ALADDIN: 2 STARS
Coming hot on the heels of Disney live action reboots of classics like "Cinderella," "Beauty and The Beast" and "The Jungle Book" comes "Aladdin," Guy Ritchie's reimagining of the all singing, all dancing, all powerful Genie made famous by the late, great Robin Williams.
The story begins when "street rat" and thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) helps a beautiful woman (Naomi Scott) he believes is a handmaiden to the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), escape from the police after a misunderstanding in the market. After a wild chase — part musical theatre, part parkour — they spark, bonding over the vagaries of their own circumstances. She's trapped by palace life, he by a life of poverty. "It's kind of sad having a monkey as the only parental authority in my life," he says of Abu, his kleptomaniac pet monkey and constant companion.
She is, of course not the handmaiden, but the Princess Jasmine, a woman who longs to take over for her father but is stymied in her ambition by tradition. The law says she cannot take the throne and must marry a prince. When one royal suitor compliments her on her beauty she says, "We have the same titles but are never described the same way," before dismissing him.
Meanwhile back at the palace, the Sultan's power-hungry adviser Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) also has his eye on the throne. Using hypnotism he controls the ruler, but wants more. More, in the form of a magic lamp hidden deep in the Cave of Wonders. "Once that lamp sits in my hand I will sit on the throne," he cackles. Trouble is, everyone who ventures into the cave dies. Jafar needs someone with serious skills to get in, grab the lamp and get out. When he meets Aladdin, he uses his access to the princess to strike a deal. "Retrieve the lamp from the cave and I will make you rich enough to impress a princess."
The perilous journey to the lamp reveals the star of the show, a magical blue Genie with the power to grant three wishes to the keeper of the lamp. There are some catches though; he can't make anyone fall in love with him or raise the dead. He also cautions against wishing for wealth and power the very two things Jafar and Aladdin covet.
Despite all its pomp and circumstance the live action remake of the beloved animated "Aladdin" does not exactly transport us to a whole new world. Ritchie fills the screen with colour and pageantry, staging large scale Bollywood-style dance numbers and, in the case of the Genie's signature tune "Friend Like Me," a maximalist CGI orgy that gives Flo Ziegfeld a run for his money. Even when he is more restrained, he isn't that restrained. The rendering of Princess Jasmine's big solo "Speechless," one of the new songs by the "Dear Evan Hansen" composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, plays like a Bonnie Tyler power pop video from the 1980s.
Style has never been Ritchie's problem. His camera is always in motion, caressing the screen with acrobatic shots and tricky editing. His movies make your eyeballs dance but often at the expense of the characters who get lost in the theatricality of the presentation.
He's in fine form in "Aladdin" although overcooked CGI overwhelms the finale in a rush of animated imagery. The characters work hard to sparkle but get lost amid the ruckus and with them gores much of the film's heart. The ending is loud and large but fails to make an emotional impression. Sometimes less is more.
As Princess Jasmine, Scott has more to do than in the original and does so in much more modest clothing. No animated bellybuttons here. Massoud gives the social climbing Aladdin a certain impish charm in an energetic performance. More baffling is Kenzari as the monotone villain Jafar. All scowls and surly attitude, he's the least interesting villain on Ritchie's resume.
The screen is filled with people but, let's face it, the character everyone is most interested in is the big blue Genie. He's the star of the show but in many ways it's the film's most thankless role. Robin Williams made the Genie his own in a performance that still sparkles with life more than twenty-five years later. Smith battles against some unfortunate CGI and the memory of Williams to make the character his own. He's part match-maker, part magic-maker and part mirth-maker. Fortunately for Ritchie Smith's charisma elevates the performance from merely mimicking his predecessor.
"Aladdin" is not so much a remake but an up-dating for a new generation. Some of the revisions are welcome. Jasmine is a now fully rounded character and some unfortunate lyrics, like "It's barbaric but hey, it's home," have been removed. Other changes don't work as well. Can someone explain why Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a comedic highlight from the 1992 film, has been reduced to a few squawks and repeated phrases?
Despite the updates and the pomp "Aladdin" feels underwhelming by the time the end credits roll. The songs frequently interrupt the flow of the story, creating a stop-and-go feel that sucks some of the film's momentum away.
