Mini Movie Review (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)

Quentin Tarantino’s new film ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD was a mixed bag. I enjoyed all the 60s music, TV, and movie references.  I also liked the frequency of long scenes with the main characters, such as them driving and listening to music or talking one-on-one with someone.  Facial reaction shots were a thought-out part of this technique, along with some creative tinting to the lighting, all to lend a colorful, nostalgic tone to the movie, which I appreciated.  But, the scene mocking Bruce Lee felt insulting and racist and I could have done without all the gratuitous violence at the end. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio did make pretty amusing foils for each other, however.  And Margot Robbie was fun and adorable as Sharon Tate.

The real alienating and angering aspect for me with the movie overall was the very negative stereotyping of hippies. They were repeatedly portrayed as stupid and sociopathic Manson followers.  This is such a tired trope.  I was raised by and around hippies and, man, we had nothing to do with Manson (and the vast majority of hippies didn’t) and were anything but stupid and sociopathic.  We were justifiably concerned about many things, such as the environment and the ongoing war in Vietnam.  Some of those values would have been good to see expressed in the film, but they were nowhere to be found.

My advice to all who are interested in watching this movie:  wait until the release on DVD to see it, or, better yet, watch it for free if you can.

Movie Review (GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS)

My expectations were pretty low when I went to see GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it.  Most importantly, there was much more direct footage of Godzilla and other radioactive monsters, all referred to as “Titans,” than what was shown in the disappointingly sluggish 2014 prequel (titled simply GODZILLA).  The pace was comparatively faster yet easy to follow.  I’ve loved Godzilla since watching on television some of his very first movie (GODZILLA, a Toho Studios production from 1954) when I was five and-a-half years old.

Some of the main cast from GODZILLA returns in this sequel, with a few tragic losses happening throughout the movie.  The multi-government-led scientific organization Monarch is back to work with researching signs of Titans becoming active from out of their respective places of dormancy around the world.  This chain reaction arises from eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (played by veteran British actor Charles Dance) proceeding to release a series of them to wreak havoc on the world.  His motivation is to bring the planet’s life back into balance via having much of humanity, particularly in urban centers, killed off by these ancient guardians of nature, since humans are responsible for climate change and other grave environmental issues.  He and Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) join forces to accomplish this paradoxically well-meaning yet ultimately sinister goal, much to the chagrin of the rest of Monarch’s main team and the U.S. military.  Jonah also selfishly wants to harness the Titans’ power and untapped resources.  However, this is only briefly referred to and then hinted at further in a preview scene of the upcoming sequel.

A combination of scientific research, including studying and manipulating sound waves the Titans emit, and reviewing of ancient folklore about these huge creatures results in Monarch identifying Godzilla as an age-old “benevolent” force who can lead the other Titans back into a calm, subdued order.  His rival super Titan “Monster Zero,” the storm-causing, three-headed dragon (though not referred to as such in the movie) Ghidorah, will bring chaos and death over everything if he is not defeated.  His intentional awakening out of deep ice in Antarctica by Jonah and a mis-led Dr. Russell starts a powerful action scene of giant monster destruction, probably the best on the big (and small) screen I’ve ever witnessed.  The immediacy of the danger is well-filmed and timed as main characters and soldiers try to escape via military helicopter to avoid being crushed by Ghidorah or vaporized in his irradiated, fire-lightning breath.  We see the dragon’s sinister, regenerative heads nipping at each other and roaring at the puny humans, then reactions of horror as men shoot their ineffective rifles and one shouts, “Holy shit!”  Quite an entry for the arch villain creature, and the only one identified as being of extraterrestrial origin.

Closeups of different gargantuan monsters’ faces near humans, such as by a helicopter in one scene, an underwater facility in another, and a fighter jet in yet another, serve to make them feel more present and real to the audience, with one such moment effectively startling me even on my second viewing.  This was a monster thriller of quality I’ve been longing to see since childhood, thanks to CGI and other cinematography technology finally achieving such state-of-the-art advancement.

Being the long-time fan of Godzilla that I am, I was again somewhat disappointed to see how his physical design was changed.  His snout has been shortened since the 2014 prequel, whereas when it was longer and larger in earlier movies, he had more teeth and, hence, seemingly more substantiveness.  However, I can only imagine what the designers were thinking about this latest incarnation of such a star monster of the cinema.  Perhaps a shorter snout made him seem more tough like a pit bull, I don’t know.  Anyway, I was able to let go of this bother to some extent as I watched the enormous two legged lizard of the sea do his grand stuff, including breath out white radioactive fire, his mighty spines gloriously lighting up.

