ALADDIN and Watching Disney

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I made you look like a prince on the outside, but I didn’t change anything on the inside. Prince Ali got you to the door, but Aladdin has to open it.

I find it harder and harder to form an opinion about Disney movies. 

Personally, engaging in (amateur) film criticism means to go beyond my own emotional reactions to a movie, and instead ask three questions:

  1. “Did I enjoy this movie?” 
  2. “What did this movie want to say?” 
  3. “Did it say it well?” 

With recent Disney releases, and Aladdin (2019) in particular, I don’t think they are genuinely trying to say anything. They are vague platitudes of universal human values or platitudes of specifically American values. However, vague platitudes are not the reason these films get made. They are not projects created to “say something.”

They are created to make money. 

When I watched Aladdin (2019), conflicting thoughts ran through my head as the movie checked all of its plot boxes. I evaluated it on whether I liked it (I didn’t), then I thought: “What is this movie trying to say?” And I got stuck. Don’t get me wrong, the core theme from the original Aladdin “be yourself” is still there and it still resonates. Mostly. It’s harder to accept a movie telling you “it’s what on the inside that counts” when it itself has no soul at all.

Jasmine’s whole story arc is a ‘Girl Boss’ motivation shoehorned into the original. I got the distinct feeling that a corporate board room attempted to ‘fix’ a passive and quiet Princess from the original film. Except that problem doesn’t exist in the original; she was outspoken the whole movie. In the original, she objects when the three men of the film are bargaining over her, she stands up to Jafar consistently, and doesn’t take Aladdin’s shit just in general. In most Disney Princess movies, the sidelined princess trope needs fixing. This clock, however, wasn’t broken to begin with.

Which led me to think ‘well, why? Why are they fixing this?’ And before too long I was distracted by a parrot turning into a huge fucking eagle and chasing a magic carpet through a city. I can’t believe I typed that sentence and I didn’t get excited about it. It was boring as hell.

That was when I realized that this movie is meant to print money. Which is not a novel realization, in fact it came insanely late in the film for me. Though Aladdin (2019) is the best case study for this case.

Aladdin (2019) made over $1 Billion worldwide in box office gross sales, hardly a failure. I understand why it made that much money: Will Smith is a big draw and he was pretty good, Disney cast an ethnically representative cast for the story to appeal to a younger generation that is less white than any generation before it. They added some pep to the songs where they were a little slow. There are some diamonds in the rough (sorry), and so it made a billion dollars. 

Which makes it difficult for me to engage with Aladdin (2019) as a film because the film’s interest in the audience members ends when they buy the ticket or they stream it on Disney+. It needs to succeed just enough for your opinion to bring someone into the theater, or at very least not stop them from going in. Once you’re in there, Disney doesn’t really care what I think about the movie. The film will further succeed once a family leaves the theater with kids begging to buy Aladdin merchandise or see Princess Jasmine at Disney WorldLand. 

I will resist the urge to ramble on in an attempt to defend my numerous frustrations with the film. Not only because Lindsay Ellis says it better. Because adding my voice to the masses yelling about the flaws in Jasmine’s arc doesn’t contribute to the discussion. Nor does a few hundred words regarding Will Smith’s genie really change any minds.

Disney has won this round, again. They’ve announced a sequel movie. They have a $750 doll set for purchase alongside numerous $20 T-Shirts with vague, empowering slogans on them. And they have some guy in DC writing nearly 700 words about their movie. 

All hail Disney.

THE BACKLOG: Marriage Story

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I will say upfront: I am not a child of divorce, nor am I married, or ever gotten close. I don’t have personal experiences with that. That provided me little armor for this movie. It still cut me deep and unexpectedly like a certain pocket knife. It’s sneaky that way.

The scene in particular that did it for me was the Point-of-No-Return Fight. The type of fight that the characters needed. They scorched the Earth between them to such an extent that anything amicable seems lost. In this scene, one character says to the other: “I loved you more than you loved me.” 

