Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: The Last Knight

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Liam Garrigan, Glenn Morshower. And the voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Gemma Chan, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Omar Sy, Jim Carter
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 29min
Opens : 22 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It might be hard to believe, but it’s been a whole decade since the first live-action Transformers movie clanged its way into theatres. In this fifth go-round, the Transformers have been declared enemy combatants and are hunted by the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF). Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a wanted fugitive for aiding and abetting the Autobots, including Bumblebee. He rescues young orphan Izabella (Moner) from a firefight, and in the process, is gifted a talisman by an alien knight whose ship crash-lands on earth. Cade is summoned by Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), the guardian of a sect sworn to protect the Transformers’ secret history on earth. It turns out that the wizard Merlin (Tucci) was bequeathed a magical staff by alien robots; the mythical object long vanished. Cybertronian sorceress Quintessa (Chan) sends Optimus Prime (Cullen) in search of the staff, turning him against his long-time allies. With the help of Oxford literature and history professor Viviane Wembly (Haddock) and reluctant TRF soldier William Lennox (Duhamel), Cade and Burton must unravel an ancient conspiracy to prevent the destruction of earth.

No other franchise in recent memory has been more critic-proof than the Transformers films. This summer alone, we’ve witnessed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy feebly attempt to kickstart would-be franchises, while this juggernaut based on Hasbro action figures trundles along. The Transformers movies have long been easy targets for critics, and this entry is particularly frustrating for us. The Last Knight does what this reviewer has always wanted from this series: it explores the alternate history built around the Transformers’ secret presence on earth – though it’s hard to imagine how giant alien robots can stay secret for too long. However, this ends up being expectedly ludicrous, with plot contrivances that beggar belief scattered throughout the film. It turns out that there is a Da Vinci Code-esque secret society entrusted with guarding said history, its members including William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. How giant alien robots traipsing around are kept secret is anybody’s guess.

This film strikes us as a spectacular waste of resources – with its $260 million budget, it’s the most expensive Transformers movie yet. In a way, every big blockbuster is, but some are better at justifying that waste than others. The Last Knight unfolds on a spectacular scale, and like Age of Extinction, its story spans continents and millennia. The visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar are extensive and commendable, and the action set pieces are marginally easier to follow than in previous instalments. However, there are only so many ways one can depict giant robots punching each other, and there are only so many variations on a car chase. While rival car-based franchise Fast and Furious has been continuously inventive, the action in Transformers is concussive and numbing. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to tune out instead of staying focused on the mayhem onscreen.

We held out hope that this might be an improvement because screenwriter Ehren Kruger has been jettisoned, replaced by Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan. Alas, narrative coherence is in short supply and director Michael Bay’s oppressively juvenile sense of humour smothers anything resembling wit.

There’s a scene in which Megatron (Welker) negotiates the release of his Decepticon compatriots with lawyers seated at folding tables in the middle of the desert. We also find General Morshower poring over battle plans in the Pentagon basement, declaring “this is where I deal with the dark s***”. And yes, there are racial stereotypes aplenty – Bay is endlessly amused at those stuffy Brits, Hot Rod (Sy) has a thick French accent, gold chain-wearing Decepticon Nitro Zeus (DiMaggio) paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr. while being released from prison, and Decepticon Mohawk (Reno Wilson) is characterised as a violent street thug. Any accusations that critics are “reading into things” are rendered moot by Bay’s insouciant rejection of subtlety in any form.

Wahlberg may be a better fit as the franchise’s leading man than Shia LaBeouf was, but even then, Wahlberg’s getting annoying. It’s a relief, then, that this is supposedly his last Transformers film. By making the female lead an Oxford professor, the film goes down the predictable route of having Cade and Viviane bicker endlessly while being set up as a couple. Haddock is by far the best actress to have played the female lead in this series, but that’s a low bar. She’s also the least overtly sexualised and has the most agency of all the female leads in the series – but that’s also a low bar, seeing as Viviane struts around in tight dresses and stilettos for the first half of the film.

With Izabella and her sidekick, transforming Vespa Sqweeks, Bay appears to steer the film back to the “a kid and their X” roots, as embodied by Sam Witwicky’s friendship with Bumblebee in the first movie. This feels like an afterthought, and Izabella is one of several characters who feel like hangers-on.

After starring in HBO’s Westworld, Sir Anthony Hopkins hangs out with far bigger robots here. He looks to be having a grand old time, playing the eccentric earl with a twinkle in his eye. A lot of his dialogue is incredibly stupid, but it helps that it’s being uttered by Hopkins. Burton is given a sidekick in the form of an idiosyncratic robot butler named Cogman (Carter), who is frequently annoying and is pretty much a more annoying version of Rogue One’s K2-SO.

Duhamel, Morshower, Turturro and others return from the earlier movies, begging the question of why LaBeouf isn’t in this, at least for a little. Not that we want to see him in this at all, but given that Sam is Bumblebee’s best friend, it stands to reason that Bumblebee should seek him out over the course of this film.

To its credit, The Last Knight does feel shorter than its 150-minute runtime, and features a novel submarine chase that’s different enough from the standard action sequences we’ve seen from this franchise. It’s fine for blockbusters to be silly, but when nothing less than the end of the world is at hand, The Last Knight should be more impactful and less superfluous than it is.

