The Shakespeare family is as complicated as William’s characters in ‘All Is True,’ above; below, a genie counsels ‘Aladdin.’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Kenneth Branagh may be the perfect director for his time — a stage-trained Shakespearean actor who understands language and poetry and character and how to make that cinematic, as well as a Hollywood veteran who has helmed superhero movies and melodramatic potboilers. His unique alchemy of smarts and sass means he can bring heft to the trivial and turn stuffy exposition into motion pictures.
His gifts have rarely (at least recently) been put to better use than they are in All Is True, a hybrid of sorts for Branagh. He plays William Shakespeare — not one of the Bard’s heroes, but the man himself, in the final years of his life in retirement in Stratford-Upon-Avon. William had all but abandoned his family years earlier to become the toast of London society 100 miles away. In truth, we know little about Shakespeare’s private life, even less about it when not spearheading the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but the screenplay (by Ben Elton) happily speculates. What was his relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) — an older illiterate countrywoman who seemed ill-matched for the dapper dandy? How about his surviving daughters (a son, ominously named Hamnet, died at age 11)? Not in dispute: His authorship of 38 known plays and 154 sonnets, though the general topic does rear its head in a surprising twist). Rather, it’s a question of inspiration: Who was Shakespeare’s muse?
If it sounds like a candlelit Downton Abbey ripoff, well, it’s much deeper than that. There’s unexpected humor, bracing revelations, heart-wrenching pathos. Branagh and Elton explore how Shakespeare’s major literary themes actually plagued him personally, how he was the sum total of all his tragic heroes. And the cast performs those roles perfectly — Branagh and Dench, of course, but also Ian McKellen in a brief two-scene role that injects a bolt of electricity around the midpoint. His duet with Branagh, aching with unspoken understanding, is one of the acting triumphs of the year.
It’s all framed by a gorgeous cinematography (almost every shot could be a Rembrandt or Vermeer), tactile set and costume design and an air of mystery. Like the best of Shakespeare’s own works, All Is True resonates with hidden depths.
Booksmart is about as far from Shakespeare as you can get. Set in the present day, it’s about two best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) on the eve of high school graduation who have relied on each other to get through the social minefield of adolescence on the way to Ivy League success. Only they come to realize their goofy classmates have achieved success on their own without academic excellence… and got invited to parties and made bad teen decisions all the while. Tonight is the girls’ last shot at a genuine high school experience, and they set out to make it memorable.
The set-up echoes John Hughes comedies, Risky Business and Judd Apatow cliches with a feminist bent, but those shorthands don’t fully embody the rich humor, poignant performances and woke attitude. The screenplay magpies the best parts of Mean Girls, Clueless, Hairspray and Gilmore Girls, and first-time director Olivia Wilde populates it with a dozen endearing characters, from the nerdy protagonists (Feldstein is particularly winning) to the gay drama kids (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute), the cool teacher (Jessica Williams), the school slut-with-a-heart-of-gold (Molly Gordon) and the dreamy heartthrob (Mason Gooding). Booksmart is one of those “teen comedies” that elevates the genre with its painful accuracy and loving respect as it navigates the fraught landscape of young adulthood.
The modern renaissance of Disney animation originated with 1989’s Little Mermaid, followed quickly by the 1-2-3 punch of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King — tuneful musicals (three scored by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman) that catered to adults but overflowed with childlike wonder, concocting a formula more magical than a flying carpet.
Of those first salvos, Aladdin was always the sauciest, propelled by the jet fuel of Robin Williams voicing the genie. As the spate of live-action remakes of Disney classics continues to unfurl (The Jungle Book, Dumbo), it’s proving to be a problematic adaptation… and not just because the absence of Williams is a black hole in its comic heart that Will Smith simply cannot defibrillate.
The reason for live-action versions of animated films is to lend verisimilitude to the outrageous fantasy of enchanted lamps, talking teapots and anthropomorphic antelopes. But this Aladdin suffers by not scaling its chimeras away from the cartoonish. For instance, the villainous Jafar (dully played with teeth-gnashing banality by Marwan Kenzari) wields a cobra-shaped staff that appears more prop department hand-me-down than mystical wand; the city of Agraba feels like a backlot set in a way Wakanda never did. It’s all flat, two-dimensional. The director/co-writer Guy Ritchie flexes some of his creative visuals in the parkour scenes and Jasmine’s “Speechless” number, but you can feel Mickey’s jackbooted foot on his throat all the time — Ritchie himself is the genie, cursed to serve his master’s whims, never able to really do good on his own.
Nonetheless, Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine have charm to spare, and the central set-piece — the song “A Whole New World,” which does not include the genie — conjures memories of excitements past. This doesn’t bridge the threshold between adult and kid movie in any meaningful way; it’s just corporatized marketainment frantically pushing the nostalgia button until we bend, even just slightly, to its programmatic and reductive emotionalism. Our reactions are merely Pavlovian, conditioned over decades of inoffensive optimism. I begrudgingly relent.