Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Friday

12

July 2019

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COMMENTS

Wonder Explores the Unique Challenges Presented to Gender Diverse Youth

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Being a gender diverse kid is often a lonely experience. One’s inner sense of self constantly clashes with an outside world that reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with being different. The changing times can hopefully alleviate some of that rather needless turmoil that too many of us have lived through, but Javier Molina’s new short-film Wonder reminds us of the challenges that too many children still have to face.

Sammy (Benji Siegel) is a young boy growing up in the hood, surrounded by the rigid gender structure that has little place for anything other than strict adherence to traditional masculinity. Sammy wants to be Wonder Woman for Halloween, but his interactions with his peers demonstrate that such a path is perilous to walk.

His father Frank (Gabriel Furman) is a typical blue-collar “man’s man,” able to talk sports and the needs of boys entering puberty, but not necessarily the nuances of gender identity. Like Sammy, Frank lives in a world that doesn’t give that subject much thought beyond thinking that anyone who would buck gender norms must be sick in the head. It’s not so much prejudice as it is a more viscerally charged form of indifference.

In many ways, Wonder is a film crafted more for people like Frank than Sammy, parents who never in a million years expected to be presented with a gender diverse child. Parents don’t always get it right on the first try. Without dismissing the angst that rejection, even of the reflexive variety, can cause, life isn’t a one and done game. What matters is the long term sense of acceptance for a child who is just as scared as their parents.

The triumph of Wonder comes from the way it handles a complex subject with a sixteen-minute runtime. This isn’t a portrait of Sammy’s life, but a snapshot of a pivotal moment. It does so with immense grace, though its continued use of homophobic slurs perhaps steps on its broader message late in its narrative. Acceptance is hardly universal, but a parent’s love can make the cold world a little less daunting.

 

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Sunday

7

July 2019

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The Art of Self-Defense Is a Timely Commentary on Toxic Masculinity

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The past few years have shined a light on the notion of toxic masculinity, which has played a role in the formation of humanity since before recorded time. Countless think pieces have been written on “incels” and members of the alt-right in an attempt to get to the bottom of what it is that many men seem to fear in this changing world. As a period piece set in the 90s, The Art of Self-Defense isn’t really about the Trump era, but the present looms heavily over the narrative.

After a horrific mugging leaves him hospital bound, Casey Davies takes up karate in an effort to better protect himself against a world that doesn’t seem to have much of a place for him. He finds community in his local dojo that was absent from his workplace, where he struggled to fit in as an accountant. The real world has its unwritten codes, but the dojo offers a firm sense of structure through its list of rules up on the wall, a code for a soul in need of order.

At first glance, it’s hard not to do an eye-roll at the notion of Jesse Eisenberg playing yet another nervously awkward character. On the surface level, Casey isn’t much different from many of the roles he’s played over the years, but he works exceptionally well for what the narrative calls for. There are plenty of men out there like Casey expecting to be something they’re not, alpha men.

The Art of Self-Defense has an uncanny grasp on comedic timing, a film that makes you laugh out loud when you least expect a joke to come. Eisenberg works exceptionally well opposite Alessandro Nivola, who plays his sensei. The film uses its period setting to craft a kind of parallel reality that’s about as believable as it needs to be.

The film is a timely commentary on masculinity while existing completely outside the present. Director/screenwriter Riley Stearns crafted a narrative that could’ve been written twenty years ago, presenting issues not necessarily in a quest for answers, but to shed light on the destructive habits that society imposes on people who aren’t quite cut out to be macho. Men have been grappling with this dilemma for longer than anyone cares to admit and will likely continue to for the foreseeable future.

While the film excels at its commentary on masculinity, it often seems lost with what to do with Imogen Poots’ Anna, the most skilled student at the dojo. Anna thrives in the male-dominated environment, but the narrative doesn’t have much of a place for her, often squandering a fairly compelling character. The relationship between Casey and sensei makes up the bulk of the film, but it might have benefited from a broader approach to its supporting characters.

The Art of Self-Defense is a wild ride that constantly challenges any expectation one might have going into the film. Stearns crafted a singular world that’s a lot of fun to inhabit, never afraid to inject humor into unsettling themes. The film presents a fresh take on the kind of toxic masculinity that’s been around since the dawn of man, a feat that makes for a delightful summer cinematic experience.

