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Mulan (2020)

The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.

I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.

If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.

Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.

There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?

Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.

Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).

After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.

Nate’s Grade: C

Downhill (2020)/ Force Majeure (2014)

I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.

Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.

Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).

That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.

Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.

The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.

Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.

Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.

Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.

Nate’s Grades:

Force Majeure: B+

Downhill: B-

The Lion King (2019)

Ever since the run-up of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’ve been predicting what would happen with the newer films, and it all seems to be coming true. The problem with Disney remaking hit animated movies from the 80s and 90s is that there hasn’t been enough distance. The immediate audience is going to demand their nostalgia exactly as they remember it, and they will not be happy with anything less. It’s not like a scenario where the original movies could be improved upon, like 2016’s beautifully tender Pete’s Dragon. What these live-action remakes offer is an uglier, inferior version of an animated classic. There’s no reason for most of them to exist. They won’t be different; they won’t be interesting. It’s a sludgy, auto-tuned cash grab that shows no end in sight. Before this year, I did not expect Tim Burton’s Dumbo to be the best of the three 2019 Disney live-action remakes, but here we are. I guess the concept of Disney eating its own tail with these live-action remakes is symbolic of the studio “circle of life,” and the perfect segue way to The Lion King, a remake missing the wonder and magic of the 1994 original.

King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) rules over an African prairie and preparing his young son Simba (JD Mcrary and Donald Glover as an adult) for his eventual rule. Mufasa’s scornful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba banished. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away and finds kinship with a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). They preach a carefree life of “no worries.” This new life is interrupted when Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), Simba’s childhood friend, returns seeking help to remove Scar from the throne. Simba must confront his fate and treacherous uncle and bring balance back to his ailing homeland.

The biggest appeal of director Jon Favreau’s Lion King remake is the stunning special effects. It’s been ten years since James Cameron brought to life a photo realistic alien world that dazzled audiences, and the advances have only made the professional fakery more startling. This movie was completely “filmed” inside a computer. Every single shot, every blade of grass, every pebble, every photo realistic morsel onscreen is the result of digital wizards. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, there were still some physical elements filmed, chief among them the human boy, but now it’s all done away. The remake looks like an HD nature documentary. One could question the use of the technology, $250 million to recreate what ordinary cameras on location could achieve, but I’ll choose to congratulate Disney and Favreau on the remarkable technical achievement. The Jungle Book was a big leap forward and The Lion King is that next step. However, the special effects are ultimately the only selling point. Come see how real it all looks, kids. The rest of the remake left me feeling unmoved and occasionally perplexed.

This is an almost exact shot-for-shot recreation of the original movie. It made me think of Gus van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake and why anyone would go to this much trouble to make a copy. You’ll feel a tingle of recognition with different shots and scenes and then that feeling will transition to disappointment and lastly resignation. It’s the same, just not as good.

So what exactly is different with the live-action Lion King of 2019? Very very little. Despite totaling a half hour more movie, it really only has one added incidental Beyoncé song, a small character beat where Timon and Pumba explain their philosophy on more fatalistic terms, an explanation how Nala left the pride lands, and more poop and fart jokes. The filmmakers have added realism in appearance but also added more scatological humor, which seems like an odd combination. There is a literal plot point attached to giraffe poop. Instead of a whispery feather, petal, whatever finding its way to the baboon Rafiki to let him know Simba is still alive, now we watch the life of a tuft of fur as it travels from creature to creature, at one point being consumed on a leaf by a giraffe. The next image is a ball of poop being rolled by a beetle with our tell-tale tuft of lion fur. I guess it’s more emblematic of the whole “circle of life” theme, but I didn’t think Disney was going to literalize the poop aspect. The new Beyoncé song is fairly bland and unmemorable. That’s it, dear reader. Lion King 2019 is 95 percent identical to Lion King 1994 in plot, and yet the original writers do not earn a screenwriting credit thanks to arcane animation writing guild rules, and that is madness. It’s their story, it’s their characters, and it’s almost entirely their dialogue, and to not have their names rightfully credited where they belong is wrong.

