Monday, February 24, 2020

Harrison Ford and Buck in THE CALL OF THE WILD. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Jack London's classic tale of survival in the Yukon territory has been adapted for the screen more than once, but surprisingly there seems to be no single definitive version of The Call of the Wild despite being one of the most famous adventure novels of all time. A 1976 version starring Charlton Heston seems to be the highest profile, but the rest are mostly TV movies that failed to make much of a splash.

The latest iteration, starring Harrison Ford as Klondike prospector, John Thornton, seeks to change that in a new big screen adventure from 20th Century Fox, now flying under new Disney management as 20th Century Studios. It's fitting that the film has now found a home under the Disney banner, because it fits right in with such classic Disney adventure films as The Incredible JourneyThe Swiss Family Robinson, and Homeward Bound; and while its impact may be somewhat blunted by the overuse of some questionable computer imagery to its render canine hero, at it heart it's a tried-and-true tale of survival and the romance of the untouched wilderness.

While Ford may receive top billing, the hero of the story is Buck, an oversized mutt who finds himself kidnapped from the lap of luxury and on his way to the Klondike at the height of the Gold Rush, where he is sold as a sled dog to a pair of intrepid mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) and learns to embrace the wild dog within. He soon finds himself teamed up with Ford's grizzled prospector, who came to the Yukon Territory not in search of gold, but in search of himself after the death of his son. Together they head off the map in pursuit of the adventure of a lifetime, pursued by a vengeful dandy (Dan Stevens) who believes they're hiding the secret to a fabled treasure hidden deep in the unexplored wilderness of the Yukon.

Buck is a completely computer generated character, and his obviously animated look can be distracting at times, with his expressive interactions with his owners make him almost human (not surprising, given that much of the character was created through human motion-capture technology), but if you can get past the lack of believability, The Call of the Wild is a charmingly old-fashioned adventure that's often unexpectedly low-key. Director Chris Sanders, making his live-action debut after helming such animated fare as How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch, isn't afraid to let the narrative unfold at a deliberate pace, taking the time to step back for some nice character moments, making the action set-pieces feel all the more perilous.

Despite its over-reliance on visual effects to create its central character, it's an unhurried and straightforward narrative, a welcome respite from the often apocalyptic stakes that so often dominate films with budgets this size. The script may lean too heavily on Ford's narration (and in the end it doesn't make a lot of sense), but Ford remains every bit the appealingly gruff star he's always been, and it's difficult not to become swept up in the grand romantic sweep of it all. It often feels like a throwback to the cinema of a simpler, less complicated time; an old school adventure about a big dog with an even bigger heart that feels tailor-made for the old cliché - "they just don't make 'em like this anymore."

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE CALL OF THE WILD | Directed by Chris Sanders | Stars Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Colin Woodell, Karen Gillan, Omar Sy, Raven Scott, Wes Brown, Cara Gee | Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, February 21, 2020

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Spotlighting some of this month's notable home video releases.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (The Criterion Collection)

Before the release of Pain and Glory last year, All About My Mother (1999) stood as Pedro Almodóvar's most personal film, an aching and warmhearted tribute to motherhood, and especially his own beloved mother, who passed away later that year. While Pain and Glory dealt more directly with Almodóvar's life (and his relationship with his mother, specifically), All About My Mother took inspiration from his life and turned it into an ode to motherhood itself.

After her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), is tragically killed in an accident while trying to get the autograph of one of his favorite actresses, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), heads to Barcelona to start a new life. Once there, she becomes a kind of surrogate mother to a motley band of misfits - a pregnant nun with HIV, a transgender sex worker, and lesbian actress Huma (Marisa Paredes), whose co-dependent relationship with her drug-addicted girlfriend, Nina (Candela Peña), leaves her looking for direction and stability. It is here where Manuela grows closer to her son than ever, recapturing the spirit of what it means to be a mother, and coming to terms with her own inner trauma.

It is Huma's face that we see emblazoned on a mural, her red lipstick stark against her pale face, Manuela dwarfed and illuminated by her Technicolor grandiosity in a similarly striking red coat. That image has come to define the film in many ways - first of all in Almodóvar's trademark oversaturated Technicolor brilliance and second for its singular sense of melodramatic melancholy. All About My Mother is a melodrama, make no mistake, rooted in classical Hollywood and steeped in references to films such as All About My Mother and A Streetcar Named Desire. It's the fantasy of a young boy growing up queer, surrounded by powerful women of all stripes and raised on a diet of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And yet, for all the film's purple prose and soap opera dramatics, Almodóvar never loses sight of his characters' simple humanity. It's also a spiritual sequel of sorts to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but here Almodóvar's exploration of friendships between women feels more complete, more real - less a caricature and more deeply felt - a film of longing for a lost childhood by a filmmaker honoring the women who made him who he is, and a thing of great and tremulous beauty.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)


JE T'AIME MOI NON PLUS (Kino Lorber)

Looking back on cinema's great romances - Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Brief Encounter, you'll be hard-pressed to find one as uniquely tragic as Serge Gainsbourg's unconventional and completely uncompromising Je t'aims moi non plus (1976).

Its romantic leads are gay truck driver, Krassky (Joe Dallesandro), and  tomboyish truck stop waitress, Johnny (Jane Birkin), whose chance encounter leads to an unusual and unexpected romance that defies gender and sexuality, even as it arouses the jealousy of Krassky's partner, Padovan (Hugues Quester). At the initial meeting, Krassky mistakes Johnny's slight, tank top-clad frame for a man's, but is taken aback when he discovers that she is, in fact, a woman. Yet he can't help but be drawn to her boyish masculinity, and the two embark on something that is at once new and frightening for them both, as Krassky finds himself unable to perform sexually unless he takes Johnny from behind, a source of both frustration and comedy-by-repitition.

What makes the film so remarkably ahead of its time is the way it critiques the very idea of gender and deconstructs sexuality into something thoroughly modern and forward thinking. In Gainsbourg's sweltering, deeply horny vision, sexuality and gender are fluid, and the attraction between Krassky and Johnny transcends both. It's a carnal attraction, even when it runs up against the practical physical barriers of genatalia - but they even manage to find a way around that. They desire each other in a deep, almost animalistic way, and the refuse to let something as simple as what sex organs the other one has get in their way.

