Aladdin

Disney

I’m having a hard time sorting through my feelings about Disney’s Aladdin, the live-action remake of the beloved 1992 animated classic, so bear with me as I work this out.

Let’s start with the good. The two actors who play Aladdin and Jasmine, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, are fantastic. Massoud moves well and is energetic and breezy as Aladdin. Scott is similarly charming and charismatic. They look great and have great chemistry together and their performances are exactly what you want and need for this movie—they each have star power for days.

But it’s Nasim Pedrad that delivers the best performance in the movie, as Jasmine’s handmaiden, a new character who wasn’t in the animated version. Pedrad’s extensive comedy background allowed her to seem the most comfortable with the comedic bits, when everyone else is a bit stiff (yes, even Will Smith). She is a natural and every time I see her, I continue to be shocked that she’s not starring in her own movies.

The production elements are beyond belief. Disney has spared no cost, understandably so, and you can see every penny on the screen. The special effects that bring animals strikingly to life (a monkey is an adorable and effective supporting character) are phenomenally seamless and well done, and the names Michael Wilkinson and Gemma Jackson should be remembered during awards seasons for costumes and a production design that are immaculate, gorgeous and alone make this movie worthwhile. Disney movies always look great and this one looks absolutely luscious.

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Booksmart

Annapurna

If there’s one thing we never seem to run out of, it’s teen comedies. I grew up in the John Hughes era, so I was spoiled by mainstream movies that aimed at teenage angst, awkwardness, insecurities and hormones. But while the ‘80s may seem to have been the heyday for teen comedies, the genre has seen a real re-emergence in the last decade. Films like Superbad, Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A, Election and Love, Simon all proved that, when done right, the teen comedy can be well done AND popular. And maybe that’s just the problem. Of all the movie genres, it just might be the one (other than superhero movies) that feels saturated. It’s almost gotten to the point where you feel as if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It takes something really special to set one apart from all the others.

Last year, we saw Love, Simon break a mold by being the first gay high school rom-com. Superbad, from 2007, set itself apart by being shameless, raunchy and crude. And now comes Booksmart, a movie that mines a little bit of both Love, Simon and Superbad (not to mention Election and Mean Girls) but finds a way to cover all the same ground in a completely unique way.

Directed, produced, written by and starring women, Booksmart feels like so much more than just another teen comedy because it is. The writing is fresh, the performances are fearless and the direction is fierce and bold. Who would have ever seen this from actress Olivia Wilde, who makes her directorial debut. Wilde proves that, much like Greta Gerwig, who made her directorial debut with the brilliant Lady Bird in 2017, if you give women actors as many chances to write and direct as you do men, the new approaches, breadth of stories and fresh perspectives just may lead to some pretty amazing results.

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Catch-22

Hulu

The absurdity of war has been explored in countless ways by Hollywood, from the dark comedy of M*A*S*H to the insanity of Apocalypse Now to the violence of The Deer Hunter to the psychosis of Full Metal Jacket to the satire of Dr. Strangelove, the many angles of the lunacy of sending men into battle has been covered, and then some. So now imagine all of those movies jumbled together into one narrative piece. The result would be Catch-22, a 6-part limited series on Hulu, premiering May 17.

The mini-series, based on the classic novel by Joseph Heller, is executive produced by a team led by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who won Oscars for producing Argo in 2012. Clooney and Heslov also share directing duties (and both have small roles), along with Ellen Kuras, each of them directing two installments. Writers Luke Davies and David Michod have adapted Heller’s book with precision and inspiration, as they have focused the story on World War II bombardier John Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott) and his experiences while being stationed in Italy. Yasarian, known as Yo Yo to his buddies, is all about finding a way out of the war. But he soon comes to realize that he is simply a cog in the giant war machine that is unforgiving, relentless, heartless and cruel. Sanity is a precious commodity in war and we watch as Yo Yo desperately tries to hold onto his through a multitude of encounters, actions and circumstances that range from the absurd to the tragic.

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Long Shot

Point Grey Pictures

It’s already been a pretty strange few months for odd combos, from Cate Blanchett starring in an Eli Roth movie to Kate Beckinsale dating Pete Davidson, so the pairing of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron doesn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. After all, Theron is an actress who is far from shy about playing against her perceived type. Since winning her (first of hopefully more) Oscar playing a grimy and ugly serial killer in Monster, she has played a corporate villain in Prometheus, a wicked queen in Snow White and the Huntsman and apocalyptic badass Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, all roles that gleefully break from her beautiful leading lady pedigree. While Theron has played her share of girlfriend and pretty girl roles, her ability and willingness to play a variety of roles in different genres has proven her to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile stars. What’s even more appealing is Theron’s ability to do comedy too, from her goofy guest-starring role in Arrested Development to her darkly comic performance in Young Adult to Seth MacFarlane’s not-so-dark comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, Theron has proven she’s got comedy chops as strong as her dramatic ones.

