Movie Review: Aladdin (2019)

Disney’s 2019 version of Aladdin is a rehash of the 1992 animated original, which was an enjoyably light romantic musical adventure. This one, an extravagant affair loaded with distracting, screaming effects, is arguably worse or no better. It can’t seriously be called live action because the action by live actors, which is noticeably manipulated and distorted by computers or some sort of digital doctoring, is not exactly realistic.

For instance, an opening chase sequence and Bollywood style dancing show the title character (and animals and humans) in jerky, almost robotic, movements. These are not likely to have been created to be noticed as digitized effects. But effects are easily detectable. The sound, too, is blaring. Add hip hop by Will Smith (Concussion, Collateral Beauty) as the genie and, as a cinematic experience, it’s exhausting.

This might be fine if the story was interesting. With the classic tale’s Sword in the Stone type coming of age theme, Aladdin — despite an anti-Western smear campaign against the movie by an Islamic pressure group — is interesting as light fare (if strictly as light fare).

The leading character is fine, though as a skinny youngster he’s not completely convincing as the romantic leading male. The female love interest is updated with a predictably post-Me, Too subplot. Princess Jasmine now yearns to be an authoritarian ruler, though of course she presumably intends to be a benign ruler of people’s lives (as if this is possible). In any case, Jasmine comes off as disproportionately more mature than Aladdin. Again, as with Marvel-under-Disney’s Black Panther, “inclusion” excludes gays from the monarchy.

Whether this represents submission to Islamic or Middle Eastern pressure groups — Disney changed its 1992 movie script to appease Arab pressure group campaigns — is unknown but the movie’s a mashup of styles that’s so widely disparate that such omissions are glaring. When the picture’s a carefully contrived, kitchen sink mix of feminism and multiculturalism it’s hard not to notice what’s left out. The film’s only Western character is portrayed as an effeminate, white imbecile.

In case you’re wondering, the original’s Alan Menken music, with lyrics by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, are all here. New music by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) is very good in service of the new subplot. Overall, everything gets tidily if superficially tied together. The monkey, the bird, the magic carpet — they’re all here — adding a framing device which blends an interracial romance. More subplotting about power lust and poverty comes in, gets short exposition and fades away without a second thought. The villain, Jafar, is sufficiently evil.

Aladdin’s smartest part, which pertains to the two leads being born into a kind of pre-conceived notion based on class, is reduced to a line in John August’s script. It is promptly abandoned.

Besides hip hop, rapping and loud, obnoxious effects, Aladdin’s most distracting aspect is its titular hero. The thin actor, Mena Massoud, is overgroomed. His look is distinctive — his acting skills are fine — so the perfectly curled long strands of black hair resembling a black Aladdin Disneyland character wig are just so. I felt like I was being transported to a Disney theme park a few times during the movie, as if I was watching a scheduled parade, show or “cast member” appearance. Such explicitly self-conscious filmmaking — the director is Guy Ritchie — costs Aladdin. The main character is so visually distracting that he takes the audience out of the movie.

Forgettable Aladdin is better than horrendous Dumbo. And, while Will Smith as the genie is minimized and plot resolution hinges on a technicality, Aladdin puts a new, if formulaic, rub on its appealing box office hit.

Movie Review: Dumbo (2019)

For a good time, skip this week’s remake of Walt Disney’s animated classic Dumbo and watch the 1941 original instead. It’s more concise, enjoyable and full of wonder.

The new version is awful. For full disclosure, this is probably one of the most anticipated movies this year by yours truly, both because I’m an admirer of classic Disney pictures, and occasionally enjoy the Burbank studio’s run of remakes. I also tend to find something good about movies directed by Burbank native Tim Burton, who directed Disney’s 2019 Dumbo.

Not this picture. Unlike his best movies, such as Big Fish, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands, 2019’s Dumbo lacks Mr. Burton’s stylized visual imprint. The nearly two-hour film, which goes from Florida to Missouri to a fantastical New York City theme park, is devoid of flourish. From the beginning, Dumbo is generic.

Taking place in 1919, most of the original plot points are included by reference only. Look instead for refashioned motifs, symbols and gestures. Do not look for the spirit of the baby elephant with big ears that masters how to fly. He’s been turned into a science experiment for a bland girl character that seems written from some sort of STEM feminist propaganda leaflet, stripped of all friendship with the entrepreneurial mouse and sanitized into a poster animal for PETA and other animal rights and intimidation-based pressure groups.

Seriously. The cast is miscast, though it’s always good to see Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred DeerAlexander, Total Recall), the best actor in the film as a wounded war veteran. Danny De Vito (Other People’s Money) has never been worse. Michael Keaton (The Founder, Birdman), an outstanding actor, barely registers. Eva Green (The Golden Compass) gives one of the screen’s worst performances. The child actors as cast and directed are blank and would have Walt Disney turning over in his grave with their lifelessness. Unfortunately, they dominate the film, which replaces the original’s bullying with cartoonish white male villains with anti-capitalist overtones.

