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Aladdin (2019)

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I 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

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Red Joan (2019)

Red Joan is inspired by a true story of an elderly British woman being outed in the 1980s for being a spy for the Russians and passing along British nuclear secrets. If the real story were as boring as what appears onscreen, I doubt anyone would care. Judi Dench plays the older Joan dealing with the public reckoning decades in the making and Sophie Cookson (Kingsmen) plays the young college grad in the 1940s who lands a top nuclear physicists job with the government and alongside a married man she falls for. Some friends who might not really be her friends snooker Joan into becoming a spy, and her rationale is that the world will be a safer place if other countries have the bomb other than simply America. Older Joan says history has proven her right and she takes partial credit for helping to ensure peace. First off, this logic seems faulty. If something is dangerous, I don’t know if it’s less dangerous if more people/countries have it (see: the firearm industry). Secondly, there were numerous incidents that almost brought the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to mutually assured self-destruction including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest problem with Red Joan is how shockingly boring it all is. A young woman pulled into espionage and treason, having to maintain her secrets while they eat away at her and she betrays her colleagues and loved ones, that’s the stuff of complex human drama, or at least it should be if the storytelling knows what it’s doing. The movie never seems to treat what she’s doing with great stakes. Here’s an example of how rushed and under developed the story can be: scene 1) Joan learns her co-worker doesn’t have a great marriage; scene 2) they complete a crossword together and he nudges closer; scene 3) they kiss and he declares his love for her. This sequence of events is portrayed during a travel montage or all things. The characters are so underwritten and their compromises and conflicts rarely feel real because of moments like this. The acting is generally good all around and I wish Cookson would get a starring vehicle worthy of her talents. The biggest mystery for me with Red Joan is that the story depicted onscreen is made up, diverging from the real events, so why didn’t they tell a better story with their freedom?

Nate’s Grade: C

Long Shot (2019)

Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is preparing for the moment she feels her whole life has been leading up to: a presidential run. the current president (Bob Odenkirk) has decided not to run for a second term and wants to endorse her. Charlotte and her team of dogged, loyal assistants (June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel) are sifting through ways to improve her negatives as a candidate, and that’s where Frank Flarsky (Seth Rogen) comes in. He’s an activist journalist that has just been fired and he also happens to personally know Charlotte; she was his babysitter. He comes aboard her campaign with the condition that she really fights for what’s important and not cave to the powerful lobbies and interest groups. He rewrites her speeches and the two of them grow closer together, bonding over their past and a possible future, not just as president but as boyfriend-girlfriend. They must keep their feelings a secret for the time being. If the press found out it might kill her candidacy before it ever really began.

The film’s biggest strength is the emphasis with the leading characters and the crackling chemistry between Rogen and Theron. It’s a fairly familiar dynamic between the more buttoned-up personality learning to cut loose and the more wild and impulsive personality learning a degree of self-restraint and responsibility. And to be fair Long Shot does pull from this familiar foundation for a starting point with its odd couple dynamic. However, it goes further by making their differences more attuned to politics and compromise. Fred is unwilling to back down for the things he knows are right and would rather have nothing than a watered-down version of the important issue he had been fighting for. Charlotte is more the political animal and used to working with others, including scoundrels and morons, in order to affect change. She’s about incremental, pragmatic change for the greater good and he’s about ideological purity as a moral imperative. This isn’t just a small character quick either; it’s a defining conflict between both characters and a subject that gets further examination as Charlotte confronts the realities of running for president and the many compromises of self and vision may or may not be needed.

Being a woman running for president is an obstacle course of having to deal with latent sexism and other people’s expectations of what is socially appropriate. Charlotte is going to be judged harsher for the same behaviors men will be excused for; this isn’t a new observation by any means (apply your favorite double standard here) but the film makes you understand the pressure and scrutiny that befalls her at every turn. It defines her character, which is why finding someone she can unwind with and be her true self away from the cameras is such an understandable and desirable escape valve. She’s running to inspire little girls that they too can be president but at she also has to assess the cost of how much she’s willing to hide or lose from herself in order to get across that finish line, and if she does, what will be left? That’s the role for Alexander Skarsgard, the Justin Trudeau-like Canadian prime minister, who represents what is left of a person after bowing to opinion polls. Again, this isn’t new material, especially as anyone who can recall the 2016 presidential election will recall the questions of physical and mental fortitude that only seemed attached to one candidate and not as much the other. What this political reality does is provide a relevant substance for the romance and comedy portions of the film, making the characters feel more human. When Fred is articulating just what he must do to serve as a secret boyfriend for Charlotte, and a potential future they would have, you can hear his heartbreak with each new syllable. You also realize that he shouldn’t have to endure that and maybe these two are destined not to be together because of how unfortunate our politics and media environment have become.