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Saturday

6

July 2019

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Stunning Visuals and a Quiet Sense of Pacing Give Ari Aster Another Horror Gem in Midsommar

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Tragedy can often shine an unsavory light on a person’s true colors, a stress test for relationships that not everyone will rise to the occasion for. The process of picking up the pieces forces one to re-evaluate the remaining strands of a life through a whole new lens. Such is the backdrop for Midsommar, the second film from Ari Aster, who dazzled audiences last year with Hereditary.

Midsommar takes place in Sweden during a summer festival that only takes place every ninety years. For a group of grad students, the chance to tag along with a friend to witness his intimate commune celebrating a tradition little known to the rest of the world is an opportunity of a lifetime. For the outsiders, the secretive cult’s practices are a little more than they bargained for.

Aster’s vision for world building is utterly spectacular. The community he crafted in Midsommar possesses the kind of intricate detail that stays in the mind long after the credits roll. The sets are gorgeous, presented slowly throughout the film in a way that lets you take everything in. The color scheme is also quite beautiful, possessing a calming effect that contrasts well with the sense of horror that slowly unfolds.

The film possesses a strong grasp on the power of dialogue. The second half in particular has many long sequences where the characters don’t say anything at all, allowing the images to speak for themselves. Midsommar often feels like a mixture of a slasher and an art house film, with conventional subplots intertwined with a broader sense of purpose.

Florence Pugh gives a strong lead performance as Dani, a grief riddled young girl trying to figure out the next step in her life. From the start of the film, it’s clear she’s not meant to be with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who takes an interest in studying the culture of the commune, putting him at odds with his classmate Josh (William Jackson Harper). Dani is a bit of a distant protagonist, fitting for a film with a setting that functions as its own character.

With a runtime well over two hours, Midsommar is quite long for a horror movie. There is a purpose behind the slow burn, as Aster moves with a deliberate pace throughout the festival, meant to take place over a nine-day period. The audience is essentially on the same page as the outside students, watching the rituals unfold in a way that feels like real time.

It is perhaps a little too long for its own good, exacerbated by a few subplots that don’t seem to go anywhere and supporting characters who aren’t on screen long enough to make any kind of impact. Dani’s relationship with Christian is a little scattershot, never presented as particularly compelling. The pacing usually works to the film’s advantage, but it could definitely have benefited from a little tightening.

Midsommar is a mesmerizing experience, solidifying Aster as one of the most compelling directors currently making films. It’s the kind of film that’s completely welcoming to its scenery, only to exploit that sense of comfort at every turn. It is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, one of the most delightful films of the summer.

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Wednesday

3

July 2019

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Spider-Man: Far From Home Is the Perfect End to Phase Three of the MCU

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One of the most impressive feats that the Marvel Cinematic Universe achieved in its third phase was the way it made the relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker feel so organic despite their relatively short amount of time on screen together. The mentor/protégé dynamic on display throughout Avengers: Infinity War and the closing moments of Endgame came about as a result of about twenty minutes of footage in Captain America: Civil War and fifteen in Spider-man: Homecoming. Iron Man’s own trilogy had wrapped up within the MCU before Andrew Garfield finished his run as the friendly neighborhood web-slinger.

As part of a giant interconnected universe, Far From Home certainly had obligations to explain the ramifications of Endgame’s earth-changing “blip,” as the film calls it. It can be easy to forget that this film is also the first solo effort in the franchise to have the bulk of its narrative set after the events of Infinity War, as both Ant-Man & the Wasp and Captain Marvel primarily took place chronologically before the massive team-up. The world is a different place since Thanos came to town.

To its credit, Far From Home handles the “blip” thoroughly without letting it become the major driving force of the narrative. Peter, Ned, and MJ, among others, are still in high school, but many of their once-younger peers aged in the five-year gap, creating some awkward classroom dynamics. Set during a European class trip after the school year, the film was able to recapture much of the high school energy that propelled Homecoming while not being bogged down in any of the inevitable post-Endgame weeds spread across New York.