There are some definite drawbacks to that photo realism as well. When lions and other animals are photo realistic, they have facial structures that don’t exactly emote, so it looks like all the animals often just have their jaws wired shut. You’ll listen to the vocal actors go through a range of emotions and watch these plain, unmoved faces that you start to wonder if maybe all of the dialogue should have just been voice over. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. I never got over it and it made me feel removed from the film, even more so. This is the trade off of realism; animals don’t actually speak, you know. Another trade off is that the film becomes much more intense especially for younger kids. I would not recommend parents take the littlelest ones to this movie because now, instead of watching a traditionally animated band of characters brawl, you’re watching realistic lions and hyenas scrape, claw, and hurl one another to their deaths. If kids were traumatized by parts of the original movie, I can only imagine the nightmares that await. Strangely, the photo realism also mitigates the film’s sense of scope and impact. The stampede sequence feels far less dangerous because the camera doesn’t pull back that far, showing a massive herd from a distance. Subsequently the sequence loses some of its urgency. Then there’s also simply identifying who may be who when those fights come, because you’re trying to pick out realistic animals instead of distinct creatures with specific character designs.

The aspects you enjoyed with the 1994 Lion King will still be enjoyable, even if they suffer in direct comparison. Hans Zimmer’s score is still magnificent. The songs are still catchy, though some of the arrangements are a bit under-cooked, like the speak-sung “Be Prepared.” The song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” occurs absurdly early in the Simbla/Nala reunion and takes place in the sunny afternoon. So much for “tonight” (the famous Nala “bedroom eyes” moment is also quite diminished from a real lion’s face). The jokes are still funny because they were funny the first time. The things that worked the first time will still work to some degree, even if the presentation leaves something to desire. Several of the vocal artists just sound flat, especially Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) who comes across so blasé. I missed the casual menace of Jeremy Irons. The best vocal performances belong to Eichner (Difficult People) and Rogen (Long Shot), maybe because they’re already broad personalities, or maybe because they felt the most comfortable to occasionally steer away from the original script, finding small room to roam. Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) also delivers a snarling and effective performance as one of the hyena leaders, Shenzi. They’re the only vocal performances that fare well in competition.

I need to defend the art of animated films. There is nothing wrong with animated films simply because they are animated. A live-action version is not better simply because it’s more “real.” I hear this same argument when it comes to making a live-action anime. Animation is a wonderful medium and has a magic all its own that often live-action cannot emulate. The animated Lion King is beautiful with bold colors, strong visual compositions, and emotive characters with specific designs. The live-action Lion King is missing much of that, at least when it’s not recreating exact shots from its predecessor. I don’t know who this movie is going to appeal to. Parents will be better off just playing the original for their children at home. Die-hard fans of The Lion King might enjoy seeing their favorite story told with plenty of cutting-edge special effects magic. I would have been happier had the filmmakers attempted something like Julie Taymor’s transformative and ground-breaking Broadway show. I would have been happier had they just recorded the Broadway show. The new Lion King is a lesser version of the 1994 movie, plain and simple, and if that’s enough for you, then have at it. For me, these Disney live-action remakes are making me feel as dead in the eyes as a photo realistic lion.

Nate’s Grade: C

Aladdin (2019)

aladdin_ver2I walked away from the new live-action Aladdin feeling less agitated than I did for the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and I’m trying to determine whether that was because this was a better interpretation or simply because my expectations have now been calibrated to know what to expect from these remakes, namely an inferior version of an animated classic. I’ve written about it before, recently with Dumbo, but the problem with the recent spate of live-action Disney releases is that they are too new, too beloved, and thus the audience is beholden to their nostalgia and resistant to dramatic changes from those original movies. The audiences demand fidelity over creative liberties. Without much attempted change, the finished versions end up feeling like big screen cover bands, going through the motions imitating the famous predecessor but ultimately reminding you how much more you’d rather be watching that original. I felt it with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast and now I’ve felt it again with the 2019 Aladdin.