Rogen and Theron are a blast together and have a fun rhythm they play off each other for unexpected comedy beats. His mellow vibes and good-natured joviality, as well as general awkwardness around people in power, are a nice fit with her sterner self. The best parts of the movie are just watching both of these actors enjoy their company. I won’t say that the romantic spark became overly apparent but what was undeniable was how well they paired as an onscreen buddy duo. With each new movie and every different role, Theron proves she’s one of the best actors of her generation. She can kick your ass, she can make you cry, she can win your heart, she can make you bust a gut. In short, Charlize Theron can do anything. She has several disarmingly funny moments, like when she’s high on ecstasy and pulled into an international crisis and has to maintain her cool. Rogen could easily fall back on his ease playing the oafish, insecure, crass characters of his past, but he does a fine job imbuing his charm, energy, and authenticity with Frank. Rogen is an anxious and generous scene partner who typically elevates his costars, and he and Theron as so good together that it sells their romance even better than the writing.

Thankfully, Long Shot is consistently funny and bases much of its humor on the characters and their needs and developments. The movie isn’t just a retread of the incredulous fantasy of some ugly dude successfully romancing a beautiful woman. We’ve already had this dynamic explored in another Rogen comedy, 2007’s Knocked Up (in another universe where Katherine Heigl’s career didn’t stall, I could have seen Long Shot serving as an unofficial reunion for her and Rogen). There are jokes to be had about the unbelievable nature of this central romance and Rogen’s overall appearance, and that’s expected. What made me happier was that these wisecracks served a purpose to highlight how professionally damaging this potential relationship could be for Charlotte’s chance of winning office. They didn’t just feel like gratuitous put-downs. The joke emphasis is heavily tilted in favor of our two leads but there are nice moments with the supporting cast, like Raphael’s constant passive-aggressive comments, Bob Odenkirk’s buffoonish sense of betrayal with TV being turned against him, Randall Park’s frankness, and Skarsgard’s awkward and obsequious flirting. I don’t think the filmmakers fully knew what to do with O’Shea Jackson Jr. and provide some last-minute character shading that felt clumsy.

Long Shot follows the Judd Apatow rom-com formula closely and demonstrates that if you get funny, talented people together, provide them solid characterization and realistic conflicts, you can produce a winning romantic comedy that matters. Rogen and theron make an excellent team, the political content is savvy without getting too far into the weeds, and the romance is sweet and agreeable, with two genuinely enjoyable people coming to realize what they would be willing to risk for the other person. Long Shot is a reliably funny, bawdy, and heartwarming little movie with a little more on its mind than gross-out comedy set pieces. It’s worth seeking out this summer. I’d happily vote Theron for anything, especially if she was running for elected office as Furiosa. That’s a candidate that get results.

Nate’s Grade: B

Never Look Away (2018)

This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).

Nate’s Grade: B+

Border (2018)

Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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+

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

Adrift (2018)

It’s one part survival-at-sea drama, one part relationship drama, and you get an equal slice of both until an unforeseen ending explains why the narrative was so divided. Based on a true story, Adrift tells the journey and survival of a couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) lost at sea for 41 days after getting too close to a hurricane. Woodley takes the lead to fix the sailboat, gather supplies, tend to the grievous injuries of her boyfriend, and plot their treacherous path to Hawaii. If they’re off just a few degrees, it will be life and death. The survival half is viscerally entertaining and steady with its details, allowing the audience to get comfortable in following the steps and reasons. The camerawork by director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) is sweeping and methodical, pulling us into the danger and isolation while creating a sterling sense of verisimilitude. The screenplay vacillates between the present and past, supplying flashbacks to fill out the romantic relationship. It’s a smart move because it allows us to immediately get into the stakes of survival while also finding room to develop the characters in a more normal setting. Plus it also makes more sense by the Tully-esque end. This is pretty much Woodley’s (HBO’s Big Little Lies) show; her secondary co-star might as well be her nipples poking through her character’s swimwear and tops. As readers may know, I’m a big fan of Woodley and the naturalism she brings to her performances, and Adrift is no exception. She can say so much through her smiles. She’s a great anchor for a storyteller. Ultimately, Adrift is a survival drama that takes a while to get going but leaves a favorable impression thanks to the acting and technical merits.

