'Wakefield' review: Bryan Cranston holds together a genius, somewhat boring take on E.L. Doctorow
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‘Wakefield’ review: Bryan Cranston holds together a genius, somewhat boring take on E.L. Doctorow

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According to the IMDb page for last year’s James Franco vehicle Why Him? Bryan Cranston repeatedly utters the line,”Why *him?” I have seen the film twice (don’t ask), but I would bet money that Cranston does not ask that question more than twice. I do remember, however, KISS showing up for five minutes somewhere in there.

Speaking of which, Robin Swicord’s new film Wakefield, probably needed some good hair-metal. A film about misshapen nostalgia and the chilling farce of solipsism in America, some extravagantly lame, artistically empty theatrics would not have felt out of place reverberating through the attic in which the main character spends most of his time.

Swicord, who co-wrote David Fincher’s magnificently icky and totally moving Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has experienced a significant recent uptick in her work’s exposure. Following The Promise’s release earlier this year, Swicord makes her directorial debut here, anchored by an assured central performance and a relievingly better script. Based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow, the film chronicles Howard Wakefield, a suburban man who, following a fight with his wife, hides out in a secret attic, and then simply decides to stay there indefinitely. Yet despite the setting and the incessant narration, this is no less expressionistic redux of American Beauty. Unlike Sam Mende’s fantasy of privilege, Swicord provides a damning portrait of Cranston’s character as a childish fool of sophomoric principle.

Doctorow’s work has always examined the desire for cultural stasis as the crux of the American Dream. Swicord, too, has long been focused on depicting character trying to stand still amidst cultural tides. In The Promise, the central love triangle was a dramatic attempt to display the desire to romanticize a halt to the atrocities surrounding the characters, yet it only served to trivialize the genocide that served as the backdrop for the film. Here, the contradiction at the center of both Doctorow and Swicord’s work finds its patron saint in Bryan Cranston.

The film plays precisely with Cranston’s stance in pop culture as both a father figure and a casually repulsive anti-hero. The effectiveness of this casting cannot be understated. The film is propulsive because of Cranston’s charisma; Conversely, the interrogation into the vile nature of his decision to remove himself entirely from the world in which he is king, the attempt at ‘freedom’ which only results in ugly self-idolization, only works because the audience understands Cranston’s capacity for malice.

Doctorow is one of the great American political writers, and Swicord does his incisive commentary justice deferring to his vision. The camera’s point of view is constantly at odds with Wakefield’s, contradicting the high self-regard and victimization. The film is not lacking in craftsmanship, but the conceit suffers in its translation from page to screen. The story here is essentially a non-event, increasingly passive as the film goes on. Though the thematic complications never cease, the movie begins to grind the audience down. As the world moves on around Cranston, the film fails to move along to probe further into his psyche or expand beyond a character interesting in his stubbornness.

The same qualities that make Wakefield such a fascinating character study are the same that prevent the film from being particularly engaging. There’s enough here to sustain a feature-length film, but not enough for a full-length story. This would be less of a problem if Wakefield weren’t so structurally tied to Doctorow’s original prose, but the elliptical nature of the source material loses its edge stretched out over a medium that can’t sustain his particular brand of nihilism. Thankfully, Swicord’s sensibilities, her insistence upon surrounding her characters in an ever-swift, evolving world, saves the film from the doldrums of didacticism.

Swicord is a historical revisionist in the classical tradition of middlebrow, casually engaging and indulging the mildest of genres while refusing to sacrifice an intensely auteurist flair. With Wakefield, despite its faults, Swicord proves herself a vital artist working in Hollywood today.

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‘Aladdin’ review: Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the Disney classic isn’t exactly a whole new world

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Aladdin
DISNEY

At this point, we’ve seen enough live-action reimaginings of Disney’s animated canon to know they don’t always concern themselves with breaking the mold. Their classics are classics for a reason – so if it ain’t broke, right? It should come as no surprise then that their adaptation of 1992’s Aladdin, for the most part, is very content to color inside the lines. Most of the proceedings will feel very familiar to fans of the original, so if you’re looking for a totally different take on it, you’re going to have to temper expectations. What we do get is a visually impressive, energetic adventure that could have spent a little more time on what new it does bring to the table.