The other benevolent Titan is Mothra (“Mosura” in Japanese), who is the first monster we see in the movie.  Initially in giant larva form, she spits out a sticky webbing out of self defense shortly after hatching before a circle of armed men placed there to contain her.  She then cocoons herself in a nearby waterfall and later rises forth as a grand, brightly shimmering moth to assist Godzilla, her relationship with him being symbiotic, though not fully explained how.  This ultimately did not matter to me, as I was able to accept the Monarch team’s exposition that some of the Titans are peaceful and working in harmony with each other.  They all follow an alpha leader, like a pack of wolves does.  Godzilla has historically been in this role, similar to the god Zeus over the other deities of Greek mythology, the term Titan being aptly derived from that particular pantheon.

Mothra is referred to as being the queen to Godzilla’s king, flying and fighting beside him to help restore order with her radioactive beauty and insectoid strength.  She is followed and studied over several generations by attractive identical twin women, the latest being Dr. Ilene Chen and her sister Dr. Ling (both played by Zhang Ziyi), each of Monarch.  This movie does not explore the spiritual-religious, deity worshipping element/implications so much as it subtly alludes to all of these through closely associating Mothra with the lineage of twins.  This gives the royal-seeming moth a pleasant mystique, equating her with beautiful femininity, angelic light/heavenly grace, and the cycle of death and rebirth.  The too-briefly shown theme of women twins drawn to Mothra also seems to act as a dutiful acknowledgement to the queen Titan’s miniature women fairy companions, played by Japanese twin pop singers The Peanuts, in the 1961 movie MOTHRA, and other actresses in the same recurring roles throughout several sequels starring this colossal insect.  (I readily admit to never having seen any of these earlier movies.)  I only wished that the celestial, exquisite Mothra/Mosura had more screen time in this latest Godzilla production.  But, alas, she was unavoidably underused in an already crowded narrative where the king monster himself was at least not short shrifted this time around.  The movie was just over two hours in length as it was.  For all of the interesting elements of the story to be fully explored, almost an hour or so of footage/digital imagery would have to have been added, so sacrifices were clearly made and, on balance, fairly.

One giant monster is colossally ridiculous, an earless bipedal mastodon of sorts we the viewers briefly see on a few television newsfeeds.  I believe it shows up again at the very end.  What were the designers and director thinking here??  Perhaps it was meant to be comic relief?  Mr. Snuffleupagus of Sesame Street turned radioactive giant mutant, I guess.  Give me a break.  Fortunately, it at least had no starring role the way Ghidora, Rodan (an enormous bird-pterodactyl-like creature originating from a volcano), Mothra, and our hero Godzilla did.  The crab-like critters, of which there was one in the prequel, return, which is fine.  They look believably scary and interesting in a primal way.

While the monsters were indeed the true stars of the movie, I did especially appreciate some of the people cast.  Ken Watanabe returns as Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, the thoughtful wise man and conscience of the movie.  Through him, we viewers are encouraged to be curious about and sympathizing of Godzilla.  Ishiro’s younger colleague, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi), is a folklorist who shows pertinent antiquarian bits of texts and images of sea and land monsters to the rest of the Monarch crew and military personnel.  She bridges the Titans from their primeval past to the present, providing personal information such as their actual names.  She and her twin sister reflect the beautiful, graceful, harmonious side of nature, embodied in one of the two’s (Dr. Ling’s) personal deity, already discussed above.  This relationship of veneration is simply relayed through Dr. Ling’s facial expression upon witnessing the initial rising of Mothra.  At that point, hope for the planet more clearly enters the picture.  All is not evil or lost after all.

Charles Dance as the ruthless Alan Jonah uncannily seemed so much in both appearance and presentation like the late screen thespian Peter Cushing, star of many Hammer Horror Studios productions and in the first STAR WARS movie (as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin).  I was impressed with Dance’s similarity to such a man of grave elegance and sincerity.  His presence packed a punch and surely will continue to in the sequel.

Aisha Hinds is believable as an Army Colonel, conveying a balanced mix of concerned and commanding.  I was glad that she was both bald and African American, normalizing more unique, nonwhite, gender nonconforming women being in strong leadership positions in a mainstream movie.

