Aladdin (2019)

[3 stars]

Guy Ritchie (Robin Hood) may have rehabbed his reputation in the industry with this remake of the beloved animation classic, but I can’t say he did much for me. I will grant him, and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie), a nod for their re-negotiating the end of the story. But it was otherwise a fairly unmagical journey.

Part of the challenge was that the two leads, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) felt out of place in Agrabah. Their accents are flat American against a rich backdrop. And while Scott has some levels to her, Massoud is fairly empty despite some complex plotting around him. Added to this was the choice for Jafar. Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) is too young and, oddly, not manipulative enough to be believable for me. Jafar should drip smarm so that you understand how he rose to and kept his position of power. That is what makes him so dangerous.

And, of course, there is Will Smith (Gemini Man) stepping into the shoes of the late and glorious Robin Williams. Smith made the part his own, but it still fell short of equalling the iconic performance built out of the storm that was Williams’s brain. But, like many, I don’t think I ever expected him too, and he was smart to not try.

There is something about the escape of animation that allows the fantastical to take on life. Adapting it to live action, even with the tech we have today, is a dangerous leap. In this case, I think misstep. Sure it was pretty, but even the biggest numbers couldn’t match the frenetic insanity and overload of the animation. The result was that they came across as less impressive in this incarnation; exactly the opposite reaction you’d want from an audience. And even some of the character CGI fell short. While the parrot Iago looked relatively real, Abu the monkey looked a tad plastic to me, which kept dropping me out of the moment.

Generally, the entire movie felt like a paint-by-numbers rehash. The new music was also glaringly out of place in feel. I liked the idea, but it didn’t fall seamlessly into the score. For kids who never saw the original, this is probably a magical journey. I wonder what they’d think of the animation that spawned it…would they be as unimpressed with the drawn characters as I am with the live? I don’t honestly know, but I’d hope they’d see the magic of it, even if it wasn’t in the latest on-screen formats. Certainly the original has more humor to keep them entertained.

Tolkien

[3 stars]

Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.

Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.

The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.

Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.

Fall TV 2019

It’s become a tradition in my house to dive into the new TV season and see what’s there and what we can quickly get rid of. To my surprise, we turned off fewer shows before they’d finished than we have in years. Mostly that was because the writing was consistently better than the last several years. But I’m also looking  to see something new in style or genre. There is plenty available on stream that I don’t need 5 hospital dramas on my list…unless they do something unique with it.

With that criteria, no shows made it to my must see list out of the gate either, which is also a first. There is potential out there, but nothing knocked it out of the park. The biggest concern I have for survivors is whether they can sustain the stories and, in at least a case or two, pull me in with good writing even when the characters just didn’t grab me.

As I moved items to the dumped lists, I did start to notice a trend of what I was bouncing, particularly in comedies. The common issue of interesting survivors was even-ness in the the writing and presentation. With comedies, this is the ability to slip from real to broad and back smoothly. Moments of reality keep even the broadest comedy anchored, but if you are whipsawed between moments without purpose other than to get a laugh, it feels too artificial and silly. If it is all broad or all real, you avoid the whipsaw, but also alienate segments of audience. The main point is to keep the experience smooth. It applies to drama as well. Evil, for instance, mostly worked…until the chaos agent came on screen and the whole tenor of the story shifted into a cliche and silly realm. 

By the end of week three, only one new contender remained. And even that may not survive the full season. With that preamble, here’s how it all broke down…

One and Done

Bluff City Law
Wasn’t awful, but had nothing to grab me that was new.
Carol’s Second Act
Weak writing and directing…got old even in the first episode.
Almost Family
It had moments, and an interesting cast, but just nothing to grab me and keep me around.

A Couple and Out

Bob (Hearts) Abishola
This latest Chuck Lorre is clever, but the King of Queens vibe just isn’t my flavor. After two episodes, despite some great moments, I just didn’t enjoy the broader humor that surrounded them enough to keep coming back.
Evil
OK, surprised me with how well it was acted. Writing was a little uneven, and the main battle was quickly becoming tiresome. Without the Emerson role, I might has stuck around out of curiosity. But there is no where good that plot branch can go for me.
Perfect Harmony
Burned out quickly, but was an amusing start with a lot of clever moments. I’m sure this will find an audience, but I’m not it.
The Unicorn
Actually, this is well written and acted, but I know I’m not their audience. Gave it another opportunity to hook me, but it didn’t. Again, I expect it to do well without my viewership.
Batwoman
OK, it didn’t suck, but I see this going the way of most CW/DC shows, which is to say getting boring really fast. I can only handle that earnestness for so long…and while Ruby Rose (The Meg) is fine, she isn’t bringing anything new to the mythos and Dougray Scott (Hemlock Grove) spends his time just shouting. The one thing they did right was that they didn’t try and stretch out a couple of the big mysteries, exposing the obvious in the first episode and continued to admit big things as they went on. In the end, though, just not enough to keep me coming back.
Nancy Drew
Definitely part of the CW DNA of shows. Interesting start, but with an uncertain path forward to keep me interested. The Veronica Mars meets Scooby Doo (or Supernatural depending on how you interpret the story) just wasn’t for me. A shame as there is some talent in there.