The plot should be familiar to anyone who grew up with the 1992 classic. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is an orphaned street thief (“street rat”) who runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), a woman yearning to have a life on her own terms rather than being sold off via marriage. The evil advisor Jafar (Marwin Kenzari, a surprise highlight) is after a special hidden treasure, a long-lost lamp said to house a wish-granting genie. Aladdin is entrusted on this mission, gets trapped, and meets Genie (Will Smith), a boisterous figure trapped by the laws of the lamp. He must grant his new master’s three wishes, with some limitations. Aladdin wishes to become a prince and impress Jasmine, but he must withhold the truth, or so he feels. What rich woman could fall in love with a poor theif with nothing to offer but his heart?

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So does the new Aladdin bring anything new and improved? It does sport a more feminist-friendly message and a more active Jasmine, who wishes not to simply be a free-minded princess but her people’s sultan, taking on the responsibility of leadership. It’s a nice addition that makes her more integrated into the story and developed. Unfortunately, Jasmine is also the recipient of the newest songs and they are, in a word, dreadful. They have little life to them or are crushed to death by simplified intentions, like when Jasmine storms around in a quasi-dream sequence belting how she won’t be silenced by the sexist men of her kingdom (the song is called… “Speechless”). It’s a pretty tuneless number and it doesn’t help that the entirety of it feels screamed at the audience. The portraits of Arabs aren’t terribly improved. Thirty years later and much of the story is still built around rather stereotypical depictions of heroic and villainous Arabic figures, though the movie seems to also be influenced by neighboring Bollywood. It just feels like there were some areas the filmmakers could have updated in the ensuing 27 years, but perhaps again they were too hesitant to not anger their core audience of fans.

Guy Ritchie (Snatch, King Arthur) was a strange choice when he was tapped to direct and, having seen the finished product, he shows no feel for musicals whatsoever. It’s a surprising realization considering his background in action and crime movies, genres that likewise rely upon a heavy understanding of choreography, use of screen space, editing, and furthering plot with action. It’s apparent very early, by the time we segue into “One Jump Ahead,” that this is going to be a tepid experience devoid of a sense of energy and style. Ritchie isn’t a bland director even in his bad movies, but his Aladdin feels like a for-hire gig where he has mitigated any stylistic flourishes. Aladdin is also a mystifying 38 minutes longer than the original cartoon and yet feels far more rushed. Even the song numbers feel like we’re speeding through them. The signature showstopper “A Whole New World” feels less than revelatory as we quickly traverse the city at night, muddy colors making the magic carpet ride less than magical. The entire movie feels weirdly paced and awkwardly developed, rushing to hit familiar plot points and yet paradoxically taking longer to do so. I’ll say that it doesn’t feel like a movie that runs over two hours long.

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There is a middle portion of Aladdin becomes something like a fantasy version of Hitch, a romantic comedy where Smith was playing the confident wingman to an awkward foil. This is the only part of the film that feels like it’s settling down and giving the characters time to develop in a more organic fashion. The interplay between Aladdin and the Genie is entertaining and Smith puts his smooth charm to maximum effect during this sequence. The filmmakers even add a love interest for the Genie himself played by Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live), and this allows him to put his own advice to the test and stumble in the game of affections as well. It’s quite reminiscent of Hitch but it made me smile and laugh more than any other part. It also felt like the one portion of the film where it was staking out its own identity and utilizing the talents of its own cast. I wish the entire movie had been retrofitted to be an Arabian Hitch of old.

Nobody can replace Robin Williams’ iconic performance as the Genie, but Smith is a mighty fine choice for a replacement. His effervescent charm cannot be killed but it can be dulled, and too often the new Aladdin feels like it’s misusing the man’s many natural talents. Smith has a very shaky singing voice, and I was wincing in the opening minutes as he began to warble “Arabian Nights.” Oh no, I feared, what have we gotten ourselves into? Smith is no stranger to musical performances but his career is in rap, so I was expecting the Disney folk to re-imagine several of the songs with a more contemporary hip-hop angle to play to his strengths. They do not. The best performance is easily “Prince Ali” with its propulsive drive that Smith stakes full command of like the head of a drumline, slowing the tempo down and asking for participation from the sultan in order to ramp things back up. It’s a fun moment and made me wish the songs (with brief additional lyrics by the team behind The Greatest Showman) had been allowed to stray further and discover new angles that make better use of this version of this story. Also, the special effects make his blue genie look horrifying and should have been scrubbed as soon as somebody first saw him as a blue Shrek creature.

