other. (Robin Williams wasn’t exactly Pavarotti.) In Smith’s hands, the jazzy cut-up “Friend Like Me” gets a Fresh Prince hip-hop makeover, and it works far better than my description makes it sound. No one in the production is taking this material too damn seriously. Shakespeare, it ain’t. And that’s just fine.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Suicide Squad

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I’m supposed to hate Suicide Squad, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or I truly do have lousy taste, but I was entertained by David Ayer’s scruffy take on DC Comics’ classic Dirty Dozen-homage. Could it have been better? Um, yeah. Is it some cosmic train wreck that has destroyed cinema forevermore? Nope.

In full disclosure, my objectivity may be clouded. A bit. I still have the sense memory of holding the first issue of John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s 1987-comic-reimagining in my grubby eighth grade hands. (See cover below.) Suicide Squad had been around since the 60s, but, under the watch of husband/wife team Ostrander and Yale and inspired by the then-recent DC Universe-rebooting one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, the Squad went from being a dull paramilitary outfit (a cut-rate Mission: Impossible) to a gonzo bucket of colorfully costumed sociopathic misfits who agreed to take on covert missions in order to commute time from their lengthy prison sentences.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ostrander and Yale galvanized the team around new character Amanda Waller, the Squad’s tough-as-nails government handler for whom Machiavelli and Mussolini were likely matinee idols, and the Squad’s adventures became a bruise-black satire on the endemic overreach and inhumanity inherent in America’s military-industrial complex and criminal justice system.

Funny how little things change in 30-some years.

As Warner Brothers’ DC Entertainment continues to play catch up with the brighter, more engaging, critically acclaimed work of direct competitor Disney’s Marvel Studios, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation Suicide Squad plays well to the insiders (geeks like yours truly) but may stumble a bit with the casual moviegoer. That’s a shame. This material is rife with opportunity for timely and pithy allegory in a world where terror is combated with more terror and where politicians distinguish themselves through schoolyard taunts. Ostrander and Yale were pretty damn prescient.

Regardless, Suicide Squad is a pip, particularly in its first hour; Ayer, via narrator Waller (played with crisp gravitas by the ever-dependable Viola Davis [Prisoners]), fires off a visceral roll call of the scuzziest villains this side of Roger Ailes. Margot Robbie (The Big Short) as Harley Quinn, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Deadshot, and Jai Courtney (Divergent) as Captain Boomerang have the most arresting (pun intended) moments throughout, popping off their glib one-liners with an undercurrent of soulful pathos. Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) as the tragic El Diablo and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) as the Squad’s field lieutenant Rick Flag are compelling and pleasantly understated, given that, respectively, one shoots fire from his hands and the other is dating a sorceress. You know, just a typical Tuesday.

Other cast members get a bit lost in the movie’s manic shuffle of CGI zombies and its “Now, THAT’S What I Call Hip-Hop” soundtrack. Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity) as Killer Croc eke out a memorable moment or two in this overstuffed flick, which is more credit to their talents than to Ayer’s screenplay.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s Jared Leto. The Joker. I may be in the minority, but I find Leto exhausting and a bit desperate. Always have. I believe his revelatory and nuanced and humane turn in Dallas Buyers Club may have been the exception and not the rule for his particular filmography.

Leto’s work in Suicide Squad as The Joker makes Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter look like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Leto has expressed some crabbiness that so many of his scenes in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. The powers-that-be (and whatever ADHD-addled focus group edited this thing) should have cut them all.

Yet, the narrative is stubbornly beholden to shackling Robbie’s much superior Harley Quinn to her comic book beau onscreen. To be honest, Harley would have been just fine without her “Mistah J.” And so would we.

After the first hour, alas, Suicide Squad devolves into the kind of muddy, mundane comic book movie that typically inflicted cinemas in the 90s. An ill-defined villain stands on a rooftop somewhere waving his/her arms around and speaking in an ominously metallic voice borrowed from the witness protection program. A sea of computer-generated minions construct a death-ray/cloud-thing that will annihilate humanity and demolish a number of stop-motion-photographed international landmarks along the way. Consequently, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie about which you should give much thought after viewing … but it could have been.

