Movie Review: “Aladdin”

Let’s get one thing clear up front: this movie was significantly better than I expected. Early images of a (very) blue Will Smith didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and Guy Ritchie hasn’t made an unquestionably good movie since “Snatch.” But although it can’t hold a candle to its predecessor, this live-action update of Disney’s venerable animated classic never becomes the dumpster fire I feared.

There’s a lot to like here: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a dead ringer for his animated counterpart, and it’s nice that spunky Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) has a bit more to do here than swoon around her palace.

And once Will Smith’s Genie shows up, the film really hits its stride: big musical numbers “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” are delightful showstoppers, and there are some great new scenes where the Genie—channeling “Hitch”—advises Aladdin on courting Jasmine. And if anything, this film’s version of “A Whole New World” is better than the original—thanks largely to Scott’s powerful vocals—even if the flight itself no longer sweeps our heroes through Greece, Egypt, and China (apparently, the carpet no longer travels at supersonic speeds).

As long as the film stays focused on its core triad—Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie—it’s a great success. Alas, things start going awry whenever the film attempts a broader focus.

As plenty of commentators have stressed ad nauseam, the 1992 “Aladdin” trafficked in some questionable imagery and stereotypes. But this film’s version of Agrabah is so sanitized that it feels positively inhuman. Gone are any distinctive or identifying features of particular Middle Eastern cultures or societies, and there’s no effort made to design a cohesive alternative (Wakanda, anyone?). As a result, the setting feels almost offensively sterile: it’s tantamount to setting a movie in Renaissance Florence while refusing to acknowledge that rulers’ laws and policies actually had an effect on citizens, or that churches were more than merely nice-looking buildings. It seems to me that the remedy for crude stereotyping isn’t a kind of doubling down on stylistic Disneyfication, but penning an “Aladdin” update more firmly rooted in Middle Eastern lore and culture (would it have really been that difficult to acknowledge that minarets aren’t just architectural features, but towers from which the call to prayer issues?).

More problematic is the movie’s flattening of character motivations. The 1992 film’s motivations were pretty straightforward: Aladdin and Jasmine are in love, and evil vizier Jafar craves power and domination.

In the 2019 movie, all of that collapses into fixation on the acquisition and use of coercive power. As we learn early on, this version Jasmine is predominantly concerned with defying the social norms that keep her from succeeding her father as sultan. And that, in turn, recasts her opposition to being forced into marriage: the real problem isn’t being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, but being forced to cede her claim to rule to a man.And likewise, this Aladdin is less motivated by his love for Jasmine than he is by a desire to transcend his lowly circumstances—to truly go from street thief to prince (in fact, I don’t recall anyone actually using the word “love” onscreen).

The character arc of 2019’s Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is even poorer. For one thing, Kenzari cuts a totally unimposing figure, with his high-pitched voice, sulky demeanor, and over-the-top apparel. This Jafar’s “sorcery” is utterly devoid of any threatening mystical undercurrent, but comes off as a kind of video-game magic, more oriented toward manipulation of matter than connection with a menacing netherworld. And worse, this new Jafar’s endgame merely involves orchestrating the invasion of a neighboring kingdom, for reasons that are never explained or made clear. But hey, power is an end in itself…right?

Why everyone in this movie suffers from the exact same character flaw—an obsession with political power über alles—is beyond me. It’s an irritating sop to modern anxieties, not a natural outgrowth of its characters’ backstories. And for what it’s worth, reconfiguring Jasmine from “obsessed with love” to “obsessed with #leadership” doesn’t make her a more empowered female character—it just makes her less distinguishable from everybody else around her. All of this results in a finished product that feels strangely toothless, sanitized, desaturated.

By contrast, consider the climax of the 1992 film: Jafar seizes the Genie’s lamp, ascends to become both sultan and grand sorcerer, and immediately reshapes Agrabah in his own image. Aladdin returns from banishment to a city suffering under the shadow, where Jafar holds the throne and Jasmine and her father are in chains. Soon after, the height of Jafar’s evil becomes clear: his lust for power is so extreme that he wants to possess Jasmine by overriding her free will (forcing the Genie to make her love him). Obviously, there’s an eerie, psychosexual dimension here—to say nothing of the pervasive occult imagery.

To be sure, this is dark stuff—nightmare fuel for children and adults alike. (It’s really not that surprising that some parents wanted to keep their kids far away from Disney flicks.) But it’s also the raw material from which ironclad ideas about right and wrong are formed: that love can never be coerced or forced, that pride inevitably goes before a fall, and that messing with evil spiritual powers leads only to ruin. I’d go so far to say that the best Disney animated films are classics precisely because of the stark good-versus-evil clashes at their core (the ones that downplay this element—e.g., “Pocahontas”—are nobody’s favorites).

At the end of the day, “Aladdin” is a perfectly adequate movie—no more, no less. Like most of these updates of Disney classics, I expect it will make a truckload of cash and promptly be forgotten. And it’s a pleasant enough summer-movie diversion.

