by Philip Price
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott & Will Smith
Runtime: 2 hours & 8 minutes
I know it's beyond cliché to begin a film review with a quote from the film you're reviewing, but the 2019 live action re-make of “Aladdin” was also the last place I expected to find a quote that was compelling enough to open said review with. While, at this point, I guess I won't technically be "opening" the review with the quote...it's close enough.
"The more you gain by pretending, the less you actually have."
As this is said by Will Smith's much discussed and often much maligned interpretation of the Genie it immediately became more evident that not only was this new iteration of “Aladdin” not completely tone deaf to the world in which it exists, but that it also works as something of a meta-commentary on how these live-action versions of these classic animated stories work or not depending on how much of a creative endeavor they are in and of themselves. “The Jungle Book,” for example, shouldn't have worked because the story was as thin as a wafer and the original was more or less a series of musical numbers, but by default of digging more into Kipling's narrative and creating this immersive environment with photo-realistic characters the film came to feel like something of an endeavor worth rewarding even if the final product wasn't as exceptional as the individual parts would lead one to believe. This is also why “Beauty and the Beast” didn't work and why “Cinderella” lands somewhere in the middle of the pack. “Alice in Wonderland” is the exception given that one had much the same level of investment as “Jungle Book,” but for one reason or another didn't work. Guy Ritchie's “Aladdin” only plays pretend for long enough that it warms the audience up to the idea of this new version before beginning to carve its own path and therefore making it its own thing-peaking its head out from under the legacy of the original. In other words, it doesn't gain its credibility by being a carbon copy and therefore amounting to nothing more than a flash in the pan money-maker, but there's surprisingly enough here to give 2019's “Aladdin” strong enough legs to stand on its own. It actually has a fair amount to offer. I'm as surprised as the next person about this revelation given the trailers and TV spots were more indicative of a train wreck than a triumph and while Ritchie's “Aladdin” isn't necessarily a triumph in the boldest sense of the word it is a triumph in the sense that it made this ‘90s-raised thirtysomething dude who viewed the original animated film as something of the holy grail of animated films appreciate this new movie not just as an entertaining distraction that honored the original, but as an entertaining endeavor that both honors the original and finds new purpose in its own existence.
In many ways it's easy to say why Disney's 1992 animated version of “Aladdin” was so special; whether it be Robin Williams' performance or the quality of the musical numbers with those classic Alan Menken, Tim Rice and Howard Ashman songs. I'm certainly not one to argue with how high “Aladdin” ranks among Disney animated features as it was one of those ‘90s Disney renaissance films that played on a constant loop through my childhood and continues to endure as it's one I'm more than excited to share with my own children-I mean, the songs really are the best. What's not so easy to pin down is what was it beyond these things that made this movie and this story in particular so endearing? And further, without Williams and with the same songs-could this new experience be just as magical? The short answer is, "No, no there isn't," but it's been really easy-too easy-to assume the worst about this live-action re-make as it seems every piece of promotional material was met with the harshest of criticisms with everyone was ready to pounce as Disney ran the risk of ruining many a generations fondest childhood memories by re-configuring them into what the mouse house cynically hoped would at least be another “Jungle Book” or “Alice in Wonderland” situation where the money prints itself and all they're doing is continuing to go back to the well that has provided for them before. Sure, it's easy to see why people would be quick to jump on the negative train in regards to this new, live-action “Aladdin” and it's admittedly difficult to look past these expectations and assumptions and simply accept Ritchie's take on the narrative for what it is and not compare it to this thing that has meant so much to you for so long, but in attempting to try and see the film as something that, did it not have this animated predecessor, would likely be regarded as maybe not the best example of a movie musical, but a fine achievement and a really fun endeavor that brings you into this world and introduces characters who each seek to overcome the obstacles set out for them at birth-it works more often than it doesn't. Yes, it's easy to appreciate the animated “Aladdin” as we largely see it through the lens of nostalgia and it's even easier to jump on the pessimistic train in regards to the live-action take, but for the most part these two exist in the vein of a genuine original and a re-make where the re-make is both paying homage to its inspiration while adding enough of its own flavor to split the difference in terms of favor and quality. As with all things in life, balance is key and like it or not, 2019's “Aladdin” balances expectations and reality pretty well delivering a fun, entertaining, colorful, involving, and maybe most importantly-a sporadically moving experience.
