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Genies, Supervillains, Shadows and Smart Girls Gettin’ Nutty in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Genies, Supervillains, Shadows and Smart Girls Gettin’ Nutty in TheatersPhoto still from "Booksmart," via IMDb.
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Aladdin

by George Wolf

Stepping in for Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin was always going to be a thankless task, but while everyone was busy debating the casting of Will Smith, the director’s chair went largely unnoticed.

Could Guy Ritchie, who’s evolved from rough and tumble British crime capers (Snatch) to both big budget hits (Sherlock Holmes) and disasters (King Arthur), capture the magic of Disney’s best live action remakes?

Well, how many wishes does he have left?

The tale of “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) using the Genie (Smith) to get him next to Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) ends up feeling too stiff and self-conscious to ever let some real wonder out of the bottle.

The story arc has been altered slightly, leading to an earlier meeting between Aladdin and the Princess, and a relationship where the stakes don’t feel as high or the changes of heart as well-earned.

Reaction shots and choppy dialog (from Ritchie and co-writer John August) carrying an overly staged, exaggerated odor, while the Genie is plagued less by casting than by the less-than-cutting edge CGI.

Re-imagining the Genie character would have been a risky (but ambitious) move, and though Smith won’t make anyone forget Williams, he is hardly the big problem here. His charm is abundant and a valuable asset for the film, especially when the Genie takes human form.

His singing voice, though, is not strong. And strangely, neither is
Massoud’s, compounding the weaknesses in Ritchie’s bland vision for the musical numbers.

The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are still stellar, but the repeated addition of a new girl power anthem for Jasmine (“Speechless) ranks as forgettable bait for an Original Song Oscar nod.

And while I’m ranting, maybe we could have an extra 30 second buffer to decompress before the ubiquitous cry of “DJ Khaled!” signals an oncoming pop mix for the closing credits?

Even the best directors have struggled with musicals (Attenborough’s misguided A Chorus Line and Eastwood’s limp Jersey Boys jump to mind), and though Aladdin didn’t originate on the stage, the music sequences demand a pizzazz that Ritchie is helpless to present.

He seems much more comfortable with film’s darker edges, and an intensely slimy turn from Marwan Kenzari as Jafar helps the villain’s quest for absolute power find some needed gravitas.

Look, the film still offers some perfectly fine moments of overly manufactured family entertainment that will make many parents nostalgic for the original. But after the live-action heights hit by The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, this Aladdin is a carpet ride missing much of its magic.

Grade: B-

Booksmart

by Hope Madden

Every generation has its pivotal high school graduation film: Superbad, Say Anything, 10 Things I Hate About You, Grease, High School Musical 3.

I mean, not all of them can be classics. Making her feature debut behind the camera, Olivia Wilde hopes to join the ranks of the classics with her smart, funny, raunchy yet quite loving tale of two besties preparing to go their separate ways, Booksmart.

Amy (Kaitlyn Denver) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) approach the last day of high school with a certain earned swagger. Both have been accepted into the Ivy League by dedicating their previous four years to little more than study and each other.

And every other soon-to-be graduate? As Molly’s morning ritual self-help tape says, fuck them in their fucking faces.

So, this movie is very definitely R-rated, FYI. But it never loses a sweet silliness, rooting its episodic adventures in a believable bond between two true talents.

The catalyst for their one wild night? Molly realizes at the last possible minute that her classmates all seem destined for just as much post-high school greatness as she, and they also managed to have fun. They had it all, while she had only study and Amy.

And there is just one night left to rectify that wrong.

From a script penned by four (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman), Wilde spins a female-centric story without abandoning the fun, the idiocy or the laughs you hope to find in this very specific kind of film.

Wilde’s confident direction leans on her leads’ chemistry to drive what could otherwise be a string of sketches. Instead, taken together they provide a riot of color, laughter and misadventure that celebrates sisterhood.

