Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Aladdin and The 15:17 to Paris

Aladdin – I'm not planning to take in most of Disney's live-action remakes of its own animated features. The scuttlebutt on them is that they subtract good things (like important character nuances), add indifferent things (like virtue signaling and rationalizations of magic) and, in general, try to take back things Disney shouldn't be trying to take back. Bottom line, they're no improvement, as if they could be, on already significant works of entertainment art. But something persuaded me to make an exception for this movie, in which Will Smith replaces Robin Williams in the role of Aladdin's genie. I just can't remember what that something was, now.

To be sure, it's a cute movie, and it brought back memories of the animated classic - though I felt there was an important musical number missing, if I'm not mis-remembering. Didn't Jafar have a song?

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, whoever they are, make a cute hero couple, and Marwan Kenzari (with his youthful looks and tenor voice) was an interesting, against-type casting for Jafar. Then, of course, there's Will Smith's talent to account for. But in spite of all that and updated production values, this live-action remake just doesn't recapture the energy and magic of the original. The biggest thing I took away from this movie was a niggling idea that it, and other live-action-remakes-of-animated-features like it, basically exist because a new generation of actors would kill to be part of them, on stage or (for preference) on film. I would wholeheartedly support that desire if it didn't bring with it a modernizing impulse to repair what ain't broke and change the source material out of semblance to what they set out to remake. If they can't do it better, they could at least try to do it the same; but they won't do that, either. So why bother?

I won't be seeing Maleficent, I or II. I won't be seeing the live action remakes of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. I'm not even going to bother to do the research necessary to make sure I'm listing them all. I didn't hate this movie, but I didn't like it enough to want to see more of its kind. Also, meaning no disrespect to Will Smith – it takes guts at his age to appear in blueface, and bluetorso, throughout a major motion picture – but I think he waited too long to be part of this. And sorry, nobody alive has Robin Williams' comic charisma.

For what it's worth, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me, to the extent it was made for me: (1) The "Prince Ali" grand entrance number, with elephants and servants and spectacle galore, and also Smith's best singing in this movie. (2) Smith's reaction when Massoud asks him how the three wishes work, after the "Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" number. (3) The funny business about locating the imaginary kingdom of Ababwa on the map.

The 15:17 to Paris – Director Clint Eastwood cast the actual guys themselves, among other people who were involved in the incident, in this movie about three American buddies (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos), on furlough from various armed forces, who helped thwart a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015. Other than giving us a fairly realistic idea of the chemistry between these lifelong friends, the casting stunt mainly works by convincing us that even boring, average guys living relatively undistinguished lives (although, thanks for your service, guys) can rise to the occasion, when required, and become heroes. The movie also seems to try to make the case that fate or destiny or Whoever prepared them to be exactly the guys needed at the moment when a knife- and gun-wielding attacker wounded a passenger and reared up to wound more, or worse.

The movie sketches out, in a somewhat charming way, how they became friends as boys, then went separate ways but stayed in touch, and how Stone in particular trained for his military job. It also depicts their Eurotrip, but that segment suffers from the trio's limitations as actors (even when playing themselves) as well as that part of the story being very loosely plotted and only mildly interesting. The storyline doesn't so much build to a climax as cruise along aimlessly toward what turns out by chance (fate? etc.) to be an extraordinary moment for some guys who, while not strictly speaking "ordinary" in terms of their interests and skill sets, don't otherwise bowl the audience over. To be sure, one of the guys went on to "dance with the stars" on reality TV, and another had a second 15 seconds of notoriety when he got stabbed while defending a woman from an attacker at a dance club. They are, after all, admirable young men who acquitted themselves well under extreme pressure. But the movie comes across as very nearly a documentary.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) In their boyhood scenes, one of the three friends quits their club because he wants to get a girlfriend. (2) The wild party two of the friends go to, the night they arrive in Rome, is billed as "The Perversion Excursion." (3) Of course, the struggle on the train. Bonus scene: Apparently archival footage of the young men receiving medals from the President of France - another example of how casting them as themselves enables this feature to blur the line between a dramatic movie and a documentary.

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