More than anything, what made me personally cautious, but also rather curious prior to seeing this new “Aladdin” was the fact Ritchie was making a family film. This is the guy known for his grimy, British underworld crime films like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch” and “RockNRolla,” while handling more than his fair share of big studio movies in the two Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (which you should definitely see if you haven't already), and 2017's “King Arthur.” It's not that it's unexpected for the filmmaker to want to make family films (he does have five children after all-I'm sure he sees a lot of them), but the bigger question was would Ritchie be able to translate his style into a family film in a way where the comedy worked for a younger audience and the technique matched the tone. It's typically easy to tell when a Guy Ritchie movie is a Guy Ritchie movie whether it be the camera work, the use of narration, the type of characters, but no matter what genre he's operating in the tone tends to carry over from one film to the next; that is to say, Ritchie has a very distinct perspective. And going into “Aladdin” I largely hoped this unique perspective wouldn't be lost as it would seemingly be to the benefit of a "re-imagining" of a story we've all seen a thousand times before to have a largely fresh take slathered over it (Ritchie gets a co-screenwriting credit with John August), but that caution still crept in given there was no distinct way in which I could see Ritchie's style and approach adapting itself to the nature of Disney in a cohesive manner. It was either this or the man would simply succumb to the beast of what children's entertainment is supposed to look like. Much like the verdict when it comes to how this new take fairs in the shadow of the original-it splits the difference. Yes, Ritchie clearly uses his past experience with crime movies and "street rat" characters to influence the early sections of the film where we're introduced to Mena Massoud's title character on the streets of Agrabah-the city of "mystery and enchantment"-but Ritchie also seems to go the way of the more visual effects experienced second unit director when it comes to executing sequences such as the one in the cave of wonders or-and perhaps more glaringly-the musical numbers that each lack a certain sense of pizzazz. That isn't to say moments like "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" don't work because when Smith is involved there is charisma to spare and to that effect-Naomi Scott's performance as Princess Jasmine and further, her performance of the new, original song "Speechless," is one of the highlights of not just the additions to this re-telling, but of the entire movie. While the majority of these musical interludes look more staged and unauthentic than anything on Broadway as opposed to the gritty and grounded style Ritchie is known for and might have made this adaptation stand out more. It is thanks to the extravagant production design and solid cast doing their best to make things work that these more often than not work well enough.
Speaking of the cast, everyone was arguably most anticipating seeing how Smith would ultimately live up to Robin Williams incarnation of the Genie and, while the marketing did its best to make us believe the worst, Smith pulls things together and puts enough of his own spin on the character that it-largely through the camaraderie he builds with Massoud's Aladdin-comes to be as heartwarming a bond as one could hope and genuinely funny in the right moments. There was outrage after Entertainment Weekly published a cover story along with a photo featuring Smith not as the recognizable blue genie, but the genie in human form and while the fully-CG creation works well enough (and again better than expected) for the character's introduction, Smith is largely in this human form and honestly-the movie is all the better for it. We aren't distracted by the varying degrees of quality depending on the type of shot the Genie is included in, but rather are allowed to become more immersed in the characters themselves and the conflict at the center of the story as Smith's Genie-who is literally narrating the film as well-serves as the audience surrogate into this story of star-crossed lovers who, against all odds, find a way to be together. As mentioned before, Scott is nearly exceptional as Jasmine as it is this character who undergoes the most changes from the original to this new film. Jasmine was always a rebellious princess not content with being told what to do and especially who she had to marry and always cared more about the people she would rule than the facade of being royal, but Ritchie and August really up these qualities as not only is Scott's Jasmine opposed to her arranged marriage, but she is well-informed about the political climates surrounding Agrabah, who their allies are, and who potential threats might be making it all the more difficult for Marwan Kenzari's evil Jafar to execute his plans without resistance. Navid Negahban's Sultan isn't nearly as clueless this time around and Jasmine is given a handmaid in the form of Nasim Pedrad's Dalia who gives Smith's Genie something a love interest and therefore more character development to play with. Pedrad in fact brings a nice balance of comic relief as Negahban graces each scene he's in with a nice balance of levity. And levity is key when dealing with a character who is as over the top as Jafar who Kenzari is serviceable as, but not exactly as memorable as he necessarily should be. Speaking to serviceable, this is about where Massoud falls as well. Sure, he's handsome and charming and plays the character about as well as one could hope a performer might (his singing and dancing skills are certainly put to good use), but beyond this Aladdin, the character, is made most endearing through the relationship he has with the Genie more so than his relationship with Jasmine or anything Massoud does specifically to make Aladdin stand apart as his own creation. So, no, 2019's “Aladdin” isn't necessarily the breakthrough with which we've been waiting for in terms of finding true purpose for these "live-action" re-makes, but it does well enough to keep Disney on a promising track and certainly isn't the complete derailment many anticipated it to be.