Gainsbourg addresses sex in such a frank and uninhibited way that it's astonishing - Je t'aims moi non plus relishes in the languid nudity of its two leads in a way that feels carnal yet un-exploitative. The film manipulates the stereotypical social signals of gender - she has short hair, he has long hair - in often subtle ways, undercutting masculine/feminine iconography in order to create its own language. It's as if Gainsbourg is exploring the very idea of sexuality - what it means to feel attraction and lust for another human being, to connect on a level beyond sex, and he does it in a consistently electrifying loose, hangdog style that emphasizes the carefree nature of their existence. It's one of the great unheralded cinematic romances of all time - a love story like no other that deserves a place in the canon of all-time classics.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)


THE OSCAR (Kino Studio Classics)

The Oscar remains perhaps one of the most infamous Hollywood disasters of all time, a star-studded spectacle, parts of which were actually filmed at the 1964 Academy Awards, and adapted from a popular novel by Richard Sale, the film was a box-office and critical bomb that nevertheless went on to be something of a camp classic.

The film centers around the rise of movie star Frank Fane (Stephen Boyd), a devil-may-care conman who spends life on the road with his partner Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett) touring a two-bit burlesque act that soon puts them on the run from the law. That's where he stumbles into acting, his unapologetic boorishness catching the eye of a casting director who gets him on stage and eventually in front of the camera. But when faced with the prospect of waning popularity and the loss of a lucrative contract, he hatches a scheme with the help of a ruthless private eye (Ernest Borgnine) to ensure that he will win an Oscar and maintain his status in the cutthroat world of Hollywood, no matter who he has to throw under the bus.

Filled with hilarious melodrama and overripe dialogue, The Oscar features cameos from the likes of Edith Head, Frank Sinatra, Merle Oberon, Nancy Sinatra, Hedda Hopper, and Bob Hope in an attempt to capture the sweep and grandeur of Hollywood, but it's all just too silly to take seriously, descending into soapy histrionics that feel like they seem like they were written by someone who has no grasp on human interaction or relationships. Still, it's worth watching for the truly bizarre plotting and dialogue, which plays like a bad daytime soap opera complete with dramatic music stingers. And despite its scathing reviews, the film still managed to eke out two Oscar nominations - one for Art Direction and another for perennial nominee Edith Head's costumes.

GRADE -★ (out of four)


REEFER MADNESS/SEX MADNESS (Kino Classics)

Perhaps one of the most infamous exploitation films of all time, Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda piece, Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) became a midnight movie sensation in the 1960s due to its unintentionally hilarious depiction of the "dangers of marijuana." The film was designed as a warning to parents about "public enemy number one," and centers around a young man who is made to believe that he committed a murder while high on pot. The film is strictly an amateur-hour production, filled with laughably over-the-top acting and a silly sense of self-righteousness that make it the perfect exploitation camp classic.

Also included on this new release from Kino Lorber as part of their "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture" series is Dwain Esper's 1938 film, Sex Madness, a film that takes the moralistic lecturing of Reefer Madness to new heights in its crusade against extramarital sex and the scourge of gonorrhea. Featuring graphic depictions of STD wounds, and a plot about a group of teenagers whose inability to say "no" lead to life-long afflictions of venereal disease, ruining marriages and destroying their lives for one night of passion. Even more amateur-ish than Reefer Madness, Sex Madness may spend most of its brief running time wagging its finger at its audience, but its sensationalistic subject matter was clearly designed to titillate while preaching a very different message, which is part of what makes these films so goofy. They're not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but they're such a joke now that it's hard not to get a kick out of them.

REEFER MADNESS -★ (out of four)
SEX MADNESS - ½ star (out of four)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America.

Once scheduled for release last Thanksgiving, Paramount's Sonic the Hedgehog was delayed until Valentine's Day of this year due to fan outcry over the design of the titular blue hedgehog. Granted, the beady eyes and human-like teeth seen in the original trailer last spring was a far cry from the design of the iconic Sega video game hero, but by all accounts the retooling of the special effects cost north of $30 million and bankrupted the visual effects company that designed them.

It's a sad situation all around, because now that the film has been released, it's clear that the revamp just wasn't worth it. Sonic the Hedgehog is the epitome of soulless studio product, a paint-by-numbers action comedy that feels like the reheated leftovers of an early 2000s buddy comedy. It's mildly entertaining at times, mostly due to Jim Carrey's delightfully unhinged performance as the villainous Dr. Robotik, but the lifeless script gives him little to work with, awkwardly shoe-horning in product placement for everything from Zillow to Olive Garden.

Adapted from the popular series of video games, this iteration of Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is an intergalactic rodent whose power has turned him into a fugitive from his home planet. After living alone on Earth for several years, during which he forms one-way "friendships" with locals he has never actually met, an accidental power surge alerts government authorities to his presence. In turn, the government sends Dr. Robotnik, an evil scientist bent on studying Sonic to uncover the source of his power and use it for his own nefarious gain. So Sonic turns to small town sheriff, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) for help, and the two end up on an adventure to reclaim Sonic's magical rings so he can escape Earth and find a new save haven where his power will be protected. But as the two grow closer, they soon find themselves forming a unique friendship and learning that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

It's a tried and true message, but the way Sonic frames seems to suggest that following your dreams isn't worth it (neither seem to have any real connection to the small town they call home). But its muddled message is the least of its problems - its biggest issue is the fact that it's so generically constructed that any of its set pieces could be lifted and plopped into another film wholesale without missing a beat. Its standout sequences, in which time seems to slow down due to Sonic's speed while he defeats a room full of bad guys, is copied almost verbatim from Quicksilver's scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. It's all competently put together by first-time feature filmmaker, Jeff Fowler, but the script is so bland that the end result almost can't help but be anything but generic. It reeks of a cynical studio ploy to sell toys and boost video game sales without any thought for giving the film a personality of its own, recalling other human/CGI animal buddy movies like Hop and Peter Rabbit, which weren't that great to begin with. It's good to see Carrey backing this manic form, but you're likely to leave the theater with a nagging sense of déjà vu, having just sat through yet another assembly-line studio Frankenstein with little on its mind besides raking in cash on the back of an established piece of intellectual property.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


SONIC THE HEDGEHOG | Directed by Jeff Fowler | Stars Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Neil McDonough | Rated PG for action, some violence, rude humor and brief mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Hot off the success of Breathless that heralded the arrival of the French New Wave to the world, Jean-Luc Godard defied expectations with his sophomore feature, Le Petit Soldat, and began what would become a lifelong passion for using cinema as a revolutionary political tool. However, unlike later films like La Chinoise, Tout va Bien, or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard doesn't yet seem to have a fully formed worldview. 

