Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Aladdin [2019] and Short Takes on Booksmart

Repetitious Lives Seeking New Directions
Reviews by Ken Burke
                         Aladdin [2019] (Guy Ritchie)   rated PG
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Here’s another Disney live-action-remake of one of their previous animated features, this time also attempting to address criticism they faced from the 1992 original given its stereotypical slurs of Arabs, which may be somewhat successful this time as most of this huge cast is non-European, at least in heritage if not birth.  The story’s almost the same in plot details, though (except at the end, regarding who’s now in charge of Agrabah), so, just in case you’re not familiar with the earlier one I’ll only recount this version up to a certain point.  We begin in this fictional location somewhere in the Middle East (presumably on the seaside of the Arabian peninsula) many centuries ago as young-adult-street-thief Aladdin goes about his customary tactics (but willing to share some of his booty with a couple of kids even worse off) when he comes upon a young woman also willing to help some hungry urchins, only she’s caught by the merchant.  They make a dynamic escape through the marketplace, she claims to be Princess Jasmine’s handmaiden (although she’s Jasmine in disguise), he sneaks into the palace to see her but is captured by evil Royal Vizier Jafar, sent to retrieve a magic lamp from a mystical cave, yet Aladdin ends up with the lamp, releases a genie promising him 3 wishes, uses 1 to convert into wealthy Prince Ali seeking Jasmine in marriage.  From there, things go bad for awhile so I’ll just have to refer you to the spoiler-filled-comments below if you want to read more before seeing the easily-available, huge box-office success this movie’s already achieved.  If you're familiar with the earlier version you’ll recognize all the characters, most of the plot details, and the songs, with just 1 particular rousing addition in which Princess Jasmine attempts to declare her independence from the decision-making-men who surround her. So, read on if you wish or go see this new Aladdin first.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)⇒

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: Based very closely on Disney’s 1992 old-school-animated-Aladdin (Ron Clements, John Musker), this remake uses live actors to tell a story set in roughly Medieval times of the fictional port kingdom of Agrabah on the massive Arabian peninsula,* ruled by the gentle-but-easily-persuaded Sultan (Navid Negahban), often put under hypnosis by his evil Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who dreams of ruling this place himself—then make war on neighboring kingdomseven as his ambitions conflict with the Sultan’s daughter, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who sees herself as the next monarch, despite tradition dictating a male as well as law requiring her to marry a prince.  Further, her father—disheartened by the death long ago of Jasmine’s mother—refuses to let his daughter leave their lavish palace while he brings in a parade of princes for her inspection, all of whom she dismisses due to disinterest in them plus little desire for marriage, preferring the company of her pet tiger.  However, she does disguise herself with simple clothes to wander into the city’s marketplace where we first see her stealing some bread for a couple of hungry kids (given her access to seemingly unlimited resources, it’s not clear why she doesn’t just encourage her father to feed the poor, but then this story would barely begin, let alone develop).  Just as she’s about to pay the price for this thievery (a quick implication is her hand will be chopped off, so not all of the concerns addressed in the So What? section just below are removed in this new version) she’s saved by the charming, energetic, well-known thief of the streets, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), who whisks her off on a merry chase (marvelous choreography through streets, stalls, rooftops, etc., surely computer-enhanced), until they end up in his secret lair (in a tower, with a nice view) where she pretends to be her own handmaiden, Dalia—whom we’ll meet later (played by Nasim Pedrad).  Aladdin’s charmed by her, but she has to hasten back to the palace to meet the latest prince, so Aladdin (along with his crafty monkey, Abu [a computer-concoction]) sneaks into the highly-guarded-compound, locates Jasmine (who continues her ruse of being Dalia at first, then reveals her true identity even as she knows romance with Aladdin is forbidden to her), but ultimately is captured by Jafar’s soldiers, taken out to the desert where Jafar promises him great wealth if he goes into the fabled Cave of Wonders to bring back a small lamp; however, he’s not to take any of the other great wealth of riches in this vast cave.  Aladdin does as told, but Abu grabs a huge ruby which sets the cave into collapse; Aladdin rushes to the entrance, gives the lamp to Jafar who kicks him back into the imploding cave (shades of the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981]), but Abu grabs the lamp as he and Aladdin tumble back into the deadly enclosure.

*Here’s a side-by-side-comparison of the 2 movies' trailers, using the audio from the current one.