by Philip Price
Director: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry & Ian McShane
Runtime: 2 hours & 11 minutes
It's been five years in real time, but in the life of John Wick (the entirely endearing Keanu Reeves) the man has had one hell of a month - if that. From losing his wife to losing the puppy his wife bought him to killing the son of the mob boss that killed his dog and stole his car leading him back into a life he only thought he'd left behind. In this ill-fated scenario, Mr. Wick found himself dealing with more and more repercussions of his actions to the point that at the end of the second film he was so filled with rage that he would seemingly never be able to forgive anyone who dared cross him again...much less himself for having allowed his life to slip back into these old routines. So filled with rage, in fact, that he broke the only rules he'd ever had to follow thus forcing the hand of his powerful friend, Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the grounds on which Wick had broken said rules of the league of extraordinary assassins that he was assigned the label of "excommunicado" therefore placing a $14 million price tag on his head and an army of bounty-hunting killers on his trail. These are the kinds of things that happen when one kills a member of a shadowy international assassin's guild though, not to mention a member who was seated at what is referred to as the "High Table". “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” begins with the stakes as high as they've ever been-even Wick's closest friends are unable to look past the bounty in order to give this broken man another chance. It is in this scenario and current mental state the character inhabits that make it fairly critical to have seen the previous films in director Chad Stehelski's now trilogy of films. ‘Parabellum’ kind of assumes we're present in the theater because we're already invested in the character and then moves forward with such a momentum that there's little time to catch-up if you're not already in it. That said, the pacing is not just an excuse to continually grow the breakneck speed of the action as well as the scope but is more a stylistic choice that every function of the script adheres to and if the ‘John Wick’ trilogy has done one thing consistently it's adhered to stylistic choices. As the series has progressed more layers have been added, but never have these brought the story, character development, or action beats down. Rather, each of these elements necessary to making a feature motion picture are held to the same standards the action is. That isn't to say the dialogue is as Shakespearian as the action, but does it function so as to effectively elicit the intended visceral reaction of the audience? Damn straight.
The narrative has, of course, never really been a part of what sets these films apart though, with the general sense being that Stehelski and crew are fairly frank in what these movies are and what they are intended to do. When walking into a ‘John Wick’ film one knows they're getting a story that deals in this underground world of assassins, that each film is likely going to add a few new layers to this world, and then some balls to the wall action that is mind-blowingly succinct to the point it's almost unbelievable what we're witnessing isn't real or-at the very least-isn't simply a camera capturing elite martial artists going full throttle on one another. If the movie tends to satisfy these major requirements it has more than fulfilled its duty as people aren't necessarily going to ‘John Wick’ for an introspective character journey that discusses the psychological repercussions of Reeve's titular character embarking on these extensive killing sprees. Obviously, he's working some shit out...alright? More so, ‘John Wick’ and in particular, ‘Parabellum,’ is designed to be a pure adrenaline rush of an experience...and it truly is an experience. It's not every week one goes to the cinema and is able to take part in witnessing something as grounded yet precisely choreographed, well-executed, and just so wholly confident in what it wants to be that it excels in each of these aspects beyond all expectation. This is all to say that ‘Parabellum’ features some of the most impressive action sequences that have been put to the big screen in some time. It is important to note this differentiates from some of the biggest/best stunts we've seen on screen as of late as the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise clearly has a leg up on every one in that department, but to say that Stehelski crafts, implements, and achieves his action sequences to the same extent Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie do their stunt work would not be an overstatement. With this third film, it truly feels as if Stehelski, the filmmaker, and Stehelski, the martial artist, have fused into this singular being that has allowed for ‘Parabellum’ to essentially become the apex of what began as a fun little experiment in upping the action game after Gareth Evans 2011 film, “The Raid: Redemption” and the action bonanza that Indonesian film was found an audience stateside. That is to say, Stehelski is operating at the top of his game here and it is glorious. It feels as if Stehelski and his team of writers essentially took it upon themselves to wear Reeves down as much as possible, showing vulnerabilities in Wick even that we haven't seen before, so as to push the limits of what they could do practically as well as how far they could push the character while showing just how much Wick can and is willing to endure.