Tony Stark’s presence looms heavily over the narrative. Not only does Peter miss his mentor, but his absence creates a void within the superhero hierarchy that needs to be filled. Nick Fury wants Parker to step up, alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, an enigmatic sorcerer who flies around with a cloudy dome on his head.

As always, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show in all of his scenes, dropping plenty of memorable one-liners as the battle-hardened elder statesman of the MCU. Far From Home allows itself to have a little fun at Fury’s expense, pitting him against the wise-cracking Parker for a dynamic we haven’t seen throughout his extensive appearances. Tom Holland’s chemistry with Gyllenhaal is another highlight of the film. Parker’s youth compared to all the other superheroes has left him without peers among the other Avengers, but Mysterio’s similar sense of otherness provides a suitable counterpart who can relate to his sense of feeling lost after the events of Endgame.

The action sequences are all well-crafted, though Far From Home excels when Parker isn’t wearing a mask. Peter is a grieving teenager lost in a world that’s demanded quite a lot from him in a short period of time. His efforts to reclaim his youth are easily relatable, with a quieter set of stakes that serve as a perfect counterbalance to the time traveling heist of Endgame. Saving the world is fun and all, but sometimes you just want to be allowed to have a moment with the person you love.

The film does a great job handling the elephant in the room, namely the absence of the other Avengers. While some are understandably unavailable, gallivanting off on other planets, Far From Home manages to address any lingering questions the audience might have for what everyone else is up to while the Elementals wreak havoc on Europe. Perhaps the one exception is Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes, who would have been an interesting addition given his close ties to Stark.

Far From Home closes out Phase Three of the MCU with a delightful story that embraces the human toll that saving the world has taken on the friendly neighborhood web-slinger. It’s perhaps a bit overstuffed at times, juggling Peter’s high school adventures with his obligations to Fury, but it’s a fast-paced narrative that delivers plenty of laughs. For those wondering what the future will hold for a world without Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, the film gives you plenty of reason to think this massive universe is going to be just fine.

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Friday

21

June 2019

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Toy Story 4 Is Another Heartfelt Pixar Gem

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Few moments in children’s cinema have been as soul-crushingly devastating as the ending of Toy Story 3, where a college-bound Andy passes on his beloved toys to Bonnie for a new generation of adventures. Whether or not that scene should have marked the end of the franchise contrasts with the notion that the series is unlikely to top that level of emotional resonance on the tearjerker scale. Of course, there’s no inherent reason for Woody, Buzz, and co. to be limited to just three movies, beyond the sense of sentimentality that’s been such a strong anchor for the franchise since its debut in 1995.

Toy Story 4 reigns in its pontification on the meaning of being a toy a bit. Philosophy is still a predominant force driving the narrative, as Bonnie’s new arts and crafts creation Forky straddles the line between child’s plaything and literal garbage. Forky’s diminished sense of self-worth presents a broader question as to the continued purpose for Woody, who tries his best to remain a pivotal piece of Bonnie’s life.

Complicating matters is the return of Bo Peep, Molly’s nightlight and Woody’s love interest for the first two films. Bo has been living life as an abandoned toy, fending for herself and her flock in the absence of a child to care for. The cruel world has been unforgiving to the porcelain Bo, but her continued resiliency sheds light on an unexplored reality for the Toy Story universe. Life goes on.

Absent from Toy Story 4 is the sense of comradery that has defined the series. Hamm, Rex, Slinky, Jesse, Bullseye, and the Potato Heads have been largely relegated to cameo roles alongside Bonnie’s other toys. There’s plenty of humor to be found in the film, but the lack of one-liners from the original gang is certainly disappointing for lifelong fans of the franchise. Forky has a lot of funny lines, delivered by a perfectly cast Tony Hale, but he also sucks up a lot of the attention as the main force driving the narrative. For better or for worse, Buzz Lightyear spends most of the film playing second fiddle to a plastic fork.

Toy Story 4 functions as an enjoyable standalone adventure while serving as a worthwhile epilogue to the series. The series has always been Woody’s story first and foremost, but the seminal cowboy projects much of his anxiety in service to others. Here, Woody is allowed to be a bit more introspective as to the way he’s lived his life. Love is not a linear objective, but life has its trajectories that all of us must adapt to.