Scenes just happen without pretext, context or reason. Crowds magically show up overnight for circus attractions that were assembled with hardly any practice or training. Adam Arkin is wasted as a banker. Danny Elfman’s moody oohing and aahing musical accompaniment highlights Dumbo‘s deficiencies. The dialogue ranges from “we think your ears are great” passing for childlike wonder to “Hey! Get those kids!” This reminded of Disney’s hilariously atrocious Witch Mountain pictures of the 1970s. But Dumbo never gains any momentum to lose so I was never really invested.

I wanted Tim Burton’s movie to be his best. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this picture since last year. This is one of a string of disappointing movies from Hollywood’s biggest studio. But, with the most uninteresting children characters on screen in decades, this picture is Mr. Burton’s worst since his 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. Given Disney’s movies-by-generic-formula direction I’m not convinced it’s Tim Burton’s handiwork that’s the problem.

No black crows (which means no black feather), no real musicality (“Baby Mine” is reduced to next to nothing) and considerably less Dumbo on screen leaves this 21st century Dumbo as a joyless, politicized paste imposing miserable little doll-children onto what ought to be a fond fable about finding one’s way in the world. Oh, what Bob Iger’s let be done to Dumbo is a fiasco.

Book Review: Don’t Stop Believin’ by Olivia Newton-John

This longtime admirer and journalist of Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Sordid Lives, Xanadu, Two of a Kind, Summer Nights) read her new memoir, published this week, with intense interest.

The co-written memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which is both personal and light in substance and tone, contains many surprises, details and insights. The 70-year-old singer, whose career is marked by several movie performances, cultural milestones and an inspiring musical catalog and personal life, writes in the easy, natural and restrained but relaxed manner with which she performs. The woman knows her ability.

Olivia writes about every part of her life and career. Though the reader may be disappointed that she stresses people’s names at the expense of examining the songs, albums and songwriting for which she’s become a pop star, there’s also no chapter of her life untold. In this sense, Don’t Stop Believin’ is, like memoirs by Fred Astaire and Doris Day, a classic Hollywood memoir.

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In short, it offers quality, light reading from a rare, telling perspective. Don’t Stop Believin’ is loaded with clinical and treatment details about Olivia’s cancer (she’s recently been diagnosed again, as I wrote about here) which alone makes the book worth reading. Olivia spares no detail yet she never lets herself, her values or her privacy go.

Among ONJ’s disclosures: she was injured in a car crash on LA’s 101 freeway, experienced debilitating pain during her three-year residency in Las Vegas, has a tattoo, failed music and math and became self-educated, was propositioned by a movie star during her first visit to America at LA’s Universal City Hilton and faced Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman during a contract dispute which she ultimately won — in court — gaining ownership of her master recordings.

Olivia traverses everything from her first marriage and divorce to miscarriage, pregnancy and parenting and neither goes deep nor shallow on any one topic. I think the Don’t Stop Believin’ reader will find himself wanting more or less of any given topic. The result, however, satisfies.

Olivia’s lifelong general advocacy for animals and the environment gets particular attention. Introspection comes in glimpses and fragments, with only an occasional indulgence from the disciplined performer. Whether recalling someone’s early career observation, which Olivia took as criticism, that she’s “ambitious” or her late sister or mother, the singer sails through the remembrances.

I adored my father and think more about him now than ever before, especially when I hear classical music, which was always playing loudly in our house. I close my eyes and see my father busily conducting each note as he smiled and drank his evening sherry.”

Some tales may surprise those who don’t know that Olivia Newton-John’s part of an extremely brave, intelligent family that, among other achievements, includes those who were awarded a Nobel prize for physics, helped to decode Nazi messages and invented the first portable iron lung.

Other tidbits include that Olivia sought emancipation from her mother after her parents’ divorce, recorded her first album while the Beatles were recording an album in the same studio and admires Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Dean Martin — with whom she made her first American appearance on television — all of whom she performed with during her youth. You’ll learn about Olivia spending the day with Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer) during an audition for Tootsie and partying while vacationing with Sammy Davis Jr., Totie Fields, Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Helen Reddy.​​

In a memorable encounter, Olivia remembers seeing Gloria Swanson at a waterfront hotel during a film festival, recalling that:

I spooned sugar into my [tea]cup at the exact moment, in the South of France, the iconic film star … swooped up those stairs. There she stood in full makeup with a bright silk scarf around her hair and wearing a long, flowing robe with bangles on her wrist. She was absolutely gorgeous, and looking right at me . . . and the tray filled with treats. “Darling,” Ms. Swanson said as she approached. “Don’t eat sugar. It’s poison.” It’s amazing that she was aware of the health risks of sugar back then, and I should have listened to her. Now, it’s forty years later and I’m finally on a no-sugar diet. I’m a slower learner!