Nate’s Grade: B

50 Shades Freed (2018)

I think Fifty Shades Freed as a title works well not just for the audience but also the actors, as everyone is celebrating putting one of Hollywood’s least engaging film franchises well behind them. E. L. James’ best-selling erotic novels have made for pretty lifeless big screen entries. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) is free from having to bring this silly thing to straight-laced life. The actors are free at last from the mechanical sex scenes that populate these films, free at last from their terrible chemistry with which they cannot conceal, free at last from having to say stilted dialogue for stilted characters, and free at last from the six hours of boredom and overstated kink. This is a franchise that wants to go out in a toe-curling climax but goes out with a whimper. If you’re like me you’ll scratch your head and wonder, “Was that it?”

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are now Mr. and Mrs. Grey. While honeymooning in France, Christian still can’t help his domineering ways and instructs Ana not to sunbathe topless. She finds ways to assert her independence and defiance. Meanwhile, the happy couple is challenged by two foes: a vengeful Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) and the prospect of children.

It’s hard to say which in this trilogy is the worst film but I still venture that the second, Fifty Shades Darker, is the winner in that regard. It’s hilariously bad and incompetent, whereas Fifty Shades Freed is slightly better simply because there’s less of everything, which also includes less of a reason to exist. If you thought the previous film was struggling to stretch enough story to fill a feature-length runtime, then just wait until you watch the new movie where we have such scintillating plotlines like whether Christian’s brother might be cheating on his girlfriend or Christian being mad because Ana hasn’t changed her work email to her new married name. That last item also serves as another blaring waning sign about the scary control freak that is this franchise’s supposed brooding, Byronic hero, but we’ll get more into that later. The characters introduced in the last film don’t really matter. There just isn’t a credible story here, which may be why this is the first Fifty Shades to clock in short of two hours (and it has a montage that cycles through highlights of the trilogy). The problem is that the last film mostly completed the journey of Christian Grey from bad boyfriend material to slightly less bad marriage material, as he got down on one knee and proposed to Ana. He learned to settle down, open up about his past behavior, and start the process of compromise. With Fifty Shades Freed, we start off with them getting married and their frolicking honeymoon, and the movie seems to exist in that post-“happily ever after” phase of romances that we rarely see because nobody wants to know what happens after the couple gets their Big Closing Kiss. Does anybody want to check in with Cinderella and Prince Charming arguing over who has to do the dishes (trick question: it’s the servants)?

Conflicts are once again introduced and hastily taken care of, much like the laugh-out-loud helicopter crash from that last film that was resolved in the very next scene. They’ve carried over a lackluster villain from the second film, Ana’s unfortunately named old boss Jack Hyde who tried to sexually assault her. This man worked as a fiction editor in the world of publishing and now suddenly he’s an expert on kidnapping, breaking and entering, and stalking. It’s a ridiculous threat meant to provide some level of dread and danger, except he’s easily dispatched by the end of Act One. There’s a hilarious courtroom scene where his lawyer is trying to argue that Jack was simply trying to work things out after exhausting all his communication resources. Ignore the fact he held a knife to Ana’s throat. He goes away for the second act only to, surprise, come back in another stupidly preposterous way to re-establish his menacing threat… only to once again be easily dispatched in an anticlimactic manner. This guy sucks. The screenplay tries to hastily add some duality to Jack, saying he despises Christian Grey for denying him the life he deserved. Apparently (spoiler alert but do you actually care anymore?) Jack and Christian were in the same Detroit foster care system together and I guess Jack assumes without Christian he would have been adopted by wealthy elites instead? Jack seemed to make a name for himself even without that cushy starting point. Mostly this is another Fifty Shades movie that feels like it has time to fill and time to kill.