It’s a cold reality to admit that there’s a world out there beyond play time. It’s easy to relate to the toys in Toy Story because none of us want to envision a life spent sitting in a box in the attic. For many, we fear growing up because it means we have to say goodbye to the comforts and securities we’ve know. There’s always a tomorrow to be had, even in a dusty antique store.

Toy Story 4 isn’t as much of a tearjerker as its predecessors, but the franchise retains a powerful grasp on the emotions of its audience. Growing up is often sad, but that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. As someone who was about the same age as Bonnie when the original Toy Story came out, these movies will always possess the ability to turn me into a nostalgic weeping mess, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s good to feel, to know that even when life is sad, things will be okay.

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Friday

7

June 2019

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Dark Phoenix Is an Enjoyable, Flawed Sendoff for the X-Men

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For all the ways that 2011’s X-Men: First Class represented a fresh start for the superhero franchise that helped establish the genre as a cinematic powerhouse, the series never really let go of its roots. The majority of the principal cast of the original trilogy returned for 2014’s Days of Future Past, which also served as their do-over sendoff following the lackluster reception to 2006’s The Last Stand. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remained a major part of the franchise, starring in his own trilogy in addition to cameo appearances in both First Class and 2016’s Apocalypse. Deadpool, a character first played by Ryan Reynolds in 2009’s poorly received X-Men Origins: Wolverine, existed ostensibly in both worlds, while shattering the fourth wall in just about every way imaginable.

The X-Men franchise’s timeline is such a splintered mess that it’s hard to call the James McAvoy/Jennifer Lawrence/Michael Fassbender-lead team a reboot, a prequel, or even a second generation. Like Days of Future Past, Dark Phoenix set out to clean up the mess that was The Last Stand, while serving as a farewell to Fox era before Disney takes over the reins. Deadpool is likely going to be only remaining tie to the franchise that first began in 2000, assuming his R-rated humor has a place in Disney’s family-friendly world.

Dark Phoenix is not a film particularly concerned with serving as the finale for nearly twenty years of history. The film is the first with the name X-Men in the title not to feature an appearance from Wolverine. Only four actors from First Class remain, McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, and Nicholas Hoult. Many of the X-Men in Dark Phoenix, including Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, only made their debut in the previous film. The lackluster reception to Apocalypse further complicates the idea that this current iteration of the team is capable of meeting the broader expectations that the franchise’s extensive history has created.

The best it could hope to achieve is a satisfying send off to the four characters who have carried this chapter of the franchise. McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, and Hoult all get their moments to reflect on their journey, even if Dark Phoenix’s broader narrative isn’t really about wrapping up the X-Men. It’s a film about Jean Grey that’s only sort of about Jean Grey. Part of this reflects the reality of Turner’s late entrance into the series, as The Last Stand’s attempt at the storyline featured Famke Janssen, whose earlier take on the character had played a pivotal role on the team up to that point.

The audience simply hasn’t had enough time with Turner’s Grey for the character to feel all that compelling. At times the film feels like it’s relying too hard on the audience’s familiarity with either the character or Turner as an actress, spending little time presenting a case for why we should care about this iteration of the powerful mutant. With obligations to wrap up the franchise, this approach is hardly a bad idea, but the film’s emotional core at times feels completely all over the place.

The narrative ends up working pretty well as a film. The action scenes are quite enjoyable, giving each mutant a chance to work their magic one last time. Jessica Chastain gives a compelling performance as Vuk, the leader of the alien race the D’Bari, who seek to harness the power of the Phoenix after the force destroyed their homeworld. At times, Vuk feels a bit too obligatory as an antagonist, but the film’s preoccupation with X-Men’s own sense of morality is a better use of its time.

At times, the film frames Charles Xavier as its true villain for using his school as a farm system for broader political motivations, a mildly awkward heel turn for McAvoy that doesn’t feel entirely earned given the arc of the character for the past few films. The humans vs. mutants dynamic remains present, but isn’t the true focus of the narrative. Casting Xavier as a manipulator is a means to an end, which is certainly fitting given that this is in fact, the end.

With a runtime of just under two hours, Dark Phoenix moves at a brisk pace considering all it needed to accomplish. The film presents a self-contained narrative while simultaneously wrapping up the franchise’s extensive history. It juggles all of that surprisingly well, with an excellent final act that brings everything all together.