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The highlight performer for me was Scott as Jasmine, an actress that first caught my attention as the Pink Power Ranger in, what else, the big-budget Rangers reboot. She demonstrates the most range and has an immediate presence; her Jasmine seems to be holding back, always wary, always assessing, and knowing more than she lets on. It feels like a more politically astute figure that can still give in to carefree moments of jubilation. Her singing is also pretty good even if she’s saddled with the worst solo songs. It’s not her fault that her onscreen lover seems to have better chemistry with Smith than her.

The new Aladdin does have some of its own virtues. The costumes are gorgeous and the sets are carefully crafted, making the world feel lavish and real and often stunning. Smith is still a charming performer and Scott feels like a great pick for a character given more agency. I enjoyed that Jafar is given a new character inferiority complex about being second best, and this is better used to fool him into his downfall. Even a less accomplished rendition of great sings reminds you that they are still great. Likewise the story is so well constructed that it’s hard to completely mitigate its delights and payoffs. The 2019 Aladdin is everything you expect from it, though possibly less, and it never truly justifies its own existence. There are moments to tantalize what a slightly different big screen revitalization could have been, like its rendition of Hitch. If you’re a super fan of Aladdin, it might be enough to get you over the rough spots. However, if that’s your starting point, I would advise staying home and just watching the superior and shorter version.

Nate’s Grade: C

Miss Bala (2019)

At the start of 2019, there were an amazing three Hollywood remakes of foreign films released. It was a peculiar time where we had the American version of France’s global hit The Intoucheables (The Upside), the American version of Norway’s quirky and violent In Order of Disappearance (Cold Pursuit), and the American version of Mexico’s searing beauty pageant crime thriller, Miss Bala. The films didn’t seem like a studio dump job, the new regime quietly dropping doomed movies into the early months of the year to go hopefully unnoticed. The Upside was a $100-million grossing hit, once again proving the durable and international power of that story. The remake I was most concerned about was Miss Bala, which looked via trailers to have strayed so far from the original. It felt like a potent and tragic movie was being turned into an empowerment vehicle, pretty much flipping the artistic intent of the 2011 Mexican original.

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a pageant makeup artist visiting her good friend in Tijuana. The nightclub they’re in becomes a scene of gag violence and Gloria is a reluctant witness to who was responsible. As a result, the cartel gang kidnaps her and forces her to do their bidding, including unwittingly driving a car full of explosives to a DEA safe house. Gloria is forced to be a DEA informant, a courier for the cartel, and all the while she’s searching to find her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). By the end this new “Miss Bala” (“bala” means bullet in Spanish) will be forged by fire and find her strength to fight.

This is a very different version of the Miss Bala story, and for the purposes of this review and critical clarification, I think it would be helpful to reprint my brief analysis of the 2011 film for easier comparison. So here is my 2011 review in full:

Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film Oscar entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.”

That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right? It is and is worth checking out regardless of your feelings for the 2019 Miss Bala. The original protagonist was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result she became a pawn in a larger game of leverage between warring factions. Her entire goal was to simply escape the terrible danger she was in, but every refuge just put her back into the fray or used her for their own devious purposes. The protagonist wasn’t completely passive since she’s constantly reacting to the dangers and dangerous men around her, assessing her ability to escape, who she can trust and when, but she is decidedly less empowered.

That is the biggest divergence with the 2019 Miss Bala, making our protagonist an empowered woman who struts in slow-mo in a ball gown and an automatic weapon, the kind of image you’d see in any number of schlocky Michael Bay action thrillers. Over the course of her harrowing experience, Gloria becomes a Strong Woman, a Fighter Who Fights Back, whereas the protagonist of the 2011 film, Laura, was just trying to be a Survivor first and foremost. There’s a distinct difference in intention and execution there. One is curated with more realism and the other becomes a revenge fantasy. One is meant to disquiet and jar a crowd and the other is meant to be a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser.

