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:

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12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

watch the trailer: