Review: “Onward”

Two elf brothers go on a magical quest in their world where magic has been pushed aside in Pixar Animation Studios’ latest wonderment Onward.

Onward is the type of high concept movie that is a hallmark of Pixar. A film that sounds so bizarre and audacious, yet while you’re watching it, you feel completely at home. I call the filmmakers at Pixar “magicians” because that’s what they do so well—they create magical, unique film experiences using beautiful art, impressive technology, and real emotional resonance.

And magic is really what Onward is all about. The magical world where the film takes place is populated with nothing but magical creatures—mermaids, dwarfs, unicorns, dragons, wizards, etc.—but over time, the magic of their lives has given way to technology, suburban sprawl, and “progress.”

Our two protagonists, teenage elf brothers Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), are given a gift by their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who has been a single parent ever since her husband, and the boys’ father, tragically passed away. (The dad died when Barley was very young and Ian was in utero.)

The gift is a magician’s staff and a magic crystal with a spell which supposedly will bring the father back to life for a day. While Barley is a major player of a “Dungeons & Dragons”-style of role-playing game and big believer in the past magical lore of the world they live in (again, mostly tied in with the D&D game), Ian, who turns 16 at the beginning of the film, is more practical and is just trying to find his place with his peer group and in his life.

Barley and Ian keep trying the spell and they begin to conjure up their dad’s body; however, the magic crystal breaks halfway through and only the lower half of their dad makes it back to the world. So, the boys, along with their deceased father’s legs, set out on a quest to try to find another crystal to finish the spell so they can spend some time with their dad before sunset causes the magic spell to end.

Onward at its core is really a buddy movie where the two brothers go on big adventure as they try to work together towards the common goal of spending time with their father. The film is a personal one for director Dan Scanlon, who lost his father at a young age and decided to pose the question of what it would be like to meet up with a deceased parent, if only briefly. Wrapping this emotional concept up in a buddy/fantasy movie was definitely a magic trick and overall the filmmakers really succeed.

Ultimately, the main part of the Pixar “magic,” and where Onward truly delivers, is in its emotional authenticity. I won’t give anything away, but during the final third of the film when everything starts coming together, the film really delivers a satisfying and meaningful emotional experience which speaks serious truth about family relationships. (You might want to bring a Kleenex or two with you to the theater.)

And just as a side note, a new Pixar short is not included in front of Onward (check out the plethora of great Pixar shorts now playing on Disney+); instead, we get a short starring The Simpsons (yes, those Simpsons) which are now part of the Disney family thanks to The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The short is called Playdate with Destiny and it prominently features Maggie Simpson who gets smitten by a baby boy her age that she meets at the park. It felt a bit strange but not necessarily completely out of place to be watching a Simpsons short at a Disney movie. I guess it’s just where and how things are today.

Onward is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “action/peril and some mild thematic elements.”

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As an added bonus, check out these cool Onward posters.

All images ©️ Disney/Pixar

Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

Note: This review is spoiler-free.

Evil Emperor Palpatine is back and our heroes embark on a big adventure to save the galaxy in Episode IX of the Star Wars Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The latest Star Wars film has a big task—not only is it the conclusion of this latest “sequel trilogy” of films (2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi), but it is also intended to serve as a conclusion to all eight of the episodes that preceded it. A tall order indeed.  

As you may recall, the big baddie of the both the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) and the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) is Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (played with ghoulish delight by actor Ian McDiarmid). It turns out that Emperor Palpatine followed his own counsel that he gave to a young and conflicted Anakin Skywalker in Episode III, in that the “dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural…” (including cheating death).

©️ Lucasfilm

So, with Palpatine back in the picture, our new set of heroes—Jedi master-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), hotshot and hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and rolling droid BB-8, joined by long-time favorite Star Wars characters Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)—set off to find the location of the Emperor, take him out, and restore peace and order to the galaxy. On the darker side of the galaxy, the tempestuous and newly-ordained leader of the First Order Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) isn’t so happy that the Emperor is back in the picture and he sets out to find him, too.

As was explored in the last two episodes, Rey and Kylo Ren have an unique connection through the Force that continues in this story. Their relationship and their respective character arcs are probably the most interesting of the film and are definitely a representation of the key Star Wars themes of good vs. evil, light vs. dark (particularly within one’s self), and finding one’s path in the world.