She and her leads are helped immeasurably by one of the strongest casts assembled for a teen party movie. Billie Lourde (Carrie Fisher’s daughter) steals every scene she’s in. Meanwhile Skyler Gisondo and Molly Gordon are both very solid while adults Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow and Jessica Williams all deliver in small roles.

Some of the bits—Williams’s teacher trajectory, in particular—feel too random, an overall tone that occasionally threatens the narrative. But Wilde’s instinct to keep each situation invested more in the friendship than the sketch pays off.

There are definite missteps. For as much thoughtfulness as the film directs toward the emotional longing of its lesbian protagonist Amy, the movie’s gay male characters are exaggerated stereotypes. Disappointing.

Comparisons to Superbad are unavoidable, particularly since Feldstein’s brother Jonah Hill starred in Greg Mottola’s 2007 high water mark. And while Booksmart may not quite hit that target, Wilde’s comedy is the most fun flick to join the party since McLovin and the Lube.

Grade: B+

Brightburn

by Hope Madden

Sort of a mash up of Superman and The Bad Seed, Brightburn wonders what would happen if that special little guy you found in the crashed space ship turned out to be a super villain rather than a super hero.

But this comic book-esque origin story plays more like a straight up horror flick than an evolution of Josh Tank’s underappreciated 2012 SciFi gem Chronicle.

Elizabeth Banks stars as Tori, blue collar Kansasian. (Look it up.) She and homespun farmer husband Kyle (David Denman) always knew the day would come when they had to explain some things to their “adopted” son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn).

While Brightburn echoes Superman in many ways, it’s far more deeply rooted in coming of age horror. It is on Brandon’s 12th birthday that he begins to change. He’s broody, more aggressive — here is where director David Yarovesky (The Hive) and Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin, respectively, of producer James Gunn) abandon SciFi and dive headlong into horror.

And what we find is that, removed of their comic book splash and super hero protagonists, super villains don’t really make much of an impression in horror. Yes, Brandon has basically the same qualities as Superman—heat vision, flight, super strength—and he seems only vulnerable to his own ship (or perhaps any trace of his home planet?)—but the question is, would Evil Superman be that much more destructive than an immortal killing machine who visits you in your dreams? Or a demon from hell? Meh.

That’s not to take too much away from Brightburn. It’s a fun B-movie with plenty of blood and gore. It earns its R rating. Banks is characteristically strong and Dunn does a fine job of moving from sweet boy to flat-affect sociopath.

There are definitely a couple of moments of inspired gore.

Brightburn is a capably made, well-acted piece of semi-schlock horror. It’s also the third film this year to follow a put-upon mother deciding what to do with a son whose grown almost overnight from precious baby boy to burgeoning psychopath.

And while this is a staple in the genre, Brightburn certainly taps an immediate social preoccupation with that moment that toxic masculinity ruins a boy. The film also mines the guilt that fuels insecure parents who had no real role models of their own.

The film doesn’t wind up being as clever a conceit as you might hope — again, Chronicle did it better. It’s not an entire waste of time, either.

Grade: B-

Shadow

by George Wolf

There was a brief interruption, but we now return to the usual mastery of Yimou Zhang.

While 2016’s The Great Wall (Zhang’s first English language film) stood less than tall, the return to his native tongue results in yet another rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

After generations of warfare, the cities of Jing and Yang have been peacefully co-existing in an uneasy alliance. Now, thanks to a brilliantly devious plan for revenge that’s been years in the making, that fragile peace is threatened.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

But seriously, you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.

Grade: A

Non-Fiction

by Hope Madden

Nothing ever changes. That appears to be the sentiment behind Olivier Assayas’s chamber dramedy Non-Fiction, a tale set in the middle of the dying publishing industry, a relic that either needs to embrace digital disruption or die trying.

Or does it?

Hard to say, although a lot is being said. This is perhaps Assayas’s talkiest and most Parisian film to date. And yet, it’s breezy and honest. It’s also cagey and cynical.