I’ll admit there was less action in the 2019 Miss Bala than I had feared from the commercials. However, the action that does occur is indistinguishable from other bigger budget crime shootouts. You’ve got grenade launchers, exploding cars, nightclub shootouts, and other cliché moments handled in relatively cliché ways. There is a final confrontation between Gloria and one of her chief antagonists that includes the line, “I did what I had to do. We both did!” I’m stunned they didn’t feel the need to have the villain denote, “You know you and I are not that different.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly certain this scene did exist between these characters, with the guy talking about his American upbringing as a means of making connections with her. What I’m ultimately saying is that 2019 Miss Bala kind of misses the point of 2011 Miss Bala. It’s like using the Iron Giant, a figure of pacifism (“I am not a gun”) into a weapon of war (ahem, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One).

But why don’t you judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply comparing it to its superior source material? That’s a reasonable argument so allow me to do so, dear reader. The new Miss Bala doesn’t work as the fist-pumping crowd-pleaser because it doesn’t know what to do to build its tension and escalation. Take for instance a scene after Gloria is taken in by a rogue DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and told she works for them now. She’s sent back to the clutches of the cartel and then alone in a bedroom with a leader. This guy tells her to start taking off her clothes. It’s certainly an uncomfortable moment, and the camera weirdly lingers on Rodriguez’s breasts as she’s about to remove her bra, but the scene is merely a scuzzy guy wanting to see her skin. What if she was wearing a wire or had been hiding something from the DEA, and then removing her clothes would put her in far more danger than being uncomfortable? To further hammer this home, we have a second scene where he acts sleazy to her, touching her and making her uncomfortable, so why do we need two scenes of this making the same point?

The Gloria of 2019 Miss Bala is also a bit too predisposed to be that figure of empowerment in the face of dismissive and dangerous men. Again, nothing wrong with this storytelling perspective, it’s just the film makes it so obvious and clunky at every turn. Within the first minute of screen time, we see Gloria apply her artistic skills at home, go to work, and be dismissed by a snooty male pageant worker telling her, “We’re not paying you to think.” So, as you can see, subtlety is going to be this movie’s strength. Within the next few minutes she travels to Mexico and gets a friendship bracelet from her BFF and she declares, “You are my family.” Again, subtle. Once the club attack goes down, Gloria’s mission becomes finding her missing friend who she assumes is still alive. In the original (here I go again), the protagonist was only interested in escaping and staying alive, and here we have a main character that must save others. The problem with this development is that the movie, like the above described scene, doubles down needlessly. Gloria is already threatened by the cartel that if she escapes they will harm her godson. Why does she need two personal reasons to stay in the thick of the cartel? She already has the DEA pressuring her to do their bidding or else she’ll never find her way back to the United States. The extra conflicts don’t feel like escalations but more like redundancies.

Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) is the best thing going with the 2019 Miss Bala. She is a luminescent actress with skills and was unrecognizable for her in Annihilation. The best thing director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) does is train her camera closely on Rodriguez’s face to gauge the pained, panicked expressions playing out across her very expressive face and glassy eyes. Rodriguez is a real talent who can carry herself in an action vehicle (her muscular turn in Annihilation was a genuine pleasure). She could headline an action movie, but this isn’t the one for her. Her desperation and fear gives way to a quiet confidence that loses the “quiet” part as she undergoes a slow-mo action hero transformation when the movie needs her to zip to the end of her character arc.

I would thoroughly recommend the 2011 Miss Bala for fans of thoughtful, intense, and affecting thrillers. The paranoia and dread were strong throughout that combustible movie that had more on its mind than some cheap thrills. Comparatively, the 2019 Miss Bala remake feels only designed for cheap thrills and a misguided empowerment message. As the main character is turned from a survivor into a fighter, the edges smooth out, the complexity gets distilled, and the movie becomes any other number of action thrillers where our fragile, scared character becomes an avenging angel by the climax. If that’s your recipe for an enjoyable movie, 2019 Miss Bala still has problems with its execution and poor development. You won’t regret watching the new Miss Bala but your time would be better spent watching the original film and hoping better for Rodriguez.