 Trapped, Aladdin makes a new friend for life by freeing a flying carpet caught under a rock, then accidently rubs the lamp, releasing the massive Genie (Will Smith)* who’ll grant him 3 wishes.  Aladdin channels the Genie’s power to get them all out of the cave, then applies his first true wish to become Prince Ali (of Ababwa, fictional even within this fictional story), becoming a viable suitor for Princess Jasmine, mesmerizing everyone (except Jasmine, who finds him excessive) with his massive entrance (short clip from 2019, entire scene from 1992), but “Ali” blows his initial meeting with the Sultan and his daughter by mistakenly saying his (new-found) wealth is intended to buy the marriage.  At a huge feast that night, Aladdin tries to make a better impression on Jasmine even as human-appearing-Genie finds mutual attraction with Dalia, culminating in a massive Bollywood-style-dance-number (there are a few of these here, reminiscent of the finale of Slumdog Millionaire [Danny Boyle, 2008]).  Jasmine’s still hesitant about Ali (especially when he can’t find his country on a map until Genie makes it appear), notes her irritation at palace-confinement, so Ali takes her for a romantic ride on his magic carpet (clips from “A Whole New World” side-by-side from both movies), lying that his Aladdin identity is just a means of getting to know her city unobserved as a prince.  ⇒Ultimately, Jafar intrudes again, captures Aladdin, pushes his bound captive out a high window into the sea below where Genie comes to his rescue but at the price of a second wish.  After Jafar later takes control of the lamp, he first makes himself Sultan, then the most powerful sorcerer in the world so when Aladdin appears to oppose him he banishes his adversary and Abu to a frozen place at “the ends of the Earth,” then causes the old Sultan to suffer until Jasmine’s forced to agree to marry Jafar to save her father from pain (previously, she’s declared her unwillingness to be commanded by men in a new song, "Speechless" [Naomi Smith recording it, intercut with movie clips], but this added 2019 assertive stance is undone, just as in the original movie, by the maniacal villain).  The carpet flies to the rescue of Aladdin and Abu, whisking them back to the palace to prevent the wedding culmination, including another huge chase scene; then Aladdin convinces Jafar to use his third wish to become the most powerful presence on Earth (so as not to be undone by the Genie at a later time), which he does, only to realize he’ll now be trapped in a lamp until released, which won’t be anytime soon as Genie hurls the new lamp into the closed-off-cave.  Aladdin uses his last wish to turn Genie into a human (getting us back to the opening scene where he’s married to Dalia, living on a small boat, telling this story to his 2 young kids), then the Sultan turns his throne over to Jasmine who changes the old law, allowing her to marry Aladdin.⇐ 

*Here’s the Genie’s "Friend Like Me" song, displaying his powers, from the 1992 movie (no clip available yet from 2019's version; actually, I had one comparing both but it's already been disabled).

So What? This version of Disney’s Aladdin is part of their ongoing program of remaking classic animated features into live-action-movies (or at least computer-generated-imagery which looks more realistic than the 2-D “golden oldies,” as will be the case with The Lion King [Jon Favreau, scheduled for release on July 19, 2019]), following the live-action-remake of Dumbo (Tim Burton; review in our April 4, 2019 posting) earlier this spring, so stay prepared for an ongoing-flow of these.  In this case, despite the substantial financial success of the 1992 animation (in truth, there’s still a lot of animation in the new Aladdin, it’s just done on computer [as was the case with the flying elephant in Dumbo] especially regarding Abu, Jasmine’s tiger, Ali’s triumphant march into Agrabah, the romantic magic carpet ride, etc.)—it took in $504 million worldwide—there were cultural concerns to address, including ongoing charges of offensive lyrics in the opening “Arabian Nights” song (modified for the 1993 video release) from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense,” along with a new insertion of “chaotic” into the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (fortunately, there was a response by Disney to the racist implications of those 1992 lyrics, even before concerns about anti-Muslim-attitudes in the U.S. since the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks (wrongfully conflating all Muslims with the actual killers in the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS), attitudes which led us to war in Iraq in the early 21st century, now becoming codified into immigration law under President Trump Agent Orange).  There were also 1992 complaints the animated Aladdin and Jasmine, despite their brown skin, looked like Europeans (supposedly, he was drawn to resemble Tom Cruise), so that legitimate situation was addressed by the casting of principal roles in this new version but still not to universal satisfaction (Massoud’s Egyptian-born, although Canadian-raised, while Scott’s British-born, with a mother of Ugandan-Indian descent, not Arabic as some have demanded for Jasmine)Massoud addresses such concerns in this New York Times interview; however, he also notes Aladdin in the original story was Chinese (!), while a Disney spokeswoman says fictional Agrabah’s located on the old Silk Road from China through India, the Middle East, Egypt into Europe, so Jasmine’s mother could easily have been from somewhere outside of Arabia, as contemporary purveyors of entertainment must stay aware (“woke”?) even when constructing stories of pure fantasy.  For that matter, the original Aladdin story’s not even in the centuries-in-development-anthology (containing tales from Arabia but also Greece, Persia, Turkey) now called One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (nor are the tales of Ali Baba or Sinbad) but was written in the early 18th century by Anṭūn Yūsuf Hannā Diyāb (of Aleppo, Syria), then added to Frenchman Antoine Galland’s 1710 edition of … Arabian Nights.  Still, I can appreciate how those of Arab descent (and associated non-Arab Muslims) get tired of offensive/demonizing stereotypes (especially given their immigration-based-rejection by Western countries today), hoping to find more positive representations in Western-produced-media.

