Maleficentin 2014 made a killing at the box office. It was a critical success, and (along with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) set off Disney’s current craze of remaking all of their IP as live action blockbusters. So the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was a sure bet, right? Yes and no.
Angelina Jolie returns as the eponymous and misunderstood queen of the fey. Elle Fanning is back as her adopted daughter, the Princess Aurora. Prince Phillip has proposed to her, so now it’s time to meet the parents! Michelle Pfieffer sinks her teeth into the juicy role of Queen Ingrith, who bears a giant grudge against the magical moor lands and all magic users. This great feud breaks out between her and Maleficent. It’s like if Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s squabbles were also all a pretense for war. There are certain elements in this film that seem to condemn the military-industrial complex. . . or at least its equivalent in a pre-industrial medieval setting.
Maleficent also discovers her heritage as she discovers a near-extinct species of dark fey that once lived all throughout the land but who have hunted by humans and driven into hiding. Their tribes are divided between wanting to pursue war or peace with the humans, with the peace faction being led by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the war faction led by Borra (Ed Skrein).
The giant action sequences and production design of this film are phenomenal. The only problem is that it’s the personal interactions between Pfieffer and Jolie that are the best parts here. The giant action scenes where they are literally fighting one another are altogether less interesting.
While visually stunning, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is missing some of its edge. I loved the first Maleficent. It’s an amazing film that dared to turn the essence of a classic Disney tale on its head. It features a strong feminist message about not pitting women against each other. This sequel feels like nothing but pitting powerful women against each other.
Still, the aesthetics of the film are amazing. Maleficent’s costumes and makeup/CG-enhancements make her absolutely stunning to look at. Maybe it’s the wings, maybe it’s those cheekbones, maybe it’s the CG-coloring that makes the green magic swirl in her eyes, but it’s gorgeous.
While maybe not as good as the first, like most modern sequels this film does it bigger and brashier. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a fan it’s a good enough reason to go ahead and make sure you see this on the big screen.
Joker is a schizophrenic film. I’m loathe to use that term because it’s both a bit too on the nose (because of mental health issues explored in the film) and the term schizophrenia is largely misunderstood. However, it’s the best description (literally “split head”) of what is a gripping and gritty but at the same time somehow both banal, disturbing and irresponsible film.
In that way it is very much like its protagonist and the comics character he is based on. But the film also tries to draw from such a deep well of other films (better films) that it’s really hard to fully recommend to people when they’re probably better off just going back to the original source material.
Let’s start with the good. Joker is trying to present a complex character of someone who has been largely marginalized by society and essentially indicts the system that led to his emergence as a supervillain. I get that, and I really respect it, but I also wish it had just been done better. It’s also hard to feel bad for someone who is at their core a sociopath as we see someone falling down into that rabbit hole through escalating acts of violence. Some of them are warranted but most of them not.
Joaquin Phoenix does a great job here in presenting the multiple different layers of this character. The physicality alone he brings here is astounding and part of what makes this film so visceral and so (intentionally) unpleasant. The film also makes him a great classic unreliable narrator, so you’re left wondering how much of the film is real and how much might be delusional. However, you have to ask yourself, how much sympathy do we really need to give to a psychopath? This film doesn’t offer any good conclusions to that question.
To the extent this film inspires conversations about mental health care and the systemic ways in which we fail people on the margins of society, that is a good thing. To the extent that it inspires us to discuss growing income inequality and the marginalization of the poor and the true class warfare — the 1% beating down the disadvantaged — then those are good conversations.
The problem is that the film will also inspire other conversations that will be far less nuanced and will take all of the wrong messages from this film. These messages will inspire violence, creating more heat than light. That is ultimately this film’s downfall is that it has no sense of responsibility for what it is unleashing into the culture.
WARNING: The following contains very minorSPOILERS. They are not major plot points but includes a single line of dialogue, a discussion of songs used in the film, and how Joker draws from other films. If you’re familiar with those films, knowing their plots may be considered “spoilers” for how this film lays out its plot. However, I maintain none of these will actually spoil your enjoyment of the film. If anything, hopefully, it inspires some critical conversations. BUT if you don’t want to know these, skip to the final 2 paragraphs. Ok, minor “spoilers”:
In this same way, Joker as a character tries to absolve himself of all responsibility for the effects his actions have on society, eg, that he has inspired others to engage in violence. He doesn’t see himself as the leader of any sort of movement, even going so far as to say “I’m not political.” That statement is the Rosetta Stone for understanding why this film is flawed. In its heart of hearts, it probably believes this.
Furthermore, this is likely writer and director Todd Phillips giving himself an out and abrogating any personal responsibility for how others might interpret his film– in essence re-enacting the final act of the film where Joker goes on tv and uses the power of the media to spread his gospel of violence and nihilism.