BOOKSMART: 4 ½ STARS
Four hundred years ago when Shakespeare wrote, "To thine own self be true," he could not have imagined that his words would provide the bedrock of a raucous teen comedy and yet here we are. "Booksmart," Olivia Wilde's feature directorial debut, is both high and low brow, touching and sentimental in its look at female friendship.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends. Inseparable, they are class president and vice-president, Michelle Obama acolytes who listen to self-empowerment tapes. "You've worked harder than anyone and that's why you are a champion. Stand at the top of the mountain of your success and look down on everyone who has ever doubted you." Molly is a perfectionist who corrects the grammar on bathroom wall graffiti while Amy is off to Botswana to "help women make tampons."
On the eve of their high school graduation, they have Yale and Columbia in their sights but when Molly realizes her slacker schoolmates are also going to Ivy League schools she isn't happy. "We chose to study so we could get into good schools," she says. "They didn't choose." After semesters of prioritizing academics over socializing they attempt to cram four years of fun into one night. "Nobody knows we are fun," Molly says. "We are smart and fun. What took them four years were doing in one night."
There's only one big problem; they don't have the address of the hip graduation party and no one is answering their texts. "We have never hung out with any of these people except academically," Amy says. "They probably think we're calling about school." After some misadventures on a tricked-out yacht and at a murder mystery party they use their academic skills. "How will we find out where next party is? By doing what we do best, homework."
"We are 8A+ people and we need an A+ party."
The plot synopsis of "Booksmart" sounds like it could have been lifted from any number of other high school comedies but director Wilde simply uses the of high school graduation party set-up as a backdrop for her hilarious study of female bonding. The premise may be familiar but the charm of the movie is all in execution and the connected chemistry between the leads.
In her feature debut Wilde is so self-assured, staging big party scenes, a dance number and even car chases but never allows the focus to drift from Molly and Amy. Even when the supporting cast—the cosmically free-spirited Gigi (Billie Lourd), rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the much-talked-about AAA (Molly Gordon) or the very theatrical drama club members Alan and George (Austin Crute and Noah Galvin)—gets showcased in increasingly outrageous ways Wilde never lets their humanity trump the humour. In other words, it's funny because it's based in truth; real human behavior.
Feldstein and Dever are the film's beating heart. Both have crushes on other people—Molly likes party boy Nick (Mason Gooding), Amy has her eye on skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga)—but deep down they are soul mates. They click, whether it is through their banter or the knowing looks they exchange, and by the time "Unchained Melody," that ode to unconditional love, spills from the theatre's speakers there's no doubt that Molly and Amy are bound to be connected forever, or at least until adult life gets in the way.
Like its main characters "Booksmart" is an overachiever that knows how to have a good time.
GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: 3 ½ STARS
Music documentaries often veer into hagiography, looking back with rose coloured glasses at their subject. There are heaps of high praise in "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind," a new career retrospective from co-directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, but right from the outset it displays an honesty rare in authorized bios.
After a few bars of his chauvinistic '60s hit "For Lovin' Me" Lightfoot, watching vintage footage, demands it be shut off. "That's a very offensive song for a guy to write who was married with a couple of kids," he says before adding, "I guess I don't like who I am."
It's a startling beginning to a movie that uses his music and a series of celebrity talking heads like Steve Earle, Sarah McLachlan, Geddy Lee, Anne Murray and Alec Baldwin, who helpfully adds, "This was a guy who sang poems," to tell the story. Traditionally Lightfoot's enigmatic approach to his biography has left many questions unanswered in the media. That doesn't change much here, although he seems to have allowed open access to his home and is occasionally candid in the contemporary interviews. "I regret a lot of things," he says near the end of the film. "I caused emotional trauma in people, particularly some women, the women I was closest to. I feel very, very badly about it."
"If You Could Read My Mind" doesn't skip over sensitive biographical points. His relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, a woman he loved who was later accused of killing John Belushi and the infidelities that marred his personal life are examined, although with a light touch that respects his privacy.
Supporting the storytelling are interestingly curated images. From rare clips of his early performances on the CBC and on the stages of Yonge Street taverns and Yorkville coffee houses and archival photos of the legendary, star-studded parties he threw at his Rosedale home, to old footage of his parents and behind-the-scenes images of his acting debut in Desperado — "You'll never win an Oscar," said co-star Bruce Dern, "but you're fun to work with" — the doc offers a comprehensive visual essay of Canadiana, Gordon Lightfoot style.
Ultimately the best documentary of Lightfoot's storied life is his work, tunes like "Sundown" and "Rainy Day People" that suggest everything he has to say is in his songs. "Your personal experience and your emotional stress," he says, "finds its way in by way of your unconscious mind over into the mind of reality and translates itself into your lyrics. And you don't even know that is happening."