Bottom Line Final Comments: No matter your thoughts on depictions of characters in either Disney Aladdin, and even though the critical establishment (or as I call them, the CCAL—Collective Critics At Large) is trending negative about this live-action-remake of a long-ago-animated-feature (the chief complaints focusing on there didn’t need to be this revisitation-project, just let the original exist either in our memories or through easy-access-Disney-resources) as Rotten Tomatoes offers only 57% positive reviews (one of the lowest results of anything both they and I explore in 2019 releases; only Dumbo lands lower—at 48% [Disney remakes seem unacceptable to those included in these tallies])—while those surveyed at Metacritic offer an almost-equivalent average score of 53% (again, almost the lowest of releases shared by them and me for 2019, except for poor old Dumbo at a measly 51%), audiences flocked to this reboot of Aladdin during its Memorial Day weekend debut, racking up a massive $116.8 million in gross receipts from domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters (worldwide $255.8 million)—making it already #7 for the entire year in the domestic market (although enormously behind domestic #1 Avengers: Endgame [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 1, 2019 posting] at over $800 million and still counting).  Sure, you can fault Aladdin for being frivolous, for being a cynical attempt to pad the Disney coffers already enhanced with massive 1992 Aladdin income (plus, I’m sure, a substantial amount in DVD sales), for continuing to present a fantasy version of Arab culture in the Middle East (maybe for not trying harder to cast actors who even more clearly appear as citizens of that part of the world, if you want to push PC Correctness to extreme lengths),* but you could also just appreciate it for the whimsical approach, the lavish visuals, the toe-tapping-songs, the romantic triumph of the protagonists, the impressive-screen-presence of Will Smith (maybe not as compelling as the 1992 voice work of Robin Williams but still well-acted, amusing).  For that matter, you could just embrace the new Aladdin for how well my wrap-up Musical Metaphor captures the mutual-free-flowing-spirit with Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” (from their 1968 album The Second) at com/watch?v=HPE9a_epmWw (a 1969 low-def psychedelic-video) that could be addressed to Jasmine or—metaphorically—to all of us: “Well, you don’t know what we can find Why don’t you come with me little girl On a magic carpet ride Well, you don’t know what we can see Why don’t you tell your dreams to me Fantasy will set you free […] Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp So I wished that I could stay Before the thing could answer me Well, someone came and took the lamp away I looked around, a lousy candle’s all I found.”  Still, this Aladdin’s far better than any variety of candle.

*You might also find fault—or delight—with aspects of the 1992 original (which might well blend into the content of the 2019 remake) you'd only notice as an adult, as quickly noted in this 4:54 video.
SHORT TAKES (in theory, but certainly not in practice this time) 
(please note that spoilers also appear here)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)   rated R

Two high-school best friends who’ve toiled academically for years to earn entrance into their top colleges find on their last day of classes many of their seemingly lackluster friends have also gotten into great schools despite partying along the way so our girls pledge for major fun on their last night before graduation, even as they’re not sure how.

