Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin (2019)

By: Kevin Jordan

A problem with your REMAKE!!

As Disney continues to chew through live-action remakes of animated classics with Aladdin as the latest, all I can think is when will it end? The recently released Dumbo came and went with little notice, got panned by more critics than not and, depending on the marketing budget, will be lucky if it finishes in the black. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a wild box office success despite being devoid of any creative or fresh content and lacking anything resembling a soul. Now, we have the new Aladdin, arguably the best pre-Pixar animated film in the history of Disney, getting its turn in the rotation. Disney is betting that people’s nostalgia for the movie in general will outweigh the skepticism of Will Smith stepping into Robin Williams’ shadow as Genie. Ironically, Will Smith should have been the least of everyone’s worries.

If you have ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld or Disney-On-Ice or a well-funded high school, you will recognize the level of performances by actors not named Will Smith in Aladdin. That is not to impugn the good folks at the theme parks who toil away for our entertainment. It is to impugn many of the humans in the movie who had no business being anywhere near a feature-length, $200 million dollar summer tentpole. Not that it is their fault that Aladdin’s casting director watched their auditions while unconscious, but it became almost painful to watch Will Smith highlight how completely out of their league was the rest of the cast.

You’re so pretty.

It would be pointless to talk about the plot since everyone saw the original Aladdin (boy meets girl, boy finds magic lamp, acid trip featuring animated Robin Williams, wish, wish, giant snake, wish, boy marries girl). I do want to mention that there were a couple of nitwits sitting behind my son and me in the theater that were not only chattering throughout the film, but were also gasping at things on screen as if everything in the film was a complete surprise (and one of these people is a press member who also believes it’s cool to scroll through messages on her phone during movies). If it’s too much to ask for you to shut the hell up (and I did ask), at least have the decency to eat popcorn while you do it to ensure a chance that your next exaggerated gasp is your last.

Anyway, since the screenwriters (John August and Guy Ritchie) wrote a screenplay that was as different as night and later that night, I’m going to shine a violently bright spotlight on all of the main characters we know from the original. To start with, our lead actors – Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Jasmine) – were about as flat as you can imagine. Both of them are exactly what you would find in a Disney Channel afternoon TV show. They are both extremely easy on the eyes, but extremely hard on brain. They deliver their lines as if they learned them that morning and have the chemistry of a brother and sister. Luckily, the two of them can both sing, so they aren’t completely useless.

Then, there is Marwan Kenzari playing Jafar, easily the most miscast actor in the film (and maybe in all films this year). Where cartoon Jafar was tall, lanky, menacing, and spoke with a deep, sinister voice, Kenzari looks short, is not menacing in the slightest, and speaks in a somewhat high-pitched, nasally voice. Kenzari seems to have no idea how to play a convincing villain, choosing to pout half his lines through his Jafar-beard while complaining about not being Sultan. He also has a weird thing about trying to start wars with every one of their allies and I cannot help but think that Ritchie (who also directed Aladdin) wrote Jafar as a subtle way to take a few shots at a certain petulant, tantrum-throwing, ally-attacking President. All the more reason to be completely turned off by this incarnation of Jafar.

I’m not even sure you got the beard right.

Speaking of miscasting, Navid Negahban portrays the Sultan. Original Sultan was a dumpling of a man and a bit of a doofus. In contrast, Negahban delivers a Sultan that is that is dead serious. There are no crackers being shoved into Iago’s mouth. He is not gleefully riding Magic Carpet around the throne room. Even when a massive procession introducing Aladdin as Prince Ali comes parading down the streets, Sultan has to be prodded repeatedly by Genie to tap his finger on a rail to display any hint of pleasure. Negahban’s filmography is quite extensive, but I know him from FX’s show Legion. If you haven’t seen Legion, Negahban portrays a deliciously sinister villain, which just adds more confusion to the casting decisions. Apparently, they never watched Legion because Negahban should have been the obvious choice for Jafar. To make matters worse, Disney very recently completed the purchase of FX (among many other former Fox entertainment properties), which means Negahban already worked for them.

For me, the character that was screwed up the most was Iago. Gilbert Gottfried’s original Iago was snarky and devious and delighted the part of us that enjoys playing pranks on coworkers (try switching a couple of keys on the keyboards of people who watch the keys when they type). This new Iago is completely devoid of any personality, despite being voiced by the very talented Alan Tudyk. It is literally just a CGI parrot that squawks words once in a while. I still throw out the line “a problem with your DAUGHTER!” when the situation merits it and I died a little inside when this new Iago showed up (and so did Gottfried).

At least Will Smith is still Will Smith.

On the bright side, Will Smith was really good. I know people were in anguish about anyone following up Robin Williams, but did they forget who Will Smith is? I know he has done some garbage movies lately, but he is still Will Smith. As Genie, he put together a performance that was one part unique and one part homage, perfectly balancing the two to create a new, but familiar Genie. He is fun, he is charismatic, and he is the reason why people won’t walk out of this film.