I have had those words launched at me like an ICBM. They kept me up for nights afterwards. It is the most poisonous thing someone has ever said to me. To turn the love between two people into a scoreboard… it annihilated me. During this scene, that memory came flooding back to me. If I wasn’t with my family I am sure that I would have broken down sobbing. 

Which is all thanks to the acting. Of course this starts with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. Driver delivers an award-winning lead performance that crystallizes his status as America’s Leading Man. It’s Charlie’s story in the film, and Driver was the perfect conduit for it. The way he commands a room yet portrays such vulnerability at the perfect moments is gut wrenching. 

Those facts also make Johanssen’s performance all the more challenging. In the end, this isn’t her story. It would be easy to make Nicole a villain in the film, given that she initiates the divorce and hires the lawyer that pushes the characters along the warpath. Yet Johanssen makes Nicole grounded and relatable. The choice didn’t emerge from nowhere. 

When Nicole is talking herself into the divorce in the lawyer’s office, she was also convincing me of the divorce. Which sets up a gut-wrenching emotional payoff when she finally realizes the Total War that she unleashed on her life. Marriage Story would not reach the highs that it does without her performance to counterweight Adam Driver’s. 

Performances that are buttressed by the supporting actors. Alan Alda’s grandfatherly lawyer who was walked into a gunfight unarmed, yet still gave us a glimpse into how the divorce could have gone. Juxtaposed violently with Ray Liotta’s bombast as he wheeled in the big guns to the fight that he immediately saw walk in with Charlie. Those guns are leveled at Laura Dern who absolutely killed it. The moment I knew she deserved that Oscar was the small “Mhm” in response to Nicole stating she didn’t want Charlie’s money. Killer stuff. Absolutely sensational. 

Then the final piece to the puzzle is Henry. Good lord that kid is adorable as hell, and if he wasn’t so damn cute I’m not sure the punches of the film would land as hard as they do. As Burt says in the movie “Divorce with a kid feels like death without a body.” 


And Marriage Story makes sure you feel that to your bones.

THE BACKLOG: Lady Macbeth

I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel.

Florence Pugh is definitely the young, rising actor to watch right now. This movie could be so boring and lifeless if not for the simmering anger and verve she brings to every scene. She packs heaps of emotion into a sharp intake of breath, an icy stare, a sip of tea; it’s captivating. Lady Macbeth succeeds because she carries it on her back. 

Speaking of breath, I’ve never encountered a movie that paid so much attention to it. You hear every sharp breath as Catherine jolts back awake, or the passionate breaths during the love scenes, whimpers when someone is hurt, the deep sobs of agony in the last half of the film. The sound team did an excellent job on that front.

Equal kudos goes to the design team because the impersonal sets create a chilly atmosphere that perfectly complements the film’s cold tone. Add to that the stationary observations of the camera: remaining steady when someone stands, their face leaving the frame at the moment they show emotion. The camera doesn’t leave the room with characters, the film has little interest in getting up close and personal because there is scant warmth or intimacy in Lady Macbeth. Only a harsh, cold story. 

Which makes it jarring when the director does switch to a shaky cam shot. William Oldroyd uses the shots well, but they don’t fit the whole scope of the movie. The choices didn’t match up enough with the emotions of the subject, or for the arc of the story. 

The other faults here rest primarily on the slow start to the film. It takes a while to find its feet and get off to a run. Also, it’s initial love scene was a bit problematic, in my eyes. Didn’t make too much sense in the long run. 

I’m always a sucker for stories about slow descents into villainy, and while the jump is a little bit implausible I found it great.

THE BACKLOG: Heat

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

For a movie seriously built up for being Pacino vs De Niro, both on screen at the same time in the same scenes, this really rises to that challenge. It’s wonderful to watch a movie that holds up to expectations. 

Heat is a top tier heist movie, no doubts about it. Not for the actors. It’s for the actual heist and chase itself. There are no serious fuckups that are unbelievable. Both sides are total professionals in a chess game until the end, they slip a little bit a few times, though they recover. 