Joker doesn’t care whether he’s inspiring people in the streets or not. He’s not a savior or a leader. But angry, disaffected people will listen to his message and go out and commit atrocities.
So, no, you don’t get to just say, “This isn’t political.” That is the mantra of privilege because you know that the effects of what you are putting out there into the culture is never going to personally affect you.
This film is political in the same way all the best art is political. Its best pieces and moments indict entire systems and ways of thinking. It exposes the corruption and indifference of a society who turns its back on the people who most need help. So saying it’s not political is both a cop-out and completely negates all the positive you’ve created.
Needless to say, this very specific moment in October of 2019, this film feels wholly irresponsible to put into the cultural zeitgeist. I have never worried about widespread mass shootings happening at screenings of any other film, even given the crowds Star Wars and Avengers were always going to attract. But I really worry about this weekend. Todd Phillips would have been far better to simply crank out another tired Hangover sequel and give us all a few laughs, even if they weren’t politically correct ones.
Which brings us to Phillips saying he stopped making comedy because he’s tired of “woke” culture. Bad news, Todd, there’s plenty of woke takes on dramas and comic book movies as well. Joker deserves all of the woke takes it can get, and I’m especially interested in hearing from black female critics about the treatment of Zazie Beetz‘s character in the film. By the way, Beetz’s performance is astounding, and every bit as good and layered as Phoenix’s, even though she gets 1/15th the screen time and 1/20th of the lines and character development.
The treatments and marginalization of other women of color in this film is also a great topic for discussion. We also see 0 representation and therefore a complete erasure of Latinx and Asian characters of any kind.
And because one good woke take deserves another, much ado has also been made about the inclusion of a song by Gary Glitter in a scene later in the film where Joker is dancing on a stairway, which can be seen in the trailer.
In so many ways, the inclusion of Gary Glitter on the soundtrack is incredibly on-brand for the film. It represents either complete ignorance of the fact that Glitter has been a known pedophile for decades, or a complete apathy to that fact.
Perhaps this is an attempt to be knowingly edgy and push people’s buttons in an attempt to troll “cancel culture.” But most likely it is that Phillips is just totally indifferent.
The entire film reeks of a practiced indifference and air of privilege that, ironically, the subject of the film is trying to skewer. Joker falls all over itself in its subtext and talking about how it doesn’t care too much. It, therefore, can’t possibly have the edge and satire it needs to actually say something coherent about an indifferent society that steps over and marginalizes people who have been hurt by the system or forgotten. You literally can’t be both.
The film also begs, borrows and steals from so many other films it becomes tiresome. This is a bad bar band covering hits from the 70s, but instead of singing Journey and Fleetwood Mac, it’s a remake of Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Both of those films would fit in many critics’ and organizations’ top 25 list of the greatest films of all time. It’s doubtful Joker will even make it into my top 25 of this year.
You know how most of the Die Hard sequels weren’t actually originally written to be Die Hard? They were just action scripts floating around Hollywood and then someone said, “Take that script for WW3.com, and put John McClane in it. Now it’s Die Hard with a Vengeance.” This movie feels like someone’s script that tried to remake King of Comedy and then someone came along and said: “Let’s make this main character the Joker.”
The other film that gets most name-checked in Joker but has been perhaps the least discussed (the parallels to Scorsese were apparent from the trailers alone, so much so that it’s almost too easy a comparison) is the parallels to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Joker uses both a scene from the film at a pivotal point in the movie, and also uses its signature song “Smile” as a sort of theme song– so much so that it’s in the trailer.
On the surface, there are some real similarities. Both films are about the marginalization of regular people due to growing inequality. Both films deal with mental health and police brutality as well as crackdowns on organizing/protest movements. The main difference is their endings.
In Modern Times, after 90 minutes of factory work, abuse, a mental breakdown, being arrested, beaten up by the police, losing more jobs, having their dreams taken away from them by the rich and powerful on a couple of different occasions, Chaplain and his gamin girlfriend literally walk into the sunset after saying they can’t give up and never should no matter how many times they’ve been beaten down. They still need to work hard and will eventually come out on top.
Joker conveys the exact opposite message of that, so it feels like such a disservice to such classic a film as Modern Times to so explicitly reference it. It feels more like if Todd Phillips were standing in a movie line talking about Modern Times and Joker, Woody Allen would pull Charlie Chaplin out from behind a sign to say “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work.” (That’s an Annie Hall reference, folks, since we’re talking 1970’s movies. And yes I’m still talking about Woody Allen even though he’s #cancelled.)
