Aladdin 2019 (no award)

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Disney no longer seem to be able to put their mitts on the £200 cash required to put on press shows in the country I live in; either that, or they have developed a fresh political desire to stifle any public interface outside of London other than the collection of cash from the rubes. From The Lion King to Star Wars, if it’s a Disney film, Scotland is no longer allowed to write or talk about their product; now that Aladdin has cleaned up at the worldwide box-office, the dust has settled enough to have a backward look at exactly what that product was.

Putting fond memories of the original films aside, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is over-long, poorly conceived and something of a strain to watch. Two colorless leads play the street-rat and his princess, while Will Smith takes on the iconic role of the blue-skinned genie. The plot follows the classic beats, with the resourceful Aladdin pressed into service to steal a magical lamp, but using the genies’ powers to restyle himself as a prince and win the heart of his true love.

Like a themed costume party, Ritchie’s Aladdin echoes the look of the original film without capturing any of the charm; Iago the parrot, the monkey Abu, even the tasselled carpet are side-lined, and when they do briefly get centre stage, disappoint with their dead-eyed appearance. The makers of the original animated version didn’t imagine they were creating a story-board for live action, so their hand-drawn conceits don’t work in live action; there’s no creativity here other than a wrong-headed desire to replicate the original, with a few groan-worthy additions, including a framing story and a general push for Will Smith.

Smith actually does well with the scenes in which he’s not painted blue; the actor has a bubbly irreverence that works well when plugged into a staid scene at the Sultan’s court. Robin Williams’ routines have been revised to fit Smith’s voice, but his genie seems snug rather than mapcap. Similarly the production numbers are big without being well-sung or choreographed; they boggle the eye without impressing, and have a tin-ear for melody, aside from a loose but jolly closing number set to Friend Like Me that bursts into life and makes you wish the whole film was made like this.

There are points of interest (and entertainment) in the 2020 Aladdin, but they’re few and far between. It’s easy to see why, with great songs and a beloved story, Disney might feel the property was worth a do-over, although every element here is a downgrade. Despite Aladdin being a well-loved tale for centuries, this 2020 version seems to limit imagination or fresh interpretations by mimicking the 1994 version so slavishly. It’s a financially lucrative but artistically bankrupt move that seems to go against the style and ethos of Walt Disney himself; an elitist power-play by a company seeking access to our homes as children’s entertainers while politically active to ignore local traditions and values.

Meet Joe Black 1998 ***

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If Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt find themselves in the same line for a wheatgrass juice at Ralph’s on the day before the 2020 Oscar ceremony, it would be interesting to know what these nominees might think of their second pairing in Meet Joe Black. Pretty much everyone agrees that Brad Pitt will fully deserve his mooted Oscar for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood; not only is he pretty much playing a leading role, but he was also excellent in Ad Astra. In truth, Pitt has generally been a great movie star since his debut in Thelma and Louise; Meet Joe Black was one of his few misfires, but it was a significant one. Director Martin Brest was coming off the back of helping Al Pacino to awards from his Scent of a Woman performance as an older man explaining the pleasures of life to a younger, less experienced figure. Brest reunited Pitt with his Legends of the Fall co-star Anthony Hopkins for a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, a venerable property. So what could go wrong?

Or indeed, did anything go wrong? Meet Joe Black pretty much doubled its budget with it’s $150 million worldwide box-office take. And Hopkins got great notices for his role as Bill Parrish, a multi-millionaire businessman who is awakened at night by a premonition of Death, who soon turns up at his New York State mansion in the form of Joe (Pitt). Death wants a holiday, or at least a mini-break, and postpones taking Parrish’s soul so he can spend a weekend eating peanut-butter and cookies, speaking patois, looking good in suits and tuxes, and lusting after Parrish’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani). Parrish demands that Joe will only come to collect on his own soul, not Susan’s, but Joe is as much a sap for Susan’s sweetness as he is for all other confectionary, while Parrish’s business interests threaten the legacy he was hoping to leave.

The languid, glacial pace has put passing viewers off Meet Joe Black, but the last hour of the film is pretty compelling. The detail of Parrish’s life, dinner parties, dinner tables, board-rooms and waiting helicopters, is convincingly done. But the mystery at the heart of this film is Pitt, who dials back all the things we’d later come to love about him as a star. He plays Joe as blank and distant, and yet when he crosses Parrish, there’s a sense of otherworldly malevolence that’s very much at odds with the film’s conventional romance. Playing a personification of death isn’t easy, but Pitt leans into the darkest aspects; his Death is banal, but no less deadly.