To appeal to youth in the audience, teenaged actress Millie Bobby Brown (of the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS) stars as Madison Russell, who takes it upon herself to try and change her mother’s mind about allying with eco terrorist Jonah.  She manages to get into the thick of the action as the movie progresses, changing from guardedly defiant to scared and vulnerable, becoming a predictable but sweet vehicle for a very temporary union between her estranged parents.  Such sappiness for the sake of adding a more relatable, family element felt formulaic and bland.  This movie’s power and originality lay with the monsters and their impressive development in form,  immediacy, and even a kind of earthly or– for Mothra– celestial divinity.  Certain human characters already discussed particularly supported and reflected that power, making them stand out against an uneven script of sometimes lame dialogue.

In this movie’s universe, these Titans have existed for millennia and longer, helping to keep a tense balance between humanity and the rest of nature, whereby whole cultures had worshipped them.  The undersea origins of Godzilla are gracefully explored here, implying that he is a cyclically sleeping dragon of sorts.  The radiation of each Titan is deadly yet life-giving, a mysterious mix that is both amusingly and fascinatingly referenced during the film’s clever end credit sequence.  These beings’ existence is aptly tied in with climate change, some embodying a means of worsening it, others a way to ameliorate it.  In sum, the movie is an allegory, with the humans ultimately more villainous through causing centuries of damage to the earth.  The Titan monsters represent both destructive and ordered forces of nature reacting and roughly trying to set things right, even at the expense of humans, whose only salvation is to align with some of these mighty Titan forces or perish.  Enter good guy Godzilla, whose boundless, radioactive rage is well-directed.  Long live the king.

 

Movie Review (SHAFT)

The new movie SHAFT, which is the third produced screenplay with that same title, and the second to star veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson, was fun and interesting. The generational tension between Millennial actor Jessie T. Usher as J.J. Shaft and Baby Boomer actor Jackson as his father John Shaft was intriguingly expressed via cleverly written repartee between them throughout the narrative.

The implications of changes in inner city African American culture through generational and economic shifts are adeptly packed into this entertaining comedy-action movie. Kudos to writers Kenya Barris (creator of the TV show BLACK-ISH) and Alex Barnow.

Jessie T. Usher is able to hold a lot of nuances or layers in his character as an MIT educated, rookie FBI data analyst– nuance of having a natural sensitivity to women as equals to men, the value of healthy eating, the embracing of multiculturalism, and a reluctance to glorify guns as a means to power and domination– to name a few that come to mind. And all this while coming across as emotionally expressive and caring, strong in convictions, and downright adorable. He is someone I could imagine talking with over coffee or a drink, very approachable and relatable.

Jackson portrays the less evolved old guard, “kill or be killed” inner city Black, tough guy private detective, unapologetically coarse and sexist, making both a comic yet thought-provoking foil to the younger, warmer Shaft (Usher). He holds the primal force, including (but not only) rage, for the film, balancing out his son J.J. Shaft’s comparative softness and tendency to think more deeply. Their dialogue had me laughing often– that and the interweaving of old, Motown R&B songs into the musical score, including within some action sequences, particularly a few done in slow motion as if to imply dancing. This was bizarre, clever, disturbing, and funny all at once, leaving me to think of Kabuki theater somehow merging with old action films from the 1960s and 70s. This movie makes fun of itself often, including humorously yet gracefully glorifying people’s nostalgia for earlier, seemingly “simpler” times, namely the 1970s and 1980s. The result is a form of high camp within both a visual and musical theatricality that I eat up like rare, fine truffles. Granted, such treats are not to everyone’s liking.

The one matter I took some issue with is the blatant homophobia expressed via John Shaft’s hyper concern about his son J.J.’s sexuality. To the older, traditionally hyper-masculine Shaft, the younger man’s sensitivity, non-macho presentation, and non-aggressive, respectful approach to women is confusing and anxiety-inducing, with the father asking his son if he likes “pussy.” John later circles back to this matter, listing off possible sexual orientations, including “metrosexual” and “fluid,” for J.J. to choose from before the younger man clarifies that he is indeed straight. However, the fact that John knows these latest terms and states them matter-of-factly while caringly putting his very drunk son to bed for the night suggests to me that a part of the older man is wrestling with his discomfort and more likely than not to ultimately accept J.J. regardless of his sexual proclivities. And it is realistic to portray a middle-aged inner city African American man and other men around him as rigid believers in compulsory heterosexuality being bound up with achieving true manhood. The movie does not push the envelope nearly enough here to my satisfaction, which it would, say, if J.J. Shaft’s orientation were left vague, not so defined, hinted at as possibly bisexual or fluid. Well, homophobia and heterosexism in mainstream media are very slow to fade, this production only confirming that point, sadly. More open-mindedness and acceptance to happen all in good time, I suppose– so long as the good fight for queer visibility and equality continues.