Given the ersatz quality of the filmmaking here, would you rather hear the classics played by the crappy bar band, or just pull out your records and listen to the originals? Don’t go see Joker if you haven’t seen King of Comedy. Or Taxi Driver. Or Modern Times. Your time will be better spent on the originals and classics rather than these pale imitations.
All of this is to say that Joker is a complicated and often contradictory mess. But it isn’t wholly bad. The tragedy of it all is that there are moments of sheer brilliance. Despite all my problems with it, I hope the film does incredibly well at the box office to send the signal that DC can/should abandon–for now– the pretext of a shared universe and simply churn out character-driven individual films. And sometimes they can be R-rated and gritty and complex.
And sometimes they can be whatever it is they’re doing in that new Birds of Prey trailer, which is everywhere I want to be. And sometimes it can be James Gunn making a Suicide Squad movie. But my hope is that next time they try to swing for the fences like this with something like Joker, they’ll bring someone more talented than Todd Phillips on to make sure we don’t get a self-contradicting warmed-over-King of Comedy remake with the clown prince of crime somehow shoehorned in.
Abominable is a movie we’ve seen dozens of times before, so even though it runs on rails it isn’t altogether bad. The one thing that switches it up even a little bit is its Chinese setting. In the dozen of other iterations of this film, this would have always been set in America. Likely the most interesting thing about Abominable is what it says about the future of Sino-American relations and global culture as even American animation studios with American creative teams try to go after the Chinese market more explicitly.
But otherwise, this is just an animated E.T. with a Yeti.
Our main story revolves around Yi, a teenage girl played by Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of Shield), herself a Chinese-American, who finds this runaway creature, befriends it and decides she needs to take it back to Mount Everest where it came from. This trip ends up mirroring a planned trip that she and her recently deceased father had always meant to go on. The trip ends up healing her and her grief as they discover more and more of the yeti, who she names Everest, and his magical powers.
But also this seems like a tourist travel video promoting the beautiful and varied landscapes of China. If this movie had been set in America, they would have stopped at the iconic places we all would think of– Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. They do the same with the Gobi Desert and the Yangtze River as it seems Everest’s most powerful magic is to completely distort space and time so that each of these things are within walking distance of one another. But hey, it’s a kids movie.
The animation is crisp and beautiful. It’s everything we expect DreamWorks to do. Everest’s playful design is quite reminiscent of another Dreamworks Animation main creature– Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon films. Kids will absolutely love him.
It’s also worth noting that writer and director Jill Culton is a veteran of Pixar who worked on not only the Monsters, Inc. films but also several of the Toy Storys. Everest is essentially Sully mixed with Toothless, and that’s not a bad combination. But as I said, we’ve seen this movie before. And frankly, it’s been done better. Monsters, Inc IS this movie, except the human Boo is the magical monster. But if you’re going to steal, then stealing from that and ET isn’t a bad place to start.
One of the most interesting choices of the film is that its antagonists, played by Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson read as English and American. That can’t be accidental, as it’s their greed, pride, etc that leads them to want to capture the yeti for their own nefarious purposes. It’s hard not to read something into that, although perhaps it’s completely earned.
Or perhaps we shouldn’t read anything more into it oh, the same way we don’t particularly read Maleficent or Cruella Deville as being “English” in an American context. Maybe it’s just a cute movie about a teenage girl and her friends who go on a magical adventure with a yeti.
Regardless, while you can do far better then this by-the-numbers animated film, you can also do much worse. If your kids drag you to Abominable, you won’t hate it, and you might even enjoy aspects of it. It’s not Pixar or How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s trying to be. And that’s not so terrible.
Who would have thought a movie about grift and strip clubs could be so boring? And yet here we are with Hustlers. Despite some hard work in the performances by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, despite a feminist sensibility brought to the film’s cinematography and feel thanks to writer and director Lorene Scafaria, the end result is just boring.
The film is “based on a true story,” specifically, an article published by New York Magazine entitled “The Hustlers at Scores” written by Jessica Pressler. As the story goes, prior to the financial crisis of 2008, everything was hunky-dory in New York strip clubs. Idiot bankers were loose with their cash and made it rain.
But as with all things in the financial crisis, when Bear Stearns and Countrywide went down, it was the little people who got hurt– like the strippers. Suggesting that they are now like modern-day Robin Hoods taking advantage of the people who got bailouts, a group of former strippers begin a scam to start running up massive bills for bankers and brokers.
There’s a strong element of sisterhood and feminism as these girls stick together. Indeed, the film opens with Janet Jackson’s “Control,” providing a sort of thematic layout for the film. Lopez and Wu are always, in fact, in control of the situation, not the horny bankers who want to get rubbed on in a champagne room. So, good on you, girls!