Much like the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series sets itself apart by performing practical stunts at what seem like sometimes death-defying odds, the ‘John Wick’ franchise sets itself from every other action film by delivering tight, in-camera action that is as it is presented to be rather than edited to within an inch of its life so as to appear more dynamic and brutal. This is to say nothing against action-oriented films like anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe produces, but whereas those films and their action sequences are designed more for sound stage work, limited in its abilities to expand scope naturally and more dependent on its CGI post-production for these elements whereas the action scenes in the MCU are largely utilized for the purposes of keeping the audience in tune with certain characters whereas, while Wick certainly gains knowledge from and progresses the plot somewhat through his encounters, the look of these scenes is more interested in the dance of it all then it is necessarily the inner-workings of the characters in the midst of these moments. As stated, Stehelski and his team have done such a considerable amount of planning and such thorough training with not only Reeves, but the multiple professional fighters in the film including Mark Dacascos as Zero, an admirer of John Wicks who shows reverence even when he has to kick his ass, along with Zero's top ninja's as played by Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. There is a rhythm to these fights that is captured through Stehelski's wide lens and aesthetically pleasing staging that is unmatched by anything else that has been released or even attempted in American film as of late. Everything we see happening feels as if it is actually happening on camera because of how well thought out, how intricately choreographed, and purely inventive it is. There are at least three different set pieces in Parabellum that, in any other summer blockbuster, would have served as the big, climactic final battle. In this film though, each of these sequences unfold in a fashion that is only meant to reassure the audience that not only will the creative forces continue to push themselves creatively, but they will continue to push themselves to expand on these fight scenes and not just in length or scope, but in both majesty and brutality. Fortunately, this sense of expansion isn't simply a result of being a threequel or some outside pressure to continue to push the envelope and go bigger, but rather it seems to stem from a place of genuinely having more time and money to invest in these things and amplifying them in accordance with the world-building they've done.
All of this said, this is still a movie with characters and character arcs whose experiences throughout the events of the film shape what we see and how invested we are in what we're seeing unfold and to that effect, Reeves isn't necessarily doing anything new or innovative with the character here, but he does continue to play things as right down the middle and forthright as he possibly can while, as stated early, show more vulnerability in this installment than he has at any point in the previous two films. Up until this point, John Wick has been completely unstoppable even when having certain close calls in gun fights or in hand to hand combat there was still never any doubt that he would end up successfully walking away while in ‘Parabellum’ there are instances where he has been so drastically beat down and defeated that one wonders how he could possibly get back up much less continue to go on from this point. Again, this doesn't necessarily garner any new insight into the character, but it is somewhat refreshing to give this character who has had every reason to void every ounce of humanity from himself the opportunity to re-discover instances that might grant him a little more of it. Moreover, what continues our allegiance to this man is the virtue of the fact that while, yes, the guy is massacring people all in the name of a puppy in a situation that has been blown way out of proportion-he ultimately continues to prove he's the kind of guy we assumed him to be which tends to assist in maintaining him as this endearing focal point. As for the other characters in the franchise, favorites like Lance Reddick's concierge and McShane's Winston are granted much more screen time this round only deepening their allegiance to Wick versus the "High Table" while it seems that returning characters such as Laurence Fishburne's Bowery King and new characters like Jason Mantzoukas' Tick Tock Man-an associate of the Bowery King-are only primed for more prominent roles in the inevitable fourth chapter as they are mostly left to the peripheral here. Both Asia Kate Dillon and Halle Berry get meaty and rather well-developed roles given the traditionally archetypal state of ‘John Wick’ characters. Both Berry and Dillon have dense if not still straightforward and streamlined backstories that both quickly and easily define their place in the scheme of things and, when coupled with some distinct character moments, solidify their connection to our hero whether positive or negative. Anjelica Huston shows up, but only in the briefest of capacities and largely to only reiterate how unforgiving this world is we're existing in while the presence of Saïd Taghmaoui, while fine enough, certainly feels as if they should have went the casting route they did with Huston whereas it was more stunt for credibility than accuracy with a lack of punch. Huston does offer the gem that, "Art is pain and life is suffering," though which is very much the mantra of the ‘John Wick’ franchise, but if Stehelski and co.'s pain results in this level of pulpy, art/entertainment one can only hope things only continue to grow more and more painful for them so that the lives of the audience members might be less and less insufferable.
by Philip Price
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough & Topher Grace
Runtime: 2 hours & 19 minutes
"We crave mystery because there is none left."
