Movies From May: Aladdin (2019), Booksmart, and Ted Bundy Biopic

May was a good month for movies, both on the big and small screen. While the latter half of May saw the release of heavyweights like Jon Wick: Parabellum, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Rocketmen, the first half of May was no slouch either. Here’s a few of what was on tap.

Booksmart

While it might seem reductive at first, the best way to describe Booksmart is as a female Superbad. The premise is virtually the same: two nerdy friends of the same gender decide that before school they have one last chance to rally and be cool by going to a party. They have a series of episodic adventures that end with them getting to the party where they both have disappointing romantic interactions, then fight about how despite being best friends one of them has plans to leave the other behind when they go to college.

Plenty of Space For Everyone

Having the same plot and tone as Superbad doesn’t inherently doom Booksmart; a lot of movies have plots that are reminiscent of each other but still manage to distinguish themselves in the execution. Booksmart is not one of those. It isn’t really a bad movie; more than anything it’s just an unfocused one, the comedy elements forced and loose.

The two best friends are played by Kailin Denver and Beanie Feldstein, both talented actresses that bring a lot to their roles, but they and the surrounding cast just aren’t on par with the comedic heavyweights Superbad had: Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, and Emma Stone. Overall they can’t elevate a passable script into anything more than vaguely entertaining.

Aladdin

The recent spat of Disney live action remakes of their classic animation canon have come in two primary modes: ones that try and put a spin on the original story (Maleficent, The Jungle Book), and ones that are essentially shot-for-shot remakes (Beauty and the Beast). 2019 Aladdin is the latter. And unfortunately, just like the Beauty and the Beast remake, it’s not very good.

It’s a little hard at first to pinpoint just what’s wrong with Aladdin. Aside from the horrific blueface genie from the first trailer that traumatized the internet, the cgi, set design, and costumes throughout are gorgeous. A lot of time and money went into the production of Aladdin, but once you’re watching it you can’t help but wish that some of that money had been diverted to the script.

Very Much Not a Whole New World

Because it’s a shot for shot remake, to be interesting 2019 Aladdin really needed to shine in the small details, and it really doesn’t. The script is clunky, with characters largely saying exactly what they’re thinking and the humor bordering on painful at times. There are several aborted attempts at song numbers which comes across as schizophrenic, as if the movie can’t decide if it wants to be a musical or not. It’s a problem all of the

The actors as a whole are barely serviceable and far inferior to their animated counterparts: Jafar goes from scheming and intimidating to high voiced and bored; Aladdin has little of the verve of the original character and none of the charm, a desperately vital aspect of making the character work; Jasmine (played by the aggressively un-middle eastern looking Naomi Scott) while theoretically being a more active character with her own agency simply doesn’t register much on screen; and the genie…

Replacing Robin Williams was always going to be impossible. Robin Williams was a comedic genius, and no one can do him besides him. 2019 Aladdin seems to realize that, but only about half the time. Will Smith is actually not badly cast as the genie, and when he’s allowed to be himself he’s able to bring charisma and charm to the role that is largely entertaining to watch. Unfortunately that’s only about half the time; the other half the time he’s having reread lines that Robin Williams ad libbed, and there’s simply no way to do that without coming up short.

Why Did They Make This Again, Again?

Ultimately, 2019 Aladdin is mostly just boring. There’s no unexpected twists and no narrative tension or energy. We don’t learn anything new about the characters or themes of the story in this remake, and all of the actors seem like they took sleeping pills compared to their animated counterparts.

There is one part where Iago turns into a giant demon parrot though. That was cool.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Biopics come in two flavors; ones that try and map the entire life of the central figure in a kind of extended montage, and ones that focus on a short period or incident in their subject’s life. The former tend not to work for me as they tend to have to fit too much material into too little time and inevitably have to cut out specifics and incidents that would otherwise ground the movie.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the newest biopic on Ted Bundy, splits the difference between the two flavors in a way that’s largely effective. Its pace is intentionally syncopated and erratic, and so when it starts switching swiftly from one point in the timeline to another it doesn’t feel hurried, but instead planned.

Ignore the Evil Guy

The movie is also clever in how it plants Liz Kendall, Ted Bundy’s long term girlfriend, as its central character and has us view Ted Bundy through her viewpoint as he shifts from loving boyfriend to wrongly accused man to unrepentant psychopath. By purposefully focusing on Liz’s perspective, the movie doesn’t seek to detail all of Bundy’s life, instead spanning from his first meeting with her to his eventual death and all the points his life intersected with hers in between.

Accordingly, the movie doesn’t end with Ted Bundy’s death, but instead with Liz’s last interaction with him where she forces him to tell her the truth for the first time in their relationship in a cathartic confrontation.

Focusing the film less on Ted Bundy and more on Liz is in many ways thematically admirable; Ted Bundy was a horrible human being who doesn’t deserve to be remembered, but all those who he hurt do.

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