Sadly, Smith is the only bright spot in this film. All of the old songs are back, which is nice only in that they weren’t butchered the way Christopher Walken and Bill Murray butchered their respective Jungle Book songs. There are also a couple of new songs that sound like they were churned out of the Disney pop-song-inator, which you will forget before they are even over. It is also hard to watch a Guy Ritchie-helmed film that is decidedly not Ritchie-esque (I can picture a corporate Disney overlord smacking him on the back of his neck every time he tried to insert his style). Essentially, this remake takes the charm and likability of the original and shoves it into a wood-chipper. Gee, I can’t wait until The Lion King remake releases.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back and make your kids watch the original. Even Will Smith won’t mind.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

By: Kevin Jordan

Sooooooo worth the wait.

r1_poster

Has it already been a year since Star Wars: The Force Awakens?  It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were all giddily applauding the resurrection of one of the greatest and nerdiest movie franchises of all time.  Okay, maybe not all of us – 8% of critics and 11% of audience members (on Rotten Tomatoes) gave it a thumb’s down and probably kicked a puppy for good measure.  For the rest of us, the countdown to Rogue One began the moment the proverbial curtain closed on TFA because, like the addicts we are, we wanted our next fix.  Finally, that clock has hit 00:00:00:00 and we nerds rejoice.

(I will keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but beware.)

My favorite conversation about this movie right now is the bizarre notion that Rogue One is a standalone movie in the Star Wars universe.  If you have been paying even the tiniest bit of attention, you know that this movie can only be a prequel to A New Hope.  The entire plot is how the rebellion manages to steal the plans to the Death Star and (SPOILER ALERT) you know they succeed because A New Hope opens with Princess Leia hiding those plans in R2-D2.  If you somehow forgot that or didn’t know it, you probably aren’t going to watch this movie anyway.

On a related topic, I predicted that everyone was going to die by the end of Rogue One because of a line spoken in the original trilogy by Mon Mothma – “Many bothans died to bring us this information.”  I would have sworn that this came from A New Hope and I think most people believed that as well (I confirmed this by asking several people about it).  As it turns out, that line was said in Return of the Jedi and was referencing Death Star II.  Whoops.  I’m not going to tell you how right or wrong I was, but I will say I wasn’t surprised at any death in this film because of my prediction.  I’m telling you this so you don’t make the same mistake.  The impressive thing about this film is that the characters were written so well that, even though I was expecting them all to die, I still hoped they would all pull through.  You know what I mean – every time you watch A New Hope there’s a small part of you that thinks Obi-Wan will hightail it out of there rather than letting Darth Vader kill him.

More.

More.

The most important thing you need to know about this movie is that fix you’ve been waiting for is the equivalent of mixing Viagra with Ecstasy while drinking absinthe and consuming edibles – all through a firehose.  There are AT-ATs, AT-STs, and death troopers.  There are TIE fighters, X-Wings, Y-Wings, star destroyers hovering over cities, and the Death Star rising over the horizon.  There is a new snarky droid (K-2SO), a new evil imperial commander (Orson Krennic), a new roguish pilot (Cassian Andor, who is dressed like a Han Solo worshipper), a new orphaned hero (Jyn Erso), and a new guy who might be a Jedi (Chirrut Imwe).  There are even familiar characters making cameos (Vader, to name one) or prominently featured (Grand Moff Tarkin).  It’s so much Star Wars that you’ll practically float through the next year waiting for Episode VIII.

MORE!

MORE!

You also need to know that the action in this flick is fairly limited.  Where TFA was almost non-stop fireworks finale, Rogue One saves almost all of the action for its actual finale.  That doesn’t mean things don’t happen, but not everything is draped in explosions and lasers.  It’s a nice change and gives the audience the ability to really admire the detail and care put it into realizing these places.  In other words, the special effects are so amazing that I’m half convinced that Disney created a wormhole to this galaxy, sent a camera crew through, and is literally just filming what is happening there.  If you don’t get shivers when you see the Death Star rising over the horizon of the planet in the finale…you…I just…bruised puppies.

Aaaahhhhhhhhh. That's the stuff.

Aaaahhhhhhhhh. That’s the stuff.

Another positive of reducing the action is we get to know the characters better and these actors shine.  Jyn (Felicity Jones) is exactly that mix of Skywalker and Solo without being quite as optimistic as Rey in TFA.  Cassian (Diego Luna) is the type of intense character that you now realize has been missing from a rebellion.  Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is just as loathsome an imperial commander as we like, though not as coldly evil as Tarkin, but far more intimidating than General Hux.  Then there’s K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Cassian’s droid companion, who arguably steals the show.  K-2 provides the vast majority of the comic relief, but is also the trusty sidekick (to everyone, really).  Speaking of sidekicks, Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) provide the muscle, with Imwe appearing to be a quasi-Jedi, praying to the force and kicking ass, but with no light saber to be found.  Make of him what you will.  Rounding out the cast, we have Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – an extremist rebel, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – imperial defector, and Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) – Death Star designer.  All three are good secondary characters, though Galen and Saw get very little screen time.  That might seem like too many characters, but Saw was the only one that felt underutilized/underdeveloped to me.