Director David Robert Mitchell's (“It Follows”) sophomore effort feels like one of those movies the filmmaker dreamed of making his entire adolescence-since he first laid eyes on a Hitchcock film-but that he also never thought all the way through to the point of execution. In all instances, “Under the Silver Lake” feels like more of an idea than an actual reality both in the sense of the development of the project and the final cut of the film that actually exists. It's somewhat ironic that a movie about cults, conspiracy theories and hidden messages is ultimately destined to become a cult classic itself, but this is where we are more than a year after the film first premiered at Cannes.
The film is all over the place in terms of story and starts way too many strands for the audience to keep up with or care about in any profound manner, but the style and ambition is all on the screen; in every frame. It's clear Mitchell seems to not only have an affinity for pop culture or, more specifically, the golden age of Hollywood, but where he goes in the screenplay for “Under the Silver Lake” makes it all the more evident the director yearns to know what it was like to exist in this period of time; idolizing it to the extent he's created a mythos around it only he can piece together so as to have a piece for himself.
Andrew Garfield seems to be doing what he feels the story calls for - as do all the numerous extras in crazy costumes - but while the ambition is evident and the style is admittedly on point, the intent remains unclear. This yearning to create a mystery through our culture, a secret society in the elite, and a theory of how reality exists as constructed through the media and our consumption of entertainment are each thoughts that might credit contemplation were the film to have anything to say about them beyond, "they could exist! This could be real!"
by Philip Price
Director: Rob Letterman
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith & Kathryn Newton
Runtime: 1 hour & 44 minutes
It's still difficult for me to wrap my brain around the fact that despite countless video games and other IP adaptations over the years that Pokémon has somehow eluded becoming a big screen, live-action event film until this weekend. I can remember Christmas of '99 and getting a Game Boy Color that had to be shared between myself and my siblings with each of us wanting to play our respective Pokémon games at the same time whether that was the red version I received or the blue version my brother did. This was my first real encounter with the world of Pokémon after which I enjoyed collecting the cards more so than I did necessarily playing the actual game. And then there was of course the animated series which led to a couple of animated feature-length films and some Nintendo 64 games (Pokémon Stadium was legit!), but in retrospect it all felt more like a fad that came and went rather quickly in the scheme of things. After the Pokémon roster started expanding past that original one hundred and fifty characters and through to a few years back when the brand re-claimed its dominance over the market with Pokémon GO - the interactive mobile game that had you feeling like you were actually catching Pokémon in the wild-I'd been more or less out of the loop. Moreover, despite how far-reaching Pokémon continued to be, I simply couldn't muster any interest in the multi-format craze; the individual facets of it seeming as widespread as the next and each with as dedicated a fan base as the next. What was I missing? With this in mind, one can imagine my initial response to the news Warner Bros. was hiring Ryan Reynolds to voice Pikachu in a live-action adaptation of one of the newer video games that dealt with this fan-favorite Poké-creature becoming a detective. In short, it sounded like a really dumb idea that could in no way translate to the big screen in any type of credible manner that might pull in an audience beyond the already initiated and the “Deadpool 3” screenwriters. Rather, it felt as if it would probably end up going the route of those ‘Alvin and the Chipmunk’ or ‘Smurf’ movies where no one actually cared about them and the only people who saw them were children whose parents needed eighty-eight minutes of repose over the weekend. This was, of course, until the first trailer arrived lending the feature the favor of clearly being a more creative endeavor than those aforementioned cash before quality adaptations. This is to say there was evidence of a certain level of care given in the creation of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” as the trailer and subsequent execution of the film illustrates both a style and ambition in developing this world that means to both fulfill the fan base as well as weave this strange attraction from the uninitiated by being just weird enough to be engaging; by being unabashedly unusual, but undeniably interesting.