While this isn’t saying much given her cinematic history, Hustlers might be the best performance by Lopez in a film ever. She’s the center of the story and is extremely compelling. Wu is also extremely good– at least on par with her star-making performance in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians or on Fresh Off the Boat, and certainly gives her more opportunities to stretch her dramatic acting chops. It just isn’t enough to save this film.
For those who might be interested in this film because of advertised cameos by Lizzo and Cardi B, those are literally little more than cameos. Blink and you’ll miss them. You will be disappointed. You will see more of them by watching one of their music videos on YouTube. However, Julia Stiles does show up as the journalist writing this story, which always sort of puts the brakes on the story– one of the many flaws in this film’s storytelling.
And for those coming to this film hoping for a little bit of sin and nudity, you are also going to be mostly out of luck. Please remember that there is free pornography on the internet, and you shouldn’t come to this film looking for cheap thrills. You won’t find it.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about this film is the feminist filmography. While there are some shots of nudity, most of it is actually not very sexual and presented almost in a businesslike fashion. The longest portion of nudity that you get is actually a naked man seen from the waist down as he is being taken to a hospital. Yup, there’s equal-opportunity nudity in this film. But that really isn’t what this movie is about. Again, if that’s what you’re looking for, there is porn on the internet.
But mostly this film is just plain boring. It feels much longer than its two hour run time and despite good character work by Wu and J-Lo, there really isn’t much more to see here. However, this film was definitely not made for me. Others may find a sense of enjoyment out of it even though I did not.
The Kitchen is a great late-summer surprise. It’s that perfect blend of familiar formula (gangland drama in 1970’s New York City) with a new twist (a feminist anthem about the women taking over.) Oh, and it’s an adaption of a Vertigo comic from writer and director Andrea Berloff, who previously scripted Strait Outta Compton. Add in a trifecta of some of today’s most interesting working actresses– Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss— and you have my full attention. Summer 2019 has been a deluge of franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. The Kitchen breaks that mold by being something new and original.
And, folks, I am sick and tired of hearing people complain, “Hollywood never makes anything original!” “There aren’t enough female directors!” Well, here’s a chance for you to put your money where your mouth is. The only way to send a signal that you want more of this is to support it with your dollars. Support this with your dollars.
McCarthy plays Kathy, a streetsmart wife of a ne’er-do-well member of the local Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. Haddish is Ruby, who married a real piece of work but who is a member of the top Irish family in the neighborhood. And Moss is Claire, abused and cowed by her husband. When their husbands get sent up the river for a botched liquor store robbery, they band together, and then take over and show the lowlifes running their neighborhood how it’s really done.
Moss has the most interesting character arc as she learns to take her agency back — by force if necessary — and also forms a really beautiful Bonnie and Clyde type romance with Domnhall Gleeson, a messed up Vietnam vet who is important as the muscle of their nascent gang.
Haddish brings great energy to the mix, bringing to light her outsider status because of her skin color even though she married into a powerful mob family. As she begins to take her own power, she is a great character study in both what to do and what not to do to take your power back.
McCarthy is one of the most versatile and talented actors working today. Comedy, drama, action, sweet, spicy, salty, dirty, or squeaky clean, she can play anything. As in the best of her roles, she is a giving performer who pushes her costars to shine, even as she shines herself. Berloff’s direction and writing are the right touches here, forging and melding both a textual and metatextual message through McCarthy’s giving performance and the story itself into a powerful, feminist message about how patriarchy tries to divide women and make them compete with each other, but the better way is a femme-forward cooperation that makes everyone profit. McCarthy could’ve hogged the spotlight. Instead, she shares the bill perfectly with Haddish and Moss. Way to go, sisters.
It’s also a smart, cool gangland story that lets these three be badasses. As I09 founder Charlie Jane Anders wrote a few months back, we don’t just need “strong” female characters– we need complex characters “who make mistakes, and screw up, and hurt people, and learn from their disasters.” McCarthy’s portrayal of Kathy is motherly, but she’s also as complex and flawed as Al Pacino in The Godfather, Robert DeNiro in The Godfather II, Denzel Washington in American Gangster. She gives that same nuanced performance here–although running off a very different kind of energy–and it’s dynamite.
Haddish and Moss do as much wrong as they do right. They’re strong and they’re weak. They are working for something bigger and better, and they also fall prey to their own humanity. These are the complex, strong female characters we need.
And perhaps in a refreshing turn, the only character who feels a little thin is Gleeson’s, whose character is really only motivated as an accessory to the women in the story. Does that make you uncomfortable? It might be a signal for all of these generally underwritten female characters in these male-driven gangland dramas.
All of this adds up to a refreshing late-summer cocktail that’s the perfect blend of sweet, sour, and strong like a spicy frozen margarita.