All that being said, however, it does still feel and look a little strange to see her starring in a romantic comedy with Seth Rogen. Theron is famous for being beautiful, talented and Oscar-winning, and Rogen is famous for pot jokes, pissing off a dictator and helping the world to see the weird side of James Franco. To be fair, he was really good in serious roles in Steve Jobs and Take this Waltz, but, other than that, Rogen is known for his raunchy and rude comedies like Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and This is the End. So I was both intrigued and a bit scared to see Long Shot, the new movie which pairs Theron and Rogen as a presidential candidate and her speechwriter who fall in love. With no aliens, special effects, action sequences or pot jokes to hide behind (for the most part), these actors would be fully exposed, relying on just their acting skills, their charm and their chemistry to carry the movie. And let me just say, it’s a good thing these two performers are who they are, because their charm is pretty much all this movie has.

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Triple Frontier

Netflix

Movies have always loved the military. The elements that we instantly connect to the military, such as bravery, loyalty, brotherhood, heroism, selflessness, dedication, strength and courage, are ideal fodder for the Hollywood fantasy. And even though superhero movies have recently taken the lead in the heroism department, cinematically speaking, movies will always welcome military stories and characters. They are the most recognizable and often the most fallible of our heroes, which makes them the most realistic, the most human—and, because of that, the easiest to root for. If I asked you to stop and try to think of movies about the military or featuring military or ex-military as main characters, I guarantee you’d be busy for a while.

I bring this up because the fact that the main characters in the new Netflix original film, Triple Frontier, are all ex-military is a key element of the movie. It’s about 5 former American Special Forces operatives who reunite for one more mission, which is as about as pre-written and as familiar a concept as a moviegoer could see. And while Triple Frontier certainly doesn’t shy away from any of your preconceived notions, it also, thankfully, doesn’t linger in them either. Directed by J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and written by Chandor and Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Triple Frontier stars Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Pedro Pascal, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund as former members of an unidentified elite military strike team (SEALs? Special Forces?) who come back together when Isaac’s character enlists them to go after a brutal Mexican drug lord who happens to be sitting on a pile of cash. Boal has made a living creating characters with sometimes murky motivations, and the various forces that drive each of these characters to agree to the mission are not always clear or sensical, but it is impressive how quickly we get to know these characters in a short amount of time. It’s clear Chandor and Boal do not want to linger in exposition for too long. Nothing lingers too long in this movie, maybe because if you were given too much time to think about what’s going on, you’d realize how ludicrous some of it really is.

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Maze

Lightyear Entertainment

Against the backdrop of Brexit, now may be the perfect time for movies to remind us that the British Isles have a long history of tumult and chaos within its borders. Now that there is widespread panic and confusion about what Great Britain may look and feel like in a post-Brexit Europe, it was not too long ago in Britain’s history that another political upheaval was taking place. But while Brexit is based on political manipulations, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s and ‘80s, commonly known as “the Troubles,” were seeded in religion and love of country, two powerful forces which resulted in a terribly violent and chaotic chapter in Irish—and British—history.

There have been many movies about or set against the backdrop of the Troubles, my personal favorite being Jim Sheridan’s 1993 gem, In the Name of the Father. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, In the Name of the Father is about an Irish man wrongly convicted for an IRA bombing and the English lawyer who takes his case. Daniel Day-Lewis only made 20 movies in his career (he still claims to be retired now), and I consider this one of his best performances. In the Name of the Father spends a great deal of its time in the prison where Day-Lewis’s character was sent after his conviction. It’s not uncommon for movies about the Troubles to be set in a prison. Hunger (2003), for example, which launched both director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender’s careers, is about the famous IRA hunger strike that took place at a Northern Ireland prison in 1981. And now there is a new film set two years later in that same prison. Maze is both the name of the movie and the name of the prison that, within the span of two years was the site of two watershed moments in the history of the Irish Revolution: the hunger strike (1981) and, in 1983, the most famous prison escape in British history, where 38 IRA prisoners managed to find a way out of the most famous prison in Europe. It is a compelling story that was overdue for telling, and the film is just as intriguing and dramatic as you would expect.