Directed by Rob Letterman (“Goosebumps”), the filmmaker is largely able to do here much of what he did with that 2015 film having injected that property largely fueled by nostalgia to something more of by caring enough about the fan base to give them not only what they wanted, but what general moviegoers might respect as well. In other words, he cared about R.L. Stine's series and the characters that made it work best and he very much does the same with “Detective Pikachu.” The screenplay comes from a team including Letterman, Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and the duo of Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (“One Day at a Time”) in a script that very clearly went through multiple drafts as the narrative is arguably the weakest aspect of the film in total. This is said not in vitriol against the film as a whole, but more simply an acknowledgement that so much of what “Detective Pikachu” has to offer is so surprisingly good that it comes as something of a disappointment that the story itself is what tends to deflate as the movie progresses. In the film, Justice Smith (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) is the son of a detective who has recently gone missing in the fictional metropolis of Rhyme City. Smith's Tim, then ventures to Rhyme City first in order to simply straighten out the final affairs of his long-distance dad he seemingly had no relationship with and no cares to have any ties to whatsoever, but who begins to become more curious about the fate of his father when he meets a Pikachu that can talk and that he can understand; furthermore, Tim being the only person who can seem to understand the Pikachu. The fervent little Pokemon is anxious to figure out why he all of a sudden has amnesia, how he is connected to Tim's father, as well as why Tim is the only human being who's ever been able to understand him. In light of all of these questions, Pikachu and Tim set out to try and answer some making new friends along the way including an aspiring journalist named Lucy (Kathryn Newton). Lucy knew Tim's dad was onto something big having to deal with Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his son, Roger (Chris Geere), the benefactors of Ryme City that created the humanitarian environment where people and Pokémon co-exist. As these things tend to go though, nothing and no one are who they appear to be.
In light of these revelations, it should be no surprise that the story itself is the weakest link in this chain as story has never been the biggest draw of any platform Pokémon has chosen to adapt itself to. Even the animated series which would seemingly serve as the best source of a narrative was more of the same formula repeated episode after episode with different Pokémon thrown in so as to mix things up rather than actually taking the series in any one direction. And while I haven't played or was even aware the “Detective Pikachu” approach was a game in and of itself beforehand, it is admittedly a logical way to approach this live-action version that will introduce new human characters not formerly known even to the pre-existing fan base. Adapting the world of Pokémon to fit into the mystery/noir genre is a genuinely intriguing approach. Pokémon was always more about the ideas of this world where this bounty of weird creatures existed than it was any kind of themes or character's with arcs or forward momentum. The idea always seemed to be more about the appeal of the creatures and how they could be utilized in a battle situation (AKA how they could sell more toys, cards, games, etc.) whether they be cute yet powerful like the titular Pokémon in this film or if they were more grating than helpful as is the case with Lucy's Psyduck. Beyond this, there wasn't anywhere much further to go or anywhere much deeper to take the characters. It is in adding in these story archetypes that Letterman develops the world of Rhyme City and the multitude of different Pokémon that exist within it, but it is also in doing this that the over-written and ultimately contrived rather than streamlined screenplay doesn't balance the natural integration and development of the fictional characters with that of the human beings they live alongside. The not necessarily complicated, but overly-twisty plot tends to take over the fun the movie is having by simply existing in this make-believe, fantastical space it has created. It's one of those moves movies sometimes make when they can't seem to figure out what their obligatory third act climax is going to be and so they quickly throw in some gibberish about how what you thought was happening all along wasn't really happening and this person is actually the antagonist, so here's what we're going to have to do and who we're going to have to fight in order to reach that conclusion we know we have to reach. It doesn't completely detract from the overall experience as there is this sense of genuine entertainment and fun to be had by more of the film than not, but to say the film feels natural in its progression is being about as real as Reynolds' commitment to giving an authentic performance as Pikachu.
This is a very stripped down, straightforward story that doesn't have much going on outside its main throughline and thus is the reason it doesn't necessarily feel like the story pays itself off in the way it should as it somewhat eats itself from the inside out, but while this highlights the film's major issues there is plenty else to enjoy about the experience of finally seeing life-like Pokémon rendered on the big screen. What is most notable almost immediately is the way in which Letterman in fact integrates and begins to build this reality where it isn't simply birds that fly overhead or fish that swim in bodies of water, but Pokémon of all varieties. There isn't ever an "in your face" moment where Letterman forces the existence of these otherwise unknown creatures down the audience's throat, but rather the director subtly slides them into the roles of their real-life counterparts allowing for the audiences' integration into the world to be as smooth as the Pokémon's themselves. To accompany these sprawling, but unassuming and beautifully captured shots of how a society such as this works composer Henry Jackman has crafted a score that is both a nostalgia-fueled synth machine a la eighties adventure flicks featuring kids who are smarter than every adult in the film while incorporating the sounds of the 16-bit video game consoles that would define video games for an entire generations. The track, "Rhyme City" is a prime example of this technique as not only does it induce a sense of wonder in the form of welcoming us into this world filled with magical realism, but it conditions us to feel as if we (or at least part) of the audience have visited this place at some point in our distant memories. Setting this kind of tone, Letterman allows Jackman's score to play fluidly throughout much of the film naturally spiking in moments where we're meant to feel something real or be intrigued further by this new environment where things can happen we're not entirely aware of. In this way, Letterman balances the anxiety of tense situations with the utilization of the Pokémon and their abilities to a satisfying effect that makes the audience long to discover more of these creatures and explore more of their world. On the flip side, the film certainly could have done with beefing up the human roles as Smith's Tim is more of a drag than anything else-his dour attitude unnecessarily bringing down the mood in the first act before embracing the film's inciting incident whereas Lucy and characters like the Clifford's or Ken Watanabe's Lieutenant Yoshida are simply underwritten. It's easy to appreciate much of what Letterman and his team are doing here in terms of their visual aesthetic, their loyalty to the Pokémon lore, and their world-building techniques, but if these human characters can make natural progressions in the sequel along with a more compelling narrative “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” won't only be the best and most successful video game franchise to date, but it will also be one of the better, more inventive live-action family franchises to come along in some time.