Some critics have compared this to last year’s Widows, and while that’s not a terrible comparison, it’s also a relatively facile one. The only real comparison is they’re both female-cast-forward films, but Widows is a heist film. The Kitchen is a gangland movie. It’s like comparing Godfather Part II and Heat just because they both have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in them. But they’re fundamentally different kinds of movies. Widows never felt quite as explicitly feminist, but it did have a more subversive political message about Chicago racial politics. The Kitchen is also far more gritty, thanks to its 1978 Hell’s Kitchen setting compared to 2018 Chicago. Also, I’m not sure on what planet comparing a movie to another good movie is in any way a put-down. “It’s a lot like Goodfellas.” “Oh, ok, then I’ll definitely pass.” What?
August is normally a dumping ground for films studios don’t quite know what to do with or how to market. The only reason people might be concerned about the film is discomfort with its Gloria-Steinem era second-wave feminist ethos, which almost seems quaint 40 years later. Don’t be fooled by the lack of buzz, The Kitchen is worth getting back into.
David Leitch is one of the most kinetic directors working today. From his background in stunts and parlaying that into the masterwork that was the first John Wick, he catapulted into being one of Hollywood’s most visually interesting directors by following it up with Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. And now with Hobbs and Shaw hitting theaters, you may wonder if we’re getting a watered-down- by-franchise Leitch, or if we’re getting more of the same of his brilliance. It is decidedly the latter, as Letch takes the mismatched buddy cop action comedy and destroys it in a giant explosion. This is a comic book movie that isn’t based on a comic book.
It’s not high art, but it’s a lot of fun.
The film begins with one of its most interesting visual flourishes, showing our two protagonists played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham as they go about their days and tracking down, unbeknownst to them, the same bad guys. Their settings and methods are different, and therefore Leitch lights them in very different ways but often splits the screen between the two to show a stylistic contrast.
This is classic Leitch, and especially some of the Shaw moments feel right out of John Wick or Atomic Blonde. It’s almost like the rule that dialogue should come from character, but as a visual medium, film has the ability to develop their characters based on their movement, lighting, and editing.
Leitch just shoots The Rock differently– like he’s this giant wall, a force of nature. But a final sequence set in Samoa is something that none of Leitch’s previous films felt: personal, important. Placing native Pacific Islanders and showcasing them in a way that highlights what is special about one of the most overlooked groups in popular media (indigenous/native people of any type, really).
While we have Executive Produce Dwayne Johnson to thank for insisting as part of doing this film that it include representation for Pacific Islanders, Leitch is able to make this come alive and feel special and, dare I say, cool. It’s sort of a mini-Black Panther moment for Samoans, and that’s unique and a great example of using your privilege to uplift others.
But the best performance here is Idris Elba as Brixton, the bad guy. Also, his motorcycle, which leads me to ask, “Should David Leitch do a Transformers movie?” But, as the leader of a cult of technology-obsessed-and-enhanced bad guys, he’s not really that different from most action movie bad guys. But his keniciticsm is unsurpassed by anyone else. Essentially, his cybernetics and AI upgrades allow him to analyze and dodge almost all attacks. It’s the 21st-century version of what Sherlock Holmes/Robert Downey Jr is able to do in the Guy Ritchie films.
We also have Vanessa Kirby as Hattie, an MI-6 agent who is the third wheel to the Hobbs and Shaw axle this film is built around. Similar to the way Leitch has been able to elevate his femme fatales in Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 as major asskickers, so too is Hattie incredibly capable– easily able to square off against The Rock and Statham.
Leitch is a gifted comedic director (as showcased by his work on Deadpool 2), and this comes through in Hobbs and Shaw, where he even has his Deadpool 2 stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob Delaney cameo. In many ways, Deadpool 2 is the most similar of Leitch’s films to Hobbs and Shaw: they’re both the least visually experimental and groundbreaking, but they take the successful formula and kinetic action and place them in the bounds of a franchise. And fans eat it up.
However, as I said, this film is pretty braindead and expects viewers to completely ignore the laws of space, time, and geography. Jaunts from Moscow to Samoa seem to take mere minutes, and London to Moscow is an overnight red-eye flight. Also, apparently Moscow and Ukraine are really, really close to each other.
But perhaps the most egregious is a final climactic action sequence with a literal ticking clock running that expects us to believe that in the space of a half-hour we go from complete darkness before dawn, to golden-bathed morning on a clear summer morning to a torrential downpour. Time and weather do not work that way. Oh well. At least it all looked cool. Just don’t think about it too hard because its ridiculousness strains all credulity.