Summary: Bombastic and bloated, The Last Knight’s convoluted mythos and tedious action is enlivened by the joyous presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Audiences with the fortitude to surrender to its thunderous stupidity might get a modicum of enjoyment out of this.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: Age of Extinction

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Sophia Myles, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller and the voices of: Peter Cullen, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Frank Welker
Genre : Action, Sci-Fi
Opens : 26 June 2014
Running time: 165 mins

Lord Bay of House Boom has returned locked and loaded for the fourth live-action Transformers film despite saying he would quit the franchise, this time with a new human cast. It has been four years since Chicago was decimated in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons and the U. S. government has decided to end their partnership with the Autobots, declaring them enemies. CIA official Harold Attinger (Grammer) is in charge of hunting them down, engaging the services of mercenary Savoy (Welliver) and ruthless Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (Ryan). Joshua Joyce (Tucci), owner of tech giant KSI, has a lucrative government contract to manufacture man-made facsimiles of the Transformers by reverse-engineering captured and dismantled Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), his best friend Lucas (Miller), his daughter Tessa (Peltz) and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Reynor) get drawn into the conflict when they unwittingly come into the possession of a beat-up old truck that just happens to be Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself. With the extinction of humanity imminent, Optimus and the remaining Autobots must defeat Attinger and the Decepticons in pursuit.

            Tennis champ Boris Becker said “you get used to eating caviar and at some point it tastes as ordinary as everything else.” In the context of action movies, explosions are akin to caviar. More doesn’t necessarily mean better, but director Michael Bay has wilfully rejected this notion and continues to stuff his films with more and more. He promised a “less goofy” outing but as this reviewer has learnt the hard way, a Michael Bay cannot change his spots. The elements in the second and third films that led to them being critically panned are still here, just in slightly more controlled doses. There’s still juvenile humour, there’s still racism and sexism, there’s still obnoxious product placement, the action scenes are still overwhelming flurries of whirling, clanging metal, it’s just reined in a bit and therefore slightly more tolerable than before. Bumblebee still talks using voice clips. Instead of an annoying actual dog, there’s an annoying homemade robot dog. Instead of Linkin Park, there’s Imagine Dragons. The film’s stabs at self-aware winking at the audience (an elderly movie theatre proprietor bemoans how all major releases are remakes and sequels) are more awkward and on the nose than anything else.

            Apologists of this film series have often used the “this is not Citizen Kane” argument. Well, even Citizen Kane had a running time of 119 minutes. This bad boy clocks in at 165 minutes, the longest Transformers movie yet. It’s overkill. Were this around 100 minutes long, we might’ve been really entertained. Still, there are definitely parts of the movie to commend. Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have decided to make the human villain a CIA official, which combined with the decreased role of the military, makes this less of a jingoism party than the earlier films in the series. Having human scientists attempting to create their own Transformers without comprehending the danger and complexity of the technology is a perfectly viable angle to come at the story from, if somewhat Terminator-esque. And best of all, our protagonist is no longer the useless, unbearably annoying Sam Witwicky.


            Mark Wahlberg is certainly an upgrade from Shia LaBeouf, even if Marky Mech doesn’t break into an off-key rendition of the Transformers theme song “The Touch” like in Boogie Nights. Cade Yeager is a bundle of clichés: All-American everyman turned hero, amateur inventor whose workshop is filled with knick-knacks plus he’s an over-protective single dad who utterly disapproves of his daughter’s boyfriend just on principle. But Wahlberg being significantly less punch-worthy than LaBeouf makes a difference. Nicola Peltz of The Last Airbender infamy fulfils the pre-requisites of being the female lead in this series: she can’t act and she rocks the Daisy Dukes. Reynor is a typical modern Hollywood imported pretty-boy; some kind of attempt made at explaining away the Irish actor’s accent – Cade ends up disparagingly referring to his would-be son-in-law as “Lucky Charms”. Once again, at least he’s significantly less annoying than Shia LaBeouf.

            While Stanley Tucci is subjected to a good deal of embarrassment as a send-up of tech icons like Steve Jobs, he is spared the depths of indignity that the likes of John Turturro and John Malkovich suffered in the previous movies. Kelsey Grammer takes his role as primary human antagonist surprisingly seriously and his frighteningly pragmatic Attinger is a bright spot in the film, so many steps up from Patrick Dempsey in Dark of the Moon. Titus Welliver is also quite imposing and the sequence in which he pursues Cade as they cling to the exterior of a Hong Kong apartment building is plenty of fun. As the head of KSI in China, Li Bingbing is the stock boss lady and without Sally Cahill to dub over her like in Resident Evil: Retribution, she valiantly battles the English language. The voice acting is good as well, not only is definitive Optimus Prime performer Peter Cullen back, but the legendary Frank Welker reprises his role as Galvatron from the various animated series. Thankfully, Ken Watanabe and John Goodman’s distinct voices are still recognizable even after being treated with that robot voice filter. Watanabe also gets to deliver the film’s funniest line, Drift’s reaction upon first seeing the Dinobots transform.

            One thing has been true about this series: no matter how bad the rest of the film gets, the visual effects work certainly can’t be faulted and we’d like to salute visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and the armies of artists and technicians who brought the Autobots, Decepticons and those fan-favourite Dinobots to life. Amidst the bombast, we also get genuinely beautiful shots, like those of the Autobots convening in Monument Valley and a shot in which Lockdown’s ship is reflected in Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture. We saw this in IMAX 3D and even though it is often pretty to look at, the constantly shifting aspect ratios can be very distracting. Transformers: Age of Extinction is more bearable than Revenge of the Fallenand Dark of the Moon, albeit certainly not the paradigm shift in quality it is touted to be. But hey, this is a movie with a humanoid robot semi-truck astride a giant robot T-rex charging into battle, so it’s not like anything we say matters too much anyway.

SUMMARY: While relatively better than its predecessors thanks to more likeable leads and less superfluous subplots, many of the problems that plagued the earlier Transformers movies are still very present throughout the 165 minute duration.

Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz do not love the smell of napalm any time of the day.



RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong