Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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Mary Queen of Scots

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence and sexuality
Profanity: Some language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including armed battles and beheading
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 25, 2019

Copyright 2018 Focus Pictures
Gorgeous production values, magnificent costumes, a gripping historical rivalry that lasted a quarter century and ended with a beheading, and two fierce, beautiful, endlessly talented actresses giving it everything they’ve got — that takes us pretty far, but it cannot make up for a script that reduces the story of the class between two of the most powerful rules in history to a spat between mean girls over who has the cutest boyfriend.

Okay, not that bad. But it is a real shame for Mary Queen of Scots to take the story of these two women and limit the focus to their rivalry. Queen Elizabeth gave her name to an age that included innovative and very successful economic policies, resolved irreconcilable religious divisions that began when her father, Henry VIII, left the Catholic church and established the Church of England and led to decades of bloody conflict, defeated the Spanish Armada, oversaw historical world exploration (and colonization), and presided over a golden age of culture that included the greatest author in the history of the English language. Mary, Queen of Scots was able to maintain her throne for a remarkable time given the constant attacks and efforts to undermine and betray her. But too much of this film is focused on their rivalry even though (or maybe because) they were facing very similar challenges.

Saoirse Ronan is superbly regal as Mary, fire to Elizabeth’s ice. She is fierce and fearless, leading her troops into battle and confronting those who would question her fitness or her right to serve as a matter of law, divine and mortal. Having been married off to another ruler, the king of France, who died, leaving her with no place in the French court, she makes a triumphant return to Scotland, kissing the ground as she arrives to take the throne that had been occupied by her half-brother.

Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, canny, decisive, often imperious, but also afraid — of the threats within her own court and of her cousin Mary, whose legal claim, ties to the Catholic church, and personal appeal made her jealous and uncharacteristically insecure. Co-screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) has a feel for the ruthlessness of courtiers jousting for power and director Josie Rourke, with a background in theater, is well suited to the pomp and, well, theatricality of the courts. Mary’s looks like a castle version of the Scottish countryside, spare and craggy, while Elizabeth’s is luxurious and draped with tapestries. In real life, the two women never met, but that isn’t very cinematic, so there is a strikingly choreographed meeting here, the two queens separated by a maze of fluttering linens. If the substance of the story matched the look of it, this movie could have done justice to two of history’s most fascinating and transformative characters.

Parents should know that this film has peril and violence including armed battles and beheading, sexual references and explicit situations, and medical issues.

Family discussion: Who was the better leader? How did being women affect the way Mary and Elizabeth saw themselves? Why couldn’t Elizabeth trust Mary?

If you like this, try: “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Elizabeth,” and “The Young Victoria”

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Robin Hood

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and action-style peril and violence, arrows, fire, knives, beheading, references to torture, horrific child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
There have been so so so so so many Robin Hoods over the years and a couple of them are as good as movies get, starting with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Eugene Pallette as Robin, Marian, Gisbourne, Prince John, and Friar Tuck. Then there’s the Disney animated version with music by Roger Miller, and the parody version from Mel Brooks with Robin played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes. We’ve also had genuinely terrible Robin Hoods, perhaps most regrettably Kevin Costner with a California accent. And now we have the international co-production version, clearly geared to the non-US market, with clunky, exposition-weighted dialogue, a drumbeat-heavy score and action sequences juiced with bullet-time and slo-mo. Can’t we talk about the Errol Flynn version instead? Directed by the guy who did “Casablanaca?” With one of the all-time best movie scores, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold? No? Sigh. Well, all right.

This time, Robin is played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsmen” movies and “Eddie the Eagle.” This is not his fault. He is a fine actor and can handle action scenes and love scenes capably. It is also not the fault of Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and F. Murray Abraham, who do their best. Possibly, it is not the fault of Leonardo diCaprio, who shows up in the credits as producer. It is most likely this big, dumb movie is the fault of the big, dumb ways that movies get made these days. The more they cost, the more dumbed-down they have to be to make money overseas, and this one apparently cost a lot.

We’re there because the story of the dashing nobleman who stole from the rich to give to the poor and was the world’s greatest archer and hundreds of years later is still a symbol of gallantry and heroism. But this movie begins by telling us to forget everything we think we know about the story and many of its most familiar and beloved elements are missing. No archery contest, no ransom for the king, no plotting Prince John. Which would be fine if what it has instead was of equal interest, but it really isn’t. It’s just a first-person shooter game with live action.

In this version, as in most others, Robin of Loxley is a nobleman. As he tells us in the opening narration, his story begins with a thief but it is not him. He discovers a veiled young woman (Eve Hewson as Marian) stealing one of his horses. Moved by her pluck, her generosity (it is for a poor member of the community) and her lovely blue eyes, he allows her to take the horse and soon, well, let Robin tell you himself: “They were young and in love until the cold hand of fate reached out.” See what I mean? Robin is drafted to fight in the Crusades, where the British have arrows and the “infidels” have a sort of gatling gun for arrows. Robin is wounded trying to save the son of the captured “infidel” who tried to kill him. Robin objects to murdering prisoners. He is sent back to England, where he finds that both his home and Marian are gone. His home has been taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and Marian, who was told that he had been killed, is now with Will (Jamie Dornan). Furthermore, the man whose son he tried to save stowed away on the boat to devote his life to vengeance. The English version of his name is John, and he wants to help Robin fight the people responsible for his son’s death. Cue the training montage. And the beating drums.

It’s not that it’s dumb. It’s that it is so much dumber than it needed to be. I do not expect the characters to speak the way people did in the 12th century, but Robin should not be asking someone “You okay?” of “I want to go big.” It isn’t just the drumbeats that are headache-inducing. It is the clunkiness of the expository dialogue, hammering contemporary parallels like the Sheriff’s “They hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” I expected him to talk about sending troops to stop the caravans. “This thief is making you look like a damned fool!” That’s the kind of writing Mel Brooks wrote a whole movie to make fun of. I don’t know what’s worse, the dumb slang or the dumb pretentious/portentous pronouncements:”Fear is the greatest weapon in the church’s arsenal. It is why the church created Hell.”

It’s too loud, too long, and too dumb. What they’re stealing here is our money, our time, and our goodwill.

Parents should know that this film has pervasive near-R peril and violence with battle scenes, arrows, fire, explosions, chases, knives, beheading (offscreen) and many characters injured and killed, and brief strong language, and references to horrific child abuse and torture.

Family discussion: Why was Robin different from the other lords? What issues in this movie are still important today?

If you like this, try: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”

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Samson

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 5:10 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and battle sequences
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, murder, torture, battle scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

The Biblical story of the Jewish man who still stands as the exemplar of strength has been brought to the screen by Pure Flix, a sober, sincere retelling of the story that is intended for both religious and secular audiences. As Hollywood has recognized several times in the past, including a big-budget studio epic from Cecil B. De Mille, the story has all of the essentials for drama, a hero of extraordinary power who suffered loss and betrayal and ultimately sacrificed himself to defeat the Philistine leaders who were oppressing his people.

Copyright 2018 Pure Flix

Samson is played by Taylor James, a British actor who had a small part in the “Justice League” movie. In the beginning of the film he is confident and impetuous. He has pledged a life of piety, which means no drinking and never cutting his hair. In return, he has been gifted with great strength. He is not afraid to fight. But he does not consider that it may not be he who pays the consequences. King Balek (an icy Billy Zane) commands a powerful army and does not hesitate to murder the Jews who object, even in the mildest terms, to his brutal demands.

And then Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. His parents (Lindsay Wagner as Zealphonis and Rutger Hauer as Manoah) know that a marriage would create great risk for the couple and for the Jewish community. But Samson is sure he can make it work. It is a tragic mistake.

The screenwriters made some good choices in expanding the story, creating parallels between the two fathers, Manoah and Balek, and their sons. Balek is as cruel and demanding with his son, Rallah (Jackson Rathbone, in one of the film’s strongest performances) as he is with the Jews. Rallah’s struggle to find his own way gives more texture to the story.

The ambitions of the filmmakers are admirable, but a bit beyond their capacity and it has an amateurish quality that makes this more like the movies you see in Sunday school than the movies you see in theaters. Pure Flix is not Cecil B. De Mille, and director Bruce MacDonald’s staging of the big fight scenes and the literally crashing climax lacks intensity. But it is a respectful and heartfelt portrayal of a story whose power is undimmed over the millennia.

Note: Other movie versions of this story include 2013’s Samson, 1984’s Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. De Mille’s 1948 Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature, and the animated Keep the Trust: The Story of Samson and Delilah

Parents should know that this film includes extended violence including murder and battle scenes with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: How does Samson change over the course of the film? Why does he change? Why does Delilah cut his hair?

If you like this, try: “The Ten Commandments” and “The Nativity Story”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Epic/Historical movie review Movies Movies Spiritual films

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/warfare and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, torture, whipping a child, sad loss of parent, war scenes, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 2, 2018

Copyright 2017 Vertical Entertainment
For as long as there have been humans, there have been efforts to divide into groups ranked on any available distinctions: race, religion, property. Stories about those who were willing to fight for equality and justice go back almost as far, and this film begins by telling us it is “one of the oldest accounts of humanity’s struggle for equality and freedom.”

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is the ambitious first animated feature directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, from Dubai’s new animation studio. The English language cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore and Ian McShane. Bilal, born in 540 AD, was a slave who became one of the most trusted companions of Muhammad, and the first muezzin, using his beautiful voice to call worshippers to prayer.

As a young boy, Bilal dreams of being a warrior. “A sword and a horse cannot make you a great man,” his mother gently advises him. What she wants is for him to “live without chains.” The chains she means are spiritual. She does not want him or his sister to be “chained to anger, vengeance, superstition, or fear.”

But soon he and his sister have physical chains, as their community is attacked, their mother is killed, and they are forced into slavery by the idol-worshippers led by Umayya (McShane), who is more interested in selling idols than being faithful to them. The idol worship is based on superstition and fear, not morality. The lord of merchants who befriends Bilal echoes what his mother told him. “Your master is a slave himself.” He is a slave to his greed, admitting, “I worship whatever empowers me.”

He is also a slave to his fear of Bilal and his knowledge that a society built on injustice cannot last. He beats, starves, and tortures Bilal but the lord of merchants buys his freedom, and makes it possible for him to lead a rebellion.

It is a stirring story, respectfully told. The action scenes are intense and well-staged, but the non-action scenes are ponderous and static. Much of the dialogue is the standard sword-and-sandal faux classical (“Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny”), but every so often there’s a line like, “Show me what you got, rookie,” that seems like it came from another movie. The Dubai animation rookies are showing us what they’ve got, and it is an auspicious beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, torture of a child and an adult, sad death of parent, and issues of bigotry, tyranny, and oppression.

Family discussion: What would Bilal’s mother see as today’s chains of slavery? Why did the lord of merchants befriend Bilal? What do you want to be when you grow up and why?

If you like this, try: “The Prince of Egypt,” “Spartacus,” and “The Ten Commandments”

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Animation Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Movies Spiritual films
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