Ayer (End of Watch) is sharp enough to assign Smith’s Deadshot a quip about how silly and cliched that apocalyptic denouement can be (yet somehow the filmmaker is too lazy to actually devise a fresh third act). Smith intones, “Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Indeed, that is the question. I’m guessing Marvel’s acerbic Deadpool would have had an answer. And an inventive one. Maybe Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds can plot a cross-studios team-up for their next outing.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.” Exodus: Gods and Kings, Into the Woods, Annie, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.”

So says British wartime mathematician (and accidental spy) Alan Turing (as portrayed in The Imitation Game with comic grace and heartbreaking nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch) to a police detective investigating Turing on indecency charges during the post-war years.

Turing offers this hypothesis in revelation, not over his sexuality per se, but to this even deeper secret: that he, through his divination of modern computing, broke Nazi codes that provided crucial intelligence for the allies to win the war. His theorem on diversity of thought processes is offered when he is asked, “Do machines think?” Yet, his conclusion above applies to his life, or for that matter to any life, lived on the margins.

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My parents with Buddha

The film’s central hypothesis is that those who are most overlooked (if not reviled) become those who bring the change we most need. And this mantra applies in some part to every film I saw this holiday break, from Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals-and-Bible-verse epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of Stephen Sondheim tuner Into the Woods to Tim Burton’s almost-but-not-quite-there kitsch docudrama Big Eyes to, yes, even Will Gluck’s unnecessary yet surprisingly pleasant reinvention of that cloying chestnut Annie. (In the thirty years it took us to get one cinematic Into the Woods, we’ve had three versions of Annie … but I digress.)

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?”

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My parents with Ben Stiller

So sings The Baker’s Wife (portrayed with lilting restraint by an ever-impressive Emily Blunt) at a penultimate moment in the swirling, spiky postmodern fairy tale pastiche that is Into the Woods. Her character, literally defined by name as a possession (Baker’s Wife) finally claims one moment in life for herself, and the exhilaration and the horror of this gender-fried crossroads quite literally leads her off a cliff.

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Me and Paddington

 

 

 

 

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Amen. Each successive Christmas holiday reminds me of this in no uncertain terms. This festive season arrives faster and faster every year, in a sh*t-storm of commercialized mania and accelerated/accumulated guilt. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I feel the calendar pages ripping away as I age mercilessly with each card I write or present I wrap in mindless tradition. Quite literally, in fact. My birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary are plunked smack in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s – the special, silly times of card games and Old Saint Nick seem to recede ever more into the rear-view mirror, as gray hairs dot my scalp, my waist ever expands, and my knees crackle and creak.

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The cast of Annie … and my folks!

One of the seasonal traditions that still holds charm for me and for my family is going to the movies, escaping into the darkness of the cineplex, our faces lit only by the glow of a movie screen, as we lose ourselves in the fictional lives of twenty foot people, exploring their cinematic metaphors for the pain of our real lives, as they are indifferent to the din of our popcorn chomping.

 

(Someone in cyberspace just looked up from their computer/iPad/iPhone/whatever and said, “This isn’t a review? What is this??” Nope, it’s a blog – my blog and I’m writing about the films I saw this week through the present state of my heart. Get over it. I would argue that’s how most of us view movies – not through clever analyses of cinematography or semiotics but by how films make us feel.)

We were blessed with a banquet of great choices at the movie house this year, and these flicks made up, in part, for the inexorable sadness of seeing another year slip past.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If time and temperament allow, I might write in more detail someday about one or all of these, but, for the nonce, I’m going to just jot out quick thumbnail reviews of each. These were the kinds of Leonard Maltin-esque blurbs I posted on Facebook a few years ago that prompted people to ask me to start a blog in the first place. It feels right to exercise (exorcise?) those muscles again …