Imagine watching Elvis Presley cover your song live in concert at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 while sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice — and then meeting Doris Day backstage. Or suggesting that a new fellow Australian actor named Mel Gibson co-star in your movie Xanadu with Gene Kelly, who’d give you advice for living before rehearsing a dance with you and doing all of his own skating for the movie because he said he loved skating when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. In Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia puts the reader there.

As noted, Olivia’s admirers (and I am one of them) are likely to be disappointed with a lack of depth and detail. She calls almost everyone she mentions her friend, drawing few distinctions. There’s an abundance of material on her spiritual beliefs but nothing substantial about certain seminal albums such as Have You Never Been Mellow, Physical, Soul Kiss and The Rumour. The memoir lacks an index and discography. When she does write about her music, such as the Nashville-tinged Back with a Heart, the perfect “Right Here With You” or Grace and Gratitude, it’s with a chapter title or brief reference. There are exceptions, such as her thoughts on Grease and “I Honestly Love You”. Olivia proves to be a good observer and storyteller though there is more material about her travels and various plants, animals and exotic voyages — with snakes, rhinos and Magic the Chinese kitten — than about herself and those she values.

Few are as strong — a word Olivia says she likes — as Olivia Newton-John, which I think astute readers, admirers and cultural observers will come to realize, know and appreciate. Olivia captures the wider scope of her life.

“Time is a wonderful healer,” she notes on the topic of losing her sister Rona to brain cancer, “but grief is like an ocean. I found it comes in waves and there are times when you are lost at sea. …” The woman who recorded Liv On, a trio album on grief recovery, also recalls what a friend who lost a child once told her: “grief is just proof that you loved.”

So, read Don’t Stop Believin’ to discover why Olivia declines to use the word remission — why she admires the late motivational author Louise Hay — and why she enjoys vodka in good measure. Reading this memoir helps one to know that Olivia wants everyone interested in her blend of innocence, sweetness, lightness, strength and harmony to know that she honestly loves (especially her husband) and is loved and that you should strive to find the comfort from inside, too.

And ONJ’s sense of play — including having a whipped cream fight with composer Paul Williams in a private jet — comes through. As she describes her first encounter with the late Joan Rivers when the comedienne came to help during a grueling charity walk along the Great Wall of China:

You’ve got your heels on, Joan!” I said in an amazed voice. I’ll never forget her words to me. Joan said, “Olivia, when you invited me, I thought you said the Great Mall of China!” She followed this by walking up a few stairs, turning around and asking, “Where’s the ladies’ room?” Later she told Martha Stewart on her show, “There was so much wind on the wall, I could have skipped my last two face lifts.” She also remarked, “The wall was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It’s had more work done on it than I’ve had on my face.” God love her.”

For sharing some of what is personal and for 50 years of good humor, grace and performing arts, may God bless the thriving and triumphant Olivia Newton-John.

Buy Don’t Stop Believin’ here

Movie Review: Gloria Bell

I haven’t seen director Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 Chilean original, Gloria. But Gloria Bell, Lelio’s 2018 remake of his own movie, is strange and interesting on its own.

Gloria Bell is not a typical Hollywood movie. Screened at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas with a director Q & A afterwards, I didn’t know what to expect other than what I had seen in the lively trailer and what the poster implies.

Gloria Bell is less jubilant than its advertising. With dark, strange and wordless scenes and interludes, the movie’s mostly pictorial. A hairless cat that’s a thousand times more involving than the cat in this weekend’s hit movie, the lifeless Captain Marvel, wanders in and out of the leading character’s life.

What Gloria says to the cat doesn’t amount to much as it’s more about what the cat represents. This is what Lelio (Disobedience), directing his own movie over again for leading actress Julianne Moore (Catching Fire), carefully threads throughout the remake. The result is uniquely unusual, comical and quietly satisfying.

Popping prescription drugs the audience never learns more about, smoking tobacco and marijuana and drinking every type of alcoholic beverage in almost every life context you can imagine, fiftyish Gloria’s more than a little exhausting. She clearly lives in her own world, ugly cat intrusions and all, while making ends meet in Southern California and going dancing at a disco frequented by people her age and up.

But don’t make the mistake I did if you choose to see this strange, contained little picture and think that Gloria Bell centers upon Gloria at the disco. It doesn’t and I almost wished it did. Instead, it’s about what draws her there.