But just like 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast,” it could’ve been so much better. Maybe after losing the city to Jafar, Jasmine could’ve hopped on the flying carpet and laid fiery waste to Agrabah after hearing the tolling of the city’s bells. One can only wish.

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Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum”

In a cinematic marketplace glutted with throwaway action flicks, the “John Wick” films are something quite unique. They’re memorable and compulsively watchable, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what makes them so distinct. Is it the icy lead performance by the ever-stoic Keanu Reeves? Is it the sleek, rain-drenched, neon-noir set design? Is it the saga’s intricate lore, featuring a global High Table of assassins with detailed rules for conducting “business”?

“Parabellum” picks up minutes after the conclusion of 2017’s “Chapter 2.” After killing a rival on the grounds of the New York Continental—a hotel and neutral zone among assassins—Wick has been named excommunicado, with a $14 million bounty on his head.

As one might expect, “Parabellum” is an onslaught of chaotic action from the very start. Wick demolishes his attackers with books, knives, swords, belts, cars, horses, dogs, and many, many guns. If you have a taste for gorgeously choreographed displays of carnage, “Parabellum” is the film for you.

But as it so happens, this third installment takes the storyline in some unexpected directions. I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but beneath all the blood and bullets, “Parabellum” is a strangely spiritual tale.

It would be very easy for a film like “Parabellum”—featuring a secret global organization seeking to control the protagonist—to hit a series of predictable notes. Surely, one assumes, Wick will overthrow the existing regime and build a new one, a free one. But for the most part, the film avoids this temptation: despite Wick’s conflicts with the Table, the series shies away from casting him as the vanguard of something new. Indeed, Wick’s struggles throughout much of “Parabellum” are efforts to reintegrate himself into the order that his actions have defied—efforts to atone for his misdeeds.

Midway through the film, Wick travels to Casablanca in the hopes of making amends with the Table. In order to do so, he must come face-to-face with “the one who sits above the Table”—an enigmatic Elder who possesses the power to restore Wick’s status. To find the Elder, Wick must travel as far as he can into the distant desert, until his strength utterly gives way; then, and only then, will the Elder appear. Wick’s guide on this odyssey is an enigmatic figure named Sofia (Halle Berry).

This particular imagery is strongly symbolic stuff: Wick’s journey into the desert to commune with “the one who sits above the Table”—the one whose word is absolute law, who oversees the world’s governing powers—closely tracks the sojourns of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, who left the world behind in order to encounter God. And his guide’s name is surely no coincidence: in the writings of many Eastern Orthodox theologians, including Vladimir Solovyov and Sergey Bulgakov, Sophia is a moniker for God’s divine wisdom.

This reading of the series—as profoundly influenced by elements of Near Eastern spirituality foreign to many Westerners—explains a great deal. Unusually for a thriller film marketed to Western audiences, the “John Wick” series is a decidedly anti-introspective affair. While competitor franchises like “Taken” and “Die Hard” aren’t shy about allowing their protagonists to voice their thoughts and feelings, Wick is a far more taciturn figure. We catch quick glimpses of Wick mourning his late wife, but beyond that, he remains an enigma.

The theological reading of “John Wick” helps explain this:  Just as in Orthodox practice, this saga’s characters’ values are not merely professed or penned, but embodied, manifested in action. Wick doesn’t wrestle with “Catholic guilt” or a “Protestant work ethic,” because his universe is Orthodox to the core, oriented toward experiential encounter with a power beyond himself. The meaning and purpose in Wick’s world is thus not something superimposed on the world through his own strength of will, but something already there, something to be discovered. And so we never glimpse Wick’s inner thoughts because we have no need to: his conduct, and his general willingness to submit himself to higher laws, speak for themselves.

Towards the film’s conclusion, Wick confronts an enemy in the middle of Grand Central Station, and the resulting bloodshed goes completely unnoticed by passersby. It is as if Wick and his adversaries are invisible—inhabiting a viscerally real, yet unseen, world just beneath the surface of the ordinary. That moment captures the truly distinctive heart of the franchise—the series’ affirmation of a hidden, transpersonal, “cosmic” order with its own rules and principles, one within which death and sufferings are made comprehensible. And in that world, there is not even a trace of smugness or irony.

Certainly “Parabellum”—like all “John Wick” films—is something of an acquired taste. Those who prefer a slightly tamer breed of action flick will have little use for the film’s deluge of bloodshed. But for those who’ve followed this series since the start, “Chapter 3” will prove more than satisfying—and for newcomers, it’s worth noting that the series continues to double down on its intriguingly unconventional storytelling.

Among Western thriller films, the “John Wick” saga may well be the “least Western” of them all—a vision of premodern action cinema that confounds contemporary expectations. And that, I think, is well worth celebrating.


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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Thrillers

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