All this makes me think how absolutely spoiled we were by last summer’s Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s instructive that director Christopher McQuarrie started in scriptwriting and Leitch started in stunts. Both of these films are the culmination of decades of their work in Hollywood– and it’s sort of a “two roads diverged in a wood” parable. McQuarrie brought the tight storytelling aesthetics of his early masterwork scripts like The Usual Suspects to become Fallout, and Leitch brought the kinetic popcorn sensibilities of his early stunt work and stunt directing to make Hobbs and Shaw feel all killer, no filler. But not everything needs to be so cerebral.
Still, I was not expecting to like Hobbs and Shaw as much as I did. It’s braindead, but it’s fun and lets Leitch paint on a much bigger canvas than before. Whether or not you have any investment in the Fast and Furious franchise, you could walk in and be entertained. Oh, and make sure you stay through the credits — all the way through — because the guy who made Deadpool 2 isn’t going to leave you without a tease for what’s next, would he?
At first glance, Yesterday might seem like a fresh, almost subversive take on updating the classic catalog of The Beatles. By taking the music of four working-class lads from Liverpool and putting it in the mouth of a working class son of Indian immigrants in Sheffield (and not making any mention of his ethnicity whatsoever), director Danny Boyle could be making a strong case for inclusion and racial equity. But on second glance the film is mostly just a basic romantic comedy (albeit one with a great soundtrack) and one which sort of falls apart in its third act.
But the journey, not the destination, is what is fun here. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has never made it in music and is ready to give up when a worldwide simultaneous blackout leads to him being hit by a truck (set to the orchestral hit from “A Day in the Life”). And when he wakes up, no one remembers The Beatles except for him. As he begins performing their music, fame and fortune begin to find him, even as it pulls him apart from a potential romantic connection with his best friend since grade school/manager Ellie (Lily James). Along the way, Jack is mentored by Ed Sheeran (as himself) and an incredibly abrasive record executive played to the hilt by Kate McKinnon. And while Patel and James’s will they/won’t they rom com vibe is what holds the movie together, it’s McKinnon’s scene-stealing that is the real reason to see this movie.
But the rom-com skeleton wears somewhat thin, so the real determining factor in how much you will enjoy this film is how much you like the basic conceit of re-exploring the music of The Beatles through the lens of Jack covering their greatest hits. Yes, it’s good, though a few performances wear a little thin. An almost screaming version of “Help” owes almost as much to the vocal stylings of Kurt Cobain as John Lennon, but an extremely tender and stripped down “The Long and Winding Road” will floor you almost as much as it does Ed Sheeran.
The film also contains performances of Yesterday, In My Life, Something, Carry That Weight, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Elanor Rigby, Here Comes the Sun, Back in the USSR, Hey Jude, I Saw Her Standing There, and All You Need is Love, while at least name-checking a half dozen other songs like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s nice, but at least for this fan, felt like a very cursory look at the most basic of The Beatles. Pulling out some deep cuts, and focusing less on the Lennon/McCartney songs would have been nice. Would it have killed them to include a Ringo song in there? “With a Little Help From My Friends” is right. there.
But that’s where this ode to the Beatles sort of breaks down. Since it focuses all on Jack as this genius solo artist, it belies what The Beatles were really all about, which was four incredibly talented people working together. George and Ringo were just as important as John and Paul in the alchemy that was their songwriting and performing. And this film and its performances lose all the depth in that signature Beatle harmony, and the call and response sections of songs like With a Little Help From My Friends. Missing those harmonies is another reason why the version of “Help” in the film is so unsatisfying.
In another film that very much drew inspiration from The Beatles, 2001’s I am Sam starring Sean Penn, there’s a line about what was special about The Beatles was when Paul McCartney wrote the first part of the song “Michelle” and then John Lennon wrote the “I love you, I love you, I love you” part, that was the essence of what The Beatles were about. Yesterday misses that dynamic completely.
And then the film ends in a completely whiffed third act that couldn’t be more by the numbers if it tried. And for a film so full of vibrancy and fun, the end leaves you feeling a little cold and unsatisfied.
As a rom-com, it’s a B-minus. As a celebration and nostalgic take on the music of the most influential music group of the 20th century, it’s an A. How much you enjoy this film will likely depend largely on how much you like The Beatles. But since many people do like them, that’s not a bad bet.
“I can show you the world…” In a world where such classic animated films exist, it’s a relevant question to ask what you get from simply remaking something as beloved and classic and Disney’s 1992 Aladdin. With Director Guy Ritchie on board and Will Smith taking the place as the iconic blue genie, can they deliver something worthwhile?
Yes. Yes they can.