Or, rather, Gloria Bell‘s about what she draws from within herself. This is not an easily accomplished task for the insurance claims agent nor is it an easily examined aspect. But what makes the movie sing to the extent it does (and this is neither like an opera nor an operetta) is its honesty about self-discovery through music.

Of course, this may explain why Gloria Bell comes off as cold and complicated, which mirrors the mysteries of music. From her solo sing-along to Olivia Newton-John’s hit single “A Little More Love” to tunes by Paul McCartney, Earth Wind & Fire and Air Supply’s pleading “All Out of Love”, the alternately self-caring, self-absorbed mother, ex-wife and daughter invests herself in favorite songs. Isn’t this true for anyone seeking a few minutes of romanticism or at least a dash of romantic love in sometimes lonely lives?

Gloria is far from sympathetic. Like most people, she can be painful to be around and she tries too hard. This is what sometimes makes Gloria Bell harder to watch, as it cuts close and doesn’t strive to make the audience laugh out loud, though that’s exactly what happens. She’s a bit of a lush, though she maintains control. She seeks too often to get stoned. She badgers and lays unearned guilt trips on her kids, driving one of them far, far away. Her family scenes are agonizing, dreary and pathetic.

When a man (John Turturro) she meets at the disco discloses that he’s had surgery to get thinner, she laughs at him. She’s so self-absorbed that she hijacks her son’s birthday party, humiliates her daughter and neglects her new main man. Honestly, it’s little wonder she ends up being terribly lonely in Las Vegas, even as Turturro’s ex-Marine entrepreneur wins her over and keeps at it.

But this small film about one lonely human’s discreetly epic quest to be alive, with pills, eye drops and, centrally, a self-made playlist through which she nourishes her sense of life, sneaks inside like that darn cat. It isn’t grand. It isn’t romantic and this is not likely to be your favorite movie this year. But, like Wild, Demolition and other strange slice of life pictures intended to make you think twice and ultimately go for broke, Gloria Bell makes you listen and look while it makes you think and feel.

In a scene toward the end, with a single, pregnant pause on the dance floor, Moore as Bell captures that moment when the consequences of life’s choices catch up — and the next moment when you choose not to let what matters go.

The ArcLight’s interview with director Sebastián Lelio was as lame as ever — USA Today‘s Claudia Puig seems like a nice person but she’s an inadequate and obsequious interviewer — but Lelio was able to express his thoughts on the film. He rightly describes Gloria Bell as a “mundane slice of life” while also sharing that he sought to differentiate each performance so that the audience feels like they’re watching people, not characters.

Mission accomplished as Michael Cera, Holland Taylor and others as Gloria Bell’s family are pitch perfect and so is the outstanding actor John Turturro who creates empathy, chemistry with Moore’s character and shock. Also look for Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin in a cameo and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Lelio, who surprisingly made an excellent defense of casting regardless of pressure groups, strikes me as too tidy in his directing. But he shows real cinematic potential.

When I asked why he switched from the original movie’s setting, Santiago, Chile, to Southern California, he explained that it was Julianne Moore’s idea (she reportedly asked for the remake). Citing LA’s sense of isolation and a certain sensibility, Lelio said he agreed with Moore, who does some of her best acting.

Theater Review: Lights Out: Nat King Cole

“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.

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This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.

This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.

Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”

With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.

The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.

Songs: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Songs: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” by the Smashing Pumpkins

From their album with a long-winded title, Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. with eight songs comes a compactly urgent tune in power pop from the Smashing Pumpkins, “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”.

The poetic song by songwriter, singer and band founder William Patrick Corgan, Jr., known as Billy Corgan, captures the same sense of a moment in time as the band’s “1979”. I like “Ghosts” better, however, for getting at the here and now. With a soft skip within a propulsive rhythm against Corgan’s distinctively nasal vocals, the reflective tune revolves around the question: “How long can this go on?”

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That’s a legitimate question. Examining this theme of finiteness, Corgan’s “Ghosts” coasts with assurance in accounting for the cost of dodging contradictions. It glides without sneering.

“Ghosts” can be emotional, combining Smashing Pumpkins’ signature distortional guitar, invoked this time as part of a blaring call and response, with biting and thoughtful metaphors of tyrants, convicts, kingdoms, sirens and valentines. “Ghosts” ties into a kind of cry against the irrational — the halfway, the purgatory, the mixed — which speaks to these times. Corgan observes as if to himself that it’s mixed “signals that hurts me most … we’re in the middle / we’re in the middle, ghosts”. Like a middle-aged man, he notes that, when “someone dies tonight / it’s tragic / but at least it’s not you”.

To me, “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” amounts to an explicit recognition of the ghoulish consequences of today’s prevalent evasion. In other words, it’s two minutes of pop rock which is perfect for right now.