Disney had a huge challenge out of the gate in conceiving this movie – how the heck do you recast the Genie, a role so iconically played by the late Robin Williams? Will Smith’s turn as the Genie, for all of its blue-tinged pre-release controversy, is largely a success. Crucially, Smith avoids the one thing that would have derailed the performance: trying to recreate the inimitable Robin Williams’ iteration of the character. Williams’ Genie was an amplification of the actor’s signature chaotic personality and Will Smith wisely steers far clear of trying to match that. This Genie relies on Smith’s charm, bravado, and the clear amount of fun he’s having playing the role. The story does give Smith’s Genie a little more depth than just being blue and hilarious, affording him a surprisingly fun and grounded subplot.

But does Smith get by on charm alone? It’s going to depend a lot on your opinion of Will Smith. While Robin Williams breezed through dozens of different voices and personas to bring the Genie to life, never letting us know what to expect, this version of the character very much feels like blue Will Smith (blue Hitch may be closer), so your mileage with the character is going to vary a lot based on how willing you are to accept that. While Smith does fine work, how reliant this Genie is on Smith’s personality does make you wonder if an actor pushing farther out of their comfort zone would have gotten us closer to the boundless creativity that made Robin Williams’ performance so memorable.

The one area that does feel like a clear improvement over the 1992 version is the characterization of Naomi Scott’s Jasmine, to the point where at times the movie feels like it’s more invested in her story than Aladdin’s. The princess feels more three-dimensional (pun not intended… nor apologized for) and she is given far more interesting ambitions this time around. Scott gives the character a dignity and drive that makes it easier to root for her than poor old Al. Both Jasmine and Genie’s newly fleshed-out arcs are welcome additions, but they do draw attention to how predictable and dated Aladdin’s story feels by comparison.

The supporting cast is hit-or-miss. While Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnusson’s new characters end up being reliable for laughs, Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar is a letdown. Aside from a quick exchange about hating second place, it’s never very clear why Jafar is scheming for the Sultan’s throne, other than the fact that he’s just generally evil. The animated Jafar had real wickedness and darkness to him, but Kenzari trades that in for a creepy, ill-defined lust for power that never really excites. But he’s the one standing in Aladdin and Jasmine’s way and, dang it, we want them to be together!

Fans will be glad to know that Aladdin’s catalog of great songs are well represented here. Though “One Jump Ahead” proves to be a bit of a misfire early on, featuring a heavy emphasis on chase and action that doesn’t quite work, the rest of the numbers are a good time. “Friend Like Me” is the movie at its visual peak, and probably the closest the movie gets to recreating the magic of the animated film. One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

On the visual front, Aladdin rarely disappoints. Agrabah feels vibrant and alive, most of all during “Prince Ali”’s grand entrance, and the surrounding desert is beautifully shot. The Cave of Wonders sequence in particular shows off Guy Richie’s skill at crafting an action set-piece, and everything from the mystical danger of that scene down to Aladdin’s parkouring all over Agrabah really moves with great pace under his eye.

One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

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‘Game of Thrones’ finale review: An epic final episode that corrects some major wrongs

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Game of Thrones finale
HBO

Spoiler warning: this article is for people who have watched the Game of Thrones finale. Do not read on unless you have watched season eight, episode six: The Iron Throne.

And so, at last, after 73 episodes, untold millions of dollars and an estimated 200,000 slayings, it is all over – bar the shouting on the internet. Death came to Game of Thrones and everyone involved in its making threw up their hands and shouted “Yes! Finally! Today!”

We began the finale with Tyrion wandering the ash-strewn ruins of King’s Landing, scene of Daenerys’ handbrake turn into full-blown lunacy last week, lifting fallen bricks and confirming for himself, and viewers still clinging to hope, that the Lannister twins were indeed deceased beneath them. Having the Imp cry “This is an ex-Lannister! If it wasn’t buried under rubble it would be pushing up daisies!” would have been only fractionally less subtle a way to confirm what we all needed confirming before we could get on with the true business of the day; deciding who gets the Iron Throne, who gets to die and who gets a spin-off series.

Daenerys was looking confident about her position, with a jaunty speech to her followers (“Blood of my blood! You have given me the Seven Kingdoms!”) and the speedy arrest of Tyrion for treason. Jon looks pained. Possibly because of the mindless destruction and mass murder carried out by his lover-aunt. Possibly because he’s trying to do a sum involving odd numbers in his head. Dear, sweet, useless Jon. People have berated the writers for many things over the show’s run, but they surely deserve some recognition for managing to sell Kit Harington as a convincing candidate for kingship.