Dubious on Survival Despite Some Positives
(assume these die within the next week or so)

All Rise
Snappy writing has been keeping it around, but I don’t see it lasting for me. How many legal dramas do you really need in your life?
Prodigal Son
Hannibal meets Sherlock is fun, but we’ll see if they can come up with long-term arcs and value. But even if they do, the miscasts of  Bellamy Young (Scandal) and Halston Sage (Orville) make it weaker than it might have been.
Stumptown
Like Prodigal Son, this is an anti-hero tale and fairly dark. The PI drama can work if the writing stays as strong as their first couple episodes. Next to Emergence, it is the most consistently written show so far and Smulders is really selling the character. Unfortunately, it is also veering into the realm of “everyone lies all the time” and larger conspiracies. I just find that exhausting and uninteresting as a show, regardless of any of its pluses.

Getting a Bit More Time

Frankie Drake
The complete reboot of this show that started last season really surprised. Now I want to see if they can sustain. It is silly and somewhat empty, but it has a light charm that has kept me around. And with no Miss Fisher on my horizon with my services, it is the only thing like it around.
Emergence
Some sharp acting and mostly good writing and mystery are intriguing, but so much depends on the underlying truths and the willingness not to just stretch out the obvious. So far, so good.

Gemini Man

[4 stars]

Movies, generally, shouldn’t be recommended solely for their technology. But there are exceptions. Avatar, was a lousy movie, but amazing 3D. Life of Pi was a gorgeous fantasy that pushed limits, but wasn’t a perfect film. Gravity took liberties with physics to tell its own (strained) story, but also used the value of 3D in exciting ways. In each of these cases, seeing the film in 2D was a disservice to the director and to the audience. They were conceived in 3D and were intended to be seen that way. You wouldn’t view a statue only as a photograph if it was there in front of you, why should we see a flattened version of story?

Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) attacked Gemini Man very much in the same vein. He wanted to push the value of 3D and to create a new experience for his audience with a high frame rate (HFR) presentation. He succeeded, but far too few people will see the movie as intended. And, to be fair, without 3D and HFR the movie will seem like just a rehash of older adventure film without much to offer. See this movie as intended. It is either the swan song of 3D in movies or the genesis of a new approach and experience.

But let’s talk about the story first. One of the challenges with this film is that the original material had been in development for over 20 years. That sensibility continues to inform it. The studio also didn’t know how to promote it without giving away a huge portion of the plot, so we’re all in on the crux of the tale going in. It’s not as bad a reveal as ruining The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game for someone, but it certainly changes your viewing of it.

Will Smith (Bright) is compelling as an aging assassin and as his younger self. He isn’t just world weary, he is awakening. By his side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Hollars) offers up a solid companion and comptent fighter, while Benedict Wong (Annihilation) helps focus the humor and assist in the action.

Clive Owen (Anon), on the other hand, is a little cookie-cutter in his bad merceny role. There were levels there, but they didn’t quite sell for me. This was as much a choice as a fault and part of the 80s/90s vibe of the overall movie that writers David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), and Billy Ray (Overlord) baked into the script. But the story is exciting, entertaining, and enjoyable…just not revelatory for spy thrillers.

Now let’s get to the technology layer that brings this film over the top. First off, the digital Will Smith came across as completely real for me. However, I saw Gemini in a modified HFR 3D (60 fps/2K resolution). Unfortunately, only four theaters in the country can show the fim as intended (120fps/4K resolution)…and I envy those that could see it that way. Why? Because at even at half the rate and resolution of the intended viewing, it was astounding. The clarity was jaw dropping. The action was visceral. The use of 3D was mostly carefully selected to enhance the tale. The movie literally jumps off the screen putting you in it at points. HFR tricks your brain into making it feel real. Typical films keep you at a distance at 30fps. Your brain sees it as unreal. But at 60fps it can’t always tell the difference.

It does cause some cognitive dissonance. At least for me, when there were extreme closeups, putting giant heads into frame, my brain balked at the relative perspective issues. But action sequences were like being on a roller coaster. No motion sickness, but you do feel like you are strapped in with the characters. The point is that the tech doesn’t just make it all pretty (though wait till you see the water scenes) it changes your experience of the film.  An interview with Lee goes over some of the technology and story aspects if you want it from the horses mouth.

Go see Gemini in HFR 3D if you can. It is fun and it is something you haven’t seen before, unless you were fortunate (or unfortuanate, as some have claimed) to see The Hobbit in its HFR release. In 2D, Gemini probably will leave you a bit underwhelmed because half the story and experience won’t be there for you.