The biggest letdown of the recent X-Men era has been the poor handling of Evan Peter’s Quicksilver, who looked poised to be the breakout star of the franchise after his excellent debut in Days of Future Past. Quicksilver never reached the high of that beautifully shot kitchen sequence set to the music of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and only plays a minimal role in Dark Phoenix. Under different circumstances, Peters might have had a solo outing in the role plus another installment in the main franchise, but Disney’s acquisition of Fox called for this to be the end of the line.

Dark Phoenix was not particularly well-equipped to be the finale for close to two decades of franchise lore, but it makes the most of its truncated circumstances. We barely know these iterations of Jean, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Storm. It’s hardly this film’s fault that the franchise is headed into hibernation before an eventual reboot into the MCU. It’s an awkward goodbye, but an enjoyable movie. McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, and Hoult all deserve better, but they made the most of an imperfect situation.

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Monday

3

June 2019

0

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters Has Too Much Going On

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Decades before massively interconnected universes took hold in American cinema, Godzilla roamed the earth fighting whatever titan parent company Toho could throw at him. Since 1954, the King of the Monsters has battled King Kong, Frankenstein, Mothra and a whole litany of creatures who have spawned plenty of spin-off films of their home. The idea of Legendary Pictures doing a MonsterVerse that includes Godzilla makes plenty of sense, a natural trajectory for the character.

The execution of this broader universe created some unfortunate trouble for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a direct sequel to 2014’s Godzilla. Five years is a long time to wait between installments, especially when so few of the human characters returned. As a character, Godzilla needs no introduction, but King of the Monsters largely relies on the fallout of the last movie.

Newcomers Drs. Mark and Emma Russell, played by Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga, are essentially retconned into the latter portion of the first film, having lost their son in the 2014 attack. The real-world fallout from Godzilla’s last romp through civilization weighs heavily on King of the Monsters, as the characters ponder the morality of what to do with such magnificent yet destructive creatures. Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn reprise their earlier roles, fighting to understand humanity’s role in circumstances beyond our control.

The trouble with having the earlier film play such a prominent role in the narrative is that the film never really seems clear on what it wants to be, too overstuffed with strands of plot to form anything cohesive. Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the Russell’s only surviving child Madison, gives an energetic performance that often feels out of place given everything else going on. Charles Dance’s villainous Alan Jonah finds himself in a similar role, an awkward antagonist that the film doesn’t seem to have much time for.

The ties to the earlier film do serve some useful narrative purposes, allowing the film to get going without much need for world building. Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa is given a few moments to shine, delivering some emotionally resonant scenes that are undoubtedly enhanced by his prior appearance. Between Serizawa and his team of researchers and military personnel, it’s hard to see why the Russell family was needed for the narrative. As a result, the film feels overstuffed with human characters, quite problematic for a film featuring multiple monsters.

Godzilla feels surprisingly diminished in his own movie. Much of the focus is given to Ghidorah, understandable given the monster’s role as the villain, but the title character barely gets a moment to shine. There’s simply too much going on for anybody in the film to stand out.

The action scenes are well-crafted, but there’s too few of them for a film with a runtime of over two hours. The script has a few timely bits of humor, but the dialogue is pretty clichéd and boring. The film didn’t need to do much to create an entertaining experience, but muddled the waters with an overstuffed narrative that failed to leave any kind of lasting impression.

The film spends a bit too much time setting up next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong. While every entry in an interconnected universe naturally needs to set up the next installment, the best teasers tend to be either subtle or at the end of the narrative. King of the Monsters includes numerous mentions of Skull Island throughout the film, a puzzling decision considering the amount of creatures already present in the narrative. Instead of making the audience excited for the next film, the end result makes one feel a bit disappointed that King Kong didn’t make his entrance in this one.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters clutters its narrative with too many loose strands of plot while failing to let its title character shine. None of these iconic monsters needed grand introductions to a public who’s known about them for decades. An enjoyable experience would’ve sufficed. Unfortunately, this film tried to do too much, crumbling under its own excess.