Jon visits Tyrion in prison, where the Last Lannister tries – as Arya does just before – to convince Jon that as a fellow Targaryen with a claim to the throne, the woman atop the dragon might just attempt to do him harm in the near-future. “That’s her decision,” says Dumbo. “She is the queen.” Tyrion adds that she’ll probably go after Sansa and Arya, too, which seems to cause scales to fall from Jon’s eyes, and prompts just about the only bit of action in the finale.

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In this generation’s Buffy/Angel moment, Jon kills Daenerys for the greater good. Drogon makes his feelings about this development clear by melting the Iron Throne with dragon fire and flying off with her corpse. “That’s no good!” shouts Jon after him. “T’throne’s just a symbol. Tha’s got a lot more work to do before tha can usher in an age of representative democracy!” No, he doesn’t. But the actual script doesn’t try much harder. After Jon is arrested offscreen by the Unsullied, the lords and ladies of Westeros convene to decide what must be done. They decide to … choose a ruler from among them. Just like that. Grey Worm, made Dany’s Commander of All War Things in the wake of her dragon nuking King’s Landing, makes no objection. No word on who gets to tell the Dothraki. Bagsy not me.

Samwell wonders whether the people should have a say in who gets to govern them. Oh, but the guffaws can be heard across the Narrow Sea! So that’s that possibility as dead as a White Walker run through with Valyrian steel.

Tyrion nominates –

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Bran. Or Bran the Broken, as he is dubbed. Westeros is very ableist, as you might have suspected after the six seasons it took for anyone to cobble together a wheelchair for him. It’s a callback to the ancient figure of Bran the Builder, who raised The Wall, founded Winterfell and was the first King of the North, but still. Bran. Bloody Bran. He will rule over only six kingdoms, because Sansa declares the North will become independent once more. Which again, everyone seems fine with. Tyrion becomes Bran’s Hand but Grey Worm insists that Jon be punished by returning to the Night’s Watch. Fair does. Might as well look permanently pained somewhere; it makes sense. And he’ll never realise there’s no reason for the Night’s Watch to exist any more.

Arya is taking a gap year to go travelling “west of Westeros”, an unmapped region rumoured to contain the Mountains of Spin-Off Potential. Our last sight of the whole shebang is Jon setting off into the super-north with the Free Folk.

There’s no doubt this season has been a rushed business. It has wasted opportunities, squandered goodwill and failed to do justice to its characters or its actors. But the finale just about delivered. It was true to the series’ overall subject – war, and the pity of war – and, after doing a lot of wrong to several protagonists last week, did right by those left standing. Whether the million signatories to the petition to remake the entire final season, or the majority of the estimated 45 million around the world due to watch the last episode, will agree – who knows. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Overall, I think, it won.

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‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ review: A wildly fun kick-shoot-fight-repeat spectacular

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
LIONSGATE

“Prepare for war,” someone who knows Latin will tell you, if you ask about that subtitle, though it’s hardly necessary intel: In these gloriously dumb—but remarkably well-staged—gun-fu flicks, the war is already here, and it lasts for an entire film.

Maybe others prefer it when Keanu Reeves talks; for me, he’s more effective when he moves. John Wick’s somber suit-clad NYC assassin has become his signature role, stripping down Speed and The Matrix into something John Woo sleek. Mob thugs killed his pet pit bull in the first installment. Those guys are long gone. Though this latest John Wick adventure brings on the usual distractions—Ian McShane’s fastidious boutique-hotel proprietor, Lawrence Fishburne’s booming king of the Bowery underworld, Halle Berry’s lady with vicious dogs that leap straight for the crotch—mostly these characters stay out of the way of the main attraction.

Instead, we’re here for the rigorously conceived, blessedly coherent action showdowns, the work of director Chad Stahelski (also Reeves’s longtime stunt double and choreographer). Stahelski is a fight-scene Fosse and Reeves is his Gwen Verdon: Parabellum takes the hall-of-mirrors high style of the second film and pushes it into overdrive. (Those who live in glass-walled galleries shouldn’t throw anything at Wick.) The level of hard-R-rated bloodletting is so delirious, you’ll ignore how bad it is for you.

A closed Manhattan Bridge is the perfect site for a sword duel on speeding motorcycles. Put Wick on a horse and he’s more of a menace than John Wayne on a grouchy day. In one battle, so many knives are flung, a corpse is used as a pincushion. It’s the golden age of…something—please don’t make us explain it.

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