It is a fascinating watch primarily because of the backstories to each main character, too. Pacino devoting himself to the case while trying to hold together a family. His struggle to achieve that was refreshing because so often detective movies treat the cop as either the perfect school kid in his uniform or the other spectrum where they are a loose cannon or near a criminal themselves. 

Heat doesn’t do that. It portrays a more three-dimensional character. One who cares for a daughter, yet isn’t around enough to put in the leg work to love her every day. And even though it’s cut from the movie, he clearly has a cocaine problem. Not that I’m complaining, it makes the “Great Ass” scene so much more surreal and hilarious.  

In the other coroner is De Niro doing excellent work with the “one last job” cliche, and trying so hard to escape with the girl. And of course the turn when you know that he loses is when he breaks his own rule. He was 30 seconds away from freedom, and instead he turns back.  

This is not to say Heat is a perfect movie. It’s 20 minutes too long, or about 6 hours too short one way or another. Many of the subplots are undercooked, like Natalie Portman’s. Eady’s motivations for getting with Neal are shaky at best, I mean, the man had no furniture. Come on. 

It’s still a hell of a good movie. 

The Backlog: AD ASTRA

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies that I have seen over the past year or so.

The enemy up here is not a person or a thing. It’s the endless void.

There’s a famous line from Parks and Recreation that floated to my mind when I left the theatre after seeing James Gray’s new space saga Ad Astra, which captures the major issue with the film:

Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.

Throughout the two hour runtime, multiple threads get pulled out and abandoned for no reason. One plot thread is the spy thriller about Space Command (Donald Sutherland! Secret Chips on necklaces!), there’s a riveting space adventure story (FUCKING MOON PIRATES! RABID BABOONS!),and then there’s a deep, ponderous movie about deconstructing one man’s cold exterior as he moves to the outer limits of our solar system. There’s even a love story sprinkled in. 

That’s too many threads to pull out and not weave together. If Ad Astra focused on any one of those stories, this would have been a good movie. For instance, if this had been primarily about Roy’s Heart of Darkness voyage in space, that would have been great. A man lacking humanity becomes humanity’s savior as he takes the long journey out to the farthest reaches of our solar system. But we only got half of that movie. 

Space Pirates would have been a better movie.
If only we got more of this movie / Ad Astra, retrieved June 8, 2020 from screenrant.com

First, let’s start with the good. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones put in excellent acting performances. The space cinematography is stellar. From the blue marble hanging above the moon, to the Sepheus moving across the stormy surface of Jupiter, to the Lima Project orbiting Neptune: all absolutely stunning. I loved looking at it. Space is fantastic. 

Even with all the beauty on screen, Ad Astra is dragged down by slow pacing and which is aggravated by the monotonous voiceover accompanying the film. 

For a movie clearing inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, it really took some of the wrong lessons from that movie. The good things about 2001 are not when Bowman is floating through space, breathing heavily as he drifts. Yet James Gray continually shows us Brad Pitt laboring through this world, everything a struggle for him. A slow swim through a sewer. A slow climb down an antennae, a slow climb up a rocket, a slow walk down a hallway before slowing walking down another hallway. There is only so much struggling I can watch before the movie itself becomes a struggle. 

Piling onto those pacing issues is the voice-over, which is the biggest sin in the movie. The story already has a device to get inside Roy’s thinking: the psych evaluations. Why have the psych evaluation in the entire movie at key intervals if you aren’t going to use it to reveal what is on Brad Pitt’s mind? One quick fix is to take 50% of the voice-over lines and instead reveal them during the pysch evals. Have the computer ask a follow up question that forces Pitt to open a window into his mind. Then there is some dramatic tension when we wonder how much is him posturing for the eval and how much of it is actually true.

Ad Astra is an odyssey, an ambitious attempt to become the next epic but, like its isolated daddy, is a failure. This movie drags so hard.