by Philip Price
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen & June Diane Raphael
Runtime: 2 hours & 5 minutes
Pairing schlubby, messy men with women who are out of their league in regards to looks if not always intelligence is not a new concept or novel idea, but it is something that has been done to the point that, to do it again without any sense of awareness would in and of itself feel like a parody. This is why “Long Shot” immediately placing this same situation in the realm of political campaigning-where outward appearance and perception is critical-is what makes re-visiting this trope both funny and worthwhile. Rogen, who rarely seems to work from a concept or screenplay where he's not involved in some capacity has thrown himself at the mercy of screenwriters Dan Sterling (“The Interview”) and Liz Hannah (“The Post”) as well as frequent collaborator, director Jonathan Levine (“50/50”). This R-rated romantic comedy not only deals with your typical conundrums of opposites attracting, falling in love, and making it work in the face of what societal expectations tell our characters they should ascend or not ascend to, but it also gets into the weeds when it comes to our current political climate and is able to round out both of these objects of very strong affections with the idea that one shouldn't compromise their desires or feelings towards a topic or person just because some people may not approve of them. It's been nearly 15 years since movie-going audiences were introduced to Rogen's disoriented stoner/slacker of a caricature and in that time, Rogen has managed to somehow both mature yet remain the same. There is a natural level of humor Rogen brings to his projects that is gleaned simply from the actor laughing at a joke either he or another character has made. Whether Rogen is working with the likes of Judd Apatow, someone like Levine, or writing and directing with creative partner Evan Goldberg each pairing seems to always find a way to carefully balance the vulgarity and gross out gags that are inevitable with a sweetness and sincerity in story that reassures the audience there is more here than dick and drug jokes.
It is almost to Rogen's benefit that there is some space between the source material and what he brings to the final product as his goofily-named Fred Flarsky is more responsible than Rogen's typical, aforementioned caricature as Fred not only has a job, but is good at and passionate about his job. This passion and sense of self inevitably lend the romance in this romantic comedy a credibility that not only makes it feel possible, but earned; one that is more substantial than a fleeting infatuation or an only option/last resort situation, but the kind of love that feels classic in its intentions, but modern in its approach-much like the movie itself. Don't get me wrong, I love “King of Queens” as much as the next person and could watch re-runs any day of the week, but I wouldn't be mad if Flarsky & Field had their own sitcom either a la “King of Queens” meets “The West Wing.”
Ironically enough, we are introduced to Rogen's Flarsky as he is infiltrating a gathering of white supremacists and while most people who go see and spend money on a Seth Rogen movie are aware of the facts the guy is both Canadian and Jewish this is only afforded more comedic value by Rogen's inability to commit to the actions and proclamations that are being made in this meeting where he is acting as an investigative journalist. After miraculously escaping this assignment, Flarsky learns from his editor (the always reliable Randall Park) that his renegade online publication has been bought by a rich media tycoon who uses his influence to seemingly persuade the culture to think as he wants them to in what is very clearly a jab at Roger Ailes and the Fox news network. In refusing to work for this man, Flarsky defiantly quits his job and immediately call on longtime friend, Lance (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), to help keep him out of a funk after realizing he has no income. Jackson, who is clearly some kind of successful wall street trader or broker of some sort is conveniently able to leave work at a moment’s notice and grant his pal a day full of fun and leisurely activities that end on a party that might also be a perk of Lance's job that is an elite dinner of some sort, sure, but they're there only to see Boyz II Men perform. It is as these friends are enjoying the harmonies of the dynamic trio that is Nate, Shawn, and Wanya that Flarsky realizes his former babysitter and the current Secretary of State for the United States, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), is also present at the event.