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Joker

[5 stars]

Holy Makeover, Batman! Whatever you think this movie is, whether from trailer or your knowledge of the DC universe, you’re wrong. This is a complex tale of psychology and humanity, of society and sociology. It is dark as hell, but worth every moment you spend with it watching the world mold the iconic character into the villain we thought we knew. It isn’t a comic book movie, though it is, in all fairness, an origin story.

The Joker himself has had a parade of notables behind the make-up. The character has become the modern equivalent of Hamlet for actors in the current age. Each has made his mark, even rising to Oscar worthiness…and we may be there again with Joaquin Phoenix (An Irrational Man). Phoenix is the movie, even with Frances Conroy (No Pay, Nudity) and Robert De Niro (Last Vegas) hanging about in key roles, and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) supporting him.

But Phoenix would have been nowhere without his director and the script. Admittedly, Todd Phillips is not a director I would typically run to see but, with co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), Joker is one of the most gripping and well-crafted films of the year so far. It gets that distinction because it isn’t really about the Joker. Even though it is his origin story, that isn’t all it’s about. In fact, in many ways they have delivered a darker and more ironic V for Vendetta. In other words, the timing couldn’t have been better for this particular story. And I haven’t even touched on the craft of how well they made NYC/Gotham in the 70s live again.

Joker joins The Farewell on my list of the top movies this year. I’m willing to put my money on the table and say it will be nominated pretty much across the board: actor, director, script, production design, costumes, editing, and possibly sound as well. It isn’t 100% perfect, and we could quibble about some of the choices, but it is so close that it doesn’t matter if there are blemishes. Make time for this; just strap in and be prepared for the darkness.

Maiden

[3.5 stars]

Back in 1985 there were barely any women involved in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as The Ocean Race after a series of changes in sponsorship). Tracy Edwards was one of them. Her first experience with the chauvinistic wall she hit convinced her that the only way to be respected and get the opportunities she wanted was to put together her own crew and sail her own boat in the race. In 1989, she did just that with a crew made up solely of women.

Director Alex Holmes tells the story of the Maiden as well as the very personal journey of Tracy herself. One of the most amazing aspects of the film is how much original footage from the race, on the boat, that they had. Much like Free Solo, at some point you’re just as amazed that someone was taking the images as you are with the people in the situation.

While the story is fairly simple, the documentary pulls you along expertly, making you hope and gasp and shout…not to mention feel a sense of joy. It is a film every young woman must see but it speaks to everyone who has ever had what others determined was an impossible dream.

Pet Sematary

[3 stars]

Unlike It, Pet Sematary is a very simple, straight-forward bit of Stephen King horror. That made it a fun read and and kitschy movie in the 80s (when King’s brand was both riding high and getting generally destroyed by Hollywood), but it doesn’t give it a lot of meat for what is just a clever retelling of The Monkey’s Paw.

But there are some nice effects employed, and a few moments to make you jump. Fortunately, the real focus was on suspense rather than splashy gore and cheap surprises. Jason Clarke (The Aftermath), John Lithgow (Late Night) and Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant) have been given some intense backstories to help drive the tale, but none are really effective. However, the young Jeté Laurence (The Snowman) makes a solid impression and has great fun through her arc. In fact, the little blighter can put on an angry face that will freeze your blood.

Co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer did a fine job with their actors and the visual telling of the story. But it was still a simple story that may have worked better as a one hour drama than a 100 minute feature. Jeff Buhler’s (Nightflyers) script tried to provide depth, but it all felt rather forced. However, it managed to maintain the original material’s intent while still finding its own way…eventually.

I’ll admit that by the time the movie diverged radically from the book, I had sort of checked out emotionally, which was a shame. The last 10 minutes are mostly predictable, but very well done. And the final frame is delightfully chilling. It isn’t the best film, but if you’re a fan of King’s ouvre, it’s a nice translation from the book. I think it is mostly hurt by its timing against It and even Us, Halloween, Hereditary, or Get Out, that are moving the horror genre into a more complex space even when staying squarely in their box.

Greta

[3.5 stars]

Up for some intense suspense and a truly well-done, credible stalking movie? Then you’re in luck. Chloë Grace Moretz (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) spars with the wonderful Isabelle Huppert in this story of friendship, loneliness, obsession…and just a little insanity. It is a fun tango of pain and desired connection.

With Maika Monroe (Tau), the three form and interesting triangle of female empowerment and connection. There are also Colm Feore (Umbrella Academy) and Stephen Rea (Utopia) hanging about the edges of their story, but it is the women who drive it all. And though written by two men, the script rarely falls into the trap of making them stereotypes. Each is strong in their own ways.

As both co-writer and director, Neil Jordan (Byzantium) is in his element with intense relationships and tales of suspense. He and co-writer Ray Wright (The Crazies) helps pull you along through small moments and decisions, each adding up to inevitable danger and tragedy. It really is one of those films you cringe through as it unfolds in the only way it can, but that you’re unable to look away from because you have to know how it will resolve. But that very tension is why it may not be a movie for everyone, even though it is done well. So, tackle this one only if you can stand the stress.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…