Some of the mechanics of Death Takes a Holiday, or the play on which it was based, seem to be lost in translation; it seems odd that Susan will accept either Death or a guy from the coffee shop as her suitor; anyone will do for Susan, as long as they look like Brad Pitt. Maybe that’s not so strange after all, but it doesn’t quite chime with the otherwise thoughtful and melancholy nature of the film. Meet Joe Black was savaged by critics at the time, but looks a more interesting prospect today, not least because we know how just how far outside his comfort zone Pitt’s deeply strange, yet memorable performance is.

 

Drillbit Taylor 2008 ***

drill1_606Netflix has to up its game in terms of film curation; job lots will only get more expensive, and all streaming services have to look for accessible, marketable movies that audiences haven’t already seen to death. Step forward Drillbit Taylor, a 2008 comedy starring Owen Wilson and directed by regular Adam Sandler collaborator Steven Brill. A comedy drama about a homeless veteran who agrees to protect three precocious high-schoolers from bullying is hardly a must-stream event, right?

Yet Drillbit Taylor has a more interesting pedigree that the above summary might suggest. The pseudonym on the story credit, Edmond Dantes, hides John Hughes, master of the teen movie via The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His later work moved towards such family-fare as Home Alone, Uncle Buck and Baby’s Day Out, but Drillbit Taylor certainly makes an effort to recapture the school elements so well drawn in his best films. It’s also one that returns to the bullying theme featured in films like Weird Science, and features a notable bad-egg turn from Alex Frost, all John Bender-style confrontation; it’s notable that the hero, Taylor, says ‘I don’t like confrontation,’ cementing the different attitudes of the adversaries.

There’s also a strange novelty about seeing a John Hughes high school that references You Tube and 8 Mile. The modernity comes from this being an early Judd Apatow entry, with Seth Rogen one of the script-writers; the three boys Drillbit Taylor takes under this wing seem to be prototypes for the Superbad kids. But it’s not immediately clear whose authorial voice created sub-plots like Taylor getting mistaken for a supply teacher and making whoopee with English prof in the staffroom; this film has a tricky tone by dint of its ‘kids in peril’ scenario, and that perhaps led to a stony response at the box-office.

‘Have it your way; there’s a reason why that’s the army’s slogan’ says Taylor to the kids, only to be met with the response ‘Isn’t that Burger King?” ‘And where do you think they got it from?’ replies Taylor. Exchanges like this make Drillbit Taylor something of a missing link between 80’s comedies and the Apatow production line; with a positive message about growing up, it’s a sunny, silly film that’s as diverse, confused and amusing as it’s hero.

 

In The Line of Duty 2019 ***

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If you like action, there’s an increasing case to be made for Signature Entertainment, a London-based company who aim to master the dark art of UK cinema distribution; they’ve got an eye for a good pick-up. The Candidate, Kursk: The Last Mission, The Captor, Night Hunter and The Courier all provided a welcome respite from superhero shenanigans in 2019, and their first release of 2020 first-foots the new decade with a pretty enjoyable package for genre fans.

In The Line of Duty is a decidedly hokey but relish-able police thriller starring Aaron Eckhart, and the premise has lots of ludicrous scope; a high-energy opening sees beat-cop Frank Penny tracking down a Perils of Pauline-inspired killer who has kidnapped the chief of police’s daughter and placed her in a water-tank which is slowly filling up while a video-camera captures the action. Fortunately, Penny has about an hour to find the girl, but unfortunately, he’s forced to kill the kidnapper; there’s echoes of British classic Tomorrow at Ten in this scenario. Another antagonist arrives in the form of the kidnapper’s brother, bent on revenge, and Penny has to fight his way out in real time to save the girl, accompanied by feisty teenage news gatherer Ava (Courtney Eaton).

‘The clock is tricking. The world is watching.’ is the tagline here, another sign that Steven C Miller’s film, like last month’s The Courier, having another crack at the ‘real time’ mother lode that action film-makers have aspired to since the failure of John Badham’s Nick of Time. Jeffrey Drysdale’s film wrestles with the usual problem; characters standing in the middle of streets discussing plot points while cars and buildings explore around them. And yet Eckhart is a compellingly intense cop, the foot-chases and car stunts have a verve that recalls genre classics like Point Break, and even the ‘now’ sub-plot about women in media doesn’t impede the slam-bang feel of the narrative. ‘This is like Call of Duty’ one character observes, and Miller’s film feels like a video-game in a good way; colourful, vigorous and satisfying.

In The Line of Duty isn’t likely to trouble Academy voters; the examination of women/millennials in the media is facile and takes up valuable time that could be spend watching Eckhart smashing heads through windscreens or watching SUVs fly fifty feet in the air. In The Line of Duty revives some old-school, tough cop fun and delivers it with some gusto; if you’re tired with men in spandex, Miller’s film signs off with some style.

Signature Entertainment presents In the Line of Duty in Cinemas and on Digital HD from 3 January 2020, or pre-order the DVD below.