That’s where you’d expect the steamy sex scenes to provide a jolt. Isn’t the whole purpose of this franchise watching pretty people get naked and do sexy things? For all its whips and chains and BDSM banter, the Fifty Shades sex has been tepidly tame. As I wrote previously of this franchise: “I cannot overstate just how dull and lazily staged the sex scenes are in the film, extinguishing any kind of titillation and strangely demurring once things get passionate. The nubile bodies are on display, Johnson’s in semi-permanent arched back, though Dornan is often coquettishly obscured (sorry ladies). The word that seems most appropriate for the sex scenes is ‘anticlimactic.’ Ana jokes that she’s a vanilla girl and trapping Christian into a plain relationship, and their big screen sex life typifies this (anyone remember Ana’s question about what a butt plug was?). It’s a world of kink where nipple clamps are giggle-worthy accessories to the participants and the go-to sexual position is missionary. This movie is not the daring dip into untapped sensuality it’s been made out to be. It’s much more conservative at heart.”

The lusty thrills are of the soft-core porn variety with close-ups of erect nipples and heavy breathing. The sex scenes in the second film were most strange because they all followed a routine that was cut short once actually sex began, cruelly teasing the target audience. By my count, there are three actual sex scenes in Fifty Shades Freed and two or so aborted efforts. The strongest sex scene is the one that feels inspired from 9 1/2 Weeks, where Ana takes control and dabbles melted dollops of ice cream over Christian’s shirtless torso only to lovingly lap up every morsel. It’s the only scene that feels like it has some spontaneity and sexiness. Maybe it’s because it breaks free from their Red Room routines or maybe it’s because it has Ana in charge, or maybe it’s just residual good will from memories of 9 ½ Weeks (side note: I re-watched it a year ago as “research” for a short script, and it is not as sexy as you’ve been told. There’s an extended sex scene on the scuzziest and grimiest fire escape stairs in the rain). Another disappointment for its intended audience must be the lack of full-frontal male nudity, something each film has curiously shied away from. There is plenty of Jamie Dornan’s pubic hair, which I guess was dangled as a concession to the fans. If you came to watch erotic sex scenes you’d be better off getting off from late night cable.

With bad sex, bad storytelling, and bad pacing, what we’re left with is the closing realization that these two people really shouldn’t be together. Much of the second half of this movie revolves around a core difference over their views on children: Ana wants them and Christian is less than enthusiastic. This is a conversation that should have taken place before they got hitched. It’s another example of Christian not wanting to share Ana with anyone (he literally says this in response to being a potential father). You can bring the man to sing a dopey love song on the piano but you still can’t remove all the scary, controlling elements of his character. I think ultimately Christian’s love of bondage is because he is portrayed as being damaged, abused, and this informs his sexuality. While that may be the case for various people, transforming moments of trauma into uncontrollable and subconscious desires or titillation, it presents a pretty distorted picture of the consenting adults who frequently enjoy participating in BDSM. These people are simply not that interesting. Anastasia Steele (and it pains me every time to type that out) is a mousy audience surrogate meant to be whisked away into a hidden world of luxury, where the hunky man is obsessed with having her, and only the power of her love can make him whole again. That doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a healthy relationship, and the fact that it’s spun into being a smutty fairy tale is even more disconcerting. The Twilight fan fiction origins become clearer with every film.

Struggling to justify its whole existence for 105 lugubrious minutes, Fifty Shades Freed is the flaccid finale to a boring and underwhelming trilogy. I have no problems with movies whose sole purpose is to turn on their audience. Erotic movies certainly have their place in the landscape. They can even be specifically designed for very specific audiences that do not include me, and the Fifty Shades series is definitely not my kind of smut. I’m not the target audience but I’m open to interesting stories and visceral sexuality. With how redundant and tedious the film franchise is, I think I’ll recycle yet again an observation I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, Fifty Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries.” Skip the Red Room, these insipid characters, and the high-camp tawdry attempts at sensuality. The final Fifty Shades is a fitting end for a franchise that could never get its mojo going.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

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