Nate’s Grade: C

Pet Sematary (2019)

I already know my computer’s spell check is going to hate this review. In the wake of the box-office bonanza of It, prolific author Stephen King is a hot property once again for studios and everything old is new again. Pet Sematary (yes it’s intentionally misspelled) is a remake of a 1989 that was a hit back in the day. It was never regarded as a good movie but had its campy entertainment, so there was some room for improvement. Early reviews were positive and I raised my hopes for the 2019 edition, but after having seen the finished product, maybe some movies too are better off left dead.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved to small-town Maine for a little peace and quiet and to spend more time with their children, nine-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and their toddler, Gage. They happen to live next to a busy road with dangerous drivers speeding at all hours. An accident claims the life of their beloved family cat, but the kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) has a piece of advice. Beyond the “pet sematary” in the woods is a place where the buried dead come back to life. The cat comes back, though is mean and different. Later, another accident takes the life of Ellie, and Louis cannot let her go. He buries her in the hallowed grounds, she comes back, but she’s not daddy’s little girl any longer, and people will pay a high price.

Eschewing a sense of camp, the film risks being overrun by its own sense of seriousness, which only works if there is room given to explore the ramifications of grief, the choices people make when they’re hurting, and the irony of good intentions. If you’re going to go in a serious direction then you need the confidence and dedication to play to that decision, and that’s not the case with the 2019 Pet Sematary. It’s lacking those important moments of contemplation or even dwelling with the horror of bringing back a loved one from the dead. There’s only so much evil hissing cat you can have before you hit a limit and start saying, “What else you got?” There’s going to be an escalation, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, considering the nature of the premise but also its predecessor being 30 years old, that one of the children will die only to be brought back. It’s also an easy speculation that they will “come back wrong” but the drama is processing this decision and trying to mitigate the mounting consequences. How far will a parent go to protect their child even if that child is an undead murderer? The trials should strain the moral resolve or our protagonist while reveling in the grotesque.

Because every viewer is going to already expect this much, it’s the film’s job to develop this premise in a satisfying manner and/or provide surprises from our expectations. Pet Sematary 2019 unfortunately does neither, barreling through the dramatic downtime when it could be developing its horror and unleashing standard slasher jump scares. When Louis is brushing his daughter’s tangled hair he runs his fingers over the metal staples in the back of her skull holding her head together. It’s a stark reminder that she is not the same, and it goes beyond her scraggly voice and unyielding stares meant to convey the same information. The film needed more moments like this, small details to unnerve and remind, rather than making her essentially The Ring girl from the start. The movie voluntarily eliminates its own storytelling runway, giving it little room to ramp things up and being forced to simply jump to the big bad killer demon girl. The filmmakers try and compensate somewhat by giving Rachel her own independent haunting, seeing hallucinations of her dead, twisted deformed sister. Those sequences reminded me of the slow stirring sequences in 2017’s It, drawing in the audience to dread what will happen next. It’s a side plot that could be eliminated entirely and I enjoyed these sequences the most because it was at least something pregnant with possibility.

Many of the new additions feel like the filmmakers are fumbling for something else to be scary because they’ve consciously or unconsciously admitted defeat with their zombie. She’s creepy, sure, but she starts at full creepy and stays there. We get things like animal masks reminiscent of 2013’s home invasion thriller You’re Next. We get the spooky visions of ghosts that the child can see. We get Rachel’s taunting visions that never feel fully integrated into the larger whole with any thematic value. It could have tapped into her guilt praying for the demise of her sister for a well-earned sense of relief, and this same feeling coming ahead anew with her reanimated child, challenging her to reconcile her past actions and personal culpability and goad her into action. But like most aspects of the supernatural be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable, it’s given precious little deliberation and instead it’s more standard thriller moments to goose scares. I do appreciate that the film takes its sense of bleakness to the very bitter end, departing from the 1989 original for an even darker conclusion. The only problem is that it left me wanting the sequel. By the end, I think many viewers will agree that they wish a Pet Sematary movie, at least one under this oh-so-serious-slasher direction, had started at this end point instead and gone forward, exploring the full ramifications of the larger world.