Here’s the trailer:

 However, this is a Red Band trailer, so there may be some language concerns when you watch it; 
if that's the case, here’s another one a bit more cleaned up in content for your viewing pleasure:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 For her directorial debut, actor Olivia Wilde enhances the canon of high-school’s-over/coming-of-age stories—including such classics as American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993), Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)by using teenage girls as her protagonists rather than finding them as secondary characters to the primary males of those other stories (putting Wilde in a distinctly-slim-catalogue of such narratives, with the only one jumping immediately to my mind being Lady Bird [Greta Gerwig, 2017; review in our November 23, 2017 posting])—see this interview with Wilde (8:51) for her thoughts on this situation, as well as her intention of encouraging female viewers of her work to do as she’s done: try something new, maybe frightening (especially if it’s something you’ve been longing to do for awhile, rather than allow yourself to get stuck in routine expectations).  In Booksmart the focus is on 2 BFFs, Molly (Beanie Feldstein [sister of Jonah Hill, co-star of Superbad])—class president and valedictorian of her L.A.-area high-school (even makes grammatical corrections on restroom graffiti)—and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both smart, studious, rewarded for their intense academic work (Molly’s off to Yale [her ultimate ambition’s being the youngest Supreme Court Justice ever], Amy to Columbia [after she spends the summer in Botswana, helping locals make tampons because blood attracts lions]), only to learn some of their seemingly-slacker-classmates have also been accepted at Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Georgetown (even as one’s skipping college entirely to work at Google), so Molly and Amy realize on the morning of their last day of school they could have combined studying with fun rather than just being bookworms (Amy’s parents [Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow] obviously share the girls’ worldview, having prepared a large batch of fancy foods for them to feast on that night rather than having any sense these teens would join the rest of the senior class at various parties).  So, Molly (more assertive) insists they immerse themselves in fun, especially the huge party thrown by goofball Nick (Mason Gooding)—Molly’s secretly attracted to him—while his uncle’s out of town (not clear what control Nick’s parents might have over such bacchanalia, but parents—as is the case so often in these movies—have little presence or input to slow down the plot).  After some miscues getting to the wrong parties (rich Jared [Skyler Gisondo] on a luxury boat with only his drama-queen-friend, Gigi [Billie Lourd]; a murder-mystery-play put on by the drama students)—including an Lyft ride with their principal, Jordan Brown (Jason Sudeikis [Wilde’s fiancée]), as a night-time-driver—Gigi tells Molly and Amy she gave them some drug-coated-strawberries, leading to an hilarious fantasy scene where they think they’re little plastic dolls which Molly’s somewhat OK with, given her suddenly-thin-body with outsized breasts (although no genitals), but Amy's freaked.

 When Molly and Amy quickly (conveniently) recover from their hallucinations, they finally make it to Nick’s party where Molly begins connecting with the host while pushing lesbian Amy into finally making an attempt at her secret-attraction, lively Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).  All seems to be going well until Amy and Ryan jump into the pool; after swimming around a bit, Amy suddenly sees Ryan making out with Nick so she finds Molly, demanding they leave, but Molly resists, leading to an argument about Molly being the pushy-decision-maker vs. Amy as scared, never willing to take a drastic chance (nice structure here as the vocal bickering fades out, overtaken by music, all in one wide shot, allowing us to sense the scene without following specific accusations, even as many of their friends commit this verbal combat to phone-video-archives as all attention shifts to the fight).  Amy then goes upstairs to the bathroom, gets into a snit-exchange with caustic Hope (Diana Silvers), leading to an almost-sexual-encounter with her, until Amy ruins it by throwing up on now-disgusted-Hope; meanwhile, Molly’s having pleasant conversation with Jared (he's always admired her from a distance).  All the fun’s quickly put on hold, though, when cops show up, apparently alerted to the party’s obnoxious noise, so Amy toughens up, sacrifices herself to an arrest (not sure how she could have made all the commotion by herself, but the others escape as the police haul her off).  Next morning, Molly visits Amy in jail, gets her out by supplying info about a guy on a wanted poster (delivered pizzas to Nick’s party), they drive furiously to the graduation ceremony, Molly makes her speech about how wonderful they all are, then we’re back at Amy’s home where she’s packing for Africa; Hope shows up, they chat, Amy gets her number (Amy earlier admitted to Molly she’s going to stay in Botswana for a full year, not just the summer, thereby disrupting the lengthy-schedule of their future plans); despite some tension, Molly drives Amy to the airport where they part on last-minute-wacky-terms.⇐ Wilde’s been praised for offbeat-yet-true-female-heartfelt-connections she’s brought to this story (which you can get a fuller sense of here, the movie’s first 6 min. 26 sec., uncut [remember, though, it’s R-rated]), with a spectacular 97% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes (ties for highest response to a 2019 release both they and I covered with Ash Is Purest White [Jia Zhang-Ke; review in our March 20, 2019 posting—I wasn’t as impressed, gave it only 3 stars]), an 84% average score at Metacritic (one of the very few 2019 releases I’ve shared with them to get this high a result as well)Booksmart’s absolutely a critical champ, as it should be.