The actual storyline concerning taking down a powerful drug smuggling and dealing ring is secondary to the strong, sympathetic, ever-evolving characters of SHAFT, namely the father-son duo. However, these two are well-supported by Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), John Shaft’s long-lost girlfriend and mother of his son J.J., and Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp), the close friend and love interest of said son. I would have liked each of these smart, independent, likable women to be given more to do in the action sequences other than act freaked out and helpless. But, perhaps that switch up of roles will be forthcoming in a sequel. After all, it is the young woman Sasha, herself a physician, who carries a gun and lends it to J.J. in a time of need. Clearly, her full abilities are not put to use here. Hopefully, they will be in any future Shaft productions. As for Maya, she is the one who raised J.J. Shaft to be the well-rounded person that he is, leaving his long absent father to return and mix a healthy bit of grit into him for good measure. Fortunately, Maya and Sasha survive to flesh out a true family, anchored by three generations of Shaft men, with the elder actor Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft in three early 1970s movies starring that character) showing up to improve the odds in a final face-off against the arch villain and his henchmen. And those three Shafts aim for laughs with us viewers while packing heat and going for broke.

I had no qualms with seeing white people portrayed unflatteringly at every turn in SHAFT, be they as secondary villains, suspicious cops, or establishment assholes (i.e., J.J. Shaft’s uptight boss in the FBI). We all need to laugh at ourselves, regardless of what ethnicity and socio-economic class/status we happen to belong. We white folks especially need to be brought down some pegs and onto the ground with everyone else, there to roll about in the dirt and laugh at the theatricality, often absurdity, and ever-changing wonder of life. The movie SHAFT clearly, amusingly reminds us viewers to do just that.

Movie Review (AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR)

First of all, I need to make clear that I have watched all of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU)/Disney franchise films, minus maybe one or two (SUICIDE SQUAD and possibly one other), and usually in short order after each movie’s release.  Hence, I’ve been able to stay in the flow of the multiple interweaved narratives in the MCU.  If you are someone who hasn’t done this, you will not necessarily enjoy the 2018 installment, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, one of the few most chock-full Marvel productions to date, with the exception of its more recent sequel that wraps it all up: AVENGERS: ENDGAME.  This is not a movie to see if you haven’t kept up with the Marvel Studios of Disney cycle.  You may feel lost and often confused, possibly even indifferent.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this second to final film in the Avengers series.  I had girded myself for an over-crowded, spread-thin production where only the villain had enough consistent footage and gravitas.  Fortunately, that was not the case.

What impressed me throughout the movie was its pacing and clever balance of humor and serious drama.  The story is indeed action packed, but threaded together well to prevent a sense of gratuitousness or pointless shock value from developing.  The acting and material given to each actor to work with were both of a solid caliber.  It can be argued, and already has been elsewhere, that certain characters were short-shrifted in time and development.  Be that as it may, I bear in mind that this is often inevitable with any large ensemble cast in a multiple episode narrative, be it on film/screen digital, TV, or in a book series.  Some characters are chosen to be at the core of a saga while others remain more supporting, off to the side, in order to keep plot-lines tight enough to follow and the audience’s sense of connection to the players strong.  However, this core can shift and evolve with time the longer a universe is continuously created.  For one thing, the core or primary circle of characters gradually enlarges.  This appeared to be the case with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.  Scenes with each superhero were pertinent for us viewers to witness, highlighting each individual’s dilemmas, motivations, and primary emotions.