The remake updates the not-so-old film in a lot of ways. In fact, this film is so not-so-old that I can remember seeing it opening weekend at the old Scera Theater in Orem, Utah amid a massive throng of children and hearing those opening words of “Arabian Nights” describing its setting as “where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face– it’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” This line was almost immediately redubbed and scrubbed from future soundtrack and home video releases to something that didn’t imply that Arabs are barbaric, so it’s not like Aladdin hasn’t needed some brushing up from day 1.
But perhaps what is most refreshing is its elevation of Princess Jasmine to, arguably, the main character of the film. While Aladdin still goes through his growth and character journey, so too does Jasmine grapple with her place in a patriarchal kingdom where she feels she is actually the most qualified person to rule. She’s not wrong, and Jasmine basically is coming for Elsa as the most overtly feminist member of the Disney pantheon. A new song added for the film, “Speechless,” is performed to perfection by Naomi Scott. If this song isn’t nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, I’ll eat a DVD of Aladdin.
[Minor spoiler ahead, skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know] One of the most interesting ways they updated this and cranked the feminism up to 11 is a single line delivered by Aladdin in a new scene immediately post the “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride. Looking down at Agrabah, Jasmine talks about wanting to help all of the city’s residents. She wants to be listened to and help rule because she knows she can do a better job than anyone else. She turns to Prince Ali for his opinion, and he delivers one of the most astounding and wonderful lines of any film this year: “Why does it matter what I think?” Her self worth isn’t bound up in his approval, and he knows it. Aladdin: secret feminist ally? You read it here first.
But what so many people actually want to talk about is Genie and Will Smith. He’s actually pretty good, especially when they let him be charming and do his own thing. When he’s going through the motions of trying to deliver on the beloved performance of Robin Williams, it’s just really hard to do that. Smith does his best, and the results are decent. But most of Smith’s best moments are when he is in a human-esque form incognito in the palace. He has (limited) agency, desires, and even a romantic subplot to himself? (With the incredibly charming Nasim Pedrad from SNL who plays one of Jasmine’s handmaids and is almost worth the price of admission herself.)
Ritchie’s directing here is crisp and workmanlike, but eschews so much of the visual style and kineticism some of his other films have. That means “One Jump” becomes a parkour-inspired mini-heist of sorts, but most of the musical numbers can’t quite compete with the originals. The direction is similar to Ritchie’s recent The Man from UNCLE in that he doesn’t leave a lot of fingerprints, but the end result is pretty fun. An added dance scene that is straight out of Bollywood is particularly fun and a great bonus.
Still, there are a few moments that land a little poorly. This seems largely due to wanting to keep Smith caged and closely working on aping Williams. The genius of Robin Williams was they just let him riff in the sound booth and then animated around the fun he brought to the script. So some of the things are a little cringey, but it’s likely to make parents roll their eyes as they fondly remember The Fresh Prince and the animated original Aladdin, but that kids will enjoy.
So why remake a classic? This brings a fresh feminist take to a movie that didn’t need a ton of updating, so it’s just the right touch. And while Will Smith isn’t Robin Williams, he’s still immensely watchable but is outshined by the excellent leads playing Aladdin and especially Jasmine. Take your family and experience a whole new world of what Aladdin can be.
Pokemon has been a major cultural force for over two decades now, but other than a few animated films, it has never really broken into the cinematic realm. And then there’s the “video game curse” which has turned even the best video games into cinematic dog crap. But Detective Pikachu defies all the odds and is really good. Focusing on character and plot– borrowing its best bits from detective noir classics of the past– and letting the video game content play as the setting was the smartest choice writer and director Rob Letterman. He seems happy to borrow liberally from the video game but then also makes the film very much its own thing that everyone can enjoy.
Why is it that so many video game movies are cursed to be terrible. It’s the medium that often makes it hard (though not impossible) to adapt to film. A good movie needs great characters, and especially needs a lead “POV” character that is the audience’s “way in” to the world of the film. We see the events unfold more or less through their eyes, and these characters usually have the most depth, development, and the best character arcs.
In a video game, the POV character is. . . you. Video games not only get away with, but encourage, more bland player characters– because they’re supposed to be bland aka “universal” so everyone who is playing the game can feel like they are actually taking the place of Mario or Sonic or even more developed player characters like a Cloud Strife or Leon Kennedy. Even if the point is playing through that player character’s story, like as Shepherd in Mass Effect or Revan in Knights of the Old Republic, or any of the characters in Detroit: Become Human, it’s more like you’re playing an interactive movie than a standard video game. Even Lara Croft didn’t really become an interesting “character” per se until her most recent games, which then became very literally adapted on the screen– which is what made last year’s Tomb Raider work and break the video game curse.
As I noted in that review, the question is always, “Would I have rather watched this movie or spent two hours playing the game?” In the case of Detective Pikachu, you definitely want to watch the movie.