As is wont for the Internet, there has been some gnashing of teeth over the fact that the remake kills a different child, but I think this is the smart move. It allows the remake to stand apart from the original and chart a path of its own, not that it’s very far. It also boosts the practicality of what it can do for horror. As any parent may attest, there’s more to worry about what a nine-year-old can do than a two-year-old. Even reanimated and filled with supernatural power, it’s still a small child that can be overwhelmed. An evil pre-schooler has a bit more limited mobility for their murder rampages.

For fans of King, or fans of genre horror, there may be enough standard thrills and chills to enjoy the new Pet Sematary. In the extremely spotty spectrum of King movie adaptations, it’s definitely somewhere in the middle, not bad per se but nothing special.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dumbo (2019)

Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.

Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.

As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.

There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.

Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.

I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.

At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.

Nate’s Grade: B

Suspiria (2018)

The idea of remaking Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria seems like movie heresy. How could any filmmaker attempt to come close to the Italian master’s original? Though that has not stopped Hollywood from remaking other horror classics of yore. Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) tempts the unwise with a new version of Suspiria, this time following the exploits of Susie (Dakota Johnson) in Cold War Germany as she is seduced by a private dance company lead by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) that’s really a front for the occult. The new Suspiria is a worthy, splashy artistic endeavor but it suffers from too much airy meandering in the name of redundant atmosphere, vague and arbitrary plotting, and poor characters.

We’re told up front this is a story in six acts and a resolution but frankly the first two acts could have been completely eliminated. Their bearing on the overall story is minimal, but then I could say the same thing about much of the characters. Chloe Grace Moritz’s role could have been entirely cut. The majority of the story is strange things happening very slowly in the background of a dance school. The characters that do investigate aren’t our protagonists, which then traps us with people who know too much and won’t share, people who don’t know anything, and people who don’t want to know anything. It gets frustrating spending that much time with them, especially when the end destination (coven conspiracy sacrifice) is obvious even if you haven’t watched the 1977 original. I was told that Guadagnino edited an hour out of the final movie. How? What in the world was left out? It feels like everything they could have shot found its way into the finished film, whether it needed to be there or not. There’s an ongoing subplot about the Red Army Faction (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Gang) that we keep returning to as if there’s supposed to be larger relevancy. It’s a left-wing conspiracy that translated post-war anger into violence against the government. If I work really hard I can make a larger thematic connection to witches and women, but I won’t. With Suspiria 2018, it’s really just historical atmosphere that adds little but yet is returned to again and again. There is even a post-credit scene of a character doing something unclear while looking toward the camera. Why include any of that? It’s arbitrary and superfluous to the very end.

The new Suspiria toggles through three tepid lead characters: 1) Johnson’s new dance recruit, 2) Swinton’s artistic director at the school, and 3) Swinton in old-age makeup as a grieving psychiatrist trying to make sense of his life (yes, “his,” as she plays a man). Two of these characters matter in strict plot terms and only one of them are granted some degree of characterization. Susie is essentially an empty vessel who is extremely passive, going along with whatever she’s told (there is a reason for this but it falls under the category of contrived dues ex machina). There are hints of the connection she has to some occult force at play, but we don’t really see any transformation on her part because she’s so opaque to start with. Madame Blanc is the most interesting character, somewhat by default, but she only becomes that in the last third of the film when her personal feelings for Susie make her doubt how far she’s willing to go to achieve the coven’s goal. It’s the only character with a direct internal conflict that seems to matter to the story. The old man has no reason to be in this movie. By the end, it feels like the film has found a significant story reason for his inclusion, one that will actually produce some thematic relevance for Swinton also playing this role, but nope. He serves no purpose other than exposition and to hammer home a tangential historical context of generational guilt. There is a nice character moment between two characters in the resolution but by then it’s too little too late. Even this nice moment doesn’t really need to happen. I think the reason the film toggles between these three characters is even it knows you will get bored with them.