Originally shot in 1960 on the heels of Breathless, Le Petit Soldat wouldn't be released until 1963 due to objections from French censors who deemed the film's politics to be seditious. Where Breathless was a fresh and stylish caper in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, steeped in the classical Hollywood idiom that had so fascinated Godard as a critic, Le Petit Soldat is a grim, gritty film that takes a deep dive into simmering tensions in France resulting from the conflict in Algeria. Constructed as a spy film, Le Petit Soldat takes a right-wing French terrorist (Michel Subor) and a left-wing supporter of the Algerian cause (Anna Karina) and makes them fall in love against the backdrop of social unrest in Geneva. Controversially, it is the Algerians who are seen committing atrocities against the French, in an extended  sequence in which Stubor is tied up in a bathtub and tortured in order to extract information. While it is mentioned that the French also committed atrocities against the Algerians, and the film was banned in part because of a scene in which Karina insists that the French will lose because "have no ideal," it was this sense of moral ambiguity and "both sides-ism" in the face of colonialism that shows Godard as an artist without a fully formed ideology.

While this would certainly come later after Godard famously embraced Marxism-Leninism and the teachings of Mao Zedong, Le Petit Soldat is perhaps more interesting for what it foreshadows in Godard's career than anything contained in the film itself. Karina is a vision, of course, and Godard's camera eyes her lovingly. In fact, it is rumored that Godard actually extended the shoot in order to court her (they would be married the next year), according to cinematographer Raoul Cotard in Colin MacCabe's 2003 biography of the filmmaker. But it spends much more time with Stubor's right-wing radical, with relatively little criticism, a strange deviation from Godard's later work and a sign that Godard wasn't quite sure what he was trying to say here at all - the film's moral relativism is often more frustrating that fascinating, and its lack of a point of view makes its moral equivocations between imperialists and insurgents seem murky rather than insightful.

One could call this film the beginning of Godard's political awakening, but it's not fully formed - it's the work of an artist searching for his voice, for his ideology, looking for the ever-shifting truth that cinema brings at 24 frames per second. This idea of shifting truth is very much present in Le Petit Soldat, but it's as much due to Godard's lack of real political awareness than it is an intentional thematic device. It's a film with an author in search of a theme, and he would find it eventually, but only years later, leaving Le Petit Soldat as something of a fascinating artifact, a planted seed in Godard's career that would blossom into something much more radical and pointed later on as he left the aesthetic artifice of cinema behind to embrace its power as a tool for a revolution that would never come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


LE PETIT SOLDAT | Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | Stars Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, László Szabó | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.


Special features:
  • High-definition digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Interview with director Jean-Luc Godard from 1965 
  • Interview with actor Michel Subor from 1963 
  • Audio interview with Godard from 1961 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Nicholas Elliott

MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN),” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ & © DC Comics

Birds of Prey, the sequel, spin-off, or whatever you'd like to call it to 2016's Suicide Squad, marks one of the most impressive jumps in quality from first film to second film that I can recall. Suicide Squad went on to gross over $700,000,000 worldwide, which surely marks one of the highest grosses for a film no one seems to actually like.

To its credit, Birds of Prey (subtitled And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) seems to have learned quite a few lessons from the mistakes of the garish Suicide Squad; lowering the stakes, streamlining the story, doing away with Jared Leto's much maligned Joker, and placing Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn front and center. The film opens with Harley getting kicked out on the street after being dumped by the Joker. This leads to an act of revenge that lands Harley in hot water with a host of Gotham goons who've had it out for her for years, but couldn't touch her as long as she was the Joker's girlfriend. Now everyone from criminals to cops seems to be out to get her, with one crime boss in particular, the ruthless Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) determined to track her down.

Pursued by criminals and cops alike, Harley is soon forced to band together with four other women - disgraced detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), assassin Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Sionis' disgruntled driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), to protect a young orphan (Ella Jay Basco) from Sionis' wrath. Each one bringing their own unique skills and their own grudges against Sionis in order to dismantle his ruthless criminal enterprise once and for all.

Birds of Prey more closely resembles more serious action films like John Wick and Atomic Blonde than it does its predecessor, embracing its R-rating and tearing into its bruising action scenes with relish, with the tongue-in-cheek humor of the Deadpool films. Cathy Yan directs with a stylish verve that actually recalls Tim Burton's Batman films, especially in the film's funhouse finale, where the carnivalesque sets turn into a kind of Luis Buñuel-inspired nightmare. It's great stuff, trimming the excesses of Suicide Squad, lowering the stakes, and giving us more of its best elements - namely Robbie's Harley Quinn. Birds of Prey replaces world-ending stakes and evil sorceresses of Suicide Squad with a more localized crime drama, and it's all the better for it, giving the new group a chance to congeal without working so hard to tie it into a grander narrative.

In fact, the film succeeds mainly because it does feel so removed from the rest of the DC universe. Despite a few throwaway references to Batman, the Joker, and the events of the previous film, Birds of Prey mostly stands alone. Robbie is the film's strongest asset but Yan (whose only other credit is a Chinese film from last year called Dead Pigs that never got an American release) displays a commanding visual eye and a knack for combining comedy with serious, sometimes brutal, action. It's a gleefully over-the-top, candy-colored comic book spectacle that finds a pleasing balance between character and action that puts it a cut above its superhero peers.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) | Directed by Cathy Yan | Stars Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco | Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Best Documentary Short nominees are often some of the most fascinating films at the Academy Awards, introducing us to new worlds and quite often new problems facing the world that deserve a larger audience than the one they usually find. This year's crop is more of a mixed bag than most, with the usual muckraking issue docs mixed in with some that reach for inspirational but feel more forced than fiery. Here are the this year's nominees:


IN THE ABSENCE

Yi Seung-jun | South Korea

Easily the strongest film in the 2020 Best Documentary Short lineup, Yi Seung-jun's In the Absence takes a harrowing look at the 2014 ferry disaster in South Korea that claimed the lives of hundreds of school children on a field trip. Using actual footage taken inside the doomed vessel on cell phone cameras and dash-cams, Yi recounts the sinking moment-for-moment while examining the bureaucratic incompetence that ensued, ultimately sending the children to the deaths.