What Non-Fiction is depends on your mood, perhaps, because every scene unfolds in about 30 ways. Jubilant performances buoy whip-smart writing that skewers the very platitudes it seems to be promoting.

Novelist and lazy anarchist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) prefers to ever-so-slightly tweak his own daily life and liaisons than create characters and plots. Unfortunately, the audience at large – and his friend and editor Alain (Guillaume Canet – incredible) in particular – have grown weary. Is it even fiction? And do the women so thinly veiled in the works have any right to their own stories?

Does it even matter? Audio books and eReaders are the hot tickets now, or so says Laure (Christa Théret), sent to the publisher to drum up excitement for a digital transformation.

Well, Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche, also spectacular) prefers real, concrete books. She’s an actress coming to terms with bingeable cop shows rather than stage work, except when she’s not.

Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) turns out to be the only straightforward and entirely decent character in the film. The fact that she is a) the only one entirely outside of entertainment and publishing, and b) indeed in politics, allows Assays to say quite a lot about his feelings for the industry.

And as everyone talks and talks and desperately talks about changing paradigms in taste, consumption and art, they are eating, drinking and having sex. Because truly, some things do not change — especially in French films.

Assayas keeps his incredibly verbose scenes aloft with a wandering camera that feels like another guest at the party. Bright, funny, biting performances highlight actors who relish the challenge of bringing the script to life. Binoche is at her slippery best.

Non-Fiction toes the line of being too smart for its own good, of losing its audience for its serpentine commentary. But it never does. Assayas and his savvy foursome are having too much fun themselves for their effort to do anything other than entertain.

Grade: B+

The White Crow

by Brandon Thomas

When I think about ballet and film, I drift toward the easy ones: The Nutcracker, Billy Elliot and The Red Shoes. Of course it’s also fun to throw Black Swan and Suspiria into that mix as well. The visual lullaby of those films is present in The White Crow, but with a dash of political intrigue.

Rudolf “Rudy” Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) has poured hours of blood, sweat and tears into crafting himself as one of Russia’s premier ballet dancers. A prestigious tour of France gives Rudy his first glimpse of life in the mysterious “West.” All at once, this arrogant, naive and inquisitive dancer is thrust into a culture that opens his eyes and reinforces his already rebellious nature. Despite having no concern for his home country’s politics, Rudy is forced to make a contentious choice when those same politics threaten to destroy his career and his life.

On paper, The White Crow sounds like pure, unadulterated Oscar bait. It has all of the trappings: a scrappy young protagonist, a period setting, an actor as director and, most importantly, it’s set in Paris! Thankfully director Ralph Fiennes (yes that Ralph Fiennes – Voldemort himself!) has more on his mind than that short golden statue.

On a character level, The White Crow succeeds at diving right into Rudy’s laser-focused psyche. Dance is Rudy’s life and everything else – including people – exist only on the periphery. He claims to not care what people think, yet he fishes for praise from his renowned dance instructor (Fiennes himself). Rudy’s drive and the enormous chip on his shoulder are born out of his ultra-humble beginnings in rural Russia, and the sense of inadequacy this has instilled in him.

Casting Ivenko, an already famous Ukrainian dancer, adds a level of authenticity that would be missing had Fiennes gone another route. The long shots of Rudy dancing allow the audience to buy into the character’s self-proclaimed skill. The passion and emotion behind his movement pour off the screen.

Fiennes shows a sure and steady hand behind the camera. The movie jumps back and forth in time, and the filmmaker uses this to present each period in a different aspect ratio and style. The scenes depicting Rudy’s youth are shot in “scope” widescreen and use a more classical, static approach. The cold, stark landscape of his youth is brought to life with minimal emotion, but heightened visuals. This is contrasted with Rudy’s story as it moves into adulthood and his travel to France. Fiennes isn’t afraid to let the camera get close – or allow it to become more intimate.

The balance of visually impressive and focused filmmaking, along with deep character analysis, makes The White Crow one of the most interesting dramas of the year thus far. 

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:

The Biggest Little Farm (NR)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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