©️ Lucasfilm

The film is loaded with returning characters from the Star Wars universe, including General Leia (again played by Carrie Fisher using cut footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and beloved droid R2-D2. We also get to meet a few new characters, including First Order Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), Resistance fighter Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan), warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie), spice runner Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), and a cute little droid named D-O.

Overall, the film feels like an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure, not unlike Episodes IV and VI from the original Star Wars trilogy or the classic movies and serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place. It’s a big movie and there’s a lot to digest. I can’t say that I loved every creative decision that was made; however, I was grateful that the big questions posed in the previous two sequel trilogy films were answered to my satisfaction and things eventually all come together in a Star Wars-y kind of way.

Director J.J. Abrams and his signature style are very prevalent in the film which is a good thing. The production looks fantastic and the special effects are, again, second to none. I’m sure this film is going to get heaped upon with criticism, but, truly, the creative team had an impossible task to bring a conclusion to this series, let alone satisfy the large and diverse fan base. And although I’m still not convinced that the current team at Lucasfilm ever had a solid vision or a cohesive three-film strategy about what they wanted to accomplish with this sequel trilogy, it was their task, not mine.

The ending of this film series is bittersweet. I’ve loved spending time with these characters new and old and have been entertained and inspired with the storytelling, artistry, and filmmaking for most of my life. It will be exciting to see what is ahead for new stories and adventures within the expansive Star Wars galaxy. (The Mandalorian TV series on Disney+ is a great start.) I’m full of, dare I say, hope.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “sci-fi violence and action.”

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

©️ Lucasfilm

Review: “Frozen 2”

Attention: This review is spoiler-free.

Where did Elsa get her powers from? And what were Anna and Elsa’s parents really doing when their ship went down? These pivotal questions lie at the heart of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ supremely entertaining and beautiful sequel Frozen 2.

The film basically picks up where the first film (and the myriad of Frozen-themed short films) left off. Princess Anna (again voiced by Kristen Bell) and her big sister Queen Elsa (again voiced by the dreamy Idina Menzel) are best buddies once more and are peacefully ruling the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna is still with her boyfriend Kristoff (again voiced by Jonathan Groff) and they continue to be accompanied by Kristoff’s reindeer Sven and Elsa’s magical creation Olaf the snowman (again voiced by Josh Gad).

We’re treated to a flashback when Anna and Elsa are little girls and where we learn more about their parents, King Agnarr (voiced by Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood). Their parents tell the girls a story about an Enchanted Forest and other places outside of Arendelle when some important events took place that directly affected their family.

Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) sings a lullaby to young Anna and Elsa in FROZEN 2. (©️ Disney)

Back in present day, Elsa keeps hearing voices. She is troubled to know if she should try to figure out what they are saying to her or if she should just ignore them. Elsa decides to heed the mysterious call and sets the film’s adventure into motion. With all of the gang in tow, Elsa ventures off “into the unknown” (which is also a name of one of the many terrific new songs from the film) to try to find out what these voices are attempting to tell her.

When they find the Enchanted Forest, they meet the indigenous Northuldra people who have a long history with the Arendellians and who have a tradition of caring for the environment (and maybe have a little magic to throw into the mix, too). And while the people have been going on with their lives, there is (literally) a cloud hanging over them and a major mystery that needs to be solved. Can Anna and Elsa solve the puzzle? And do the Northuldra hold any answers to the big burning questions? One thing is for sure, our heroines Anna and Elsa are both up to the task.

Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Yelana (Martha Plimpton) are all part of the Northuldra people, who might hold the answers to some important questions in FROZEN 2. (©️ Disney)

I found this film utterly delightful. The trademark high quality animation done by the masters at Walt Disney Animation Studios is again absolutely stunning and is such a pleasure to watch. Co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck are back along with most of the creative team from the first film and they’ve infused this film with love, craft, and care. The new songs written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the same writing team as the first Frozen film and the Broadway musical, are again catchy and wonderful and help propel the story forward.

Ultimately, Frozen 2 serves as a terrific complement to its predecessor. Questions are answered, rights are wronged (including giving Jonathan Groff a full song to sing–and it’s a doozy), and the story all comes together in a very satisfactory way (at least for this viewer). Sisterly love once more reigns supreme along with the encouragement to all to be brave, loving, and to go into our own unknowns, whatever and wherever they may be.

Frozen 2 is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “action/peril and some thematic elements.”

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sisters rule in FROZEN 2. (©️ Disney)

All images ©️ Disney

Review: “Ford v Ferrari”

It’s the Italians vs. the Americans and the Americans (and a Brit) vs. each other in Ford v Ferrari, a fascinating and riveting biopic of how the Ford Motor Company took on Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1966.

The true story is the stuff of legend. Ford, after a failed (and humiliating) attempt to buy Ferrari in the mid-1960s, decided to take them down on their own turf by building a race car to compete in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race held annually in Le Mans, France. Ferrari had long dominated the European racing scene, so it was rather audacious that an American car company would come in and try to compete.

The film is mostly focused on the relationship between team manager Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, and driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale. The Ford management team hired maverick race car driver and renowned sports car designer Carroll Shelby to lead the racing team. Shelby also had the distinct accomplishment of winning at Le Mans in 1959, driving for British manufacturer Aston Martin.

Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby in FORD V FERRARI. (©️ 20th Century Fox)

For the driving team, Shelby was an advocate for English sports car engineer and driver Ken Miles. Miles, who had a reputation of being “difficult,” also had the skills to get the job done better than anyone, at least in the eyes of Carroll Shelby. Shelby’s and Miles’ rocky relationship gets explored in the film as well as the constant challenges the two of them faced dealing with the brass at the Ford Motor Company who were unconvinced that the brash Miles was a good fit for the team, not to mention the Ford image and brand.

Christian Bale plays Ken Miles in FORD V FERRARI. (©️ 20th Century Fox)

The real highlight of Ford v Ferrari (which takes up most of the film’s third act; although the entire film is terrific) is the dramatization of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race where Ford and Ferrari battle it out for dominance on the race track. It’s also where the Ford management team and Carroll Shelby continue to battle it out in the pits for how to manage the car and its drivers, and where Ken Miles has to make some pretty important decisions while “going like hell” to win the race.

Director James Mangold and his team are to be commended for creating one of the best automobile racing movies ever. The cinematography, editing, and sound are outstanding. And both Matt Damon and Christian Bale turn in Oscar-worthy performances as two friends who have to overcome a serious amount of obstacles to pull off one of the craziest and boldest racing victories ever.

Ford v Ferrari is pure adrenaline from start to finish. I can’t recommend this film highly entertaining film highly enough.

Ford v Ferrari is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some language and peril.”

My score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

And see this film in IMAX if at all possible. The picture and sound in my screening were tremendous.

(©️ IMAX, 20th Century Fox)

Review: “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”

Angelina Jolie is back as the misunderstood baddie with horns, wings, and high cheekbones in the fantasy adventure Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.

In this sequel to the 2014 original (which itself is a revisionist retelling of sorts of Disney’s 1959 animated motion picture classic Sleeping Beauty), Princess Aurora (played again by Elle Fanning) has taken over the ruling of the magical creatures that inhabit the moors while, due to bad word of mouth, her godmother Maleficent (Jolie) has removed herself and hides in a cliff watching from afar.

When Aurora receives a wedding proposal from her true love from a neighboring kingdom Prince Phillip (played in this film by Harris Dickinson), Aurora’s hope is that this will be a peaceful, happy, and safe union for all under her stewardship. However, Phillip’s mother Queen Ingrith (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) has something else more selfish and sinister in mind.

Michelle Pfeiffer pays Queen Ingrith in MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

When Maleficent tries to intervene, she is, yet again, misunderstood, gravely injured (spoiler alert), and then saved by a dark horned fey named Conall (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Conall is the leader of a group of banished dark fey (horned and winged fairies like Maleficent) who live in large caves underground to protect themselves from humans while still holding on to the hope for a world where humans and fairies can peacefully co-exist.

What will Maleficent do? Will she stay underground with her new peeps? Will she try to rescue her goddaughter from her crazy soon-to-be mother-in-law? Will she continue just to sit there and look tormented yet pretty (like she does for 90% of the picture)? Is she truly the “mistress of evil”? So many questions…

Actually, this was one of the strangest films I’ve seen all year. While I was just expecting a boring rehash of the 2014 original film, instead what director Joachim Rønning and his team have created is an incredibly stylish and ambitious production that is far superior to its original (which isn’t saying much) and that has a tremendous amount of artistry, beauty, and panache.