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a return to triumphant form for director Ridley Scott. People have dismissed the film as ponderous and pedantic, but, they are missing the point. Biblical stories are richest and at their most compelling when told from a humanistic/historical perspective. That’s not blasphemy, you ring-dings – that’s inspiration. Christian Bale’s everyman-Moses is a believable portrait of a man at odds with himself and with a society he has outgrown. The narrative of Moses’ uncertain certainty that a new future and a new legacy must be paved for his children and his children’s children is subtly, deliberately told (or as subtle as a CGI-filled spectacle with skies that rain frogs can be). Joel Edgerton (his unfortunate resemblance to Nancy‘s Sluggo notwithstanding) as Ramesses is a fine match for Bale, telegraphing beautifully the earnest indignation of a king whose kingdom evaporates beneath his spray-tanned feet. The film’s key misstep is casting John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh and his Queen. WTF?!? I giggled every time the duo popped a kohl-rimmed eye onscreen. I’m a fan of color-blind casting – and that goes both ways – so I don’t buy into any of the controversy surrounding this film … but those two just stuck out like sore, overpaid Hollywood thumbs in an otherwise entertaining epic.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into the Woods is a perfectly manicured Hollywood treatment of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical. It isn’t as hermetically sealed as the wonderful yet claustrophobic Sweeney Todd, but it does suffer from a similar staginess. Director Rob Marshall can’t quite shake the stiffness of his TV-movie origins as he takes his spectacular cast from live locales to sound stages and back again. Fortunately, he has stacked the deck with a cast to die for. Nearly everyone (with the exception of a wan Johnny Depp as the wolf) rocks it – notably the aforementioned Blunt as well as Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and, of course (!), Meryl Streep as feminist-whirlwind-in-blue-haired-mischief as The Witch. Go for the spectacle but stay for her climactic number “Last Midnight,” which she delivers as a kind of last word tour de force on the B.S. that is Freudian mother-bashing.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Annie is getting a lot of venom it doesn’t deserve. Folks, it’s not a very good musical to begin with. The 1982 John Huston movie is a bloated, abysmal mess. The 1999 Disney TV movie sequel (yes, directed by Rob Marshall – go figure) is an improvement because, like Into the Woods, they cast the darned thing correctly…but the show is just clunky in its bones. So I, unlike many of my Gen X peers, didn’t sweat it that Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decided to produce a reinvented “modern” Annie. (Jay-Z scored a genius hip-hop hit over a decade ago when he sampled the treacly “Hard Knock Life” and turned that song on its square head.) With that said, I enjoyed this latest take on the trice-told tale (not counting the various direct-to-video sequels). Yes, the movie suffers from a kiddie-movie dumbing down of its game stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis. If I saw one more spit-take with a mouthful of food from one of them I was going to scream – not funny … never funny … no one in real life ever. does. that. Stop it, Hollywood. Regardless, the Sia-produced remixes on the classic tunes offer a fun refresh (at least to my Tomorrow-beleaguered ear), and I, for one, enjoyed Diaz’ albeit-hammy-but-grounded Miss Hannigan. (Sorry, I am not a fan of Carol Burnett’s sloppy slurring take on the character in the original film. Another note to Hollywood: fake, floppy drunkenness? Stop it. Not funny.)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Big Eyes? I think we all can agree those forlorn waifs with the saucer eyes are a pop culture trend best forgotten. However, the idea of mining America’s en masse lemming-like attraction to bad taste as a metaphor for cultural atrophy? THAT I can support. Alas, Tim Burton only gets us part of the way. Amy Adams does a credible job as the questionably talented but unquestionably victimized artist Margaret Keane. Unfortunately, the script imports some shallow truisms of Atomic Age misogyny from a very special episode of Mad Men, and Burton lets Christoph Waltz as Margaret’s megalomaniacal hubby Walter chew the scenery into balsa wood splinters. (Waltz becomes more of a Looney Tunes character every day.) Always delightful Terence Stamp gets all the film’s best lines as a New York Times art critic simultaneously horrified, bemused, and validated by America’s collective tackiness. The film has a chance to say some powerful things about creativity and gender and the crush of patriarchal economics … but it just implies them.

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Me.

And back to The Imitation Game, in some respects the strongest of this overall decent pack of films. Cumberbatch, like those saucer-eyed waifs, lets his peepers do most of the talking. His Alan Turing is insufferably arrogant yet heartbreakingly winsome. The ache of his difference, his left-field intelligence, his sheer other-ness is conveyed through those haunted, limpid orbs of his. Keira Knightly (who usually makes me want to throw myself through a plate-glass window) is full of restrained charm. She is the counterpoint to Turing’s existence: another outsider – this time for her gender – whose outsized intelligence is marginalized and pooh-poohed, until these two spectacular oddballs find one another … and save the world. The script is thin at times (confusing at others), but Cumberbatch and Knightly make a crackerjack pair. Their final scene together is both tender and shattering.

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End scene.

Any of my snark aside, all of these films are worth visiting and revisiting. The holidays are always a time of reflection, and the movies can be an important and therapeutic part of that process. We’ve got a week until we ring in 2015, so go spend some time in far off lands or heightened realities and see what they open in your own heart. More from Into the Woods

“Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.