Friday, May 24, 2019

'Smart' girls, big 'Little Farm,' and 'Aladdin' on tap for holiday weekend

A very raucous comedy, one imaginative doc, and just a so-so remake headline Memorial Day holiday weekend screen time, and two outta three ain't bad.

Feldstein and Dever trade homework for hijinks on one wild night in "Booksmart."
"Booksmart," the first directorial effort from actress Olivia Wilde, rings the bell as the most pleasant surprise of the year, with a terrific ensemble cast really runnning wild in not just another teen travesty.

Sure, this one features funny foolishness in spades, but it serves as a cover-up for some real truths in the lives of two talented BFFs, Molly and Amy, celebrating much more than their high school graduation.

The nose-to-the-grindstone types, played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, are headed to Yale and a study year in Africa, respectively, so one night of discovering what it's like to party couldn't hurt, right? Check it out to find out, and, I promise, you'll laugh out loud -- a lot!

If Feldstein reminds you just a little of Jonah Hill, please know that she's his sister. Dever, meanwhile, who wowed us before as a smart and sassy young recurring character on cable's "Justified," sort of resembles Michael Cera. Obviously, there are no coincidences in casting, but the clever female pairing here cements the notion that "Booksmart" looks and feels like the distaff version of "Superbad," the 2007 comedy that helped send Hill and Cera on their merry movie way.

Expect even bigger and better from these likable gals down the road. And Wilde behind the camera, too.

Rated "R": strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use, and drinking -- all involving teens; 1:43; $ $ $ $ out of $5

"The Biggest Little Farm" finished just behind the Academy Award-winning "Free Solo" in voting for the People's Choice Documentary Award at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival. Now it's probably in the mix for 2019 Oscar gold as it slowly makes its theater rounds, including today's debut on a couple of northeast Ohio screens.

"Greasy" Rooster and "Emma" Pig become pen pals as two of many "Farm" stars.
The film, as narrated by John Chester, former photographer-turned farmer-turned director, tells the sweet and often amazing story of how Chester and his chef/wife Molly chased the latter's dream "to farm in harmony with nature."

That meant leaving their tiny apartment in Santa Monica and buying and turning a 240-acre piece of just-about deserted property, approximatelty 60 miles up the road in Moorpark, to a kind of ecological jewel they call "Apricot Lane Farms."

To make their tale even a little taller, the Chesters claim that the weird-eyed rescue dog they saved from extinction instigated the move. It's one of many asides and special moments in the charming documentary that incorporates:

Traditional and non-traditional farming practices, ripping out dying trees, restoring a dry old pond, 100 baby ducks, 75 species of fruit, free-range eggs, bull-poop closeups, and hardships that number fire, rain, drought, birds, coyotes, gophers, maggots, snails, toxic algae, a pregnant pig's "horrible diarrhea," and even cancer.

The closing title song, "Sun, Flood or Drought" by the Avett Brothers, offers some awards possibilites, too, in a quick-moving film that's just a bit full of itself but uniquely enjoyable.

Rated "PG": mild thematic elements; 1:31; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Next comes "Aladdin," a live-action/CGI version of the fabulous animated original, which needed to be re-made about as much as this week's shaky versions of "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" on ABC-TV.

Massoud and Smith tackle roles in the live-action, musical remake of "Aladdin."
But, we digress badly by even mentioning that other ill-conceived Disney-owned venture. At least this latest "Aladdin" puts major focus on the film's finest player, Princess Jasmine. As brought to life by Naomi Scott, who graduated from a Disney Channel film ("Lemonade Mouth") to the big screen, Jasmine acts, sings, and dances like she belongs. Most importantly, with her Indian origins, Scott appropriately looks the part of a princess from Agrabah.

So does handsome young Egyptian Mena Massoud (from Amazon's "Jack Ryan"), as Aladdin, the street scammer trying to win Jasmine's affections. Alas, Massoud's vocal delivery pales in comparison to his co-star's, especially in the lovely magic-carpet ride rendition of "A Whole New World," the Menken/Rice standard which won the Best Original Song Oscar in 1993.

Maybe that's why the filmmakers, including notable action director Guy Ritchie, who remains on odd choice for this kind of movie, decided to truncate some of Aladdin's other musical numbers.

Still, though, the two-plus-hour running time is 30 minutes longer than the eminently more enjoyable animated feature, which gave comic/actor Robin Williams ample opportunity to display his extraordinary vocal talents as the magnificent Genie from the lamp.

Will Smith works hard at the same, now thankless role here but, after what we've seen and heard from the late, great Williams, Smith's act -- even with some special effects -- wears thin rather quickly.
  
Rated "PG": some action/peril; 2:08; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening today is "Brightburn," a franchise hopeful in the sci-fi/horror vein that was not screened for critics. This weekend, we hope to view another new film, "The White Crow," the story of how ballet star Rudolf Nureyev defected. Check Rotten Tomatoes or click here in a few days to see our quick rating of that one.

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