A lot of that comes from the performances of its leads, which includes Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous talking gumshoe pokemon mascot and Justice Smith as Tim Goodman. Goodman in the game was literally just your avatar (Good-man, get it?) but Smith does a great job imbuing him with pathos and having fun. A scene in the middle of the film where he has to interrogate a Mr. Mime by using pantomime is incredibly funny, but mostly he does his job of being our POV character and leading us through this new world of Ryme City.
The city is brainchild of billionaire Howard Clifford (an incredibly fun Bill Nighy), it’s a city where humans and pokemon exist side by side. Visually and aesthetically it seems to smash together the best parts of New York, Tokyo, and maybe a little bit of Bladerunner‘s Los Angeles and Tim Burton’s version of Gotham City in his 1989 Batman. But what’s most fun about it are all of the Pokemon easter eggs hidden in almost every scene. You could play a “Gotta catch ’em all” type game where you name off every type that you see and that would be fun enough in and of itself.
But this movie also has a plot, and it’s also quite engaging. Tim Goodman comes to the city upon learning of his estranged father’s death from his former partner, Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe). Tim goes to clean out his father’s old apartment and finds an overly caffeinated talking Pikachu with a case of amnesia but a nose for a mystery. You know he’s a detective because of his hat! The Pikachu is convinced Tim’s father is still alive and they need to track him down. Along the way, they discover a conspiracy involving illegal drugs, underground Pokemon fighting rings, and a mysterious MewTwo who we see briefly in the opening of the film who may be the key to all of it.
It’s a pretty great mystery. And while it moves along quickly enough for little kids, it will still be engaging for adults. Also engaging for adults? Some of the dirtier jokes that might fly over kids’ heads. In this way, the film that this most reminds me of is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Film noir type detective story? Check. Frenetic jokes and a high energy lead? Check. Corporate intrigue and conspiracies? Check. Betrayals, twists, turns? Check. Strategic cameos and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it placement of beloved cartoon characters? Check!
The only thing missing here is the more perfected animation style of Roger Rabbit. One minor complaint is that some of the pokemon may not look exactly like either their video game or animated versions– the charizard and gyarados models specifically are a little off– but most of this is spot on and lots of fun. My Pokemon-obsessed ten year old son (the target audience for this) freaked out when they went into Clifford’s office and he had giant wooden statues of Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina. If you know who those are, this movie is going to make you very happy.
This is the perfect dessert sorbet to clear your palate after the heaviness of Avengers: Endgame. It’s light and fun but also has some deeper elements. If you took classics like Double Indemnity and The Third Man and added a billion cute little pocket monsters into it, you’d have this. And it is delightful. Even if you are meh on Pokemon and have never played a game, this is a lot of fun.
What the hell, people? I feel like I’ve been saying for a decade, “True fans stay through the credits.” Not just because we want to see The Avengers eating shawarma or watch “that Ayesha chick” talk about Adam Warlock, but because now that’s just something we do! And now someone said “There’s no extra scene at the end of Avengers: Endgame” and you’re like, “Welp, that’s it, then!”
No no no no no no no no no.
First of all, it’s totally misleading to say “There’s no extra scene at the end.” It’s also patently false to say (as numerous sites have reported), “There’s nothing at the end of the credits.”
There’s something. I won’t say what, but stick around for it.
Why? Because. . . True Fans Stay Through the Credits.
Think about it. 11 years. 22 movies. I know you have to pee because it’s been 3 hours of excitement and you ordered that giant movie-sized Dr. Pepper, so go and then come back. But stick around. Because True Fans Stay Through the Credits.
Not only is it a great way to pay respect to the literally thousands of people who worked on this movie, but you might learn something. Like, wow. . . lots of people have assistants. Or, oh, I didn’t know the name of that song that they used and now I do. Or ask, “What’s a key grip?”
And here’s the best part– you know where literally the only place in public where it’s ok for you to discuss what just happened in this movie is? In that theater. Right there. Not in a restaurant or coffee shop afterward. Not in the bathroom or on your walk out of the theater.
Keep your butt in that seat and use those credits to process what you just saw. You’re going to have feelings. People die. People don’t die. Torches get passed. Evil and good are in the balance. Things get blown up!
And? Think about this for one second, True Believers– this is the last Stan Lee cameo we have.
This movie leaves you with so much to process, so much to talk about– and talk you should and talk we must. So do it there in your theater seat!
Because you’re going to have to shut up about it until you get someplace private. It is literally the perfect place! Because you know with 100% surety that everyone in earshot of you just saw what you just saw.
And? Because True Fans Stay Through the Credits.
Stay through the credits and pay very close attention to the end. Then go speculate about what the heck that meant.