One such scene around the middle of the film comes to mind.  Thor (Christopher Hemsworth) has just been rescued in outer space by the Guardians of the Galaxy team after humorously banging up against their ship’s front window, as if he were a bird hitting a car windshield.  Later, during a rare moment of calm and personal exchange, Thor sits and reflects aloud on his numerous losses of family members and friends.  His attentive, listening witness is a wonderful choice: Rocket Raccoon (a CGI voiced by Bradley Cooper), a sarcastic, hard-talking anthropomorphized raccoon.  He clearly has taken a quick liking to and admiration of the Prince of Asgard, someone Rocket views as both “angel and pirate.”  We the audience join Rocket in watching Thor open his heart for a bit, with the former asking a few questions to help the latter man (and demigod) open up.  Not only does this previously loud and obnoxious Raccoon begin to soften somewhat inside as a character, i.e., evolve towards being more human, but we see a vulnerable Thor relay one of the main purposes– if not the main one– to the entire story.  He basically states, while tearing up, that all of his rage, anguish, and sadness is a good motivator to push on and do what needs to be done.  In other words, use your feelings as the pure energy that they are to keep on going in life and accomplish what’s necessary and more.  Thor then tightens his lips and moves his chin in such a way as to relay some levity about the situation in which he finds himself, adding another layer of feeling and good perspective to the obvious sadness filling him up inside.  He relays such wisdom here, that union of knowledge from life experience with compassion, including for oneself.  The warrior has clearly matured, which all true warriors (as opposed to soldiers) do.  Each of us face adversities all the time, so often small and easily manageable but also some that are periodically large and daunting.  If Thor can carry on and do what’s right and good, so can we, for we too are warriors in this thing called life.  Such high drama with Christopher Hemsworth rising to the occasion and delivering.

There is family drama a-plenty in the film, which keeps things interesting and very human.  Thanos, the villain, is on a mission to destroy half of life in the known universe in order to save worlds from the bane of overpopulation, while consolidating omniscient power for himself via his quest to possess all six of the Infinity Stones.  His adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green humanoid (Zen-Whoberis) woman who is part of the Guardians of the Galaxy team, appeals to any hope of humanity in him.  Their on-screen tension is acutely felt.  Continuing from a dynamic of rivalry and favoritism set up in the two GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, Thanos continues to find ways to torture his weaker adopted daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) while favoring the stronger Gamora.  The last existing Zen-Whoberis– her people destroyed by Thanos– has evolved into a more compassionate being, thanks to her membership on a pirate-like team traveling through space while she enjoys a budding romance with the Guardians’ leader Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt).  Also, she and Nebula have reached a sort of truce with each other after duking it out in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2.  All of this is to say why Thanos capitalizes on Gamora’s relatively new-found compassion by torturing Nebula in front of her to force her hand in revealing to him the location of one of the Infinity Stones.  This family triangle is one of the most compelling interpersonal dynamics in the whole movie, because of its complexity, emotional intensity, and believability.

I did find one character to be disappointing yet watchable and sympathetic nonetheless: Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland).  I have previously written a review of 2017’s MCU movie SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  (See my review of it, posted August 18, 2017.)  In there, I discussed the issues I have around the changes made on this superhero for his latest movie incarnations.  Again, his outfit was over-the-top, this time with added robotic spider legs that quickly appear and disappear from out of his suit whenever needed.  It can be argued that Spidey indeed required such high tech. to more effectively fight such powerful adversaries while in a spaceship and then on another planet.  I eventually came around to this understanding but the origins of Spider-Man’s upgraded tights does not sit well with me.  The mentor-mentee relationship between Tony Stark/Ironman and Peter Parker/Spiderman is heart-felt and touching, however.

I was excited to see how Black Panther and his wonderful associates arrive in the storyline, even though he and they do not have as much screen time as I’d have preferred.

This movie does justice to the overall arc of the Marvel Avengers series, delivering immersive, dramatic spectacle entertainment one comes to expect with this big screen franchise.  My inner boy who became captivated with the images of Marvel’s Avengers decades ago was duly thrilled and impressed.

Sadly, for me, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, the final installment to this long, somewhat uneven, but mostly good Marvel-Disney series did not maintain the momentum and proper pacing that INFINITY WAR did.  (But, more on that another time, perhaps.)

Mini Movie Review (DARK PHOENIX)

I enjoyed the movie DARK PHOENIX, the latest X-Men franchise installment from Marvel-Disney. Jessica Chastain made an effective, creepy alien villainess, tromping around in high heels with a vacant stare and pale smooth skin, looking like a well-dressed zombie or animated mannequin. The absence of Wolverine, without even a verbal mention of him, felt like a gaping hole at times for me. But, overall, it was a fun film of action and special effects with mutant superheroes doing what they do best: kicking ass and wrecking stuff along the way.

Movie Review (ROCKETMAN)

I and my hubby very much enjoyed the movie ROCKETMAN. Unlike BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the sexual subject matter in this film about talented gay performer and icon Elton John is not so sanitized.

The film is crafted in such a way as to tell a touching narrative, interwoven with imaginative musical numbers, about a musically gifted gay man born into a working class English family where the father is cold and unable to show love.  This was likely in part due to the father’s being traumatized during WW II, though the movie only hints at this.  The mother presents as self-absorbed and immature.  Only the live-in grandmother provides Reginald Dwight (Elton’s actual birth name) with some nurturance and acceptance of him and his musical genius.