The film is really wonderful to look at. The environments created by the multitude of CGI artists who worked on them truly feel like a unique fantasy world, a place that we’ve never seen and one that we definitely want to spend time in and explore. The myriad of magical creatures who live on the moor are creative and fun rather than annoying (although the ridiculous three fairies from the original film unfortunately make it in to the sequel, but with much reduced screen time, mercifully). The costume designs and makeup are also stunning and while they might be enhanced with some CGI, everyone looks terrific which really adds again to the imaginative and lovely aesthetics of the film’s production.

While the film is named after her character, Maleficent, strangely, doesn’t really have much to say in the film which is really problematic for the filmgoer. Her main job is just to look, well, brooding and, again, misunderstood. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it actually was unfortunate that Maleficent didn’t have more to say because we never really understand her point of view or what she’s doing. And while her actions I guess speak louder than words, it still would have been nice to have some more exposition about what in the world was going on in that perpetually misunderstood mind of hers.

The film gets off to a strong and interesting (if not a bit wacky) start, but sadly, by the time the conflict all really comes to a head in the third act, this fantasy flick seems more like a Game of Thrones ripoff than anything else. While it’s pretty clear to know who to root for, the battle royale is still just a puzzling, muddled mess. Sadly, everything gets derailed and we’re left just to think of how beautiful the production design was and to wonder just who was this film made for in the first place.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images.”

My score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

As an added bonus, here are some cool posters for the film from the talented artists at Poster Posse.

Aracely Muñoz
Chris Christodoulou
Salvador Anguiano
Tracie Ching
Andy Fairhurst
AJ Frena
SG Posters
Jérémy Pailler
Mike Mahle

All images ©️ Disney

Review: “The Lion King” (2019)

Fancy technology and new CGI tools can’t save this dull, uninspired remake of Disney’s beloved animated musical The Lion King.

Photorealistic CGI Pride Rock in THE LION KING (2019)

Directed by Jon Favreau [Iron Man (2008), The Jungle Book (2016)], this new photorealistic re-telling of The Lion King is mostly a shot-for-shot and almost word-for-word remake of the 1994 original animated film from Disney Animation. The filmmakers have provided us with a beautifully-shot nature documentary-style of film (with animals that speak English, that is…) that sacrifices art for realism.

Scar and the hyenas in THE LION KING (2019)

The realism, while very well done, strips the story of one of the things that made it great in the first place—the incredible art and animation created by the artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Without the art and heightened interpretation of the natural world as done by the Disney Animation team, the film just becomes an impressive but lifeless technological shell of its former self.

Young Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa in THE LION KING (2019)

A major disappointment in choosing to follow the original script so closely is that the new vocal and musical artists brought on board (namely Donald Glover, the voice of grown-up Simba, Beyoncé, the voice of grown-up Nala, and music producer Pharell Williams) weren’t given anything new or interesting to do (Beyoncé gets half a new song near the end of Act II and is also involved with a Lion King-inspired album soon to be released but that’s it). I hate to be prescriptive here, but I was hoping for at least some new songs or some new material for these incredibly talented people to participate in that would make this re-telling more unique (think of what Disney did with the Broadway production of The Lion King).

The comic relief characters Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (voiced by Seth Rogen) are funny enough and, thankfully, get a new line or two that actually made me laugh, but still should have been given more to do as well. And, sadly, the great actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s interpretation of the villainous Scar can’t compare with the campy and scary performance of Jeremy Irons from the original animated film.

Every five minutes during the screening, I just wanted the projectionist to roll the 1994 original instead of this needless, uninventive rehash. I know that Disney is probably not going to stop with these remakes, at least not in my lifetime, but I sure wish they would just appropriately honor and re-release the original animated films on the big screen and focus their tremendous creative and financial resources in more original ways.

Nala and Simba feeling the love tonight in THE LION KING (2019)

The Lion King remake is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.”

My score: 2 out of 5 stars

Images ©️ Disney

Review: “Toy Story 4”

Woody gets reunited with Bo Peep and has to make some serious decisions about how he wants to live his life in Pixar Animation Studios’ brilliant and beautiful Toy Story 4.

Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) and Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) in TOY STORY 4 (©️ Disney/Pixar)

The film’s main storyline picks up basically right where we left the toys after 2010’s Toy Story 3: Andy has gone off to college and Woody (again voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (again voiced by Tim Allen), and all of Andy’s other toys now belong to a young girl named Bonnie. Woody and the gang now all play second fiddle to Bonnie’s existing toys. In fact, Woody gets played with less and less as Bonnie is preferring other toys over him.

When Bonnie reluctantly goes to her orientation day of kindergarten, she ends up making a rudimentary toy out of a plastic “spork” and names him “Forky.” Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) instantly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy; however, Forky isn’t quite sure that he wants to be a toy or that he wants to stay in Bonnie’s room so he keeps throwing himself in whatever garbage container he can find. Because of Bonnie’s devotion to him and because Woody needs something to do since he’s not needed as much, Woody makes it his primary job to keep Forky safe for Bonnie.

The toys are back, this time on an RV adventure with Bonnie and her family in TOY STORY 4 (©️ Disney/Pixar)

Things really start to get interesting when Bonnie and her parents rent an RV and take a road trip during the last week of summer before school starts. At one point along the highway, Forky decides to throw himself away outside a window, so Woody feels compelled to follow him with a plan to meet back up with the gang at an RV campground a few miles down the road where the family is planning to stop for the night.

The delightful and thought-provoking adventure comedy that follows focuses mostly on the character arc of our favorite toy sheriff, Woody. Through an interesting series of events, Woody gets reunited with his former love, Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts), who has made a new life for herself independent of any human child (or any human for that matter). Also in Woody’s path is a defective talking doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks) who thinks that Woody has what it takes for her to get repaired and, therefore, wanted by a human child.

While he has to continue to save Forky from himself and his surroundings, Woody also is faced with some difficult questions about what the purpose of his life is (I’ll keep this review spoiler free…). Needless to say, the conclusions are satisfying and surprising.

Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks) and one of her dummy henchmen meet Woody in TOY STORY 4 (©️ Disney/Pixar)

All of the living character voices have returned from the previous Toy Story films (the film has a dedication to actor Don Rickles, the voice of Mr. Potato Head, who passed away in 2017). New to the cast are the carnival plush toys Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and Canadian stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves, who steals the show.

Director Josh Cooley and team have created another outstanding animated comedy and a worthy addition to the storied Toy Story films. Probably what I loved the most about this film is its intelligent script and Pixar’s exacting commitment to story, as has been the case with the three previous Toy Story films, too. While I wasn’t sure that we needed another Toy Story after the extremely satisfying and emotional ending to Toy Story 3, this new adventure with the Toy Story gang is so entertaining and so much fun, it made me question why I questioned the Pixar folks in the first place.

Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody (Tom Hanks) , Buzz Lightyear (Tim Alen), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), and Bunny (Jordan Peele) on an adventure in TOY STOYY 4 (©️ Disney/Pixar)

Leave it to the magicians at Pixar to create not only a very interesting continuation to the storyline and ideas from the previous Toy Story films, but to also create a film with so much heart and humor and with so much gorgeous animation that it takes your breath away.

Bo Peep (Annie Potts) in TOY STORY 4 (©️ Disney/Pixar)

Toy Story 4 is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America.

My score: 5 out of 5 stars

Make sure to check out the all of the cool Toy Story 4 posters from Poster Posse, too.

Images ©️ Disney/Pixar

Review: “Aladdin” (2019)

The Walt Disney Studios’ latest remake is a live-action/photorealstic CGI retelling of their 1992 animated hit musical Aladdin.

Thankfully, the storyline and the music in this remake remain mostly the same as the beloved 1992 original. Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, is still a “diamond in the rough”—an orphaned “street rat” who is much more of a man than his appearance and situation shows. Upon the fateful meeting in the town’s marketplace with the kingdom’s princess, Jasmine, played by Naomi Scott, who has disguised herself to get a break from her trapped life in the gilt cage of the palace, the two form an instant connection. However, the laws of the kingdom of Agrabah where they live require the princess to marry a prince, and Jasmine has many princely suitors who are vying for her hand.

Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meet in the Agrabah marketplace in Disney’s ALADDIN (2019).