This was a huge event in South Korea that eventually lead to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, and Yi's you-are-there recounting of the sinking is a sobering look at government corruption that allowed a very preventable situation to become a national tragedy, as confusion over whether or not to issue an evacuation order and half-hearted rescue attempts performed for the cameras changes the course of a nation. Truly frustrating, sobering stuff, and a work of clear-eyed righteous anger that lands with the power and fury of a hurricane.


LEARNING TO SKATEBOARD IN A WARZONE (IF YOU'RE A GIRL)

Carol Dysinger | UK

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is the kind of feel-good issue doc that this category loves, and it's perfectly fine but also wholly unremarkable. The story itself is inspiring - a group of girls in war-torn Afghanistan defying conservative gender convention to learn how to skateboard. There's a certain appealing element of girl-power here, but it also feels very standard, the kind of film that garners praise for its content more than its form. They're certainly an irresistible group, but the film itself ultimately feels perfunctory and lacking the inspirational energy its so clearly trying to achieve.


LIFE OVERTAKES ME

John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson | USA

Life Overtakes Me examines the phenomenon of Resignation Syndrome, an illness affecting hundreds of refugee children in Sweden and across the world that causes them to enter a comatose state, seemingly borne from the trauma faced by families fleeing dangerous situations in their own countries. Facing uncertainty and anti-immigrant sentiment abroad, the children retreat into their own minds, completely unaware of the world around them.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson often layer voice-over interviews over lovely shots of snowy Swedish landscapes, an artistic affectation that feels somewhat superfluous, but the resulting film is often quite moving, exploring the human side of the refugee struggle away from the political rhetoric as they flee certain death into a whole new set of struggles in a strange land.


ST. LOUIS SUPERMAN

Sami Khan, Smriti Mundhra | USA

In the wake of the death of Michael Brown, 34-year-old Bruce Franks Jr. decides to take his fight from the streets of Ferguson to the halls of the Missouri State House, running for State Representative as one of the few black representatives in the entire state. Filled with a desire to change the face of the halls of power and advocate for his community, Franks sets about proposing a bill to curb gun violence and establish a Memorial Day for his younger brother who was killed in a shooting 30 years earlier.

Covers a lot of ground in only 30 minutes, but St. Louis Superman does a fine job of illustrating the unique challenges faced by black politicians in the halls of power dominated by white men, as well as the suspicions from his own community that he has sold out and become just another politician who will ultimately change nothing. Almost feels like there's enough material here for a feature doc, but it's a solid examination of what it takes to turn activism into policy and affect real change.


WALK RUN CHA-CHA

Laura Nix | USA

This sensitive doc short about two Vietnamese immigrants who came to American in the aftermath of the Vietnam war is a warmhearted love story about a husband and wife rediscovering each other through the language of dance. Now successful American businesspeople, the two spend their evenings learning how to ballroom dance, carrying on very different lives from their workplace personas. Walk Run Cha-Cha is perhaps the slightest of the five Best Documentary Short nominees this year, but it's also one of the sweetest; rather than deal with BIG IMPORTANT THEMES it takes a step back to take a look at a simple love story through the lens of the immigrant experience. A beguiling and sweetly entertaining short.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films are now playing in select theaters from Shorts TV.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Alice Krige stars in GRETEL & HANSEL. Photo by Patrick Redmond.
Courtesy of Orion Pictures.

The story of Hansel and Gretel is perhaps one of the most famous fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, its story of two children who are lured into the woods and eaten by a witch serving as a warning to generations of children not to accept gifts from strangers.

Director Oz Perkins' 21st century re-imagining in Gretel & Hansel provides a new twist on the oft-told tale, centering Gretel in the narrative and turning it into a story of female empowerment tinged with giallo horror. While the film has been frequently (and understandably) compared to Robert Eggers' The Witch (and not without reason), the film I found myself consistently reminded of was Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic, Suspiria.  From the non-diegetic neon lighting to R.O.B.'s synthetic prog-rock score, Gretel & Hansel feels right at home amongst the work of such Italian masters as Argento and Mario Bava, whose films often felt like they took place inside a nightmare where plot didn't matter so much as atmosphere and mood.

The story is familiar, of course. Hansel and Gretel are two children who are turned out by their destitute mother because she is unable to afford to feed them. Gretel (Sophia Lillis), unwilling to either join a convent or  be a lecherous country lord's housemaid, sets out on her own along with her little brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey). It isn't long, however, before they become lost in the woods. Weary and starving they stumble upon a peculiar cabin in the woods, where an old woman (Alice Krige) offers them a spread of delicious food and shelter for the night. It soon becomes clear that something is dreadfully wrong in that house, as Gretel begins having inexplicable visions of missing children, and the old woman takes a particular interest in Gretel that seems to go far beyond her interest in Hansel, and it soon becomes clear that she's trying to push them apart for very sinister reasons.

The film is steeped in a sense of fairy tale lore, its expressionistic production design Jeremy Reed and Christine McDonagh contributing greatly its overall feeling of dread and despair. Perkins very wisely never attempts to dot all the I's or cross all the T's, leading to a film that is less concerned with plotting than it is getting under the audience's skin. The lighting is abstract and evocative with its vibrant blues and pinks, the music completely incongruous to the time period it's representing, and yet this kind of surrealistic take on the material creates a kind of dream logic that makes it all the more unsettling.

Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige star in GRETEL & HANSEL. Photo by Patrick Redmond.
Courtesy of Orion Pictures.