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Sunday

26

May 2019

0

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Strong Lead Performances Can’t Redeem Aladdin’s Empty Existence

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The frequency with which Disney live-action remakes are hitting the theatre can make it easy to forget that the process of creating them requires vastly different individual mandates for each film. A film like the original animated Dumbo only ran for a little over an hour, leaving plenty of room for a live-action adaptation to make its own mark on the material. The animated Aladdin however clocks in at ninety-minutes, a feature-length film in its own right. Guy Ritchie’s live-action adaptation had the tall order of capturing all the key plot moments from its animated predecessor while also giving its own cast enough time to shine.

Ritchie’s Aladdin is bolstered by three very strong performances from its lead actors. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are eminently charming in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. The two have a lot of natural chemistry and give welcoming performances that have the audience rooting for their characters by the end of the first musical number. So far Maleficient is the only live-action adaptation to receive a sequel, but I’d actually really like to revisit Massoud and Scott’s interpretations of the characters in a follow-up.

As the Genie, Will Smith had an impossible task in following the late great Robin Williams, whose take on the character remains one of the most iconic voice acting performances of all time. Smith does a great job in differentiating the two, crafting a character completely different from his animated predecessor. Smith’s Genie is less zany and far less in your face, but he’s still an empathetic figure capable of delivering plenty of laughs.

While Massoud, Scott, and Smith all do an admirable job bringing classic characters to life, the film moves far too quickly to give any of them a chance to breathe. Despite the fast pacing, the film feels like quite a slog with a two-hour runtime. The performances bring their own magic to the table, but there’s only so much Ritchie can do with his film’s organic moments while also serving the narrative of its predecessor.

Jafar might be one of the most memorable villains in Disney history, but Ritchie, unfortunately, diminishes his larger-than-life presence in the live-action film. Marwan Kenzari does a serviceable job playing the character, but he never gets a moment to shine. We learn nothing new about Jafar’s motives and there’s no song featuring the character. He’s the only character who feels smaller in the real world, reduced to merely a narrative obligation.

Ritchie’s Aladdin struggles to find its own voice while constantly serving the narrative of its source material. Like Smith’s Genie, Scott’s Jasmine is a totally different character than her animated counterpart, but the scenes that highlight her personality often feel clunky when mashed together in between recreations of iconic scenes from the original. As a result, the film feels far more derivative than it should, stifling its own sense of originality while trying to juggle too much.

The musical numbers are often entertaining, but perhaps predictably fail to recreate the sense of awe and wonder put forth in the original. The audience knows what’s coming. Ritchie should know that, but he doesn’t do much to trying and recapture any luster. The film is at times far too content to pale in comparison to the original.

Making matters worse is the fact that the strict adherence to the plot of the animated original constantly reminds the audience of how much time is left in the film. The two-hour runtime is far too long for something that predictable. It’s rarely outright boring, but the slower scenes aren’t helped at all by the familiarity of it all.

Aladdin is occasionally entertaining, but the film fails to stand out in any meaningful way. The actors put forth an admirable effort, but they’re not allowed enough opportunities to truly stand out. There are times when the film feels like it’s trying to do too much, but the result is that it feels like it accomplished nothing at all by the time the credits start to roll. Young children might be wowed by the impressive scenery, but the overall experience is regrettably empty.

 

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Wednesday

15

May 2019

0

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Booksmart Is a Hilarious Coming of Age Comedy That Packs an Emotional Punch

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High school graduation presents the template for a rite of passage, the informal end of childhood. The uncertainty of college life without all of one’s childhood friends is scary, a disruption of the long-held status quo. The occasion is ripe for adaptation because it provides America’s youth with a unifying sense of journey, something most of us who grew up in this country have commonly experienced.

Booksmart is a film about accepting change. Amy and Molly are two childhood friends who have done just about everything together, putting their broader social lives aside to encourage each other to pursue academic excellence. Such persistence pays off on the college admissions front, but the high school experience cannot be measured in grades alone. The night before graduation the two set out to hit one last milestone, to attend a high school party.

The highlight of the film is without a doubt the natural chemistry between lead actresses Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. The two are perfect together, presenting the kind of relationship right off that bat that most television shows would need a full season to establish. The ease with which their friendship permeates through the screen accentuates the narrative’s emotional resonance, making it easy for the audience to see themselves at the heart of the film’s conflict.