Enter the Genie, who in this version is played by a CGI-concoction of the actor and rapper Will Smith. After Aladdin gets trapped in the Cave of Wonders (again, very similar to the 1992 original), he becomes the master of the lamp and Genie grants him three wishes. So, of course, Aladdin wishes to be made a prince in order to have a chance with the Princess Jasmine. However, the sultan’s duplicitous vizier Jafar, played by Marwan Kenzari, has other things in mind for this new prince who appears to have won over the Princess’ heart.

Will Smith in full CGI-mode as the Genie in Disney’s ALADDIN (2019).

The new script for the film, co-written by John August and the film’s director Guy Ritchie, makes a few modifications and most of them work. The animal sidekicks remain—Abu the monkey, Rajah the tiger, and Iago the parrot—but instead are photorealistic CGI creations. Iago undergoes the most drastic character change of being truly just a parrot rather than the wise-cracking comic relief from the original, and the results are mixed. A more defined emphasis on Jasmine’s abilities and independent attitude is underlined with some added dialogue as well as a new song for the film written by Alan Menken and collaborators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (composers of the music for the Broadway hit musical Dear Evan Hansen and the musical film The Greatest Showman).

Will Smith stepped into absolutely impossible shoes trying to reprise actor Robin Williams’ and animator Eric Goldberg’s performances as the Genie. Smith tries very hard to make the role his own and I felt like he succeeded part of the time. I think the CGI artists are partly to blame here, since trying to make the Genie be as manic and shapeshifting as in the 1992 film (not to mention all of the blue skin and altered head and body features, too) works better in a 2D/traditional animation aesthetic than in a style rooted in realism that is used in all of these “live-action” remakes.

L-R: Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and Sultan (Navid Negahban) argue over Jasmine’s future in Disney’s ALADDIN (2019).

Director Guy Ritchie adds his usual stylistic flair, but I was surprised that his usual camera and editing tricks were somewhat understated for this film. The production values are high, as is the case in all of these Disney remakes, with beautiful cinematography, sets, and costumes. Probably the most appealing thing about this film, other than being able to hear Alan Menken’s wonderful music again, is the overall chemistry with the actors. The casting choices were solid (the CGI performance of Will Smith’s Genie notwithstanding) and the actors were all appealing in their attractiveness and abilities. Particularly, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine have the sort of on-screen spark and rapport that makes going to the movies so fun.

Overall, Aladdin is an entertaining retelling of a story that didn’t need to be retold. If you don’t plan to make it to the theater to see this one, the 1992 animated feature you’ve already got in your home movie library is really the only version you need.

Aladdin is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some action/peril.”

My score: 3 out of 5 stars

As an added bonus, here’s the IMAX poster.

©️ Disney and IMAX

All images ©️ Disney

Review: “Captain Marvel”

Who is Captain Marvel? That is the main question at the core of Marvel Studios’ marvelously entertaining new film.

This part mystery/part action film takes us through the journey of Carol Danvers (aka “Vers” and aka “Captain Marvel,” wonderfully played by Brie Larson) as she struggles to figure out where she comes from and who she really is.

When we first meet Captain Marvel, she is “Vers,” a powerful warrior in training and part of the Kree alien race. She is being trained by her Kree mentor and commander Yon-Rogg (played by Jude Law). The Kree are at war with another alien race called the Skrulls. The Skrulls are shape-shifters and can take the appearance of any other being that they see, making them all the more formidable. In the Marvel Comics, “the Kree and the Skrulls have been at each others’ throats for thousands upon thousands of years” (see

A battle mishap causes Vers to crash land on the planet Earth circa 1995 along with some of the shape-shifting Skrulls. On Earth, Vers encounters S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) agents Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson in a pre-eye patch version of this well-known character) and Coulson (played again by Clark Gregg), who are amazed by her powers and want to learn more. And Vers wants to learn more as well, since somewhere in the back of her mind, things on Earth look rather familiar to her.

Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) and Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in “Captain Marvel.” (©️ Marvel)

Along the way in their earthly adventures, Vers and Fury meet up with U.S. Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch), who might have some information that will help them out. They also have to deal with Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Agent Keller (played by Ben Mendelsohn), and the mysterious presence of a woman from Vers’ past (played by Annette Bening) who might just have the answers Vers is looking for.