It's also just as much about writing your own story and forging your own path as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, history, myth, and fate be damned. Your ending isn’t written until you write it yourself and your circumstances do not define you. Gretel & Hansel's recasting of Gretel as the heir apparent to the witch not only empower Gretel as a character but completely reframes the narrative. It's no longer a story about the dangers of accepting gifts from strangers, but of reclaiming the narrative of victimhood and turning it into one of personal strength. Gretel is no longer the passive child that Hansel is; if the witch used the power granted to her by her victimhood for revenge, Gretel seeks to use it in order to heal, to reclaim her story from those who would seek to use it for their own gain. Here, the fear of the old woman, the fairy tales that cast women as old crones who seek to eat little children in order to get them to obey, becomes a relic of the past as Gretel reshapes the narrative in her own image, taking control of her own destiny and burning down the misogynist misconceptions of the past. It's a bracing, feminist take on a familiar tale that makes it feel startlingly fresh.

After a run of substandard January horror films, Gretel & Hansel not only feels like a breath of fresh air, it's an art film that somehow managed to secure a wide release from a major studio. Anchored by strong turns by It's Sophia Lillis and especially the incomparable Alice Krige (always a welcome presence) as the witch, Gretel & Hansel is a throughly original take on a classic legend that makes the surreal feel terrifyingly palpable like a childhood nightmare come to life, a twisted fairy tale once meant to scare children turned into a haunting allegorical fable for adults.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


GRETEL & HANSEL | Directed by Oz Perkins | Stars Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel Leakey | Rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

January horror tends to be a wasteland, but if the twin "F" Cinemascore ratings (the first received by any film in three years) earned by The Grudge and now The Turning are any indication, then January 2020 is one for the ages.

The nonsensical Grudge absolutely earned its abysmal score with a mixture of lazy writing, ugly cinematography, and abysmal plotting, but I'm not convinced that The Turning (directed by The Runaways' Floria Sigismondi) really deserves the hate being thrown its way. Many of the negative reactions and poor reviews seem to center around the films "twist" ending, which is indeed something of a head scratcher that was intended to be a Sixth Sense-level last minute rug-pull that recontextualizes the film. The problem is it's so quickly executed that it has mostly left audiences scratching their heads rather than blowing their minds; the result, perhaps, of filmmakers who have spent too long steeped in a world that they understand but have not properly laid out for the viewers.

Based on Henry James' novel, The Turn of the Screw (which also inspired the 1961 film, The Innocents, written by Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr), The Turning tells the story of a college student named Kate (Mackenzie Davis) who takes a job as a live-in tutor for a young orphan named Flora (The Florida Project's Brooklynn Prince) at a gothic manor house in the country, where she lives with her older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard). and a creepy housekeeper (Denna Thomsen) who believes that the children's wealthy background entitles them to special privileges. It isn't long before Kate begins to suspect that the house is haunted, as strange things appear in the shadows, Miles becomes more and more sinister, and a vengeful presence seems to stalk her at night.

It's all fairly standard haunted house stuff, informed by the house's past traumas, but Sigismondi proves quite adept at conjuring an eerie atmosphere, always hiding the frightening things just off screen, allowing the audiences to catch just enough of a glimpse to make us question whether or not we had seen anything at all. Similarly, the dreamlike, fog-shrouded cinematography by David Ungaro (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) creates an indelible mood, recalling great haunted house movies of yore like Robert Wise's original The Haunting and Alejandro Amenábar's The Others. That idea of questioning our own eyes comes back into play in end, in a twist that's not a *bad* twist, per se. It’s just poorly executed, coming at us so fast that it leaves the audience confused rather than unsettled.

On the plus side, Brooklynn Prince is terrific, as is Finn Wolfhard. The fact that neither is really trying to do the typical “creepy kid” thing makes those moments more unnerving, and Prince's precociousness is consistently magnetic. For most of the film, The Turning is a solidly crafted, old-fashioned haunted house chiller with some decent scares and anchored by strong performances, but it goes off the rails so wildly in its last few minutes that it nearly ruins the entire picture, leaving such  a bad taste in the mouth that it resulted in the rare "F" Cinemascore rating from audiences. But it seems unfair to dismiss the entire film due to its last 5 minutes. The finale is undeniably a massive miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers, one that undercuts much of the accumulated suspense of the story. But in no way is this film the unmitigated disaster that its reputation would suggest. It's a thoroughly decent, classically structured haunted house chiller hampered by an extremely ill-conceived ending that undermines much of the goodwill built up by Sigismondi's hauntingly elegant direction.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE TURNING | Directed by Floria Sigismondi | Stars Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Mark Huberman, Niall Greig Fulton | Rated PG-13 for terror, violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A scene from Ladj Ly's Les Misérables.

The specter of imperialism hangs over two new French films like a shadow, an inexorable piece of the nation's past from which it cannot extricate itself. Ladj Ly's Oscar-nominated Les Misérables (2019) and Bertrand Bonello's Zombi Child (2020) take very different paths to arrive at similar conclusions, and yet they make for a fascinating double feature if for no other reason than to study how the differences in their perspectives lead them to different places, even if their ultimate thematic content isn't all that dissimilar. 

Inspired by the 2005 French riots, Les Misérables explores the tensions between police and the often majority black neighborhoods they are tasked with patrolling. The film centers around Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a rookie cop who joins the force and is shown the ropes by his two new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Ruiz quickly learns that this is not going to be just another day at the office, however, as hot-headed Chris treats the people of the neighborhood as his subjects, abusing his authority and stoking the flames of interracial tension between local gangs at every turn. When a young boy steals a lion club from a local circus, those tensions threaten to boil over, leading to a violent confrontation between the boy and the police that throws gasoline on the smoldering embers of resentment.

The film wears its inspirations on its sleeve; the most frequently cited are Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine, but Antoine Fuqua's Training Day is in there as well. It's a slow-burn that deftly combines its varying factions that make up the melting pot of France - the black teenagers, the Muslims, the Romanians, and pits them against a police force that doesn't seem to understand or care about their unique needs and cultural differences. Yet the neighborhood is also deeply representative of French colonialism, policed by an uncaring and brutal force that doesn't seem interested in anything other than power over those it deems lesser.

A scene from Zombi Child.