When the horror hits, that’s when Suspiria is at its most rattling. Watching a woman’s body betray her, one excruciating limb convulsion after another, culminating in her own jaw seeming to rotate out of her head, is wince-inducing and terrifying. The sudden jolts of violence made me gasp and squirm every time. This culminates in a third act that is heavy on blood and lunacy, so much so that it feels like the finale to another movie. If the proceeding two hours was understated, atmospheric horror, the last thirty minutes feels like the splatterific Sam Raimi Evil Dead 2. There’s an explicit campiness that feels at odds with the self-serious meanderings of earlier. There are also moments that cannot be described as any other word than “goofy.” There’s an ongoing shot of characters being dispatched in a very exaggerated and theatrical manner, and the fact that we watch thirty of these in a row just invites some degree of laughter. I know I laughed. The final act and confrontation is my favorite part of the film, delivering some long-sought vengeance, but it feels like a different movie. It’s also where Guadagnino’s “put the camera anywhere” stylistic approach betrays him. It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening on a literal level, let alone understanding it, and that’s not even taking into account the muffled sound design of several characters when they hoarsely whisper aloud whatever.

I would be more forgiving if the new Suspiria had not been as exasperatingly long, a full hour longer than the 1977 original. Long movies only feel long when they haven’t fully engaged you, and there are generally only so many ways to keep an audience’s sustained attention and investment. I understand wanting to allow a movie to breathe or wanting to create an uncertain atmosphere of intoxicating dread, but there has to be more than that. There’s also what I’ll affectionately coin the Nicolas Refn Trap, meaning where all of that breathing space ultimately exposes a lot of empty indulgences and vamping. Suspiria 2018 falls into this trap too often; there simply isn’t enough of anything to spread over those 150 minutes. The odd comparison I would make is to the notorious 1980 Western disaster, Heaven’s Gate, a movie I watched for the first time two years ago and actually appreciated. Let me be more specific: I appreciated the 100-minute very good movie somewhere inside there suffocated by the artistic excesses and peculiar and mercurial artistic demands from its uncompromising director (the man refused to shoot anything for ten hours until he got a cloud positioned exactly where he wanted). I’m convinced there’s a potentially great movie in Suspiria but it’s going to require a lot of excavation to allow it to see the outside.

I was interested in re-watching Argento’s 1977 original for the first time in years, and some things have aged better and some things have aged worse. Argento is a first-class visual stylist and his famous use of color makes the cinematography often beautifully horrific as young women are terrorized. There is even less plot than I remembered, a series of surreal murders finally leading to the obvious reveal of the dance company being a coven of witches. The characterization is even thinner than the thin 2018 film, which means that Guadagnino and company had a lot of room to roam when it came to their grandly grotesque remake. Argento’s film is a remarkable example of the immersive power of the screen, with his gorgeous use of light and color, production design, and a pulsating score that is perhaps a bit too omnipresent and anxious. There is one reoccurring musical sting that sounded precisely like the beginning of “Footloose” and it made me laugh every time, imagining Kevin Bacon dancing through the hallways. It’s a testament to the transcendent power of style when done by a first-rate stylist, and it works so far as to create a nightmarish, oppressive atmosphere. However, that eerie atmosphere and technical craft are about all the original Suspiria has to offer since there is a gnawing scarcity when it comes to characters, structure, and story. That makes the 2018 Suspiria a little more confounding. While it clearly works as an homage to Argento it’s also radically different, and yet it still manages to also have underwritten characters and bad storytelling choices even when it could have ditched the original’s original sins. At least Argento’s version is only 90 minutes and a lot easier to watch in one sitting.

The Suspiria remake was clearly a labor of love and not a soulless paycheck for all those involved. The technical craft is accomplished, and even though it lacks the vibrant colors of Argento’s original the cinematography is still highly evocative and unsettling. Guadagnino has put a concerted effort into making his movie operatic, lavish, and radically different from the source material. I think it’s different yet reverent enough that fans of the original will find something to enjoy as the film asserts its own identity. And yet the moody atmosphere is undercut by the shortcomings of the characters and the contrived nature of the overly padded and meandering plot. The more I think back on the movie the more it falls apart under further scrutiny. Suspiria is a tonally confused movie that doesn’t have enough substantial material to fill out its gargantuan 150-minute running time. There will be blood but what there needed to be was a more judicious editor.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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