We've been a waiting for you.

We’ve been a waiting for you.

The last thing you need to know is that this movie is drawing comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back and rightly so.  The movie is serious for far more of its running time than its brethren, with only a minimal amount of comic relief (but very well-timed comic relief).  The ratio of action to non-action is perfect for me, though I’ll understand if some folks get a little fidgety through the first half of the film (put the gigantic soda down).  And, again, those special effects…just wow (though one little facial rendering at the end of the movie proves we still have work to do with human faces).  As much as I liked TFA, I liked this one more simply because we got more of the nerdy stuff that we haven’t seen since the original trilogy, but wanted more of (like the Death Star doing Death Star things).  Like I said, the year was more than worth the wait and you will most likely agree.  If not, just leave the puppies alone.

Rating: Sooooooo worth more than the price of admission.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

By: Kevin Jordan

Forget the book.

maze_runner_the_scorch_trials

In the year that has passed since The Maze Runner was released in theaters, I’ve read a lot of books, including all four in The Maze Runner series.  I’ve also read all five Game of Thrones books in that time (yes, I know they’re actually called A Song of Ice and Fire), but that’s a conversation for another day.  Though, it is a fun coincidence that two GoT actors feature in The Scorch Trials (Littlefinger – Aidan Gillen; Jojen – Thomas Brodie-Sangster).  The reason I bring up GoT is because one of the big complaints from some of the GoT book fanatics is that the show diverges too much from the books (they’re wrong).  Well, if they think that’s bad, they should burst into flames at how much The Scorch Trials film diverged from its source material.  As a friend and I agreed – the characters’ names were the same and there was, in fact, a scorch.

The Scorch Trials picks up right where the previous film left off – Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends have escaped the maze and are taken by helicopter to a distant compound.  As they are exiting the helicopter, they are attacked by what appear to be fast zombies and are rushed into the compound.  Inside, they find hot showers, good food, fresh clothes, and dozens of other young men and women from other mazes, and all of this run by a man named Janson (Gillen).  Right away, that’s two things different from the book – fast zombies and lots of other maze people.  So, if you were hoping for the film to at least start out like the book, you will be sorely disappointed.

After a couple of days at the compound, Thomas starts to get angry because they won’t let him see Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).  When another boy shows Thomas a room where other maze folk are taken (they go in, but never come out), Thomas decides to break into the room to find out what’s really going on.  Once in the room, we discover that this movie has ripped off The Island – Thomas discovers that instead of taking people to the safe sanctuary Janson promised, they have put them into comas and are draining a blue fluid from them that can cure the zombie disease (called The Flare).  Also, they are the same organization responsible for putting them in the maze.  At this point, the movie is so far away from the book that it’s not even worth mentioning anymore.

Well, actually there is one thing worth mentioning and then I swear I’ll stop.  In the first movie and book, the maze is considered the first phase of tests they are running to discover a cure.  The reason the second book has the word “trials” in its title is because it’s the second phase of the testing.  But in the second film, they’ve completely written that out.  Instead, the second film is Janson and company trying to recapture Thomas and gang (the original maze group) as they cross the desolate landscape outside of the compound.  Guess what they call that landscape?

The rest of the movie is pretty generic action movie fare.  The group runs into several hurdles, there’s shooting, there’s chasing, there are fast zombies trying to eat them, all while they are trying to make contact with a resistance group called “the right hand.”  There isn’t much else to talk about, though I do have two observations I want to share.  The first is that there is a shot of a bridge that looks like the Brooklyn Bridge and they are in a city that is definitely large.  Yet, after a short walk, they are heading into some rocky mountains that are clearly taller than anything east of the Mississippi River.  Either the filmmakers weren’t very concerned with location or the solar flares that caused the apocalypse were so powerful they made mountains rise up several thousand feet.  This isn’t important, just something I noticed.

The second thing is that there was a very impressive bit of acting in a scene halfway through the movie.  Thomas and a new girl they met in the city, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), are looking for some help at a place that can only be described as a rave.  Alan Tudyk (who is as delightful as ever) runs the party, gives them something to drink, and the rest of the scene plays out with Thomas and Brenda quickly becoming fall-down drunk while searching for the man they need help from.  Salazar and O’Brien do a fantastic job of convincing the viewer they really are drunk, then share one of the most passionate kisses I’ve ever seen in a film.  It’s the kind of kiss that every Twilight movie was missing.  Come to think of it, it was missing from The Scorch Trials book as well.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back if you haven’t read the book.  If you are the kind of person that hates when movies/shows diverge from the book, you probably shouldn’t go to movies ever again.