 

Monos 2019 ****

Monos

Part of the attraction of awards season is the wild card entry; who had Monos down as one of the possible nominees in 2019? And yet this from-nowhere Columbian film about child soldiers has waged a careful campaign since making waves at Sundance back in January, with selected public previews to drum up interest, critical acclaim and a building reputation as a must-see film. Alejandro Landes’ film isn’t for everyone, for sure, but it’s a worthy recommendation, clear in purpose, effective in delivery, agonising in content.

The Monos are a group of commandos, gathered on a remote mountaintop where they have been detailed to guard a hostage. The reasons for the imprisonment of Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) are never clear, but Monos is very much war from the POV of a grunt, and that kind of information is not disclosed. The names of the kids say it all; Rambo, Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf. They may carry machine guns, but they’re still children. The idea of kids acting like soldiers is played for laughs in Stranger Things, but the reality is substantially more grim. The kids also are given a valued cow named Shakira, but irresponsibility leads to its death. And when Doctora escapes, the fissures amongst the group crack open like wounds.

Although there’s a couple of striking scenes which place the activities of the children in some kind of wider context, part of the power of Monos is that our focus is tightly within the group; there’s echoes of Lord of the Flies here, and some of the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now, but Monos doesn’t slavishly reference either. The atavistic theme of Heart of Darkness is here, but the focus is more concern for what this specific environment does to the human condition.

Like Beast of No Nation, Monos shines a light on a subject that’s obviously distressing, but there’s no sense of exploitation. The rapid erosion of morals in our political world will have a direct repercussion for the kids that follow, and Monos is quick to point out the potential for decline. Monos is not a lot of laughs to be sure, but it’s an important, sociologically relevant film that resonates in 2019’s changing climate of increased moral anxiety.

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

Star Wars 1978 *****

Star Wars

Of course, once upon a time in Hollywood, there was no A New Hope about it. George Lucas may have had a number of trilogies planned in his Starkiller sequence, but it was unusual to have a sequel at all in those days, so Star Wars was the title, short and to the point. With a glut of product that shows no sign of slowing down, it’s worth taking a moment to remember why, for a generation, seeing the original film in 1978 was like getting hit by lightning.

A number of things went right in Star Wars, mostly deliberate, some have to go down as the best of luck. Some of the personable young cast went on to remarkable careers, notably Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. For the older cast, British stars like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness added RADA gravity to the fight between good and evil. John Dykstra was the special effects lead, inspired by footage of WWII fighter planes to create ‘dirty space’, with dynamic designs for X-Wing and TIE-fighters, all dwarfed by massive Star Cruisers and the Death Star against a background of inky black space. Considerable imagination was at work in all aspects; from tiny Jawa merchants and vicious Sand-people, to the collection of misfits in the Mos Eisley cantina, where a grotesque jazz band played and the clientele were a little rough around the edges. And who, or what was Darth Vader? You never even saw behind his mask! What was that tentacle creature that lived in the bin-chute? And that ‘walking carpet’ Wookie, you know, he’s actually a thousand years old! And wrapped around it all, a joyful, dramatic John Williams score that made your heart soar and your knees weak as you stumbled out of your local flea-pit, squinting in the bleak light of the real world.

If there was one element that Star Wars wouldn’t work without, it would be the casting of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. It’s not unusual for central characters to be blandly underwritten, a blank surface that the audience can project themselves onto, and wholesome farm-boy Luke Skywalker worked just fine in that respect. But what a friend he had in Han, an intergalactic smuggler who CNGAFF about the rebels, the plot, or even the film; Ford famously wasn’t confident about George Lucas’ writing, and, like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere else, which is perfect for a character who acts like he doesn’t care, but secretly does. Han is more like something from Sergio Leone than Luke’s goody-two-shoes, he’s got no time for the force and light-sabers, just give him a good old-fashioned blaster. Han shoots first and doesn’t have time to ask questions later.

Both director and actor may well have been running out of patience when Ford improvised his comic response over the intercom to a stuffy Death Star operator, which ends abruptly when Hans uses his blaster to shoot the console and remarks ‘It was a boring conversation anyway.’ Back in 1978, it was a line that caused uproar in the cinema, drinks and sweets thrown in the air, cheers, applause, drumming on the backs of seats. Star Wars was not about boring conversations, it was about anarchy, taking it to the man, beating the system against incredible odds.

Fast forward to 2019, and everything has changed. Star Wars isn’t about beating the system, it is the system, the template for which most big films take a lead, including the Star Wars films themselves. British actors are still villains, the cream of young talent are the heroes, the effects are more amazing than ever, and yes, there’s still humour left in the films. But the sense of fun, the lack of responsibility, the carefree sense of adventure seem long gone; both the actors and the characters had tragedies ahead of them, and Star Wars catches them, like the audience, in a moment of blissful adolescence, a simultaneous sunrise and sunset of the heart.