This film has great action and great heart. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck create an excellent balance of mystery, exposition, and action (along with lots of entertaining 1990’s jokes, references, and music) as we learn who Captain Marvel really is and how she fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And by the time Captain Marvel’s formidable powers reveal themselves, you hopefully will also have a big smile on your face as this film has all of the excitement and enjoyment that make these Marvel Studios’ movies so much fun.

(Plus, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, this film is a perfect setup for the upcoming action in Marvel Studios’ next superhero extravaganza Avengers: Endgame which opens on April 26. Make sure to stay through the end credits, as always.)

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language.”

My score: 4 out of 5 stars

As an added bonus, here’s the IMAX poster for the film.

Also, check out the cool Captain Marvel poster series from Poster Posse on my blog here.

All images ©️ Marvel

“The Other Side of the Wind”

It’s been fascinating to me to learn more about and to finally see Orson Welles’ final film The Other Side of the Wind (Netflix, 2018).

A biting satire of Hollywood and sort of a film-within-a-film itself, The Other Side of the Wind is about a legendary film director named Jake Hannaford (played by the real-life legendary director John Huston) who is attempting to resuscitate his languishing career by making an avant-guard film called, well, The Other Side of The Wind. Hannaford needs an influx of cash to finish the project, so he throws a screening party at an expansive home in Arizona and invites potential investors and various members of the Hollywood media to show them parts of the unfinished film.

Orson Welles began shooting the film in 1970. Filming continued sporadically for six more years. From what I’ve read, it sounds like a combination of Welles’ temperament along with a series of complicated financial deals brought the work on the film to a standstill. Welles died in 1985 and the film remained in an unfinished state and became a “holy grail” of sorts for devotees of Welles’ work.

Multiple attempts have been made over the years to complete the film. Finally, the deep pockets of Netflix along with the work of director Peter Bogdanovich (who also stars in the film) and movie producer Frank Marshall (who was an assistant on the film) were able to get the job done.

While Welles supervised some of the editing himself when he was actively working on the film, what we have for our viewing pleasure now is an attempt by multiple filmmakers, artists, and technical experts to recreate a work by a notoriously fickle auteur. Writer and self-professed Orson Welles “obsessive” Alex Ross in a very interesting article in The New Yorker wrote:

“Welles buffs will long argue over their choices, but the film is a major addition to the director’s canon, offering a sometimes harrowingly personal vision. Hannaford is hardly a self-portrait, but his predicament is not unlike Welles’s own: he is a legend whose past overshadows his present. At the same time, ‘Wind’ is an exhilarating forward leap, its rapid-fire editing and pseudo-documentary format heralding modern styles. Ultimately, it has the Wellesian quality of not caring what you make of it. As one of Hannaford’s minions says, bringing out a stack of film cans, ‘Well, here it is, if anybody wants to see it.'”

Ross also details in his excellent piece about the physical and technical challenges of assembling the film. “[Sound supervisor Daniel] Saxlid, a wizardly Swede, spent more than three months cleaning up the dialogue, working seven days a week in a windowless room in Technicolor’s post-production facility on the Paramount lot. Multiple transfers of the soundtrack had caused a build-up of noise and distortion…Saxlid developed a…program, “a kind of forensics,” to expand microscopic portions of the track and reduce noise while preserving the voices. All this solitary activity gave him a curious sense of interaction with Welles himself. ‘So much of this we couldn’t have done even a few years ago. All these endless delays drove everyone crazy, but maybe the thing had to wait until we had all the right tools for it. I kept having a funny feeling that Welles had tossed all this to the future, for us to figure out.'”

They definitely figured things out technically. The film is fascinating to watch—almost as if Welles had come back from the grave to give us one last film. The imagery is sometimes a bit challenging and unplesant, but is also sometimes absolutely revelatory in its composition, style, and technical excellence. I wonder if we’ll ever figure out all of what Welles was trying to say. To me, it was like Welles taking his hands off the steering wheel of a speeding car, giving the middle finger to Hollywood, but then crashing and, sadly, losing his life in a rather self-consumed and futile way.

Behind-the-scenes photo with John Huston (L), Orson Welles (C), and Peter Bogdanovich (R) which looks like a happy time

The film is currently available on Netflix. Also of interest is a behind-the-scenes documentary about the creation of the final cut called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is currently on Netflix as well.

The Other Side of the Wind is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content, graphic nudity and some language.”

My score: 4 out of 5 stars

Images ©️ Netflix