Similarly, Zombi Child takes place in a France that seems wholly ignorant of the world it has colonized, vacuuming up small pieces of other cultures and discarding the rest. Here, a group of schoolgirls welcomes a Haitian classmate into their clique, only to discover that her family has a background in voodoo. As she regales them with stories of her grandfather, who was turned into a zombi by his family in order to work the fields as an unquestioning slave, the girls become fascinated with the world of voodoo, leading them to meddle in places where they do not belong.

Meddling in places where one does not belong is essentially the cornerstone of both of these films. On the one hand, Zombi Child is a hushed and haunted ghost story that combines Haitian lore with French colonial sensibilities. Bonello, a white filmmaker, isn't necessarily trying to colonize the Haitian voodoo imagery as he is use it to explore the way that the French have seemingly bulldozed over the cultures of the places they've colonized, and how their lack of understanding of those cultures puts them on a path of mutual destruction. Ly, a black filmmaker, takes a similar view in the more conventionally structured Les Misérables. Both films center their white characters, and yet strangely Zombi Child feels like the most pointed brutal critique of imperialism. It's easily Bonello's most subdued film, dialing back the style in favor of something more unsettling and atmospheric. This is a far cry from the portrait of young anarchists in his last film, Nocturama, with its neon lighting and 80s-infused soundtrack. There's something hushed and eerie about Zombi Child that explores the sinister underpinnings of imperialist conquest without othering Haitian culture.

Les Misérables, on the other hand (which was famously submitted for Oscar consideration over Celine Sciamma's superior Portrait of a Lady on Fire), attempts to show us that even the most well-intentioned white people can face consequences if their actions continue to prop up institutional racism. No one is innocent here, and while its trappings may seem more familiar (although Bonello certainly takes some of his cues from Val Lewton's 1943 horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie) there is something agreeably rough-hewn about its structure and haunting about its denouement. Ultimately I'm inclined to call Zombi Child the stronger of the two films, if for no other reason than for its unique take on a tired genre, but it's hard to deny the the effectiveness through which both convey their ideas. One, a more straightforward drama, the other as a horror film where the scares are much more internalized, both creating horrific portraits of the ravages of colonialism and the continued proliferation of racist institutions that refuse to acknowledge their own culpability in a failed system. Taken together they are unmissable portraits of a modern France grappling with its own identity, with Ly acting as a Malian immigrant critiquing French colonialism as one of its victims and Bonello acting as a Frenchman crafting a bold work of self-examination. Two different filmmakers, two different perspectives, two bracing works of political activism through cinema. Yet only one truly transcends its medium and works its way under the skin - Zombi Child manages to work as both an otherworldly romance and a ferocious critique of cultural colonialism that lingers with the understated power Bonello's more indelible works.

LES MISÉRABLES - ★★½ (out of four)

ZOMBI CHILD - ★★★ (out of four)



LES MISÉRABLES | Directed by Ladj Ly | Stars Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Jeanne Balibar | Rated R for language throughout, some disturbing/violent content, and sexual references | In French w/English subtitles


ZOMBI CHILD | Directed by Bertrand Bonello | Stars Louise Labèque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Adilé David | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

While the Best Animated Short Oscar nominees are often some of the best films of the night, the Best Live Action Short nominees are historically a mixed bag, often built around contrivances necessitated by their brief runtimes, but plagued by a sense of self-seriousness as they try to convey BIG THEMES as quickly as possible. This year's crop is no different, and with one major exception are almost uniformly depressing in the most unearned, excruciating way. Here's a look at this year's nominated films.


BROTHERHOOD

Meryam Joobeur | Tunisia

A modern twist on the parable of the Prodigal Son, Meryam Joobeur's Brotherhood tells the story of a Tunisian family whose idealistic oldest son returns with a young new wife after joining ISIS and moving to Syria. The father is none too impressed with his son's political ideas, and constantly berates and challenges him and his new wife, eventually deciding to turn him into the Tunisian police to report him as a terrorist. But when the truth about his son's time in Syria comes to light, as well as  the true nature of his marriage to such a young girl, it may be too late to stop the events that have been set in motion. Brotherhood is beautifully shot and often quiet compelling, but it wastes much of that goodwill on a ridiculous climax that has no real motivation other than to give it the kind of downer ending that this category loves because they seem "important." There are some interesting ideas at play here about what makes a "terrorist" and what motivates young Muslim men to join the caliphate, but it hinges on a contrivance that is difficult to overlook, building its drama on withholding a piece of information that it makes no sense to keep hidden other than as a dramatic plot device.


NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB

Yves Piat | Tunisia

Yves Piat's Nefta Football Club is the only one of the Best Live Action Short Oscar nominees that tells a fully formed, well-rounded story. And while it may be structured around the kind of wild coincidence that seems to define the drama in this category, it zigs just when you expect it to zag, delivering something that is fresh, funny, and unlike every other nominee in this category, not soul-crushingly depressing. The film centers around two Tunisian boys who wander across the Algerian border and discover a donkey loaded down with several kilos of cocaine. Normally this is where the original owners of the donkey would come looking for the kids, but Nefta Football Club has something else entirely on its mind, leading to a wonderfully unexpected conclusion that sends the whole affair out on a high note. It's a delightfully idiosyncratic charmer, featuring an Adele-loving donkey and kids who think they've discovered a treasure trove of laundry detergent. It's the most unique and wholly realized film of the bunch.


THE NEIGHBORS' WINDOW

Marshall Curry | USA

It always seems like there's at least one Best Live Action Short nominee like Marshall Curry's The Neighbors' Window - the schmaltzy American entry this is the most accessible, yet also somehow built around most aggressively contrived situation. In this case it's a couple of thirtysomething parents who become enamored with the attractive young couple whose apartment window is situated across from theirs. Constantly naked and constantly having sex or throwing wild parties, the neighbors quickly become a source of obsession for the couple, whose humdrum domesticity seems increasingly banal in contrast. But as they spend their time longing for the life they once had when they were younger, represented by the free-spirited young couple across the way, a tragic twist soon reminds them of just how good their life really is, and that while they long for someone else's life, someone else may be longing for theirs. The final twist is the kind of ridiculous emotional right hook that this category seems to love, but it just totally falls flat, coming across as a poorly written attempt to deliver a lesson to the audience, but the attempt is ultimately ham-fisted and lands with a thud. It's the weakest film in an admittedly subpar crop of nominees, which means it's likely the frontrunner to win.