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Captain Marvel

Marvel Studios

I keep going back on my promise to quit superhero movies (or at least to quit reviewing them). I first broke my self-imposed moratorium with Black Panther last year and was rewarded mightily. Black Panther proved that not all superhero movies were going to be overly bombastic, mind-numbing testosterone fests, so I felt a bit better about making a new promise right then: only go to superhero movies that look interesting.

Which brings us to Captain Marvel.

I’ll be totally honest with you. I had never even heard of Captain Marvel before. I’m not nor have I ever been a comic book person, but at least I had heard of characters such as Captain America, Thor, the Hulk and Spider Man. But this Captain Marvel was a complete unknown to me. And even though I enjoyed the heck out of Black Panther, the whole Avengers saga has been totally lost on me. I watched Avengers: Infinity War just because I wanted to be in on the conversation, but I found it to be another cookie-cutter piece of CGI brain noise. With the exception of Black Panther and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I can truly take or leave the Avengers and all their iterations. But when it was announced that Marvel Studios was casting a woman to play the originally male titular superhero and Avenger Captain Marvel, I was intrigued. And when it was then announced that the woman who would play her would be Brie Larson, I was in.

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So, that happened….

Olivia Colman winning the 2019 Oscar for Best Actress for The Favourite

The 91st Academy Awards promised us a train wreck but gave us—for the most part—a pretty good ride instead.

Here’s my recap of the moments I remember the most, good and bad.

The start of the show was a little rocky, in my opinion. The performance by Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert, was fine but a little more dull than I was expecting or hoping for. I know that’s a tough room to play, but the whole thing seemed too low energy to me. It was the first time a rock band had played the Oscars and maybe we’re seeing why. What made things worse was when the show then cut to a standard “welcome to the Oscars” package, featuring voiceover narration and footage from the red carpet with standard shots of celebrities waving to the camera, it seriously felt like the People’s Choice Awards, not the Oscars. The show was in serious danger of grinding to a halt. This is the gaping hole that was left by not having a host and I felt like they failed miserably to fill it. There was no edge, no spark, no genuine excitement at the top of the show. Thankfully, though, the producers inserted the traditional movie montage here and it righted the ship. The montage is always my favorite part of the show, so maybe I’m biased, but I watch the Oscars to celebrate

Best Supporting Actress winner for “If Beale Street Could Talk” Regina King
movies, so these montages which celebrate the past year in film always give me goosebumps. And then, with the first presenters, I could feel the show back to steaming full speed ahead. Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey arrived to present the first award, but, before they did, they essentially delivered a host-type monologue and it was fantastic.

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

DreamWorks

It’s rare enough to have a sequel be as good or better than the original, but for a movie to actually have two sequels that are worthwhile is rarer still. When the original How to Train Your Dragon film came out in 2010, it was a huge hit, and a critical success (98% on Rotten Tomatoes). Then, when the sequel came out in 2014, all of those who loved the first were naturally skeptical and nervous—usually these endeavors end up being pure money grabs lacking any creativity or ingenuity—but, lo and behold, the sequel did almost as well at the box office and with reviewers, still cracking the coveted 90% mark on Rotten Tomatoes (final rating on RT was 92%). There were many fans of these movies that felt it still never got the love it deserved though, playing second fiddle to the bigger, more marketed and flashier Pixar and Disney animated movies of the last 10 years. Well, now maybe with the final movie in what can now officially be called a trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may finally bring the much-beloved films some much-deserved attention. Let’s not continue to ignore these wonderful films the way we are ignoring the similarly excellent Paddington movies.

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Free Solo and Cold War

Oscar season comes at you so fast, it’s impossible to see everything during the two month window at the end of the year. Because of this, I usually need January and February to catch up on some that I missed, and this year has been no different. I recently finally got to seeing two critically-acclaimed movies that I had missed, both nominated for Oscars: Free Solo (nominated for Best Documentary Feature) and Cold War (nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director). Here are my thoughts on each.

FREE SOLO

Little Monster Films

“Free solo” is a rock climbing term that defines a climb that is done without any safety ropes or harnesses. It literally means man vs. mountain and it is the most dangerous and difficult way to climb anything, let alone one of the most challenging rocks in the world. The film Free Solo chronicles the attempt by world-famous American rock climber Alex Honnold to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which would make him the first and only person to ever do so. If you’re thinking this is a National Geographic-type movie that is all about man vs. nature, you’re right. But what totally shocked me is how much more there is to it. It is a psychological study, a celebration of life, an homage to Earth’s beauty and power, but, more than anything, it is an riveting story that grabs you from the beginning and takes you on a harrowing but incredible journey that competes with any of the dramas created in Hollywood.

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