Flarsky always had a crush on Field as a young boy even working up the courage to make a move at one point, but the two very clearly haven't seen one another in many years and Lance naturally can't help but to think of the timing of this reunion as something akin to fate. Surprising to Flarsky, but no one who's seen a rom-com before, Field recognizes Flarsky and the two re-connect, she quickly coming to realize the situation her old friend was in as she too is not a fan that aforementioned media mogul, Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), who she has had to avoid on multiple occasions. In light of these revelations and the rekindling of their knowledge that the other exists as well as taking into consideration that the current sitting President (a hilarious Bob Odenkirk) will be endorsing Field for the next Presidential run, Field is in desperate need of a speech writer and who better to write for her than someone who knew her as a young child and just so happens to also be a funny, effective journalist. Flarsky is promptly recruited by Field's supportive, but merciless team of campaign managers featuring June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel as the four of them then essentially go on a world tour to ramp up support from ally countries for an environment plan, she is hoping to stake her campaign on with deeper feelings naturally developing along the way.
And so, while, yes, the beats of this romantic comedy may be recognizable and well-worn what makes “Long Shot” work beyond the funny and genuine chemistry between Rogen and Theron is that Sterling and Hannah place events typically depicted through New York lofts, ad agencies, and/or magazine offices in the environment of politics-a world where not only is there hardly any time for relationships, but a public arena where every detail of a person’s life is scrutinized-especially the seeming and or un-seeming compatibility of their significant other. In adapting the rom-com tropes for this environment, the screenwriters are able to play with not just expectations, but the dynamic between the two people and the types of beats these kinds of movies typically follow. “Long Shot” goes so far as to even have the Lance character call the premise out for being “Pretty Woman” with the genders reversed. Whereas in your average romantic comedy we might have what is referred to as a "meet cute" the reunion of these two, seemingly star-crossed lovers takes place at the previously mentioned dinner party with Boyz II Men where, shortly after serving as a blast from the Secretary of State's past, Flarsky flails himself down a flight of stairs-once again, miraculously surviving and only reminding everyone in the room that not only is he under dressed, but that he's a klutz. I guess this could be considered cute, but it is the first of many public missteps Flarsky takes that would otherwise be considered detrimental to Fields campaign and the greater good her election is trying to pursue. Further, the film goes on to not necessarily "make over" Rogen's character, but more to simply refine his look on certain occasions without re-defining his personality.
As it is, Flarsky's personality is key this relationship working as he has a very strict code of ethics that he upholds himself to thus the reason he won't allow himself to work for someone like Wembley. Even when he's down on his luck with no work and despite the fact he more or less already loves Theron's character he still questions the intent of Field and if working for her and championing the change she wants would align with his beliefs. There's something to be said for this confidence in one's own values-especially when they're filled with more honor than hate-and in any other rom-com this role would go to the pure, assured female lead who would have to lend her confidence to the man she's fallen for in order to show him how to achieve something more public-facing he's been dealing with-most likely have to do with his career. In “Long Shot,” Theron is beyond intelligent, beyond beautiful, but also completely in the public eye. It is her career that matters, her persona that is more fragile, and her life that is arguably more important at least in terms of the change being affected by her existence. And so, as much as Field is confident in her ability to do her job and win her election, Flarsky serves this role of reminding Field why she does this job in the first place, what she's always stood for, and how the whole "remaining true to yourself" deal really works best when you feel you have to play the game to get ahead. In essence, these are his grand romantic gestures, this is his way of singing through the stadium PA system and dancing in the bleachers. To the movies credit as well is the fact it doesn't reduce Field to a stressed-out, prude of a control freak who loses sight of her real drive only to replace it with power. No, Theron's Field is a motivated woman who seems to know what she wants in every facet of her life except for her love life; she is the celebrity who finds love in the unsuspecting average joe and this is the closest parallel you'll ever be able to draw between Rogen and Hugh Grant. It also doesn't hurt that Theron is genuinely funny in the role absolutely demolishing every stereotype a woman in her position is expected to succumb to while simply acknowledging those that she does and going with it. “Long Shot,” as a piece of filmmaking, isn't necessarily an accomplishment in terms of craft, but it is a triumph in terms of blending multiple ideas together and streamlining them into both an enlightening and entertaining piece of storytelling...and that's the kind of marriage you can bet will leave a lasting impression.