Actor Taron Egerton, star of the 2014 block buster KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, earns his stripes here as a truly mature, competent actor in the title role.  As gay men, my husband and I found ourselves relating to the main character, especially in his childhood years.  The life themes of running away from who one truly is and what one actually feels are presented colorfully and insightfully in ROCKETMAN.  In Mr. John’s case, classic avoidance strategies of heavy substance abuse and being hyper-sexual are creatively explored, with the latter of the two showcased in a long, orgiastic dream-like sequence inside a big discotheque setting.  To my recollection, no full nudity is shown, but the power of the action and message was not diminished for me.  I was prepared for the one intimate sex scene between Elton and his first male long-term partner to be cut down to nothing but, say, a few heavy kisses in a darkened room.  It was pleasantly surprising to see that was not the case.  Having read some months back that a sex scene was going to be cut from the movie, I’m left wondering just how much filmed footage was deleted.  Regardless, at least skin-to-skin passion is effectively, tastefully conveyed within the action that remains in the final product.  It is likely that Elton John himself, acting as executive director, ensured this to be the case.

What moved me to tears is how the movie both artfully and psychologically conveys Elton John ultimately accepting himself, this, of course, being at the very core of his recovery from substance dependence and sexual addiction.  In a clever interweaving of the past and present, the narrative makes use of an effective psychotherapy approach I myself utilize called Internal Family Systems (IFS).  Other therapies employ similar techniques, but I credit writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher for  integrating these inner healing steps so naturally and believably in the film.  And all done with Elton John’s blessing.

The quest to find and accept one’s true self as a means of achieving full mental, emotional, and spiritual maturity or health is a timeless story, told in many ways over and over again.  ROCKETMAN does well by this ancient narrative, keeping it fresh, creative, and imaginative yet rooted in reality all at once– no small feat.  This is a fun, sometimes painful to watch, but ultimately uplifting movie.

Movie Review (ALADDIN)

The live-action, semi-musical movie ALADDIN was a lot of fun, with some songs that fell flat. However, much beautiful spectacle, filled with beautiful costumes and settings, and visual effects were effectively delivered. Will Smith made a cute, entertaining Genie. Given that “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is my favorite fairy tale and I’ve always really dug genies/djinns, I had to see this film. It resembles very little of the original story from 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS. Still, I’m one to enjoy a big cinematic, colorful show and that’s what this Disney production was.  Its overall look often harkened back to fantastical Hollywood movies from the 1920s through the 1940s– well, that and some Bollywood influence in the big dance numbers.  Generally, this was an example of great visual cinema with the script writing being predictable and comforting, unsophisticated. I was glad to see the requisite empowerment of the princess, even though there are plenty of feminist scholars/learned folks out there who I imagine would readily deconstruct such a presentation as lacking/still wanting. And they would be right, though I appreciate any signs of progress wherever I see them nonetheless.

I did enjoy the cross dressing gender play that Will Smith’s character briefly did in a particularly theatrical, festive scene. Male to female crossdressing is an element of ancient theater in Britain and Japan (to name just a few countries/cultures), so it was nice to see a nod to this in a Disney film. Also, a bit of genderqueer being visible– however brief– in such a big mainstream production points to a societal acknowledgement of the realness and validity of the non-binary, even though the ethos of the movie is otherwise heterosexual and gender binary. Genies, being otherworldly beings that they are, can leave such boundaries of convention while the human social order is left predictably “intact.” Will Smith’s Genie seemed sexually “fluid” at first, pleasantly ambiguous for his initial few scenes during some flirtatious moments with Aladdin, but then the writers (and probably the actor) played it safe by reeling him back in, soon providing him with a female love interest. Hmm, a powerful genie/djinn with a love interest? News to me. Heterosexuality as the ultimately correct way to be in the world is affirmed yet again. Ah, well. Yawn. Please pass the popcorn.

I saw possibilities where even more stretches of the imagination could occur, but Disney always plays it safe, incorporating more diversity and options (though still limited), finally, only after enough on-the-ground people in the general culture have pushed the envelope further for a good while. For me, that company’s productions are like springboards or doorways toward or into more exquisiteness that my own and other viewers’ minds can then envision. And that’s okay. So, ALADDIN, with all its color, sparkle, and pizazz stayed within the confines of a conventional, pleasant, family film, without stretching forth into being a more expansive in vision, truly great film.