ALADDIN (2019)

May 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin … come on down!  You are the next participant in Disney’s ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director?  How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a ‘street rat’ and ‘riff-raff’, but he’s also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu – or more accurately, partner in crime – are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors – each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song “Speechless”.

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style … a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let’s talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he’s a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in “Homeland”) as the Sultan and Jasmine’s father.

It’s been 27 years since Robin Williams’ Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It’s a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they’ve been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn’t overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film … though it doesn’t feel too long. Gemma Jackson’s set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful … especially “A Whole New World” and Jasmine’s new song.

With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of “foul”, and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing … and is a nice twist to “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me”. And I’ll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.

watch the trailer:


TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:

 


42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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