SARIA

Bryan Buckley | USA

Based on the tragic 2017 fire at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, in which 41 young women lost their lives after escaping from an orphanage in an attempt to reach America, Bryan Buckley's Saria starts off promisingly but quickly devolves into the kind of self-important "issue movie of the week" territory that are often so prevalent in this category. It also feels like a much longer filmed that's been cut down and crammed into a 23 minute running time, with large leaps in time where it feels like we're missing key information and character development. The tragic ending appears out of nowhere in a way that's clearly designed to shock but all it really does is feel like a dramatic cheat meant to manipulate the audience with a real life tragedy. Quite frankly, this story deserves a feature film, and while its clearly trying to draw attention to the dangers faced by migrants coming to America, it feels dramatically dishonest, as if its Cliffs Notes version of the story needs more time to really establish itself and its characters.


A SISTER

Delphine Girard | Belgium

A woman frantically calls emergency services to report that she has been kidnapped, but must speak in code as if she is speaking to her sister in order to convey information to the operator on the other side of the line. There's a bit of a Hitchcockian vibe to Delphine Girard's A Sister in the way that it at first withholds information from the audience, and then from key characters in the film, creating suspense out of keeping that information from its antagonist. Yet Girard doesn't quite stick the landing, never really using that inherent suspense to build or release the tension in a satisfying way. It's a strong concept with solid execution, but when the denouement finally comes, it doesn't feel like the catharsis experienced by the emergency operator, leaving the plot resolved but the audience unsatisfied.


The Oscar Shorts open January 31 in select theaters nationwide.

One thing I love about the short film categories at the Oscars is that they’re consistently the most diverse and international group of nominees, and the animated category is almost always the most adventurous and least traditional. It’s a shame more people aren’t able to see them, but thanks to Shorts TV, the films are now showcased yearly in theaters nationwide. This year’s crop of nominees is almost uniformly strong, each offering some of the most unique filmmaking you’re likely to see amongst this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees.


DCERA (DAUGHTER)

Daria Kascheeva | Czechia

Perhaps the most opaque and inscrutable of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short, Daria Kashcheeva's Dcera (Daughter) is a mostly abstract tale of a father and daughter sifting through past trauma. Completely wordless, Dcera tells its story in a completely visual way, evoking old wounds through dream-like metaphor. Yet as lovely as its unique animation style is, it's incredibly difficult to settle into over the course of its 15 minutes. It's the longest of the five nominees and yet somehow feels the most incomplete. There are certainly interesting ideas here, and Kashcheeva has an impressive visual eye, but it consistently holds the audience at arm’s length, fully committing to its psychological metaphors in ways that seem more academic than emotionally grounded.



HAIR LOVE

Matthew A. Cherry | USA

A father struggles to give his young daughter the hair style she craves in Matthew A. Cherry's Hair Love, a deeply moving celebration of black hair that bucks societal beauty standards and urges young black girls to embrace the unique abilities of their hair. This thing packs a powerful emotional wallop, but it also addresses issues of "good hair" that have long been important to the black communities in ways that are universally understandable, as if it's a message for every black girl who's ever suffered the indignity of a white person asking "can I touch your hair?" or felt the need to conform to society's default beauty standard of straight hair. “Hair Love” is a small-scale wonder and the strongest of the five films.


KITBULL

Rosanna Sullivan | USA

A stray cat befriends an abused junkyard dog in this charming short film from Pixar's new animation project. Displays a keen understanding of animal behavior and features so many charming character details that it's hard not to get swept up in its simple tale of animal friendship. What's so wonderful about Kitbull is that it never feels cloying or saccharine, it earns its tears through honest depiction of animal behavior, wordlessly creating something that's charming and deeply felt that earns every tear honestly. Look for it on Disney+ soon.


MÉMORABLE 

Bruno Collet | France

Bruno Collet's Mémorable evokes the fading memories of an old man on the cusp of dementia. Told through lovingly crafted claymation, the film follows the mental degradation of a once vibrant artist as he faces a world he no longer recognizes and the strain it puts on his strong but increasingly frustrated wife. Objects fade, distort, and often disappear before his eyes, suggesting the unsettling lack of recognition of once familiar objects and the slow disintegration of his memories dissolving into nothingness. It's heavy stuff but strikingly rendered, and the final scene, in which the man asks his wife to dance, thinking she is a woman he has never met, is a moment of truly heartbreaking beauty.


SISTER

Siqi Song | China

A young boy imagines a life with a sister who never was in Siqi Song's heart-wrenching look at the personal toll taken on families by China's One Child policy. The stop-motion felt animation is consistently lovely, and while its midway reveal isn't quite able to pack the punch it feels like it should in its brief eight-minute running time, there's something haunted and filled with regret that's hard to shake, as it imagines a world that might have been had the policy not been in place. It's a small-scale elegy for the love and memories lost under the policy that feels at once raw and beautifully crafted.

The Oscar Shorts open Friday, Jan. 31, in select theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.

It isn't often that you see a film from a director so young that is so assured in style and personality that the filmmaker's unique voice and presence seems to have manifested on screen fully formed and wholly confident in its own power. That's not to say that Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole is a masterpiece to rival all-time greats films directed by twenty-eight year olds like Citizen Kane, but Balagov directs with such a clear voice that it's astonishing that this wasn't directed by a filmmaker with years of experience under their belt.

Early films are often bold and brash artistic statements of a young talent with something to prove. Beanpole, on the other hand, is something quite different altogether. Set in Leningrad in the days after WWII, the film centers around two women struggling to survive in the bombed out city. Surrounded by rampant starvation and homelessness, both women struggle to adjust to civilian life after returning from the front. Iya (Viktoriya Miroshnichenko, in an astonishing debut performance), nicknamed Beanpole because of her tall, skinny frame, suffers from a traumatic brain injury that leaves her prone to fits of freezing up and trembling. She has a young son named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) who has adjusted well to life in the military hospital where his mother now works as a nurse. Her friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is also seeking a job at the hospital, but she carries with her a dark secret. And when a tragedy rocks their insular little world, it sets the two on a path of self-discovery and self-destruction that could change their friendship forever.