 Unfortunately, high critical praise won’t always sell movie tickets, so even as Booksmart came in at #6 on the domestic tally over the full Memorial Day weekend, playing at 2,505 theaters, it made only $8.7 million in its holiday-debut, completely overwhelmed not only by Aladdin but also by John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum (Chad Stahelski), now up to $107.6 million domestically after 2 weeks; the ongoing presence of Avengers: Endgame, up to $803.4 million (worldwide $2.7 billion, a very strong #2 All-Time) after just 5 weeks; even Pokemon Detective Pikachu (Rob Letterman) with $120 million after 3 weeks in release.  You can explore here some comments from Forbes as to the sad nature of those weak Booksmart grosses (so far, but with Rocketman [Dexter Fletcher] and other releases set for next weekend I don’t anticipate any great improvement) and here from Slate as to how it wasn’t promoted properly (a death-knell for any film).  However, given such wide coverage (won’t last too long, given the ongoing/emerging-competition), I actively encourage you to seek out Booksmart right away for its humor (not only the drug-induced-dolls-scene but also other inspired bits from various cast members as it all ambles along), accurate depiction of the lively sense of dismissal-turned-to-embrace among the fluctuating-psyches of high-schoolers (despite all the trauma Molly’d been through with various classmates the night before, they all embraced her valedictorian speech)—although I assume such in a generic manner, thinking things haven’t changed all that much except for surface alterations since I escaped my enjoyable-yet-confining-Ball High way back in 1966—focus on the female side of these relationship-equations within this ever-popular-story-concept (from a woman director, women scriptwriters, women producers), and depiction of the solid bond of friendship linking Molly and Amy, even when they’re not on the same wavelength, even when each one’s lifelong-friend suddenly seems like a stranger in a crisis moment.  I’ll also assume for most current high-school-grads the last night of their enforced-world is still the same opportunity for rebellion (non-violent, I hope), exultation, sheer joy at having conquered this phase of emerging-adulthood with some sort of celebration (better than your parents’ collection of creative-appetizers, I hope) they’ll remember fondly (I do, my first time of staying out well beyond dawn, no questions asked; my wife, Nina, had cops come to her big party, but she escaped over a fence), even if it’s not based on something as memorable as being arrested (we’ll just have to assume this possible blot on her solid record doesn’t follow Amy around forever).

 However, maybe all you really want from such an occasion (or a movie celebrating those lingering-memory-lost-days) is just something you’ll barely be able to recall, so my appropriately-chosen-Musical Metaphor for Booksmart (even though both Molly and Amy apparently ended the night as virgins, even as Amy’s taking her masturbatory-aid-Teddy Bear with her to Africa, providing one last great laugh in this story) is Jimmy Buffet’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” (from his 1973 A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean album) at M4 (the recorded version, although you might also like this live rendition from the 2008 Newport Folk Festival which gets more into the group-party-attitude from Booksmart) where more than one of our primary characters can honestly say: “I really do appreciate the fact you’re sittin’ here Your voice sounds so wonderful But your face don’t look too clear.”  Seems like the right “note” to end on for now, but we'd like to see you next time for more at Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark.
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Here’s more information about Aladdin [2019]: (9:13 video on 10 notable differences between the new Aladdin movie and the 1992 animated feature)

Here’s more information about Booksmart: (38:15 interview with director Olivia Wilde, co-writer/producer Katie Silberman, producer Jessica Elbaum, and actors Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute [begins with a trailer, a bit in the direction of the movie’s R-rated nature, so take note])

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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