Olivia Wilde puts forth a strong showing behind the camera in her directorial debut, often framing her scenes in a way that brings out the subtleties in her actors’ performances. Like many adaptations of high school, Booksmart presents a fairly absurd depiction of adolescent life where students live out their wildest Snapchat fantasies, but Wilde keeps even her most outlandish scenes grounded in relatable drama. There are many laugh out loud moments, but the script ensures a certain emotional staying power beyond the humor.

The film takes a careful approach to LGBTQ issues. Amy is gay, a trait that isn’t treated as a point of debate or amusement by any of the other characters. Her storyline has its cringe-worthy moments, but those are crafted out of the awkward nature of adolescence rather than as a product of her sexuality. Amy is treated just like any other character, something that might seem weird to point out if it weren’t for the fact that so few similar depictions of LGBTQ youth exist in American cinema.

For a film that takes place over a twenty-four-hour window, Booksmart does an excellent job in presenting its characters as fully fleshed out individuals, even its rather extensive supporting cast. Billie Lourd and Skylar Gisondo, in particular, portray gag characters that still have depth beyond the humor they’re ostensibly around to provide. High school films can often get by on the sheer reliability of their narratives, but Booksmart stands out for its extensive investment in the journey of its subjects.

Booksmart manages to be the funniest high school comedy in years while never losing sight of its powerful emotional core. Olivia Wilde’s first feature film as a director is a powerful showcase of her talents. Few films are capable of making an audience cringe in one moment and cry in the next, but Booksmart possesses a firm grasp of the messy, often hilarious nature of growing up.

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Sunday

12

May 2019

0

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Pokemon: Detective Pikachu Lets a Convoluted Narrative Detract from an Entertaining Experience

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A live-action adaptation of the massively popular Pokémon franchise always carried a degree of inevitability, with the question of plot serving as perhaps the largest looming question. The main video game series and the anime based on it both carry the same general objectives in catching and battling Pokémon. Deploying a similar storyline for a live-action movie could have been tricky to pull off, as the sight of adorable monsters beating each other up certainly presents the possibility of being quite upsetting to watch, especially for young children.

The decision to center Pokémon: Detective Pikachu around a mystery sidesteps this issue, largely taking action out of the main narrative. Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu is less an electrically-charged rodent than a wise-cracking one, better for laughs than battle. Reynolds is rather amusing in the title role, but such humor feels weirdly out of place in the world of Rime City, far better suited for his other massively popular role in Deadpool.

As a buddy cop movie, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu functions quite well. Justice Smith gives a compelling performance as Tim Goodman, a young man trying to find a place in a world that’s let him down far too often. The narrative doesn’t give Tim that many moments to shine, leaving his overall arc feeling a little clichéd, but the film has much bigger issues than that.

The film takes a remarkably convoluted approach to handling the matter of Pikachu’s ability to talk. As a general rule, Pokémon and humans can’t communicate with each other, but fans of the series will know that there are a few exceptions, most notably in the anime where Meowth talks practically every episode. An unexplained talking Pikachu would not have been much of a plot hole, but the film followed that notion down the rabbit hole to its own detriment.

The mystery at the core of Detective Pikachu is uncomfortable to say the least. Buddy cop movies are less about the destination than the camaraderie enjoyed along the journey, but that’s also assuming that the end goal doesn’t fundamentally change the way you perceive the adventure itself. For some, suspension of disbelief may be enough to sidestep the issues presented, but there still remains the sense that the film opted for a needlessly weird twist that was bound to be divisive.

As funny as Reynolds is throughout the film, after a while, it starts to feel like the film is using his humor as a crutch in the absence of a deeper narrative purpose. At times he feels completely irrelevant to the plot, sounding more like a commentary track than an integral part of the story, which is itself a product of the film opting for a far more complex plot that it needed. Reynolds’ Pikachu is too much of a good thing, never building on an amusing foundation until a clunky attempt to establish some sense of narrative payoff in the third act.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu could have easily made for an entertaining experience without having much of a story. Adorable creatures and Ryan Reynolds are a match made in heaven, but the film unnecessarily burdened itself with a bizarre plot that totally undercuts the movie. Fans of Pokémon will undoubtedly find much to love in seeing all the beautiful CGI, but the experience as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

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