To delve much deeper into the twists and turns of Beanpole would ruin the painful beauty of its discoveries, but Balagov handles its tricky emotional territory with an unblinking eye. This is a world where tragedy has become so commonplace that the film depicts often horrific acts with something of a shrug. War has made death an accepted inevitability, and it was women who bore the brunt of the grief. The nurses tend to shell shocked soldiers, performing assisted suicides for those who can no longer bear the pain. But they also have to contend with the pain of their own existence in a world that has moved on from the war that they are still fighting in their own mind, stained by trauma that the rest of the world can't understand.

Beanpole is ultimately about the things people are willing to do to survive in extreme circumstances, but the way in which it focuses on the inner world of its characters is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. By making this a rather insular character study rather than a historical portrait of life in a post-war Soviet Union, Balagov is able to examine the personal toll of not just war, but on the stagnation of a besieged city for whom austerity and death becomes a way of life. This also allows the film to interrogate the unique toll the war took on women - both those left behind and those who joined the armed forces either as soldiers or as comfort women, only to be discarded when the war ended and now irreparably damaged both emotionally and as a member of society.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Timofey Glazkov in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.

And yet the film's insular focus also makes its characters somewhat opaque, the emotional waters often obfuscating because of the characters' somewhat unknowable nature. Beanpole herself remains something of an enigma, a passive character to Masha's more aggressive presence. While that passivity is very much part of who she is and why she's in the situation she's in, she makes for a somewhat impenetrable central character on which to hang much of the story's emotional weight.

Stylistically, the film much stronger, and it is here where Balagov's voice shines the strongest. Its color palate is reminiscent of Amélie, featuring drab interiors that come alive with vibrant reds and greens. But this is no fairy tale romance. Balagov creates a somber yet enchanting vision of a shattered dream world populated by ghosts, its characters shadows of the people they once were before the war. It's an intoxicating and often heartrending evocation of wartime's human toll, and under Balagov's strikingly confident direction it creates a world of complicated emotions and unspeakable trauma. And yet that trauma often remains too broad to have a truly lasting impact. There are moments here that will no doubt leave an impression, in large part due to the Miroshnichenko's striking depiction of Christ-like suffering in the post-War Soviet Union. She and Balagov are no doubt major artists to watch, their unique voices speaking loud and clear even when the film itself misses an opportunity to take a deeper dive into its characters' haunted world.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


BEANPOLE | Directed by Kantemir Balagov | Stars Viktoriya Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev, Kseniya Kutepova | Not Rated | In Russian w/English subtitles | Opens Jan. 29 in select cities.

Monday, January 20, 2020

There have been several attempts to bring Hugh Lofting's series of novels about Dr. Dolittle, the veterinarian who can speak to animals, to the big screen over the years. The first, starring Rex Harrison in the title role, was released in 1967 and considered a massive critical and popular failure, despite somehow garnering nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (a haul often blamed on 20th Century Fox's aggressive campaigning that year). Plagued by behind-the-scenes drama and a troubled production, the film lost the studio millions and all but ended Harrison's career as a leading man.

It wasn't until 1998 that Fox tried again, this time with Eddie Murphy as Dr. Dolittle in a film that was a modest box office success and spawned a 2001 sequel, along with a raft of direct-to-DVD spinoffs that did not star Murphy. Flash forward to 2020 and we have another big budget Hollywood adaptation of Loftin's novels in Dolittle, a movie that was by all accounts very expensive, and just like its 1967 predecessor, plagued by behind-the-scenes in-fighting and crippled by extensive reshoots. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), Dolittle finds the eponymous doctor (Robert Downey, Jr.) mourning the death of his beloved wife in a secluded nature preserve, where a sensitive young lad named Stubbins (Harry Collett) stumbles upon him to ask his help reviving an injured squirrel. At the same time, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) a young envoy of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) arrives to summon Dolittle to London to help save the ailing queen, whose patronage keeps Dolittle's preserve open.

Dolittle reluctantly agrees, only to discover that the Queen has in fact been poisoned, and that in order to save her he must embark on a dangerous quest to find the antidote on a mythical island hidden somewhere in the Atlantic. Accompanied by a motley crew of animal friends and his newfound animal compatriots, Dolittle will not only try to save the queen of England, but confront is own past and heal old wounds on which he had long since given up.

There was clearly a lot of money poured into the production, with lavish set design and elaborate period costumes, not to mention an all-star voice cast that includes the likes of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, and Marion Cotillard, but it never really adds up to much. Despite the large budget, or perhaps because of it, Dolittle consistently lacks imagination, never taking any chances or exploring any new territory that other movies haven't covered before. Everything about it feels bland and conservative, a made-by-committee Hollywood product that's about as generic and flavorless as movies get.

Reports of behind-the-scenes unrest aside, the film underwent extensive reshoots in April of last year under the direction of Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), reportedly because Universal was dissatisfied with Gaghan's more serious take on the material and wanted a more comedic tone. And while some of the animal antics are mildly amusing and will no doubt delight its target audience of young children, the whole affair seems completely devoid or magic and wit, focus-grouped into oblivion as if it were directed by a computer based on algorithms rather than anything resembling human feeling. Downey Jr., usually a reliable comic presence, seems completely lost, his performance hampered by a bizarre Scottish accent that leaves the film bereft of personality. We've seen dozens of films like this before, and there's really nothing particularly special about Dolittle to set it apart from the pack. Even Danny Elfman's score sounds like someone doing a Danny Elfman impersonation.

It's not a monumental disaster, but rarely do you see so much money and so much talent go into making something so resoundingly banal, completely stripped of the charm or wonder that its source material demands. It's inoffensive in the way such studio-produced epics often are, but it begs the question of how so many talented people could collaborate on a completely anonymous, cookie-cutter film that does so little.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


DOLITTLE | Directed by Stephen Gaghan | Stars Robert Downey, Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jessie Buckley, Jim Broadbent, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard | Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.